Mercy Mission to KL


John Behague's account of a 14-hour flight from Cocos Keeling, by an RAF Liberator

bomber of 356 Squadron on Thursday, September 6, 1945

With the war against Japan just over, the need to get medical supplies and food to PoWs and civilians became imperative, and the RAF was asked to mount mercy missions. This is an account of one such operation.

Despite our somewhat frugal existance on this tiny coral atoll in the centre of the Indian Ocean we all endeavoured to make a personal contribution to the supply drop. Apart from essential medicines and drugs, airmen donated such things as clothing, tobacco, soap and precious items they'd received from home, including tinned food. Copies of the daily newspaper, Atoll, which I edited, containing news of the Japanese surrender, were also included. Volunteers were invited to make the trip and my name was one of the first out of the hat. This is what I wrote in my diary:

We set off at dawn from our base, West Island, Cocos, in a 356 Squadron Liberator on our flight to Malaya carrying a great load of medical supplies and comforts for PoWs and civilians. With the Japanese surrender, there are no bombs this time. Guns and armament have been stripped from the aircraft to provide more lift, and the cavernous bays which normally house 500 and 1,000-pounders, now contain dozens of large drop-canisters strapped to chutes. We could have carried more but the fitters have had to install overload tanks to provide more fuel for the long journey which is routed to take us many hundreds of lonely miles over the Indian Ocean far from any other airbase.

After briefing soon after 5 a.m., we take off at 6.30 down the uncomfortably short strip hacked from the coconut palms, the wheels screaming as if in agony as they labour along the prefabricated metal runway, the flickering gooseneck flares stretching before us and the palms clearly outlined against the first flush of morning.

We are tail heavy, and it seems touch and go we'll ever leave the deck, but just as the last flare speeds past we creak and grumble upwards barely airborne just skimming the beach and reef and then, with the four Pratt and Whitney engines roaring at full belt, slide over the perilously close waves, with the pilots tugging at the controls.

Visibility not as perfect as one would have hoped, with banks of black cloud way ahead on the horizon as we make a slow, slow climb to cruising altitude. A sparkling sea at first, but as we edge higher it becomes dull and motionless, and the thought of several hours of this is somewhat enervating. However, after an hour we run into thick cloud and things liven up. Dodging and battling with the stuff can be the most exciting part of flying. There it looms before us looking as solid and forbidding as a brick wall. We hit it and it is as silent a collision as diving into cotton wool. Another great bank ahead, and this time we slip into it gently with the wings just tobogganing over the top until we are engulfed in torrents of rain and the Lib is tugged and rocked as if by a giant hand.

A good crew, all nationalities, all jovial. Difficult to converse except over the intercom because of the noise from the pounding engines. No insulation in these all-metal aircraft. Once you discard your headset you have to shout to make yourself heard. The skipper, a Scot, wanders aft stepping over the mounds of stuff to be parachuted down, checking harnesses, joking and smiling, then sharing pirated flight rations with the rest of us. In the cockpit the second dicky pretends to be asleep and lets George the autopilot take the strain.

Most of us snooze or read novels as the hours creep by. We are all a bit anxious about the performance of our navigator, who also has done his share of nodding. The skipper says this has to be a spot-on mission because there is little fuel in reserve and no room for error. Then, a cry from the front. Land spotted. It's Sumatra says the navigator, and we lose height to check landmarks. Surprise. Just off the coast a large cargo vessel appears. It's a Jap! With a whoop, Scottie pushes the stick forward and we descend at such speed that we all feel weightless. We are now down to a few hundred feet and lose still more height to sweep over the ship at mast-top level. A real shootup, calculated to shatter the nerves of any Japanese crewmen or passengers, but despite the fact that the vessel is underway with funnels steaming there is no sign of life, no raised faces - or fists. Just no response at all. A strange and rather eerie anti-climax.

Back up to a thousand feet and on over Sumatra - rocky shores, then a depressing looking, deeply wooded country, dark green jungle stretching as far as the horizon. What chance of survival if we have to bail out now? No more, no less I suppose than when we were over the seemingly never-ending ocean.

More shores, more water, and Malaya ahead. It's getting warm and humid, and we strip off our pullovers and vests and make preparations for the big drop. The coast in sight. But we have made too early a landfall and are ahead of our ETA - midday - by a good 15 minutes. The skipper throttles back, and with the engines idling and our ears relaxed, we glide onwards with all eyes now on the navigator's map. Kuala Lumpur is our destination and the target area is the racetrack. The civil authorities have been advised to expect us but it is important to arrive precisely on time so that ground parties will be in position to retrieve the several tons of goodies which will float down.

Watches consulted, then full throttle again, and down. We flash over a desolate coast, skimming palms, then jungle, our objective only a few miles ahead. Maps consulted again. "That's the river all right, see how it twists." The two pilots are tense, the navigator bites his pencil. Any miscalulation now and we'll miss K.L. An attap hut in the distance, then more dwellings, then smoke and suddenly a blur of buildings. We're there! The wireless op reaches for his key and signals to base "over target area". Scottie peruses his special photograph of the area which was pieced together from a combination of shots taken by aircraft on previous sortees. There is clear sky over the town and we should be able to pinpoint the dropping zone perfectly.

What sights now! The streets seem to be pulsating with life. We're so low that we can see people in white dhoties, in sarees, bright shirts, running and waving their arms. Every house seems to be flying a flag. Union jacks flutter everywhere. I wonder where they came from? Had they been hidden from the Japanese during the long occupation? We are too fast and too low now to pick out precise details. Just a blur of colour.

The race track at KL seen from the Liberator.

Up again, and we circle the town preparing for our first approach. A green ring to the left. This is it, and we bank in that direction. It's the racecourse, complete with neat looking pavilion and white rails, just as it is in the picture. Stick forward again and we nose down looking for the reception committee. A man in grey smock, a priest perhaps, rushes out of the pavilion waving frantically. He's followed by a man in battledress. Then, from nowhere it seems, hundreds of people emerge, all waving, all with mouths open, shouting - men, women, soldiers and scores and scores of children - rushing from the shadows into the sunlight. We wave back from the gun hatches, circle the racetrack, then head back to the town centre where we turn and, with flaps fully extended, engines throttled back, make our approach.

In the rear of the Lib we are ready. Bomb doors, camera and side hatches are open. The bomb aimer in the nose signals his readiness, and in we go. "Revs, revs!" we are sinking too quickly, then "steady, steady!" throttle back again and we glide in barely 300 ft from the ground. Here comes the racecourse, with the crowds falling back. Both pilots are sweating profusely. One air pocket and all will be lost. "Steady, steady, steady!" Nearer, nearer now, then "load gone!" We shudder upwards and our first batch of containers flutters down. We glance back and see streams of people running to pick up the supplies.

Another circuit, another run in, this time catching a group of soldiers unaware and scattering them in all directions as the sudden roar of our engines surprises them. The sight of such a large aircraft flying so low must be a bit mind blowing. Another drop smack in the centre of the green circle, and another, and another... and that's it. The bomb bays and cargo holds are empty and our mission is complete. Well, almost. Scottie wants some fun. After his frustrated efforts at shooting up the Japanese freighter he is determined to put on a bit of a show for the people of K.L.

We wave to the crowds at the racecourse and head back to town. Down, down until we seem to be flying between the houses themselves, following and twisting around streets, missing strings of bunting by inches. The traffic stops, crowds rush out from houses and shops, a great sea of faces stares up from below. Everyone waves. It's an amazing sight to us. How must it appear to them?.

There is a Japanese barracks marked on the map, so the pilots decide to pay it a visit. No flags or signs of enthusiasm here. High hats and an occasional flash of teeth. We circle with engines screaming, but no-one in the thin group standing below shows any sign of enthusiasm. One can hardly blame them.

A fun fair is in full swing in one part of the town - victory celebrations, no doubt - and the children on the roundabouts seem far more concerned with hanging on than waving to us.

Then suddenly we realise we're wasting time. We're behind schedule, and have many miles to fly to that tiny atoll in the middle of the Indian Ocean. There's an anxious check with watches and fuel gauges and we set course for Cocos. Across the Straits of Malacca, then Sumatra we pound, and finally face the long, long flight across the deep, green ocean. The skies have cleared and from 8,000 feet the sea looks beautiful and placid with only the jagged claws of occasional reefs to mar the surface.

Duties completed, most of the crew are lulled to sleep by the drone of the engines. In the cockpit George is switched on and the pilots read and eat and take naps as the controls gently twist and turn to the direction of their robot master. No need to search the skies. The war is over. All Japanese fighters are grounded.

I wake up with muscles cramped to watch the sinking sun. The western sky is suffused in bloody red. It's a gaudy yet glorious picture, like so many one experiences in this part of the world, almost impossible to capture in words, paint or film. Overhead a ceiling of stars unfolds. On either side the bright pin pricks of our navigation lights stare back. Below, cloud is forming, fleecy white at first, but ahead and approaching fast are grey, forbidding banks.

On, on, on with the engines roaring a robust song, the coldness of night beginning to seep into the aircraft. Five p.m. comes and goes. Six oclock. Seven. And still the cloud surrounds us, much blacker now, but with occasional windows opening to the dark ocean and the stars. All the crew are awake, alert, anxious and tired. We strain eyes for some sign of the lonely island which is our temporary home and refuge.

The petrol gauges indicate enough fuel for a few minutes only. We have been on radio compass for the past hour. Is it still serviceable? "Nav - Are you sure we're on track?" "Try another DF bearing." The navigator is adamant but has a worried look. "Any minute now," he says. The bearing remains steady. More minutes pass. The tanks must surely soon be dry. Thoughts race through my mind. The war's over, so what on earth possessed me to volunteer for this trip? So near, and yet (looking at gauges now fluttering in the red) so far. I feel empty, too, and slightly sick. Quite clearly so do the others.

Then, far away in the dark distance, a tiny light, then the steady finger of a searchlight reveals itself like a beam from heaven. It can only be Cocos. Home at last! Everyone relaxes. We grin, yawn, stretch limbs, gather our belongings.

Soon the flarepath is ahead. Undercart down. Landing stations are taken up. No time for a circuit. A quick word with the control tower and straight in. Harnesses are snapped off as we hit the deck and roar down the strip, blue flames from glowing exhausts reflecting against the sides of the Lib.

They are all waiting for us at dispersal and rush out to help, clasping hands and asking whether we'd found our target and delivered the goods. "Good show," says the intelligence officer.

There's just time for a mug of hot tea, supper for those who want it, then off to our tents and our charpoys (beds). It 's been a long day.

A Perilous Landing

Whilst I was taking part in that mercy mission to Malaya, a Mosquito aircraft had taken off from Cocos on a photo-reconnaissance flight to Singapore. The two-man crew had no intention of landing because no-one knew what the reception would be like. Some of the Japanese military leaders were believed to be resisting and the condition of the landing fields was not at all clear.

The Mosquito had skirted the Johore coast, completed a quick circuit of Singapore island, and the navigator had then set course across the Indian Ocean to the base on West Island. The crew hoped to be back in time for lunch - the Mossie was a fast machine, not a plodder like the Liberator - when there were nasty noises from the engines and they were faced with an emergency. They had the choice of pressing on homeward and risking ditching in the sea, with very little hope of being picked up, or turning back and facing the Japanese,

It would have been madness to attempt such a long flight on spluttering engines, so they reversed course and headed for Kallang Airport. They must have shared mixed feelings as they circled the airfield looking for obstacles or an angry reception committee, but they finally decided there was nothing else for it, so they nosed in and landed.

To their dismay a group of armed Japanese soldiers rushed across the field to surround them and they were ordered to taxi to a camouflaged dispersal point near the control tower. It looked ugly, and they must have cursed their luck and wished they had taken the other option. Their's was the first Allied plane to land in Singapore since the occupation, and as they climbed out to face what they feared might be an execution squad they raised their arms in surrender and attempted to explain their presence and position.

After an uncomfortable period of arm waving, an interpreter appeared followed by a large ragged band of British PoWs who burst into cheers the moment they realised the RAF had landed. The PoWs had been employed as labourers by the Japanese, and as the news spread, dozens of other prisoners appeared to gaze in wonder at the dazed pilot and navigator standing there in their spotless uniforms.

The PoWs had never seen a Mosquito aircraft before and marvelled at it. The Japanese guards were brushed aside and there was a flood of questions about the war and whether it was really over, when they would be liberated, and what was happening back home and in the rest of the world.

Two more PoWs appeared - an RAF engineer and a fitter - and despite the fact that the Mossie's engines were strange to them, they set about servicing them. Then the Japanese had to protect the RAF crew from the growing crowd of emaciated men who were beside themselves with joy at thoughts of soon becoming free.

The next day a second Mosquito, which had been sent from Cocos in search of them, lobbed down, and later the two planes took off together back to Cocos. The PoWs were sorry to see them go and another two weeks elapsed before they gained their freedom. It was, however, quite a highlight in the history of the occupation of Singapore and meant that at least one part of the island knew dramatic events were happening.

What we know now is that General Seishiro Itagaki, Commander of the Japanese 7th Area Army in Singapore, was contemplating the massacre of all PoWs on the island in defiance of orders, and the arrival of the Mosquito from Cocos might have triggered off wholesale slaughter. It appears that Itagaki was not told of the incident, the Allies were slow in sending in a relief force and fortunately Itagaki relented and the tense situation was allowed to cool.


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