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Episodes & Studies Volume 2

Fighter Operations

Fighter Operations

In the meantime, the fighters had been in action without respite. On 23 January the Japanese attempted a surprise strafing attack on Mingaladon with twenty-three Army 96 type fighters. Fortunately the warning system gave notice of their approach and the Buffaloes and Tomahawks were waiting for them. Christiansen shot down one plane and Pilot Officer A. A. Cooper51 damaged another. The next day the Japanese came again, evidently intent upon annihilating the Allied air force at Mingaladon.

Cooper, Sadler, Bargh, and Christiansen were patrolling above base at 18,000 feet, and this time had the height advantage, when an enemy formation of Army 97 bombers was sighted ten miles east-south-east of the base. All the enemy were shot down in the ensuing action. Sadler made two attacks on a bomber, which immediately dropped out of the formation and crashed in flames. His next attack also set fire to a bomber, which was claimed by two other pilots who finished it off. Cooper got a long burst into a bomber which blew up, but he received return fire in his own engine and it began to emit smoke and flames. He dived steeply with switches off and blew the fire out. Bargh followed up earlier successes by getting a ‘flamer’ after an attack pressed home to 100 yards. He saw all the other bombers in the formation going down, some in flames and some disintegrating with wings falling off. The last one he followed down had evidently received attacks from other fighters, as it blew up when he was about to attack it and crashed beside the railway line north-east of Pegu.

On the ground, however, the situation was rapidly deteriorating. The retreating British Army sustained a severe reverse at the Sittang Bridge, and the way was open to Rangoon. The Air Force was forced back to Magwe, where the warning system—so vital to aerial defence—was totally inadequate to cope with the possibility of surprise strafing and bombing attacks. As more airfields fell into the enemy's hands so the weight of his attacks increased, and the situation of the defending fighters became ever more precarious.

Between 23 and 29 January the Japanese, who for some time had concentrated on night bombing, attempted to annihilate the small Allied fighter force, using a total of 218 aircraft, most of them fighters. The Buffaloes, Hurricanes, and Tomahawks shot down some fifty of the enemy in six days; immediately, he returned to night operations. On 24 and 25 February the Japanese made a last attempt to claim air superiority, using a total of 166 aircraft; they lost heavily, thirty- seven bombers and fighters being destroyed, of which the American Volunteer Group shot down no fewer than twenty-four.

No. 67 Squadron was now reduced to six Buffaloes, while the newly arrived Hurricane squadrons had also suffered severe losses. Living conditions were becoming more and more primitive and regular food was hard to obtain. Some of the New Zealand pilots lived in a deserted building on a peanut farm, where they contrived meals of half-cooked tinned sausages and water melons, washed down with cocoa made with goat's milk and water from the Irrawaddy River. Fortunately, some food parcels from home were rescued from Rangoon, and for a short time they were sustained by feasts of fruit cake.

Rangoon fell on 7 March and the Japanese air attacks became heavier. In an effort to upset the enemy as much as possible every available aircraft, including the Blenheims of No. 113 and No. 45 Squadrons, was despatched to attack the airfield at Mingaladon. This strike was carried page 31 out with great determination and over twenty-seven Japanese aircraft were destroyed on the ground and in the air without loss. The enemy at once made reprisal raids against Magwe before the aircraft had been serviced on their return. Only four Hurricanes and six Tomahawks could be scrambled to intercept twenty-one bombers and ten fighters, but four of the enemy were shot down. Further raids at half-hour intervals succeeded in swamping the defences and inflicting considerable damage to the runways.

It was the beginning of the end.

On the following day there was no let-up, and raids continued with two waves of twenty-seven bombers and ten fighters each. The early-warning system no longer functioned and the Allied fighter force was all but overwhelmed. By midday the runways at Magwe were useless and many of the remaining aircraft had been destroyed on the ground. That afternoon the four remaining Tomahawks of the American Volunteer Group were flown out to Loiwing in China.

Next day the enemy again thoroughly pattern-bombed the runways at Magwe, and although two of the three remaining Hurricanes intercepted the raiders, no enemy aircraft were shot down. Our aircraft managed to get back on their aerodrome only by a miracle of airmanship. That night the bomb craters were filled in sufficiently to allow such aircraft as could be made airworthy to take off for Loiwing. The ground crews travelled overland in a motley collection of motor transport in which they ran the gauntlet of Japanese army units from Thailand. A few other aircraft were patched up and flown out to Akyab on the coast, and thence to Dum Dum in India. The air battle for Rangoon had ended.

Much has been written of the achievements of Fighter Command in the Battle of Britain. In faraway Burma, in tropical heat and rain, a few RAF and American squadrons fought to a finish against overwhelming odds. According to such records as are available, 233 enemy fighters and bombers were claimed to have been destroyed in the air during this campaign, 179 by the P40 Tomahawks of the American Volunteer Group and fifty-four by the Royal Air Force. Although accurate assessment is difficult in such country, fifty-eight enemy aircraft were also claimed as destroyed on the ground and seventy-six as probably destroyed; a further 116 enemy aircraft were damaged. Allied losses were twenty-two Buffaloes and Hurricanes, sixteen Tomahawks and eight Blenheims in aerial combat, and fifty-one aircraft of all types destroyed on the ground.

Throughout the first phase of the campaign the lack of an adequate early-warning system had been a source of constant anxiety. There was only one radar set in Burma at this time, for which there were no spare parts. By constant servicing it had been maintained in operation with the aid of locally manufactured parts and, together with natives of the Burma Observer Corps who operated from various lookout posts linked to the civil telephone system, had played a most important part in staving off surprise strafing attacks and in enabling our fighters to become air- borne in time to intercept raiding bomber forces.

On the ground the Japanese had swept all before them and in three months had conquered Burma. In the air, however, they had suffered one defeat after another until at last, because of their ability to keep on reinforcing their air force, they overwhelmed the dwindling squadrons opposing them. The Royal Air Force, with its Commonwealth representation, retired to India, licked its wounds and prepared for the recoil. By its devotion and self-sacrifice it had delayed the Japanese advance at a critical period, thus assisting in the extrication of General Alexander's hard-pressed army, which crossed into Assam just as the monsoonal rains came down and provided a natural barrier between captured Burma and India.

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