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Ops

 

Pilots were favoured by knowing far more about the tactical situation. We had to be; we had to know just where our troops were, partly to be sure that we did not bomb or use our cannons on them. In common with everyone, we were subjected to subtle and not so subtle propaganda. We all knew how badly we would be treated if we fell into the hands of the Japs. Some of us even scratched our number on one of the bullets in our revolvers. The idea being that we would keep that chamber in front of the hammer. The romantic idea being that we would keep that for a shot in the head that may be found 'later'.

We were told that a fellow pilot had parachuted clear and started the long walk back. We were always told to make for Muslim villages as they had been badly treated by the enemy. Our pilot, so the story went, had made it to such a village and had been hidden but somehow the information had been leaked. As an example he was spread eagled on the ground and killed with boiling water. True? I did not stop to think. War does not encourage contemplation on the character of the enemy.

I hated them, with every fibre of my body I hated them.

We had recently been joined by a pilot fresh from a squadron on the Western Desert where he had been up against the Wehrmacht. One day, after an op, we were waiting to be debriefed and he said "Sparkie certainly made a direct hit. You could see the bodies thrown through the air." I was delighted but was surprised that he did not mention it during debriefing even though we were prompted to assess the operation. I said "Come on Jonesy, tell him what you have just told us." He was silent although all eyes went to him. He just gave me a long look that held a measure of contempt and refused to repeat it. Whether further experiences hardened him there is no record. He visited me in England when the war was over but there was no serious contemplation.

Quite apart from a hatred for the enemy I loved ops and in some strange way was addicted to them. As mentioned previously, the flight commander and I took it in turns to lead our section. When I had missed an op or two for any reason I would beg him to let me take his subsection leader's place on the days when he led the section.

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Once, 'Jammy' who was flying as my No2 came over to me as soon as we had landed and said "What on earth made you do that, it was almost impossible to follow?" "Do what?" "You did a barrel roll on the dive in." So I had. In sheer exuberance I had carried the 'peel off' right round in a barrel roll. I apologised at once to my section. It was fun for me but was most inconsiderate for those following. It was never repeated when leading but it was a practical manoeuvre because it confused anti aircraft fire and providing the eye never left the target, it brought one to an excellent position for attack.

Being responsible, with F/O Suri for the general air fighting of the squadron I was concerned that our pilots, including myself, were giving such incomplete reports at debriefing. Surely we had seen more than we remembered. It seemed that memories were being 'burned out'. I managed to scrounge a bomber navigator's knee pad which had a spring mounted at the top which was designed to hold a pencil or two. By borrowing tools from engineering I managed to convert it so that it carried a spring loaded sheet of Perspex behind which I could clip a target map or photograph. Behind this again would be the actual map of the area. The idea being that if I could scribble a quick note with a chinagraph pencil on the Perspex it would jog my memory. In practice it was hilariously difficult. In the first pace there was so little time. Not only was there the job to do and jinking to put off enemy fire but I was supposed to be keeping an eye on any new boy. The time to make a mark was immediately after something significant was seen but one was usually in the thick of the action.

The first time I tried it I had hardly grabbed the chinagraph pencil when I saw a camouflaged machine gun and in trying to get in a quick burst broke it against the tit (gun button). That left me with two pieces to hold while jinking like crazy to break away. Only then did I think of making a mark on the Perspex to identify the gun position but I had underestimated how difficult it was to be. I did persist with it but only managed three marks on a single op once, two if lucky, however it proved to be an invaluable aide-memoire and enabled me to remember far more than previously. Better than that was the fact that in trying to memorise I found that I had become better at it.

For some reason or other we had lost our signals officer so I had taken the job on again. It seemed incredible that, there we were in a war and we had a shortage of crystals for our radios. These were required to fix the standard frequency so that we could be sure that we were all accurately tuned. It was nothing to have to take a crystal from an aircraft just returning from operations and put in another aircraft waiting to take off.

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Before we came into Burma we were well aware that the XIVth Army was well and truly the 'Forgotten Army' and we 'enjoyed' a certain amount of self pity. Our food supplies were not of the best and there was one occasion when we had nothing to eat but tinned (or were they dried?) green peas and rice but so expert were our cooks with their spices that I, for one, was quite happy with it. However there was always a good supply of dried milk and cocoa. One problem that reared it's ugly head was the difficulty of obtaining such little things as writing paper, ink, pens, shoe polish, toothpaste, bootlaces and the thousand and one items that are never important until we cannot get them. Most stations have a NAAFI but we were miles from anywhere, flying from strips made by bulldozing the 'paddy bunds' that separate the little rice fields to make an airstrip just long enough for take-off and landing. Chrishna and I looked after most of the odd departments in the squadron and I was loath to take on another. There was no facility or fund to pay for a 'squadron corner shop' so I managed to get to the NAAFI in Calcutta and worked out what we would need as a minimum. I had to pay for this out of my own pocket, all future purchases to be paid for from sales at the 'shop'. Later, when I left the squadron there was a reasonable 'kitty' so I repaid myself the 160 odd Rupees that it had cost me to setup the shop. I mentioned this to the officer who I handed the stock over to but he must have forgotten because letters from him followed me but never caught up with me until I was in England when I was handed a sheaf of letters. Three of them were from him. "Was the 160 Rupees I repaid myself the same 160 Rupees that was paid for the original stock?"

Hurricane Bomber, on the Burma Front being loaded
Hurricane Bomber, on the Burma Front being loaded

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Flying from jungle airstrips could not have brought out the best from us or the aircraft. Many of our Hurries had seen service in the 'Desert War' and the fabric covering the fuselage was often perished. Once the air gained access through bullet holes or similar, great strips would be torn off. It looked quite dramatic trailing in the slipstream with the bare bones of the poor old Hurry looking so stark and vulnerable. We consoled ourselves that 'the poor bloody infantry' were worse off than we were but it was far from a bed of roses. I was not in the best of health and had contracted impetigo on my face. This was an absolute curse because we were still using leather helmets and rubber oxygen masks, both of which were perished. I could not shave and as a result, every time I removed my mask the weeping from the scabs seemed to melt the rubber, and there was a mess like thin chewing gum tangled in my stubble. Surgical alcohol cleaned up the mask but trying to clean the face did nothing for moral. The Doc cleared it up but I felt pretty filthy at the time. I was lucky, never having had infected prickly heat where the sweat glands become inflamed and infected and few of the lads escaped. Quite apart from that we were always going down with the "squits". Little can be more exhausting than the continual trips to the loo. I really had little to complain about in that direction but there were indications that all was not well with me.

My logbook for Jan 10th '45 states that we 'bombed and straffed Kwetsin' and follows with 'Pranged village well. Ranjan Dutt took Blue and I Yellow' (Section). However my letter home dated 13/1/45 was from hospital under observation.

"I took my section in for a couple of runs and then rejoined. We show off always on our return with a spot of titty formation and it was as much as I could do to stop my irritation making it awkward for my section. On landing it was found that most of my skin was covered with nettle rash and I was given an injection of adrenaline @ once. It did no good. The next day at the same time blisters came up all over my body and the irritation was unbearable.

I came along to the hospital. It seems that I am allergic to something; what, no one knows-----nothing but a couple of spots has appeared since and I am just being observed to try and find out what it is. As it happens I am in perfect health and this is most annoying because I was doing famously in ops.- - -

Three of the squadron boys have been in to see me tonight, all Indians. Grand types, they are all fed up with the C.O. and they are sure that he wants to take my deputy flight commandership away. If he does that I shall apply for a posting."

I was discharged from hospital none the wiser but I did not get back on to ops until 6th February. Being grounded and granted fourteen days sick leave I reported to the C.O. who was less than gracious and suggested that I make myself useful in the office. I reminded him that the report said that I was to go on sick leave for fourteen days. He signed and literally threw it across the desk to me.

 

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Edward Sparkes 1998-2002