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Double Lucky? (part 3)

First Burma campaign: the Christmas raids

On December 23rd the 3rd Flying Group ordered an attack on Rangoon. Two regiments totaling 45 Type 97 heavy bombers (Ki 21-II) from the 7th FB (60th and 98th FRs) were to rendezvous at Bangkok and proceed to the target unescorted. Fifteen available Type 97 heavy bombers (Ki 21-I) of the 62nd FR were to rendezvous with the Type 97 light bombers of the 31st FR and fighters of the 77th FR over the forward base at Raheng and fly to Rangoon in a mass formation.

Plans soon began to go awry. The bombers of the 7th FB never joined forces and each sentai proceeded to their target, the Rangoon docks, independently. The 62nd FR left the rendezvous point at Raheng early and gradually pulled ahead of the other two units. Their target was the main military airfield near Rangoon, Mingaladon. The 27 light bombers of the 31st FR also headed for Mingaladon. Covered by thirty fighters of the 77th, the light bombers were the only Japanese bombers with an escort.

Warning of the approaching Japanese went to 67 Squadron first and they got fifteen Buffaloes up and climbed to about 20,000 feet in several sections. The AVG got ten fighters up in two flights and also climbed to altitude before encountering the Japanese. Two further pairs of Tomahawks got off a little later. The intercepting fighters first encountered the fifteen Type 97 model I bombers of the 62nd FR and this unit suffered heavily eventually losing five aircraft with the others damaged. Later the 98th FR was heavily assailed and lost two bombers with others shot up. The trailing 60th FR was also subjected to a few attacks but lost no aircraft.

Throughout the action the RAF and American pilots were aware of the presence of a large formation of Japanese fighters. With the exception of one pilot that reported a single engine light bomber, the remaining pilots apparently thought the single engine aircraft of both the 31st FR and 77th FR were fighters. These "fighters" were intermittently engaged by the Buffaloes and Tomahawks. Meanwhile the single engine aircraft followed the 62nd FR to Mingaladon where they bombed and strafed with some success. Buildings and fuel storage dumps were destroyed and the runway cratered. Two Buffaloes, two Blenheims, and two light aircraft of the BVAF were destroyed on the ground (matching Japanese claims for six aircraft destroyed). One of these was claimed by strafing fighters of the 77th. Two Tomahawks received machine gun hits in their dispersal bays and another was wrecked when it washed out after hitting a bomb crater returning from the fight. In addition to material damage several RAF personnel had been killed or wounded as had a number of Burmese service personnel.

In "fighter" combats one Buffalo pilot claimed a fighter probably destroyed but received damage to his own aircraft. Several 77th FR fighters caught up with the twin-engine bombers and intervened to help out the 62nd FR. One Tomahawk pilot claimed one Japanese fighter destroyed and another as a probable before being shot down. A second Tomahawk was also the victim of the Japanese fighters. Several other Tomahawks and some of the Buffaloes returned with machine gun hits. Some were the result of fighter action, but in some cases, whether these were caused by fighters or the defensive fire from the bombers was not clear. The bombers claimed to have shot down a number of fighters. Total AVG losses were four Tomahawks.

As predicted by the commander of the AVG, Claire Chennault, the Allied fighter pilots that tried to turn with the Japanese fighters found themselves handily bested. A split-S followed by a near vertical dive proved an effective escape maneuver for the Americans. Several returning Allied pilots commented on the Japanese fighters swarming ineffectively below and behind the Japanese twin engine bombers not realizing they were seeing fighters covering light bombers and not just a disorganized gaggle of fighters. For their part the Japanese pilots were not impressed with the performance of the Allied fighters on this occasion.

The 77th FR claimed seven fighters ("Spitfires" and probable "Brewster" planes) as certain kills and four uncertain. Maj. Yoshio Hirose claimed two victories. Capt. Kaoru Kakimi (another headquarters pilot) claimed one victory. Lt. Kuwabara repeated his success of December 8th. Capt. Matsuda of the 2nd chutai was also successful. The exaggerated claims of the 77th suggest they were heavily involved in the action if not quite as successfully as they imagined.

All the Japanese fighters returned to their base. Some sources state that the 31st FR also returned without suffering any losses. The official Japanese communiqui admits the loss of two bombers in the dock attack and four aircraft in the airfield attack (this probably reflects the number of losses the Japanese thought were known to the Allies, i.e., that crashed in Allied territory). However, a Japanese press account relates the loss of a light bomber piloted by a Lt. Ikura. Whelan (The Flying Tigers) tends to confirm this, stating that members of the AVG visited the sight of a crashed Japanese bomber and found it had a single radial engine and one of the crew members was an officer (this was probably one of the Allied claims for a "fighter").

Though the 3rd Flying Group command considered the results of this raid disastrous, the 77th FR had actually done well. They had protected the light bombers under their immediate charge with but a single loss. Their intervention on behalf of the 62nd probably saved that unit from even worse losses. They had shot down and damaged enemy fighters without loss to themselves.

The 3rd Flying Group set a repeat attack for the 25th. The 7th FB was back with the 12th FR substituted for the 98th FR. They would be escorted by the 7th FB's fighter unit, the 64th FR flying their Type 1 (Ki 43) fighters. The Type 1 fighter was, like the Type 97 fighter, designed by Nakajima but was a more recent aircraft with a more powerful engine and retractable landing gear. It mounted only two machine guns but one of them was 12.7mm caliber. It was maneuverable, had a good climb rate, and was about 20 m.p.h. faster than the Type 97 fighter at military power. It could be operated at a higher power and speed for short periods.

The 7th FB contingent numbered over 60 heavy bombers and 25 Type 1 fighters. The 10th FB was back with 27 Type 97 light bombers, 32 Type 97 fighters, and just eight Type 97 model I heavy bombers. This time the 62nd FR, much chastened from their earlier experience, was prepared to stick close to the main formation after the rendezvous above Raheng. The 7th FB ran into bad luck. Entering Burma the lead bomber of the 12th FR with the Brigade commander, M/G Kenji Yamamoto, on board suffered engine trouble and began losing altitude. The bomber formation and the fighter escort followed it down. Eventually six of the bombers and part of the fighter escort aborted the mission. Those that regained altitude and continued were separated from the 60th FR, which continued the mission unescorted.

At Mingaladon the operations center had been wrecked in the raid on the 23rd but a patrol of three Tomahawks was already airborne when the Japanese approach was detected. Pilots were all on the alert so three additional Tomahawks joined the first trio and a second flight of seven Tomahawks also scrambled. Fourteen RAF fighters, two flights each of six Buffaloes and a separate section, also took off. The alert was not as timely as it might have been but there was adequate time for the Allied fighters to find the strung out Japanese formations.

The 60th FR actually flew past Rangoon and then circled around to attack from the northwest. The 10th FB formation was approaching Rangoon from the east when the unescorted 60th FR was sighted with American fighters about to attack. Maj. Yoshioka dispatched fighters to defend the unescorted heavy bombers. When seven AVG Tomahawks assaulted them they soon found themselves dodging the lithe Japanese fighters. Some of the Type 1 fighters may have joined in this action since American pilots identified some of the fighters as "Zeros" (Japanese navy Type Zero carrier fighters superficially resembling the army's Type 1 fighters). Other combats between the AVG and the 77th occurred at low level over Mingaladon airfield.

Most of the Buffaloes apparently climbed to intercept the 60th FR. While climbing they were jumped by Type 97 fighters of the 77th. Caught at a disadvantage the Buffaloes had little time to attack the bombers. Four were shot down with their pilots killed and two others were badly damaged. They claimed three Japanese fighters and partial credit for a bomber.

The Japanese fighters and bombers made extravagant claims, thirty Allied planes shot down (including probables, "uncertain" in Japanese parlance). Eight plus four probables were claimed by the 77th. In addition to the Buffalo losses only two Tomahawks were lost and three damaged. Allied claims were also inflated, totaling 16 bombers and 12 fighters. Three bombers of the 12th FR were shot down outright, a fourth crashed in Thailand and others were damaged. Several bombers of the 60th were hit but none lost. The 64th FR lost two Type 1 fighters, its first combat losses of the Pacific War. In the 10th FB only the 77th suffered losses. Lt. Masashi Someya was killed, Sgt Maj. Kontetu Ri bailed out to become a prisoner and a third fighter crashed in Thailand.

These combats over Rangoon were covered in the world press and the AVG (later to become known as the Flying Tigers) was the focus of attention. These actions were considered great victories in what otherwise was a sea of Allied defeats. The Flying Tigers were lionized as heroes, covered not only in the press but soon to become the subject of books and even a motion picture.

From the Japanese perspective the losses suffered over Rangoon were a rebuff, especially as these raids were a diversion to a secondary theater from the main effort in Malaya. Still, the raids had caused material damage and greatly disrupted the labor situation at the port of Rangoon where thousands of tons of war supplies were awaiting shipment to China.

In this second raid on Rangoon the 77th had again given better than it had got (though it is unclear whether the RAF or AVG was responsible for its losses). It had intervened and probably saved a bomber formation (60th FR) from heavy losses. However, the Japanese fighter pilots returned with a new respect for the Allied fighters especially their superior speed and diving ability. After these raids the 77th remained the sole Japanese fighter unit available to carry the fight into Burma.

continued in part 4