By Matt Poole
A photograph on the AWM Memorial seen at https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/C336302 shows an RAF B-24 Liberator on a bombing run on a Burmese Pagoda.
The original caption, as found in the archive of the Australian War Memorial, touts the public relations line about bombing accuracy and missing the main pagoda on purpose (https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/C336302):
Kaunghmudan, Burma. c. 1945. The pagoda of the Royal Benefaction stands among the blasted ruins of the village surrounding it, a monument to the accuracy of bombing by RAF Liberator bomber aircraft of Strategic Air Force, Eastern Air Command. 200 tons of high explosive and incendiary bombs were dropped all round the pagoda, the area containing a Japanese Headquarters and artillery observation posts. An appeal had been made by the religious authorities that the pagoda should be spared destruction. It was a case of risking the ruin of the most holy place in Burma or exposing any more of our men to death. Aircrews, who included many RAAF members, were briefed to try to avoid the pagoda and yet pinpoint the targets in the immediate vicinity. Proof that the aircrews did their job with remarkable precision and that this famous twelve hundred year old shrine which is revered by Bhuddists throughout the world still stands among the ruins of the Japanese military installations surrounding it is illustrated by photographs taken during and at the end of the raid, which show bombs bursting all round the pagoda and not one on it.
The 215 Squadron ORB sort of paints a different picture:
TARGET: – Fortified Pagoda Area at PAGANYAT (KAUNGHMUDAW).
NARRATIVE: – PAGANYAT, an important Buddhist religious centre, and, until this attack, a prohibited area for Royal Air Force bombardment, had been fortified by the enemy, and used as an outlying strongpoint in the defence of SAGAING. Accurate attack was essential, our own front-line being just over a mile to the west. The target, however, was easy to see, with its lofty central Pagoda, and 8 surrounding shrines enclosed by a wall, with other good landmarks in the vicinity. The attack was made in 2 boxes of four a/c each, from the north. Bombing was well concentrated on the west portion of the target area. Damage Assessment Report PM (S)510 states “The area is seen to be saturated with heavy crater formations which extend well beyond the limits of the target on every side. Several small buildings within the Pagoda grounds have been destroyed or damaged. There have been several near misses to the (Central) Pagoda, which, however, remains intact.” Some amusement was caused by the readiness with which Allied propaganda seized upon the non-destruction of the Great Pagoda, as evidence of bombing accuracy, and the Allies desire to spare religious and cultural buildings. The Calcutta “Statesman” was particularly blatant, in this respect. A successful attack.
More, from the book “Signed With Their Honour”, by the 355/356 Squadrons Association:
Diary extract from Peter Jones – 22nd February 1945 – aircraft EW117/T – time up 08.02 – time down 15.09:
“This operational flight was flown to attack a strongpoint known as Kaunghmudan Pagoda a location which was guarding Sagaing, an area which protected the western approaches to Mandalay. This enemy position consisted of barracks and stores centred on this large Pagoda. The enemy has held up our advance for the last seven days. The outward journey was regular with weather good and no bumpiness.
We flew number two in the first V. We saw many Spitfires make dummy attacks whilst we were on the bombing run. Our bombing was poor (350 yards to port of the area) and caused no damage (to the pagoda). This fault was due to bad wind velocity and an extremely poor run up. The return was uneventful.
Formation was easy to maintain, we held a good position until the Sunderbans where bumpiness was experienced. On the whole a disappointing show for our squadron. Bombing of late has been extremely poor, destroying the good reputation we have gained at Group headquarters.
This newspaper cutting amused us, we were briefed to bomb a square with this famous pagoda as the chief target.”
Newspaper cutting – Thursday 22nd February 1945:
‘Mandalay Front – The pagoda of the Royal Benefaction at Kaunghmudan – the Monte Cassino of the Buddist Husana five miles north of Sagaing, stands this evening among the blasted ruins of the village surrounding it – a monument to the accuracy of the RAF Liberator bombers of Eastern Air Command.
Two hundred tons of high explosives and incendiaries were put down into the area in half an hour today without touching this 1200 year old shrine which is revered by Buddhists throughout the world. A difficult and critical decision had to be made when it became known that the Japanese were using the area surrounding the shrine as an HQ and an artillery observation post. Unmolested they were able to direct accurate gunfire on to our positions.
An appeal had been made by the religious authorities that the pagoda should be spared destruction. It was a case of risking the ruin of the most holy place in the country or exposing any more of our men to death.
Reluctantly it was decided that the risk must be taken. The religious authorities were told the bombing would take place from 8000 feet in daylight and that all crews would be instructed to avoid the pagoda. A guarantee could not be given that the pagoda would remain intact.
The enormous explosion of salvoes of 1000 lb bombs from the first formation of eight Liberators and the roar of the ammunition dump on which they had scored a direct hit, began the attack. Smoke rose in a thick column to 8000 feet and huge fires broke out in and around it.
The second wave came in and after their load had fallen only the great dome of the pagoda, shaped like a woman’s breast, could be seen shining in the sun. After the fourth wave the whole landscape was obscured by smoke suffused with fire. The pagoda could no longer be seen.
Japanese anti-aircraft guns put up shells but they were wide of the mark. After the Liberators had left nothing could be seen for fifteen minutes. When the smoke thinned the pagoda was still there.’
Further research has shown that a total of five B-24 Liberator units were in on the attack. In addition to RAF 215 and 355 squadrons, RAF 99 and 356 squadrons and the US 7th Bomb Group attacked the same target on 29 February 1945. Although the Liberator in the wartime photo is definitely from the RAF (note the RAF roundels on the upper wings), the identification of the specific RAF squadron is unknown.
Based upon a message thread posted here: http://www.ww2talk.com/index.php?threads/aerial-photographs-of-allied-bombing-raids-on-japanese-occupied-burma.75546/page-7
Reproduced with permission.