HUNT FOR THE TIGER OF BURMA
The above painting, oil on canvas, 24 X 18, was commissioned in 2006 under collaboration from Ron Vickers and Charlie Walker of Batley, and presented to the Crawford family of London Ontario. It is a cherished family treasure and now hangs in the home of Ken Crawford.
On the 18th June 1942 a flight of three Blenheims from 113 Squadron were briefed to bomb the Headquarters of the infamous Japanese General known as the "Tiger of Malaya" which was suspected to have been located along a river near Myitkyina. It was to be an operation beset with problems from the very beginning and ultimately ending in tragedy. The weather was already turning foul that morning at their crude base in Tezpur with the rain driving in sheets and gusts buffeting the aircraft as the ground crew readied them for the mornings Ops. Meanwhile, if the miserable weather was not bad enough, S/Ldr Harper, a veteran pilot from Canada with over 100 operations to his credit, who was leading the flight that morning awoke to find he was a man short and at the last minute dragged a sleepy F/Sgt Harold Kevan out of bed to fill in for his missing WOp/Ag. Off to a late start, the three crews, S/Ldr Harper DFC and crew, F/Sgt Tapp and crew, and Sgt Hockney and crew, gathered together and after briefly reviewing their route stepped out of the shelter of their hut into the driving rain and trudged through the mud toward their parked aircraft. The day was about to get worse and they hadn't even left the ground yet. As each of the three Blenheims roared to life, F/Lt Lorne Tapp, also a longtime veteran pilot from Canada, throttled his back down and signaled to S/Ldr Harper he had a problem. One of his engines would not reach proper rev's, the morning was becoming a disaster. As the two men stood outside hunched against the wind and rain talking, what was said can only be guessed but S/Ldr Harper for reasons known only to him, offered to switch kites with F/Lt Tapp and so they did. Little did either probably know, but F/Lt Tapp's cantankerous Blenheim MkIV, Z7892 was a flying wreck with a long history of problems and patched battle damage. Had they known, it probably would have made little difference, these were two of the most experienced pilots on the squadron at the time and both had already served in some of the worst conditions and theaters of the war. This however was a blessing and a curse, considering weather alone, most others would likely have scrubbed the mission by now. For S/Ldr Harper, certainly a large motivation, maybe blindly so, was this rare opportunity to settle a debt with the Tiger of Malaya. Harper was one of the few who narrowly escaped the fall of Singapore and knew full well of the horrific atrocities committed by the Japanese against his friends who surrendered there.
With S/Ldr Harper now at the controls of Z7892, the three Blenheims finally lifted off from Tezpur and banked toward Dinjan where they were to refuel before heading on to Myitkyina. In the face of a rapidly developing monsoon the trio made Dinjan safely and one wonders what they all talked about while they awaited refueling. They still had a long way to go and the weather was rapidly getting worse, presumably Z7892 was behaving better because despite all they decided to carry on.
Finally enroute to their target near Myitkina, their hopeless bad luck continued to plague them. They were not airborne long before visibility dropped to near zero forcing the formation to split up, this to prevent colliding with each other. They were to see each other but once again briefly for the rest of the mission. Now alone, being severely tossed about by the storm, the fate of the three aircraft would fall heavily on the Navigators and their ability to plot blind under impossible conditions. At some point, unbeknownst to the others, Sgt Hockney began experiencing engine trouble and turned back to base where he was to land safely. Now there were two.
Meanwhile F/Sgt Tapp somehow managed to reach the target area and decided to bomb the aerodrome at Myitkynia as there were 4 large twin engined aircraft in it. Presumably he was fortunate to find a clearing over the area and noted his bombs to fall in a stick at the North East of the runway about 5O yards from the twin engined aircraft. F/Sgt Tapp then safely returned to TEZPUR.
The aircraft of S/Ldr Harper was never seen again. On debriefing F/Lt Tapp reported that he had not seen the aircraft of S/Ldr Harper over the target area, and had only once seen it briefly after they had split up in the cloud. Notwithstanding, F/Lt Tapp did not reach the intended target so it is impossible to say whether S/Ldr Harper and his crew did, and were shot down, or perished as a result of the storm. Possibly their faulty aircraft finally gave out and they crash landed in the jungle. We will never know.
Pilot S/Ldr Clifton Harper DFC and his crew Observer P/O A.L. Beauchamp RAAF and WOp/Ag F/Sgt Harold Kevan RAAF were posted Missing In Action. Neither their bodies or the aircraft were ever found. Undobutedly, the crew of F/Sgt Tapp would never forget that had they not switched aircraft at the last moment, it would have been them. So often it was but such meaningless luck that determined who lived and who died.