A Supermarine Spitfire Mark VIII of No. 136 Squadron RAF prepares to taxy to its take off point on newly-finished airstrip at Brown’s West Island, Cocos Islands. Other aircraft of the Squadron are being serviced in the background.
The Royal Air Force (RAF) in the Pacific theater during World War II is often referred to as the “forgotten air force.” Nonetheless, the RAF proved to be an effective and competent match to its Japanese counterparts. Initially vastly outnumbered and outfought by the Japanese—and forced to use inferior equipment—the RAF in the Pacific was dramatically reorganized and resupplied during the war to become an integral part of the Allied success in the Pacific theater.
Before the outbreak of war, the RAF presence in the Pacific was minuscule. Plans were drawn up in the 1930s for the expansion of air defenses to protect such key British colonies as Singapore and Hong Kong, but with the attention of the British high command focused on the war in Europe, scant resources remained to be shifted to the Far East. As a result, it was October 1941 before the RAF began seriously to prepare for war in the Pacific. When the Japanese attacked at Kota Bahru on December 8, 1941, the RAF was still unprepared.
The RAF had only 181 aircraft in Southeast Asia at the beginning of the war and used only nine of twenty-seven planned airfields in the region. The Japanese, on the other hand, could put some two thousand aircraft in the skies. Great Britain’s Air Ministry had decided not to send any of its main fighter aircraft—the Hurricane—to the Far East. Shipments originally intended for Singapore went, instead, to Russia to stop the German advance, and so the only fighters available to the RAF were seventy-nine obsolete Buffaloes. The Buffalo was slower, had a much poorer climb rate, and was less maneuverable than the main Japanese fighter, the Zero. (In fact the Brewster Buffalo always has pride of place in any listing of “The World’s Worst Aircraft.”) The RAF’s bombers and reconnaissance aircraft were also obsolete in comparison with their Japanese counterparts.
The RAF did possess one notable advantage over the Japanese: radar. At the start of the war, the British had two coastal radar sites and a number of mobile radars. The radar units did not cover the entire range of the British Far East positions, but major areas such as Singapore could receive at least thirty minutes warning in case of air attack. The ground-to-air links through VHF communication were limited, however, and information could be passed to British aircraft for a distance of only about twenty miles. This weak link severely limited the ability of the radar units to convey information to the airborne units and to coordinate attacks.
RAF reconnaissance aircraft spotted a Japanese convey bound for the Malay Peninsula on December 6, 1941, but bad weather hampered British efforts to shadow the Japanese movement. On December 8, the Japanese attacked British defenses at Kota Bahru, and the Pacific war began for Great Britain. The British responded quickly to the Japanese landings at Kota Bahru, where eight Hudson bombers flew seventeen sorties in just three hours, sinking one Japanese merchant ship and twenty-four landing barges and damaging numerous other vessels. In all some three thousand Japanese troops were killed in the bombing attacks. But by day’s end, the Japanese had established a beachhead and had begun to advance inland. The bombings at Kota Bahru proved to be the only major success for the RAF (or any other British military arm) in the opening of the war in the Pacific.
The Japanese launched continuous air attacks on Singapore and on British positions in northern Malaya. By December 9, the Japanese had destroyed over half the RAF’s aircraft and had established clear air superiority. The RAF was unable to prevent the Japanese aerial torpedo attacks, which sank the new British battleship Prince of Wales and old battle-cruiser Repulse on December 10, and were unable to provide air support for British ground forces in northern Malaya. As the Japanese ground troops swiftly advanced, the RAF evacuated its northern bases and concentrated on the defense of Singapore.
The British attempted to reinforce the air defenses of Singapore by diverting aircraft from the Middle East and Australia—including Hurricane fighters for the first time—but these reinforcements arrived too late and in far too few numbers to make a decisive impact on the Japanese advance. By March 1942, Hong Kong, Singapore, Java, and Rangoon had all fallen to the Japanese, and the RAF had lost almost all its air strength. Elements of the famed American Volunteer Group (“The Flying Tigers”) were diverted to defend Burma and to share their experience in air combat with the RAF. But the British refused to take any advice from the “inexperienced” Americans—particularly the lesson that was most needed: how to fight the lightweight Japanese Zero and win. The heavy Hurricanes attempted to engage the Zeros in dogfights, using the tactics of the Battle of Britain, and were shot out of the sky. The planes that survived were evacuated to India, where the Far East RAF was reorganized with its head-quarters at Bengal, under the command of Air Marshall Sir Richard Peirse.
In April 1942, the Allies divided the Pacific theater into zones of responsibility. The British operational theater included India, Burma, Malaya, and Sumatra; everything farther east, including Australia and New Zealand, was under U.S. command. Japanese gains in Burma essentially closed the overland supply routes to China, so the transport of Allied supplies to China had to be by air. Only the United States had the necessary airlift capabilities to accomplish this feat. Hence, the U.S. Army Tenth Air Force was stationed in India, but this group and the majority of subsequent American reinforcements were concentrated in supporting the Chinese. With this division, however, Peirse was able to concentrate the resources of the RAF against the Japanese in Burma, as part of the larger British effort to protect India.
Peirse built up the resources and facilities of the RAF in India. With the Japanese threatening the Indian subcontinent, and even bombing Bengal and Calcutta, an immense quantity of supplies and materiel had to be sent to bolster British defenses. By November 1943, the RAF had 140 airfields operational in the theater and had also established a radar system with fifty-two stations supported by nine communications centers. New aircraft streamed into India. By year’s end, there were more than fifty squadrons with close to seven hundred operational aircraft and some eighty thousand men (approximately 10 percent of the RAF’s total strength). These numbers included squadrons that were beginning to be equipped with modern versions of Spitfire fighters and Beaufighter attack warplanes. The replacement of obsolete fighters allowed the RAF to engage Japanese Zeros on a more than equal basis.
There remained deficiencies in the RAF’s capabilities. The strategic bombing campaign against Germany made London reluctant to spare any heavy bombers. Consequently, until 1944, the RAF had only one squadron of heavy bombers, and its warplanes were U.S. B-24 Liberators. To augment the RAF’s bombing capacity, Peirse ordered three squadrons of American-built Vengeance light bombers and had five squadrons of Hurricanes converted into fighter bombers. Nonetheless, it was 1944 before the RAF could conduct significant bombing raids against the Japanese.
Another major constraint on the RAP was transport aircraft. As with bombers, the RAF was initially critically short of air transport and had to rely on U.S. aircraft. There were only five transport squadrons—all flying either Hudson or C-47 Dakota aircraft (both U.S.-built)—to service the entire theater throughout 1943 and into 1944. In fact, the average mileage of the RAF transports grew from 5,000 miles per week in 1942 to 37,000 per week within a year.