Diplomatic Impunity

In April 1942 a crew captained by Major Asyanov accomplished a non-stop flight to Great Britain in a Pe-8 bomber, carrying embassy officials and diplomatic mail. This flight presaged another, to the USA and back via England, on 19th May 1942. On board for this trip were the Soviet Minister of Foreign Affairs, Vyacheslav Molotov, and his staff. In spite of great difficulties the flight was successful, and the aircraft’s commanding officer and navigators Major Romanov and Major Shtepenko were made Heroes of the Soviet Union.

Petlyakov Pe-8

The Petlyakov Pe-8 was the Soviet Union’s only modern four-engine bomber of World War II, the original design concept being outlined by A. N. Tupolev to meet a mid-1934 requirement for an aircraft of this class. A cantilever mid-wing monoplane of all-metal construction, except for fabric-covered control surfaces, the ANT-42 as it was then known had retractable tailwheel landing gear with only the main units retracting. Planned powerplant was four wing¬-mounted engines with a central supercharger installation in the fuselage, but when first flown on 27 December 1936 the ATsN supercharger installation was not available and the ANT-42 was powered by four 820-kW (1,100-hp) Mikulin M-100 Vee engines. Although the aircraft was damaged subsequently in a heavy landing, official testing was completed during 1937, following which the ATsN supercharger, driven by a single M-100 engine, became available. The second prototype ANT-42 was flown on 26 July 1938, this having many improvements including an ATsN-2 supercharger driven by an M-100A engine. There was accommodation for a of 11 and the aircraft had full armament comprising electrically-actuated dorsal and tail turrets, each with a 7.62-mm (0.3-in) ShKAS machine-gun; a nose turret with a single (later twin) ShKAS machine-gun, plus a position in the rear of each inboard engine nacelle, accessible to the gunner through a wing crawl-way, each provided with a single 12.7-mm (0.5-in) machine-gun. Standard bomb-load was six 100-kg (220-Ib) or four 250-kg (551-Ib) bombs, but over suitable short ranges a maximum overload of 4000 kg (8,818 lb) of bombs could be carried.

The manufacture of five pre-production aircraft was authorised in April 1937, but there was a subsequent attempt to end the programme. However, production was finally approved in 1939 under the designation TB-7 and these five pre-¬series aircraft differed from the ANT-42 by having the ATsN central supercharger installation deleted and the main engines replaced by supercharged AM-35s. At the same time several airframe improvements were introduced and deliveries of these pre-production aircraft began in May 1940. Performance with the AM-35 powerplant was disappointing, leading to the evaluation of several different engines, but in October 1940 the 1044-kW (1,400-hp) ACh-40 diesel was selected as standard powerplant. This proved unreliable, bringing continued use of the 1007-kW (1,350-hp) AM-35A. until those in service were re-engined with the 1119-kW (1,500-hp) ACh-30B diesel. On the night of 7/8 August 194118 of these aircraft made an attack on Berlin, but with one crashing on take-off from engine failure and eight others making forced landings for the same reason, it was finally decided to discontinue the use of diesel engines. By that time the designation TB-7 had been dropped in favour of Pe-8, and when production ended in October 1941 a total of 79 had been built; by the end of 1942 about 48 of this total had been re-engined with the ASh-82FN. One aircraft with AM-35A engines made a remarkable staged flight from Moscow to Washington and back during the period 19 May to 13 June 1942.

Surviving aircraft were used extensively during 1942-43 for close-support bombing and, from February 1943, were used to deploy the FAB-5000NG 5000-kg (11,023-Ib) bomb for point attacks on special targets.

Post-war about 30 Pe-8s survived and were used for a variety of purposes, including employment as engine testbeds, and in 1952 two of them played a key role in establishing an Arctic station before returning the expedition to Moscow in a non-stop flight of 5000 km (3,107 miles).




Royal Netherlands East Indies Air Force

In 1933 the Oost-Indisch Leger was renamed Koninklijk Nederlandsch Indsch Leger (KNIL), or the Royal Netherlands Indies Army. During that time, the KNIL numbered around 35,000 men, of which 5,000 were deployed from the Netherlands. In addition, there was a militia (landsturm) that fielded a force of 8,000 men. The KNIL operated training facilities at Meester Cornelis and Magelang on the island of Java for all branches, as well as its small armor force. The air forces of the colony operated second-rate aircraft from counties such as the United States and Great Britain. The navy remained under the control of the Royal Netherlands Navy, and consisted of three cruisers, seven destroyers, a number of smaller ships, and fifteen submarines.

With the German invasion and occupation of the Netherlands in 1940, the colony became one of the last areas of Dutch control. But the East Indies soon found itself facing an outside foe in Japan. The Netherlands declared war on Japan on December 8, 1941, but faced invasion in January 1942. The Japanese conquest of Indonesia lasted roughly three months. The KNIL found itself overwhelmed by the Japanese military forces, and the fighting renewed regional guerrilla activity in the field. The Dutch prisoners were sent to labor and prison camps, and native KNIL troops were given the opportunity to join the Japanese local forces, known as PETA (Pembela Tanah Air).

Air War

Site of early Japanese successes during World War II. In early 1942, the Japanese moved toward the Dutch East Indies in force. Dutch airpower on Java consisted of only a few obsolete Fokker fighters and U. S.-built Martin B-10 bombers. These were reinforced by several British Hawker Hurricanes flown in from HMS Indomitable and some U. S. Curtiss P-40s, as well as various survivors of the debacle in Malaya, such as RAF Lockheed Hudsons and Bristol Blenheims and Fleet Air Arm Vickers Vildebeest torpedo-bombers.

This polyglot Allied force (ABDA, for American, British, Dutch, Australian) was heavily outnumbered in the air by the Japanese 23d Naval Air Flotilla. The Japanese seized one lightly defended island after another: Tarakan off Borneo on 11 January, Celebes on 24 January, Amboina (Ambon) on 31 January, Bali on 19 February. Sumatra, with its important oil fields, was invaded on 14 February. In one of the few parachute drops of the Pacific War, Japanese airborne troops seized airfields on Sumatra.

Four Japanese carriers passed through the East Indies on their way to the Indian Ocean. Aircraft from this fleet attacked Port Darwin in Australia on 15 February, causing heavy damage.

The old U. S. carrier Langley, converted to an aircraft transport, sailed from Australia with a load 32 P-40E fighters and a freighter with 27 more crated P-40s. Japanese aircraft found these ships just south of Java, however, and sank Langley. The crated P-40s could not be unloaded after they reached Java and had to be thrown into the sea.

As a result, the Japanese invasion fleet approached Java virtually unhindered by Allied air threat. ABDA’s surface naval force under Dutch Admiral Karel Doormann attempted to interfere but was defeated in the Battle of Java Sea. Japanese forces landed on Java on 1 March, and resistance ended on 9 March with almost 100,000 Allied troops taken captive. Throughout the campaign, the Japanese proved adept at quickly and effectively preparing newly seized advanced bases for air operations.


The primary trainers for the pre-war KNIL-ML (Royal Netherlands East Indies Air Force) were the De Havilland Tiger Moth, Ryan PT Series and Buckner Jungmeister. A number of older Fokker models were also used, although I’m not exactly of which models without spending an hour to look them up.


Beech AT-11 Kansan

Brewster B-339D Buffalo

Bücker Bü-131B Jungmann

Commonwealth Wackett

Curtiss P-6 Hawk I

Curtiss 75A-7 Hawk (P-36)

Curtiss P-40E Kittyhawk

Curtiss P-40F-5 Kittyhawk

Curtiss P-40N Warhawk

Curtiss-Wright CW-21B Demon

Curtiss-Wright CW-22 Falcon

De Havilland DH-9

Douglas C-47 Dakota

Douglas C-54 Skymaster

Fairchild 24R

Farman HF-20 / HF-22

Fokker C.Ve

Fokker C.Vd

Fokker C.X

Fokker D.VII

Fokker D.XVII

Fokker D.XXI (prototype)

Fokker F.VIIb/3M

Hawker Hurricane IIb

Koolhoven FK-51

Lockheed 12

Lockheed Lodestar

Martin 139WH-1/2

Messerschmitt Me-108B

Miles 2H Hawk

Mitsubishi Ki.57 “Topsy”

Noorduijn Norseman

North American AT-16 Harvard

North American B-25B/C Mitchell

North American B-25H/J Mitchell

North American P-51D/K Mustang

Piper L-4J Grasshopper

Ryan STM

Ryan ST-3/PT-22

Tachikawa Ki.54 “Soren”

Waco EGC-7

Waco UKC

Both the Messerschmitt Bf108B-1 (MT-928) and Fairchild 24R-9 (FAT-926) were privately owned aircraft. When the Japanese attacked, both planes were pressed into military service as small communication aircraft. They were painted “jongblad” (medium green) and received the orange triangles.

The following civil aircraft were also pressed into military service:

– Waco EGC-7 (WT-903)

– Waco UKC (WT-927)

– 2 Piper J-4E (PT-929 and PT-930)

 Koninklijke Nederlands Indisch Leger – Militaire Luchvaart (KNIL-ML)


1e Vliegtuiggroep  Andir:

1eVLGI (9 M139)

2eVLGI (9 M139)

2e Vliegtuiggroep  Malang

1eVLGII (9 M139)

3e Vliegtuiggroep  Tjilitjan

1eVLGIII (9 M139)

2eVLGIII (9 M139)

3eVLGIII (9 M139)

4e Vliegtuiggroep  Madioen

1eVLGIV (12 H75)

2eVLGIV (12 Cw21)

5e Vliegtuiggroep  Semplank

1eVLGV (12 B339)

2eVLGV (12 B339)

6e Vliegtuiggroep  Jogjakarta

1eVLGVI (9 Cw22)

2eVLGVI (9 Cw22)

Vliegschuul  (disestablished  5Dec41):  60 Ryan PT, 30 FK51,

16 Lockheed 12, 20 M139

> 3eVLGV (B339)

> 3eVLGVI (FK51)

> 4eVLGVI (Lockheed 12)

> 7eVLGVI (M139)

+ 1 Afdeling (FK51)

Aircraft Depot  Andir

Koninklijke Marine Luchvaartdienst

Groep Vliegtuigen 1 (3 Do24k)  Ambon

Groep Vliegtuigen 2 (3 Do24k)  Sorong

Groep Vliegtuigen 3 (3 Do24k)  Soerabaya

Groep Vliegtuigen 4 (3 Do24k)  Sambas

Groep Vliegtuigen 5 (3 Do24k)  Ternate

Groep Vliegtuigen 6 (3 Do24k)  Morokrembangan

Groep Vliegtuigen 7 (3 Do24k)  Tarakan

Groep Vliegtuigen 8 (3 Do24k)  Poeloe Samboe

Groep Vliegtuigen 11 (3 TIVw)  Morokrembangan

Groep Vliegtuigen 12 (3 TIVw)  Morokrembangan

Groep Vliegtuigen 13 and 14 (5 CXIw)  Morokrembangan or embarked

Groep Vliegtuigen 16 (3 PBY)  Tandjong Priok

Groep Vliegtuigen 17 (3 PBY)  Ambon

Dutch East Indies 1941-1942 Website

Codenamed Circus

An image of Spitfire Mk Vb of 92 Squadron in the air.

A Spitfire Mk Vb of 92 Squadron based at Biggin Hill, May 1941. The Mk Vb was the principal Spitfire variant in service during 1941 and 1942. This particular aircraft (serial R6923) was shot down by a Messerschmidt Bf 109 near Dover on 21 June 1941. CH 2929.

An image of Hurricanes of 312 Squadron escorting Short Stirling bombers on a ‘circus’ operation.

Hurricanes of 312 Squadron escorting Short Stirling bombers on a ‘circus’ operation to Lille, 5 July 1941. The use of heavy bombers instead of the more usual Bristol Blenheims was a further attempt to encourage Luftwaffe fighters into the air. C2027.

In late 1940, a few British pilots, demonstrated that British fighters did have the range to conduct attacks on targets or conduct fighter sweeps over Northern France, Belgium and Holland. From the Spring of 1941 to early 1944 the Fighter Command squadrons primary tasks were to conduct seek and destroy missions (Rodeos) Fighter Sweeps (Ramrods) and if the weather was bad small scale attacks on targets of opportunity (Rhubarbs). Collectively these were known as circuses.

The year of 1941 had been a desperate one for the Allies on all fronts. Allied armies in North Africa were on a see-saw of operations back and forth across the desert, Malta was being pounded by Italian and German aircraft, German U-boats were decimating ships bringing supplies across the Atlantic, Russia had been invaded, and in early December Japan had brought America into the war by attacking Pearl Harbor. There had been one or two high spots, such as the sinking of the German battleship Bismarck in May, and the London Blitz had come to an end that same month, but everything seemed to be going rapidly downhill. Bomber Command was doing its best to strike back, but without the navigational aids and target identification methods that were to come, the damage inflicted was less than supposed, or hoped for.

Fighter Command, along with light bombers from 2 and 16 Groups, and later with Stirlings and Hampdens from 3 and 5 Groups, had taken the air war into the skies of northern France and Belgium, but at what cost? If success was being thought to be made because losses were far less than German aircraft shot down, then success was elusory. In the beginning, the idea was merely to take the air war to the Germans following the hard fought actions during the Battle of Britain. It helped morale if the RAF fighter pilots could hit back and feel they were ‘dishing it out’ rather than constantly ‘taking it’.

After the Germans moved on Russia in mid-June, there was another incentive in taking this air war to the enemy. Russia wanted Britain to harass the Germans in the West in the hope that the pressure in the East could be eased somewhat. Britain’s war leaders thought that by keeping up attacks over northern France, it would force the Germans to reduce the number of aircraft being used on the Eastern Front. As we now know this did not happen, and leaving just two fighter Gruppen in France and the Low Countries was more than enough to cope with these RAF incursions.

The idea that massed fighter sweeps [Codenamed Circus] by Fighter Command would encourage Luftwaffe fighters to rise and do battle was very naïve.  Exactly when the code-word ‘Circus’ came into being is obscure, but one imagines someone of WW1 vintage likened the mass of aircraft to be akin to the German Flying Circuses they had seen above the trenches during 1917–18. In a report on this operation it was referred to as ‘First Fighter Sweep’. While many German pilots were keen to engage in dogfights, if for no other reason than to increase personal victory scores, their leaders saw no percentage in shooting down a few Spitfires or Hurricanes while risking perhaps a similar number of losses. The RAF had found this out in late 1940, knowing that fighter sweeps, or Frei Jagd as the Germans called them, posed no threat to military or civilian targets, and were mostly left alone, thereby eliminating the loss of valuable pilots and aircraft. The Germans had countered by using their bomb-carrying jabo staffels to make it difficult for RAF interceptors to ignore. Now, in 1941, the Germans had to be encouraged to engage by using small formations of bombers as bait, and when this started to pall, the RAF introduced four-engined Stirlings to entice air combat.

As 1941 progressed, the RAF was encouraged by the number of German fighters that were being shot down, or in truth, being ‘claimed’ as shot down. Even in the 1914–18 war it was known that fighter claims bore little or no relation to the number of enemy aircraft that were actually destroyed. In that conflict, the RFC, RNAS and then the RAF, were constantly over the German side of the lines in France, and the chances of a German falling on the Allied side were few and far between. In order to produce some measure of success, the only guide to what damage was being inflicted was by corroborated reports by the pilots themselves.

This was all very well, but put simply, the conditions that prevailed made this a very hit and miss affair. Aeroplanes, and therefore airmen, flying at high speed, and, if they were not stupid, constantly looking out for danger, had very limited access to a clear picture of what was happening around them. Certainly if they were firing upon a hostile aeroplane and it burst into flames in front of them, or perhaps a wing or two came adrift, then it was fairly certain the aircraft was destroyed. Even seeing it go down and strike the ground resulted in making a good claim, but it could rarely, if ever, be known with absolute certainty if the crashing aircraft was in fact the one you had shot at. Several pilots shooting at several aircraft, and as the whirling and turning continued, looked down when an opportunity occurred, and saw an aircraft crash, believed it was the one they had been firing at moments before. In this way, one crashing aircraft produced two or three claims by the squadron as a whole.

Cloudy or misty conditions did not help in the claiming game either. Firing at and seeing an opponent go spinning down into cloud, could never be turned into a confirmed kill, so it was frustrating for the fighting pilots not to be able to claim a definite scalp. Therefore, it was not long before these sorts of actions resulted in what was termed as an ‘out of control’ claim. That is to say, someone else saw the action and confirmed that their colleague had indeed hit an enemy aircraft so badly that it had gone down ‘out of control’ (adding the word completely also helped). Pilots were supposed to understand the difference between an aircraft really out of control, rather than one with a pilot simply spinning out of the fight, and once below the cloud into which he was seen spinning, flattened out and went home, a better and a wiser man. This inevitably became, what in WW2 would be known as a ‘probable’ victory. Of course, the ‘ooc’ aircraft might well have continued down through the cloud or ground mist, to smash to pieces over the French countryside, but unless it was near enough to the lines for an Allied soldier to witness it, the ‘victorious’ pilot could only report one enemy aircraft ‘out of control’.

As things progressed, the word ‘victory’ became synonymous with ‘destroyed’, and the armchair historians in later years, added confirmed victories together with these ‘ooc’ aircraft (or probables) in order to create a total victory list for the man. Therefore, if the pilot was given credit for three enemy aircraft destroyed and four ‘out of control’ his score became seven. In citations for medals this separation was not always recorded and the journalists of the time, and then the pulp fiction writers of the 1920–30s invariably ignored (or did not fully understand) the two types of claims, and listed the victory scores as enemy aircraft destroyed. This in itself didn’t matter a hoot, but this is why many WW1 pilots appear to have achieved a considerable number of victories – of which some, in reality, were merely probables.

In WW2 this did not happen. Fighter pilots could claim an enemy aircraft destroyed, probably destroyed or damaged. If confirmed as destroyed it had to have been witnessed by an independent person and seen to crash, crash in flames, break up in the air, or the pilot take to his parachute. If it merely fell or spun away out of sight trailing smoke or flame but not actually seen to crash, blow up or its pilot bale out, then it was a probable. Even if the victorious pilot reported it had crashed but had no witnesses to the event, the squadron intelligence officer could only give credit for a probable, although it became obvious that certain pilots – those with a track record for shooting down enemy machines – were often given credit. Whatever the result, only those aircraft confirmed as destroyed were credited as victories, and were not, like WW1, added to probables to show an overall score. As camera guns were fitted to day fighter aircraft, often a confirmed victory could be given if the pictures showed the enemy aircraft being destroyed, or at least, so heavily damaged that it was more than probable that it was destroyed. Anything less, even if the attacker saw the aircraft crash after he had stopped firing, was more often than not given as a probable or even a damaged.

The German pilots had similar categories of victory credits, especially the confirmation by another pilot or ground observer. However, neither side, obviously, kept to these rules, as witnessed by the number of claims and credits against actual losses. It was generally a case of the head seeing what the eye did not. If a pilot was convinced that his opponent had been destroyed, even if he had to admit to himself he had not actually seen it, he might easily report it destroyed because he could not believe it could have survived the damage he had inflicted.

If the problem of speed in WW1 contributed to over-confidence in claiming a victory because, having fired at an opponent, then taking his eyes from it to check his own safety, then having turned or banked looked back and saw what he assumed to be the aircraft he had just attacked crash, it was easy to assume it was his. In the Second World War, the speed of combat compared with World War One meant that a pilot very quickly exited the immediate combat zone. It was this more than anything else, especially in a fight where there were several aircraft of both sides involved, that one falling aircraft could become the ‘victory’ of several pilots. And if an aircraft was seen to fall into the sea or crash several thousand feet below, it was easy to say that it was a German aircraft when in fact it might well have been a British one.

What of course becomes very clear from the earlier chapters in this book, is that both sides were claiming vastly more of their opponents as destroyed, than were actually lost or even damaged. On Circus operations during 1941, the RAF’s own score of enemy fighters destroyed came to 556, which added to other types of operations that showed 219 victories, the total then became 775. Of the 219, eighty-two were under the heading of ‘fighter sweeps’ and often these sweeps were in support of Circuses, so one could argue that Circuses had accounted for well over 600 victories. As the Germans only lost 103 fighters between 14 June and 31 December on the Western Front in 1941, it does not take a mathematical genius to see that the RAF pilots were vastly over-claiming. Often in good faith one has to say. To say otherwise would not be very gallant. However, there are some examples of pilots being credited with a confirmed victory with untruthful combat report narratives.

Today’s Internet figures record that the Germans lost 236 fighters from all causes, 103 of them in combat. RAF claims, however, amounted to 711 [another source says 731] enemy aircraft, while the RAF lost approximately 411 Spitfires and ninety-three Hurricanes [or about 505 in total].

It is only human nature to discover that if the intelligence officer was not keen in giving a confirmed victory or if a pilot’s report did not mention a realistic demise of enemy aircraft or pilot, that an extra couple of words would make the difference. There is the case of one successful British pilot who claimed a 109 shot down, and ended his report by saying he saw it dive into the sea. We now know from German evidence that this particular German pilot, while heading for the sea, did not crash but pulled out and went home. But as the RAF pilot’s report said it dived into the sea, it helped his claim for a confirmed victory. Don’t forget that most of these RAF pilots were little more than boys and with the adrenalin flowing, heart pumping and breathing heavy, it is all too easy to guild the lily, and come home a champion rather than an also-ran.

It happened on the German side too. One has only to compare RAF losses with German claims to see that the same was just as true as with the RAF, especially on the rare occasions when Blenheims survived the fighter onslaught and all returned home, yet some were claimed as destroyed anyway. Despite the assumed strict confirmation rules, it has to be said that those German aces with growing scores, appear to be among the most prolific over-claimers. Their carrot was the award of the Knight’s Cross for approximately twenty victories, it was a definite aim.

Luftwaffe claims according to one report noted almost 1,500, broken down into 850 Spitfires, 100 Hurricanes, 161 Blenheims, 149 Wellingtons and 1 Lancaster (but no Stirlings).


The Air Ministry – that is to say, the top brass who were over-seeing the day to day, week to week, month to month activities of the offensive operations being carried out – blinkered to common sense, or did they just go along with everything? Did they really think that Fighter Command was actually inflicting so such damage on the Luftwaffe? Surely Intelligence gathering sources could reveal that there was a vast difference between claims of losses and actual losses?

At the end of August 1941 for instance, Fighter Command gave an analysis of enemy casualties during that month. Total enemy losses attributed to RAF fighters was 146 with another seventy-seven as probables. While this did include some sixteen Me110s, He111s, Do17s and Ju88s, it still made 131 Me109s lost by the enemy. Staying with the fighter losses, these figures estimated (and assumed) personnel losses of the same number, i.e. 131, plus a possible sixty-eight more casualties in the probable category, making 199 pilot casualties. This analysis also estimated, by adding total and probable losses together, that the Luftwaffe had suffered a possible loss of 227 during the month.

We imagine that the Chief of the Air Staff and his immediate inner circle read these figures and jumped up and down with joy, believing the war was not far off being won if their fighter pilots could inflict such pain on the enemy. However, there had to be some officers questioning the ‘intelligence’ reports. Presumably everyone looked with less favour on RAF losses. During the year the figure of lost pilots recorded by Fighter Command who had been on Circus operations totalled 296 killed, taken prisoner or were still missing. Another fifty-five had become casualties on fighter sweeps, while overall, for all operations (including Rhubarbs, anti-shipping escorts, etc.), pilot losses were 462.

A good number of these losses were veterans of the Battle of Britain, in fact over 200 pilots that had seen action in the defence of Britain in the summer and autumn of 1940 had become casualties from late 1940 and during 1941 – some eighty-two being killed in action with twenty-six others taken prisoner. Some, naturally, had lost their lives in flying accidents – about fifty-three – while about twenty others had been lost or shot down after being sent to Malta or North Africa, but that still meant that over 100 had become casualties, mainly over France and the Channel, while ‘taking the war to the enemy’. A number had also been wounded, some never to return to operational flying. A few had also been brought down, evaded capture and eventually managed to return to England.

During the second half of the 1941 ‘offensive’, the RAF lost around 600 fighters, as opposed to some 920 in the Battle of Britain. Luftwaffe records seem to indicate around 100 Me109s lost.

The two main Geschwaders, JG26 and JG2, generally had around 250 fighters on strength, although serviceability often reduced this overall figure – sometimes by up to a third. After Rolf Pingel was interrogated following his capture in early July, it became clear to Fighter Command leaders that their task of reducing Luftwaffe effort on the Eastern Front so as to counter the offensive over France was not working. It also became clear that German losses were not in accord with RAF claims. Following a conference on 29 July, it was decided to reduce somewhat the intensity of the offensive. Ironically, the RAF failed to realise that their efforts were in fact having some impact on Luftwaffe fighter serviceability which was at this time down to 70 per cent. More ironically, the respite enabled the serviceability to increase to around 80 per cent by August. However, this brief lull was over by mid-August and Circus operations returned to normal. In late August the question of continuing with these operations was still being considered.

1941: The Difficult Year

By Marshal of the RAF Sir Sholto Douglas

The Circus Offensive, 14th June to 31st December 1941



Vichy Air Force in Indochina

In May 1940 Groupe Aérien Autonome 41 had a total strength of around thirteen aircraft. By September of the same year the group was believed to be considerably weaker, but throughout the whole of Indochina there were around thirty Potez 25s available.

Groupe Aérien Autonome 42 had around sixteen aircraft available in May 1940. Figures for September 1940 seem to suggest that this had dropped to fewer than ten serviceable aircraft.

Groupe Aérien Mixte 595 had seven Potez 25s available to them in May 1940 and around sixteen by the September.

Groupe Aérien Mixte 596 had just six Potez 25s in May, but thirteen were available to them in the September, including seven Morane 406s. In fact, the Moranes, strictly speaking, were not available in September 1940, as Esc2/696 was only created in the October. In addition, there were twelve aircraft available to Esc1/CBS in May 1940.

Three Potez 631C were purchased by China (those with C designation). The aircraft were impounded in Hai Phong. It is believed that two of the aircraft were used for reconnaissance missions until around 1943. The third aircraft was used for spare parts. It is probable that of the two used aircraft one was used by the squadron commander of GAA41 and the other by the squadron commander of GAA42. The Morane 406s that were part of 596 were originally due to be sold to the Chinese, but they were also impounded.

The Aéronautique Navale’s EscHS6, based at Cat-Laï, had Loire 130s, Gourdou-Leseurre 832s and Potez 452s, amounting to eight aircraft in total. The Loire 130s were seaplanes and predominantly used for night missions and fitted with anti-submarine bombs. By June 1941, it is believed that there were nineteen Morane 406s left in Indochina. Seven of the Morane 406s were with Escadrille 2/595, an additional six flying with Escadrille 2/596. It is believed that the remainder were in the repair pool and being used for spare parts.

The Franco–Thai War (1940–1941)

The Armée de l’Air had, theoretically, around a hundred aircraft available for this conflict. The front-line aircraft amounted to some sixty aircraft of a variety of types including:

  • thirty Potez 25 TOEs
  • four Farman 221s
  • six Potez 542s
  • nine Morane-Saulnier M.S.406
  • eight Loire 130 flying boats

The Royal Thai Air Force could muster around 140 aircraft, comprising:

  • twenty-four Mitsubishi Ki-30 light bombers
  • nine Mitsubishi Ki-21 medium bombers
  • twenty-five Hawk 75Ns pursuit planes
  • six Martin B-10 medium bombers
  • seventy O2U Corsair light bombers

During the war with Thailand, the French launched just over 190 day missions and just over fifty night missions. The conflict ended on 28 January 1941. It had led to a number of key servicing problems for the aircraft. There were still nineteen French Moranes, of which only fourteen were serviceable. In addition, the French still had three serviceable Farman 221s, three out of four Potez 542s, only thirty-four of their fifty-four Potez 25s, nine of their twelve Loire 130s and none of their three Potez 631s available.

At the end of the hostilities, the German Armistice Commission allowed the transfer of aircraft reinforcements to Indochina. The Commission authorized the following aircraft to be transferred from Martinique:

  • twenty-three Hawk H-75s
  • forty-four Curtiss SBC-4s

However, the Japanese resisted this transfer and the plans to move the aircraft from Martinique were cancelled. As a result, Escadrille 2/596

was disbanded due to lack of spare parts for its aircraft and what remained of the unit, including both the pilots and the aircraft, were transferred to Escadrille 2/595. This disbandment and transfer took place in the middle of 1941.

Vichy Air Force in Indochina – January 1942

Throughout 1942 there had been a major reorganization in Indochina. Operating out of Tong in Tonkin were both units of the newly created Northern Indochina Air Command, consisting of Groupement Mixte 1 and 2. The first unit had Farman 221s and Potez 542s and the second had Potez 25s and Morane 406s. The second grouping, Central Indochina Air Command, consisted of an observation unit based at Bach Mai in Tonkin and equipped with Potez 25s. Groupe Aérien Mixte 4, based at Dong Hoy in Annam and at Vatchay in Cambodia, had Potez 25s and Loire 130s. Unfortunately, we do not know the strength of these units at this time. More reliable figures are available for November 1942, when the total strength of Northern Indochina Air Command amounted to eighteen aircraft. Central Indochina Air Command could muster twenty-nine aircraft.

By the end of 1942, the Vichy Air Force in Indochina had been reduced to the following:

  • three Farman 221s
  • two Potez 542s
  • eighteen Potez 25TOEs
  • seven Loire 130s

Burma Air War 1943 Part I




With the withdrawal of many JAAF units in 1943 to bases beyond the reach of the medium bombers available, in May AOC-in-C Sir Richard Peirse switched attention to ‘Lines of Communication’ targets such as roads, railways, the military transit camps at Prome and Taungup, and Rangoon. For these targets the twin-engine Beaufighter and the single engine two-seat Vengeance dive-bomber proved highly successful. Like so many aircraft the Vultee Vengeance did not initially take to the dank humidity of Burma/India and hard work was needed by maintenance units and ground crew to sort out the problems. In time, however, fitted with British 0.303 (7.7mm) machine guns in the rear cockpit to replace the original unreliable American weapons, the Vengeance proved itself an extremely effective aircraft in the hands of RAF and IAF squadrons. In fact so successful was the Vengeance and so urgent the requirement for dive-bombers and ground-attack aircraft that a number of pilots were put straight onto operations without the formality of undergoing a conversion course. They trained themselves in action. Beaufighters also excelled in the ground-attack role, strafing roads and railways, and setting fire to the oil installations at Yenangyaung. During the Allied exodus from Burma five sizeable river steamers, each able to transport large bodies of troops or tow hundreds of tons of supplies in barges, were left along the Irrawaddy. Beaufighters now accounted for four of these boats, leaving their hulks burning on river sandbars. After two or three months of monsoon storms roads became flooded and impassable and large tracts of the country reduced to waterlogged swamp. At this time the Japanese were obliged to switch to water transport, providing tempting targets for Beaufighters and Hurricanes, which duly took the opportunity to destroy 182 motorized river craft and sampans, and around 2,000 smaller craft in the Arakan and on the Irrawaddy. To put this loss into perspective a sampan carried three days’ supplies for seventy soldiers, and the building of just one such craft took twenty men a month.

Despite being pretty well obsolete and marked down for early replacement the Blenheims continued in operation for the time being, and far from cursing their temperamental charges the ground and air crew redoubled their efforts to keep their aircraft in the air. The squadrons themselves became famous for their good-humoured camaraderie and were sought after as postings regardless of the venerable age of their aircraft.

Night bombing raids by Wellingtons and Liberators were made more hazardous as a result of the navigational aids fitted to the aircraft being far below European standards, navigators often having to calculate their course by the stars, which were not always visible. The Allied commanders’ decision, in contrast to their opponents, to continue air operations where possible during the monsoon imposed yet more difficulties. Aircraft crashed in the mountains or were lost in the jungle, and of the 111 crewmen from the twenty-seven aircraft that came down in the Indian Ocean and Arabian Sea, only sixty-nine were rescued. Burma propped up the bottom of the list of priorities for Air-Sea Rescue crews and equipment as for everything else. The effort had its beneficial effects, however, for Japanese aircraft were kept back in Siam and Allied army bases and airfields were free from attack as a result. USAAF Liberator attacks on shipping and attacks by both the RAF and USAAF on Rangoon made use of the port a very hazardous undertaking.

In June 1943 General Sir Claude Auchinleck, an old hand in the subcontinent having had a successful army career there pre-war, replaced Wavell as C-in-C India. The post was by this time mostly administrative but Auchinleck showed considerable energy in ensuring the adequate training of troops, and mobilizing India’s resources.

Signals and communications proved to be almost as much of a problem for the Allied air forces during the 1943 monsoon as hitherto. The exceptionally long distances involved, the wide dispersal of squadrons and the usual shortages of suitable equipment meant that landlines were largely impractical. One squadron kept in contact with its Wing HQ entirely by W/T, with all the disadvantages and time delays that system’s dependency on Morse code inevitably brought with it. Typex machines were one method of speeding up the W/T process but between June and November 1943 only seventy-eight units were received for the entire command, consequently the tried and tested – and painfully slow – method of referral to book cipher was the order of the day.

Landlines and communications were the responsibility of four Indian Air Formation signals units and all were heavily committed, one in Ceylon, two in the Bengal area, with the final unit left to cover the whole of the remainder of India. By November two additional units were raised and trained, one more for Bengal and one for southern India, but a shortage of trained Indian operators prevented their full implementation.

Coordination of the signals effort along the crucial Bengal front was an imperative and to achieve this plus bring closer and more effective supervision of maintenance and administration of the system, three Signals Wings, Nos 180, 181 and 182 were formed to operate from Calcutta, Imphal and Chittagong respectively, their principal duties being the administrative and technical control of all early warning equipment, permanent W/T and D/F stations. An immediate improvement was noticed, the Imphal area doubling its efficiency while on 20 October an air raid on Chittagong was detected at the previously unheard of range of 115 miles.

A network of some seventy Air Ministry Experimental Stations equipped with radar stretched from the Assam–Burma border south to Akyab, and continued on to cover Calcutta and coastal areas that might be subject to attack. Forward of the stations in Eastern Bengal were the Wireless Observer Units, with posts across the Manipur Road and southward through the Chin Hills as far as the Arakan Hill tracts. These units were in the process of replacement by Indian Mobile Wireless Observer Companies manned by personnel employed on Observer Corps duties in and around Calcutta, Vizagapatnam and Madras. Reports flowed through a number of filter rooms:

Imphal, Chittagong and Calcutta covering Bengal.

Vizagapatnam, Madras and Trincomalee covering the Eastern seaboard.

Cochin and Bombay covering the Western seaboard.

Ground-to-air communication improved but was still greatly hampered by shortage of equipment. Thirteen Direction Finding stations were established on the trans-India reinforcement route, while a number of fighter stations were equipped with Very High Frequency Radio Transmitters. Shortages were apparent, however, in the supply of aircraft Ground Control Interception equipment necessary for operations rooms to direct fighters on to hostile formations. With approximately half the required units available care had to be taken that for each section of two fighters one should be fitted with the necessary apparatus.

With the impending arrival of modern bombers to swell the command, experience with the operation and maintenance of their specialized communications equipment in the difficult climatic conditions to be encountered was needed. To this end No. 1577 Flight was formed and equipped with the Avro Lancaster and Handley Page Halifax but the inevitable shortages of equipment meant that development of advanced radio aids to navigation, submarine detection and precision bombing remained in the overloaded ‘pending’ tray.

A number of circumstances led to a reduction in usage of the venerable Blenheims, which were in any event in short supply. Vultee Vengeance squadrons, training since the beginning of the year, began to achieve operational status in addition to which a substantial reserve of Hurricanes accelerated the switch in roles from the Hurricane as fighter to the ‘Hurribomber’ fighter/light bomber, a move made more practical toward the end of the monsoon when Spitfires at long last began to appear in India in some numbers. As a result Blenheim Squadron Nos 11, 34, 42, 60 and 113 RAF converted to Hurricane Mk IIC fighter/bombers, while Nos 607, 136 and 615 Squadrons RAF converted from Hurricanes to Spitfire Mk VCs, which entered service in Europe at the end of 1941. Wilfred Goold recalls the inevitable ups and downs when 607 took delivery of their new aircraft:

On September 25 a bunch of us flew to Karachi in a Short Empire flying boat, it took 11 hours and 55 minutes. Having assembled our new ’planes we then flew back to Alipore without any hitches, only to find on arrival that we couldn’t fly the Spits as some clown in Area Headquarters had consigned all the spares back to the Middle East because he ‘knew we didn’t have Spitfires in this area’! In October the Squadron flew to an Air Fighting Training Unit at Armarda Road to get used to the Spitfire in combat roles. Armarda Road was a place where only the best was accepted. It was staffed by experienced operational pilots; the Chief Instructor was Frank (Chota) Carey, DSO, DFC Bar, DFM, Bar and so on.

We spent about 14 days doing all sorts of attacks, and we felt very comfortable with our new ’planes.

Flight Lieutenant Goold here mentions the refresher courses in gunnery and tactics at Armarda Road headed by Group Captain Frank Carey, a highly experienced pilot deservedly credited with much of the exceptional improvement in the standard of RAF and IAF fighter pilots in the Burma campaign. Group Captain Carey and his team were constantly engaged in a battle of wits to counter changes in the tactics of the enemy and improve those of the Allies.

A fully equipped and operational Beaufighter Mk VI Squadron, No. 89 RAF, arrived from the Middle East and celebrated by shooting down a JAAF reconnaissance aircraft within days. Newly formed within India Command, No. 211 Squadron RAF was also equipped with Beaufighters. Lack of available aircraft meant that only one heavy bomber squadron, No. 355 RAF equipped with Liberators, was formed within the command between June and November.

Hurricane Mk IIBs found a vital new niche as Fighter Reconnaissance aircraft, Nos 135 and 261 Squadrons RAF taking on this role plus No. 5 Squadron, which had been equipped with Hurricane Mk IID ‘tank busters’ but re-equipped due to a lack of suitable targets in the India/Burma theatre.

In March 1942 India was able to offer sixteen all-weather airfields of which only four were considered operational in all respects by the standards of the day, plus twenty fair-weather strips. By November 1943 the total had risen to 285 airfields plus fifteen under construction. Of these an impressive 140 were complete in all respects, 64 had one all-weather runway prepared, and a further 71 could provide fair-weather strips plus dispersals and domestic/technical accommodation in varying stages of readiness. A number of airfields were constructed on behalf of the USAAF airlift to China and by November 1943 thirty-four all-weather airfields plus eleven fair-weather strips had been handed over, in addition to which facilities were offered at a number of RAF airfields. The airfield construction programme was a mammoth undertaking costing some £50 million and brought to light a number of difficulties, notably a shortage of heavy construction equipment, engineers and supervisors. Work sub-contracted to civilian construction companies was not always up to standard and everywhere delays were experienced due to poor communications or inadequate control. Despite the problems by the end of the 1943 monsoon the Allied Air Forces in India were in a position to continue their rapid expansion in the knowledge that suitable bases existed from which to operate.

On the far side of the hill the JAAF also busily repaired and constructed airfields. As the Allies retreated through Burma destruction of the country’s industry and infrastructure, including airfields, had taken place to the extent that on the final withdrawal of the Allied armies the JAAF estimated that only fifteen to eighteen airfields were in operable condition. By August 1943 that total had risen to 100.

During 1942 the Imperial Japanese Army and the JAAF in Burma received the bulk of its supplies by sea more or less without hindrance, but by 1943 Allied attacks on sea lanes had grown in intensity until the JAAF estimated that less than one third of the resupply required actually arrived, leading to an inevitable diminution of strike power. Japanese transportation within Burma was chiefly by rail, but again Allied air raids were greatly disrupting the service and necessitating a switch to road and air, 4th Motor Transport Company designated to the former and 11th Air Transport Unit designated to the latter by 5th Hikoshidan.

A welcome but temporary reverse of the draining away of units from 5th Hikoshidan occurred towards the end of the year, reinforcements arriving in the shape of the 33rd and 204th Fighter Hikosentai.

At the Quebec Conference the formation of South East Asia Command was agreed, bearing overall responsibility for military operations in the Burma/India/China theatre with at its head Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten. Mountbatten was a great-grandson of Queen Victoria and on entering the Royal Navy saw action during the First World War aboard Admiral David Beatty’s flagship, the battlecruiser Lion. By 1937 he was promoted Captain and in June 1939 was given command of the destroyer Kelly, becoming Captain (D) of the 5th Destroyer Flotilla in September that same year. Mountbatten’s career at sea was undoubtedly spectacular – in short order the Kelly had nearly capsized, been in collision with another destroyer, was mined once and torpedoed twice. Finally she capsized off Crete under full helm at 34 knots while under attack by German aircraft. Anxious for senior officers with undimmed offensive spirit, in April 1942 Churchill made Mountbatten Chief of Combined Operations with the rank of Vice Admiral, and a de facto member of the Chiefs of Staff Committee. At forty-three years of age Mountbatten was young for a position as important as Supreme Commander SEAC but he cut a dashing figure that appealed to both Churchill and to the Americans – an important consideration as he would have US forces under his command. The device chosen by Mountbatten to represent the new command was the phoenix, a fabulous bird of Arabian mythology that rose from the ashes of its own funeral pyre with renewed youth. The symbolism was self-evident and the device doubly appropriate as the coming campaigns could only be carried forward on the wings of the air forces.

Another vitally important Allied appointment took place in October 1943 with the appointment of General Slim to command of the newly formed Fourteenth Army, effectively giving him control of all Allied ground forces in the theatre, his task the re-conquest of Burma.

For the air forces Mountbatten’s plans were to be bold and controversial, the new C-in-C proposing nothing less than the full integration of all RAF, USAAF and IAF units under a single unified command, with Air Chief Marshal Sir Richard Peirse as Allied Air C-in-C. General Stilwell, until that time in overall command of US Air Forces – and a well known Anglophobe – became Mountbatten’s Deputy Supreme Commander while retaining his autonomous role in China. Once again the often stated US position – that they were only in India to supply the Chinese, not help the British reinstate Burma into their Empire – raised its head. Given the long-term US antipathy towards ‘empires’ in the military sense this was scarcely a surprising, or unreasonable, attitude for them to take, but it did place significant obstacles in the path of the unified air command that would provide the best means of beating the Japanese.

As thunderclouds from the argument replaced the waning monsoon, lengthy discussions between Peirse and Stratemeyer to try to resolve the problem came to nought, the American refusing to be budged from the position that he and Stilwell had adopted that there should be two parallel commands, not a single unified command. Mountbatten took up his position as C-in-C on 16 November and on 12 December issued the directive integrating the theatre air forces. Finding himself faced with threats from both Stratemeyer and Stilwell to go over his head to Washington, Mountbatten states that he ‘read the Riot Act to both’, as a consequence of which the American generals agreed to carry out the directive but asked that their objections be passed to Washington, which Mountbatten did together with his reasons for refuting them. The new C-in-C SEAC believed himself to be on pretty firm ground as he had already sounded out General Marshall, US Army Chief of Staff, and General Henry ‘Hap’ Arnold, Commanding General of the USAAF. The American stance concerning Burma notwithstanding, the two senior US officers appreciated the necessity for the command structure to be as streamlined and uncomplicated as possible, and gave their unofficial backing. Official confirmation came on 4 January with Mountbatten’s receipt of a letter from General Marshall confirming the approval of the US Joint Chiefs for the unified command, while retaining the right to transfer units from the Tenth and Fourteenth Air Forces should it become necessary. Given the lead by his superiors General Stratemeyer grasped the new realism, issuing a General Order which included the phrase ‘we must merge into one unified force, in thought and deed neither English nor American, with the faults of neither and the virtues of both.’

Burma Air War 1943 Part II



Mountbatten had been obliged to assert his authority at the outset of his command and did so, the integration of the Allied air forces proceeding as outlined below:

Air Command South East Asia

Allied Air Commander-in-Chief, Air Chief Marshal Sir Richard Peirse RAF.

Eastern Air Command (EAC)

AOC and second in command to Peirse, Major General G.E. Stratemeyer USAAF, his position in respect of the Allied air forces corresponding to that of General Slim’s for ground forces. EAC was organized into the following groupings:

  1. The Third Tactical Air Force commanded by Air Marshal Baldwin and subdivided into:

(a) The American North Sector Force with responsibility for supporting Stilwell’s Chinese and protecting the air ferry route over the Hump to China.

(b) 221 Group RAF under Air Vice-Marshal Vincent, with headquarters at Imphal and responsible for the support of IV Corps along the main central front.

(c) 224 Group RAF under Air Commodore G.E. Wilson with headquarters at Chittagong and supporting XV Corps along the Arakan front.

  1. The Strategic Air Force, Brigadier General Davidson USAAF.
  2. Troop Carrier Command, Brigadier General W.D. Old USAAF.

Stratemeyer established his HQ in a huge jute mill near Barrackpore, while Baldwin’s Third TAF and Brigadier General Old’s joint US-British Troop Carrier Command HQs were set up alongside General Slim’s Fourteenth Army HQ at Comilla. To a considerable extent the three headquarters operated as a joint command centre, pooling intelligence, planners working together and perhaps most significantly, the three commanders and their principal staff officers living in the same mess. Slim reports that integration reached the stage where Americans adopted the tea-sipping habit and the British learned to make drinkable coffee!

By November 1943 approximately two thirds of theatre combat aircraft were British, the remainder American although the US proportion was increasing, notably in the area of transports. The USAAF had begun the supply of Chinese-American forces in north-east Burma with the 1st and 2nd Troop Carrier Squadrons, which in January 1944 were joined by two additional units, 27th and 315th Troop Carrier. During the winter of 1943/44 the RAF too built up its tally of transport units, Nos 31 and 194 also being reinforced by two additional squadrons:

No. 62, previously operating Hudson Mk VI aircraft on bombing and general reconnaissance duties, converted to Dakotas in early January 1944.

No. 117, a veteran transport outfit, arrived from the Middle East, initially operating DC2s but converting to Dakotas in July 1944.

194 Squadron, operating the Hudson Mk VI on internal trans-India operations since its formation, converted to Dakotas in February in order to take its place alongside ‘parent’ squadron No. 31, its previous duties being taken up by 353 Squadron.

An essential part of Mountbatten’s approach was to be seen and heard by the men who would have to do the fighting. To achieve this he embarked on a tour of the military units of all nationalities, and Wilfred Goold describes one such visit by the Supreme Commander to 607 Squadron:

On December 16 Lord Louis Mountbatten arrived on our strip and I was one of four to escort his Mosquito over the forward areas. He gathered everyone around him and told us of his plans and then told us what he expected of us. There was no doubt this time; there was no turning back.

The informal ‘gathering everyone around’ appears to have been an essential part of Mountbatten’s attempt to make sure that everyone felt included, from the C-in-C to the cooks and admin clerks, they were all in this together and they all had their essential part to play.

While command changes took place the air war continued. Operating from bases in Assam the 311th Fighter Bomber Group USAAF attacked targets in Northern Burma. On 25 November Major Yohei Hinoki of the 64th Hikosentai intercepted a raid and led the 3rd Chutai in an attack with their Ki-43 Oscars. In the ensuing dogfight Hinoki shot down the first North American P51 Mustang of the Burma campaign, the aircraft piloted by Colonel Milton, Commanding Officer of the 311th, who became a POW. Two days later Hinoki’s 3rd Chutai intercepted an estimated fifty B24 Liberators plus thirty fighters, Hinoki claiming a P51, a P38 Lightning and a B24, but falling victim to another P51. Badly wounded, Hinoki managed to return to base but his right leg required amputation and he was repatriated to Japan to take up training duties.

Spitfire Mk Vs at last began to appear in an operational role and much was expected of them. Up to this time the twin-engine Mitsubishi Ki-46 Dinah reconnaissance aircraft employed by the JAAF had flown with impunity over Allied territory, its service ceiling and maximum speed too much for Hurricanes and other Allied fighters. However, in November 1943 Spitfires from 615 Squadron RAF based at Chittagong shot down four Dinahs from the 81st Hikosentai in quick succession and the news spread rapidly through the entire Allied command, providing a tremendous boost for morale as it did so.

The unexpected loss of their reconnaissance aircraft was a blow to 5th Hikoshidan but also gave them some indication of the power and performance of the new Allied fighter. Despite losses in aircraft and experienced pilots 81st Hikosentai continued missions in the Calcutta area and reported a large concentration of some sixty merchant vessels in the harbour – a target too good to miss. Wary of the Spitfires the JAAF attack formations planned a route well to the south of the Chittagong airfields at which they were based, while 8th and 34th Hikosentai (20 and 15 light bombers respectively) accompanied by 50th and 33rd Hikosentai (27 and 20 fighters respectively), plus 5 Dinahs of the 81st Hikosentai, carried out raids in the Chittagong, Silchar and Feni areas to keep the new fighters busy and off balance.

607 Squadron was based at Ramu at this time, a dirt airstrip south of Chittagong, and Wilfred Goold remembers a pattern of almost daily ‘scrambles’ to combat these raids:

The tactics we were using were similar to those used by the Luftwaffe against our Hurricanes i.e. height advantage, then diving in, attacking and regaining height. The Japs used what we called a ‘Beehive’ [aircraft flying in circles] from a basic height up to about 25,000 feet. They were very colourful, highly polished, except for about a dozen, who, we learned, were the ‘aces’, they flew in drab coloured Oscars.

Our radar was very good so we were always in the top position, but they were so manoeuvrable that zip, and they were gone.

With additional raids having being staged in the Imphal area for weeks beforehand to draw off Allied fighters, the primary attack on Calcutta took place on 5 December and involved units of both the JAAF and JNAF, operating in two waves from Burmese airfields at Magwe and Allanmyo:


7th Hikodan, comprising:

12th Hikosentai (9 heavy bombers)

98th Hikosentai (9 heavy bombers)

50th Hikosentai (27 fighters)

64th Hikosentai (27 fighters)

33rd Hikosentai (20 fighters)

204th Hikosentai (20 fighters)

81st Hikosentai (2 Dinahs to drop quantities of streamers just prior to the raid to confuse Allied radar).


28th Hikotai (Flying Unit) comprising 9 medium bombers and 30 Zero fighters.

The plan to evade the Spitfires worked and although the raid was picked up by Chittagong radar, of the sixty-five Spitfires and Hurricanes scrambled to intercept only one Spitfire made contact, shot down a bomber and force-landed on a sandbank out of fuel. At Calcutta itself the defending Hurricane Squadrons, Nos 67 and 146 RAF, were overwhelmed by the raid’s fighter defence and lost eight aircraft – the JAAF believed that they were only attacked by about ten aircraft in total. When the second wave of the attack swept in the Hurricanes were caught on the ground refuelling and only a few night fighters were able to get airborne. Two Spitfire squadrons from Chittagong attempted to intercept the raiders as they returned, but were again unable to make contact.

The raid had been carefully planned and executed and was an undoubted tactical success for 5th Hikoshidan, who were jubilant at having got off so lightly. Nevertheless, to gain the range for the long southward leg to avoid Chittagong the bomb loads had been necessarily small, consequently the damage inflicted, while unwelcome, was not devastating. Three merchant ships and a naval vessel were damaged, fifteen barges set afire, and a number of dockyard buildings destroyed. By far the most damaging aspect of the raid was the 500 civilian casualties caused, followed as it was by an immediate exodus of the local population from the docks area.

Encouraged by their success the JAAF planned further raids on Calcutta but first, having attacked the port at the far south of the Allied positions, they switched their attention to the far north – the trans-Himalayas ‘Hump’ route to China. As part of the Calcutta attack plan fifty fighters and eighty light bombers from 4th Hikodan attacked Tinsukia airfield on 8 November to disrupt the China supply route and keep Allied attention away from Calcutta. Following the raid on Calcutta 4th Hikodan commenced a series of raids on ‘Hump’ airfields inside China with Tinsukia again being the target on 11 and 12 December, followed by Yungning in succeeding days. On 18 and 22 December Kunming received the attention of seventy fighters and bombers of 7th Hikodan plus around ten heavy bombers specially brought in for this attack on the principal ‘Hump’ airfield in China. JAAF fighters also attacked transports in flight over northern Burma and for a time as many as three per day were being destroyed, but the supply route remained in operation.

Without sufficient resources to attack all its potential targets in strength simultaneously the JAAF once again turned its attention to the south, this time to the bustling port of Chittagong – and the Spitfires they had thus far gone to considerable lengths to avoid. On Christmas Day 1943, 7th Hikodan attacked the port with an estimated twenty bombers and thirty fighters. As an illustration of the way in which Allied air strength had grown over the past year the defences were able to put up eighty Spitfires and Hurricanes, but the result fell far short of expectations. If the availability of aircraft was now not as pressing a problem, the shortage of radar and ground-to-air communications equipment with which to vector fighters on to attacking aircraft effectively – plus trained operators – most definitely was. The uncoordinated mêlée of Allied fighters posed much less of a threat to the disciplined JAAF formation than it should have done if properly controlled, and a tally of three bombers and two fighters shot down was disappointing.

One Spitfire pilot, John Rudling, developed a highly unusual method of attack. With his squadron newly equipped with Spitfires, Rudling was returning to base following what up to that point had been a fruitless sortie. Noticing enemy bombers in the distance, and despite his fuel being down to ten gallons, Rudling headed toward them and swooped in to the attack. Opening fire on a bomber, Rudling

observed strikes on the enemy’s wings when I suddenly realised I was going to collide. I broke sharply away above, feeling my aircraft hit the rudder of the bomber. I then proceeded down, thinking I had damaged my aircraft for any further attack, but it was all right, so I pulled up under another vic [‘V’ formation] of bombers, firing from underneath at the leader.

A Japanese fighter attacked the lone Spitfire and hit the aircraft with five shells, damaging the oil tanks. Rudling watched the bomber with which he had collided spiral down into the sea then force-landed himself without flaps or brakes. The RAF pilot became so attached to the collision method for downing bombers when his ammunition had expired that he tried it on succeeding occasions, and it was not until his third attempt that he was himself, perhaps unsurprisingly, killed.

So far the Spitfires had shown promise but had not really been able to get to grips with their opponent, however that was about to change. On 31 December 1943 a substantial JAAF force comprising fourteen Ki-21 Sally light bombers and fifteen Ki-43 Oscar fighters, attacked a Royal Navy force that had been bombarding Japanese forces along the Arakan coast. Scrambling from an airfield in the vicinity of Chittagong, twelve Spitfires of 136 Squadron RAF intercepted and broke through the fighter cover to find the bombers flying in perfectly disciplined ‘V’ formation – a formation resolutely maintained by the Japanese as the RAF fighters shot them down, one by one. Having completely destroyed the bomber force the Spitfires set about the Japanese fighters and in a series of dogfights destroyed the majority of the typically brightly coloured Oscars, those that did survive limping home badly the worse for the encounter. One Spitfire was lost, the pilot having a lucky escape as he descended by parachute. An Oscar swept by and machine-gunned the helpless airman, but the Japanese pilot misjudged his approach and crashed into the ground. This was the first substantial victory that the RAF, and certainly the new Air Command South East Asia, had been able to achieve over the JAAF and was without doubt a turning point in the air war.

On 15 January the JAAF tried again, this time the intended target being Chittagong itself, however the plan was for three fighter sweeps of between twelve and fifteen aircraft apiece to attack the Arakan battle area to draw off defending fighters and leave the port open to the bombers. As early morning mist lifted the first attack materialized and the Spitfires were scrambled. The Japanese pilots might well have been smarting from a loss of ‘face’ stemming from their defeat at the turn of the year, as they appear to have adopted do-or-die tactics in their efforts to come to terms with their opponents; but fanatical courage was not enough. Sixteen Oscars were destroyed at a cost of two Spitfires. On 20 January the JAAF tried again, 35 Oscars engaging 24 Spitfires and losing 7 of their number for 2 RAF aircraft.

With these battles the RAF wrested air superiority from the JAAF for the first time in the south, but the Japanese did not let it rest there and introduced the Ki-44 Tojo in greater numbers to counter the Spitfire Mk Vs, coupled with new tactics. JAAF fighters would usually be painted in the ostentatious colour schemes of their particular Hikosentai but now a few appeared with either their aluminium skins highly burnished to a mirror-like finish, or alternatively painted jet black, both colour schemes designed to be observed with ease from a distance. A few of these decoys would fly well below more numerous camouflaged aircraft in the hope of trapping Spitfire pilots, who soon learned to be wary of such glittering prizes. Fortunately for the Allies the much improved Spitfire Mk VIII made its appearance and with its true air speed of 419mph in Burmese conditions, plus a service ceiling of 41,000 feet and faster rate of climb than the Spitfire Mk V, the JAAF was checkmated again. To the north, however, the issue of air superiority was still very much in the balance and it was to this sector that the scene of action once again moved, with 5th Hikoshidan using its entire fighter strength to attack transport aircraft on the Hump route in the skies above Sumprabum in northern Burma.

1 Group RAF Bomber Command Conversion to “Heavies”

A rare picture of a Halifax II of 460 Squadron’s Conversion Flight at Breighton in late 1942.

Earlier in the year a decision had been taken at Bomber Command HQ at High Wycombe to convert the all-Wellington 1 Group to heavy aircraft. By this stage of the war the first two of the RAF’s triumvirate of four-engined ‘heavies’, the Stirling and the Halifax, were already in squadron service and the third, the Lancaster, was about to make its debut. The Lancaster was a design which had emerged from Roy Chadwick’s drawing board following the enormous problems encountered by 5 Group with the twin-engined Manchester. It proved to be the greatest masterstroke of the bomber war, the Lancaster going on to become the outstanding aircraft of its generation and, eventually, the mainstay of Bomber Command. But much of this was unknown early in 1942 and there were very few Lancasters available anyway. The enormous Stirling had also proved a disappointment with poor performance and a worrying vulnerability. The Halifax, in the meantime, was judged to be better although some of the earlier variants were unforgiving to fly and could be catastrophic in the wrong hands. While the Lancaster was born great, the Halifax was only to achieve its successes later in the war when much-improved variants became available. The Halifax IIs and Vs destined for 1 Group, mainly in a training capacity, did not fall into that category.

103 Squadron at Elsham was first out of the blocks with the Halifax with the formation of the 103 Halifax Conversion Unit on June 7 1942. In charge was S/Ldr David Holford, still only 21 years old but with an impeccable record as a pilot behind him. He had already completed two tours of operations, had a DSO and DFC and Bar to his credit and, it seemed, a glittering career in the RAF ahead of him. He was to go on to become the youngest wing commander in Bomber Command history only to meet his death in tragic circumstances 18 months later.

At Elsham his two instructors were P/O Potts and W/O Reg Fulbrook and they began work as soon as the first Halifax IIs arrived and by late July 103 was declared operational as a Halifax squadron. Their first operation was scheduled for the night of August 1-2 but the day was marked by an awful incident which underlined the problems with the Halifax II. That morning 19-year-old pilot Sgt William Bagley took off on a short training flight in one of the Conversion Flight’s aircraft. He had climbed out of Elsham and was returning when both port engines began misfiring and, as the Halifax approached the airfield, it suddenly stalled and spun into the ground. On board with Sgt Bagley were 11 other aircrew from 103 and all were killed instantly when the Halifax crashed just a matter of yards from the airfield boundary. Two days earlier one of the Halifaxes on the squadron’s books had stalled and crashed between Grimsby and Louth, killing Sgt Stewart Stockford and his crew. Sudden stalls were one of the unnerving traits of the Halifax II and, no matter how experienced the pilot, they could prove lethal. That is exactly what happened to Reg Fulbrook on September 22, the senior instructor on the Conversion Flight. W/O Fulbrook, at 31 with a DFC to his name and a tour with 103 behind him, was practising three-engined landings when his aircraft suddenly stalled, turned on its back and dived into the ground killing everyone on board.

By comparison, 103’s operational debut passed almost without incident. Seven aircraft, led by S/Ldr Holford, went to Düsseldorf and all returned safely, although Holford’s aircraft sported 36 holes caused by flak. He had suffered engine problems on the way out and was unable to maintain height. He bombed from 8,000ft and then, on the way home, flew at low level over a Luftwaffe airfield while his gunners shot up a line of parked aircraft. The first operational loss came six days later when Sgt Joe Gilby’s Halifax crashed into the Humber on its return from a raid on Duisburg. There were no survivors. 103 was to lose nine more Halifaxes and the lives of 46 men on operations before the order came towards the end of October to switch to Lancasters. Amongst the casualties was S/Ldr Sid Fox, who had won a DFM with 83 Squadron, and was into his second tour.

103 Squadron was to be the only unit in 1 Group to fly the Halifax operationally and it was also among the first to receive Lancasters. No sooner had the squadron been informed of the change than the first batch of factory-fresh Lancasters arrived, four of them being lost on operations within a matter of weeks.

The Australians of 460 got a new CO early in September when W/Cmdr Keith Kaufmann, one of six brothers serving in the Australian armed forces, arrived to oversee Halifax conversion training at Breighton. The Australians lost one aircraft in a training accident at a cost of eight lives, before being told on October 20 that it was to receive Lancasters. (Kaufmann was a hugely popular figure at Breighton, legend having it that he announced his arrival by walking into the mess and announcing: ‘I hear you blokes are pretty good drinkers. Let’s get stuck in and see how good you are!’) The squadron’s conversion flight later moved to nearby Holme-on-Spalding Moor where its Halfaxes were replaced by four Lancasters and four Manchesters before returning to Breighton. There it was joined by 103’s Conversion Flight and the two units merged to become 1656 Heavy Conversion Unit and moved to Lindholme. The role of the HCU was to do exactly what the term implied, training new crews on four-engined flying. This they would do on an initial mixture of Halifaxes, Manchesters (twin-engined but with some of the characteristics of the Lancaster) and the few Lancasters available. Later, as squadrons demanded every Lancaster coming off the production line, another link in the training chain was forged with the creation of Lancaster Finishing Schools. 1 LFS was formed at Hemswell early in 1944 and was in business for most of the year, providing the final training for crews before they were sent to 1 Group Lancaster squadrons.