Canadian involvement in South East Asia during the Second World War consisted mainly of participation by the Royal Canadian Air Force. While it’s true a few Canadians served in Royal Navy ships, no units of the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) served in the area.
Two dozen Canadian Army officers were attached to the British 14th Army in Burma as well as South East Asia Command Headquarters as observers toward the end of 1944. As well, 18 Canloan officers (infantry subalterns borrowed by the British to make up the recurring loss of combat leaders) arrived mid-1945.
Approximately 40 Canadians also served in Force 136, a British intelligence organization that operated behind Japanese lines. These men helped recruit and train native guerrillas; in addition, they engaged in sabotage, ambush, and deception. They also transmitted information about enemy activities. A number of Canadians served in a Combined Operations’ Sea Reconnaissance Unit (SRU) as the “frogmen of Burma”, spearheading14th Army’s crossings of the Irrawaddy River in February and March of 1945. Interestingly, the Veteran’s Guard of Canada was represented. In summer, 1944, and in spring, 1945, contingents of the Veterans were employed as mule skinners, escorting shiploads of mules from the US to India and later the jungles of Assam and the Arakan, where the mules were much needed for transportation.
Canadian airmen were in South East Asia prior to the initial Japanese attacks of December 1941. When war broke out in 1939, the skills most needed were those associated with radio operation and maintenance, skills which could easily be applied to the new art of Radio Detection Finding, or radar. By the end of 1940, Canada had added several hundred trained radiomen to the strength of the Royal Air Force (RAF). They had been quickly enlisted in the RCAF and sent to England for courses which would qualify them as radar operators and mechanics. Several graduates in electrical engineering had also been commissioned and loaned to the RAF to command or administer the stream of radar and signals units that were constantly being formed.
Many of the radio personnel were consequently posted to the Middle or Far East. By December 1941, about 350 RCAF other ranks and 50 officers were serving in the RAF’s Far Eastern Command. In January 1942, at least 35 Canadian aircrew, early graduates of the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan (BCATP), were also serving in RAF squadrons in South East Asia. By April of the same year, the number had more than doubled.
Some of the Canadians flew Consolidated Catalina flying-boats on maritime reconnaissance patrols; that soon was largely abandoned in the face of Japanese air superiority. As a result, most of the Catalinas were then diverted to night bombing missions. Some Canadian fighter pilots accompanied 50 Hawker Hurricanes from the Middle East, which arrived in Singapore in January, 1942. However, although the Hurricanes could match the enemy’s speed and carried heavier armament, they were could not turn with the Japanese in dogfights and were also handicapped by an inadequate ground control system. Singapore surrendered on February 15, 1942; two Canadian radar technicians were among the 70,000 Commonwealth troops taken prisoner. Only 18 or 20 Hurricanes, along with 24 obsolete American fighters, were left to continue the battle from Sumatra and Java.
The Japanese attack on Sumatra began February 14, 1942, as paratroops landed on the airfields at Palembang. Two Canadian pilots were captured while leading a makeshift force of RAF ground crew, British Army anti-aircraft gunners, and Dutch colonial infantry in hand-to-hand combat against the invaders. By the time Java fell on March 8, 1942, an unknown number of Canadians had been wounded and 26 taken prisoner.
In my next post, we’ll look at the conflict over the Indian Ocean.