Despatches from the Front: Far East Air Operations – 1942-1945 – Review

Title: Far East Air Operations – 1942-1945
Compiled by: Martin Mace & John Grehan, additional research material from Sara Mitchell
Published by:Pen & Sword Aviation in 2014
ISBN: 9781473841215 (ePub Version)

I received a digital copy of this volume of Despatches from the Front, the Commanding Officers’ Reports From the Field and at Sea covering air operations over the period 1942 to 1945 over the Far East (Burma and South East Asia generally). This is one of the series of twenty books covering Despatches from the Front, dealing with the history of the British Armed Forces and covering topics such as:

  • Capital Ships at War 1939/1945
  • Disaster in the Far East 1940-1942
  • Gallipoli and the Dardanelles 1915-1916
  • The Zulu Wars
  • British Battles of the Napoleonic Wars 1793-1806
  • Operations in North Africa and the Middle East 1939-1942
  • Operations in North Africa and the Middle East 1942–1944
  • The War in East Africa 1939-1943
  • The War at Sea in the Mediterranean 1940-1944
  • Western Front 1914-1916
  • Western Front 1917-1918

This is an interesting work and is by and large source material from World War 2 along the lines of a Xenophon – and to those interested in World War 2 in Asia, perhaps as interesting. The book is in four main sections covering four despatches back to “Head Office”, namely:

  1. Air Vice-Marshal Stevenson’s despatch on air operations, Burma and Bay of Bengal 1 January to 22 May 1942
  2. Air Chief Marshal Peirse’s despatch on air operations in South East Asia 16 November 1943 to 31 May 1944
  3. Air Chief Marshal Sir Keith Park’s despatch on air operations in South East Asia from 1st June, 1944 to the Occupation of Rangoon, 2nd May 1945
  4. Air Chief Marshal Sir Keith Park’s despatch on air operations in South East Asia 3 May 1945 to 12 September 1945

This is a source book, and a great source book containing as it does the despatches from the field mentioned above. Additionally, as part of the inclusion there are some great photos taken of various air attacks by different units relevant to the despatches themselves.

Each of the despatches in this book covers a period of the air war initially over Burma and the Bay of Bengal and then later of South East Asia generally as the Allies pushed the Japanese back. We often think of the war in Burma in terms of Slim and the Chindits, and Alexander’s withdrawal to India followed by the rebuilding of Commonwealth forces in India before the counter attack so it is good to read these despatches which remind us of the contribution made by the air force initially to the defence of Burma and then later to the victory in that theatre. I would recommend reading this volume in company with:

  • The Fall of Burma 1941-1943
  • The Battle for Burma 1943-1945

Reading the despatches, Air Vice-Marshal Stevenson’s despatches were particularly interesting, highlighting the qualitative difference his 53 aircraft had over the 450-500 Japanese aircraft but also highlighting the difficulties he had with no effective early warning system leading to the risk to his Hurricanes and P-40s.

Air Chief Marshal Peirse’s despatches reflect the position he found himself in where unlike Stevenson’s small, outnumbered airforce, Peirse had 48 RAF and 17 USAAF squadrons under command against a Japanese air force of some 250 aircraft. Peirse also had upgraded aircraft with his Spitfire’s enjoying an 8 to 1 superiority in kills.

The objective of the book (and indeed all in the series compiled by Mace and Grehan) is to “reproduce the despatches as they first appeared to the general public some seventy years ago. They have not been modified or edited in any way and are therefore the original and unique words of the commanding officers as they saw things at the time.”

In the opening of Stevenson’s despatch, General Sir Archibald P. Wavell, G.C.B., C.M.G., M.C., A.D.C. wrote to the Chiefs of Staff, London, “I forward herewith two copies of a report by Air-Vice_Marchal D.F. Stevenson on Air operations in Burma and the Bay of Bengal from January 1st (the date in which Air-Vice-Marshal Stevenson assumed command) to May 22nd, 1942 (the date when the forces in Burma completed evacuation to India.”

When Stevenson took over command from Group Captain E.R. Manning, he noted that he “found that the air garrison of the country comprised one Squadron of the American Volunteer Group, armed with P.40’s at a strength of 21 I.E. based at Mingaladon, and No.67 R.A.F. Buffalo Squadron and a strength of about 16 aircraft, also based at this Sector Station. Apart from the personnel of 60 Squadron – whose aircraft had been retained in Malaya – and the Communication Flight equipped with aircraft of the Moth type belonging to the Burma Volunteer Air Force, there was at that time no further aircraft in the country. Reinforcing aircraft for the Far East were, however, flying through Burma to Malaya and the Dutch East Indies.”

Stevenson goes on to relate other aircraft movements, the defence of key areas and the airfields and so on. There is a wealth of detail in not just the first despatch here but in the four in this book.

This is an interesting book, and I am looking forward to getting my hands on others from the Despatches from the Front Series. I recommend this book to the military historian, general reader with an interest in the Second World War in Indochina and Burma, and the wargamer building scenarios from this theatre!

The book is available in Hardback, ePub and Kindle formats.

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