Page last updated at 11:48 GMT, Wednesday, 24 March 2010

War veteran to fly to Burma to honour dead comrades

By Neil Prior
BBC Wales

(left) Flying officer Norman Davies by his plane and (right) the three-man crew who flew together for two years: left-to-right Flying Officer Jimmy Pink; Flying Officer Norman Davies; Sergeant Mike Jennings
Navigator Mr Davies (in photo on left) flew with his crew (right) for two years

Sixty-five years after Burma Star-winner David Norman Davies helped liberate the country now known as Myanmar from Japanese occupation, he's returning to south east Asia to honour his fallen comrades.

"I wouldn't say I think about Burma every day or wake up dreaming about it every night - it was an awfully long time ago now.

"But a smell, a sound or something on telly can take you back there in a flash," said Mr Davies who lives in Cardiff.

"I'm probably more afraid of it looking back now, than I was at the time.

"I lost a lot of good friends, and saw some horrible sights which haunt me as an old man, but as a 22-year-old I don't think anything frightened me."

His trip has been made possible by the National Lottery's Heroes Return programme, which awards grants of between £150 and £5,500 for World War II veterans and their families or carers to visit the places in which they fought and is open to new applications until January.

I'll also make sure I take a private moment to remember the poor blokes who fought for every inch on the jungle floor
David Norman Davies

To date in Wales it has provided more than £150,000 allowing 90 servicemen to travel to battlefields across Europe, Northern Africa and the Middle and Far East.

Mr Davies volunteered for the RAF in 1940, as an 18-year-old banking clerk in Cardiff.

But it was two years before he received his call-up for service, 6,500 miles (10,458 km) away in Burma.

He originally hoped to be a pilot, until that is, he was allowed behind the controls of a plane for the first time.

"All of us who fancied ourselves as pilots were given our turn in a Tiger Moth trainer, and within minutes I knew I wasn't going to make the grade.

David Norman Davies
Mr Davies is returning to Burma to pay tribute to his fallen comrades

"There was just too much to do at once, keep the nose up, the wings straight… I was a liability."

"After that the instructor told me the Japanese are doing for enough of our boys without you helping them. So I was trained as a navigator."

In 1944, Japan, under General Renya Mutaguchi, launched a failed invasion attempt on southern India.

In December that year, allied forces, commanded by Lord Mountbatten, took advantage of the dry season and over-stretched Japanese supply lines to launch a counter offensive to retake Burma.

It was during this six-month campaign that Mr Davies saw his first action.

As the navigator on an RAF Dakota, he ferried troops and parachuted in supplies, in support of the 14th Army's advance to Rangoon and on to Mandalay.

"We secured the port at Rangoon with just hours to spare before the monsoon broke in May," said Mr Davies.

"That was the tipping point for the campaign really, but for the air crews it was just the start."

As the advance penetrated deeper into the jungle, Mr Davies explained that landing strips became more rudimentary, and even harder to find.

"With the monsoons battering the planes it was neigh-on impossible to keep to a given air speed and altitude.

"We had an instrument called a drift indicator, which was supposed to help us measure how far off course the winds were blowing us.

"But it relied on being able to work out angles from a fixed point on the ground - and all we could see on the ground was jungle.

"I can tell you, in the middle of a monsoon one tree looks pretty much the same as another.

"At the start of the advance the engineers would clear us landing strips, and cover them with bitumen, but after Rangoon the Japanese were falling back so quickly that there wasn't the time to prepare hard strips.

David Norman Davies's medals
David Norman Davies was awarded medals for his efforts

"By the end we were landing on metal, gravel, wood, and over shorter and shorter distances, all under Japanese fire - we began to feel grateful when we couldn't find them."

Yet for Mr Davies, his most harrowing memories came after VJ Day in August 1945, when the full extent of the Pacific War's horror began to reveal itself.

"As soon as we had news of the surrender we began badgering our officers for permission to rescue our POWs from Bangkok, where they were being held, but there was always some terribly important officials who needed ferrying, and the rescue kept being put off until tomorrow.

"After two or three weeks of this, a few crews took it upon ourselves to fly in without orders. I don't know if I should be saying this - but I suppose it's a bit late for them to court martial me now.

"We'd filled our packs with chocolate and cigarettes - we knew that things would have been tough for the POWs - but nothing could prepare us for the walking skeletons we found sitting on the tarmac at Bangkok airport, just waiting for someone to come and find them."

Human nature

However the immediate aftermath of the war also re-affirmed Mr Davies's faith in human nature, bringing him back down to earth, in more ways than one.

"It's ironic, and lucky for me I suppose, that the only time I crashed during my whole time in the RAF was a week or so after the end of the war.

"We had some sort of engine trouble, and crash-landed in a field in Phnom Penh.

"As we clambered out of the wreckage, the first thing which greeted us was an open-top Mercedes full of Japanese officers.

"I thought, 'hey up! I hope they've heard the war's over!', but the first thing they did was offer us their swords.

"They gave us dinner, and we began to realise, despite all the horrible things that happened, the individual Japanese weren't all that different to us.

Thank God, I had quite a good war, but so many others, particularly on the ground, weren't as lucky as me
David Norman Davies

"I think that helped me come to terms with things after the war, in a world full of Japanese cars and electronics."

Mr Davies and his son fly out to Rangoon in November, from where they'll sail aboard the Orient Express cruise liner to Mandalay.

After two days stay at the former Burma Governor's residence, they plan to tour the jungle sites where Mr Davies flew over 65 years ago.

"I'm glad that I'm travelling with my son, and not as part of an organised tour - you see everyone had their own war over there, and the places which hold memories for me probably aren't the same as those which other people want to remember.

"Thank God, I had quite a good war, but so many others, particularly on the ground, weren't as lucky as me.

"While I'm remembering my friends… and my adventures I suppose. I'll also make sure I take a private moment to remember the poor blokes who fought for every inch on the jungle floor."

Huw Vaughan Thomas, Wales chair of the Big Lottery Fund said "The generation of men and women who served this country during the Second World War gave so much to protect the freedoms we enjoy today.

"As they get older, pilgrimages to the areas where they saw service become ever more poignant and precious to our veterans.

"By funding these trips for those veterans who would like to attend anniversary events across the world, we hope to do our bit on behalf of the whole nation to honour the service and sacrifice so many of our veterans made."

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