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Canadians in South East Asia 1941-1945


Air planes in sky at Schwebo

Air planes in sky at Schwebo

Canadian involvement in South East Asia during the Second World War consisted primarily of participation by the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF). Although a few Canadians did serve in Royal Navy ships, no units of the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) served in this area.

Two dozen Canadian Army officers were attached to the British 14th Army in Burma and South East Asia Command Headquarters as observers during the latter part of 1944. In addition, 18 Canloan officers—infantry subalterns borrowed by the British to make up the recurring loss of combat leaders—arrived on the scene in the summer of 1945.

About 40 Canadians, half of them primarily linguists of Chinese or Japanese descent, also served in Force 136, a British intelligence organization that operated behind Japanese lines. These men were involved in recruiting and training native guerrillas, engaging in sabotage, ambush and deception, and transmitting information about enemy activities. A number of Canadians served in a Combined Operations' Sea Reconnaissance Unit (SRU) as the "frogmen of Burma," spearheading 14th Army's crossings of the Irrawaddy River in February and March 1945.

Perhaps the most unlikely Canadian unit represented in South East Asia was the Veteran's Guard of Canada. In the summer of 1944, and again in the spring of 1945, contingents of the Veterans were employed as mule skinners, escorting shiploads of mules from the United States to India and eventually the jungles of Assam and the Arakan where they were much needed for transportation.

One Canadian, who had left British Columbia at the age of 21 to take up a regular commission in the British Army, deserves special mention. Charles Ferguson Hoey of the Lincolnshire Regiment won a Military Cross in Burma in 1943 and then a posthumous Victoria Cross on February 16, 1944 for his "outstanding gallantry and leadership" in taking a Japanese strongpoint.

Canadian airmen were in the South East Asia theatre even before the initial Japanese attacks of December 1941. When war broke out in 1939, few skills had been in greater demand among the Allied armed forces than those associated with radio operation and maintenance—skills which were valuable not only for their own sake, but which could be readily be applied to the new and still mysterious arts of Radio Detection Finding, or radar as it was subsequently called. By the end of 1940, Canada had added several hundred trained radiomen to the strength of the Royal Air Force (RAF). These men had been hurriedly enlisted in the RCAF and sent to England for courses which qualified them as radar operators and mechanics. A number of graduates in electrical engineering had also been commissioned and loaned to the RAF to command or administer the stream of radar and signals units that were constantly being formed.

Many of these radio personnel were then posted overseas, to the Middle East or South East Asia. By December 1941, about 350 RCAF other ranks and 50 officers were serving in the RAF's Far East Command. A month later, at least 35 Canadian aircrew, early graduates of the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan, were also serving in RAF squadrons in South East Asia. By April 1942, this number had more than doubled as the British and Dutch were driven out of Malaya, Singapore, the Netherlands' East Indies (now Indonesia), and much of Burma.

A Catalina of No. 413 Squadron in Ceylon

A Catalina of No. 413 Squadron in Ceylon

Some of the Canadians flew Consolidated Catalina flying-boats on maritime reconnaissance patrols, an occupation that soon had to be largely abandoned in face of Japanese air superiority. Most of the Catalinas were then diverted to night bombing operations. Some Canadian fighter pilots accompanied 50 Hawker Hurricanes from the Middle East which arrived in Singapore on January 13, 1942. The Hurricanes were expected to carry all before them but, although they could match the enemy's speed and carried a heavier armament, they proved unable to turn with the Japanese in dogfights and were further handicapped by an inadequate ground control system. Singapore surrendered on February 15, 1942, and two Canadian radar technicians were among the 70,000 Commonwealth troops taken prisoner there. Only 18 or 20 Hurricanes (plus 24 obsolete American fighters) were left to continue the battle from Sumatra and Java.

The Japanese attack on Sumatra began on February 14, 1942, with paratroop landings on the airfields at Palembang. Two Canadian pilots were captured while leading a makeshift force of RAF groundcrew, British Army anti-aircraft gunners and Dutch colonial infantry in hand-to-hand fighting against the invaders. By the time Java fell on March 8, 1942, an indeterminate number of Canadians had been wounded and 26 taken prisoner.

Over the Indian Ocean

The Allied front now stabilized along a great arc stretching from the southern Chinese province of Yunnan, along the Indo-Burmese border, through the Bay of Bengal to Ceylon, and then out across the Indian Ocean to Papua-New Guinea. The Japanese exercised air superiority along the whole of this arc. They also enjoyed a decisive naval superiority over the maritime portions of it. Recognizing this, British Admiral Sir James Sommerville handled his motley and mostly outdated fleet very cautiously and accepted that Ceylon, the key to the Indian Ocean, could best be defended by land based airpower.

A prime requirement for this was an adequate air reconnaissance capability to give early warning of any attack. Therefore, No. 413 Squadron, RCAF, which had been employed on convoy protection duties off the Scottish coast, was ordered to Ceylon—the first Canadian unit to appear in the South East Asia theatre. The first of No. 413's Catalinas arrived at Koggala, on Ceylon's south coast on March 28, 1942, and the second, piloted by Squadron Leader L.J. Birchall, on April 2.

Two days later, Birchall and his crew took off for their first patrol over the Indian Ocean. After a 12-hour flight, as they were returning to base, the spotted Japanese ships on the southern horizon. As they closed in trying to identify the types and numbers, they were attacked by Japanese carrier-borne fighter aircraft and forced to land on the ocean. The crew managed to get a signal through to alert the Ceylon defences and give Admiral Sommerville time to get most of his ships out of the way.

As a result of these warnings when 91 Japanese bombers, escorted by 36 fighters attacked Columbo the next morning, they were met by 42 Hurricanes and Fairey Fulmars. At least eight of the British fighters were flown by Canadians, who claimed three victories between them. While the Japanese only lost seven machines altogether to the RAF's 19, neither Columbo nor the fleet suffered much damage. Four days later, the naval base at Trincomalee was attacked and this time the air losses were more evenly balanced, the defenders losing 10 machines and accounting for nine of the enemy's.

Meanwhile, the Canadian pilot, Squadron Leader L.J. Birchall, and his crew were being hailed as the saviours of Ceylon. Birchall was subsequently awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his "timely warning". Although the enemy found and sank two cruisers and an aircraft-carrier, losses could have been much heavier had the fleet been caught unaware.

As the fear of invasion receded, No. 413 Squadron's efforts were devoted largely to anti-submarine patrols and convoy escorts, with the occasional long-range reconnaissance flight to the east. There were great serviceability problems and, in the vast expanse of the Indian Ocean, submarine densities were very low. Sightings were rare—only five genuine ones in nearly four years—and the Canadians had no success with their attacks. They won most of their accolades for reporting or rescuing survivors of sunken merchantships in the course of flying some 11,000 operational hours. Finally, in November 1944, the RCAF requested that the squadron be returned to the United Kingdom for conversion to a bomber unit. Two months later, all personnel embarked for England, leaving their aircraft and equipment in Ceylon.

The Defence of India 1942-44

Meanwhile, along the 1,125 kilometre Indo-Burmese border, both British and Japanese forces had been stalemated by the onset of the monsoon season in mid-May 1942. When the weather finally eased in mid-October, the Japanese began an air offensive against the Assam bases of the USAAF's airlift to China, over the Himalayan hump. They were met by Hurricanes of the RCAF's No. 224 Group, which included 30 Canadian pilots. At the same time, light bombers of No. 221 Group, with at least 60 Canadian officers and aircrew on strength, endeavoured to cut enemy supply lines running north from Rangoon. The total number of aircraft involved was still small and equipment was relatively primitive given the size of the theatre of operations. As a result, nothing decisive was achieved by either side. The issue of air superiority was seldom contested, since neither combatant could bring significant forces to bear.

The RCAF component in the theatre continued to grow. By the end of 1942, there were at least 1,100 Canadians in India and Ceylon although the exact number was not known as there was no coordinating Canadian authority. An RCAF District Headquarters was subsequently authorized in May 1943 and became operational in October. By June 1945, a staff of 191 officers and men were administering a Canadian contingent more than 3,000 strong.

Chindits standing in front of a plane

Chindits standing in front of a plane

When the British ground forces first turned to the offensive, their effort took the form of a long-range penetration raid into northern Burma by Brigadier Orde Wingate's Chindits between February and June 1943. Wingate's men were supplied by airdrops from Douglas Dakotas of No. 31 Squadron, RAF, with at least seven Canadians in its aircrew ranks. While many of the Chindits were killed or captured, the concept of long-range penetration was judged a success. The technique was expanded in 1944 to include the establishment of semi-permanent strongholds, which incorporated air landing strips, behind the Japanese lines. By this time, the Chindit force was three brigades strong and included 13 Canadians as Air Liaison Officers, with an RCAF radio mechanic in charge of radio communication from one of the strongholds.

Canadians were now playing a small but significant part in nearly every air activity in South East Asia. By 1943, air operations had improved as more up-to-date aircraft, better equipment and maintenance, and increased experience, enabled the Allied air forces to fly more regularly and maintain a greater intensity of effort, despite the monsoon weather.

Logistics posed one of the greatest problems to the prospect of an Allied counter-offensive to recover Burma. There was no through railway from Calcutta, the main supply base for 14th Army, into the battle zone. The one overloaded rail line that ran to Dimapur and then swung north to Ledo was broken by a ferry over the Brahmaputra River. This river ran across all lines of communication with the rear areas and was not bridged at any point along its length. During the five monsoon months of the year, 500 cm of rain fell, turning formerly placid rivers and streams into raging torrents.

The front line, such as it was, meandered through steep, jungle-covered hills, with no roads. Muletrains and backpacks were often the only way to bring in supplies. If the 14th Army was to go over to the attack, most food, fuel and ammunition would have to be delivered by air. This would require total air superiority and a substantial force of transport aircraft.

The Advance on Rangoon

During the dry season of 1943-44, the Allies finally attained air superiority in this area. At that time, several hundred bombers and fighters (with several hundred Canadians in their crews) were harassing the Japanese, whose strength was down to about 150 machines of all kinds. Some 300 Allied transport aircraft were also in the theatre although General Sir William Slim wanted more before he launched his advance on Rangoon. The RCAF subsequently agreed to bolster his air transportation capability by forming two medium-range transport squadrons in India.

Groundcrew of No. 435 Squadron straining to eject supplies

Groundcrew of No. 435 Squadron straining to eject supplies

As a result of bringing together Canadian aircrew already in the theatre, and bringing more from Canada and the United Kingdom, 76 complete aircrews were undergoing operational training in Dakotas by the end of September 1944. In addition, 580 Canadian groundcrew and administrative personnel were flown out from England. On November 19, the 14th Army began to cross the Chindwin River on its epic march south. On December 20, 1944, and January 16, 1945, RCAF Squadrons Nos. 435 and 436 flew their first operational missions.

Cargo was either air-dropped, or landed on short, rough airstrips hacked out of the jungle, many of them situated in winding valleys and requiring extremely steep approaches and takeoffs. At least once, the unarmed Canadians had to rely on ultra low-level manoeuvres to escape Japanese fighters in the area. Two aircraft were lost and six crewmen killed in these transport operations.

By the end of February 1945, 14 Allied transport squadrons were operational—four British (including 225 Canadian aircrew), two Canadian and eight American—carrying 90% of the supplies required by 300,000 men. Other Canadians were flying in ground support squadrons. When the Japanese committed some of their scarce armour against a bridgehead over the Irrawaddy River south of Mandalay, Hurricane 'tankbusters' of No. 20 Squadron, RAF, destroyed 12 of them.

Consolidated Liberators of No. 222 Group, RAF, (with 372 Canadian aircrew on strength in March 1945), were also busy limiting the movement of Japanese shipping in a series of long-range bombing and mine-laying operations that took them as far afield as Sumatra. The longest sortie undertaken by a Liberator in South East Asia during the war lasted 24 hours and 10 minutes. It was flown from Ceylon on July 31, 1945, by a largely Canadian crew of No. 160 Squadron to drop supplies to guerrilla forces in southern Malaya.

Rangoon, Burma fell on May 3. The Allied forces in South East Asia were preparing an assault on Malaya when the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. Three days later, a second bomb on Nagasaki brought about the Japanese surrender.

The two RCAF squadrons left Burma in early September, having averaged more flying hours than the established intensive rate for transport aircraft use. The more than 1,000 RCAF officers and aircrew serving in British squadrons in May 1945, as well as another 700 serving in various headquarters, radio and radar units, maintenance units and bases, had begun to be repatriated in June, although the last Canadian aircrew were not posted out until October. Members of the District Headquarters left the theatre on January 15, 1946, the last Canadians to leave.

We Remember

There are 199 Canadian names inscribed on the Singapore Memorial to commemorate those who have no known grave and three Canadians are buried in the Kranji War Cemetery in Singapore. In addition, 56 Canadian war dead are buried in Burma and one Canadian name is inscribed on the Rangoon Memorial.

Out of an estimated 8,000 Canadians who served in South East Asia, a total of 454 were either killed in action or died of disease.

Summary written by Brereton Greenhous. For further reference, see Melnyk, T.W., Canadian Flying Operations in South East Asia 1941-45 (Department of National Defence, Directorate of History, Occasional Paper Number One, 1976).

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