By Ken Moses
My first unit in India No. 3 P.R.O. had a Co W/C A. Pearson later to become the legendary CO of 194 Squadron. I did not know that I would follow him to 194 Sq. the most arduous, taxing one in my R.A.F. service. 194 Sq. was the pioneer in Supply Dropping. It was formed in Oct. 1942 at Lahore, using Lockheed Hudsons, with all gun turrets and armaments removed. Supply chutes were fitted in place of the belly gun turret.
I joined a detachment of four aircraft at Dum Dum (Calcutta), where we ferried supplies to Tezpur and Chittagong, to build up supplies for subsequent droppings to Wingate’s first Chindit Expedition into Burma in 1943. This operation challenged the navigational skills of aircrews to locate Chindit columns in the jungle. All went well, the majority of drops were successful.
During our spell at Dum Dum and later at Dhubalia, I travelled on several ‘mail runs’ operated by the Sq. All maintenance work en-route had to be carried out by engine and airframe fitters. During these runs I visited most cities in India — Bombay, Delhi, Karachi, Calcutta, Madras, Bangalore, Allahabad, Cochin, Chittagong, Cuttack, Nagpur, Vizagapatam and Columbo in Ceylon.
My memory of Christmas Eve 1942 was of almost the entire population of Calcutta beating a hasty retreat by road, rail and on foot, out of the city, as the Jap airforce dropped a few anti-personnel bombs leaving small craters in the roads. Even our Indian cooks disappeared leaving us to enjoy a dinner of billy-beef and “dog biscuits’~ A trip into Calcutta for a meal proved a waste of time as staff had deserted hotels and restaurants.
In April 1943 the whole Sq. moved to Palam, New Delhi, where conversion work from Hurricane to Dakota started. I flew with my crew’s Hudson to Maripur (Karachi), returning in a brand new Douglas Dakota. The ground crew was expected to read and digest the maintenance manuals before the flight ended...
At our next stop in Basal (Rawlapindi) I was soon employed modifying my two Dakotas for dropping parachute troops. All de-icing strips had to be removed from leading edges of wings and tail units, and tail wheel and door handle guards made and fitted. Inside the fuselage harness wires had to be resighted. Extensive training of dropping troops by parachute lasted while there were almost continuous supply drops by day and night.
Christmas 1943 made up for the Dum Dum episode with the whole Sq. enjoying the break. Basal was a place of extremes - weather wise. It was very hot by day and perishing cold by night. During this spell one sensed that moves were afoot to return troops to Burma. I was detailed to accompany my Dakota to Delhi, pick up Gen. “Boy” Browning and staff and fly them to forward areas where top level talks were held with British and US Commanders. Later it was revealed that “Operation Thursday” was being planned.
Feb. 1944 found 194 Sq. on the move to our new base at Argatala. Before we had time to settle in our bamboo ‘bashas’ the Dakotas were serviced and off to drop supplies in the Arakan. My aircraft “C” Charlie struggled from one drop on one engine. A Jap sniper’s bullet had penetrated the propeller boss resulting in oil loss and one u/s engine. Late Feb. confirmed my theory about General Browning’s flight, as our aircraft flew to Lalaghat (Assam) to practice glider towing. Since moving to the front line, the Sq. had flown 1500 hrs. in three weeks, so one can guess the amount of effort my ground crew companions had to achieve to keep the aircraft flying.
On March 4, 1944, my flight was detached to Tulihall in the Imphal valley, where we became involved in “Operation Thursday”, Wingate’s air invasion of Burma. We were flying troops, equipment, mules, ammunitions and food, into improvised airstrips 200 miles behind Japanese lines. The first flights were from Assam airfields towing gliders, followed by flights from Tulihall. Each Dakota had been converted into a flying stable, with bamboo poles along windows and hitching rails fore and aft. Coconut matting with a layer of straw covered the floor for the cargo of 3 mules and 16 troops plus equipment.
This period was very hectic for both aircrew and ground crew; very little sleep, with aircraft being repaired for operations each night, refueling being carried out by hand pumps from 40 gallon drums of petrol — all in clouds of dust by aircraft taking off. I had the misfortune to have to remove a dead mule from my aircraft after a flight. The muleteer had caused considerable damage to the aircraft while shooting it. Doug Williams records (this episode in 194 Sq. book)
I made two flights into “Broadway” during “Operation Thursday” to effect repairs to our aircraft. I was very impressed at the way things were organized at the ‘sharp end’. Immediately after the troops and mules were off-loaded, they disappeared into the jungle to rely on food drops to survive. One day Gen.’ Bill’ Slim was watching us trying to remove an obstinate tyre from the wheel of a Dakota. Much cursing and swearing resulted, and he came over to see what the problem was. I gave him a satisfactory explanation receiving thanks for our efforts in keeping our aircraft flying during this operation. Our flight returned to base and continued supply drops to the Chindits and the 14th Army.
In late March, the transportation of the entire 5th Indian Div. from the Arakan to Imphal was carried out.
Supply drops to the Imphal Valley and Kohima followed. I remember looking down on the devastation at Kohima while on one of these drops — it reminded me of the WWI scenes of Belgium.
Operations continued throughout the monsoon period, despite the ground crews being soaking wet for long periods, while still servicing aircraft in these atrocious conditions.
After I suffered a very weakening bout of Malaria, I was given a convalescent break at Simla in the hills. This was a very welcome respite, but the Indian demonstrators gave us a worrying time on the rail journeys, stoning the trains and chanting “quit India” slogans. Worse still, they removed some rails from the tracks.
Our Sq.’s food was mainly bully beef — disguised in many devious ways, and soy links with the infamous dehydrated potatoes. When operating in forward areas, ‘K’ rations were the main stay. Entertainment was unknown until Vera Lynn visited us at Agartala. Off duty there was football with all flights and trades providing teams.
Oct. 1944 I departed from 194 Sq. and returned to India to join 99 Sq. who were converting Wellington to Liberator bombers at Jessore. Several airframe fitters with American aircraft experience were posted to this Sq. to speed up the conversion.
I enjoyed the travels to places I could not otherwise have afforded, but mostly, I welcomed the comradeship, which is still evident by the large number of veterans who attend 194 Sq. and Burma Star reunions.