Interview with Jack Harris. Two


Interview with Jack Harris. Two


After completing thirty-seven Bomber Command operations during the war, Jack Harris remained in the RAF. In February 1949, he was posted to Singapore, where he joined 48 Squadron and undertook transport command services on C-47s. He describes evacuating military personnel from Maymyo during the Burmese civil war and dropping supplies to the British army fighting guerrilla forces in the Malayan jungle. He also describes flying to Darwin in Northern Australia and his experience at Cloncurry airport. In April 1951 he was selected to attend the RAF Staff College at Andover which he finished in March 1952. In April 1952 he was posted to the Transport Command headquarters at RAF Upavon and worked on planning emergency operations, including potential postal strikes.




Temporal Coverage




00:26:23 audio recording


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PS: I’ve got that one. Right. Right. Are you ok?
JH: Yes. Ok.
PS: Right. We’re starting again on the 13th of March.
JH: Yeah.
PS: And I believe we got as far as the beginning of 1949.
JH: That’s right. Yes. Yes.
PS: Yes.
JH: Well, in February 1949 I was posted to Singapore in the Far East and I went up on a troop ship called HMS, HM transport Devonshire. We sailed from Gourock near Glasgow in Scotland, and I suppose there were probably a couple of thousand troops on board and we sailed up stopping at Suez, Aden, Columbo in what is now Sri Lanka and then on to Singapore. And that voyage took just under four weeks but that was the British Empire in all its glory, you know, taking troops to far flung outposts and so on. And when I got to Singapore in March 1949, I joined one of three Dakota transport squadrons which were then based in Changi in Singapore. The Dakota was a twin engine transport aircraft developed from the civil version of the DC3 which did all the airline work in the United States from the early ‘30s onwards. The Dakota had a crew of three. A pilot, a navigator and a wireless operator and it could carry twenty five passengers on sort of bucket seats down each side of the fuselage or it could carry about three or four thousand pounds of freight including, you could load a jeep up a ramp through big side doors.
[telephone ringing]
JH: Excuse me.
JH: It’s Jack Harris. That’s another call from British Telecom. We’re getting a lot and I’m not with British Telecom. I’m with Virgin Cable so why are they ringing me up? They’ve phoned us five or six times.
PS: Yeah. Well, probably, I’m not with Virgin I know if you’re on BT you can take the number and dial a special number and they’ll put it on a blacklist and not let it through.
JH: Yes.
PS: Whether Virgin would do that for you I don’t know. They might.
JH: Yeah.
PS: They might. It might be worth getting in touch with them.
JH: Yeah.
PS: It is annoying because they’re only, they’re not really British Telecom. You get something. We’ve got BT for broadband.
JH: Yeah.
PS: And we get these phone call saying, ‘It’s going off in a minute,’ and it’s not. It’s for you to give them all your information, you know.
JH: Oh, I see. Yeah.
PS: A right con. And that’s the same thing. So, are you, are you ok?
JH: Yes. I’m ok. Yeah. Yes. Well, there were three Dakota squadrons at Changi Airfield in Singapore and they carried out a number of duties which would be flying troops or police around Malaysia or freight for supplies and in, there were regular services flown from Changi, Singapore to Kuala Lumpur which was the capital of Malaya as it was then to Butterworth, an airfield near Penang, to Kota Bharu on the east coast of Malaya and up to Kuantan on the east coast and to two airfields further up north Ipoh and Taiping. So outside of Malaya there were regular services to Hong Kong via Saigon to Labuan and Borneo in Sarrawak, and to a little island base in the middle of the Indian ocean called Car Nicoba where the Japanese had built a runway. And we were operating it as a staging post between Singapore and Sri Lanka and it had a small garrison of fifty or sixty people and we just took in their essential supplies every week. There was a weekly courier. There were special ops to be flown from Singapore. We sent, I joined Number 48 Squadron which was one of the three Dakota squadrons at Changi and in March ’49 we had to send six Dakotas up to an airfield called Mingaladon on the edge of Rangoon in Burma which is now Myanmar. And at that time there was a civil war going on between the Karen tribe and the Burmese government so the Karen’s were fighting the Burmese Army. And about three or four hundred miles north of Rangoon at a place called Maymyo there was a British military mission in Burma to help Burma set up armies and so on. And there were with wives and children probably about a hundred and fifty or two hundred people there and the fighting got so close to their camp that they had to be evacuated. So our six Dakotas went up there and used a strip the Japanese had built which was all hastily, and the strip was a bit overgrown with jungle so we had to clear that and lengthen it at both ends and we, we took all these hundred and fifty or two hundred people on board and flew them down to Rangoon and safety.
JH: On another occasion when the Dakota aircraft were due for a major service after perhaps eight hundred hours flying they had to go down to a special base where there was a factory and they could strip the aircraft down. And we had to fly them down to an airfield near Adelaide in Australia where there was an aircraft company that did all this major inspection work. So I went out there, took a Dakota, flying down from Singapore to Batavia and Surabaya, and Kupang in Indonesia, then to Darwin in Northern Australia. And when we, we had to take off from Darwin about 4 o’clock in the morning when it was dark and as I got clearance from the control tower to take off they said to me: ‘Watch out for kangaroos on the runway.’ [laughs]
PS: Well they are big enough to see.
JH: We flew down from Darwin to a landing strip in the middle of Australia called Alice Springs. And there were very limited facilities there and the refuelling of the aircraft had to be done manhandling five gallon tins of petrol. So if you wanted two hundred gallons of petrol that was what [pause] forty or fifty tins of —
PS: Yes.
JH: Petrol, you had to unlock and climb up on the wing and with using a funnel pour into the tanks. So very primitive facilities. Well we got down to Parafield in, near Adelaide alright. That was fine. Coming back we came back first of all through Sydney where we had to spend a couple of nights. And then the return trip was following the same route but in reverse. But to get to Darwin which was a very long flight we had to land at another remote desert airfield called Cloncurry and they drove us in to what they called town for a mid-day lunch meal. We went to this café and we were attacked by hordes of flies. And when you were bringing your knife and your fork from the plate to your mouth, the flies would get on the fork before they could get to your mouth. Just terrible but that dry, you know was a paradise for flies you see. Anyway, we got to Darwin and did the return trip all right. That was an epic trip for me. Now the other —
PS: I don’t know what’s going on here.
JH: The other job we had to do in Malaya.
PS: Can you hang on a minute?
JH: Yes.
PS: I’ve got a fault come up here.
JH: Oh, have you? Ok.
PS: Oh God. Press play. What’s that? Let’s try that. No. It’s still playing up. This is what happened before you know.
JH: Yes.
PS: Are you still recording?
[recording paused]
PS: I will turn it off and try again. Is that alright with you?
JH: Yes. Yes.
PS: Can’t save the data. Oh great. What is the matter with this machine? Now, this is not my doing or anything is it?
PS: Well, let’s try it. It seems to be working alright now.
JH: Yes. Yes.
PS: Right. Ok. Keep going because I’ve got it on that one.
JH: Now, the other job we had to do in Malaya —
PS: No. It’s not working.
JH: Was, was dropping supplies. It’s not working. Ok.
PS: No. I don’t. You know —
JH: I’ll put the kettle on. Ok.
PS: I’m sorry.
JH: Not to worry. Yes. Yes. Yes.
[recording paused]
PS: Yeah.
JH: A job we had to do with our Dakotas was dropping supplies to British Army patrols who were in the jungle in Malaya.
PS: Yes.
JH: Fighting the bandits. And in July 1948 the communists had started an offensive against the west in South East Asia and they brought in a lot of communist bandits who were quite well armed because previously they’d been part of the Malayan people’s anti-Japanese army and provided with weapons by the west to fight the Japanese. But now they were using the weapons to attack rubber and tin planters on their estates in Malaya and shoot up families and so on and they derailed trains at night and so on. And they were just a flaming nuisance and the only way they could be tackled was to send up Army patrols into the jungle and find their camps and destroy the camps or shoot up the bandits you see. But to keep the patrols going in the jungle we had to air drop supplies to them. And the troops would settle in a clearing in the jungle, a date and time would be arranged for the supply drop and the troops would light a bonfire or set off flares that gave off a lot of smoke and when the smoke came through the top of the trees you knew where they were. And we had to fly in at very low speeds for the parachutes to open, and drop the supplies safely you had to keep the speed down to about ninety or ninety five knots which wasn’t very much above the stalling speed. And when you were right, just over the tree tops and flying into valleys and so on, quite awkward places it needed a bit of skill in handling the aircraft and come around for a resupply run. I mean often to drop all your supplies you just dropped them off one parachute at a time.
PS: Oh yes.
JH: We had two army air despatch people at the back of the aircraft alongside the big door and they just pushed these packs out and a static cord automatically opened the parachute. And but often to supply one patrol you might have to make six or seven runs and, you know get it right each time. So it was quite a skilful business. And that, that went on all the time, and we were often doing as individual crews you might be doing two or three supply drops a week, you see. So, yes. So that was a constant business. Also, they had Spitfire and Beaufighter squadrons in Malaya to attack these bandits and they used to use little Auster reconnaissance planes to find out where the bandit camps were and sometimes little clues gave the bandits away. They could be lighting a fire or, or they could be going to and fro to the jungle toilet [laughs] and they would mark where they thought the camp was with smoke indicators and then the Spitfires and the Beaufighters would come along with cannon and bombs and try and get the bandits. But it was a pretty hit or miss operation, you know. Not, not terribly successful but of course it kept the bandits on edge and so on, and they, they had to keep on the move all the time. Yes. Yes. And then in January 1950 I was promoted to squadron leader and I was sent up to the Advanced Air Headquarters in Kuala Lumpur working alongside the Army Headquarters in Kuala Lumpur. And we had to arrange all the air strikes against the bandits and all the supply drops to keep the British Army patrols going in the jungle. So that was quite a, quite a big job. And then in April ’51 I was selected to attend the RAF Staff College at Andover. And the Staff College at Andover was special because the course was about twenty five people and you’d have ten from the Royal Air Force and fifteen from foreign Air Forces all learning to be staff officers. And we had people in from the United States of America, from India, Pakistan, Canada, Israel, Burma, Iraq, Iran and France. So it was quite a mixed gathering of the students on this Staff College course. And then I finished that in March 1952, and in April 1952 I was posted to Headquarters Transport Command at Upavon as air plans to work out all the plans for the Hastings squadrons and Dakota squadrons in Transport Command to meet various emergencies that might come up. It was thought that there might be another Berlin Airlift required if the Russians sealed off approaches to Berlin again. You had to plan for certain emergency operations which might involve the British Army being involved in West Africa or East Africa. And also if the postmen in Britain went on strike we had to fly the mail from London to all regional centres so it could be distributed. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. So you had to prepare for a lot of emergency things like that.
PS: A big complicated job.
JH: Yes. Yeah. Yeah. Yes. Yeah.
PS: Ok.
JH: Yeah. Ok. Well, shall we have a rest again?
PS: Yeah.
JH: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.



Patricia Selby, “Interview with Jack Harris. Two,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed April 18, 2024,

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