1st Air Commando USAAF
At the Quebec Conference, the United States offered to support the 2nd Chindit offensive into Burma with American air power.
General Henry H. (Hap) Arnold, Commander of U.S. Army Air Forces, who was always keen to explore new ways of using air power, selected two young veteran fighter pilots, Lt. Col. Philip G. Cochran and Lt. Col. John Alison, to devise and assemble an aerial task force to meet the needs of the Chindit operation.
The objective was to build a lean, self-sufficient force capable of sustained operations for up to 90 days, operating during the dry season before the monsoon. This operation was given the codename Project 9.
After discussions with Wingate, the Americans came up with the idea of flying in the Chindit force into Burma to save weeks of jungle marching. This was to be the first ever aerial invasion in history.
Cochran and Alison identified the main roles of the aerial task force to be,
- fly-in of troops
- evacuation of casualties
- supplies by air
- close air support
- air superiority
1. An airlift force with gliders and transport planes for the fly-in and transport of supplies. For this role the following planes were selected,
C-47 Skytrain/Dakotas for their ability to carry heavy loads and for use with short landing strips.
UC-64 Norseman planes for smaller loads and utility work.
Waco CG-4A large cargo gliders.
2. An assault force with fighters and bombers for attack, close air support and to establish the required air superiority. The planes used for this were,
P-51A Mustang fighters which were excellent for dive bombing and strafing.
B-25H Mitchell bombers, an attack version armed with canon and machine guns in the nose for forward firing allowing it to act as a gunship as well as a bomber. These were flown by fighter pilots.
3. A light plane force for evacuating the sick and wounded.
L-1 Vigilant and L-5 Sentinel were selected as both could operate from crude airstrips in jungle clearings. Six experimental helicopters were also included in the light plane force for rescue missions.
The force assembled by Cochran and Alison consisted of 523 men and the following aircrafts,
|Light Planes (L-1/L-5)||100|
|Large Transports (C-47)||13|
|Small Transports (UC-64)||12|
|CG-4A Waco Glider|
|P-51A Mustang Fighter|
5318th Provisional Unit (Air)
The force was assembled in America and then transported to India during November and December 1943. On their arrival in India they were moved to two bases in the Assam region, 100 miles west of the Burma border. The transport and gilder planes were stationed at Lalaghat and HQ, fighters and bombers went to Hailakandi. The light plane force was divided between the two bases.
Once in India the unit was re-designated the 5318th Provisional Unit (Air). The unit's planes were given markings of five white diagonal stripes banding the fuselage behind the cockpit. These markings were to give the unit an identification and also "to let the Japanese know who was dominating the skies of Burma".
900th Airborne Engineers
5318th was then joined by the 900th Airborne Engineer Company. They were equipped with air transportable tractors, road graders and bulldozers, they would be flown into Burma by gilders and it was their role to construct the airstrips behind enemy lines for use by the transport planes.
Joint training exercises with the Chindits commenced on 29th December 1943. Mechanisms for transporting the animals were devised and rehearsals of towing gliders and landing them with Chindits on board were carried out. The procedures to be used for directing air strikes by radio from RAF officers on the ground were developed and airdrop of supplies were also practised.
Any Place, Any Time, Anywhere
One training mission went tragically wrong when two gilders on tow collided with each other during takeoff resulting in one of the gliders crashing killing the 3 Americans and 4 British troops on board. The Americans had feared that this accident would mean that the British would now be less willing to fly with them, instead they received a note from a Chindit commander saying "Please be assured that we will go with your boys any place, any time, anywhere". This phrase became the motto of the unit.
1st Air Commando Group
The unit commenced operations in February 1944 attacking enemy targets in Burma to prepare for the Chindit invasion.
In March the 5318th PUA was officially named 1st Air Commando Group.
As well as supporting the Chindits directly the 1st Air Commando also contributed by attacking the enemy's transport systems and supply centres. Targets included road and railway bridges, warehouses, truck conveys and river barges.
The Chindit fly-in, Operation Thursday, was launched on 5th of March 1944 with 1st Air Commando spearheading the invasion. Operation Thursday officially ended on 12th March after the successful fly-in of 2 Chindit brigades behind enemy lines without Japanese knowledge or interference. The unit then continued with its support role.
Air superiority was vital to the Chindit operation. The Chindits were totally dependant on air supplies and it was vital that transport planes could always get through and that the Chindits were not subject to heavy Japanese air attacks.
On 8th March an attack was launched against a Japanese airbase successfully destroying 48 enemy planes, this was one fifth of the known Japanese air force.
Enemy planes did not shoot down any transport or light plane during the entire operation. Air superiority was achieved with significant contribution from the Air Commandos.
Close Air Support
The Chindit columns did not possess artillery, instead this was provided by the 1st Air Commandos in the form of 'aerial artillery'.
Mortar smoke was used to identify the target area and RAF officers on the ground would direct the air strikes against enemy positions using radio. Great accuracy was achieved and the close air support proved very successful. The accuracy achieved by this method allowed enemy in close proximity to be attacked from the air. Newly developed rockets were used in combat for the first time.
In the first month of operation over 1,000 Chindit casualties were evacuated by light planes. The L-1 was supposed to carry a maximum of 3 passengers but was known to sometimes carry as many as 6 to 7.
Casualties were normally flown to the Broadway stronghold and then transferred to transport planes to continue their journey back to India. Urgent cases were flown directly to India by the light planes.
When a L-1 plane, carrying 3 wounded, had to make a forced landing in Japanese controlled territory was rescued by helicopter, it made aviation history with the first ever combat rescue mission. In total the helicopters flew 23 sorties rescuing 18 Chindits.
Wingate only expected his men to be able to operate effectively behind enemy lines for a maximum of 90 days, therefore the air task force was only planned and designed to operate for 90 days.
Withdrawal was planned for 1st May but with the movement of the Chindit force towards Mogaung and the establishment of the new Blackpool block, the 1st Air Commando agreed to extend the operations for a few weeks at the request of the Chindits.
The monsoon season then started and the arrival of the rain hampered missions and made the runways at the bases inoperable. 1st Air Commando finally withdrew with the last plane leaving Hailakandi on 23rd May.
The 1st Air Commando had played a critical role by providing an airborne weapon to the Chindits on the ground.