South-east Asia: Burma by the late Russell Place
Leading Aircraftsman R. PLACE
“Prior to the war, I worked for the Co-op at Bishop Auckland as an apprentice builder on 8/4d per week. When I was 17 years old I volunteered to go into the RAF. I trained at Blackpool then I did a mechanics course in South Wales. Between 1942 and 1946, I served as a Leading Aircraftsman (LAC) in 113 Squadron. The squadron was reformed in 1937 and was based at North Africa, Crete and Egypt. After the outbreak of war in the Far East, 113 Squadron was moved to Burma and attacked Japanese columns until it was evacuated to Calcutta, India in March 1942. Later, from Assam, India, 113 Squadron bombed Japanese communications and airfields.
The main supply base was Calcutta, in India but it was some 900 miles away from the action in Burma. There was only one railway line, the Bengal to Assam line, traffic was heavy and it was over used. The whole of the Allied offensive against the Japanese in Burma needed to be supplied by air until the city of Rangoon was taken. The Allied advance covered a distance of some 1,300 miles. A fleet of Dakota planes was gathered together and an air capability was assembled in India. The Dakota was “a workhorse of a plane” and carried supplies and men up to the bases near the front. Combat air forces were also built up and Spitfires, Mustangs, Beaufighters and Lightings began to appear. At the outset, the main airfields were near the railway line in India but more were needed near the Arakan ports of Chitagong and Akyab. But first, they had to be freed of the Japanese menace. The Allied air forces had to gain air superiority and that they did.
“The enemy’s protecting air force was shot down and so mauled that it withdrew from the struggle early on.”
Squadron Leader Charles Gardner, from “the Victory J Mail”
The air space was cleared of the enemy and now the Dakotas could be used to supply the British Army, particularly the 7th Indian Division which had been surrounded by the Japanese in the Arakan. The Japs launched 2 attacks towards India. The first was in the Arakan where they were getting dangerously close to Akyab and the second was in the central sector, at Imphal. In Arakan, the Japanese were decisively beaten and the Dakota missions kept the 7th Indian Division supplied until it was relieved. It was during this action, in February 1944, that Private Maurice Wilkinson, 1/Lincolnshire Regiment was killed.
I arrived in India during the monsoon of 1943. I was stationed at Comilla and my first job was to pick up shrapnel and debris from the runway, following Japanese air raid. I was always in a safe area. My job was to service and repair aircraft and, in a team of 4; we looked after Blenheim bombers and Hurricanes. I didn’t work on Dakotas. I am proud to say that we never lost an aircraft, every one that went out returned safely – although, an Australian pilot had a near miss. He came back with tree branches attached to the bottom of his bomber. I told him that I thought that he was flying too low but he claimed that the trees in the jungle were too high!
The Bristol Blenheim
The Bristol Blenheim was a British light bomber aircraft designed and built by the Bristol Aeroplane Company. The Blenheim had a 3 man crew, wing span of 56ft 4ins (about 17m) and was powered by 2 x British Mercury XV radial engine, 920hp each. Its maximum speed was 266 mph and it had a range of 1,460 miles. It had 1 x 7.7mm Browning machine gun in the port wing; 1 or 2 7.7mm Browning guns in rear firing under nose blister or Nash & Thompson FN 54 turret; 2 x 7.7mm Browning guns in the dorsal turret and 1200lb bombs – 4 x 250lb bombs or 2 x 500lb bombs internally or 8 x 40lb bombs externally. The Blenheims operated widely equipping RAF squadrons in the UK and British bases abroad. Many Blenheims were lost to Japanese fighters during the Malayan Campaign but they played a big part in preventing India from falling and in recapturing Burma by destroying over 60 aircraft on the ground in raids on Bangkok.
Hawker Hurricane Mk II
The Hawker Hurricane was a British single seat fighter aircraft that was designed and built by Hawker Aircraft Ltd for the RAF. It had a wing span of 40 ft (about 12m) and was powered by a Rolls Royce Merlin liquid cooled V-12, 1,185 hp engine. Its maximum speed was 340 mph and it had a range of 600 miles. It had 4 x 20mm Hispano MkII cannons and 2 x 250lb or 1x 500 lb bombs. In 1943, the battles over the Arakan in Burma, was the last large-scale use of the Hurricane as a pure day fighter. Until the end of the war, they were used in the fighter-bomber role.
I was stationed at various other places including:
- Chittagong, on the Bay of Bengal: The city had a large port and was an important link in the supply line for the Allied Forces and the airport was a major station for the US Air Force combat aircraft during the Burma Campaign. When the Americans arrived, the meals improved. The Yanks brought in tinned fruit, chocolate and all sorts of luxuries.
- Bopahl, India: There was an air gunnery school there where bomber pilots were re-trained to be fighter pilots.
- Bangalore, India: My recollections here are of R&R – I went up to the goldfields. The bosses were all English and we were given free membership of the Gentlemen’s Clubs. I met up with my mate Harry Rutter. He saw action in Burma and was one of the Chindits. Harry was an electrician and after the war he got a job with my brother Andrew and lived in Evenwood.
When the war finished I could have gone into the Army of Occupation but because the country needed builders for reconstruction and I was in the building trade, I was given class B release – an early release to get back to work. When I came out of the RAF, I weighed 10st. 4lbs. and had a waistline of 27 inches. I’m now twice the man I was!”
Russell Place’s uncle was J/43919 Ordinary Seaman Andrew Lynas, lost at sea 1 June 1916 when HMS Ardent was sunk at the Battle of Jutland.
Russell sold his builders’ yard to a housing developer some years ago. The housing estate was named LYNAS PLACE in honour of both Andrew Lynas and Russell Place.