PASSAGE TO INDIA

Jack Pawsey - Pilot
29 Squadron, 23 Group
Jack died in 2003

Tunnelling my way out

A seaside boarding house, the landlady jealously guarding her cruets, her ketchup and her nubile predatory daughter; a chap on the third floor apparently ends it all rather noisily during the night. But we missed the ending of this Gothic bodice-ripper.

It was a story of everyday life at the RAF Personnel Despatch centre in Blackpool in October, ’42 where we were billeted out and waiting for our boat. We had drawn our tropical kit and had inoculations topped up. I also got the yellow fever one that raises a lump under the skin, paralyses the arm and you feel like hell. That jab was only for Freetown but I was for Burma, so I suspected a joke by my little friends in 23 Group; the backroom lads in Training Command who shaped our ends with postings to match our perceived abilities. But I am running ahead of myself.

The previous year I’d got my Wings in Canada but the Operational Training Units here, where you learn the sharp end of the trade, were overloaded and I marked time under 23 Group's care. Eventually I went to an Advanced Flying Unit at Grantham, where I flew the twin-engined Oxford again. The course was biased towards operating at night with work on the Link trainer simulator, flying ‘under the hood’ as well as at night and a Beam Approach course. At the end I had been slated for night fighters, and we awaited the call forward from the Night Fighter Operational Training Unit.

It was the day before I called, I learned later, that Group had me despatched, kicking and screaming, to Cranage for navigation course. There we were told wondrous things about the air, sea and the sky; the mysteries of celestial 3D trigonometry, of LORAN and other goodies. We also had a thorough grounding in raising and lowering the Anson undercart by day and by night, using the handle provided.

On passing out I wondered what Group’s plans would be for a chap with some 200 hours on twins, a decent pedigree for night fighters with nav qualifications on the side. The considered response was a move to No 4 Glider Training School, Shobden, in Hereford. Out of curiosity I went there; it might have been a cover for some of the clandestine stuff we’d heard about. A chat with the Officer Commanding Flying revealed it was a tug pilot job on single engined Masters or Martinets, hauling the lads up and releasing them for their circuits and bumps.

Now, some of my best friends are glider pilots and all that, but I had to murmur a protest. As soon as I had shown the OC Flying my log book he was on the blower. Somewhere an irritable dart was thrown at the wall map, landing this time closest to Little Rissington, Gloucestershire.

At the new station I was given a bunch of bored Brits and impatient Colonials who, like myself some nine months earlier, had just gained their Wings overseas and were after a spot of action. My task was to drag them relentlessly through the ground syllabus they had so recently passed, also to take them aloft to try pilot navigation in the murk of the south west Midlands, and if they got lost to make them try again.

At least on the ground side I was able to ease out mutual frustration by re-scheduling my lectures to the session immediately after lunch. However, it was such a non-job that I set about, metaphorically, tunnelling my way out.

Some six weeks later I came up clutching a ticket to Chittagong as Wing Nav Officer. I had no idea what that meant but at least I would be out of 23 Group’s reach, or so I thought. That extra and unnecessary jab in the arm at Blackpool might be a little reminder.

Stirling Castle

The Stirling Castle sailed from Liverpool on 25 October. Apart from the familiar sub watch roster in the North Atlantic and a few bumps in the night, it was almost a peacetime atmosphere aboard. There was good and plentiful food and drink.

My rather primitive bridge began to take shape, although I did less well against the seasoned regulars in the solo schools.

After a week or ten days I was tracked down by a senior RAF Officer who said we had to talk. There were some thirty youngsters aboard who had done their initial training as navigators and were Rhodesia bound for the advanced stuff. He invited me to spend the voyage taking them through what they had learned so far, but not beyond that basic tool of the trade – the triangle of velocities. There was something familiar about this. The only surprise was the time it took Group to wake up to the possibility. Maybe they happened to be reading Dr Crippen's diary at their desks and thought it a good wheeze to send a WT message to our skipper.

The assembled lads were as chuffed as I; heavens, an oily rag from the Footplate Union poaching on their arcane secrets. When I outlined the syllabus I saw the familiar raised eyeballs and other body language of the ‘Been there, done that’ syndrome. First session I ran through the bread and butter basics and had a few up to the blackboard to demonstrate their standards, which were impressive.

I had two problems. The first was to adapt my rough and ready, expletive enhanced style that had suited those from the outback to something more appropriate to my new audience, The second was to capture a scintilla of interest. A few bursts of fast forward, well beyond my set brief produced the odd gleam of wonder. From then on it was almost enjoyable, with little games of cat and mouse between the two disciplines.

They went on to some practical work, trying an astro shot of the sun at midday sun with a plastic protractor and some pieces of string. They complained that their astro fix was at least 500 miles from the assumed DR position. I assured them that with calculations like that they would go far in their careers. We parted the best of friends, but I’ve wondered since whether I should have done a couple of sessions on Anson undercarts.

Brazil & Durban

By then the scuttlebutt was that we would call at Rio. We were a long way west – even half of my late students' calculations suggested that. Actually it was to be Bahia, further up the coast. Brazil had just come into the war, on our side as I understood it. To show appreciation there was to be a grand parade through the city and a brief shore leave with a small advance of pay in the local milreis. Each officer would have about thirty airmen to march them from the docks down the main drag and thence to a palm fringed park. There the chaps were to be given a Government health warning and then fell out.

The coinage was strange to us, the copper coins being of higher value than the white metal. Some lads quickly cottoned on to the touts, who were happy to exchange a handful of ‘silver’ containing the odd half crown, quarters and so forth for a few of our pence.

At another level I heard a chap boasting of the services he had procured for an expired petrol coupon in his wallet. Whether this display of marching by the RAF in crumpled, ill-fitting KD issue, or the varied sorts of financial transactions that took place cemented the political and military alliance I cannot be sure. All I know is that all those concerned had smiles on their faces when we left.

We beat across to Durban to deliver the wannabee navigators and others off. It was quiet at first, but some 50 miles short of the African coast we could hear distant battle. The convoy slowed down as our corvette whooped off to join in with her own depth charges. Later we passed among the sad flotsam from a very recent U-boat sinking. It was a poignant moment for us all, and we were in no mood to take in fully the greeting of the famous 'Lady in White' as she sang patriotic songs while we docked.

The brief run ashore was also overshadowed by the official warning that the sympathies of the white population were as much or more with Germany than ourselves. So it was a Turkish bath to clear off the deposits that weeks of salt water soap had left, a quiet couple of beers and a meal.

The run up to Bombay was on the whole quiet again. Sub watches were resumed and shoals of flying fish were wonderful to see, as were the dolphins who liked to formate on our bows. One night watch I had a scare from two parallel phosphorescent tracks in the water making several knots towards our amidships. Before I could blow the whistle, ring the bell or whatever it was I was supposed to do, the tracks turned smartly and two dolphins took up station off our port bow.

At Worli, the Bombay transit camp, I produced my Burma posting chit and asked the time of the next train to Chittagong. That was my first encounter with the babu clerk barrier as it would take a few days to sort out. I began to suspect that 23 Group had gone intercontinental, as we were on 227 Group turf now. We explored the city on foot and in the horse-drawn ticki-gharries. One of us, I think it was the drunken Welsh solicitor, drove us along Hornby Road rather swiftly until persuaded to desist. Occasionally we passed the end of Grant Road and there always seemed to be an Army chap standing there with some red accessories on his cap.

As nearly as I could make out, there were some ladies down the road who liked to rest on their patios and his task was to see that they were not disturbed. Eventually summoned to the orderly room I was told of my posting, to 227 Group HQ, and here was the railway warrant for the 900 mile journey north. No further information was forthcoming.

No.1 EPTS at Secunderabad

At the HQ in Lahore I was told that the Burma post had been filled. I wondered whether it had really existed. Instead I had been specially selected for the post of Chief Ground Instructor at the IAF’s No.1 EPTS at Secunderabad.

I suppose it shouldn’t have been a great surprise to be stung again. My protests, to a point just short of a court martial offence, were unavailing.

Hopelessly out-gunned I snatched up my railway warrant for the 1100 mile journey south. Next morning, dressed in full blue against the January cold in Kashmir. I started the trip. Four days later I arrived at Secunderabad in bush jacket and slacks.

The grass airfield, named Begumpet, belonged to the Nizam of Hyderabad, as did the fleet of Tiger Moths, the civilian servicing wing and the ‘Imperial Guard’ who had a token presence at the main gate. The CO was a New Zealander, one of the flight commanders a South African, a Brit with the Boer war medal was A Ad O, and another was Adj. The cadets wore a uniform but would retain civilian status until graduation – an ambivalent disciplinary status, in theory at least. The atmosphere with High Imperial and it took me a while to absorb all the protocols and nuances of that and of the multicultural society of the host nation.

For my ‘CGI’ duties I had assistance from a sergeant fitter and a corporal who covered the armament side. My grandiose post carried the honorary post of Station Equipment Officer, with a part time clerk who occasionally asked me to sign some voucher or other. I was also Salvage Officer, whatever that meant. The duties of Mess Secretary also came with the territory, for which I had my very own babu clerk to protect me.

The final incentive bonus dangled before me was honorary membership of the Secunderabad Club, something by Wodehouse out of Kipling where the Khitmutgars regularly watered the gin.

In the classroom I had to develop techniques different from those for the chaps from the outback or for the more cerebral u/t navigators. Apart from the foreseeable differences in ability, social and religious standards of education led to problems of language and thus of comprehension.

I set too quick a pace at first and when asked whether all was clear so far I got a few ambiguous head movements. I can perhaps best describe them by imagining a light bulb atop the head which traces out a figure of eight path laterally in the horizontal plane. I took it to mean that since you ask, no, but if I were to admit it openly, young Afridi over there would take the Mickey.

So I used the paraphrase ploy – ‘Or you might say …’ and ‘to put it another way …’ – but there are only so many ways of defining magnetic variation, lift, drag, humidity and so on. All this circumlocution, although productive, was tiring, and with my other heavy responsibilities I could do no more but sleep off the lunchtime gin or Bangalore beer until play resumed at 4 pm.

Help unexpectedly came to hand. In succession two further hapless footplatemen, also victims of you-know-who, reported for duty. It was time for some serious delegation. Actually neither had done the Cranage course and weren’t into astro and stuff, nor would they be able to work out the time of next high water at such places as Valparaiso, or even Bahia, but I thought we could somehow muddle along. I began taking a few students up for a bit of practical map reading, cross-countries and so on, I could still pick out in the ‘driving mirror’ the occasional figure-of-eight by the helmet in the back seat.

Having more leisure time I got out on a bike to mix it with the bullock carts, take in the countryside, the villages, the primitive but effective irrigation works and to visit the theoretically forbidden city of Hyderabad. I was able to visit the club more, to exercise my rights and privileges. One day I was foolish enough to use the swimming pool. The water was so strong with chlorine and a few other substances that I picked up eye and throat infections.

The throat was so bad that I went into the local IAMC hospital to have the old tonsils out. Two things stand out from then. The chap in the opposite bed complained from morning to night about one thing and another. The second was the military habit of rolling up ones mosquito net at 0600 and turning on the noisy ceiling punkas. The slumbering insects awoke and set about the plentiful exposed and semicomatose flesh.

I complained to the staff, in fact I banged on day and night about it until one morning I lined up on my locker the corpses of mosquitoes I’d swatted on my arms since 0601 to show the doc on his rounds. I was assured that very few of them were anopheles – the malaria carriers. Later an orderly arrived with a huge flit gun, pointed in my direction. I quickly baled out and I think he emptied the thing. The chap in the opposite bed started moaning about the stink of citronella and paraffin – after all I’d done for him.

Out of dock with my knees now unbrowned I checked things over and carried on my programme of airborne instruction. But I came up against the instructors’ union. Now and again was all right, but it was thought I shouldn’t go on picking up so many air miles with students when I’d not got an instructor’s ticket. I could see their point and in a civilised chat over beer and sandwiches I agreed to do the course, but making the point that my destiny truly rested in another sort of flying to which I hoped to return in the near future.

Indian CFS, Ambala

The courses were run at the Indian CFS at Ambala. Rather unusually the invitation was strictly BYO, meaning I should bring my own aircraft over 900 miles north as the kitehawk flies and rather more by Tiger Moth.

Charles, the servicing manager, selected VT-AGD for me from the Royal collection. After servicing, a ten gallon reserve tank was put in the front cockpit and a man-sized pump lever in the rear. On flight test all worked well, but as the airfield was more than 2000 feet ASL the small loss of manifold pressure, propeller bite and lift had a noticeable effect on performance. Highish temperatures didn’t help either. I worked out a fuel plot with the BP rep.

Because of the lack of civil or military airfields along the route special refuelling arrangements would be needed to fill the gaps. These were near townships and little more than patches of bare earth. Locations might change depending on local farming activity. But the local BP agent would see that they were properly marked for me and would supply my POL needs.

The most recent maps available were based on an Army survey t the turn of the century, with plenty of contour lines and administrative boundaries, but not a lot that could be recognised from the air as a unique pinpoint. Some of the water was seasonal, and one had to bear in mind what changes in habitation, roads or other infrastructure over 40 odd years. Unfortunately the railway system was not well placed for Bradshawing.

I got a met wind, but I was going to make it last a few days. Otherwise for navigation I had my ten bob Ingersoll watch and the P4 compass that should behave provided I didn’t stow my metal water canteen or my Smith & Wesson .38 too close. For communication I had the mouthpiece of the Gosport tubing to speak to my suitcase in the front seat. I wondered how Amy Johnson coped.

On 11th March I boldly went for the two and a half hour leg to Chanda and found the site well marked, complete with a temporary windsock and the BP gent present. After refuelling from cans and a glass of lemonade I leapt into the cockpit for start-up, the BP chap giving a swing. She wouldn’t fire. We had the bonnet up, changed roles until I could feel the blisters coming on. Operations were suspended while I had a pipe and a think. I decided against another lemonade because I’d just remembered I’d made no provision for in-flight comfort.

I again thought of Amy. The break was productive. I grabbed VT-AGD by the tail struts, lifted and shook her about a bit, hoping to disperse any vapour locks. She started first swing, and an hour and a half later was overhead Kamtee township, flushing out the BP chap. I spotted his pick-up and followed it to a less well marked out patch. No windsock but a reasonable surface. After oil check and fuelling I decided not to press on that night. I’d lost a little time at Chanda, groundspeed into the NW wind was less than I’d hoped for and I didn’t want to be searching for an obscure patch of ground during the short twilight at those latitudes. We left the local plod asleep under the wing and went off to make our own arrangements.

Next leg was two and a half hours to Saugor. I was a little behind ETA as the met wind had passed its date. I found a likely spot, but the only marking was a centrally placed cross of two strips. Casting my mind back to AP 1234 this meant go and land somewhere else, or words to that effect. I orbited Saugor to see whether there was a nearby somewhere else with no luck. I didn’t flush out any BP wallahs but most of the population streamed out to the strip.

After a dummy run I put down leaving the engine running. I dismounted to stop the kids playing with the rotating propeller and asked one of the elders in my best Urdu ‘BP wallah Hai?’ I got through for there was universal assent and pointing towards downtown Saugor. But experience had taught me the polite Indians tended to give the answer they thought would please. Therefore the gestures might mean there was a BP chap living there, but sparing me the bad news that he was visiting a sick aunt in Pondicherri.

Being stuck between a rock and a hard place I decided to move on to Bhopal, about an hour’s flying. As they say at Boards of Enquiry, I thought there were a couple of pints left in the reserve tank. Bhopal town arrived, but my laptop map didn’t show where the RAF airfield was. After all, airfields, let alone the RAF hadn’t been invented in the 19th century.

I chose east, but as I got level with the town no airfield in sight and Gypsy Major started an asthma attack. I lobbed down on a convenient polo field, fortuitously coming to a stop by the clubhouse. A quick phone call and within one hour and one John Collins and RAF team arrived with the necessary. I hopped across town to the airfield for a belated daily inspection and a comfortable night.

Four legs to go. Couple of hours to the Jhansi strip where they were very kind to VT and me. (We were on Christian name terms after all we’d been through so far.) A similar distance to Agra, where the USAAF were stationed. The Taj Mahal came in distant view but thanks to the net met. wind, 30 mph right on the nose, it was a long time coming alongside. Disappointingly it was in for major servicing, almost obscured by bamboo scaffolding.

Landing was a little tricky as the runway was E?W and about 90 degrees across wind. The Yanks took VT to their hearts and couldn’t do enough for her. They let her taxy under the wings of their Liberators and held up air traffic so she could take off more into wind but across everything else.

The hour and a half to Delhi was a doddle. I had a chat with the RAF Comm. Flt and they took me for a trip to the Himalayan foothills in a venerable Rapide. In the mess they suggested I might transfer to them. It was tempting as they had some half decent aircraft, but thought I would stick to my devious plot. I didn’t feel like moving on that day. Riding the bucking Tiger Moth had knackered me a bit and the Rapide ride was bumpy in places.

The wind had dropped the next morning and it was a fine sunny day. It was only a couple of hours on this final leg to Ambala. I found a black top runway but no clear space on the grass to put down. I did a dummy run at about 20 feet and discovered some wicked thermals. Of course it was midday and nobody was flying but this mad Englishman, but I felt sure the beady eyes of the CFI would watch, over his pink gin, what sort of Horlicks the new boy would make of his landing.

This was no time for your showy-off three pointers which would probably be followed by some kangaroo hops off the thermals and the ignominy of going round again. Newton was on my side as I managed a tolerable power-on wheely. That ended our 15 hour ferry, although it felt much more.

Always look after your horse first, they say. I taxied VT to her new stables to be fed, watered and groomed, and handed over the documents showing her blood lines. I spotted a Hawker Hart and a Westland Wapiti lurking there and thought it would be fun to take them up some time, while I was still in my retro mode with Tigers and Rapides. But sorry Sahib, we’re waiting for the parts. I scrounged a lift to the mess to look after my own needs and met the man on his third pinkers.

I flew VT now and again on the course. She teased me one morning with a loud bang from the front end followed by a shrieking sound and a vibration that put Gypsy M out of balance. We glided back for our second precautionary landing together. I was relieved to hear it was nothing worse than a bit of loose and ragged skin on her prop where a blister had popped. Otherwise I flew the yellow bellied Harvard on an uneventful course. Midway it was April 1st, 1943, and the 25th anniversary of the RAF and the 15th of the IAF.

The Governor General, Field Marshal Lord Wavell, came to take the salute, but I had done my marching bit in Bahia and was a spectator. The CFI did his well rehearsed party piece which was a spot landing in front of the saluting base. It would have been appropriate for him to have flown VT – her impeccable ancestry would have justified her being presented. However he preferred his favourite old hack.

I made my fond farewells to VT. My return to Secunderabad was not on a take your own back basis, but with a prosaic railway warrant. I hoped they would look after her properly, and that she would not be left to languish idly with the Hart and the Wapiti for want of a horseshoe nail.

Begumpet again

On re-entry to Begumpet with the shiny new qualification in my log book, I took up the reins again. The dull routine was leavened by some Army co-operation work when a Tiger Moth was used in the ground attack role during exercises. An Army chap sat in the back with e lapful of flour bombs. We had a ragged fly-past on Battle of Britain day. My campaigning, gently resumed at first, seemed forlorn until salvation came out of the blue.

The ACC paid one of his tiresome surprise inspections, dressed as usual in KD shorts and black shiny shoes. Escorting him and his minders into the mess, I was wearing some gabardine slacks I’d had run up by the durzi and some brown suede shoes by his cousin. Both items of dress were anathema to the man. Worse, the cane-bottom chairs in the dining room had just been re-occupied by our voracious blood-sucking ticks.

When he left he was noticeably lumpy and itchy round the hemline at the back. There may have been no connection, but a few weeks later I was at Bombay aboard the Britannic bound for Blighty.

We went back the shorter route. Britannic had a spot of trouble in the Red Sea and did a precautionary to Port Suez. I was amused to hear later that it was the propeller giving problems. We were put off to a transit camp for a few days while the divers did their stuff. At that time, the Med was in the fiefdom of General Eisenhower, so US rules applied. The Britannic reluctantly went dry. We couldn’t get ashore during the calls at Alex, Augusta or Algiers, and were glad to pass the Straits of Gibraltar.

After a day at West Kirby I went on leave. But I was now back in 23 Group territory. It was not paranoia, I just knew the enemy forces were out to get me. Was surprised to get a posting to Grantham again, and wondered if they’d lost the plot. Perhaps someone had at last solved the riddle of the Sphinx – who posts the posters – and done something about it. Nevertheless I was back in the loop again but on Blenheims instead of Oxfords. Things took their normal course and in July ’44 I moved to the NF OTU at Charter Hall, just over two years after the previous abortive call forward.

Links & Notes

MV Stirling Castle http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/MV_Stirling_Castle
The Lady in White - Perla Gibson http://www.allatsea.co.za/army/ladywhite.htm
Britannic http://www.titanic-whitestarships.com/WSL_Britannic_III.htm
Tiger Moth http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/De_Havilland_Tiger_Moth
Westland Wapiti http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Westland_Wapiti

page last updated 28 June 2010: ACA Surrey Branch 2010