Sunday 2 June 2013

The Gremlin Task Force Part 2

Tabby and Topsy (via Tadeusz Januszewski)

When the Empire of Japan surrendered in August 1945 the boundaries of the British South-East Asia Command (SEAC) were immediately extended to cover Southern Indo-China (Vietnam), the whole of Java, Borneo, Celebes and Western New Guinea. In Indo-China the British would become responsible for 128 million people, including 122,700 POWs and internees. A total of 633,000 Japanese military personnel, 93,000 Japanese civilians and 10,000 Formosans (Taiwanese ) and Koreans had to be demobilised and repatriated. At the same time US strategic and tactical support for this region was curtailed. This had a major impact on both resources and capability for the British, especially in the provision of air transport. The RAF was reduced to 9 operational transport and 2 Special Duties squadrons required to service a huge area and a multiplicity of demands. 

Ex-IJAAF Ki-46 III in Indo-China

Indo-China was in a state of near anarchy as the Viet Minh filled the administrative vacuum in the North, declaring independence and the French, most of whom were still interned by the Japanese, attempted to restore their former colonial administration. To complicate matters further, as part of the surrender negotiations, the North was occupied by nationalist Chinese armies. The Japanese military government was split, with elements of the intelligence services and kempeitai (military police) actively supporting the notion of Vietnamese independence and aiding the Viet Minh, whilst the conventional forces attempted to maintain routine order in compliance with the surrender conditions. Some idea of the complexity of the situation is suggested by the definitive book on the subject, Peter M Dunn's 'The First Vietnam War' (C Hurst & Co, London, 1985) which extends to almost 400 pages. The details are quite beyond the scope of this blog but fascinating to explore as they established the origins of much of the events in Vietnam that were to follow.

The first Allied aircraft into Tan Son Nhut airfield at Saigon, a US C-47 on OSS duties, had landed at the beginning of September 1945, departing on the third of that month with the information that the field was in good condition and the Japanese Army co-operative, with about fifty aircraft in situ described as "transports, fighters and fighter-bombers". In Saigon itself the Japanese appeared to be in control but there were about 1,000 armed "rebels" in the streets, described at the time as Annamese or Annamites. On 6th September the first British troops arrived, a detachment of less than platoon size of the 1/19th Hyderabad Regiment escorting the 20th Indian Division advance party which consisted of an intelligence team, a party of engineers, an RAF detachment and medical officers. Also on the first transports were staff of RAPWI (Recovery of Allied Prisoners of War and Internees) with radio equipment to establish contact with General Gracey in Rangoon who would be taking on the responsibility for interim military government. It was a tragedy that the first RAF Dakota to leave Saigon with 25 ex-POWs and piloted by the Sqn CO was lost in a thunderstorm over the Gulf of Martaban with all on board.

Nell and Tabby aircraft of the IJN 13th Air Fleet's Transport Plane Unit photographed in surrender markings at Seletar, Singapore - not to be confused with GTF in Indo-China (© jacobcoll)

Responsibility for RAF operations in what was to become the Saigon Control Commission for Indo-China was delegated to Air Chief Marshal Sir Walter Cheshire who was invited to write his own duties directive.  This he extended to the control all Japanese air resources and the troop and supply airlift in the knowledge that "the shortage of aircraft throughout the South East Asia area was acute". During September 273 Sqn RAF, equipped with Spitfire Mk VIII fighter aircraft* took up residence at Tan Son Nhut together with a recce detachment from 681 and 684 Sqns equipped with the Spitfire XIX and Mosquito PR34. ACM Cheshire later described how he had assigned an operational role to the "pleased" Japanese Air Force commander there which was confined to transport and unarmed reconnaissance duties within his RAF command. This was the birth of the short-lived but effective Gremlin Task Force (GTF). He noted that "Experience in operations showed that once their aircraft were offered a task there were few technical failures." and went on to praise the usefulness of Japanese aircraft and aircrew to both British and French Army Commanders in providing much of their pre-operations reconnaissance:-

"In the short period of their existence they had successfully completed over 2,000 sorties. By the standard of later massive operations, such as the Berlin airlift, this was small beer, but it had usefully filled an unavoidable gap in our logistic operation, and did so at little cost to the British Treasury." 

Former IJAAF groundcrew perform engine maintenance on an 81 Sqn Mosquito PR34 under the supervision of Cpl W Sims RAF at Seletar in November 1946. 684 Sqn had been re-numbered as 81 Sqn in September 1946 (Geoff Turner)

The GTF was commanded by Sqn Ldr H F McNab, assisted by FO A E Bell as interpreter and Wg Cdr G R Nottage and Sqn Ldr Hibbert who vetted the flying abilities of the available Japanese aircrew. Most sorties were flown by Japanese personnel, accompanied either by an RAF intelligence officer or an officer deployed from one of the resident RAF squadrons and units. The aircraft engaged in reconnaissance, message and leaflet dropping, the transport of personnel - Japanese, British and French - to and from remote destinations, the dropping of humanitarian supplies and finally in the transportation of RAF assets and stores to Bangkok and Singapore. The aircraft used for photo-reconnaissance and message/supply dropping included Ki-36 'Ida', Ki-51 'Sonia', Ki-46 'Dinah' and Ki-48 'Lily' aircraft whilst transport duties were fulfilled by Ki-21 'Sally', Ki-54 'Hickory', Ki-57 'Topsy' and L2D "Tabby" aircraft. During January 1946 the unit flew a total of 408 sorties accumulating 810 flying hours and in total transported more than 2,200 passengers and freighted 228 tons. To put this into perspective at this time the monthly flying hours of 118 Wing RAF in Burma with 27 Dakota aircraft (62, 167 and 194 Sqns) engaged in scheduled passenger services as far as Hong Kong as well as troop and freight transport and supply drops, reached 4,500. Most of the Japanese aircraft in use retained their white surrender finish with large blue and white SEAC roundels painted over the green surrender crosses which in some cases could still be seen beneath them. Some aircraft engaged on RAPWI duties, including a Ki-43 'Oscar', were marked with a red cross which is of course indistinguishable in monochrome photos from the original green cross surrender markings.

Ki-46 II and Ki-36/55 of the 1st Yasen Hoju Hikotai - a total of 108 Japanese aircraft were found on Singapore airfields following surrender, 59 of them at Seletar (© jacobcoll)

Most of the ex-64th Sentai Ki-43-III Ko aircraft found at Tan Son Nhut were put to use as interim fighter equipment by the French - another story...

More GTF Observations by LAC Morton

GTF #3 Ki-57 'P/O Prune' (Aviation News)

At Don Muang, Thailand on 23rd January 1946 LAC Morton recorded the following details of GTF Ki-57/M.C.20 'Topsy' aircraft and a Ki-48 'Lily' of the GTF:-

Topsy 2 (no. 3 'P/O Prune') - I have given this aeroplane the provisional designation Model 2 because I feel that the noticeable change in the motors warrants it. As you can see from the photograph of No.2 the new motors are beautifully cowled and should enhance Topsy's performance considerably. No spinners were fitted, but probably they had been removed for maintenance reasons. Interior arrangements were similar to 'W.A.A.F Winsum' (see below) except that long padded benches down each side of the fuselage replaced the comfortable seats of the latter. Seating capacity probably ten or eleven. One of the worst features Topsy 2 is the view from the pilot's cabin. Until the aircraft gets in the tail-up attitude forward vision is nil. Camouflage (a) and (b), standard white and polished metal. (c) markings - RAF blue and white roundels on fuselage and under surface of wings only. The number '3' in blue on each side of fin. 'P/O Prune' on nose in usual manner. The number '9311' showing faintly in white on fin and rudder. Faint white band round fuselage near tail. Black anti-glare panel on nose.

Topsy 2 (No. 1 'W.A.A.F Winsum) - Interior accommodation was slightly different from P/O Prune. Five brown cloth seats were fitted on each side of fuselage and probably a sixth seat could be installed on the starboard side opposite the door. Entire interior was done in fawn with grey sides from windows downwards. A thin light green carpet extended down the centre of the floor. No lavatory or baggage racks. A normal crew of four is carried with the radio op. sitting on the port side behind the No. 1 pilot. Curtains on windows. Camouflage similar to 'P/O Prune'. The figure '1' appeared in blue on  rudder with 'W.A.A.F Winsum' on each side of nose. No anti-glare panel.

Topsy 2 (No. 2 'F/Lt Barrel Foulynge') - Details and camouflage for 'W.A.A.F Winsum' apply.

Topsy 2 (No. 22 'Bashful') - In this case both number and name appeared in black on fin and rudder and nose. Very thin blue roundels were painted on wings and fuselage, the green and white surrender markings showing up well.

Lily 2 (No. 18 'Sneezy') - It came as a pleasant surprise to find this obsolescent Army bomber being used as a freight transport. 'Sneezy' was very badly battered about and had several panels missing from the nose and dorsal enclosure. All the armament had, of course, been removed and I was not able to get close enough to view the mountings. The entire cockpit top opens outwards and upwards to the starboard side. Also the dorsal enclosure. Lily 2 looks quite small on the ground. Pilot has a first class forward view. The landing speed appears to be very high with a tendency to unstability at low speeds. In the air Lily 2 seems to travel fast, with a deep-throated roar from the two Kawasaki Type 2 radials. Camouflage was of the normal white and polished finish type, with figures and name in blue on fin and rudder and nose. Very thin RAF blue roundels were painted on this machine.

General Notes - 1. All Japanese aircraft seen to date have made three point landings. 2. Japanese pilots appear to know their job thoroughly and have got plenty of 'air sense'. 3. When taxi-ing, entire crew, with the exception of the pilots, sit on the roof of the cabin, on fuselage in front of fin, or any other point of vantage. The Japanese usually taxi at 12 m.p.h. 4. Both Sally 1 and 2 sound exactly like a B-25D Mitchell when flying low.

PO Prune 

The man himself - with dog 'Binder'. In RAF slang 'binding' or a 'binder' was someone moaning (HMSO)

As described, many of the GTF aircraft were named after the whimsical characters in the PO Prune series of flight safety cartoon stories in the RAF Tee-Emm (Training Manual) magazine. It seems remarkable in this day and age of rather po-faced health and safety requirements that the RAF of that era took such an enlightened, engaging and accessible approach to this vital subject, establishing an official magazine "that aircrew would actually want to read", the charm and humour easily imparting the more serious messages within. Tee Emm was the brainchild of Anthony Armstrong, who like ACM Cheshire was given the job and told to get on with it. Prune himself and the other characters were largely the creation of Bill Hooper and so committed were the RAF to selling his message that even the most senior officers actively collaborated in the fiction that he really did exist, with a vacant desk set up for him in Armstrong's office in Room 602, Prince's House, Kingsway. Prune's battered RAF cap and gas mask hung on the hatstand and the desk was arranged to look as if he had just "popped out". Seldom heard as a pejorative epithet these days, "prune" was common slang at the time for a person who was stupid or incompetent in a rather light-hearted way.

Tee Emm magazine from July 1944 - for official use only... the RAF eagle wears pince nez and carries quill and notebook (HMSO) 

* Most of the VIIIs were passed on to the French when the Squadron re-equipped with Spitfire XIV from November 1945. 273 Sqn was disbanded in January 1946. 


Ken Glass said...

Thanks for taking time to post the GTF articles, Nick. Very good information in them that was all new to me.

I suppose the Dinah-II and Ki.36/55, as first acquired at Singapore, wore the same 1st Yasen Hoju Hikotai unit marking as currently applied to the Dinah-III restoration now on display in GB.

Ken Glass

Anonymous said...

Excellent piece of work Nick!
I hope to see more of these rare j-birds.


Mark Smith said...

This is rich! I've been curious about these operations for many years, hope there's more in the pipeline. I loved the idea of Prune's office, and the desk of someone who has eternally 'popped out.' Thanks Nick.

Bob Alford said...

Promote LAC Morton to Air Commodore at once! What a wonderful observer he was.

Without his talents and of course those of the other contributors, we would remain unaware of the use to which these aircraft were put, nor of the markings they carried.

Thanks all.


Bob Alford
Lampang Thailand

EmmPee said...

I have a poor quality picture of my father (RAF-LAC) standing in front of two Japanese aircraft at Singapore in 1946, a Ki-36 and a Ki-44 (I think). Would this be of interest and if so how do I best transfer it to you?

Straggler 脱走兵 said...

Thank you for that. I'd be most interested to see them. You can contact me directly via the email link on the sidebar to the right of this webpage - under 'Contact Straggler'. Just click on the text to send me an email, thanks.