I Wish I Had Said That!
Life in the Royal Indian Airforce was a little different from the R.A.F in those days, in that if one wanted an intelligent conversation in the latter, one would be well advised to get an invitation to the Sergeant's mess. There seemed to be an inverse snobbery that meant that the usual chat was about female conquests, claimed or anticipated, or about Operations. The latter conversations were often accompanied by much diving and swooping with hands accompanied by the sounds that would be hoped to approximate to the engines of the aircraft demonstrated.
These were seldom acted out by experienced aircrew who usually peered gloomily into their beer or broke into song. These songs inevitably involved an improbable conjunction of sex, aircraft, building the crashed aircraft from bits recovered from various parts of the pilot's anatomy and usually ended with a rendering of as much as could be remembered of "Eskimo Nell". These songs run parallel to the 'after Rugby' songs.
Indian Officers of that time came from very different races, religion and background and were intensely proud of their coming independence. Very often there would be an informal gathering round a bamboo table, sitting on bamboo benches. It was rather like a family get together and subjects discussed could be anything from singing the Muslim call to prayer or ancient Hindu Philosophy. On one occasion we were discussing genetics. A debate was started on Darwinism and a few decided to support Lammark's theories that had been taken up by the Russian scientist Trofim Dennisovich Lyshenko. This gentleman had been much praised by Stalin because the theory suggested that 'revolutionary' changes in heredity could be brought about by altering the environment. Thus, people brought up in the glorious Soviet Republic would produce a super race. Needless to say the debate became quite heated with the 'Lamarkians' saying that if a thousand generations had their tails cut off there would eventually be a generation born without tails. The 'Darwinists' played their trump card by saying that the Jews had been circumcised for countless generations and no Jew had been born circumcised. At this Chrishna quoted Hamlet by saying "There's a divinity that shapes our ends, rough-hew them how we will". (I wish that I had said that!) The man was always ready with an apt phrase and senior officers were always wary of him. Like many brilliant conversationalists he was not always popular.
The Japs were fighting hard to maintain their lines of retreat so the roads North and South of Taungup and from Taungup to Prome were our main targets. One wag once said on debriefing "Ebsolute Hell over Taungup!" in an affected upper class accent and it became our bye word for almost any old Op. On one occasion I noticed a considerable vibration during and after an operation over Taungup. As I stopped my engine the propeller 'Phlut! Phlut! Phlutted to a stop and there; right in front of my face was a bullet hole right through the base of the propeller. My first thought was that the bullet should have hit me directly between the eyes. My second thought was "Idiot! That could have had happened anywhere on the rotation!" Not another mark on the kite.
Ranji was also hit. Interesting that they had once again hit the section leaders, adding to our previous conviction that they always tried to get the leaders.
"B" was in for a prop change. That was on March 31st and by April 2nd she was back with me for action between milestones 66 and 67 on the road from Taungup over the Arakan Yoma to Prome (Pye).
At about this time an officer of the U.S.Army Air Force pulled off one of the most coldly courageous feats imaginable. The 'Lightning ' twin boomed fighter had considerable range and this enabled then to operate as far south as Rangoon. Once again the Jap Ack-Ack had gone for the leader and he was forced to bail out north of the city. Fortunately his fellow pilots knew exactly where he was. They flew to their home base and one of them turned up at our airstrip in a little 'pisser'. These were very light reconnaissance aircraft similar in qualities to our 'Tiger Moths'.
Our ground crew refuelled the aircraft and filled the spare cans that he had brought with him. He had just enough fuel to get to where his commanding officer was and then they had to refuel from the cans, dump the empty cans and get out. The plan seemed utter madness as there was no certainty that they would manage to land, let alone take off. The prospect of being a pilot and being captured was bad enough but here were two men at risk. To cut a long story short, they made it. We would dearly have loved to entertain them in the manner that they deserved but they were far too exited and went back to their own station which we could well understand. We never heard anything more about it but for my money the rescuing pilot deserved the highest possible honour.
So many of the slang terms that we used have passed into the language and we have forgotten their origins. It was a time of tremendous enthusiasms, words took on new meanings bubbling over with energy and oblique references to produce a live language. One of the most delightful inventions of R.A.F. imaginations was that of the 'Gremlins'. In spite of the efforts of engineering efficiency to make flying entirely predictable we had to admit that we were never likely to master the air as well as the birds, bats and insects which flew by right. We flew by license, rather like motorists; it is the pedestrians who roam the earth by right.
We could, of course, never admit that the human in charge of his aircraft could ever be at fault and the Gremlin was written into the fabulous fables! There was not just one Gremlin, there were countless numbers of them. Some, were so powerful as to lower or even raise the ground so that the innocent pilot would miscalculate and dive in as the ground was suddenly raised. On the other hand a pilot would be ready for the perfect three point landing when the Gremlins would suddenly drop the ground by a hundred feet. This naturally caused the hapless pilot to spin into the ground.
There were the gas guzzlers that would drink the fuel and cause the engine to fail for lack of petrol. They were into everything but the worst were those that dragged the instrument needles out of direction. Some actually sat on the ends of the 'artificial horizon' and turned it into a see saw; this of course, always took place when the pilot was flying blind (as in a cloud) resulting in loss of control. Some of them even altered the landing gear warning lights causing the hapless pilot to land with his wheels still up. A favourite trick was to pull the compass needle to one side, sometimes by as much as one hundred and eighty degrees causing errors in navigation. There was no end to the mischief they would cause, some were playful, some, utterly malignant but they were not to be slighted.
I actually carried those two little woollen 'golliwogs' because my mother gave them to me. Honestly!
The stories were too strong to remain with R.A.F aircrew. Once, I happened to be on leave in England at the same time as a boyhood chum who had just become a junior Army officer. As we settled down to a drink in the bar and he suddenly became confidential. "I say Old Man.'----------- 'About these Gremlin chappies.'---------- 'D'ye think that you could fill me in?"
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Edward Sparkes ©1998-2002