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Jungle Again

 

Yes. In spite of the wonderful time on sick leave I was so glad to get back with the boys again and pick up on everything that had happened. I was so very envious of one op that they had done. It was a job far beyond normal range. The lads had to fly out just before nightfall to a strip that had literally just been hacked out of the jungle. Overnight the kites were refuelled from cans and they had to take off at the crack of dawn, 'do a job for the East Africans' and fly home.

We were always embarrassed by the high regard in which we were held by the ground troops because although our living conditions were often pretty grim; in no way could they be compared to the life of the infantry. We were however, their eyes and heavy artillery.

The lads were greeted with wild enthusiasm and found that nothing had been spared in making their sleep accommodation comfortable and very safe. Each pair of pilots was shown to a slit trench where all trees etc: had been cleared so that no one could approach without being seen. On each side of the trench an earth shelf had been excavated to make a bed and huge trunks with a covering of earth had been used to make a roof that should hold anything but a direct hit. Everything inside was covered with silk from the parachutes by which all provisions, food, ammunition, petrol for refuelling etc: were dropped to them. Silk sheets in the jungle indeed! Alone too!

To cap it all an enormous African soldier stood guard over each slit trench all night. After all they were well over 150 miles inside 'Jap' territory. There was no front as such. They did their job and returned. I did so envy them. I went down to flights to stroke my old kite and was greeted enthusiastically by my fitter and rigger but they were so conspiratorial that I asked them 'what was up'. "Well Sir, you have always given us the feeling that you would not like one up the 'Jacksie' and we think that we have the answer." So saying, they produced an oblong package wrapped in felt. It was heavy. It was about 10" X 8" of camouflaged armour plate with a hole drilled in each corner. "Recc'n that'l cover it sir!" "Can we bolt it into the seat of "B" sir?" It was a piece of armour plate that they (or someone) had filched from a wrecked Japanese tank! It followed me around until we converted to Spits. True, the idea of being impaled on a bullet was likely to make the eyes water but the likelihood was slim partly because it would have to traverse many inches of the silk of the parachute! What is true is that, sitting in the well of the seat, it did somewhat compensate for my lack of height.

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Not that I have ever been superstitious: in fact I always teased people who were, but I would never fly without my commando dagger and two three inch little woollen dolls joined by a woollen umbilical cord. In those days of course we called them Golliwogs. I still have them.

A letter home 9/2/45:-

"For the love of Allah do not think of a jungle as a Dorothy Lamour set. On a dry patch we can have six inches of light dust over vehicle tracks and paths which turns into mud in a tropical downpour. In places it can be so thick that it can be called impenetrable, rivers abound, roads can become rivers or perch on a mountain ledge or along coastal or riverside mangrove swamps. There is no glamour in it but often humour. This is a crazy war. As you may have read in the papers there is no front line, we and the Japs are all over the place and a forward landing strip can be a hundred miles in front of the most backward Japs. It is good fun and one has to keep wide awake."

25/2/45 We have moved again!

[I refer to two sorties with a section of four aircraft.]

The last two times I took my section on an op alone we had great fun. Each was a classic in miniature and the accuracy in each case was phenomenal. This squadron is a good one and I shall be sad to leave it, as one day I must. It is an idyllic scene here with one of Burma's myriad rivers ten feet away with jungle covered hills all around. A few miles away is a great knife edge range becoming blue with distance and a cool breeze is lifting the tent flaps.

I am wearing Khaki trousers and shirt sleeves ready to roll down if we are called upon. (To guard arms and legs in case of fire). Army boots for the possible long walk back and puttees. I always wear half of one of Sneh's saris as a scarf. Some people think that is a waste of three yards of georgette but it soaks up perspiration in the heat and is warm in the evenings and up there."

It may seem little to protect from an aircraft fire but it had never been our intention to linger. A squadron friend had rather foolishly gone up in shorts. As he explained to us later he noticed a small blue flame in the front of the cockpit which did not increase so he stayed with the aircraft until over base, and performed the usual drill to exit. He disconnected everything, switched off and opened the canopy to put the 'stick' forward to throw him clear but the moment the canopy opened he was enveloped in flames. I naturally visited him in sick bay. His face was pretty good, as were his hands as he was covered by an oxygen mask and helmet and his hands were protected by gauntlets. He had been wearing the lightest of cotton socks to the knee and surprisingly his skin was not even marked. The knees and thighs were another question. Very badly burned. It was a great surprise to all of us that quite thin cloth could protect for a few moments.

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Letter continues:-

"Just outside is my faithful old bus "B". She has replaced the old one but she too is good. I have a few adjustments to make. I am flying "J" the flight commander's bus if we have to fly today for the simple reason that my parachute, helmet etc: are in it as I flew it yesterday. The rest of the squadron is playing cricket on the landing strip. It will be quite a scramble if we are called upon. The C.O. is being too nice to me; I do not like it.

There are a lot of wild animals here. The other night we were doing about 25/30 mph in an open truck with a whole lot of bods in the back when a panther or leopard casually overtook us. Some damned fools shot @ it with their revolvers, fortunately without hitting it. Last night we heard a rifle shot and then animal snarls and moans that kept up until I dropped off to sleep.

My basha is on the edge of a small clearing and -- do not laugh -- I slept with my gun in my right hand and tied to my wrist and a bare kukri in my left hand. The other two chaps (Sujir & Chater) did the same. We all agreed not to shoot at less than six feet.

We have been without meat for some time because a tiger has twice in succession made off with it. Then there are bears, hyenas etc: Dad will know what a row the jackals make. Oh! yes, the jungle is hellish fun but now, so commonplace that I have not taken a single photo.----- Do not worry about the war here though, it is too easy. If only the blasted Japs would show themselves and hit back we could have some fun. I really do hate the bastards. I should love to be reequipped [with Spitfires] and get cracking on the Japanese mainland, although, as we push them further and further away from India I am taken further and further from the kid. I am sending most of my stuff back to her; as we move on it becomes difficult to carry much kit."

Sneh still sent me extravagant presents. Money seemed to be no object. I, as a very junior officer was not well paid and I just could not keep up. We had many arguments on this score which usually ended with her adopting a little girl voice and saying "But I like to give you presents". She could just not get it into her head that we were fighting a war, not staying in any place for very long. The Hurrybird was just not designed to 'carry anything' and I often went for ages with the clothes I stood up in and a toothbrush. Not long before, I had asked Ranjan Dutt who was going to Bombay to take some stuff back to her. I received a letter from her to say that she was sending a 'present' back with him. I met him in his 15cwt truck on his return. He just nodded rather curtly so I apologised that she had asked him to deliver a present for me. He just jerked his head to the back of the truck. There was nothing in it but a large wooden crate bound with steel straps. My heart sank.

When we jemmied it open it contained food of every sort with little parcels for the people she knew and a complete 16mm camera with it's huge film reels together with projector, tripod and all fittings! "Why did you not say that you could not bring it?" At last he laughed a rather thin laugh. "Has anyone ever refused her anything?" That was it! That was exactly IT! She always got her own way!

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There was no film and the film from our camera guns although 16mm was pretty poor quality. The whole shebang was left to rot in the jungle. In so many ways, the most intelligent being I have ever met and all she thought was that 'she wanted to send me a present'. There was nothing I could do; not even send it back. I had constantly told her of how primitive a life we lived, also that we often had no idea how long we should stay at any airstrip. The first hint would be whether we should be sleeping in tents or bamboo bashas. We moaned about our conditions as soldiers have moaned throughout the centuries but by and large I was very happy although the incredible amount of noise in the jungle at night did keep one awake.

There was that damned lizard that one could see in the mind's eye, inflating his throat to produce an ear splitting "UKYOOO" every half minute. We never saw one but there were no prizes for guessing the name we gave it. There were plenty of wild pigs that one could hear rooting through the soil. Then there were complicated scenarios of crashing through the undergrowth, possibly of the hunter and the hunted. It did not do to try to picture the scene. It was not at a distance. We were living in the middle of it; we were part of it and those boars made good eating!

The day was usually quiet and to come into an idyllic jungle clearing and to see a waterfall of orchids bursting from a fork in a tree evoked a sigh in the impossibility of description; yet I can close my eyes and see them now. Then again the sheer humour of incongruity chuckled in the breast. In my last letter I mentioned that a tiger was stealing out meat. The kitchen was a ramshackle, flat roofed affair attached to the end of the 'officer's mess' and a few days earlier we had actually been sitting at the table in the mess when a tiger fell through the roof of the kitchen and made off with the meat. This was just too much because our food varied rather wildly. We decided to set up a reception committee for his next visit.

We removed the sheet of bamboo matting that served as the end wall of the kitchen and hung up the meat on a sort of gantry of bamboo poles. About 75 ft away we prepared a sort of bunker with two machine guns plus a sprinkling of 'tommy guns' and a rifle or two for the sharpshooters. There was no chance of hitting anything important because we should be shooting straight through into the jungle. All was laid on including a small searchlight. We were intent on success and we fortified ourselves with great chipped enamel mugs of cocoa. We were determined and patient. The hours dragged on: eyelids became leaden. At four in the morning the sky was lightening (wasn't it?). We were dog tired and turned in.

At five thirty the meat was gone!

Then there was the time that Ranjan Dutt and I went on a boar hunt at night but that can wait.

 

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Edward Sparkes 1998-2002