92 year old Harry Silverman, with his cousin Stewart Dresner, on a recent visit to the De Havilland Mosquito Museum, St Albans

One Flew Over The River Kwai

My Wartime Brush with the RAF

A fascinating account by Sgt. Harry Silverman • Service number 1217954

I volunteered for the RAF on 13th March 1941 together with my brother, Barry, who was 18 months younger than me. We went to the RAF Recruitment Office, Kingsway, Holborn, in central London. The staff thought I was 14 and a half but I assured them that I was 20 and studying at the St. Martins School of Art.

There was a problem at first because our parents were originally from Bodegen, near Bucharest, Romania – and Romania was an ally of Germany. However, this was resolved when we explained that we were both thankful to the UK for giving our family an opportunity to settle here. We were both allowed to join.

Barry went for some preliminary assessment in Harrogate, where I visited him shortly before he departed for Rhodesia to train as a pilot. We next met after the war had ended.

I was first sent to Cardington, in Oxfordshire, an RAF staging post, to be interviewed to assess my suitability for various training courses, and where we were measured for uniforms.

Taking off

After assessments, I went to an RAF technical school in Locking, Weston-super-Mare, where there were RAF and civilian instructors who taught us to fulfil our individual roles for posting to specific squadrons. Some were aircraft fitters and engine fitters and I was allocated to the first group. I moved up the grades from AC2 to AC1 and then to Leading Aircraftman. I learned about aircraft maintenance and specialised in the hydraulics responsible for ensuring that the planes’ undercarriages could be lowered and raised.

Subsequently, I was posted to No. 2 Flying Training Squadron at RAF Brize Norton in South Cerney, near Cirencester, Gloucestershire, where Spitfire pilots were trained to escort many of the two or four engine bombers to their targets, for example, in Norway and Germany. Some raids included 1,000 planes hitting Germany and others were carried out with the Horsa wooden gliders, carrying combat troops, that were attached to the bombers and released over their targets – many suffered heavy losses. Brize Norton was the starting point for many pilots’ careers who learned to fly on Gypsy Moth training aircraft. I was privileged to know some pilots who went on to win the Distinguished Flying Cross.

After intensive training, I worked on Avro Anson twin engine fixed wheel aircraft training planes where the hydraulic systems included controlling the flaps and brakes, and Airspeed Oxford twin engine aircraft, used for training crews for bombing raids.

My next posting was to a Coastal Command Squadron at Tyree, Mull of Kintyre, in the Hebrides off Western Scotland where I worked on four engined Halifax bombers and had my first contact with the pilots of the United States Army Air Forces (USAAF) and their four engine Liberator bombers. These also had the job of looking at weather patterns, flying high over the Atlantic Ocean on lengthy missions.

Bitten by Mosquitoes

My role extended to servicing aircraft going on bombing expeditions and twin engined Mosquitoes fighter bomber used for air reconnaissance. I then became attached to a Mosquito 684 Squadron and subsequently stayed with it.

After the war, I discovered that these aircraft were built by Jewish cabinet and furniture makers, who had been drafted in to produce them as part of their war effort, a contribution which has been completely unrecognised

Art imitates life

Eventually, the Squadron Leader discovered that I was an artist. He asked me to make some drawings which showed some modifications to the hydraulic systems on the planes which increased their efficiency. The technical drawings were used for training purposes. I also drew cartoons for airmen friends, even the Squadron Leader. As I was soon on good terms with him, he asked me to produce some drawings based on photos of his wife and other members of his family.

Passage to India

Everything changed when I was posted to India on 12th December 1944. I left from Liverpool on the troop ship Orduna (formerly the luxury P&O cruise ship the Britannia), on a six week voyage to Bombay via the Bay of Biscay and the Suez Canal. The army staging post in India taken over by the RAF was called Doollally. This is the origin of the phrase 'to go doollally' meaning 'to go nuts'. My first posting in South East Asia Command was Alipore, near Calcutta, the base for many squadrons. From there, RAF and USAAF air forces flew on missions to their specific targets. Many US units in India were fighting the Japanese forces: acting in support of South East Asia Command under Lord Louis Mountbatten; and supplying the Chinese Nationalist army in Chunking, led by Chiang Kai Shek, who was fighting the Japanese forces.

684 Squadron continued bombing and photo reconnaissance missions, returning with photographs of the areas to be bombed. When developed, the photographs were edited and mounted to show the exact locations to be bombed.

One day, I returned to our mess (dining area) where Daily Routine Orders (DROs) were pinned on the board. All Jewish personnel of both the RAF and the USAAF were invited to report for a 4 day Passover visit to Bombay. It started with a two day train journey to get there where we were welcomed by the Jewish community. We visited the Ezra family estate which turned out to be an unforgettable experience, including meeting a pretty girl whose family were from Persia. Passover celebrations were held at a large venue, Monsoon Square Gardens, where almost 1,800 RAF and USAAF Jewish personnel met and prayed together. Some of the Americans had flown in by Dakota DC45 bombers, which were used everywhere in India and Burma to carry troops and supplies.

Spreading my wings

I was then posted for a short time to 142 Squadron Forward Rescue Service in Agatala. I occasionally went unofficially on rescue missions, flying in Dakota DC4 aircraft to find the aircraft and rescue the men whose planes had crashed in the jungle areas. We often landed on a strip made of metal rods which had been laid in advance.

I soon became something of a mascot with some of the USAAF crews because I often painted cartoons of their wives and girlfriends on the sides of aircraft, such as Mitchell bombers and Thunderbolt fighter planes.

I remained with 684 Squadron which was now advancing with the British 14th 'Forgotten' Army, under the command of General William Slim. We advanced from Alipore, near Calcutta, to Rangoon, Burma; on to Singapore, where a group of us was allowed off the troopship, Circassia, to visit Raffles Hotel; and then on to Saigon in French Indochina, now Vietnam, where the American army was commanded by General 'Vinegar' Joe Stillwell.

A change of scene

It was at this point in my RAF career that the next chapter began: the most exciting period of my life. I was ordered to report to the adjutant (a staff officer who assists the commanding officer in implementing orders). It was a huge surprise when he told me that I would be posted to Calcutta. I was flown alone in a twin engine Beaufort fighter plane, piloted by Sgt. Butcher, who placed me in the dorsal turret. We flew low over the Burmese rice fields and the River Kwai and landed in Calcutta.

Lt. Philip Hinden met me with a car, and I was taken to 101, Park Street, Calcutta, where I was introduced to Col. Jack Hawkins, the famous film actor, who later starred in films, such as 'Bridge over the River Kwai'. He invited me to join the Entertainments National Service Association (ENSA) , set up to provide entertainment to the troops.

I was billeted at 101 Park Street, Calcutta, as were others who had been chosen from the army, navy and air force to join ENSA. Several stars entertained the troops including Gracie Fields, Pearl Carr, Frankie Howard, Roger Livesey and Ursula Jeans, John Gielgud, Elsie and Doris Waters who were directed by Noel Coward. Even Jackie Coogan, the American film star, arrived to entertain the American troops.

I became the official set designer and Creative Director for the ENSA Garrison Theatre, designing the décor and publicity for the shows, including plays and musicals. An example was Jan Cobel’s Anglo Polish Ballet. I discussed each show with the director and choreographer. Together, we developed a concept and a plan. I drew sketches and then Asian scenery painters, under the leadership of Jahar Lal Kandu, painted the scenery. We became great friends and were both credited with the décor in the theatre programmes.

We entertained the troops fighting the Japanese who had invaded Burma and India. The Japanese Army was repulsed at the battle of Kohima and was then eventually pushed back by the Allied 14th Army to Saigon.

Entertainers who performed for ENSA included four wonderful Jewish jazz musicians from Palestine, who played much to the delight of the allied service people. They had served with the Jewish Battalion which had fought alongside the British armies in Germany. This four piece band wowed the audiences at the Garrison Theatre and received tremendous applause. I learned about the atrocities in Europe and later discovered that the band were members of the Irgun Zvai Leumi who played a role in the birth of the State of Israel.

And back to Blighty

In my Certificate of Service and Release, my Officer Commanding wrote: “Sgt. H. Silverman, since his attachment to ENSA, has proved invaluable in the art department as a designer in play sets, revue settings and posters. His lettering for the latter is exceptionally good and his imagination for scenic design is excellent. We shall be sorry to lose him.”

After the end of the war, I stayed in India for a year, was demobbed from 101 Park Street, Calcutta, on 6 July 1946, and returned to Liverpool by ship, another voyage of six weeks. 684 Squadron lined the decks as India grew dimmer as we sailed away with our memories. I looked at my watch that one of my American friends in the USAAF had given me as a gift. I had asked for the time as we worked together on the Mitchell bombers in Alipore. The hands were stuck at 1.30am. as we drew away from the Gateway to India Archway. I never wound it again – and I still have it in my heart and in my possession today.


There is a memorial to the 14th Army soldiers at the Gateway to Kohima in Northern India to honour 'The Forgotten Army', as it was known, who never returned home: 'When you go home, tell them about us…and say for their tomorrow we gave our today.'

Harry Silverman, as told to Stewart Dresner

10 October 2013

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