The long southward trek by General Messervy’s IV Corps met its first serious obstacle at Gangaw in the Kabaw Valley, which was held by well-entrenched Japanese infantry. Messervy’s problem was that he could not attack in full strength without giving away the presence of his corps, and being only able to use light spearhead forces he called on EAC to achieve the rapid removal of the obstruction. EAC had developed two plans to meet situations such as this, code-named ‘Earthquake Major’ and ‘Earthquake Minor’. For the former, Liberator heavy bombers would bomb the target followed up by fighter-bombers strafing as ground forces advanced. Fighters would then make low-level dummy attacks to keep the enemy’s heads down as Allied infantry closed in. Earthquake Minor followed the same principle with the exception that Mitchell medium bombers would be used for the initial assault. In the event, ‘Earthquake Minor’ was ordered for Gangaw and carried out by four Mitchell squadrons of the USAAF plus Thunderbolts and Hurricanes of the RAF, fighter cover being provided by RAF Spitfires. RAF air control officers, experienced from operations with the Chindits and located with forward infantry companies, then called down strikes by Hurricanes onto any positions still intact after Earthquake. Ninety minutes after the air assault ceased five of the six main enemy positions were in IV Corps hands for the loss of two infantry wounded. The subsequent ease with which the Japanese were cleared from the area was attributed to a significant lowering of morale caused by the bombing.
Transport pilots watching the advance of IV Corps from the air said that a line of red dust thrown up by Corps vehicles, including everything from Sherman tanks to bullock carts, could be seen for miles as the column passed through Gangaw. Fortunately JAAF air reconnaissance was negligible and any aircraft that might have made the attempt was kept at a respectable distance by fighter cover. As IV Corps advanced, transport aircraft operating from the newly secured airstrips at Akyab and elsewhere in the Arakan parachuted supplies into designated Corps drop zones in dry river beds or landed at freshly bulldozed landing strips.
As the leading elements of IV Corps approached the Irrawaddy, 221 Group was called upon to instigate a game of subterfuge to confuse the enemy. Operation Cloak was designed to simulate flare-ups at numerous points along the river and draw enemy forces away from the village of Pagan, the location of the actual crossing. In similar fashion to operations carried out during the run-up to the Normandy landings, dummy parachutists were dropped as well as devices known as ‘canned battle’ which, on hitting the ground, precisely imitated the sound of rifle-fire punctuated by the explosion of hand grenades. Similarly ‘Aquakit’, when dropped onto water, sent up Very lights. These operations were carried out for several days from 6 February onwards and had the desired effect, 7th Division making their way over the river to establish a bridgehead through which IV Corps could pass. Air support during the river crossing included the use of both explosive and liquid-fire napalm bombs, which had now arrived in theatre. Napalm has since acquired a thoroughly unpleasant reputation and its effects on those unfortunate enough to be so attacked are truly horrific. Nevertheless, rightly or wrongly, its use was sanctioned against Japanese troops in part as a response to their barbarous treatment of Allied prisoners of war.
With a bridgehead secured, between 18 and 21 February the lead units of IV Corps, 17th Division plus 255 Tank Brigade, were brought across the Irrawaddy. On the 21st, with rear echelons still making the crossing, the Division struck out eastwards for Meiktila.
For 5th Hikoshidan the situation from the end of the 1944 monsoon onwards became increasingly critical, with too few aircraft to cover the exceptionally large combat area. Its main priority was fixed at support for the Burma Area Army as it withdrew from Imphal to positions around Mandalay, but should the seaborne attack so feared and expected materialize operations against amphibious assaults would take precedence.
Cover for the ground forces retreat was principally the responsibility of 4th Hikodan, comprising the 50th and 8th Hikosentai (fighters and light bombers respectively). Reconnaissance patrols over the Bay of Bengal as far as Chittagong were to be maintained to give ample warning of the anticipated seaborne attack.
Demonstrating the extreme shortage of aircraft available to Japanese forces in general at this time, a proposal was put forward that 5th Hikoshidan should be withdrawn to the Philippines in its entirety to assist with the campaign to drive back MacArthur’s invasion, which had begun on 20 October. This would of course leave Burma Area Army without air cover at all and following representations to the High Command it was agreed that a skeleton force of two fighter sentai, a single light bomber sentai, and one air reconnaissance company should remain. Air strength available to the Japanese in Burma now fell well below minimum effective operational levels for the tasks at hand and comprised the following:
50th Hikosentai re-equipping with Ki-84 Frank fighters–Bangkok.
64th Hikosentai twenty Type 3 Ki-43 Oscar fighters–Central Burma.
8th Hikosentai twenty-five Ki-48 Lily light bombers–Indo China.
81st Hikosentai thirteen Type 2 & 3 Ki-46 Dinah reconnaissance aircraft—Dispersed
During the latter part of October fighter units were concentrated on the airfields around Rangoon, while 8th Hikosentai carried out a series of small-scale night raids, all that it was now capable of, across Burma and into China:
Attack by four light bombers on Myitkyina.
Three light bombers attack Chakaria and Cox’s Bazaar.
Three light bombers raid Feni & surrounding airstrips.
Raid on Kunming.
Raid on Myitkyina.
Raid on Yunnan.
Raid on Kunming.
All of the November raids were carried out by three or four light bombers.
On 7 December, 8th Hikosentai attempted a raid on the B29 Superfortresses of 20th Bomber Command at Midonapur, near Calcutta. Blackout in the area had been discontinued, perhaps a little prematurely, even if it was close to a year since the JAAF had paid Calcutta any attention, but still the raid met with little success. Another attempt was made on 25 December but was intercepted by the fighter defence.
While 8th Hikosentai did what it could the fighters were not idle, carrying out a number of strafing raids on airfields and ground support targets. On 14 December a raid carried out by eleven Oscars of the 64th Hikosentai failed to find its target, but on their way back to base the raiders happened across a number of transport aircraft with covering fighters, claiming six transports and two Thunderbolts for the loss of two Oscars in the ensuing engagement.
As the Burma Area Army concentrated around Mandalay a decision was taken to move all railway rolling stock to the south of the city for future operations. The movement was consistently hampered by Allied aircraft bombing the Minbu bridge, and to effect the transfer the entire strength of 64th Hikosentai was sent to patrol the area of the bridge towards the end of December, as a result of which the trains were successfully moved south between the 29th and 31st of the month.
50th Hikosentai completed re-equipping during December, its final complement fourteen Ki-84 Frank fighters and four Ki-43 Oscars. The unit immediately carried out a ground support attack on an Allied mechanized column threatening to cut off the Japanese 15th Division in the Shwebo area, claiming 150 trucks destroyed, the 20 mm cannon of the Frank proving particularly effective in this role.
As the fighting along the Irrawaddy intensified the entire 50th Hikosentai and a portion of 8th Hikosentai were transferred to Indo China to counter air strikes from a US Navy carrier task force, further crippling Japanese air cover for the impending battles around Meiktila.
Despite their straitened circumstances ad hoc resistance by Japanese units continued and a deadline was growing in importance to General Slim – the six to eight weeks remaining before the onset of the monsoon. Should the weather break before the capture of Rangoon, Fourteenth Army might still be forced into a withdrawal by the weather, allowing the Japanese time to re-equip and reorganize, with all the protracted campaigning and losses in men and materiel that would entail.
The drawing up of plans for a combined air/land/sea reconquest of Burma went back almost as far as 1942, but combined operations had always been thwarted by lack of equipment, particularly amphibious craft and naval escorts. However, with the necessary resources now becoming available one such plan, code-named ‘Dracula’, had been approved by the Joint Chiefs of Staff in September 1944. With its objectives modified to the capture of Rangoon it was now proposed to put Dracula into operation combined with a landward thrust from Fourteenth Army.
By this time Akyab was fully operational as a base for transport aircraft, Nos 62, 194, 267 and 436 Squadrons RAF being based there, Nos 194 and 436 commencing operations on 20 March, and Nos 62 and 267 on 1 April. Also during the course of April, Ramree Island opened as a transport base, detachments from Nos 31, 62 and 436 Squadrons operating there from the 16th of the month. CCTF also benefited from the arrival of two additional squadrons, Nos 96 and 215 RAF.
With his manpower limited Slim organized the dash for Rangoon by advancing Fourteenth Army in two armoured columns: XXXIII Corps south-westwards along the Irrawaddy Valley; and IV Corps southwards down the Mandalay–Rangoon railway. One notable date for the RAF in the advance of XXXIII Corps was 18 April when Magwe, the scene of the RAF’s greatest disaster in Burma, was retaken.
Being farther to the south and with the more direct route the main thrust for Rangoon would be that of IV Corps, and to facilitate the advance two airborne operations, ‘Gumption’ and ‘Freeborn’, were put into place. These involved the use of glider-borne engineer battalions of the US Army, forward landed to repair transport airstrips and facilitate the rapid receipt and dispersal of the supplies necessary to keep IV Corps on the move. By the middle of April materiel for Gumption – fifty-five gliders and 86,000 gallons of aviation fuel – had been stockpiled at Meiktila. Bypassing Pyinmana, forward elements of IV Corps made rapid progress to the airfield at Lewe, which was captured on 20 April and prepared by British and American engineers sufficiently for gliders from the pool at Meiktila to fly in the following day. The gliders carried with them quantities of essential equipment including bulldozers, jeeps, tractors, food and water. Skirmishing continued all day as the engineers went about their essential tasks, and on the 22nd the JAAF managed one of its fighter raids, eight Oscars strafing the gliders, five of which were destroyed. Ten minutes after the Oscars departed the first supply-dropping transports arrived overhead.
As the engineers completed their work at Lewe leading elements of 5th Indian Division pushed forward into Toungoo, capturing the town against light opposition. While 5th Division continued their advance, six of the Meiktila gliders were flown in to Tennant airfield at Toungoo, disgorging US engineers – for which the RAF had no equivalent organization – and loads similar to those at Lewe. Craters were filled, essential repairs carried out and a 6,000-foot-long airstrip made serviceable. On 24 April Tennant witnessed the landing of fifty-six heavily laden CCTF transports.
With IV Corps closing in on Rangoon and Operation Dracula scheduled to commence within a few days, on 29 April Operation Freeborn was launched. With the first storms of the monsoon beginning to blow, Freeborn entailed the airlifting of a battalion group of 9 Brigade to Pyuntaza airfield north of Pegu, itself some 40 miles north of Rangoon, to cut off any Japanese escape route eastwards from the capital. Twenty-eight transports duly ferried in infantry, ammunition, small arms, jeeps, trailers and a fully equipped mobile radio station. Immediately upon landing the troops set off for Pegu, clearing half the town of the enemy that same day, discovering as they did so some 400 British and American prisoners of war in the process of being marched by their captors from Rangoon jail, intending to take them across the Sittang River and into Siam.
The American glider-borne engineers had one more service to perform for IV Corps, flying in to Zayatkwin airfield on 8 May to prepare the airstrip there. Elsewhere, however, momentous events had taken place.
Operation Dracula, as it now stood, entailed a force of paratroops landing to neutralize seaward-facing heavy guns followed by a seaborne invasion, units of XV Corps entering the city from the Rangoon River estuary. Both operations were to be covered by extensive air support from 224 Group, with 221 Group maintaining pressure on any outlying Japanese formations. D-Day was fixed for 2 May, Air Commodore the Earl of Bandon was appointed to command the substantial tactical air operations, while Brigadier General Evans controlled the air transports. Strategic Air Force prepared the way by saturation bombing of supply dumps containing reserves sufficient for an estimated six months, these attacks including the Superfortresses of 20 Bomber Command.
Extensive photographic reconnaissance had located some 1,700 widely dispersed storage units of which approximately half were destroyed. Roads, railway yards, rolling stock, radar and gun emplacements, bridges, airfields and enemy troops all received the undivided attention of the air forces. RAF Liberators mined the river, forcing those Japanese attempting to escape to make their way either overland towards Pegu and the waiting IV Corps, or eastwards through swamps and across the Bay of Martaban.
Allied fighters and fighter bombers enjoyed something of a field day from the middle of April to early May, the rapid advance of Fourteenth Army having flushed from cover an unusual number of enemy MT units. On 19 April a Hurricane squadron attacked a heavily loaded and camouflaged convoy forty strong at a standstill just south of Pyinmana, leaving seventeen vehicles in flames and many more damaged. The same squadron located a larger column approaching the bridge over the Sittang at Mokpalin on the 30th, leaving forty-three lorries in flames. The approaches west of the Sittang Bridge in fact became a happy hunting ground for the fighters as the bridge was one of the main escape routes for the thousands of Japanese now attempting to make their way to Siam. The Mustangs of Second Air Commando Group and the Beaufighters of 224 Group made significant strikes in the area during the latter part of April.
On 1 May the initial phase of Dracula got under way when two pathfinder aircraft and thirty-eight transports of the 317th and 319th Troop Carrier Squadrons USAAF lifted off from Akyab carrying Gurkha paratroops, which they successfully dropped without opposition over their intended landing ground at Elephant Point, south of Rangoon. The following day Dakotas of Nos 194 and 267 Squadrons RAF dropped rations and ammunition at Elephant Point.
That same day, 2 May, another airborne operation took place. Wing Commander Saunders, Officer Commanding 110 Squadron RAF, took his Mosquito on a low-level reconnaissance over Rangoon. Detecting a surprising absence of Japanese he flew over Rangoon jail and saw two notices painted in large letters on the roofs of the prison blocks; the first read: JAPS GONE BRITISH HERE, the second, rather more to the point, stating simply: EXTRACT DIGIT.
Landing at Mingaladon, Saunders hitch-hiked into Rangoon and released a number of prisoners of war. Then, having achieved the single-handed ‘liberation’ of Rangoon, he borrowed a native boat and rowed downriver to inform the commander of the invasion force that the Japanese had gone, which came as something of a surprise to the Army as they were convinced that the enemy had substantial forces in the city and would defend it to the death.