A WW2 Pilot's Story - Neville Gill

S NANDA KUMAR is transported back in time as he talks to 82 year-old Bangalorean, Neville Gill, now leading a quiet life after 53 years of flying. This article first appeared in Deccan Herald.

You would not believe he was 82 years old. When it began to rain at his farmhouse on the outskirts of Bangalore, the hiss of the drizzle caught his ears. He leapt nimbly up from his chair, worried that the clothes would get wet. Assured that the clothes were out of the rain, which had now turned into a downpour, he returned to his story, set in another wet, humid land: Burma. 

Burma is of course, today called Myanmar, but for those who had contact with that country during the years that the British were there, and during the World War II, it was always Burma. That vital piece of rugged mountain terrain surrounding the Arrakan Yoma mountain range, with the Irrawady river running through was all that prevented the Japanese from advancing into India.

Click to Enlarge Flying Officer Neville Gill in IAF Uniform in 1942

Neville Gill was part of the Hurricane Squadron of the Indian Air Force that gave the Allied ground troops air cover and helped strafe the convoys of the Japanese. The Hurricanes, like the Spitfires, were the legendary aircraft that were placed all over the world during the II World War. 

That era is something that we have only read about, in history and the hundreds of fictional tales that the World War II spewed. Or seen on the screen - the World War II really gave the studios in Hollywood material that they gleefully turned into celluloid tales of courage, sacrifice, romance and glory. I, for one, could not believe that I was meeting s man who had actually lived through that tempestuous era of both, the World War II, as well as the Partition. Neville Gill took me on a flight to that dark era, when the world united to combat the threat posed by Adolf Hitler and those who believed in him. 

Cut to Burma, and the World War II: the Japanese are pushing forward relentlessly, using their jungle warfare skills

.“When we reported for duty at the Akyab Air Base in Burma, our Commanding Officer told us, ‘there are 14 of you. At least four will be buried here - those are the statistics - so be careful.’ This was mainly because we were part of a squadron that mainly carried out low-level flying, at about 500 feet, which meant that we were mostly flying at treetop level. (He points to a very tall coconut tree, drenching in the rain that was blurring everything else in sight on his farm).

“At that level, every thing looked so green, like a smooth carpet, but the danger was that there were many tall trees that were bound to be a little higher, sticking out, and there would be very little time to avoid them. If we hit them, we had it - chances of survival were very little,” his calm voice hardly belying the danger that these pilots had faced in the World War II.

The reason they had to fly so low was to get the “enemy, the Japanese who were so good on the ground, in the jungles - they had really mastered the art of staying still.” 

“It was dangerous every time we went up - they used to fire with ammo-belts that contained five assorted bullets - the first would be an armour piercing round, the next a slightly bigger round, then a tracer, and so on, all in sequence, one after the other, so if we were hit, or our fuel tanks were hit, that was it,” he said in a matter-of-fact tone. That was apart from the odd tree that was a very real threat.

Neville Gill with a Spitfire Mk XVIII with No.4 Squadron IAF at Iwakuni, Japan. No.4 Squadron formed part of the British Commonwealth Occupation Force in Japan after the Japanese Surrender. Click to Enlarge

Did anybody get hit? “Oh yes, one chap hit a tree, it was bad - the whole dashboard hit him in the face - but he came back and flew.”

Neville Gill had always wanted to fly.Born in Ammarra, Mesopotamia, in what is now Iraq, the first language he learnt to speak was Arabic. His father was working for the British Customs. Britain’s writ then ran large, in the 1920s, and they controlled the entire area, from the Middle East (as it was then called) to Mesopotamia and, of course, undivided India. Pakistan hadn’t been born yet.

“I was sent off to study in the famous Lawrence School in Muree, now in Pakistan, then in undivided Punjab. We were all boarders, and had to be away at school for nine months. Then, around Christmas time, we were sent home for holidays. We were based in Bombay, and it was a wonderful two-day journey by train, with lovely steam-engines, oh, it was wonderful,” he reminisced. I sat still, drinking in the scents and sounds of an era that I had only read about, along with the coffee that was at hand.

Neville finished what was then called the ‘Inter’ or the Intermediate. The year was 1939. He returned to Bombay, and decided to join the Air Force. He applied to the Royal Air Force College at Cranwell, England, the famed training school. He was accepted, and asked to report at Cranwell for the course. He was overjoyed. He had his tickets ready, and was taking in a film at a cinema talkies in Bombay, when, in the middle of the film, an announcement was flashed on a slide: Great Britain had declared war on Germany. “Here I had the tickets ready, and there was War.”He received a cable from Cranwell: all courses were cancelled, but Neville was to report with the cable to the recruiting office in Bombay. He duly presented himself at the recruiting centre. “They told me there was no opening for an Air Force position yet, but they could take me in the Army. I was adamant. It was the Air Force or nothing. They then offered me the Navy. I said ‘no.’ Those fellows were really getting irritated. Then they tried to become a little tough. They sent me a letter asking me to report at the Centre immediately for recruitment.”

Young Neville’s mother (his father had passed away by then) counselled him: after all, there was a war on, he couldn’t keep saying ‘no’; and if the youngster really did not want to join anything except the Air Force, then perhaps he should go on to finish his graduation. That way, he would be out of the way for three years, and the recruiting agency would not feel offended. The idea appeared sound to Neville. He presented himself at the Bombay University. He was turned down. He had passed his ‘Inter’ from Punjab, and would therefore have to do his further studies from an university in that province. Very well, he told himself, and went to Lahore. He enrolled himself at the University there for his BA (Hons). After completing his graduation, he returned to Bombay. 

Now, he heard, they WERE recruiting pilots for the Air Force. He went once again to the recruiting agency, and was accepted! He was told to report at the preliminary college in Lahore, “where they taught us the real basics of what it meant to be an Air Force pilot - to be a gentleman - in fact, it was a gentleman first, then an officer,” he chuckles. They taught him the intricate art of using the right cutlery, the right glasses for the right spirits, and all the basic that made sure that the Air Force pilot would stand out as an exemplary gentleman. “Honour above all, “ says Neville, “absolutely. In fact it was so deeply ingrained, that the traders would safely take a cheque from us. Because if the cheque was dud, all he had to do was to report the matter to the Commanding Officer, then the pilot was out, that’s it, he was cashiered. That was how important for a pilot to be honourable.” 

A far cry from today’s world.

On the next step, at the College in Jodhpur, they were put through intensive training on how to fly planes --and survive. “We had some really excellent air instructors, and there was no time to be wasted, really, because a war was on, and pilots were needed urgently. We learnt to fly as fast as we could.” But his dreams to serve in the War was to get another setback. “I was told that I would be one of the Air Instructors. I was disappointed, at first, but then it all worked out to my advantage because there is nothing like learning when you are teaching. So, during the whole process, I honed all the rough edges, and really learnt the art of flying.”When VE, Victory in Europe, signalled the end of the War in that part of the world, the Allies turned their full attention the Far East, and the advancing Japanese Forces. And Neville was posted to a forward post in Burma, as part of the No. 4 Squadron, Air Force. “We had to do a lot of night-flying, too, because that was when the Japanese carried out their movements - in the day time, unless we were lucky, we could never spot them.”

That part of the night operations are still very fresh in his memory. “We would be flying low, and suddenly, we could see tracer bullets arcing out ahead of us. They did not know where we were, but they could certainly hear us, and many times we would veer away to fly around the tracer curtain, and then try and hit that spot where the maximum firing was coming from.” This was because the firing meant there was an important ammunition or supply dump that the Japanese were guarding. Wasn’t Lord Mountbatten in charge of the operations in this theatre of war, I interject gently, not wanting us to return to the present moment. “Yes, and I even flew him once,” came the non-commital answer. His eyes twinkled when I sat back, amazed. “Oh, it was nothing, you know, he wanted to fly to a base just over the Arakan, so the CO said ‘Take this fellow, he knows the way!’ We went in a small two-seater, and it was a short trip. He was a fine man,” he finishes, without elaborating too much on what many others would have perhaps dwelt on in detail as a highlight of their careers. That was perhaps the underlying tone of the entire fascinating conversation, a steady, sober, matter-of-fact tone, much like the lovely aircraft they flew in the days gone by. Not too much fanfare, not too much exaggeration, just an attitude of quietness and dignity.

Was there any air battle he remembered? “Oh, we didn’t have too many of those air-battles, our work was mainly strafing the ground troops, so that our chaps could move forward. In fact, once we had to run a sort of guard run over the coast near the Chittagong area, where our troops were landing, and we were specifically told to avoid the Japanese aircraft. Because the Zeros were very much of a minimalistic design, just bare-bones, and they could turn around very fast. If they got into a battle with us, they had the superiority. We were told to simply get away if we spotted one of them!”

“But of course I remember one particular operation, where we had to lay a thick smoke-screen for the army to get at a particular Japanese forward post that was holding off for a long time. They were in dugouts ensconced in a hill-side, and we had to fly in with these heavy barrels strapped to our wings, with a chemical that would come out into the slipstream and cause a fog. Now you must understand that with these heavy barrels, our manoeuvrability was severely curtailed. We were sitting ducks. We went in, and my colleagues laid the smoke, while we watched, a little higher. We could see that the smoke had only covered the area where our fellows were waiting, and the entire stretch leading up to where the Japanese gunners was still clear. So I went down. We also carried bombs, which had a delayed fuse, and we had to get in straight at them, release the smoke, release the bombs and get out through a steep pull up. We went in, did that and got away, not realising how close it had been. Later at the officers’ mess, where we had all gathered for the usual drink, General Thimmayya (who was then still a Brigadier, and who went on to make a name for himself as the Chief of the Indian Army) told me: ‘Who were those crazy jokers who flew in the second time? They were very close to getting hit. Crazy!” That, I guess was quite close,” he chuckled.

Neville and several of his colleagues would go on to play an important part in ultimately checking the Japanese advance across Burma and into India.

Did he ever get hit? “No, I was very lucky, I didn’t get hit even once, not even my aircraft, except in Srinagar, when I was flying in troops in a Dakota, when the Pathan rebels were on the verge of taking over. Those fellows were sitting right next to the runway! ”

Fast forward to October, 1947, when the Maharaja of Kashmir was still vacillating over acceding to India, when the Tribal invasion, as they were then called, took place on the Valley. History books tell us how the Indian Army troops were airlifted into the valley in the nick of time, and how V K Menon got the Maharaja to sign the accession.After the Partition, Neville got into one of the many private airlines operating then in India.

Why did he quit the Air Force that he wanted so badly to join? “You see, when the Partition happened, you were given a choice: one could join India, go over to Pakistan or quit. I realised that quite a few of my brother-officers were going away to Pakistan. This meant that some time we could be fighting against them in the future. I didn’t like that…to suddenly have them on the opposite side…I thought it best to quit.” He was to catch a train from Delhi to Jodhpur, and then onto Bombay. One of his former colleagues, who had chosen to go over to Pakistan, was flying his ‘plane to Pakistan, via Jodhpur. He told me, ‘don’t be silly, I am going to Jodhpur anyway, I’ll give you a lift, come on.’ So I accepted the offer.” He came down to Jodhpur, and met up with quite a few old comrades there. 

One of them was an instructor at an Air Club there. “He told me, ‘so you’re going by train? I’ll fly down to see you off!”

Sure enough, when the train chugged out of the railway station, the entire trainload of passengers saw a Tiger Moth trainer, a two-seater, fly alongside. Everybody got very excited, and kept pointing to the plane. “He came down once again, very low, in order to spot us. We were all laughing and waving. Then he pulled up and banked - and did not realise that there was a telegraph line right in front of him. He crashed. Of course, the engine driver had seen the plane, and so had the guard, so the train came quickly to a halt, and we all just ran toward the aircraft. Since it was a high-winged ‘craft, the wings had folded up, and in those days, the instructor flew in front, with the trainer-pilot behind. The trainee was hopping around in his socks, and my friend was trapped in the cockpit. We could hear him, and so the entire crowd of passengers just held on to both the wings, pulled it down and freed him. We got him out, and he could walk, though later we came to know that he had fractured his leg, knee, and jaw - but because of the shock, he could not feel the pain. We went onto the next station, got him out, flagged down the next train going to Jodhpur, and I went right back with him to the hospital there !” He grins boyishly at the memory.

I had heard that Neville was the personal pilot of the legendary business tycoon, G D Birla. How did that happen? “Oh that was very funny,” he remarked, and I settled back happily, sure of yet another wonderful anecdote.

“I was flying with Indian Overseas Airways, which was then owned by a company called the Exchange Bank of India & Africa.. Finally, the company was bought by G D Birla, who had started the Bharat Airways Company. Now, G D Birla was very fond of flying and if he had to go somewhere he would first check if that place had an airfield! He would not drive by car or anything. Whenever he wanted to go somewhere, an aircraft from the Bharat Airways was released for his use. Once, I had to fly him to Pilani. You know the haze makes it quite difficult to spot the airfield or the runway sometimes. And this Pilani was bang in the middle of the desert - we could hardly see anything for the haze. By pure luck, I happened to spot the runway, and put the aircraft down safely. But G D Birla thought I had done something outstanding, and from then on, he would ask for me, as if I had done something extraordinary!” That was not the end of the story. After the private airline companies were nationalised, Neville got into Indian Airlines. They would fly right around the country: Lucknow, Jabalpur, Nagpur, Hyderabad, Bangalore and Madras! The flight would take off at 8 in the morning and end at 8 pm at night - and of course, the crew changed at Nagpur. The next day the return flight would start again from Madras at 8 am!

Birla wanted to keep a couple of aircraft for himself, but he was dissuaded by the rules which did not permit a thing like that. So, when he acquired his own aircraft, he started pursuing Neville again. Neville was quite content with his present job, but when somebody like G D Birla wanted something, he got it. “He kept on trying. Finally, he sent one of his senior officers, a Parsee gentleman called Lalkawala, who camped right outside my doorstep. ‘Say OK Neville - you can’t get a better employer.’ So, though it was getting a bit too much, and decided to join, thinking that I could always get out if I didn’t like it -and I stayed with him for 39 years !” 

He sat back smiling. “That makes it a total of,” I said, pulling out my pad and pen, when pat came the reply: “53 years of flying!”

My mind was whirling with images, when Neville and his wife insist that I partake of their simple noon repast of vegetable soup and brown bread. I left, the rain now back to a drizzle, with Neville’s parting shot: “Now, don’t go and glorify me - today it seems big because of the War - at that point, we were just doing our job.”

As I drove off in my little car, I couldn’t help wishing I had been born in another era, one of graciousness and honour and simple pleasures, wistfully thinking it could only remain that: a fond wish, as I turned the motor car towards Bangalore and the noise and the pollution and haste of the present. Well, at least the drive into the City was not so bad: I had been wrapped in the warm, comforting images of another era, another world.

Webmaster’s Note


This article first appeared in the Deccan Herald , Bangalore on 17th November 2002.