Allies vs Japan

by Lucien Zacharoff

Britain's air role in the Pacific War — a penetrating analysis at her air contribution to Nippon's defeat

The teamwork and division of labor which existed between the RAF and USAAF in battering into impotence the Third Reich's industrial establishment are apt to rank in history as the best example of effective Allied collaboration in World War II. At the moment the most pressing question flowing out of that performance is: to what degree will it be duplicated in the Far East?

Well known are the great respective burdens and feats of the Anglo-American forces in the Pacific land and naval warfare. Likewise, the US aviation strategy and tactics are no secret, certainly not to the Japanese homeland which enjoys the advantage over the rest of the world of getting its information on the subject at first hand.

It is the British air activities in those parts that are rather shrouded. This survey aims at ascertaining the forthcoming role of the RAF Bomber Command and the Royal Navy's Air Arm in the march toward V-J day.

From the outset it may be advisable to tip off the Japanese that the Combined Chiefs of Staff are showing no signs of intention to break up the winning US-UK combination. Indeed, there is every indication that the British heavies, Lancasters and Halifaxes, will be used profusely, in conjunction with our own Fortresses, Liberators, and Superforts.

As in the initial period of European air war, imposing problems beset this stage — the transfer of the Bomber Command to the other side of the world. One of the most outstanding is that of bases, a problem which has not been completely solved even by the Americans alone, although they have been in on the ground floor, so to speak. With the fall of Rangoon, of course, the Allies control terrain with many suitable sites for heavy-bomber bases. It is flat and abounds in local labor for construction purposes. Supremely important is the fact that logistical considerations are for once reasonably satisfactory, since stores of fuel, ammunition and spares can be carried to Rangoon directly by ship.

From this territory's bases the RAF heavies can carry their six-ton bomb loads to Bangkok, Singapore, Penang, most of Sumatra, and to China Sea objectives. They are also in a position to arrest any westward movement of Japanese forces from China and Thailand, which they can achieve most effectively with the aid of medium bombers — Mosquitos, B-25s, and B-26s —and of fighters — Spitfires, Mustangs, Typhoons, Tempests.

To be sure, the heavies based about Rangoon, while having plenty of work, cannot play the powerful part that was theirs in the bombardment of Germany. The targets are not in the same class with Europe's great industrial concentrations. Take Singapore, for example; its many individual military objectives are of utmost importance, yet the Lancasters' peculiar gifts would be somewhat wasted when confined to destroying those objectives. The area is not as rewarding to bombardiers from the standpoint of methodical razing as were, say, the Ruhr and Berlin.

British authorities discussing this admit much the same about Singapore as a base. With its capture many new objectives will come within easy operational range of the RAF heavies. None of them will be an industrial plum of the species that the British and US flight crews got accustomed to plucking in Germany.

Our B-29s have hit Japan hard from their bases in China. But we know the terrific hardship that has attended those operations, the necessity of the Herculean carriage of aviation fuel and bombs for them over the Himalayan Hump. The current trend of the Allied strategic thinking, certainly of the British, is not to use China as a base for mass raids until suitable Chinese ports are available.

A glance at the map of the Asiatic mainland creates the illusion of other convenient spots from which to strike at Japan by air, some of them nearer to Tokyo than London is to Berlin. But they are under the same dire handicap as the more distant Central China; a look at another map, that of enemy dispositions, convinces one that those places are still subject to Japanese blockade.

For some time now the British have leaned to the idea that successful teamwork with the Americans could be carried on from the Marianas and Okinawa. They point out that those islands are as convenient for Lancasters as they are for B-29s. The 1,500-mile Saipan-Tokyo run is well within the Lancaster range. Okinawa-Tokyo is 910 miles. Both the Marianas and Okinawa can be supplied by sea, with the shipping lanes kept open by joint naval vigilance.

Momentarily the principal obstacle there appears to be shortage of air bases. Landing strips are insufficient to accommodate even the American bombers. This is a far from irremediable picture if we recall that at the beginning of European fighting England did not have enough airdromes for her own needs; long before the end, she was an ample home not only for the expanded RAF but she was also playing host to the US Eighth and Ninth.

Air strips are springing to life in the Marianas at a breathtaking rate, thanks to American energy, resources and resourcefulness. By the time the bulk and the cream of the RAF arrive from the West, there may be enough bases and strips for the largest formations that any of the Allies brings to bear against the common foe. (This, in passing, calls to mind the possibility of using Soviet Far Eastern bases, when and if…. Those are likely to be available on an equal footing to both the Americans and the British — when and if….)

Turning to the British Naval Air Arm and its coming role in the Pacific, it is well to remember that, like US naval aviation, it is apt to be eclipsed in public awareness by the land-based air operations. Nonetheless, precisely because the Allies do not dispose immediately of terribly large numbers of land bases near any new war theater on the huge expanses of the largest ocean, the Allied flat-tops are always important and essential. Therefore, it is gratifying to have the Prime Minister's promise that every available ounce of sea power is en route to the Far East.

Specifically, this means that the British Pacific Fleet is incorporating carriers like HMS Illustrious, Indefatigable, Indomitable, and Victorious. These floating bases house American-built Hellcats, Corsairs, and Avengers, and the British-built. Seafires and Fireflies.

A word about the British carrier-borne warplanes. The smallest naval fighter in service, the Seafire is a version of the Spitfire. With its 1,470-hp Rolls Royce Merlin engine, it totes two 20-mm cannon and four .303 Browning machine guns. The Firefly, newest type of fighter-reconnaissance plane, possesses more speed and range than any other British naval aircraft. It is also most heavily armed, its armament including four 20-mm cannon, and it fires rocket projectiles.

In addition to the above carriers, there are others in the vicinity, and still others may be on the way to Eastern waters. Their flight and ground personnel have for the most part accumulated enormous experience in the Atlantic, Mediterranean, and the Arctic Circle. Highly trained, they can undertake at once all kinds of assignments in any kind of weather.

Speaking of weather, it is probably the only department in which the RAF crews may need any special new indoctrination as they arrive from Europe. In all other respects, it may be assumed that they are thoroughly prepared for anti-Japanese operations.

The Naval Air Arm is clearly the spearhead of the British Pacific Fleet. Vice-Admiral Sir Phillip Vian commands the carrier forces. His similar command in the invasion of Salerno established him as a leader with a firm offensive policy.

In nearly six years of warfare British carrier forces have proven their extreme mobility. Their move to the Pacific is a logical sequel. They can come to grips with the enemy on his own territory much sooner than land-based aircraft. Remember the surprise attack on Taranto in November, 1940? It was then that Swordfish planes taking off from the carrier Illustrious sent to the bottom one of Mussolini's six battleships, severely damaging two others and two cruisers. The entire balance of naval power in the Mediterranean was reversed, with the British paying with the loss of only two aircraft. That victory by the carrier-borne planes endowed Admiral Cunningham with a good deal more freedom of action, strengthening his grip on the whole mare nostrum.

Mobility and surprise tactics abetted the whole continuous series of land-sea operations by the Naval Air Arm — at Oran, Algiers, Madagascar, North Africa, Salerno, the South of France. Each time carrier planes struck with telling effects. Maneuverability and proximity to objectives heightened the aircraft's operational opportunities, cutting down the time lag between takeoff and moment of arrival over targets.

Because of the nature of Pacific air war, the range of operating planes is a foremost factor. Aircraft carriers confer a tremendously greater range on warplanes. These can strike against Japanese islands at will. At the same time the protecting screen of fighters forestalls hostile air opposition long before it reaches the carrier force itself.

In this protective screening scheme Seafires have shown themselves to particular advantage. At Okinawa the Naval Air Arm, coordinated with the battleships and cruisers of the British Pacific Fleet, covered the left flank of the invasion, its special mission being the neutralization of the Japanese air bases in the Sakashima Group on Ishigaki and Miyako.

Repeat performances in other Jap-infested places, similar to the Sakashima-Okinawa success, can be confidently anticipated. For all British task forces in the Pacific are under the operational control of Admiral Nimitz; hence, it is more than probable that the increasing British carrier forces will be employed as a self-contained, task force in cooperation with the US opposite numbers.

The Naval Air Arm is equally experienced in close cooperation with the Army. In future operations it is apt to be called upon to provide air cover for inland incursions. Its experience and growing strength qualify it well for such work.

Increasing concentrations of British naval aviation and their consequently more ambitious tactics bring in their wake new, heavier needs of maintenance and supply. These are met with the newly formed and startlingly mobile Fleet Train. Sections of it are being assigned to repair and maintain operational aircraft directly at the front. The Fleet Train is able to furnish fresh aircraft to replace those lost in action or temporarily disabled.

In the meantime, the fortunes of war have been shifting sharply on the main British air front until now — over Burma. Improvement has been ascribed generally to better training, better equipment, greater all-around experience of the British (as well as better allies). But the greatest single explanation for the change will be found in British aviation.

There was a time not so long ago when Japanese attacks on Calcutta were probable. But better and more numerous British aircraft came to press the scales the other way. Steady amelioration in the the RAF situation is now capped with unquestioned supremacy over all Burma and Thailand. While the British may fly 700 sorties a day, the enemy has been reduced to occasional small night attacks, with a sprinkling of a handful of fighter-bomber raids on air bases by day.

Burma's has been principally a war of communications. On the Japanese side air transport has been a negligible element, the enemy relying, willy-nilly, on rail, water, and road facilities. And it is some time since they employed big ships, their supplies increasingly running the gauntlet of British air attack.

This is how the Allies have dovetailed on the Burma business. USAAF planes from China strike shipping in the Formosa channel and southward. B-29 strategic bombing sweeps range from Singapore to Kuala Lumpur. Both British and American bombers hit the Bangkok-Siam railway. RAF planes sow mines off Sumatra. RAF and USAAF Liberators attack shipping off the Tenasserim coast. RAF Mosquitos, Beaufighters and Mustangs in Central Burma strike road, rail and river transport. RAF fighter-bombers attack dumps. Allied air contingents there embrace RAAF, Canadian, and Indian squadrons.

In the Japanese phrase, this United Nations air offensive brings "the death of a thousand cuts." The enemy tries feverishly to repair the damage whose area, however, is too vast. The counter-effort is crumbling, as the emaciated and diseased Japanese falling into our hands testify. It is gruesome to think what might have befallen the Allied supply positions if the Japanese had had control of the air over our communications lines. Without freedom of movement through the air, no plan of any Allied offensive could be sanely entertained. On the other hand, when the Sixth Indian Division was cut off in the Arakan in February, 1944, supply aircraft serviced it, enabling it to break through and with other Indian forces to rout the enemy, killing 7,000.

A few weeks later, Wingate's celebrated expeditionary force was flown into action by gliders and then supplied by air for months. Virtually at the same time Imphal and Kohima were able to withstand a siege of weeks, thanks to air supply. The entire British Second Division with all its equipment went to their rescue by air. The Japanese, their own communications annihilated by Allied air power, watched helplessly the flow of air transports funneling food, fuel, ordnance, ammunition, precious water!

A strategist's daydream come true has been the British air transport's availability to surface commanders in Asia. Independent of communication lines, there has been freedom of flight and strategic maneuver. In this respect air power matched the British sea power's traditional capacity to deploy force anywhere along the enemy's coastline. But air power is not limited to a coastline; it reaches out to any point in the land mass. Never before in the history of wars has a commander in the field or a staff thinker wielded so astoundingly potent an asset.

It was this strategic trump card that enabled General Slim, 14th Army commander, to think in terms of fifty-mile spurts for his troops. He could count on the Dakotas overhead to drop supplies. Invulnerably he drew his lines of communication across the sky.

According to an Air Ministry spokesman, transport aircraft accomplished the following over Burma last year: total hours flown, more than 300,000; total trips dispatched, over 90,000; weight of freight carried in the combat zone, over 250,000 tons; casualties evacuated, over 60,000. During the past spring (1945), the British averaged over 1,200 transport sorties a day.

Air combat and supply operations by the British must be considered against the background of the monsoon season which starts in May and lasts five months. Preceding the storms and steady downpour there are weeks of exhausting sunshine and depleting humidity. The clammy heat paralyzes physical strength and the will to fight. With everything immersed in water, the shade temperature hovers around 100. At the same time winds blow at 100 miles an hour. Cloud formations carry ice. Jagged mountain peaks are 10,000 feet high.

In the past the advent of the monsoon never deterred the British air contingents. This despite the dirty tricks played by the season's storms on aircraft instruments. Pilots have reported gauges recording 250 mph dives in clouds, when in reality their planes were being thrust upward at the rate of a mile a minute.

One RAF Liberator commander told of a violent storm in the Burma night. For ninety minutes the plane was tossed about by winds, with the altimeter registering 6,000 ft. One by one crew members lost consciousness, while the captain assumed that they were all excessively fatigued. He was bolstering his own strength with whiffs of oxygen, when suddenly the altimeter needle leaped to 18,000 ft; it had iced up a long time before and the other men had collapsed from lack of oxygen. In other respects monsoon is nearly as bad for ground crews. But the British air power carries on.

Long before the defeat of Germany, the nature of British air operations against Japan began to take shape. Their record in the Asiatic skies before V-E day throws much light on what the Americans may expect in the way of collaboration from now on. Examining this recent history very briefly, we confine ourselves to the United Kingdom's air establishment. The contributions to air warfare by the Empire's Eastern nations — the Australians, New Zealanders, Indians, Burmese, Pacific Islanders — are each a substantial study in its own right.

Very few hours after the double cross at Pearl Harbor, Britain was at war with Japan. In the two preceding years the RAF had been in action against the Axis in Europe and North Africa. At that time the pressure of global strategy focused on the defense of Egypt. Unlike the loss of Singapore, the loss of Egypt might have spelled the loss of the war.

Hong Kong had to capitulate. In the Malaya campaign, the Japanese, 100,000 strong, penetrated the Peninsula from Siam and French Indo-China, thanks to Vichy's permission to Tokyo to use those countries as a military base. About 100 obsolete British planes joined in the defense.

In the first Burma campaign the powerful enemy was opposed in the air with a handful of RAF planes and the American Volunteer Group. Retreating systematically, the British fought every inch of the way. It is impossible to go into details, but the combination of tenacious resistance and five monsoon months stopped the enemy from achieving his major objective in the Burma drive; the Japanese had aimed at smashing into India and thence working their way to a juncture with the Germans, perhaps in the Middle East.

Omitting the facts of huge damage to the enemy from the surface forces, the record shows that the RAF and AVG had destroyed 500 Japanese aircraft between January and April, 1942. Limited in numbers, the Allied air units also were short of supplies, and operated from makeshift airdromes.

But the Axis global pincers were acquiring an ever-lengthening shadow. While the Japanese worked their way to India via Burma, Rommel's big break for the Middle East was beginning to look like the real thing when his hordes rolled to Egypt's threshold.

In the meantime, in the Battle of Ceylon, now the base of Britain's East Indies Fleet, the Japanese planes from nearby carriers sought to "Pearl-Harbor" the port of Colombo, the adjoining air base, and railroad shops. Wave after wave of the winged foe found the RAF ready. Out of 100 attacking planes, thirty were destroyed and twenty-five damaged.

Another try was made, with Trincomalee as the target, by a new force of 100 Japanese planes, five days later. The British destroyed thirty-six of those, and damaged two.

Together, the two raids were Japan's first big defeat in the air. That campaign was also a major strategic turning point because it marked the westernmost boundary of enemy penetration. Included in the heavy price paid by the British for victory was the loss of the Hermes.

As the monsoon lifted in the fall of 1942, India was substantially fortified. Aviation-wise, this meant intensified training of paratroops, expansion in numbers of aircraft and skilled pilots in the Indian Air Force. A great convoy arrived from England in May, 1942, bringing thousands of airmen and much flying equipment.

The retreat phase was over by the end of the first year of war against Japan. British ships moving to Pacific waters included the carrier Victorious. Operating with the US Pacific Fleet, it participated in many offensive forays in the Coral Sea, Southwest and Middle Pacific areas.

Heavy commitment in Europe still kept the British from a major offensive in the Far East. Consequently, the second year of Japanese war was one of holding and strengthening positions, of building up striking power. In the air it was a year of harassing the enemy.

The latter essayed the Madagascar campaign. British aircraft carriers swung to support of the commandos and regulars going ashore to frustrate the Axis grand strategy. Had their strategy not been checked at this point, the supplies of Montgomery's Eighth Army slugging it out with Rommel in the desert and to Russia would never have reached their destinations.

The first Arakan campaign was one of limited objectives for the British; they succeeded. Then came the saga of Wingate's Raiders, introducing the revolutionary technique of furnishing supplies without surface communication lines. Jungle fighters received stores of food, medicines, ammunition by air. To several rendezvous, designated by RAF headquarters radio, parachutes brought supplies.

Later the method was applied in the 1944 Burma campaign and in Western Europe. The RAF delivered several thousand tons to Wingate whose men kept 10,000 miles of Japanese-held terrain in continuous state of dread.

In the second year of fighting Nippon, the British airmen did more than just support the Arakan offensive and drop essentials to Wingate. They initiated an offensive of their own, bombing Rangoon, Mandalay and other enemy supply and communication centers. They put several air bases out of commission. Theirs was an appreciable contribution to preventing the Japanese from turning Burma into a springboard against India.

In four months of 1943 the RAF shot up almost half of the enemy locomotives in Burma. Two-thirds of Japanese river steamers, an indispensable transport factor in Burma, were destroyed, mostly by RAF bombs.

The year of attack got under way in September, 1943 when the Quebec Conference resulted in the formation of the South East Asia Command under Admiral Mountbatten, It became the longest of all the Allied land fronts, with the exception of Europe's Eastern Front. While most of the fabulous fighting was on the ground in the SEAC's 1944 spring and summer campaign, one of its outstanding objectives was to secure an air route over the Hump to China.

All RAF and USAAF combat units were unified under the command of Air Marshal Sir Richard Peirse whose deputy was Maj Gen G E Stratemeyer, USAAF. The Americans took care of most of the strategic bombing, the British concentrated on tactical operations. At the end of May, 1945, South East Asia became almost exclusively a British theater of combat activity, with announcement of the withdrawal of USAAF units from the Eastern Air Command and relinquishment of the Command by Gen Stratemeyer.

Between them, and between November, 1943 and August, 1944, the Japanese Air Force was virtually wiped out of Burmese skies, with the loss of about 800 aircraft, some of them destroyed on the ground. Surface successes were assured when the RAF started destroying an average of some 600 river transport craft each month.

Wingate's invention — supplying great ground forces solely by air — was applied on an even bigger scale. C-47s commanded by Colonel Cochran, USAAF, and flown mostly by Americans, planted supplies. They were followed by the RAF men in Dakotas, under Air Vice-Marshal Sir Eustace Baldwin. Again victory was assured when manpower reinforcements and supplies poured in by air.

The RAF's principal contribution was through its Tactical Air Force. On the Arakan front the RAF gave the British troops the heaviest close support ever witnessed in Burma, virtually liquidating Japanese positions. RAF rocket-firing aircraft ruined Japanese installations, notably the oil supplies in the valuable oil fields at Yenangyaung.

It became apparent by 1944 that, because of British naval aviation, the Japanese Navy was disinclined to accept battle in the Indian Ocean and the Bay of Bengal. In April, 1944, the Eastern Fleet launched air blows from carriers against Sabang and Lhoknga. Their toll included several Japanese ships, more than twenty-five aircraft. Two enemy destroyers were set afire, installations wrecked.

On July 25 the big Japanese-held naval base of Sabang received another visitation. Carrier-borne aircraft poured devastation on the harbor, radar and radio installations. A few weeks later another air and sea attack hit Padang, in Sumatra.

On September 18, 1944, carrier aircraft attacked Sumatra. Supported by other units of the Eastern Fleet, they pounded railways, repair and maintenance centers at Sigli, wiping out the only repair yards in the entire northern area of the island. Most of the vessels and aircraft in all these operations were British. A most important result of these air-sea blows was that the Japanese supplies had been cut off.

It is thus evident that even before the defeat of Germany, the British share of air war against Japan could scarcely be dismissed as token. Now the RAF and the RN Air Arm are about to hit their full stride in the final job in the Pacific. The history of US-British partnership in the air over Germany will repeat itself over Japan.

This article was originally published in the August, 1945, issue of Air News magazine, vol 9, no 2, pp 21-22, 66, 68.
The original article has a captioned reference to a photo in the magazine:
Pictured on the opposite page is one of England's most outstanding heavy bombers. Smaller than our own B-29s, but nevertheless capable of carrying a good size bombload a considerable distance, these huge bombers may be the first British four-engine planes to see action against the Japanese from Allied bases in India and China.