SOAS University of London

SOAS China Institute

Churchill and the Flying Tigers: Sino-British air cooperation on the eve of Pearl Harbor

Eugenie Buchan
Dr Eugenie Buchan

Date: 22 January 2018Time: 5:00 PM

Finishes: 22 January 2018Time: 6:30 PM

Venue: Russell Square: College Buildings Room: G3

Type of Event: Seminar


The Flying Tigers – also known as the American Volunteer Group (AVG) – were pilots who fought the Japanese over Burma and Yunnan in the early months of the Pacific War. Since 1942, American popular historians have treated them as the stuff of legend and for the Chinese they are heroes of the War of Resistance against Japanese aggression.

But the Flying Tigers was not a strictly US-China affair. Although the Roosevelt Administration launched the initiative in January 1941, the British became increasingly involved in the group’s formation for their own strategic reasons. With so little aircraft available to protect British colonies -- 190 war planes in Malaya and only 12 in Burma -- the British regarded the hundred ‘Tomahawks’ (P-40s) belonging to the AVG as a vital asset for Far East defense. 

From February 1941 onwards, British officers developed plans for ‘close coordination’ between the RAF and the AVG in the event of war with Japan. In late June 1941 Chinese and British officials in Chungking decided that the volunteers and their planes should stay in Burma to train before transferring to Yunnan. Thereafter British authorities determined the fate of the AVG – to its benefit: they did more to assist the group than either the US or Chinese governments. In November 1941, Winston Churchill intervened with orders to send two RAF squadrons from Malaya to Burma to serve under Claire Chennault in an ‘International Air Force’.  By transferring AVG/RAF units to Yunnan, Churchill hoped to boost Chinese resistance and deter Japanese forces from invading British colonies. After Pearl Harbor the British plan for joint AVG/RAF action went into effect but the British themselves were soon relegated to the sidelines in the wartime narrative that the US press developed for the ‘legendary’ Flying Tigers.  


Eugenie Buchan is the author of A Few Planes for China, Birth of the Flying Tigers published by the University Press of New England (November, 2017; UK distribution December 2017). By going back to primary sources, she overturns received wisdom about the origins and purpose of the American air group which, soon after Pearl Harbor, began to fight the Japanese over Burma and Yunnan Buchan holds a PhD in History from the University of Exeter and lives near Oxford.

This event is free to attend, no registration required. Admission is on a first-come, first-served basis.

Organiser: SOAS China Institute

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