Desert Mysteries, Part Two

John Tull, Going Postal
Kite balloon behind Candian lines.
Kite balloon behind Candian lines,
Unknown photographer
Out of copyright

In Part 1, I described how, from the signatures on the front cover of a June 1939 edition of “Blackwood’s Magazine” purchased from an antiques fair, I found that the original owner, Edward Davis Moore, was an old Hereford farmer who turned out to have been a desert explorer and pioneer of desert warfare in his youth. But what of the other signatories, “F. Woolley Smith” and “Paddy O’Connor”?

With the clue of an Assam Post Office address on the front, I researched British tea planters in Assam in the 1930s and discovered an “F. Woolley Smith” amongst them on an incomplete list.

Through using Family History and Military History websites, I have now discovered the even more amazing life of “F. Woolley Smith”.

Born in 1897, Frank Woolley Smith had joined the 2/5th Battalion Sherwood Foresters and had become its signals officer early in World War 1. In July 1917, his battalion was in France in the trenches at Villiers-Plouich when its commander Lt Colonel G. H. St Hill was shot dead by a sniper.

Frank was given the duty of being sent back to England with his Colonel’s possessions to return them to his widow in London. The Colonel’s widow apparently took Frank under her wing, and it was through her introductions that Frank became post war a tea planter in Assam, India.

Frank then transferred to the Royal Flying Corps and became an observer with 29 Kite Balloon Section. On the 27th of October 1918 he wrote in a letter home: “Very early in the morning, we were aroused by the sound of a fighter plane of unusual type circling round overhead and gradually descending, obviously looking for a place to land. Something appeared to be wrong as the engine seemed either to be at full throttle or else had completely cut out.

After a couple of circuits, the plane came in to land at considerable speed, struck some strands of barbed wire and upturned onto its back. It was only about fifty yards away and with men of my section I rushed to extricate the pilot before a possible fire took place. He was pinned underneath, obviously badly wounded and only partially conscious.”

The pilot he rescued was the Canadian William George “Billy” Barker, VC, DSO & Bar, MC & Two Bars.

Frank then went on to receive the Distinguished Flying Cross for “Air Heroism”.

His London Gazette citation reads, “On one occasion, his balloon was brought down in flames, his parachute did not open properly, and he fell very rapidly; fortunately, a tree broke his fall and saved him from what seemed certain death. Although badly shaken, he volunteered at once to ascend in another balloon. On a later date, when engaged in the registration for one of our batteries, his balloon was burnt. After parachuting down, he at once ascended in another balloon and completed his task.”

Frank was shot down three times from observation balloons but fortunately survived the remaining months of the war before he went to live in Assam to work on a tea estate. In January 1932, he married Helen Everest, formerly of Rugby, in Calcutta, India and in 1935 they had a daughter born in Hoogrijan, Assam.

By the time the Second World War started, he had joined the volunteer Assam Light Horse Brigade as well as hunting the tigers that threatened workers in his tea gardens.

In December 1941, the Japanese invaded China and went on to attack Hong Kong where the garrison managed to hold out for 17 days before being overwhelmed. Ahead of the Japanese advance, the remaining British civilians had to evacuate themselves, some by literally walking from Hong Kong to India. There had been a planned evacuation that took place in 1940 but by 1941 the remaining inhabitants had effectively been abandoned by the British Government who would not allow any RAF planes to be used to ferry them out and had stopped an attempt to use a civil aircraft.

His citation for the award of an OBE in 1942 for his actions in helping the evacuees from Burma and China escape from the Japanese reads: “Mr. Woolley-Smith took charge of the evacuee route from Shinbwigang via the Pangsu Pass when evacuation by this route started. In spite of a very frail constitution his qualities of leadership were magnificent. He administered his charge from Nanpong Camp, 36 miles from railhead and was constantly ahead of this point dealing with the difficulties that arose in forward camps and encouraging those stationed in these camps. His work was invaluable and was performed with complete disregard of his own personal safety and comfort.”

The camps were organised by the Indian Tea Association with the “difficulties” being large numbers of refugees suffering from mental and physical exhaustion, starvation and diseases such as cholera and who were, as well as British and Indians, Gurkhas, Burmans, Italians, Poles, Swedes, Jamaicans and West Indians.

Frank was then involved in the construction of the Ledo Road in 1943, an overland connection between India and China that started from the railhead in Ledo, Assam and was built to resupply the Chinese forces under Chiang Kai-shek.

Later known as the “Stilwell Road”, after it is instigator General “Vinegar Joe” Stilwell, this 1,072 miles of road through the jungle and mountainous terrain, along with two petrol pipelines alongside it, was built by 15,000 American soldiers (60% of whom were African Americans) and 35,000 local workers with over 1,100 Americans dying, as well as countless locals, during its construction.

Frank also helped to take care of the US pilots flying military transport aircraft over “The Hump”, the eastern end of the Himalayan Mountains between India and China, as instigated by General Chennault, of “Flying Tigers” fame, that by the delivery of over four times greater tonnage of supplies into China, ultimately superseded the Ledo Road.

Post war, Frank returned with his family to live in Sussex before he died in 1969. His grandson met with the grandsons of William George “Billy” Barker in 2018 at the site of Barker’s crash in 1918.

So, what was the connection between “Edward Davis Moore” and “Frank Woolley Smith” and what of “Paddy O’Connor”?

In Part 3, I hope to be able to reveal who “Paddy O’Connor” was, what became of him and how they are all connected…

For more background on the evacuation from Burma and China, the contemporary book “The Forgotten Frontier” by Geoffrey W. Tyson is available to download on the Internet Archive website.

© John Tull 2024