Runway down memory lane

Sumit Bhattacharjee

Gunta Das and Sanyasi indicating the spots where the bunkers were located.

Gunta Das and Sanyasi indicating the spots where the bunkers were located.  

`Duck Chiko!' shouted the British officer to Gunta Das; a peasant who was clearing the runway of fallen leaves and in a split second Das could see the belly of a Spitfire pass over him with a deafening roar and screech to a halt a few yards away. Well, the scene is not from a World War movie starring Clarke Gable or Frank Sinatra. Neither did it happen in any Royal Air Force base in Bristol or London. It happened in a lesser-known inconspicuous village called Badangi, near Rajam, five decades ago.

To know more about it one has to delve into the history and go through the happenings of December 7, 1941, and thereafter the incidents that changed the course of the world history. That day the Japanese forces bombed the Pearl Harbour and virtually drew the reluctant Americans into the war---they were till that moment only playing a supportive role to the Allies. With the success of `Tora Tora Tora' (the attack code for Pearl Harbour bombing) the Japanese Imperial Army was on a rampage and it wanted to wrest control of the eastern hemisphere with Hitler and Mussolini sharing the western.

February 1942, the Japanese overran Singapore and set their eyes on British India, and they selected Burma as their entry point. They sent a fleet to the Indian Ocean to be in command of the Bay of Bengal so that they could control the waters from Malacca Straits to Palk Straits, which was the main supply route for the allied forces.

Japan's Kawanishi fighters and Aichi bombers were on regular sorties over Madras and Calcutta. This development worried the Englishmen who were not only losing men and machine in the ongoing fight with the Germans but were also on the defensive against the combined forces of the Japanese and Netaji's Indian National Army in the Arakan campaign.

The British had reasons to worry but one man who really got jittery with the Japanese aggression was the Nizam of Hyderabad. He requested the British Government to provide air cover to protect his estate and property and also contributed to the tune of one million pounds with adequate land for setting up the bases. The imperial government seized this opportunity. Moreover, the situation also demanded for a full-fledged air base to deny the Japanese fleet to get a stranglehold of the Bay.

Bullock carts now ply on the tarmac that was the haven of RAF fighters and bombers during World War --Photo: K.R. Deepak

Bullock carts now ply on the tarmac that was the haven of RAF fighters and bombers during World War --Photo: K.R. Deepak  

This is the time when Badangi, a remote village now in Vizianagaram district, had come to become the hub of the British air command of coastal India. This village is situated between Bobilli and Vizianagaram on the Rajam-Saluru road.

The think-tank of the then British Government considered this place for its natural cover of hills on all sides, the lush green foliage which acted as a camouflage, its out-of-the-map location that aroused no suspicion, and moreover in a few minutes their fighters and bombers could be airborne over the Bay of Bengal to thwart any adventurous attempt by the Japanese.

After a hasty survey, the construction was started in 1942 and the airfield was complete by end-1943. The air base was built on a sprawling 246 acres of land that had two huge runways in a cross formation. Eventually, if one was bombed then the other could be operational. It had a tall control tower overlooking both the runways, a separate underground armament depot that housed the deadly 250 lb. torpedo bombs, many underground bunkers for the crew to hide in case of bombardment, hangars, staff quarters and a natural pond to do the fire-fighting.

"We were called as `chikos' by the `doras' (Englishmen) and most of the young men from neighbouring villages worked for them during the construction time and later a few of us worked as security guards. There were about 600 of them, and often we used to overhear them saying that this was the second biggest RAF base after the one at Lahore," recalls Gunta Das, who worked for the Mackenzie Company that constructed the airfield. Though he is 80 plus he vividly remembers those days of war and tries to converse with a few English words that he had picked up from his doras.

The RAF squadron at Badangi comprised Supermarine Spitfire fighters, Hawker Hurricane fighters, Avro Lancaster bombers, Vickers Wellington bombers, Bristol Beaufighter bombers and B-57 Canberra reconnaissance and transport aircraft.

The Spitfires and Hurricanes were strategically positioned to counter the speed of the Japanese fighters, Kawanishis and Nakajimas. The bombers, especially the Bristol Beaufighters, capable of night flying and carrying heavy duty torpedo bombs, were kept to launch a counter-offensive on the Japanese fleet.

"As far as I remember, the base was operational only for a few years and it was wound up in 1946 as soon as the war was over. Though there was no real action there were regular sorties and it was during such sorties two planes with single pilot (referring to Spitfires) crashed on the edge of the main runway while landing, killing a pilot. We were never allowed to come near the 50-odd war machines but requisitioned to load and unload material from a very huge plane (Canberra) onto which even trucks and jeeps could be loaded. Every week we were asked to carry bags of letters to a small plane that had two wings (Westland Wapitis) which was called by the doras as the mail plane. Once or twice during the operational existence of the base a big flight had come in the night for which we were told to light fires all along the runway. We were told that some big officer was coming and there used be an eerie silence all through the base at least a week before his coming (the officer could be the British Commander-in- Chief Lord Mountbatton as he had the habit of visiting forward bases in such a manner)," remembers Gunta Sanyasi, who worked as a watchman in the officers quarters.

A vintage photograph of Bristol Beaufighter bomber. --Photo: K.R. Deepak

A vintage photograph of Bristol Beaufighter bomber. --Photo: K.R. Deepak  

"One thing is certain; this base was a high-security base of the RAF and it is very difficult to trace its operational history, except that it is under the Defence estates," points out the Defence Estate Officer, C.K. More.

Today, nothing remains of that well engineered airfield except the huge seven-inch thick solid concrete runway that is being used by the local farmers for threshing the grains. All other structures have been demolished and the land is occupied by farmers. The village is in the same condition as it was then. The local villagers, including Gunta Das and Sanyasi, still work as daily wage labourers even at their ripe age. Drought has hit them badly and the standing crops have withered for the third consecutive year leading to large-scale migration.

"We were better off when the Englishmen were there, at least we were sure of a decent daily wage. Today even that is uncertain. Some time ago Food Corporation of India constructed a few makeshift sheds to store grains on the runway and most us were employed as daily labourers but they have now gone, leaving us in a lurch. Even water is a scarce commodity in our village due to the drought. Though there used be absolute blackout during the war period there was a light in our life, today that is on the verge of extinguishing, " says the sarpanch of Badangi, Narsanna Naidu.