By John Winter - Ex 117 Squadron
117 Squadron was formed at Khartoum on 30th April 1941 under the command of Wg Cdr WE Rankin from a detachment of another famous transport squadron -216 and became as famed as its worthy forebear. It began its life quietly with a mixture of aircraft - Bombays, Italian SM 79’s, Wellesleys, Lockheed 12’s etc. and was employed on the West Africa-Cairo refors route ferrying supplies and spares to the Desert Army. Later in the same year, the Squadron moved to Bilbeis between Cairo and Alexandria and embarked on training on its new DC2’s and for its future role of transport support, meanwhile continuing the constant build up of supplies for the Army which was later to become renowned as the “EIGHTH”. At this time too, civilians were evacuated from hard pressed Malta and General Alexander was flown by Wg Cdr Rankin to India to take over command, in Burma.
Wg Cdr RG Yaxley DSO MC DFC took over the Squadron on 8th July 1942 and under his leadership, 117 began to play a big part in the advance from El Alamein. A detachment moved up the desert on the heels of the 8th Army carrying bombs, ammunition and stores to forward airstrips and evacuating casualties on the return trips. During the advance Wg Cdr Yaxley was relieved by Wg Cdr J Goodhead and the final defeat of the Afrika Corps found 117 at Castel Benito near Tripoli where Wg Cdr WE Coles AFC assumed command.
Then preparations were begun for the first attack on the Fortress Europa via Sicily. Here again, the now familiar Dakotas (with which the Squadron had now been re-equipped) were there, carrying (often under fire) stores, food, ammunition etc to the troops on the island and evacuating casualties to North Africa. Even before Sicily fell, a detachment of the Squadron was at Catania on 3rd September 1943 and Italy. By 3rd October the Squadron was at Ban and apparently quite enjoying itself. But this was short lived for on 26th orders were received that 117 were to leave the Middle East and move to India to help in the Burma Campaign. Five days later the bulk of the Squadron was at Rawalpindi, no mean feat in itself.
Then followed a period of intensive training for a new type of transport support. Hitherto supplies had been ferried from rear to forward airstrips but in Burma there were no airstrips and little suitable terrain for landing near the front line troops. Supplies had therefore, to use an expression of General Wingate’s, to “come down the chimney” and it was for this new type of work that the Squadron was now preparing. The stay at Pindi, far removed from the desert heat and dust was very welcome and the amenities of the town more than compensated for the drop in temperature over the winter.
By February 1944, training was complete and the Squadron moved to Lalmai in Assam to begin its new task. At this time, preparations for the battle of Imphal which was to become the long trek to Rangoon and beyond, were in full swing. Day after day, night after night, men, guns, food and ammunition were flown into Imphal and non-combatants were evacuated, making the town a garrison with little more than a sting in it. Now too came Wingate’s second expedition into Burma, but this time, the men with all the paraphernalia to equip them for the jungle, deep behind enemy lines, were flown into hurriedly made airstrips carved out of the jungle. 117 carried a variety of loads including 121 mules and 47 horses into Broadway, White City and Chowringhee and when the job was completed, evacuated the Chindits back into Assam just before the Japanese captured the strips.
The Squadron’s part in this operation was acknowledged by the award of the American DFC to the Commanding Officer, Wg Cdr WE Coles, and the squadron was given unofficial permission to wear the coveted Chindit badge which was however never worn.
On 6th June 1944, Wg Cdr Coles was repatriated and was succeeded by Sqn Ldr WJ McLean AFC, promoted to Wing Commander on taking over. He had joined the squadron as a Pilot Officer in the autumn of 1941 (making his first sortie on 25th Oct) and a more popular choice could never have been made. Under his leadership, new records were set and then broken. The battle of lmphal was won and the advance to the south began over terrain where few vehicles could operate so that supply had perforce to be by air. Everything the army needed from darning needles to guns were dropped to them by parachute and free drop, and one occasion sacks of flour and rice dropped clean through the QM’s stores! One could ask for no better service than that! The advance kept proceeding and the squadron kept pace by moving southwards too but on the west side of the hills to Sylhet and later to Agartala.
At the end of October 1944 after enduring the first monsoon, part of it at a spot only 40 miles from the worlds wettest place (some believed that Sylhet was even wetter) the squadron was withdrawn for a rest. This proved to be a misnomer but a change of climate and environment at Risalpur was both very beneficial and welcome. But after only three weeks 117 was moved to Bikram where intensive training was carried out for a fortnight after which on 10th December 1944 the squadron moved back into the operational area to Hathazari near
Chittagong. At Hathazari we heard of Mandalay’s fall and from there all previous records flown and loads carried per month were broken. New names came into the picture: Meiktila, Toungoo and Dropping Zones tucked away by the road to Rangoon. At Meiktila many crews came under fire from the Japanese who had surrounded the strip and who came out at night to recapture it only to be driven off the next morning. During May 1945, the astonishing figures of 4936 hours flown and 9,230,000Ibs of freight carried were achieved: it is believed that this is a record for any transport squadron in any theatre of war.
The long haul to Rangoon was considerably shortened by the move in May to Ramree Island - a veritable paradise in comparison with our previous locations. Here we had, on our very doorstep a beach with excellent bathing and everyone benefited alike from the sea air. Whilst the squadron was at Ramree, Wg Cdr McLean was repatriated to Australia and Wg Cdr AJ Samson DFC succeeded him. The squadron gave Wg Cdr McLean a rousing send off at a birthday party ,and gave the new CO an equally warm welcome. But the stay at Ramree, like many other good things, did not last long, and a month later the squadron was back at Chittagong, this time at Patenga strip. The reason for the move was so that 117 could cover the Central Burma supply route whilst other squadrons based on Rangoon dealt with the Southern Area. In some ways the move was a good thing for the monsoon was just beginning at Ramree and the accommodation there left a lot to be desired but Patenga was not too pleasant with its leaky bashas and permanently water-logged ground.
At Patenga the weather was the worst enemy particularly, in the Akyab area and whilst the squadron was there, altogether five aircraft were lost with only two crews saved. By this time the war with Japan was nearing its end and VJ-Day found 117 Squadron standing by for a new and more pleasant task; that of the evacuation of our prisoners of war from French Indo China and Siam. For this purpose an operational detachment flew to Hmawbi hear Rangoon on 19th August 1945 and after a fortnight of waiting and filling in time by transporting loads of medical and other supplies from Akyab to Mingladon in preparation for the reception of the ex-prisoners, the first shuttles to Bangkok and Siagon began on the 3rd September.
Then followed weeks of flying in weather which was very variable but on a task which everyone threw his heart and soul into. Unfortunately, two aircraft were lost on this job, one of them flown by the CO, Wg Cdr AJ Samson DFC, whilst carrying on his aircraft 31 ex-prisoners and other passengers from Siagon to Base. The other crashed between Base and Bangkok whilst carrying 21 occupation troops. Both crashes were presumed to be due to bad weather.
One of our aircraft piloted by WO MH Wilby had the honour of being the first Allied aircraft to land at Moulmein since before that Japanese invasion in 1942. He was forced to land there owing to bad weather whilst returning to Base from Bangkok. There were a number of Japanese on the strip and WO Wilby was uncertain of their intentions or of the accuracy of their Intelligence. He declined to stay and take the surrender of the garrison.
During the last few months of the Squadron’s life under the command of Wg Cdr LT Bryant-Fenn DFC, new fields were visited, the shuttles being transferred to airfields in Malaya and Singapore, the task being to ferry in supplies and men for the Occupation forces. These shuttles continued up to and after the date of disbandment. The total war effort of 117 Squadron are recorded in RAF Archives and are indeed impressive. The list of awards which the squadron gained is not so impressive as that of its achievements, but it includes 2 DSOs, at least 12 DFCs, 4 AFCs, one American DFC and 11 MIDs. The squadron is proud of its recipients.
Thus ended the Squadrons career which, considering that its life was only a little more than four and a half years it is a shining example of what can be done by perseverance and the indefinable something which can only be called “esprit de corps”. One can take hope for the future when one realises that these results were brought about, not by a body of supermen but by ordinary mortals but with the difference that they were working hand in hand with one purpose in mind, If this spirit could be extended to public life, there would be no need to fear for the future.