Lockheed P-38 Lightning in China, Burma and India (CBI)

A relatively small number of P-38s served in China, Burma and India theatre. Three fighter groups in two air forces flew the type, starting with the 459th Fighter Squadron of the 80th Fighter Group (10th Air Force), which went operational with the type in September 1943.

The American presence in India and Burma was designed to protect the supply routes to China. After the loss of Burma, the only way to get supplies to the beleaguered Chinese was to fly them over the Himalayas, a route known as the “Hump”. This was a dangerous enough route in normal times, flying at high altitude (and through) the mountains, made more dangerous by the risk of Japanese attack.

American involvement in China predated their entry into the war. The famous Flying Tigers had present in Burma since the summer of 1941 (although they did not fly their first missions until after Pearl Harbor). From the middle of 1942 the American effort in the area had been controlled by the 10th Air Force, based in India. In March 1943 that air force was split in half, and the units based in China were grouped together as the 14th Air Force. Of the three Fighter Groups that served in this theatre, the 33rd and 51st served with both air forces, while the 80th remained with the 10th Air Force until the end of the war (the 449th Fighter Squadron was briefly allocated to the 23rd Fighter Group, but moved to the 51st FG in October 1943).

Before the arrival of the P-38, the most advanced American fighter in this theatre had been the P-40. It remained the most numerous until replaced by the P-51, although that process was not complete until well in 1945.

The end of the war in North Africa in early 1943 slightly reduced the demand for the P-38. Meanwhile General Claire Chennault, the commander of the 14th Air Force, had been making urgent calls for more modern fighters. The air force responded by moving aircraft and pilots directly from North Africa to form two new P-38 squadrons. The 449th FS would be sent to China, while the 459th was sent to the India-Burma border. The 449th was the first unit to go operational, in July 1943, while part of the 23rd FG. The 459th followed in November.

The 449th had three main duties – to protect the hump, to help Chinese ground operations and to attack Japanese ground and sea forces. From their bases in China, the P-38s had the range to reach the coast, allowing it to conduct raids over Hong Kong, Canton and Hainan Island (the target of some of their last operations in 1945).

The 459th spent most of its time conducting offensive operations over Burma, including attacks on Japanese ground installations and simple fighter sweeps. As in the south Pacific, the twin engined Lightning was well suited to operations over the jungle, having the ability to limp back to bases in India on one engine.

P-38 Lighting Aces of the Pacific and CBI, John Stanaway (Aircraft of the Aces 14). The P-38 Lighting was the dominant USAAF fighter aircraft of the Pacific War, where despite its relatively small numbers was responsible for the destruction of over 1,800 Japanese aircraft. This book looks at the entire career of the P-38 in the war against Japan, from the well known campaigns over the islands of the south and south west Pacific to the fighting over the jungles of Burma and the very different campaigns in the Aleutians. [see more]
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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (30 May 2007), Lockheed P-38 Lightning in China, Burma and India (CBI), http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/weapons_P-38_CBI.html

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