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New Zealanders with the Royal Air Force (Volume III)

CHAPTER 14 — Air Superiority and the Arakan Battle

page 306

Air Superiority and the Arakan Battle

EIGHTEEN months had now passed since General Alexander's army, defeated and dispirited, had dragged its exhausted way into India to take post on the frontier and await the expected onslaught of the victorious Japanese. Eighteen months had also gone by since the last few bullet-ridden Hurricanes had flown back with bamboo skids instead of tail wheels and pilots who looked as tired as the patched-up aircraft they coaxed into the air. They had been long, hard and difficult months in which it seemed little had been accomplished. Yet, despite a good deal of frustration and disappointment, the foundations were slowly but surely being laid for the eventual resurgence of Allied power in South-east Asia.

Nowhere was this more certain than in the air forces. In March 1942, precisely four airfields with all-weather runways and modern operational facilities had been serviceable in the command. Now, in November 1943, there were 285 airfields completed, with more under construction; and on them bomb stocks and petrol, oil and lubricants had been accumulated and communications established. Simultaneously, two organisations had been built of whose work little was said at the time, but without which the fighters and bombers could not have flown. They were the repair and maintenance units, which lay behind the squadrons, and the thin essential web of the early warning system which lay ahead of them like a protective screen. In the peak month of the 1943 monsoon, despite a persistent shortage of equipment, spares and essential tools, the base repair units had accepted and made serviceable 314 airframes and 210 engines. Along the Assam-Burma border in the Calcutta area and other possible targets along the coast of India, a network of some seventy radar stations had been built, with observer posts deployed in front of them; and filter rooms had been established at focal points to accept the information from both these sources and to pass it on to the fighter control. Such development and construction extended to all phases of the operational, supply and training organisations and it had been achieved against a background of heartbreaking monsoon storms, unskilled native labour, inadequate material and constant setback. The building of airfields had proved particularly difficult, for many page 307 of the regions where they were required consisted largely of hills and swamps, with no adequate means of getting material to selected sites; there was also little metal available in the country so cement and road metal had to be imported, or else coal brought in to bake bricks which could be laid to provide all-weather surfaces.

The air forces had expanded with the airfields. In India and Ceylon the RAF now had forty-eight squadrons and these were equipped or re-equipping with more modern aircraft. Mohawk fighters, which had given valiant service but were now out-dated, were gradually being replaced and the number of Hurricanes and Beaufighters was steadily increasing. Ready for the new offensives were several hundred Vengeance dive-bombers, a few more Liberator heavy bombers and, although their special value in this campaign was not yet fully realised, the number of Dakota transport aircraft had risen to near the hundred mark. The Americans had similarly raised their striking power in India and by the end of November were ready to operate with seventeen squadrons.

The steady, if rather slow, build-up of Allied strength was not, however, accompanied by rising spirits among our troops and airmen. On the contrary, by the end of the 1943 monsoon there were widespread feelings of despondency and depression; indeed, the main thought of the solitary men at the observer posts, no less than those at the airfields and in the crowded bases, was ‘When will the blooming war end?’ This was understandable. For in the year and a half that had now gone by since the black days of the retreat we had nowhere succeeded in recapturing territory from the Japanese. During the previous monsoon there had been some glib talk of ‘Tokio by Christmas’, and it had ended in a fruitless raid in Arakan and the melancholy withdrawal of Wingate's columns after a brief spectacular thrust. Both airmen and soldiers were aware of the steadily growing strength of our forces but they had grown cynical with waiting; they felt they were members of a forgotten army, which was true enough since, apart from the Wingate expedition, the efforts they had made and the difficulties they faced had received scant recognition. The men also knew that some of our equipment was already out-dated—for example, the best fighter the RAF possessed was still the Hurricane and it was no match for the latest Japanese types.

But two things now occurred which changed all this. One was the arrival of the first of many consignments of Spitfires—the RAF's best contemporary fighters—which, as presently to be related, soon put an end to Japanese domination of the air. The other was the creation of the Supreme Allied Command, South-east Asia, with Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten as Supreme Allied Commander. The Supreme page 308 Allied Command was decided on by the British and United States Governments in May 1943 at the Washington Conference. In August, at the first Quebec Conference, Lord Louis was appointed, with responsibility over all Allied forces in South-east Asia. This brought the promise of new resources, and a sense of greater urgency and cheerful optimism to the conduct of the whole campaign.

Mountbatten—at 43 years of age he was the youngest Supreme Commander in the field since Napoleon—had gone to sea at the age of 16 as a midshipman and saw service in surface ships and submarines. He continued to serve in the Royal Navy after the First World War, and during the Battle of Crete was commanding HMS Kelly and the 5th Destroyer Flotilla. The Kelly was sunk but he was one of the survivors. He then commanded the aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious, and later became Chief of Combined Operations and a member of the British Chiefs of Staff Committee. He was thus well-equipped for his task. Now he was to control what was intended to be a united force of British and Americans intent on one object, the destruction of Japan. For the device of his new command, Mountbatten chose the Phoenix, that fabulous and fierce bird of Greek mythology which arose from the ashes of the fire which would have destroyed anything less adamantine. This choice of emblem was not only touched with a sense of poetry but would also seem to have been inspired by the gift of prophecy.

From the outset, however, many difficulties beset the new commander, not least of which were the incredibly complicated Anglo-American-Chinese command systems with which he had to deal and the divergent national views regarding future strategy in South-east Asia. There is here a story of considerable historical interest, particularly in view of subsequent events in the Far East, but it lies outside the scope of this narrative.1 Suffice to say that Mountbatten achieved a large measure of success in one of the most difficult commands of the Second World War. Like Montgomery in the Middle East, he quickly realised the value of personal contact with his troops as a means of restoring morale and arousing enthusiasm for the coming battles. Within a few days of reaching India, he set out to visit front-line units, and there, standing on a lorry or on an ammunition box before assembled battalions or air force squadrons, but more often chatting with a group of men by the roadside, he told them of his plans and declared his confidence in their ability to defeat the Japanese and fling them out of Burma, Singapore and the Far East. Indeed, the theme of his talk was always to fight. And after eighteen

1 See Mountbatten's despatch and Churchill's Second World War, Vol. V, pp. 493–5. See also United States Official History, The Army Air Forces in World War II, Vol. IV, Chap. XIII, and the British Official History, Grand Strategy, Vol. V.

page 309 months of almost continual reverse and frustration his promises of vigorous action came like a cool breeze on a hot, humid day and tired, dispirited men took fresh heart.

With the air forces, this new offensive spirit was at once given practical expression in the combining of all British and American forces in South-east Asia under the command of Air Chief Marshal Sir Richard Peirse. There was now to be one Tactical Air Force, one Strategic Bomber Command, and the transport units of both the Royal Air Force and the United States Army Air Force would merge in a single organisation known as Troop Carrier Command. Operations over Burma were to be controlled by an Eastern Air Command and this would be led by an American, Major-General George Stratemeyer, a man of great vigour and with a keen desire to engage the enemy. He was also a forceful exponent of the need for close Allied co-operation. ‘We must merge into one unified force,’ he declared in a memorable Order of the Day, ‘in thought and in deed, neither English nor American, with the faults of neither and the virtues of both. We must establish in Asia a record of Allied air victory of which we can all be proud in the years to come. Let us write it now in the skies over Burma.’ How well and gallantly this exhortation was fulfilled the campaign was soon to show.

The fight for air control on the Burma front had already been renewed in October 1943 as forward airfields dried out after the monsoon rains. Towards the end of that month Japanese bombers, escorted by fighters, began a series of intermittent raids on our Arakan bases and airfields along the Manipur front; they also increased their reconnaissance flights over India, employing the new and fast Dinah for this purpose. Our fighter pilots did their best to intercept and destroy the intruders but they had only limited success. The high-flying Dinahs were in fact more than a match for our Hurricane and Mohawk fighters, which achieved their best performance at low altitudes. When, by nearly bursting its engine, a Hurricane did succeed in shooting down one of them, the Japanese treated it as a lucky chance unlikely to recur and they continued to fly arrogantly above the height our Hurricanes could reach and photograph everything they desired.

Their immunity was, however, short-lived. By the middle of November the RAF had re-equipped one of its squadrons with newly-arrived Spitfires. They were only Mark Vs, but within a few days of taking the air they shot down three Dinahs in turn, to the great joy of airmen and soldiers alike. Two more squadrons were soon re-equipped with Spitfire Vs, and along with the Hurricanes they began to take toll of enemy raiders. By the end of December, twenty-two Japanese aircraft had been shot down for the loss of thirteen of our fighters.

page 310

An outstanding success was achieved by No. 136 Squadron on New Year's Eve, when enemy bombers with fighter escort attempted an attack on shipping off the Arakan coast. Twelve Spitfires were scrambled to intercept, and after breaking through the Japanese fighter screen they fell upon the bombers, still flying true and level in a large ‘V’ formation. One by one they shot them down on each side of the flight until only one aircraft was left, and then there was none. The fighters were dealt with less formally but with equal success, and scarcely a single machine from the enemy force escaped without some damage. Only one Spitfire was lost and its pilot, after baling out, was machine-gunned by an enemy fighter, but so intent was the Japanese pilot on killing his victim that he flew his machine into the ground. Another unusual incident occurred during the battle when two of the enemy fighters collided in mid-air and crashed in flames.

In an effort to recover the initiative the Japanese brought up more fighters. They also introduced new tactics, employing decoys with a mirror finish and conspicuously shiny jet-black aircraft, which flew in low while well camouflaged fighters waited above. In the fierce fighting which followed, one Spitfire leader had an amazing escape. ‘On my eighth attack,’ runs his report, ‘I was on to a decoy when I was jumped by a couple I had not seen. I went into an inverted spin and blacked out completely. I came to and thought I was in hospital. Then I discovered I was about to crash, put the Spit. the right way up and I fainted again. I was very near the jungle when I recovered the second time and found two Japs were firing immediately ahead of me. I darted down some gulleys and so lost them.’1

But our pilots continued to hold the advantage they had already won. On 15 January, for example, Spitfires intercepted fifteen Oscars just south of Buthidaung and, without loss to themselves, shot down six of them and damaged several others. A few days later they destroyed seven more enemy machines over Maungdaw for the loss of only two Spitfires. At the end of February 1944, the Japanese admitted the loss of 142 aircraft in their operations against India during the previous five months.

New Zealand fighter pilots took a prominent part in all this. They flew with the Hurricane and Mohawk squadrons which bore the brunt of the early defensive battles, and they were among the first to operate successfully in the new Spitfires.

Five veterans who achieved a large measure of hard-earned success with No. 67 Hurricane Squadron were Flying Officer C. V. Bargh,

1 Wing Commander A. N. Constantine, a fine Australian pilot and an inspiring leader, who survived the war only to be killed while flying medical supplies to the Javanese.

page 311 Flying Officer E. H. Beable, Warrant Officer Elliott,1 Flight Lieutenant A. A. Cooper and Flying Officer G. A. Williams. They were in action towards the end of November when the Japanese raided airfields in the Chittagong area. Bargh was the first to sight the enemy and led the squadron down to 15,000 feet and in among the enemy fighter cover. In the whirling dogfight which followed, he shot down one of the enemy while Elliott and Beable hit and damaged two more. Brief details of Bargh's combat are thus recorded:

Bargh made two rolling attacks on the starboard aircraft from astern, starting from 300 yards and breaking away at 50 yards, firing a short burst in each case. On breaking away and upwards from the second attack, he was dived upon head-on by another fighter. Bargh turned sharply to starboard and pulled out clear of his attacker. At this point he noticed a Hurricane being chased by an army O1 a few thousand feet below him. Bargh manoeuvred until he was vertically above the two aircraft and then dived to attack the enemy in another roll from dead astern. The ‘O1’ pulled sharply to port with pieces falling off each wing tip and from the fuselage. It then spiralled straight into the ground near Barkal Island, where a sudden cloud of black smoke was seen to rise.

No. 67 Squadron was back at Alipore when the Japanese made one of their rare appearances over Calcutta, and although pilots were scrambled to intercept with only short warning, several of them made contact with the enemy. Flight Lieutenant Cooper fired a burst at one Japanese fighter and shot away part of its starboard wing. Flying Officer Williams followed up earlier successes by destroying one and damaging another of the enemy. He first saw the bombers beneath him on his port side, with fighters spread out above and on both sides. Five O1s just below him were evidently quite oblivious of his presence, so he fired a long burst at one of them. Large pieces flew off the enemy machine, which went down in a vertical spin to be later confirmed as destroyed. Williams then fired at another enemy machine which passed through his sights and saw strikes along its fuselage. At this point another enemy fighter appeared on his tail so he flick-rolled away from his attack, but one of his ailerons had been shot away and, as a result, his Hurricane went spinning down for 12,000 feet. Nothing daunted, Williams pulled out and climbed again in time to attack another O1, which was on its back during a roll. Unfortunately by this time, however, he had only a few rounds of ammunition left and saw no result.

Flying Officer Greenwood2 and Flight Sergeant Walker3 were prominent in patrol and attack with No. 261 Hurricane Squadron.

1 Flying Officer C. W. Elliott; born Dunedin, 29 Feb 1916; warehouseman; joined RNZAF 19 Jan 1941.

2 Flight Lieutenant L. H. Greenwood; born Timaru, 15 Nov 1922; assistant storeman; joined RNZAF 7 Sep 1941.

3 Flying Officer J. P. Walker; born Armadale, Aust, 25 Aug 1921; salesman; joined RNZAF 9 Feb 1941.

page 312 In one of the early raids on Chittagong, while still climbing to intercept, ‘they went straight for the Japanese bombers in an attempt to upset their aim before their fighters could get down to help them. Both pilots got long bursts into the targets they selected. Walker's fell away from the formation and was claimed as a probable. Greenwood was unfortunate in being jumped before he completed his attack and had to dive away with his cockpit full of glycol and the engine belching smoke. He baled out and landed in the hills north of Chittagong and although wounded in the leg got back to his airfield the same evening.’

New Zealand Spitfire pilots played their part with equal skill and courage. One of them, Flying Officer Weggery1 of No. 615 Squadron, scored the first Spitfire victory on the Burma front. On patrol at 25,000 feet, he sighted a Japanese reconnaissance Dinah, immediately gave chase and, overhauling the enemy plane fairly easily, shot it down in flames over Chiringa; so close did he approach his target to make sure of a kill that, when he landed, his Spitfire was covered with oil from the exploding enemy machine. A few weeks later Weggery destroyed another Dinah about fifty miles east of his base at Dohazari.

Flying Officer C. G. Beale, Flight Sergeants R. J. Clarke,2 V. K. Jacobs and J. Rudling deserve special mention for their work with No. 136 Squadron, and Flight Lieutenant Verry3 and Pilot Officer Chandler4 with No. 615 Squadron. John Rudling, already distinguished for his work in Hurricanes, showed a particularly fine aggressive spirit. One day when twelve Spitfires were scrambled to intercept Japanese bombers at extreme range from their base, he and another pilot were the only ones to make contact with the enemy. Rudling made contact literally. He was just about to turn for base when he sighted the bombers, and although his petrol gauge looked ‘none too healthy’ he immediately turned towards them. Selecting the nearest bomber Rudling dived to the attack. ‘I observed strikes on the enemy's wings,’ he afterwards reported, ‘and then I suddenly realised we were going to collide. I broke sharply away above, but felt my aircraft hit the rudder of the bomber. Thinking I had damaged my aircraft for further attack I turned away but it was all right so I pulled up under another vic of bombers and fired from underneath at the leader. During this attack a fighter was on my tail and put five shells through my wings and oil tanks before I broke away.’ Rudling's dinghy and Mae West were torn by shrapnel but he was uninjured. He also had

1 Flight Lieutenant S. L. E. Weggery; born Palmerston North, 8 Dec 1920; clerk; joined RNZAF 9 Feb 1941.

2 Flying Officer R. J. Clarke; born Gisborne, 23 Dec 1920; gas fitter; joined RNZAF Apr 1941.

3 Squadron Leader B. T. Verry; born Feilding, 13 Nov 1915; clerk; joined RNZAF 1 Dec 1940.

4 Flying Officer H. A. Chandler, DFC; born Granity, 19 Oct 1918; clerk; joined RNZAF Oct 1940.

page 313 the satisfaction of seeing the bomber with which he had collided hit the ground and explode before he force-landed on the nearest strip— without flaps or brakes. His Spitfire ended up on its nose but did not catch fire—possibly because when Rudling landed there was scarcely any petrol left in its tanks. This episode occurred on Boxing Day and only a few hours earlier, on the previous evening, Rudling had played the main part in his squadron's Christmas pantomime, which appropriately enough was ‘Aladdin’.

These fighter victories which came at the end of 1943 were the turning point in the struggle for command of the Burma skies. More hard battles remained to be fought during the next few months but the ultimate issue was no longer in doubt. For the RAF was now strengthened by the arrival during January of two more Spitfire squadrons, both equipped with Mark VIIIs, whose performance was superior to anything the Japanese possessed; American fighters were also beginning to operate with marked success against Japanese attacks on the Indo-China air route; and both bombers and long-range fighters were striking at enemy air bases with increasing effect. The importance of this ascendancy now being gained over the Japanese in the air can scarcely be over-emphasised. It was undoubtedly the most potent single factor in the progress of all subsequent operations in Burma. Without it our land forces could not have received such strong and close support during the defensive battles of 1944 and in their final advance; furthermore, our transport aircraft on which so much was to depend could not have delivered their supplies without constant risk of interception.

Looking back, it now seems fairly clear that there was a certain amount of vacillation by the Japanese regarding the employment of their air strength available in Burma at the end of 1943. Although they had nearly 100 bombers at their disposal, they mounted few attacks on strategic targets. Their only real success was a skilful raid against Calcutta in December 1943, when they eluded the Spitfires based at Chittagong by keeping well out to sea and beyond their range. But this episode was not repeated, possibly because their army commanders were generally averse to air operations other than those directly concerned with the situation on the ground. It would also appear that air operations over Burma had been given a lower priority by the Japanese High Command, for the bulk of their Air Force was now committed to the South-west Pacific. Although at the beginning of 1944 they still had some 740 aircraft in South-east Asia, these were spread over a fairly wide area from Indo-China and Malaya to Burma. Some of the best pilots were retained in Sumatra for the defence of the oil refineries there and for patrol work over the Indian Ocean. page 314 Fifth Air Division in Burma had barely 400 aircraft, of which about half were fighters. These were already fighting a losing battle and would soon be unable to give anything like adequate support to their ground forces.

The Allies, on the other hand, continued to build up their air strength. By March 1944 they had about 1000 aircraft of all types in North-east India, of which 600 were fighters. Their total force comprised 92 squadrons, and of these 64 were Royal Air Force; they included seven fighter units equipped with Spitfire VIIIs, a further twenty armed with Hurricane fighters and fighter-bombers and seven more equipped with Vengeance dive-bombers and Beaufighters. The others were mainly Liberators, Wellingtons, Beauforts and Catalinas for long-range bombing or sea reconnaissance, along with Spitfires for photographic work. In the transport field, however, the RAF strength had only just reached five squadrons and one of these had to be used for the maintenance of internal air services.

New Zealand representation in these various RAF units continued to increase steadily during 1944. As in previous years it was strongest in the fighter force, where seven RAF squadrons were commanded by Dominion pilots for various periods. These included such veterans of the Burma campaign as Squadron Leaders Geoffrey Sharp, D. J. T. Sharp and J. M. Cranstone,1 each of whom led Hurricane fighters. Squadron Leader M. R. B. Ingram, in command of a Spitfire squadron, and Squadron Leader W. H. Stratton, who led Hurricanes, had both brought their units from the Middle East, where they had already achieved a notable record of service and also in operations from Britain. A squadron of Vengeance dive-bombers was led by Squadron Leader I. A. Sutherland, and in the general reconnaissance force Wing Commander N. McClelland continued in charge of Catalina flying-boats and Wing Commander R. G. Maddox of Wellington bombers. An important contribution to the work of transport and supply was made by the Dakota squadron led by Wing Commander R. T. Chisholm, who had already done good work as a transport pilot in the Middle East. And there were men like Squadron Leader Price2 who, after long service on ferry work, now commanded a unit engaged on such duties.

As well as these unit commanders, a number of New Zealanders led flights in the bomber and fighter squadrons. Over one hundred Dominion pilots flew Spitfire and Hurricane fighters and there were fifty more who captained bomber, transport and reconnaissance

1 Squadron Leader J. M. Cranstone, DFC; born Wanganui, 24 Apr 1918; farmer; joined RNZAF Dec 1940; commanded No. 5 Sqdn, 1944–45.

2 Wing Commander A. J. Price, AFC; born Napier, 22 Jan 1920; student; joined RNZAF 25 May 1941; commanded No. 21 Ferry Control, 1943–44.

page 315 aircraft, with others flying photographic and air-sea rescue machines. There were also more New Zealanders among the RAF ground staff. During periods of intense fighter activity they and their comrades were up all night, at work under the stars, servicing and refuelling the aircraft and removing the penetrating dust from the engines. Many had had malaria or dysentery, some several times, and most had lost weight; they deserve to share the achievements of the aircrews they served. Life with the squadrons on the Burma front continued to be anything but a picnic, even after long-overdue improvements had been effected in living conditions and in such simple amenities as the delivery of mail from home. But there were compensations. For example, near some of the airstrips in the south there was clear warm sea to bathe in and long firm sandy beaches where men, tired of riding the breakers, could lie in the sun or bask in the shallows. And the brief months of the Indian winter brought cool, bright nights after the monsoon heat, then sparkling days with streamers of mist reaching out from the jungle and over the airstrips.

* * * * *

At the beginning of 1944 the task ahead of the Allied forces in India was formidable. For the Japanese were still masters of a vast defensive arc covering their early conquests, which stretched from the jungle-covered mountains of northern and western Burma through some of the most forbidding fighting country in the world, then across the sea to the Andamans and the great Dutch islands of Sumatra and Java. Mountbatten, with his experience and enthusiasm for combined operations, was eager to launch an amphibious assault against southern Burma, but shortage of landing craft and pressure from the Americans caused this project to be postponed. The Americans were in fact much more anxious to establish strong links with the forces fighting the Japanese in China than to recapture Rangoon. They pressed the importance of reconquering northern Burma first, and quickly, so that a road could be built from the existing rail and roadhead at Ledo through the jungle and mountains into Chinese territory. Eventually, after much discussion both in London and Washington, as well as among the Allied commanders on the spot, three operations were decided upon. They were as follows:


Allied forces, including the Chinese-American army under General Stilwell, were to advance in the north from the headwaters of the Chindwin River towards Myitkyina. The roadmakers would follow. In the meantime, capture of the three airfields at Myitkyina would enable transport aircraft from India to China to be routed through them, thus shortening the distance and, by avoiding the 23,000 feet page 316 climb over the ‘Hump’, considerably increasing the tonnage delivered.


A British force led by General Wingate was to be flown into the interior of Burma to disrupt Japanese communications, especially those along which they were operating against General Stilwell.


British 15 Corps under General Christison was to advance into the Arakan with the object of clearing the Maungdaw peninsula, at the same time containing Japanese forces in that region of Burma.

The Japanese, however, also had their plans. Indeed they were now preparing two separate offensives from Burma—the first eastwards across the Salween to drive back the Chinese and prevent the Allies re-establishing land contact with China; the other westwards against Imphal in Manipur in order to cut the Bengal–Assam railway on which the ‘Hump’ air route and General Stilwell's army relied for supplies.

The result of these conflicting Allied and Japanese plans was a series of dramatic clashes along the whole IndiaBurma front during the first half of 1944.

The first clash came on the Arakan front. Here, covered by RAF fighters and bombers, 15 British Corps under General Christison had begun its advance down the Arakan coast early in January and, to guard against any attempt by the Japanese to move round the eastern flank, 81 West African Division had been sent down the Kaladan valley behind the next range of mountains. During its advance this division was kept supplied entirely by air, a task which No. 62 Squadron, RAF, fulfilled with particular efficiency, its Dakotas flying in their loads thrice daily. ‘This was the first time a normal formation such as a division was to be committed to complete air maintenance.’1 Such regular aerial supply would have been impossible had the Japanese been able to maintain fighter patrols over the Kaladan. That they did not do so was due to the constant air guard maintained by the Spitfires and Hurricanes and to the frequent air attacks on enemy airfields by our bombers—in a word, to our air superiority. ‘Zeros tumbled out of the sky or scuttled back.’2

The advance of Christison's main force down the Mayu peninsula continued until one early February morning, when Japanese soldiers suddenly came screaming out of the mists near Taung Bazar, which lay nine miles behind our lines; there they surprised and slaughtered some of the troops covering a divisional headquarters, whose

1 Slim, Defeat into Victory, p. 165.

2 Ibid., p. 236.

page 317
Black and white map showing British and Japanese thrusts in the Arakan battle, Bay of Bengal


page 318 commander and staff had to fight their way out in hand-to-hand conflict. This was the beginning of a determined enemy counter-attack and it came from all directions. For the Japanese, displaying superb skill at camouflage and concealment which defeated even our most vigilant air reconnaissance, had succeeded in passing the best part of a division through the jungle behind our troops, who now found themselves surrounded or with their communications threatened.

As in previous similar situations, the enemy fully expected that our troops would at once begin to withdraw. But they did nothing of the kind. Instead they stood their ground in such places as the famous ‘Admin Box’ and stubbornly fought it out. They were able to do so because the enemy had overlooked one fact—supply by air. In the next three weeks RAF Dakotas, aided by some American C46 transports lent from the ‘Hump’ route, delivered over 2000 tons of ammunition, food, petrol, oil and medical supplies to the British forces trapped on the Arakan front; they also flew out more than 5000 casualties; and such was the vigilance of the fighter escort that only one Dakota was lost. This achievement wrecked Japanese plans and turned what might well have proved the beginning of a victorious campaign, ending perhaps only at the gates of Delhi, into a resounding defeat. For by the end of February the Japanese troops were themselves short of food and ammunition. Unable to overwhelm our forward positions, continually dive-bombed and gunned in their bunkers and then pressed by our relieving forces driving down from the north, they broke up into small parties and began to fight their way back through the jungle. Behind them on the battlefield they left more than 5000 dead. Thereupon 15 British Corps, having put an end to the legend of Japanese invincibility, regrouped its units and resumed its advance.

Our air superiority was undoubtedly the decisive factor in this Arakan episode. For the struggle between the opposing armies depended upon the maintenance of their lines of supply; the British, having transferred theirs to the air which they now commanded, were secure while the Japanese, because they had lost control of the air, were vulnerable and their troops were starved into retreat.

In the early stages the enemy air force tried hard to wrest the air advantage from us, sending over as many as eighty fighter sorties in a single day. The enemy formations consisted mainly of highly manoeuvreable Oscars, Hamps and Zekes, but there were also a few of the new Tojo fighters which, at lower altitudes, were almost as good as the Spitfire VIII. The Japanese pilots exploited the manoeuvreability of their machines to the full, often choosing to fly at surprisingly low speeds in order to achieve quick evasive action and then turn on their attackers. But our Spitfires were equal to the page 319 challenge and, helped by a greatly improved warning system, they repeatedly intercepted and broke up the enemy formations. On one notable occasion No. 136 Squadron caught fifteen Oscars just south of Buthidaung and, without loss, shot down six of them and damaged several others. By the middle of February, our fighter pilots had destroyed a total of twenty-four Japanese aircraft and damaged a further thirty-eight for the loss of only four Spitfires. Meanwhile Japanese bombers rarely appeared over British positions, while our own cannon-firing Hurricanes and Vengeance dive-bombers were making continual attacks on the enemy's forward positions and Beaufighters and Wellingtons were striking at his communications far behind the area of battle.

Flight Lieutenant Verry and Flying Officer Chandler of No. 615 Squadron, Flying Officers Beale and John Rudling with No. 136 Squadron, and Flying Officer A. M. Peart, Flight Sergeants Ryan,1 W. J. Robinson and A. F. Swan of No. 81 Squadron were among those who saw action during the campaign as Spitfire fighter pilots. Chandler had a remarkable escape during one of the early air battles when the Hamp at which he had been firing exploded as he pulled up over it. His Spitfire was flung right over on its back by the force of the explosion and for a few moments Chandler thought he had ‘bought it’. A more typical combat was fought by Beale when his squadron intercepted a formation of Zekes and Oscars near the battle area during the first week. ‘Beale,’ says the record, ‘went for a Zeke in the centre line but, noticing the outside rear enemy machines turning outwards and climbing to come in astern, he switched his attack to one of these. Firing two long bursts he saw strikes all along the fuselage but had to break away as another Zeke came in behind him. Beale then climbed and made a second attack on the formation but the outside aircraft again made a stall turn and fired at him. Once more Beale returned to the attack, closing in from astern. This time he saw hits on the engine of the rear enemy aircraft which rolled away and went down. By now several fighters were after him but he was able to shake them off and return safely to base.’

New Zealand pilots played their part in the strafing and bombing of enemy strongpoints and communications; they also escorted the supply dropping aircraft. From the outset Squadron Leader Stratton and his pilots of No. 134 Hurricane Squadron were in the thick of the battle engaged on both these duties; so were men like Pilot

1 Warrant Officer J. P. Ryan; born Dunedin, 9 Nov 1921; insurance clerk; joined RNZAF 7 Sep 1941.

page 320 Officers McPhail1 and Pirani2 and Flight Sergeant Miller.3 With No. 82 Squadron, Flight Lieutenant Sutherland proved himself a particularly successful leader of Vengeance dive-bombers; flying with him were Pilot Officers Couttie4 and Parker5 and Warrant Officer McCombie.6

In these ground-attack operations a technique was soon evolved which proved as successful as it was ingenious. When the Army had decided that a position was to be attacked, the RAF would bomb it beforehand, sometimes with bombs set with instantaneous fuses, sometimes with delayed action fuses of anything from five minutes to several hours. By mixing these bombs they kept the Japanese constantly under cover for they never knew when one would go off. On the day of our ground attack the RAF would drop bombs with no fuses at all, and while the enemy troops were cowering in their foxholes waiting for these to explode, the British infantry would arrive and fall upon them with the bayonet. Another ruse was to make bogus fighter strafes, the fighter aircraft diving on the Japanese positions but not firing their guns, and thus keeping the enemy down while our own infantry went in. There were variations on these two main themes whose main object was to get our infantry over the last 300 yards where they were most vulnerable.

Thirty-five New Zealanders, seventeen of them captains of aircraft, flew with the Dakota squadrons that carried supplies to our Arakan troops. They included such experienced pilots as Squadron Leader R. D. Daniell with No. 117 Squadron, Pilot Officer Bayly7 in No. 31 Squadron, Flight Lieutenants Voss8 and Hore9 with No. 62 Squadron, and Flight Lieutenants J. Davidson and R. G. Mellsop who flew with No. 194 Squadron.

The Dakota crews worked hard throughout the campaign, often making two or three sorties each in a single day. No. 62 Squadron's missions down the Kaladan valley in support of the West African Division were a severe test, for the jungle in that region is even thicker

1 Flying Officer J. D. McPhail; born Wanganui, 6 Nov 1920; woolclasser; joined RNZAF 26 Jul 1941.

2 Pilot Officer F. B. Pirani; born Wellington, 17 Jun 1923; clerk; joined RNZAF 17 Aug 1941; killed on air operations, 18 Feb 1944.

3 Flying Officer C. R. Miller; born Otakau, 26 May 1922; labourer; joined RNZAF 6 Jul 1941.

4 Flying Officer G. T. Couttie; born Dundee, Scotland, 10 Jun 1922; coppersmith; joined RNZAF Jul 1941.

5 Flying Officer A. E. Parker; born Motueka, 28 Mar 1921; civil servant; joined RNZAF 22 Dec 1940; killed in flying accident, 20 Oct 1944.

6 Warrant Officer K. E. W. McCombie; born Taihape, 25 Sep 1915; farmer; joined RNZAF Oct 1939; killed on air operations, 15 Mar 1944.

7 Flying Officer J. Bayly; born Waitara, 18 Mar 1917; electrician; joined RNZAF Oct 1939.

8 Squadron Leader P. S. Voss; born Malvern, England, 3 Aug 1921; farmer; joined RNZAF 1 Dec 1940.

9 Flight Lieutenant R. R. Hore; born Dunedin, 15 Jul 1920; farm cadet; joined RNZAF 24 Nov 1940.

page 321 than elsewhere in Burma, while the air over the mountains is noted for its turbulence and for the presence of treacherous cumulo-nimbus cloud formations. Yet somehow pilots contrived to find their way over the featureless hills and to manoeuvre their machines through the narrow valleys. ‘We went at low level down the river bank,’ writes one pilot, ‘flying in line astern, and then the flight commander would find the dropping zone. Harder than that was trying to find a regular circuit on which we could drop. Usually we each needed to go round about eight times to push out the entire load of supplies and the gorges made it difficult. We had to get low down for the dropping and then if there was a hill in front of us it meant pretty well tearing the guts out of our engines to climb over it. The up and down currents were really terrifying and often we felt that the aircraft was not climbing at all and that we should crash.’ When the West Africans reached the lower part of the Kaladan, more open country was encountered where strips were hastily built to take the Dakotas and the task of air supply became somewhat easier. Some landings were made by day under cover of Hurricane escort, but more often the Dakotas landed at night with the help of improvised flare-paths and guiding bonfires. Their loads might be anything from guns and ammunition to live bullocks and bullock carts.

Troops and airmen were soon on terms of mutual friendship and, indeed, affection. On those occasions when it was possible for a Dakota to land, the West Africans would flock around the aircrew with lively expressions of regard, and when landing was impossible they took the greatest care of the supplies that were dropped by parachute. One of them indeed, noting with regret that many of the hundredweight bags of rice burst on landing, went so far as to try to catch a bag as it descended. Unfortunately he succeeded and at once became a passenger in one of the Dakotas detailed to fly out the more severely injured. After the campaign a notable tribute was paid to the crews of both supply and close-support aircraft by the commander of 81 Division. ‘No words of mine,’ he wrote, ‘can do justice to the achievements of the R.A.F. in support of the Division. Their faultless supply dropping, the skill with which they landed their Dakotas on our air strips in rapid succession, the devotion of the Moth pilots in evacuating casualties, the promptitude and accuracy of their air strikes, the plentiful supply of air photographs which they provided, together with the air letter service and daily message dropping, taken together constituted an outstanding effort of co-operation.’

Supply missions to our forces fighting in the Mayu peninsula were carried out with equal skill and courage. Here, during the critical weeks, RAF Dakotas made 440 sorties by day and a further 185 by night. In the early stages there were some anxious moments when enemy fighters were reported in strength over the dropping zone, and throughout the whole period there was constant danger from the page 322 characteristically accurate small-arms fire of enemy detachments ensconced nearby.

Flight Lieutenant Voss and his crew had an eventful sortie in mid- February. While making their second dropping run, the Dakota was hit by fire from the ground. An oil tank was holed and a few moments later the port engine seized up. Voss ordered his crew to heave out the remaining supplies and then, on one labouring engine, managed to climb the aircraft sufficiently to scrape over the Mayu Range and land at a forward strip near Ramu. By skilful airmanship he thus saved his crew, and what was equally important, a precious aircraft, for Dakotas were still scarce in South-east Asia Command. How scarce is shown by the efforts made to salvage them. ‘After one pilot had run off the flarepath in darkness and damaged his machine,’ says a squadron record, ‘maintenance men were flown in before daybreak. The starboard elevator was replaced and the other knocked into shape by vigorous use of a hammer as also was the tail plane. The machine was then dragged back on to the strip and taken off with the stick fully back to prevent the elevators trailing on the ground.’

The conditions under which crews operated over the Arakan were certainly arduous. No. 117 Squadron, which had just arrived from the Middle East, found that its new spell of work effectively changed two established conceptions. ‘In the first place the routine load of 7,500 lbs., plus 500 gallons of fuel was unheard of in our Middle East experience and it gave us an unhealthily close acquaintance with the tree tops at the end of the strip. Secondly, our ideas of what constituted a normal dropping zone went by the board when we began dropping in narrow valleys, jungle clearings and the odd hollow in the hills.’ Probably the hardest part of these flights came during the half hour or so that the aircraft was over the dropping area. The side door was usually open throughout the sortie, and as they approached their ‘target’ the despatchers would be busy placing the load in neat piles. As he came over the dropping zone the pilot would bank the aircraft and lift the tail to ensure that the parachutes would not tangle with it, then give the signal to his ‘kickers’. One man would lie flat on his back, feet pressed against the load and shoulders pushing on the opposite wall. When the signal came he thrust with his feet against the base of the load while two more men on either side of the door helped the pile out with their hands. As the aircraft made another circuit the despatchers positioned the next load near the door. It was hot work and, in the turbulent air near the ground, often dangerous. Here is a description of a typical sortie written by a navigator of No. 62 Squadron:

Fully laden, the squadron aircraft taxied out to the end of the runway and in less than a minute all were airborne, heading for the front-line outpost which was our objective. Soon we were well above the clouds and the fierce sun made the interior of the aircraft extremely hot.

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After flying steadily for two hours we were met by a squadron of Hurricanes which was to escort us to our dropping point. We now passed over rocky desolate country. As far as the eye could see hills up to 3,000 feet zigzagged awkwardly over the horizon and the jungle beneath, a densely variegated maze of green sprawling between the valleys, was no place for a forced landing. Eventually we broke formation and descended to fly in line astern, playing ‘follow my leader’ through the valleys and among hills, skimming over ridges and above rivers until our formation leader began circling a hill a few miles ahead. Parachutes in the first two aircraft had already landed where the troops were waiting for them. Our turn came and we began our run.

I sat in the co-pilot's seat and watched our crew in the fuselage, stripped and sweating, as they piled the packages, which contained 47,000 cigarettes, 6,000 boxes of matches, tinned milk, biscuits, cooking oil, salt, beans and peas, oatmeal, sugar, tea, medical supplies, solid fuel, tommy cookers, jam, cheese, curry-powder and onions, at the exit ready for the second run. They worked like coolies. Five packs were poised ready, with another five ready directly behind, each weighing from 80 to 140 lbs. They were usually in tins, with a small parachute on top enclosed in a cover and with twelve feet of rope fastened to an attachment inside the aircraft. The crew were secured by safety belts tied to a longeron.

‘Red light on’, shouted the flight sergeant near the tail and the crew got ready. A bell rang urgently and everybody heaved like mad to get the thirteen packages out before the bell rang again three seconds later. This process was repeated until the last package had been dropped whereupon we circled to make sure the load had landed safely, and then set course for base.

Before we reached Chandina a radio message ordered us to land at a forward airfield to pick up six urgent casualties. We therefore set course south, still escorted by our faithful Hurricanes, two flying close in to ward off any sudden attack, while four others criss-crossed in and out of the clouds searching for enemy fighters. Soon we saw the landing strip below us with its small wind sock hanging from a bamboo pole. We touched down to pick up our cargo while the Hurricanes patrolled above. Eight stretcher cases were put on board and when they were made comfortable we took off, joined the waiting fighters and set course for base. There, ambulances were waiting to take the wounded to hospital.

During the Arakan fighting, the Dakotas had to supply more than the normal demands of men and weapons. Three times areas of ‘Ammunition Hill’, which stood in the centre of the ‘Admin Box’, were blown up by Japanese artillery and the entire stores had to be replaced by air. There were also times when the margin of air supply for ground requirements was perilously fine. One crew who carried tank shells watched their load float down and then, while the pilot made succeeding circuits, saw the shells being raced across the area of the ‘Admin Box’ to waiting tanks, and before they left on the return flight they saw the ammunition being fired. Such incidents encouraged the aircrews to redouble their efforts, so enabling our troops to withstand all attacks of the enemy and finally drive him back in the frustration of retreat.