Winning the Burma Air Battle and Breaking the Ground Siege at Imphal

Art by Romain Hugault

Protracted air campaign in support of ground operations during World War II. At the outbreak of war, Allied air defenses in Burma consisted of a single squadron of Brewster Buffaloes and the Curtiss P-40s of the American Volunteer Group (the famed Flying Tigers). They faced large numbers of Japanese aircraft based in Thailand and Indonesia. The air campaign opened in late December with Japanese attacks on the city of Rangoon that caused almost 30,000 civilian casualties.

In mid-January 1942, Japanese ground forces advanced into Burma supported by the Third Army Air Division. Although outnumbered, the Allied air forces in general fought well, but Japanese attacks on bases took their toll, and by late spring the campaign was over with the Japanese in possession of most of Burma. This cut the Burma Road, the only viable overland communication route to China, forcing supplies for China to be transported by air over the “Hump” of the Himalayas.

The Allies launched several offensive operations in late 1942 and 1943 with only limited success. Of particular interest was the operation of jungle-trained Chindit forces under Brigadier General Orde Wingate, who penetrated deep behind Japanese lines and were supplied entirely by air for extended periods. Operations by the British XV Corps in the Second Arakan Offensive in January 1944 were also supplied by air.

In early 1944, the Japanese Fifteenth Army attacked from western Burma into India but was stopped by British and Indian troops at Imphal and Kohima. Both defensive positions were surrounded for long periods of time, again supplied by the large number of Allied transport aircraft in the area until eventually relieved by forces advancing from India. Chindit operations continued, including the construction and operation of the Broadway air base behind Japanese lines. Broadway overstepped Allied capabilities, however, and Japanese air attack destroyed the aircraft based there.

By July 1944, Allied air strength had increased to 64 RAF and 26 U. S. squadrons, and a major Allied offensive was imminent. The most prevalent Allied aircraft were Hurricanes, but Spitfire, Beaufighter, P-40, and P-47 types contributed significantly, along with a variety of bomber aircraft. Unlike many of the well-known air battles in the Central and Southwest Pacific, Japanese air units were army units flying such aircraft as the Kawasaki Ki 43 and Ki 44.

The Japanese effectiveness had been spent in the Imphal and Kohima battles; the Allied advance, primarily by British, Indian, and Chinese forces, was hard-fought but steady, interrupted only by the monsoon season. It was supported by overwhelming airpower. Rangoon finally fell on 2 May 1945, and the campaign in Burma came to a close. Planned Allied operations in the theater against Malaya and Singapore had not begun when the war ended.

The battles for Kohima and Imphal were emphasizing that the Allies’ strategy was critically dependent upon air power to enable the supply of ground forces by air drops, or by aircraft landing on airstrips close to the front lines. During the battle of the Admin Box in the Arakan, 6.5 million pounds of supplies had been carried in by air to sustain the defenders. Simultaneously, in northern Burma, General Stilwell’s US and Chinese forces received 10 million pounds of supplies by air.

Demand for supplies by air was continuous and increasing from many areas, including the now consolidated Allied positions along the Arakan coast, the West Africans in the Kaladan Valley, the Chindits and other LRPG operations deep in Japanese territory and the US/Chinese forces. To meet these competing demands, General Old’s Troop Carrier Command, four RAF and four US squadrons, supplemented by Commando transport aircraft from the Hump route, were already operating at maximum capacity. On top of this situation came the Imphal crisis, termed in typical understatement by the RAF as the ‘the Flap at Imphal’.

During the second half of April and throughout May, Allied troops gradually pushed the Japanese back from their threatening positions around Kohima and Imphal. The capture of the enemy strongpoint of Aradura Spur, 3 miles south of Kohima, on 5/6 June was symbolic of the change. Around that time IV Corps from Imphal and XXXIII Corps from Kohima began moving out to attempt to join up and secure the Imphal to Kohima road.

The monsoon weather was worsening each day, and Japanese ground forces, now suffering from a severe shortage of supplies, were pulling back bit by bit under Allied pressure. At times neither fact seemed to make any difference to the JAAF as if they still thought that their efforts could stem the tide. On 17 June Spitfires from Nos 81, 607 and 615 Squadrons combined to intercept another large formation of Oscars from the 50th and 204th Sentais. Flying Officer Kevin Gannon and Flight Sergeant Bert Chatfield achieved their third victories, as the three Spitfire squadrons between them claimed six Oscars destroyed.

One of the pilots of those three enemy aircraft shot down was Sergeant Major Tomesaku Igarashi of the 50th Sentai, who was a sixteen-victory ace. In the days and weeks that followed, it was realized that this was the last major fighter sweep of the JAAF until the monsoon had passed. Was the destruction of six Oscars the last straw? Or was it the loss of their redoubtable fighter ace, Igarashi?

Within a few days it was the Allies’ turn to lose one of their finest Spitfire aces, New Zealander Mervin Robin Bruce Ingram, squadron leader of No. 152 Squadron. In August 1940 Bruce Ingram was just nineteen, a clerk in Dunedin, New Zealand, when he joined the RNZAF. After his preliminary flying training on Tiger Moths and Fairey Gordons, he was posted as a sergeant to the UK, where he attended 55 OTU at Heston until June 1941. Postings followed to Nos 66, 611 and 436 Squadrons RAF. Ingram was commissioned in November 1941 and, in April 1942, was posted with No. 436 Squadron RAF to Malta, where he claimed three victories.

After that he claimed more victories in North Africa and was awarded the DFC. Ingram was promoted to squadron leader of No. 152 Squadron RAF, with whom he made more claims in operations over Italy. In November 1943 he led No. 152 Squadron to India and subsequently into operations in the air battles over Imphal. At the end of May 1944, so as to be able to do long-range escort operations with extra fuel tanks fitted to each Spitfire’s belly, No. 152 Squadron had moved from Comilla to Palel, close to Imphal.

On 21 June Squadron Leader Ingram led No. 152 Squadron on an escort operation to the Lake Indawgyi area. On his return to Palel he crash landed, suffering severe facial injuries. While being treated at Imphal’s field hospital, a tetanus infection and malaria caused his condition to become critical. Like so many long-serving fighter pilots, his general state of physical exhaustion did not help. Tragically on 11 July he died – the randomness of fate, and unforeseeable consequences had struck again. By the time of his death Bruce Ingram had accumulated the remarkable score of fourteen victories (including six shared), three probables and five damaged.

On 22 June when the leading troops of the British 2nd and Indian 5th Divisions made contact with each other, from opposite directions on the road between Kohima and Imphal, the siege was over. The Japanese Army had been beaten back, and lost 53,000 men in the failed offensive, compared to the Allies 17,000. Unable to be re-supplied through the mountainous jungle, hungry and losing even more men with malaria and other diseases, it had no choice but to retreat. As in the Battle of the Admin Box, on the ground and in the air the Allies had made a stand as never before against the Japanese.

The siege of Imphal lasted eighty days. During this time only two Dakotas and one Wellington aircraft on the supplies shuttle service were shot down by Japanese fighters. The Japanese strategy of making lightning fast attacks, unburdened by supplies for more than a week or two, had been their undoing when Allied defences did not buckle. The Allies’ decisive advantage had been air power: transport aircraft to re-supply by air every day the besieged garrisons at Kohima and Imphal; Spitfire fighter squadrons to protect the air transport routes, and blunt the bombing and strafing raids by the JAAF; and fighter-bomber operations against Japanese infantry positions.

In the skies above Kohima and Imphal, and over Arakan and Manipur provinces, Allied air forces gained a discernible edge over the JAAF. In some views it was a degree of air superiority. Behind the skills and fortitude of the pilots and air crew there were critical contributing factors such as training, greater numbers of more modern aircraft, improved radar early-warning systems, the building and maintenance of airfields and the bedrock foundation of aircraft groundcrew and other support staff to keep the planes serviceable.

Yet at the sharp end, where everything came to the acid test, in the dogfights and air battles with the JAAF, one man’s contribution stood out as pivotal. At his Air Fighting Training Unit (AFTU) at Amarda Road near Calcutta, Group Captain Frank ‘Chota’ Carey instilled in every pilot attending the lessons he had learned in chalking up twenty-eight victories. That wealth of experience had been gained in countless dogfights over France, in the Battle of Britain and in the stubborn fighting withdrawal in the face of the Japanese onslaught on Rangoon and Burma in 1942.

Carey’s unique leadership and communication skills enabled him to gain the collaboration of other fighter aces as instructors, such as Flight Lieutenant J.H. ‘Ginger’ Lacey and Australian Flying Officer Jack Storey. In the lessons on gunnery and fighter tactics one technique stood out, the rolling attack. At the time the advice in an RAF guidelines paper on tactics described the rolling attack as follows:

The attacking aircraft passes over the target from the beam position approximately 1,500 feet above. As the target disappears under the wing, the attacking aircraft swings the nose back in the opposite direction to that of the target, and goes over into a barrel roll, which is controlled so as to bring the guns to bear as soon as the manoeuvre is completed.

Carey summed it up simply as giving you a good view of your target, and easier to assess the line of flight, together with keeping one’s eyes solely on the gunsight, and flying by the seat of one’s pants. In the constant struggle to counter the more manoeuvrable and nimble Japanese fighters, the rolling attack was a potent tactic.

In July 1944 the Allies’ breaking of the sieges of Kohima and Imphal, together with the operations in the north by the Chindits and Stilwell’s American/Chinese forces, were forcing the Japanese to pull back southwards. Yet in London the Chiefs of Staff, heavily influenced by Washington’s strategic priorities, issued a directive for Burma which focused predominantly on support for China. It spoke of the need to develop and secure air and overland communications with China to maximize supply of fuel and other stores to Chiang’s forces, so as to support American operations and strategy against Japan in the Pacific.

No mention was made of driving south towards Rangoon and reconquering Burma. At that time both British and American Chiefs of Staff gave the impression that they had little or no understanding of the extent and scale of the defeat of the Japanese at Kohima and Imphal. In particular, there was no realization of the significance and consequences arising from the Allied victory in the air over the JAAF.

Despite the onset of the monsoon, the orders for air operations to be maintained remained in force. With an ascendancy gained over the JAAF in northern Burma, RAF fighter squadrons began to increase offensive operations, putting in more bombing and strafing sorties in a fighter-bomber role in support of ground forces. Strafing operations known as Rhubarbs, which in effect were fighter patrols in search of targets of opportunity, were becoming more and more prevalent. Although combat encounters with the JAAF grew fewer, through dive-bombing and low-level ground attack losses of Allied aircraft from enemy anti-aircraft fire, and often small arms, increased.

In July 1944, with the monsoon at its worst, No. 273 Squadron RAF, transferring from China Bay, Ceylon, to take on these kind of operations, arrived at Chittagong. Flight Lieutenant Gerry Smith and Flying Officer ‘Pip’ Piper found that their quarters, little more than bamboo basha shacks, were surrounded by water in every way.

Mosquitoes plagued us and we spent every evening drinking under the comparative security of our net-curtained charpoys. Everything ran with water. The runways were awash, the aircraft seats sodden, and we dreaded to think how much seeped into our parachutes. We flew on patrols and had the odd scramble but what we were waiting for was our first operation.

Rostered onto that first mission by No. 273 Squadron was Canadian Flying Officer Francis ‘Aggie’ Agnes (RCAF), flying as No. 2 to Flying Officer John Vidal.

It was a retaliatory strike against a small village east-south-east of Chittagong. Intelligence reports had filtered in, claiming cruel treatment to a downed pilot. Our guns were loaded with incendiary ammo, and we spent about fifteen minutes working over the bamboo huts setting everything we could on fire. I personally felt very miserable at what we did, but was told, ‘Aggie that’s war!’

After the relatively soft life in a defensive role which they had enjoyed in Ceylon, waiting for Japanese air raids and an invasion of the island, which never came, Flying Officer Piper’s reaction to the much harsher frontline conditions typified the feelings of the rest of the squadron.

We began the routine of one flight of aircraft always being on Immediate Readiness, which is One Minute Call. We had to wear the Mae West life vests, boots, and usual escape kit in a bag around our waists. In those trying monsoon conditions, this attire soon began to have its effect on our bodies. Prickly heat became endemic, erupting in the most awkward and intimate parts, which made life miserable. The heavy flying helmets and oxygen masks brought us out in weeping blisters, which never seemed to heal.

The basis of our daily diet was eggs, bully beef and soya links, and the latter, although very nutritious, tended to be rather tasteless, whichever way they were cooked. Conditions apart, we soon started to get the hang of shooting up camps, boats and concentrations of Japanese troops, if we could find them. Our maps were out of date, so we were not always as accurate as we would have wished.

After a few months at Chittagong, about 45 per cent of the ground crew went down with malaria, but very few aircrew were similarly afflicted. We put this down to the daily intake of the Indian alcohol, which on our higher pay we could purchase, whereas the ground crew, being limited to beer, were not so well equipped. However salvation was on the way, and when everyone was ordered to take a daily dose of two Mepacrin tablets, malaria became virtually a thing of the past. Not so with amoebic dysentery and all its rotten associations.

I can remember nothing to recommend Chittagong. We did visit the Club in town, and if I remember correctly, alcohol was on a ticket system with everyone having a book of tickets, for whiskey, gin and brandy. We tried to work this out in a pool system amongst ourselves, to prevent mind-bending mixtures and consequent hangovers! After a few months we were moved to Cox’s Bazar, which was this side of the border inside India. The runway, which was near the sea, was good, and we enjoyed the breeze off the water. The bashas were better, and the mosquitoes out of season, as we cheerfully got down to setting up our new home.

With clear sunny days free of humidity, our flying started to increase. Our role with our Spitfires was basically Air Defence, and then ground attacks as a secondary role. We still had six aircraft on Instant Readiness, which took its toll with only eighteen pilots. We were working one hour before dawn to dusk every day. It could be said that being on Readiness did not constitute work, but try waiting by your aircraft with all your kit on, hour after hour – nothing could be more frustrating and boring.

On 3 August the Allies’ base at Myitkyina, which was under siege by enemy forces in the northern Irrawaddy valley close to the border with China, was at last relieved. Myitkyina was critically important, since from there the Irrawaddy river and its valley floor stretched south to Mandalay, Magwe and the capital Rangoon.16 The Japanese may have been on the back foot, both on the ground and in the air, but another ruthless enemy, the monsoon, was always ready to take its toll.

Mountbatten’s adoption of a strategy for the air force to fly through the monsoon of 1944, despite advice received, could not have been made with a personal knowledge of the difficulties and risks involved. Certainly it was made before Mountbatten himself had experienced a Burmese monsoon. Those pilots who had experienced some of the monsoon weather of 1942 and 1943 knew differently, and that the worst of the monsoon conditions would inevitably ground aircraft.

On 10 August 1944 Canadian Flight Lieutenant ‘Waddy’ McGarrigle was a pilot of one of sixteen Spitfire VIIIs of No. 615 Squadron RAF who were rostered to fly from Palel to Calcutta. It was a transfer to give them a deserved rest from combat operations. McGarrigle found that the pre-flight briefing told them little, other than providing maps for the route.

I had never before seen that part of the country, and there were not enough maps to go around. We were flying as a squadron with all the aircraft we had. The flight was taking us away from any enemy action, so we did not expect any problems. From the Imphal valley we flew in a westerly direction through the mountains heading for the plains of Bengal. When we got clear of the mountains there was an enormous cumulo nimbus cloud in front of us. I began to think about the map I had seen, and guess where to go for an alternate landing field if needed.

To my surprise the CO started to climb the squadron, staying on course directly towards this gigantic and scary-looking storm. I kept my section in its place in the formation, thinking that the CO was just fooling around, and would change course at the last minute. When it became doubtful that this was going to happen, I had a plan of my own. If the CO was going to climb into a storm like that, he could do it without me!

The moment we hit cloud, I throttled back to a fast idle, and began a rate one turn to starboard. In the worst turbulence I have ever experienced, I had a great deal of trouble just getting turned around.18

McGarrigle flew on blind, hoping that by reversing his direction he would emerge from the cloud and assumed the pilots in his section would follow his lead. Eventually he indeed came to a small clearing in the cloud.

Then a voice shouted in my R/T, ‘There’s land down there!’ It scared the hell out of me. It was my No. 2. I had not imagined that anyone had stayed that close. I went down through the break in the clouds, and came out over country as flat as a table top, and completely flooded. Thinking about the map which I had looked at, I could remember seeing alternate airfields to the north of our proposed route. But I was not sure if there were any mountains in that direction.

After deciding to fly towards Calcutta, I estimated the course and flew at a height of about 200 feet through torrential rain. Over a seemingly endless expanse of flooded fields, dotted here and there were houses and clumps of trees. The fuel gauge and the clock were not working, so this part of the trip seemed to last forever. Every few minutes I would call on the R/T until at last a controller answered, and directed the two of us to Baigachi.

On landing at Baigachi, I discovered that there was no paint left on any of the aircraft’s leading edges. The whole plane looked like it had been sand-blasted! We had been in the air for 2 hours and 15 minutes – seemed much longer. When I questioned my No. 2 on how he had stayed so close to me in the cloud, he said that he had been motivated by fear. He was afraid he would be done for if he lost me.

The rest of No. 615 Squadron fared less well than McGarrigle in the storm clouds. Squadron Leader Dave McCormack and three other pilots, two Australians and one Canadian, were killed, while four more were injured in forced landings – a total of eight Spitfire aircraft lost.

On 2 October at Cox’s Bazar rostered pilots of No. 273 Squadron were on their immediate readiness status. That first victory claim over a Japanese aircraft still eluded them. Flight Lieutenant Charles Laughton was flight commander of A Flight on readiness for any scramble order. He and his No. 2, Flying Officer Bruce, waited in the palm hut beside the beach strip with their Spitfire VIIIs lined up outside.

I was expecting nothing, as up to now nothing had really ever happened on these alerts. Since we arrived there on 26 August from Chittagong, we had just done patrols, ‘rhubarbs’, and army support ops. We were on our own except for No. 2 Squadron IAF with their Hurricanes. A Dakota flew in each week with our rations, including a bottle of beer each.

Without any warning the Scramble order came over the remote field telephone in the corner of the basha – a thing we viewed with some mistrust with no idea who was on the other end. Anyhow, Bruce and I got off as fast as we could, and I made contact with the Controller. ‘Vector 170 and then 180 due south over the sea at some 10,000 feet.’ This was heading towards Japanese held Akyab, where the enemy had a forward airfield. Suddenly we saw it – a Dinah flying straight and level away in front of us.

Laughton had recently returned from a Gunnery School course at Wing Commander Frank Carey’s AFTU at Amarda Road in Calcutta.

Remembering those ‘cine-camera’ tactics from Frank Carey, I told Bruce to take high cover, while I positioned myself for a machine-gun only, high-quarter attack. Although classically executed, I must have missed. I called Bruce down and I went up to take his place as high cover. The Dinah was flying very fast, and Bruce seemed to make no impression either. But it must have seen him, as it began to dive towards the sea.

We were both at Full Boost and continued to attack one at a time. Some smoke from the Dinah became discernible, but we were wary of what appeared to be an upper gunner covering our approach. It was now banking so low over the sea and so tight, that it looked as though a wing tip was scraping the waves. Our fuel was low and we were over the sea far from base. Both excited and frustrated we were not worrying about the gunner firing at us. I turned my guns onto cannon, which had only a second or two of shells loaded, and sat in dead behind the Dinah in a steep low turn. To hell with Amarda Road Gunnery School – ‘Let it rip!’ I thought.

Laughton closed in on the Dinah and gave it a full blast of all his cannon ammunition.

It seemed to explode in front of me as I then flew through the debris, before pulling up in sheer panic of being hit by it all. We circled for a moment over the smoking wreckage in the sea, throttled back to normal, then the more economical revs, contacted control, and asked for a course back to base. The whole squadron was there when we got back, the CO, Squadron Leader Peter Mayes, standing by his jeep, the ‘Spy’ (Intelligence Officer) . . . and everyone. It was hard to believe . . . it was the squadron’s first kill in the India-Burma theatre.

Flight Lieutenant Gerry Smith was acting CO at the time of the scramble order, since Squadron Leader Peter Mayes was rostered off duty, and was said to be catching up on some sleep.

Squadron Leader Mayes was very unhappy with me for not alerting him at the time of the Scramble. But there were so many alerts and Scrambles which turned out to be false alarms. At least I informed him once we learned of the destruction of the Dinah, and he was there when Laughton touched down. There were great celebrations in the squadron that night.

During October the British Fourteenth Army crossed the Chindwin river in strength, preparing for an offensive down the Shwebo Plain. To provide air protection and support, engineers cut an airstrip out of the jungle at Tamu in the Kabaw valley. On 29 October it had enabled No. 152 Squadron’s Spitfire VIIIs to fly into Tamu, the first RAF squadron to return to a base in Burma since the disastrous retreat of early 1942. By early November 1944 Allied ground forces were advancing farther south into Burma, which meant that Spitfire squadrons based in India were out of range. In the second half of December the squadrons of No. 221 Group RAF were assigned to support Fourteenth Army in its drive southwards into central Burma, and to move forward to temporary airstrips, as they became available behind the front lines.

When the JAAF was able to mount an attack in force they could still pose a formidable threat. In the early morning of 11 December, more than sixteen Oscars were detected coming north from Akyab. Twelve Spitfires of No. 273 Squadron were scrambled, and with a height advantage dived onto the enemy aircraft, which turned east at 9,000 feet. It soon became a free-for-all, aircraft mixing it all over the sky. The Japanese flyers gradually eased away to the south east, and with excellent manoeuvrability avoided combat. Some strikes were made, but no claims. However Warrant Officer ‘Junior’ Bullion (RCAF) was lost, his aircraft seen burning on the ground about 30 miles east of Akyab. Another aircraft was lost, when Flight Sergeant Baukroger ran out of fuel, and made a forced landing on the beach.

Warrant Officer Reg Ashmead joined 273 Squadron in early December, but as the ‘new boy’ pilot on 11 December 1944 was left out of the Scramble.

The loss of two pilots meant it was a bit glum in the Mess that night. On 20 December we provided the escort for Lord Mountbatten, who was on an inspection tour of the area. On the last day of the year we moved south to a strip called Maughnama, which was a dirt strip half way between Cox’s Bazaar and Akyab Island. Conditions were pretty primitive. We just had our aircraft, our tents and our camp beds. The cooking was done in the open, and we bought eggs and chickens from the locals.

That move south by No. 273 Squadron to Maughnama, halfway to Akyab Island, was for a reason. Another push down the Mayu peninsula was under way, to complement Fourteenth Army’s offensive towards Mandalay, and so as to mount another attempt to capture Akyab Island. Air support, air supply by Dakotas, and overall air superiority protection continued to be critical dependencies.

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