January 1982 Issue
By Lewis C. Burwell, Jr.
Broadway and Peter Homfray
Secret Operation at Sylhet
The former commanding officer of the 27th Troop Carrier Squadron tells about the unit's role in the airborne invasion of Burma, and about the "Most Secret" mission of a young British captain. The author, a man who has spent most of his life in the field of air transportation, is now chairman of Pinehurst Airlines, Inc.
On January 12, 1944, we buzzed the little jungle strip at Sylhet, Assam, northeastern India with our fifteen C-47's in formation and landed in rotation. The air echelon of the 27th Troop Carrier Squadron had reached its new home. The flight had started from Baer Field, Fort Wayne, Ind., just before Christmas. Of the several hundred men, not one of us had ever flown the route before or had even been in that part of the world.
Brig. Gen. W. D. Old, who had flown in from his headquarters at Com ilia 150 miles south, met us on the ramp. Sylhet had been an RAF installation while under construction. General Old declared it operational as of the following day, January 13, and appointed me, as the senior tactical officer, base commander. This was an additional duty to my primary job as squadron commanding officer.
He issued operational orders to commence air dropping supplies to British ground troops fighting 200 miles to the east in the Tiddim area in the mountains on the Burma border.
We had less than 24 hours to find a place to sleep, something to eat and work out our plans and loading of supplies. Our new home was over-run by thousands of Indian laborers, monkeys and jackals.
The transition to U.S. command was quite simple and informal. Major Walker, British engineers, hauled down his Union Jack and we ran up the Stars and Stripes on the little thatched roof basha that served as base headquarters.
There were many problems, most of them housekeeping and logistical. The only transport we had were the bicycles we had brought with us and a few British lorries, with right-hand drive and inexplicable gear shifts. Our flight missions went well from the start and American ingenuity solved the rest.
A few days after we arrived a young British captain, named Peter Homfray, brought me a note from Maj. Gen. Orde Wingate, commander of the 3d Indian Division, requesting indefinite use of an isolated building on the base with 24-hour security guard. Captain Homfray's mission was classified "Most Secret." The requested arrangements were made and Homfray moved in. I saw him occasionally at the mess tent, but had no earthly idea what he was up to.
As the weather got warmer and the first few pre-monsoon clouds began to form, our little outpost at Sylhet became a beehive of activity. General Wingate moved his headquarters from Imphal to our base and General Merrill and his Marauders began their march from the north down central Burma. Brigadier Bernard Fergusson led his British column south down the Chindwin River which separates India from Burma. Our air drops were diverted from the Tiddim area to supply these columns prying their way south through the jungles.
Many distinguished and be-ribboned visitors began to arrive in Sylhet, both British and American. Finally Lord Mountbatten showed up with his Hurricane Fighter escort. General Wingate then called us all together and laid out his plans for the airborne invasion of Burma known as "Operation Thursday." This would be a daring attempt to interdict the Japanese supply lines in central Burma and cut off the enemy to the north. In the summer of 1943, Win-gate had led a long-range penetration, column overland, behind the Japanese lines which had been moderately successful in harassing the enemy and slowing up his advance through Burma. During this trek he had discovered several large savannahs, or jungle clearings, along the Irrawaddy River which bisects Burma from north to south. He reasoned that with proper air support and air supplies he could establish "strongholds" at these areas from which his long-range columns could operate with all supplies, evacuation of wounded, and rotation of personnel being accomplished by air.
He took his dreams and his plans to the Quebec conference where Roosevelt and Churchill approved.
The tactical and logistical problems implicit in this operation were formidable. Gliders had to be towed in under cover of darkness, since Japanese fighter air fields were all through central Burma. The first several gliders to each target would carry heavily-armed infantrymen to counter any enemy resistance. The next several sorties would carry small earth-moving machines to carve out landing strips. Successive waves would bring in men, mules and initial stores of supplies, weapons and ammunition.
On Sunday, March 5,1944, we climbed into our cockpits ready for the take-off. Some 200 pairs of gleaming white nylon tow ropes were strung out on the grass field at Lallaghat, India, behind the nearly 100 C-47 airplanes. Each tow plane was to pull two gliders, each nearly as large as the mother ship, and loaded to gunwales. Although we had practiced towing two empty gliders, these were loaded to a gross weight of 16,000 pounds each. No one really knew whether the contraption would fly, much less clear the 8,000-foot Chin Hills to the east. The Douglas designers had limited the weight of this airplane to 26,900 pounds, all up. This was a total facing us of nearly 50,000 por With our engines ticking over at ine take-off end of the field we watched a little knot of officers gather around the operations tent across the runway. Then the radio blared "All pilots report to operations." A last minute photo reconnaissance by one of Col. Phil Cochran's P-51's showed that one of the targets - Chowringhee - had apparently been barricaded by huge teak logs dragged in by elephants. The implications were obvious. The Japs had discovered our plan and were going to force all traffic into Broadway some 50 miles to the north, where a welcoming party would be waiting. Anyway, the decision was "All flights into Broadway."
At full take-off power the engines roared and the ship shuddered a moment and the wheels slid a little in the grass. Finally it moved and we gathered speed. Just before the jungle rushed to meet us the ship staggered off. The gliders had flown first. We had to make six orbits over the field to gain enough altitude to clear the mountains, and head east, on course.
We lived a hundred years and died a thousand deaths on that 250 mile flight in the darkness to an unknown, and perhaps an unrecognizable destination. At the power settings necessary to maintain 90 miles an hour, fuel gauges were winding down at an alarming rate, and the engines were heating badly due to the excess power and lack of cooling slip stream. Then there were several patches of turbulence which caused the gliders to wallow badly. Controlling the airplane was quite a problem.
Finally, after what seemed an eternity, we spotted the Irrawaddy, turned north for 10 minutes and then saw a clearing in the moonlight that we hoped was "Broadway." There were no lights in the air nor on the ground nor any radio communications. We were 250 miles behind enemy lines. We had burned two-thirds of our fuel going half the distance. The inter-phone from glider to tow ship crackled. It was Col. John Alison, flying one of the gliders. He was to assume command of all operations of Broadway. "Alison overboard, this looks as good as any."
We landed back at Lallaghat with 40 gallons of fuel in the tanks and 30 gallons of sweat in the cockpit. Being the first ship back, the moment we had cleared the runway and cut the engines, General Old jumped on board for a report. We told him that the double tow was murder and that we were going to lose a lot of gliders and men. From that point on all was single tow. Sadly our prophecy was true. A lot of brave men went down with their gliders in the jungle.
In retrospect though, the operation was a huge success, despite the losses. No enemy action was encountered until several days later at which time we had air-landed thousands of troops, weapons and supplies. The first landing at "Broadway" by C-47 was made less than 24 hours after the first glider had landed.
Other target areas were opened in the same way - White City, Aberdeen, and Chowringhee. We flew supplies, evacuated wounded and prisoners and rotated personnel every night until the monsoon hit full force in mid-May. Supplementing our air landings were many air drops to the heads of the far-ranging columns east and south of the "strong-holds;" some nights were so dark it was hard to tell whether you were dropping on the fires that marked the L-shaped drop zones in the mountains or the Big Dipper.
However, this was to be a story about Peter Homfray.
About March 1, which was a few days before D-Day for operation "Thursday," Peter showed up at my headquarters with Maj. Gen. Ramsey, deputy to General Wingate. They led me to Peter's secret hide-away. It was filled to the rafters with little dummy British soldiers in full battle dress. Each had his own parachute and was stuffed to the gills with delayed fuse explosives. They were to be dropped at half light in jungle clearings the morning of the airborne invasion some 50 miles north of the real targets, as a diversion. In poor light the illusion is that these are full-sized paratroopers just a bit further away. Once on the ground the little fellows were programmed to "pop off" for about 14 hours.
The native jungle grapevine went into action and the trick worked perfectly. This mock battle drew most of the Japanese forces in that area of Burma into the fake invasion spot. "This accounted for the lack of opposition on the initial sorties into Broadway."
Peter had been the major domo for a similar operation earlier, in the invasion and recapture of Madagascar, off the east African coast. Peter and I became fast friends. He was a charming young Englishman. I couldn't help but think that in an all-out war there's a role for everyone - even an illustionist.
In late March after the show had been running for several weeks, he came to my basha one evening after supper and asked if I would take him out to Broadway the following evening. It was his turn to rotate as one of the leaders of the long-range penetration columns operating from this "strong-hold." I had a bottle of Scotch which I had nursed all the way from Puerto Rico, so we talked far into the night, since I was not required to fly again until the following night. His combat tour would end April 23, my birthday. I promised to pick him up and bring him back to Sylhet. "Broadway" by then had become a hot spot with nightly attacks by the Japanese on the air field. I arrived April 23, on schedule, and waited quite awhile. A fire fight between the Japs and the Gurkhas across the strip was raging. However, no sign nor news of Peter. All my inquiries at Broadway and subsequent ones at Wingate Headquarters in Sylhet came to naught except that "Captain Homfray was missing in action."
Wingate had been killed himself just a few nights prior on his way back from "Broadway" to Sylhet in a B-25. I had seen him just a few moments before he took off from "Broadway" and told him the trip out was frightful and that we were going to wait until just before dawn when the thunderstorms had subsided somewhat. They found him, famous sun helmet and all, on the mountainside. His death was a tragic loss. He was a fascinating man and a military genius.
I never saw Peter Homfray again. Several years after returning to the States, I wrote a letter of condolence to his widow, care of the British War Office, London. Several weeks later I received a cable from New Delhi, India, saying, "All's well with me, letter follows, regards, Homfray" - a delightful surprise!
His letter explained, in detail, how he had been wounded but was finally rescued and air-lifted back to a hospital in India where he spent several months recuperating. We corresponded briefly, then Peter disappeared for a second time - or perhaps I disappeared this time. Last I had heard he was emigrating to Tasmania. Nearly 25 years went by this time before I decided to make one more try. I wrote a letter to the Hump Pilots Association, which has a global membership and publishes quarterly news bulletins. Some delightful chap named Williams in England replied and undertook the search. After many letters back and forth, he wrote that Peter Homfray was in Australia and he had sent him my address.
In due course, a long letter arrived from Peter. He had spent most of his working life with the Australian Broadcasting Company, doing a bit of solar energy research as a sideline. The best news, though, was that he and his wife and son were returning to England for several years to put this 13-year-old boy in school.
We corresponded weekly while Peter was in England and planned a rendezvous in London in the summer of 1980. Then the shocking news came one day that they must return to Australia because of the death of Mrs. Homfray's father. As a matter of fact, she had already gone and he and their son would follow in about 10 days. He gave me a detailed itinerary, London, Vancouver, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Disney-land, San Francisco, Sidney. It was impossible for me to meet him at that time in any one of these places, but I did manage to catch him early one morning in a motel in Anaheim, Calif., by phone. We had a long, pleasant chat and he gave me his Sidney address. However, my 1979 Christmas card was returned unclaimed.
My memory goes back to that warm night in the little thatched roof basha in Sylhet the last time we have seen each other. "Wherever you are, Peter, drop me a line. Squeak."