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From Caribbean to Malacca - and Beyond

Jack Burgess, Scottish Saltire Branch. ACA

In early 1942 I volunteered for RAF aircrew, to train as a Flight Engineer on the newly emerging 4-engined aircraft, and by 1943 had qualified as such at RAF School of Technical Training, St.Athan. During the final phase of training, I had studied the finer points of the Halifax Bomber. This was suddenly changed one morning, when all trainees with service numbers ending in '2' were abruptly informed that we had been transferred to fly the American B24 Liberator.

After a few months, I found myself (with 30 other F/Es) on the liner "Queen Mary" which docked at New York 5 days later. Following a brief spell of training at Dorval Airport, Montreal, we embarked on a 3-day train journey down the eastern coast of America to Miami, Florida. From there, we joined the "Jan Brillant" over to Nassau, Bahamas, where we crewed up with RCAF aircrews, then completed our flying training there with No.111 Operational Training Unit. RAF ground crews found Nassau a dream placeto be posted, unfortunately, we only stayed a few months to savour the delights of the Duchess of Windsor's "Bahamian Club" which along with her private beach "Wavecrest" was completely at our disposal. Returning all too soon to Montreal, we quickly tired of the routine test-flying of newly assembled Liberators, and probably due to 'a rush of blood' associated with the youthful desire for more action, we naively volunteered for operational flying in the Far East.

Giving us a brand-new B24 Liberator, we prepared to fly ourselves across the Atlantic via Gander, Newfoundland, then over to land at Prestwick. Flying at 20,000 feet over the Atlantic, my flight engineer skills were quickly put to the test as several faults developed including an oxygen leak. As we depended on oxygen at this altitude I was lucky enough to fix this snag; apparently this was not fully appreciated by Dave Coutts, our Navigator, who feeling the oxygen mask uncomfortable had removed it thus rendering himself unconscious. Luckily this was discovered in time for us to avoid being shot down over Europe, a not unheard of occurrence with novice aircrews when crossing the Atlantic.

After landing at Prestwick in one piece, we managed to have 7-days leave in UK before receiving the dreaded telegram 'to proceed forthwith' to:- Portreath, Cornwall. From there we flew to Karachi, Pakistan, via Rabat, Morocco; Tunisia; Egypt; and Shaibah, Iraq. Shortly after landing at Karachi, we were posted to No.200 Squadron, Madras.(now No. 8 Squadron).

The sights and smells of Karachi and Madras were light years away from New York, Montreal and Nassau, but unknown to me at that time, I was to get well accustomed to the eastern delights of the orient, as I was to remain there until WW2 ended.

After flying anti-submarine and shipping strikes with 200 Squadron, our crew was posted to No.160 Squadron in Ceylon -(Sri Lanka) where operational flying now took on a completely new meaning. Gone were the coastal operations, and we were now about to take the fight to the Japanese well within their occupied territories of Malaya, Thailand and Burma. The chance of survival here was minimal, as before every mission we were reminded that the Japanese ignored the Geneva Convention on prisoners-of-war. In fact, they had stopped taking prisoners as they had enough to build the notorious railway. Furthermore, they had clear written and recorded instructions to slaughter all prisoners in the event of the Allies advancing close to them. The operations we embarked on at this juncture, were among the longest during WW2, the distance flown was equal to flying across the Atlantic from UK and back again! My longest operational flight lasted 23hrs 25mins and covered 3,600miles. Our crew (F/O Waterfield) was one of the first three aircraft to attempt these very-long-range missions, the first target being Penang where we proceeded to drop mines, then returned frequently to mine the Japanese shipping supply lanes from Penang down to Singapore. That completed, we then ventured farther into Thailand, over to the eastern Malaya, and south to Singapore.

The purpose of those far-flung missions, was to drop in guerrilla-type jungle fighters of 136 Force, whose aim in life was to harass the Japanese by blowing up ammunition dumps, bridges etc. Led by Col. Spencer Chapman, they managed to send intelligence reports by short-wave radio back to Ceylon. By the same medium, they sent back reports on the accuracyof our air-dropping of men and supplies. Some of the dropping zones were quite dicey, having to fly very low through valleys in the mountains, and drop supplies on plateaus where a few feet either way would mean losing valuable life-saving supplies.

On one occasion, we turned a bend in a valley to find ourselves confronted by a totally unexpected mountain peak. During the frantic attempts to scrape over this peak, number 1 & 3 engines decided to trail flames well beyond the tail plane, leading us to make hurried plans to make for our emergency crash site on an island. The idea here was to bale out or crash-land, then signal seaward at night by torch, and if still in one piece swim out to an Allied submarine which was our alleged only hope of rescue. Fortunately, on this occasion we managed to persuade the engines to get us back to Ceylon, which was much preferred.

My second crew (also Canadian) were not quite so lucky just before I joined them. They ran out of fuel on the way back from a mission, and my skipper (Doug Turner) was one of the few pilots who successfully ditched a Liberator and lived to tell the tale. The only member of the crew to sustain serious injury being the Flight Engineer - and hence my entry to that aircrew.

A welcome break from long-range special operations, was a mission to seek out out the German submarine U862 which had deserted Atlantic waters for the Indian Ocean and beyond. One of the three Liberators sent down to Addu Atoll (Gan) in the Maldives, ripped off its bomb-doors when making the long, low approach necessary on such a tiny island. When the hunt was over, I was detailed by our 160 C.O. W/C Stacey (later AVM) to stay behind with him to patch up the damaged B24 bomb-doors with corrugated iron, the only available material on that isolated island. I still recall that rattling good flight we had back to Ratmalana, Ceylon, where the plane was declared a write-off due to a fractured bulkhead. C.O. John Stacey was, at 27 yrs, a first-class leader and an inspiration to us all. He had to be, as on our return from those long operations, we had little to cheer us in our jungle airfield home, isolated from normal social amenities.

On completing over 500 ops hours, I was posted to RAF Karachi (1500 personnel) where I carried out SHQ admin duties for over a year after the war finished, while all this time my Canadian & Australian aircrew colleagues enjoyed being home.

Sadly, one of my strongest final memories of the Far East occurred frequently while living in Karachi, where I was shouted at in the streets by passing hordes calling out a nation's grateful 'thanks' for repelling the Japanese:- "Quit India" they shouted . . . . if only I could !

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