In February 1944, 1576 Special Duty Flight, hitherto consisting of exhausted Hudsons, became 357 SD Squadron, equipped with Liberator. Force 136 finally had the aircraft capable of turning the organisation into a properly offensive part of the war in the Far East. Not for nothing was the following month called ‘epoch making’ in terms of the number of sorties that were launched to execute operations. Later that year, on 8 November, 358 SD Squadron was formed which meant that the vast operations planned for the reconquest of Burma could become a reality. It also meant that operations to other countries such as Malaya and Siam could now go ahead.
The men on the ground had nothing but praise for the RAF, operating over inhospitable terrain with unpredictable weather and the dangers of tropical storms. The two SD squadrons went through some difficult times, as written about in this post: ‘The RAF & SOE in Burma’ Apart from the big Dakotas, Liberators and Catalinas, little planes like the Lysander and their pilots also did sterling work in support of SOE, as can be read about here: ‘Lysanders of Burma’.
Taking a slightly different angle, this post uses Airborne Operations Reports filed by the pilots to illustrate what they encountered on their long flights over the Burmese jungle. The RAF personnel involved are named, flight duration and conditions are recorded, and grid references provided. A few of these reports ended up in HS 1/19, providing the following insights:
25 February 1945 – a successful sortie supplied Operation Ramrose, Team Fox. F/L Bridges was the pilots, with F/O Luther navigating and P/O Mesher dispatching the stores. The aircraft took off from Jessore at 1957hrs with nine containers and five packages onboard. The aircraft returned to Jessore at 0152 after a successful sortie. They reached the DZ at 2233hrs and recognised the reception ‘T’ of fires and a torch flashing ‘R’. Seventeen minutes were spent over the DZ which was in a valley with few trees. The hills made it a ‘difficult D.Z.’ but eight parachutes were seen to open on the containers, and two packages overshot the DZ by 500 yards.
At the same time as Fox was being supplied by Liberator, a Dakota which had set off at 1900hrs was supplying the Hyena team of Operation Character. In fact, the Dakota was one of five aircraft all going to supply the same DZ on 25 February 1945.
On the other side of Burma to Fox, the Dakota’s sortie lasted 9hrs 50 mins. Piloted by F/S Bush with W/O Lineham and F/S Fordyce, the crew picked up the signal from Rebecca 30 miles out from the DZ. This new navigational equipment ‘worked very well’ and the DZ was ‘very good’, as was the reception, with the hills causing ‘no difficulty on a good night’ as it was in a ‘large valley’.
The other four aircraft dispatched to supply Hyena at the same DZ as Bush’s Dakota at QB 6722 were all Liberators. The first Liberator took off at 1823hrs, with a second at 1851hrs, the third at 1900hrs and the last one at1915hrs. All aircraft returned to Jessore, arriving between 0240hrs and 0345hrs. The DZ was busy from the arrival of the first aircraft at 2202hrs to the last one at 2307hrs. There was overlapping arrivals and supply runs, so there had to be a fair amount of coordination with some aircraft over the DZ for as long as 34 minutes.
Descriptions of the same DZ vary in these five reports. Variables to consider might be the experience of the crew, or the weather over the DZ, for example, but whereas the Dakota crew’s experience was wholly positive, others were more critical:
S/L Sharpe, in the Liberator that left at 1823 reported: ‘Very good and easy D.Z. with good reception’ and that ‘Hills might cause difficulties.’
W/O Martell in the Liberator that left at 1851hrs reported: ‘Good D.Z. and reception very clear.’
F/O Smith, who left at 1900hrs: ‘Fairly good D.Z. and reception. Easy to find. Hills would make D.Z. difficult on a bad night.’
F/O Robinson, the 1915hrs departure, reported: ‘Could not see reception clearly’ and that it was ‘Not an easy D.Z.’
In terms of weather, all crews reported visibility as 10 miles or more, and wind speeds between 5-17mph. One crew mentioned the use of the Rebecca navigational aid, which they picked up from 30 miles out from the D.Z. Another refers to using ‘D.R.’ when they could not see a reception clearly, which seems to be a reference to Rebecca (?). A Liberator crew dropping to Bison in central Burma mention a ‘D.R. run of 30 miles’ which led them straight to the torches of their reception on 20 February 1945.
Despite the use of Rebecca and Eureka, some long flights were unsuccessful. A Dakota tasked with supplying Operation Heavy, Team Wolf, in the Southern Shan States near the Thai border, left Jessore at 1425hrs on 20 February, and only returned at 0535hrs. The pilot spent 41 minutes over the target area, but left without seeing a reception. It’s not totally clear, but it seems that this aircraft had successfully found DZ 146 as ordered, but the reception was at a DZ numbered 151. The report is cursory enough to sense the pilot’s frustration. On 19 February, another Liberator spent 1hr 46mins making several runs over a DZ in central Burma, where the ‘Position of D.Z. was certain’ but returned to base without dispatching supplies because no reception was seen.
While the technology increased the chances of long and often dangerous flights being successful, there were enough other variables to cause both the men on the ground and the aircrew considerable frustration when it came to supply. There was much to learn however, and the percentage success of sorties climbed steadily in the months that there are figures for: in March 1945 it was a 64% success rate; in April it was 70%; and in May it went up to 85%. The Hyena team therefore seem to have done well on that night in February when all five aircraft found their DZ and successfully dropped their cargo. It was important that they did too, as the supplies dropped that night contributed to the eventual arming of approximately 12,000 Karen guerillas.