By the old Moulmein Pagoda - Gp Capt George Philip
- Category: Veterans Project - Interviews, Profiles and Memoirs
- Last Updated: Thursday, 15 October 2009 17:53
- Written by K S Nair
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A WW2 veteran of service on the Burma Front, Gp Capt CGI Philip was actually born in Burma, and had strong family connections to that country even before the War. Jagan interviewed him in April 2004 and in November 2005, while building Bharat-Rakshak's oral archive. Gp Capt Philip's words, we believe, convey a unique sense of those unique times. We have therefore retained his own words, for much of this article, which covers his early days in the Indian Air Force training on dive bombers and flying his first tour of operations with No.8 Squadron on the Vultee Vengeance.
The Younger Years
Group Captain Cherukara George Immanuel "Phil" Philip is, in many ways, very much his father's son. He has clearly inherited much, by way of a value system that some might call old-fashioned, and a certain admiration for Anglo-Saxon virtues. His speech and his mannerisms are still officer-like, and somewhat anachronistically British - he uses the word "chaps", where most would use "guys".
Philip's WW2 service in Burma (now Myanmar) was presaged by childhood in that country. His father, Dr CG Philip, was originally from Kerala, but served in the British Indian Army and in the Indian Medical Service, having acquired the LMP (Licentiate Medical Practioner) qualification in Madras in 1916. The LMP was a recognized medical qualification in India before 1946, when the Bhore Committee effectively made the MBBS the sole entry point into the medical profession in India.
The First World War was on when Dr Philip qualified, and he joined the Army. He served in Mesopotamia (now Iraq) and Burma.
When the War ended Dr Philip opted for the IMS in Burma. The IMS at the time serviced Burma and Ceylon as well as India. Dr Philip had served in Burma during the War, and liked it, saying it reminded him of Kerala.
He served under British MOs, a Captain Johnson in Pakukku, and a Captain Lindsay in Shwebo. Though nominally his superiors, they appear to have relied implicitly on Dr Philip. At a cocktail party, someone asked, "Where did you learn your surgery?" Dr Philip responded, "In the trenches in Mesopotamia and Constantinople!"
His father went back to Kerala to get married, and young George was born in Rangoon (now Yangon) in 1922. For a few years he followed his father in various postings all over Burma.
It seems to have been quite an idyllic childhood, though superficially in primitive environments. He recalls plenty of travel along rivers - probably because roads were poor. He travelled between Moulmein (now Mawlamyine), at the time a significant port, and Victoria Point, the southernmost point in Burma, in a white launch belonging to the Inspector-General of Hospitals, based in Calcutta. He also recalls another white motor-boat that was arranged for his father to visit the King's palace in Ranong in Siam (now Thailand). He recalls riding a bicycle, a gift for his sixth birthday, that was too high for him, but which his father modified with a makeshift saddle made of cotton wool and bandages. "I used to play tennis at six. Play doubles with my father, and we used to beat all the other doubles pairs."
He went initially to a local Chinese school; then briefly to a Burmese school. Neither seems to have worked out well, so he was getting on in age, in an environment where there wasn't much choice of schools. His father had a former classmate in Moulmein, who encouraged him to place him in school there.
Moulmein, situated just across the the Gulf of Martaban from Rangoon, was quite an Anglicized town at the time; indeed a part of the town was known as "Little England". In Moulmein Philip seems to have blossomed, doing so well he skipped some grades. "From second I went to fourth, from fifth I went to seventh."
His friend Tarun Ghosh "was my rival. He was first. There was a Burmese boy, a carpenter's son - he was second. I was third. And I was quite happy, I didn't want to be first. And my father didn't insist." He added later:
"I was busy enough, with tennis, football, boxing, etc. And comics at night study (meant specially for High School boys)!!"
Philip finished school from St Paul's in Rangoon. Founded in 1860, it was one of the most prestigious schools in South-East Asia in those days.
His father passed away in 1940, at the age of fifty-two, from an infection probably picked up while conducting a post-mortem. He was buried in Shwebo, a former royal capital in the north of Burma. Philip says the cemetery at Shwebo was converted to an airfield later during WW2. Japanese aircraft based there used to attack his base, when he was flying in the Arakan. "I've always wanted to attack that airfield!"
Also in 1940, Philip went to Rangoon University, which had started in 1878 as an affiliated college of the University of Calcutta, but by 1940 was a prestigious university in its own right. He was thinking of following his father into surgery. [Bogyoke (General) Aung San, the Burmese nationalist independence leader, and future father of Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, had been President of the Students' Union, and had graduated from Rangoon University in History and Political Science just two years earlier - in fact, in 1940 he attended an Indian National Congress event in India.]
The war had already started. The Americans were not yet involved, but the American Volunteer Group, the already glamorous Flying Tigers, was based in Rangoon, reportedly hosting the best parties in town. University students were enthusiastically joining up. Many of Philip's contemporaries were joining the Army and the Navy. By Philip's account, his decision to try for the Air Force came about on the spur of the moment when a girl in his class, standing with him on the lawns, asked "What about you?" just as a formation of aircraft flew low overhead. He pointed at the aircraft, and said, "There!"
He initially applied to the Burmese Air Force, which was advertising for pilots. They advised him that he would have to wait, because the first intake batch was being restricted to Burmese, the second batch to Anglo-Burmese, and only from the third batch would they take domiciled Indians.
But meanwhile the Indian Air Force had posters displayed in Rangoon. Philip is nonchalant about the process:
"Went for the interviews, got selected - final selection was to be in Safdarjung in Delhi. That was to be on 8th of December, 1941."
Philip embarked from Moulmein to travel to Calcutta by ship - actually a troopship, returning to India almost empty after delivering a load of troops to Moulmein - and then on to Delhi by train.
He was all set to report to Safdarjung on Monday morning, the 8th of December. Fifteen time-zones away, in Hawaii, on the morning of Sunday the 7th, local time - it would have been late during the night of the 7th, in India - Japan attacked Pearl Harbour, and the USA was in the War.
"We went to Lahore for the final medical exam. Came back, collected our traveling expenses, and things like that. I never had so much money in my pocket, before that!
"At that time there was this scheme known as the Civil Aviation Scheme. So those selected were sent to various flying clubs all over India; since we had come all the way from Burma we were given the choice of any club in India. And majority of us were from the South, so they wanted to go to Madras. I was against it. … But they were all quite touchy about it … the whole atmosphere had changed. America had got into the war after Pearl Harbor. So it was Madras.
"We were to be there for six weeks, I think, and during that time we were to have a go at - flew the Tiger Moth, and things like that. The RAF instructor was to fly with us, to assess our suitability as pilots for the Air Force. … Eight of us had come for the interview in Safdarjung. From different parts of Burma. And … five of us were selected."
The five selected were SP Dutta (later Wing Commander), S Purushottam (later Air Commodore), PTC Shastry (who had been Philip's Chemistry tutor, and was a gifted violinist. Philip recalls that Sqn Ldr Stockwell, the CGI in Lahore, took a liking to Shastry and posted him to Air HQ immediately after training, so he never had the opportunity to fly on Ops. He was DS in Staff College later), LHF D'Cruz, and Philip.
"We went to Madras Flying Club . Because of age, two [Shastry and D'Cruz - D'Cruz was already a PPL holder, but was sent for Observer training purely because of his age] were recommended for Observers' course."
Philip's instructor was a Captain Sundaram, whose first ab initio pupil he was. He writes of his time at the Madras Flying Club:
"I went solo on a Sunday - usually a holiday for the cadets. Tyndal Bisco, the CFI, and Capt Dastoor, the Assistant CFI, were there. The latter asked me why I hadn't gone solo yet - this in the presence of Lord Hope's daughters and other Club members!! To cut it short, I said, 'I don't know, but I'm ready.' Dastoor: 'Then go.' So I went - solo, and landed safely.. Dastoor, a great sport, was out on the field to congratulate me - and said, 'I've signed the Authorization'
"My dual to solo took 18 hours. I don't know what happened to my instructor on Monday morning but he shook my hand with a broad smile and 'Good Show!'
"Going solo was so fast because the chap who swings the prop gets one rupee …
"Sundaram had been saying that he would send me solo in under three hours, maybe even equal Ranganathan!"
Philip adds that Sundaram's wife was also a pilot; both flew, he believes, for the Maharaja of Mysore.
"Eventually we ended up in the Thirteenth Course. 13th Pilots' Course, which started their training in Lahore. We did our initial training of ten weeks, [in ITC Walton] in Lahore. And then two weeks' leave. Then ten weeks in EFTS in Jodhpur. Again two weeks' leave. We did the whole thing in a year. Which takes, two and a half years now."
The cadets on his course were a mixed group. They included 79 Indian cadets (including a Lieutenant from the Indian Army, and a Merchant Navy cadet from IMM TS Dufferin), four re-musters from the RAF (one Equipment branch Wing Commander, and three Sergeants), and a veterinary surgeon from Bombay.
There was no flying at Lahore. Flying resumed at the EFTS in Jodhpur, on Tiger Moths, and continued at Ambala.
"Then we went to Ambala, for initial training on the Hawker Audax and Hart. Each term took ten weeks, interspersed with two weeks' leave.
"The Audax and the Hart, they looked exactly the same. The only difference I can remember now - one had a muffled exhaust, and - I think the Hart was the muffled one. Because [the Audax] used to blind you on night-flying.
"The interesting thing about this blinding on night-flying - Spitfires had the same problem. Coming in to land - you throttled back - the flames from the exhaust in front of you would make it very difficult to see where you are - I mean, check on your approach. Overcame that by not throttling fully back.
"So we did our training, got our wings in December. Incidentally, we started flying in Madras Flying Club on the 15th of December, '41. And we got our wings on 14th December '42.
"We were commissioned halfway through in Ambala in June - actually, my commissioning date is 29th June '42. Commissioned there, then we finished the Advanced stage of our flying training and got our wings on completion of that."
His navigation instructor at Ambala was PC Lal (later ACM and CAS) who, Philip recalls, graded him strictly for a relatively minor error. "I said, Right sir, I know what my mistakes are, I forget now what it was, must have been something very slight. And he gave me nine. These days they would have made it 9.6, 9.7, something like that."
Attrition was high. Philip recalls that 13th Course started with 84 cadets, and "twelve or thirteen, maybe sixteen, passed out." And those 16 included at least two, Taunque and Stidston , from 12th Course, who for medical or other reasons had been delayed and therefore passed out with the 13th Course. One of his batch, SP Dutta, was held back by a bout of malaria, and passed out with the 14th Course.
|13th PC passing out parade at Lahore|
Philip's service number is 1927. He believes service numbers for his batch were allocated simply in alphabetical order, as they passed out. As a result there were a number of seniority anomalies, which affected the sequence in which officers received acting rank in later years.
"That was well after the war. And we even discussed it … we sat amongst ourselves and said - It's not the new numbers, it must be according to alphabetical order. We said, Look, if we had known that, I would have asked for 1922, which was my birth year. Instead of that, I got 1927. …
"Then we had to go to Bhopal, to do - for live firing. Otherwise we used to use camera guns. But in Bhopal we actually used live ammunition and practice bombs.
"A chap called Squeaky Dhillon , a Sea Cadet, and myself - we were always close friends - his voice was squeaky on the R/T, so we all called him Squeaky. Taunque, Squeaky and I were posted to Risalpur. From Risalpur we went to Bhopal, for the gunners to practice firing on the drogue, and for the pilots also to do drogue firing. That's where we met Mehar Singh - the famous Squadron Leader Mehar Singh, 6 Squadron … known as the Eyes of the Fourteenth Army."
Squadron Leader (later to become Air Commodore) Mehar Singh was raising No 6 Squadron at the time, and would have been putting his squadron through gunnery training at Bhopal. Philip and his colleagues Dhillon and Taunque were flying Lysanders then, towing drogue targets for Mehar Singh's squadron, before converting to operational types.
"Harvards had just come in, and chaps were being given flying on Harvards, after which we went on to Vengeances or Hurricanes. … I had come back from leave, all the way from Kerala, so I was two days late. When I got there, they said, Well, you could start flying the Harvard, but we've only got one Harvard left; the others have been swung on the ground. The Harvard was notorious for ground swings. The explanation is quite simple. Its rudder unlocked the tail wheel. If you went beyond, I think it was 15 degrees, the tail wheel would be unlocked and then it would swing ....
"I had an RAF Sergeant-Pilot instructor by then, a Flight Sergeant. He was a metal-worker, who volunteered to be a pilot, became a pilot, I think he flew in the Battle of Britain and all that. He was in Risalpur. So he took me up, we had a chat. It was wonderful, no tendency to swing. So we flew. After two checks, I think, I went solo on the Harvard, came down, landed. Everybody had a good opinion about me and my flying. It's embarrassing, I said, but I couldn't swing a Harvard if I wanted to. How was that? I said, I'm short. I'm a small chap, and I've got short legs. I couldn't swing the rudder to the extent - in fact, while taxiing or trying to park, if you wanted to unlock the tail wheel; I had to stretch forward and then use my toes on the rudder to get it to unlock the tailwheel. Everyone had a good laugh, you know the British, they like things like that. I can tell you a lot of stories about Harvard swinging."
One of Philip's contemporaries, later Air Marshal Douglas King-Lee, wrote of Philip, a propos of his lack of inches: "Phil Philip is a small chap but a damn good boxer and the Brits therefore
treated him with great respect! For some reason he always flew with his seat right down and it could be rather frightening at times to see a Spit formating on you, or taxying, seemingly without a pilot!!"
No 8 Squadron: Vengeance Operations:
No 8 Squadron, IAF was officially raised in December 1942 (though the aircrews did not assemble till February / March 1943), as the second IAF dive-bomber squadron. Philip had specifically volunteered for dive bombers. There was a certain dash about dive bombers at the time, and flying dive bombers was regarded as quite as glamorous as flying fighters (And to be picky about it, the RAF at the time had a policy of not permitting the Indian Air Force to operate fighters - IAF Hurricane squadrons of the time were technically classified as Army Co-operation or Fighter Reconnaissance squadrons):
"When I had to give my preference, I gave dive bomber and fighter pilot. You had to go a dive bomber … I had to be a dive bomber. In those days dive bombers were a great thing. Stukas created quite an impression in the whole world. And we young chaps, we wanted to be a dive bomber pilot. So that was it. Finally as a dive bomber and when we ended we ended up as a fighter [squadron], we were the first to have the Spitfire."
No 8 Squadron formed with nine newly-fledged Pilot Officers from 13th Pilots' Course (Aziz, Dhillon, Dogra, Khan, Marathay, Nerurkar, Philip, Sandhu and Sawhny). "Before that we were all posted in different places, as pilots and Air Traffic Control officers and duty pilots and so forth." Immediately after receiving their wings, they had been doing target towing on Lysanders, or serving as duty pilots in Bombay, Karachi, and Calcutta, flying Wapitis with the Coast Defence Flights. They were re-assembled in Peshawar, to convert from the Wapitis, Audaxes and Lysanders they had been flying, via Harvards onto Vengeances, and form No 8 Squadron.
|No.8 Squadron Group Photo - Sqn Ldr Niranjan Prasad sitting fourth from the right. Squeaky Dhillon is sitting 2nd from right.|
Apart from the young pilots of 13th Course, there was a small number of more experienced pilots:
"Chakrabarty was a very senior person; he was, I think, also 4th Course, 5th Course. Same as Moolgavkar [later ACM and CAS]. He was a Bengali. We used to call him Chuck; Bengalis in the squadron used to call him Da. And gradually, all of us called him Da. He was a very nice person.
"Dorabji … He was on Coastal Flights. He was on the Coastal Flight in Cochin, I think. Dorabji's from Madras. He had a house next to the Binny mills. In fact, the entrance to his house was the Binny mill's entrance, and his was the last gate on the left. Before the actual Binny mills gate. Dorabji and I were good friends. He was the same as Chakrabarty, of that seniority. 5th Course, 6th course. Those days, 5th, 6th Course were very senior chaps."
No 8 Squadron was the second IAF squadron equipped with the Vultee Vengeance dive bomber. The Vengeance was an American design, originally built in the late 1930s. When it was made available to the British as part of Lend Lease, the British opined that it could not be used in Europe:
"They said, Why not send it against the Japanese. And that's how we got it … Because we had a lot of aircraft . A lot of Vengeances were flown to Karachi - Karachi was where they stored them. And - they decided to form 8 Squadron."
|From 8 Sqn ORB:
Aircrew Establishment as of 1.3.43
|S/Ldr N Prasad||F/O Jagjit Singh|
|Flt Lt KHS Chopra||F/O RS Sandhu|
|Flt Lt HC Diwan (sic)||F/O Bombaywala|
|F/O P Chakerbarty (sic)||F/O I Khan|
|F/O R Sen||F/O Kunur|
|P/O SS Jaspal||F/O P Chandran|
|P/O HB Dorabji||P/O S Dastoor|
|P/O AM Aziz||P/O VK Karunakar|
|P/O MSR Rao||P/O SJ Kumar|
|P/O GD Sharma||P/O T Basu|
|P/O BS Dogra||P/O V Shani|
|P/O RS Sharma||P/O M Sadiq|
|P/O GD Gupta||P/O L Madappa|
|P/O JS Dhillon||P/O J Jiven|
|P/O W Kamal|
|P/O MB Chand||Air Gunners:|
|P/O MK Nerurkar||F/Sgt M Ashraf|
|P/O ML Chand||F/Sgt S Saindass|
|P/O CGI Philip||Sgt P Sharma|
|P/O MJ Khan||Sgt Cabinetmaker|
|P/O SS Sawhny||Sgt G Verghese|
|P/O LS Sandhu||Sgt BH Ghyara|
|P/O BB Marathay||Sgt GP Biswas|
|Sgt R Pillai|
|Sgt AM Khan|
|Sgt Sadiq Ahmed|
The first CO was Squadron Leader Niranjan Prasad, actually an acting Major in the Indian Army, who had volunteered to fly with the Air Force and had served previously in Burma with No 1 Squadron. Philip clearly admires him:
"He made a lot of difference to 8 Squadron; 8 Squadron started with several traditions that he introduced, as an Army officer. You know, those days we had a mess of our own. … Not a Wing mess, where you were sort of boarded there. … We had our own mess, with silver and things like that, just like an Army mess. Trophies on display, special nights. And Niranjan Prasad did a lot for us. When it came to - your behaviour as an officer, what is expected of you and what is not expected of you as an officer - and as a pilot in the Air Force."
Sqn Ldr Prasad was slightly balding even then, and he used to call Philip 'Shorty'.
"I said, Sir, you calling me Shorty? 'Yes, Shorty - if you didn't have that hair, you'd be the same height as myself!' I said, Sir, but I've got the hair! See, those days, you could talk to your CO like that. Of course, we did that, and all the chaps who were there. But today, an average Indian officer will not talk like that to his CO. The atmosphere is quite different. We know when to fool around; we know when to play; we know when to be serious. And that's how we were brought up."
No 8 Squadron, like No 7 before it, converted to the Vengeance at 152 OTU at Peshawar. "We passed out, got our wings, and when we went to Peshawar - there was Flight Lieutenant Lal. Flight Commander. And we were old acquaintances, so it was a happy meeting and all."
An early version of the squadron motto was developed while the squadron was assembling in the NWFP. Pathan members of the squadron, and the Pathan wife of the intelligence officer, helped to devise a motto in Pushto. It ran, roughly (corrections welcome!): Aanaman basunke roze jang bini pushte man. This translates as "We are not those who turn our backs on the day of battle". (The squadron's famous crest, with a condor head and star, was developed later.)
" … We did it so well, that after all these days - I can't speak Burmese fluently, of course, out of touch - but this one I don't think I will ever forget! And Pushto speaking chaps like to hear it. Why we got Pushto at that time was that we were in Risalpur, not Peshawar. This was suggested by our intelligence officer, his wife was from Peshawar. Seth. Flt Lt Seth.
Philip's gunner, during his period on Vengeances, was Sergeant George Verghese from Tiruvalla. Sgt Verghese was later commissioned, and served for some years as an officer, before leaving the IAF.
During the period August-September 1943, the squadron went to Bhopal, for armament exercises, firing at drogues and dropping practice bombs. While at Bhopal, Philip had the opportunity to taxi a Hurricane:
" … I have taxied in a Hurricane. I must have told you this. We were in Bhopal doing firing on Vengeances. Then Minoo Engineer, who [was] a Flying Officer or a Flight Lieutenant [came to Bhopal] - he was a great friend of Dorabjee. His father used to have Wellington cinema there. … Anyway -
"So Minoo came into Bhopal and he sees all these aircraft. 'Nice aircraft,' he says. 'Can [I] fly one?' He spoke to our Flight Commander and he said yeah ... and Niranjan says, One flight, we will take you up. He was taken in the gunner's seat in the back. Which had the controls, but stuffed on the side, you could fix it on. And the dual controls were easy in the Vengeance. … It was only converted with a gun mounted in the back. Two Browning 303s.. it could be swung around at the back. It was … you could fly all around. But it had a stop when it was swiveled.
"Anyway so, I wanted to fly the Hurricane. I said I will take it … , he said Yes go ahead, so I got into [his] Hurricane and he was supposed to go in [my] Vengeance. So I park your [aircraft] and you park my aircraft. So Dorabjee got out of there. … I got into the Hurricane, started up, … taxied it …
"Minoo helped me start the Hurricane and I taxied it out. He got into the Vengeance, started it out … and came back and and parked it … I still remember that."
In November 1943, at an IAF Unit Commanders' Conference in Delhi, it was decided "to supplement this Unit with British personnel in view of the shortage of Indian aircrews for Vengeances." Within a few days, a number of British, Australian and South African pilots, navigators, and wireless operators / air gunners had joined the squadron.
Action in Burma:
The squadron commenced moving to the Burma front, on 2 December 1943. It took over ten days for the air party and the rest of the squadron to come together again with all their equipment, at Double Moorings, a new kutcha strip near Chittagong. They were in action within a couple of days of reaching the front:
"We finally went into ops with A Flight and B Flight. I was in B Flight, and I had Flight Lieutenant Dewan (later Air Marshal, C-in-C Eastern Air Command at the time of the '71 war). He was a Flight Lieutenant and he had come from the UK - he and Chopra - Flight Lieutenant Chopra - they were flying in England, and they were on Wellingtons and Warwicks - twin-engine light bombers, they were bombers those days, light bombers. Dewan had done a few sorties over Berlin, as a co-pilot in a Wellington. He was my Flight Commander, and Chopra was B Flight Commander. But we had no C, British pilots there. A Flight was Chopra, Dewan was B, to begin with. Towards the latter stages we had a British Flight Commander also. Chopra went back, possibly for medical reasons, and we had a British Flight Commander. Then it was known as the British Flight.
"Niranjan Prasad said he always wanted to lead an Indian squadron into action first, so our first sortie was - the call was for six aircraft - the Army gives you the target, and our job was - to neutralise that post. … Gun position or something like that, which the Army wanted out of the way, and the dive-bombers were called."
Niranjan Prasad proudly led that first sortie, on 15 December 1943. The squadron ORB remarks, "Most of the Officers are present on the runway to watch the first operational take off." Philip recalls that that besides Prasad, the first attack formation included himself and Chakrabarty. (The other three crews were from the British flight.) His buddy Dhillon flew on the squadron's third operational raid, two days later.
|c Feb 44 - Sqn Ldr Niranjan Prasad CO of No.8 Squadron and his 'Observer' Fg Offr Jagjit Singh with their Vengeance.|
No 8 Squadron had joined the Second Arakan campaign as part of 224 Group (which included No 6 Squadron, IAF).
Philip is proud of the fact that No 8 Squadron went into action in Burma before No 7 Squadron :
"7 Squadron was commanded by a commander whom we all respected - Hem Chaudhuri. He was a Railway officer who volunteered. Big shot in the Railways -- he volunteered for the Air Force - he was given command of 7 Squadron. PC Lal, by virtue of his seniority, as an Observer, was posted there as a Flight Commander.
"You see - the dive-bomber, we used to go out at between ten and twelve thousand feet. As far as possible, we needed that much space, to get into correct position for diving - and, releasing the bomb, and then hugging the ground, to avoid enemy fire. Especially small-arms fire, which was low down. … So our trick was to fly - if there was tree cover, suited us fine, because you had to fly just over the tree-tops. And the gunners on the ground - the Japanese did very clever things. They used to have - mines, we called them land-mines - along the slopes. And - they used to note the frequency and the type of aircraft that used to fly in that region, and which area they'd fly in. We used to fly, hugging the hills, and then if there was a gap in it, we used to nip up there - and go in. Those days the aircraft … speed -- comparing the Hurricane … were around a hundred and sixty - in fact, we used to pull the legs of the Hurricane chaps, and say, Look , shall we slow down a bit? ... "
The "Shall we slow down?" to the Hurricane chaps was a reference to the fact that after releasing bombs, generally at 210 mph, the Vengeances would close dive brakes and fly fast and low over the trees, reaching 300 mph - this was almost faster than the Hurricanes could manage! The Hurricanes escorted the Vengeances closely on their outward legs, when they were bomb-laden and couldn't fly as fast; on the return leg "we didn't need them." Speed gradually dropped to 160 mph, over our own territory.
The Second Arakan campaign was part of the long, difficult campaign to re-conquer Burma. Nos 6 and 8 Squadrons of the IAF were part of 224 Group, the air cover of XV Corps, [itself part of General Sir (later Field Marshal Lord) William Slim's Fourteenth Army,] as they fought their way south, from the borders of then-still undivided India, towards Akyab, a key objective in the reconquest of Burma. Philip says that there was a regular routine, that 6 Squadron would go out first, looking for targets, and 8 Squadron would follow to bomb targets that they had identified. There was clearly great camaraderie between the two Indian squadrons - Philip actually uses the phrase, "Great fun"..
The squadron settled into a routine of operations. Attack formations were initially led by the CO, or by Flt Lts Dewan, Chopra, or Berry. Formations were usually of six aircraft, vics of three each sometimes attacking in opposite directions. The weather was often bad, the squadron being asked to bomb even when the cloud base over the target was around 5,000 feet. (Standard bomb-release height was 4,000 feet.) In those conditions the pilots would gallantly try shallow diving, releasing their bombs from 2,500 feet, leveling off at no more than 800 feet. They returned enough direct hits, using this technique, that they were asked to do it again, when conditions were similar.
"We had a few losses. One I remember very clearly, because it happened right in front of me. Was a chap called Dougherty . English , RAF pilot. I remember him very well, because, playing poker, he owes me 23 rupees, or something like that!"
As the crews gained experience, more of them began to lead formations; Fg Off Chakrabarty being one of the first to do so on New Years' Day 1944. The squadron also began to fly formations of 12 aircraft, as the pace of operations picked up in the New Year. They followed up bombings with strafing, on occasion.
In a theatre in which contact with enemy aircraft was rare, Philip recounts that he sighted Japanese fighters a few times. He was sorely tempted to break formation and engage, he says, but held formation because he had been torn off a strip for breaking formation a few days earlier! (He had done so to fly low over a colleague who had force-landed, and confirm he was OK.)
In the course of operations, Philip says, the squadron changed its bomb fusing tactics, to maximize dislocation after bombing. They would mix impact fuses with delayed action fuses, of different delay specifications. These were sometimes delivered to a pattern that had been pre-arranged with the army units they were supporting, so they knew what to expect.
" … All kinds of ploys were used. For example in my attack, we usually attacked [with] six aircraft, box of six. Some bombs were 11 second delay, others were of 30 second delay - different variations, and the Army knew the whole plan. So they knew when to move and when not to move. When to take cover or when to lie flat. Those were the phantom … deployed all kinds of tricks.
"This is a wonderful thing. The army was very prompt they would send a signal back. Wonderful show and all that. When we got back, it would be the briefing room, the intel officer and the ALO - the Army Liason Officer - with broad smiles on their faces - this would be the signal we got . "Sometimes if they had time, they would write it on the board, so that everybody would see without having to read this on the notice board.
"They were good attacks. This delaying thing was wonderful. Our bomblines would sometimes be 25 yards. That means our troops would be entrenched about 25 yards from the target. And the bombs would drop. And I think the leaders would know exactly what time - must have been briefed, because we dived down, the first lot will release the bombs, and the bombs will explode. And I think - odd bombs - we used to have 2 x 500s and 2 x 250 pounders under the wings - one on each wing. Two 250 pounders. 500 pounders in the belly. So we used to drop. I don't know, remember, what the details were , but all of us didn't carry instantaneous bombs. The odd bomb was … the first chap would have an odd bomb with a one-minute delay, second lot would have a bomb with a 30 second delay and then a 11 second delay. 11 seconds was the least. So we would drop those bombs, and the army commander, the captain, … One, 11 seconds gone … three more left … so he knew all that. So each section or platoon used to advance according to this time. So it was well coordinated.
"It [was] exciting for us, because we cannot see, we imagine, we used to speak to our army GLO, we call them GLOs know - Ground Liaison Officer. It must have been fun listening to … what kind of confusion that must have gone on among the Japanese. Because we dive, the bombs would go, as we go away. When we started the 11 second delay, that caught a few of them napping.
" … It was terrific … "
Somewhere along the way, Dhillon and Philip were nearly transferred to No 7 Squadron:
"By that time we had got - 35, 40 sorties. But - they were posted to the North. By the time we were ready to come back … withdraw - and convert onto another aircraft.
"So anyway - the CO refused to send us. Instead he said, Refer signal so-and-so, whatever it was, he said - Flight Lieutenant Dewan and Flying Officer Gupta - we used to call him Ranchi Gupta - Mad Gupta or Ranchi Gupta - Flt Lt Dewan and Gupta posted to, I mean - routed to, routed to so-and-so place, where we were supposed to go. They went in our place. And, of course, queries came in, then, there's no - I couldn't spare them, they were my future flight commanders. And that was the - his explanation. Future flight commanders; I can't spare them. And those days, a Squadron Leader commanding a squadron had - some weight. In what he said.
"Fortunately, they had to go through our Group Headquarters. I remember the Wing Commander there, who was equivalent to the - he's a flying man.. Wing Commander 'Buck' Courtney. ... And, this explanation was accepted. Very practical people, the RAF."
Wg Cdr Courtney flew himself around the Group in a Harvard, which was maintained for him by 8 Squadron - this must have given 8 Squadron a little influence at Group! Philip flew Courtney's Harvard occasionally.
There was one small, in some ways unremarkable, incident during this time that Philip recounts only when prompted. There were a number of South African personnel and units in Burma, some of whom were visibly uncomfortable with non-whites. No 8 Squadron's "British" flight included a couple of them:
" … Osborne. South African. And the South Africans don't like blacks. And he was quite a friendly chap; he used to play football the odd time.. But they never got close to us. And our chaps used to fool around also. In the aircraft, they used to point the gun at them. And then … start laughing. … They didn't know where they stood. They were always suspicious of the Indian airmen, Indian pilots."
One day Osborne and some of his compatriots were using a jam tin balanced on a log for target practice, popping away with their service .38s, just outside the Ops Room, and not demonstrating particular accuracy. Philip and his course-mate "Mickey" Nerurkar stepped out of the Ops Room with their hands theatrically over their ears: "'All this noise, for what?'" Osborne pointed at the jam tin.
"I was walking this way. And I keep my pistol here. Regulation style; bit on the low side. I opened my button this way, I folded my lower … - so that my fingers don't get cramped. I walk around there … As I went past, turned around there. And as the thing turned around, I couldn't resist it - "
Philip was known as a keen shot, even with the notoriously inaccurate .38; he spun around, fired at the South Africans' tin target - and hit it. It flew off the log, dropped on the ground, and rolled.
"As it was rolling I fired a second shot and knocked it a second time. … kept quiet after that! These chaps: 'Damned good shooting!'"
In many ways, an unremarkable story - but it is one that many others who served in the squadron during that period remember with relish, and have repeated versions of. Philip is actually embarrassed, at being made to repeat the story - "Our CO put a stop to such tomfoolery", he adds hastily.
Like many pilots from that period, Philip had absolute faith in his airmen:
"My airmen: Cedric Biswas, and Johnny Clowsley - his brother was a pilot with us [later]. Victor Clowsley . … their father was a Pathan. I think, mother was European. Two volatile boys; one was a fitter - he was the one who, he always looked after my aircraft. And these chaps, when we say, Early in the morning … I'll tell you …
"The kid brother … used to work through the night. You see, an aircraft was detailed to you. And if the aircraft's unserviceable, you're off the battle order. Battle Order, the Green Form, we used to call it. Used to come in the evening, we'd read it in the Mess … And [if] your name was there - your aircraft had to be serviceable. [If your] aircraft is unserviceable - another chap will get the sortie. In his aircraft. So - my boys used … to play football with me, come shooting with me, … go fishing with me. They worked through [the night] - they put the emergency lamps on - supposed to be blackout; we had the lights - in the jungle. Worked on the aircraft - come past my basha - On the bamboo door flap … They put a note there, 'Aircraft serviceable'. That's all."
|"Some of my boys" - Ground crew of No.8 Squadron with a Vultee Vengeance somewhere near the Burma frontline. The Squadron operated only the Mk II and Mk1As during its tour of operations.|
Philip had so much faith in his airmen, he would sometimes skimp on pre-flight tests. Niranjan Prasad called him up one day and asked, "Don't you do pre-flight checks?... You don't test the mags?" He had heard Philip starting up and taxying out without running the engine long enough for standard pre-flight tests.
"I'd flown enough to know how an aircraft starts. … Then I taxy out - I hear the sound of the engine. That tells me its own story. And I taxy … and when I know the engine is warmed-up enough … its own way. From Dispersal ... Which are under camouflage and all. And as I get onto the runway … that's when I test my mags. And I don't have to look at the gauge to see that - mag drop. If there is … appreciable mag drop which is unacceptable, I'll know it from the sound. I can't let these men down; they said it's serviceable; as far as I'm concerned it's serviceable. I don't let them down. Yesterday we had trouble on the aircraft - it was serviceable this morning at three o' clock. … They had the aircraft ready for me."
"That's how I got 72 sorties," Philip adds later. "My aircraft was always serviceable!"
Niranjan Prasad left the squadron at the end of March 1944.
In April 1944 the squadron was visited by the Viceroy, Field Marshal Lord Archibald Wavell; and a few days later by Air Marshal Sir John Baldwin, AOC 3rd TAF..
May and June were difficult months, with the monsoon having begun, reducing the tempo of operations; and the squadron being split between up to three different strips, not all of which had all-weather facilities. Because of the weather dive-bombing was not always possible, and the squadron began to use a low-level attack profile, with their bombs fused for delay, for the safety of the formation as much as for deception. They had also begun to take delivery of Mark III aircraft, and a couple of Mark IVs. However, their tour was clearly winding down.
No 8 Squadron ended its first tour in Burma in July 1944. They had carried out 1420 sorties.
"Eventually … I ended up with 72 sorties and Squeaky with 64.. And the squadron average was 49. So … "
There was some correspondence suggesting that Dhillon and Philip had been recommended for the DFC. SP Dutta, one of their coursemates (who had been delayed in passing out for medical reasons, and was with a rear echelon at the time), said he had seen the signal:
"All we knew about that was, we stood a round of drinks in the mess. Fortunately, drinks were cheap in those days. Of course, well, it was consistent with our salaries! Get a bottle of Scotch for six rupees. And the best of the Scotches.
"Anyway. Drinks, and that was the end of our DFCs. We never heard anything more about that."
Philip recalls that some squadron COs of the time were of the definite view that there was nothing distinguished about doing what one was specifically trained to do. In that view, there was nothing remotely meriting decoration, about carrying out sorties and hitting targets, when that was precisely what all your training had been oriented towards. So when his and Dhillon's DFCs didn't materialize, there was some leg-pulling: "Your flying wasn't distinguished and you haven't got your Cross!" He laughs, as he often does throughout his narrative.
Relevant to this is the story of the DSO awarded to Sqn Ldr Mehar Singh of No 6 Squadron:
"I must tell you the story of DFCs in 6 Squadron. 6 Squadron should have got more DFCs but they didn't get it. Mehar Baba said, Mehar Baba was the CO, Mehar Baba said, "Sale tumko sikhaya yeh kaam karne ke liye. Not for awards. If they didn't do what they were supposed to do I would kick their backside." Whenever Mehar Baba, wanted to express something, a feeling, he always broke into Hindi because his English wasn't that good. He said, They were trained to do a job, and they did that job. If they did something out of the ordinary, or beyond the call of duty, then I would have recommended for whatever …
"We were 14 miles apart. So whenever there was a special do at 6 Squadron, we used to be invited. CO said I can't go today, you take the jeep, take as many chaps as you can fit in it, take the Flight Commanders' 15 cwt [truck] and go.
"This was for Mehar Baba's DSO. People would question how he got his DSO. He didn't have any DFCs recommended. He didn't get anything. And the British … Gp Capt, I always think, Baldwin. … Air Marshal Baldwin  , he was a great guy. He was there.
"Anyway, the [Air Marshal] flew down to .. they had a strip on the beach  . 6 Squadron. The [Air Marshal] walked upto him, Sardarji, most untidy beard, most untidy turban. Standing there. This was told to me by … Massilamani, they were there then. And 6 Squadron … Mehar Baba and his glorious six, they start off the story by saying. "Glorious six" does not mean 6 Squadron. It means the six pilots who flew 6 Squadron like 21 pilots. And that's why when Baldwin came down there - I haven't done anything. You have done your duty. Five pilots besides you, whereas the duty should have been done [by] 21 pilots. Isn't it something out of the ordinary? Mehar Baba didn't know what to say! They put the ribbon on him  . There was no medal or anything, they just put that one ribbon on him. We went over and had a party that night and the squadron went back.
"But before that when they were at attention ... Baldwin said, You only have five pilots besides you, how can you do the job? 'Sir, you leave that to me, I am the squadron commander.' Or words to that effect. … This is what we all talked about that night.
"'… You leave that to me.' Typical British, they went back and they gave him the works. In other words, whatever was given to the squadron was given. They flew 3 sorties a day sometime, 2 and 3 sorties a day, must have been very tiring.
"Anyway this part of the story was … you didn't give any DFCs to your boys and you got a DSO. That is how he got the DSO. He did something out of the ordinary. There was one incident where he had to come to Air HQ at Delhi. I don't know why Air HQ thought of sending for the squadron commanders from the ops area to come to Delhi, since we were … other squadron commanders were there. He flew two sorties that day, flew down via Asansol, came to Delhi, finished his conference, took off the next day after the conference and got to the squadron before sunset and did one sortie that night. That's the kind of thing you need."
Philip's pride and pleasure in the honour accorded to No 6 Squadron, which flew wing-to-wing with his own squadron, is palpable.
Departure from Burma:
The squadron handed over their Vengeances to a Maintenance Unit for the last time. It was clear that no-one would be operating Vengeances further, and the aircraft were destined for the scrap-heap. There was one particular aircraft that Philip identified quite explicitly as his:
"I had one aircraft and Chakrabarty shared it with me. Chakrabarty was a senior pilot but he was given my aircraft because both of us had the same leg length. So if we jump in in a hurry, we don't have to worry about adjusting. Most of it was done with that consideration. … The airmen, would say that this is Shorty Phil's aircraft. Shorty Phil was very popular with them because I would sit with them, box with them, I would take them on shoots on off days. So Chakrabarty might have been senior, but this was Phil's aircraft."
A particular aspect of unapologetic pride for Philip was that the aircraft bore mission markings for his 72 sorties, in the form of 72 bomb symbols stencilled against a background of three lightning bolts and the word, "Avenger", on the left side of the nose. It was an impressive record by any standards, often remarked upon, even by British airmen when Philip landed at other airstrips. When his aircraft was handed over for scrapping, the ground crew swore to Philip that they would preserve that panel, with the mission markings, for him. And they kept the promise. Philip had the panel for many years afterwards; but it was finally and irrevocably lost when it was inadvertently included amongst scrap cleared from a luggage consignment left in storage at the Officers' Mess in Jodhpur.
|This rather poor quality photograph shows Philip in front of his Vultee Vengeance "Avenger". The bomb markings denoting sorties can be easily made out, but the Arrow and Lightning bolts nose art is barely visible on the top of the cowling.|
Return to India:
The squadron now embarked on an adventurous trip back to the NWFP, split between an air party and a rail party. In the conditions of those days, both parties took a couple of weeks to complete the trip. Their equipment took even longer to catch up with them.
In October 1944 the squadron went to Quetta, with re-equipment plans. The Air Force was trying to retain the pilot-observer/gunner combinations. They had combined well as crews, and the service didn't want to break them up. The idea was to convert the crews onto the Mosquito, and use them for reconnaissance, and Pathfinder duties. Philip is amused, in retrospect:
"Look at me, eh? Getting Pathfinders! Group Captain Mosby, DFC - who was Chief Instructor (Air), when I went to Staff College - in '54 - he was a Mosquito Pathfinder. So that brought us very close - talking about Mosquitoes.
"And we were all very excited about it. But unfortunately, we got the bad news, saying Sorry, no Mosquitoes - because of white ants … white ants got onto the wooden structure of the Mosquito. And they were in storage in Karachi. That was the end of our Mosquito dream."
But there was great compensation on the way, encapsulated in a word that used to bring a rush of blood from the hearts of Allied aviators, and even some of the public, during World War 2:
Part Two : "We are getting Spitfires"
 Arthur Hope (later Baron Rankeillour), Governor of Madras at the time; himself a Sandhurst alumnus and former Coldstream Guards officer
 Vengeances were, by some measures, over-produced during the war; and surplus aircraft were often passed to the Burma theatre
 No 7 Squadron had seen action earlier in the NWFP
 Other sources say Hem Chaudhuri (brother of later Army Chief General JN Chaudhuri) was an employee of Andrew Yule, the jute-based business house, rather than the Railways
 He was actually Canadian - Flying Officer Hazen Edward Dougherty (J/21256), RCAF
 Wg Cdr RNH Courtney, DFC, a veteran of the Battle of France, Dunkirk and the Battle of Britain. He commanded 113 Squadron RAF in Burma after it converted from Blenheims to Hurricanes, and then held staff positions with the RAF in India
 Air Marshal Sir John Baldwin, AOC Third Tactical Air Force, which both 6 and 8 Squadrons IAF came under at this time
 This would have been Ratnap Strip, on the Naf peninsula
 The specific numbers in Philip's recollection are not totally accurate; but the essentials of his recollection are correct. It is correct that No 6 Squadron was well below its sanctioned establishment for the entire Second Arakan campaigning period (its ORB shows that it never had more than 15 pilots, against an establishment of 17, and during the most intense parts of the campaign its strength fluctuated between 8 and 13 pilots); and also that despite being under-strength the squadron never failed to meet its commitments, in fact setting the record for the average number of sorties flown per month by its pilots. Finally it is also correct that the CO was so embarrassed, during his impromptu battlefield investiture, that he had to be physically drawn out of the ranks to receive his decoration!