I had been working hard the preceding three months leading up to Xmas ’44.
Apart from my normal duties as Corporal i/c Instrument Repairers on ‘B’ Flight, 159 Squadron (Liberators) at RAF Digri in Bengal, India, somehow I had become saddled with the job of producing a show for Christmas.
Looking back I find it hard to believe, as I had no previous stage experience of any kind and 159 Squadron was a first rate unit of up to 800 very talented people. The entertainments committee had just descended on me and said “we think you can produce a Christmas show this year—will you do it?” So I just got on with it!
We were operating four engine Consolidated B24 ‘Liberator’ bombers from an airfield built in flat paddy fields far from any towns 100 miles due west of Calcutta. I had been on 159 since it started at Molesworth back in 1942, and by now the personnel had become one large family. The commanding officer was W/Cmdr Jacky Blackburn, much decorated and a “wizard” C.O -- an outstanding and very popular officer. The squadron was heavily engaged in bombing operations against the Japanese in Burma and beyond to the east.
All military camps had some sort of home made entertainment for Christmas, and with a squadron strength of 800 it was inevitable there was hidden talent in our midst-- Lofty Laughton for instance! Corporal Alan Laughton, squadron office clerk, was an exceptional classical pianist and talented in other directions such as script writing, so of course my first port of call was to my friend Alan Laughton. Between us we made a start.
Firstly an appeal for anyone interested in the show, performing or playing an instrument or any practical help in construction was called for. Although ‘out in the blue’ in Bengal, RAF Digri was a well established heavy bomber base, with at least two squadrons of Liberators operating, and another secret unit employed dropping ‘Joes’ behind enemy lines. There were in total about 2000 airmen, no women at all,
at Digri, and the camp cinema operated by a civilian contractor was held in a large ‘bashar’ or primitive hut with about 100 seats. Just the large cinema screen, no stage or proscenium or curtain, but showing fairly recent Hollywood films, giving film shows on four nights each week. So at least we had a building to perform in.
While I felt confident I could organise things generally and eventually pull an entertainment together, I could do nothing musically for the show myself. Alan Laughton of course could not have been bettered. Well over six feet tall, blond with a rather awkward way of moving, Alan was sort of performing just standing still! He had passed all sorts of piano playing exams, and although not university educated, he was certainly no duffer.
We had a good response to our initial appeal, and Alan decided there was enough to form a small band, he leading from piano also accompanying soloists and several musical sketches. Eventually he and I, on a trip to Calcutta to a military store for E.N.S.A. equipment, acquired about a dozen musical instruments, a collection of costumes and ‘props’, some excellent Leichner stage make-up, a few wigs, and lastly sufficient curtaining to make an overlapping stage curtain, with proscenium front. Quite a profitable journey this trip, and together with the squadron expertise, sufficient to put on a Christmas show.
We had no stage as such, but an excellent squadron carpenter—one ‘Chippy’ Thomas, who journeyed into the large local village with the cinema contractor and together they acquired sufficient timber to build an adequate stage. Being a professional stage carpenter in ‘civy street’, Chippy Thomas took over completely all stage construction, but the large main curtain and ‘wings’ were produced by the cinema contractor, made somewhere by local labour, and became part of cinema shows from then on. Stage sound, ‘mikes’ and amplifiers were all modified and installed by squadron electricians and radio people, and we actually had a theatre make–up artist who was delighted with the big box of Leichner make up! So the show was at least professionally ‘made up’.
We had roughly a dozen would-be entertainers with a band of ten players. A compere who sang; a romantic interlude couple-- small man and very large ‘lady’ duet, a stand up comic very good, and of course Blondie Yeomans, almost a female without make-up.! There were six large sketches on stage involving six or more players, one particularly good called “Inside Information”, about operational intelligence—a punkah-wallah called ‘Asti Wappus’ who always had the correct gen about ops being on or off-- the whole written by Flt. Lt. George Betterley who also played Asti… George was in fact the Squadron Intelligence Officer. Alan Laughton wrote and played in a good sketch called W.A.C.(I.), about the Women’s Army Corps (Indian) …’We’re five little Wakki’s with very large black eyes’ etc, very funny and very topical at the time. Arthur Hindle, a Canadian and born comedian did his stuff, several singers and the old sketch ‘I want to be an Actor’ all ran well.
The band played, soloists preformed and there was plenty for the audience to join in.
There were altogether twenty items in the programme which took three hours to run, the show being given for three nights.
At the end of the final performance our Commanding Officer came on stage and thanked the entire company, saying it was the best camp show he had seen.
It really was a ‘Good Show’ --an Air Force expression which adequately sums up the unstinting efforts of all concerned.
by George Barker-Read.
Ex 159 Squadron Groundcrew
It had been a hot windless day in 1944 in southern Italy and RAF Pathfinder Halifax's were flying overhead on their night journey eastwards to lead a 205 Bomber Group attack on the Black Sea oilfields of Ploesti. On the ground a Canadian pilot was driving seven of us, Australian, British and Canadians to a darts competition with our neighbouring Squadron.
Amid high expectations of an exciting evening, we motored eastwards along the dusty Foggia Manefredonia road and turned off towards the encampment of 178 Squadron faintly visible in late evening light amongst olive groves in the distance. On nearing the squadron we negotiated a newly constructed curve on a high embankment, then took a track leading to 178's Officer's Mess, a marquee and Nissen hut erected near a farmhouse.
Our hosts for the occasion were an English pilot and his Geordie navigator. They met us and, in friendly ribaldry, determined to show up these Pathfinders from 614 Squadron and we seven were determined to not let down our Squadron.
The evening went swimmingly in darts, drinks and chit chat amongst various groups of flyers, swapping yarns of attacks and in talk of home and the progress of the war. The hum of voices and laughter went on well into the night. Some 178 bods took pains to point out that 614 Squadron had been late to put down their Pathfinder markers on a recent target and 178's planes were kept waiting for the Pathfinders to do their work. We were only too sadly aware of our imperfections. Navigation at night over a blacked out Europe was difficult enough, with bad weather, ground mists and enemy action making things tough. But so often our Pathfinder electronic gear failed too and we could be left spending precious minutes searching for that elusive target while anxious bombers circled, waiting to come in and drop their bomb load so that they could fly off home again. Nevertheless our darts night was a great success and we made many new friends.
Departure time came and we seven walked out to our vehicle in wartime darkness. Our Canadian took the wheel again and amid shouts and farewells we gathered speed. Then it happened! Our driver overshot that dangerous corner and we rolled over the newly constructed high embankment and ended in a deep gully below. All of us were shocked, bruised and bleeding, and blood from a cut in my forehead poured down over my face.
Help came from our friends of 178 and they soon had their medical staff patching us up. Their doctor discovered I had an injury to my neck and forehead and worked to support me from my shoulders to my head. It was very late indeed when we arrived back at base!
We met at breakfast next morning just as our Commanding Officer, Group Captain Laird, came in fuming. No only had he discovered his car had been used without permission and was badly dented, but he also discovered seven of his key flyers arrayed like hastily patched up casualties of the latest ait battle. When he heard our story the set lines of his strong handsome face showed how troubled he felt, for 614 Squadron was short of experienced Pathfinder crews. So many crews had flown out into attack and not returned. Pathfinder Halifax's lay shattered in distant places as far afield as France, Germany, Czechoslovakia, Austria, Hungary, Rumania, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia and northern Italy.
Breakfast that morning became a fearfully silent affair as we seven meditated on just what our Commander had in mind for us. We had not long to wait. We were called to 614’s dressing station where Doc Francis and his ever helpful assistants set to work to make our injuries more presentable, outwardly at least. However, Group Captain Laird did not let us off the hook. He had us listed to fly into attack that night and be part of the force leading the bombers northward into Europe and we had to make the best of it. For me it was a most unpleasant flight. My neck was too painful to turn and I was in such misery I couldn't have cared less if the whole of the Luftwaffe had attacked us!
by Tom Scotland
Two weeks into his eighteenth birthday Arthur volunteered for the RAF. He was accepted for training as a flight mechanic, engines (FME) or airframe (FMA). On October 1st (1941) he joined a group that went to Cardington, Bedfordshire where they were kitted out. They were then sent to Great Yarmouth to do their square bashing after which Arthur was sent to Halton in Bucks where he underwent sixteen weeks training as a flight mechanics engines, He was then posted to 605 Squadron who were based at Ford, Sussex. 605 Squadron had been wiped out by the Japanese in the Far East and was being reformed with Havoc Is and Boston IIs which had been inherited from 23 Squadron who were leaving Ford re-equipped with night-fighter Mosquitos. At this time 605 Squadron was commanded by Wing Commander Peter Townsend (later to befriend Princess Margaret)
Daily Routine Orders were asking for volunteers from the ranks of FMEs and FMAs to train as flight engineers. Arthur put his name down. In the meantime he was anxious to get airborne and one afternoon got a ride in a Havoc that was driven all over the skies with the consequence that Arthur was sick. Within a few days he was airborne again. This time he flew in the front gunner’s position which was much more to his liking. One morning, whilst servicing a kite, he and a rigger had pulled the port engine through and had just crossed past the nose to do the starboard when the four Browning machine guns were fired accidentally by the armourers testing the electric firing solenoids. There were twenty two lifeless .303 cases lying on the ground. In early September the first serious accident to groundcrew occured when a colleague was hit by a rotating propeller. It was Arthur’s first experience of seeing a lot of blood. The casualty was screaming and crying out, it took six men to pin him down as he was a strong, well built amateur boxer. An officer gave the injured lad a shot of morphine from an aircraft’s first aid kit. The young man survived after having a silver plate inserted in his head.
During October the groundcrew of 605 Squadron were kept very busy, not only tending their own aircraft but also caring for Lancasters and Halifax bombers which landed at Ford after long trips to and from Germany and Italy. On the 22nd January (1943) nine Lancasters, all of whom had been to Dusseldorf, flew into Ford. Shortly after this date Arthur was posted to Cosford to do a Fitter 2 E’s course. At this point in the war flight engineers had to be qualified fitters. After eighteen weeks of training Arthur was posted back to 605 Squadron who were now operating from Castle Camps near Haverhill with night intruder Mosquitos.
In September 1943 Arthur was posted to St Athan in Wales to do a flight engineer’s course. There was usually a delay of a week or so before the course started and newcomers stayed in a ‘pool’. Arthur volunteered to guard a would be escapee in the camp’s IDH (infectious diseases hospital).
St Athans was dedicated to producing flight engineers and during the war years turned out over 20000 of them. Direct enteries from civvy street were trained for twenty six weeks, Fitter 2 E’s or A’s received instruction for seven weeks. At Athan there was only one Liberator. Arthur was impressed with its size, comfortable seats and robust look; ‘so began a love affair with it’. Forty men were required to be trained on the B-24, over 200 of the new trainess volunteered. First direct entries were illiminated as were those who were under six feet tall, this still left too many. All those whose serial number on their 1250 (identity card) ended in zero were picked. Arthur’s serial number ended in zero. There was a lot to learn, Arthur found the going pretty tough, especially the maths relating to fuel consumption. The course included an hour’s dinghy drill and another hour dedicated to ground parachute training. At the end of the seven weeks Arthur failed the course but only on the one subject of the fuel system. He was given a further weeks training after which he passed.
After a leave and a short stay back at St Athens those that had passed went to Blackpool where early one misty and cold February morning they took a train to Greenock from where they sailed on the ‘Queen Mary’ to New York. They went across the Atlantic without an escort at great speed on a constant zig-zag course to New York. The ship was not crowded. After a few hours of sightseeing in New York they took a train journey to Lachine which is located to the south west of Montreal, Canada. In Montreal the food, after four years of English wartime food, was ‘out of this world’. After a week they board a train to Miami, Florida where they took a supply ship to Nassau in the Bahamas. Early in the war Winston Churchill had given Teddy Roosevelt concessions to build two airfields on Nassau. 111 OTU Nassau provided nearly all the trained crews of Coastal Command Liberators which, with their extremely long range, were able to close the vital gap in the Atlantic where U-Boats could roam free. Nassau consisted of two fields: Oakes, a B-25 base and Windsor Field from where the B-24s were flown.
The new recruits began their training on the B-24. Nassau was an ideal place to train for crews could fly around the clock and the weather seldom interfered with the flying programme. Arthur’s captain was P/O Briscoe who at 32 was the maximum age for training pilots. Roxy Hart, the co-pilot, was just twenty which was about average for the rest of the crew. Briscoe was a fine looking, well educated man. Roxy though not in the same class as Briscoe when it came to flying was a very likeable person. Briscoe let Arthur sit in the co-pilot’s seat and encouraged him to take the stick and have a go at flying the Liberator. That gesture made Aerthur feel ‘about eight feet tall’. In no time at all the final ‘Kingsley’ exercise day arrived. This entailed flying with a full petrol load and eight Torpex depth charges to a rendezvous with a British frigate operating out of Bermuda. When the Briscoe crew arrived above the frigate it put out a smoke float which the Briscoe crew ‘attacked’ at zero feet with one of the depth charges. As the B-24 climbed and broke away Arthur was instruction to open fire on the smoke float from the port waist gun. Arthur’s fuel consumption figures were very close to those established when the tanks were dipped after the nine and a half hour flight.
The Briscoe crew had a choice of being posted to the Far East or back to the UK, they decided on the UK. A boat took them back to Miami, where after a one night stay in a hotel on the beach, they caught a train to Moncton, Canada. After a three week wait they went to Halifax and boarded the ‘Empress of Scotland’ which took them to Greenock. A train took them to Harrogate. Out of the blue came a posting, with fifteen other Liberator crews, to 223 Squadron which was based at Oulton, Norfolk. Like most significant airfields, Oulton had a satellite called Great Massingham airfield. 223 Squadron was equipped with black painted B-24s and shared Oulton with 214 Squadron who operated the same coloured B-17s. Both squadrons were in 100 Group Bomber Command. The Briscoe crew learned that they were to be trained to Bomber Command standard and take the role of airborne jammers to counter the new German V2 rocket. After fourteen hours and twenty minutes of flying training the Briscoe crew were ready for their first operational flight which took place on the 3rd October 1944. By now Arthur had been given the name ‘Whizz’ by his crew.
For the flight of the 3rd the Briscoe crew had two Spitfires for escort and were instructed to fly between the Scheldt Estuary and The Hague. There were twelve in the crew (pilot, co-pilot, navigator, flight engineer, WOP, four air gunners and three special operators to actuate the jamming equipment). Much of the flight deck was allocated to the front special operator and all his jamming gear. On the way to the target area the Spitfires overtook them and were not seen again. The Dutch coastline came into view and as they were about to complete the first leg of their patrol they came across a lot of flak some of it bursting very close. Many years later Arthur did some research that revealed that the flak had come from flak ships operating in the area of Nordwal. The mid-upper gunner constantly monitored the sky and every time he did so the rotation of the turret caused the wireless operator to be caught in the back. The constant rotation eventually led to a break in the oxygen bottle feed line and for the rest of the flight Arthur had to constantly supply the gunner with a recharged portable emergency bottle. When fifteen minutes into their four hour ‘stint’ on patrol they saw their first V2 vapour trail, it was going upwards ‘at a hell of a lick’. The wireless operator sent a signal that they had seen a launch. The special operator threw all his jamming gear switches but it made no difference - on and upwards the V2 went.
Three days later the Briscow crew were on their second patrol. When two thirds of the patrol had been completed the intercom went dead and then the radio shut down. Arthur shouted to Briscoe that all three engine generators had cut out and the batteries were flat. The captain gave orders to start the putt-putt (APU) but Arthur knew that this was not feasible. Everyone got cold as there electric suits were out of action and it was decided to abort the patrol. The propeller revolutions were electrically controlled on the B-24, they were set at low cruising revolutions and could not be changed to high for landing. The Liberator made a perfect touchdown. During this patrol they had again seen V2s launched.
On the 19th October they flew their one and only night patrol which lasted six hours five minutes. By this time the backroom boffins had come to the conclusion that airborne jamming of V2s was a waste of time. After the war it was learned that the research had been carried out on the wrong piece of rocket hardware.
The other squadron at Oulton (214) were deeply involved in the role of ‘window dropping’ and ‘target support’. 223 Squadron joined 214 in this role. The rear half of the B-24 bomb bay was boarded up so that it could carry a huge load of ‘window’ (metallic foil strip) which when dropped over enemy skies would mislead the German radar plotters. Also on board was a mass of jamming equipment which was used to interfere with the control of the German searchlights, flak and night fighters. On the 22nd the Briscow crew set of for their first ‘window spoof’ to Essen. As they climbed through cloud the aircraft iced up. The B-24 was put in a steep dive to find warmer air conditions which got rid of the icing problem. Through a gap in the cloud the Liberator resumed its operational height. Soon after the navigator informed his skipper that they would be nineteen minutes late arriving at their allotted point and would thus achieve nothing. The mission was aborted. As they approached the runway, due to a surplus of unburnt fuel and unused window on board, the aircraft did not handle well. The B-24 touched down a bit late on the runway and was fast running out of space. The captain slewed the plane on to the grass by using heavy braking on the starboard wheel. The B-24 came to a safe stop. Arthur ‘began to realise more than ever that he was in the hands of a very able pilot’.
On the 9th November there was a stand down. Late in the afternoon five crews from 223 and some crews from 214 were gathered as a last minute change of plans required a window spoof to Saarbrucken. The weather on route was terrible and the Briscow crew were the only one of the five 223 crews to get through and complete the mission. The station was congratulated on its efforts by a personal message from the AOC. At this point crews were allocated to particular aircraft and the Briscow crew got T Tommy TS526. Six days after the flight to Saarbrucken the Briscoe crew flew a window spoof to Coblenz in TS522. On their return flight, due to extremely bad weather conditions at Oulton, they were diverted to Carnaby near Bridlington, a huge base with wide and long runways that were specifically designed to accomodate ‘kites’ with problems. Next morning the crew could see many smashed aircraft. ‘Lancs and Halibags’ littered the place with the ‘odd Mossie’ here and there. Many men were located all over the airfield busily engaged in repairing and dismantling aircraft. The crew were stranded at Carnaby for four days. On their return to Oulton they learnt about an Eighth Air Force Liberator that had been diverted to their base and during the take-off to return to its own airfield had crashed and burnt out. It appeared that as the B-24 began its departure it left a trail of fuel behind. In the past a badly replaced petrol tank cap had created a vacuum which had caused fuel to be drawn out, the fuel could easily be ignited by the red hot turbo exhaust.
Flying over East Anglia during the war was quite an experience. A sharp look-out had to be kept at all times as there was aircraft everywhere. Looking down there seemed to be an airfield passing by every few minutes.
On the 20th November the Briscoe crew took TS524 on a window spoof to Karlsruhe. On the 23rd they took TS533 on a spoof raid to Cologne. On the 27th they took the same B-24 on another spoof raid to Mannheim. This flight took six hours twenty five minutes and was the crew’s tenth operational flight. On the 4th December they undertook a spoof raid to the Ruhr area and the following day flew on a window spoof to Rheine. On the 9th another spoof was flown to Augsburg. Two types of window was dropped. MM which was used to cover 65 to 200 MHz Freye’ and FUG 200 German radar and N3 which was used against German radar Wurzberg operating in the 350 to 600 MHz range. The flight engineer together with the rear special operator would place the window in the dropping chute. They were given instructiions by the navigator when to start and cease dropping and were also given the rates of bundles per minute, usually about ten, increasing to fifty bundles and then the rate gradually tailed off. The B-24s also carried anti-flak and anti-fighter window on board. Arthur always put generous bundles of the anti-fighter window down the chute in the hope that a lurking fighter would go after it on a wild-goose chase.
On the 17th December it was decided to discontinue using front gunners, the guns were removed and the turrets doped over. This led to better handling of the B-24. On the 21st December there was another window spoof to the Ruhr area, on the way back they received a coded message to land at Milltown and touched down after being airborne for seven hours thirty five minutes.
Christmas arrived and there were masses of window used for decoration, the length of the this window was now useless as the Germans had changed the wavelengths on their radar. There was a strong feeling of goodwill between the flight crews and ground crews. Arthur had got to know a lot of the servicing personnel very well, the fact that he had formerly been ground staff helped. On the 28th December the Briscoe crew flew on a window spoof to Frankfurt. The following night they flew to Munster and the next night to Wesel. Time on an operational flight would go very quickly for Arthur. He had to keep an updated fuel consumption log, together with a record of all engine temperatures and pressures, plus a call-up of each crew member about every twenty minutes for an oxygen supply check. The electric suits were a ‘godsend’. They were not, however, 100% efficient, quite often a slipper or glove would fail. In December Arthur had two pay rises and was automatically promoted to Flight Sergeant. On the night of the 29th/30th December the Briscoe crew flew TT336 on a window spoof to Munster. They took off at 15.55, dropped window from 18.43 to 19.40 and jammed on five frequencies from 18.35 to 19.32. They landed at 21.20 having completed their seventeenth sortie.
On the first day of 1945 the Briscoe crew were assigned to a ‘target’. This involved getting over the target area just as the pathfinders began to mark it and then orbitting above the bombers of the main force jamming the German radar controlling the flak and searchlights. In addition they would also jam the ground to air radio control of the German night fighter. The target that night was Dortmund. They orbited above the pathfinders and main force and saw how well the main force was illuminated by the fires on the ground. They did not see any bombers shot down. After their alloted time over the target the captain opened the throttles and went into a shallow dive and headed for home.
The following night they did a window spoof to Frankfurt. On the 14th January the Briscoe crew carried out a new tactic for 100 Group. This involved flying to Frankfurt on a window spoof and then withdrawing to fly over friendly territory for an hour before carrying out a further window spoof over Munster. Total flying time for this sortie was six hours forty minutes. On this raid the squadron lost its first B-24, TT336, on operational flying when F/Lt Noseworthy’s crew was shot down over Antwerp. At this juncture of the war Antwerp was in Allied hands and was receiving more than their share of V1s. Allied flak gunners at Antwerp were understandably trigger happy. On the 2nd February Sergeant Mellors, one of the crew of TT336, arrived back at Oulton and four days later so to did his captain. The rest of the crew are buried at the British Military cemetery at Hanover. The remains of TT336 is exhibited in a ‘Wings of War’ museum at Merrhout, Belgium.
The flight of the 14th was the last for three of the Briscoe crew all of whom had completed their second operational tour with Bomber Command. From this point on the Briscoe crew had to find ‘spare bods’ to make up a full crew. Both the Gunnery leader and WOP leader flew part of their second tour with the crew, who never had trouble making up a crew, Briscoe having made a name for himself for being reliable. As far as Arthur was concerned his captain was ‘as solid as a rock, I would fly with no other skipper’. The crew’s next operational sortie was on the 16th January when they flew a window spoof to Flensburg.
On the 22nd January TS526, the crew’s allocated B-24, had a No 3 engine change and on the afternoon was flown for just over an hour to allow the engine to run in. As Roxy (Hart) was not around Arthur had been taken up as co-pilot. He felt there was a lot to think about and it got to his nerves because he made a foolish mistake. He had left the mixture control for No 3 in automatic rich as instructed but instead of moving the mixture controls for the other three engines to automatic lean he moved them to automatic cut-off. The nose immediately dipped. Briscoe knew what he had done, knocked his hands away and reset the controls. After a post flight telling off and an apology from Arthur he was still on speaking terms with his skipper. That same night the Briscoe crew flew on a window spoof to Gelsenkirchen in TT526 and after orbitting friendly territory made a second window spoof to Mainz before returning to base.
On the 9th February the crew flew a target support sortie to Hohenbudberg. They took off at 03.27, orbited the target area from 06.10 until 06.20 at 21000 feet. There was accurate flak in the area and a lump passed inches away from the rear gunner’s head. Shortly afterwards he reported that his turret was out of action. Briscoe asked Arthur to get down in the bomb bay and check the hydraulic reservoir. He was down there ‘like a shot’. The reservoiur was at its specific height, there had been no loss of fluid. Arthur flashed his torch all through the fuselage, there was not a leak to be seen. Arthur told his skipper that he thought the engine hydraulic pump was u/s. By now the starboard main wheel, with no pressure to keep it up, had slipped from its housing and hung half-way down. The crew decided to leave things as they were until they were back at base.
Over Oulton Arthur switched on the electric booster hydraulic pump which started with a friendly screech. He opened the emergency cock leading to the main system and they were back in business, their skipper selected wheels down and out they came. The following day a new hydraulic pump was fitted to No 3 engine, the specially waisted drive shaft had sheared off. If the pump malfunctioned the shaft broke rather than allow damage be caused to the drive mechanism operating the pump.
On the 13th February the Briscoe crew flew a window spoof to Bonn, this was their twenty fourth mission. The next day they flew a window spoof to Mainz, they were airborne at 21.55 and touched down at 02.45. Their next operational flight was a target support sortie with the main force, covering the bombers for an attack on Gravenhorst which was close to the Dortmund-Ems canal. Soon after they began to orbit the target the master bomber adandoned the mission as the cloud blaketed the target right down to 500 feet. The following night they flew a window spoof to Dusseldorf. On the 23rd February the Briscow crew were assigned to protect the main force of 374 bombers who were to attack Pforzheim. Flying at 12000 feeet they saw three bombers go down in less than three minutes. This was their longest operational flight to date having lasted eight hours ten minutes.
One evening towards the latter part of their tour the crew had only just got airborne en route for another window spoof when the rear special operator called in sick. When asked if the flight could continue the operator replied no. Arthur suggested that the front operator take the rear operators place and that he operate the front jamming equipment as he had watched the front special operator many times over the last few months and felt he knew what to do. The captain opened up the engines and the B-24 returned to Oulton. They arrived in the gathering dusk, kept radio silence and made a good landing despite the B-24 being heavily ladened with fuel and window. Arthur rushed the sick airmen to the edge of the perimeter track sprinted back to the Liberator which immediately returned to the runway. When they got the ‘green’ they roared back in to the sky. The navigator had worked out a new course that cut a few corners which enabled them to carry out the assigned task on time.
On the 7th March the Briscoe crew flew in their own T Tommy in support of the main force that was attacking Hemmingstedt. The flight took six hours twenty minutes. On the 13th March the crew flew, again in TS526, on a window spoof to Frankfurt. Three days later they took T for Tommy on another window spoof to Hanau. On the 19th the Briscow crew flew TS526 to Kassel. The next day (20th March) another crew, whose captain was F/O Ayres, took T for Tommy again to Kassel. TS526 failed to return. Arthur felt ‘a pang of saddness and annoyance at losing T Tommy’. He was ‘surprised how one becomes attached to an aircraft’. On the 22nd the Briscoe crew carried out a window spoof to Bremen and two days later they flew to Wesel where they saturated the Rhine front line with window.
On the 2nd April the Briscoe crew flew on a window spoof to Hamburg. In the same month they received a letter from W/O Cole a special operator with F/O Ayres crew. TS526 had been attacked and had crashed in a heavily forested area. W/O Cole had not been able to exit the doomed B-24 and his German rescuers had used block and tackle gear to extract him from the wreckage, he was the sole survivor. On the 16th April the Briscoe crew flew as target support to bombers attacking Pilsen in Czechoslovakia. They took off at 23.35 and landed at 07.40. At the time they were unaware that they were flying their thirty sixth and last operational sortie. Arthur was the only one of the crew who had never missed a trip with their skipper. By coincidence Arthur’s first and last operational flights were in TS533. It was agreed that Arthur would do a second tour with F/Lt Briscoe. The squadron was going to convert to B-17’s, Roxy was getting a crew of his own and Arthur was asked to convert to take the co-pilot’s seat. On the 5th May there was a request for three crews for posting to Transport Command, each crew to consist of a pilot, navigator, air bomber and WOP. Flight Lieutenants Allnut, Briscow and Croft were chosen. No flight engineers were asked for. V-E day took place three days later. By the end of May most of the squadron’s Liberators had been flown to a maintenanace unit at Lichfield. On the 4th July the last 223 Squadron B-24 was ferried to Gatwick. On the 29th July the squadron was disbanded.
Liberators of 160 Squadron - Leslie King/Michael Bruce
In late April 1945 the were based at Minneriya located in the jungle some forty miles south west of Trincomalee. The range of the squadron’s B-24s had been increased by adding three fuel tanks inside the fuselage. In May the squadron was converted from a minelaying role to a supply dropping role which involved parachuting SOE (Special Operation Executive) teams, weapons and supplies into Japanese occupied south-east Asia.
The squadron’s main customer was Force 136 (a British organisation which was part of SOE and responsible for the training and arming of guerrilla and sabotage teams and for providing tactical intelligence) whose men were dropped into Malaya and Sumatra. At Minneriya there were only five hard standings and six taxy tracks giving access to the runway, by disregarding safety regulations it was possible to get the squadron’s sixteen aircraft parked. In addition to the 160 Liberators a detachment of B-24s from 357 and 8 Squadrons were located at Sigiriya and flown to Minneriya when required for operational flying. In July the Liberators from 357 were moved to Toto Bay near Trincomalee.
The major problem related to any operational flight was how to get to the drop zone (DZ) and back without running out of fuel. The distance covered was often equivalent to a return crossing of the Atlantic with the B-24s remaining airborne for between 22 and 24 hours.
The ability to get the best out of an aircraft varied between pilots even when the same machine was used. The Liberator would be flown at pre-determined speeds, heights and engine settings. The automatic pilot was used much of the time since it increased the performance by 5%, particularly in rough weather.
The auto-pilot applied instant correction to any deviation of the B-24 thus keeping movement of the control surfaces to a minimum. Pilots were given detailed instructions on how the various stages of the operation were to be flown. On the outward trip, when the Liberator carried a lot of fuel, a relatively high speed was maintained to prevent a nose-up attitude that would consume more fuel. There was insufficient fuel to cater for a lengthy search for the DZ which during the day would be marked by white panels forming a ‘T’ and at night would be lit. On the return a slow speed gave the lowest consumption. Nothing could be done to improve oil capacity (at 27 gallons designed for half the distance being flown) and some Liberators were not flown operationally because of their oil consumption. American technicians from Consolidated visited Minneriya because they believed it was impossible for their four engine bomber to stay in the air for as long as they were doing so.
A mission would commence with a daylight take-off with the enemy coast being approached soon after dark at a low height. Approaches to southern Malaya were made down the Malaccan Strait. Once the coast was crossed height was gained.
At the DZ, if parachutists (known as ‘Joes’) were to be dropped, a pre-arranged recognition letter was flashed from the ground. After a check on wind speed and direction at the DZ vicinity the approach was made into wind at a few hundred feet. Maintaining the correct speed and height as the drop was crucial. Often the B-24 would have to fly over the shoulder of a hill, glide down into a valley for the drop and then climb up over the hills on the other side of the valley. The Liberator could not be flown like a dive bomber. After the drop was made the worst part of the trip began. The return journey, at a relatively slow speed, with a constant concern over the amount of fuel left, seemed endless. On the very first day of operations one of the six Liberators that left Minneriya was lost. No definite information was ever received about the fate of this B-24 or its crew.
A success rate of more than 70% was achieved with bad weather over the DZ and tropical storms over the Malaccan Straits being the main reason for failure. On the 31th July a Canadian crew were airborne for 24 hours 10 minutes. Often a crew would only have a two day rest between operational flights. The B-24’s would take-off with AUW of 66000 pounds.
After VJ day the flights continued but the supplies dropped were medicine and food for POWs. At the end of August the Canadians crews were repatriated increasing the work load on the remaining crews.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.