In and out of Southeast Asia

April 7, 2015 by Hugh A. Halliday

Canada’s air force had a tentative role in defending Australia, Burma and India

“What would have happened if…?” Wartime history is replete with speculative questions, and one example of this involves co-operation between the Royal Canadian Air Force and Australia, which was relatively modest during the Second World War. Yet it might have been greater.

Nepalese soldiers, called Gurkhas after the district of Gorkha in Nepal, prepare for a parachute jump with help from RCAF aircrew in a DC-3 Dakota transport aircraft. [DND/LAC/PL-60632]

Nepalese soldiers, called Gurkhas after the district of Gorkha in Nepal, prepare for a parachute jump with help from RCAF aircrew in a DC-3 Dakota transport aircraft.
DND/LAC/PL-60632

On Jan. 20, 1942, the Australian High Commissioner to Canada transmitted an appeal from Canberra for assistance “in its present emergency.” In order of priority, he requested (a) equipment, such as aircraft, anti-aircraft weapons, radio direction finding gear, armoured fighting vehicles, anti-tank weapons and torpedoes; (b) establishment in Australia of a Canadian Army force to act as a general headquarters mobile reserve; and (c) transfer to Australian naval stations of a number of fully manned and equipped naval units suitable for local defences.

The Canadian government was reluctant to help even then, having its own priorities at home and in Europe. Moreover, the view was expressed by headquarters that “independent action on the part of Canada” would simply complicate arrangements being worked out between Britain and the United States. The most positive step reassigned nine Royal Australian Air Force pilots and nine RAAF observers who were undergoing operational training in Canada to Ferry Command in order to move Catalina flying boats to Australia.

By March 4, Canada’s air force chiefs concluded that little could be done for Australia. “Personnel could only be made available at the expense of the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan,” said Air Marshal Lloyd Breadner. “No equipment is available without depleting home defences, which are presently inadequate.”

The possibility of transferring two Kittyhawk fighter aircraft squadrons to Australia was discussed by Air Vice-Marshal N.R. Anderson on April 10, although he feared this would weaken Canada’s own defences, particularly by taking away most of the RCAF’s operationally trained fighter pilots who would otherwise be needed “to form the experienced nucleus of new fighter squadrons.”

RCAF officers assemble at an airfield in Cairo, Egypt, while en route to Asia in 1944. From left are Wing Commander Paul Mathews, Wing Cmdr. H.B. Norris, Squadron Leader W.B. Woods, Wing Cmdr. Lionel Kent, and Sqdn. Ldr. W.W. McKay. [Canadian War Museum/19650071-019_14975]

RCAF officers assemble at an airfield in Cairo, Egypt, while en route to Asia in 1944. From left are Wing Commander Paul Mathews, Wing Cmdr. H.B. Norris, Squadron Leader W.B. Woods, Wing Cmdr. Lionel Kent, and Sqdn. Ldr. W.W. McKay.
Canadian War Museum/19650071-019_14975

If this had gone forward, the units dispatched would have been No. 111 Squadron and No. 118 Squadron (in the Western and Eastern air commands respectively). Seasoned pilots to replace those sent to Australia would have to be obtained from operational squadrons in Britain—a classic case of robbing Peter to pay Paul. Two months before the Japanese attack on the Aleutian Islands, the Canadian decision had been made—to do nothing.

By August, Canada was feeling a bit more generous, suggesting that perhaps some 50 Hurricane fighter aircraft could be sent to Australia. In the end, they were not. Two radar sets had been sent in May and more were contemplated, subject to production levels and the needs of Canadian and American radar stations. No further sets were shipped directly to Australia, but several RCAF radar personnel subsequently went there via Southeast Asia.

In July 1943, the Australians suggested that one or two RCAF squadrons be sent to the southwest Pacific to cooperate with the RAAF and the United States Army Air Forces there. This could only have been done by sending units from the Canadian Home War Establishment. When the HWE was reduced later that year, it was to send squadrons to Europe rather than the Pacific.

The idea was revived in March 1944, when the new Chief of the Air Staff, Robert Leckie, suggested transferring a HWE Catalina/Canso squadron to that region. “A token force of this nature in the Southwest Pacific theatre would be extremely well received in Canada, as well as in Australia and the United States, as representing the vanguard of the forces which this country will send against Japan,” he wrote. Again nothing came of this, although in 1944, Catalinas from the Boeing (Canada) plant were being diverted from British to New Zealand forces.

By late December 1943, the RCAF was beginning to contemplate operations in the southwest Pacific and Southeast Asia theatres. Group Captain William I. Clements travelled to the region as part of a British mission to study conditions and anticipate problems that might confront the RCAF. The air force had almost no experience in mobile operations (as opposed to fixed-base) in this pre-D-Day period.

Many questions existed: What buildings were needed in that region? Were supplies available locally or must they be imported? What runway surfacing methods were applicable? Could local labour be used without too much initial instruction? Would there be problems with sewage, water supplies and power?

A Canadian Army mission proceeded to the Pacific early in 1944. On June 8, an order was issued for the formation of the Canadian Air Liaison Mission to Southeast Asia (CALM). Its objectives were to (a) investigate the use of air forces against Japan and make recommendations on which to base decisions for Canadian air operations in Southeast Asia; (b) provide experienced RCAF officers to assist in organizing formations and units in Southeast Asia, should their formation be considered desirable; and (c) establish liaison with United Nations naval, military and air formations in Southeast Asia.

The phrase “should their formation be considered desirable” demonstrates just how uncertain the RCAF was about future plans and developments.

The mission, headed by Air Vice-Marshal L.F. Stevenson, included 25 officers and two clerical NCOs. Seven of the officers represented aircrew; the others covered administration, intelligence, accounts, aero engineering, armament and general equipment. Two Dakotas were allocated to CALM, each with a four-man crew.

The group arrived in India in July 1944 and returned to Canada in November. During their presence “in theatre,” the officers split into groups, visiting formations and units relevant to their particular specialties. Correspondence suggests that while the officers dispersed, the two Dakotas were involved in some “special operations.” Whether these were routine, combat or clandestine is not known.

The members of CALM were not impressed by Royal Air Force standards of accommodations, health, rations, sanitation and welfare. They recommended that the RCAF should not participate in Southeast Asian operations; if a role against Japan was sought, it should be in the northern Pacific. These views undoubtedly appealed to the Canadian government, but did not prevent the formation of two RCAF transport squadrons in that theatre.

Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King, loyal as he was to the Allied cause, opposed the deployment of Canadian forces to assist Britain in the recovery of her Asian colonies. His reasoning was partly dynastic (he never forgot that his grandfather had been a rebel in 1837–1838), partly political (always a backward glance at party standings) and partly suspicious, born of the fall of Hong Kong, when too much faith had been placed in British assessments and assurances.

Nevertheless, in the autumn of 1944, the RCAF authorized the formation of No. 435 Squadron and No. 436 Squadron, virtually in a fit of absent-mindedness. Almost at once, the government tried to back out. British authorities, on the other hand, viewed the DC-3 Dakota transport squadrons as vital to the reconquest of Burma in 1945. RAF commanders on the ground ignored RCAF suggestions (never demands) that the squadrons be withdrawn early, then finally dispatched a message that said, in effect, “Leave us alone.” Nos. 435 and 436 squadrons remained in theatre, and were hastily transferred to Britain in September 1945, as soon as replacement RAF squadrons could be found.

The formation of the RCAF Dakota squadrons in India was preceded by a strange, related tragedy in Europe. To service and administer the units, the RCAF assembled 300 non-flying personnel, most of them newly arrived in Britain. They were processed through No. 1 Personnel Despatch Centre, the diary of which noted on Sept. 24, 1944, that “the particulars of each passenger, together with the next of kin, were taken immediately on arrival; at 1700 hours, a meal was provided by the Airmens’ Mess; they were briefed in the use of dinghy and tropical hygiene, rested until midnight, called, and given a further meal, grouped into 20s and despatched to the aircraft. The aircraft were despatched by a new route over France, the first stop being Elmas in Sardinia.”

Fifteen Dakotas were assigned to carry the men. By days’ end, 14 had completed the first leg of the journey. One—KG653 with 20 airmen and 3 crew members—was missing. Most of the RCAF personnel were humble Other Ranks, including aero engine and motor vehicle mechanics, a service policeman, a telephone operator, and others.

KG653 had taken off from Pershore in Worcestershire at 3:30 a.m. on Sept. 24, 1944. Postwar RAF casualty investigators subsequently interviewed German officials, notably the Burgomeister of Neuleiningen in the Pfalz area of Germany, who reported that on that date a “two motor transport aircraft” crashed nearby at 1:00 p.m. The weather was very bad; dark low clouds, heavy rain, thunder and lightning. Several aircraft were heard. Also, the officials believed they heard machine guns of a fighter. The Dakota had exploded and burned in mid-air, and wreckage and bodies were strewn over a large area. A guard was mounted by local police until Luftwaffe police arrived to collect what they could, including documents. Some articles of tropical clothing were recovered.

KG653 had been at least 30 degrees off track, and even allowing for differences in British and German time, the Dakota must have been close to the limits of its endurance. It had been engaged by a Messerschmitt Bf 109G piloted by Hauptman (Captain) Julius Meimberg, who subsequently published his memoirs. He described how sickened he was to be shooting down what was clearly a lost and unarmed transport that refused to land when given a chance.

Earlier that day back at Pershore, one RCAF aero engine mechanic, allocated to another aircraft, had asked to be switched to KG653 so that he could accompany a buddy. The loadmaster refused—the lists had been made up and there would be no changes. And so Leading Aircraftman Peter Brennan boarded his assigned aircraft and lived to become an active member of the Burma Star Association and the Canadian Aviation Historical Society.

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