The incredible story of a brave RAF gunner who fought for his life against the Japanese in the skies over Burma has been finally been revealed 25 years after his death.
A new first-person perspective has shown a light on one of Britain’s lesser-known conflicts during the Second World War, bringing to life the exploits of 159 Squadron and air gunner Bill Kirkness.
The gripping tale was co-written by American author Matt Poole, who vowed to complete the memoirs of Mr Kirkness, who also served as a wireless operator, after his death in 1994.
During his years of active service, Mr Kirkness, of Horsforth, West Yorkshire, flew thirty-two B-24 Liberator bomber sorties, twenty-eight of which were against Japanese targets in Burma.
He was credited with downing the night fighter that killed a crewmate and severely damaged his Liberator in April 1944, and was awarded a prestigious Distinguished Flying Medal for his heroism in 1944.
Images from RAF Liberators Over Burma: Flying with 159 Squadron show the gunner and his crew carrying out repairs from their base in India, while troops can be seen preparing the aircraft’s machine guns in another.
Several other shots show the crew together and offer a real insight into what life was like for the RAF men fighting in Asia while many of their fellow servicemen were thousands of miles away in Europe.
An aircrew poses in front of 159 Squadron Mk VI Liberator BZ980, named ‘Goofy’ by its team, at Digri in 1944. War hero Bill Kirkness. is pictured standing on top of the bomber. Bill’s crewmate on sixteen ops, air gunner Jack O’Brien, is pictured in the front row, far right
Bill pauses during the painting of his ‘Dumbo Delivers!’ nose art design on the forward fuselage of BZ839, a Mk III Liberator at Salbani in 1943. During his years of active service, Mr Kirkness, of Horsforth, West Yorkshire, flew thirty-two B-24 Liberator bomber sorties, twenty-eight of which were against Japanese targets in Burma
An air gunner sits to the right of his twin .303-inch Brownings, which protrude through a closed Mk II Liberator beam hatch. He sights his target through a small window immediately in front of him. Note that this air gunner wears earphones and no helmet; on the Mk II, Bill’s crewmates each wore an uncomfortable helmet containing earphones
159 Squadron Gunnery Leader Bob Ustick (left) instructs ground crewman Norman Chambers (centre) and air gunner Billy Clegg at the port beam hatch opening of an unidentified 159 Squadron Liberator. A single .5-inch Browning machine gun protrudes through the opening
A photo recon image looking northward away from the northern environs of Rangoon on 11 April 1944; central Rangoon is to the south. The runways of Mingaladon aerodrome appear as the bright scars below the propeller of the Lockheed F-5’s port engine
On 2 April 1944, 159 Squadron Mk VI Liberator EV870, like Bill’s crew’s EV843 and the squadron’s BZ960, was attacked by a fighter over Rangoon. Despite EV870’s violent crash landing at RAF Alipore in Calcutta, short of the Squadron’s base at Dhubalia, there was no fire. All nine crewmen survived the fighter attack
By the evening of 27 April 1943, 159 Squadron was down to only two flying bombers after Mk II Liberator AL550 crashed into an aircraft shelter with no brake pressure, causing major damage that took weeks to repair. AL550 did not fly again with the squadron until 12 May
Ben Blue and Bill perform their ësand dance at Salbani. Ben wears his pilot’s wings and Bill wears a half-wing brevet. Several other shots show the crew together and offer a real insight into what life was like for the RAF men fighting in Asia while many of their fellow servicemen were thousands of miles away in Europe
Bill proudly poses for this portrait as a flight sergeant (left). Note the wireless operator’s badge above his stripes. Shown right, 159 Squadron engine mechanics work on ‘Goofy’, a Mk VI Liberator BZ980, at Digri in 1944 shortly before a sortie later on in the evening
The Gauntlett crew pose for a photograph in front of our Mk II Liberator, AL597, at 159 Squadron’s base at Salbani, India in the spring of 1943. Left to right: Willy Kirby, Arnie Bridgman, Bill Kirkness, John Gauntlett, Chalky White, Ben Blue, Fred Rozee, and Harry Hartshorn
The crew is pictured on 15 April 1943, the day after Bill’s crew crashed in their 159 Squadron Mk II Liberator AL564, wearing Donald Duck nose art, after it pranged at their base at Salbani when the starboard tyre blew out upon landing. The Liberator was a write-off and was replaced by another Liberator shortly after
An unidentified burned-out RAF Wellington on Malta. Bill’s crew’s Wimpy, ES994, suffered the same fate soon after we arrived there on 12 May 1942. Other images from RAF Liberators Over Burma: Flying with 159 Squadron show the gunner and his crew carrying out repairs from their base in India, while troops can be seen preparing the aircraft’s machine guns in another
At Salbani in 1943, 159 Squadron ground crew toil on a Mk II Liberator’s No. 1 engine. The new first-person perspective has shown a light on one of Britain’s lesser-known conflicts during the Second World War, bringing to life the exploits of 159 Squadron and air gunner Bill Kirkness
How 159 Squadron carried out bombing raids in Burma
159 Squadron served as a Bomber, Mine-laying, Reconnaissance and Transport unit during World War II.
It was active from July 1942 until June 1946, operating at first in the Middle East during 1942 before spending the remainder of the war operating over Burma.
The squadron’s army of Liberators undertook long-range reconnaissance missions and bombing raids on Japanese soldiers in Siam, Malaya, Indo-China and the Dutch East Indies.
Initially, the Liberators were permitted to carry a small payload of just 4,000lb of bombs to Bangkok, while raids stretching over 1,000 miles were limited to just 3,000lb.
However the appointment of Wing Commander J. Blackburn in 1944 saw the aircrafts stripped of their middle turret and armour plating, with crews swapping a strong defence for a bigger payload of bombs.
While such a move would have resulted in a massive surge in casualties in the European theatre of war, the dwindling numbers of Japanese fighter planes was making bombing raids increasingly less dangerous.
Following the end of the war, the squadron carried out transport and administrative duties. It also took part in Operation Hunger in late 1945 and early 1946, bringing food rations to starving Burmese civilians.
159 Squadron was finally disbanded on 1 June 1946.