RAF 159 SQUADRON
& DAD'S WAR
My father, Thomas Fraser, LAC 1076099, born Inverness 25 January 1906, died Aberdeen 27 July 1980, served in many places in WWII but it seems the most important was in RAF 159 Squadron, in the Far East. I have his diaries for the period but as he's written all his Far East service, from embarkation to disembarkation, they can be almost impossible to follow, in places. It's been difficult getting information on this period but I had some help from Robert Quirk, who has researched the Squadron and he also put me in touch with Jimmy (Bernard) Greenstein, who worked as an electrician on the same Liberator, Xtasy, as my father, who was an airframe mechanic. Jimmy supplied me with first hand knowledge. With my own research and details from Robert and Jimmy, I now have enough information to put up this page to show, in a limited way, 159 Squadron and my father's war. This page is dedicated to 159 Squadron. The picture top right is of my father, left, a friend and the Liberator Mark VI, KH 170, christened Xtasy, with the nose modified and its front gun turret removed.
History of 159
The Squadron briefly came into life for a month in the early summer of 1918 and was reformed at Molesworth in England on Jan. 2, 1942. It's ground crew left for the Middle East on 12 February 1942 and then moved onto India on the 10 May 1942. At the start of the war there was little RAF presence in Ceylon, where 159's sister Squadron 160 became based, a fellow Fraser's family had tea plantations for many years there and a relation told her "the RAF had a very small detachment called The China Bay Station, at Trincomalee and the Wing Commander was W/C Crow. It was a reconnaissance squadron she remembered. She said that 'people' came from Sumatra in March 1942 to Ceylon and told the RAF Trincomalee that they must get all their civvies out of Ceylon within 3 days because they would fight better without worrying about their families there, then the Japanese started flying their reconnaissance planes over Ceylon."
The aircraft, all Liberators, arrived in Palestine in July 1942 and undertook raids on North Africa, Italy and Greece, before flying on to India late September 1942 and began operations against the Japanese on 17 November. It was the first heavy bomber unit in India, flying Liberators II, III, V, VI & VII and the rest of the war was spent on bombing, mining, and reconnaissance operations over Burma, Siam, Malaya, Indo-China and the Dutch East Indies, operating in SEAC, South East Asia Command, for most of the war.. (I've chosen to use the names of the countries in use then, as these are how the men of 159 knew them). After the war ended they transferred to transport and survey duties and Squadron 159 was disbanded on 1 June 1946.
Squadron's Motto: Quo non, quando non (Whether not, when not).
Squadron's Badge: In front of logs enflamed a peacock's head holds a woodman's axe. The peacock's head commemorates its association with Burma, the axe its pathfinder activities in blazing the trail.
Special Flight C
According to my father's diaries, he sailed from Liverpool on Wednesday 15 November 1943 and got received his first supply of cigarettes, from my mother Ruth, on 14 December 1943, 200 Players. However, his diaries don't have him disembarking till 9 am Monday 20 December, where he mentions "Gharries to Worli" and "Religious Cow in cart", a Gharry is an Indian horse-drawn carriage or a truck and Worli was the RAF transit camp at Bombay but whether dad's referring to the cow only or also, to the troops being moved by cart, we'll never know. His personnel records bear out his arrival, having him "Disemb Bombay 20/12/43." However, what does amaze me, in these present days of anti-smoking and bans, is just how much of the war effort was spent moving fags around, dad alone recorded receiving twenty deliveries and sent thirteen back to the UK and these don't include the numerous food parcels he sent home.
His RAF records show he was at BRD Worli A, which favours the
transportation there in a Gharry theory, H9 Unit 4/1/44 and his diary shows
him leaving Bombay on 6/1/44. He arrives at 160 Squadron
9 January 1944, in his records but arrives at the transit camp in Colombo
on the 10th, according to the diary, after travelling for five days, including
a two hour ferry trip. He didn't leave for the 160 base at Sigiriya till the
24th January, reached Kekirawa, in central Ceylon, the next day, his diaries
state "Kekirawa 5 am Cold, Gharry", he started on "Flight" on the 27th January.
I know from a friend who was in 160, a Leslie Wallis, that 159 and 160 were
sister Squadrons and early in the war were absorbed into 159 before being
reformed but this is where Robert Quirk's research comes in, dad was part
of a secret operation, a Special Flight known as "C" Flight and according to his diary he joined it on 6th February 1944at 160 Squadron in Sigiriya. Sigiriya
google map Flight and my father was later transferred to 159 Squadron. Also, Les Crawley editor of the 160 Squadron Association, contacted me, agreeing with my dates, “from what you have told me and from the records I reckon the sequence for your father was that:
He was posted to 160 Squadron w e f January 1944 i.e. straight from the transit camp at Worli - at that time 160 was based at Sigiriya.
On 1.5.44 along with the other ground crew for the two "C" Flight Liberators he entrained for Digri.
On 8.5.44 the 25 ground crew arrived at Digri - still part of 160 Sqdn.
On 9.8.44 the detachment from 160 became a permanent posting to 159 Sqdn.
My understanding is that none of the ground crew were ever posted back to 160, though "C" flight was detached back to Ceylon in April 1945 later becoming part of 1341 Flight. My recollection of the 2 "C" Flight aircraft at Sigiriya was that NO ONE was allowed to look closely at them and they were permanently guarded.”
He also told me, “I travelled out on the same troopship as your father - the "Reina del Pacifico" (read Mediterranean Cruise) and what is more also followed him to Sigiriya though somewhat later as my first posting was to 176 squadron - nearer the Burma action. My journey from the north of India to Sigiriya actually took me 3 weeks! I recall very clearly our arrival at Bombay from where we were taken by transport to Worli transit camp and our first 'welcome' lecture which started with "forget about any idea of an early return home - you are here for the full 4 year tour of duty no matter when the war ends".
Your father, like all of us I guess, would that same day take the horse drawn gharry into Bombay to see the sights - and it was a real eye opener. It was night time with what seemed brilliant lights everywhere and the smells and the feel of India really hit us - including an Indian funeral procession then a wedding party. The real lasting memory was of banana fritters!! I remember one fellow buying a pet parrot and perch - next morning all that was left was the chain and a few feathers under the perch.”
In a link to the "Special Flight" from his 159 Squadron page, Robert tells us that, ground crew may not even have been told of their transfer from 160 to 159 but in my father's case, his cigarette deliveries show at least he did. Robert has done a lot of research on 159 and "C" Flight and it would be an injustice for me to try and copy the overview he's created of what happened, he has many links and stories from individuals concerned and I recommend you look through the site. Basically, "C" Flight, undertook the role of detecting the Japanese Radar and Radio signals, a dangerous job for the aircrew but conditions on the ground were far from perfect either. However, what he's most worthy of congratulation for, is his tenacity in spending four days, at the National Archives in Kew, extracting and putting together the record of the "Special Flight", it's a 93 page document in PDF format, again fascinating reading but if you're not on Broadband, it's a long download. In fact, one of the co-pilots of 159, Eric Cocks, went to Kew in the 1970s and was told these records didn't exist.
Although not on record, my father left for Kandy on the 8th April 1944, his diary mentions seeing a procession and twice mentions GEMS, I can only assume he was after some. He has some photos taken, with a Pineapple and with friends and on the 11th he moved to the Uva Club, for a few days, where he visited the 159 billets and played billiards and tennis. Jimmy Bernstein, from Flight C told me, "I spent my 21st birthday at the Uva club in Oct. 43 and remember it well. The Uva valley is situated in a most beautiful part of Ceylon, high in the hills and is the tea plantations area. The Uva club was very much like a select hotel and used exclusively by the plantation owners who during the war opened its doors to servicemen as a place to go on leave and they made us very welcome." Back to the Ceylon Fraser's relation, "She said it was a big Tea Estate in the Highlands and that most of the Tea Estate areas had their Planters' clubs and that she had been part of an amateur theatrical group and they travelled round the clubs providing entertainment for the members. She does not remember the Uva being particularly different than the other clubs though but she remembered going there," they were indeed obviously very luxurious 'outposts' in their day and had amazing cricket pitches, lounges, bars etc. etc. Just like old Country Clubs of 'yesteryear'. Dad's diaries are vague but he seems to be recalled on the 21 April 1944 but he had managed to acquire a ruby. He returned to the ancient city of Kandy, high in the mountains 72 miles from Colombo, on 28th April. There's an entry on the 1 May, that seems to say, left Sigiriya 8 hours road to Colombo, midday T. C. train, 2nd May Danuskidi: tea etc, Talimannar, Ceylon, then on the 4th May just a simple "Left". In Robert Quirk's history, the 1st May is the day Special Flight C moved to Salbani, in North Eastern India which was too small and 4th May 1944, when they arrived, a little further North, at Digri in Bengal, their base for the next year, so this does seem to tie in.
The diaries are then silent and only mention the possibility of "A Hill Party" and the fall of Rome and D Day, with the hope it'll be over by September. Dad's official records show him between 160 and 159 Squadrons at Admin BMH, Chakrata, in Northern India, 24 June 1944 and Disci BMH, Chakrata 12-17 July 1944, then an undated spell with 353 Squadron, which used Hudsons and Dakotas on mail runs (maybe he was checking his cigarettes were safe) and arriving 159, 9 August 1944. However, it looks like he could have been in Digri since May, although his records show a formal transfer to 159 much later on 9/8/44, as he eventually joined "Wing Hill Party" on 16th June, after much preparation and left the Chandrakona Road, with mention of engine tea and showers, it looks like he was on a 5 day long train Journey. Chandrakona Road was the rail junction for the base. He mentions Vishnapur, Dehri-on-Sone, Lucknow, Moradabad and arrives at Dehradun, in the foothills of the Himalayas on the 20 June, so he'd made a momentous journey from East to West in North East India. He then climbed 60 miles and ascended from 2,000 to 8,000 feet, arriving in Chakrata, which ties in with his official records. However, this incredible journey was too much for him and his diaries show him on the 24 June, "Sick Quarters. 9 am. Fixed Kit. Gharry 2 pm for Hospital. Dysentery Ward.", they then go on to show him recuperating and on the 12 July "Clearance from Hospital. Recommended 10 days at Con.", this I assume to be convalescence, as he describes, in depth, for a change, what he was up to and there was a lot of shopping, Tiffin, meeting friends, check ups, bacon and eggs and football. On the 22 July he "Finished clearance chit". He also mentions visiting Sandes, where he'd friends Bremner and Kincaple, I can only assume this is the soldiers' Christian Mission, it's interesting he'd visit such a place and shows how war changes perspectives and needs, as dad was an atheist and a communist. Then on the 23rd of July he's off again.
I can only assume he flew the first leg, as he mentions the heights of a couple of mountains, then being on the train at Hardwar, one of the seven holy Hindu places, then the next day it's Moghalsarai and Benares, he was heading back East and as on the trip out, the WVS seem active in supplying the troops with Tiffin. He seemed to have taken a different route back, although still on the train and went through Asonsol, Bandel and Howrah, for in five days, on the 27th July, after another incredible journey, he was back at the Chandrakona Road and in his old billet but again, the journey seemed to have taken a lot out of him. For the next while, as all the excitement had settled down, he is in the "usual routine" of working, letter writing, canteen, collecting dhobi, sending and receiving parcels, as he makes the best of Digri.
RAF Digri: although my father says little about the conditions
at the camp, it doesn't seem a very welcoming place, his colleague from Special
Flight C, Jimmy (Bernard) Greenstein told me "Digri is situated in Bengal,
about ninety miles N.W of Calcutta. It was a very small village and would
not be on any map but the area being very flat was ideal for an airfield,
we had the barest of amenities and lived in huts as primitive as is possible
to imagine. The nearest township that you could call worth visiting to take
a break was Kharagpur a railway township about 20/30 miles away. As transport,
such as buses didn't exist it was not easy to get there BUT running on the
edge of the airfield was the railway which went to Kharagpur, so we simply
waved the train to stop which it always did and the driver would stop the
train for us on the way back. I might also mention that the climate in Bengal
was horrendous, terribly hot and humid." Sadly Jimmy passed on in 2008. Warrant Officer (Navigator) Len
Upjohn (see bottom of linked page) has also told me about the airbase,
"I arrived at Worli, which was the RAF transit camp at Bombay, July 1944
a Sgt Navigator in a New Zealand crew fresh out of OTU in the UK. A few weeks
later we were posted to Kolar Gold Fields HCU to fly Liberators. I joined
a UK crew there, all NCO's, after converting from Wellingtons to Libs we were
posted to 159 Squadron Digri in the middle of October and almost immediately
started on 'ops'. Digri, I remember well, it was work, work, work, for everybody,
not a day off from start to finish. The enduring memory is the toilet facilities,
a bush 30 or 40 yards away for a leak, the daily one was a Basha, with a 12
or 15 foot diameter circle of concrete, 15 inches high with 10 inch diameter
holes each 2 feet apart around the circumference. Not a place to loiter in.
Each Basha had a bearer who swept it out tidied the bed clothes and Mosquito
nets and stayed to look after the place and keep the oil drum 'shower' filled
with water as required. This cost each Basha occupant about one or two Rupees
a week and you could also pay for a dhobi wallah to do the washing, or 'dhobi'.
I was in 'B' Flight, bombing and mine laying, 'C' Flight spent their time
locating Japanese radar sites all over Burma, Siam and Malaya so that we could
avoid them on our raids. Ground crews had a terrible time, my average 'op'
time was 14 hours and I would say the only relaxed time they had, was when
we were away on an 'op'. It is difficult to understand the living conditions,
for both civilians and service personnel are almost beyond present day comprehension,
the women were building the aerodrome, carrying baskets of stones on their
heads, stopping to have their babies and half an hour later with the baby
on their breast, carrying another basket of stones. We would drive past on
the back of a gharry (truck) to our planes going to bomb Japanese troops or
trains in Burma." Dad was offered a bearer, on the 10th June there's a diary
entry "Day off Sunbathed. Do you want a bearer?!!!" Les Wallis,
from 160 Squadron, told me "mainly the Basha was made of cut reeds and importantly,
didn't let the rain in but there was no windows and only a door." Also read
the fascinating interview by Matt
Poole with Flight Lieutenant Robert W Ustick, who talks about the conditions,
the class system and the great beer heist at Digri.
Link to RAF Digri thanks to Wikimapia.
Because of his political convictions, dad always said he was offered promotion but refused it, to stay with the lads and from the end of July through to mid November, he was just getting on with life, no mention of what he did, apart from ALC, which I take to mean a minor promotion and moves to new billets. He spent his non working time writing and receiving letters from home and his previous RAF mates, picking up the latest war news in the canteen, sorting his laundry, reading, watching the odd film, getting his cigarettes, starting a correspondence course and contemplating his shaving kit. On 22 September his highlight was getting an electric light in his billet and a half-day off, then he moved again and despite the heat, the billets had no fans but they did have leaky roofs, he was forever getting minor ailments, probably due to the heat and conditions
It's now over a year since he disembarked, he's had two Christmases in the Far East, written innumerable letters to his wife, my brother, his friends and family, received his fags, drunk the odd beer, whisky and gin, got a new job, doesn't say what, won front row tickets in a lottery for "The Gang Show" and received his first letter from his growing son Colin. It's Hogmanay 1944, soon to be a new year, one with hope and he's off to the Sergeant's Mess with Sergeant Morrison, obviously another Scot.
It’s 1945 and after some first footing, it’s back to the mundane life of writing letters, receiving cigarettes and he’s on a cream for skin sores for seven days, the heat must be getting to him but the main news is, it’s raining for the first time in months. He’s also started a course, the diary doesn’t say what but the dates coincide with a letter from the British Institute of Engineering Technology, Bombay, who has accepted him on a “General English” course under the Services Education Scheme, although it could also be some work training. On the 9th January he had photo taken with “J. T.”, which may well be the one with Jim Taylor further up the page, which I thought was taken in Kandy, he also had individual ones taken, which he posted home and on the next day he “censored and sewed up a parcel and wrote his wife and continued his course. He carried on like this for weeks, with small changes to his routine, like the weeks old Bon Accord (an Aberdeen newspaper) arriving from home, buying sandals for his son Colin, a football match with Salbani (I assume the RAF base) on 28th January, photos with Xtasy their Liberator on 5th February, his skin condition worsens and he notes the allies are 25 miles from Frankfurt on the 31 January. He seems to get paid 60 Rupees a fortnight but considering he paid 200 Rupees for his course certificates, that can’t go far. There is one inexplicable diary entry on the 1st February “what a witch, leave meeting”, he’s also receiving mail from old RAF colleagues such as a Jack Noble and Mick Ryan. There’s an “important announcement in the canteen2 on February the 13th, doesn’t say what but he mentions a “task force raid on Tokyo” on 16th February, the war seems to be moving forward.
click to enlarge
Dad & Colin
The on the 27th February there’s excitement, he’s packing for Kinming, China and he was off flying over the Burma Road, the full story of that trip is below in the story Over The Mountains he does make special mention of the food in his diary and that’s one of my childhood memories, with him telling me the yanks fed them, as well as the RAF and it was the best food of his war. He returned on the 6th March to Alipore, Calcutta, and dad was delighted to hear a Ghurkha pipe band. He may have gone to Chitagong on the 11 March but most of the time he was shopping, having Tiffin and meeting friends at the Nip Inn, at the famous Grand Hotel in Calcutta, before taking the train to Jessore on the 13 March, where the odd long lie, reading letter writing, more Tiffin and even work, was the routine. He was there till the 31st March, when his trip was cancelled (I assume the trip was back to China), possibly due to pilot illness and he went first to Howrah near Calcutta, for a few days, where he saw the Western Approaches on his way, then back to his unit and old billet on the 4th April, he was back at Digri, in the old routine but he was trying to get home leave.
For weeks it was the usual writing, sending gifts, receiving fags, he’s on another course with the odd diversion, such as listening to an international in 159 canteen, on April 14th, records show Scotland got hammered 6-1 by England at Hampden or making a hat stretcher, he also got flooded by rain, in his billet. Then on May 1st Hitler’s death is announced, on 3 May he hears Rangoon has been entered and on May 8th it’s Victory in Europe, with a Victory Parade on the 14th, followed by tennis, barbecue, rum, beer and ice cream and dad’s finding more time for golf but the Japanese are still fighting. Yet despite the war still going on in the Far East, on the 26 May he was off on a late night train and had a Demob Medical on the 25th, heart and hernia, with a follow up on the 28th, eyes, urine, acid, the 25th he also received voting forms, I assume for the July General Election, as he voted on the 3rd July, his world was beginning to change.
Home: He carries on working, and writing his letters, there’s a Gala Day, humidity is over 80° but he knows news could be coming, he makes up more parcels to send, including ordering a football for his son’s birthday, sorts his savings out, clears out tickets and burns his letters, which is why there’s no record of most of the host of incoming mail, then, on the 19 June, he’s in a meeting in the Orderly Room with a Sgt Clarke over his demob but he doesn’t say what was said. On the 10th July he’s getting ready for a trip but it’s postponed the next day, another lost chance to revisit China, he’s also paying some visits to the hospital? There’s a cryptic entry on the 29th June “Xback 20+20”, now this had me check if this was Xtasy back from a mission, (there was a mission that lasted 20 hours out of Digri but I can’t prove it was Xtasy) but it turns out that in May 1945 159 Special Flight C, made it’s last operational mission before coming under 1341 Flight and dad doesn’t mention this in his diaries and there’s nothing on his official records, except, in his address pages he has the serial numbers, under Flight 1341 of LAC L Morris, ACI C Stephen, LAC R Brown and Cpl J Taylor but no explanation. Interestingly, a Jim Taylor features in two of his photos above. He’s still working and seems to be with 159, when Russia declares war on Japan on 9th August but he is doing a lot of shopping and going out, then news of peace terms are announced on the next day. On the 14th & 15th August his clearance chit is nearly sorted out, he’s nearly going home and the war ends, with their V J Day celebrations on the 17th August, a couple of days after the war really ends, was he to busy filling in his chit to notice? However, at 11.30 on Wednesday the 22 August 1945 he was off to Howrah near Calcutta, Nagpur in Maharashtra in central India the next day and the day after he was at his destination of Deolali at noon, the 24th, where a horse drawn cab, was the order of the day, to take him to report in, he’d started his long journey home?
Deolali is in Western India, 100 miles North East of Bombay, it was a main transit camp for British troops heading home, the name entered the English language as “going doolally”, due to troops going mad with frustration waiting there and there was a sanatorium as well, also, the first four series of the famous1970s comedy “It Ain’t Half Hot Mum” based in 1945, was set in Deolali and it was there that dad was left to wait. There was news of a delay on the 29th but he seemed to cope with this with retail therapy and the next day he was moved to Bombay, with his name going on the “boat list” on the 2nd September. His shopping included a snake skin handbag and the films he went to see, such as Arsenic and Old Lace, are still shown on TV to this day.
Then, at long last, on Saturday the eighth of September, at 10.50 am, he sailed and was sunbathing but he doesn’t mention which ship he was on, although he knew he wouldn’t be facing the dangers he had going out to India. His ink has run out and he’s now writing in pencil, not a lot is said but he forecasts arrival in Liverpool on the 24th or 25th September and his diary reads like a cruise ship itinerary. Passed Aden at noon, Wednesday 12th September, 1945, Suez Canal 5 pm, Saturday 15th, Port Said noon, Sunday 16th, he could have stopped there, as it says on the 17th, left 7 am. Then it’s Sicily and Malta at noon, Wednesday 19th September, Algiers 9 pm, Tuesday 19th, Gibraltar 8 pm, Friday 21st, Mouth of Tagus, Saturday 22nd and his last entry Bay of Biscay, Sunday 23rd of September, 1945, he was almost home. The days must have dragged but almost two years since he sailed for the Far East, he was back in Britain and his diary was over. His Personnel Record shows he went straight to RAF Hednesford 104 P.D.C. near Cannock, for release on the 26th September but he had another three months wait before being released as a reservist for 78 days leave, on 22nd December and his effective date of leaving the RAF was 10th March 1946, he was 40 years old. Mum’s had a brother, William Barron, living nearby at Sutton Coldfield and my older brother Colin has vague memories of seeing dad there, so whether he got some leave or went straight to Bill’s we don’t know but it took a long time to get out.
So, Leading Aircarftsman Thomas Fraser was back in civilian life after five and a half years under military orders, he was called up on 19th October 1940, his medical in Aberdeen was 5th September 1940, so he must have been getting used to the idea even then but he wasn’t a naive teenager, he was in his mid 30s and had been in the General Strike. It’s hard, if not impossible for someone of my generation and younger to understand the effects of the war, it was total war, my dad was in a strict military environment for all that time and shipped abroad with no appeal. My mum was ill and later moved to Edinburgh to work in a Fleet Air Arm works, my brother hardly saw our father for 6 years, they survived food rationing but my family was lucky, we weren’t bombed out of our home, no one close to us was killed, no one wounded and dad came home, unlike many others. I hope this diary wasn’t too boring and helps who reads it, understand more about life in the war, I certainly found it an experience writing it.
A MEDITERRANEAN CRUISE
On a damp dreary day in November 1943, a troopship left the dockside at Liverpool, bound for an unknown destination. The 'Ocean of the Pacific' had aboard sailors, soldiers, airmen, wrens, nurses and a few civilians. All the theatre of war had been mentioned as probable destinations during the two days we lay at the dockside. Some of the boys suggested Canada, even though we had tropical kit and pith helmets. As the troopship steamed into the Irish Sea, she was joined by other ships and they proceeded northwards to the Clyde, where all other ships met them to form a convoy. Then they continued in a northerly direction until they passed Ireland, when they headed west into the Atlantic.
For nine days the convoy ploughed the Atlantic, guarded by a cruiser and several destroyers. Then on the tenth day, just off the Straits of Gibraltar, a submarine surfaced, drew nearer to the convoy and then sailed along with it. When dusk was falling bright lights from Spanish Morocco were sighed. The Spanish were neutral, so hadn't a black-out. About ten o'clock that night we passed the Rock of Gibraltar, where dozens of Spanish fishing vessels and small boats sailed in and out through the convoy, and had every opportunity of finding out useful information for the enemy. The next morning four coal-burning ships joined the convoy from Oran, and about 5 pm the first land was sighted since passing Northern Ireland.
About 4 pm the following day, everything was just as usual on board the 'Ocean of the Pacific', with troops walking the decks, others sitting reading, while others just leaned over the ship's rails watching the other ships in the convoy. At the stern, near the six inch gun, one the ship's crew was acting as barber, and, at sixpence a time, he was doing a brisk trade. On an upturned box which was the barber's chair, an RAF corporal was sitting, the barber had just started cutting his hair. Then suddenly the barber dashed towards the number six gun, the corporal speedily vacated the chair, and everyone was rushing to the starboard side and looking up to the sky. Several thousand feet above were planes flying in formation, while higher still were the vapour trails of other planes and they were all heading towards the convoy. Immediately, it seemed all the gun crews were at their posts, the barber included, and the guns were pointing skywards. Then as if by pre-arranged signal the convoy's anti-aircraft guns opened fire. The cruiser which had been at the front of the convoy, turned and raced to the rear, her guns blazing as she ploughed through the water with the spray rising in front of her bow. Just as she was passed the 'Queen of the Pacific' a large object seemed to graze her port side, then a huge spout of water rose into the air. The cruiser shuddered, then seemed to rise out of the water, but she kept racing to the rear of the convoy, with her guns still firing. There was so much to see, we didn't know where to look first. The planes which had been making the vapour trails above the Luftwaffe were RAF and USAF fighters.
They were now in combat with the German bombers and their escort of fighters. A bomber fell in flames at the rear of the convoy, while another one was coming down with smoke pouring from its tail. An RAF fighter tore through the air, nose downwards, struck the water and disappeared completely. It was soon followed by another fighter whose markings we couldn't distinguish. Other fighters were climbing steeply, then diving upon the Luftwaffe, machine guns firing as they came within range. Waterspouts appear all around the convoy as bombers struck the water and exploded. Some were too near to be comfortable, but all the ships seemed to have escaped, as they kept changing their course. The fight was raging fast and furious, with more bombers showing signs of distress, and the anti-aircraft guns putting up a heavy barrage. The submarine was still on the surface adding her quota of fire. A lone bomber was making for the coast with a fighter hot on its trail. One of the ships had joined us from Oran, and was carrying American troops, was having a rough time with bombers falling around it. Then what seemed like a fighter was diving towards it and, altering its course slightly, it proceeded downwards. It crashed on the deck causing a terrific explosion, with flames shooting skywards. It was one of Germany's radio controlled bombs.
The Luftwaffe were eventually dispersed and we proceeded on our way as dusk was falling. Astern was the troopship which had received a direct hit and it was blazing furiously, with the cruiser standing by. Then the guns went into action again. A lone reconnaissance plane was over, counting the damage. A few hours later we heard the BBC news announcer say, 'A British convoy was attacked in the Mediterranean by thirty two German bombers; 9 were shot down.' For the next two days the convoy continued on its way unmolested, apart from the dropping of depth charges at a supposed submarines. At teatime, we were nearing Crete, the Luftwaffe attacked again. We were not allowed on deck, but the Captain gave us a running commentary from the ship's bridge over the l loudspeakers, as we sat at our mess tables. He said, "We are being attacked by fifteen bombers who are approaching the leading ships in the convoy. They are now diving towards us! The anti-aircraft guns are now firing. They have broken up the formation, but two or three have got through and are now reloading their bombs." Crash! Bang! It appeared to be direct hits, but it was only the number six gun which was immediately above us, firing shells at the Luftwaffe. They were eventually driven off, and we proceeded towards the Suez Canal. When we reached Port Said, at least one ship had to leave the convoy for repairs, a bomb had pierced the deck, failed to explode, then its nose went out through a port hole, bursting the ship's plating on its way out. End
Reina del Pacifico, thanks for use of
It now seems, possibly because of the Secrets Act, dad gave the impression he was on the fictitious “Ocean of the Pacific, in his story, in fact he was on the Reina del Pacifico, (Queen of the Pacific) mentioned in the article. The events he witnessed were true, he saw one of the first guided missiles and the sinking of the Rohna, a naval tragedy so major that it was kept quiet till very recently, see The Rohna Survivors Memorial Association for details of this horrific story. Les Crawley of the 160 Squadron Association was also on the Reina del Pacifico and now tells his very personal tale.
“In the attack on the convoy KMF 26 in the Med (at that time known as 'Suicide Alley'), the British India troopship which was fatally hit was called "ROHNA" and it was kept a secret, and to some extent might have remained so, had not the families of the American soldiers who were lost, not taken up research into the losses.
It transpired that the incident had been kept secret because of the size of the loss and the fact that it was not thought prudent to let it be known that Germany had invented a guided missile - pre runner of the "V" rockets. Plus there was a high degree of poor training and equipment and procedure failure.
The losses were 1015 US troops (out of 2193 on board) plus 134 British, Australian and Indian crew (out of 195). The captain was rescued. It was one of the worst disasters in maritime history ranking along with the "Arizona" at Pearl Harbour when 1103 were lost. The Rohna Survivors Memorial website gives a vast amount of information plus personal recollections and photos at - it is worth looking at and there is a book telling the full story "Allied Secret" by Carlton Jackson - available from Abebooks. It is not a pleasant read.
My last recollection of the Rohna was, after the raid, looking back at the burning ship for a long time before it was out of sight and thinking as it was still afloat they should all get off. To a large degree they did but sadly the life saving equipment was inadequate and in the middle of all the action, plus the submarine threat, the potential rescue vessels could not risk picking them up except to a limited extent so along with the other shortcomings it developed into a major tragedy. Those left in the water were even strafed by a low level follow up German attack.”
OVER THE MOUNTAINS TO CHINA
When the Japanese overran Burma and the famous Burma road was cut off as a means of supplying China it was necessary to find some other way of assisting our Ally. With all land routes closed and the sea lanes dominated by Japanese war ships, supplies had to be flown in by air. The U.S.A.A.F. who had more resources available than the R.A.F, began a high priority air service from Johat in the Assam valley to run Kunming in China. This service was later augmented by transport planes flying directly from the Calcutta area.
Whichever route the planes took they had to cross the mountains between Assam or Burma and China. They vary in height from 10,000 feet to over 20,000 feet and are usually referred to as "The Hump". The uncertainty of the weather over these mountains was the chief danger to successful flying. A clear blue sky changed into a mass of clouds in a very short time. Planes were forced to fly at high altitudes to avoid bad weather and the danger of ice forming which caused them to lose height and possible crash on the mountains. It was on the 27th February 1945 that I got the chance to fly across "The Hump' to China.
It was "C" Flights term of duty crew at Digri in Bengal when a visiting Liberator landed. The outside of the plane was covered with dust, not the red powdery dust of Bengal but light coloured dust, such as we hadn't seen in our travels from the jungle of Ceylon to the dreary sunbaked plains of North East India. The air crew were members of our Squadron, this made us wonder where they had come from. We were told to get the aircraft read by flying the following day and fill all fuel tanks to capacity. In the bomb-bay of the aircraft there were four fuel tanks, which was unusual. Two were quite common as these aircraft had often to fly for fully 20 hours when on bombing operations. All the guns and gun mountings, also anything unnecessary for flying had been removed.
In the evening our flight sergeant entered the billet where I was sitting writing, he asked me if I would like to fly to China with the Liberator that had arrived that day. Two engine mechanics L.A.Cs Fairley and Mitchell were going but they needed an airframe mechanic too. We were required to service the aircraft at Kunming as they were flying petrol over the Hump for R.A.F planes operating over the Jap held territory. It was a chance to see China so I agreed to go.
The three of us were ready before daybreak, dressed in our Air Force blue in place or our usual khaki drill. We packed our kits and blankets in the plane, then got it ready for the arrival of the aircrew. When we were already, we took our places on the flight deck. Soon we were taxiing towards the runway. With the nose of the aircraft heading into the wind, the Pilot gave the engines the final run up. Then the control tower gave the signal to take off.
The pilot opened up the throttles and the four powerful engines roared, the plane seemed slow in gathering speed. Halfway along the runway it seemed as if she was too slow to rise off the ground, but the engines kept roaring as the propellers threshed the air. We would soon know if she would rise, a few hundred yards from the end of the tar-macadam strip, we felt her lifting slightly. We knew that it was now or never. The control column was pulled back slightly by the Pilot to place the elevators a few degrees above the tail plane. This was cause the air stream to force down the rear of the aircraft. The pull of the engines lifted up the nose, she wavered then began to rise. The wheels were clear of the ground and we were airborne.
We had to take a route that would not require flying more than about 14,000 thousand feet above sea level, as the three of us had been unable to get oxygen masks or parachutes at such short notice. We flew south of Imphal where the Japs had hemmed in the 14th army. The famous 14th were now on the road to Mandalay, which Rudyard Kipling had written about many years before. We were within range of Jap fighters but the only means of defence we had were the aircrew's revolvers and jungle knives.
As we flew on we saw many scattered villages surrounded by paddy fields. We flew over the Brahmaputra, Chindwin and Irrawady rivers, winding their various ways through the jungles and mountains of Burma to the sea. Through the breaks in the clouds we saw the towns of Katha and Bhamo and the Burma Road, twisting and turning its way over the mountains to China. Flying conditions had been quite good for the first part of the journey but a change was taking place, the clouds began to gather and they grew larger and blacker as we flew on. We felt cold despite all the clothes we had on. We unrolled our blankets and wrapped them around us, the clouds closed in, they got lower. If we had climbed a few thousand feet we might have got above the clouds but three of us were without oxygen masks.
We headed for a bank of clouds as we couldn't get round them, neither could we get under them, as we might hit the mountains. Then what a pilot dreads, happened, our aircraft started to ice up, just gradually at first it formed around the engines and on the leading edge of the main planes and tail unit. Our de-icing equipment had been removed as with the majority of liberators in South East Asia Command.
The clouds prevented us from seeing the outside of the aircraft, we shivered. The plane lost height, the indicator needle dropped, we couldn't afford to lose even a few hundred feet in height, even though our instruments were recording about 14,000 feet above sea level. About 1,000 feet below were the mountains. A break in the clouds let us see the main planes. The ice had grown thicker the clouds closed in again. The observer came up from his place in the nose of the plane and spoke to the Pilot. They studied the maps and glanced at the height indicator. My two ground crew mates and myself were without parachutes. Securely tied to one of the aircrew we should have a chance but 1,000 feet or so didn't give a parachute much chance to open out and deposit us gently on Burma's rugged mountains, especially with a double load.
We watched the instruments. The plane shivered and rocked, the needle fell back again. We had struck an air pocket, then the plane steadied herself again and regained the few hundred feet we had dropped. The clouds became thinner, we saw the main planes again and the ice had started to melt. The clouds grew whiter. Then they opened out as if to make room for us. We saw ice disappearing from the aircraft, we saw the mountains beneath us. We saw the black clouds above us, while ahead, we saw patches of clear blue sky.
The map indicated we were nearing the border of China, so we had a drink of coffee from the thermos flask and a sandwich. We kept a lookout for a stretch of water which was near to Kunming. We spotted it, then saw the town below and headed for the airfield. The wireless operator received the signal from the U.S.A.A.F. to land. The undercarriage was lowered as the aircraft made the customary circuit.
Her nose dipped towards the earth. The earth seemed to rise towards her nose, the Pilot and Co-pilot gripped their control columns firmly with both hands as they kept the rudder bar in position with their feet. The fuel laden aircraft wasn't going to be easy to handle in the cross wind that was blowing. The starboard wing dipped but she levelled out again. Only a few hundred feet to go, the runway seemed to be rising to meet us. We took a grip of what was nearest to us and braced ourselves for the shock. She shook! She had touched down and was now racing along the runway. The engine slowed down and the pilot applied the brakes, then taxied the plane towards the petrol storage tanks.
We were very cold as Kunming was 6,000 feet above sea level. While the petrol was pumped out of the aircraft tanks we watched other planes landing. A U.S.A.A.F. Liberator approached with a stationery propeller and straps hanging from the bomb bay. That meant an engine had failed and they had jettisoned their bomb bay tanks. It was on the same job as we were on. Then a Dakota with the R.A.F markings landed. They gave us the customary thumbs up as they taxied past
. Later another U.S.A.A.F. plane landed, then the Americans gathered in groups to discuss something. We were told later that it was the rations plane, it lost height rapidly and the aircrew had to jettison that week's beer supply!!
When our tanks had been emptied, with the exception of several hundred gallons needed to fly the plan over to Johat the next day the O.K. in charge of the petrol storage was questioned by his officer for giving us credit for more petrol than we had flown in but the O.K. assured him that even though it was a record, the figures were genuine.
We went by 'Jeep' to a bungalow on the outskirts of Kunming, later the crew of the Dakota arrived. They told us they had flown over at 22,000 feet and wondered how we managed to get safely over at 13,000 to 14,000 feet. The ground crew got the same food as the officers and N.C.O.s. We had taken the rough with them and now we could take the smooth. The next day we were up early to get the aircraft ready to fly to Assam for more petrol. They took off with just enough fuel to take them there. About noon the R.A.F Dakota took off accompanied by a U.S.A.A.F. plane, they were on special duties over Jap held territory.
After dinner we walked into the town to see the shops, the prices were several times as much as they were in India. When we changed ten Rupee notes into Chinese money we got a handful of dollar notes in exchange, inflation had struck China. In the main street we saw posters which read 'Welcome to the first convoys over the Burma Road', the Chinese were sincere, the road was not long opened. We went to the drome after tea to wait for our aircraft arriving, after an hour or two it didn't seem very hopeful. They sky got cloudy and before long the Hump was closed for flying, as it was too dangerous. We watched the sky until it was dark. They didn't appear! We counted up their fuel and the mileage, it was touch and go.
Next morning an Army Officer arrived at the bungalow to collect the kit of the Dakota aircrew. They wouldn't cross the Hump again. The U.S.A.A.F. plane returned owing to bad weather, the R.A.F flew on. 'Per Ardua Ad Astra'. We heard later that it had been brought down.
We were still waiting on news of our aircraft. Later in the day we were told that they would arrive the following day, weather permitting. When they landed they told us that they had had only sufficient petrol to take them to Johat. They had to climb over 22,000 feet, then struck a head wind, this used up extra petrol. When they checked their fuel gauges and compared it with the amount required to reach Johat, they donned their parachutes. They reached the airfield and were permitted to land in an emergency instead of the usual method of circling and dropping one or two thousand feet on each circuit, similar to going down a spiral staircase. When they dipped their tanks only 20 gallons remained for a four engine aircraft.
They continued flying to Johat and back each day for fully a week and brought in much needed petrol. The ground crew had to examine the plane after each trip and get it ready to fly the next day. We had trouble with engines, hydraulics and wheels and had to get new parts from the U.S.A.A.F. stores. We got practical experience of Lease Lend, as all parts had to be signed for on forms stating these terms.
About a week after we had arrived we were told that we would have to vacate the bungalow as Lord Louis Mountbatten C.inC. S.E.A. was visiting Kunming and the bungalow was needed for his staff. As the aircraft was due a minor inspection, we decided to return to India.
We had a better trip on our return journey and got a good view of the Burma Road, the ragged mountains and the huge stretches of jungle as we flew over Burma. We arrived at Alipore, Calcutta then took off for Jessore, where the aircraft would be overhauled before we returned to China.