While there are a great many histories of the RAF in the European theater of the 1939-1945 war, there are precious few accounts of its activities in wWhile there are a great many histories of the RAF in the European theater of the 1939-1945 war, there are precious few accounts of its activities in what was contemporaneously called the South-East Asia Command. Perhaps this shouldn't be surprising; the British rarely dwell on a disaster if it's inglorious, and the whole of the 1941-1942 campaigns for Malaya and Burma were humiliating defeats where great British armies were annihilated by their enemies and betrayed by their unwilling subjects. It was a collapse that British imperialism, and by extension, British colonial rule in the far east never fully recovered from.
When the war with Japan began, British forces in SEAC were pathetically weak; obsolete Vickers Vildebeest biplane torpedo bombers with open cockpits; wholly inadequate American-built Brewster Buffalo fighters; obsolescent Hudson medium bumbers; and other aircraft even more incapable of defending a critical portion of the empire, even had they been present in great numbers, which they were not. Much of the pre-war British strength in the region (even then not up to the task of holding it) had been drawn off to make good losses in the Mediterranean and the Home Islands, and it could not be easily replaced, although the British tried, sending desperately needed Blenheim bombers and Hurricane fighters from the Middle East (nine Blenheims were the first Allied aircraft to see and attack the Japanese fleet carriers, on 9 April 1942), only to lose most of them in the long, bitter retreat to India and the sanguinary air battles over Ceylon.
It wasn't until 1943 that modern aircraft became available in quantity, and eventually Spitfires would arrive in quantity to sweep the skies of Japanese aircraft; by 1944, few IJN or IJA or aircraft could be found to fight. It was, however, a long and difficult road, with much embrassment and disaster on the way to victory, which could really only be considered a partial success anyway: with their defeats, the British had lost the aura of invincibility that had preserved their position in the region for so long, and their overseas empire did not long outlast that of Japan's.
Probert, a former RAF officer himself, states that his purpose was to write a companion volume to John Terrain's magisterial The Right of the Line, which covers the activities of the RAF in the European War. In this I think he can be said to have succeeded; the work is never boasting in tone, but instead matter-of-fact. As such, it might not be as exciting as a more sensationalistic treatment, but it's of infinitely more value. As my own interest in the subject matter is high, I never found the book dull, but those with a lower tolerance for information on upper echelon decision-making processes might not feel the same. Those who enjoyed this book and who are looking for a more in-depth treatment of the air war in SEAC would do well to seek out Christopher Shore's Bloody Shambles trilogy....more
A useful reference book in terms of purely objective data (how fast the aircraft was, what it looked like, etc.) but Thetford is extremely generous inA useful reference book in terms of purely objective data (how fast the aircraft was, what it looked like, etc.) but Thetford is extremely generous in his assessment of virtually every aircraft in the book, and glosses over a lot of bad points. The Fairey Barracuda, for instance, was designed as a torpedo bomber but was too underpowered to carry a torpedo(!) so it became a dive bomber, but it was too heavy to dive safely, so it be became a glide bomber, and then it turned out to occasionally crash for no reason and was expeditiously replaced by American-built Avengers, but Thetford calls it "on the whole successful"....more