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‘Special Duties’ Liberators – In Sqn Ldr Stembridge’s Words

Photo: Flg Off Charlton (rear, second from right) and his crew in Ceylon before the Japanese surrender.

 

During the Second World War, RAF personnel regularly described their activities on the radio for listeners of the BBC. These broadcasts described their experiences in their own words and in effect provided the human stories behind the official communiqués. Each month we present one of these narratives, an account selected from over 280 broadcasts which were, at the time, given anonymously. One of those men is thought to have been Squadron Leader Peter H. Stembridge DFC & Bar, describing the sorties of his comrades.

One of 8 Squadron’s B-24 Liberators at Kallang, Singapore, on 2 October 1945. (All images courtesy of F.F.H. Charlton unless stated otherwise)

To maintain its covert operations and to sustain guerilla groups in Japanese-occupied Burma, Malaya and French Indochina, the Special Operations Executive required long-range air support from the RAF. Several B-24 Liberator equipped squadrons were switched to the ‘Special Duties’ role. Likewise, in the absence of significant Japanese naval activity in the Indian Ocean, some general reconnaissance Liberator units were also switched across to this role in early 1945. This included the crews of 200 Squadron, which had just completed an intensive period of Leigh Light training for night-time anti-submarine warfare duties.

As well as stores, 8 Squadron’s Liberators also dropped thousands of leaflets announcing the Japanese surrender and the fact that relief was at hand.

To support Force 136 (SOE’s umbrella organisation for their activities in South East Asia) teams undertaking a guerilla campaign in Burma and Malaya, 200 Squadron moved to RAF Jessore (now in Bangladesh) with a detachment at RAF Cuttack. Flying Officer Charlton and his crew, flying KH331/W, conducted 200 Squadron’s first SD operation on 15 April 1945.

This sortie was part of Operation ‘Conclave’ – a decoy mission to drop equipment within reach of the enemy so as to draw its attention and away from areas of real activity. Another typical sortie was that of 26 April, when stores were dropped in the hills north east of Rangoon, or that undertaken two days later to the Malay Peninsula when almost a ton of arms and supplies was delivered despite awful weather. This was 200 Squadron’s longest trip to date.

Operations continued through May 1945, with 47 sorties having been flown up to the 15th – of which 37 were successful (eight were abandoned owing to bad weather). Then, on the 15th 200 Squadron was re-numbered as 8 Squadron, though this did not affect operations as on this day the “new” squadron undertook seven SD missions. A week later the squadron moved to Minneriya, Ceylon, where it resumed work from 4 June. Its crews concentrated on very long-range missions to the Malay Peninsula and Sumatra, flights which resulted in an average sortie length of more than 18 hours; some were as long as 21 hours.

The eventual Japanese surrender resulted in a marked increase in activity for the SD squadrons as there was an imperative to get relief teams and supplies dropped into POW camps across South East Asia. The Squadron’s CO, Wing Commander J.M. Milburn, ended his August monthly report with the prophetic words: “Moreover, all are fully aware that even when the last shot has been fired a great volume of work remains to be done. It is not without a measure of pride that this Squadron looks forward its share of these responsibilities.”

Not only did Charlton’s Liberator carry nose art named after a pioneering pre-war long-range aircraft, but it also carried his name.

From the surrender to 30 August 1945, 8 Squadron flew 22 further missions, but these were to sustain the SOE teams. Then, on the 30th, it flew its first POW relief sortie, Operation ‘Mastiff’. Because of his previous experience flying into Sumatra, Flying Officer Ferrier Charlton was selected to captain this first sortie for which he flew his regular aircraft, Liberator GR.VI KH331/W. The mission was to drop supplies at Medan in northeast Sumatra on the Straits of Malacca. On return the event was announced in a press release and became the subject of a radio broadcast:

“RAF Liberators of the Indian Ocean Air Force flew a round trip of 2,800 miles from Ceylon to Medan, Sumatra, to parachute Red Cross supplies and medical aids to prisoners of war. Twenty-four hours previously, a Liberator had dropped leaflets to the Japanese guards and prisoners giving details on the supply dropping expedition to follow. On this initial trip, photographs were taken which enabled those following to locate the camps and make sure the supplies fell in the proper places. Between three and four thousand Dutch prisoners are believed to be in the Medan area, as well as a large number of British and Americans.

With the exception of the pilot, all members of the crew were making their first visit to the Dutch East Indies and were naturally enthusiastic to be taking part in one of the greatest errands of mercy ever undertaken.

“One of the Liberators was captained by Flying Officer F.F.H. Charlton, who made several flights over Sumatra. With the exception of the pilot, all members of the crew were making their first visit to the Dutch East Indies and were naturally enthusiastic to be taking part in one of the greatest errands of mercy ever undertaken. For five hours the aircraft flew through low cloud and occasional showers of rain until the conical sloped hills of the coast of Peliang were sighted. Ships of the British East Indies Fleet were anchored in the harbour. The White Ensign was flying above the town.

A POW camp seen from a Liberator during one of the supply drop missions. (P.D.G. Farr)

“As the aircraft flew over Sumatra in good weather, villagers or farmers waved, but on the whole the inhabitants seemed to be going about their everyday tasks. Reminders of war were occasional. In a corner of the jungle, burned out remains of an enemy aircraft could be seen. Near Pankalanbrandon Harbour was the wreckage of a large sized enemy tanker, no doubt blown up by a mine.

The pilots of a Liberator confer as they approach the DZ during one of the supply flights.

“After a couple of hours flying over Sumatra, the navigator, Flying Officer J.A. d’Alpuger, announced the approach to the target. Parcels and packages were arranged in readiness for the dropping. The spot for the actual dropping was a large open space, easily distinguished by an ornamental fountain at one end. Just by was the Roman Catholic college in which the prisoners were believed to be housed.

“As soon as the aircraft began circling the inhabitants of the town rushed out and before long the roads were crowded with people waving wildly. Some brought table clothes out of the houses and waved these. The first lot of supplies dropped to the ground and people ran across the open space to collect them. Every package landed safely in the prescribed area. People collected them immediately and loaded them into a motor car.”

As soon as the aircraft began circling the inhabitants of the town rushed out and before long the roads were crowded with people waving wildly.

Throughout the following month 8 Squadron’s Liberators mounted almost 60 operational drops to SOE units or POW sites, a rate matched by other SD units. Sergeant Spencer Jenkins recalled his first ‘Mastiff’ mission, which was flown in Liberator GR.VI KH191/A: “I was flying as co-pilot to Fg Off Archie Walker and crew, and my first sortie was to drop food and medical supplies to 15 Prisoner of War Camp at Rantauparapat in central Sumatra. The duration of the flight was 19 hours and 15 minutes, and to give us this range we were fitted with four bomb bay auxiliary tanks, and all extraneous items such as armour plating had been removed. Our all-up weight was in excess of the manufacturer’s specification and on takeoff our flight engineer was always stationed at the forward end of the bomb bay catwalk with his hands on the tanks’ emergency jettison lever on the event of engine trouble!”

Loading supply canisters onto an RAF Liberator. (P.D.G. Farr)

However, all went well as the 8 Squadron Operations Record Book noted: “Operation successfully completed. All chutes opened and supplies dropped on southern end of DZ Weather good.”

Following the liberation of Singapore, from early October sorties were flown into Kallang, with 8 Squadron sending its first in on the 2nd. Two days later Flying Officer Charlton’s crew flew there, returning on the 6th; it was the last trip of his tour having completed 22 SD flights and for which, in December, he was awarded the DFC.

Charlton’s was one of four DFCs awarded to 8 Squadron, whilst Squadron Leader Peter Stembridge, who is believed to have made the short broadcasts described above, received a Bar to his earlier DFC.

Liberator GR.VI KH331/W was the aircraft used on the mission described by Sqn Ldr Peter Stembridge DFC & Bar in the radio broadcast.

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