The end of Burma’s air defence – the retreat continues

The Retreat into India: Electrical equipment at the Yenangyaung oilfields being destroyed as part of the 'scorched earth' policy pursued by the British in the face of the Japanese advance.

The Japanese had now captured Rangoon in Burma and were poised to capture the main supply road to China that ran across Burma. Once again their superiority in the air was to be a critical factor in the campaign. The RAF and the Flying Tigers had put up a valiant defence but they were now in danger of being completely overwhelmed:

Burma

Blenheims, Hurricanes and American Tomahawks attacked the aero­ dromes at Mingaladon, Moulmein and Chiengmai. In these operations, at least 41 enemy aircraft were destroyed or damaged on the ground. In addition, two enemy fighters were shot down, and a further three were probably destroyed in combat.

Other targets attacked were Hmawbi (where a number of fires were started), and shipping at Yandoon and Moulmein.

The main weight of the enemy attack was concentrated on the aerodromes at Magwe and Akyab. At the former, which was subjected to five raids, almost all aircraft of the two and a half squadrons located there were either destroyed or damaged. Akyab aerodrome was attacked three times by a total of 80 bombers with fighter escort, and nine of our aircraft were destroyed and a further six were damaged on the ground. In addition, an ammunition dump was hit and a hangar demolished.

Our fighters shot down four enemy aircraft, probably destroyed three and damaged manyothers. Five of our aircraft were lost but two pilots are safe.

From the Air Situation Report for the week ending 26th March 1942 as reported to the British War Cabinet, see TNA CAB 66/23/16

General William Slim had just arrived in Burma, it fell to him to organise the withdrawal in as orderly way as possible. Typically his memoirs paint as balanced a picture as possible of what were becoming increasingly desperate circumstances:

Some hard things were said by the angry soldiery when the Air Force disappeared, especially about the speed and disorder of the abandonment of Magwe. But they would have done well to remember that this same small Anglo-American air force had already destroyed 233 Japanese machines in the air and 58 on the ground, ofwhich the A.V.G. [ American Volunteer Group – Flying Tigers] accounted for 217 and the R.A.F. 74 at a cost to us of 46 in the air and 51 on the ground, or a ratio in the air of five-to-one in our favour. Even on the ground, with all the odds of range and warning against them, they had destroyed plane for plane.

From then onwards my corps was totally without air reconnaissance, defence, or support. Any aircraft we saw in the sky was hostile – and we were to see many. We were even blinder than before, forced more and more to move at night, and by day to greater dispersion.

Buildings became death-traps to be avoided; we took increasingly to the jungle. The actual casualties to fighting troops inflictcd by the Japanese air force, even after it had absolute freedom of the skies, were surprisingly small.

The effect on morale, while not as great as might have been expected, at first was serious, but later the troops seemed in some way to become accustomed to constant air attack and to adjust themselves to it.

Now great wedges of silver bombers droned across the sky, and one after another the cities of Burma spurted with flame and vanished in roaring holocausts.

Field Marshal William Slim: Defeat Into Victory

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