11 August 2019

Air Battle for Burma - Bryn Evans

Long time readers (thank you) of Aircrew Book Review, and those of you who know me personally, will be well and truly aware of my eternal fascination with the Burma campaign and, of course, the aerial aspect of it. I will therefore, competing pressures allowing, excitedly devour anything I can find on the subject. By far the best Burma aviation book to be released recently is The Flying Hours by Andrew Millar. Written by someone who was there for several years, from soon after the withdrawal into India right through to the Allied advance and post-Japanese surrender, it is an incredible and sobering account of squadron life in the region at the time. It is a personal account, obviously, with a fine balance of exquisite detail and enough context to mark the author’s important place in the big picture. That big picture, despite being part of the ‘forgotten war’, has been written about fairly extensively, although it’s relatively little compared to Europe or the American side of the Pacific. Bryn Evans’ book was, therefore, gleefully welcomed with a touch of ‘what can be new about it?’ An Australian author, Evans has added a distinctly antipodean aspect to his narrative with reference to some superb written records. As gripping as this book is, though, some of it borders on the frustrating.

Poorly equipped from the start, albeit with hindsight once the Japanese were engaged, the Allied air forces could initially only resist and fall back in the face of a seemingly unstoppable juggernaut that was better equipped for the terrain it was fighting for. The weather in that part of the world, however, always maintains supremacy. It stopped the Japanese in their tracks, but allowed both sides to consolidate their positions. Several passages in the book include memories of flying in atrocious weather and are as harrowing as any of the many combat accounts included. 

In the case of the RAF in India, from late 1942, the long, quiet, bad weather periods enabled a major re-equipment and airfield building program. However, it was not until the arrival of Spitfires, with their superior rate of climb, in the second half of 1943, that a true advantage, from an air supremacy point of view, could be regularly exploited over Japanese formations that continued to be heavily escorted. Even so, the Japanese cottoned on that the Spitfires could not be everywhere. Before then, it had been Hurricanes, Mohawks, and Beaufighters at night, holding the line. Like New Guinea, despite the eventually overwhelming aerial advantage achieved by the Allies, Burma was a long, slow grind and still not completely resolved by war’s end.

This growing superiority in the air was particularly important when Allied drives into Burma required significant, life-saving resupply by streams of transport aircraft (not to mention behind the lines operations by the likes of the Chindits). Legendary battles, such as the ‘Admin Box’, became Allied victories, strong Japanese aerial opposition aside, because the men cut-off on the ground could be supplied entirely by large transport aircraft, and the wounded could be evacuated by vulnerable, short-field capable machines like Austers, L-Birds and even Fox Moths.

The benefits of the Allied control of the air are reflected in the evolution of the narrative. The backbone of the book, the finely curated collection of aircrew accounts, gives way to descriptions of the later land campaigns, particularly Imphal, Kohima and the taking of Rangoon, or, generally, combined operations with an emphasis on air-to ground support and forward air control. Admittedly, I queried the relevance of discussing cab-rank and the visual control post on the ground, not to mention an entire chapter devoted to the ‘war in the shadows’ (Chindit operations and agent delivery behind the lines), but all are direct results of achieving air superiority evolving into air supremacy. Fighter-bombers can go about their work while fighters watch their backs, allowing the former to loiter as required, soldiers behind the lines can be supplied in sufficient volume by Dakotas and the SOE types can get on with their jobs with less risk of interception and not even making it to the drop zone in the first place.

Despite this valuable look at the ability of ground support to proceed with little enemy air interference, there is very little mentioned about the mainstay of the Burma ground attack strength – the Beaufighter. As above, I would initially question its inclusion at length when focussing on the achievement of air supremacy, but its long-range attacks on enemy airfields and infrastructure, among other things, should surely rate more discussion than the ‘war in the shadows’ angle (as important as that is). Instead, all but two of the references to Bristol’s twin pertain to its use as a night fighter in the theatre.

Air Battle for Burma should be of interest to any student of the campaign, casual or otherwise, but it varies from riveting to clunky (this review probably gives it a run for its money regarding the latter!). As just mentioned above, everything is built around the superb collection of memories from those who flew in combat there with several Australians and New Zealanders featuring prominently. The records of Noel Constantine RAAF (the book is, pleasingly, dedicated to him and his wife) are heavily leaned on and prove valuable given his time in theatre rising through the ranks to become one of Australia’s unsung fighter leaders. Kiwi Vic Bargh, referred throughout as ‘Kitchy’, as done in other publications (not ‘Ketchil’ per his biography), is also heavily referenced early on as is the likes of Jack Storey etc. There really are some engrossing memories recorded. A lot of the names of recurring ‘characters’, however, are often repeated in full, complete with rank and nickname, sometimes on the same page. Other repetitive aspects creep in too – such as biographical details, full squadron titles, Spitfire re-equipment (consecutive pages!), scene setting details, and even the occasional concluding discussion (particularly regarding the Admin Box, the first large-scale resupply by air alone) – and all act as speed bumps to an otherwise nicely flowing narrative. A bit more attention on the editing side of things would have tidied these up easily, perhaps shortened the book by several pages, and caught misleading items like the Hurricane Mk.V typo (for Mk.IV) and the Mk.IIc carrying four 40mm cannons (instead of four 20mm).

The ‘Allied’ on the cover is perhaps a misnomer, however, as it focuses on the RAF (if we ignore the cosmopolitan nature of the air arm at the time) with the Flying Tigers and USAAF fighters only mentioned in passing. That said, that makes it even more ideal for inclusion in ABR!

While it falls a little short in places, to embrace a theatre where the hectic fighting was separated by months of inaction, and then concentrate on examining one aspect in context, requires the ability to hold a reader’s interest and ABFB certainly succeeds there. The photo section contains some nice, relevant images and there are some very useful maps early on that, in all honesty, could do with a bit of tweaking to make clearer (either that or use them as the basis for newly drawn examples). Each chapter is extensively referenced and the glossary, bibliography and index are pleasingly comprehensive. The epilogue serves to remind the reader no one is immune from war, nor have we yet learned to avoid it ‘at all costs’. A useful postscript provides potted biographies of some of the aircrew whose memories contributed so much to the narrative. Through the extensive use of Noel Constantine’s records, it is clear the author has developed an affinity with him. Air Battle for Burma cements Bryn Evans’ place in this genre, following earlier works on the air war and other subjects, so perhaps he might consider the biography of the interesting, albeit ultimately tragic, life of a forgotten Australian leader. Tackling a subject as broad as the air battle for Burma, and doing so competitively, surely means such a worthwhile project is within the realms of possibility. Either way, the author’s next work is happily anticipated.

ISBN 978-1-47385-892-3

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