This article was first published in August 2020 when Sight Scotland Veterans was known as Scottish War Blinded.
This year marks 75 years since VJ Day (Victory over Japan). Scottish War Blinded member and RAF veteran, Gordon Mills, reveals his diary from VJ Day and the month that followed, as well as his memories of life in the Far East following VJ Day and stories of those he served with.
On 15 August 1945, the Second World War came to an end when the Japanese surrendered, resulting in the many thousands of Armed Forces personnel fighting in the Far East returning home.
Gordon, now aged 98, was in Chiringa (now known as Bangladesh) with 177 Squadron when he heard the announcement that they had longed for: the war was over. However, the following months would see Gordon travelling through India before finally returning to British soil on Christmas Day 1945.
Here is Gordon's story, told in his own words:
15 August 1945
Heavy rain all night and morning. Took out all the rocket rails to put on Beaufighters, but the rain stopped us.
Just heard THE WAR IS OVER – the Japanese have agreed to surrender terms. We don’t know what to do – what to say – or even what to think. We know very little about the new atomic bomb, but know that it has certainly ended the war abruptly: all of us expected many more months of warfare – perhaps stretching into years. Now it is done. (The moral implications had, at that time, not even been thought of: our families at home could now relax a bit and stop scrutinising every dispatch from the east). It was over at last.
Went round to the sergeants’ mess in the evening for some beer – had gin in the basha.
16 August 1945
Heavy rain all night and morning. Stayed in bed till 11.30 – it did nothing for my headache!
The Squadron received a message from Air Marshall Keith-Park stating that the war was now officially over, but that we may have some trouble in Malaya and Java (I suppose that was telling us not to be too quick in counting our chickens). He went on to thank us for our part in the victory, and stated that the Air Ministry had agreed to his recommendation to reduce the tour of duty overseas. Victory dinner in the Salvation Army canteen, Chittagong.
17 August 1945
Heavy rain night and morning. Listen to some new records in the morning. Foster and Bender still celebrating the end of the war – running around in the rain in their pyjamas: they’ve been drunk since Wednesday. Although officially the war ended on Wednesday, there is still fighting in Burma. It will be dreadful for the wives, parents and families of any men killed now. Still raining hard as ever.
18 August 1945
Rain all night and all morning. Had some exercise with medicine ball in the morning – in the pouring rain. Gramophone recital in the basha. All operations have been stopped waiting for the Japs to sign the surrender documents. A message from Melbourne states that Emperor Hirohito’s speech is not that of a defeated man leading a defeated nation, but the speech of a defiant man leading a defiant nation. (Having heard it on the radio, it seems so to me too).
19 August 1945
Little rain in the night and morning. More exercise – or is it punishment? – with the medicine ball in the morning. Some sunshine, so I put boots and socks out to dry. Played around with a football in the afternoon. On aircraft guard at night: bats scuttled out the bashas all night.
20 August 1945
Fine dry sunny morning – no rain since yesterday morning. Debugged my charpoy and mosquito net, and put my blankets out to dry and air – they smelt something awful after all the many weeks of bad weather. Kicked a football about in the afternoon. As we crossed the tarmac, some bullets whizzed over – just over – our heads: some fool had been playing around with a Sten gun. Finished the second volume of “War and Peace”.
21 August 1945
Dry sunny morning. Kick about with a football in the morning. Read Kama Sutra in the afternoon. Everyone seems to have been taken by surprise: nobody can really believe the war is over – and, of course, it isn’t for some. The Japs in Burma have not yet surrendered, although the war was officially over on the 15th. Loose wallahs in the camp again last night – they stole watches, cigarette cases and money.
22 August 1945
Some rain in the morning. Latest information is that we are moving at the end of the month, back, way back, to Madras. Signed the 700’s in the morning (if my memory serves me well, 700’s are official forms stating that the parts of the aircraft for which you are responsible – in my case the armament – are in serviceable condition). Had a kick about in the afternoon. The people in this country will be glad to see the back of the British – and now show it. In Post Offices, for instance, they appear to keep you waiting for as long as possible before snatching the money from your hand. And who can blame them? The British have been here too long and have overstayed their welcome. Home rule is – and certainly should be – next on the agenda.
23 August 1945
Nothing much to do here now that the war is over: I suppose it won’t be long before they decide to smarten us up, and make us march about the place. Sunny morning. Gramophone recital by Peter Beecroft at night.
24 August 1945
Dull morning, but no rain. Kick about with a football in the morning. Received a letter from Gordon Scott, the defeated Labour candidate for West Edinburgh.
25 August 1945
Very close during the night, cool in the morning. Went down to the armoury to sign for the Beaufighters as it is expected that they will soon be going for good. Rain all afternoon and evening. “Borrowed the Letters of G Bell”. Got drenched wandering about. Heard “Espana” and the “Slav Dance” by Chabrier, just before going to sleep.
26 August 1945
Heavy rain all night and morning. Played Gin Rummy all afternoon and evening to the accompaniment of dance music played by Harry Fenn on the gramophone, and the rattle of the heavy rain on the basha walls. Told to pack our kits ready to move to St Thomas’s Mount, Madras, in a few days’ time.
27 August 1945
Again rain, all night and morning. Football in the afternoon and Gin Rummy at night. Packed the armoury equipment again, ready for the move.
28 August 1945
Dull but dry in the morning. Loaded the armoury equipment on to lorries and took it to Hathazari railway siding, where we loaded it onto a railway truck ready for our move in a few days’ time. Chittagong to post a parcel in the afternoon. We now have a camp cinema – a bamboo basha with planks across oil drums, for seats.
29 August 1945
Dull but dry in the morning. Got 2 oz of rum and 25 cigarettes as a VJ Day present from a grateful government. Y for Yorkie crashed on taking off: as it was speeding along the runway, one engine cut out and the ‘plane swung off the runway, killed a bullock with the prop before ending up in a monsoon trench where it immediately burst into flames. The crew managed to get out in time, but the pilot was badly injured. The plane burned for several hours after the petrol tanks exploded. Most of the plane – except for the hardened steel parts, like the cannons – burned to ashes. Cards at night.
30 August 1945
Heavy rain in the morning. Stowed Browning guns in the Beaufighters and removed the signal cartridges. Packed kit ready for moving on 1 September. Issued with K rations and water sterilising tables for the train journey.
31 August 1945
Heavy rain in the morning. Load unwanted kit on wagons ready for tomorrow’s move. Watched two water buffalo fighting. Most of us up nearly all night drinking beer.
1 September 1945
Rain all night and morning. At last we are on the move. Boarded trucks at 11.00 a.m. bound for Chittagong station. Boarded train at 12 noon. Train moved off at 2.00 p.m. Pass through Feni and on to Chandpur for midnight. This side of the Bramaputra is metre gauge railway, and broad gauge on the other side.
2 September 1945
One minute past midnight moved equipment and kit from train on to Bramaputra Steamer. Steamer moved off at 3.00 a.m. As usual very crowded on board – not enough space for everybody to lie down for the 12 hour trip. Arrived at Golunda at 3.00 p.m. where we got a hot meal and a wash. Moved equipment and kit from steamer on to train. Boarded train at 5.00 p.m. mainly for somewhere to sit and sleep as the train won’t move tonight.
3 September 1945
Breakfast at 6.00 a.m. Train moved off at 7.30 a.m. Arrived at Chitpur, near Calcutta, about 3.30 p.m. Got some more K rations on the train. Slept on the train which left Chitpur at 7.30 p.m.
4 September 1945
Train moving very slowly. At a station near Balasore, a child had a leg severed by the train. At Balasore saw a man suffering from elephantitis in the leg which was grossly oversized, and a little girl suffering from the disease: her nose was about four times its normal size and nearly covered one eye. Stopped at Cuttack, capital of Orissa for an hour – had a meal in the station restaurant.
5 September 1945
Still on train. Passed through Anakapalle station which seemed to be full of crippled beggars. There was a young man being carried in a sort of basket stretcher by two cripples: the young man in the basket looked like one of the inmates of Belsen concentration camp – every bone in his body showing. And there was a little girl of about three, in the same horrifying condition. Stopped at Tuni which also seemed to be full of beggars, cripples, and awful smells. Watched a yogi demonstration and a street conjurer on a railway station south of Tuni. At Rajamundry the officers (not our own squadron officers who have long since gone, but a new and selfish lot who show no consideration for the men they are supposed to be leading), booked the only dining room on the station – while we stood outside singing the Red Flag loudly.
6 September 1945
At the first stop this morning there was a Congress meeting (political) being held. All the Congress members wore white caps and carried banners – the days of British rule in India are numbered. Stopped at Ongole for about two hours. There was the corpse of a woman on the platform behind a pile of sleepers – no doubt another victim of starvation. Stopped at Nellore for a while – the train is now eight hours late.
7 September 1945
Arrived at Madras after seven days travel – five of them on this train – about 7.00 a.m. I was left on the station to guard the kit. Arrived at the camp at St Thomas’ Mount at 11.00 a.m. Spent most of the day airing my damp, mouldy kit. It’s a different world here - in the camp canteen we can buy things we only dreamt about at Chiringa.
8 September 1945
Organised the basha space in the morning, and in the afternoon went to the YMCA swimming pool at Saidapet. Had a look round Madras in a rickshaw in the evening. Dinner (and we had plenty of money for dinners as we could spend nothing at Chiringa) at the New Victory restaurant. Got a lift back to camp in a staff car – so this is peace-time!
9 September 1945
Nothing doing yet. Wrote some letters in the morning. Swimming at Saidapet in the afternoon, and cinema in a hangar in the evening.
10 – 16 September 1945
Not a lot doing in camp – far too many men and far too little for them to do. I hung about the armoury when I was expected to be on duty but all our Beaufighters disappeared some week ago, and the armaments on those’ planes had been well greased for storage. Spent a lot of time swimming at Saidapet in the afternoons and wandering about Madras at night, visiting the Moor Market and the Chinese Bazaar. Dancing at the Nurses Institute, the YMCA and the Banqueting Hall, Government House; concert at Pudupet school, and several visits to the Globe cinema, and various restaurants (for some forgotten reason – or perhaps without reason – Chinese).
Reflections from Gordon:
My diary, such as it is, peters out here. There is much – I suppose due mainly to my naivety – that, with hindsight, should have been recorded, but wasn’t. There is practically nothing about the young men I was with on that, for a time, front line airstrip of Chiringa. Nothing about people like Happy Marsden for instance: Happy was a pilot (I don’t think anyone knew his real Christian name) and though as a flyer he was in constant danger, he entertained us – usually in small groups of perhaps half a dozen – by telling us stories about his prostitute sister in Liverpool (he had a new story every week). Though the stories, often quite long stories, he told about his sister on the game were hilariously funny, there was always a touch of pathos in them. We listened and laughed and were sad with him after the telling of a particularly poignant part of a tale when the tears ran down his cheeks. I listened to his stories for several months before finding out that Happy did not have a sister.
I have already mentioned our popular C.O. George Nottage – a man highly skilled in the art of leadership, a man who kept a low profile, yet took on the most hazardous tasks for himself. A man respected by all who knew him. And Sgt Hook, another pilot always in the thick of the air war who, when not flying, used much of his spare time trying to teach us French and stagecraft.
Then, of course, there were the armourers: such people as Charlie French (Abdul), previously mentioned during my sojourn in Egypt, and Foster, armourer and leading actor in Hook’s play “The Bishop’s Candlesticks”. Foster was a young man who worked in an office somewhere in the Midlands, when not engaged in warfare. Always smiling, but quietly yearning to get back to his young wife of a few months, he was ever hopeful that the war would end soon.
Sakne – Cpl Sakne, another Liverpudlian from Litherlands: of a serious nature, but liked to laugh even though more than a hint of sadness could often be seen in his eyes. Perhaps an early sadness that just could not be forgotten. Perhaps something from his Latvian folk history. Or perhaps a longing to get home to Liverpool. He liked to keep fit and indulged in any sport that was on offer. I played football and hockey with him, and in Madras, tennis. He was a good-looking young man who probably should have been married; and he nearly was in Madras when a lovely Anglo-Indian girl took a fancy to him.
Tich Hall, Harry Fenn, Grandpa (I forget his name – he was mainly known as Grandpa and was probably about 35 years old), Hethernigham, and Johnny Burgoyne from Sidmouth in Devon, were all armourers who had their own strengths and weaknesses. I seldom worked with them and although I got on well with them, I didn’t really know them and therefore cannot say much about them.
Now, the others at my end of the basha, I worked with, and knew better: Dick Maidment, tall, gangly, diffident and bespectacled, I knew reasonably well and like everybody who knew him, appreciated the fact that Dick could be relied on in all sorts of situations.
He was usually our spokesman when there was some difficulty with the RAF hierarchy: such as mail not getting through, beer only getting through maybe once a month and, of course, the usual complaints about food. We did get a bit fed up with the soya sausages, the dehydrated potatoes, and the dehydrated mutton – sometimes we thought our anti-malaria Mepacrin tablets tasted better. And like Kilpatrick – although for some reason not mentioned in my little diary – he often gave the gramophone recitals. He also organised talks on anything that he believed would be of benefit to us after the war, and he was something of a father confessor to men who had problems at home, and did not want to consult the officers. (Strangely enough, he did voluntary work in the Citizens’ Advice Bureau when he retired, some forty years later).
Peter Beecroft I have already mentioned: as I said he was independent, fearless and scruffy. He would often wander off into the jungle when not on duty, the pouting lower lip informing any who knew him that he did not want company. I got on well with him, I suppose because we worked together regularly, yet there was always something indefinable about Peter. He was strong, rugged and, I suppose to those who did not know him, it was somehow strange to find him an aesthete. (I don’t know why it should have been strange – but it was). I suppose the kind way to describe Peter would be to call him a likeable eccentric. After the war Peter decided to look after two fairly wealthy aunts, and so far as I know he did not do any kind of paid work. When the old aunties eventually died, Peter was financially able to continue in the idle state to which he had become accustomed, and spent much time loitering about music and drama festivals. And, according to my latest report, he is still at it. (I cannot verify the details on Peter’s life of leisure after the war, but my information came from a reliable source).
John Kilpatrick from Hampton-in-Arden I have just touched upon. Another eccentric in his own special way (on reflection I see them all from that end of the armourers’ basha, as eccentrics). (In Gorgie we would have called them Piaget – or half mad, but they were great people to be with). Black Jock was usually glowering – black looks at anyone or anything that displeased him, and that was usually enough. He, like Peter and Dick, was interested in, and obviously knew a lot about, classical music and opera. When Jock was giving one of his recitals, nobody dared to talk, cough, sneeze, or worst of all, snore. When off duty he loved nothing better – if music was unavailable – than lying on his back on his charpoy, blowing smoke rings from his Balkan Sobranie cigarette, and joking with anyone who was around: he was, though most of the time dour looking, always ready to laugh, and was one of those people – often written about – whose whole face lit up when he laughed. He was also a good story- teller and told our clique many tales about his life as a painter and erstwhile deliverer of Clydesdale horses. Although his body was a bit fat and flabby, his mind – to use another cliché – was razor sharp.
Joe Sowerby, the young Secondary Headmaster from Durham, was small (about 5’5” in height), stocky and strong. I imagined Joe as a bit of a martinet: he certainly, even in the RAF as a ranker, spoke with the authority of one who knew the answer to most questions – (and, of course, he did not). Although obviously clever, Joe – in my innocent opinion – did not have the intellectual capacity of Maidment, Beecroft or Kilpatrick. However, he was good to be with, a player – a good man to have on your team – whether on the sports field, as an armourer, or just as good intelligent company.
I spent as much free time with Les Sakne as anyone else. He too was a good companion and good sportsman, very athletic and ready to try anything. Although he too was intelligent and like the others at our end of the basha, well educated, he could not understand why the others had no interest in promotion – if only for the extra money it brought. We played a lot of chess together as well as indulging in sporting activities. And like the others, he was a good conversationalist: I think I enjoyed the discussions, arguments, and sometimes lectures, at our end of the basha as much as anything else I experienced in war.
And, of course, Charlie French (Abdul). We had come a long hazardous way together and were always friends. Abdul, like me, had received a very modest education, but everyone has a talent or skill, and Abdul’s skill was in mathematics. It surprised, almost shocked the intellectuals, in our group, how quickly and accurately Abdul could answer the most complex mathematical question: and in mental arithmetic, no-one could get anywhere near him in speed and accuracy. He too, like Kilpatrick, loved his cigarettes, although unlike Jock, Charles had to smoke his free ration of V for Victory cigarettes – no Balkan Sobranie for him. Nobody liked the V cigarettes, but most addicts nevertheless smoked them. Abdul had mine to get through as well, and sometimes my free night-duty rum.
There is such a lot that did not go into that little diary: names of people still escape me, people like – a name I have just remembered – Harry Thomson, another armourer. No mention of the months stripped to the waist, soaked in sweat, often day and night. No mention of the people afflicted by malaria and other tropical maladies. Pictures come to mind, sometimes pictures best forgotten possibly, yet they come to mind.
However, most of that was put to the back of the mind as we entered the world of the services in peace-time India. For us, a new world, where private soldiers had their Indian bearers (servants). A world of punka wallahs, dhobi wallahs, bisti wallahs. We were forever being told by the old sweats, that we paid them too much (apparently it would upset the economy of the whole of that vast exploited country, if we gave the people who worked for us an extra anna).
For the rest of September 1945, and until the beginning of December of that year, they (the authorities) kept moving us about as our numbers dwindled by people being sent home. Married men got priority; then it was by age – the older you were, the higher up the list you got, then length of overseas service was taken into consideration. I knew I would be one of the last to go as I was unmarried and still only 23. So, gradually my friends disappeared – Sowerby, Kilpatrick, Abdul, Foster, Maidment, Sakne, and many others all went home as Peter, I, and others, the remnants of 177 Squadron, were shunted about Eastern India: Visagapatam, Cholavarum, Trichinopoly and Tanjore. The memories of these places are now all mixed up in my mind. I saw magnificent temples with carved voluptuous female figures standing out in bold relief, and somewhere on the east coast, a huge sculpted sacred bull reputed on certain religious festivals, to bleed; and beautiful decorative work in copper, brass and silver, made I think in Tanjore.
During the not unpleasant waiting period we were, I suppose, like tourists enthralled by the Hindu traditional arts and crafts, and again, like tourists, we had money to spend on gee-gaws to take home - six months’ back pay was very useful.
'Short way home'
Early in December 1945 the few remaining members of our unit were dispatched by train to Bombay: we were on our way home, and were to travel in what was not so long ago a luxury liner – the SS Georgic. The victorious commander of the 14th Army, General Bill Slimm was aboard, and somehow it was heartening for some to know that at least one General would not be home before us. Compared to the mean ship Tamaroa on the way out, the Georgic was indeed (although much altered to accommodate troops), a luxury ship, and there would be no going round the Cape of Good Hope to avoid German submarines: straight through the Suez Canal and into the Mediterranean Sea – no subs to worry about there either, now.
It was all very pleasant – good food, leisure, beer and, for the smokers, duty free cigarettes, cabins (a bit crowded) and bunks – luxury indeed. Aboard the Georgic I met new people and became friendly with some: one was a chap called Jimmy Hoy from Leith. We spent hours talking about what we intended to do now the war was over, and how we expected great changes now there was, at last, a Labour Government with a large majority. Although we lived quite near to each other, the promised meetings somehow never took place and I never saw Jimmy again. A good number of years later, Leith got a new member of parliament by the name of Jimmy Hoy. By that time I couldn’t be sure it was the man I met on the Georgic, but I believe it was.
It was a pleasant voyage across the Indian Ocean and through the Red Sea in December, hot but not too hot. Then we once again sailed up the Gulf of Suez, but this time into and through the Suez Canal: past Shallufa, Geneifa, Snore and Kebrete on the Small Bitter Lake; through the Great Bitter Lake, past Fayer and on to Lake Timsah, past Ismalia and El Ferdan (past the railway bridge that took me to Palestine only 18 months ago – it seemed years), on past Ballah and other places I knew on that one hundred mile stretch of man-made waterway. Then past the statue of De Lesseps, the builder of the canal, at Port Said, and out into the wide Mediterranean Sea. (I had once swam in it at Port Fouad).
Sailing through the Mediterranean in December was pleasant, and made me think about the people who could afford luxury cruises – they would soon be booking, now that the war was over. On past Gibralter (Gebel Tarik) and out into the Atlantic and the Bay of Biscay where all hell broke loose. I had never dreamt a December storm in the Bay of Biscay could be quite so violent. Huge waves towering above the giant liner Georgic, black waves with white tops smashing down on the ship: breaking lifeboats and life-rafts from their moorings and smashing them to pieces before giving them to the ocean. I was seasick and could not eat for about 24 hours – I lay on my bunk for most of that time feeling sorry for myself.
When I could move about the ship and looked out from a heaving deck it seemed the end of the world was near as waves as high as five storey tenement buildings appeared about to crash on top of us, but somehow the ship, tottering and heaving, seemed to slide up the side of the wave, and as we thought how marvellous it all was, another giant wave would take us by surprise and crash down on the deck which was itself like a raging river of boiling water when the ship was on a level keel for a few seconds. Then, as the ship tilted, a cataract flooded down the side.
Most people aboard were seasick including hardened members of the crew. A man in my cabin could not get out of his bunk for four days until we docked. He looked, and no doubt was, seriously ill – there was no use trying to contact the ship’s doctor as he was probably sea-sick too – and, in any case rankers did not have the doctor coming to them. They were expected, no matter how ill, to attend sick parade (what nonsense – imagine having to parade if you were ill). Strange are the ways of the armed services!
Early on Christmas day 1945 we docked at Liverpool.