New Zealanders with the Royal Air Force (Volume III)
CHAPTER 15 — Operation thursday and the Victory at Imphal
Operation thursday and the Victory at
SCARCELY had the Arakan battle ended when the main scene of activity shifted abruptly to the central and northern fronts. Here, both sides had already begun to press forward with the second phase of their conflicting designs. The Japanese, seeking to drive behind the main British army in Manipur, had sent two divisions northwards through the hills and jungle towards Tiddim and Tamu, and a third against Ukhrul. The Allies, bent on an advance that would restore their land link with China, had launched an army under General Stilwell southwards from Ledo towards Myitkyina and were preparing to land troops from the air behind the Japanese force that opposed him.
As these various movements developed there came hard fighting along the whole front, but it was in the Manipur region that the main clash occurred. Here, on the very threshold of India, large Allied and Japanese forces became involved in a desperate struggle, which is best remembered for the bitter fighting which took place around the little town of Kohima and the long-drawn-out battle for possession of the Imphal plain. Only after four months of stress and strain did the Allies finally emerge victorious, once again thanks largely to the intervention of their air power. This was probably the most eventful and fateful period of the whole Burma campaign.
The first main task of our air force was to support Wingate's Second Chindit Expedition in its operations behind the Japanese armies in North-east Burma. Wingate's force comprised some 12,000 men, most of whom were to be landed from the air at two remote jungle clearings, ‘Piccadilly’ and ‘Broadway’, which would at once be converted into fortified bases for large-scale action against enemy roads and railways in the vicinity. This involved flying in not only mobile columns and garrison troops, signal installations, ack-ack and 25-pounder batteries for jungle fortress defence, but also engineer units equipped with bulldozers and mechanical graders to construct airfields capable of handling a regular air supply service.
At Broadway itself, several of the first gliders to land were wrecked by concealed furrows in the clearing, and whilst strenuous efforts were being made to drag them away other gliders came swinging in to land on top of them. The wreckage piled up and more new arrivals crashed into it. ‘The jungle seemed suddenly to go mad,’ says an observer. ‘At one moment the gliders were silent, graceful black shapes sliding serenely through the night and then there were collisions and great hollow explosions like the pop of paper bags as the box-like structures hit; the rip and tear of trees as bulldozers and graders tore loose and ran amok; and the cries of trapped and wounded men.’ One glider loaded with a bulldozer and other heavy equipment whipped over sharply to avoid a wreck, only to plunge into the wall of surrounding jungle. On either side the trees tore off its wings, the fuselage rushed on with its load, by now wrenched loose from its moorings. When the fuselage halted at last the bulldozer continued its momentum and worked the hinge by which the pilot's seat was swung upward to let the vehicle drive out. Pilot and co-pilot were thrown into the air, the bulldozer shot out beneath them and they landed back unhurt. But others were less fortunate and there were grim scenes as the medical teams amputated and bandaged by the light of acetylene flares. Soon the confusion was such that a message had to be sent for the operation to be halted. Not until late the following day, by which time some 400 British soldiers under the expert guidance of American engineers, and using such bulldozers as had survived the initial landings, had succeeded in hacking and stamping a runway, did a message reach anxious, straining ears at Lalaghat reporting that Broadway was ready to receive further aircraft. Thereupon, with early page 327 misfortunes overcome and the enterprise saved, the transport squadrons began their task of delivering the main body of troops, the pack animals and equipment.
That night forty-one RAF Dakotas and twenty-four American C47s flew to Broadway and the gallant band of men waiting on the jungle clearing witnessed an amazing scene as there, far behind the main Japanese army, heavily laden aircraft circled with navigation lights shining and came in to land on an improvised flare-path under the orders of a control set up in a wrecked glider. Air Marshal Baldwin,1 an early arrival, was so impressed by what he saw that he wrote afterwards: ‘Nobody has seen a transport operation until he has stood at Broadway under the light of a Burma moon and watched Dakotas coming in and taking off in opposite directions on a single strip at the rate of one take off or one landing every three minutes.’ Thereafter the transport aircraft continued to come and go in a steady stream; both gliders and Dakotas also put down in another clearing called ‘Chowringhee’ beyond the Irrawaddy but after a few days, during which it diverted the enemy's attention, this clearing was abandoned because of its exposed position. The Japanese, however, remained ignorant of the Chindits' presence at Broadway for eight whole days and in that time 9050 men, 175 ponies, 1183 mules and nearly 250 tons of stores were transferred by air from India to places 150 miles or more behind the Japanese lines—places which had been reached by the previous Wingate expedition only after two exhausting months of marching. The total casualties amounted to 121, all among the occupants of the first gliders. Not one Dakota was lost. It was an achievement at that time unequalled anywhere in the world.
1 Air Marshal Sir John E. A. Baldwin, KBE, CB, DSO, Order of the Crown and Croix de Guerre (Bel), Order of the White Lion (Czech), Air Medal (US); born Halifax, Yorkshire, 13 Apr 1892; joined 8th Hussars 1911; seconded RFC 1915 and RAF 1918; permanent commission RAF, 1919; AOC No. 3 Bomber Group, 1939–42; AOC-in-C, India, 1942–43; AOC 3rd TAF, 1943–44.
Fighters and bombers gave valuable close-support to the Chindits both in their offensive activities and during Japanese counter-attacks. Much of this work was done by American aircraft but RAF Vengeance bombers, together with Spitfire and Hurricane fighters, also helped as far as the major battle allowed. One Chindit leader, Brigadier J. M. Calvert, reported that his formation ‘could not have taken Mogaung without the assistance of direct air support; the results they accomplished were accurate and decisive.’
This close support, and also the supply dropping, were rendered much more effective by the presence with each Chindit column of an RAF operational pilot. Knowing the ground situation and aware of the difficulties facing his comrades in the air, he was able to help select the most suitable landing strips and dropping zones and also to guide the fighters and bombers on to their targets by radio telephone. During an action he would establish himself in a well-sited observation post and then talk to the pilots of the attacking aircraft as they approached, telling them exactly where to place their bombs, and then he would direct their machine-gun fire; so efficient did this technique become that long before the end no Japanese battery dared fire if an aircraft was anywhere about, and the same fear restrained their infantry.
1 Each Chindit brigade had a rear headquarters in India where requests for air supply were tabulated and passed to the air supply sections. The latter collected supplies from the railhead, packed them and loaded the aircraft. Co-ordination of the supply for all three brigades was carried out each morning at a conference where sorties were allocated.
In the field each column passed its requests to brigade headquarters in the stronghold area and thence to rear headquarters. To reduce the amount of radio traffic each column carried a small booklet in which, under various headings, was listed every conceivable requirement from mortar bombs to obscure medical drugs. Opposite each item was a code number which was quoted in a signal requesting supplies. The supply sections at the air bases did the rest. For food there was a ‘standard drop’ which never varied. If the column numbered 400 men, this figure was quoted in a signal for a standard drop for that number of men, plus any special items which had been quoted from the booklet.
Thanks to patrols maintained by Allied fighters and the enemy's preoccupation with his own offensive farther north, all these various operations were carried through with the minimum of loss. But not without incident. One day a Dakota was set on fire by a Japanese fighter above ‘Aberdeen’, whereupon the pilot, with no landing gear and only one engine working, took his burning aircraft down and made a successful crash landing without any of his passengers being injured. Another transport was surprised by an Oscar, which drove home its attack so closely that it collided with the Dakota's tail, shed a wing and plunged to earth; the RAF pilot landed his own aircraft safely and was awarded ‘one destroyed’. In the early stages Japanese aircraft made several raids on the Chindit bases in Burma but they caused only slight damage and did not interrupt operations. A flight of Spitfires was based at Broadway to intercept the raiders, but after some success it was put out of action through lack of early warning. Attacks were then made on the airfields from which the Japanese fighters were operating, and about fifty of them were destroyed or damaged on the ground; thereafter enemy air activity was negligible, and with our own fighters constantly on patrol the Chindit leaders were able to plan their moves without fear of attack by hostile aircraft.
Major-General Orde Wingate did not survive the campaign he had instigated. On the morning of 24 March a pilot returning from patrol saw through the rain a brief flame on a Naga mountain. It was Wingate's aircraft. After a visit to Broadway he had insisted on being flown back through the storm. His battered topee was found near the scene of the crash.
Spectacular though they were, the Chindit operations were not the chief concern of our air forces during these months. Their main effort, and especially that of the Royal Air Force, was devoted to the support of 4 British Corps in its desperate struggle on the Manipur front.
Signs had not been lacking that the enemy was planning to attack Imphal. Various alternatives were considered to meet this impending threat. The one adopted was ‘to concentrate 4 Corps in the Imphal plain, and fight a major battle there to destroy the Japanese Fifteenth Army.’1 An important consideration was ‘our supremacy in the air and the ability it gave me to use air supply’.2
On 6 March, the Japanese opened a strong offensive whose ultimate aim was nothing less than ‘definite victory in India’. In the first fortnight they captured Tiddim, Tamu and Ukhrul and then, moving through most difficult country with remarkable speed and agility, they cut the main road to India by way of Dimapur and laid siege to Kohima, the little town which commands the pass to the Assam valley. Imphal, our main base for the whole central front, was thus completely isolated and its capture became the enemy's immediate objective. This town, built in the midst of the only fertile plain among the border mountains, stood athwart the main line of communication by land between India and Burma and its possession was vital to any invading force. With the Imphal plain in their hands, the Japanese would be able not only to attack our bases and airfields in the Surma valley but also to interrupt the vital Assam line of communications on which General Stilwell's forces and the air supply route to China depended. Such indeed was the enemy's intention, but he reckoned without the intervention of the Allied air forces.
1 Slim, p. 291.
The timely arrival of these additional troops meant that the Japanese were faced by a much stronger force than they had anticipated; but it also meant that a much larger force was now encircled by the enemy and somehow it had to be fed and supplied. To this task the transport squadrons at once addressed themselves and heavily laden Dakotas began lumbering up the valley from Dimapur to Kohima and over the mountains to Imphal, where they cast down their loads of ammunition, food and medical supplies to the beleaguered garrisons. At Kohima it was also necessary to drop containers of water, for here fierce fighting quickly developed and the aircrews saw with dismay the Japanese steadily closing in until they had captured most of the small straggling town. Soon everything had to be dropped in one very small area known as Summer House Hill, the only possible place still in the hands of the defenders. This made the task of supply both for those in the air and those on the ground extremely difficult, and before long the pine trees covering the hill were festooned with parachutes, whose containers dangling beneath could only be collected at night by men crawling on their bellies and, as often as not, encountering Japanese intent on the same errand. The only supplies they could be certain of receiving were those which fell near or directly into the slit trenches which began to scar the hill. Yet the garrison at Kohima held on courageously, helped in their resistance by Hurricane fighter-bombers and Vultee-Vengeances, which struck hard at the enemy's positions around the town and also at his dumps and camps beyond. ‘To see them roaring in low, the page 333 whole place rocking with the noise of their engines and then above this sound to hear the loud voices of the bombs, renewed our hearts every time them came,’ declared a sergeant of the Assam Rifles. The battle for Kohima continued until 20 April, when the garrison was relieved by units of 2 British Division pushing up the Manipur road from Dimapur.
The struggle for Imphal lasted much longer and it became essentially a battle of supply and endurance. At the beginning of April the Japanese had felt certain of victory. ‘The investment of Imphal is complete,’ boasted Tokyo radio. ‘Owing to lack of ammunition the sound of the enemy's guns is weakening. When the last shot is fired Imphal will automatically fall. The fate of IV Corps, supplied by a scared and dwindling air force, is sealed.’ But in the first fortnight of April that scared and dwindling air force flew more than 10,000 sorties —one third of them by transport aircraft. At the same time 4 British Corps, dramatically reinforced from the air as it had been, was able to confine the Japanese to the hills surrounding the plain, thus ensuring the delivery of further supplies and, what was equally important, the operation of Spitfire and Hurricane fighters from the six airfields it contained. The enemy was thus cheated of an early victory but the situation of our forces at Imphal remained serious. One hundred and fifty thousand men were now surrounded by the enemy with very little hope of early relief, and they would have to be maintained solely from the air. They needed somewhat more than 400 tons of stores a day and these must be brought into a valley ringed by the guns of the enemy.
In the following weeks, the transport squadrons and their ground staffs did their utmost to fulfil this commitment but they were unable to do so completely. For one thing, the strength of Troop Carrier Command and its ground organisation was barely sufficient to meet current needs which, it must be remembered, included the supply of Wingate's forces in Burma, the support of Stilwell's advance in the north and also the Arakan front, where the West African Division in particular was still being sustained almost entirely by air. In March 1944, all this was being done by eight Dakota squadrons—about 130 aircraft—with temporary help from the twenty American Commandos borrowed from the ‘Hump’ route to China. Only with great difficulty did Mountbatten secure approval to retain the twenty Commandos for a few weeks and then the reluctant loan, limited at first to a month, of seventy-nine Dakotas from the Middle East. And, even with this additional help, it became necessary towards the end of the siege to bring in bomber aircraft to help carry ammunition.
On top of this the monsoon broke earlier and with greater violence then expected, converting any but all-weather airfields into bogs and page 334 covering the vast areas of mountains with dark forbidding cloudbanks. For pilots flying towards Imphal, looking for some tiny crack or break in the cloud through which they might descend into the plain, it was a nightmare. A fifty-square-mile plain among 25,000 square miles of hills and valleys is not easy to find on a clear day. Under monsoon conditions it became extremely difficult and at times well-nigh impossible. Pilots sometimes made three or four attempts from different directions, but not infrequently they were unable to penetrate the storms and heavy clouds which hung over the surrounding mountains. A few, fortunately very few, made their descent through a break in the cloud and, misjudging their position, flew into the side of a hill.
In an effort to reduce the frustration and congestion caused by aircraft returning with their loads, an advanced staging post was set up at Kambhigrum, west of the mountains, from where the accumulated supplies were flown in whenever the weather cleared. Even so the troops, airmen and their ancillary services on the plain consumed more than could be brought in to them by air. Accordingly, it was decided to evacuate from Imphal all those not essential to its defence, and during May nearly 30,000 men engaged mainly on administrative duties, together with two entire hospitals and their staffs, were flown out by the Dakotas. At the same time the strength of the RAF on the plain was reduced to the minimum—two squadrons of Spitfires, one of ground-attack Hurricanes and two of Hurri-bombers.
These measures relieved the situation considerably, but although our forces at Imphal had sufficient supplies to enable them to eat and fight, increasing cloud and storms brought a lean and critical period at the beginning of June, when the garrison was down to only a fortnight's food on reduced rations and barely a week's supply of petrol. Then suddenly the weather improved and a determined effort was made by all concerned. ‘The one all-weather airstrip was soon crammed with supply aircraft, queues circled in the air waiting to land and queues waited on the side runs of the strip to take off. As the wheels of the aircraft touched down or those of outgoing aircraft raced along the concrete, great sprays of water covered anything within fifty yards. From dawn to dusk, except on really bad days, the traffic continued and both troops and RAF personnel worked without rest to move the supplies.’ By mid-June these were arriving at the rate of nearly 500 tons a day, and this was soon increased to 600 tons in operations which continued until, and for a short time after, the siege ended.
Thus was the supply battle finally won, but only by a narrow margin. Yet it was won. And General Giffard, the Army Commander-in-Chief, afterwards declared: ‘There is no doubt that if we had not had air supply we should have lost the Imphal plain and the position on the eastern frontier of India would have been grave ….It is with gratitude page 335 and admiration that I acknowledge the immense debt which the Army owes to the air.’ Altogether during the Manipur fighting the air forces had delivered 22,000 tons of supplies; they had also flown in 20,000 reinforcements with their equipment and evacuated 10,000 casualties and 30,000 non-essential personnel from the Imphal plain. Having regard to all the circumstances, this was certainly a splendid achievement.
A remarkable feature of the Imphal air supply was that, during the whole twelve weeks that the siege endured, only two Dakotas and one Wellington engaged on this duty were shot down. Yet seldom has an air force had the chance of finer targets than were offered to the Japanese with up to three hundred slow, unarmed transports flying daily in full view of them. That they were unable to take advantage of this opportunity was due in large measure to the Allied fighter squadrons whose activities, notably those of the long-range American Lightnings and Mustangs against enemy airfields, made it almost impossible for the Japanese to intervene effectively in the battle at all. Besiegers though they were, the effort of the Japanese Army Air Force amounted to no more than 3 per cent of the British and American, and soon such meagre and sporadic support as it was able to provide had to come from airfields far to the rear.
At Imphal the RAF Spitfires and Hurricanes entrusted with its defence were continually on the alert to intercept enemy raiders; they also escorted the Dakotas on their inward and outward flights. These tasks became more difficult as the Japanese overran many of the radar warning posts in the surrounding hills, and it became necessary to bring back the long discarded system of fighter patrols in order to cover the two main entrances to the plain. But their vigilance was rewarded, and on one notable occasion an enemy raid of twenty Oscars was intercepted and ten of them shot down. The Hurricane fighter-bombers went out against a variety of targets. Sometimes these lay in the nearby hills just beyond the perimeter where our troops were engaged in short, fierce skirmishing with Japanese seeking to enter the plain. Then the ground crews had the unusual satisfaction, after rearming and refuelling the aircraft, of seeing them take off, drop their bombs on the enemy only a few miles away and return for their next mission. But more often the Hurricanes ranged farther afield striking at the roads, tracks and bridges leading to Imphal, and at enemy bases and camps in the country beyond. One squadron specialised in night operations and became adept at finding enemy vehicles by the shadows they cast on the roadside when travelling by moonlight. Frequently, however, it was very difficult for pilots to see what damage they were doing, especially when in close support of our troops they aimed at what seemed empty scrubland or unmoving jungle marked only by a smoke shell. Effective close support was page 336 indeed far from easy, for the enemy was entrenched in well-prepared positions and the bunkers comprising them were usually strong and extremely well sited and camouflaged. But the Army appreciated their efforts. ‘On more than one occasion,’ declared Major-General Cowan, commanding 17 Division, ‘you were responsible for enabling our forces to counter-attack in the face of heavy opposition …. I have well over two years' experience of fighting in this country and can assure you that you are producing results.’
The conditions under which the air force lived and fought at Imphal were anything but pleasant. It was a tough routine of bare existence, with the added discomforts caused by the monsoon. On each airfield the ground crews and administrative staffs were formed into self-supporting ‘boxes’ for defence, each with its trenches, bunkers and guns; at night, until the decision to remove some squadrons to airfields outside the plain was taken, pilots and ground crews took turns at guarding their own aircraft against attack from enemy parties infiltrating through the wire; and because of the closeness of the enemy a very strict blackout and complete silence were maintained from dusk to dawn. With the advent of the monsoon, nothing in the bamboo bashas or mud and wattle native huts remained dry, and outside gum-booted airmen squelched through the mud to and from their aircraft at the dispersal points. Rations were short and the men had to contend with dysentery, lack of sleep, biting insects and cobras that coiled themselves around wet things like wash-basins in the darkness; yet for the most part men accepted the situation, and while there was much ‘binding’ on the plain, there was also a good deal of close fellowship.
Occasionally, there were hectic moments as on that evening when a pilot on patrol at dusk reported a Japanese battalion on the move close to Imphal. Pilots and ground crews had just dispersed for the night when the call to action came. One and all made at once for their aircraft, some who had been washing, dressing as they ran; within a matter of minutes thirty-three Hurricanes had taken off and were over the area through which the enemy had been seen passing. In the gathering darkness nothing could be seen but the vague outlines of trees and scrub; then the leading aircraft, flying very low, turned on their landing lights and in their beams the Japanese column could be clearly discerned. The Hurricanes went in with bombs, cannon and machine-gun fire, and though they saw little but dust and smoke it was later learnt from captured documents that over 200 Japanese were killed that evening.
The climax of the Imphal struggle came in June. By that time the Japanese, with their supply lines from Bangkok to the very hills of Manipur assailed by our fighters and bombers, were themselves desperately short of food, ammunition and essential stores. Their troops were dying of wounds and disease, especially in the malarial page 337 Kabaw valley, while only a few miles away Allied casualties were being carried into air transports and flown out to the hospitals of India.
Day after day the frustrated and famished Japanese Army, watching from the peaks above Imphal, could see a stream of Dakotas and Commandos flying in an increasing volume of supplies to their enemies. High above them, Spitfires wheeled and circled guarding the entrances to the plain, and every now and then Hurri-bombers went streaking across the hills to attack the Tiddim Road or strafe enemy troops and blow them from their bunkers and foxholes; formations of Vengeance dive-bombers from more distant airfields passed high overhead on their way to blast targets in the rear. On the ground 4 British Corps was beginning to press out from its encirclement, and although the Japanese clung desperately to their positions in the hills, they were unable to prevent either this outward drive or the approach of the strong relieving force which had been slowly fighting its way up the road from the direction of Kohima. The end of the siege and of the battles of attrition came on 22 June when a Sikh battalion of 4 Corps, thrusting north of Imphal, met tanks of 2 British Division moving up along the Kohima road.
The Japanese Fifteenth Army in Manipur, lacking supplies and well-nigh exhausted by its efforts during recent months, was now faced with inevitable retreat. To speed its departure and support the advance of General Slim's British Fourteenth Army therefore became the immediate concern of the squadrons of RAF No. 221 Group which, under Air Commodore Vincent,1 were based in that area. Dakotas, Spitfires, Vengeances, Beaufighters and the versatile Hurricanes all joined in the new offensive, and despite the monsoon, during which 175 inches of rain fell in northern Burma and 350 inches in Assam, they kept up a sustained and indeed remarkable flying effort.
1 Air Vice-Marshal S. F. Vincent, CB, DFC, AFC, Legion of Merit (US); RAF (retd); born Hampstead, London, 7 Apr 1897; joined RFC 1915; commanded RAF Station, Northolt, 1940–41; North Weald, 1941; Debden, 1941, and Northolt, 1941–42; AOC No. 224 Group, 1942; AOC No. 13 Group, 1943–44; AOC No. 221 Group, SE Asia, 1944–45.
Through the drenching rain and clammy heat of the 1944 monsoon, the squadrons continued to fly and fight, harassing the enemy in retreat and giving invaluable help to Fourteenth Army. ‘As it was impossible in the hills to build any landing strips, the 5th Division became completely dependent on air dropping for all its requirements. It also relied for direct fire support largely on the fighter bombers of 221 Group, RAF. What this regular air supply and support meant in skill and strain to the aircrews only those who have flown among these shrouded hills can judge. Yet throughout the whole of this monsoon the fighters of Air Marshal Vincent's 221 Group flew over our troops every single day. I do not think such devotion has ever been surpassed in any air force, and I doubt if it has been equalled.’1
In the October fighting round Tiddim, where our troops were delayed by a series of bunker positions and gun posts in the hills astride the road, the Hurri-bombers intervened with particular effect. Many direct hits on bunkers were reported and afterwards verified by 33 Corps, especially in the Kennedy Peak area and around ‘Vital Corner’, where the enemy was eventually blasted out of positions hewn in the solid rock of a precipice. Later at Fort White, after an onslaught by four squadrons of Hurricanes, our troops were able to make their final assault virtually unopposed. The fighter-bombers also gave assistance of another kind to the Army when it reached the terrible Kabaw valley to capture Tamu. The name means ‘Valley of Death’, and it is reputed to be one of the most highly malarial places in the world. There they sprayed the whole length of the road with DDT and this helped to reduce the casualties caused by disease to a very low figure.
1 Slim, p. 358.
Many were the hazards that faced our pilots and crews during this astonishing offensive. To reach their objectives they often had to fly through twisting valleys and over jungle-clad hills that were no more distinguishable from each other than the waves of a choppy sea; much of the region was unsurveyed, so men flew on the knowledge that they had acquired of the mountain formations; but with the monsoon came cloud and swirling mists, which altered the shapes they knew quite well, so that piercing a cloud might bring sudden confrontation with hill or mountainside. Aircraft were even wrecked by the turbulence of the clouds themselves. One day five Hurricanes returning over the Chin Hills met cumulo-nimbus clouds of the type which soar from the ground to 30,000 feet or more, and with their fuel running short could find no way round. Two of the five came through in a battered condition, but of the remaining three no trace was found. An even more tragic misadventure befell sixteen Spitfires of No. 615 Squadron while flying out from the Imphal plain to Calcutta in August 1944. When but thirty miles on their journey, they ran into thin cloud which unexpectedly proved to be the outer fringe of a particularly vicious storm. Within a matter of seconds the Spitfires found themselves in the midst of it, and so violent was the turbulence that ‘all the aircraft became beyond human control.’ One was whirled from 5000 to 11,000 feet and the others were tossed about in the blackness of the clouds like so many leaves. Four pilots, including the squadron commander, were lost when their machines were torn to pieces; four more had to bale out and the remaining eight all arrived at their destination badly bruised and cut about the face and hands in their efforts to control their aircraft. One of the survivors reported that he had only just managed to recover after finding himself upside-down at less than 200 feet above the ground.
In the early stages of their retreat from Imphal the Japanese still fought fiercely but, harassed from the air and under growing pressure from a much larger British army, their withdrawal gradually became a rout. Even the redoubtable Japanese 33 Division, one of their finest fighting units, cracked after weeks of merciless fighting and took to the jungle in disorder. Thereafter, scourged by beri-beri, malaria and dysentery, and forced to retreat through sodden forests and across swollen streams and flooded rivers, the plight of the enemy became more and more terrible. What his total losses were will probably never be known, but on the battlefields around Imphal over 13,000 dead were counted and these had been slain in battle. The number who died from wounds, starvation and disease can only be guessed. One military observer says that ‘the Allied doctors reported groups of dead Japanese, their skin drawn tightly over their bones, with little packets of rice which they could not eat or digest hanging round their necks. Hundreds of bodies were found in Tamu alone. Many of the page 340 Japanese were too weak to carry out their normal practice of killing their sick and wounded. Near Tamu a complete hospital full of patients was captured. With a few exceptions they were too weak to commit suicide. They lay in a daze on the ground or on rough bamboo stretchers. Some Japanese gave themselves up while others were captured before they could blow themselves to pieces with hand grenades. All were numbed by the agonies of the last few months.’1
So ended the Japanese bid for victory in India and with it came the prospect of their eventual defeat in Burma. For along with the Allied successes in Arakan and Manipur, General Stilwell's Chinese-American Army, helped by the Chindits, had made a notable advance in north Burma. Fighting through terrible country where, despite the magnificent achievement of American engineers in building the Ledo road, they had to be sustained almost entirely by air, Stilwell's troops had cleared most of that region of the enemy and in a sudden brilliant stroke captured the all-important airfield at Myitkyina; then, after a hard and bitter battle lasting eleven weeks, they had taken the town itself, thus securing the main Japanese base and the focal point for road, rail and river communications in that part of Burma. And now with the enemy also forced back across the Chindwin by the British Fourteenth Army, the way was open for the reconquest of the central Burma plain, from which the strong forces we possessed could take the road to Mandalay and thence to Rangoon.
* * * * *
Through these eventful months New Zealand airmen had shared in all the various air operations as pilots, navigators, wireless operators and air gunners. It was perhaps typical of the Dominion's contribution that in the first night's supply operations to Wingate's Chindits at Broadway, four of the twelve RAF Dakotas (they were from the famous No. 31 Squadron) should be piloted by New Zealanders, with one of them leading the first flight; that a Spitfire fighter squadron defending Imphal, and Hurricane fighter-bombers which harried the Japanese down the Tiddim Road, should be led by Dominion pilots; and that they should fly some of the first RAF aircraft to land at Myitkyina.
Their work was both strenuous and hazardous. ‘All our jobs were mixed up,’ one pilot writes. ‘One day we might take in reinforcements to Imphal, the next day go to Comilla to collect flour, ammo, and petrol from the dumps, then pick up a load of men at Imphal and fly them out; another time we would take casualties from the Kohima battle and the following day be back over the Kaladan. It meant long flying hours day after day and I do not think we could have kept it up except for the feeling of crisis that existed.’ Many of the places to which they delivered supplies were fringed with hills that were death traps to aircraft circling low in bad weather; and with a constantly changing crosswind the final touch-down had its own perils. Unprecedented traffic at all the airfields required an exceptional standard of flying discipline in order to keep accidents to a minimum. At Imphal there was so little taxi-ing space that incoming aircraft had to land in one direction and outgoing transports take off in the other. The monsoon storms with their treacherous up-currents were also a constant source of danger. One pilot attempting to land at an alternative airfield in such turbulent conditions found his aircraft suddenly whisked from 1000 feet to 9000 feet inside two minutes, the fully-laden aircraft offering no obstacle to the violent up-draughts.
Inevitably in the pressure of relieving a siege while simultaneously supplying the Wingate and Kaladan troops, there were many unusual episodes and incidents. One New Zealand Dakota captain, for example, tells of a remarkable escape when he and another pilot commenced dropping on the same zone in the jungle unknown to each other. In the darkness one made a right-hand circuit and the other, owing to the awkward position of the hills, changed to a left-hand circuit. They met directly over the dropping zone and it was only due to the little light provided by the ground flares that they avoided a head-on collision, one diving almost into the ground and the other climbing vigorously. Next morning in the mess it transpired that one crew had overshot their target and only located it after a search; the second pilot had also arrived late, and both assumed that other aircraft had completed their sorties.
Misadventure of a different kind befell the crew whose Dakota had its rudder caught by a parachute with a heavy case attached; after a crew member had tried, and failed, to shoot off the rigging lines, the pilot made a successful landing with the load still attached to his machine. Another RAF pilot who force-landed with a load of petrol ended up with his wing tip in the open fireplace of a native hut, but the fire did not spread; and there was the despatcher who was hooked out of his aircraft by a parachute and floated to earth on a box of rations.
But the various transport missions were not accomplished without loss. For example, Flight Lieutenant R. G. Mellsop, after achieving a page 343 fine record as captain of aircraft in No. 194 Squadron, was killed when his Dakota crashed while carrying reinforcements to the Chindits at ‘Aberdeen’. A member of his squadron writes: ‘Once a pilot was committed to a landing at “Aberdeen” it was impossible to circuit again, as the strip was in a narrow valley with steep hills on both sides and at both ends. Mellsop attempted a second circuit through being too high on his final approach. The aircraft's landing lights played on the jungle-covered slopes of the valley as he tried in vain to gain altitude to go over the top—he and his crew must have known seconds before the fateful crash that only a miracle could save them yet Mellsop attempted, in a last valiant effort, to cushion the aircraft on to the hillside; this action undoubtedly saved the lives of thirteen of the troops who were towards the rear of the aircraft.’ Another New Zealand pilot, Warrant Officer Shearer,1 with his crew failed to return from a supply mission to ‘Broadway’ and Warrant Officer Orr,2 wireless operator, was killed when his Dakota, carrying a load of 6750 lb. of petrol, crashed on take-off.
Flight Lieutenant Allan,3 previously of No. 194 Squadron, spent nearly two months in the jungle with one of the Chindit long-range penetration groups. He was attached to 1 Battalion, Lancashire Fusiliers, as Air Force officer to direct the close air support. Allan saw early and successful action with a Japanese patrol while leading a party through the jungle. Later, when his column moved on, he was ordered to remain in the Lamai region to report enemy movements and control air action; he was told that since he had only a small escort he might leave if his position was threatened, but he stayed isolated for six weeks, during which he was able to provide much useful information and also to direct a number of air attacks on objectives in the area. For example, one morning shortly after dawn, he spotted a long Japanese supply train puffing slowly up a valley and within the hour had the satisfaction of seeing it destroyed by the fighter-bombers he summoned. Eventually Allan led his detachment forty miles through hills and jungles to rejoin the Chindit Brigade. The Military Cross which he was subsequently awarded for his exploits was certainly well earned.
Squadron Leader Bruce Ingram and Squadron Leader Denis Sharp did particularly good work as fighter leaders. Ingram—he had already distinguished himself with Desert Air Force in Africa and Sicily— commanded a squadron of Spitfires. For the first few months he led his pilots in defensive patrols over Calcutta and on sweeps against Japanese airfields in central Burma; then they moved up to Imphal, where they patrolled over the plain and escorted transports and bombers; later, as enemy air activity faded, the Spitfires turned their attention to the Japanese supply lines and achieved notable success in what were known as ‘Rhubarb’ operations. It was on return from one such mission that Ingram was forced to make a crash landing short of the strip. He stepped out of his machine with a broken nose and with a badly lacerated face. He was admitted to a field hospital, where he contracted malaria followed by tetanus, and despite the efforts of two nurses specially flown to Imphal he died shortly afterwards. Such, it may be noted, were the additional hazards of the Burma war.
Denis Sharp led a squadron of ground-attack Hurricanes which scored impressive results against enemy troops, transports and communications, especially during the Japanese retreat from Manipur. Sharp himself successfully attacked enemy railway engines on two occasions while operating by night over 150 miles inside enemy territory. By mid-1944 he had completed a total of 450 fighter sorties, which included operations over Britain, Singapore and Ceylon as well as Burma. ‘Under his leadership,’ writes a senior officer, ‘No. 11 Squadron has built up a great reputation in low attack work with a long record of successes achieved by night as well as by day and in the face of the many difficulties of terrain and weather constantly to be met in this theatre.’
Two more men who established fine records as fighter leaders were Flight Lieutenant J. M. Cranstone and Flight Lieutenant Murphy,1 both of whom commanded flights in No. 11 Squadron. Murphy, ‘leading his flight with great vigour and determination’, completed the remarkable total of 198 sorties in the five monsoon months of 1944; Cranstone did equally valuable work until the relief of Imphal, then went on to lead one of the first RAF units to be equipped with American Thunderbolt fighters.
Many other men deserve mention. Squadron Leader V. K. Jacobs, for example, completed a long and successful career flying Spitfires over Arakan and Manipur, then spent his ‘rest’ period in charge of the RAF servicing party that was sent to take over control of one of the jungle strips. His first task was to resite the radar station, so important to give early warning of the approach of enemy raiders and as a help in ‘homing’ the transport Dakotas. Jacobs then improved the airfield control and radio-telephone systems. He also did good work in salvaging damaged aircraft, sometimes under the very eyes of the enemy.
The sergeant pilots dug themselves a massive community place, packed about with sandbags and roofed with heavy tarpaulins supported on bamboo poles. Nearby were the hangarettes for the aircraft built in the shape of a letter ‘U’, fronted on to the air strip; they were defended by trenches and a browning machine-gun mounted to cover a wide expanse of the area towards the hills. Encircling the dispersal area was a ditch which formed a communication trench so that the whole area with its dugouts, trenches and pits looked like a honeycomb.
Most of the officer-pilots split into pairs and dug themselves small below-surface billets. Two of them found an engineer officer renowned for his efficiency in blowing holes and blasting out tree stumps, and they talked him into blowing them ‘a nice deep hole’; then they ‘borrowed’ a few yards of matting to line the walls and flooring, and with a few shelves supported on bamboo, an old box as a cupboard, bamboo rafters and tarpaulin cover— their mansion was complete.
The ground crews put up a magnificent show. While carrying on with their usual daily work—inspection, cleaning guns, testing radios, checking equipment, refuelling, re-arming and so on—they dug their trenches and holes, filled sandbags, carted and piled them up and then at night stood guard from dusk to dawn—not all the men at once certainly, but approximately one-third of the squadron each night.
It was shortly after leaving Imphal that No. 136 Squadron lost one of its leading members—Flying Officer John Rudling. The Spitfires were then making long-range attacks against Japanese air bases in Burma and, as sometimes happened on such missions, they were intercepted by enemy fighters. In the mix-up which followed, Rudling saw a fellow pilot being assailed by two Oscars. He immediately dived to help him but, intent on getting to grips with the enemy, he failed to observe a third Oscar closing on his tail. As he turned to open fire the Japanese pilot seized his opportunity and sent the Spitfire down to crash in flames.
Warrant Officer J. R. L. Campbell, who flew with No. 258 Hurricane Squadron, was less fortunate. On a night patrol down the Kaladan valley, he crashed in the mountains well behind the Japanese lines and it was twenty-three days before he returned to his squadron. For several days and nights he made his way through the jungle until he reached the village of Thawinchaung, where he was sheltered and cared for by a native family. Japanese troops were in the vicinity, and at one time actually in the house where Campbell was hiding, but eventually, after spending a fortnight in a hideout at the foot of some hills, he was rescued through the efforts of that very gallant band of men who, under the code-name of V Force, worked behind the Japanese lines.
By the end of 1944 quite a few New Zealand fighter pilots had completed long and successful tours of operations—three years in most cases. They included men like Flight Lieutenant L. T. Hunter of No. 155 Squadron, who completed his tour by shooting down a reconnaissance Dinah near Imphal, and such campaign veterans as Flight Lieutenant A. A. Cooper, Flying Officers G. A. Williams and C. V. Bargh in No. 67 Squadron, latterly engaged in the defence of Calcutta and in escort and armed reconnaissance over the Arakan front. The work of Vengeance pilots like Squadron Leader I. A. Sutherland, in command of No. 82 Squadron, Royal Indian Air Force, Flight Lieutenant Johns1 and Flying Officer Papps2 with No. 84 Squadron, and Flying Officers A. E. Parker and G. T. Couttie with No. 82 Squadron, also deserves mention. After their contribution to the Arakan victory early in 1944, the Vengeance squadrons had moved up to Manipur, where they continued to give valuable close support to the Army throughout the fighting in that region.
* * * * *
Throughout 1944 New Zealanders also continued to share in the work of long-range bombing and in both maritime and photographic reconnaissance.
The Allied strategic bomber force in South-east Asia was still relatively small—for most of the year it had only 200 aircraft, one-third of them RAF Liberators and Wellingtons—but the crews worked hard and their achievements, as the Japanese subsequently admitted, were quite substantial. On occasion American Mitchells and British Wellingtons bombed targets in close support of the land forces, but the main effort of the bomber crews was directed against Japanese rail, road and river communications, shipping, ports, airfields, supply and storage depots and small industrial areas. These targets were widely scattered and they often involved flights over great distances; the round trip to Moulmein, for instance, was 1800 miles; to Bangkok 2200 miles; to the Kra Isthmus 2300, and eventually Liberators flew sorties of 2800 miles to attack targets in the Malay Peninsula.
Fortunately enemy opposition was not severe. Usually the worst hazard encountered by the bomber crews was the weather. To find and bomb their targets they sometimes had to fight their way through banks of cumulo-nimbus cloud or else make wide detours to avoid tropical storms. These storms were not easy to detect on a moonless night, and the first indication of their presence might well be violent turbulence which flung the bomber about the sky and made it dangerous even to attempt a turn. The only thing to do was to try to fly the aircraft through, keeping as far as possible ‘straight and level’. There is no doubt that these conditions imposed a heavy strain on both men and machines. As one pilot remarks: ‘When in action against fighters or running the gauntlet of flak we knew what we were up against but when confronted with the awesome blackness of cumulo-nimbus storms, one experienced a feeling of helplessness which was difficult to overcome.’
The RAF Liberators flew many notable missions against communication targets—in particular the ill-famed railway linking Bangkok with Moulmein, constructed by Allied prisoners of war under such appalling conditions that 24,000 of them lost their lives. The line, which was of the utmost importance to the Japanese in supplying their forces in Burma, ran through jungle and mountainous country. To span the succession of rivers and ravines, there were almost 700 bridges. The Liberators, operating in daylight, made precision attacks against some of the most important of these bridges and succeeded in cutting the line again and again at vital points. The Liberators also bore the brunt of the offensive against airfields, with the original RAF bases at Mingaladon and Magwe as frequent targets. There were also many minelaying sorties to the harbours of Rangoon, Moulmein, Tavoy and Mergui in the Bay of Bengal and ports in the Gulf of Siam. Altogether 664 mines were laid by the RAF during 1944, with results that were exceptionally good, for the enemy lacked efficient mine- page 349 sweeping equipment and was unable to prevent continual dislocation and damage to his shipping.
The Wellington squadrons operated consistently in the offensive against communications until August 1944, when the last of these aircraft were withdrawn from operations and replaced by Liberators. Carrying bomb loads varying from a single 4000-pounder to a mixed load of 6700 lb. of incendiaries and delayed action bombs, they attacked railway installations at such places as Rangoon, Prome, Bassien, Myingyan, Shwebo and Taungup. Wellington crews also made an important contribution to the outcome of the Imphal battle when, during the most critical period, they undertook transport missions ranging from supply dropping to ferrying bombs to forward airfields. They also bombed roads and bridges leading to the battle area.
There were sixty-eight New Zealand pilots, navigators, bomb-aimers, wireless operators and air gunners with the RAF bomber squadrons during 1944. Outstanding among those who flew Wellingtons was Wing Commander R. G. Maddox, who continued in charge of No. 99 Squadron. Under his command were experienced captains like Flight Lieutenant Beca1 and Pilot Officer H. D. Hampton, who won commendation for their work. Beca frequently led bomber formations and in one period of less than four months flew thirty missions. He was then sent on attachment to a Dakota squadron, delivering supplies to the Imphal valley. One day when low cloud and almost continuous rain reduced the number of sorties to this area to six, three of these were flown by Beca and his crew. Hampton demonstrated his flying ability during a raid against Rangoon. When still a considerable distance from the port, one engine of the Wellington became almost useless. Although the bomber steadily lost height and presented a good target for the defending anti-aircraft gunners, Hampton flew on and pressed home his attack. By carefully nursing his good engine, he eventually reached Chittagong to make a safe landing after flying on one engine for four hours and twenty minutes, and for much of this time over enemy territory.
Flying Officer Haycock,6 Warrant Officers Stocker7 and Bardell8 were New Zealanders who won distinction with Liberator bombers. On one occasion during a low-level attack against a bridge, Haycock's machine was intercepted by an Oscar fighter. As a result of his skilful manoeuvring and the accurate fire of the gunners, the enemy machine was destroyed without damage to the Liberator. Stocker flew many successful bombing missions as captain and took part in a series of successful long-range minelaying missions to Penang, which involved round trips of more than 3000 miles and flying over the sea for eighteen hours. Bardell was a veteran air gunner who, including his sorties with Bomber Command in England, had completed fifty-five sorties by mid-1944. Good work with Liberators was also done by Flying Officer Clarke,9 Warrant Officers Barr,10 Carter11 and Marwick12 as pilots, Pilot Officer J. N. Culleton as navigator, Warrant Officer Tringham,13 wireless operator, and Warrant Officer McKay,14 air gunner.
Royal Air Force Catalina and Sunderland flying-boats and Wellington and Liberator bombers of the General Reconnaissance force played an essential if unspectacular part in the war at sea. With only a relatively small number of both German and Japanese submarines operating in the Indian Ocean, sightings and attacks were few and far between but the continuous patrols did help to keep enemy submarines submerged and out of range of our shipping. The Allies were thus able to maintain a continuous flow of reinforcements and supplies into Indian ports, without which the land campaigns could not have prospered.
For the sixty New Zealand airmen with these squadrons there was at least plenty of flying, even if their convoy and anti-submarine patrols were long and monotonous and almost completely devoid of incident. Occasionally things were enlivened for men like Flying Officer Dean,1 Warrant Officer Baker2 and Flight Sergeant Skinner,3 members of No. 160 Liberator Squadron, when they took part in bombing missions against Japanese bases in Sumatra, the Andamans and the Nicobar Islands. But for the most part it was routine flying— 500 miles or more out to sea, then a long patrol and finally back to base at night. Their area of operations was vast—the Indian Ocean itself is more than twice the size of the North Atlantic—and their bases varied from a crocodile and mosquito infested lake in the jungle to an azure lagoon bounded by golden (but glamourless) beaches. Their weather was everything from a clear blue sky to a cyclone. ‘Sometimes you could see forty miles (and, of course, be seen) or else you could not see your wing tips. Tropical storms would appear suddenly as from nowhere; one over base could be inconvenient when you were already passed P.L.E.’4 The ground and air crews had to be masters of improvisation, especially when on detachment at remote spots where facilities were few and spares scarce. One Catalina did an engine change on an island beach; another flew back with its hull patched up by wood and locally mixed concrete after an encounter with an uncharted coral reef.
It was in such operations and under such conditions that Wing Commander N. McClelland led No. 205 Catalina Flying Boat Squadron for over eighteen months, achieving a fine record both as pilot and squadron commander. The vast area covered by his crews may be judged from the fact that its main base was at Koggala in Ceylon, with forward detachments at Addu Atoll in the Maldive Islands and at Diego Garcia, some 500 miles farther south.
4 Prudent limit of endurance.
With other squadrons Flying Officers Ballantyne1 and Vowles2 and Pilot Officers Glynn3 and Beale4 also had good records as aircrew of these flying-boats. With No. 230 Sunderland Squadron, Flight Lieutenant Comrie5 captained a New Zealand crew with Flying Officer Mason6 as his co-pilot. Flying Officer Hayward,7 Flight Sergeant McDonnell8 and Flight Sergeant Dillon9 of No. 203 Squadron were prominent as captains of Wellingtons.
With eight million square miles of ocean to cover, it was not possible for the squadrons to provide complete protection for the numerous convoys and sinkings of supply ships took place at irregular intervals. In this connection an important feature of their work was the search for Allied seamen whose ships had been torpedoed. In July, for example, a concentration of enemy submarines in shipping lanes to the east of the Maldives resulted in the sinking of five ships. Catalina aircraft which took part in search operations were instrumental in the rescue of no fewer than 244 survivors. On one such errand of mercy Wing Commander McClelland flew a Catalina in search of a raft carrying men from the steamer Sutlej, which had been sunk fifty days earlier. He was successful in locating the raft and dropped supplies to its occupants. He then flew away and later guided a naval vessel to the scene. As a result eighteen survivors were picked up to end what had been a particularly grim ordeal.
New Zealand airmen took part in some notable tasks. They flew with the Liberators and Catalinas which provided anti-submarine escort for a floating dock which, in April 1944, was towed from Bombay to Trincomalee at the rather heartbreaking speed of four knots. In the same month they took part in the successful escort of the Eastern Fleet in its strike with carrier-borne aircraft against Sabang in north-west Sumatra. They were also present when the General Reconnaissance squadrons flew fifty sorties in two days to cover the return of the fleet after its attack at Sourabaya.
A group of twenty-five New Zealanders served with the Hurricanes and Spitfires engaged on coastal defence and with the Beaufort torpedo-bombers and Beaufighters of the small strike force. Their lot was an unenviable one. For those with the fighter squadrons there was little else but a continuous round of standing at ‘readiness’ and training, while in the absence of suitable targets for their torpedoes the Beaufort crews flew as escort to coastal convoys. One outstanding success was however scored by the two Beaufighter squadrons which operated against coastal traffic moving along the Tenasserim coast and across the Gulf of Martaban to Rangoon. Patrolling at extreme range over the Andaman Sea, they sighted a convoy of Japanese coastal vessels heading for Rangoon. During two days they made four attacks with rocket projectiles and cannon fire, during which they succeeded in hitting fourteen ships, the majority of which were either beached or left blazing.
The men of the RAF Photographic Wing flew Spitfires, Mosquitos and Mitchells and they performed a variety of tasks. One of these was to keep a continuous watch on Japanese airfields and lines of communication, another the assessment of damage caused by the strategic bombers; they also made frequent reconnaissances of the Burmese coast, the Andaman Islands and the Gulf of Siam, and a considerable effort was expended on a photographic survey of Burma to provide up-to-date maps, especially of the battle areas. In the course of these duties there were some notable performances. For example, on one day alone no fewer than eighty Japanese airfields were photographed; on another, almost the entire Burmese railway system was covered.
Other prominent Mosquito pilots were Flight Lieutenants Irvine1 and Murray2 and Flying Officer Dent.3 Flight Lieutenant Parry4 spent a long period flying Spitfires and won distinction for his work; Warrant Officer R. K. Brown5 and Flight Sergeant Prichard6 also achieved good records as pilots of these aircraft.