The Forgotten Flyers

September 28, 2014 by Hugh A. Halliday

In other theatres the RAF had spurned dive-bombers in general and the Vengeance in particular. But in India and Burma the Vengeance performed heroic service with nine squadrons.

General William Slim’s leadership of XIV Army was brilliant, yet he is one of the least known of the Second World War leaders.

A Vultee Vengeance dive-bombs targets near a railway bridge in Burma. [PHOTO: IMPERIAL WAR MUSEUM—HU93010]

A Vultee Vengeance dive-bombs targets near a railway bridge in Burma.
PHOTO: IMPERIAL WAR MUSEUM—HU93010

 

Slim recognized this when he wrote of his command as The Forgotten Army. His principal achievements were to defeat a Japanese invasion of India and then to reconquer Burma. Yet he was defending and recovering an empire already lost. The XIV Army was the last true British Imperial army, composed of divisions from Britain, East and West Africa, and an undivided India.

Between March and June 1944, this force broke sieges at Imphal and Kohima and then launched a gruelling land offensive through Burma, finally recapturing Rangoon in May 1945. In the process they humbled the Japanese who had judged their 1944-45 foes by 1941-42 performances.

These campaigns were innovative in many ways, including direct tactical air support on a complex battlefield. Hundreds of Royal Canadian Air Force personnel were present and the stories of some of them have been described elsewhere by such authors as T.W. Melnyk and Robert Farquharson. Other adventures and achievements remain to be told.

General William Slim, commander of the XIV Army. [ILLUSTRATION: NATIONAL ARCHIVES (U.K.)]

General William Slim, commander of the XIV Army.
ILLUSTRATION: NATIONAL ARCHIVES (U.K.)

No. 20 Squadron had been in India since 1919, operating from Waziristan to Bengal. During the Second World War, two members of the RCAF were killed with the unit, namely Warrant Officer Russell G. McIntaggart, whose hometown is uncertain, and Pilot Officer Alfred D. Blackman of Neebing, Ont. Three more were decorated: Flying Officer Harry B. Date of Sarnia, Ont., Flight Lieutenant Edwin Fockler of Vancouver and FO John Anderson of Montreal; others served bravely, but without recognition.

Canadians arriving in 1942-43 found themselves flying Lysanders in tactical support missions. Harry Date flew 28 sorties on “Lizzies” between Feb. 10 and April 16, 1943. Entering details in his logbook must have been a challenge, given the spellings of his many targets. His very first sortie was described as an offensive reconnaissance of two hours 45 minutes. “No. 3 Stockade to Kalemyo; four 40-lb bombs dive-bombed on Thaxi and Kalemyo; Jap camp shot up northwest of Kalemyo.” Succeeding reports were in a similar vein.

Flying Officer Date then converted to Hurricane IID aircraft, renowned in North Africa as tank busters with 40-mm cannon. He flew 25 sorties on the type between Dec. 28, 1943, and Feb. 28, 1944, shooting up road and river traffic. On his final sortie, a 95-minute offensive sweep, he was attacking assorted boats when he was hit by machine-gun fire. In spite of severe injuries and briefly passing out in the air, he led his wingman back to British lines before making a wheels-up landing on a forward strip. He was on the Dangerously Injured list for nearly eight weeks.

Four Canadian members of No. 110 Squadron, including Flight Officer John Robertson (right), relax at the officers’ mess. [PHOTO: CANADIAN WAR MUSEUM—UK15258]

Four Canadian members of No. 110 Squadron, including Flight Officer John Robertson (right), relax at the officers’ mess.
PHOTO: CANADIAN WAR MUSEUM—UK15258

Flight Lieutenant Fockler flew 13 sorties on No. 20 Sqdn. Lysanders in April 1943. He was back with the same squadron in December 1943 and logged at least 49 sorties on Hurricanes between Dec. 24, 1943, and April 26, 1944. Most involved attacks on small river craft, but even bullock carts were deemed suitable targets if they seemed to be carrying uniformed personnel. Towards the end of 1944, No. 20 Sqdn. began to supplement its cannon-armed Hurricane IID machines with rocket-firing Hurricane IV machines, although the actual supply of rockets was sporadic.

Flying Officer Anderson routinely flew Hurricane IID tank busters. On Feb. 12-13, 1945, the 20th Indian Division crossed the Irrawaddy and met fierce resistance. Japanese tanks were reported, which was a rare occurrence, and this led to a hunt for them. On the 16th, six Hurricane IID aircraft pounced on a tank. Anderson was credited with discovering and destroying it. The search continued. Sorties on the 18th proved disappointing: “The Japs certainly have the art of concealment practised to a fine art,” the squadron diarist noted.

The cannon- and rocket-firing Hurricanes hit pay dirt on the 19th, searching gullies for their well-camouflaged prey and destroying at least 12. Four Canadian pilots were involved in this day’s action—Fockler, Anderson and Pilot Officers Harry J. Mitchell of Toronto and William H. Thompson whose hometown is also uncertain. Three of them were piloting rocket-armed Hurricane IVs; only Anderson was flying an IID “can opener.”

It is a measure of the diversity of No. 20 Sqdn. that pilots taking part included one Jamaican, three Australians and one South African. They received congratulations from four senior formations. The message from 33 Corps read, in part, “It must fully compensate for long periods of waiting for suitable targets.” No. 20 Div. struck a lighter note: “Nippon Ironware Corporation has gone bust! Nice work 20 Squadron. ‘Tanks’—repeat ‘Tanks’ a million!”

Canadians in the Far East flew in some types of aircraft not normally associated with RCAF personnel. One machine was the Vultee Vengeance dive-bomber. In other theatres the RAF had spurned dive-bombers in general and the Vengeance in particular. But in India and Burma the Vengeance performed heroic service with nine squadrons. Operations were normally carried out by 12 dive-bombers against a target close to XIV Army troops.

When it was impossible to see the target in dense jungle, the artillery fired smoke shells where they wanted the Vengeances to bomb and the crews did the rest. The results were often photographed by one of the dive bombers. Flying Officer Leo J. Burnett, an American member of the RCAF and a pilot in No. 84 Sqdn., was especially successful in securing good pictures.

Flying Officer Bert Finnie of Vancouver, another pilot in No. 84 Sqdn., had two unnerving experiences. The first was on April 6, 1944, when he encountered a thunderstorm so violent that he was thrown into an involuntary loop with his bombs still aboard. In the rear cockpit, his Australian gunner found himself upside down, undid his straps and dropped out. Finnie regained control and returned to base. The gunner walked six days, but turned up safely.

On June 26, 1944, the unit was detailed to attack a fuel depot. Near the target, Finnie’s cockpit filled with smoke. Suspecting the Vengeance was on fire, he told his gunner—FO J.F. Ellis of the RAF—to prepare to bail out. “I’m ready when you are,” came the reply. Finnie pulled out of the formation and turned for base. Looking around, he discovered that Ellis had disconnected the intercom and was about to exit. Finnie was unable to stop him. The gunner’s parachute opened and he apparently landed in trees. Meanwhile, the cockpit smoke cleared away, although the aircraft hydraulics were unserviceable. The pilot used emergency procedures to open the bomb doors, jettison his bombs and lower his undercarriage to land. The smoke was traced to vaporized hydraulic fluid leaking from the oil cooler.

Flying Officer Ellis was never seen again.

Flight Lieutenant Everett E. Ettinger of Saskatoon was one of several RCAF pilots who ended up in No. 8 Sqdn., Royal Indian Air Force. One day a tire burst on takeoff, damaging his hydraulic system. Ettinger could neither operate his flaps or jettison his bomb, and ordered his gunner to bail out, then jumped himself. The Vengeance should have crashed immediately, but instead it circled as if piloted by a ghost, heading for Ettinger in his parachute. It narrowly missed him twice before plunging into the ground. “I was glad to see the end of that aeroplane,” he told an RCAF press officer. He later transferred to No. 273 Sqdn. which was equipped with Spitfires. Sadly, he was shot down and killed on April 20, 1945, while strafing oil drums along the Taungop-Prome road.

Flight Lieutenant  Everett E. Ettinger. [PHOTO: COURTESY Of HUGH A. HALLIDAY]

Flight Lieutenant Everett E. Ettinger.
PHOTO: COURTESY Of HUGH A. HALLIDAY

An RCAF press release dated Oct. 27, 1944, reported at least 10 Canadians serving in No. 110 Sqdn. An excerpt from the Operational Record Book of No. 110 Sqdn., covering an operation on May 24, 1944, illustrates the tactics. Twelve Vengeances had been dispatched although on this occasion Flt. Lt. Grant Puttock of Toronto was the only Canadian involved. The aircraft were airborne at 1534 hours and touched down again at 1705. The narrative for the strike read: “Target: Motor Transport Harbour area both sides Tiddim Road just north of M.S. 26, reference RK.113088. Twelve aircraft dived 11,000 feet to 5,000 feet at 1630. All bombs seen to burst on the large cluster of white artillery smoke amongst the trees. Damage unobserved. During the dives several tracks were seen running from the Tiddim Road east into the area bombed—suggest much activity. Only little dust clouds from bomb bursts. Photographs attempted. Three only bashas, black in colour in line on the hillside, approximately 400 yards due east of road at MS.36.”

Shortly after this mission, the monsoon season began, sharply curtailing air and land operations. No. 110 Sqdn. was withdrawn from operations pending conversion to Mosquito bombers. Several Vengeances and their crews were sent to the Gold Coast—now Ghana, West Africa—to carry out experimental insect-spraying operations between September and November 1944. Canadian aircrew enlisting in 1940 and 1941 could scarcely have imagined that they would see the world in so many strange places and such unusual roles.

But there was a cost. At least three Canadians lost their lives in No. 110 Squadron’s Vengeances. They were WO Billie Carmichael of Ottawa on Dec. 10, 1942, FO Anthony J. Davies of Lloydminster, a city straddling the Saskatchewan-Alberta border, on Dec. 17, 1943, and FO John M. Robertson of Toronto on Aug. 8, 1944. Six further Canadians were killed with other units flying the same type.

All files of fatalities are poignant; that of Davies is an example. He had gone overseas in July 1941 and had served with No. 110 Sqdn. since November 1941. On April 8, 1943, he “pranged” a Vengeance at Jodhpur when taking off in a strong crosswind that forced a swing. On May 21, 1943, taking off for an operational sortie, he failed to gain airspeed quickly, stalled and crashed in a paddy field. His luck ran out Dec. 17, 1943, when he was returning to Kumbhirgram airfield from a mission. He probably did not know that a 250-pound bomb had “hung up” on the port wing. As he landed the bomb fell off. It exploded, wrecking the aircraft and instantly killing Davies along with his RAF gunner.

These are some of the stories of a vanished air force, flying in support of a forgotten army.

  • jimmy

    Russell McIntaggart was from Penetang, Ontario

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