Wednesday, July 20, 2016

The Flying Hours - Andrew Millar

Several years ago I stumbled upon a photo that depicts one of the things that fascinates me the most. I can’t remember how I found it but I did. I call it the League of Nations photo and, for long-term readers of ABR, you’ll know of my enduring fascination, and overuse of the term itself, with the 'melting pot' that was the RAF (and now I’ve used it in two consecutive reviews). Anyway, this photo of No. 20 Squadron pilots leaning or sitting on the wing of a rocket-armed Hurricane Mk.IV ‘somewhere in Burma’ includes two Australians, one Kiwi, a Canadian, a South African, a Scot and an Englishman (and not a bar in sight). While I pored over the photo and wondered at the dynamics between these men and the journey each had travelled to reach that point, little did I know that Squadron Leader Andrew Millar, the Englishman and CO, had, twenty years after the war, using some notes, his logbook and his memory, written his memoirs. This manuscript, although read by his family, has taken fifty years to see the light of day. It is now The Flying Hours and, although written with some hindsight, but still with an old world take on things, it is an astounding and, dare I say it, accurate account of one squadron’s war in the Far East.

The author arrived in India in June 1942. With two years as an Army co-operation pilot under his belt, Millar was in high demand and was posted to No. 20 Squadron. The squadron was equipped with the Lysander, the Army co-op aircraft of the day. Millar quickly proved adept at handling this remarkable aircraft, having flown them previously in the UK, and is soon busy flying the occasional recce of Japanese positions, dropping messages to Army units and flying senior commanders here and there. During this time he encounters the ever-challenging nature of India’s weather, the joys of finding and operating from remote strips and, inch by inch, accepts the culture and attitude that is required to survive this very different part of the world.

Then he flies Lizzie bombing raids. Towards the end of the year, while the squadron was based at Chittagong, the front line was forty kilometres south of Cox’s Bazar and anything that could have a go at the enemy was given the chance. As 1942 drew to a close, however, the Japanese were at the furthest extent of their advance in to the Arakan. The struggle to grind them back was about to begin. Fortunately, the squadron began to receive Hurricanes to replace the worn out Lysanders. That said, the first lot of Hurricanes was a mixed bag of marks, but by the middle of 1943, the 40mm cannon-armed Mk.IID was what the squadron would return to the war with.

The Hurricane Mk.IID had proven itself in North Africa against armoured vehicles. Very low strafing runs would be made against targets with the two .303 machine guns being used to sight the much heavier cannon mounted under each wing. At most two pairs of rounds, one from each gun, would be fired during each pass. Millar and his mates found a high angle diving attack proved to be more accurate with the slow-firing cannon. The squadron seems to have effectively written the book on the use of the Mk.IID in the theatre.

Shortly after the unit’s return to the war, in early 1944, Millar assumed command. He was to remain as CO for almost two years during which time he led arguably the most effective ground attack unit in the region. As the Japanese were forced back, the squadron became adept at relocating by air and quickly returning to operations. The pilots developed a reputation for identifying heavily camouflaged targets from the air. The rocket-armed Hurricane Mk.IV had also entered the fray and for a time the squadron was equipped with a flight each of both marks. The close-support work continued of course and as the war wound down, personnel began to disperse. Millar found himself in Siam (modern-day Thailand) in what is a brief but interesting look at the occupation of that country before returning to India and heading home in at the end of 1945.

There is a hell of a lot in this book. The summary above does not even begin to do Millar’s adventures justice. His observations extend well-beyond squadron and operational life but even the seemingly mundane in a place like India takes on a remarkable quality. To adapt, one had to effectively give in and simply roll with whatever the region threw up. Millar’s initial observations, somewhat culture shocked upon arrival, are that the old stagers were slightly batty. They seemed to have developed a particular languid state, an almost resigned air. This, of course, is familiar to those who have read about squadron life, indeed any military service, during the war in this part of the world. A good dose of ‘mad’ did help to relieve the stress of operations of course, nothing new there, but there was a generally accepted, coping, mental state that pervaded in India. The weather, the people, the fascinating mix of Imperial and centuries old local customs, the Japanese, the terrible diet, the poor hygiene, the inevitable debilitating illnesses, and the wildlife all combined to send men like Millar round the twist. Indeed, he freely admits several times that he was bonkers. Despite this, he seems to have been able to recognise that he had necessarily succumbed, but it didn’t interfere with his duties. He was a firm but fair CO intent on leading a happy, as far as possible, and effective squadron. He certainly achieved that.

Round the twist though he was as time wore on, there is no doubting Millar was an exceptional pilot. He is brutally honest about his flying, though, and had several close shaves, particularly in Lysanders, where he admits how lucky he was to have escaped harm. His accounts of Hurri ops are as fascinating for his ability to paint a picture of what he saw as they are for the tone in which they are told. The writing barely changes pace as he barrels along at low level but it effectively portrays the brevity and repetition, and occasional frustration, of some of these strikes.

On that note, this is not the book for you if you want reams of action. However, any book about a long stay in India/Burma is going to have extended periods of relative inactivity. That was the nature of the theatre and its campaigns. The weather and the terrain dictated everything, more so than the Japanese. However, when things did kick off, when the Allies had an overwhelming superiority of men and equipment, things were as frenetic as they could be and 20 Squadron was a brutally effective instrument. Millar’s career mirrors the fortunes and progression of the campaign in the theatre. He arrives ill-equipped for a new environment but adapts and does what he can with what he has until he has the experience and equipment to push forward.

This is an enjoyable read from the insightful foreword to the very last sentence. It is written as a stream of detailed, fleshed out memories, and it is clear that as Millar was writing, small anecdotes would pop up so he simply included them. Often, these are just one sentence paragraphs with little relevance to the preceding or following text other than to add colour to an already vibrant picture. Even in the longer stories and escapades, these little ‘vignettes’ pop up. Despite their apparent interjection, they don’t affect the flow at all.

As a medical student before the war, and then as a trained Army co-op pilot, Millar has a trained observational eye. His descriptions of the myriad of people he encounters are delightful albeit tinged with the language of the time. You instantly know who he has time for and who he just wants to be rid of but has to endure and that applies to everyone featured in the book. India herself, too, is laid out for the reader from the beaches and dry plains to the cool foothills where many a serviceman retreated on leave. Even up there life took on an almost surreal quality with remnants of the pre-war colonialism desperately hanging on despite the war.

This is another book from Fighting High and, as to be expected, it is a lovely hardback. I was never really taken by the cover as I felt a lot of detail was taken away from Millar’s face. Having read the book now, though, I see the cover but I am instantly transported to India such is the effect of the writing within. There is a traditional central photograph section of 35 images and an incredibly useful map with numbers, correlating to chapters, pinpointing important locations. The manuscript has been preserved as Millar wrote it so there are several technical and historical details that are a little astray but they are so fleeting, and ultimately inconsequential, to the book and the history that has been recorded, that they are only mentioned here for sake of a complete review.

The Flying Hours is several things at once. It is Andrew Millar’s memoirs, of course, but also a history of 20 Squadron from mid-1942. Overall, though, it is a remarkable social and operational look at India and Burma and a reminder of the challenges faced at all levels by those serving in the forgotten war. There are not many books that can portray life there like Millar has done with TFH. This will sound grandiose, but it is quite simply transcendent.

ISBN 978-0-9932129-0-1

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