Friday, March 23, 2018

About Ledo Roads in Assam, India and Duxford, UK

Below is an article I had written for an Indian fortnightly twenty nine years ago:

In it is a description of the Ledo Road that was crucial for the Allied effort to defeat the Japanese in Burma and China during WW II. This road was supposed to have made it easy for the allied supplies to reach China. 

Or so thought the Americans led by a prickly bully called General Joe Stilwell. The road was named after him for sometime. Now its Ledo Road. 

Ledo today is a large urbanised village in the North East of Upper Assam, India. Back then it was just a village, surrounded by Tea Estates. The rail line ended here.  

A Tea Estate near Dibrugarh

During World War II a road was planned from the rail head at Ledo, over Pangsau Pass, to Kunming in China so that supplies could be sent quickly to a besieged China. By April 1945 this 1079 mile long road was ready for use. But was used only three times.

All that effort was wasted. It was a one way road. And the first convoy took almost two months to reach Kunming.  

Air transport to Kunming from the three airfields around Dibrugarh had been infinitely more successful for the previous three years of the War. Even though according to a book called "Saga of CNAC # 53"by US Capt. Hank Fletcher 1441 planes were wrecked. He accused Genl. Stilwell of trying to stop aerial transport as "he would loose control of everything that would be delivered in China." On page 256 he writes that the Burma Road "..turned into one of the greatest wastes of lives and materials during WW II."

The transports would fly out and be back the same day- unless they crashed or were shot down. To protect the large planes RAF and USAF fighter squadrons were based in Dinjan (Balijan), Mohanbari & Chabua airstrips. The route was called the Burma Hump.  

Chabua Airfield in 1944 (from the Web)

SEQUEL-  Twenty Eight years after I had written the article in Frontline, I was in Duxford, Cambridgeshire, UK to see WW II planes and tank at the Imperial War Museum. 

Duxord is an old RAF air base that will be 100 years old in 2018. It was one of the most important Battle of Britain aerodromes during WW II, and now has a static and a “living” museum for planes from WW I & WW II. 

Many of the English, European and US WW I & WW II planes on display fly. Thrice a year many are taken out for  brilliantly choreographed air shows full of action and mock fury, with reconstructed old planes looping the loops, dropping dummy bombs, and facing real ack ack guns firing dud shells, cordite smells and smoke. 
Exciting and good fun

Preserved too are some of the old hangars, barracks, offices of the air base including the control tower and street lamps.

 Some of the WW I & WW II aircraft  that fly in the air shows here are Sopwith Triplane, Fokker Triplane, de Havilland Tiger Moth, Grumman Bearcat, Lancaster, Muscat, Yak and a Zero. There are many more. There is also a tank museum at Duxford, in which are tanks similar to the ones that had fought in the Kohima battle and in Meiktila, Myanmar.

Expensive joy rides in ancient planes, including a Spitfire, are given every day of the year except for three days around Christmas. During a flight in a 1933 de Havilland Dragon Rapide 

1933 de Havilland Dragon Rapide
Sopwith Snipe - perhaps

a year ago I saw more than a dozen, distinctive red brick buildings on the other side of the road from the museum. In guide maps these bungalows with lawns and a large mess with larger lawns are shown to be on Ledo Road and Burma Road. Last December I walked on these roads.

Opposite the Imperial War Museum and off a very noisy express way is a tree soundproofed patch of peace. Duxford’s Ledo Road runs into a Burma Road too- just like the original one in Upper Assam

 where the Ledo Road met the Burma Road at Shingbwiyang (Myanmar) about 165 kms later.

 In Duxford these two curving picturesque green bordered lanes are only 400 metres or so in length. On Ledo Road are attractive and functional single and two storied red brick buildings that housed officers and their families during WW II. These were designed in 1935 by the Royal Arts Commission under Sir Edwin Lutyens, and now have heritage status, which means that they cannot be knocked down. Both roads curve gracefully to dead ends. The houses on these roads are in use.

These roads were probably named by an American Squadron that was posted here in early 1944. The Americans had taken over Duxford from the RAF in early 1943. The Ledo-Shingbwiyang section of the original Ledo Road was completed in December, 1943. By that time a massive air lift of civil and military supplies had started from Dibrugarh to Kunming.  USAF fighter squadrons based in Mohanbari, Chabua or Dinjan used to escort the transport planes for part of the way. Some of these squadrons were later posted to Duxford in 1944.  

The Ledo Road was first during WW II. The first convoy left Ledo on 10th January, 1945 and reached Kunming on 28th February. It was used twice more and given up. One plane flying the Hump could deliver more freight in ten days than twelve trucks. 

Since then it has been used twice. In the 1950s only. In 1955 by the Oxford-Cambridge Overland Expedition from London to Singapore, an account of which is given in a book called First Overland. 1958 saw an English group go and return this way from London to Australia. The account of this travel is in a book called The Impossible Takes a Little longer by Eric Edis- a member. Three years ago a Chinese convoy had come overland by this Road to participate in a trade fair in Guwahati. After that – nothing.

I shall end with some pictures:

A Victoria Cross holder is interred here at the Kohima WW II cemetery. He was the son of a famous tailoring firm owner in London of the 30s.

This is what the Pangsau Pass part of the Ledo Road looked like in the 80s. Its a bit better now.

Shingbwiyang Lake in Burma's Hukawng Valley as seen from Pangsau Pass (3233') on the India-Burma border.

The Hkamti Range, known to pilots as the Burma Hump. From Jahu Natu, now renamed as Vijaynagar in East Arunachal Pradesh, India.
A wrecked Curtis-Wright in a school in Morni, Dhubri, West Assam. A string of airstrips had been made across Assam , Bengal and Bihar to refuel and service planes flying to Dibrugarh, Silchar and Imphal.
Or, it could be a North American.