5045 Ralph Awrey Remembers: Dakotas to India

“I learned a valuable life lesson in dealing with bureaucrats. Get it in writing!”

Article by 5045 Ralph Awrey

On November 6, 1962, a North Star mother ship and six C47 Dakotas left RCAF base Trenton for New Delhi, India. This was during the border war between India and China and the six Dakotas were Canada’s military hardware donation in support of India’s war effort. Despite their vintage, the Daks were extremely useful as flexible and reliable aircraft for troop resupply in the main battleground – the Himalayas.

I have no idea when or how the decision was taken to mount this effort. Lowly Flying Officer navigators were not privy to these state secrets. Perhaps the eminent Canadian military historian Jack Granatstein (a classmate of mine at CMR and RMC) has seen the relevant documents during his research efforts and can enlighten us in a future article.

How the various Air Transport Command crew members (including pilots, navigators, radio officers, flight mechanics, airframe mechanics, electrical and electronic technicians) were chosen is also a mystery. Our theory was that we were chosen for our experience, expertise and all round excellence. The truth may be that our various Squadron Commanders deemed us the most expendable. I prefer the expertise theory.

Regardless of how or when these decisions were taken, approximately 50 Air Transport Command “volunteers” assembled at Trenton for briefings and inoculations early in November 1962. I remember three highlights from these briefings:

  • As we would be flying through airspace skirting Soviet territory we received a top secret intelligence briefing from an un-named External Affairs officer. Afterwards I was handed a copy of the latest Time magazine by one of our crew members. It contained the top-secret information almost word for word!
  • For the duration of this mission we were to be seconded to External Affairs from the RCAF. One initiative suggested by External Affairs was to “hide” our nation of origin by painting over all RCAF and other identifying insignia. Supposedly this would prevent us from being shot down if we inadvertently strayed over Soviet territory. Our Commanding Officer raised such a fuss that this lame brained idea was quickly ditched. We preferred the RCAF insignia, not striped pants and a bowler hat.
  • Much more acceptable was the External Affairs expense policy. As the cost of hotels and food varied widely at our destinations, we would be reimbursed on an actual expense basis rather than the standard military per diem rate. This news was received without a dissenting voice. Some of us “licked our chops”.

Other events at Trenton are long gone from my memory. I assume that the ground crews got the planes into top-notch shape for the long journey and filled the North Star with the requisite spare parts. The bottom line measure of their professional excellence is that there were no mechanical, electrical or instrument snags during the operation. No doubt while this was happening the aircrews did their thing with respect to charts, maps and flight planning. And no doubt we played bridge.

We departed Trenton at 1120 hours on November 6th and arrived in New Delhi at 1420 hours on November 22nd. Sixty flying hours and sixteen days! Our itinerary was Trenton to Goose Bay to Keflavik to Prestwick to Marville to Rome to Ankara to Teheran to Sharja to Jamnagar to New Delhi. This may seem like an overly long journey but we were flying Dakotas not SSTs. And due to a very strange weather phenomenon we were “forced” to lay over in Rome for 3 days due to fog. Beautiful sunny weather in Rome with dangerous fog conditions at the airfield. Strange indeed.

Some remembrances of that 16-day journey:

  • In Teheran (long before the Ayatollah!) there was a unique pricing system in the bars. And I was its first victim. Yours truly offered to buy the first round. Unfortunately the first round was extremely pricey ($10 per drink). The per unit cost was reduced significantly for each subsequent round. The crew took pity on me and we pooled the costs and each paid the average.
  • Breakfast at the Sharja RAF base was a carbon copy of the many breakfasts I had previously at the RAF base in Tripoli, Libya (a staging point for UN re- supply missions to the Congo). Bangers, beans, runny eggs and stone cold toast. We even had to pay for this “food”.
  • In Rome our aircraft were parked at an American base and we enjoyed the usual superb USAF hospitality, including good North American food. We did get entangled with one rather large, irate USAF airman. The conversation went something like this:

He: Are you Canadians?

We: Yes.

He: Do you have to do this 5BX exercise stuff?

We: No.

He: You bastards! We have to get up each morning at six to do your damned exercises.

We: Sorry about that.

During the last leg from Jamnagar to New Delhi our well co-ordinated team effort broke down a bit. At one point the six Daks were strung out across the sky in a rather loose formation and were being flown by a crew of irregulars. In our plane I was in the Captain’s seat and the Radio Officer was in the right hand seat. The Co-pilot was asleep at my navigation table and the Captain was at the R.O.’s position playing with the radio gear.  I was told that this arrangement was more or less replicated in all the Daks. As usual the North Star left Jamnagar before us and with its superior speed (still well under 200 knots) arrived in New Delhi long before us. I don’t know what the state of aircrew positioning was on the North Star, but given that the CO was on board I assume the crew played their conventional roles. As we approached Delhi the pilots resumed their rightful positions and landed us safely.

Upon arrival we were gushed over and treated royally by the Indians – military and civilian alike. When we straggled into the lobby of our hotel it was chaos. A large crowd of people looking for rooms and very long line-ups. The manager took us in hand and whisked us to the front of the line. We got the best rooms and bumped some with reservations. Being Canadians we were embarrassed by this treatment and protested the preferential treatment. The manager and his staff ignored us.

After a short layover and some touring we received our marching orders for home in typical crisp, orderly RCAF fashion. Get back to your home base when feasible and by some route or another. If we wanted we could go back to Trenton on the North Star. The Radio Officer and I had both flown North Stars with 426 Transport Squadron and had first hand knowledge of the pleasures of being a North Star passenger. We’d seen too many soldiers stagger off these planes with curved spines and no hearing after 12 to 16 hours flights. Canvas seats and four Rolls Royce Merlin engines had that effect. We declined that offer in a nanosecond and hitched a ride to London on an RAF Comet. This was not difficult as RAF and USAF planes arrived continuously (seemed like every 10 minutes) to deliver munitions. As no one knew when (or even if) we were expected to report for duty in Canada, we granted ourselves a week of R&R in London. Then a short flight to Marville and on home in either the dreaded North Star of some other ATC species of plane.

Upon reporting for duty at Downsview the first order of business was to document and submit my expense account. I had kept receipts for all legitimate, actual expenses as instructed by the External Affairs briefer. The base bean counter laughed and suggested I resubmit on a per diem basis. When he was advised of the “deal” with External Affairs he laughed again. My plea to the CO was rejected also. Their view was the secondment to External Affairs never happened and that military rules applied. I was out $500 and could do nothing about it. I felt like Yossarian. Despite this massive hit on my finances the mission was positive in many ways.

  • The itinerary was a great deal more exciting than the usual Downsview to Goose Bay or Downsview to Chatham /Moncton/Shearwater routes.
  • Our reception in India was exciting and provided, once again, first hand experience on how well respected Canada is around the world. Our humble donation of six Dakotas was as important to the Indians as the tons of munitions poured in by the UK and the US.
  • I learned a valuable life lesson in dealing with bureaucrats. Get it in writing!

One Comment

  • Norm Lee 4231

    January 28, 2020 at 2:23 pm

    Ralph – As an old Dak driver from the 60’s at Winnipeg Air Nav School, I would gladly have paid $500 out of my pocket to be part of your most exciting operation. Very well written. You made me very envious.