The following is a personal account of Derrick Clewley, a Navigator with 99 Squadron who served from late 1944 into 1945. He also worked with the Repair and Salvage Units. The account is a transcript from a recording made over a period of hours in early 2002. The transcript has been lightly edited, with a view to improving readability and clarification. Many thanks to Derrick for providing the material, and for his encouragement to us to publish it on the site.
I left school at 14, and then joined the ATC at the start of the war. At the age of 17 ¼, I joined the RAF proper – this would be in late 1942. About a week after that, five or six of us went to Oxford for aircrew tests – we had medical tests, and tests on mathematics and general knowledge. This took three days at Oxford. We were accepted into the PNB Scheme – that’s Pilot, Navigator, Bomber. You couldn’t go and ask to be at pilot – at that stage, you had to go into the PNB Scheme. Gunners were called up at 18, but PNB Scheme people were called up at 18 ¼.
We joined up in London. We had our uniforms issued at Lord’s Cricket Ground. We had lectures in the Stands, and did PT on the cricket grass, bearing in mind that this was November and there was no cricket on. The C/O there was Group Captain Gilligan, who was an England Captain, and S/L Herbert Sutcliffe was on the staff. After a week there, we were sent to No. 6 ITW (Initial Training Wing) at Aberystwyth and did the ground training – the initial training. We did continuity drill – drilling by numbers, with no orders; this was started for aircrew to take the boredom out of drilling. We had to do a 20-minute presentation drill as a passing out drill. We finished at ITW and became Leading Aircraftsmen.
Then we went on to FTS – Flying Training School – to do time on Tiger Moths. I did 12 hours. I came 3rd in Navigation – I wasn’t a good pilot, not a natural pilot, so I was selected as a Navigator. We were then sent to Ludlow to do a toughening up course – the same sort of thing that you see Commandos doing – but this was a time killer. While there was a shortage of crews, they were queuing up waiting to go out to Rhodesia, Canada, all over the place for further training.
Then we went to Manchester, Heaton Park, where there were hundreds of aircrew waiting to go overseas. We’d only been there 3 days when someone called out two names – Dave Dignan and myself. We thought “What have we done?” so we went to the Orderly Room where we were told to pack our gear (we were living in digs in Manchester) and we were sent to No.1 Air Navigation School at Bridgnorth. It was a pre-war Navigation School. They were two short in the flight we joined; everyone there was University Air Squadron people, they were all from Oxford and Cambridge. I never did find out why Dave and myself were selected to join the University Air Squadron.
At Bridgnorth, we worked 6 ½ days. You were only allowed Sunday afternoons off. It was such a pressured course, to get you going. We did gunnery, navigation, meteorology, instruments, a lot in astronavigation, plots. That was basic ground training and you had to pass at every stage. This lasted about three or four months, then we went over to Northern Ireland, to Bishops Court, about 20 miles south of Belfast. This had just opened, flying Ansons.
We were selected into 1st and 2nd Navigators in pairs. One day you’d be the first navigator, the next day you’d be second. We did 100 hours flying, 75 day and 25 night. All the trips were up and down the Irish Channel, to Wales, to Scotland. This was very severe training. It was wartime, there were no lights anywhere, and the winds could change very rapidly. It was first class training and all done in Ansons. We flew over the Mourne Mountains, which sweep down into the sea, and it was terrifying coming back in the dark knowing the mountains were there. I passed out as a navigator, and then had the first leave that I’d had for some time. I came home and my mother was horror-struck because I stupidly told her I’d be on ops. in 5 months, and two of my school friends had been killed recently. This was the wrong thing to say! This was now in late 1943, beginning 1944.
Then I got a telegram to report to Moreton – in – Marsh, which was an OTU. We got to Moreton – in – Marsh and were told to put our kit down. We were ushered into a huge hangar, and there were in there Australian pilots, Canadian pilots, Canadian navigators, and people who’d come from abroad. There were gunners, wireless ops and bomb aimers. Then some chap said “Right, sort yourselves into crews”. Ian Hyndman knew that two of us had come from Northern Ireland, from home training and therefore good training under wartime conditions. One of the criticisms of training in Canada was that a pilot would see a town from 60 miles away, completely lit. This wasn’t navigation, the pilot wasn’t going to get lost, and the navigator had no real skill. I had first hand experience of that on the Squadron – a navigator whom I knew at Aberystwyth, it caught up with him and he needed some further training.
Anyway, Ian came up to me and said, “You look white”. I said “What do you mean?” He said “Well, all the other people from Rhodesia would be sunburned, and you look white, have you been trained home here?” I said “Yes, in Northern Ireland”. He said “Well right, do you want to be my Nav?” Now Ian was an old man to me. He was 26 and I was 20 then. We then chose Horrie the wireless operator because he looked miserable and we didn’t want any flighty blokes. Then we chose Duncan Whittaker, a big man, he was about 28, he became bomb aimer, and then we chose Jimmy. So we were then a Wellington crew.
We flew Wellingtons, and we managed to write one off into the Moreton-in-Marsh graveyard. In training, we did 3 ops over France dropping leaflets and a Bomber Command diversion, up to Heligoland. We often had 100mph winds, and that night we had 120mph winds and I could not get it onto the computer. We were learning. The Navigation Officer told me to halve everything – halve the airspeed from 160 to 80, halve the wind speed, and then you can get it onto the computer. I thought “What a clever bloke!”
We went out to Heligoland, and faced this East wind on our way out – it took us ages to get there. We came back with a 120mph tail wind behind us – that night, aircraft ended up all over the place. We were short of fuel, and an engine packed up on circuit. I don’t remember whether it was the port or the starboard but I remember firing the Very pistol but then the hydraulics went, which meant the brakes and undercarriage went. Duncan the bomb aimer was told to wind this 60 revs to let down the undercarriage manually, which he did. Unfortunately only one leg of the undercarriage came down, so we landed on one wheel! We careered across the airfield without brakes and with half an undercarriage and ended up in the graveyard there. I jumped out onto the tombstones. The rear gunner couldn’t get out of his turret, it was half turned, and the last he heard was “Get out! Fire!” But they chopped him out, and he was OK.
While training on Wellingtons, we were asked to go to Weymouth and fly along the coast. Nobody told us what we were doing. We found out later it was an exercise in deploying Window, or chaff, to confuse enemy radar. We had to throw these parcels out along the coast at a certain time. We got to the coast and Horrie came to the back of the Wellie with me – there’s a big chute in a Wellie that you shoved the parcels down. So Horrie said “I think we ought to undo these parcels before we throw them out”. So he did, and threw it out, and with the updraft from the wind, the whole aircraft ended up full of Window. We then threw the rest of the parcels out, and the wind would break them up. When we got back, the ground crew looked inside the aircraft and said “Well, you made the mess, you can damn well clear it up!” We were in every nook and cranny of the Wellie picking out this damned chaff.
So we finished on Wellingtons. We weren’t sure what was happening then. Moreton – in – Marsh was considered an overseas OTU. I came home on leave, said hello to my parents, and was due to go back to London the next day to live it up with the Australians who had of course to stop in accommodation in London – the Airman’s Club. I came home on the Monday night, intending to stay home that night, then met the Scoutmaster in the village, and he invited me to come to a dance that night. There weren’t going to be any men there – there often wasn’t in wartime. I went, saw a girl I loved the sight of, I’d never spoken to her, I asked her to dance, she became my wife. It was an important change in my life – while I was away, she wrote me letters, over 400 of them.
Then I got a telegram telling me to report back to Moreton. I did, and was immediately sent home again for another fortnight. I was then told to report to Blackpool. Blackpool was where you got your tropical kit – from Woolworth’s! Woolworth’s was a store on the ground floor. There used to be a store on the second floor, but above was now where you drew your tropical kit – shorts, pith helmet and all the rest of it. We had a wonderful time in Blackpool. We used to parade on Blackpool football ground – twice we arrived half cut in a horse and carriage. We were billeted in a bed and breakfast place, and we had to be in by 10. If you weren’t in by 10, there’d be a chair left outside for you. We began to realise that we might not see the UK again, so we lived it up there.
Then we went to Greenock, -this would be about June 4th or 5th 1944 - got a boat there, and went way out into the Atlantic because you couldn’t go across the Bay of Biscay because of U-boats. It was a three-funnel liner, I can’t remember the name, but it was sunk – it left Ceylon on the way to Australia and it was sunk. It took a week to go out and come back into Gibraltar, from there through the Mediterranean, through the Suez Canal and then on to Bombay. That took exactly a month. We didn’t know until we arrived what our destination was. All the topees we had were flung into the sea. No one wore topees, everyone wore bush hats, and they became the popular thing.
There were 100 WRENs on board which meant a lot of fun. A lot of people think there are goings-on on boats, but there was none of it. Aircrew to me were some of the cleanest living blokes I’ve known, because you were threatened. If you got VD, you’d be taken off aircrew and put into the dirtiest job they could find you. That threat kept most of the lads pure, even in India where everything was free and easy. All my crew were clean.
We had a few days in Bombay, we were given a tin of “dog biscuits” with an expiry date of about 1938 (we got the best ones!), a tin of ghee, and we boarded a train. This was about July 1944. The invasion was on, but we knew little about it. We opened our biscuits within six or seven hours of getting them, only to find they were crawling with weevils. How they survived that long I’ll never know. Our bomb aimer was born in India, and knew a lot of Hindustani and so he was a great help during the journey.
It was a two-day train journey of over 900 miles. We got bitten by bugs and all sorts of things. It was hot, and water – you couldn’t stop and drink as you can here. We had a packet of tea – no milk – but they stopped the train and Duncan asked the train driver to turn on the tap on the side of the boiler to get boiling water into our mugs, so we had rusty water taken from the train – at least it was boiling. We lived on oranges and buying fruit at the stations. We were told we were going to Kola, but we’d only just arrived in India and we hadn’t got a clue where it was.
We got to Kola and got taken in a gharri (Hindustani for lorry) – arrived at Kola to see chaos going on. The runways were normally West – East, the wind didn’t change much inland. This Liberator had been told to take off this way, the wind had changed, they didn’t get off and they crashed into a tree. They were all killed. The next day, I was detailed to go about 30 miles in a gharri with the coffins and bury them at the nearest British cemetery which was somewhere towards Bangalore. I’ve no idea where we went. Photographs were taken, guns were fired. When we came back we had stains all over our coats, there was no refrigeration then. The C/O said to get the local tailor to knock us up outfits, which we did.
Flying the Liberator
Then we started flying Liberators the next day. We had no idea what was happening even then – it was very secret. Everything was Official Secrets Act and censorship.
So we arrived in Kola and had a prang. We wrote a Lib off there. This was another silly thing. We were on circuits and bumps, navigators had to go on circuits and bumps because you could get lost in a circuit. The flight engineer wasn’t required because we were told how to start the APU, which generated the electricity. This was my job on circuits and bumps. When you’d finished your landing run, you stopped at a line, there was an aircraftsman with a big torch and he would examine the tyres to see that they hadn’t had chunks taken out of them on your landing. He’d give you the thumbs up and you’d take off again. Ian said “This is the last one tonight” – I was in the hatchway over the flight deck on the Lib. I loved it up there because when you were flying all the time you got fresh air blowing. You felt like a chariot rider.
Anyway Ian said, “Sign the aircraftsman off” so I gave him the sign and he went off on his bike and Ian took off again. Coming back in, we made a real kangaroo landing and Ian said “I’m not going to bed on that” and so we went to take off again. Then, as we were rolling, the inevitable happened. I got down to start the APU, and was just about to start it when Bang! The tyre went. The aircraft collapsed into the soil at Kola Heavy Conversion Unit and soil came in – it’s all dry – it came right up my leg. I got out of the soil easily because it’s bone dry, climbed up onto the wing and there’s Ian the pilot uttering the foulest language you ever heard – just sitting there, no panic to get out – he was the calmest bloke I’ve ever known. Anyone else would have been out of there like a shot, but he just sat there cursing. He knew he was in trouble. He got a slap on the wrist the next day – no more than that. Aircraft were sometimes just as dangerous as flying against the Japs! You accepted accidents, and things going wrong in an aircraft just like that.
We had the same five of us as in the hangar at Moreton, but we picked up a flight engineer at Kola because you needed one. We picked up an additional wireless operator, but he left us, so we picked up another one at Dhubalia. We than had a long train journey from Kola Goldfields right up to Calcutta – that’s nearly a thousand miles, and that took about three days. Then we were posted to Jessore.
So we changed trains at Calcutta, got onto a train to Jessore, got out at Jessore. Not a soul about anywhere, no show, nothing, nobody there. So in the end some bloke came over – an Indian Army bloke who spoke English. He said “Sahib, sahib, you want Air Force?” “Yes”. “They went last week”. So there we were, stuck at this blessed Jessore, nobody to contact and we were taken to the huts where the Squadron had been. I can’t remember how we got food. Two days later, a Liberator arrived, so we picked up our kit and off to Dhubalia.
Early Days in Dhubalia
We landed at Dhubalia, got into a gharri, and were taken over to buildings. S/L Webster came over and says “Where the bloody hell have you been?” We’d just had a rough time on this three-day trip, arrived and found nobody there. He was an Australian, and a rough one. We said, “It’s not our fault we were sent to the wrong bloody airfield!” So he said “Sorry about that, but you’re in my flight anyway. You’re the last crew to join the Squadron”. So we joined the Squadron on the 28th September 1944.
On the 10th of October we started flying. We were told that the Squadron was not operational at that stage, but having just converted onto Liberators, you had to get used to formation flying ready for supporting the 14th Army to go down the Irrawaddy right down to Rangoon before the monsoon started at the end of May. The monsoon was usually within a couple of days or so of the end of May.
One of our early tasks was an Air-Sea Rescue. There was an American Fortress, out of Singapore, lost and we were told to do a square search, which is quite a complicated thing to do because it’s over sea, you have to calculate the wind, the visibility so you don’t cover the same ground twice. I’d only ever done one in theory, so to have to do one in practice for the first time was very difficult and it taught us as a crew a lesson because about three quarters of the way through this Air Sea Rescue search – we never found anybody, by the way – there was this huge cloud and Ian said ”I’ll go round it” which is a mistake.
You don’t fly round a cloud in an aircraft. You get lost quicker that way. We went dodging round and we eventually got out of it, decided the Air Sea rescue had finished and headed for base. As you went up the Bay of Bengal you could tell where the Ganges came down. If you’ve ever seen a map, there are hundreds of islands there. The sandbanks change with a storm. You’ve got a devil of a job to find out where you are. But you know you’re about 40 or 50 miles off the coast because the sea is deep blue and there’s a distinct line where the silt washes out of the Ganges. It changes colour – it’s a sandy colour in a line. It tells you you’re 40 or 50 miles from the coast. Well, we got back OK eventually and I said to Ian “Look, that’s not got to happen again. If we ever get into a similar position I’ve got to make a note – 2 minutes on this course, 3 minutes on that course” and he agreed. It saved our lives later on, when two aircraft were lost.
As we were the last crew to join the Squadron, we got the ropiest aircraft. We had to take it right down to Southern India, to Madras, for an oil pressure test, it leaked oil, and so it went away. We were then given a brand new aircraft – J Jamie KH 120 and on the navigator’s table someone had written “Best of luck RAF – Ford of Connecticut”. So the aircraft had been made at the Ford factory. We expected as a junior crew just arrived to have this nice new aircraft taken away from us but in fact it wasn’t – it was ours all the way through.
Squadron Leader Webster was a character. He drove like a madman. I think we were told he was restricted to one flight a month because he was commanding officer. He actually did more – I know that because he did half a dozen that I was on, and there wasn’t a month in between. If he was on it, you knew it was something special. Either danger, or something special. He wouldn’t go on a routine thing.
One day, the officers were under some trees that were not very tall. It was the only shade that you could get in the heat. The Libs were about 200 yards away, the nearest one. A gunner was cleaning his guns. There’s always about 3 or 4 rounds left in the guns, which the gunner had to get out manually. Well, this gunner pulled the trigger, and we were all standing under this tree, then these 3 or 4 point 5’s whipped through knocking leaves off the tree which fluttered down to us. Webster came out of his office and said, “Get that bloody man! Get him here!”. The poor little gunner came along. Webster said, “Right, it’s either a court martial or you double round the airfield”. The temperature was about 110 degrees. The bloke said “I’ll double the airfield” and so off he goes. He got about half way round and Webster says, “Get the gharri. Get the gharri and pick him up”. That was Webster.
We had bottles of Lion beer, and I noticed the issue was 2 bottles a month. This was later increased to 4 bottles a month. We used to get old newspapers – often 3 or 4 months old – and put them (the papers) into the bottles and drop them out of the aircraft over the prisoners in the camps. I’ve never heard of anyone getting one.
Operations from Dhubalia
In November, the Squadron flew 6 operations, I was on 2. In December, the Squadron flew 7 operations, I was on 4. In January it flew 12, I was on 7 in support of the Army.
Operation Guinness – this was a big do. As you can imagine, the Liberator was a very heavy aircraft. I had a bit of training on flying, you had to, just in case. You’d push the controls like that and 30 seconds later something would happen. So you can imagine trying to get a Liberator into formation. They were 65,000lb full weight, there was a slow action, and they turned slowly. The idea of Guinness was an exercise where we flew right away from Calcutta right across India to Bombay. At Bombay, we did a practice bombing of Bombay harbour. First, over Poona, we got into loose formation, ready to bomb in a vixen of 4-4-4. So you bomb on the bomb of the leader. It was about a 14-hour trip. We flew, we did the exercise, and we came back in the dark. We got over the middle of India, came across a huge storm and my rehearsal with Ian about keeping up details about what courses we were on paid off. It was dark – I was with a torch, lying on the floor of the compartment – 2 minutes of this, three minutes of that, 4 minutes of that, in fact he zigzagged as opposed to flying a circle. We came out of this huge storm, there was lightning and all the rest of it, and I headed for a point where I knew there was a huge steel mill. The steel mill used to light up the clouds – this was about 30 or 40 miles away. We headed there and surprise surprise we hit it more or less smack on. From there it was straight back to Dhubalia and we were the first ones back.
Out of 12 only 2 others got back that night – back to Dhubalia. The others were all over the place. Two crews were missing completely. Butch Smith’s crew took the wrong route – we headed south to avoid the Himalayas, there was always a danger, but they got lost completely, ran out of fuel and they all bailed out. F/L Townsend’s crew also bailed out. Another crew landed at Poona with engine trouble. One crew got back about three days later, the others came back slowly.
Now I can tell you a funny thing here, because three or four days after that, a Dakota arrived with Butch Smith. They were an all sergeant crew, great fun, a first class crew; they were in a billet next to us. They arrived, and they’d had their parachutes cut into shirts and shorts. When he saw them wearing their parachutes, the then C.O., S/L Ercolani, went berserk because with every Liberator lost, of course, you lost the parachutes with it. Parachutes were a scarce commodity. Anyway Ercolani said they’d have to pay for that, but I don’t think they ever did.
We became operational about mid-November, I think. Dhubalia was like the whole of Bengal, very very flat, because I presume if you go back millions of years the silt from the Himalayas would have made it flat. There were no features at all, a navigator’s nightmare. You didn’t have towns or anything. I used to get really concerned because you’d come back from a long trip of 13 or 14 hours and you were tired. I had the responsibility of finding the airfield, and there’s no radar at all.
Near Calcutta where the Yanks were operating they did have a radio compass. I only tried it once and the needle fluctuated over about 40 degrees. There was no Oboe – nothing like that at all. There were no navigation aids at all. It was all dead reckoning and astronavigation. If you were doing long distances over sea, you had an arrangement with the rear gunner. At night, you’d throw out a flame float, and he’d turn his turret until the flame float appeared to go down his guns. He would then let you know the drift. In daylight, the front gunner used to do a burst way ahead, the rounds fell in the water, and he would run his guns down there.
Dhubalia was very hot, but Bengal in November/December/January is what I would call ideal summer weather – a little chilly at night, lovely and warm during the daytime. The monsoon period comes on around March, April, May – the last week in May the monsoons really arrive. Accommodation was in bashas, which had no glass in the windows, and I think we had about 15 watt bulbs in there. Water was a big problem. Water would come on at somewhere about 4 o’clock from a water tower, for showers. You wouldn’t get there for 4 o’clock because the water, in those tanks, was so hot it would burn you if you had a shower. So you would go along at about a quarter past four and have a shower. That’s the only shower you were allowed in that day, it didn’t matter how hot your clothes were, that was it.
Food I don’t remember much. There was a big moan because the Army ran India and food as well, and they’d give you baked beans and things like that which was horrible for flying – the gas in your stomach and the aircraft! When we flew on ops, you were supposed to be supplied with chocolate, but I never saw any chocolate at all. It would be melted even if they did supply it. Your food would be corned beef sandwiches which were probably made 10 hours before you went to eat them, and they’d be all curled up and dry, and you’d take a banana. You couldn’t have any apples or anything like that because you had to wash the skin. You had permanganate of potash in water, which turned it purple, and you’d wash your bananas and oranges in that. Disease was a factor that was big – dysentery, typhoid, and cholera.
I don’t remember going to a cinema in Dhubalia, but what I do know is that Horrie and I went to Church there – it was a sort of act of self-preservation! You also had bomb bays for the Liberators. They were built out of high bankings because as you probably know the Japs got as far as the Arakan, south of Chittagong, and came within bombing range of Calcutta. In India there were a lot of nasty people who supported the Japs, and the aircraft had bomb bays where soil had been piled up high for defence and the aircraft was in there.
Each flight had its own dedicated ground crew. The ground crew were marvellous. You got to know them all by name. In fact, India was a very friendly country in that respect. With Ian, the pilot, it was Christian names all round. He was a Flying Officer, but you’d never know it. You were all together, very friendly. The same ground crew would look after the aircraft, but the bombing up would be done by the armourers in the bomb bays. The aircraft themselves – well, you know what a hot car is like. The Liberator was even worse. You had to wear thick cotton trousers or you’d burn yourself. You’d literally burn yourself as you were getting in, especially if you were flying of an evening. The aircraft had been stored up all day, gathering heat. I fact you took two lots of clothing, one sweaty to get up to 3 or 4 thousand feet. Freezing level was about 10 thousand, 11 thousand feet, so you were going from about 110 degrees (inside, about 140 degrees) to freezing in half an hour or so, so no wonder you had to have a good health record.
There were snakes at Dhubalia. They had food in the mess, and the rats went after the food, and the snakes went after the rats. We walked across one night with a torch and there was a cobra reared right in front of us.
One afternoon, I think it was a Tuesday, about half past two, a typhoon went through the camp. A bearer came rushing in – it was rest time, and very very hot. He pointed, we looked out, and there was this tornado out there. We went out, looked at it, and thought how marvellous! It slowly came towards us and went whoosh – straight through the camp. It even lifted Liberators off the ground. All the Libs had their compasses struck and the Squadron was finished. Our hut had the roof taken right off. We lay in monsoon trenches – there were little concrete monsoon trenches about so wide – we lay down there, the bearer told us to lay down there, and the typhoon went through us. We looked and saw our hut roof just become airborne, the whole roof was taken away. We’d bought a gramophone in Madras, as a crew, with a collection, a wind up gramophone; that was ruined because you had torrential rain, and our records were all buckled and finished. Our beds were soaking wet, so next morning, we had nowhere to stay, so they said right, off to Darjeeling. I think there were three crews of us of we went for a fortnight. We didn’t want to go to Darjeeling, because we were half way through ops and you get mentally geared up for carrying on. You don’t want a break. So we went off to Darjeeling, and had a fortnight up there. Horrie can remember us having this wonderful tea in the Planters Club, which I can’t remember, but he did. We rode up to the point where you can see Everest, miles away.
There wasn’t a lot of enemy airborne opposition. But we were out there fairly late on. The Japs had over extended themselves. Their supply lines were going through the Arakan, right the way down Burma, through the Gulf of Siam, through Malaya and Singapore. Their sea routes were being slowly destroyed. There’s an island called Ramree with a port, which was invaded by the 14th Army. We bombed Ramree then the troops went and captured the whole island. Their other supply line was through the Irrawaddy right through the centre of Burma. The Japs were on one side, and they were getting slowly withdrawn. When Rangoon was captured, then a lot of the Japanese were left, because it wasn’t worth going after them. But by that time they were in trouble with supply, and with fighters, they were being extended. Aircraft were being taken from Burma just to support Japan itself. The Americans were having a good go at the Japs in that direction. So I only saw three Japanese fighters. We once had an escort of Thunderbolts, and they shot one down. And it went through the Squadron, this Japanese fighter on its way down, and every gunner claimed it! They all had a go at it as it went through and said Yes! We got it! It was a great disappointment when they realised it was this Thunderbolt that claimed the kill.
There was opposition from the ground on the Burma-Siam Railway. You had lots of flak there. In fact, our bombing panel was hit. Duncan nudged me and I looked down and there was this big spider sort of thing on the thick Perspex panel, which had been hit. I can remember flying over there once on the way back, across Burma, this was about half past five in the evening. I used to go up and talk to Ian, standing between the two pilots, when I got fed up being in the nose. I said, “ It looks a bit strange down there”. He said, “Yes, they’re anti-aircraft guns”. You could see these Japs running to the guns. I expected Ian to turn round and do a live burst at them. Not him. Calm as anything, he just flew on and said, “Look at them. By the time they put ammunition in, we’ll be gone”. And he was right.
The Japs didn’t have the heavy bombers so the airfield was not under that sort of threat. Their main strength was in fighters.
There’s an interesting story about when we bombed Bangkok railway station. We were due to fly “J” and got on board. When you started, only the 2 pilots, the flight engineer and the wireless op. would go in. There wasn’t much room on the flight deck for a big crew. So you stood outside and waited until you got the thumbs up and then you climbed in.
We found out that “J” had a fault on it. So we had to transfer out of that aircraft to the reserve aircraft. There’s always a reserve bombed up and ready to go. I had my navigation bag, a dark green canvas bag, with my astro sextant in it. There’s quite a lot to carry, maps and everything, whereas Duncan the bomb aimer had nothing to carry, all his papers were in my bag. So I said to Duncan, “Don’t forget my parachute” as we transferred from one to the other.
So we took off and were about 25 minutes late. We had to bomb Bangkok about five past one in the morning. I think 356 was on the same stunt. Anyway, we used more fuel than we should have done catching up. It was one of the rare times you were given a time to bomb over a heavily defended target like Bangkok. We were the last to go over Bangkok, and we got caught in searchlights. The front gunner opened up at the searchlights, and they dipped them smartly. On the way back, we got half way up towards Chittagong on the Arakan coast. Complete cloud everywhere, absolute complete cloud. All you could see were the tops of mountains sticking out.
Well, I couldn’t map read from the tops of mountains. This was about 6 in the morning. Ian said ”Get your parachutes on, we’re almost out of fuel”. So I looked around – no parachute. Duncan had forgotten my parachute. So I had to say to Ian “Sorry, I haven’t got a parachute”. His language was pretty foul. But he replied “Well, that means I can’t go. I’m not leaving you in the aircraft on your own.” Well, we went on. I knew the Bay of Bengal was out there, but that was all in cloud. The whole of Arakan was in cloud, but the amazing thing was we came across one strip of little lights in a break in the cloud.
Ian said, “That looks like a runway”. I said, “Well, it’s not on my emergency list”. So he said that we were going in, we had to get down. So we went in and what it was, it was a forward base called Hakazari [??]. Dakotas were using it to feed the Army with supplies. We approached, and Ian said, “OK you lot, we’re on our way in”. We went straight in, we were that short of fuel.
What was keeping the runway clear – it was a very narrow runway – was a flare path made from water cans with long spouts and filled with paraffin. It was the heat of the paraffin burning that was lifting the fog just over that patch. So touch wood, we got in all right.
You never heard such a noise in all your life, because we landed on a sort of paddy field with a sort of chain link fence on the ground. The noise was dreadful, we all sat there vibrating, and but eventually we pulled up. Then a Jeep arrived, and this Yank got out – “What the Hell are you doing here?”
So we explained, and this American bloke said, “Well, do you want some breakfast?” We said yes. Horrie said, “The guns are all right, are they?” So Ian said “Must have a guard on the aircraft”. These Yanks hadn’t seen a Liberator before; they were more thrilled than we were. They could smell the cordite where we’d opened up the guns and the empty cases fell out. So Horrie stayed behind to guard the aircraft and guns, a willing volunteer. He had his revolvers and a kukri with him – an RAF issue kukri.
We were taken off to the Mess, where the first thing I noticed was white sugar. We only had the ground sugar, the Yanks had white sugar. We were given flapjacks with maple syrup – absolute luxury. Then the Yanks said “You’d better get out of here, because the Japs are not that far away, and if they see a Lib here, they’ll be after us. What do you want?” Ian said “Fuel to get back”. Ian asked for 600 gallons. The Yank went berserk – he said they could survive for a whole week on that – you can’t take that. Just take as much as you need to get you back.
I didn’t know where we were, and pride wouldn’t let me ask. But I saw an American Sergeant, and asked where he went for leave. He said he went to Chittagong, so I asked him how far Chittagong was. He said that it was about a hundred miles up the coast. So I knew we were a hundred miles south of Chittagong. The place wasn’t on any of my maps, and we took off about half past nine. We went to the coast, and followed the coast up to Chittagong, and then back homewards from Chittagong. Then Ian decides to do a bit of hedgehopping over the palm trees. We got back to the airfield about half past ten or something like that. As we landed, the ground crew came up, said they were glad to se us back and asked where we’d been. There was the branch of a palm tree wedged in the ball of the turret! The ground crew were very good, they smuggled it away and nothing was said.
Repair and Salvage Units
Their main function was to distribute spares to where there were troubles, for instance, down in Arcona, down in southern India. We used to go down to Cochin where there was a Fleet Air Arm base. Now if they ran out of spares, we used to have to go to wherever the spares were. We used to fly all over the place. You’d take down spares, take down ground crew with you. The ground crew flew with us; we were all on Christian name terms. If there was an aircraft in trouble somewhere, (and airfields were few and far between, it was such a vast place) you’d take specialist ground crew, and they were usually regulars. They weren’t wartime blokes who’d done three months training somewhere and called themselves a fitter. They were well-trained ground crew who could put their hands to most things. It was mostly transporting stuff around, and taking crews to where there was trouble. We treated these specialist ground crews as equals – well, they were – they did fly with us, and they were first class blokes.