The Air War: Burma 1943-5

Art by Romain Hugault

During the 1941–2 campaign in Burma the Japanese Army and Navy Air Forces had swept from the skies the Royal Air Force’s older fighters and bombers, which simply could not compete with the newer types of Japanese aircraft. The main Japanese fighter, the Ki-43, could even outperform the Hurricanes that made up the RAF’s main fighter force before November 1943. In that month the first Spitfire fighters arrived in Burma and the situation changed. Over the next three months they destroyed a hundred Japanese planes while losing only five pilots.

At the end of 1943 the Japanese still had 370 planes in Burma but their numbers were beginning to decline. Ki-43s were still the main type in service with the Japanese, and they were to soldier on alongside newer types until 1945. Most new types of Japanese fighter were increasingly sent to the Pacific as Burma had a much lower priority. The other dominant Japanese fighter in 1941–2 was the Zero, which was flown mainly by the Navy Air Force. Few of these were seen over Burma, but they were being outclassed in other theatres anyway. Their weaknesses were revealed by the US pilots of the Flying Tigers Squadron over Burma in 1942. Many of these pilots passed on the knowledge they had picked up in action, and the Zero saw little service. In 1943 a few were seen over Burma escorting bombers and some took part in several strafing missions in May 1944.

Japanese pilots were admired by their public as the ‘Samurai of the Sky’ and most followed the traditional Bushido Code. This old-fashioned attitude worked against the Japanese air crews in several ways. One result of it was the pilots’ dislike of using cloud cover during attacks as it was regarded as dishonourable. Many pilots did not check that their machines were serviceable before taking off, regarding such checks as beneath them, and the province of the ground crews. However, the often-quoted belief that Japanese pilots refused to wear parachutes was a myth. Parachutes were issued and the official line was that they should be worn, although it was not strictly imposed. The pilots’ rationale for not wearing them was more a matter of practicality than part of some suicidal Samurai code. Some pilots found the parachutes constricting and said that without them they felt part of their aircraft. Others cited the fact that even if they were to parachute from their stricken planes, there was little if any chance of rescue. There was no such thing as air sea rescue in the Japanese air forces and a pilot who landed in the sea was on his own.

By 1944 the Japanese 4th Air Brigade in Burma was made up of four air regiments: the 50th with Ki-43 fighters, the 10th with Ki-45 ground attack planes, the 8th with Ki-48 medium bombers and the 14th with Ki-21 medium bombers. The 7th Air Brigade also comprised four air regiments: the 81st with Ki-46 reconnaissance planes, the 31st and 21st with Ki-43 fighters and the 64th with Ki-44 fighters. There were also two regiments with Ki-21 medium bombers. In October 1944 the Japanese were still receiving limited air reinforcements but their strength was reducing by 10 per cent every month. By November 1944 the Japanese had only 125 planes, their number further reduced by April 1945. As the last phase of the fighting in Burma began, there were only fifty Japanese aircraft still operating there.

On the Allied side the situation in 1942 was dire, with few RAF airfields in usable condition. The first priority was to repair damaged air bases in India and to build new ones, with 150 being constructed by the end of the year. During the 1942–3 Arakan campaign the RAF was still using outdated planes, with eight squadrons of Hurricane fighters and two of Blenheim light bombers. Blenheim bombers were described as ‘museum pieces’ and had been obsolete since 1940. Regardless of this, they had to struggle on until newer aircraft could be delivered to Burma. Until the arrival of the Spitfires the RAF had to make do with Hurricanes and Kittyhawk III fighters, with a few Spitfires that had to be used for reconnaissance only. Spitfire Mk V fighters arrived in Burma in the autumn of 1943 and were followed in the new year by Mk VIIIs.

In November 1943 there was only a single RAF transport squadron available to supply the whole of the 14th Army. In addition, there were two USAAF troop carrier squadrons that were available to support the Chinese Army in India, known as X-Force. Transport planes were the most important air element in the Burma campaign and the shortage of them was a constant problem. Louis Mountbatten tried to beg, borrow or steal C-47 Dakotas from anywhere that he could. Crucially, he managed to get on loan seventy-nine C-47s from the Mediterranean theatre, plus another fifty-nine diverted from their duties transporting men and supplies over the Hump. The transports were available through the US Air Transport Command, which received a windfall when seventy C-47s were found lying idle on airfields in Trans-Jordan. These planes were snapped up before they could be claimed by the planners organising Operation Overlord. Mountbatten asked in May 1944 to be allowed to retain the transports from the Mediterranean, or twenty planes along with the fifty-nine taken from the Hump airlift.

At the beginning of 1944 the RAF and Indian Air Force had four squadrons (the 1st, 28th, 34th and 42nd) of Hurricanes at Imphal and Palel, plus two squadrons of Spitfires (the 81st and 136th) and one of Beaufighters (the 176th) at Kangala and Sapam. During 1944 the RAF received welcome support from the USAF No. 1 Commando Group, which was made up of a hundred light aircraft, thirty Mustang P-51 fighters, twenty Mitchell B-25 medium bombers and thirty transports including twenty C-47 Dakotas. There were also six Sikorsky helicopters – a new type of aircraft that was usually used to evacuate casualties. In addition, 150 gliders were delivered to the commando group in preparation for the large-scale landing of troops behind enemy lines. The commando group was formed to support General Stilwell’s Chinese expeditionary forces fighting in northern Burma from 1943 to 1945. By December 1944 the main Allied air support was provided by the thirty-seven squadrons of 221 Group RAF. There were five squadrons of B-24 medium bombers, two squadrons of Thunderbolt fighters and two squadrons of Mustang fighters operating from Arakan. There were also fourteen squadrons of ground support planes, including two squadrons of Beaufighters, two of Mosquitos and two of Thunderbolts. Operating from Khumhirgram and Wangjing were four squadrons of Thunderbolts and four squadrons of medium bombers.

As the fighting in Burma went on, the Allied pilots began to gain enough experience to take on their ‘superior’ Japanese counterparts. By August 1943 pilots had also learned the skills that were necessary to fly over the jungle and to fly in the severe weather conditions of the monsoon season. In addition, they began to receive material assistance due to the Allies’ superior technology. They had the advantage of an efficient meteorological service which could provide them with accurate weather forecasts up to 1,000 miles away. By 1945 Allied aircraft losses resulted mainly from accidents and crashes, not enemy aircraft. Many planes crashed due to the adverse weather conditions encountered in the Burma theatre. For example, one Beaufighter squadron which had a particularly high attrition rate lost seventy-five air crew over an eighteen-month period.