By Deryck Groocock
Taken from the account by Major Paul Haskins of 2Y’Brigade and contributed by the pilot involved – Deryck Groocock
One of the greatest of Orde Wingate’s achievements was the successful large-scale use of aircraft to supply his troops operating inside Japanese-held territory. All the nine columns of 23 Brigade were supplied in this way with food, ammunition, mail, fresh clothing and everything else that they needed to fight and survive in the Naga Hills for three months.
In each column, there was an RAF officer with a detachment of signallers to operate a powerful wireless set to communicate with the airbase at Agartala. The choice of suitable places for supply drops lay with the RAF officer whose own knowledge and flying experience enabled him to understand the problems of the pilots. In heavily forested mountainous country, often covered in thick cloud, it was no easy task to find clear spaces on which to drop the loads suspended from their small parachutes, called statichutes. That only very few men in 23 Brigade went without a meal or essential equipment was due to the skill and courage of the pilots of the 216, 117 and 194 Squadrons RAF. The last-named was known through out the whole of XIV Army as “The Friendly Firm”.
Forty years later one of these pilots dismissed the extraordinary achievements of this squadron in the words; “We were young and foolish. Nobody in their right sense would have flown in such conditions.” The conditions were, indeed, often atrocious. In high mountains, where air currents sometimes threw the aircraft about like ships tossed around on the high seas, through rain and cloud and lightening, the pilots pushed relentlessly through to the map references given to them before they had taken off.
The dropping zone (DZ) would be indicated on the ground by the smoke from fires forming a large letter L. The task of the pilot was to drop his loads down the long line of the L. In the first few weeks some of the pilots had had no previous experience of this kind of work. If the DZ was on a narrow ridge, it is not surprising but excusable if some of the loads floated down steep mountain sides covered in thick jungle, sometimes to be lost for ever, but more often to be recovered by the ever-willing and supremely helpful Nagas.
Fodder for the mules and ponies, and rice for Naga villagers who had been left starving by marauding Japanese were ‘free-dropped’ without statichutes. Group Captain Deryck Groocock was then a young warrant officer piloting one of 194 Squadron’s Dakotas. He describes one, by no means untypical, experience:
“From the middle of May 1944, we turned to 23 Brigade’s part of the world, and much of our work consisted of supply drops to the north and east of Kohima. It was on one of these trips that I came the closest to death I have ever been.
We were to drop at a DZ near Chipoketama, and twelve Dakotas had been briefed for the job. We were loaded (grimly overloaded, I reckon) with bags of rice for free-fall dropping. We were flying from Agartala, but when we got a little way north we found ourselves flying above eight! eighths layer of cloud, and could see nothing of the ground.
However, we passed on in the clear blue sky above, hoping that somewhere in the vicinity of the DZ we would find a break in the cloud which would enable us to make a visual let down through it. When we got somewhere near where we though the DZ should be, we were flying at 8,500 ft. which gave us clearance of 1,500 ft. above the mountains which rose to 7,000 ft. Still hoping to find a hole in the cloud, I told my wireless operator to prepare the loads for dropping. This entailed opening the rear door and piling the bags of rice ready for pushing out by the two-air dispatch men aboard.
A few minutes later, to my great consternation, the aircraft’s airspeed, (normally about 125 M.P.H.) started to drop off for no apparent reason. I put on more power to no avail, it just dropped off faster, and I had to put more and more forward pressure on the stick to keep the nose level. When I could hold the nose down no longer, it reared up, and the aircraft flicked over into a right hand spin with a rate of descent of about 2,000 ft. per minute. This gave us about 45 seconds before we hit the mountains, which were still invisible.
I took the normal spin recovery action - full opposite rudder, stick forward, and thought, “This is the end.” I saw the altimeter go down to 6,000 ft., 5,500 ft., and 5,000 ft. and still we had not hit. The next second we came out below the cloud at 4,500 ft. under control and in a valley with great peaks vanishing into the clouds on either side of us.
Trembling like a leaf, I flew down the valley, and we considered what had happened. Fortunately, all the crew were still with me. They had not been wearing parachute harness and were still struggling into them when we emerged from the cloud. We realized that the aircraft must have been very badly loaded, and putting extra sacks near the door ready for ejection must have put the center of gravity right outside the limits, causing the aircraft to become uncontrollable. Once in the spin, the sacks near the door fell forward putting the center of gravity back within limits and enabling us to get out of the spin.
Suddenly, ahead, we saw a column of smoke coming up from the ground, and flew towards it. To our amazement, it was the DZ, displaying the correct recognition letters, we flew round and round it, waving like mad to the chaps on the ground, and pushing out the rice which had so nearly been our downfall.
We were now faced with getting home. We realized that there was no way of flying out of that particular valley at low level, and that we would have to climb out of it to do so. Selecting the widest part we could find, I put the aircraft into a steep climbing turn into the cloud, praying that we would not drift into either of the ridges on each side of us. After what seemed like an age, but was actually about 1 1/2 minutes, we emerged out of the cloud into bright sunshine, and headed back for Agartala
Out of twelve aircraft, which were sent out, we were, of course, the only one, which had dropped. The others had all wisely brought their loads back. The next day we received a signal from Rear Brigade HQ as follows:
34 coIn. Origin. No. 0225 26125 Congratulations to pilot who dropped QK 21 (SD 26 May RE 915840).
Little did he know how the drop had been accomplished .“
34 Column Commander was ‘Johnnie’ Burgess, commanding 4 Border. It was characteristic of his generous nature to wish to congratulate a pilot who had displayed such skill and courage.
The men of 23 Brigade never ceased to be amazed by the determination with which the pilots pressed through to their dropping zones, despite all the difficulties of climate and terrain. Out of a total of 782 sorties allotted, 560 were successful and only 3 aircraft crashed into the mountainsides. From only one of these did three of the crew escape with their lives. When the Essex and RA columns were moving through the immense heights of the Somra tracts in July, the monsoon was well set in. There were four days when supply dropping was impossible, owing to the thick clouds enveloping the whole area. The aircraft could be heard droning overhead, searching for the fires. The men on the ground were utterly exhausted, ravenously hungry and mostly sick - a few were dying -but they had nothing but admiration for the men in the air trying to find them in such dangerous flying conditions.
The spirit of “The Friendly Firm” owed much to the inspiration of its commander, Wing Commander ‘Fatty’ Pearson. Though now dead, he would be proud to know that the spirit he nourished lives on in the annual reunions, thanks to the enthusiasm of two of his officers, Dougie Williams and ‘Flash’ Beaumont. Always friendly to the men on the ground who were so much less comfortable than they were at the airbase, their friendliness is now extended to the many casualties of war who need the help of the Royal Air Force Benevolent Fund, for which they raise large sums of money every year.
Before they were allotted to 23 Brigade, 194 Squadron had been deeply involved with the other Chindit Brigades operating in Burma. In 1984, the reunion marked the 40th anniversary of the Chindit Operations. Among eight Chindits present, was Orde Wingate Jr., the same age as his father was when he was killed and looking remarkably like him. In a splendidly convivial evening, the Chindits enjoyed (once again) the old wartime spirit of their friends of 194 Squadron. Amidst all the talk, laughter and speeches, the invisible presence of the indomitable ‘Fatty’ Pearson was almost tangible.