By Ron Collis, Ex-LAC Wireless Operator, RAF
This article was printed in the Summer 2001 Edition of Dekho!
Very little seems to have been written about the work of the Wireless Observer Units that the Royal Air Force maintained during the years 1942-43 on the Burma border. Perhaps a note in DEKHO! may be of interest, It may also help to acknowledge the debt owed to the hill tribes of this area, especially, in my case the Lushais.
In 1942 Radar cover was not yet operational on the Burma border as a comprehensive screen. It was therefore decided by those empowered to make decisions, to establish a line of observer posts which stretched from Jorhat in the Bramaputra Valley in the north to Chittagong in the south. Their job was to give early warning of enemy air raids. They also of course plotted friendly and unidentified aircraft and sent in a twice daily met report. In other words they were similar to the Royal Observer Corps posts that we knew at home. The main differences were that we had no land lines, all our plots were sent by morse code, and we were sited in very remote jungle areas and extremely isolated.
My unit, 2/3 WOU was stationed in the Lushai Hills, now known, I believe, as Mizoram.
The posts were set at intervals of about 15-20 miles and sited as high as possible. My post, Thenzawi, sat at about 6,000’ spectacular views but murder to get to. There was a march of at least 60 miles to be undertaken and not a single yard was flat. However we were loaned an Indian Mule Company, No 8 I think, who kept us supplied with the necessities of life and the occasional mail bag. To those of us on the more remote posts they were friends in deed.
The crew of each post was made up as follows; 3 Ground Observers and 3 Wireless Operators, G/Os & W/Ops .. one G/O was normally a corporal and was i/c of the post. As we were the only BORs in an area of probably a couple of hundred square miles then getting on together was one of life’s essentials.
At the time of which I write, June 1943, responsibility for our post had been taken over by the Indian Army and four of our own crew had been recalled to HO leaving only my friend Cpl John Pinnock G/O and myself W/Op to look after the Indian crew until they were OK.
In addition to our military duties we had another of great importance, this was our relationship with the village. Our posts were built on the same pattern as the village houses and were adjoining them. We inevitably became part of village life. We had become ambassadors. John and I would receive invitations to attend council meetings and to this day I have photocopies of these written invitations. I quote from one from our village chief, “please separate a little quantity of kerosene oil for the meeting tonight”. We were happy to do so.
The following gives some idea of the degree of co-operation we enjoyed from the Lushais. We employed two men from the village. One named Thanga as a general duties man and the other we called Joe, we could never learn his Lushai name, as a woodcutter. Joe was about his business one morning when he collected more than bamboo. He discovered in an old Dak bungalow two BORs One unconscious and the other nearly so. Joe reassured the one who was obviously alive that the knife was not for cutting off heads but bamboo and then immediately dashed up to us at the post to report. Thanga ran to the village and organised a rescue party, John prepared two beds and I put myself on w/t watch and alerted control. When the rescue party returned with our two soldiers we were horrified at their condition. John, who fancied himself as a medic never turned a hair. In very short order he had given me their names, ranks and numbers etc plus medical information, temperatures, pulse rates, plus much more and within minutes a signal was on its way.
Instructions came back via w/t. Medicine was on its way by runner from I think Lunglai. Twice each day we had this exchange of signals. The date of discovery of our two friends was July 3 1st. On Aug 18th help arrived in the shape of one Cpl Barlow, an army medical orderly. By this time our two lads were on their feet, albeit unsteadily. On Aug 21st it was decided that with help they could travel. The villagers once more came to our rescue. The local carpenter had already constructed a sedan type chair from bamboo and at the appointed time the most fragile of our two lads was put into the chair, hoisted shoulder high by the villagers and whisked off into the jungle, his friend plodding along behind. Much to our amazement we later received a signal from their CO thanking us for returning his two lost sheep and they were now safely in hospital in Chittagong. There is no doubt that our two friends owed their lives to our w/t gear and most of all to the Lushai people.
Our two “lost sheep” were from a V Force patrol or unit and had become separated somewhere near the Chindwin. They had been lost for some time. Their identities were Mick Power, signaller and George Fawcett, gunner. Should anyone read this who knows of them I would be delighted to hear from them.
There were, of course, many incidents on our posts and one of our biggest dangers was sickness. We had already lost one crew member at Thenzawi for lack of medical help so doctoring was very much a DIV job.
Although the WOUs were only a stop gap before Radar arrived and were not in any way headline makers, indeed most people did not even know that we existed, our job was nonetheless important. There was no other early warning of incoming air raids. 2/3 WOU became operational in Sept ‘42 and was broken up at the end of Sep ‘43 and the crews were posted to other stations. I found myself on a mobile Radar Unit in Tamu. I never saw John again until 45 years later at a reunion.