8 - An Exploration of India and Burma
We winged into Santa Cruz airport near Bombay in a Dakota on 18 August 1943 after staging through Palestine, Iraq, and Bahrain, then on to Bombay via Karachi. Our five-day stop at Karachi was apparently due to the authorities trying to determine how to use these four NCO pilots from the desert. The RAF element in North-West India and Burma was at its lowest ebb and in desperate need of reinforcing with aircraft and crews. A supply-line to assemble ship-delivered Hurricanes had begun at the hangars of the Indian airline Tatas at Santa Cruz and pilots were needed to get them to the forward areas in a hurry. Only one officer and three Hurricane pilots were in situ when Mac and the 3Ws arrived to do the necessary. We heard nothing more of the rumoured posting to No 20 Squadron.
The monsoon at this time was in full swing. My first flight in the area was a trip of about 250nm up the west coast from Santa Cruz to Ahmedabad in a Tiger Moth to pick up one of the Hurricanes stranded by the monsoon weather. On the way north, it was patently obvious that the monsoon conditions did not augur well for this sort of job. To my right reared the high mountain range of the Western Ghats which runs for hundreds of miles north and south along the west coast, making it clear that direct penetration to the east in the monsoon would be impossible using contact navigation. Of course, one could climb overhead the start point to above the 6000 to 7000ft needed to clear the Ghats, then descend to the plain beyond (some 150 to 200nm to the east, in the case of a Santa Cruz take-off). With a P2 compass as the only navigational instrument aboard the Hurricane, and no reliable ground-based R/T system for direction finding (D/F), and generally poor weather forecasting, such a plan was not really feasible. The suggested alternative, dreamed up by the unit's officer, was for each fighter 'convoy' to be led through the murk by a bomber/transport aircraft which carried a suitable type of navigation aid such as a radio compass, and a qualified navigator. Our first convoy used this option.
The flight plan was to climb through cloud in a formation of four Hurricanes on a Hudson which would use its radio compass to home to the first-leg destination, Bhopal in Central India. It was indeed fortunate that we did not encounter any cumulonimbus on this leg; these cu-nimbs are usually very prolific and violent at this time of the year. The turbulence in such cloud or close to it creates impossble conditions for formation flying. The take-off was from Ahmedabad, where the four Hurricanes had been left stranded by the weather. The width of the Ghats Range east of Ahmedabad was about 50nm as opposed to Bombay's 150 to 200nm. We broke through the cloud tops at about 8000ft with the cloud cover at the maximum ten-tenths, and moved along the track for the 300nm journey in surprisingly good weather for the season. But my thoughts turned to future sorties and the likely drawbacks with this plan. What if the monsoon weather had been incorrectly forecast (more likely than not in India then) and we had run into heavy cloud? We would have needed a leader who could recognise the formation difficulties confronting the fighter pilots when formating in large numbers (large for cloud flying, if not for flying in the clear) and who knew the actions which would be acceptable to them. If a fighter became detached from the leader, its pilot would be in a parlous situation if he could not find his leader again; with little possibility of establishing his ground position, he would probably be faced with baling out of his aircraft. Also, the possibilities for multiple collision would be great.
Consider a Vic formation of six Hurricanes, three in echelon on each side of (in this case) a Hudson. If the formation enters heavy cloud such that the visibility is severely reduced to the extent of obscuring the leader, even momentarily, the Hurricanes would have no alternative but to alter course away from the Hudson immediately, and hope to avoid colliding with one another. Then, they would have to find a hole in the cloud cover, descend through it, pray that they were not trapped by surrounding hills (a scenario which did occur to a flight of USAF Mustangs a year later, in which they all crashed) and try to pin-point their ground position. Of course they could always descend as low as their safety height and hope to break cloud before reaching it. However, the whole plan seemed to me to be fraught with danger.
On that first convoy, which had far less severe conditions than usual, our method of arrival at Bhopal was nevertheless tinged with danger. The Hudson leader correctly advised us to close up on him when he was about to descend through the cloud. The Hurricanes were positioned two in echelon on either side of the Hudson; the two closest to the Hudson knew they would have to smooth out, and keep to a minimum, any throttle power corrections, for fear of losing the outside men, and everyone hoped the Hudson pilot would keep his hands off his throttles. But when we got below cloud the Hudson broke away once he had told us where to look for Bhopal. The cloud-base was almost on top of the surrounding hills but fortunately the rain was not too heavy. No drills had been arranged as to how we were to approach the airfield in good order, so it was a free for all - get down as quickly as you can before one of your colleagues collides with you! We now knew that we had to go back to basics and do as good fighter pilots would do. And so we did.
Back at base, I cannot remember how we persuaded the unit's officer, a Squadron Leader who seemed to do nothing other than administration, that the attached Hudson/Blenheim crew should only be used to return the Hurricane pilots to base after delivery of the fighters, and not to lead the fighters as in our first attempt. The answers to the navigation problem seemed to require us to adopt the following principles:
a) Use pilot navigation in contact with the ground whenever possible.
b) Select routes which would reduce the distance required to overfly mountainous areas and eliminate the need to penetrate continuous cloud areas (especially heavy cumulus and cu-nimb).
c) Obtain telephoned 'actual' weather reports from destination airfields during the monsoon season.
d) Divert, turn back or delay the flight if the meteorological situation indicated there would be little chance of getting through.
e) Do not, on any account, place reliance on any radio D/F information.
f) Fly in small formations in the monsoon, eg two separate sections of three aircraft to be preferred to one formation of six.
g) Prior to flight, convoy leaders must brief the pilots on the formations to be adopted for take-off, approach and landing, the loose formation for en route cruise, and formations which might be required in tight weather conditions to facilitate best manœuvrability for cloud avoidance.
h) Ensure that standard drills are in place for any R/T failures in flight.
j) Turn on the swank with impeccable formations on setting course, and on approach and landing, so that the identity of the convoy is recognisable, thus raising the morale amongst our pilots and groundcrews (particularly those serving at very remote airstrips).
Some time later, the ferry business expanded markedly and our unit came under the remit of an area HQ based at Nagpur, which controlled the work in the southern half of India. Mac, who had been with the 3Ws since OTU, was commissioned and drafted in to Nagpur, so we had a good friend there to look after our interests. A special unit of Transport Command in India, No 353 Squadron, became the air-taxi service for us, using the Hudson to do the job; the record of this aircraft in the area was not good, several having crashed on take-off following engine failure, the story being that the ensuing swing caused the undercarriage to collapse and penetrate the wing fuel tanks, resulting in a conflagration aggravated by magnesium in the aircraft's metal structure, with maximum casualties usually. I spent many apprehensive hours in this aircraft and was very relieved when the Hudson was gradually replaced by the Dakota.
Other changes steadily occurred as the effort gathered pace, although our nominal Squadron Leader post became one for a Flight Lieutenant, then a Flying Officer. Nearly all the flying was being carried out by NCO pilots with only an occasional posting-in of a commissioned officer. Effectively, the 3Ws were soon running the flying part of the show. All ferry pilots were now given a special identification card which gave them very high priority on all military and civil passenger flights. I can recall with glee turfing a very irate RN Captain off a Tatas de Havilland Rapide so that I could quickly return to my base. Great fun.
Unfortunately, some of our destinations were not served by transport aircraft and we were forced to return by train carrying parachute and holdall. It was a magnificent way to see India as well as the Indians and their lifestyle, but not too good for the war effort. There was no joy for an NCO here, but there was for any commissioned officer we used. An officer was able to obtain a 1st Class travel ticket plus an allowance for a bearer (servant) and even for a horse, if he needed one, and its required equipment. We lost an officer's services on several occasions because he preferred to take days to return by train, for financial benefit, whilst an NCO flew back as soon as he could and was often on his next delivery flight by the time the commissioned officer got back.
When the monsoon cleared from the area in our region of operation, flying became a pleasure with perpetual blue skies and slightly lower ambient air temperatures. I began to fly other aircraft types to add to my list, the most notable being the Spitfire which was replacing the Hurricane in several squadrons, and the Republic Thunderbolt P-47 which was to be the deliverer of napalm in the Arakan. We were also required to equip Indian Air Force training units with Tiger Moths, then with the Fairchild Cornell, an innocuous primary trainer. Communications aircraft were required too, so my list grew with the addition of the Fairchild Argus, Vultee-Stinson Sentinel, Percival Proctor and Airspeed Oxford - to bring my total well into double figures.
With the good weather prevailing during the Indian 'winter', I occasionally took to delivering a Spitfire as a singleton, rather than wait for more to come off the assembly line to make up a convoy. I revelled in taking off from Santa Cruz very early in the cool of the morning, usually staging through Nagpur on my way. It was on one such brilliant morning that I zoomed off in a Spitfire VIII (the finest Mark of the breed, in my view), set course overhead after a couple of rolls for the groundcrew, and approached Nagpur the usual two hours later. By now I knew most of the Nagpur groundcrew and was friendly with the Scottish Engineering Officer. On some previous flights, I had practised my solo aerobatic display overhead, in the hope that it would raise the morale of the troops. The South African Lieutenant Colonel Bodley, head of the HQ and senior officer at Nagpur had lodged no objection. On this particular day I roared into the circuit at lowish level and up into a loop, roll off the top etc, then into a tight 'Spitfire Approach' and landing to finish off. I taxyed in, shut down, unstrapped and then saw the Engineering Officer approach. "Hello Bill, there is an Air Vice-Marshal who wants to have words with you". "Don't give me that, Jock," I replied, "you're having me on". But he wasn't. He said "Look over there", pointing to the other end of the long parking area. I saw a twin-engined Beechcraft standing there, with a scrambled- egg-hatted officer about to board an adjacent staff car. It turned out to be an Air Vice- Marshal S F Vincent, Air Officer Commanding No 226 Group. I was put in front of him in an office at the Station Headquarters where he blasted me horribly with words and said he would be contacting his opposite number at 229 Group (my Group) for my court martial. I lamely replied that, although I had enjoyed what I had done, it was mainly for the raising of the spirits of the groundcrew, many of whom I came across living dreary and lonely lives at remote airstrips in the 'bundoo'. I flew off miserable as sin wondering whether or not I had ruined my aviation career for good. The penalty for the heinous crime of unauthorised low-level aerobatics was reputed to be demotion to the ranks (I was a Warrant Officer at the time) and removal from flying duties.
I waited for days, then weeks, until I felt I had to find out the worst. So I phoned Mac at Nagpur and asked for any news. Mac reported that 226 Group had contacted Lt Col Bodley and had asked if he had taken any disciplinary action for the offence. Bodley and Mac had already invented the solution - they had admonished me - and that was their reply. The proposed court martial could not then take place, since a punishment had already been served. Hence the silence. I nearly fell off my chair with relief. Years later I was presented to Vincent following a formation aerobatic display by our Vampire team. He was extremely pleasant; I do not know if he recognised me but I have always wondered whether or not the affair at Nagpur was no more than a put-up job by him, possibly in league with Bodley, to scare the wits out of me so that I would be more careful in future. From then on, I always scanned the tarmac for strange aircraft, just in case.
With the expansion of ferry deliveries accelerating, it was considered by Lt Col Bodley that the 3Ws were needed for short periods at other units to pass on the methods we had developed and employed with no small success at Santa Cruz. We were loaned to a unit under his command at Trichinopoly, close to the southern tip of India. We had already been flying deliveries of new Spitfires there, and flying out old Hurricanes, withdrawing them to Maintenance Units. Squadrons had begun to form for training in that area, presumably in preparation for an offensive to suport Bill Slim's 14th Army pushing south from Kohima and Imphal. We led convoys for the 'Trichi' unit for a few months until the newish pilots got to know the ropes.
The 'chota' monsoon was in progress in the south of India at this time, with the clear demarcation line of the retreating thunderous clouds as straight as a ruler, north-east to south-west, between a point about 20nm north of Madras in the east, to Coimbatore on the west coast. On this particular day, I was returning from Dum Dum near Calcutta after a chain delivery of a Hurricane, a Thunderbolt and a Spitfire. The 353 Squadron Dakota was to stage through Nagpur, Hakimpet (Hyderabad), St Thomas Mount (Madras) and Trichinopoly. All went well in the brilliant-weather sector down to Hakimpet. We knew that the monsoon cloud had not yet cleared Madras however, and what is more to the point, had not cleared St Thomas Mount airfield which gets its name from the only feature of over 1500ft standing proud on the flat plain area which extends for at least 100nm radius round the airfield; the Mount is positioned about one mile from the airfield's perimeter track. As we approached the line of cloud, the pilot descended to get below the cloudbase in the hope, presumably, that he would be able to see ahead sufficiently well to pick out the airfield. As soon as we were below cloud, the rain came hose-piping down upon us and it was obvious to me that the pilot could not possibly see, since I couldn't looking sideways out of the passenger windows. The pilot persevered with his approach, no doubt thinking that there might be a break somewhere in the ever-decreasing distance to the Mount. In the back of the Dakota, we were all whistling to hide the terror, sure that this idiot was going to hit the high ground. At last he turned and retreated north out of the storm. We sighed with relief, until he made a 180-degree turn and went in for another try! We were now convinced that this pilot was a suicide case. Three attempts he made before giving up and returning to Hakimpet. This is the stuff of which fatal accidents are made. I could have shot him. Well, he did his best to kill me and the other passengers, didn't he?
A week later, Phil Williams and I were tasked with sorting out what, with hindsight, appeared to be a foul-up - and certainly a hold-up - in the supply operations from Chittagong on the Arakan coast of Bengal, to the front-line squadrons. We were ordered to report to a small ferry unit at Kanchrapara (near Calcutta) where we were briefed that we would receive numbers of aircraft flown in to Chittagong and that Phil and I were required (on our own as we found out at Chittagong later) to get these aircraft into all the strips being used by the fighter and light-aircraft units in the Burma areas of the Arakan, the Chindwin valley, the Irrawaddy valley and beyond as far as Onbauk (near Shwebo and Mandalay) as the last link in the chain. We would be supported by one South African pilot who would be the pick-up taxi service using a Vultee Vengeance or a Harvard. Effectively, therefore, Phil and I were the sole operators serving the recovery and reinforcement of all these aircraft for the whole theatre. We had the time of our lives, but it was not without danger. The bomb-line at this time could be described by superimposing a giant version of the lower case letter 'm' over the map of the area. Each prong of the letter depicted one of the three-prong thrusts in north-east India and Burma to clear out the Japanese, the first leg representing the push down the Arakan, the middle leg the push down the Chindwin and the final leg the Irrawaddy thrust. Everything north of the 'm' was in Allied hands, everything south in Japanese hands. Thus, when delivering aircraft into the Chindwin and Irrawaddy units (we had to fly directly there to get the job done) we operated over Japanese-held territory for approximately 95% of the track. We carried no ammunition for our defence, so we had to keep our eyes peeled for enemy aircraft. However, the real enemy for us was the jungle, which stretched continuously for most of the distance to these two valleys. An engine failure would have been end-of-story for us. Coming out of the Chindwin, for example, from the airstrips around Mount Victoria (10,000ft approximately) in, say, a banger of an old Hurricane with a very tired engine, required a tedious long-winded orbital climb to get clearance height over the mountain before setting course and getting cooling air for the red-hot radiator. The long drag to Chittagong or Cox's Bazaar (where we based later) over the jungle - which only petered out within ten miles of the coast - kept one's eyes rivetted on the engine instruments; or more accurately, one on the instruments and the other on one's six o'clock.
The grass airstrips down the valleys of the two rivers were, generally, excellent; in the Arakan, the coastal strips at Akyab and Ramree Island were little more than park pathways. I landed on Ramree in a Spitfire on the day following the eviction of the Japs. The pathway was only as wide as the wingspan of the Spitfire and I noticed a stout tree growing only feet away from the starboard edge as I made my final approach. I landed carefully enough and concentrated on keeping on the path in case its surface was soggy or pot-holed. Whenever I landed a Spitfire I normally looked out of the left sidescreen during the landing run since the view ahead is obscured by the long nose. In my concentration to keep to the pathway, however, I almost forgot about the tree and had hurriedly to change to looking through the right-hand screen. With about 20 yards to go to come abreast of the tree I had to take rapid avoiding action to avoid a collision with my starboard wingtip. We flew dozens of sorties down this area and I note from my log book, as many as nine on one day.
On one occasion when I dropped a Hurricane into Onbauk, which was on the China side of the Irrawaddy, the pick-up Vengeance was not available to collect me. I was not too worried about it because I usually found little difficulty in finding lifts on other aircraft to busy airfields such as our Chittagong and Cox's Bazaar bases. The only flight I could find that afternoon however, was a supply-dropping Dakota of No 159 Squadron which was being refuelled to make a drop and then a return to its base at Imphal - which is a long way from Chittagong. But I fully expected to find a Dakota there which would drop me at my base at Cox's. But none was available that day or due out the next, so I had to retreat from Imphal back towards the India/Burma frontier by two Dakota lifts, before I found one going to my base; the Onbauk trip had cost me three precious days and I was rather acid about that.
The thrust south by the forgotten 14th Army was gathering momentum now and, when Mandalay was about to be recaptured, Phil and I were recalled to Santa Cruz by Lt Col Bodley, where some effort was required to deliver Spitfire XIVs for a build-up of squadrons in the south of India to support Operation Zipper (the invasion of Malaya). We left the Arakan with mixed feelings. It would be great to have a break to enjoy the fleshpots of Bombay once again, but we had had the great satisfaction of experiencing one of the most rewarding periods in our aviation careers; we two had operated our own little flying club with dozens of aircraft to play with, without interference from anyone. What more could a Service NCO pilot wish for?
Here again, we had witnessed air supremacy developing over a war theatre. The only Japanese activity I noticed in my time in Burma was a brief night raid on our base by a single aircraft; and I think it was a Zero fighter I spotted as I was approaching Mount Victoria to drop a Hurricane into Yazagyo in the Chindwin valley. It crossed me at 90 degrees, left to right, level at about a mile range, going south like a dingbat.
We returned to Santa Cruz by Dakota on 8 February 1945, welcomed back by the other 'W', to hear that each of us had been Mentioned in Despatches in the recent Honours List. Lots of Singapore Gin Slings were consumed at the Ritz Hotel that evening!
I should mention that with the build-up of material flowing into the area following adverse political criticism being hurled at the UK that we were the 'forgotten army', many new units had sprung up around the Bombay/Poona area; several of the new RAF stations had formed football teams, playing each other in a station league. Each station also ran its own little league of sections on the station, and I was persuaded to turn out for the Sergeants' Mess team at Santa Cruz. I was immediately selected to play for the station team thereafter, whenever my flying duties allowed. I was playing probably at my best at this time, in spite of regular forays to the Ritz, and soon I was being watched by the selectors for the RAF representative team for the Far East. For the entertainment of the assembled troops and the Indian populace in the area, each arm of the service - Army, Navy, Marines and RAF, plus the top Indian teams - played each other in a 'premier' league, the matches being held at the main football ground in India, the Cooperage in Bombay. I was somewhat astonished to be asked to replace the incumbent of the inside-right position in the RAF team, considering the team totally comprised current professionals, two of whom were internationalists. The player I replaced, 'Golden' Miller, was a Scottish international getting to the end of his career. All the service players were holding PTI posts in their various units. Pearson of Manchester United and England, and Tommy Walker of Hearts and Scotland, were two of the more well-known names I can remember. I felt I could hold my own in this company but I knew I needed more exposure in this class to get grooved-in and used to it. I mention this because, according to my knowledge of things, my name was sent back to clubs in Scotland, and when I was repatriated in 1946, strangers (football scouts) came to my door to ask if I would turn out for their clubs, with the chance of a hand-out if I made good.
As the monsoon of 1945 approached, our priority task of feeding the forward area of Burma with Spitfire VIIIs and Thunderbolts changed to equipping squadrons in south India with Spitfire XIVs, where training was begun for the proposed Operation Zipper. I understood that part of this operation would require these aircraft to be loaded on to aircraft carriers, to be flown off to occupy airstrips in Malaya, well behind the Japanese lines, as part of a leap-frogging amphibious manœuvre to cut off the Japanese supplies and reinforcement from Singapore, thus accelerating Slim's advance south from Rangoon. To this end, the training at the airfields at Chettinad and Madura included the practising of carrier take-offs. The Spitfire XIV was a more powerful and faster mark than the delightful Mk VIII. The Merlin 66 of the VIII was replaced by the Griffon, rated at 2200hp (as opposed to the Merlin's 1650hp) and driving a five-bladed propellor. The Griffon sounded rougher than the smooth Merlin and its power seemed to me to be excessive for the airframe whereas the Mk VIII's Merlin combination was perfectly balanced. For take-off, both Marks needed full rudder trim to prevent swing on the ground run due to engine torque, but the greater power of the Mk XIV required the throttle to be opened more slowly, to help control any swing. However, full power from a standing start from an aircraft carrier was the requirement for 'Zipper'. Inevitably, several aircraft had to be replaced because of take-off prangs ruining undercarriages or wingtips, and we were kept busy re-equipping. In the event, Zipper was not needed, the Japanese having surrendered following the atomic bomb attacks on Japan. The war in the area ended on 14 August 1945.
From then until the end of November, I made a mere four ferry deliveries - three Spitfires and one Airspeed Oxford. All the talk now centred on jobs when demobilised. One suggestion at our unit was to set up a private company with a few Spitfires, to provide a fast postal service in the UK, but we knew at heart that such an idea was a bit far-fetched. In my own case I had an office job waiting for me, but it was not one that I longed for after the life I had led in the RAF. I decided to wait and see.
Out of the blue, on 27 November, four of us were posted to a Dakota conversion unit of Transport Command at Baroda, 200nm north of Bombay. Heaven knows why. It may have been to have us added to the task of repatriating our released skeletal prisoners-of-war quickly, or just to keep us occupied while awaiting the boat home and demob, both of which we knew would take some time. Anyway, it was a refreshing departure to handle a biggish transport aircraft. Since then, I have always thought of the Dakota as just a very large Tiger Moth. I managed 50 hours on the 'Dak' in three weeks and greatly enjoyed the experience. At the end of December 1945, I boarded my final troopship at Bombay for a three-week pleasure cruise across the Indian Ocean, up the Red Sea and through the Canal to the Med, along the coast that Mac and I had travelled nearly three years before, and finally across the Bay to Liverpool and a lengthy disembarkation leave. Phil Williams was with me on board, and Malcolm White was just behind on another ship.