The Flight Bag
This article originally featured in UCL History, February 15, 2016
What, exactly, Warrant Officer Stanley Herbert Sharrad RAF was doing on August 3rd 1945 we will probably never know. But the fact of his absence from RAF Digri in West Bengal is significant. We do know where he was at the end of that month: escaping the heat of Bengal at the Tali Tal Leave Hostel in the Himalayan foothills – 1000 miles from his airbase. We know too that he had a haircut while he was there (he kept the receipt) and that he bought some butter (he kept that receipt too). He took photographs on the trip: Indian street scenes, views of the snowy town, lake, and mountain scenery. By this time, Stan had racked up 210 flying hours over 25 operations as an Air Gunner. His first operational tour completed, he would have been eligible for a period of extended leave.
A list, written in boyish fountain pen in the back of an aircraft recognition guide gives us a rough idea of Stan’s war experience from the day he volunteered, July 31st 1942. His first journey was a short train ride from Sevenoaks, Kent, to London. Here, Stan was asked if he could drive. When he replied in the affirmative he was put at the wheel of a heavy truck and told to drive to Bridlington. From there, he appears to have gone to Bridgenorth, then Bishops Court (Northern Ireland), Blackpool, Bombay, Mahabaleshwar, Bairagarth, Kolar and Salbani – a progressively exotic itinerary for the young Air Gunner. The domestic postings established Stan’s aptitude for flying, and for shooting. Along with compulsory basic training he attended air gunnery and bombing schools.
The embarkation list of his voyage out to India has been destroyed, but it’s likely that Stan travelled from Liverpool to Bombay at some point in the early summer of 1944 – a journey of around a month. Once in India more training awaited. Mahabaleshwar was the site of an RAF Jungle School. Here, Stan was issued with a ‘kukri’ fighting knife, silk escape maps of Burma and Siam, and a .38 caliber service revolver (which he somehow managed to swap for a Colt .45). The airmen were taught a smattering of pragmatic Burmese and Thai – ‘Are there any Japs over there?’ is the first phrase in his notebook – on the basis that this knowledge may aid their escape from Japanese occupied territory should they be shot down and have to ‘bail out’.
After Jungle School, Stan attended a ‘Heavy Conversion Unit’ for two months. He was to fly in the B24 Consolidated Liberator, a four-engined heavy bomber with a crew of between eight and ten, a range of 2,100 miles, and a bomb payload of over 8,000 lbs. As RAF bomber crews flew the majority of their missions at night, gunners were expected to be able to strip down and unjam the Browning .303 machine guns blindfolded. The first tour survival rate for heavy bomber crews was 44%.
Stan’s first posting was to Squadron 355, based at Salbani, West Bengal. His flying logbook records a gentle start: circuits, formations and practice landings with his new crew. But by January 1945 he was flying one or two long sorties a week in various gunning positions including ‘tail’. Crew space in the vast aircraft was very limited, and the tail gunner’s situation in particular was cramped, isolated, cold and deafeningly loud. The targets identified in Stan’s flying logbook range from supply depots and railway sidings to ‘troop concentrations’. There are records of mine laying missions over the Mergui archipelago in Southern Burma – a 13 hour round trip from Salbani – and of a 14 hour nighttime mission to bomb a railway station in Bangkok. The entry below is not untypical of Stan’s flying log:
5/4/45: Rangoon: dumps bombed – height loss – 4 engines cut out at 10,000 ft. over target – drop to 4,000 ft. – ack ack [shell fire from ground] – told to stand by to abandon aircraft near target, but engines picked up again. Fighters all round, heavy ack ack.
Stan kept a press clipping which also sheds light on his experience with 355. ‘Chased by their own bomb’, goes the strapline. When bombing the Burma Siam railway, one of the bombs dropped by Stan’s liberator had, by fluke, or good aim, hit the railway track and proceeded to ricochet back up. Clippings like this provide unexpected context; suddenly, Stan is located: the Burma-Siam railway, The Bridge Over The River Kwai, Alec Guiness, all mad eyes and sweat in the jungle heat, and above him, in the sky, the outline of a bomber.
After 18 sorties with 355, Stan and his crew transferred to 159 Squadron based at Digri, and immediately flew three more missions in late April and early May 1945. By the end of May, Stan had completed his first tour and was granted his leave.
This brings us back to August 3rd 1945. The rest of Stan’s crew volunteered for a ‘Special Duties’ supply dropping mission over occupied Burma. The exact nature of their cargo isn’t known; it could have been supplies for the POW camps, propaganda leaflets, or even an SOE (Special Operations Executive) agent. Stan’s crew took off from Jessore airfield 08:30 and flew towards central Burma over the Bay of Bengal. It was monsoon season. The aircraft, a MK VIII Liberator named ‘Queenie’, reached the target but was unable to make the drop due to bad weather. At 14:30 that afternoon, after six hours in the air, the Liberator was spotted from the ground by villagers, engulfed in flames and heading west through heavy storm clouds. According to the eyewitnesses it continued on this trajectory and then nosedived suddenly towards the west bank of the Irrawaddy River. An explosion was heard just before impact.
My grandfather, Stan, recorded the event in very faint pencil in the back of his flying logbook. ‘August the third’ he wrote, ‘my crew were forced down and all killed’.
I have the pictures of his crew scattered on the desk in front of me. Young, smiling men, posing shirtless around the airbase; sitting in rickshaws in Calcutta; laughing at each other as they messed about in boats. The pilot, W/O David Gallagher of New Zealand was one of the eldest: 24 at the time of his death. And then there was Stan Alexander, a boy from Newcastle. I have a letter from his mother to my grandfather – a response to one he sent to her when the flight was reported ‘missing’. ‘At times, dear’, she wrote, ‘it is very difficult but I have every confidence in him, as he is my life also, and without him the world is dead. Do you give me any hope? Is there anything you can tell me to help?’
Late in 1946, Stan returned from India by troopship. He would never leave England, nor fly, again.
Alongside dozens of photos and postcards, browned with age, my grandfather’s flight bag contains his gunnery notebooks, stacks of propaganda leaflets in Burmese, Japanese and Thai, Christmas dinner menus from the Officer’s Mess at Salbani, a bag of medals, and those incredible silk escape maps he was issued in India.