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An RAF Apprentice Goes to War In India and Burma

by threecountiesaction

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Archive List > Royal Air Force

Contributed by 
People in story: 
Eric Saunders
Location of story: 
India and Burma
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
10 January 2006

This story was submitted to the People’s War site by Graham Lewis for Three Counties Action on behalf of Mr Eric Saunders and has been added to the site with his permission. Mr Saunders fully understands the site’s terms and conditions.

As a special treat for my eleventh birthday one of my uncles took me to see Alan Cobham’s Flying Circus at Tom Berts Hill. He also paid for me to fly in one of their aircraft, a De Havilland Fox Moth. After this experience I was ‘hooked’ on aircraft. After talking to various people who knew about aircraft and the RAF, I was totally decided on my career — the Royal Air Force, beginning with an engineering apprenticeship.

This was not going to be an easy achievement as elementary schools in those days did not cover the syllabus for the Common Entrance Examination required. My father talked it over with our next-door neighbour, who was a headmaster, and he recommended that I should go to Sir William Borlase School at Marlow. Eventually I was accepted as a fee-paying day boy at Borlase and received sufficient education to be considered suitable for taking the Common Entrance Examination for the Schools of Technical Training of the RAF. I passed the entrance exam in 1939 and was ‘called-up’ on September 6, 1939, but because of the outbreak of WWII this was postponed to March 1940.

The Technical Training Course at No1 School of Technical Training, Halton, took three years but because of the great need for tradesmen in the service it was reduced to two years by extending the working day to compensate. Halton was very tough both physically and mentally. They had some extremely good instructors and amazingly, one who took us for electrics came from Downley, near my home in Buckinghamshire.

After completing the two-year course, our first posting was to RAF Bassingbourne, where we were involved in the preparation of the Vickers Wellington bomber for the first thousand-bomber raid. We received servicing instructions from Barnes Wallis who became the ‘Bouncing Bomb Man’.

Just one day after this operation eight of us ex-Halton brats (as the former apprentices were known) decided to volunteer for overseas postings. After all, according to our contracts we had to do five years abroad, so why not now. We ended up in the cruise liner RMS Andes and had a lovely trip to Cape Town, South Africa where we were utterly spoilt by the people. We left Cape Town for the Middle East but after a few days at sea our ship broke down and we were towed into Durban where we had another enjoyable two weeks.

We then boarded the Windsor Castle and eventually landed at Bombay. By train we went to the Punjab and were billeted at the Maintenance Unit (MU) in Lahore. I was delighted as my ambition had always been to serve on the North West Frontier of India and this was a step nearer. I was extremely lucky and joined a servicing unit who were operating six blue and yellow PT17 training aircraft for the American Volunteer Group, training Chinese pilots whom we met many years later in Kunming.

I had an amazing train journey around India visiting Rawalpindi, Karachi, Hyderabad, Jaipur, Delhi, Lucknow, Alahabad and finally Calcutta. The object of the exercise was to collect and swop spare parts for aircraft as they were in very short supply. We also stopped at many sidings near depots. The whole operation took over three weeks but I enjoyed every minute of it, and lived and fed well on the train.

My pal ‘Curly Snell’ and I were at last posted to the North West Frontier of India — Peshawar. Oh what a thrill! Our ambition achieved at last! We had heard so much about this place from our instructors at Halton and it came up to our expectations. It was a marvellous experience, but it did not last long as we, on request, volunteered for Special Operations in the Forward Areas of Assam.

We were posted to their Training Unit at Juhu Beach, Bombay, a long, soft, sandy beach where it was hard work marching and running, especially later with a full back-pack. We were initially under RAF command, but when Lord Louis Mountbatten came on the scene we were transferred to the Indian Army and joined XXXIII Corps. We trained with them at Surcunderabad. A real tough bunch they were and we were very glad when it was all over. We were still part of the Indian Army, but at least we had our own vehicles and equipment and felt we were a unit of our own, an Air Mobile Aircraft Servicing Support Unit.

Our first operational posting was to Chittagong which was a long way from Bombay. We had three heavily loaded three-ton Chevies (Chevrolets), a 15cwt truck with water trailer, two 1,000-gallon QL Bedford bowsers and a 500-gallon bowser with a 250-gallon oil bowser trailer, and the CO’s Jeep. Looking at the map you can see that we had to use the railways and water barges, a real experience, I can assure you, with our limited experience. There were no ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’ and ‘ands’. The job had to be done.

We eventually reached Chittagong late one night and in the morning we got our first taste of what war was all about when three Japanese fighters shot up the airstrip, made two passes and shot up the army post, then disappeared as quickly as they had come in. Three days later they attacked us again as we were refuelling three old Brewster Buffaloes and left one burning. We managed to get the bowsers out of the way and on their third visit, thanks to a radar trailer they got a rousing reception from three twin-engined P38s (Lockheed Lightnings) that came in to us unexpectedly as we knew nothing about these aircraft. They managed to shoot down two of the Japanese. We operated these aircraft for several days and had to learn about them, especially myself as the ‘engine man’ who always sat in the ‘seat’ first.

Our next move was to what was to become a very famous airfield and battlefield — Imphal — a large, very busy place where, to our amazement, we were surrounded by the Japanese, and found ourselves in the Siege of Imphal. It was beyond our comprehension that this had been allowed to happen and that no one had known anything about the Japanese marching in the jungle just below where we had been working: no one knew they were there. I had just moved our tent to a better position when a great big tank came lumbering along and moved in next door with its stinking exhaust, noisy cannon and machine gun for company; a bit late in the day, we thought.

We were under siege for several weeks while the great battle for Kohima took place. The dreadful carnage went on until reinforcements arrived and the Japanese were defeated, leaving their wounded and starving as they had no rations; they had been told that they would find everything they needed when they got into Assam. With their wounded and dead now lying by the side of this well-known road which we had to use on a daily basis, the stench in a few days became terrible. Our pilots in their Sentinel L5s flying in to land said they could smell it at 50 feet.

Our next move was to Pallel where, to our complete surprise, we operated the biggest aircraft of the war, a B29 Superfortress. When we saw it making an approach to land on that fairly small airstrip we could not believe it possible, but with its tricycle under-cart and reversible thrust it landed with ease. It was not a bomber but had been converted to use cameras.

At last we went into Burma to a well-known Imperial Airways airfield at Tamu. It was a dreadful mess just as the Japanese had left it after a very severe battle, with bodies and debris everywhere. Our great pals, the West African Corps, did their usual job and cleaned up. Then a very strange thing happened. We had only been on the airstrip a short time when we heard a Hurricane. It obviously had engine trouble and was making a direct approach with wheels down. Luckily there was a cleared area and it landed safely. As the engine man, I went over to the pilot and to our absolute amazement we recognised each other. He was David, the son of my father’s boss, Jack Birch of Wm. Birch & Son of Leigh Street, High Wycombe. It was just unbelievable!

We continued to advance right down to Rangoon, operating all sorts of aircraft that were sent to us, many of which, both operational and non-operational, we had never seen before. One of our biggest concerns was the evacuation of casualties, a very difficult job, especially as in the early days we did not have suitable aircraft. The ex-Tata Airways ones were old and worn out Avro Ansons, Oxfords and Envoys, and did not have the power when loaded to take off in the cloying mud of those small Kutcha airstrips; the results were disastrous. The famous Dakota C47 was at that time too big and heavy. We were having great difficulty in moving the sick and wounded out for better treatment, so we were very pleased to receive the C45 Expeditor. With its more powerful engines and wide under-cart it was ideal for the job and as my good friend Hubert, a major in the Indian Army, said to me “ Many of my men owe their lives to this machine”.

Another operational aircraft that was a big disappointment in Burma was the Mosquito, the “Mossie”, a real let-down as the first two that we prepared for operation fell apart in the air, killing both crews; and when we went to inspect the others one had a broken back. I mention this as they were made at William Birch in High Wycombe where my father was a production manager.

I met one other person in Burma whom I knew when I went to repair the starting engine for a large diesel generator. He was Les Humphrey and I remember him as a Rover Scout of the 10th High Wycombe at Westbourne Street. He was at that time the Town Major in the Burmese town of Kaleymio

As we operated alongside radar trailers on the larger airstrips in central Burma, it is quite possible that Monty Seymour, another old-boy from my old school, Borlase, , was close by, as he was a radar operator,

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