The Early Days (India and Burma)

 
  • India, 1943   (M J Page)

    India 1943 (M J Page)

  • M05 Radio wizard AC1 Nobby Clark Burma 1944

    Radio wizard AC1 Nobby Clark in Burma, 1944

  • A photo taken by Denis Coyle, pasted into his log book - November 1944

    A photo taken by Denis Coyle, pasted into his log book - November 1944

  • 'A' Flight Captains Ted Maslen-Jones and Frank McMath in Burma

    'A' Flight Captains Ted Maslen-Jones and Frank McMath in Burma

  • Another photo from Denis Coyle's log book - a typical river crossing in Burma, this one is on the Tiddim road

    Another photo from Denis Coyle's log book - a typical river crossing in Burma, this one is on the Tiddim road

  • The landing strip on the Irrawaddy river, where 'B' Flight spent Christmas 1944
    The landing strip on the Irrawaddy river, where 'B' Flight spent Christmas 1944.

  • Pilots of C Flight, Arakan, Burma.Pilots of C Flight, Arakan, Burma.  Standing is Pat "Black Mac" McLinden. Sitting L-R are Jimmy Jarrett, John Day, Wally Boyd and Ralph Hadley.
  • A photo from Frank McMath’s photo album shows an 'A' Flight landing ground in Kuala Lumpur after the Burma campaign

    A photo from Frank McMath’s photo album shows an 'A' Flight landing ground in Kuala Lumpur after the Burma campaign

  • One of the Squadron’s regular tasks was to search for concealed Japanese gun positions, some of which may be seen here.

    One of the Squadron’s regular tasks was to search for concealed Japanese gun positions, some of which may be seen here.

  • 'C' Flight ground crew pose with a Japanese trophy on the Royal Lake, Rangoon, Burma, May 1945.

    'C' Flight ground crew pose with a Japanese trophy on the Royal Lake, Rangoon, Burma, May 1945.

 
The Squadron main party departed from Theydon Bois Railway Station at a quarter past midnight on 12 August 1943 for an unknown destination and after a cold but comfortable journey were surprised at dawn to find themselves de-training in Liverpool and then proceeding by tram for the journey to the docks. At the quayside they encountered their first clash with authority because the RAF embarkation staff, seeing the mixture of uniforms, tried to separate the soldiers and airmen. Major Coyle thought otherwise and insisted that the Squadron should fall in by flights.

However, the movement staff finally won because, when they boarded the 24,000 ton SS Monarch of Bermuda, a former luxury liner, they were split up into penny packets in three separate parts of what was also discovered to be a ‘dry’ ship.

After twenty-fours hours hours in the mouth of the Mersey, during which time, ‘the men experienced their first problems with climbing  into hammocks amid great amusement’, they sailed for theClyde, where a convoy was assembling, and eventually proceeded to sea.

The voyage is very well described in the Squadron diary:

16 August:  The ship set sail again at about 1800 hours, passing the Isle of Man and Ireland into the open sea. The convoy was large, about twenty ships (apparently all troopships) and including an escort of HMS Shropshire, one aircraft carrier and at least six destroyers.

18 August: The convoy passed well into the Atlantic  (presumably to avoid U-boats).

19 August: The  first  depth  charges  were  dropped  by  a  destroyer  in  the  escort. Some Squadron officers attended the first Hindustani lesson by Pilot Officer Singh. The course lasted the whole voyage, but Squadron officers soon gave it up in despair.

22 August:  More depth charges were dropped by an escorting destroyer.  HMS Shropshire came in close in a farewell salute, as she was going on via the Cape to Australia. Tropical kit was worn for the first time.

23 August:  The convoy passed through the Straits of Gibraltar at dawn. Gunfire from all ships was directed at an enemy
aircraft at 1000 hours. In the afternoon we passed a large convoy of seventy ships.

26 August:  Just glimpsed Malta on port side in the morning, temperature beginning to warm up. The men were informed that this was the first convoy through the Mediterranean since Italy joined in the war and the Germans blocked  the Suez Canal.  [Axis forces in North Africa had surrendered on 13 May].

27 August:  Approximately twelve depth charges were dropped very close to the ship at 0435 hours. Sighted a large convoy on its way to invade Italy.

30 August: The convoy reached Suez at 10.00 hours, where passengers for the Middle East disembarked. The Squadron baggage party, under Captains Jones, Moffat and Maslen-Jones, were working hard all day. They took all Squadron hold baggage ashore in lighters and spent the night with the baggage at Port Tewfik.

31 August: Squadron personnel were transhipped from the Monarch of Bermuda to HMT Ascania 11,000 tons, a converted merchant cruiser and former Cunard liner, a dry and incidentally, very dirty ship, sailing without escort. The move went off very smoothly.'

Bombardier Ernest Smith also had very fond memories of the voyage,

‘The ship’s kitchens were geared to catering for passengers who had paid a lot for their journey and the grub was wonderful – they baked beautiful bread daily, we had real butter (strict rationing in Blighty, remember) and eggs for breakfast every day.

The sea was quiet, dolphins and flying fish intrigued us and the men of the South Wales Borderers sang to us beautifully on the main deck in the evenings.’

At this time Major Coyle made firm representations to OC Troops that the Squadron should be treated as a single unit, with the result that all personnel were accommodated on the one mess deck. On arrival they did not know what to make of such a peculiar RAF unit with mixed personnel and asked whether they would like to lodge in an Army or RAF transit camp. Enquiries elicited that the RAF camp at Worli was more comfortable and so this was the one that was chosen and it was certainly more suitable because it had a ‘very nice little’ airfield at Juhu, ‘on the sea, lovely beach, bathing and palm trees.’

First impressions of India were mixed,

‘a hair-raising ride in lorries driven by Indians to Worli. Everybody eating lots of fruit – issued with mosquito nets.’

Gradually, the manifold problems were overcome by dint of, ‘improvising, legitimate borrowing, scrounging and diplomacy.’ One of the major difficulties was, of course, the complete lack of aeroplanes, which they were advised had only left England on 12 September. The OC decided that he needed to visit the MGRA in Delhi and flew there by RAF Lockheed Hudson on 22 September. He came back with the news that the Squadron would move to the School of Artillery and airfield of Deolali and had been ordered to be ready for jungle warfare by 31 December. As Denis Coyle well knew, the Squadron was to move as swiftly as possible to India to join 14th Army and help push the Japanese out of Burma.

As a consequence, the Squadron made preparations to move to Deolali, by rail. SS Delius had been located in Bombay harbour and arrangements were set in hand to unload the many crates of carefully packed Squadron stores and transport them to Juhu. A visit of inspection was made to Deolali by the OC, four officers and two ORs. The C Flight diary for 01 October recorded,

‘The main body of the Squadron moved to Deolali; entrained at 1200 hours with officers travelling Second Class and ORs Third. Tiresome journey – train seemed to stop for hours at every station. Arrived at 1830 hours and transported by truck to camp. ORs in huts and officers in tents.’

Training recommenced almost at once, covering such topics as small arms drill, toolkit maintenance, map-reading, radio operation, first aid and field engineering, as well as lectures on ‘Hygiene in the Jungle’ and ‘The Japanese Characteristics.’ Time was also set aside for swimming, football and cricket.

On 28 October news of a considerable setback was received from Juhu. A disastrous fire had consumed much of the Squadron’s equipment stored there. However, there was also some good news, as with much effort Denis Coyle had managed to obtain four Tiger Moths on loan from two Indian Air Force Elementary Flying Training Schools. So early in November, the Squadron’s pilots could at last take to the air again for some much needed flying practice. The Tiger Moths were joined by the first Auster III on 21 November, four of which had arrived on board the SS Behar. Training continued with all personnel spending time attending the jungle school at Vada, ‘living rough, making a landing ground, jungle training, swimming etc. Conditions are very similar to the Arakan, Burma, and everyone loves it.’ Denis Coyle made the first landing on the new strip at Vada in an Auster III on 03 December.

Within a few weeks he was able to summarise the progress made as follows,

‘By the end of the year we had completed our “theatre conversion” including some very useful practice in observation of fire at the School of Artillery at Deolali. Our oldest pilot, Captain “Daddy” Cross, who had flown with Royal Naval Air Service in the First World War, ran a first class jungle camp which accustomed every one to the problems of living rough in their new environment.

Meanwhile there were signs that our Austers were about to arrive and we arranged for one flights worth to be offloaded at Bombay while the others were taken to Calcutta in order to save us having to fly them all right across the continent. Our work-up period had undoubtedly been a great success, with the exception of the fact that all the aircraft spares which we had so carefully accumulated before leaving UK, were destroyed by fire under rather mysterious circumstances.’

Frank McMath was engaged in experimental work fitting a long-range fuel tank to an Auster, which doubled its range from 150 to 300 miles. The OC retained the use of his Tiger Moth for the Burma campaign, preferring its superior performance to the Auster.