- Contributed by
- People in story:
- J W Vickers
- Location of story:
- Background to story:
- Royal Air Force
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 11 January 2004
THE EMPEROR HIROHITO. MY PART in his DOWNFALL.
In March 1944 I joined a Royal Air Force Squadron to fly Mark 8 Spitfires in Burma with several chums like me who were fresh off the Boat and had been through a Jungle Survival School near Poona. In August 1945 I became 'tour expired' having served under 3 Commanding Officers and flown from 11 different Burmese Airstrips. Three of my chums had been killed in action.
The Squadron's ground crews (the LADS ) came from all parts of the UK and excelled themselves in the most difficult circumstances. The Squadron's aircrew (the BOYS ) were 'visitors' from England, Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa and one from the United States.
In March 1944, we were based at this Airstrip on the Arakan front, led by S/Ldr Bruce Ingram DFC , a tough C.O. who would not accept 'sloppy flying' from his aircrew and make his feelings on the subject well known, very loud and clear.
We new-boys followed advice given by the Instructors at our O.T.U and kept our mouths shut, our fingers well out and tried hard not to break anything. !
In May 1944 we moved to this Strip on the coast nearby and spent most of the month flying to and from the Imphal valley in northern Burma where all the action was supposed to be. If it was, we saw nothing of it.
At the end of May we moved to this small all-weather Strip at the southern end of the Imphal valley. The valley was encircled by mountains several thousand feet high at its northern end, dropping down to a few hundred feet at Palel where we all lived in Basha's (grass huts) on the hillside overlooking the Strip.
During June 1944, the Boys spent hours escorting supply-dropping DC3's into the middle of Burma and escorting RAF Hurrie-bombers engaged on local business. Our main problem was to get our aircraft out, and back in again, over the surrounding mountains during the awful monsoon weather.
Two Incidents at Palel are worth a mention.
a. One day, grounded by bad weather, the Boys were called 'All air-crew to Dispersal at the Double'. There, our C.O. introduced us to an immaculately dressed 14th Army Major who had come down from H.Q in a Staff car.
He assured us that, although the Japanese Army had managed to get a field-gun up the other side of the hill upon which we lived in Basha's, the 14th Army Commander (General Slim) would deal very severely with any Unit which allowed the Gun to fire on us.
Just as the words left his lips, we heard a small bang and saw some of our Lads getting their heads down. Having been with the Squadron in N.Africa and Italy, our Lads knew exactly what 'in coming ' was.
Whereupon the Major departed in a cloud of dust bigger than the one caused by the 'incoming'. We went back to our Basha to compose an 'odd ode' in the style of Stanley Holloway's ' Albert and the Lion'. As follows:-
At a famous Hill Station called Palel, well noted for fresh air and fun
The Japanese army got crafty and wheeled up a dirty great Gun
The Lads were asleep on their charpoys enjoying themselves by the score
When down came a whoomph and a whistle, a bang and a horrible roar.
My God said the lads all a-twitter, their minds in a whirl and a fug
That was a little bit too near and dived in the trench's they'd dug
Then up spoke a gallant young Major. Fear not said he, kind-like but gruff
' Fear not my Aunt Fanny' said Airmen as another shell landed on Bluff
The whole 14thArmy moved southwards to put the thing under 'wrappers'
Bang went the Japanese cannon. North went the RAF like the clappers.
It's now gone all quiet like at Palel. No J***o's and ****- all great gun.
A visiting Ferry Pilot made copies of this Ode on the Squadron typewriter, leaving one on our notice board and making off the rest. One of which, we heard, ended up under the nose of the 14th Army Commander.
b. On June 10th I flew No 2 to our C.O. as he led the Squadron on a DC3 escort job. As we took off, the Strip controller r/t'd the C.O. to warn him that his No 2 had lost a wheel on take-off. 2 hrs later the C.O. landed the other 10 aircraft then told me to lock my straps and make a 'dummy run' before he landed himself. He made me confirm over the r/t , that my straps fully locked. As soon as he had cleared the runway, I landed Straps locked, Switches off and Wheels up and was out of my aircraft UM/T before it had stopped sliding.
A few days later the C.O. had engine trouble right over the Strip and had to land 'wheels up'. BUT, he forgot to lock his straps and his nose was smashed on the gun-sight ! He was taken to a Field Hospital where, stricken with tetanus, he died. On June 27th 1944 the Squadron's Senior Air and Ground Crews buried their C.O. S/Ldr Bruce Ingram D.F.C.
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4. IMPHAL MAIN. On July 1st 1944, the Squadron moved to this Strip at the northern end of the valley. Major Harry Hoffe ( S.A.A.F.) became our new C.O. and F/Lt. Mike Jones became B Flight's new Leader.
This move was a complete shambles. The plan was that we would relieve a Squadron going out of the Valley for some rest. Our aircraft to go first, followed by Bodies and Gear a day or so later. The Out-goers were told to leave everything in place for us so that our pilots need only take their small-kit.
Late that afternoon we landed in rain and started looking for the Sgt's Mess, only to find a few basha's and realise that the Out-goers had taken everything with them !! By early evening we decided to look for somewhere to sleep. Leading the way from a basha, an oil-lamp in hand, Paddy Foster came up against another lamp which asked if we were the 'Spitty' blokes who had landed earlier that day.
When Paddy 'confessed', the other lamp turned friendly and invited us to have a drink with the Worcester Regiment who had just come down from the Front Line at Kohima for a rest. Then, a few N.C.O.'s appeared with a full jerry-can of rum and we spent a convivial evening drinking rum and monsoon rainwater out of round cigarette tins with some Jolly good Types !
In July 1944, although only flying 4 sorties, I was able to claim 2 'First's.
a. The First pilot to acquire his own personal Transport. A Norton 500cc motor-bike 'liberated' from the Army by some B Flight Lads who then taught me how to ride the thing !
b. The First 221 Group pilot to be dressed in Jungle Greens. Brand new, 'liberated' from the Army along with the Norton.
During August 1944, whilst strafing well-hidden Enemy ground positions we lost a pilot, one of us new Boys. On August 19th F/Sgt Adcock, a wiry Aussie, overdid a strafing run and spread his aircraft and himself all over his target. 221 Group's A.O.C. sent a message saying that a few Japanese soldiers were not worth the loss of a Pilot and his Aircraft.
At the end of the month, we were preparing to move to Tulihal, a Strip some 20 minutes away by air. On September 3rd, the Boys who had drunk rum with the Worcesters were sitting around all packed up, awaiting transport for the gear going by road. Suddenly, Paddy Foster spots a large, fat white Goose.
Knowing that Roast Goose would taste better than cold bully-beef, we had the thing in a spare packing crate before it could get out its 4th Quack. The transport turned up and off went the goose with the rest of our gear.
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Later that afternoon we flew the remaining aircraft to Tulihal. The first thing we saw on landing, was our C.O. being shouted at by an extremely angry Indian Army Colonel who, guessing where his Goose had gone, had come looking for it. He left with his Goose. We were left with our bully-beef. !!
Apart from our 'Goose Loss' the move went well. Moreover, the Squadron's two-seater Harvard aircraft was now fully employed carrying the Boys (one or two at a time) to Calcutta on 'grog runs', each run bringing back crates of Indian Gin or Rum and whatever Mixers ( Lime Juice etc ) could be carried.
Within days, the Sgt's Mess basha was transformed into the 'Ye Old Nogg Inn' and kept well stocked up by the Harvard. We also acquired as a Mascot, a white Hen called Oscar who stood at the Bar drinking Gin until he 'fell asleep' and had to be put to bed on the floor.
By now, my Norton was going well on 100 octane. Riding around the local countryside one day, I was able to kidnap the last two in a line of sweet little Ducklings who were following their Mum over a paddy field.
I named them Denny and Kelly (after our two shortest Lads ) and kept them for nearly 12 months, sleeping in a box by my camp-bed at night. They were inseparable, spending all day near the cookhouse, being well-fed on scraps.
From a ' Business ' point of view the Squadron was fully employed.
A and B Flight pilots worked alternate Shifts: One from Dawn to Breakfast and again in the Afternoon, the other shift from Breakfast to Lunch. The Lads worked very hard all day, getting the aircraft warmed up for dawn readiness, looking after them during the day and finally covering them up for the night.
One evening our Lads became 'over-stressed'. 221 Group wanted our 30 gallon drop-tanks to be replaced by 90 gallon ones. Then changed its mind and wanted the 30 gallon ones back on again. By the time the Lads had done all this, they were as Jugged-off as the Boys in the Old Nogg Inn were Jugged-up !!
As a mark of (dis) respect the Lads, passing by the Nogg Inn back to the basha's on the hillside where we all lived, paused to give us a rendition of The Red Flag.
By the time they reached the 'Though Cowards flinch and Traitors sneer ' bit we had assembled enough voices to finish off with 'The Working Class can kiss my **** I've got the Foreman's job at Larse. '
During September, numerous flying hours were clocked up doing escorts , strafes and rhubarbs with the occasional scramble thrown in.
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On October 4th 1944 we lost another pilot, Paddy Foster of A Flight.
After the 'Tour Expired' departure of their leader F/Lt. 'Dook' Allington, A Flight was lumbered with a new 'leader' who immediately raised a few eyebrows by the way he ordered the Lads to carry his flying gear about. That morning, A Flight was scrambled and against all perceived wisdom and Group advice their new 'leader' led Paddy and the rest of A Flight into the some monsoon clouds. We never saw Paddy Foster again. The new 'leader' was posted.
On October 29th 1944, we moved to Tamu. The first Squadron into Burma !
This Strip, custom built for us, had just been hacked out of thick jungle by Army Engineers. Lying south over the hill from Palel, it was at the northern end of the long Kabaw valley which went down to the banks of the Chindwin, the second largest river n Burma. We had a pleasant campsite, no more Basha's, all tents of various shapes and sizes. On November 4th, Group Intelligence told us to prepare for a mass attack by enemy aircraft the next day. We were all in bed early that evening !!
Before dawn on November 5th all strapped in and ready, we were off and up at the merest glimmer of 'first light'. Mike Jones took B Flight up high (to watch a spectacular sunrise). A Flight kept down low (to watch the shop).
However, no mass attack came, just a few enemy Oscars (fighter aircraft) coming in low to be met by A Flight's F/Sgt L.A. Smith who promptly added 'One Confirmed and One Damaged' to the his score of seven German aircraft 'confirmed' during his time with the Squadron in Italy. This 'kill' got Smithy a well-deserved DFM.
By now, with the Sun well up, B Flight broke to see if A Flight had left anything for us to play with. I joined another pilot who saw two Oscars well below us.
Halfway down into a good 'bounce' we heard Mike Jones announce over his r/t that 'Two idiots are bouncing Thunderbolts'. Bounce aborted in the hope that Mike had not spotted our aircraft letters. He had not and, according to Group, no R.A.F. or U.S.A.F. Thunderbolts were airborne at that particular time.
On November 1st as Blackie ( an Aussie pilot ) and I returned from a low-level sortie, one Japanese ack/ack gun exposed on the on the banks of the Chindwin, fired one shot at us. So we flew behind a small hill overlooking the river (and gun) then popped up, over and down to give it two long bursts which, our Army later confirmed, put it out of action.
Early in December, grounded by an ear infection, I was evacuated to a hospital somewhere in Bengal. Weeks later I got back to Imphal Main to be told that the Squadron had moved from Tamu to a strip called Kan and that Major Hoffe, our C.O., had been posted 'Tour Expired'.
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Very much 'one of the boys', Harry Hoffe was a frequent visitor to the Nog Inn at Tulihal where his favourite party-piece was to wait until we were well jugged-up then call out ' Last one through the window's a Sissy'. He would then dive headfirst out of the window-hole in the basha followed by the rest of us !!
7. KAN. I made it back to this dump of a Strip by the middle of January 1945 and reported to our new C.O. S/Ldr. Grant Kerr DFC. Garry Kerr was a charming Scot, ever mindful of the welfare of all his Squadron's Personnel.
On Feb. 8th 1945 we moved to Sinthe, tents and all.
This custom built Strip was some 50 miles north of Burma's largest river, the Irrawaddy, over which the 14th Army's 4th Corp was preparing to cross in large numbers. The Strip was laid out in open country (no jungle) and our camp-site was soon well organised by the Lads.
Our main task was to keep two aircraft up, all day long, to cover 4 Corp's activity on the river bank. Each trip was a boring two hours, doing nothing more than go round and round 4 Corp at a few thousand feet.
Those not on the 'round job ' were, in sections of four aircraft, told to make nuisances of themselves over Meiktila and Mandalay, two large Burmese towns.
On Feb 8th four of us went to annoy the citizens of Meiktila who welcomed us with some heavy flak. So we left fast and low and looked for trade elsewhere.
Suddenly, we flew over something none of us had seen before. A well-built road along which was travelling a camouflaged Japanese Staff car. As it stopped, the occupants (Hirohito and Tojo ?) dived for cover in the roadside ditch. As I was the first to spot the car, I had the first shot at it and decided that my ammo would be best spent on the occupants. I did three strafing runs before the other Boys turned up and destroyed the car. H & J faced a long walk back !!
On Feb 12th I was on the Grog Run to Calcutta, spending two days buying grog and a record of Deanna Durbin singing 'The lights of Home'. Strange, I thought as I landed back at Sinthe on Feb 15th , no sign of anyone. No Lads at Dispersal or Boys watching and praying that I would not crash the Harvard.
I climbed out of the aircraft to be told that, during the night of Feb 13th a single Enemy aircraft had bombed the campsite, killing 11 of our Lads and wounding another 30. I was devastated. So was the rest of the Squadron. Obviously, it would take some time to get things back to normal.
On Feb 16th F/O Jones and his No.2 were on the ' round job' listening to another Squadron chasing after a twin-engined Japanese 'Dinah' aircraft. Jonah offers to help but is told to mind his own business. Bored by listening to the other Squadron getting nowhere, Jonah drops his 30 gallon tank, climbs up behind the Dinah and shoots it down right under the noses of the other Squadron as their Leader gives the 'Tally Ho'. Well done Jonah. Jolly Good Show !!
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On Feb 17th whilst on the 'round job' at 5000ft with no radio but with F/Sgt. Lofty Unsted as my No 2, I see some 4 Corp flak coming up at four Oscar fighter aircraft. ( cheeky Pongo's trying to do our job ! ) Tanks off, down we go to get stuck in. Despite my u/s radio, things go very well. We finally chase after the last Oscar who is now right down on the deck, heading for home. But, unable to talk to each other, Lofty and I cannot co-ordinate our attacks and neither of us will try and out-turn the crafty little blighter right down on the deck.
Now well south of the river, low on fuel and out of ammo, I wing-waggle Lofty into a close formation and head back north to give 4 Corp a 'display'. They fire more flak up at us than that which they had fired up at the Oscars !!
I am now beginning to wonder if that Feb.8 Staff Car had, in fact, been one of ours, carrying some 14th Army Gunners !! After the two-hour sortie, Lofty and I claimed 3 destroyed. Group gave us one each 'confirmed'. The third one ( me or Lofty ) was claimed by 4 Corp !!
On Feb 18th , Mike Jones with four other Boys make contact with a larger number of Oscars and shoot down five of them.
Days later, the lone enemy aircraft paid us another visit, this time hitting our Dispersal. As four aircraft blazed merrily with their ammo popping off, we watched Flash Fenton. (F/Sgt. i/c. A Flight Ground Crews) drive a fully loaded fuel bowser to safety from the midst of the inferno.
During Febuary we lost another pilot, Lt. Pottgeiter, one of our S.A.A.F. chums. 'Potty' who never returned from a low-level sortie. There had been no enemy air or ground opposition or any r/t calls from him. He just vanished.
In early March 1945 , 4 Corp crossed the Irrawady in force and went on to take Meiktila and Mandalay . Meanwhile, the Squadron had everything under control once more with the Boys flying hours during March and most of April in support of 4 Corp. ( Smithy and I both became Pilot Officers )
9. MAGWE. We moved early in May and nothing much happened.
One afternoon our C.O. Garry Kerr took several of us in his jeep to see some captive enemy soldiers being held by the Army not far from our Strip. There were three of them in a small enclosure, all half-starved, half-dead, covered with jungle sores and guarded by one Red-cap.
As our jeep stopped, the Red-cap thug began using his boot on his prisoners to get them to 'stand at attention'. Our CO became very angry; we had to stop him using his boot on the Red-cap. We gave the captives some fags and drove off.
At the end of June I went on leave with two Boys to Naini Tal, a hill-station in northern India. Having been told by officials in Calcutta that it was reserved for HQ types from Delhi and out of bounds to hooligans like us, we made a bee-line for it !
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After staying in a civilised hotel for 2/3 weeks and paying some horrendous bar bills we made it back to Imphal Main to learn that the Squadron had moved once again, this time to Meiktila.
By now, the 14th Army was about to end the Japanese visit to Burma. Meiktila was an all-weather Strip from which the Squadron spent hours doing 'practise flying'.
I was just back from leave when, on July 7th the CO decided to try and take twelve aircraft up to 30000 feet with me leading a Section of four aircraft. Off we went, climbing in good order to about 10000 feet when he calls 'oxygen on '. On it comes and up we go to 20000 feet by which time I am beginning to lose interest.
After a few more minutes he calls again to say that, as his 'second blower' is not working, we'll stay at this altitude and do some cross-over turns.
By now I am feeling the effects of my boozy Leave and have lost all interest in the proceedings. Moreover, the CO and his eight aircraft are all over the sky; way ahead of me one minute and way behind me the next. Then, he starts giving me the 'Red one do this / do that' bit over his r/t. Even the three aircraft in my Section are all over the sky. (One pilot coming in close to wave a finger at me !)
Stuff the lot of them I thought, when I land I'll join the Navy and tell his Majesty what he can do with my Commission !
Gradually, we all manage to get together in the same piece of sky and head for home. As we lose height I get a bad feeling about my part in the shambles. The lower we get the worse the feeling becomes and by the time we are all down I expect to get a 'quiet word' from my CO. In fact, the noise he made as he tore a strip off me could be heard in Mandalay !
He was about to do an encore when one of the Lads turned up to show him my helmet and mask, pointing out that whilst I'd been on Leave , a Bee (or Wasp) had crawled in and sealed off the end of my oxygen in-take tube with a layer of wax. If the C.O.'s Second Blower HAD been working that day I would have probably joined the list of RAF pilots who, deprived of oxygen, had made large holes in the ground from a great height.
On July 21st, Garry Kerr led the Squadron on detachment down south to this dump of a strip. Our job there was to make life difficult for remnants of the Japanese army which were trying to escape from Burma into Siam.
On July 22nd I was with Mike Jones when we fly over a large paddy-field where harvested crops had been stacked in clumps like the way our farmers stack crops in fields before making hay-stacks.
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On this paddy-field however, each clump had 2 or 3 pairs of legs sticking out from under it. Mike and I re-harvested every clump, the only resistance coming from a Japanese Officer and some of his men in a ditch at one end of the field firing rifles at us.
On July 25th 1945 our CO, Garry Kerr, was notified that I had become 'tour expired'. He wrote a nice little ' cheery bye Vic ' note in my log-book and off I flew back to Meiktila to collect my belongings and say good-bye to the rest of the Squadron's Lads and Boys.
During that short flight back through the start of my second monsoon, I mulled over the months I had been with the Squadron and realised just how ashamed I was about the part I played in one incident which occurred at Meiktila, just before we went down to Tongoo. One of my Aussie chums had received a Food Parcel from Home which included, of all things, a Christmas pudding. ( In the middle of Burma !! )
To my everlasting shame I allowed myself to be persuaded that Roast Duck would make a better meal than Fried Bully-beef.
So, we ate my two little friends Denny and Kelly in the prime of their Life.
I have never eaten a Duck since that day.
JWV. Over and Out.
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