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We Fly East
[Dum Dum]

Something had happened during my leave, everyone had a new rumour to impart. We were obviously on the move again and there was a new vitality in the air. I made a point of speaking to the adjutant but although he should have been the person to send the recall signal that I had received in Kashmir, he merely 'hoped that I had had a good time!'

The C.O. met me as though he could hardly wait to see me and greeted me as a long lost friend. "Ned. You did such a good job as signals officer, what would you like to take on next?' 'How about Imprest Officer?" (Responsible for squadron accounts.) I reminded him of my near pathological hatred of figures so he asked me to be education officer to which I acceded. "When we get to our own station what about taking on Mess Officer as well?" "Of course" I lied through my smile. Not a jot concerning the leave from which I had just returned.

As is often the case nothing happened and sapped of hints the rumours ceased. All returned to normal and I note from a letter home that I had better get a decent torch as four cobras had been killed in the last few days.

Suddenly all stations 'Go' again. The pilots were assembled and the CO looked triumphant. "The squadron is to go on a refresher course at Amarda Road.' We shall be landing at Lahore, Palam, Cawnpore, Allahabad, and Gaya." "Ned, I want you take W/O Lauder (Engineer Officer) with you in the Harvard so that you can arrange things for our arrival." This meant, of course, that we had to get to the destination in good time but this was no drag. We were very proud of ourselves as a squadron and we always took off and landed as near as possible in formation. Owing to the limited size of the runways this meant coming in as pairs. If landing at a new strip we were quite used to seeing strings of Red Very Lights fired at us to warn that we were landing too close. Being young and full of bravado it was something of a thrill to defy regulations.

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There is an entry in my logbook (23rd July '43) noting a practice interception. The squadron scramble took 2min 54 secs; landing in 45 seconds flat. Not bad! It was imperative that our flying was to be as near perfect as possible, particularly at Amarda Road under the critical eyes of the instructors who would doubtless be ready for comment. Since it was to be a squadron move everything had to be taken along so instead of the usual twelve aircraft, all fifteen Hurricanes had to be impeccable. So it was; until one of the Hurries broke a tail wheel on landing at Gaya, the last stop before Amarda Road.

I volunteered to fly to Dum Dum on the outskirts of Calcutta to get another one and a few other bits 'n bobs and the engineering officer (fool that he was, he had been my passenger right across India!) demanded that he came with me. The weather was atrocious. I still have a copy of the weather report in my logbook:-

Weather report from logbook

Here is a copy of my letter home:-

"On the way a certain part was urgently needed. The only way to get one was to fly 280 miles to Dum Dum in storms all the way and through the mountains nicknamed 'Thunder Mountain'. All flying was stopped but I decided to try. We were sent off with the blessings of the whole squadron. We got there in two hours where they gave us what we wanted and a new set of maps.

Shortly after that they gave me the 'met' report It gave Max: ceiling of 500 ft but there were several mountain ridges much higher than that to cross We felt that we had to go but knew that we would never get a permit. I decided to make my way up river valleys and along railways, reading the names of the stations en route. I saw an airman who was up to his eyes in mud just about to go to the control tower and asked him to give my destination after my takeoff. The sun was getting pretty low and I had no radio.

To make things worse two of my blind flying instruments were on the blink and half of my electrical circuits had gone including navigation and cockpit lights. It was really getting dark too quickly and it seemed that every way under the cloud cover was blocked. It would have been easy to climb through the clouds but nearly impossible to descend again. Several times I had to turn back when flying at 0 ft.

However, by the time we had cleared the last mountain ridge the weather had cleared and there was only the darkness to worry about (experienced flyers will know that they can be flying in sunshine with complete darkness below. The twilight sky was reflected in the rivers and lakes and confirmed our position, as the strip was bounded by a small river). I was quite sure of my navigation but was considerably relieved to see my callsign winking to me out of the darkness. Exhilarated as hell itself (I quote the exact if odd words of the letter) I opened up to full throttle and dived off all of the height I had gained over the last range and went screaming over the mess at 0 ft. The boys had all turned in because there were no lights (we only used that strip because of the weather) and they nearly fell about to see us back.

We were all so happy that the squadron was able to pull off it's usual bravado on arriving the next day. The C.O. kept telling everyone about it as though he had done it himself. That is all very well. It succeeded. Had it not? Had we been forced to bail out? I would never have heard the last of it. Always the way."

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The letter is quoted verbatim because it reflects something of the feelings at the time, something difficult to recall at this remove. Any additions are bracketed.

The following day we arrived at Armada Road with our usual élan but they were either used to dicey flying or determined not to flinch because there was not one Very Light to warn us away. The Refresher Course was excellent and we were all ready to admit that we still had much to learn. The entire course took approximately three weeks and involved every conceivable form of combat flying including dive-bombing with Hurricanes and what were termed 'advanced attacks'. In this case, the enemy were Liberators: how sorry I was for those pilots. They flew as instructed, at altitude, or 'on the deck'; we surrounded them like angry gnats.

Our guns were not loaded and the camera films were projected and criticised by the instructors afterwards. Just after take off one day my windshield was suddenly clouded with spray. The canopy was still open and I was drenched. Some of it got through to my mouth because I was aware of the sweet taste of glycol. I was too busy with the course to make too many enquiries but it was plain that there was a major failure in the cooling system. I belted round the circuit and landed with the temperature gauge off the clock. Poor old 'B' for B*d was in for repairs and I was immediately given Hurricane 'G' to fly. Excellent aircraft but it was the CO's kite and he was loath to let anyone else fly it!

At this time we all expected to return to Risalpur and the luxury of a permanent Mess. However poor our food and accommodation there were compensations of a sort as reported in a letter home.

"The monsoon is in full swing and the air is as humid as it could be. Vegetable growth is luxuriant and refreshingly green and the most desirable place is the old 'charpoy' or a bed of cord on a wooden frame. The natives are extremely primitive and the whole atmosphere is very "jungly". It is amazing to lie in bed @ night listening to the throb of drums in the nearby village, with the full moon on the towering monsoon clouds and throwing the palm, neem and tamarind trees in sharp shadows with the hot, moist earth giving up it's vapours; the humid wind bulging in the mosquito nets or to lie and watch the tropical storms with all of their fury."

 

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Edward Sparkes ©1998-2002