“I paused to look out of the window, and saw a line of bullet-holes erupting on the upper side of the wing, heading straight for me.”
“It would be difficult to rate too highly the part played in the (Burma) campaign by the air…Under the direction of Sir Guy Garrod, and later under that of Sir Keith Park, air supply in Burma had reached a summit. It was done by imaginative planning and by resource, energy and courage in execution. The administrative staffs, the ground staffs and the allied air crews determined that whatever happened no failing of theirs should ever let the fighting troops down; the supply pilots doubled their hours of flying and staffs worked through the night. The result was a revolution in supply and in combat as profound as that created by the arrival of the internal combustion engine on the battlefield. Park wrote, “The armies advanced on the wings of the Air Force.””. (The Campaign in Burma, Frank Owen)
Like many veterans, my father Aelwyn didn’t often talk about his experiences during the war. But in 1999, as a project for a creative writing group, he wrote down these recollections from his time in the army and the RAF in WW2. When writing, he was looking at the events, large and small, which shaped the course of his life. The photographs, and their captions, are my additions.
We were a motley collection of recruits, melded in the space of a few weeks into a tolerably efficient set of four crews proudly manning a row of gleaming 3.7 inch anti-aircraft guns on the outskirts of London, together with the support teams, operating the predictor, the heightfinder and the spotter’s telescope. My job was to link all these with the command centre; this was a responsible job, which I enjoyed, and for which I carried one stripe and the exalted rank of unpaid acting Lance-Bombardier. Our one hour of glory came one night when we were operating a somewhat hit-and-miss method of firing. By day, we could see the target and make a fairly good shot at aiming for it using our instruments (not that there was much call for this at that time). At night, we would be told by a tracking unit at HQ where the enemy aircraft was expected to be, placing it somewhere inside a half-mile cube of air at a height of anything up to 20,000 feet. We would then aim for the centre of that cube, usually with no effect whatsoever. On this particular night, all four guns fired together, and we paused to search the sky. Suddenly there was a collective gasp from the fifty or so assembled men, as all four shell-bursts lit up the outlines of the German bomber, identified as a Heinkel by Smithy, our spotter, by the curve of the leading edge of its wing. The throbbing sound of the plane droned on, and I shouted to the crews to wait for the sound to reach us. Several seconds later, we heard the spatter of the four bursts; the sound of the aircraft faltered briefly, but then carried on. We told HQ our exciting news, but they were sceptical; later, however, we learnt that on that night a night-fighter had shot down a limping Heinkel, and 380 Battery was duly credited with a “half”.
I found army life, when we were not in action, a most depressing experience, largely due to the sharp distinction made between officers and other ranks. This came to a head when, one wet day, our section was ordered to move a large pile of wet sandbags from one part of a field to another. This was called “keeping them occupied”. When I asked the officer in charge what the point was of this particular exercise, I was blasted with the reply that I was not paid to think. The opportunity to transfer to the RAF shortly afterwards came as a blessed relief.
It was one of those occasions when my parents would drive from Dolgellau to Shrewsbury to meet me, usually on a Sunday, when there were no local trains, or in the evening, when my main line train ran too late to connect with the last “local”. I was on leave from my anti-aircraft unit in outer London. On the way home, my mother turned round from the front seat to ask how my application for an army commission was proceeding – a project close to her heart. Now was the time for me to break the news that I had recently applied for transfer to RAF flying duties, and I was due to attend an interview with the RAF the following week. The silence from the front seat seemed to go on for a long time; I think my parents had visualised me spending the rest of the war in comparative comfort and safety as an artillery officer, and here I was, throwing this away for the thrill (and danger) of flying Hurricanes or Spitfires. “Why?”, asked my mother. I explained that I wasn’t happy in the army, and thought I was capable of doing something more worthwhile.
So, the following week, I went to Bush House, sat a brief exam in English and Maths, and was interviewed by a Squadron-Leader. “So you want to be a pilot?” “Yes” I replied. “Do you know what an observer is?” he asked, and continued: “He’s the chap who gives the orders to the pilot, tells him where he is, and what course to fly. You scored full marks in your Maths test, so I think you’d be ideally suited to train as an observer. What do you think?” There was something in his tone of voice that suggested that I either became an observer or stayed in the army, so after a brief moment of hesitation, I agreed. This was one of those moments when I was aware that my life had been diverted on to a new course.
In June 1941, a throng of khaki-clad figures, eager to exchange their uniforms for blue, assembled one summer day at Lord’s Cricket Ground; Eton were playing Harrow that day, but neither group took any notice of the other. Eventually, we were marched down to a half completed block of flats in St. John’s Wood, facing Regents Park. Six of us were crammed into a ground floor room, sleeping on mattresses on the concrete floor. One of these was Ted. He was an unassuming chap, short, with black curly hair. He had been in searchlights, an activity then falling out of favour due to the development of radar. He and I became friendly, and on one occasion about three of us were invited to his parents’ house at Ealing for tea; he was obviously the apple of their eye.
We were posted together to Torquay where we were all drilled on the quayside, and where we were inducted into the arcane mysteries of the triangle of velocities, the basis of all air navigation. Ted developed a crush for a teenage girl who played the violin with her parents in a trio playing at teatime in a Torquay café. He drank his way through gallons of tea listening to her, and actually got to speak to her once before the trio packed up and moved away.
We became separated after my guardroom misdemeanour (below), but strangely met again at the Port Elizabeth flying school in South Africa, where he was two courses behind me; I forget how he came to be behind me in training, having left Torquay ahead of me. He had a special chum on his course, named Gregory; he seemed very defensive about this friendship, and it is only as I write that I realise why this might have been. After Port Elizabeth, I came home to the UK, while Ted went round Africa the other way to the Middle East; we didn’t keep in touch. Two years later, while in India, I received a letter from his parents, which they had sent to my home in Dolgellau. Ted had been killed in a horrendous road accident near Cairo, in which fourteen airmen had died. Such a waste; much worse, somehow, than being killed in action, which, in the situation we were in, was expected to happen to some of us.
The Guardroom Fire
Towards the end of my time at Torquay, I was on guard at the front door of the hotel by the harbour which served as our billet. It was two o’clock in the morning on a freezing December night, and ten paces behind me, in the front room of the hotel, roared a blazing coal fire. The temptation was too much; I had darted back to the fire to thaw out for no more than twenty seconds, when I heard the sound of boots approaching up the street. I scampered to the door, only to find that the Orderly Sergeant had arrived before me. The next day, I received the punishment of seven days confinement to barracks. Four days later, we were given two weeks embarkation leave, so my companions went off, leaving me to finish my period of punishment before being allowed to go. In the meantime, I had been selected to play rugby against a navy team at Devonport, in the course of which my collar-bone was fractured. So, instead of going on embarkation leave, I went home on sick leave with my arm in a sling. My misdemeanour, which had caused me to miss my original posting, had thus brought about a strange twist in my fortunes.
Training in South Africa
The war brought me into direct contact with a large number of new experiences. Extensive travel at Government expense was certainly one of them, including enduring the rigours of life sleeping in a hammock in the hold of a ship lumbering through stormy winter seas to South Africa.
I returned six months later in cabin accommodation as an RAF officer with my navigator’s wings; the hold of the ship on this occasion was occupied by Italian prisoners who, on warm nights, would gather on the lower deck and sing as only Italians (or perhaps Welsh) can.
In the meantime I had learnt the joy of flying, and the skill of navigating over the sea out of sight of land; it was later an exciting experience to navigate our own aircraft from Cornwall to North Africa and on to Egypt and India, all without any modern navigational aids – just with maps and instruments.
It was not until February 1944 that I eventually arrived on an operational squadron. I flew in to the airfield at Agartala in East Bengal, and was made welcome by Squadron-Leader Bray, B-Flight Commander. He took me on a tour of the station; the camp was quiet – half the squadron were on the afternoon operation, and the other half were resting after the early morning shift. The officers’ quarters consisted of a long, low bamboo building, known as a basha, divided into ten or twelve sections, each furnished with a pair of rough Indian beds wreathed in mosquito netting. in front of one of these sat a scowling figure, his face half shaved, razor in hand, with a brush sitting in an enamel mug full of soapy water. Behind him, inside the basha, a wind-up gramophone was playing. “This”, said Peter Bray, “is Flying Officer Brockbank, the Squadron Navigation Officer”.
The half-shaved figure looked up; I broke the silence with: “It’s good to hear a spot of Beethoven out here”. He put down his razor, and said: “At last! Someone on the Squadron who recognises Beethoven when he hears him”.
The next time we changed camp, I moved in to share a basha with him. Within a few months we were joint owners of all Beethoven’s symphonies on 78 rpm recordings. Seven years later, his sister and I were married.
Supplying the Chindits
In 1942 Japanese troops had forced their way northwards into Burma. At the end of that year Brigadier Orde Wingate, who had joined the staff of General Wavell in India, was given permission to form the Chindits, a group of soldiers who were to be trained in jungle raiding and guerrilla tactics. In February 1943, Wingate and 3,000 Chindits entered Burma. Their task was to disrupt Japanese communications, attack outposts and destroy bridges. The operation was very costly, and of the 2,000 who returned, 600 never recovered to fight again. However, before leaving Burma they had created clearings in the jungle between 100 and 200 miles behind the Japanese lines for use in any future operation.
In August 1943, Wingate met Winston Churchill and President Roosevelt and persuaded them to agree to expand the role of the Chindits. Wingate, now a major general, was given command of six brigades forming the 3rd Indian Division, and he returned to India to plan the next operation.
One day the pilots and navigators crowded into the briefing room. There was an expectant hush. We knew that some new operation was being planned, but what was it to be? Captain Smith, the Army Liaison Officer, came in accompanied by the Wing Commander and the two flight commanders. He silently unrolled a large map of Northern Burma and pinned it up on the board. “First of all”, he said, “I cannot emphasise too strongly that this is a top secret operation, and its very existence must not be breathed to anyone, however senior they may be.” An excited buzz swept around the room; what was it all about?
Smithy launched into his spiel: “Quiet, please! Last year, as you all know, General Wingate and his Chindits penetrated deep into Burma, behind the Japanese lines. One of their main objectives was to identify and prepare as far as possible, airstrips to be used in future operations. Three of these airstrips are shown in red on this map. In the last few days, troop-carrying gliders have been flown in carrying men and materials to prepare the airstrips to enable our Dakotas to land on them; and that is what you will be doing tonight. This Squadron will be flying to these two sites (pointing to the map) which have been christened Aberdeen and Broadway. We will be ferrying in a variety of cargoes, men, supplies, jeeps, light artillery, and ammunition. And, believe it or not, mules. Some of you may find yourself bringing back casualties. So far as we know, there has been no sign of Japanese activity near the airstrips, but some of the gliders had crashed on landing, and there were some casualties among the glider crews and their cargoes.”
“Operation Thursday” was launched on 5th March 1944 (actually a Sunday). In the 1943 operation the Chindits had been on their own, but this time they were supported by the RAF. The first wave of troops was flown in by troop-carrying gliders which landed in the jungle clearings prepared the previous year. This was a very hazardous procedure, and there were many casualties as a result of crash landings. This process was not helped by the fact that the Japanese had discovered one of the clearings and scattered logs over its surface. These troops then cleared these areas to make them into landing strips fit to take the DC3 aircraft, And so the operation went on night after night, landing on these strips lit up only by a few oil flares, pouring in troops, weapons, ammunition.and food. We also brought out casualties. Over the next few months the Chindits destroyed Japanese roads, railways, bridges and convoys, and once again they suffered heavy losses.
It was an exhilarating time for the RAF crews being part of this ambitious and top secret operation, flying at night and landing behind the Japanese lines on dimly lit airstrips, unloading our cargo and haring back to our beds in India. It was also very hard work.
Carrying mules was an interesting experience. The aircraft would be fitted with bamboo stalls for four mules, and a ramp was laid up to the door of the aircraft. The efforts of the muleteers to persuade their mules to go up the ramp and into the dark interior of the aircraft were hilarious to the onlookers, although the fierce bucking of the animals and their flailing hooves were no joke to those within range.
At the other end we kept well out of the way until the mules were unloaded and the stalls dismantled, before going home to our beds. I can assure you that there is no more obnoxious, pungent aroma than that of a mule’s urine, which would swill about the floor of the aircraft before disappearing into the fuselage below. On one occasion, when one of the aircraft was diverted on to the daily passenger and mail run to the forward areas and Calcutta, a senior army officer announced “You know, I swear I can smell mules in here”. We looked at him pityingly – it was still a very hush-hush operation – and said “Why on earth would we carry mules in this aircraft? You must be mistaken. Sir”. He shook his head in sad disbelief.
And so it started. Night after night, for several weeks, flying deep into the heart of Japanese controlled territory, landing in the dark on the airstrips, unloading the cargo, having a brief chat to the army lads on the ground, then getting the hell out of it back to our beds, back in India. Then, for several months more, dropping supplies to the army from the air as they spread out over the whole territory, disrupting Japanese communications to hinder their invasion of India further north and diverting their troops in the process.
At about this time, I had a letter from my mother, saying how comforting it was to know that everything was quiet in our theatre of operations. Well, I suppose in 1944 a little matter like the invasion of Europe seemed more important to the English newspapers than our spot of trouble thousands of miles away.
During my active service there were some unpleasant experiences, such as learning that some old friends and some present Air Force mates would not be seen again; enduring the steamy sweaty heat of the monsoon and its accompanying mosquitoes; or having Japanese machine-gunners popping off at me. Much better, though, was the good humour that pervaded most situations, and the sheer thrill of taking part in meaningful operational flights, mainly involved with flying army troops into Burma and keeping them supplied from the air.
I imagine very few people now remember the battle for Kohima. To be truthful, very few people except those who were involved even knew of it at the time that it happened, from April to June 1944. But at the time, it was somewhat overshadowed, at least to those at home, by the Normandy invasion. Yet it was, in stragetic terms, as momentous an event as the battles at El Alamein and Stalingrad, if on a somewhat smaller scale.. In each case, the outcome was a reversal of the fortunes of war, turning back the tide of the hitherto victorious German and Japanese armies, initiating their retreat, and their ultimate defeat.
The Japanese had surged northwards through Burma heading for the roads and railways that led directly into India, and they had caught the British and Commomwealth forces unprepared. They captured the hill town of Kohima, the local capital of Nagaland, in the most north-easterly region of India. Nothing now lay between the Japanese and the plains of India – except, that is, for the small British garrison based in Kohima, who had been forced to retreat beyond the town. This contingent of the army, comprising 2,500 men of the 2nd Infantry Division received its orders – Kohima must be retaken at all costs – against a Japanese force of 15,000. It was a battle of bloody artillery duels, hand to hand skirmishes and bayonet attacks. And mud. And rats. The British fought almost to a standstill, with heavy casualties, until reinforcements arrived from India, from which point .the Japanese were driven slowly back, and forced to retreat back the way they had come.
One of the contributing factors to the success of the British soldiers was the constant supply of food and and ammunition dropped to them by the RAF, whereas the Japanese were running out of both ammunition and food. It was, frankly, gut wrenching to fly over the area, seeing whole hillsides with their trees totally denuded of leaves, knowing of all the mayhem that was going on on the ground beneath.
A monument was later raised to the men of the 2nd Infantry Division, bearing the words: “When you go home, tell them of us and say ‘For their tomorrow we gave our today””.
There was no time for fear; if fear was to come, it would come later.
Our routine had become established over many months. Early in the morning we would wake up, emerge from our mosquito netting, have breakfast and attend the briefing. We would be told the location of the morning’s target, a jungle clearing somewhere in Northern Burma where we would drop supplies of food and ammunition to units of the 14th Army on the ground. After drawing a few straight lines on the map, we would take off, head for a convenient gap in the high ridge of the Chin Hills, and descend to the DZ, the dropping zone. The pilot would make a quick decision on the best way to fly the four or five low-level circuits it took to drop our one-ton load. We would start our circuits, with the crew taking off the door, and piling up the heavy packages in the doorway, attaching any parachute lines to the inside of the aircraft. When the pilot rang the bell, we would all give a great heave, and the load would topple out into space, and with a bit of luck, land within the DZ.
While the pilot made each subsequent circuit the rest of the crew ran up and down the fuselage, lugging the packages down to the door and stacking them in time for the next bell. After the last drop, we would permit ourselves the luxury of looking out of the open door and waving to the army lads on the ground; we didn’t envy them.
One fine morning in 1944 we flew off into the high clear air of East Bengal, over the Chin Hills and down to a new DZ that we had not visited before. where a section of our army was dug in facing a similarly entrenched unit of the Japanese army. The open space for the DZ was immediately to the rear of our front line, but close behind that was a ring of sharply rising hills which ruled out any possibility of making low-level circuits in that direction. There was nothing for it but to make our circuits over the Japanese front line. This decision was inevitably accompanied by the silent prayer that if we should crash-land, please let it be on our side of the line. Routine took over as we piled up our load. What we had not bargained for was that, as our large, slow, lumbering Douglas DC3 passed low over the Japanese line, some enterprising machine gunners would turn their weapons skyward and let fly. On the second circuit, while we were scampering up and down the fuselage, we heard a series of metallic clanging sounds. I paused to look out of the window, and saw a line of bullet-holes erupting on the upper side of the wing, heading straight for me. It all happened so quickly, yet I seemed to be watching it in slow motion. The line of holes stopped before they reached me; I made a mental note to worry about it later, and returned to my packages.
We had landed back at base, and were taxiing along the runway to our dispersal point, when we became aware of the smell of petrol. The pilot immediately stopped and switched off the engines, as he had had a mental vision of sparks from the exhaust meeting catastrophically with petrol vapour. We piled out in something of a hurry, to find high-grade octane pouring on to the runway from a bullet-hole in the underside of the fuselage. You couldn’t really blame the Japanese, they had only been doing their job.
Fear? The immediate experience of fear had been thwarted by the demands of an urgent routine, and by not knowing, until the danger had passed, of the hole in our petrol tank. Fear did return, briefly, under the mosquito netting that night, but it was softened by having been a shared experience. Tomorrow, the routine would take over once more.
Acknowledgements to “The Campaign in Burma”, Frank Owen, 1946 and “Wings of the Phoenix”, HMSO, 1949