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Anatomy of a Tac-R Hurricane Sortie
Dedicated to Nanu Shitoley, DFC - Hurricane Pilot & My surrogate father, Hoshang Patel - Hurricane Pilot
Dear Reader, I suggest that you read through the article first,, and then read the explanatory notes at the bottom.
Imphal airfield, the first week of August, 1944......
The morning had dawned with the suddenness typical of Eastern India - an all-too-brief twilight turning bright and hot, with an abruptness which never ceases to shock. It had rained heavily the night before, and by early afternoon the clouds had built up once again, pretty little cotton-ball cumulus growing into magnificent, distant, turrets in the air. By late afternoon, the clouds were flirting with sunbeams and it had turned quite dark, intermittent rain hissing through the trees and the delicious smell of damp earth heavy in the air.
Tamu , only 50 statute miles SSE of Imphal, had just been re-taken on the 4th August, and it was essential to find out what the enemy, always fanatically dangerous, was up to.
A two-aircraft Tac-R [Tactical Reconnaissance] sortie had been ordered, and the pilots, the Leader and his Wingman [the Leader would navigate, whilst his Wingman kept a lookout for Japanese Oscars on the prowl], filed into the basha [rectangular thatched hut] which served as the Briefing Room for the usual briefing on target, time of take-off, duration of sortie, fuel.......
Because of the importance of the sortie, the CO himself was present. A handsome young Sikh officer, a legend in his own time, he was passionately loyal to his men. They, in turn, worshipped him. The briefing was conducted by the English major who was the Squadron's ALO or Army Liaison Officer, and would also invariably have contained a re-iteration of Tac-R requirements [Pg. 133 of the Official History of the IAF in WW II].....
'Though the withdrawal of the Japanese troops, tired and worn out as they were, was not as well-camouflaged as their advance had been, effective reconnaissance demanded careful observation and accurate interpretation of the things observed. It was not enough to know whether a track was capable of taking mechanical transport or fit for being used by mules only. It was required to be observed whether it showed signs of being used and, if so, by what kind of transport. A bridge might be found to be unserviceable, but well-worn tracks from both ends of it might prove the passage of traffic along the route. Several tracks converging on a point might be an indication of a mechanical transport park. Hoof marks, imprints of elephants' pads, ruts made by cart wheels and tyre marks had , of course, their own tales to tell. If wheel marks abruptly ended in a jungle it was almost certain that vehicles were parked near the spot. Even an apparently insignificant detail that jungle creepers were seen across a road was not devoid of importance as it showed that the road was not much frequented [italics mine to show the phenomenal amount of detail required to be picked up whilst flying at 200mph, at 50ft above the trees !]. Besides searching for all these signs, the pilots carried out attacks whenever any target was noticed. During July, targets were plentiful and many attacks were made on motor vehicles, river craft, covered trenches, bunkers, bashas, gun positions and troops with good results. When it appeared that any target could not be adequately dealt with by it, the reconnoitring aircraft held its fire and directed other aircraft to the target [for example, just three weeks ago, on the 14th July, the CO himself had led six Spitfires to the Chassud area where he had noticed a number of Japanese troops].
As the time for take-off approached, the two pilots picked up their equipment , helmet and oxygen mask casually slung across the back of the neck, the Webley revolver in the webbing holster banging against the hip, and the seat-type parachute slapping the back of the thighs as they walked out to the aircraft, maps in hand. Fortunately, the monsoon-humidity-dripping sweat of the early afternoon had dried with the freshening breeze; but on the other hand, this also meant that clouds were building up, and both knew that the weather was a deadlier killer than the Japanese. Only on the 29th July, the squadron had lost two pilots who'd failed to return from a reconnaissance of the Tamu-Sittaung area. They were last seen entering cloud near Palel by another pilot. Ah, but then, the Leader and his Wingman were both young, and youth has a marvellous knack of looking at life, not death The Wingman stopped for a moment to look up and smile as an exhilaratingly raucous flight of parrots flew past, their green plumage contrasting startlingly against the grey of the distant cumulonimbus each time they flew through an occasional sunbeam.
The aircraft were standing dispersed near some trees, the ground crew fussing over their wards, checking, re-checking, nervous excitement charging the air with a palpable electricity which caught at the throat - so you swallowed consciously and tried not to let it show .
The two Hurricanes stood hunched as only a Hurricane can, with its distinctive hump-back, its earth brown and dark green camouflage  gleaming dully in the late afternoon sun, the four protruding cannon barrels advertising an unspoken menace. A quick word with the ground crew, a pre-flight walk-around commencing and ending at the trailing edge of the left wing, sign the Form 700 for the aircraft. Right foot in the spring-loaded retractable footstep below the trailing edge of the left wing, right hand clutching the spring-loaded hand-hole slot behind and beneath the cockpit canopy, heave yourself onto the wing. Press the hand-hole cover shut and the linked retractable footstep also shuts with a 'thunk,' flush with the bottom of the wing. Right hand on the canopy [or hood], left hand on the top of the windscreen, push your left foot into the spring-loaded slot beneath the cockpit, pull yourself up, right leg into the cockpit, followed by the rest of you and all your various paraphernalia. Slip one leg through the Sutton quick-release harness strap as you sit, 'Click, click,' the ground crew pushes the shoulder pins into the slots, 'click,' you slide the leg pin into the slot, tighten the harness - the seat parachute feels hard and lumpy beneath you. Twist to the left, R/ T jack in, oxygen mask tube into the bayonet socket, and you're ready for the 'Preliminaries,' as the Pilot's Notes delightfully puts it  .
|Hurricane Mk IIc , KZ-371 'R' of No.1 Squadron IAF at Miranshah, NWFP in late 1943.|
During the engine run-up, two men had clung grimly on to the tail to make sure that the 1280 horses of the Rolls-Royce Merlin XX did not slam the aeroplane onto its nose. After all the checks had been completed, the Wingman quickly once again made sure that the hand-brake-like seat adjustment lever on his right was pulled all the way up to ensure that his seat was raised to its maximum so he could see better whilst taxying - it was. He quickly pushed in the knob and set the gyro compass directly in front of him, making sure that it was showing the same heading as the P-8 magnetic compass in the bracket just below the instrument panel [just below the gyro compass, in fact], then set 150 degrees against the lubber line of his P-8 compass, the course to Tamu. Mentally, he reminded himself to constantly check his gyro compass every ten minutes against the magnetic compass [the gyro drifted, you see, so that it had to be constantly re-set every ten minutes or so to ensure its accuracy] and - most important - to make sure that before heading back, he set the course home, 330 degrees, against the P-8's lubber line. He, more than most pilots, would know - after all, he'd been trained as an Observer in Hyderabad for a year in '41 . A quick glance at the pneumatic pressure gauge on the floor - Brakes - 100 psi [pounds per square-inch] - the two short needles at the ten o'clock and two o'clock position on the inner radius of the gauge - Pneumatic Supply - 220 psi - the long needle with a hollow circle a quarter-inch below the tip - at the three o'clock position on the outer radius. H'mm - good...
|The Dunlop Pneumatic gauge|
Both the Hurricanes now sat with the characteristic, soft, 'dhrik-a-dhrik-a-dhrik-a-dhrik-a,' of their idling Rolls Royce Merlins, propellers turning right [from the point of view of the pilot], the play of light sometimes making them strobe and appear to turn to the left The Leader looked across at his Wingman, grinned, and gave him the thumbs up. He was answered by a nod and a thumbs up. Quickly one of the mechanics jumped onto his left wing to help guide him through the slushy quagmire of the dispersal to the pucca runway which, thank God, was a proper tarmac, unlike the PSP [Pierced Steel Plate] of nearby Uderbund 50 miles to the West where some of his friends in 7 Squadron were .
He waved the chocks away and heard the hollow wooden slithering as they were pulled forward and away  by the remaining mechanic - a thumbs up - his left hand went up in a return thumbs up and dropped onto the throttle whilst his right hand, holding the stick back, flicked off the catch holding the brakes. Throttle in the hollow between left thumb and forefinger, easy does it, gently ease her into a slow walking pace. Watch the mechanic sitting on your wing as he guides you, mind you don't run into your Leader, quick glance at your temperatures and pressures, easy on the brakes - overconfidence can tip her onto her nose and gosh; worse still, can throw the poor mechanic onto those whirling prop blades .
At last - they reached the public road which adjoined the runway. Traffic, mainly military trucks and jeeps, was stopped on either side, with the odd cyclist and bullock-cart. They entered and lined up on the runway, the Wingman to the right and slightly behind the Leader. Brakes on - he gave a thumbs up to the mechanic on the wing who slithered off the trailing edge and ran to the side of the runway. The pre-take-off litany - TPFF  ..
Quickly he clipped his oxygen mask on and brought his goggles down over his eyes; right hand lowering the seat a bit so he could shut the canopy - he preferred to fly with the canopy shut as it was less noisy and less likely for his map to fly out of the cockpit; however, a lot of his friends preferred to fly with their canopy open Eyes on the Leader, who raised his right arm and let it drop. Quickly slam the canopy shut, flick the brakes off, left hand smoothly opening the throttle, right rudder tap-tap-tapping away to counteract any swing to the left, right hand gently, gently exerting an imperceptible forward pressure on the stick. The Leader's tail went up, his own coming up almost simultaneously - a slight swing to the left corrected with instinctive pressure on the right rudder. Lightning glance at the airspeed - 100mph, the Leader's wheels left the tarmac; gentle back-pressure on the stick and his own wheels left the ground. Squeeze the brake lever with your right hand to stop the wheels from rotating, quickly transfer the left hand to the stick; right hand to the H-type slot, thumb on the hydraulic lever catch, move the lever left, with your index finger turn the undercarriage safety catch clockwise - watch it, boy, you're porpoising !! - and move the lever smartly up. The Leader's wheels were tucking up under his wing, first the right leg, then the left. He heard his own undercarriage lock as the indicator lights changed from green to red; quickly nudge the stick forward as his nose lifted slightly with the change in trim; quickly, right hand bringing the hydraulic lever back to neutral [leaving it in the undercarriage 'Up' position could cause the lever to jam], wait for the airspeed to build up to 140 mph, the minimum speed before you can start climbing .
They climbed to 100' to clear some buildings near the airfield and levelled off as he watched the airspeed build up to 200mph. The Leader dropped to 50' above the trees and he followed, juggling throttle, stick and rudder with imperceptible pressure so that his position never wavered, and it appeared as if one hand was guiding both the aeroplanes .
Watch your Leader, watch out for that tree, map-read, scan your instruments, stick back - high ground, check fuel, radiator temperature's rising - reach forward and raise the radiator flap lever a couple of notches with your left hand, watch your Leader.....
There - at 10 o'clock below - cart tracks - rapidly move your left hand from the throttle and grab the stick, while you mark the spot on your map and furiously scribble the details on your little pad.......
They were abeam Bishenpur and just about 10 miles south of Imphal, when something made him look up. What he saw turned his blood to ice - there, at eleven o'clock and about three thousand feet above them, hung two dots. His hand moved to the R/ T switch on his mask and he was about to shout a warning to the Leader when the two dots wheeled lazily to the left and he saw them for what they were - eagles ! As he let out a ragged breath of relief, he recalled how on the 21st May, two of his squadron were bounced at just this place by six Oscars. One died and the other had survived, but his Hurricane had taken such a beating that it was a wonder that he'd survived at all .
|A Recce patrol near Bishenpur sends information back to HQ by R/T||Indian troops breaking cover to put up a charge near Imphal|
As they approached Palel, halfway to Tamu, he involuntarily tensed - this was where the Japanese 33rd Division had been tenaciously holding on [the other two, the 15th and the 31st had begun to slowly disintegrate]. As they roared over Palel, something caught his eye - troops ! Both saw them at the same time - they were wearing green - ours ? It must be; the Japs wear khaki - but hold it - why've they scattered ?! The Leader reefed into a climbing turn - open throttle; watch it, the Hurri tends to tighten up in a steep turn and she'll roll into the ground before you know it ! Indians, thank God, but no matter - he'd learnt that troops tended to blaze away anyway at anything with wings ! They descended once again and resumed course, and he marked the position of the troops on the map.
Clouds were building up rapidly behind him and he now had the added problem of turbulence - both the aircraft were bobbing up and down, and he had to work very hard just in order to keep station.
Ten miles later, they passed the hills of Tengnoupal, where Japanese bunkers had been systematically pulverized by the IAF and the RAF. The lush hills were marred by ugly tree-stumps and pock-marked by craters and the devastation looked like a tropical version of those horrible photographs of the Western Front that he'd seen as a child.
At last, Tamu
The Leader rocked his wings and then turned left, circling, so they could see if the enemy had dispersed so as to ambush the troops coming down the Palel-Tamu road. Nothing; all quiet, almost too quiet. In his young life, he'd learnt to take nothing for granted, lest something come and bite him when he wasn't looking. Nothing. They flew two circles, the second wider than the first and the Leader then turned on to a heading of 150 degrees, a course which would take them towards the ferry near Pantha, where the oil refinery was. The terrain climbed sharply as they crossed the Nam Palaw Chaung. At the ferry on the Chindwin near Pantha, they circled the road in ever-widening circles, he noted some cart tracks to the side of the road, and what appeared to be vehicle tracks. Tank tracks ? They reefed into a steep turn - yes, they were. Quickly he noted down the spot on his map.
The Leader rocked his wings and turned back for Tamu. By now, he could see that the weather had turned ugly near Palel. It had started to pour, the clouds had descended to less than a hundred feet, the darkness sundered from time to time by streaks of lightning. He sensed rather than heard the thunder. Moirang and Langgol which he could see on either side of the Imphal -Palel road on the way out were now covered in dense, impenetrable gray - Imphal was boxed in . Left hand to the bottom left of the instrument panel as he flicked on his navigation light and the pressure head heat switches, then his hand up - cockpit lights on, two on the left, one on the right, reach down - compass light on - rheostat to full bright. The Leader commenced a gentle turn to the left, climbing to about a thousand feet above the trees. No, there was no way out - they would have to try to go through the dark, billowing cauldron that was ahead of them. They continued to turn, climbing all the time. For the second time, he checked the fuel contents of the main tanks - five gallons each - he flicked the fuel pressurising switch from 'Atmosphere' to 'Pressure.' The Leader levelled off at 15, 000' - with hills upto 13, 000' all around them, height was their only friend. He checked the main fuel tanks again - 25 gallons - he switched off the fuel pressurising pump - his auxiliary tanks were now empty and he had fuel left for a little over half an hour of flying - they had to get home quickly .
Quickly now; bad weather procedures - set the flaps to 40 degrees - eyes quickly down to the right - the little indicator moved three notches down on the indicator - good; propeller speed to give 2650 rpm; speed down to 110 mph. Make sure the radiator shutter was fully open - it was - the temperature was steady at 100 C. A quick glance at the rear-view mirror - clear - everyone sensible, Japanese and birds included, was on the ground - except for them .
The Leader rocked his wings and set course - his gyro compass was showing 330 degrees - quick glance below - his P-8 compass was set on 330 degrees and the red needle was on 'N' for North. His body tensed and crouched, seat belt tightened to the maximum extent possible, eyes scanning his instruments, eyes on the Leader. On this course, they should be overhead home in 15 minutes. But it was not to be Two minutes later, they were in middle of a nightmare, a maelstrom that tossed and rolled and slammed them about with a shocking violence. At one stage, he thought he saw his vertical speed indicator move straight from 4000'/ minute 'UP' to 4000'/ minute 'DOWN' with such force that his head banged painfully against the top of the canopy; it may well have been more than 4000'/ min, but the instrument was only calibrated upto 4000' ! The Leader turned back, and it was all that the Wingman could do to stay with him - twice or thrice, he thought that a giant hand was about to roll him over and fling him down.
|The Climb/ Descent Vertical Speed Indicator|
Back onto a course of 150 degrees - the murk eased just a bit after a short while, to reveal Palel beneath them. The Leader's voice, crackling with static, faintly came through his earphones "Shall we try again?" His left hand leapt to the microphone switch on his oxygen mask and he shouted "Affirmative, Leader, affirmative." Again they turned onto 330 degrees and headed into the witches' cauldron. Though the canopy was firmly shut, the sheets of rain caused leaking driblets to fall on his head and thighs. He pushed his goggles on top of his helmet and wiped his eyes of sweat and water - thank God he was wearing soft leather gloves. He swallowed hard and fought the panic that was threatening to engulf him - fuel was getting dangerously low. It was impossible - they were being thrown about with the same violence and ferocity they had encountered the first time, and the visibility was worse ! For the second time, the Leader turned back and he, blind and bouncing about like a cork, gingerly followed. Overhead Palel, the Leader told him that he would try for a wheels-up landing at Tamu airfield. Something possessed him and he called "I'm trying once more to head for home, Leader," and he swung around once more, back towards the maelstrom, onto the course for home .
He knew what this meant - a slight error in navigation and he'd run out of fuel or hit high ground, and then again, the weather itself may decide to relieve him of taking any more decisions and slam him into the ground, aided by the katabatic winds He shook his head - concentrate ! Fuel was just over 20 gallons; the aeroplane rose dangerously, then fell - don't over-correct; gently now Keep the compass steady on 330 degrees, and remember, after exactly fifteen minutes you should start descending and looking around for home He was sweating profusely now, but daren't move his hands from the throttle and stick; watch the course, the aeroplane lurched - watch the speed - she'll stall at 75; watch the clock - another five minutes - thank God the radiator temperature was holding out at 100 C; check the compass - too much off to one side, and he could hit the slope of the valley .
Was it his imagination, or was the turbulence getting less ? With dramatic suddenness, he shot out into the valley, clear of the murderous thunderstorm. He could have sung for joy when he saw, there below him on the left, the airfield. Quickly check fuel - less than 5 gallons in each tank - he decided to make a straight-in approach and landing; let's hope like hell that the fuel gauge is accurate - he wouldn't have the luxury of being able to go around again if he muffed this approach .
Right hand moved the hydraulic lever to the right and down fully down - the nose dropped as the flaps came fully down - quickly he corrected the drop of the nose; he then moved the lever to the left and down and felt the turbulence of the dropping wheels and saw the green lights come on. He caressed the elevator trimmer wheel to ease the load off the stick; speed steady at 110 mph [she'd stall at anywhere between 60-75 mph]. Goggles down over the eyes, canopy back, raise the seat.
He cut power over the threshold and eased back on the stick, back again and ease off the back pressure, and she settled gently on the main wheels with a soft 'tchkkk' keep her steady and the tail came down; stick fully back. Raise the flaps.
He taxied out to where the 'Follow Me' jeep was. Slowly, he taxied behind the jeep back to where they started from just an hour-and-a-half ago - gosh; it felt a lot longer than that ! The chocks were dragged against his wheels [how reassuring that wooden scraping noise sounded !]; run the engine at 800 rpm for half a minute, then pull the slow-running cut-out on the bottom right shelf until the propellers slowed down and stopped with a series of soft, metallic 'clunks.' Fuel and ignition off.
The silence deafened him as he pushed back the sweat-drenched helmet off his head so that it lay wreathed across the back of his neck; he sat as if in a dream as he took in deep draughts of the monsoon-scented air. Death was only seven minutes behind him, but it was already out of his mind. Absent-mindedly, he disconnected the R/T, the oxygen, twisted open the Sutton quick-release harness. His mechanic helped him out of the harness - he was smiling warmly at him and talking - he couldn't hear him, but smiled back and mumbled something - his ears were still filled with the roar of the dead engine. He picked up his map and got out, slightly shaky with the still-remembered turbulence, and jumped off the back of the left wing.
As he walked back toward the briefing hut, he prayed that the Leader had made it OK to Tamu. The CO drove up with the ALO in a jeep - he just smiled at him, giving him time for his own thoughts. As they walked into the basha, a hot mug of tea was thrust into his hands, the ALO lit two cigarettes and gave him one. He took a greedy gulp of the scalding chai, took a great lungful of the smoke, and the words just came pouring out; the weather, his Leader's decision to force-land at Tamu - that was the first thing he said. Then the things they'd seen pin-pointed on the map; and Tamu ? Oh, Tamu was clear - most definitely clear .
The ALO made a few calls on the field telephone - an army unit had picked up the Leader, who had made a safe wheels-up landing at Tamu ! The Wingman slumped back into his chair as the relief swept over him; he was suddenly tired, very tired.
As they walked slowly to the basha which served as the Mess, he looked up at the lurid skid marks left by the sunset and one part of his brain thought "God but it's great to be alive " whilst another part of his brain thought "It's going to rain tonight ." He entered the cocooning womb of the Mess, with its cigarette smoke, conversation, slapping of cards on the table, All India Radio softly playing music in the background. He looked up at the familiar smiling face of Gulbaaz Khan, the tall, handsome Ahmedzai from Bannu, the khidmatgaar [waiter] who had come with them from Kohat, at his elbow with a chhota whisky paani "Thank you, Gulbaaz, thank you." Tomorrow would be a long day.
And yet, all this was just a daily routine for these young men, so many of whom never returned to their mothers in Bombay, or Bangalore, or......
Next: Encounters with WW2 Veterans : Air Commodore Nanu Shitoley DFC