Sunday, 29 March 2009

The forgotten air force remembered (Off Topic #10)

When I was a boy I would often try to get my father to tell me about his wartime experiences as a Navigator/WO in the RAF and sometimes I would be rewarded for my efforts with a tale or two. I found his stories enthralling although, at that young age, I was always more interested to hear about crash landings and strafing attacks than of feats of navigation across the featureless jungles of Burma. Dad and his pilot, Geoff, survived 200 hours of operational flying in Beaufighters during 1944 and were both subsequently awarded the DFC.

Dad is 89 years old now and has just had his memoirs Looking Backwards Over Burma published. He has made use of Squadron records from the PRO and his own original logbook to present his recollections in a fascinating and well-written account. The story traces his time spent on an OTU (Operational Training Unit) in Britain through his experiences navigating a Beaufighter 7,000 miles from England to India and the following nine months on 211 Squadron in Burma.

On leave in India 1944
The Beaufighter was a two-man aircraft made famous for its work as a night-fighter but deployed to Burma in a Strike role by SEAAC (South East Asia Air Command). The aircraft were usually despatched singly on ground-attack missions flying at treetop-level deep into Japanese held territory where they attacked targets of opportunity with rockets and cannon fire. It was unusual for the aircraft to return from such a mission without having come under enemy fire at some point in the journey. The return leg of the flight involved the tired crews nursing their aircraft, low on fuel, back to base across the Chin Hills sometimes in the thick of the monsoon.
A detail from Dad's original navigation map
During his time on operations 211 Squadron lost 36 aircrew from 18 aircraft that failed to return to base. Dad and Geoff crash-landed on three occasions, once in England and twice on operations but each time they both walked away unscathed. When his tour expired, Dad was posted to other duties for six months as was the normal practice. He was just about to return to operational flying when the atomic bomb was dropped and the war ended.
Looking Backwards Over Burma by Dennis Spencer is available from Woodfield Publishing price £9.95. An extract from the book can be read on Don Clark’s superb 211 Squadron site.


rpardo said...

Congratulations for your father! He maintains alive our memory
Best regards

Stryker said...

Hi Rafa

Thanks for your comment. I'm glad my Dad has been able to put on record this relatively unknown part of the air war in 1944. The British army in Burma was known as The 'Forgotten Army' and the RAF elements were very much the 'Forgotten Air Force'.


Fraxinus said...

Aviation history etc has been my main interest for years, little on the blog yet. The Beaufighter was a fantastic aircraft & one the Japanese feared with its grounstrike/anti shipping capability. Will definitly get a copy of the book & please thank your father for what he did in the war & for writting his experiences down now.

DC said...

Fascinating - i'll have to invest in a copy. Coincidentally my old man was in Burma with the Gold Coast Regiment. Small world eh...

Stryker said...

Fraxinus - The Japanese called the Beaufighter "Whispering Death" as it had a very silent approach at low altititude. Dad liked flying in the aircraft and was not happy about the likelyhood of doing his 2nd tour on Mosquitos - being made of wood they had an unfortuate habbit of fallign apart in mid air in the tropical conditions (a point touched on in the book). Luckily the war ended before this could happen.

DC - Small world indeed. It's still a great shame how little has been written about the campaign in Burma when you think of the vast number of books written about the war in Europe and the Pacific.

lewisgunner said...

Those old boys were heroes. In the US they have done rather better at commemorating the 'Great Generation' who risked or lost their lives to halt dictatorship than we have in the UK.

There are some really good books on the British side of the Pacific War, especially on the air war such as 'Hurricanes over Singapore'.
There is also an excellent study of the retreat from Burma jointly by a Brit and Japanese authors.
Your old chap's book sounds well worth adding to the shelf.


lewisgunner said...

If anyone is interested in the early part of the British war in the Far East then the FEPOW site is very good.

Matt said...

Forgot to say - bought your Dad's book and read it a couple of years ago. Excellent read. Must say you are the spitting image of him! Regards, Matt.