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My Journey to Burma 1940 by Flying Boat

by jomajohnson

Contributed by 
jomajohnson
People in story: 
JOSÉ JOHNSON, DAPHNE JOHNSON
Location of story: 
England to Burma
Background to story: 
Civilian
Article ID: 
A3335816
Contributed on: 
27 November 2004

This is an example of the type of passenger flying boat that we flew in.

My Mother and I had passages booked on a Bibby line ship due to sail for Rangoon at the end of September 1939 i.e. after the summer holidays and my brother John had returned to Malvern College. Needless to say the outbreak of war with Germany on 3rd. September knocked these plans on the head. Most of the Bibby Lines ships were requisitioned immediately for wartime duties e.g. trooping and hospital ships. Our passages were cancelled and we were eventually offered passages on one of the two remaining Bibby ships, namely M.V. Oxfordshire due to sail late in 1939, but she was sunk in the Mediterranean on her way home to the UK (during the first few weeks of the war shipping losses were announced in the news broadcasts, but that was soon stopped)

We also had another problem in that Malvern College buildings were requisitioned and the College had to move lock stock and barrel to Blenheim Palace! A lot of emergency work had to be carried out there to make it habitable for two hundred plus boys therefore their return to school was delayed until well into October.

No progress was made on the passage front until, in desperation, Thos. Cook asked if Mother and I would be prepared to fly out to Rangoon as a sea passage was virtually out of the question. We agreed what we would have to do this but the first passage we were offered was for February 1940. However this did mean that Mum, John and I were able to spend Christmas together. John came home from school with Chicken pox which he managed to pass on to me, so it was not the jolliest of times!

Now for the journey itself…..

February 11th 1940

My mother and I left the small hotel in Worthing where we had been staying since before Christmas to travel to Poole Harbour for an over night stay at The Haven Hotel preparatory to leaving next day by Imperial Airways Flying boat for the journey to Rangoon, Burma, which was to take at least four days.

The winter of 1939/40 had been very, very cold, so cold indeed that for some days the Flying Boats scheduled to leave both for Australia (our route) and South Africa had been frozen in the harbour.

One of the least pleasant preliminaries for our flight was that we all had to be weighed and as a rather self-conscious seventeen year old, this filled me with dread! However the very nice man doing the job said, “We have had people who have topped the scale” followed by, “It is all in kilos so no one knows what that means!” That comforted me!

{NB: In those days not much was measured in the metric scale}

February 12th 1940

We were up quite early and after breakfast waited around in the lounge ready for the summons to join the launch to go out to the Flying Boat (there was a jetty right outside the hotel which was used for this purpose)

However, I think it was about mid-morning, we were told that due to bad weather conditions our departure was postponed until the next day! So Mum and I took a bus into Bournemouth after lunch to have a look round and have tea in one of the big department stores (either Bobby’s or Beales, I cannot remember which) then it was back to Poole for another comfortable night in the luxurious hotel,

February 13th 1940.

We learned at breakfast or soon afterwards that we were to be away that morning. Off we set in the launch to board the aircraft. Mum and I were really very nervous as neither of us had been near an aircraft before let alone flown in one.

As far as I can remember there were only about seventeen passengers as, the Captain told us later, the plane was carrying a heavy load of Mail. Amongst the passengers was a young Maharajah, his mother, his Political Officer and his wife (Col. And Mrs. Affleck I think) and a young RAF Officer, a test pilot flying to Karachi (more of him later). Mrs. Affleck could see that Mummy and I were somewhat apprehensive and very kindly came to talk to us and reassure us that all would be well.

With a great roar the engines started up and we were off at great speed across the water and eventually a smooth take off into the air, I loved it!! Incidentally the plane was named, ”Co-ee” all the planes on the Australian route had Aboriginal names as far as I know.

The windows of the plane were ‘whited out’ until we were well clear of any Naval or Military installations, rather excessive security we thought! We flew down the Channel and across the Channel Islands and Brittany a more westerly course than usual, I think because it was wartime.

The weather became very rough, the plane rising and falling with monotonous regularity, a horrible sensation and it was not long before Mum (amongst others) began to feel ill and were ill! I felt pretty grim too. We eventually landed at Biscarosse south of Bordeaux on the lake there for refuelling. We were usually taken off the plane for this purpose but I cannot recall it happening here. Off again and none of us too happy except for our test pilot who kept walking past us saying “How are the world’s best air travellers?” He knew it was our first ever flight and we looked at him with loathing!! The route took us past Toulouse and on to the lake at Marisnane outside Marseilles.

It was getting dark when we came into land, the wind was blowing hard and the waves on the lake were quite high. We hit the water and it seemed to rush past the windows for ages before we came to a halt, it took a half to three quarters of an hour to moor the plane on to the buoy, Normally a matter of minutes and we tossed about all this time and I was eventually sea-sick!

At last the order came to disembark we went to the exit to find the launch bobbing up and down like a cork. Imperial Airways staff just shouted, “When we say jump, JUMP!” and this we bravely did. It was freezing cold, borne out by the icicles hanging from the Jetty when we went ashore and into the customs shed, a sorry looking lot we were.

We saw the Captain there (name Harrington) looking rather white and drawn and he told us later that he had only had one other landing as bad as that in the whole of his experience! So how was that for first time air travellers?

Eventually we set off by bus for the Hotel Splendide in Marseilles and were we glad to get there! We recovered in an hour or so and managed to eat some dinner before retiring to our room for an early night. I found the linen sheets rather scratchy but did sleep reasonably well!

FEBRUARY 14th 1940

After breakfast we left by bus for Marisnane to continue our journey, Mum and I felt that we would gladly not board the plane again, if there had been any other option open to us! We all sat around in a rather ordinary café for a bit and then were told that there was a problem with the re-fuelling launch and we would not be leaving until after lunch, our destination an over night stop in Rome.

We ate sparingly of lunch and eventually went out to the launch and then on to the plane, it was still freezing cold

It started to snow and we all realised that the heating system in the plane was not working. All the metal fittings inside the plane became frosted and the glass of water I had on my table turned to ice! The planes carried fur lined foot muffs and blankets for this eventuality and we all sat shrouded in blankets endeavouring to keep warm. Also these aircraft, being very wide-bodied, allowed one to get up and walk about and there was a rail down one side where you could lean and look out of the windows. You were able to see quite a lot. These aircraft were not pressurised and therefore could not fly very high.

We were much relieved to land at Lake Bracciano some miles outside Rome. Mum by this time was pretty exhausted and our RAF friend kindly bought her a whisky to put in her tea we were all served before leaving for Rome. Whisky was a most expensive item in Mussolini’s Italy at this time, so it was very generous and kind of the young man.

Rome looked lovely with all the lights on in the city, of course this was before Italy came into the war, and we had come from blacked out Britain. We were accommodated in a very grand hotel and after a short rest and a change of clothes we went down to dinner.

I forgot to mention that when we left Poole another flight took off bound for Durban and we met up with the passengers from that plane in the evenings. Amongst them were a niece with her uncle and aunt. She was a little older than me. After the meal they invited me to join them on a tour of the sights of Rome, Mum was too tired to come, So off we went and visited the Coliseum the Forum, St. Peter’s and the Victor Emmanuel Memorial all were splendidly floodlit.

We got back to the Hotel to find a very anxious Mum, after we had left she realised she didn’t really know these people very well and wondered if she would see me again!!

FEBRUARY 15th 1940

After breakfast we went back to Lake Bracciano and after some delay we went on to the plane for a short flight to Brindisi for re-fuelling. There was some technical problem here I seem to remember, and we eventually set off again but only made it as far as Corfu where we were destined to stay the night. This was another unscheduled stop over as was Rome!

Again it was dark and we were taken by bus to a small hotel in a hilly and wooded area and when we were shown to our room it had a glorious log fire burning in the grate, it was so welcoming, we were delighted. It was a very small hotel and as far as I recall there were no other guests apart from the air travellers.

Anyway, after a wash and change Mum and I went down to join the others in the bar for a drink before dinner. Mum wished to reciprocate the kindness of our RAF friend on our arrival in Rome the evening before, so we asked him what he would like and he said when he was in a foreign country he liked to taste the local beverages and as we were in Greece he would have an Ouzo. This was duly ordered and Mum wondered whether it would be very expensive but it turned out to be the equivalent of two pence (old currency of course) so she said he could have as many as he liked, which I think he did!!

FEBRUARY 16th 1940

We left Corfu during the morning en route to Alexandria, which in normal peace time conditions would have been the first over-night stop. Our RAF friend definitely the worse for wear and rather sorry for himself, so we had our revenge for his taunts on the first day of our journey! I think we came down once for re-fuelling at Heraklion, Cyprus, before landing at Alexandria. We stayed in a rather grand hotel with splendidly attired Egyptian staff everywhere. Apart from going down to dinner and having a good night’s sleep I don’t remember much else about it. We arrived and left in the dark so we did not see much of the city.

FEBRUARY 17th 1940

This proved to be a rather interesting day as the first re-fuelling stop after leaving Alexandria was at the Sea of Galilee. We were taken off the plane and went ashore for a brief walk-about and a luscious glass of Jaffa orange juice then back to the plane again and another re-fuelling stop at Lake Habbaniyah (not too far from Baghdad) It was a complete desert landscape here and when we went ashore the ground was covered with small pieces of a cheap material which, we were told, was Mica used at that time in the manufacture of gramophone records I believe.

Up and away again for our overnight stop at Basra. It was beginning to feel much warmer than when we left England.

FEBRUARY 18th 1940

Up very early and took off at 4 a.m. First stop was Bahrain where we took on some more passengers and of course more fuel!

We then flew across the Arabian Sea en route to Karachi. I was standing at the rail looking out at the dun coloured coastline of Baluchistan, and following the rather nice little route map which had been issued with our travel documents, when Captain Harrington came through for a chat with the passengers saw me and said “Well Jose where do you think we are?” I pointed to a spot and said “There“ and he said, “You are not far out” and we both laughed.

We duly arrived at Karachi in the early evening and stayed at a hotel (The Carlton) which certainly had memories for Mum. (She had married Dad in Karachi on 7th November 1921 having travelled to India all by herself, she was married straight off the ship and knew no one at her wedding except Dad and she hadn’t seen him for over a year!!) Some friends from their early days in North West India (now Pakistan) happened to be stationed in Karachi so Mum gave them a ring and they came round and took us out for a look around.

It was in this hotel that I shouted in alarm when I pulled the plug out after a bath and the water swirled around the tiled area. I thought I had flooded the place but there was in fact a plinth to stop the water going all over the floor and it eventually ran out through a hole in the wall and down a pipe, I assume! This was a common system of drainage in the old fashioned parts of India, dating from the even older tin tub days, I was also to experience this again in one or two remote spots in Burma.

FEBRUARY 19th 1940.

We left fairly early this morning, in a different plane named “Coorong” This was to be the last full day of flying, there were at least two re-fuelling stops, one on Lake Udaipur where we were taken for a trip in the launch whilst the re-fuelling was done. In the middle of the lake was a vast palace belonging to a Maharajah it was indeed a spectacular sight. My recollection about the second stop is rather hazy but looking at the distances and likely areas of water it could have been Lake Waidham.

We eventually reached Calcutta and landed on the Hooghli River. Driving into the Great Eastern Hotel in the city centre was a tremendous shock to me. The swarming humanity and their incredible poverty were upsetting and I remember saying to mother that if Rangoon was like this I would go home on the next plane! An idle hope I fear.

When we arrived at the hotel there was a cablegram from Dad which read, “Up brave hearts, it’s the last lap” which amused and cheered us up. Also he had been in touch with a business acquaintance in Calcutta, a Mr. Cowan who came round to see us and insisted on us dining with him and his wife at the Saturday Club (little did I know then that in three to four years time the Club would become a very familiar haunt until we left for the U.K. in May 1945).

We had a pleasant evening with the Cowans and in the course of conversation Mr. C. mentioned that he knew that Dad was very fond of celery (a delicacy not available in Burma but grown in the hills at Darjeeling, not too distant from Calcutta) He had arranged for a few sticks to be delivered to the hotel for us to take with us next day. “Fine “ we said until we got to our room to discover that far from being a few sticks there were two enormous bundles of twelve sticks each complete with full foliage! Mum said we could not take these on the plane without incurring a huge excess baggage charge, so what were we to do? We had seen Capt. Harrington in the dining room so we decided to seek his advice. He thought about it and then said, “If you will agree to let me take one bundle on to our staff in Bangkok, who don’t often see celery that will be fine and the other condition is that Jose goes ashore at Rangoon with a bunch of celery as a bouquet, “what a tease he was! Terms were agreed and after a bit more chat Mum and I retired to our room.

FEBRUARY 20th 1940

This morning we had another bus ride through the crowded streets to the River and then away on the last lap of the journey. We landed at Akyab (now called Sittwa) on the N.W. coast of Burma for re-fuelling and then S. to Rangoon where we landed on the Rangoon River (part of the Irrawaddy Delta). There were some very fine views of the Schwe Dagon Pagoda as we circled in for our landing. Out came the Launch with Daddy aboard plus sundry officials and we disembarked complete with celery!

The steamy heat did not strike me at first but did a little later on! Rangoon was quite a contrast to Calcutta as the people round the port area seemed far more relaxed and easy; one did not see anything like the poverty only too obvious in Calcutta.

As soon as passport and other formalities had been dealt with we set off in the car (we had a Burmese driver on the staff) to drive the twelve or fifteen miles to Insein where the Burma Railways Works were situated and where our rather splendid house awaited us. After a light lunch and a good rest (I can remember that for a few hours I felt I was still moving!) we had tea and then we went on a visit to the Rangoon Zoo it was the one and only time I went there! I certainly began to feel the heat and humid atmosphere and also the attention of the Mosquitoes who relished some fresh English blood.

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These messages were added to this story by site members between June 2003 and January 2006. It is no longer possible to leave messages here. Find out more about the site contributors.

Message 1 - flying boat

Posted on: 27 November 2004 by Conal O'Donnell

what a marvellous story and a journey which simply couldn't be replicated to-day even with all the money in the world.Fascinating too all these lakes that seemed to function quite wellas airports even tho@ miles from the sea.What happened to the family thereafter?This was I suppose in retrospect acomfortable but stirring adventure.did the Japanese get your family and what happened thereafter.A wonderful tale indeed.

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