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Drop Zone Burma

Nasty weather, enemy fire and an unforgiving jungle—just some of the perils faced by the men who flew transport missions over Burma during the Second World War.

The charismatic figure of Brigadier Orde Wingate haunts accounts of the Burma campaigns of 1943-44. He was a brilliant leader, innovative in training and tactics, yet careless with the lives of his men. In February 1943, he moved 3,100 troops and 1,100 mules—the first Chindit Operation—into Burma to wreak havoc behind Japanese lines. Above the jungle, the operation was supported by aircraft that dropped vital supplies to men whose mere survival was considered a victory.

Canadian aircrew of No. 194 Squadron escape the hot sun by finding shade beneath the wing of an aircraft, April 1943. [PHOTO: LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PL-18001]

Canadian aircrew of No. 194 Squadron escape the hot sun by finding shade beneath the wing of an aircraft, April 1943.

When the ground force was withdrawn in late March 1944, it had sustained 818 deaths. Many of those lucky enough to get out of the jungle were wracked with malaria and dysentery; only 600 were fit for further service.

Wingate’s second Chindit Operation involved a division-size expedition into Burma. It began with a marching column in February 1944 followed by a mass air delivery. Casualties were 1,396 killed, 2,434 wounded and once more the majority of survivors were unfit for further duty. The commander of the British 14th Army, General William Slim, considered the Chindit operations a waste of good manpower.

However, both operations showed the power and flexibility of air transport, extending even to casualty evacuation.

This role was also demonstrated elsewhere. In February 1944, for example, a Japanese attack isolated the Indian Army’s 7th Division which fell back on its headquarters area. The Battle of the Admin Box tested a new doctrine laid by Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten, the commander-in-chief. Units that had been outflanked were not to withdraw—“Never let go—we will supply you from the air.”

American and British transport squadrons did just that—repeatedly. Sieges at Imphal and Kohima during March and June 1944 were defeated because of unprecedented air deliveries to 14th Army units. Japanese troops had advanced with limited food and ammunition, expecting to capture these commodities. Instead, they found themselves starved for both.

When 14th Army went over to the offensive, it had similar support through a campaign that saw fighting southwards through Burma, crossing rivers and racing the monsoon rains, until Rangoon was taken in May 1945. Air Chief Marshal Sir Keith Park, air commander-in-chief, South-East Asia Command, would later write that in Europe: “…the Armies of Liberation are advancing under the protecting wings of the Air Forces. But here in Burma our Armies are advancing on the wings of the Allied Air Forces.”

The best-known Royal Canadian Air Force contributions were Nos. 435 (Chinthe) and 436 (Flying Elephant) squadrons which operated in the theatre from December 1944 to August 1945. Nevertheless, Canadians had been involved in transport work since the beginning of the campaign. Their initial numbers were small, but by mid-1944 it was estimated that 20 per cent of transport crews were RCAF personnel, another element of the Lost Legion of airmen.

Squadron Leader James Bell (left) and Flying Officer Malcolm Forester display a flying suit that was ripped and torn by Japanese shell splinters. [PHOTO: LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PL-27691]

Squadron Leader James Bell (left) and Flying Officer Malcolm Forester display a flying suit that was ripped and torn by Japanese shell splinters.

Initially the Lockheed Hudson was the dominant transport, lifting roughly 3,000 pounds of cargo per trip. By mid-1943, Douglas Dakotas were supplanting them. These routinely carried 7,000 pounds of supplies. Their chief difficulty lay in a relatively small cargo door. When making free or parachuted cargo drops, Dakota pilots often had to make three or four passes to unload the cargo while being peppered by nearby enemy units.

No. 194 Sqdn., one of the theatre’s pioneers, was commanded from November 1944 by a Canadian member of the Royal Air Force, Wing Commander Robert C. Crawford. He had been let go from the RCAF in the Great Cut of 1932 and had promptly joined the RAF. Crawford entered the war flying Lysanders in France, earned a Distinguished Flying Cross with No. 194 Sqdn. and was killed in a Dakota crash on June 20, 1945.

An RCAF news release dated Feb. 1, 1945, reported on a crew of No. 194 Sqdn. that included three Canadians—the pilot, Flying Officer James Hazell of Brantford, Ont., and two wireless air gunners from Peterborough, Ont., flight lieutenants David E. Moorhead and Frederick F. Watson. The story detailed the delivery of special Christmas rations for the troops, from live fowl to dressed turkeys for units too close to Japanese units to permit poultry raising. Manifests included ham, eggs, sausages, oranges, jam, pickles, almonds, dates and cloves. With each consignment went detailed instructions to the army cooks on how to prepare the meals.

The pace of the transport flights was often grueling. When Flt. Lt. Albert E. Anderson of Sardis, B.C., applied for an operational wing, he reported having flown 150 sorties or 505 operational hours between Feb. 21 and Dec. 18, 1944, as a Dakota pilot in No. 31 Sqdn. Squadron Leader James Bell, an Argentinian in the RCAF and serving in No. 194 Sqdn. flew nearly 400 operational hours.

During the second Chindit operation he carried out nine night sorties to a jungle airstrip. Flight Lieutenant Albert Rogers of Montreal, a radio operator in No. 117 Sqdn., logged 108 sorties or 479 operational hours from Feb. 15 to Sept. 1, 1945.

Flying Officer Norman Brown of Toronto saw the Burma Campaign from several angles. In April 1942, as a non-commissioned officer pilot in No. 62 Sqdn., his Hudson was hit by anti-aircraft fire while reconnoitering the Andaman Islands. His RCAF navigator—Pilot Officer Richard A. Baker—was mortally wounded and the aircraft was set on fire; once the flames had been extinguished, Brown flew 600 miles to crash land at base. Switching to No. 194 Sqdn., Brown flew 60 sorties on Hudsons in 1943 and 104 sorties on Dakotas in 1944. Of this total, 43 were carried out at night and 20 involved landings behind enemy lines.

Terrain, weather, lack of forecasting and navigational aids—all conspired to complicate sorties. Following the crash of a supply-dropping Dakota of No. 117 Sqdn. on the night of March 27, 1944 (in which two of the crew were RCAF), the unit commander wrote: “These operations necessitated flying aircraft at 300 feet over the dropping zone. With any high ground in the vicinity, it is obviously a hazardous operation at night under conditions of no moon.”

Flight Lieutenant Reginald Smith of St. Thomas, Ont. [PHOTO: LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PL-27686]

Flight Lieutenant Reginald Smith of St. Thomas, Ont.

Although Allied fighter aircraft dominated the Burmese skies in 1944-45, there was too much air space to provide individual protection to every cargo plane. Happily, the Japanese never mounted a sustained campaign against the Dakotas, but they occasionally intercepted them. On July 30, 1944, they shot down two Dakotas of No. 117 Sqdn. in flames. One, piloted by Flt. Lt. Reginald S. Smith, DFC, of St. Thomas, Ont., had delivered its load and was en route home when intercepted. Controllers heard a message: “Cut off and being attacked by enemy fighters south on Chindwin”—then nothing.

On the night of Nov. 8, 1944, five Dakotas were destroyed by rampaging Japanese fighters; these included a machine from No. 31 Sqdn. whose five-man crew were all members of the RCAF, and another of No. 62 Sqdn. with three Canadians aboard.

Not all the flying was direct army support. The air forces in the Far East were also engaged in clandestine warfare. In Burma, the British and Americans enlisted tribal allies—Karens, Katchins—who provided everything from passive intelligence to combat support and who, sadly, would be abandoned after the war.

Siam (modern Thailand) was a mass of contradictions. It was formally allied with Japan, yet the population and armed forces sabotaged collaboration and stealthily aided the Allies. The Burmese seemed to have things both ways; they welcomed the Japanese as liberators, then watched as the war was fought out in their country. General Aung San formed the Burmese National Army to help the invaders, then switched sides in March 1945. To this day, statues show him wearing either Japanese or British uniforms.

Keeping guerrilla allies supplied demanded considerable air support. On the evening of March 15, 1944, a Hudson of No. 357 Sqdn. took off from the city of Dum Dum to carry out an operation on behalf of “Quasi-Military Authorities.” The experienced crew of six included four RCAF members. This time the aircraft crashed into a hillside near the China-Burma border. Only FO Wallace P. Prosser of Vancouver, the RCAF navigator, survived, very badly injured.

The RAF went to extraordinary lengths to rescue him. A doctor, who had never before parachuted, and a flight sergeant were dropped to him, but it was three weeks before he was well enough to move. A five-day, 100-mile trek through mountainous jungle, with coolies carrying the patient, brought Prosser to China, from whence he was evacuated by air to India. The courageous doctor who accompanied him throughout the ordeal received a Distinguished Service Order.

Liberator aircraft, eschewing bombs for passengers and freight, penetrated deep into Siam and flew as far as Malaya on secret operations. In the forefront of these missions were Nos. 357 and 358 squadrons. At least two Canadians were awarded the Croix de Guerre for deliveries to French-Indo China. One of these was FO Harry Smith of Winnipeg who had a remarkable adventure.

On May 29, 1945, in a Liberator of No. 358 Sqdn. (with an all-Canadian crew) he was over Siam in daylight, tasked to drop several American OSS (Office of Strategic Services) agents to waiting allies. He was intercepted by nine Ki.43 Oscar fighters. One was probably destroyed, but the others shot out all of the Liberator’s engines, forcing Smith to crash land in the jungle. One crewman had been killed in the fight, another died in the crash and one OSS agent died of wounds. The survivors contacted friendly civilians who buried the dead and evacuated everyone else to Bangkok by bullock cart and boat, all the while evading Japanese patrols. Eventually, they were flown out of Siam.

Advertising the merits of the Norseman. [ILLUSTRATION: COURTESY HUGH A. HALLIDAY]

Advertising the merits of the Norseman.

One hero of the Burma campaign was an aircraft type—the Canadian-built Noorduyn Norseman transport, known as the UC-64 in American service. In that theatre it was used only by United States Army Air Force units and crews; the records of UC-64 operations lie in American archives, waiting for an interested historian.

As the number of war veterans declines, one hopes that somewhere these men have left records of their adventures. Squadron Leader John Cook of Calgary spent 27 months in the India-Burma theatre, logged approximately 1,500 hours of flying, survived a crash at Imphal, and carried distinguished passengers, including Mountbatten, to all manner of places. He died in Vancouver in 1986. Do his logbook, letters or photographs survive in a library, museum or family archive? The question might be asked of several hundred men.


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