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Episodes & Studies Volume 2

No. 67 Fighter Squadron

No. 67 Fighter Squadron

Meanwhile in Burma, which the Japanese had attacked through Thailand at the narrowest part of the Kra Isthmus, the New Zealanders of No. 67 Fighter Squadron (the only RAF squadron in the country), were pitting their Buffaloes against the Japanese at odds of one to eight. It was of paramount importance that the great port of Rangoon—vital as the sea terminus for the Burma Road and supply link to China—should be preserved as far as possible from damaging air attacks. The first raid on Rangoon was made by the Japanese on 23 December with a force of some sixty bombers and fighters.

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At Mingaladon aerodrome on the outskirts of the city, No. 67 Squadron received adequate warning of the enemy's approach and took off to intercept, in company with a squadron of the American Volunteer Group which had arrived from Loiwing, in China, three days before. Sergeant C. V. Bargh31 and Sergeant G. A. Williams32 were in R/T* communication with the ground control when the raiders were sighted. Instead of the time-honoured ‘Tally-ho’, there came over the radio link the excited voice of Sergeant Bargh: ‘Hell! Showers of ‘em, look Willie! Showers of ‘em!’

For a first combat the results were impressive. In a moment Bargh was in amongst the Japanese fixed-undercarriage 96 and 97 type fighters, and immediately became involved in a confused series of most hazardous dogfights. It had been drilled into the pilots that their primary object was to shoot down the bombers, and Bargh, by his single-handed manoeuvres, succeeded in drawing the Japanese fighter escort away from the formation.

As in Malaya, a New Zealander drew first blood. Sergeant Williams saw his opportunity and calmly proceeded to carry out ‘copy-book’ attacks on the enemy bombers, shooting down one and getting bursts of machine-gun fire into the petrol tanks of some six more. As the Japanese tanks were not self-sealing, it is probable that some of these aircraft failed to return to base.

In the meantime, with his aircraft shot full of holes, Bargh dived away from the enemy fighters, flew out to sea, and regained height to await the return of the bombers. His windscreen had oiled up but, nothing daunted, he took off one of his flying boots, wiped the perspex clean with his sock, and turned in to attack the bombers as they came away from the target. Joined now by Sergeant E. H. Beable33 at 17,000 feet, he dived on the enemy formation and succeeded in destroying one bomber and probably a fighter. Beable fired a long burst into a bomber which, last seen trailing smoke, he claimed as a ‘probable’.

Sergeant W. Christiansen,34 though slightly later in sighting the enemy, attacked at the first opportunity. His own words describe the combat:

‘I climbed to 16,000 feet and did a front-quarter attack, opening fire at 400 yards and breaking away at approximately 100 yards. I broke away to the front of the formation and repeated this attack. My windscreen was covered with oil, making it impossible for me to observe the results of my attacks. I did three more front-quarter attacks and then broke away as I couldn't see out of my front windscreen. I was firing at 12,000 feet when I saw another formation 1000 feet below me. I dived and did a climbing stern attack by pointing my aircraft at the formation and firing. I could not aim or see any results as by then visibility through my windscreen was nil. The formation headed out to sea in a north-easterly direction and I returned to base to refuel.’

The remainder of the squadron and the American Volunteer Group had a very satisfactory total score for the day of thirteen enemy aircraft destroyed and several probables. Of these, No. 67 Squadron was able to claim six destroyed and three probables without loss to themselves —a highly creditable performance in their first encounter. Nevertheless, many of the bombers had succeeded in getting through to the target and both Mingaladon and Rangoon were heavily attacked. At Mingaladon one of the first bombs demolished the operations room, two airmen being killed and two Buffaloes destroyed on the ground. For all that the squadron was well pleased with the day's work and morale was high. All hands set to work to build another operations room, and by the evening of the following day this was completed. The aircraft were again page 27 brought to maximum serviceability and the pilots waited at ‘readiness’ for the next attack, living on somewhat scratch meals owing to the disappearance of all the native mess staff.

They did not have long to wait. About eleven o'clock on Christmas morning the warning system reported 120 enemy aircraft heading for Rangoon, from the direction of Mergui on the Tenasserim coast. Twenty-four Buffaloes and Tomahawks scrambled immediately.

This time, apparently somewhat shaken by their previous reception, the Japanese paid our pilots the pretty (if back-handed) compliment of despatching some eighty fighters with their raiding force, including a number of Navy ‘O’ or Zero type, which had not previously operated in this locality. Heavily outnumbered, the defenders met them on the way in, but the fighter opposition was so intense that only Williams and one other pilot got through to the bombers. They speedily shot down one, of which each claimed a half share. Williams then attacked a fighter, raked it from end to end, and saw it go down out of control. He was then ‘jumped’ from behind so was unable to see it hit the ground.

Pilot Officer G. S. Sharp35 and Sergeant E. E. Pedersen,36 meeting a fierce attack by an almost overwhelming number of Japanese fighters with height advantage, fought their way through after shooting up three of them. Sharp forced-landed on Mingaladon with some controls and electric cables cut and a bullet hole in the ammunition tank.

Meanwhile, Beable was making the most of the opportunities that came his way, and in three separate attacks he blew up a Zero that was on his leader's tail and claimed a ‘possible’ and a ‘damaged’. From each of these combats he had to dive away to evade enemy fighters, but returned to the fray until his guns would no longer fire. Sergeant J. G. Finn,37 who was with him at first, was attacked before he could reach the bombers, but in turning he was able to fire a good burst into the wing root of an enemy fighter; a bright flame leapt from its petrol tank.

The indefatigable Bargh was caught on the climb, but got a burst into a fighter which immediately began to trail smoke. He then had to dive to ground level before shaking off a Zero which had got on his tail. By the time he had climbed back into the fray the enemy had disappeared and he had to be content with one probable. Sergeant K. A. Rutherford38 raked a bomber but was ‘jumped’ by three Zeros and had to dive away without a claim.

The Tomahawks of the American Volunteer Group had a field day and claimed twenty-one destroyed, giving a total from all sources of twenty-seven destroyed, two probables, and two damaged. Thus in the course of two raids the Japanese lost over forty aircraft out of some 180, against which there had been never more than twenty-five British and American fighters. No. 67 Squadron lost Sergeants J. MacPherson,39 E. B. Hewitt,40 and R. P. McNabb41 (RNZAF) and Flying Officer J. Lambert (RAF) killed.

The Japanese did not appear inclined to face a repetition of such fighting and Rangoon remained virtually free from attack until 23 January 1942. Thus, in the opening stages of the air war in Burma, a creditable victory was achieved by the Allied fighter force which ensured the safe disembarkation of reinforcements, including the 7th Armoured Brigade, at Rangoon.

Back on the ground at Mingaladon on Christmas morning conditions were far from normal. The airfield and surroundings had been thoroughly pattern-bombed and all native labour had disappeared. Cooks and kitchens had vanished and, instead of sitting down to Christmas dinner, all hands were employed filling bomb craters on the airfield and repairing damaged aircraft against the possibility of another raid next day. That night the pilots had their Christmas supper—bully page 28 beef and beer. The Supreme Commander, General Sir Archibald Wavell, and the Governor of Burma, Sir Reginald Dorman-Smith, visited the station and warmly congratulated all ranks, not only on their splendid defeat of the enemy but on their efforts in repairing the damage and having the squadron again at maximum readiness.

The Buffaloes were dispersed around the airfield and meals were brought round by truck, and although the pilots waiting for the next attack knew only too well the odds against them—and only those who have waited for the enemy in such circumstances can appreciate the sense of strain—there was never any indication of jumpiness. Before dawn the flight truck would roll up to the dispersal hut and yawning pilots would jump out to disentangle their flying gear from the heap on the bench. Outside, in the keen air of the early dawn, the silence would be split by the sudden crackle of Cyclone engines bursting into life, blue flames licking back from the motors as they were run up.

Rutherford, a sheep farmer from Canterbury and wise in the ways of bushcraft, could usually be found building a fire—at a safe distance between the aircraft and the hut—to brew the inevitable tea. Christiansen and Cutfield42 developed the routine of a morning session of ‘Acey Deuce’, a game very popular with the pilots of the American Volunteer Group. Other pilots, deciding that an opportunity to sleep was not to be lightly tossed aside, would stretch themselves comfortably on a pile of parachutes and flying gear, while some would make the most of a chance to repair equipment. Before long the mess truck would arrive with supplies of eggs and bacon, soon to be sizzling in the frying pan. Then a rattle of cutlery and laughter as they gathered round to breakfast from huge sandwiches composed of a fried egg on a slice of bacon held between two planks of bread. The carefree manner, cheery banter, and spirit of comradeship among all ranks gave their life something denied to those whose lot is cast in a more peaceful mould.

Because of the importance of defending Rangoon, the Air Officer Commanding (Air Vice- Marshal D. F. Stevenson) could not spare any aircraft from the tiny force at his disposal to take the war to the enemy, and until reinforcements of Hurricanes and Blenheims began to arrive in January he could give very little support to the Army. No. 67 Squadron carried out an occasional photographic reconnaissance to obtain information on Japanese air concentrations in Thailand, and as a result of one such flight the Buffaloes were sent on a strafing attack on Mesoht aerodrome. The attack was a complete surprise. The aerodrome buildings were thoroughly strafed, an aircraft at the west end of the runway shot up, and a large fire started. Rutherford concentrated on the hangars and received several hits from light anti-aircraft fire. Sergeant E. L. Sadler43 claimed a ‘flamer’ on the ground, the enemy aircraft firing back at him from its stationary position as he flashed over it. The whole operation was over in a few minutes and the Buffaloes returned without loss.

While on patrol down the Tenasserim over Tavoy, Pilot Officer P. M. Brewer44 crept up on a single-engined two-seater aircraft. His first burst must have killed the observer as there was no return fire; no evasive action was taken by the enemy aircraft, which caught fire and crashed into the hills.

Towards the end of January the long looked-for and sorely-needed air reinforcements began to arrive. The fighter strength was augmented by thirty-six Hurricanes which were distributed amongst Nos. 17, 135, and 136 Squadrons; pilots for these squadrons, including several New page 29 Zealanders, had already arrived from England and the Middle East. Reinforced by these three fighter squadrons and by No. 113 Bomber Squadron equipped with Mark II Blenheims, the Air Officer Commanding was able to attack occupied airfields in Thailand and so reduce the scale of air attack on Rangoon. To achieve this he commenced a ‘leaning forward’ evolution with a portion of the fighter force, and from advanced bases at Moulmein, Tavoy, and Mergui resolutely attacked enemy aircraft wherever found. This policy brought encouraging results, fifty-eight enemy bombers and fighters being destroyed and many more damaged.