Thursday, September 10, 2015

Operation Matterhorn

 The Captain Nicolas VanWingerden Crew, B-29, China/Burma/India.

From June of 1944 through January of 1945, four groups (sixteen squadrons) of B-29 bombers were deployed through airfields built by tens of thousands of Chinese laborers in the area of Chengdu – at Guanghan, Qionglai, Pengshan, and Xinjin.   They comprised the 58th Bombardment Wing of the new Twentieth Air Force.  This was the strategic bombing air force which implemented the dream of the air power pioneers such as General Arnold. 

The strategic plan for “Operation Matterhorn,” approved at the Quebec and Cairo Conferences, was:  gather a force of the new long-range Boeing B-29s in India, advance loaded bombers to the bases near Chengdu where they would refuel, and launch long distance raids against Japan.  Histories of the operation emphasize President Roosevelt’s personal commitment to opening a bombing campaign from China against Japan.  The Twentieth Air Force was not placed under any of the CBI theatre commanders (Arnold knew Stilwell and Chennault would try to use the B-29s to support their own operations), but was rather was an autonomous command under the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

The supply problems were daunting.  Ships with materiel, fuel, and personnel traveled from the U.S. via lengthy and roundabout Atlantic or Pacific routes to Karachi or Calcutta.  Before any raid from India to China to Japan could be mounted, fuel had to be transported to the airfields near Chengdu.  B-29s, intended for bombing, flew preparatory missions that carried only fuel (seven tons per mission) over the Hump to China.  It took six missions over the Hump to provide enough fuel for one mission to Japan.  There were losses of aircraft and men on these supply missions, which also reduced the active service life of the engines and airframes.

The first raid against Japan -- a 3200-mile mission -- was conducted the night of June 14-15, 1944.  The numbers testify to the difficulty of the task.  Ninety two aircraft left India, but only 79 reached China.  Seventy-five aircraft took off, but only 68 reached the Chinese coast and only 47 attacked the target, the Yawata Iron Works.  Fifteen aircraft bombed visually and 32 bombed by radar.  Only one bomb hit the target.  It was a harbinger of difficulties to come.

The XX Bomber Command continued to press its attacks, including some missions against Japanese targets in Manchuria, Taiwan, and China.  Its effectiveness increased with the assignment of Major General Curtis LeMay to the CBI and as it adopted new procedures -- a different formation, lead crews to find and mark targets, control of the bomb run by both bombardier and radar operator, and different mixes of high-explosive and incendiary bombs.  But so did the effectiveness of the Japanese defenses.

By the end of 1944 the Command had lost 147 bombers.  It was evident that the attacks against Japan mounted from Chengdu were too expensive in men, aircraft, and material to continue.  The last attack from Chengdu -- against Japanese targets in Taiwan -- was conducted on January 15, 1945, and the bombers deployed to the Marianas Islands in February.  There they joined the rest of the B-29 force attacking Japan, first with high-level precision bombing tactics, later with low-level attacks that ignited Japanese cities.

Major General Haywood Hansell, one of the air power visionaries who commanded B-29s, judged Operation Matterhorn “not a success” from the operational view.  “You just couldn’t supply B-29s over the Hump well enough to conduct a successful bombing campaign.”  In the Marianas Islands, the bombing force could be easily supplied by sea across the Pacific, now cleared of the Japanese by the island-hopping campaigns.

Hansell judged, however, that “from the standpoint of strategic effect” it was “a tremendous success,” confirming the principle of central strategic command of a bomber force rather than assignment of the forces to local commanders.  Tactical innovations pioneered in China made the Command more deadly for the remainder of the war.  Many of the obstacles to the successful strategic bombing by the B-29s were with aircraft and engines; many of these problems were shaken out in India and China.

Post-war studies demonstrated that Japan was defeated by the twin effects of the submarine campaign, which cut off its supplies, and the strategic bombing campaign, which destroyed its industrial capacity.  Operation Matterhorn was part of the latter.

Jitra to Singapore

In a rapid advance, the Imperial Japanese Army overran British positions in northern Malaya, easily breaking through at Jitra, a strongly fortified line of wire entanglements and deep trenches astride the road to Alor Star. It was expected to be held for three months. An impromptu night attack by barely 500 Japanese soldiers drove off the defenders in a matter of hours. Along with 3,000 prisoners came large stores of ammunition, petrol and food. For the rest of the campaign, these frequent bags of supplies were laughingly called “Churchill’s allowance”. To turn British positions, baffling tactics were employed, such as night attacks, encirclement, sudden charges and small boat operations. To maintain the momentum of the advance, Yamashita Tomoyuki ’ s men rode bicycles. Tsuji Masanobu recalls how 

the greatest difficulty . . . was the excessive heat, owing to which the tyres punctured easily. A bicycle repair squad of at least two men was attached to each company, and each squad repaired an average of twenty machines a day. But such repairs were only makeshift. When the enemy was being hotly pursued, and time was pressing, punctured tyres were taken off and bicycles ridden on the rims. Surprisingly enough they ran smoothly on the paved roads, which were in perfect condition. Numbers of bicycles some with tyres and some without, when passing along a road, made a noise resembling a tank. At night when such bicycle units advanced the enemy frequently retreated hurriedly, saying, “Here come the tanks! ” . . . Thanks to Britain’s dear money spent on excellent roads, and to the cheap Japanese bicycles, the assault on Malaya was easy.

And when necessary, the Japanese abandoned pedals and advanced through the jungle, carrying their bicycles on their shoulders. This the British found as disconcerting as attacks from the rear.

It was in fact the jungle that Yamashita Tomoyuki so brilliantly exploited. He realised the potential for outflanking movements when he saw it for the first time near Saigon. His previous posting had been Manzhouguo. Unlike him however, nearly all British senior officers regarded jungle and swampy ground as impenetrable natural obstacles. The shining exception was Ian Stewart, the commanding officer of the 2nd Battalion Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. Having investigated the problems of fighting under tropical conditions, he took his men on training exercises designed to accustom them to both the advantages and disadvantages of military action in primary as well as secondary jungle. In the process, the Argylls banished any fears they had about plants or animals. “Cross - country movement through the jungle, ” Stewart wrote, “ and living in it for days at a time, not only by large parties but by small groups of three or four officers or NCOs, was practised until the jungle became a friend and not an enemy. ”  

This familiarity saved the Argylls from destruction on several occasions: it also helped inflict an early reverse on the apparently unbeatable Imperial Japanese Army at Grik Road, inland from Penang. There the Japanese were shocked by a counterattack delivered from the jungle on each side of this thoroughfare. As Steward commented: 

One of the arts of rearguard tactics in the jungle is time and space calculation . . . Quite genuinely it is a fascinating game, embodying as it does appreciations of ground, enemy dispositions, and above all the mind and speed of action of the opposing commander. But it is a nervy business, for a commander works with the jungle as a bandage over his eyes; there is no warning of an approaching crisis, and the situation will turn from blue sky to black storm in a minute or two. There are two rules that must never be broken: to hang on desperately to the initiative and to have plans ready and understood by all in anticipation of every eventuality. 

Because the British had neither tanks nor an adequate antitank defence, Stewart ’ s use of the jungle alongside roads was critical in the battles which were fought to slow down the Japanese advance.

At the engagement for the bridge at the River Slim in early January 1942, a disastrous British defeat that sealed the fate of Kuala Lumpur, the Argylls improvised road blocks and threw Molotov cocktails at Japanese medium tanks. While the bottle - bombs proved less effective than those used by the Imperial Japanese Army at Nomonhan, there was no shortage of volunteers for the Molotov cocktail party. Through this encounter the Japanese came to respect the courage of Stewart’s men, who alone on the surrender of Singapore rode to the Changi prisoner - of - war camp. Impressed by their refusal to hand over their transport, Japanese sentries saluted the column as it went into captivity to the sound of bagpipes. Those Argylls who were sent to work in other parts of the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere often found their distinctive bonnets attracted the attention of Japanese officers. In Thailand a sergeant - major was informed that “Argyll Scotsmen number one fighters ”.

Not that the Argylls ’ well - deserved reputation for jungle warfare did much to save Malaya or Singapore. Their capture was a foregone conclusion when British military doctrine firmly held that the jungle was impassable for large numbers of troops and that the situation was therefore overwhelmingly in favour of the defenders. It was on this assumption that the so - called fortress at Singapore had been built. Only a threat from the sea was ever seriously considered before the outbreak of the Pacific War. By the time Arthur Percival appreciated what was happening in Malaya, it was too late to adjust to Japanese methods of attack. Percival ordered the adoption of guerrilla tactics. Formations should reduce their transport as far as possible by sending all vehicles that were not immediately wanted well to the rear.

But as Stewart later commented: “New tactics cannot be learnt in the middle of a battle.” Another reason for Yamashita Tomoyuki ’ s victory was far better intelligence: he even knew the names of all the Argyll officers. The sheer speed of the Japanese advance gave the British commander - in - chief no chance of regrouping his forces for a last stand in southern Malaya, so that in February 1942 Percival was called upon to conduct his last campaign, the defence of Singapore.

The Fighting Retreat of the British in Burma

Burning Burma's Oilfields


The only action comparable with the American defence of the Philippines was the fighting retreat of the British in Burma. There the last - minute appointment of William Slim turned a potential rout into a taxing withdrawal. On his arrival in March 1942, it was self - evident that the colony would not be able to offer sustained resistance to the 15th Japanese Army, whose tactics paralleled those used by Yamashita Tomoyuki in Malaya. Disaster first struck the British defenders near the Thai - Burma border. Having been forced back into Burma and evacuated the southern port of Moulmein, a stand was attempted at the River Sittang whose long bridge allowed access to Rangoon. The defeat of the 17th Indian Division on the Sittang was a terrible one, but Wavell ’ s strategy of holding up the Japanese as far away from Rangoon for as long as possible, so that reinforcements could be brought in to defeat them via this port, was militarily sound. It permitted the disembarkation of the 7th Armoured Brigade, originally destined for Malaya.

This strategy was unfortunately compromised by the commander of the 17th Indian Division, the highly decorated Jackie Smyth, who overlooked the possibility of Japanese flanking movements as he withdrew his forces to the Sittang Bridge. To send the whole division and its transport along a broken - down road was bound to be slow, even if the enemy did not interfere. To have left an inadequate guard on the bridge itself was foolhardy. On 21 February, news reached Smyth that large Japanese forces were already ahead of him en route for the Sittang River. Even though he ordered extra troops to hold the vulnerable eastern side of the bridge, as they took up defensive positions there, they could hear the ominous sound of enemy machine - gun fi re. A heavy Japanese attack took place the next day. Smyth got within sight of the bridge, but the failure to establish an effective defence well before the arrival of the Japanese, and the consequent inability to use the approach road, created a serious handicap. The loss of many radios complicated an already confused situation. Some of his troops managed to cross the river by boat, and Smyth set up his headquarters on the other side. Many others were still on the east bank when the order was given to demolish the bridge’ s central spans on 23 February. Up to the explosion, the Japanese actually thought that they were getting the worst of the fighting. Now they knew that although they could no longer capture the bridge intact, they had won the battle. Appreciating that the defeat meant the loss of Rangoon as well as southern Burma, Wavell sent Smyth home on retirement leave. In a matter of days, William Slim was called in and ordered to salvage what he could.

As the Japanese advanced northwards, Slim fought a series of well - conducted delaying actions. One of them, at Kokkogwa, north of Prome, ended in an unusual humiliation for the Japanese, who were so shaken by the experience that they failed to recover their dead, always a shameful omission. Already the new commander was sowing the seeds of a British recovery in the interest he showed in jungle warfare. He allowed Michael Calvert to raid Japanese lines with his locally trained guerrillas and was pleased to learn that the daring major, after an initial disagreement, got on well with Orde Wingate, Wavell ’s favourite. The meeting of these two enthusiasts for irregular tactics was to lead to the formation of the famous Chindits. Racing the Japanese and the monsoon, Slim led his battered troops into India with mixed feelings. He had shared their hardships, even sporting a beard like that of so many of his men until he noticed the hairs were coming out white. Thirteen thousand had been killed or wounded against a Japanese total of 4,000. He recalls how on the last day of the thousand - kilometre retreat:
I stood on a bank beside the road and watched the rearguard march into India. All of them, British, Indian, and Gurkha, were gaunt and ragged as scarecrows. Yet, as they trudged behind their surviving officers in groups pitifully small, they still carried their arms and kept their ranks, they were still recognizable as fighting units. They might look like scarecrows, but they looked like soldiers too.