The Crash of Douglas C-47 "Dakota" KG653

Nackterhof/Neuleiningen, Germany, 24.09.1944 

A New Perspective!


ÜBERSETZUNG: BITTE BUTTON BETÄTIGEN


Peter John Brennan
Peter John Brennan

On the evening of September 22, 1944, around 5:00 pm, 150 airmen, ground personnel of the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF), landed in Douglas C-47 “Dakotas” of the 1st Ferry Unit RAF at the airfield of Pershore in Great Britain. They were posted there by No. 1 Personnel Despatch Center of the Royal Air Force. Their mission: These 150 airmen, together with 150 other airmen from the Canadian Air Force, a total of 300 men, should form two new aircraft squadrons in India (435 and 436 Squadron RCAF).  No. 1 Ferry Unit was supposed to transport them from Pershore to India. These two new Canadian Squadrons were to be officially formed in Gujrat, India, November 1, 1944. They were to support Allied troops, fighting Japanese troops in Burma (now Myanmar). 

 

The first Canadian group of 150 airmen, divided over seven Dakotas, were briefed on arrival at Pershore. After the briefing they had a meal in the mess. After their meal they were instructed in tropical hygiene and the use of life rafts, which all aircraft had on board, should the aircraft crash/ditch over water. After these lessons the 150 men could rest until midnight.  Around midnight they had another meal and K-Rations were handed out for the flight en route to Sardinia, their first stop. Then it was time for the 150 airmen to board their aircraft, ready for departure.  At 03.00a.m. all seven Dakotas took off for Sardinia, their first refuel-stop. After many  hours of flight and stopovers, all seven aircraft arrived at their final destination, India.


Fred Larson Kristensen and Peter Brennan.  London, Ontario, Canada, 24 August 1944.
Fred Larson Kristensen and Peter Brennan. London, Ontario, Canada, 24 August 1944.

On September 23, 1944, around 5:00 p.m., another group of 150 airmen arrived in Pershore, Great Britain. They went through the same procedures like the group the day before. The passenger lists of around twenty men per aircraft were long set when Leading Aircraftman (LAC) Peter John Brennan tried to convince the loadmaster in charge to reschedule him to Dakota KG653, the aircraft his friend would be travelling in. His best friend, Leading Aircraftman (LAC) Fred Larson Kristensen, had been assigned, as a passenger, to Dakota KG653. If the loadmaster would agree the rescheduling of Brennan, Brennan and his friend Kristensen could fly the entire trip to India together. But the loadmaster refused to reschedule again. Everything had already been planned and organized, and he determined there will be „no changes in the passenger lists of each aircraft involved in this transport“, he replied. The two friends had to fly separately.

 

He did not know it then, but this decision saved Leading Aircraftman Peter John Brennan's life. Brennan boarded his own aircraft. At 3:30 a.m., eight planes took off for Sardinia. John Brennan would never see his friend Fred Larson Kristensen again.


Leading Aircraftman Fred Larson Kristensen
Leading Aircraftman Fred Larson Kristensen

Only a few hours later Fred Larson Kristensen's aircraft, Dakota KG653, crashed in a field near Neuleiningen in Germany. All 23 airmen aboard were killed. All other aircraft, including Peter John Brennan´s Dakota, arrived in India without any problems. The Loadmaster's decision had saved John Peter Brennan's life.

 

In 2017 the crash site of Dakota KG653 was located and positively identified by IG Heimatforschung Rhineland-Palatinate/the Historical Research Community of Rhineland-Palatinate, Germany. After investigating the crash site a Memorial was planned for the 23 perished airmen. We immediately tried to contact all 23 families, in which we succeeded. After contacting the family of airman Kristensen, we got in contact with Mrs. Laura Brennan, the daughter of the Canadian airman, LAC Peter Brennan, who happened to be in the same transport of eight aircraft, and who made it to India. Laura Brennan told us about the connection with the Kristensens and this amazing story about her father. Her father almost met the same fate as airman Kristensen, and she, Laura Brennan, would never have been born.

 

In June 2015 Peter Brennan’s son John visited the Rheinberg War Cemetery and placed a flag and message on behalf of Peter at Fred Larson Kristensen’s final resting place.

 

In 2018 Peter Brennan was close to tears when he heard the crash site of his friend Fred Kristensen had been located by our group in Germany. He desperately wished to reconnect with his friend's family, whom he had lost track of after the war. The two families were reunited. 

 

Our contact with Laura Brennan and her father, Peter John Brennan, revealed a whole new perspective, in respect to the story of the crash of Dakota KG653. What happened to the soldiers who made it to India? How did they live there? What exactly did they do there, what was their mission? What would the 23 airmen of  Dakota KG653 have experienced in India? 


Peters Brennan's love for aviation began when his father took him to an air show in Vernon, British Columbia in 1932 where he was allowed to fly in an open biplane. He experienced his second flight in 1936 when he was allowed to fly over Vancouver and Burrard Inlet, British Columbia, for half an hour. After this he knew aviation would be a big part of his life.

 

In September 1941 he began training as an aircraft technician, which he successfully completed a year later, in September 1942. He then volunteered for the Canadian Air Force, where he became an aircraft engine mechanic. 

 

At the end of August 1944 Brennan embarked on the SS Aquitania, along with 10,000 other soldiers. The ship arrived in Great Britain on September 8, 1944. On September 23, 1944 he was part of the 2nd group of Canadian airmen/ground crew, destined for India. His wish to be rescheduled onto his friend's aircraft, Dakota KG653, was not granted. Luckily! For the airmen of Dakota KG653, fate took a tragic turn. 


Peter Brennan's Dakota made its first stopover in Cagliary, Sardinia, where the aircraft was refueled overnight. After several stopovers in Castel Benito (Libya), Cairo (Egypt), Shu'aiba (Iraq) and Iran Brennan arrived in Karachi, India. He stayed here for two days because he had acute bowel problems/acute diarrhea. After recovering his air travel continued to his final destination, Gujrat, India (today Gujrat is in Pakistan), where, after acclimatization, training began immediately. His  entire journey from England to India had taken 41 hours and 15 minutes. The 23 airmen of Dakota KG653 would have flown the same route. They would have made the same experiences. It wasn't meant to be. In India, Peter learned his friend's plane, Fred Larson Kristensen´s aircraft, was missing.  

 

The following private picture series gives an insight into the daily life of the airmen of the newly formed 435 and 436 Squadrons of the Royal Canadian Air Force in India, and shows details of their work, their living conditions and their community life. The airmen lived in huts, makeshift field camps and were a completely self-sufficient community. Everything they needed had to be transported exclusively by air. The 300 Canadian ground crew kept their aircraft 24/7 in the highest possible state of readyness, ready to (re)supply soldiers of the British 14th Army who were fighting in the jungle, and carried out all kinds of transportation tasks over Burma. They lived a lively community life, under tropical conditions, where during daytime the heat was almost unbearable. 



On September 27, 1944, after a few days of acclimatization, Peter Brennan was transferred to his new unit, 435 Squadron. According to Peter Brennan: “It seemed as if all flies in India wanted to greet us. They followed us everywhere, from the mess hut to our tents, even to the latrines. Many of us got diarrhea, including me. On October 4, 1944, aircrews began their flight training at RAF(-Base) Chaklala, Punjab, now in Pakistan. They trained Parachute Drops over DZ´s/Drop Zones and rapid unloading procedures at temporary airstrips. On December 19, 1944, 435 Squadron was operational and was ordered to move to the front lines. On December 20, 1944, air-and ground crews were relocated by air to Tulihal Airfield,  Imphal Valley, Manipur.





Upon arrival in Tulihal, it turned out the British Royal Air Force had made absolutely no preparations for our arrival. Ground crews spent several days organizing accommodations (tents, bashas, bamboo huts, and reed huts). Our bed consisted of a wooden frame, tied together with a rope, in India called "Charpoi", over which we draped a mosquito net. There was no mess hall, so we ate field rations we had brought with us (K-Rations, named after the inventor, Mr. Ancel Keys). The camp already had a very appropriate name: "Camp Pizpur", a name given by the Americans who were also stationed there. Its name “Pizpur” was meant ironically. It sounded Indian but was derived from the American / English expression “piss-poor” (miserable). We all agreed this was a very fitting name, given the conditions we were in.




Ground crews were equipped with .303 Lee-Enfield rifles or 9mm Sten submachine guns. Aircrews mostly carried pistols, but some aircrews also carried rifles or submachine guns as an extra precaution in case they crashed or had to make an emergency landing in the jungle. The same applied to ground crews like us, who were assigned as “Kickers” (assigned to “throw, kick or shove supplies from aircraft, with or without a parachute). Although most ground crew only had a screwdriver and hammer as “weapons., many of them collected hundreds of flight hours, and flew quite a few missions."



On December 21, 1944, LAC Peter Brennan's first operational supply flight took place in the war zone around Aubin, Burma. He was aboard Dakota  KJ955-Y (this aircraft was in service until a long time after the war and was destroyed by a bomb in Aden, May 29, 1965). Brennans pilot was Flying Officer Dave Sharpe from Victoria, British Columbia. According to LAC Peter Brennan: “The flight itself was interesting because I could stand in the open cargo door and could see the jungle-covered mountains, the Chin Hills, Burmese villages, pagodas and the Chindwin River. Eventually I saw the battle area, with tanks and military vehicles. Our drop over the DZ went well, as planned. I was assigned as a “Kicker”, so I had to push the containers/packs to the door, attach the parachutes to the static line, and shove them out with the help of two other crew members. I had a great time.”




Peter Brennan's first combat mission took place on January 12, 1945. Supplies had to be dropped over Shwebo, Burma (now Myanmar). Peter called this day his "Day of Remembrance". He had been reassigned to Dakota KJ955-Y, with a total of 6,000 lbs. of supplies for 33 Corps, 14th Army. “When we were flying over the DZ at Shwebo, we (five Dakotas) were attacked by several Japanese fighter planes of the Nakajima Ki-43-type, allied code name“ Oscar ”. Afterwards we learned, we were attacked by 12 fighters. They had recently attacked Allied ground forces in the Shwebo area and were now targeting us. We just started dropping our first containers when we got the warning over the radio. The pilot, Flying Officer Sharpe, rang the alarm bell and immediately went full throttle down to tree top  level. Me and my fellow “Kicker” of the Indian Army, quickly pulled the containers away from the cargo door. Suddenly the pilot made a steep downward turn, heading north-west, and both of us landed face down on the cargo floor.


“ACTION AT SHWEBO”, 435 Sqn. RCAF, Burma.

By Canadian Aviation Artist, Robert W. Bradford (C.M.)*


During this evasive action, the entire time I stayed at the cargo door and could see one of our aircraft flying in the opposite direction. The port engine was on fire and a Japanese aircraft was on its heels. Moments later I saw another Japanese aircraft in the distance, but instead of coming after us it was moving away from us. Pilot Sharpe spontaniously decided to land on a makeshift runway nearby, unload the rest of our supplies and fly back to Tulihal.

 

Shortly after we took off we could see a black column of smoke rising up from one of our crashed Dakotas. Fortunately there were survivors. In this 10-minute aerial combat, two Dakotas were shot down and six airmen were killed. A third Dakota was damaged and lost part of its wing when it collided with a tree while making an evasive turn.  

 

On the same day we also had a night supply flight. We had to transport ammunition and mortar shells to Onbouk. On approach we gave the recognition signal. Immediately flare pots were lit along the edges of the airstrip. On landing these flare pots we immediately extinguished. In the distance we could hear gunfire. After 30 minutes we were advised to take off.  The flare pots were quickly re-lit and we raced down the runway and up into the night. The flare pots were snuffed out immediately. 




L.A.C. Peter Brennan -  435 Sqn RCAF,  Burma, 1944
L.A.C. Peter Brennan - 435 Sqn RCAF, Burma, 1944

Five months of the year we had Monsoon. There were no aircraft hangars, so all technicians had to work in the rain. The runways were simply made of sand, covered with a steel mesh, so when it rained, the runway drowned in water. When an aircraft took off, water from the flooded runway splashed in all directions." 

 

August 15, 1945, VJ-Day (Victory over Japan Day). Several days earlier the US Army Air Force had dropped two atomic bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Peter Brennan was back in the air instead of servicing Dakota-engines. Rice had to be dropped over several isolated Burmese villages, in support of the local population, due to a lack of food. In addition to rice, Burmese staple foods such as ghee (butter/oil), dhall (legumes) as well as blankets and milk for expectant mothers/children were dropped also. Some of the villagers had to travel  four to five days to collect their rations.


Dakota drops supplies to troops fighting at Mandalay, Burma. Luftabwurf über Mandalay/Burma
Dakota drops supplies to troops fighting at Mandalay, Burma. Luftabwurf über Mandalay/Burma

On August 21, 1945, LAC Peter Brennan volunteered to fly a mission with pilot Sandy McLeod and his crew. This time he was assigned to Dakota 893-F of 435 Squadron, destined for Toungoo, Burma. Their mission was to supply “Force 136", a british led Commando Unit (SOE-Special Operations Executive) from the air. This guerrilla unit, in which also Gurkhas, Indians and other nationalities served, waged a very effective guerrilla war against the Japanese troops since 1941. They wanted to prevent Japanese troops escaping from Burma to Thailand over the Shan Hills. They were also still fighting Japanese who were not aware of Japan's surrender.   

 

“The DZ´s/Drop Zones were in narrow valleys, directly on the hilltops, where the precision of our drops was crucial. Sometimes the DZ´s were covered with clouds and several approaches were required. Approaches and departures were very dangerous as we were constantly flying at treetop level. Since I was standing in the cargo door, I often saw frightened, fleeing monkeys, jumping from tree top to tree top. "


“TOUNGOO DZ” 436 Sqn., Burma

By Canadian Aviation Artist Robert W. Bradford (C.M.)*


On August 30, 1945, Engine Mechanic Peter Brennan flew his last operational flight over Burma. He spent a total of around 400 hours in the air over the jungle of Burma, a very mountainous area with probably the worst flying conditions in the world. Monsoons, deadly downdrafts, not to mention enemy fire. All of this made every mission very dangerous.



September 7, 1945, Repatriation Day. Peter Brennans time "in country" was over. Brennan was scheduled to fly back to Great Britain. He left from Tulihal airfield, Imphal Valley. Aboard were twenty other airmen, bound for Great Britain. This time it took 55 hours and 45 minutes from India to England. Upon arrival in England he was thoroughly medically checked. Final repatriation took place on March 9, 1946. LAC Peter Brennan traveled back to Canada by ship on the "SS Ile de France".


In June 1946 he finally was back home, initially helping his father manage The Canadian Pacific Hotel in Sicamous, British Columbia. In March 1951 he rejoined the Royal Canadian Air Force (Reserve) as an aircraft technician, servicing Mustangs, Harvards and De Havilland Vampire aircraft in Camp Borden, Ontario. From June 1951 until 1952 he worked for the A.V. Roe Gas Turbine Division and was involved in a development program at Malton Airfield, Ontario, Canada, responsible for developing turbines. In 1952-53 he worked for Orenda Engines, a Canadian aircraft engine manufacturer and parts supplier, responsible for developing anti-icing programs. March 1956 he was employed by Nobel Test Establishment. His work mainly focused on the cooling system and afterburner technology of the Avro Arrows (CF105) Iroquois turbojet engines. 

 

February 1959, Black Friday at Nobel, Ontario. When the government shut down certain technical areas and stopped developing Iroquois engines, many engineers and technicians were fired. Many employees moved to the USA. But Peter said: "I fought for Canada, I am staying in Canada." His mindset paid off. In August 1959 he was employed at the National Research Council's High Speed Wind Tunnel in Ottawa, Ontario.  When hired he was appointed to the position of Technical Officer in the Aerodynamics section of the National Aeronautical Establishment.  Peter Brennan retired in 1988 as Head of Tri-sonic Wind Tunnel Operations and Maintenance.


After the war Peter Brennan spend many years as a historian for 435 and 436 Squadron RCAF.

 

When Peter Brennan retired, he spent countless hours with disabled Veterans at a long term care facility, the „ Perley and Rideau Veterans Home“ in Ottawa, Ontario.  He was awarded the Queen's Golden Jubilee Medal for his dedication to Veterans.

 

In 2017, Burma Veterans were bestowed „The Order of St. George“. Peter Brennan invested as a Field Knight. 

 

Of all World War II Merit Medals, “The Burma Star” is one of the rarest for Canadians. Of almost 1 million Canadians who wore their country's uniform during World War II, a total of 5,500 received the “Burma Star”. 


In the Kohima War Cemetery, on the border of India and Burma (now Myanmar), there is a memorial with the following inscription:

 

“When you go home tell them of us, and say, for your tomorrow we gave our today. "

 

Peter John Brennan never got over the death of his friend Fred Larson Kristensen, who crashed in Dakota KG653 during the same transport to Burma.

 

Peter John Brennan passed away in August 2019. 

He was 96 years old. 

 

We would like to thank the Brennan family, especially Peter John Brennan and MCpl (ret.) Laura Brennan, CD, QDJ, 437 (T) Squadron RCAF, for providing the pictures and sharing Peter Brennans personal experiences, before, during and after the fateful crash of Dakota KG653. What would the 23 airmen of Dakota KG653 have experienced in Burma? How would they have fared? You have raised a big corner of the veil. Thank you for this new perspective and these unique insights.

 

Erik Wieman


The information provided was extracted from the personal records of Mr. Peter John Brennan. The use of the images ¨Action at Shwebo¨ and ¨Toungoo DZ¨ was approved by Mr. Robert W. Bradford (C.M.) (Member of the Order of Canada) *