The Battle for Meiktila
The RAF Regiment has created a series of videos to celebrate the history of the RAF Regiment as we mark the 80th anniversary of its formation. All three episodes focus on the Battle for Meiktila, a vital Japanese command and supply centre in Central Burma.
The masterstoke of the Burma Campaign - the thrust for, and capture of Meiktila
The Burma campaign of 1941 to 1945 is often referred to as The Forgotten War. In 1942 the Japanese Army and Navy had swept all before it and overran the South-East Asian countries of the Philippines, French Indo-China, Malaya, Singapore, the Netherlands East Indies. By 1942, they were at eastern the frontiers of India.
The Fourteenth Army, composed of British, Indian, African and Nepalese troops had held the eastern frontier at the Imphal and in the Arakan, and by late 1944 was preparing an amphibious advance down the Arakan coast and a mechanised land offensive into the dry central plains of Burma. Key to the success of the campaign had been the gaining of air superiority by the Royal Air Force and US Army Air Force and the development of air supply as means of supporting the troops advancing through difficult and disease-ridden jungle terrain against a tenacious enemy.
General Slim, the commander of Fourteenth Army had as his main objective, to reach the capital of Burma, Rangoon, before the monsoon broke in mid-1945. His masterstroke was to send his armoured and infantry columns, supported by air, to capture the important command and supply centre of Meiktila. While Mandalay, the main northern city had considerable prestige value in its capture, the loss of Meiktila by the Japanese would inflict an irreversible damage to their ability to pursue organised offensive action. Slim's columns, supported by the Air Forces, made their thrust for Meiktila in early 1945, with the town captured by early March.
With the Japanese elements cut off and able to attack the tenuous supply lines it was essential that the force in Meiktila could be resupplied from the only airfield located to the east of the town. With not enough troops to form a continuous defensive line the defence of Meiktila was provided by six boxes. It was at Meiktila East airfield that the RAF Regiment established D Box. The two runways could not be held at night, and the Japanese would move in under darkness and establish themselves on the airstrip. It was the job of the gunners of the RAF Regiment to go out each hot humid dusty morning and clear the airstrips of the enemy parties before the first supply, casualty evacuation and fighter aircraft could land.
Wing Commander 'Bill' Lander
Wing Commander 'Bill' Lander was the Officer Commanding 1307 Wing HQ RAF Regiment, and it was his responsibility to coordinate the actions of the RAF Regiment squadrons and flights (2708 Field Sqn to defend the airstrip, two flights 2963 LAA Sqn to protect 17 (Spitfire) Sqn, and one flight 2941 Field Sqn and one flight 2968 Field Sqn to protect two radar stations) that were deployed to Meiktila.
Lander had arrived at the airstrip by air with the first flights of the RAF Regiment. He was to be constant source of inspiring leadership throughout the siege. Despite the airfield being under incessant shelling and subject to night attacks by Japanese 'jitter' parties. Lander took a 'grip' of the situation and deployed his flights, often leading night patrols or the daily forays out onto the strip.
Unfortunately, while leading a patrol on 24 March, he and his runner, LAC Dakers, were killed by sniper fire. While there was no shortage of Regiment volunteers to bring in his and Dakers’ bodies, it was four days before they could be recovered.
Sergeant Norman Gerrish
From D Box each morning, during the siege of Meiktila, the gunners of the RAF Regiment would climb out of their slit trenches and move out through the barbed-wire apron to clear the airstrip of parties of Japanese that had infiltrated onto the stirp during the night. There was no cover on the flat expanse of runway. The men would spread out and begin a sweep of the airstrip and its perimeter. Every ditch, slit trench and patch of scrub had to be searched. In the darkness they had heard the Japanese moving around, digging themselves in, and drawing fire from the defenders of D Box. On 16 March, at 0600hours, two flights of 2708 Sqn RAF Regiment moved out onto the strip.
The siege of Meiktila lasted some 30 days. On 31 March, the enemy commanders gave up hope of recapturing Meiktila. Fourteenth Army and its supporting Air Forces began regrouping for the advance on Rangoon. Over the course of three weeks, the Japanese had at times come close to completely denying use of the airfield, but they were beaten back each time by the dogged defence. The thrust for, capture, and successful defence of Meiktila was one of the significant milestones in the reconquest of Burma. "Meiktila" is one of the RAF Regiments greatest and proudest battle honours.
To celebrate 80 years of the RAF Regiment, personnel are undertaking an array of events in 2022 to raise money for the RAF Benevolent Fund and the Centurion Fund. The monthly events will commemorate a number of the campaigns the RAF Regiment have been involved in, both in the home nations and overseas. Visit our webpage which celebrates the 80th anniversary of RAF Regiment.