Burma is divided into two unequal parts by the Arakan Yoma, a range of mountains running North/South and cutting off the Arakan which is a relatively narrow coastal belt of jungle and rice paddies. It is divided by many rivers and mangrove swamps. Offshore are several islands of varying size. Our lads were doing a great job driving the Japanese Army down the great central plain just over the Yoma.
The Japs were defending with suicidal ferocity and it was plain that sooner or later the Arakan Army would be forced to join their main army to defend Rangoon. We were doing our best to destroy their means of transport by bombing bridges, sinking sampans etc: Sometimes we only damaged them and they would pull them up under the houses on stilts for the night, this would mean us taking off just before dawn to finish the job. I mentioned the half buried oil drums firing a great charge of rocks into the air by remote control (Ru-ywa). These were used to great effect when our straffing run was restricted by the chaung (river) being in a deep ravine. Fortunately the chap pressing the buttons was usually a second or so late so that the 'blunderbus' erupted behind but it could be a bit 'offputting' because we had to concentrate on the target and could only get in bursts of a second or two before jinking away.
Personally, I found this sort of work the most exhilarating imaginable and completely sublimated my adrenalin 'fix' until the next time. However we were constantly aware of the privations suffered by the soldiers below us as we should be flying back to the 'civilization' of a jungle camp.
As the main body of the Japanese Arakan Army retreated our sorties became longer and we were aware that before long we would soon have to move our base forwards and that the most likely place would be the recently conquered island of Akyab (now called 'Sitwe). This move would almost certainly by sea and those officers who had been with the squadron longest were wondering who would 'draw the short straw' and have to take the ground crew to Cox's Bazaar and then by sea to Akyab. We hated the duty of being in charge of the ground party who would shift everything that a squadron needs to keep it flying, all non flying personnel plus office/engineering equipment etc:
We knew that where we would be going would be unlikely to be as good a spot for game shooting so Ranjan Dutt and I decided to try our hand at bagging one of the boars that we heard crashing though the undergrowth. I pointed out that the pellets that we fired at birds or in clay shooting would be useless against the hide of a boar and Ranji just tapped the side of his nose with his forefinger, winked and said that he would see to it.
On the first night that we could be sure that we were not flying the next day we assembled our 'arsenal'. Ranji had reckoned on replacing the pellets with ball bearings from squadron stores. When he turned up he discovered that there was nothing suitable so we were left with the choice of our revolvers (useless), rifles firing .303 bullets and 9mm sub machine guns. Since we had gone so far and it was a beautiful moonlit night we decided to go ahead to a local ravine. Taking one airman (L.A.C. Draw, an armourer who had asked to come with us,) we set out. We omitted the light that we used on the 'tiger shoot' on the grounds that we were carrying enough gear in any case.
When we arrived at our chosen spot, common sense should have told us to abort the operation but that commodity was in very short supply that night. We slithered to the bottom and decided that the most likely casualty from there would be human. Cursing, stumbling and falling we finally reached a spot where we could crawl out and found the L.A.C.Draw still guarding our armaments , most unhappy but still willing to continue. Ranji elected to lie on the edge of the ravine and felt sure that the moonlight was strong enough for a good shot. I had spied a banana plantain about ten feet high half way down the side of the ravine that was resisting erosion and offered a good observation point that I could reach by hanging on to the barrel of the rifle held by him. (Oddly, I did not think about the safety catch until I was at full stretch and looking up the barrel!) There was still about six feet to drop but I opined that the thing would hold. With a rifle over one shoulder and a submachine gun over the other I landed fairly safely as stones and soil clattered to the bottom.
Sitting astride the trunk was surprisingly comfortable even if the roots were complaining somewhat and shedding stones and soil from time to time.I slid the straps of my arsenal round so that they were comfortably in my lap ready for action and waited. We were so sure that any hunting boar would use the ravine. The usual jungle cacophony was silenced. It was quite eerie, even the 'ukyoo lizard' was without his usual call. Nature was ganging up on us! Ranji was about twenty feet to my left and above me. He was an extraordinary man, with the steely courage to flick roll a Hurricane almost immediately after takeoff but his patience, (never his best point,) was running out.
Dammit! "We are here to shoot boar; where are the damned things?" He really tried hard to keep quiet but after three or four hours of silence and I had to give in to him. Funny! I never acknowledged his seniority and he never 'pulled rank'. We were obviously not going to see anything to shoot at so we called it a day. I let the rifle slide down and with only the submachine gun, slid down myself. It was a far more bumpy descent than expected and there was no sign of the rifle. Ranji suggested that he slid another rifle to go down where I had released the other one and before I could stop him he let it go. There was the slightest detectable movement where it landed. The two rifles rested snugly together, and all was saved. I struggled out of the ravine and we set off, empty handed to the camp.
As we approached I asked what the password for the night was. "Christ!" said Ranji (As far as I know he had no religious affiliations). Neither L.A.C.Draw nor I had had the least fraction of intelligence to ask before we left. The watch that was on duty when we left would have been relieved. We tried to find the most guilty among us and failed. We then discussed at length how to approach the camp. None of us had much faith in the intelligence of the guards. To them we may well be a marauding bunch of Japs. We kept to the middle of the road and kept talking. Suddenly the challenge. "Halt!' 'Who goes there?" "F/Lt Dutt, F/o Sparkes and L.A.C. Draw returning from a hunt." "Password?" "We have forgotten it". "Halt or I fire!"
The guard had turned out to reinforce the sentry and we could hear the whispering; then: Is officer Esparkes with you?" (Some Indian nationals have difficulty pronouncing an initial 's' without placing an 'e' in front of it). "Yes." "What is the name of your wife sir?" I answered "Shehprabha" By now they knew for certain who we were but they were going to make us sweat. "Does she have a family name sir?" "Yes, Pradhan". "Advance officer Sparkes and be recognised!" I walked slowly forward and after acknowledgement I was asked to identify my companions. It was a rare chance to find fault with officers and they made the most of it. We handed in our arms and went to our quarters for a much needed sleep.
I had hardly dropped off before I was shaken awake. All officers were to report to the briefing tent. The Adjutant counted us all in; the C.O. was looking very pleased with himself. "Squadron move; we are to move to Kjaukpiu on Ramree Island immediately." "Pilots will fly and be serviced by a crew already there.' 'Ned, you will be in charge of the ground crew and the rest of the squadron." There were genuine looks of sympathy, blended with amusement because it was known that I had managed to get out of the job before.
Just what I had dreaded. We had been operating against the Japs on the coast road opposite Ramree Island a few days before and we were to leapfrog Akyab by 70 or so miles. The coast road itself was often little more than a track and although it was only about 60 miles as the crow flies from Bawli Bazaar to Cox' s Bazaar where we were to board ship, one could often find oneself travelling in the opposite direction for several miles. There were some stretches where two lane driving was possible but by and large there were passing places often along precipitous ravines.
I had hoped that the move could be made within two weeks but my log book shows a total of four weeks lost flying time. There was a general atmosphere of excitement throughout the squadron. Kjaukpiu (pronounced Chockpew) was within a short flight of Taungup which was a critical junction of the coastal road with a pass into the central plain. It was the only pass through the Yoma for 80 miles and the Japs were defending the area with determination. Within a few days the squadron flew out and I was left with the ground crew.
One problem was to see that we collected our mail before it was redirected to Ramree Island so I cadged a lift to Cox's managed to get our mail separated from the rest of the squadron. The workhorse for transport was the DC3 twin engined aircraft and as luck would have it was going my way with a motley bunch of walking wounded on their way to India. I sat on the main spar and sorted out my personal mail as we trundled down the runway. Suddenly there was loud bang and the aircraft lurched. A wheel had burst. The pilot made a half hearted effort to get airborne so that he could circle, raise the undercarriage and make a belly landing. It would be easier than our present position but he did not have enough airspeed. The lurching became hopeless and we were obviously going to prang. I had previously eyed a small space between some radio racks, stuffed my mail into my shirt and got into the space hanging on for dear life. In a peacetime atmosphere it may seem odd that one should always be prepared for an accident but we were so inured to the possibility of things going wrong that we automatically summed up the possibilities, thought of 'escape routes' and were always ready for any eventuality.
The bucking and slewing became severe and one of my fingers was almost cut to the bone on the aluminium racks. Finally that eerie silence after the crash. Not being strapped in I was first to the great double doors. A red glow suffused the interior which raised the momentary fear of fire. I pulled the release levers and pushed. There was a breath stopping moment before the doors fell away and there, in front of me, was a huge panorama of freedom and escape. The red glow was merely the sun shining through dust kicked up by the bucking aircraft. I went back to help to evacuate the wounded men and when we were all free of the wreck I had an inchoate feeling that all was not finished. Suddenly I remembered. Ignoring the shouts of the fire crew who had just arrived I returned to the aircraft. I was well aware that the aircraft and it's contents were 'written off' as a crash. The medical kit was untouched. I tore it open and grabbed the tubes of morphine, stuffing them into my pockets. Suddenly seeing the mail sack that I had come to get I picked it up and nonchalantly walked out with it.
The crash crew exercised their enjoyment of the authority momentarily granted them and chastised me for going back into the wreck. My own feelings were of a little triumph because I had four little tin boxes in my pocket. Each was about the size of a pocket bicycle tyre repair kit. They contained what looked like a heavy lead toothpaste tube, at the end of which was an injection needle covered by a long screw cap.
Our own 'escape pack' that we carried at all times contained two of these.There was just that little flush of confidence to know that there was a good backup. It was a clever device. All we had to do was to unscrew the top, jab in the needle and squeeze the tube. About ten years after the war I opened them up for inspection. They had all crystallised and were useless having long passed their 'use by date'!
Next: - Cox's Bazzar
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Edward Sparkes ©1998-2002