India & S.E. Asia

Presently, the information presented on this site about R.A.F. beach units in the India and South-East Asia Commands covers the operations of No. 6 R.A.F. Beach Unit from January 1945 to June 1945, the short life of No. 7 R.A.F. Beach Squadron (formed in August 1945 and disbanded after seven weeks) and the following account of the early period of development.

In February 1943, the Combined Operations Directorate at G.H.Q. of the India Command reported that two R.A.F. Beach Parties each consisting of two officers and six airmen had been formed. The personnel for these R.A.F. Beach Parties had been drawn from the R.A.F. Regiment. They went through a full course of training that included participation in Combined Operations exercises.[1]

Flying Officer Glen McBride, who had been assigned to the R.A.F. Regiment in India, volunteered for Combined Operations and trained at the Combined Training Centre at Madh Island in the early summer of 1943.

“I had a week’s instruction in Bombay, then I left for Madh Island, thirty miles (48km) to the north, to do a Combined Operations course with the Indian Army. At Madh Island I found organisation, efficiency and thoroughness; the work and schooling each day was a pleasure. The school was under the command of Brigadier Reynolds, for whom I had a great admiration. With the R.A.F., senior and junior officers rarely lowered their dignity to do ordinary things. Knights in the air they might be, but on the ground they displayed a reluctance to get their feet wet or their hands soiled. There never seemed to be any comradeship between officers and men in the R.A.F. At Madh Island with the Army I learned that there could be proper discipline and effective comradeship. Even the Brigadier didn’t think it was beneath him to slosh through mud with his men and stay wet for 24 hours on end. And no officer asked a man to do anything he couldn’t do himself.

One day we embarked on L.C.A.s (Landing Craft, Assault) for an exercise, attacking a beach. There were 35 men in each L.C.A., and we had to stay crouched on the floor of the boat till it hit the beach. Then the draw-bridge would be lowered with a clang and the whole 35 of us, loaded with guns and kit, were expected to disembark within twelve seconds. We formed three lines in the boat, the centre line moving out first, then the starboard, then the port. The only men with a view of the beach were the coxswain on one side and the gunner on the other.

The Brigadier was with us this day and he sat on the side of the boat with his watch in his hand. At our first landing, onto clean hard sand, we took fifteen seconds to disembark. “I know you can do better than that,” said the Brigadier when we came back after having taken cover in the undergrowth a hundred feet (30m) away. “Let’s try again.”

We crouched on the floorboards again and the boat put out to sea. It turned back to the beach again within a few seconds, hit the shore, down went the draw-bridge, and like demons the first men leaped out, into mud a foot thick! It took us completely by surprise, for we expected the hard sand again. But the Brigadier’s voice was urging us on, and we made all the speed we could through the mud to the cover of the brush. Loaded with gun and pack we sploshed and squelched through the heavy mud that tried to drag the boots off our feet. As we lay panting in the undergrowth we were joined by the Brigadier and the other officers directing the exercise. They were as dirty and muddy as we were.

Our training covered a wide variety of subjects. Naval officers gave us lectures and demonstrated with models the part the Navy would play in a Combined Operation. And R.A.F. officers explained their side of the work. Army officers from all branches of the service lectured and arranged practical exercises so that the whole operation would be seen as a complete picture.

We swam rivers in full kit, climbed cliffs, crossed ravines, learned how to pass through barbed wire entanglements, and did long route marches. I loved it.”[2]

However, in spite of such enthusiasm, the Combined Operations Directorate in India decided, in the summer of 1943, to replace the R.A.F. Regiment personnel in the Beach Parties with a different set of personnel.

The Combined Operations Directorate at G.H.Q. of the India Command at this time consisted of a Group Captain R.A.F. who was the Director, a Lieutenant Colonel who was the Military Member and a Lieutenant Commander who was the Naval Member, together with a small staff from the three services. The Director also acted as a member of the Air Staff dealing with combined operations questions, while the Military Member was an integral part of the Staff Duties Directorate at G.H.Q.[3]

As a result of the Combined Operations exercises in India and taking into consideration the experience gained from Operation “TORCH”, the Combined Operations Directorate (India) concluded that the existing establishment of the R.A.F. Beach Parties was inadequate. The main reasons were given in a letter to Combined Operations Headquarters, London dated 8th July 1943.[4]

  • The Flight Lieutenant in command of the Beach Party was not sufficiently senior to be able to hold his own with Army representatives. R.A.F. requirements were therefore apt to be overlooked in the stress of action.
  • There was insufficient R.A.F. representation on the assault ships to advise on the handling of R.A.F. equipment.
  • It was considered necessary that the R.A.F. should also be represented at the R.A.O.C. and R.A.S.C. dumps and with the R.E.M.E. park.

The enthusiastic F/O McBride and his R.A.F. Regiment colleagues were removed from Combined Operations. The new establishment that had been decided upon was as follows:-

  • 1 x Squadron Leader Equipment Officer Commanding Beach Party
  • 2 x Flying Officer Equipment one for each Beach
  • 2 x Flight Sergeant Equipment Assistant to assist the Flying Officers
  • 6 x Sergeant Equipment Assistant one per ship, one for R.A.O.C. dump, one for R.A.S.C. dump
  • 2 x Sergeant ACH/GD one for each Beach
  • 4 x Aircraftman ACH/GD one for each Beach, two for O.C. Beach Party
  • 1 x Corporal M.T. Fitter for attachment to R.E.M.E. park

The total for the new establishment was, therefore, 3 Officers and 15 Other Ranks.

The Combined Operations Directorate (India) were aware that the Middle East and the U.K. had, in the meantime, drawn up their own establishments for R.A.F. beach units. These were based on the same fundamentals but were on a more generous scale, having 5 Officers and approximately 35 Other Ranks each. However, India settled for a smaller unit establishment as there was a shortage of shipping space.

Not long after these decisions were made, and following the arrival of the new Commander-in-Chief of the India Command, Field Marshal Sir Claude Auchinleck, the Combined Operations Directorate at G.H.Q., India was re-organised, or rather, re-constituted with greater strength and authority.

The new Directorate was to consist of a Rear Admiral as Director, with a Captain R.N., a Brigadier, and an Air Commodore as Deputy Directors. Rear Admiral E. H. Maund was appointed by the Admiralty as Director on the 25th August 1943, and arrived in India on the 16th October.[5]

A new South-East Asia Command was formed but it was decided that the Director of Combined Operations (India) should remain under the Commander-in-Chief of India Command. South-East Asia Command, under its Supreme Allied Commander Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten, was to be responsible for operations but India Command was responsible for training. Training for Combined Operations had to be stepped up and a second Combined Training Centre was opened at Coconada on the East coast of India.

The further development and deployment of R.A.F. beach units under India Command and South-East Asia Command is a subject requiring further research and it is hoped that further information will be available here before too long.

However, it seems that the establishment of R.A.F. Beach Units in South-East Asia Command did not change much in the next 18 months. In February 1945 the actual establishment of No. 6 R.A.F. Beach Unit was as follows:-

  • 1 x Squadron Leader Equipment Officer, Commanding Beach Unit
  • 2 x Flying Officer Equipment, one Explosives specialist at dumps
  • 9 x Sergeant Equipment Assistant, 2 at Ordnance dump, 2 at Petrol dump, 2 at Ammunition dump, 2 on beach, one floating reserve.
  • 2 x Sergeant Service Police on beach
  • 2 x Sergeant ACH/GD, one at Unit Headquarters, one floating reserve
  • 4 x Aircraftman ACH/GD, one at Ammunition dump, 3 at Unit Headquarters
  • 1 Aircraftman M.T. Fitter, Jeep driver/mechanic

Actual establishment therefore totalled: 3 Officers, 13 Sergeants and 5 Aircraftmen.[6]

As can be seen, all the N.C.O.s were Sergeants (i.e. there were no Flight Sergeants) but the main difference seems to be the addition of two R.A.F. Police Sergeants.

[1] New Establishment for R.A.F. Beach Parties (India) – July 1943, DEFE 2/1022, at The National Archives

[2] “D-DAY on Queen’s Beach Red: An Australian’s War from the Burma Road Retreat to the Normandy Beaches” by Glen McBride, Prof. G McBride Jr., Queensland, 1994, Pages 95-96

[3] “OPERATIONS IN THE INDO-BURMA THEATRE BASED ON INDIA FROM 21 JUNE 1943 TO 15 NOVEMBER 1943” Despatch submitted to the Secretary’ of State for War on the 22nd November, 1945, by FIELD MARSHAL SIR CLAUDE J. E. AUCHINLECK, G.C.B., G.C.I.E., C.S.I., D.S.O., O.B.E.,A D.C., Commander-in-Chief, India. Published as a supplement to The London Gazette of 27th April 1948 (Gazette Issue 38274) Section 17. Combined Operations—Organisation and Training Pages 2667, 2668. [Seen at]

[4] New Establishment for R.A.F. Beach Parties (India) – July 1943, DEFE 2/1022, at The National Archives

[5] as [3] above.

[6] Operations Record Book of No. 6 RAF Beach Unit – found in, ‘Air Ministry and Ministry of Defence: Operations Record Books, Miscellaneous Units’ AIR 29/438 at The National Archives.