Air Power

Air power was crucial to the outcome of the Burma Campaign. In 1942 and 1943, the Allies depended on traditional supply lines. Not only was it vulnerable to being cut by the Japanese, supply by road was always precarious in Burma because the few roads were poorly maintained and quickly turned into glutinous quagmires during the long monsoon season.

A detachment of the Royal Bombay Sappers and Miners attempting to maintain the Palel-Tamu Road during the battle for Imphal-Kohima. India, April 1944 (NAM)

These crippling limitations were overcome by using air power to keep troops supplied with food, water, ammunition and fuel, even when cut off. The potential of this strategy was confirmed with Chindit columns in 1943. The Battle of Admin Box then demonstrated, for the first time, that adequate supplies for an entire division could be delivered by air. To achieve this remarkable feat, it was necessary to clear the Japanese from the sky over the drop zone, as the transport planes had minimal armament. Key to establishing air superiority was the arrival of spitfires, which could outperform the Japanese fighters. Once the Allies had control of the air, they could use their huge fleet of transport aircraft to relocate units rapidly and keep them supplied. This capacity was decisive in the Battles of Kohima and Imphal in 1944 and in retaking Burma in 1945.

Establishing Air Superiority

The mainstay of the Allied fighter force in 1943 was the Hawker Hurricane, which was hardy and quite evenly matched against the Oscar (Nakajima Ki-43), the principal fighter of the Japanese army. However, it could not fly as high or as fast as the Dinah (Mitsubishi Ki-46) reconnaissance aircraft.

Hawker Hurricane Mark IIBs and IICs of No. 67 Sqn RAF lined up at Chittagong, India, May 1943. (IWM)

The game-changer was the arrival in late 1943 of brand-new Spitfires, which could fly faster and higher than Hurricanes and also had a greater rate of climb. “Flies like a bird” wrote Flight Sergeant Dudley Barnett of 136 Squadron, after his first flight in October 1943 (1). The Spitfires were also more heavily armed and provided a significant boost to morale.

Spitfire PR Mark XI, T, of No. 681 Sqn RAF based at Alipore, India, taking off from Chittagong, India. 31st December 1944. (IWM)

Air Transport

A huge fleet of British and American transport aircraft had been gathered in India to carry supplies to China. This a priority to sustain China in her war with Japan, a war that tied down a million Japanese troops. Before the fall of Burma, supplies had been conveyed via the port of Rangoon and then overland along the Burma Road. When this route was closed, they were flown from India over the Himalayas, a hazardous journey known as the “Hump”.

The strategic decision to supply troops by air was possible because of the huge transport capability available in India. The Battle of Admin Box established that the strategy was viable, fully sustaining the 7th Indian Division despite being entirely cut off for 18 days. This emergency needed American aircraft to be diverted from the Hump, to the displeasure of President Roosevelt.

A USAAF C47 dropping supplies by parachute

The workhorse of the transport fleet was the Douglas C47 Dakota, which could carry almost 4 tons. It was a military version of the pre-war DC3 airliner. Ten thousand Dakotas were built in the USA during WW2 and the first of over 1900 received by the RAF arrived in India in 1942.

An RAF C47 over Burma, ready to drop cargo from the side hatch

Dropping cargo from a pitching plane was difficult and dangerous, as it involved thrusting heavy packages from an open side hatch. In the image below of crew struggling to push their supplies out of a C47 over Burma, a “kicker” can be seen lying on his back and pushing with both legs.

Rickard, J (20 March 2021), Airdropping Supplies over Burma ,

As well as air drops of supplies, the transport fleet was also able to rapidly airlift troops across long distances. In this way, 5th Indian Division was carried from the Arakan in Burma to Dimapur in North India in March 1944, enabling the 4th Battalion Queen’s Own Royal West Kents to reach Kohima in the nick of time, just as the Japanese arrived. Indian 5th Division to Imphal from the Arakan region of Burma. This require 260 flights & was the first airlift of such magnitude in history. Motor vehicles, guns & mules had to be transported, if the division was to operate effectively on arrival. For most men, it was their first flight. One of them was Private Ray Street, who later recalled:

“It wasn’t a good advert for flying. It wasn’t very comfortable. There weren’t any seats. We had to sit on our packs. The crew were American. They had parachutes. We didn’t. When we asked why, they said it was their plane! The navigator kept poking his head out telling us that if we saw any Japs to put the Bren guns out of the windows and shoot them.” (2)

An RAF C-47 Dakota dropping supplies on Palel airstrip, during the siege of Kohima-Imphal, India. 1944. (NAM)

By the end of the Battles of Kohima and Imphal, the RAF had carried 19,000 tons of supplies, 12,000 troops and 13,000 casualties. The air and ground crews were exhausted.

Ground Attack

As well as its combat role, the versatile Hurricane was also widely used to support ground forces by attacking Japanese troops, vehicles, bridges and railways. For this role, it carried two 250lb bombs and was referred to as a Hurribomber.

Hawker Hurricane Mark IIC, No. 42 Sqn RAF, dropping two 250lb bombs on a bridge across the Nambol river, near Imphal, Northeast India. July 1944 (IWM)

Four squadrons of Vultee Vengeance dive bombers provided further punch to air strikes during the Battles of Imphal and Kohima.

Vengeance Mark III, FB922, of No. 1583 Calibration Flight, taking off from Chittagong, India

RAF Roundels

The red circle in the centre of the RAF roundel led to friendly fire incidents when it was mistaken for the red sun symbol on Japanese planes. Consequently, it was removed from most RAF aircraft by 1944. This is illustrated by the painting below of Hurribombers in their ground attack role.

Quotations are cited from:

(1) “Burma ’44” by James Holland (2016) Transworld Publishers.

(2) “The Siege of Kohima” by Robert Street (2003) Barny Books.