Groundcrews of No. 159 Squadron RAF stand on the wings of Consolidated Liberator B Mark VIs to watch other aircraft of the Squadron return to Digri, India, from a long-distance bombing sortie to the Hnonngpladuk rail junction, 40 miles west of Bangkok, Thailand; a distance of 2,100 miles from their base. The Squadron’s Commanding Officer, Wing Commander J Blackburn, was responsible for raising the weight of ordnance carried by the Liberator to enable effective long-range sorties to be undertaken.
In the first months of 1943, the Japanese conducted limited air strikes, involving from ten to twenty aircraft, against British air bases and ground positions in India. Although these raids formed the main thrust of the continuing Japanese air offensive, they did little significant damage. By June, when the monsoon season effectively ended most aerial missions, the RAF had lost fourteen fighters, with twelve damaged, and the Japanese had lost twenty-three aircraft, with another twenty probably destroyed.
Throughout 1943 and into 1944, the role of the RAP was essentially one of support for the ground offensives aimed at recapturing Burma. During the first Arakan campaign, the RAF provided reconnaissance and interdiction for the ground troops, culminating in the RAF’s first major bombing campaign in the Far East, in May 1943. Major air strikes were carried out by the RAF with the support of U.S. Army Air Forces (USAAF) B-17 Flying Fortresses in an effort to cut the main Japanese supply routes through central Burma. Although the offensive failed, it demonstrated the potential for joint air and ground assaults and led to the creation of Army Air Support Control (AASC) teams, which were assigned to British ground units to coordinate close air support. The offensive also demonstrated the hard-hitting power of the Beaufighter in close air support, with its four 20-mm cannon and six .303-caliber machine guns.
The RAF also provided the main support for the “Chindit” guerrilla campaigns behind Japanese lines. Each Chindit unit had an RAF section to coordinate air support and supply. During the first Chindit campaign, in February 1943, the RAF dropped some three hundred tons of supplies and flew eight air strikes and even evacuated wounded on several occasions from improvised landing strips. The relative success of this expedition led to a second, in March 1944. During this second Chindit operation the guerrillas had their own air force of seconded USAAF planes supported by RAF fighters (the RAF again supplied the ground sections). RAF resupply and air support proved even more critical during the second expedition.
Throughout 1943 and 1944, the main strategic priority for the RAF was to establish clear air superiority in the theater. This became particularly important because the Japanese launched major offensives which isolated the British IV Corps at Imphal and at a British garrison at Kohima. These two key positions had to be resupplied by air for a period of months. In addition, for the first time in history, an entire division was airlifted from one front, in Arakan, several hundred miles away to another front, Imphal. The RAF undertook a vigorous campaign against Japanese air bases in order to protect the air supply routes. Still handicapped by a lack of heavy bombers, the RAF was able to use its Beaufighters and newly arrived Mosquitos and U.S.-built P-47 Thunderbolts to conduct extremely effective air strikes against Japanese positions.
The increased number and quality of RAF and U.S. aircraft, and the Japanese withdrawal of aircraft to combat the American offensives elsewhere in the Pacific, gave the RAF clear air superiority over Burma and the Malay Peninsula by the fall of 1944. In addition, increasing numbers of USAAF aircraft were being used to support British operations after both the RAF and the USAAF were integrated into a single command, the Air Command South-East Asia (ACSEA). ACSEA was initially commanded by Peirse and later by USAAF General George E. Stratemeyer. ACSEA increased the capabilities of the RAF by bringing in U.S. heavy bombers (including the futuristic B-29s) and transport and supply craft to support RAF operations. By 1945, the Americans provided almost 70 percent of the aircraft needed to supply the advancing British forces, although the main focus of the USAAF in Southeast Asia remained China.
By 1945, ACSEA had over fifteen hundred aircraft, compared with only three hundred Japanese. The Allies had enjoyed air superiority from 1943 on. The British were able to relieve both Imphal and Kohima and to launch a major offensive in February 1945. The RAF conducted aerial mine-laying and bombing attacks on the sealanes to cut off Japanese resupply efforts. By May 1945 both Rangoon and Mandalay had been recaptured, although Japanese air units had begun to conduct kamikaze “suicide” attacks against Allied forces.
By June, the RAF had its own bombing capabilities, so USAAF bombers were transferred to aid in the bombing of Japan. As the RAF prepared to transfer two squadrons of bombers to Okinawa to support strategic U.S. bombing operations in August, the dropping of the atomic bombs caused the Japanese to accept the Allied surrender terms on August 15, 1945.
Despite the war’s end, the RAF continued to carry out a number of operations. Because of isolation and a disbelief in the surrender by some Japanese units, sporadic fighting continued, and the RAF carried out combat operations for another week after the official end of the war. The RAF dropped some 18 million leaflets over Southeast Asia announcing the Japanese surrender; it also dropped supplies to the 100,000 Allied prisoners held by the Japanese, and it evacuated some three thousand POWs.
Although it never came near to matching the strength of the USAAF, the RAF carried out essential missions ranging from air supply and transport to air defense and air support for ground operations. In doing so, it allowed the Americans to concentrate resources elsewhere, and the British to recover from early Japanese successes. Despite its austere beginnings, by the later stages of the war the RAF had become an integral element in the Allied campaigns in the Pacific.
FURTHER READINGS Allen, Louis. Burma: The Longest War (1984). Dean, Maurice. The RAF and Two World Wars (1979). Innes, David J. Beaufighters over Burma (1985). Probert, Henry. The Forgotten Air Force (1995).