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Library Reference Number: 256

Flying with No.160 Squadron RAF - SE Asia

Jack Burgess BEM

During the Bracknell Symposium on the Far East War held on 24th March 1995, the historian Air Commodore Henry Probert spoke of the lack of interest shown by other historians in this theatre of war. This despite the fact that Churchill named it "the most dangerous moment of the war" when the Japanese invasion fleet with their carriers' air power attacked Ceylon sinking the British aircraft carrier 'Hermes' and two cruisers in April 1942.

The Japanese navy was carrying all before it in the Pacific, and the thought of Japan over-running Ceylon with India and meeting up with the victorious Rommel in the Middle East was too horrific a thought to contemplate. However, as Probert pointed out, global war has its priorities and the overriding principle of the British and Americans was Germany first, and if any resources remained they might be considered for use in the Far East.

It was within this very uncertain future that 160 Squadron was originally formed at Thurleigh, Bedfordshire on 16th January 1942. Ground personnel left to make the sea voyage to India around the Cape on 12th February while aircrews stayed behind for further training, then took off with their Liberators for Palestine in early June. Crews were unexpectedly required to stay in Palestine long enough to execute night raids on Crete and Libya. They also supported Operation Vigorous in June 1942, whose purpose was to provide protection for a convoy from Alexandria to Malta. Some No.160 Sqn Liberators were also involved in an attack on the Italian fleet at sea.

It was only after the second battle of El Alamein was over (October 1942) that the 160 Squadron Liberators eventually flew to India. Being the first British Liberator squadron to reach the subcontinent, they were used for a wide range of flying operations involving shipping protection around the Bay of Bengal, long-range photo-reconnaissance and shipping strikes before eventually being moved to their intended destination within Ceylon.

It was felt that with the Liberators extra long-range capability, it might be possible to cross the Indian Ocean for each operation with targets as far south as Singapore and up through Malaya to Thailand/Burma while still being out of reach from Japanese retaliation at their 160 Squadron base in Ceylon. This in fact proved to be the case, although operations proved to be some of the lengthiest long-range air operations of World War Two.

Initially based with No.200 Squadron at St. Thomas Mount Madras, we knew the change to Ceylon was planned. Posted to No.160 Squadron in Kankesanthurai (KKS) in Ceylon, I arrived there with my crew in August 1944. We had teamed up at No.111 Operational Training Unit, Nassau, and my all Canadian crew consisted of Flt Lt Les Waterfield Pilot (crew captain); F/O Stu Smith Pilot; F/O Dave Coutts Navigator; 3 W/Ops Sgt Angus Goettler; Sgt Eric McDonald; Sgt George Stanton; and myself Sgt Jack Burgess RAF, Flight Engineer.

After a brief attachment to RAF Gan in the Maldives tracking German submarine U-862, we returned to Ceylon and immediately commenced preparations for mine-laying operations. I distinctly remember our first briefing for it was the first attempt for aircraft to fly the return flight to Malaya and back to base in Ceylon. Three crews were selected for this first attempt. Squadron C.O. Wg Cdr Stacey, F/O Crawley, and our own Les Waterfield crew. The target was to drop mines at Penang North on a popular Japanese shipping supply route. Being magnetic they would be harmless to the local fishing boats of wooden construction.

On this briefing for the first attempt to fly this long distance on 21st January 1945, I still remember the look on the faces of Wg Cdr Stacey's crew, for he stated that we were to make a long approach at sea-level to fly under the Japanese radar. But after dropping the mines, we were to get the heck back to base while he gained height and flew in a northerly direction exposing his plane to trick the Japanese into thinking we belonged to a base in India. The aim at this time being to conceal the fact that B24 Liberators were based in Ceylon, for fear of another visit from the Japanese invasion fleet that had caused so much havoc and damage to the island in April 1942.

In addition to the long distance in reaching target areas, the main hazard lay at Sabang in north tip of Sumatra, the home of three Jap fighter squadrons. Wg Cdr Stacey in a Catalina had gone over a few days beforehand and dropped a few bombs on the Sabang runway which put the Japanese fighters temporarily out of action. This of course was only a short-term solution to give our first crossing a chance. Runways were very soon repaired.

At the Bracknell Symposium on the Far East (24th March 1995) Air Vice-Marshal A.D. Dick stated "As already mentioned, transport by ship, coaster and boat had become essential for the supply of the Japanese forces in Burma, to import coastal ports and harbours. RAF Liberators mined ports and rivers in Siam, Burma and Malaya. The longest and most daring was the mining of Penang harbour by RAF Liberators - a round trip of over 3,000 miles lasting over 20 hours." As the ACSEA historian said ".. the mining operations paid dividends far in excess of what might have been expected from the effect involved. The effect was marked by the subsequent absence from those waters which had been mined of shipping whose contents were vital to the Japanese army in Burma."

In this initial mining operation of Penang harbour (the first of many others) the flying time according to my log book was 18hrs 50mins. Flying times we discovered very soon to be extended to reach more distant targets.

In "Wings of the Dawning: The Battle for the Indian Ocean" author Dr. Arthur Banks states "Those mines sank ten ships, and finally contributed a great deal to stopping the flow of oil from the ports of Sumatra and Borneo."

Following our period of mining Japanese shipping lanes, 160 Squadron was soon to become heavily involved with Force 136 special duties. Into highly secret guerrilla sites we dropped men and materials anywhere from the Cameron Highlands down to Singapore. We undertook jungle training, as Europeans cannot remain long undetected in Malaysia for obvious reasons of facial appearance and language problems. We were well warned of the consequences of being shot down, and carried .38 revolvers with only six bullets. It was an alternative to decapitation after torture and digging one's own grave, and up to each individual how to react. Unlike conditions in Europe there were no "safe houses" or willing "helpers" for aircrew brought down in Burma or Malaysia.

For utmost security, we only met the persons we dropped when they boarded our Liberator. No questions asked, but before dropping we wished each other good luck. Chinese Canadians, Gurkhas, Europeans, they were all the same to us, but they all had one thing in common - they were very brave souls to be dropped behind enemy lines containing such a ruthless enemy capable of every horrific atrocity. Strangely enough, some said they were glad to be bailing out as they would dread the tortuous long flight back to Ceylon. Each to their own!!

Very few members of aircrew complete an operational tour unscathed, and midway through our tour I was on the injury list and admitted to 35 BGH Hospital in Colombo for treatment. Following this I was sent to the hill country for several weeks where it was cooler to recuperate. Shortly after returning, Les Waterfield and remainder of my crew had completed their 500 hours when aircrew in Far East had a rest period from operational flying. To make up all the flying hours I had lost, the only alternative was to seek a place in another crew in order to make up the required flying hours and complete my 500 hours operational tour.

This opportunity came in the form of someone else's misfortune when another Canadian skipper had ditched in the Indian Ocean after running out of fuel on returning from a mission in Malaysia. F/O Doug Turner managed to perform a tricky task in landing a Liberator in the water without breaking up due to the B24 roll-up bomb bay doors smashing open on contact and the aircraft rapidly sinking. Bob McReadie was the hero of the hour who helped most crew members who were trapped to come out alive. Doug Turner was fortunate he had spotted a ship which turned out to be the Dutch MV "Tubian" (Captain Sante A. Jenker) making its way towards Ceylon. In which case he ditched one mile in front of the vessel and he and his crew were saved. Sadly the flight engineer was so badly injured that he was unable to ever fly again. In this event, I joined my second Canadian aircrew.

Thereafter, I completed a further nine operations with Doug Turner to complete my 518 ops tour where distances flown became greater and greater stretching right down to Singapore. It was slightly annoying when after the war I returned to UK and a former prisoner of war said to me the first Allied aircraft he had seen from the Japanese Changi prison camp in Singapore was an American plane presumably flown by Americans. It was with great difficulty I did manage to persuade him that British and Canadian crews also flew planes built in USA. It had been frustrating to look down on those Jap prison camps, being unable to help those in horrendous conditions.

I must admit that flying with the Doug Turner crew was a bit nerve-racking on the return leg of the long range operations. Who could blame them? They had run out of fuel once on the way back, and a nine or ten hour return flight is a long time to bite your nails if you are that way inclined. The B24 Liberator fuel gauges were about the only dodgy items in a great modern plane to fly at that time. The result being that among other duties I had to maintain a flight log containing every change of speed, altitude, engine reading, power etc. and work out the estimated fuel left at our disposal. Then if the worse happened we could ditch in a controlled situation.

Every crew member who passed me asked "How's the gas Jack?" Especially during the last few hours of the flight, Doug would repeatedly ask to look at my calculations, but never once did he find fault, and glad to report he never required ditching procedures in the Indian Ocean ever again. Doug Turner had been a University of Toronto star footballer. He later returned to Law studies post war and eventually became a Judge in Canada.

Having "died" a number of times on occasions when it was thought there was little chance of survival over a thousand miles from base, it's not surprising that those members of aircrew bond for life. We were no exception, and I am proud to still be in touch with the late Les Waterfield's son and crew member Angus Goettler's family; also the son and granddaughter of Don Yeomans (Doug Turner's navigator) and Emily the daughter of the late Ivan Hewitt, another member of the Doug Turner crew. All those families living in different areas of Canada.

Having the greatest respect for first crew captain Les Waterfield and wireless/radar operator Gus Goettler, not only for their flying skills but also as friends, it was a great delight for all when Margaret and I flew to Palmerston (Ont), in the 1980s to have a glorious reunion. Les and Hilda never made it back to UK, but Gus and Marion joined us a few years later for an enjoyable tour of Scotland. It was also a great pleasure when my second crew navigator Rydon Yeomans' son George and granddaughter Tanya flew from Calgary to visit me in 2006.

Canadians were otherwise fairly prominent in 160 Squadron and Far East operations. Many of the agents we dropped in Japanese occupied territory were Chinese Canadians who were more suited to fit into the Malayan environment undetected. In the 160 Officers' Mess, RCAF officers outnumbered those of the RAF. It was also 160 Squadron RCAF pilot Doug Connor who returned to India in 1974 and flew Liberator KN751 back to UK from Poona after personally paying for its refurbishment at Hindustan Aeronautics Limited, Bangalore. This aircraft initially installed at RAF Cosford, is now on display at the Royal Air Force Museum, Hendon.

While we were actively engaged on wartime operations, it was a wise move to keep below Japanese radar to avoid enemy gunfire. In contrast, Doug Connor volunteered to form a special unit within 160 Squadron and actually set out looking for enemy radar stations to actively destroy and put them out of action. Doug kept in touch after the war when he won champion events in the Cresta Run, later becoming Coach to the Canadian Olympic Gold bob sled team in 1964. At a later date Doug Connor sent me a detailed record of his flight bringing the Liberator back to the UK. Doug had many business interests in aviation. He died in London on 5th July 2002 leaving behind a search for his autobiography "Golden Flies the Snow." Requests for further information came from UK and Canada, but this book was a subject Doug Connor never discussed with me at any time.

People of Ceylon were aware of the Japanese attack on Colombo harbour in April 1942 and the heroics of the pilots of outnumbered RAF Hurricane fighters lingers, as does the subsequent attacks on Trincomalee with the loss of the aircraft carrier Hermes. At least some warning was given of the imminent attacks due to the radio messages sent by Canadian Squadron Leader Len Birchall on 4th April 1942. He and his Catalina crew of eight were shot down 300 miles off Sri Lanka's coast shortly after sighting the incoming Japanese invasion fleet. Taken prisoner and harshly treated, Churchill afterwards named Birchall "The Saviour of Ceylon."

Broadly speaking, although many of 160 Squadron aircrew members were Canadian, the ground personnel were British. We were very fortunate that most of those ground staff members were former pre-war RAF boy apprentices and exceptionally well trained and skilled technicians. Our aircraft were extremely well maintained, and I can never remember one incident where engines or airframes ever let us down. All maintenance carried out in the open-air bamboo workshops, where we were warned by the maintenance staff to look after their planes. It was a very happy relationship, and we did try to bring their planes back from ops in one piece.

The question may be asked "Why would an RAF Squadron make reference to Ceylon in its Squadron Crest?" The 'Sunday Times' on Sunday 30th December 2012 states "Indeed, such was the influence of the island on the squadron that the motto chosen was the Sinhala Api soya paragasamu ("We seek and strike") and the insignia was no less than Lanka's lion rampant. Thus, among the varied RAF squadrons stationed in Ceylon during the war and its aftermath, No.160 has an especial association with the island.

On 23rd June 1946, No.160 Squadron returned to the UK being based at RAF Leuchars and operated as a reconnaissance squadron. The squadron converted to Lancaster GR3s in August 1946. The existing 120 Squadron of that time was disbanded, and the personnel of 160 Squadron were renumbered to become known as the restored No.120 Squadron on 30th September 1946 and moved to their new base at RAF Kinloss.

Many members of 160 Squadron aircrew on their return home to Canada joined the Burma Bombers Association while ground staff returning to UK formed the 160 Squadron Association. The Squadron Association returned to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) on several occasions when they visited war graves, well-remembered bases, and were treated with warm hospitality. In fact, when they returned for a further visit to Sri Lanka in 2005, they discovered on arrival after a long flight from UK, they were met at Colombo Airport with a very large banner proclaiming "Welcoming 160 Squadron Veterans 60th Anniversary."

In the year 1992, my wife and I spent the whole month of November in Sri Lanka, during which time we enjoyed a 16-day tour around the island. Rubber and tea plantations along with many other cultural and historic sites were enjoyed, but of course the highlight was a visit to Minneriya Airfield where we had taken off on so many occasions. I must agree with others who have said it was a highly emotional experience to witness the same old runway where it had been the last view before each very long operation, and the first welcome sight on our return. We counted ourselves so incredibly fortunate, for so many did not survive to witness the return.

We appreciated the hospitality shown by the Commanding Officer and Adjutant of the Sri Lanka Air Force who were both keen to listen to our past wartime history of the Airfield. The Adjutant gave me his name and postal details, with the request to forward further details of the station's wartime history after I returned home and found time to write to him. Incredibly, all things within aviation are subject to constant change. The Sri Lanka Air Force had renamed wartime RAF Minneriya "SLAF Hingurakgoda" while our beloved, respected and well-remembered 160 Squadron had been renumbered, and its four year wartime operational activity confined to the history books.

Footnote:Other website library references directly related to above 160 Squadron article.

041 - Recovering the Liberator
056 - Force 136 Liberators
093 - Flying to the Limits or Phantom Refuelling
110 - Aircrew Leadership
120 - 45 (Atlantic Transport) Group
163 - Tracking U-862 - via the Maldives
167 - The Rise and Fall of the B24 Liberator
173 - Ditching in the Indian Ocean
185 - A Shadow over the Rising Sun
203 - My Final and Longest Op.

Also Further information from the detailed SEAC research undertaken by Robert Quirk at www.rquirk.com