Monday, May 11, 2015

RAF Defeats: Malaya and Burma

Brewster Buffaloes over Malaya.

Malaya is a long peninsula, not as mountainous as Greece, but covered with tropical jungle and many streams that hinder north–south travel. Rainfall is heavy throughout the year, and there are frequent violent thunderstorms, with heavy, low clouds that were impenetrable to the aircraft of the day. Kuantan is 300 miles south of Singora, which is roughly 500 miles north of Singapore. There were 18,000 Europeans living in Malaya in 1939, of whom 42 percent were women and children. This population was reduced in 1941 to 9,000, nearly all of whom were in government service. This was a cumbersome structure unsuited to war and certainly did not have the makings of a pool of reliable, local labor.

Having failed for almost two decades to appreciate Japanese ambitions, neither London nor the local authorities had done much to improve or modernize the region’s defenses against that empire, apart from those guarding the seaward approaches to Singapore. In a way, this was understandable: none of Britain’s traditional imperial rivals would have been expected to attack overland through the Malay states, and Japanese capabilities to do so were seriously underestimated. Moreover, the difficult terrain, lack of roads, and long coastline suggested that the defense of the mainland was a task primarily for the air force rather than the army. The general policy of the Far East Command was therefore to construct as many airfields as possible, grouped to allow the concentration of the aircraft expected to be available. Twenty-six were completed by December 1941 on both coasts, but of these, fifteen were grass fields that became treacherously muddy in the wet climate. Two, at Kota Baharu and Kuantan, were located in close proximity to good invasion beaches, where they would immediately fall into enemy hands given a successful assault. Improvements to the grass fields could not be made because of the small labor pool; most “native” workers were employed in the tin mines and rubber plantations. In addition, overcoming the drainage problem would have required heavy equipment that was simply not available. Furthermore, although everyone knew that the airfields needed their own air defense artillery, by December 1941, only 17 percent of that required had reached Malaya, and most of the forward, vulnerable airfields had no antiaircraft defenses at all.

Air defense was also critical to the security of Singapore. Although four radar stations had been installed there and an observer corps created, there were gaps in coverage, and the lack of telephone lines limited their effectiveness. Efforts to promote civil defenses on the island were hampered by the water table; blackout was considered impossible due to ventilation needs; and although enough food supplies for 5 million people to survive a six-month-long siege had been imported, they were stored around Alor Setar, in the northwest, and would likely fall into enemy hands almost immediately. In short, from the standpoint of managing and caring for the civilian population, the island was not a firm base.

At the outbreak of war on 8 December 1941, there were four daytime fighter squadrons and one night squadron, limited to the defense of Singapore. In addition, there were two light bomber, two general reconnaissance, two torpedo bomber, and one flying boat squadrons— a combination of RAF, Royal Australian Air Force, and Royal New Zealand Air Force units, with Dutch air force reinforcements (twenty-two Glenn Curtiss bombers and nine Brewster Buffaloes) promised. There were only eighty-eight aircraft in reserve. Of the newly arrived Buffaloes (each of which needed twenty-seven modifications), only three squadrons were ready operationally. Not all the pilots were well trained when hostilities began, nor, due to unprocessed intelligence, did they know that the enemy’s Zeros were faster. The other types of aircraft available were old and, in the case of the Vildebeeste torpedo bombers (two squadrons), long overdue for replacement. The light bombers (the four Blenheim I and IV squadrons) and the GR Hudsons (two Australian squadrons) were trained for overseas work but lacked reserves and had too many possible roles. Most important, the number of aircraft available was far below the 330 the British chiefs of staff considered minimal and the 566 requested.

Given this shortfall, primary responsibility for defense was suddenly switched to the army, which meant that the airfields became a defense liability and a danger if taken by the enemy. They had been prepared for demolition by sinking concrete cylinders into the runways and then adding metal canisters of explosives, but these would prove to be less than effective measures when the airfields were overrun. Meanwhile, repairing bomb craters on the runways before the Japanese arrived was an endless, nearly impossible task, given the water table and the continuing lack of native labor. Conscription of the civilian population was never implemented.

The army was not prepared for this unexpected role. Trained for neither jungle nor mobile warfare, many of its 87,000 personnel were afraid of the ground they would have to fight over. Yet, at the same time, they were sublimely overconfident and led largely by officers who did not appreciate the lessons of France and the Middle East and underrated the Japanese. (Overall command was vested in Air Chief Marshal Sir Robert Brooke-Popham, who handed control over to Lieutenant General Sir Henry Pownall on 23 December 1941. In an attempt to produce a coordinated theater effort, General Sir Archibald Wavell became the supreme commander of the American, British, Dutch, and Australian area on 29 December. The air officer, commanding [AOC] was Air Vice-Marshal C. W. H. Pulford; he became ill and was eventually replaced by Air Vice-Marshal P. C. Maltby. The army commander in Malaya was Lieutenant General A. E. Percival.) The high command was faced with a Hobson’s choice: it could meet the Japanese landings well forward and defend the airfields, or, in anticipation of landings at Mersing (close to Singapore) or even on the island itself, it could hold forces farther to the south. The former option was chosen, but the ground commander in the north had too few forces in an area unsuited to a strategic and tactical defense. It went without saying that the two sets of airfields had to be defended, but his lines of communication were limited to a single-line railway. Thinking broadly and imaginatively, the high command conceived of Operation Matador, a preemptive action into Siam; planning for this operation so absorbed the staff that little attention could be paid to the defense of the airfields. In theory, at least, preemption was one way around the army’s weakness—it might catch the Japanese off balance—but since it involved a violation of Thai neutrality, Matador required advance authorization, and on 5 December London told the governor and the commander in chief that Matador could be launched only after the Japanese had landed in Siam or in the Dutch East Indies. By then, it would be too late, as the initiative would be in enemy hands. And that is what happened. Despite the warnings of impending Japanese operations, political concerns about Thai neutrality led to the cancellation of Matador on 7 December.

During the night of 7–8 December, three experienced divisions of the Japanese army landed both north and south of the Thai–Malay border, with one regiment intending to push on into Burma. Their objective from the beginning was to seize the British airfields in northern Malaya as well as that at Victoria Point, Burma—the first step in their attempt to gain overall air superiority in the theater, as well as to cut off the reinforcement and resupply chain from India. Singapore was also attacked in the early morning. Radar gave adequate warning, and the antiaircraft defenses went to immediate readiness (the searchlight units were slower to react). Although there was no blackout and the moon was full, damage at the main targets, the Tengh and Selatar airfields, was slight.

Night fighters were not scrambled against the Singapore raid because they had not practiced with the air defense organization, but there was an active response against the invasion force reported at Kota Baharu. Indeed, an initial attack by the Australian Hudsons was successful, sinking one transport, damaging two others, and killing as many as 3,000 Japanese; a second attack, this time by Vildebeestes, arrived after most of the Japanese transports were gone. The pilots therefore chose to land at Kedah and Kelantan airfields to refuel, but they were caught on the ground by the Japanese, and most of their aircraft were destroyed.

As in France, the nature of the British air campaign was now profoundly shaped by events on the ground. Having failed to stop the amphibious landing, the army could not keep the Japanese from the fringes of Kota Baharu airfield, and the five Hudsons and seven Vildebeestes there withdrew to Kuantan. Other airfields in the north were hit before the Allies could bomb the landings at Singora and Patani, and all but two Blenheims were destroyed on the ground at Alor Setar. With only 50 of 110 aircraft still serviceable in the north, it was time to withdraw and implement the airfield denial scheme, but the demolitions were incomplete, leaving the runways intact. At little loss to themselves, the Japanese were well on their way to establishing air superiority.

The AOC now decided to use his depleted bomber forces against the newly established Japanese base at Singora—the most dangerous of all the Japanese landings. Six Blenheims, lacking fighter support, attacked and lost three of their number; the Buffaloes at Butterworth on the west coast were fully engaged in standing patrols over that airfield. Another attempt, this time with fighter escorts, was clobbered by high-level bombers and low-level fighters before it got off the ground. Two days later, on 10 December, Admiral Tom Phillips’s attempt to intervene against the Japanese landings without air cover met with disaster, as the capital ships Prince of Wales and Repulse were sunk, lending additional credibility to the enemy’s aura of invincibility. The Butterworth base was evacuated, with only eight aircraft having survived. The AOC tried to reestablish a network of fields in central and southern Malaya using improvised administrative and maintenance arrangements and whatever stores had been successfully transported from the north by rail. Even so, priority had to be given to the defense of incoming convoys.

The battle continued to go poorly on all fronts. The Indian army’s Eleventh Division, for example, was driven out of its position by just two Japanese battalions and a company of tanks. Although air reinforcements were arriving—six Hudsons and five Blenheims by Christmas Day, and fifty-one crated Hurricanes early in the new year—the lack of air transport into Singapore meant that there was a shortage of servicing personnel. And when they did arrive, superior Japanese forces took their toll. Although some of the Hurricane reinforcements had success on 20 January against an unescorted Japanese raid on Singapore, the next day, five fell victim to the escorting Zeros, shot down at low level, where the Hurricane’s performance was decidedly inferior.

The Allied air forces’ inevitable defeat was hastened as the Japanese army continued to overrun abandoned airfields that had not been fully demolished—and the radar sites. The loss of early warning made life difficult for the Hurricane pilots and practically impossible for the Buffalo squadrons, which needed more than thirty minutes to reach incoming bombers at their normal 25,000 feet. At the same time, offensive operations against the Japanese landings continued to be costly: thirteen Vildebeestes were lost in two attacks on the Japanese landings at Endan on 26 January. Their efforts were praised by the army commander, who noted that they had proceeded “unflinchingly to almost certain death in obsolete aircraft which should have been replaced many years before.”

The Japanese success at Endan rendered all further defense of the Malay Peninsula impossible, and the army began to withdraw into the island fortress. With the airfields there under attack, his bomber force practically written off, and only twenty-seven fighters left—twenty-one Hurricanes and six Buffaloes—Pulford knew that the battle was lost. On 27 January he ordered his remaining bombers to Sumatra, and Wavell concurred that only eight fighters should remain to defend Singapore itself. The last aircraft flew off on 10 February, and the island was surrendered five days later. The air force continued the fight on Sumatra until it too became untenable; most survivors withdrew to Java, and a smaller number escaped to Australia.

Ever since 1918, but particularly after 1922, Singapore and Malaya had been far distant places less known in Britain than even Czechoslovakia had been in 1938. Authorities in the prosperous and vital region were commerce-minded and did not wish to be disturbed by such practicalities as preparing for defense—an issue on which, in the event, the three services could not agree. Even as Japanese power grew, the area seemed secure until the fall of France, when French Indochina ceased to be a barrier and British forces had to be concentrated nearer to home. That fact that no powerful (and charismatic) generalissimo was appointed, along with the shortage of trained staff officers, reduced the potential to do more with less.

The Japanese occupation of southern Indochina in July 1941, which gave them access to airfields within striking distance of Singapore, might have been a final indicator that more had to be done to boost the region’s ability to defend itself, but the misreading of Japanese intentions (it seems that despite U.S.-led provocations, everyone everywhere believed that the enemy would strike somewhere else) meant that wishful thinking (and poor staff work) prevailed. The likely course of Japanese action was missed, and no intelligence network to transmit enemy progress in the north to Singapore, 500 miles away, was established. After the two capital ships were lost and the air forces were withdrawn south, the Japanese army had a much freer hand. Allied troops were aware that everything was crumbling and began disintegrating themselves, both physically and psychologically, too often abandoning their positions to inferior attacking forces. Suffering the fate of a colonial outpost, receiving the dregs of equipment and the least-experienced officers, staff, and pilots, the Allied air force in Southeast Asia became essentially irrelevant, its operations no more than a pinprick. Malaya fell in seventy days because its only real chance for survival had been an absence of war in the Far East.

As many as 400 aircraft supported Japan’s 1941 thrust into Burma near Mandalay, where they would initially be opposed by 16 RAF Buffaloes, 41 Curtiss P-40s of Claire Chennault’s American Volunteer Group, and some horribly outdated de Havilland Moths of the Burmese air force. Infrastructure in Burma was actually much better than in Malaya, and reinforcements did arrive: a Blenheim squadron and 30 Hurricanes just after Christmas. Furthermore, the AOC there demonstrated a strong offensive spirit, ordering his crews to lean forward against the enemy. In the beginning, the Allies won temporary air superiority over Rangoon, but in the end, the Japanese army prevailed, taking over their airfields. The Allied squadrons engaged in a “fighting withdrawal” as they made their way back to India, but on 27 March a Japanese attack essentially wiped out all that was left of their aircraft. Personnel retired by rail and road into India and China. The Japanese, meanwhile, were now within range of Calcutta. It was never bombed, but the Indian east coast and the huge British base at Trincomalee, Ceylon, were attacked in April.

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