The Open Door

Air Despatch in Malaya 1949/50: John Wrake

Towards the end of 1949, it seemed that the spirit of experimentation had gripped the minds of many of those who were concerned with the Services. It was clearly wider than the operations in Malaya, though it showed itself there and not just in the airborne supply of flamethrowers.

The first that we saw of experiments at national level was the arrival of new R.A.F. rankings. Presumably, the Labour government felt that it was unfair that only officers or sergeants could become pilots and so selected other ranks were designated PI, P2 or P3 and trained as pilots.

Our first introduction to this phenomenon came in the shape of a certain P3 named Wright, who was posted to K.L. We heard that his fellow pilots had nicknamed him Wilbur. He was certainly a pioneer in one form of aviation and his reputation proceeded him.

The first despatch crew to fly with him returned with a story that one of their number, standing in the door during the drop, had seen sky at bottom as well as top of the doorway at the same time. This was certainly pioneering where elderly Daks were concerned. My own experience of his capabilities came during another experiment. The local powers-that-be decided that we should try a formation drop. The reason for this was obscure. Even more obscure was the decision that, before a formation drop of 3 runs by 3 Dakotas over the airfield, each run controlled by each pilot in turn, we should have a formation takeoff. I was not going to miss this, so I joined one crew as an observer.

All our 3 crews duly loaded packs with sand and prepared for the takeoff, made interesting because the runway was not wide enough to take three aircraft abreast, so the aircraft were staggered - the first, piloted by Wilbur Wright, nearer the right-hand edge of the runway, the second nearer the left-hand edge and the third (mine) behind the first. It looked quite impressive. With the order to go, it also sounded impressive and the noise was enhanced by a sudden flurry of spectacular oaths from the cockpit of our plane as the pilot yelled that Wilbur was not using full throttle and was slowing down. We got off the ground in a fair imitation of the sunburst manoeuvre of the Red Arrows. Wilbur was given control of the third pass during the dropping and managed to time it so that packs from all three aircraft dropped among the passengers boarding the Malayan Airways morning flight to Singapore. Happily, no-one suggested a formation landing!

Wilbur returned to Singapore, where he finally surpassed himself. During a drop from Changi he hit a palm tree, whose fronds created problems for one engine. Diverted to Seletar airfield for a quick landing, he bent the tips of the propellers on his good engine in the sea during his approach and after landing, he revved up to turn at the end of the runway and one wing fell off. Whether his exploits affected the policy is not known, but P1s, P2s and P3s were shortly phased out.

Experimentation continued. It was decided that we should find a suitable spot near K.L. to use as a training D.Z. I duly carried out an air recce, in an Auster from the A.O.P. Flight at Ampang. The pilot, a large Gunner Captain, warned me not to put my feet through the canvas floor and after an unsuccessful search conducted at an average 50 feet, we returned to K.L. leapfrogging the cars on the road from Seremban. By then, I had the airframe in an iron grip and the canvas was quite safe.

The exploded SEAC packThe ultimate experiment followed. We were instructed to pack a Compo box in a SEAC pack and free drop it, together with 2x3-ton vehicle tyres. The selected DZ was to be the Padang in the middle of Ampang town so that the results could be studied, Ampang being quite close to K.L. Once again, I flew as observer, as this was also too good to miss.

Newspaper cutting about the dropWhen we arrived over Ampang, it was clear that the whole town had turned out to view the spectacle. The Padang doubled as the town football pitch and the touchlines were crowded with spectators. We duly dropped the SEAC pack in the middle, which predictably exploded on impact. (Left: Dvrs Dill, ? & Biodman with the SEAC pack) Then it was the turn of the tyres, strapped together. We let them go over the goalposts at one end. The first bounce brought them up nearly to the aircraft level at 100 feet. By the second bounce they had reached the goalmouth at the far end of the pitch, where they rose up carrying the crossbar and disappeared in a flurry of leaves into the housing estate across the road, hotly pursued by angry householders fearing for their goods and chattels.

After we had landed, I went out by road to study the results. Predictably, the compo box consisted of firewood, intermixed with battered and burst tins and a mixture of biscuit crumbs and shredded cigarettes, while the two tyres, when recovered, proved to be totally unserviceable.

Seemingly having proved to higher authority that we knew what we were doing, in early 1950, a team from the Malayan Film Unit descended on us to make the training film “Jungle Operations, Air Supply, Malaya 1949/50”. “A” Platoon supplied all the packing and dropping sequences in the film, which remained the definitive training film for operations throughout the emergency and for later operations in the Borneo campaign. I have particular memories of the packing sequence featuring fresh rations, since I acted as Continuity Man, to ensure that items in the large crate appeared in the same place during a number of takes over 3 or 4 days, and the main feature, a fresh cabbage, got smellier and slimier as the time passed.

In the late Spring of 1950, we were informed that 799 Coy. was to be re-designated 55 Coy. At the same time, the R.A.F. changed over air supply aircraft from Dakotas to Valettas. We were not particularly happy with the change of designation. 799 Coy had a distinguished history, having played its part at Arnhem and we thought that the change was unnecessary.

I too, was not immune from change, for on 1 May 1950, I was posted to 29 Coy R.A.S.C. at Taiping and my Air Despatch days were over.

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