Commanding Far Eastern Skies, a Book Review

Preston-Hough, Peter (2015) Commanding Far Eastern Skies: A critical analysis of the Royal Air Force air superiority campaign in India, Burma and Malaya 1941-1945. Helion & Company Ltd. 308 Pages. ISBN 9781910294444

f2c6286f-cdef-4d7b-9bf7-7ef0bd8ed871_1.26c34f7bfda8cbacd827d4bca4f727e3 (2)Peter Preston-Hough’s PhD dissertation, Commanding Far Eastern Skies, examines the fight for air superiority in what many refer to as a forgotten theatre – the Far East. Instead of taking a strictly chronological approach to the campaign, he examines four themes.

First, Preston-Hough examines the Japanese air superiority victory in 1941-1942 from the perspective of the RAF’s early warning organization. He finds that the British inability to establish an efficient early warning organization – including human observers and radar and communications equipment – played a significant role in the Japanese air superiority victory. Of particular interest is the British development of radar equipment better-suited to local weather and topography. Once they established a more effective organization in 1943 it could work together with superior aircraft types – Beaufighters and Spitfires – to intercept Japanese raiders. This was an important factor in the air superiority battle ahead.

Next, he compares Allied and Japanese aircrew, tactics, and aircraft and the effects of these on the air superiority battle. Early in the war, the Japanese won air superiority with superior aircraft, tactics, and experience aircrew. To shift the battle into their favour, the Allies had to reverse these trends. It wasn’t until late 1943 that the local Allied air forces received superior aircraft types in significant numbers. The Beaufighter as a night fighter, the Spitfire as an interceptor, and the P-38 Lightning and P-51 Mustang as long-range fighters did wonders for the Allies, while the Japanese generally had the same types that won them air superiority early in the war. The Spitfire, in particular, gave the Allies an aircraft that effectively neutralized Japanese long-range reconnaissance aircraft, the Ki-46 Dinah. This blinded Japanese commanders from December 1943 onwards. Regarding tactics, the Allies came to understand that dogfighting with the much more manoeuvrable Japanese fighters was suicide. Instead, they adopted dive and zoom tactics, which became more effective as new aircraft arrived with superior climb rates. The quality of Allied aircrew also improved while that of the Japanese Army Air Force (JAAF) remained consistent, counter to claims made in earlier post-war narratives.

Preston-Hough then examines the RAF and USAAF counter-air campaigns of mid-1942 to the end of the war. He identifies three separate Allied counter-air campaigns. Lack of long-range fighters meant that Allied efforts between mid-1942 and the end of 1943 resulted in a relatively ineffective campaign. The 1944 campaign was much more successful due to the presence of these aircraft. The campaign did not break the back of Japanese air power in the theatre as the USAAF official history claimed. While the Japanese didn’t lose as many aircraft as the Allies claimed – air interdiction still contributed to the air superiority campaign far better than standard air-to-air combat. Sixty Japanese aircraft were destroyed on counter-air operations between March and June 1944, a figure twice as high as those destroyed in air-to-air combat. Counter-air operations were less successful between late 1944 and the end of the war. This was the result of the JAAF having fewer aircraft dispersed around many airfields, making them harder to locate and damage in large numbers.

Finally, Preston-Hough examines how the Japanese fought the war, their aircraft industry, and their strategy to determine its effects on the Far East. The Japanese understanding of air power was arguably obsolete. The JAAF in the Far East used their aircraft almost exclusively for the direct support of ground operations. They did not have the bomber force for strategic strikes and continued to use fighters in a ground support role rather than focusing on the vulnerable Allied supply flights supporting British Fourteenth Army’s advance in Burma. Regarding strategy, while the Far East was a Japanese priority from a resource and political perspective – the Japanese had hopes of establishing an Indian state under their Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere – the defence of the homeland took priority. This meant that the JAAF fought without support from the Japanese Naval Air Force after the initial Japanese victories. It also meant that aircraft and crew reinforcements were few and far between. The Far East did not fully realize the gains the Japanese aircraft industry made in 1943-1944.

Preston-Hough writes in the structure of a PhD dissertation, and the book’s detail is immense. This may turn off the casual history reader. However, the book will be invaluable for a serious researcher. Anyone researching the air wars of the Pacific or the Far East – or indeed, the idea of air superiority in general – will be well-served by adding it to their collection. The author provides an exceptional framework for analyzing air superiority campaigns the world over. Perhaps the most important idea that Preston-Hough has offered is his reminder that air superiority isn’t something that air forces necessarily win. Rather, enemy air forces often contest it locally, and friendly air forces must maintain it as needed over the battlespace.

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