A buried treasure in Burma

In the summer of 1940 the fate of Britain hung in the balance as the German air force, the Luftwaffe, began its attacks against Britain’s Royal Air Force (RAF).

The German aim was to win complete control of the air over the south of England in order that Hitler and his grizzly gang could invade the country. They knew this was essential if an invasion was to be successful.

Over the next four months, in what became known as the Battle of Britain, the Luftwaffe tried to defeat the RAF not only by provoking air combat with its pilots, but also by destroying the British air fields, radar stations and the factories which made the British aircraft.

Hitler ordered that all factories supplying the RAF should be destroyed, particularly the units building Spitfires, the famous British single-seat aircraft that did so much to help win the war.

If the RAF had no new aircraft, German victory would be assured. Throughout this time, Lord Beaverbrook, the Minister of Aircraft Production, worked tirelessly to make sure the factories produced enough machines to respond to the German attacks.

Those employed in these factories also worked tirelessly and uncomplainingly. People such as my mother, Ellen Harland,  who worked at the Supermarine Spitfire factory in Southampton, on the south coast of England, were unsung heroes of the Battle of Britain, who in their own way helped to stop the Nazi occupation.

Women played a vital part in Britain’s success in World War II. Class barriers were lowered. Even Queen Elizabeth II, then Princess Elizabeth, worked as a driver and mechanic. Interestingly, she is the last surviving head of state who served in uniform during WWII

As men left their factory jobs to go and fight, women stepped in to produce the heavy machinery needed for the war and at home to keep the country running. Women quickly picked up and excelled at historically male-dominated trades such as welding, riveting and engine repair.

Women were essential for the production and supply of goods to troops fighting abroad. Their efforts during wartime refuted the misconception that women are incapable of manual and technical laboring.

My mother joined the Supermarine Spitfire factory in Southampton at the age of 20. Her job was to inspect the wings as each new aircraft was assembled.

The plane’s elliptical wing had a thin cross-section, allowing a higher top speed than several contemporary fighters. Speed was seen as essential to carry out the mission of home defense
against enemy bombers.

The first raid on the Supermarine factory came on 23 August 1940. It missed, but over the next month, more raids were mounted until, on 26 September 1940, the factory was wrecked.

Many aircraft production workers were killed or injured. Fortunately, my mother survived; though she did see friends and colleagues perish in the raids.

Although Spitfire production was stopped for a short time, by moving the work to a number of smaller units, it wasn’t long before this iconic aircraft was once again rolling off the production line.

All-in-all, some 20,351 Spitfires of all versions had been produced when production ceased in 1948.

My mother has many fond memories of the Spitfire so imagine her surprise when she read recently that 20 of these classic aircraft had been discovered in Burma (Myanmar) having  been buried during  the war to prevent the Japanese getting their hands on them.

It’s quite possible my mother, with her gauges in hand, inspected the wings of these aircraft.

The planes were shipped in 1945 from England to Burma: waxed, wrapped in greased paper and tarred to protect against the elements.

My mother is now a sprightly 91. She’s in good health, lives alone and is independent. She says she can’t wait to see the ‘new’ spitfires take to the air for the first time.

The memories will come flooding back she says, but it will be a wonderful sight.

During the Battle of Britain, the young pilots in their Spitfires, who daily risked their lives, were the glamor boys. But there were many thousands of other patriotic Britons, such as my mother, who played an important role in keeping Britain safe.

(Published in the Manila Standard Today newspaper on /2012/June/21)

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Bat Bombs Away!

Towards the end of World War 11 American scientists believed they could destroy entire Japanese cities with bat bombs. As bizarre as

Cardboard cartons would release the bats at 500 meters

Cardboard cartons would release the bats at 500 meters

it sounds, the idea – Project X-Ray – was sanctioned by President Roosevelt in 1943. And the bombs nearly went into full production.

The theory was simple. You take a Mexican free-tail bat and strap a small napalm-filled vest to its chest, along with a tiny detonator and timer. Then you fill a canister with these bats and release it while flying over a Japanese city.

The bats would be chilled so they’d be in a state of hibernation, but as the canister fell, slowed by a parachute, they would warm up and awaken.

The canister was designed to disintegrate at 500 meters, allowing over a thousand bats, each carrying a tiny time-delay napalm incendiary device, to flutter away.

Because bats hate daylight, they would all disappear into cracks and crevices of the buildings below, then explode after half an hour. At that time most Japanese buildings were wooden so they’d catch fire. Many of them would grow into large fires, and the ability of the Japanese firefighters to contain them would quickly be overwhelmed.

The plan was for ten B-24 bombers flying from Alaska each carrying a hundred shells packed with bats to release 1,040,000 bat bombs over the industrial cities of Osaka Bay.”

A bat bomber in action

A bat bomber in action

As simple and ingenuous as the bat bomb idea sounds, all did not go well.

A bat bomber at work

A bat bomber at work

In the first test, most of the bats, not fully recovered from hibernation, dropped to the ground and died on impact.

In another test, the wind change direction and blew the bats into the Carlsbad Auxiliary Army Air Base in New Mexico and burned the place to the ground.

In another incident some of the bats hid under the car of a high-ranking US officer causing it to explode.

There were many other complications. Many bats didn’t wake up in time for the drops. The cardboard cartons did not function properly and the surgical clips proved difficult to attach to the bats without tearing the delicate skin.

But the test went on until late 1944 when pilots realized that, if one of the bats ever escaped during flight, their plane would catch fire. After that, they refused to fly in any more tests and Project X-Ray was cancelled.