This story begins with a visit to the Madras War Cemetery early this year, by a man in quest of a trace dating back some 66 years. The man in question, Anil Dhir has a penchant for history and has an enviable record in unearthing the glories of the past. Dhir says he was in search of material for his article on the War Cemeteries in India, which took him from one end of the geography to the other.
His quest landed him in Chennai, where the Madras War Cemetery is situated. The Cemetery presented interesting clues before Dhir and a challenge too. At the Cemetery he had a tryst with an interesting disclosure - a set of fourteen graves which were of airmen who had apparently died in a plane crash at Amarda Road. The fourteen individually named headstones were arranged side-by-side, but from the Cemetery Registry it was learnt that they had been interred as a collective grave. A collective grave is a burial of recovered remains which, though not individually identified, constitute of a small group of known individuals.
A detailed enquiry from the Commonwealth War Graves Commission at London prompted Anil to look for much more. His quest to unravel the mystery of the fourteen graves also put him on a six-month search, the findings of which he is not letting the world know as yet. The CWGC informed me that in 1953 the British Army Graves Concentration Unit had exhumed the bodies from their original burial site near Amarda Road in Orissa and transferred the remains to the newly established Madras War Cemetery.
Very few people know that the skies of Odisha had seen the crash of two aircraft which had collided with each other and resulted in the death of 14 airmen. In July 1945, the War in Europe was over, although the Japanese were still holding out in the Far East. A few weeks later two atom bombs would bring the World War II to an end.
On 26 July 1945, two British Royal Air Force B-24 Liberator four-engine bombers, EW225 and EW247, collided at low altitude. The aircraft were based at the Amarda Road airfield and were part of a six-plane contingent from the Air Fighting Training Unit engaged in a formation flying exercise. Fourteen airmen – the crews of the two aircraft – died due to the severity of the collision and resulting crashes which happened at an altitude of less than 2000 feet. The debris fell into paddy fields swollen from the Monsoon rains. The exact spot is now in West Bengal, very near to the border town of Jaleswar.
The Rasgovindpur Airstrip, as it is known today, has a short but secret illustrious history which has never been made public. Today, when one looks at the silent runway lying mostly vacant apart from a few odd cows grazing, one would find it difficult to associate the airport with activities of any kind. But, this airstrip has played a very important role in the defence of India during the World War II. Today, all is forgotten; no details of the activities that happened here between 1943 and 1945 exist, not even in government and military records. The station came into existence during the war as a forward airfield against the Japanese conquest of Burma. The large strip served its purpose well as a landing ground for planes and also as a training space for special bombing missions.
The Amarda Road airstrip, as it was called in war terminology, spreads across an area of nearly 600 acres. Built in the 1940s at a cost of Rs 3 crore, it was eventually abandoned after the war. It was probably named as Amarda Road Airfield because of the nearby Amarda Road railway station.
As an airfield, Amarda Road fell on the supply route for the Nationalist Armies of China in their fight against the Japanese. Aircrafts from the RAF and the USAF would regularly fly from this space to China via Chabua (Dibrugarh), Jorhat and Vijaynagar across the infamous hump route over Arunachal and East Tibet.
Amarda Road and other neighbouring airfields - Dalbhumgarh, Dudhkundi, Salua, Digri, Salbani and Chakulia - formed a web of airfields created by the Allies to stop the impending Japanese advance in the east. During the war, Amarda Road was, to put it simply, a battle hub. After the war was over, most airfields, including this one, fell into disuse. Today, only the Kalaikunda airstrip, which was declared an Air Force Station in 1954, exists.
Initially, it was a base for the 177th Squadron, which was formed in India in the early 1943. It started operations in September and was disbanded in the Arakan in May 1945. All the air-crew flew aircraft to India as part of a programme of re-equipping RAF squadrons in India; the ground crew left the UK late in 1942 by troopship. Neither knew their eventual destination. The squadron had a difficult and disorganised beginning but after it started operations it was highly effective in its assigned role of ground attack against the Japanese transportation systems and airfields. The strategic situation in Southeast Asia was perilous in 1942-43 but fortunately the Air Force was in fairly good shape by the end of the Monsoon in 1943.
The Air Fighting Training Unit - 228 Group - was established in May 1943 under the command of Frank Carey, the legendary Battle of France and Battle of Britain Air Ace, who also flew with great distinction against the Japanese in Burma and the Arakan. The AFBU mission was to teach various flying tactics deemed valuable in the unique air war against the Japanese. According to the book ‘Royal Air Force Flying Training & Support Units’ written by Sturtevant, the AFTU was disbanded on 25th May 1945, two months before the collision of the two liberators.
The remaining aircraft and personnel were transferred to the Tactical & Weapons Development Unit which had been formed at Amarda Road just the day before. At the AFTU many airmen were posted for a fortnight or more for rigorous instructions in such subjects as gunnery, navigation, bombing, fighter affiliation and formation flying.
Immediately after the crash, efforts were made to reach the crash site which was located approximately 47 statute miles as the crow flew north-east of Amarda Road. Given the remoteness of the locality, the lack of roads and bridges, and the severely limiting monsoon conditions, little could be done in the short term. There was news of some human remains that were reportedly discovered and then buried on site during the initial search efforts, but the evidence of this is vague and insufficient.
Several weeks after the accident (the exact date is unknown, but most likely it is between the 10th and 24th of September), Squadron Leader Stanley Bennett, the Padre of RAF Amarda Road, led a party of eleven or twelve men (five RAF members, five or six Indians) on a trek of nearly four days from Amarda Road to the crash site. By this time weather conditions had improved and the Monsoon floods had subsided.
Because neither the bodies were immediately found nor the wreckage located, the families of the dead were not informed about the deaths. They were listed as missing in action. The families came to know about the deaths from unofficial sources, some of them months later.
According to a 1948 communiqué, the British Air Ministry (London) informed the New Zealand Air Department that a Graves Concentration Unit, despite extensive searches, had been unable to find the three year old burial site in the inhospitable country near the crash site. It was suggested that the site had probably been effaced by local Indians.
Anil then contacted war historians and in the course of six months could get much more details about the crash. From the United Kingdom Ministry of Defence’s Air Historical Branch, he managed to get more details of the crash, including official correspondence. They gave Anil detailed information on the date and time of the crash and the location co-ordinates. The details could be accessed from the log books of the remaining four planes which flew over the crash site for more than two hours and even dropped relief and rescue materials. The type and mark of the aircraft and the call signs with the crew list and relatives was also sent to Anil. The exact co-ordinates were 22’04 North 87’43 East. In May this year Anil made a recce of the area and could, with the help of an advanced GPS, locate the exact site where the aircraft had fallen. He even found three old men who recollected the events of the day.
Then the task was to locate the living relatives of the dead airmen. The internet was a good medium, and soon there was a chain of people searching for the relatives of the dead airmen. He (Anil) then wrote to newspapers of small England towns and they carried his appeal.
And now the poignant story. He has at last managed to contact three of the relatives of the dead. One is 101-year-old brother of Flight Sergeant Cyril William Geeson – the Flight Engineer who died aged 23 - and the other is the daughter of Flight Officer Peter Ettlinger, who was the Flight Engineer and died aged 30 years. Ettlinger’s daughter was just ten months old when her father was killed in the crash. He had never seen her. She has been researching the crash of her father for the last fifty years. In fact, she has paid three visits to India but could only visit her father’s grave at the Madras War Cemetery. She did not know about the Armada Strip and the crash site.
The relatives of these airmen were very surprised when I contacted them. Most of them had given up hope of knowing any more about the death of their loved ones.
Then some clues came Anil`s way when he got some heartbreaking letters from them. The 100-year-old brother of Cyril Geeson told him that he still remembers his brother every single day. For Yvonne, the daughter of Peter Ettlinger, it was a very emotive surprise when she received Anil`s email. She is a retired schoolteacher, now aged 67 years. The letters obviously were very touching and Anil was deeply moved by them. But the quest is still on as Anil is still trying to trace the relatives of the other eleven - one was a Dutch, two New Zealanders and the lone Indian was PV Mathai.
This year on the 26th of July, "I shall be holding a memorial service for the fourteen dead airman either at the Armada Road Strip or at the crash site in the paddy fields (weather permitting). Wreaths will be laid for each of the dead airmen. I could get the photographs of most of them. This will be followed by a memorial service at the Amarda Road Church. The relatives of the dead pilots are sending me messages for the people of Odisha and India," said Anil.
Anil has an ideal plan and has already requested the government of Odisha and West Bengal to erect small memorials for these airmen at Amarda Road and the crash site. "This is the least we can do for these brave men who gave up their lives for the defence of our motherland," an emotionally choked Anil quipped.