Lessons from Air-Land Integration in the Burma Campaign

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“…in Burma our Armies are advancing on the wings of the Allied Air Forces.”

Air Chief Marshal Keith Park


The campaign in Burma during the Second World War is an excellent case study of the vital importance of air power to the defeat of a determined adversary. The quote above highlights the interdependence of the land and air forces in Burma. Air power would not have been able to play its vital role without close integration with the land forces

The system or process for organising and executing tactical air support for land operations is now termed Air-Land Integration (ALI). In British doctrine, ALI requires three key elements: 

  1. understanding of each component’s capabilities and limitations
  2. knowledge of doctrine and validation through joint training 
  3. development of strong relationships to engender cooperation and mutual trust

Henry Probert’s The Forgotten Air Force is a comprehensive study of air operations in Burma, including how ALI was conducted, but it does not discuss how ALI was established. Crucially, because the explanation of the process is missing, the challenges and solutions for effective ALI during this campaign were unknown. My research has established three key factors for successful integration during this campaign:

  1. education
  2. external inquiry identifies issue / internal committee fixes problem 
  3. receptive commanders capable of developing strong relationships

These factors are relevant to contemporary defence leaders.


The first factor in the development of close integration between the services in Burma was the recognition by the Royal Air Force (RAF) that they needed to educate the Army on the capabilities and limitations of air power. This would enable the Army to employ the most powerful weapons in the theatre. The services would not achieve ALI if the Army planned a campaign first, and then asked the RAF how it could contribute to that campaign. 

While there were a number of lessons for the RAF from earlier in the campaign, such as the need for a dedicated close air support (CAS) aircraft type, the most important lesson was the early inclusion of the RAF in combined planning. This was because the relevant Army commanders and staffs did not understand the importance of the pre-conditions of air superiority, the need for joint training and the requirement for secure airfields.

Prior to the start of the land campaign, the RAF needed sufficient time to wrest control of the skies from the Japanese. Only once the RAF had the degree of air control it required could all of the other roles be brought to bear, including reconnaissance, CAS, air transport and heavy bombing. While the RAF was heavily committed to operations against the enemy air force and had few resources to spare, joint training was used to develop the procedures to effectively conduct CAS. 

Finally, the RAF was a sophisticated organisation with modern, but delicate equipment in comparison to the Army, and was operating in one of the most hostile environments in the world. The RAF required secure airfields during the advance to maintain their sophisticated aircraft within effective range of the front. The capture of these airfields was critical. 

The RAF devised the Air Force Headquarters India Senior Army Commanders’ Course to help senior and influential army commanders understand these three key points. The first course was run in March 1943 and it included Lieutenant General William Slim as Commander of XV Corps and Lieutenant General Philip Christison as Commander of XXXIII Corps. The course was organised by Group Captain Percy Bandon. We will meet these commanders again later in this article.

External inquiry identifies issue / internal committee fixes problem 

An influential external party arrived into the theatre at the same time as the re-trained, re-equipped land forces started their offensive against the Imperial Japanese Army in 1944. The 220 Military Mission, headed by Major General John Lethbridge, was dispatched by the British Chiefs of Staff to learn everything about the war against Japan in anticipation of the British scaling up their involvement following the defeat of Germany in Europe. The Lethbridge Mission had already visited the South West Pacific Area where they were deeply impressed by the level of integration achieved by those forces.

After a month of visits, Lethbridge presented his observations to the Supreme Allied Commander South East Asia (SACSEA), Lord Louis Mountbatten on 28 February 1944. Lethbridge explained that his mission had been impressed by the successes in the South and South West Pacific, which he attributed to mastery of the air and sea. He observed that the American fighting services ‘had been welded into one’. Mountbatten was interested in the integration of the American forces and enquired if the party would ‘suggest any means for achieving greater integration on the land front’. The members of the mission recommended that the commander of the Air Group should be co-located with the commander of the Corps when a battle was in progress.

The 220 Military Mission Report was published on 25 March 1944 and the only critical comments in the entire report concerned ALI in Burma. It is worth quoting the paragraph completely to gain the full context of his comments:

“With the necessity for, and the advantages of, integration of forces fresh in mind, it was disturbing to find in India an apparent disposition to accept proximity of staffs as adequate substitution for integration of staffs, and it was clear that the degree of unification already achieved by the American forces has not been appreciated. The general impression left on the Mission in respect of the Burma front was that the Army was fighting one war and the Air Force another…”

This criticism drove two important innovations in South East Asia Command (SEAC). The first important innovation was the issue of The Principles of Conjoint Land/Air Action approved by the Supreme Allied Commander South East Asia in June 1944 [shortened to the Principles]. On one page, Mountbatten set out his guidance on ALI. 

The Principles innovatively used respected evidence from North West Africa, which included the requirement for joint headquarters and shared responsibility for landing grounds. In essence, the Army and the RAF were to be a joint force rather than one supporting the other

The second important innovation was SACSEA appointing an Inter-Service Committee to examine and report upon the methods of ALI in SEAC, based on the guidance contained within the Principles. Importantly this committee was internal to the organisation and its observations became recommendations that drove improvements in ALI. 

Receptive commanders capable of developing strong relationships 

The final factor in improving ALI in Burma was the receptiveness of the tactical commanders to the guidance to drive integration within their formations from late 1944 and their ability to develop strong relationships. The leaders in position in October 1944 had the personalities and experience that enabled their forces to fully embrace ALI. 

On the Central Front, Lieutenant General William Slim (now General Officer Commanding (GOC) 14th Army) was a firm believer in the need for the RAF and the Army to act as one and consistently co-located his headquarters with that of the air commander. He formed a very strong relationship with Air Vice-Marshal Stanley Vincent as Air Officer Commanding (AOC) 221 Group. Indeed, by May 1945 the policy produced by the Fourteenth Army / 221 Group Combined Headquarters was adopted by Allied Land Forces Southeast Asia as the official directive on ALI.

Air Vice Marshal SF Vincent, [left] AOC of an RAF Group on the Imphal front and Air Marshal WA Coryton, [right] Commanding R.A.F. Bengal and Burma, and Assistant Air Commander Eastern Air Command, on a visit to the jungle HQ of the 14th Army in Burma to confer with General Sir William ‘Bill’ J Slim, GOC-in-C 14th Army. North East India, Late 1944. Image Credit: Imperial War Museum

On the Arakan Front, Lieutenant General Philip Christison (now GOC XV Corps) took active steps with his RAF counterpart, Air Commodore Paddy Bandon (now AOC 224 Group), to form an integrated headquarters based on the advice of the Inter-Service Committee. In time they also developed a strong relationship.

Implications for Contemporary Joint Operations

The three key factors examined above explain the achievement of ALI as part of the Burma Campaign and reveal the following implications for contemporary military leaders:

1. Have joint doctrine. The Principles set out the senior commander’s requirements for the land and air forces to operate together effectively. These Principles are as relevant today as they were in July 1944.

2. Have co-located headquarters. Strong relationships between air force and land commanders spring from a shared understanding of the capabilities and limitations peculiar to their Service. Strong relationships require the commanders to live and work together. Slim understood this and always co-located his headquarters with his air force counterpart; Christison learned the value of co-location during the Third Arakan Campaign. Importantly, both the land and the air commanders need to be receptive to compromising their headquarters’ location to achieve co-location.

3. Conduct joint planning. A co-located headquarters enables joint planning. Joint planning identifies the tasks and the resources required to achieve plans. The early identification of the army and air force resources, and their part in achieving joint objectives, allows combined training, the establishment of air superiority and the identification of secure airfields as operational objectives.

4. Use external organisations empowered to identify problems and internal organisations to fix them. The Lethbridge Mission was not requested by Mountbatten. While its terms of reference included ‘make recommendations upon which necessary executive decisions can be based’, its main purpose was ‘to look at the effective and economic prosecution of the war against Japan’. However, its observations on the standards of ALI within SEAC were useful for Mountbatten to highlight to his subordinates that there were problems. It would take the internal Inter-service committee to find the solutions to these problems.

5. Use evidence from other theatres. Mountbatten’s staff was able to develop the Principles in just over two weeks by adapting doctrine developed during the Mediterranean campaign to the local environment. The use of quotes from respected commanders, such as General Bernard Montgomery and Air Marshal ‘Mary’ Cunningham, prevented amendments to proven practices.

6. Codify revised procedures into doctrine. Every conflict will have its own character and broad doctrine will not always fit the local circumstances. Procedures will require modification to fit the environment, the enemy and the forces available. All of the commanders identified in this essay codified local arrangements in doctrine.

About the Author: Mark Mankowski is an Australian Officer posted to the Australian War College and a passionate advocate of Professional Military Education. His interests are continuously learning about integrated air and missile defence, the nature and character of war and developing battlefield intuition through war gaming. He completed a Master of Military and Defence Studies (Advanced) with Honours from the Australian National University in 2018.

Cover Image Credit: Lauren Larking, Defence Image Gallery