Britain declared war on Germany on 3 September, 1939. Tony was 19 years old, and was living at home with his family at Four Winds, Pebsham Drive, Bexhill-on-Sea, Sussex. That day Tony was assisting the family to improve Pebsham Drive to enable vehicle access.
Text in Italics are direct quotes from Tony’s memoirs and diaries.
“As soon as the announcement from Prime Minister Macmillan ended, the air raid sirens started to wail, scaring the pants off us, imagining Hitler was operating another blitzkrieg and was going to bomb the living daylights out of all and sundry. It was a false alarm – quite an anti-climax.”
During the next 12 months, what was known as the phoney war, passed with very little happening on the South Coast, apart from the odd bombing raid. Rationing commenced. Tony was an apprentice electrician with the Bexhill Corporation Electricity Department, and during this time had been assisting with the installation of air raid sirens. All employees were given basic training on arms and sentry duties. They were issued with Canadian Ross rifles, which Tony was sure had not seen service since the Boer War. “Thank goodness we never had to fire them as I am sure they would have blown up in our faces.”
“This state of affairs ended at 5.20am on 10 May, 1940 with an all-out assault on Belgium by the Germans. Slightly over a couple of weeks later we were facing the Dunkirk evacuation. As far as we were concerned, things were looking pretty dodgy, with Jerry just 20 miles away across the English Channel.“
By this time, Tony and the love of his life, Audrey, who were sweethearts (in the vernacular of the day), had been talking about marriage. Audrey was very much part of the discussion around whether to wait for Tony to be drafted into the Army, or for him to volunteer for the RAF Electrical Maintenance Section immediately. As Tony said, “really there was only one option”.
In May1940 Tony presented himself at the local recruiting office in Bexhill, and volunteered for the RAF Electrical Maintenance Section. After a few weeks Tony received orders to report to the training station at RAF Bicester, Oxfordshire in 2 days time. Unfortunate timing, since Tony and Audrey were to be married on 28 August, 1940 in three weeks time. Tony obtained compassionate leave (Friday 27th August 4.30pm to 11pm on Sunday 29 August), enabling them to marry at Battle Abbey, Sussex as planned.
At RAF Bicester, general training occurred “Square bashing, arms drill, learning how to salute an officer correctly, how to avoid certain NCO’s, and generally endeavouring to keep out of trouble. Slowly but surely, we were kicked into shape.”
More weapons training and bouts of Aerodrome guard duties followed. Bicester Airfield was attacked by the enemy on 13 October, 1940.
“I was caught out on the airfield during a German strafing raid – bullets and canon shells flying everywhere. Not too healthy. There were a number of casualties and a few aircraft sustained damage, but all I got was a damned fright.”
Tony was then posted to the RAF Technical Training School at Ross-on-Wye for four months of electrical training. At the end of that course, Tony was posted to an aerodrome at Wyton, Cambridgeshire, a heavy bombing station, where he worked on four engined Lancasters and two engined Wellingtons.
On 5 October, 1941 Tony received notification of an overseas posting. He was given seven days embarkation leave, and was posted to No. 17 Fighter Squadron (Hurricanes), at RAF Catterick Camp in North Yorkshire for assembly.
Off to War
Tony departed from England on HMS Duchess of Bedford, which had been requisitioned for service as a troopship at the outbreak of World War 2. The Duchess of Bedford sailed from Liverpool and the Clyde on 12 November 1941.
“and we boarded the HMS Duchess of Bedford, which was to be our home for the next eight weeks. So here I was at age 21 setting off into the ‘wild blue yonder’ leaving behind a war torn Britain, a wife and a 9 month old baby son. What were my feelings? Very mixed. On the one hand leaving Audrey and Clive in England, which apart from the bombing raids, was still in great danger of being invaded by the Hun. On the other hand, here was a young man who had never travelled much further than London, off to god knows where, but obviously to visit foreign climes; yes very much mixed emotions indeed.”
The Duchess of Bedford set sail that evening and joined a large convoy which formed off Oversay. Destroyers formed an escort. Tony was very seasick when the ship entered the Bay of Biscay, and ended up in the ship’s hospital after passing out on deck. It was rumoured that they were heading to North Africa, but –
“After a day or so we turned west and later south By this time we were about three-quarters of the way to America. The reason for this was to avoid German submarines as much as possible. There were a number of alarms and the escorting Destroyers would speed off and at times drop depth charges, which created a noise like somebody hitting the side of the ship with a monstrous sledgehammer.
Our first port of call was Freetown, Sierra Leone, on the West Coast of Africa, mainly to refuel and take on fresh provisions. For most of us it was the first sight of an ‘exotic’ foreign country and contact with ethnic people, even if it was only from the ship’s deck to the ‘bum boats’ of the natives trying to sell us fruit. We were not allowed ashore, and we sailed from Freetown on 28 November, 1941.“
Sierra Leone was a British Colony, and its support was critical to the Allies during WW2. RAF West Africa Command was based there from 1941-45 for example. Sierra Leone did not gain its independence from the UK until 27 April, 1961.
“On Sunday 7 December, 1941 an announcement was made over the ship’s tannoy, that the Japs had bombed Pearl Harbour and that the USA had declared war on both Japan and Germany, A quite momentous turn of events that would ensure that the war, in time, would be won by the Allies.”
The Duchess of Bedford’s next port of call was Durban, South Africa where she arrived on 18 December 1941. Shore leave was granted.
“To us, Durban looked like a fairyland. A beautiful city and after dark, a blaze of lights – something we hadn’t seen, due to blackout, for a couple of years. And the shops and food – everything available providing one had the cash – which we did not. The people were great, two or three of us would be picked up from the dock gates and shown the sights or taken swimming finishing up in their homes for meals and evening entertainment.”
Tony had been invited to one of these generous people’s home for Christmas dinner, and was very much looking forward to it. This was not to be – when he awoke on Christmas day, his ship was at sea, having sailed late on 24 December, 1941. The convoy separated into 3 detachments, the Duchess of Bedford was unexpectedly in the convoy heading for Bombay (now Mumbai).
“I learned since that our original destination was the Middle East – Egypt, but new orders were received in Durban requiring the 17th Squadron to proceed to Rangoon (now Yangon) in an attempt (futile) to help prevent the Japs invade Burma.”
The Japanese had commenced their invasion of Burma on 11 December 1941.
The Duchess of Bedford docked at Mumbai on 6 January, 1942. Tony was completely enthralled with the great sub-continent of India from that moment. The troops, by then clad in their tropical uniforms, complete with solar topee and baggy khaki shorts, were disembarked, and quickly hustled onto a troop train, bound for Calcutta (now Kolkata).
“Be assured, if one has not travelled on a troop train, ‘one has not lived’. A more uncomfortable way to travel would be hard to find. Wooden slatted seats, toilet facilities a hole in the floor, and the whole train chock-a-block with Airmen. We ate, slept and endured these conditions for five days and four nights, with temperatures of between 80degF to 100degF.”
Little time was lost in transferring us onto a troopship lying alongside the dock on the Hoogly River (the great river which serves Calcutta (Kolkata), for transport across the Bay of Bengal to Rangoon (now Rangon), capital of Burma (now Myanmar). This troopship was much more comfortable than the old Duchess of Bedford, especially the sleeping arrangements. Calcutta sits 70 miles upriver from the Bay of Bengal, and large ships had to steam fairly slowly down to the delta due to the ever shifting mudbanks. It took us three to four days to reach Rangoon. Rumours of Jap subs didn’t help, as shipping had been sunk in the Bay.“
The troopship arrived in Rangoon on or around 10 January, 1942, as the Japanese troops neared Rangoon. The troops were soon entrained and taken to Insein, a village a few miles north of Rangoon, where they were billeted. Insein was only a couple of miles or so from Mingaladon airport, from which No. 17 Squadron were to operate with their Hurricanes – only …. when they arrived, the Hurricanes were not there.
“Both Rangoon and and the airfield had received attention from the Jap bombers, leaving what buildings there were on the airfield a little worse for wear, and the runway was dotted with filled in bomb craters.
The only aircraft around were the ‘flying tigers’. These were flown by the American mercenaries in the pay of the Chinese General, Chiang Kai-shek. These pilots were real tough cookies and were paid US$1000 for any Jap plane destroyed, and US$500 for any plane damaged. As our aircraft had not yet arrived, they asked if we could help them out with servicing their aircraft, which we did, until our own planes flew in from India a few days later.
Wonderful! We now had three aircraft, Hurricanes, to fight off the Jap invasion. Also our C.O. had arrived with one of the planes, and being an ex Battle of Britain pilot, he soon got things moving pretty smartly. Actually, there was little choice as both Rangoon and the aerodrome were being attacked on most days, and nightly, if there was a good moon.
Over the next few days more planes arrived, bringing our strength up to seven, and that was our lot! But at least we were making sure the Japs were not getting it all their own way. On the other hand, we were taking our losses. We worked like hell to keep our planes flying, day and night as our C.O. wanted ‘standby’ for night flying against Jap night bombers. He asked for minimal runway lighting to mark takeoff and landing points, so we rigged up small car light bulbs on poles, fed from an aircraft battery. Great fun standing half way up the runway waiting for planes to take off so the lights could be switched off before the Japs spotted them., I vividly remember one night – we could hear the Japs around, and standing by these confounded lights waiting for a night fighter to take off, and as it left, the ground bombs were dropping at the end of the runway. Off went the lights, pretty smart and yours truly was diving for the nearest slit trench, landing on top of the duty officer. Had to renew damage to the lights in the morning, while ‘coolies’ filled in the craters on the runway.
Japanese pilots who considered their plane would not make it back to base or to a safe landing, would endeavour to crash land on the ‘drome’, preferably onto our aircraft, which were protecting bunkers. This happened on several occasions, but I can only remember damage to one aircraft, and that was to one of the Flying Tigers planes.
Most times they smeared themselves along the runway and then we had to pick up the pieces. I picked up a severed hand after one crash, one of the few pieces that was identifiable. Another time I was watching this Jap fighter making a slow approach to the runway, just as if he was making a landing. Half way up he suddenly veered onto a bunker, and stayed there. The pilot was quite dead.
Believe it or not, but in these early days of the fighting, the Japanese Officers flew in full dress uniform, complete with sword. Saw one who bailed out of a bomber which had landed quite close to our runway. The Indian Army boys on guard duty at the airfield were after him pretty smartly. Wonder what happened to the sword?“
On 7 March 1942, the British evacuated Rangoon. The surviving aircraft were flown out, leaving the ground crews to make their way north towards the Indian border. As the retreat has been well documented, I shall only write of Tony’s experience. No 17 Squadron was ordered to move north to Akyab (now Sittwe) approximately 889 km by road today. The ‘road’ they took was just a cart track through the jungle. Just as well they did not know what they were in for.
It is almost impossible to visualise the suffering of the retreating forces, struggling through the jungle in intense heat and plagued by insects and illness, with Japanese forces not far behind. Dengue fever, malaria, sores and ulcers caused by insect bites and ever present diarrhoea, heat exhaustion and prickly heat rashes affected so many of these men.
Their vehicles kept breaking down – everyone mucked in to try to keep them going. Changing wheels, filling with petrol, swapping batteries and all sorts of repairs. Many got beyond repair, so were unloaded and abandoned.
“One of our main concerns was rations. All water had to be boiled, and that soon became the responsibility of each person. We formed ourselves into small groups, and lit fires when the rain allowed. We did manage to find a small number of purifying tablets, but they did not last long. Food was also a problem. Not only was it in short supply, but there were hundreds of natives on the retreat, and they were not backward in stealing our grub if given the chance. Justice was short and sharp.”
Each day was worse than the last. They knew that the Japanese would be following up behind, and they had several scares as they were getting closer. More and more vehicles had to be abandoned. The remaining trucks had more to carry, until all that could be carried was petrol, food and people. With the exception of firearms, all personal gear had to be abandoned.
“By this time we were in a rather sorry state, with clothing and especially footwear virtually rotting off us due to the heat and humidity.“
After about a month of this horror, they saw the sea, and their destination, Akyab. They were hoping for a ship to India to get them out of the situation that they were in.
“If there was no ship, to get us out of this hellhole and across to India, it meant more ‘jungle bashing’ – to where? Chittergong. I don’t think we would have made it.”
As luck would have it, there was a small ship at the wharf. There were hundreds of people hoping to get aboard, but only British forces were going aboard. All Tony had were the clothes he was wearing, and his firearms plus he had managed to keep the leather writing case Audrey had given him shortly before he left England. One of his granddaughters still has that writing case.
Just prior to boarding the ship, the Japanese bombed the airstrip, but for some reason did not bomb the ship. Tony said that they were very grateful for that small mercy.
The Japanese landed in Akyab on or around 4 April, 1942.
Tony’s hopes for a decent meal on the ship were dashed when he discovered that the only food onboard was porridge and weevil infested ship’s biscuits, but there was tea, of a sort. Tony found a spot on the top deck for sleeping, among hundreds of others. He got the first good night’s sleep he had had for weeks.
“On the morning of the fourth day we were approaching the river delta, the entrance to the Hoogli River, and onward back to Calcutta, which we had left, it seemed, years ago, but in fact it was only four months. Four months of my life, which I am hardly likely to forget, and havn’t.”
Tony was extremely traumatised by the experiences he had in Burma, and became very emotional whenever the topic was raised. By the late 1990’s though, he was able to talk about these experiences, and to record them in his memoirs.
No 17 Squadron was disembarked at Calcutta and were taken in trucks “to some terrible old Indian Barracks at Dum Dum, which were close to the Calcutta Airport. We were issued some blankets, and directed to sleeping quarters, which contained a ‘charpoy’ (an Indian bed made of timber and string, and usually alive with bedbugs), for sleeping on.”
Fortunately they only had one night in the barracks. The next day they were taken in to Calcutta and billeted at La Martiniere Boys School. They were still sleeping on charpoys, but a de-bugging programme was initiated. The charpoys were soaked in kerosine, or later, were dropped into a large tank of boiling water.
Re-kitted and at a loose end for a week or so, Tony was taken to Firpo’s Restaurant on Chowringhee Road in Calcutta for a meal and drinks. Tony was introduced to ‘chota pegs and pani (whisky and water). It must have felt like paradise.
A spot of rest and recreation leave at one of India’s hill stations was granted to personnel just back from Burma.
“So we packed our kitbags and rolled our bed rolls and were taken to Howra Central Railway Station,where we boarded a train to Shillong, in the north-east province of Assam, a beautiful village in the foothills of the Himalayas. It was nice and cool after the heat of Calcutta. I spent a couple of weeks doing little but eating and sleeping, a little football and some very enjoyable walks in the mountains. All too soon it was back to the heat and humidity of the plains and Calcutta.“
Tony applied to undertake his Group One training at the RAF School of Technical Training in India.
“Meanwhile life in Calcutta resolved into a routine of work, maintenance and ‘off time’, with letter writing and seeing the sights of this great big sprawling metropolis. During the days of the powerful East India Company, Calcutta was the capital of India, and was a place where the sons of the English gentry were sent to make their fortunes. Viewed the site of the Black hole of Calcutta, the Victoria Memorial and over the Hoogly River to the Eden Gardens, the site to this day of the Calcutta cricket test matches.”
Tony was posted to the School of Technical Training at Quetta in Baluchistan, northern India, now in Pakistan. Quetta is around 5,000ft above sea level, and getting there entailed a three day journey by rail, taking in various gauges of railway line. Tony started the journey wearing his tropical kit, but as the altitude changed he had to change into “standard Blues”. It was snowing when he arrived in Quetta.
“From a temperature of 90F to 100F down on the plains to this, and I did not have a greatcoat – mine was lost in Burma. I was not a very happy Airman.”
After successfully completing his training, and passing the examinations, Tony was initially posted back to his old unit in Calcutta. A posting to 81 R & R (re-fuel and re-arm) at Fenni in Assam, on the Burma border followed.
“This was at the time the Japs were making an all out effort to invade India from Burma, and they were really knocking on the door of the Indian border. Bloody battles were being fought by the 14 Army at Kohima, where for quite a time they were surrounded and in dire danger.”
The journey took four days, firstly a train from Calcutta, then a day and a night on a ferry on the Bramaputra River, followed by a train from Chandpur, which dropped Tony at Fenni. He then travelled by truck to the 81 R & R Unit.
Their unit was used on front line airstrips, for re-arming, refueling and carrying out minor airframe, engine and electrical repairs and inspection work, to keep the planes in the air.
“The Japs were trying to push through this area, and for a while things were pretty hectic. We were kept very busy servicing a wide range of aircraft, including a number of American fighter bombers. I recall one Boston which had electrical problems with its undercarriage – after repairs were completed, the pilot suggested I should accompany him on a test flight.”
Tony was moving around in this area for about four months before being posted to Chittagong, now the capital of Bangladesh. The journey of 80 miles from Fenni took 13.5 hours over mainly cart tracks. Tony’s Unit was linked up with 83 R & R Unit. Chittagong was closer to the front, and the Units were much busier.
“I worked on various aircraft – Beauforts, Blenheims, Hurricanes and Mosquitos – the latter being constructed of wood. In between times I was running the CO into Chittergong. There was a picture house in ‘Chitters’ so we would pop over after work once a fortnight for dinner at the services club and see a film afterwards.
In July 1943, Tony was posted to Secunderabad as an Electrical Instructor at an Indian Technical School of Training. Despite this new posting, his ‘overseas’ service was coming to an end. He was due home at the end of 1943, after a period of three years service, so he was quite happy to be moving to Secunderabad.
The first leg of the journey took him to Calcutta, where he spent a couple of weeks catching up with friends before a berth on the train to Secunderabad became available.
“I found that my Indian students were all University graduates, so there were no language issues. They were also competent with electrics, which was just as well, as I was instructing them on advanced bomb selecting, arming and firing circuitry, which was quite a complicated program.
I have little recollection of Secunderabad – I was too busy counting the days to my recall to the UK. I was also anxious, as things can go horribly wrong in the services, and I could find myself back on the Burma front instead.
On 30 November, 1944 Tony was very relieved to receive his posting order to Bombay, where he was to report on 17 December, 1944. He was on his way home, although he was still a little anxious. He left Secunderabad on 13 November, 1944 on an overnight train to Bombay. He spent two long weeks in a transit camp in Bombay before boarding the ‘Blighty Boat” home.
On 10 December, 1944, Tony left India, on the troopship Mooltan.
“Pulled away from the dockside early the next morning to great cheers from the troops onboard, only to anchor in the Bay half an hour later, which wasn’t so well received. I slept on a mess-deck table that night, and had a great night’s sleep. We finally lifted anchor at 10.30am on 12 December, 1944, so we were really on our way home. We were in convoy with six other ships, all large Troopers and four escorting Destroyers.“
Ten days were spent sailing north, through the Arabian Sea, into the Gulf of Aden, and finally into the Red Sea on the approach to the Suez Canal, with land on both sides. The troops were disembarked at Suez, changed from their Tropical uniform back to their blues.
“There had been rumours that on disembarkation at Suez we would probably be shunted into a transit camp , and could be there for weeks. We arrived at Suez at dawn on 21 December 1944, and were greeted with the news that we were going to tranship immediately, much to our relief.”
They boarded the Strathmore, a smaller ship than the Mooltan, and more crowded on 21 December 1944, and on 22 December, 1944, Tony wrote in his diary “.. and now I am on what I hope is the last bloody troopship I shall ever see. I have volunteered for mess orderly duties as that will keep me off guard duties.”
The Strathmore sailed through the Suez Canal on 24 December, taking approximately ten hours, arriving at Port Said at 6.30pm. Christmas day was spent anchored out in the Bay – Tony reported that they had quite a good Christmas dinner and were provided with half a bottle of beer each.
Gibraltar was the next port of call, where the Strathmore arrived on 31 December, 1944. The next morning they left Gibraltar at 10.30am, sailing in a convoy of fourteen other troop ships, with a large escort.
“We had some submarine activity during the afternoon, with quite a number of depth charges being dropped, with the destroyers whipping about all over the place. Rumour was that we would be docking at Liverpool, which we did, but the ship ‘stood off’ at anchor for a couple of days before docking cards were dealt with. When we finally disembarked on around 8 January, 1945, we were soon heading for the railway station, and our train home. I had to go via London, catching the southern railway train down to Bexhill Station.”
Tony was reunited with his family that night, and commenced his disembarkation leave. His overseas service now complete, he was posted to Stony Cross, near Lyndhurst, Southampton. Tony was finally released from the Air Force on 23 May, 1946. He had never been required to travel on another troopship.
After the War.
Tony had fallen in love with India, and wished to return after the War. Tony had raised this possibility with Audrey while he was still in India. Audrey did not wish to live in India. Their correspondence at the time illustrates the difficulties faced by a young couple, when one had seen and experienced things that the other could not imagine. Tony had matured well beyond Audrey’s level. She and their son Clive had lived with her parents throughout the war, and her life had not changed greatly by comparison. Tony had travelled. He knew that there was more to life than living in the same place in England where they had been born, and where they grew up.
In the end, it was a wise decision not to go to India. Tony did not give up the idea of leaving England though, and finally he convinced Audrey to immigrate to New Zealand, which they did in 1958. They had a very happy and successful life in New Zealand – neither of them ever wanted to return to England to live. They never referred to England as home – it was always “the old country.”
When Audrey died, Tony moved to Australia, where his family all lived. Although he enjoyed his life in Australia, his 40 odd years in New Zealand with Audrey was, he said, the best years of his life.
Tony and Audrey wrote to each other every day, sometimes up to three times a day. Their letters survived, and for the rest of their lives, the letters were stored in a heavy leather suitcase that Tony had acquired in Calcutta. The letters came to New Zealand with them, and to Australia with Tony.
These letters together with diaries, ration books and miscellaneous papers are in the Imperial War Museum’s Collection in London, reference “Documents 19712 “Private Papers of Mr & Mrs A Cowlard”.
The leather suitcase is still going strong, and is in the possession of Tony and Audrey’s eldest granddaughter.