(When XI Squadron joined the Royal Navy)
On May 15th 1945, and, after many months of operational flying in Burma, XI Squadron was stood down and received orders to fly all serviceable Hurricanes to Chettinad in Southern India. Ground crews and remaining pilots were to follow by other means. It was assumed by one and all, that after the rigors of the jungle, that meant, well deserved R. and R. for everyone.
Twelve aircraft made the flight down to Chettinad, refuelling at several stops on the way and finally arriving at out destination on May 21st.
Within a very short while, we were advised that the reason for out withdrawal from Burma was that we were scheduled to convert to Spitfire XIV's and to train for 'Operation Zipper', the planned invasion of Malaya. A quick look at the map, had us wondering how the hell we were going to get to Malaya. We were quickly enlightened that we would be taking off from an Aircraft Carrier somewhere in the Straits of Malacca and landing at a Japanese airstrip, hopefully captured by our troops and then in close support of the invading forces. Not everyone was happy to hear that and one disgruntled pilot, who shall be nameless, was heard to remark "If we wanted to fly off a f***ing boat, we would have joined the f***ing Navy". Still, ours not reason why etc etc.
Ground crews finally caught up with us and the conversion to Spitfire XIV's got under way, though we were sorry to see the last of our old Hurricanes. The first priority after familiarization was to start to learn the rudiments of deck take-offs. At our initial briefing, we were advised that the Carrier we would be taking off from, was 400 feet long, which again brought words off disbelief. Our first attempts did nothing to bolster our confidence. A white line had to be painted 400 feet from the end of the runway and we were supposed to be airborne by the time we crossed that line. Our best attempts were well over the 400 feet, but, we were told, that wind speed, combined with the speed of the Carrier would help considerably. Still not convinced, we sort other ways of gaining extra lift. We knew that of we could select our flaps at 20 degrees, that would give us extra lift, but, like most fighter aircraft, it was full flaps or no flaps. It was left to the ingenuity of one of the groundcrew to come up with the solution, small wood chocks were cut at a 20 degree angle. The pilot selected the flaps down and with members of the groundcrew holding the chocks in place, one under each wing, flaps were selected up and 'hey presto' 20 degree of flap. Once the aircraft was well airborne, the chocks would be discarded by selecting down. We now became more confident that we had reasonable chance of making a successful take off. At the beginning of August 1045 the Squadron moved to Madura, and, joined by 17 Squadron, we began our training in earnest for the proposed invasion of Malaya.
About this time, we began to hear rumours that the Americans had developed a super bomb and had issued an ultimatum to the Japanese to surrender or face consequences. We wanted to believe it but it sounded a little to far fetched to be true. The rumours persisted and were eventually confirmed as fact. The rest is history, the atom bomb was dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and resulted in the capitulation of the Japanese on August 15th 1945. Our immediate reaction was one of relief. We had survived the War, then the realization set in and we went crazy. we almost drank the Mess dry, we sang, we cheered and fired flares from the very pistols we had obtained from our aircraft...Some of the flares dropped on the straw bashas we used as living quarters which caught alight and subsequently burnt most of the camp down....At the point we didn't give a damn. The War was over and we would not have to take part in this crazy operation, flying off a Carrier. We actually started to think about going home...Big mistake! The top brass back in Delhi, decided that "Operation Zipper" would go ahead, "To prove to the Japanese that we could have done it, if it had been out into operation for real": their quote. Within a few days we received orders to fly the aircraft to Trincomalee in Ceylon and there to embark on H.M.S Trumpeter to form part of a Task Force which was to re-occupy Malaya. Ironically the speed of the posting was advantageous, as rumours circulated about a Court of Inquiry being set up to investigate the cause of the fire which burnt the camp down. However the birds had flown and we heard no more about it.
Boarding the "Trumpeter" was like entering another world. Gone was the carefree attitude of a front line squadron, we were now in the realm of the Royal Navy and all the attendant bullshit. The RAF pilots were requested to stay below decks as the ship left harbour and until all customary salutes had been paid to, and received from, other vessels in the harbour. There were lots of sirens and flags dipping as we proceeded out to sea and formed up with the Task Force. The fleet was led by a Cruiser together with six Carriers, numerous Destroyers and landing craft. The other Carriers were manned by fleet Air Arm pilots and crews who were no doubt wondering how the R.A.F would perform and probably hoping we would make a complete balls of things. By now we had been allowed up on the Flight Deck and I'm sure we made an odd sight dressed mostly in khaki or jungle greens and a variety of headgears. On the first Sunday at sea, the Navy, as is customary, held Divisions which to the uninitiated is a bullshit church parade, usually, the different sections of the ship's company, form a square round one of the aircraft lifts and as the band plays, the Captain, together with his Ships Officers, rose up on the lift from somewhere in the bowels of the Ship. Salutes are given and received , hymns sung, prayers offered and then they all disappear down again. All very symbolic, I thought. On this particular occasion it was thought fitting for the R.A.F to take part and form one side of the square. The Navy formed the other three sides, absolutely immaculate in their white uniforms. We were still in our "working" uniforms. As the lift rose up, the Captain unfortunately, was facing our contingent and as he caught sight of us, he lifted his closed eyes up to heaven, probably wondering what he had done to deserve us. Apart from that, our relationship with the ships company was great and we mixed together very well, they introduced us to the daily rum issue and all the traditions that went with it. On our part we sold them one or two souvenirs that we had brought with us from Burma. Admittedly, one or two of the Jap flags were home made but they were happy enough with them.
A few days steaming and were in the Straits of Malacca off the Malayan coast. Our landfall was to be just south of Port Swettenham at Morib beach and we were to land at a Japanese airfield a couple of miles inland. The date was September 9th 1945 and there was lots of activity around the fleet. Landing craft were preparing to run to the beach and before long we heard the pipe for all pilots to report to the briefing room. It was still unknown if the Japanese would offer any resistance but there had been no reports of any hostile actions. We received out final instructions from the bat-man who would control our take-offs, he explained the signals he would give , and we were to react immediately he gave the word to go. He advised us that in the event of a crash, the Carrier would not stop but a Destroyer, on station astern, would try to effect a rescue...The moment had come as we made our way up to the flight deck, we cracked on or two feeble jokes, shook a few hands and climbed into the cockpits. I was scheduled number three to go. The first was Wing Commander Smith, who was on temporary attachment to the squadron, and incidentally had done no practice deck take-offs. The Carrier turned into the wind and at full speed ahead, the Wingco was given the signal to apply brakes, open up throttle and as the bow of the ship came up, he was signalled to go. Theoretically he should have released his brakes, slammed the throttle as far as it would go, through the gate and hopefully soar off into the wild blue yonder. He was a little slow opening up the throttle and appeared to drop over the end of the Carrier. Waiting in our cockpits, we assumed the worst but after what seemed like an eternity, we spotted his aircraft climbing slowly. The rest of us followed and all six of us made good take-offs, formed up on the Wingco and set course for the airfield.
Arriving, we flew a wide circuit around the field, looking for any obstructions on the runway. Nothing was seen so we did a low level, line astern pass along the runway, peeled off and came in for landing. We all landed safely and as we ran to the end of the runway, we looked around for any of our troops that were supposed to be there.. At the end of the runway, we turned around and on instructions from the Wingco, kept our engines running and await developments. Sure enough, what appeared to be hundreds of soldiers came marching down the runway towards us. Unfortunately, it was the wrong army. Our "greeters" were all Japanese. The Wingco told us to remain in our planes. He switched off climbed out and walked towards the advancing troops led by several officers. One drew his sword and for a brief moment we suspected the worst, but he offered it to the Wingco who signalled us to switch off. We then organised the soldiers to manhandle the aircraft off the runway to clear the way for the next wave of six aircraft from the "Trumpeter" to land...We were then driven off to the Jap Officers Mess which we appropriated for our use.
We received word that the reason our forces had not arrived was the due to some bad intelligence, the seaborne landings were made on the worst section of the coast. These beaches were very soft and vehicles and heavy equipment became bogged down and had to be winched ashore to firmer ground. Consequently the whole operation was way behind schedule. Still, XI Squadron had arrived intact and without anyone's feet getting wet.
N.B It was whispered that the operation was aptly named "Operation Zipper" because nothing seemed to be buttoned up.