Sunday, September 28, 2008

Air Operations in the Forgotten War : Mukund Murty on Hurricane Sorties in the Burma Theatre

A GUEST BLOGGER : Mukund Murty, WW 2 Fighter Pilot Manque

I am pleased to publish a post by Mukund Murty, friend, former colleague, licensed pilot, air battle enthusiast and airwar buff extraordinary. He was born at least a generation too late to fly those Hurricane sorties he describes so engrossingly below and I know he regrets it. I point out the bright side to him : life was not so comfortable in those days and besides one had to wear a helmet while flying but he refuses to be convinced.

As if to rub in the point that he would gladly sport a helmet at the drop of a hat, he has published below a picture of himself in one of those Hurricane helmets and goggles, looking for all the world like a hobgoblin.

Quick change artist that he is, the bearded Mukund who lives in Bombay is also known to wear a turban on some week ends and he is then always mistaken for a Sardar : he came home to Madras one fun Saturday evening last month but refused to arrive in a turban. Here is Mukund, on that convivial and bibulous evening in Madras, trying gamely to keep the beat to the singing of Vasumathi (Mrs Blogger) who is in splits at his gallant accompaniment.

I am very interested in all the antics of the Second World War myself but the canvas is too vast and I stick to the land battles in Burma and North Africa, with a side bet on the D-Day landings and, especially these days, to the absorbing tactics and story of the Battle of the Atlantic. And I know Mukund is the boy for the air force stuff, having vicariously been flown by him in a Hurricane over the mountain fastnesses of the Arakan, or in a Flying Fortress over the devastations of Europe. The post includes many photos of people and memorablia from his personal collection and embodies the many hours he has spent over the years chivvying octogenarian WW 2 pilots in different parts of the world and reviving their failing memories by plying them with Rum and Whisky. And I like his posts, they are typically longwinded, something I favour too, the Devil is in the detail and so is God. So, don't miss the explanatory notes at the end.

I must thank Mukund's buddy, Jagan of Bharatrakshak who readily agreed for some of his pics to be used. Mukund now takes up his narrative of the Burma air war, a narrative that is primarily from the perspective of the Indian fighter pilot.

Anatomy of a Tac-R Hurricane Sortie

Mukund Murty


Dedicated to Nanu Shitoley, DFC - Hurricane Pilot & My surrogate father, Hoshang Patel - Hurricane Pilot


Dear Reader, I suggest that you read through the article first,, and then read the explanatory notes at the bottom.

Imphal airfield, the first week of August, 1944......

Battle of Imphal - Map

The morning had dawned with the suddenness typical of Eastern India - an all-too-brief twilight turning bright and hot, with an abruptness which never ceases to shock. It had rained heavily the night before, and by early afternoon the clouds had built up once again, pretty little cotton-ball cumulus growing into magnificent, distant, turrets in the air. By late afternoon, the clouds were flirting with sunbeams and it had turned quite dark, intermittent rain hissing through the trees and the delicious smell of damp earth heavy in the air.

Tamu [1], only 50 statute miles SSE of Imphal, had just been re-taken on the 4th August, and it was essential to find out what the enemy, always fanatically dangerous, was up to.

A two-aircraft Tac-R [Tactical Reconnaissance] sortie had been ordered, and the pilots, the Leader and his Wingman [the Leader would navigate, whilst his Wingman kept a lookout for Japanese Oscars on the prowl], filed into the basha [rectangular thatched hut] which served as the Briefing Room for the usual briefing on target, time of take-off, duration of sortie, fuel.......[2]

Because of the importance of the sortie, the CO himself was present. A handsome young Sikh officer, a legend in his own time, he was passionately loyal to his men. They, in turn, worshipped him. The briefing was conducted by the English major who was the Squadron's ALO or Army Liaison Officer, and would also invariably have contained a re-iteration of Tac-R requirements [Pg. 133 of the Official History of the IAF in WW II].....

Flt. Lt. Haider briefing pilots before strike on Kangaw Valley

'Though the withdrawal of the Japanese troops, tired and worn out as they were, was not as well-camouflaged as their advance had been, effective reconnaissance demanded careful observation and accurate interpretation of the things observed. It was not enough to know whether a track was capable of taking mechanical transport or fit for being used by mules only. It was required to be observed whether it showed signs of being used and, if so, by what kind of transport. A bridge might be found to be unserviceable, but well-worn tracks from both ends of it might prove the passage of traffic along the route. Several tracks converging on a point might be an indication of a mechanical transport park. Hoof marks, imprints of elephants' pads, ruts made by cart wheels and tyre marks had , of course, their own tales to tell. If wheel marks abruptly ended in a jungle it was almost certain that vehicles were parked near the spot. Even an apparently insignificant detail that jungle creepers were seen across a road was not devoid of importance as it showed that the road was not much frequented [italics mine to show the phenomenal amount of detail required to be picked up whilst flying at 200mph, at 50ft above the trees !]. Besides searching for all these signs, the pilots carried out attacks whenever any target was noticed. During July, targets were plentiful and many attacks were made on motor vehicles, river craft, covered trenches, bunkers, bashas, gun positions and troops with good results. When it appeared that any target could not be adequately dealt with by it, the reconnoitring aircraft held its fire and directed other aircraft to the target [for example, just three weeks ago, on the 14th July, the CO himself had led six Spitfires to the Chassud area where he had noticed a number of Japanese troops].

As the time for take-off approached, the two pilots picked up their equipment [3], helmet and oxygen mask casually slung across the back of the neck, the Webley revolver in the webbing holster banging against the hip, and the seat-type parachute slapping the back of the thighs as they walked out to the aircraft, maps in hand. Fortunately, the monsoon-humidity-dripping sweat of the early afternoon had dried with the freshening breeze; but on the other hand, this also meant that clouds were building up, and both knew that the weather was a deadlier killer than the Japanese. Only on the 29th July, the squadron had lost two pilots who'd failed to return from a reconnaissance of the Tamu-Sittaung area. They were last seen entering cloud near Palel by another pilot. Ah, but then, the Leader and his Wingman were both young, and youth has a marvellous knack of looking at life, not death… The Wingman stopped for a moment to look up and smile as an exhilaratingly raucous flight of parrots flew past, their green plumage contrasting startlingly against the grey of the distant cumulonimbus each time they flew through an occasional sunbeam.

The aircraft were standing dispersed near some trees, the ground crew fussing over their wards, checking, re-checking, nervous excitement charging the air with a palpable electricity which caught at the throat - so you swallowed consciously and tried not to let it show….

The two Hurricanes stood hunched as only a Hurricane can, with its distinctive hump-back, its earth brown and dark green camouflage [4] gleaming dully in the late afternoon sun, the four protruding cannon barrels advertising an unspoken menace. A quick word with the ground crew, a pre-flight walk-around commencing and ending at the trailing edge of the left wing, sign the Form 700 for the aircraft. Right foot in the spring-loaded retractable footstep below the trailing edge of the left wing, right hand clutching the spring-loaded hand-hole slot behind and beneath the cockpit canopy, heave yourself onto the wing. Press the hand-hole cover shut and the linked retractable footstep also shuts with a 'thunk,' flush with the bottom of the wing. Right hand on the canopy [or hood], left hand on the top of the windscreen, push your left foot into the spring-loaded slot beneath the cockpit, pull yourself up, right leg into the cockpit, followed by the rest of you and all your various paraphernalia. Slip one leg through the Sutton quick-release harness strap as you sit, 'Click, click,' the ground crew pushes the shoulder pins into the slots, 'click,' you slide the leg pin into the slot, tighten the harness - the seat parachute feels hard and lumpy beneath you. Twist to the left, R/ T jack in, oxygen mask tube into the bayonet socket, and you're ready for the 'Preliminaries,' as the Pilot's Notes delightfully puts it [5] .

Hurricane Mk IIc , KZ-371 'R' of No.1 Squadron IAF at Miranshah, NWFP in late 1943

During the engine run-up, two men had clung grimly on to the tail to make sure that the 1280 horses of the Rolls-Royce Merlin XX did not slam the aeroplane onto its nose. After all the checks had been completed, the Wingman quickly once again made sure that the hand-brake-like seat adjustment lever on his right was pulled all the way up to ensure that his seat was raised to its maximum so he could see better whilst taxying - it was. He quickly pushed in the knob and set the gyro compass directly in front of him, making sure that it was showing the same heading as the P-8 magnetic compass in the bracket just below the instrument panel [just below the gyro compass, in fact], then set 150 degrees against the lubber line of his P-8 compass, the course to Tamu. Mentally, he reminded himself to constantly check his gyro compass every ten minutes against the magnetic compass [the gyro drifted, you see, so that it had to be constantly re-set every ten minutes or so to ensure its accuracy] and - most important - to make sure that before heading back, he set the course home, 330 degrees, against the P-8's lubber line. He, more than most pilots, would know - after all, he'd been trained as an Observer in Hyderabad for a year in '41 [6]. A quick glance at the pneumatic pressure gauge on the floor - Brakes - 100 psi [pounds per square-inch] - the two short needles at the ten o'clock and two o'clock position on the inner radius of the gauge - Pneumatic Supply - 220 psi - the long needle with a hollow circle a quarter-inch below the tip - at the three o'clock position on the outer radius. H'mm - good...

The Dunlop Pneumatic gauge

Both the Hurricanes now sat with the characteristic, soft, 'dhrik-a-dhrik-a-dhrik-a-dhrik-a,' of their idling Rolls Royce Merlins, propellers turning right [from the point of view of the pilot], the play of light sometimes making them strobe and appear to turn to the left… The Leader looked across at his Wingman, grinned, and gave him the thumbs up. He was answered by a nod and a thumbs up. Quickly one of the mechanics jumped onto his left wing to help guide him through the slushy quagmire of the dispersal to the pucca runway which, thank God, was a proper tarmac, unlike the PSP [Pierced Steel Plate] of nearby Uderbund 50 miles to the West where some of his friends in 7 Squadron were .

Monsoon rains at an Assam airfield turn it into a quagmire

He waved the chocks away and heard the hollow wooden slithering as they were pulled forward and away [7] by the remaining mechanic - a thumbs up - his left hand went up in a return thumbs up and dropped onto the throttle whilst his right hand, holding the stick back, flicked off the catch holding the brakes. Throttle in the hollow between left thumb and forefinger, easy does it, gently ease her into a slow walking pace. Watch the mechanic sitting on your wing as he guides you, mind you don't run into your Leader, quick glance at your temperatures and pressures, easy on the brakes - overconfidence can tip her onto her nose and gosh; worse still, can throw the poor mechanic onto those whirling prop blades .

At last - they reached the public road which adjoined the runway. Traffic, mainly military trucks and jeeps, was stopped on either side, with the odd cyclist and bullock-cart. They entered and lined up on the runway, the Wingman to the right and slightly behind the Leader. Brakes on - he gave a thumbs up to the mechanic on the wing who slithered off the trailing edge and ran to the side of the runway. The pre-take-off litany - TPFF [8]…..

Quickly he clipped his oxygen mask on and brought his goggles down over his eyes; right hand lowering the seat a bit so he could shut the canopy - he preferred to fly with the canopy shut as it was less noisy and less likely for his map to fly out of the cockpit; however, a lot of his friends preferred to fly with their canopy open… Eyes on the Leader, who raised his right arm and let it drop. Quickly slam the canopy shut, flick the brakes off, left hand smoothly opening the throttle, right rudder tap-tap-tapping away to counteract any swing to the left, right hand gently, gently exerting an imperceptible forward pressure on the stick. The Leader's tail went up, his own coming up almost simultaneously - a slight swing to the left corrected with instinctive pressure on the right rudder. Lightning glance at the airspeed - 100mph, the Leader's wheels left the tarmac; gentle back-pressure on the stick and his own wheels left the ground. Squeeze the brake lever with your right hand to stop the wheels from rotating, quickly transfer the left hand to the stick; right hand to the H-type slot, thumb on the hydraulic lever catch, move the lever left, with your index finger turn the undercarriage safety catch clockwise - watch it, boy, you're porpoising !! - and move the lever smartly up. The Leader's wheels were tucking up under his wing, first the right leg, then the left. He heard his own undercarriage lock as the indicator lights changed from green to red; quickly nudge the stick forward as his nose lifted slightly with the change in trim; quickly, right hand bringing the hydraulic lever back to neutral [leaving it in the undercarriage 'Up' position could cause the lever to jam], wait for the airspeed to build up to 140 mph, the minimum speed before you can start climbing….

They climbed to 100' to clear some buildings near the airfield and levelled off as he watched the airspeed build up to 200mph. The Leader dropped to 50' above the trees and he followed, juggling throttle, stick and rudder with imperceptible pressure so that his position never wavered, and it appeared as if one hand was guiding both the aeroplanes [9].

Watch your Leader, watch out for that tree, map-read, scan your instruments, stick back - high ground, check fuel, radiator temperature's rising - reach forward and raise the radiator flap lever a couple of notches with your left hand, watch your Leader.....

There - at 10 o'clock below - cart tracks - rapidly move your left hand from the throttle and grab the stick, while you mark the spot on your map and furiously scribble the details on your little pad.......

They were abeam Bishenpur and just about 10 miles south of Imphal, when something made him look up. What he saw turned his blood to ice - there, at eleven o'clock and about three thousand feet above them, hung two dots. His hand moved to the R/ T switch on his mask and he was about to shout a warning to the Leader when the two dots wheeled lazily to the left and he saw them for what they were - eagles ! As he let out a ragged breath of relief, he recalled how on the 21st May, two of his squadron were bounced at just this place by six Oscars. One died and the other had survived, but his Hurricane had taken such a beating that it was a wonder that he'd survived at all [10].

A Recce patrol near Bishenpur sends information back to HQ by R/T Indian troops breaking cover to put up a charge near Imphal

As they approached Palel, halfway to Tamu, he involuntarily tensed - this was where the Japanese 33rd Division had been tenaciously holding on [the other two, the 15th and the 31st had begun to slowly disintegrate]. As they roared over Palel, something caught his eye - troops ! Both saw them at the same time - they were wearing green - ours ? It must be; the Japs wear khaki - but hold it - why've they scattered ?! The Leader reefed into a climbing turn - open throttle; watch it, the Hurri tends to tighten up in a steep turn and she'll roll into the ground before you know it ! Indians, thank God, but no matter - he'd learnt that troops tended to blaze away anyway at anything with wings ! They descended once again and resumed course, and he marked the position of the troops on the map.

Clouds were building up rapidly behind him and he now had the added problem of turbulence - both the aircraft were bobbing up and down, and he had to work very hard just in order to keep station.

Looking back to Malta Hill from Scraggy Hill shows the devastation of the battle field

Ten miles later, they passed the hills of Tengnoupal, where Japanese bunkers had been systematically pulverized by the IAF and the RAF. The lush hills were marred by ugly tree-stumps and pock-marked by craters and the devastation looked like a tropical version of those horrible photographs of the Western Front that he'd seen as a child.

At last, Tamu…

The Leader rocked his wings and then turned left, circling, so they could see if the enemy had dispersed so as to ambush the troops coming down the Palel-Tamu road. Nothing; all quiet, almost too quiet. In his young life, he'd learnt to take nothing for granted, lest something come and bite him when he wasn't looking. Nothing. They flew two circles, the second wider than the first and the Leader then turned on to a heading of 150 degrees, a course which would take them towards the ferry near Pantha, where the oil refinery was. The terrain climbed sharply as they crossed the Nam Palaw Chaung. At the ferry on the Chindwin near Pantha, they circled the road in ever-widening circles, he noted some cart tracks to the side of the road, and what appeared to be vehicle tracks. Tank tracks…? They reefed into a steep turn - yes, they were. Quickly he noted down the spot on his map.

A Stuart tank at the Irrawady
A tank patrolling the Ukhrul Road

The Leader rocked his wings and turned back for Tamu. By now, he could see that the weather had turned ugly near Palel. It had started to pour, the clouds had descended to less than a hundred feet, the darkness sundered from time to time by streaks of lightning. He sensed rather than heard the thunder. Moirang and Langgol which he could see on either side of the Imphal -Palel road on the way out were now covered in dense, impenetrable gray - Imphal was boxed in…. Left hand to the bottom left of the instrument panel as he flicked on his navigation light and the pressure head heat switches, then his hand up - cockpit lights on, two on the left, one on the right, reach down - compass light on - rheostat to full bright. The Leader commenced a gentle turn to the left, climbing to about a thousand feet above the trees. No, there was no way out - they would have to try to go through the dark, billowing cauldron that was ahead of them. They continued to turn, climbing all the time. For the second time, he checked the fuel contents of the main tanks - five gallons each - he flicked the fuel pressurising switch from 'Atmosphere' to 'Pressure.' The Leader levelled off at 15, 000' - with hills upto 13, 000' all around them, height was their only friend. He checked the main fuel tanks again - 25 gallons - he switched off the fuel pressurising pump - his auxiliary tanks were now empty and he had fuel left for a little over half an hour of flying - they had to get home quickly .

Quickly now; bad weather procedures - set the flaps to 40 degrees - eyes quickly down to the right - the little indicator moved three notches down on the indicator - good; propeller speed to give 2650 rpm; speed down to 110 mph. Make sure the radiator shutter was fully open - it was - the temperature was steady at 100 C. A quick glance at the rear-view mirror - clear - everyone sensible, Japanese and birds included, was on the ground - except for them….

The Leader rocked his wings and set course - his gyro compass was showing 330 degrees - quick glance below - his P-8 compass was set on 330 degrees and the red needle was on 'N' for North. His body tensed and crouched, seat belt tightened to the maximum extent possible, eyes scanning his instruments, eyes on the Leader. On this course, they should be overhead home in 15 minutes. But it was not to be… Two minutes later, they were in middle of a nightmare, a maelstrom that tossed and rolled and slammed them about with a shocking violence. At one stage, he thought he saw his vertical speed indicator move straight from 4000'/ minute 'UP' to 4000'/ minute 'DOWN' with such force that his head banged painfully against the top of the canopy; it may well have been more than 4000'/ min, but the instrument was only calibrated upto 4000' ! The Leader turned back, and it was all that the Wingman could do to stay with him - twice or thrice, he thought that a giant hand was about to roll him over and fling him down.

The Climb/ Descent Vertical Speed Indicator

Back onto a course of 150 degrees - the murk eased just a bit after a short while, to reveal Palel beneath them. The Leader's voice, crackling with static, faintly came through his earphones "Shall we try again?" His left hand leapt to the microphone switch on his oxygen mask and he shouted "Affirmative, Leader, affirmative." Again they turned onto 330 degrees and headed into the witches' cauldron. Though the canopy was firmly shut, the sheets of rain caused leaking driblets to fall on his head and thighs. He pushed his goggles on top of his helmet and wiped his eyes of sweat and water - thank God he was wearing soft leather gloves. He swallowed hard and fought the panic that was threatening to engulf him - fuel was getting dangerously low. It was impossible - they were being thrown about with the same violence and ferocity they had encountered the first time, and the visibility was worse ! For the second time, the Leader turned back and he, blind and bouncing about like a cork, gingerly followed. Overhead Palel, the Leader told him that he would try for a wheels-up landing at Tamu airfield. Something possessed him and he called "I'm trying once more to head for home, Leader," and he swung around once more, back towards the maelstrom, onto the course for home….

He knew what this meant - a slight error in navigation and he'd run out of fuel or hit high ground, and then again, the weather itself may decide to relieve him of taking any more decisions and slam him into the ground, aided by the katabatic winds… He shook his head - concentrate ! Fuel was just over 20 gallons; the aeroplane rose dangerously, then fell - don't over-correct; gently now… Keep the compass steady on 330 degrees, and remember, after exactly fifteen minutes you should start descending and looking around for home… He was sweating profusely now, but daren't move his hands from the throttle and stick; watch the course, the aeroplane lurched - watch the speed - she'll stall at 75; watch the clock - another five minutes - thank God the radiator temperature was holding out at 100 C; check the compass - too much off to one side, and he could hit the slope of the valley….

Was it his imagination, or was the turbulence getting less…? With dramatic suddenness, he shot out into the valley, clear of the murderous thunderstorm. He could have sung for joy when he saw, there below him on the left, the airfield. Quickly check fuel - less than 5 gallons in each tank - he decided to make a straight-in approach and landing; let's hope like hell that the fuel gauge is accurate - he wouldn't have the luxury of being able to go around again if he muffed this approach .

Right hand moved the hydraulic lever to the right and down fully down - the nose dropped as the flaps came fully down - quickly he corrected the drop of the nose; he then moved the lever to the left and down and felt the turbulence of the dropping wheels and saw the green lights come on. He caressed the elevator trimmer wheel to ease the load off the stick; speed steady at 110 mph [she'd stall at anywhere between 60-75 mph]. Goggles down over the eyes, canopy back, raise the seat.

He cut power over the threshold and eased back on the stick, back again and ease off the back pressure, and she settled gently on the main wheels with a soft 'tchkkk' keep her steady and the tail came down; stick fully back. Raise the flaps.

He taxied out to where the 'Follow Me' jeep was. Slowly, he taxied behind the jeep back to where they started from just an hour-and-a-half ago - gosh; it felt a lot longer than that ! The chocks were dragged against his wheels [how reassuring that wooden scraping noise sounded !]; run the engine at 800 rpm for half a minute, then pull the slow-running cut-out on the bottom right shelf until the propellers slowed down and stopped with a series of soft, metallic 'clunks.' Fuel and ignition off.

The silence deafened him as he pushed back the sweat-drenched helmet off his head so that it lay wreathed across the back of his neck; he sat as if in a dream as he took in deep draughts of the monsoon-scented air. Death was only seven minutes behind him, but it was already out of his mind. Absent-mindedly, he disconnected the R/T, the oxygen, twisted open the Sutton quick-release harness. His mechanic helped him out of the harness - he was smiling warmly at him and talking - he couldn't hear him, but smiled back and mumbled something - his ears were still filled with the roar of the dead engine. He picked up his map and got out, slightly shaky with the still-remembered turbulence, and jumped off the back of the left wing.

As he walked back toward the briefing hut, he prayed that the Leader had made it OK to Tamu. The CO drove up with the ALO in a jeep - he just smiled at him, giving him time for his own thoughts. As they walked into the basha, a hot mug of tea was thrust into his hands, the ALO lit two cigarettes and gave him one. He took a greedy gulp of the scalding chai, took a great lungful of the smoke, and the words just came pouring out; the weather, his Leader's decision to force-land at Tamu - that was the first thing he said. Then the things they'd seen pin-pointed on the map; and Tamu ? Oh, Tamu was clear - most definitely clear .

The ALO made a few calls on the field telephone - an army unit had picked up the Leader, who had made a safe wheels-up landing at Tamu ! The Wingman slumped back into his chair as the relief swept over him; he was suddenly tired, very tired.

As they walked slowly to the basha which served as the Mess, he looked up at the lurid skid marks left by the sunset and one part of his brain thought "God but it's great to be alive " whilst another part of his brain thought "It's going to rain tonight…." He entered the cocooning womb of the Mess, with its cigarette smoke, conversation, slapping of cards on the table, All India Radio softly playing music in the background. He looked up at the familiar smiling face of Gulbaaz Khan, the tall, handsome Ahmedzai from Bannu, the khidmatgaar [waiter] who had come with them from Kohat, at his elbow with a chhota whisky paani "Thank you, Gulbaaz, thank you." Tomorrow would be a long day.

And yet, all this was just a daily routine for these young men, so many of whom never returned to their mothers in Bombay, or Bangalore, or......

Explanatory Notes for Anatomy of a Tac R Sortie


(1) Tamu, only 50 statute miles SSE of Imphal, and one of the three pivotal strategic points in the Japanese campaign to take Imphal by the 15th, 31st and the 33rd Japanese Divisions (and thereafter, the Brahmaputra Valley and India), had just been re-taken on the 4th. August by the 23rd Indian Division and the 2nd British Division.

(2) The Hurricane II (the Squadron had converted from the twelve .303 calibre machine-gun IIB to the four 20mm Hispano cannon IIC only in June '44, "but this was not allowed to affect the operational work of the Squadron," as mentioned proudly in Pg. 121 of the Official History of the IAF in WW II) had two Main wing tanks of 33 gall. each, one Reserve tank of 28 gall. just ahead of the engine firewall, and two fixed Auxiliary tanks of 44 gall. each (or two Drop tanks of 45 or 90 gall. each). Assuming that they carried two fixed Auxiliary tanks (several photographs show Indian Hurricanes returning with external tanks), this would give each pilot a total of 182 gall. for the sortie. The Hurricane II Pilot's Notes gives the approximate fuel consumption in Rich mixture (at the tree-top height at which they flew, they couldn't afford to lean the mixture) as follows :

RPM Boost
(lb./ sq. in.) Gall./ hr.
3000 +12 115
3000 +9 100
2850 +9 95
2650 +7 80

Considering the fact that the journey there and back was fraught with the danger of being bounced by Oscars, and therefore required high throttle settings with frequent use of Boost Override (combat boost setting - not to exceed five minutes - else, there was a strong possibility of the engine seizing), this would give an endurance of under two hours. Therefore, a sortie to Tamu or slightly beyond Tamu would take up a travel time itself of 20-40 minutes each way, thus leaving only under an hour for reconnaissance/ loiter/ unforeseen circumstances (such as a pair of Oscars on your tail !).

(3) Equipment was not standard, and depended upon the wearer - typical IAF helmets were Type B or C (leather), Type D (cotton twill), or Type E (aertex - a synthetic material), with a Type D or G oxygen mask. Goggles were Mk. II or Mk. VIII flying goggles, although the writer has seen a photograph where the pilot appears to have Type B-6 or B-7 USAF goggles.

The author wearing Type C Helmet, Type G Oxygen Mask and Mk. VIII Flying Goggles

Some wore flying boots (a 6 Sqn. photograph shows Mohinder Singh Pujji wearing what appear to be 1930 Pattern Flying Boots Type 22C/49 whilst Bandy Verma appears to be wearing 1943 Pattern 'Escape' Boots Type 22C/ 917-924), or shoes with stockings, and some, ammunition boots with anklets (Wg Cdr Hoshang Patel's eyes twinkled as he recalled how Baba Mehar Singh of 6 Sqn. liked to fly bare-feet !). Some used gloves, some did not. Loose khaki half-arm (as they used to be called) shirts and shorts, or loose khaki flying overalls (or full-sleeved shirt and trousers - the danger of fire, and the need for protection from it, being ever-present). The weapons carried also varied - revolvers were the .455 Webley Mk. VI, the .38 Enfield Revolver No2 Mk.1, the .45 Colt 1917, or the .38 Smith & Wesson 1917, while some also carried a machete or a kukri as well. Micky Blake, in his article on the site, says he carried a Sten ! Of the four revolvers mentioned, the writer is of the opinion that the Webley is the best balanced, even though the Colt is 44 gms. heavier. The parachute was typically a Type C-2 - the pack itself formed a seat cushion and two thin cushions snapped onto the 'chute, each providing a small cushioning effect at the back and on the bottom of the seat.

(4) Again, not standard - could also have been grey and green. Also, the insignia varies from Type 'A' (RAF roundels with red inner circle, white middle circle and blue outer circle on the fuselage and wings and red, white and blue fin flash), to Type 'A1' (the same roundels with a yellow outer band on the fuselage, Type'A' roundels on the wings, and the fin flash is also the same as 'A'), Type 'B' (roundels with red inner circle and blue outer circle, with a red and blue fin flash, or with fin flash same as Type 'A,' or even a Type'C,' which had a narrow inner white band between the red and blue), or SEAC (roundels on the fuselage and wings with light blue inner circle and dark blue outer circle, fin flash light blue ahead of dark blue). Again, there were variations between, and even within, squadrons!


Cockpit of the Hurricane Mk.1 which is currently preserved at the Air Force Museum in Palam, New Delhi. On the right is an illustration from the Pilot Notes.

(i) If fitted with RP (rocket projectile) and a drop tank or RP and a bomb, the aircraft should be trimmed carefully to relieve stick load.

The recommended aileron tab setting (this was to be set on the ground and was not adjustable in flight) is neutral at full load. Then with a drop tank fitted under the port wing, changes in load will cause the following alterations in trim :

Tank empty : Slightly right wing low
Tank empty and RP fired : Trim satisfactory
Tank jettisoned and RP fired : Slightly right wing low
Tank jettisoned, RP not fired : Right wing low

(ii) Switch on the undercarriage indicator and check green lights. Test the change-over switch (these are two switches on the top left side of the cockpit coaming next to the large undercarriage indicator. Undercarriage 'DOWN' was indicated by two perpendicular green lights on either side of the centre of the instrument. Undercarriage 'UP' was indicated by two horizontal red lights on either side of the top of the instrument).

(iii) See that the short (lower) arm of the hydraulic selector safety catch is across the wheels up slot of the gate (this is a slot which looks like an H. The selector lever is in the centre - move it into the right-hand slot for flaps, and into the left-hand slot for the undercarriage - the undercarriage (u/ c) slot has a safety spring to ensure that you don't select u/ c 'up' in a manner to cause you red-faced embarrassment ["Sorry, Sir, I thought I was raising the flaps !!"]).

(iv) Check that the throttle pushbutton master switch is OFF ( a pushbutton on the top of the throttle lever - check it with your left thumb).

(v) Check contents of fuel tanks (this is a beautifully designed tumbler switch - turn it to whichever tank you want a reading of - Port, Centre (Reserve), Starboard, and press a button on the tumbler switch - the contents of the selected tank are indicated on a large gauge below the switch). If fitted with Auxiliary tanks see that the pump switches or control cock are OFF (bottom right side of your seat).

(vi) Test operation of flying controls.

(vii) See that the cockpit hood (or canopy) is locked open (this was not as foolproof a system as that on the Spitfire, in which, by opening the cockpit door one notch during take-off and landing, the hood is prevented from slamming shut - having said that, this is precisely what did happen to Furdoon Dinshaw Irani of 7 Sqn - whilst force-landing a Spit after engine failure, the hood slammed shut, almost scalping him in the process !).


i) Set the fuel cock to MAIN TANKS ON on the left side below the instrument panel - with your left thumb and forefinger, twist the large metal switch to the right - there.

ii) Set the controls as follows : Throttle - 1/ 2 in. Open Propeller Control - a small black knob above and ahead of the throttle. Push it fully forward to fine pitch so that the prop will claw your heavily-laden aircraft into the warm, dank air.

Supercharger control - push the knob forward with your left hand for moderate Radiator shutter - reach forward with your left hand, grip the hand-brake-like lever, depress the button at the top, and pull it all the way up for OPEN

iii) Work the priming pump until the fuel reaches the priming nozzles; this may be judged by a sudden increase in resistance right hand to the bottom of the instrument panel on the right, smartly twist the small black knob anti-clockwise, a spring makes it pop out, pull and push it two - three times - there - you can feel the resistance

iv) Switch ON the ignition flick the two small switches at the bottom left of the instrument panel up and press the starter and booster coil buttons to the left of the ignition switches. When the propeller reluctantly starts turning, keep pumping on the primer pump knob - ah, the engine has burst into life. Release the starter button, but keep the booster coil button pressed (to the right of the starter button) until the engine's running smoothly. Push the primer pump knob back in, twist it to the right and lock it.

v) Release the starter button as soon as the engine starts a cough, another cough, and the Rolls Royce Merlin XX rumbles to life, all twelve cylinders settling into a soft, growling, throbbing unison and as soon as it is running satisfactorily release the booster coil pushbutton and with your right hand screw down the priming pump.

vi) Open up slowly to 1000 rpm watch the needle gradually climb up on the large gauge on the top right hand of the instrument panel then warm up at this speed.


i) Check temperatures and pressures check that the tape-like instrument on the right side of the panel shows a minimum oil pressure of 45 lbs/ sq. in, below that, check that oil temperature has risen to a minimum of 15 degrees C, and the gauge to its right shows a minimum radiator temperature of 60 degrees C - see whether the fuel pressure warning light (to the right of the oil pressure gauge) is not on - if it is, it means that the fuel pressure has fallen below 8 lbs/ sq. in. and test operation of the hydraulic system the various washers and seals easily deteriorate in the heat, wet, and humidity by raising and lowering the flaps right hand on the lever in the H-type slot, move the lever right and down - twist to the right and watch the little indicator on a strip of metal move down - good. Now move the lever up and watch the indicator move back to the flaps up position. Return the lever to the neutral position.

ii) Open throttle to +4 lb/ boost check the gauge on the right of the panel, below the rpm gauge and check the operation of the two speed supercharger. RPM should fall when S ratio is engaged ie., the supercharger is on - pull the knob out and check the rpm gauge on the top right of the instrument panel.

iii) At +4 lb/ sq. in. boost exercise and check operation of the constant speed propeller pull back the small black lever above the throttle lever. Rpm should fall to 1800 with the lever fully back. Check that the generator is charging; the power failure light top left hand side of the panel should be out and the voltage 14 or over grunt and twist to the left and back - check the small gauge on the left side of the cockpit shelf.

iv) With the propeller control fully forward open the throttle up to +12 lb./sq. in. boost and check static boost and rpm which should be 3000.

Throttle back to +9 lb./sq. in. and test each magneto in turn. Bottom left side of the instrument panel - flick
the switch on the left down - a slight drop in sound, felt rather than heard, accompanied by a drop in rpm - back up and on - now the switch on the right for the right-side magneto. The drop should not exceed 150 rpm with each flick of the switch. If your Hurricane is battle-weary, as most were, the slight drop in sound would be accompanied with a slight shudder, and a drop of slightly more than the minimum allowed !

(6) Observers were later called Navigators, but the old Observer course included wireless training as well as gunnery, in addition to navigation.

The P-8 compass is a bowl-shaped instrument renowned for its robust reliability, but it has one inherent issue; you have to set the course by turning the grid ring (which has directions marked every 10 degrees graduated in 2-degree divisions, and is also divided into four quarters by two parallel wires which connect N to S, and E to W) until the required course is set against the lubber line (a small white marker on the inner ring of the compass). You are then on course when the pointer with a red cross is on the large red square marked 'N' for North (hence the expression, "Red on Red"); wonderful, you may well say, so there's no problem getting there and back, right ? Not quite; there is a problem, one that is all the more dangerous because it is an insidious one. You see, you have to remember that when you want to get home, you must make sure that you re-set the course home. In this case, the course to Tamu was 150 degrees on the way out. On the way back, a pilot had to set 330 degrees, the way back to Imphal and home, and then make sure that the pointer with the red cross was back on 'N.' The only problem was that, in the heat of combat, pilots could (and frequently did) forget to set the reciprocal course home, blindly keep turning until they had put 'N' on the pointer with the cross, and head farther and farther away from home, and run out of fuel, with its usually horrendous results. In fact, this problem was so severe that some squadrons used to block off the bottom or Southern half of the grid ring as a reminder - but - you still had to re-set the course home… Photograph of P-8 Compass One can't emphasise enough how the Gyrosyn or Gyro-Magnetic or Remote Indicating Compass (which is a gyro compass which senses the earth's magnetic field) would have eased the pain - although these existed from the thirties itself and were used for several record-breaking flights, such compasses were not fitted on several of the British service aircraft of WWII, especially fighters. Whereas most British aeroplanes had the P Type compass described above, most American ones had the simple E Type magnetic compass in which you could simply read your heading on the face of the instrument (British bombers such as the Avro Lancaster and some others had Remote Indicating Compasses, or RIC's).

I have dwelt at length on this issue as weather and navigational errors (and frequently a combination of the two) accounted for a large number of casualties, both, in Europe/ the UK, as well as in Burma.

Talking about navigation - what about the usage of navigational slide rules/ computers ? Low-flying Tac-R pilots did not have the luxury of being able to use their plastic 'Computer; Dead Reckoning Type AN 5835-1.'

Right: Photograph of the metal Computer Mk. IIID*

Left: Dead Reckoning Type AN 5835-1

'Unique' Navigational Slide Rule

Observers in Vengeances, on the other hand, could use this, as well as the Mk. III D* metal computers, or the 'Unique' Navigational Slide Rule. However, even these were no great solace against the Burma weather (on the 1st. April, 1944, on a raid to Kalewa, Edul Dadabhoy of 7 Sqn. was killed, whilst his Observer, Jamsu Dordie, baled out when they were lost in horrible weather conditions and, according to my friend Cecil Naire who used these computers/ slide rules in Kohima/ Imphal [ I have them now], Jamsu was an excellent Observer - even so, the muck was so impenetrable, they were lost !). Therefore, most relied upon terrain which they'd flown over so regularly (like the Imphal-Palel road, or the Palel - Tamu road) to get them home. In such situations, luck and skill (eg., following a course and knowing the topographical contours) played a vital role.

(7) Unlike most conventional aeroplanes, Hurricanes required the chocks to be withdrawn forwards and thereafter to the side as they would foul and damage the shock-absorber strut and fairing if withdrawn directly to the side as was done for most aeroplanes (Point 6, Chapt. 2, Sect. 4., Vol. I A.P.1564B - Hurricane Maintenance Manual).

(8) T - Trimming Tabs - Rudder : Twist the star-shaped wheel on your left just ahead of the seat bottom fully right to counteract the Hurricane's tendency to swing left on take-off. The Elevator trim wheel just to its left - set it to Neutral - check against the indicator next to it.

P - Propeller Control - push the black knob above the throttle fully forward.

Supercharger Control - bottom left of the instrument panel - push it in for low (Moderate) gear.

F - Fuel - turn the tumbler above the fuel guage onto the different tanks, press the button and check the contents of the main tanks - full Auxiliary tank cocks and pumps - off Pressurising cock - just below the elevator trim wheel - set it to atmosphere F - Flaps Up - there was no need for the shortest take-off run, viz., 28deg. down - it would only use up more fuel.

Supercharger - pushed in for Moderate Radiator - lever up for Fully Open - you'd need to keep the engine as cool as possible for your low-level sortie

(9) Typical Tac-R sorties were flown at about 50' above the trees. Wg Cdr. Hoshang Patel was sent to a course in Ranchi before joining 6 Sqn. where they were put through an intensive three-week course on low-level flying where you couldn't fly above 50'. He tells of how once, on a Tac-R with 6 Sqn., he came upon a Japanese soldier who, upon seeing this ear-splitting apparition, ran to a tree and hugged it tight ! Great presence of mind on the part of the soldier, but imagine such a thing registering upon the pilot !

Ken Lister, DFC, RAF, says in Pg. 125 of Chaz Bowyer's 'Hurricane at War : 2,' "It was always the same thing. Briefed to fly at 50ft above tree-top level, people would fly at 50ft above ground level (italics mine). One can well imagine that with a carpet top of forest there is always one tree that's stuck high above the rest somewhere, and it's not seen against the background. That was the way generally people were killed."

Pg. 120 of the Official History of the IAF states "On 21 May two aircraft of the squadron encountered Japanese fighters for the first time. The aircraft fitted with long range tanks were reconnoitring the Bishenpur area at 1500 feet when they were attacked by six Japanese Oscars from above. The slow moving Hurricanes had little chance of escape"

It can be arguably stated that if the Hurricanes had been lower, they may have stood a better chance of camouflage and/ or escape. However, it must also be remembered that flying at 1500' rather than 50' gave the pilot a better opportunity to observe activity on the ground. When one sits and wonders today how pilots could fly at just 50' above the trees in horrible terrain, in horrible weather, and were still expected to bring back the detailed information they had to collect, one factor which played a very important role in this, was the experience, especially of the Indian squadrons, who maintained a consistently high level of serviceability, and mounted a consistently high number of sorties against the enemy, something which is still not given its due recognition in the world.

No. 1 Sqn IAF moved into Imphal from Kohat on 3. 2. 44 and were continuously in action for fourteen months. In March, they flew 366 sorties totalling about 530 hrs. In April, 412 sorties, 485 hrs. In May, 372 sorties. June saw 327 sorties "in the face of adverse weather which rendered many a sortie abortive and while conversion of the squadron to another type was being effected." (Pg. 121 of the Official History). "Weather in August was very unfavourable and no flying was possible for eight days. Still the squadron flew 354 sorties totalling 466hrs 45 minutes." (italics mine).

Code Cards used by Recce Pilots.

(10) While the superlative Mitsubishi A6M Zero-Sen was also no doubt in Burma, the fighter used in greater numbers in that theatre by the IJAAF was the Nakajima Ki-43 Hayabusa (Peregrine Falcon), or the Oscar which, with a 'combat manoeuvre flap' under the wings, was a formidable fighter which could out-manoeuvre most Allied aeroplanes. In early 1944, the Japanese brought to Burma the Nakajima Ki-44 Shoki (Demon), or the Tojo. This signified a dramatic change in Japanese fighter philosophy which hitherto had emphasized manoeuvrability above all else. The Tojo ushered in the era of emphasis on greater speed. However, the small wings, higher landing speeds, poor take-off view and controllability issues (flick rolls were banned !) did not go to make it too popular amongst its pilots. These were brought to counter the threat of the Spitfires (three squadrons of V's and some VIII's). According to the Official history (pg. 105) "They also improved their tactics. They used decoy aircraft to draw the RAF while their camouflaged fighters flying above attacked their Spitfires. They adopted the defensive circle formation in combat and split into small groups when the circle was broken." During the course of March, April and May 1944, the Japanese had lost 120 aeroplanes, which forced them to abandon the Shwebo group of airfields, Heho and Meiktila, and prompted a move to the airfields around Rangoon. Whilst this greater distance impacted on the time they could spend over Allied-occupied territory, their superb range and endurance ensured that danger from Japanese fighters was ever-present. The Official History (pg. 120) states "Later, long-range reconnaissance was discontinued except on special instructions as several long range Hurricanes including one of No. 1 Squadron were shot down by the Japanese fighters. The extra petrol tank (sic) with which the aircraft had to be fitted for undertaking long range tasks reduced their speed rendering them easy targets for opposing fighters. Flying was therefore limited to within 100 miles radius of Imphal".

A brief, generic (different marks contained minor differences, and sometimes major ones, eg., the Tojo IIC had two 40mm cannon instead of 12.7mm machine guns whereas the III had two 20mm cannon. These have not been included in the interests of brevity) description of the principal actors will be of interest :

Name Engine Max Speed Range Armament
Zero 1200hp 350-360mph 1940 mils Two 20mm cannon, two 7.7mm machine guns
Oscar -Do- -Do- 1864 mls Two 7.7mm or 12.7mm machine guns
Tojo 1260-1520hp 360-376mph similar Two 12.7mm & two 7.7mm machine guns
Hurricane 1280hp 335-350mph 460mls Four 20mm cannon

A Photograph of two scale models shows showing the smaller wing span and length of the 'Tojo' (on the right) compared to the 'Oscar' (on the left).

A scale model of the Mitsubishi A6M2 Type 'OO' - The Incredible Zero


Copyright © MUKUND MURTY. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of MUKUND MURTY is prohibited.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

St Mary's in Fort St George, Madras : The Oldest Anglican Church East of Suez

St Mary's in Fort St George, Madras was first consecrated in 1680 which makes it the oldest Anglican church east of Suez . I have been a frequent visitor to this historic church which has seen continuous worship for all of its existence even if, during the 3-year occupation of Fort St George by the French (1746 - 49), it was put to other uses. During each of my several visits, I have marvelled at its construction and its monuments, all of them of historic significance.

But the impetus to post the story of this church came only about two weeks back when I took two visitors from London, Jeremy Warner-Allen and Christian Hobart, to see this old pile. I had quite some time back noted Christian's surname and, by pertinent or impertinent questioning, gathered that his family is the one which has a connection with Madras in that two of his ancestors were at different times Governors of Madras. Firstly Robert, Lord Hobart (1760 - 1816) later to succeed as the 4th Earl of Buckinghamshire , was Governor of Madras during 1793 -98. He went on to become Secretary of State for the Colonies and held other high office as well. He is the one after whom Hobart in Tasmania is named. And then, between 1872 -75,a second Lord Hobart, Vere Henry, was Governor of Madras. He died in Madras and is buried here. Christian's family connection with Madras is what took us three fogeys into the church one morning a couple of weeks ago. Of that visit more anon, let us now look into the story of the church itself.

The Decision to Build a Church

First, a beautiful aquatint engraving of the church drawn by Justinian Gantz, circa 1850. Have been looking to get one for myself, it is scarce but there is hope, serendipity is always round the corner :

The church is within Fort St George which is a fort, a fort being so necessary in those days for a secure trading post, that the British first completed in about 1653 and gradually enlarged to its present size as well as eminence as the seat of the state government. Overseas traders in those times needed fortifications to protect against lightning strikes by other European traders or, sometimes, by hostile local rulers. Here is a plan of the fort, drawn around 1700 -25 and published about 1726 :

The fort itself is at bottom left on the plan and and you can see the church within it by enlarging the picture.

The church was built with private contributions, the East India Company having no part in its building. The moving spirit behind the building of St Mary's was Governor Streynsham Master (1640 - 1724) who had been appointed to the post in 1678 after a number of years with the Company based in Surat on the west coast of India. Master (later Sir Streynsham Master) was known as a man who did not disobey orders but acted without them. Soon after taking up the appointment in January 1678 he determined, entirely on his own initiative and without reference to headquarters, that the settlement needed a proper church. Until then divine services had been held in the largest room in the fort, the Factors' common room, which served as a chapel besides being put to other uses. Master and his colleagues in council (a Governor in the days of the Company being a Governor in Council) contributed about half of the 800 odd Pagodas raised (about Sterling 400 then), the contribution of Elihu Yale, a Merchant on the Company's rolls, being 15 Pagodas. And the rest came mostly from other Merchants and Factors in the Company's service. Here is a portrait of Streynsham Master, lifted from the National Portrait Gallery site :

The Construction

William Dixon, Chief Gunner of the East India Company's Madras Establishment, was instructed by Master to build the church. In those times Gunners were also apparently the Engineers to the army. So, in the sense that Streynsham Master pressganged his Gunner into building the church, the East India Compaany did contribute, albeit involuntarily, to its constuction. There is a commemorative brass plaque inside the church to another Master Gunner, Edward Fowle, and on account of this plaque Fowle was previously credited with the building of the church. But the concordance to Madras history and, more than a concordance, an indispensable work for the history of the city is Col Henry Davison Love's " Vestiges of Old Madras ". And Love has pointed out that Dixon was the one in service at the relevant time and that Fowle arrived in Madras only after the completion of the church. Col Love knew his Dodwell & Miles (which needs a separate post one day) and also had access to source records in the Fort and had no doubt consulted the passenger lists of all the sailings of the period to Madras. So, Dixon it was and not Fowle. Here is the plan of the church, 80 feet by 56 as originally built ( the separate tower having been sometime later conjoined to the building).

The church is a typical fortified structure as one would expect a gunner's construction to be. But Dixon seems to have surpassed anything in this line. St Mary's is the ultimate bomb proof church with walls over five feet thick and a vaulted roof that is about four feet thick and not less than two feet at its thinnest point!

My outstretched arms span about 6'2" and wouldn't obviously wrap around the walls due to the open leaf of the window shutter which is about two foot wide (and there was still the bit of wall outside the window to enclose with my hands!). In fact, during the French bombardment of Madras in 1746, the church was the one building in the fort to come through unscathed. The French did damage the steeple when they attacked again in 1758 but that was not built by Dixon,the tower having been added in about 1701 and a spire in 1710.

Note how Dixon, first and foremost the Gunner, castellated the parapet. He also did not use any wood in the structure to make it fire proof in the event of bombing.The church, conceived as an impregnable little fortress, may look squat and solid on the outside, suggesting a Norman Keep , but Dixon gave it a lovely interior : a nave with two aisles and a gallery at the far end from the altar. The roofing is vaulted with rose ornaments in relief on the curved ceiling.

I should have said that the upkeep and maintenance of the church, declared a protected monument after independence, is under the care of the Archaeological Survey of India who do take good, if typically bureaucratic style, care of the premises.The church is clearly in need of painting but that is in progress and, in about three months it should look somewhat like this picture (from : which please visit as there are some other good pics as well ).

As the old oil (artist unknown ) I found in the church shows, it is a simple unpretentious design but the faintly classical touches are evident and the proportions seem just about right. This is all evident in the Gantz engraving at the top as well.

Mind you, from 1660 a classical revival was sweeping through England and Christopher Wren was building all those baroque masterpieces. And word must have reached Dixon of the trends back home but the styling of St Mary's seems to hark back to the churches of a previous age. Here is what the tower and spire at present look like with painting in progress :

And here is one from the Wikipedia page on the church, an uncluttered view : This original tower is not by Dixon and, after the bombing by the French in 1746 and again in 1759, it was extensively repaired and the spire added in about 1795. So, the detailing and ornamentation we see on the tower is almost certainly latterday.

The Naming & Consecration

Since construction commenced on 25th March 1678, Lady Day, it was decided to name the church St Mary's. I see from Wikipedia that until 1752, when the shift from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar was made, Lady Day was the New Year's day, a very appropriate choice of day to begin construction. The church was finished and duly consecrated on Thursday, the 28th of October 1680. The Fort had had a Chaplain on its establishment since 1676 and the incumbent in 1680 was Richard Portman. He had to have a special licence from the Bishop of London to consecrate the church which Streynsham Master obtained in time for the event. The notables and gentry no doubt trooped in on the appointed day and hour, led by Governor Streynsham Master. A memorial on behalf of the community was presented to Portman requesting him to accept "this our freewill offering" , to consecrate it and to set it apart from all profane and common use.

A Brief Look at the Annals of the Church

In comparison with churches in Europe and Asia Minor, this church has had a much shorter history but a no less eventful one. And let me remind you, it is the oldest Anglican place of worship in all Asia and therefore associated with a number of events and personalities in British Indian history. Which is what makes it special, in addition to its construction and its charming interior.

The church register, which is continuous since its 1680 inception, is preserved and the volumes from 1680 to 1819 are loaned to the Fort St George Museum, a stone's throw away from the church and certainly worth a visit. A copy in thick vellum of the original register, copied in the 18th century, is on display inside the church and all original records from 1819 onwards are also available in the church for inspection. The notable entries include :

The marriage of Elihu Yale to Catherine Hynmers, on 4th November 1680, the very first entry in the record and within a week of the original consecration with the Governor, Streynsham Master, giving away the bride. The lady was the widow of Joseph Hynmers, a Member in Council and friend of Yale, who had died in April of that year.

And David Yale, the son of Eli and Catherine Yale, is buried in the original churchyard, having died in 1688. Yale went on to become Governor of Madras (1687 - 92), amassed a fortune from his private trading and later endowed a building after his name in the college which later came to be called Yale University. And then Mary, Elizabeth and Katherine, daughters of Job Charnock the founder of Calcutta, were baptised on the 19th August 1689. They were Charnock's children by an extraordinarily beautiful Hindu widow who he had rescued from the funeral pyre of her husband as she was attempting to commit suttee (a custom we do not seem to have had in South India).

The most famous marriage recorded in the church register is, of course, that of Robert Clive to Margaret Maskelyne, 18t February 1753. Among the objects loaned to the Museum are the alms dish of silver some 17 " in diameter, presented by Elihu Yale, and a Bible, dating from 1660, Streynsham Master's personal copy. It was presented to the church in 1881 by G.C.Master of the Indian Civil Service, a descendant.

There are some other entries of interest to this blog, one of them being the christening of our friend, James Achilles Kirkpatrick (see previous post on Kitty Kirkpatrick). Also, there is the marriage of Henry Russell, Kirkpatrick's deputy at Hyderabad and, later, a successor as British Resident) to Jane Amelia Casamaijor. She died in 1808 aged 19, within four months of the marriage, and there is a beautiful memorial to her near the south door.

Now, the church was witness to its share of history, notably the French occupation of Madras (1746 - 49) as well as the French siege mounted in 1758. The church escaped both onslaughts unscathed but the French, during their occupation of the fort, used it as a water storage facility. It is unlikely that services were continued in this period, the English works, including that of Col Love, are mostly silent on this subject and not surprisingly, since they say history is written by the victor. But French is as Greek to your devoted blogger and until he can look up the diaries of Ananda Ranga Pillai, dubash or translator to and, in fact, confidant of Dupleix, nothing more can be said on the subject.

Inside the Church

Christian, Jeremy and I trooped in one weekday morning a couple of weeks back. As a frequent visitor over the years, I not only knew that there were many objects of interest in it for the two visitors but, espececially, that there were some Hobart inscriptions that Christian Hobart would like to see.

We entered, myself yet again noting the thickness of the walls. Immediately to the right, on a pillar beneath the gallery, is the memorial inscription to Margaretta, Baroness Hobart, and her son John. She was the wife of the Lord Hobart (1760 - 1816) who was Governor of Madras between 1793 - 98. Notch one for Christian.

Moving left and halfway up the centre aisle is the spot where Admiral Sir Samuel Hood, Bart who died in Madras in 1816 is interred and there is a tablet on the spot. He was the cousin of Admiral Hood, 1st Viscount, and almost equally famous, having fought in Nelson's Navy in senior commands. The photo of the tablet came out dark, so here is an engraving of the Admiral, c. 1807, from Wikipedia :

Moving up the aisle and standing on the chancel steps just below the choir stalls, it was my turn to be surprised : another Lord Hobart, Vere Henry, who was Governor in 1872 -75 is interred just below the steps, having pride of place or the senior position among all intra-mural interments, right perpendicular to the altar ! There is, of course, a memorial tablet on the spot and yet I had missed it even though I knew he had died in office in Madras and had, on previous visits, noted his marble bust behind the lectern. How come ? I realised that not only was the spot dark, being right centre of the centre aisle, but the tablet was oriented towards the altar . Quite a sensible presentation come to think of it but liable to be overlooked unless one can read upside down.

This must have pleased or at least surprised Christian no end for he would not have expected to connect with his ancestors in this way when we planned the visit. I had also not forewarned him. But he couldn't have been as surprised as I was on seeing the Hobart tablet, I am sure. Notch two but there was the bust awaiting his inspection and that too one by Matthew Noble (1817 - 76) a famous sculptor. Was this one of Noble's last works or was it finished by his studio after his death?

I gleaned from my tattered, old, second hand Debrett (1985) that Hobart is a courtesy title used by the heirs to the Earldom of Buckinghamshire, the Barony of Hobart having been elevated to the earldom many centuries ago. The Lord Hobart who is interred in the church obviously didn't succeed to the earldom, having predeceased his father. But the earldom still thrives albeit not at the family seat of Blickling in Norfolk (now with the National Trust, Christian tells me). The statue does Lord Hobart and the sculptor credit, the Governor is immaculate in his jacket, bow tie and carefully groomed beard, every inch the Victorian aristocrat. Here is Christian Hobart moments later (shot deliberately slightly out of focus to capture the surreal effect he might have been feeling at the time) wearing a beatific smile at having been able to touch the past in this totally unexpected way (he also quickly bought himself a copy of the church history).

The Altarpiece

Now we turned our attention to the altar piece, the famed altar piece of St Mary's. It is of the Last Supper, provenance previously unknown. It is reputedly captured from the French when Pondicherry was taken in 1761 and the British sacked the town and apparently repaid with interest the French looting of Fort St George in 1746. For a long time it was fondly thought to be Raphaelite, painted by his studio, with the chalice thought to have been added by the Master himself.

The truth is more prosaic but no less interesting for that. The painting is by George Willison (1741 - 97), a Scottish artist, who came out to Madras in 1774 with the help of his uncle George Dempster, a Director of the East India Company. Willison stayed on till 1780, quickly obtaining the patronage of Muhammad Ali, Nawab of the Carnatic, himself based in Madras by this time. Thanks to this patronage and other commissions, he returned to Scotland a very wealthy man. Besides some fine portraits of the Nawab (see below, it is from and other notables, Willison was also commissioned by Nawab Muhammad Ali to paint the St Mary's altar piece for 500 Pagodas.

But the Nawab was perpetually in debt, yet made a virtue out of necessity in that he exploited the venality of the British merchants by borrowing from them at excessively high interest. In this he seems to have anticipated the methods of the modern day perpetrators of the sub-prime crisis. Because as long as his debts, and the usurious interest on them, were outstanding he knew implicitly that he could keep juggling his nine balls in the air as his lenders were always at pains to bail him out. More good money after bad and the bubble never quite burst in his lifetime. Anyway, in 1809 the trustees of Willison's estate claimed the fee of 500 pagodas and fees for other unpaid works from the Nawab's debt commissioners (the Nawab too having passed on a decade before). So, that is the story of the altarpiece but it is still not widely known outside art history circles . The revised church history correctly attributes the picture to Willison but it seems likely that the church does not know the full facts and the exact evidence available.

The altarpiece may not be by Raphael but, at least to my untrained eye, it looks a grand picture worthy of the attribution, however incorrect. It also is remarkable that the Nawab decided to have an altarpiece commissioned for the church but this was not uncommon. The Hindu Princess of Tanjore provided the altar rails to the church in memory of her friend, Vere Henry, Lord Hobart shortly after his death.

Other Memorial Inscriptions

There are more than a few funerary monuments inside the church by John Flaxman and other well known sculptors. The one I liked best is a Flaxman for Josiah Webbe, a former Chief Secretaary to the Madras Government, who died in 1804 aged 37.

Webbe was one held in the highest regard by many including Arthur Wellesley, later the Duke of Wellington, who spent a few years in Madras during this period, using the city as a high command headquarters as it were, and knew Webbe well. It is known that the Duke kept an engraving of Webbe with him in a prominent spot in his house. He is known to have said of Webbe : "He was one of the ablest men I ever knew and, what is more, one of the most hinest".

Then, some plaques after my own heart : The first one is to a Commander-in-Chief of the Madras Army who earned his Victoria Cross in Lucknow during the mutiny in 1857. He was Lt Gen Macpherson and the brass plaque is kept lovingly polished.

And here is what, to me, is best of all : a tribute to the Indian soldier. It is a burnished copper plaque with scrollwork all round, commemorating the disbandment of three units of the celebrated Carnatic Infantry.

And below is a chromolithograph of mine showing the soldiers of each of the disbanded units (the 73rd Carnatic at extreme right, the 83rd Wallajahbad at third right and the 63rd Palamcottah fourth right, respectively Madras Mussulman, Christian and Tamil, i,e Hindu, the latter two being from the regions in the Tamil country whose names their units bore).

I nearly forgot to mention Sir Thomas Munro (1761 - 1827), a great Governor of Madras and a great man in his own right. He is the man who intorduced the system of revenue administration that is still, with minor regional variations, followed in India. He was Governor of the Presidency from 1820 until his death near Gooty, about 300 miles away. He was first buried in the churchyard at Gooty, a very picturesque spot (see watercolour below by Justinian Gantz, a famous Madras artist of the time), but reinterred inside St Mary's a couple of years later.

Sir Thomas Munro is interred slightly behind Lord Hobart in the centre aisle. ather than a visual of his tablet inscription, I prefer to give you one of an engraving of this great Governor and civil servant, a man who is greatly admired in this part of India. In this picture he is wearing the uniform of a Major General which was his military rank. It is an engraving that I am delighted with because it is what is known as a multiple method or combination print, handmade of course. Got it last year on the net for ten pounds thinking it was a plain engraving and etching. But it also has stipple on the face, liberal use of the roulette for the hair and aquatint for tone (in the background, the jacket etc). A truly nice engraving for a great personality and worth much more than I paid for it.

Other memorials include one to Frederick Christain Schwartz, a missionary held in great veneration by all and an intermediary between Hyder Ali and the British in the Mysore wars. Of him Hyder said : "Let him pass for he is a Holy Man", a sincere and ringing prnouncement across the ravages of war ! The usually tight fisted East India Company paid for this memorial by J.Bacon, another famous funerary sculptor, and had it shipped at great expense to Madras. The churchyard is paved with 104 graves which were in a cemetery a mile away. But the French used the tombstones as cover for their attack and bombardment in the 18th Century, so the graves were shifted to the churchyard. The graves include one of the oldest, if not the oldest, of the British in India, that of Elizabeth Baker who died in 1652.

Fort St George : the Church in Its Context

Below are some visuals of Fort St George, a grand setting within which St Mary's is located. The fort itself oozes history, Clive lived here as did Wellesley and his younger brother, the Duke, and there are many fine buildings within including the house where Robert Clive lived (the first one below).

And this one is where the principal secretariat of the state government functions. Note the grand pillars made of Pallvaram Gneiss, also known as Charnockite after Job Charnock (whose three daughters were baptised in the St Mary's font made of the same gneiss).

And a view inside the fort from an aquatint in my collection (but as my scanner isn't large enough, I have borrowed the British Library jpeg). Note that there is no spire to St Mary's as the picture, though engraved in 1804, was probably drawn in the 1770's when the artist was based in Madras (at which period the spire, earlier knocked out by the French, was yet to be rebuilt).

So, that is St Mary's in Fort St George, Madras where you can potter about for a whole afternoon (several afternoons actually) and be surprised at every turn. I had always thought this church deseves to be presented to the world many times over and have probably gone quite overboard in doing my bit for that cause. But it is a church by the sea, in the magnificent setting of the fort, a church where Clive got married, Wellington worshipped (he witnessed a marriage too and the register has captured it) and which continues to have a small but loyal and steadfast congregation. It is under the very good care of the Church of South India and known the world over. The Prince of Wales came for its three hundredth anniversary and I am sure the church will go on for a few thousand years. As a resident of Madras I, like many others in this city,take pride in this little church and its historical associations. I leave you now with visuals of the the baptismal font made of Charnockite and of the Governor's gallery, all Mahogany and Burmah Teak, beautifully carved over three centuries ago.