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Library Reference Number: 157

Don't Give Me The Hump

Ted Bracken, AE, Scottish Saltire Branch, ACA

The vast geographical scale of world war two may be judged by the following account by Ted Bracken. While much attention was given to Europe and the Middle East being closer to home, Ted Bracken and his colleagues were flying operations over the world's highest mountains from northern India Into China - the notorious 'Hump.' Altogether Ted Bracken completed 34 single crossings of the Hump. 'Single crossings' in the sense that they were not always just return journeys, but sometimes from Kunming, onwards to Chungking, Hong Kong and various other points in China only identified by a map reference. Ted recalls flying the trusty Dakota over the world's highest peaks.

On this occasion, the meaning of the above heading is "Please don't make me fly in and out of the Himalayan Mountains." From around early 1944, No.52 Squadron R.A.F. was reformed at Dum Dum, Calcutta, with the purpose of flying in support of the hoped for advance against the Japanese, starting off in North Burma. A secondary task was to select the experienced crews to support the RAF and Embassy staff in Kunming and Chungking situated in China. It should be remembered at this point, that we were still considered to be pioneers on this specific air route, as the first flight over the hump had only taken place on 30"' November 1941 by the Americans flying DC3 aircraft, closely followed by 31 Squadron, RAF, and ourselves at a slightly later date.

By this time the Americans had arrived in N.E. India, and set about constructing additional airfields, which were necessary to allow aircraft supply the Chinese activists attempting to repel the Japanese forces. This supply route assumed even greater importance, as the Japanese had captured large sections of the original Burma Road.

Due to the extremely rugged mountainous terrain below, and the lengthy flights through erratic, unpredictable weather conditions caused by those lofty peaks, additional flying training was required. I was to discover, for example, that elevators and other control surfaces normally within complete command of a competent pilot, had little or no effect in certain turbulent conditions. The altitude and control of the aircraft was liable to be taken over by the random whims of the strong mountainous air currents.

Having been selected to join 52 Squadron's 'Hump Flight' I undertook six return trips over twelve days as second pilot with one of the old hands, during which time I was able to gain much experience and make copious notes for future flights. Taking off from Calcutta, 1 was fortunate on the first run that we had superb weather enabling me to have a rare, unforgettable view of the Everest block clearly seen over my left shoulder while listening to the American radio network. Proceeding over the Brahmaputra Delta 1 thought the river was much wider than t expected. This apparently is the cause of numerous deaths by drowning, caused by the frequent abnormal rainfall over the monsoon season bursting the banks of the river and causing havoc.

Landing at Dinjan I discovered it was a base for American C-46 aircraft, with crews surviving on tinned food. Taking off to continue over the hump at 16,000 ft, the main aid to navigation was to note mountains and rivers. Rivers that sometimes meandered so much that they turned back on themselves, and mountains that could be quickly obscured by sudden appearance of cloud formations. I discovered care had to be taken not to stray too close to Japanese airfields in north Burma. I could also see the Likiang Mountains to the north that reached 23,fl00ft, keeping in mind that our old Dakota could never reach this height. With the exception of Tali Mountain standing on its own at 14,700 feet, we could now begin our descent in clear weather of course. Tali was a very steep mountain but on the summit stood a monastery. At a later stage in my career we used to fly a couple of circuits around the building to wave to a large number of monks who would rush out into a square courtyard joining the cattle, pigs and poultry. How anyone or anything made its way to the top was never made dear to us. There was a huge lake below, but one did not envy being on the water collecting team and carrying it up many thousand feet.

From Tali, the original section of the Burma Road was in sight all the way to the Airfield, which was 7,000 ft. above sea level. The USA operator talking us in was strongly professional; they had to be with the number of aircraft piling in. Lined up next to a hangar were about twenty US 'Tomahawks' complete with the shark's head painted an the nose - General Chennault's `Flying Tigers.' with volunteer American pilots, probably the only efficient fighter squadron facing the Japanese onslaught in west China, and seeking revenge for Pearl Harbour.

Transported by Jeeps to the RAF compound we met the five permanently stationed officers in the Mess who were very pleased to see us and our supplies. Next morning back to the airfield setting a reciprocal to Dinjan and then back to Dum Dum. I had been fortunate to experience good weather on my first training trip, as the remaining five turned quite nasty, and the navigator also had his work cut out in keeping us on course. Having completed the six training return trips, 1 was now about to go solo. The weather was not realty encouraging as Dum Dum was virtually closed with high winds and heavy rain. Not wishing to appear `chicken' I decided to go for it, despite noting a line of unmoving American aircraft with the painted squadron crest stating "We fly when the birds walk." Shortly after take-off we flew into a heavy storm with hailstones the size of golf balls threatening to smash the windscreen. After continuous severe turbulence until reaching Dinjan, the beacon helped to make a landing of sorts. After a tinned lunch we set off again on the next leg with instructions to climb to 11,000 feet. The near-perfect flying conditions experienced on my first hump-training mission were very rarely repeated, and on my return flight I was introduced for the first time to the dreaded `sudden down-draught,' an experience that I shall never forget.

I found myself like many others flying over the Hump, in a situation which contradicted all theories of flight, and give rise to utter disbelief. 1 had always thought that pulling the stick back would direct the aircraft to go up, but discovered that I had no control and we continued downwards. As we were still in cloud I couldn't be sure as to how dose we were to the next range of mountains. Still sinking, the only thing I could think of was to turn south when we had a modicum of control, which might avoid meeting the mountain range head on. After losing around 800 feet the sinking feeling stopped, and we had full control again.

On subsequent trips the opposite movement was experienced, and although you knew the extra height would be helpful, once or twice I wondered when the aircraft would stop climbing. I had heard that some American pilots were aware of certain spots, and used the up-down currents as roller coaster rides! I never got as confident as that, especially after arriving each time at Dinjan the first question we were asked when booking in was "Did you see any smoke on your journey?" This turned out to be the most common question asked and was an indication an aircraft was missing, and had most likely crashed in the mountains. The Americans lost over 900 personnel on the Hump-run; probably the mountains beat more than losses attributed to enemy action.

An additional hazard was icing on the wings leading edges at high attitude. In these conditions it was not possible to descend to warmer temperatures to remedy this, having to maintain height to clear the high mountain ranges.

Arriving at Kunming on one trip, we decided to have a look at what the area had to offer. After visiting the Black Market, which seemed to contain goods which had fallen off American lorries, we thought about having a walk alongside a canal. What we hadn't appreciated was that on one side of the narrow path the ground sloped dawn to flooded paddy fields, the other side contained stagnant smelling water of the canal. Two figures approached from the opposite direction each bearing a milkmaid type yoke across their shoulders making it very difficult to squeeze past. Material suspended from the bamboo exposed a head at one end and feet at the other. Apparently this was the local Undertaker going about his business. The second person to approach us and squeeze past also bore a similar yoke with suspended containers. This time the material carried was `night waste' on its way to the fruit and vegetable fields. I had often wondered haw China managed to produce such bumper crops!

After Japan had closed the Burma Road cutting off all land supplies to China who supported the Allies, a massive tonnage had been flown in by air. My own record of Hump crossings had now mounted to 30+, but suddenly all this was about to change. Without any warning on this mission, we were approaching Kunming when we noted the absence of beacons; but fortunately it was a clear day enabling a safe landing. The usually friendly helpful voice of the flying controllers seemed quiet and subdued. On landing, another surprise was the number of troops marching around the Airfield all heavily armed. It seemed the Chinese Communist Army had seen off the Nationalists. As aircraft landed each crew was lined up with soldiers carrying rifles with fixed bayonets, and it took us about an hour of form-filling both in English with soldiers adding Chinese details. The next morning we were subjected to more formalities before being allowed to become airborne.

During the next week in Calcutta, news came in to confirm that the Nationalists had retaken the area, and all was as it was before. The game of changed occupation happened once or twice more before the War ended, and soon after this there was a change of plan and we were to proceed to Hong Kong. As the Americans had no interest in Hong Kong, the navigation office at Kunming had a great time looking for charts of the area. The nearest they got to it was presenting us with what turned out to be a 'Children's School Atlas' where I had to paint out there was no essential detail on the map. Failing all other attempts at navigational aids, we reckoned that if we started to fly south-east, eventually we would come across some big river, follow it to the sea, turn left and bound to arrive at Hong Kong - it worked! Landing at Kai Tak held some memories, right hand circuit - plunging down between the skyscrapers and avoiding the washing hanging out to dry on the balconies.

Next morning I was instructed to report back to Kunming, and a week later I was asked to await the arrival of eleven VIPs who were being brought in by American aircraft from Manchuria. This group consisted of the most senior Army, Royal Air Force Officers and civilians captured by the Japanese, and their wish was to return home as soon as possible. My remit was to transport them as far as India as the first step in their return. The ex-prisoners had not been shown any favours by the Japanese, and they all looked so old and exhausted. They wore makeshift clothing, and the Air Vice Marshal wore an airman's greatcoat, but his badges of rank were pinned on each shoulder with the largest safety pins I had ever seen.

I should have known better, but on the way to India I invited the old boys to come up to the front if they wanted a smoke. At one time eight of them were belching smoke thickly. I don't know where they got their tobacco, but I'm sure it was derived from Manchurian camels! The bad news as we approached India was a diversion, no Dum Dum Airfield for us, but instructions to land at Alipore which was notorious as it was situated in South Calcutta in the middle of heavy industry producing thick smoke making landings extremely difficult due to reduced visibility. The answer to this was to set off pyrotechnics at the landing end of the runway in the hope that the aircraft coming in could line up. The first attempt was aborted, as we didn't see the fireworks as they appeared well off to starboard and too late to straighten up. I was so pleased to get the second attempt straight that the actual touch down was probably the worst landing t have ever made. Concentrating so much on landing through the smoke, I was unaware at first that a saloon car was speeding alongside us parallel with the runway, with a cameraman standing on top filming our landing for "Movietone News."

Taxiing over to a hangar where a 200 strong reception party and band were waiting, I switched off and rushed to the rear of the aircraft to see our passengers off safely, but in my haste caught my trousers on a metal projection ripping one leg from crotch to ankle. That was the reason I was not included on the photographs, or maybe I hung back to avoid being identified from the photograph as being responsible far the bad landing.

Some time after this event, the Americans decided to pull out of China and soon afterwards the Brits would follow suit, this meant scuttling back and forward evacuating personnel and goods. On one return visit I noticed that a row of houses adjacent to the Airfield had been razed to the ground by American bulldozers. We were at Kunming the day before the Americans departed. They had piled up furniture and equipment in the centre of the field to have a huge bonfire. Their vehicles were excluded and given to the Chinese each one lacking its rotor arm. We didn't want to wait for this event to be discovered so decided to say our swift farewells. Unfortunately we found a fault with the brakes that we couldn't have fixed until late afternoon. We didn't normally fly the Hump at night, but in the circumstances reckoned we had best break this rule and get on our way.

Fortunately, it was good weather with bright moonlight enabling us to enjoy the flight, when crossing the final range of mountains there was a colossal bang, with flames shooting out of the starboard engine, and then normality was restored. With my lack of technical knowledge, I would suggest it was merely a backfire, but we did think it was a suitable goodbye from us to the Himalayas.

At the end of hostilities I was with a group issued with white uniforms, and evidently pioneered BOAC routes from Rangoon to Bangkok, Saigon and Hong Kong. After my demob I served four years in RAF(T), and seventeen years in R.Aux.A.F.(non-flying).

In more recent years (2005), a friend visited Hong Kong on holiday and on his return reminded me that I used to talk a lot about Kunming, and on his journey out he saw on the aircraft chart that they over-flew that place. My reaction was `What did you think of the Hump?" "'The what?" he said, and he had not sighted the jagged mountains. It then dawned on me that he had flown at 37,000 feet, while we had scrambled to get to 17,000 feet in our old Dakotas to avoid the bulk of the peaks.

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