- Contributed by
- CSV Media NI
- People in story:
- Thomas E. Nutt
- Location of story:
- Far East
- Background to story:
- Royal Air Force
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 31 January 2006
Author in the Himalayas
BEST OF TIMES, WORST OF TIMES:
SERVING IN THE FAR EAST -JANUARY 1943 to JULy 1946
BY THOMAS E. NuTT
About July or August 1943 our officer called us together and informed us there was
fighting at Kohima and that "the Japs" had cut the road to Dimapur. We were to abandon everything except what we could carry and try and make our way back to India. The officer had been a tea planter in Assam and was very familiar with the country. We all agreed to stick with him. It was our best chance of getting back safely. We took our arms and ammo and as much food as we could carry in our haversacks and climbed into the lorry. We travelled for a few hours. Every so often we stopped and the officer questioned the natives about whether or not there were any Japanese in the area. We stopped some distance short of Kohima and boarded a paddle steamer, travelling about 12 hours on this boat. We got off at Silchur and then got the train back to the transit camp in Calcutta. It was a relief to be back in civilisation again. In a couple of day's time another man and I were posted to 31 squadron then stationed at Kharagpur.
Thirty-one squadron was part of transport command and consisted of Dakota aircraft used for transporting anything and everything that was required by the services in India. This commenced my most interesting and enjoyable time in the Far East.
Kharagpur is a fairly large town not far from Calcutta. The climate was pleasant and the camp well established as it had been an RAF base for many years.
The Dakota required servicing after every flight. Minor services usually after about ten and a half hours flying and a major service after about 40 hours. My job was to carry out the service on the electrical components of the aircraft. The Dakota was a simple plane, consequently, the work became routine. After each major service the plane had to be air tested. An engine fitter and an electrician had to accompany the pilot on the tests. The two main duties which the electrician had to perform were to check that the generator was charging the battery at the correct rate and to feather the propeller when the pilot stopped the engine.
We noticed when we arrived at Kharagpur that all the men were smartly dressed in their leisure time. I had a bush jacket, shorts and slacks made for me by the camp's very own tailor. The camp was only a short distance from the town. In the evening most of us dressed up, went into town in a rickshaw, had a good meal, usually in a Chinese restaurant, and had a walk around before taking a rickshaw back.
One evening two of us on our way to town in a rickshaw got caught in a very severe pre- monsoon lightning storm. The lightning was striking the ground all around. It was a very frightening experience: on our way back the rain came on and we got soaked. We wouldn't have minded if we hadn't had our best suits on. These were commonly known as our "snogging outfits".
The huts were made of bamboo sides and were thatched with a type of rough grass with a veranda stretching the full length of the hut. There were a series of punkas (palm leaf structures) up each hut all connected together by a rope which extended out through a hole in the gable of the hut.
Outside sat the punka wallah whose job it was to pull the rope so that the punkas kept moving backwards and forwards, cooling the air in the hut. At times the punkas would start moving slower and slower -a sign that the punka wallah was dropping off to sleep. Someone from give a shout and the punkas would start going fast again for a time until the whole sequence was repeated.
Each hut had a punka wallah and a bearer. A char wallah called each morning and evening, the dhobi wallah twice weekly.
The bearer was someone akin to a butler at home and was responsible for all the servants. Each man in the hut paid him a little each week and he carried out all the small tasks that we could have done ourselves but didn't. He seemed to live reasonably well on the few rupees we gave him. The dhobi wallah was a blessing -he called once a week, the bearer would give him our dirty clothes and he put them in a large bag which he carried off. A few days later back came our clothes clean and pressed, each man's clothes left at his bedside -with a note for how much we owed him. We never really found out how he managed to keep each man's clothes separate.
The char wallah was a very tall man, a Petan from the North West Frontier. He always carried his copper urn by hand with flame under it to keep it hot. Over his shoulder he carried a box containing sweet meats and different cakes so we could have a cake with our tea.
Brigadier General Wingate in a Dakota used for the transport of mules
We normally worked from early morning to about 10 o'clock and rested on our charpoys during the heat of the day. At 4pm we started work again until about 7pm. Here we learned a new language -a mixture of Hindustani and English. Some of the words used by us even talking to each other were words such as char (tea) Juldi (hurry), kiswasti (why did you do it) iderough (come here) and chico (boy). There were many others and some have found their way into the English language.
Each day a plane would fly up to Dum Dum outside Calcutta to collect mail and supplies for various RAF and Army bases in the area. If anyone was free at the weekend they could get a lift to the airfield, a taxi into Calcutta and then a plane back on Monday morning. It was a fantastic camp, and I suppose, too good to last.
The lack of military discipline was very noticeable in the RAF in India. There were no parades, no inspections and regulation uniform was seldom worn. In the bigger camps we had a warrant officer (the highest non commissioned rank and the person responsible for discipline). Back in the UK he would have had a troupe of corporals and sergeants to back him up. In India the NCOs were all tradesmen -engine fitters, electricians, wireless mechanics and so on .They supervised the work on the aircraft and knew nothing about discipline, and cared less. At one of the forward bases it was decided to appoint guards on the dispersal area during the hours of darkness. A flight sergeant was given the job of appointing the guards and asked for four volunteers. When this was arranged he then asked for a fifth man. He was asked what he wanted him for and he said there would need to be someone to call the guard in the morning! (Most of us thought it was hilarious that somebody was needed to wake up the guard).
The flight sergeant was a fitter too. His knowledge of guard duties was very limited. He was an Irishman from Country Antrim and kept himself very fit. Rather than use the bicycles at the camp to go to the airfield he preferred to run cross country. On one occasion he bet an airman that he could get back to camp quicker than the airman could on a bicycle. He did and was back first. Most of us thought he was mad as India was not the place for much physical exercise.
Serving in the Far East was different in many ways from service in the UK. One of the big differences was the complete absence of women. We could go for months without seeing any women. Consequently everyone had a close friend -you might have had a good number of friends but you always had one who was special. One who took the place of a wife, girlfriend, mother or sister, someone you could confide in.
As personnel completed their tour of duty replacements came out from the UK. When stationed at Agartala we had a number of replacements sent to us. Among them was one lad about 18 or 19 years old. He was good looking lad in a feminine kind of way with fairly long blond hair. Shortly after his arrival one of the sergeants became very friendly with him. I don't know, although there was some talk, if there was any impropriety in the friendship. They were both very likeable men. He had been with us about a month when he was posted to another squadron. This was not a common occurrence. Many of us went to see him off. Not one but two sergeants carried his kit up the steps to the plane. I suppose it was a situation which the Commanding Officer thought could not be allowed to develop.
About October 1943 the squadron moved to Agartala in Assam. Brigadier General Orde Wingate had taken a detachment of soldiers, the Chindits, behind the Japanese. Wingate was regarded as a great leader who everyone respected. He went into Burma marching with his men and carrying a rifle and a pack on his back -there was no armour-plated four track vehicle for him. He had to suffer all the hardships of jungle warfare the same as his men.
It was our job to supply the Chindits with all they needed to operate behind enemy lines. Occasionally mules had to be transported to replace ones lost in the jungle. The plane was able to carry about five at a time. Indian mule handlers travelled with them. It was not very pleasant working on the planes when they returned.
There were only a few places to land in Burma. One of these had the code name Piccadilly and the other Broadway. I was a member of the ground crew on board a flight to Broadway one day when as the plane circled to land gunfire broke out from the ground. The pilot aborted the landing and turned for home. We found out later that the gunfire was a warning as the Japanese were in the vicinity and it was unsafe to land. About this time it was decided to remove two of the side windows of the plane and mount two machine guns in them in case of attack by enemy planes -the Japanese had very few planes in Burma. We were bombed once at Agatala, but very little damage was done. Some of us were trained by the RAF regiment in the use of these guns (Vickers). We also had a course in armed and unarmed combat so that we could help the army if and when we had to land behind the lines.
The only entertainment now was in the canteen at night. Housie-Housie and occasionally some of the boys who could sing or playa musical instrument would put on an impromptu concert. We received 50 cigarettes each week and a beer ration once a fortnight. The beer was supposed to last a fortnight but it was usually drunk in one or two nights in the canteen when most people ended up very merry. The songs were often of a very crude nature.
Most men kept a 'chatty' by their charpoy. It was a round earthenware pot, bought at one .of the local markets, and used as a kind of refrigerator for keeping food fresh and liquids cool. If you wished to keep your beer ration cool you put it in the chatty for a day or two I and put the lid on it. It didn't rot or rust and was insect proof. Some people kept private possessions in them, some even their money. If you hoarded your money in one you I were called a "chatty wallah". It says a lot for the honesty of the Indian servants and the
airmen that a person could put his possessions in one and then go to work knowing they I would be safe when he came back.
There were six Irish men in the squadron -the one I knew best was Ollie Stevenson from I Strabane. He was a tall lanky man and older than the rest of us having been in the RAF since before the war. He was very popular with all ranks. He had been stationed in Singapore and had managed to get out in the last ship to leave in 1942 before the Japanese invaded. He was taken to Sumatra and then to Australia and then back to India. Occasionally some of us would sit on the veranda (all huts had verandas) in the evening just talking. Stevenson was very good at telling stories about his experiences and about life back home in Ireland. We had one Irish pilot -a flight lieutenant. He came to the hut quite often to talk and listen to the stories.
Early in 1944 the squadron was very busy. As well as the normal duties, mail runs, ~ delivering personnel to forward positions, supply dropping and so on, there was the :- additional burden of towing gliders from Basal, a small town half way between Peshawar and Rawalpini in the North West Frontier to Patna in North Bengal. Ground crew, usually three people, had to travel with each plane -a distance of around 1,300 miles. Two planes at a time went on the journey. Each plane towed two gliders. On the journey back we could travel in the plane or in a glider. The flight up took about ten hours -the snow- capped peaks of the Himalayas could be seen for most of the journey. We stayed overnight at Basal and started back early next morning with the gliders. On the return journey we had to stop to refuel twice at Lahore and Lucknow.
We stayed overnight at Lucknow and flew back to Patna the next morning. Glider pilot training was carried out at Basal and Patna in readiness for the invasion of Burma.
While on a detachment to Patna one of the planes required a major service. After its completion the plane had to be air tested. When the plane was completed satisfactorily the pilot, an Australian, suggested taking a closer look at Everest as it was not far in Australian terms. There were five of us on board and no one had any objections. We flew at about 20,000 feet some distance around one way and about the same the other. It was not possible to go all the way around as foreign planes were not allowed to fly over Tibetan territory. The close up sight of Everest, then unconquered by any climber, was an experience I will never forget.
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