In the Air Over Burma - Brian Shelley
By Brian Shelley, May 1945
We were flying along in a DC-3, or as we called it in the RAF, a Dakota, in thick cloud over Burma’s mountains. Returning from a supply drop to the 14th army, we suddenly entered a cumulo nimbus cloud formation. On that day in May 1945, all had been peaceful in our low stratus cloud and we could not foresee the deadly turbulence of the monsoon cloud that we were approaching.
All Hell broke loose. Our airspeed shot up from the cruising 160 to 300 M.P.H., so we closed the throttles. Next, at a speed of 90 M.P.H., we had the throttles wide open to avoid a stall. We did not know the altitude of the aircraft as the artificial horizon had fallen off its gimbals and was useless. What we did know was that the internal pressures were tremendous. The wireless operator’s hand was glued to his table due to the great force of gravity. The rest of the crew was thrown against their harnesses as the pilot tried all known manoeuvers to control the fierce climbs and dives of the aircraft. After a few minutes, which seemed like hours, we broke through cloud in a steep dive at about 500 feet and just managed to pull out at about 250 feet. We all breathed again.
Anxious to find out how the aircraft had weathered these great stresses, the pilot asked the navigator for a nearest available landing strip. We were soon on the ground checking for damage along with another of our squadron aircraft that had landed for the same purpose, having survived the same cumulo nimbus cloud. Both crews were very scared and relieved to be alive. Neither plane showed any apparent damage so we flew back to our base on Akyab Island.
This was just one of many problems we faced every other day while completing our 700 hour tour with an RAF squadron in the “Combat Cargo Task Force,” under US command, supporting the 14th Army, now fast regaining lost territory in Burma.
Life on the squadron followed a routine of one day flying followed by a day of rest, unless there was an emergency when we flew every day until things settled down. Our duty day started at 4:30 A.M. when the ‘wakeywakey’ sergeant’s whistle roused us in our tent beneath the palms. At that time of the morning, the heat had not started to really burn one up; it was just uncomfortable and sticky.
With little delay, we were in the mess tent for the usual breakfast of porridge, tinned bacon, powdered eggs, bread and jam and a mug of tea. This had to last all day until our final trip landed after dark at about 7:30 P.M. Sometimes a box of ”K” rations would supplement our intake of the basic mug of tea at a landing strip or back at base between trips, whilst the aircraft was being loaded.
Our most important ‘weapon’ was our tin tea mug, available for a ‘pick-me-up’ wherever we were. We did carry a revolver but found after some experiments that it was hard to hit a target more than a few feet away! However, our armament had one real reason to give us comfort; if we were ever shot down we could finish ourselves off before the Japanese used us for bayonet practice or any other type of brutality for which they were renowned.
Three trips a day was our usual day’s work, totalling 8 - 10 hours flying time, from take off at dawn to our last landing in the dark. A typical load might be 7000 pounds of rice in sacks, to be delivered from 50 feet at a drop zone, often in a valley. The trick was to get under the usual clouds, fly down between hills and find the dropping zone markings. The rear crew would then push the load out of the open side-door. The turbulence was often so severe that the boys struggled to avoid following the loads out of the doorway’s gaping void. All our aircraft had the rear door removed to ease the exit of the cargo, either alive or inanimate!
It would take many circuits of the dropping zone to get rid of all the loads and all of us were pretty tired at the end. Then it was time to climb back into the clouds and pray that we would not hit the hills enclosing the valley.
Other trips involved landing at a forward airstrip with a load, which might be drums of petrol, bombs or ammunition. In fact, we supplied everything that a modern army required to survive and operate efficiently against an extremely stubborn and determined enemy. At times, we were under mortar fire while unloading and this speeded up the operation no end.
The return trip could be either empty, with wounded, troops on relocation or even empty drums and used parachutes. It should be mentioned that, if the items were too fragile or too heavy for a free drop, parachute drops were made, usually between 500 and 300 feet. The odd casualty occurred when one of the ground troops eagerly stepped forward to retrieve a load and was instead hit by a 50-pound sack of rice travelling 120 M.P.H. from 50 feet!
The advantage of being in the air force was that every night we came home to a tent or a ‘basha’ (mud hut). Whereas the army boys with no definite place to lay their heads had the certainty of having to cope with the Japanese, leeches, snakes and the continual climate of tropical heat and damp which caused various sores and boils. We generally flew in Khaki pants, flying boots and a bush hat; shirts were unnecessary as we sweated, even up in the air. In addition, a bare chest made one less likely to get a heat rash.
Food had to be flown into our base or brought by ship if we were near a port, such as at Akyab Island. Rations were simple and limited. We did benefit a little at Akyab as the locals fished regularly and sold us some of their catch, which made a welcome change from the constant diet of bully beef, powdered eggs and potatoes.
A Different Life
The main difference between a tour of flying operations in England versus Burma was that in the UK there were pubs to visit and girls to take out. On the other hand, in Bomber Command the chances of survival were limited. We had no outside social life and a monthly ration of only four bottles of beer but our survival rate was greater than those in England. Yet we had to contend with the weather, combined with the odd attack from Japanese Zeros. There was also the fear that if forced down, our chances with the locals or Japanese were somewhat uncertain.
All said, operating in Burma resulted in the squadron members growing much closer to one another. Since there was no one else to fraternize with, the longer one stayed on the squadron the more appealing the local women, who loaded the aircraft, became!
One happy memory is that of being lulled to sleep by Vera Lynn singing “Au revoir, but not Goodbye” over our broadcasting system. The signal’s section had set up a station, call sign “NBG” (No Bloody Good), with loudspeakers in the trees around the camp. They played records over the system every evening. This, although nostalgic now, gave comfort to the lads so far from home who formed the lifeline of the “Forgotten 14th Army”.