Far From Home - Flight Lieutenant Cherukara Thomas "Tommy" Philip, Indian Air Force

“Tommy” Philip during training, shared with permission from his family and restored by Neil Broughton.

In September 2022, Kenley Revival researcher, Tony Adams, found a startling entry in the RAF Kenley station diary for June, 1955. It read:

On instructions from Air Ministry, Royal Air Force Kenley, arranged the funeral of the late Flight Lieutenant C. T. Phillips, Indian Air Force, who died in the Queen Victoria Hospital, East Grinstead, on 16th June, 1955. The funeral took place at St. Luke’s, Whyteleafe, at 11.00 hours, on Thursday, 23rd June, 1955. The funeral party, comprising Officers and Airmen of No.61 Group and R.A.F. Kenley, was under the command of the Officer Commanding R.A.F. Kenley, Sqn./Ldr. N. P. Simmons, D.S.O., D.F.M. The firing party and trumpeters were provided by R.A.F. Uxbridge. In addition to those already mentioned, the mourners included:- H. H. The Mahaharo of Cutch, Minister at India House, representing the High Commissioner for India, Wg. Cdr. V. M. Radhakrishnan, (India Air Advisor in London), S/L. S. L. Mathur, (Asst. Indian Air Advisor); Lieut. Col. M. M. Singh, (representing the Indian Military Advisor); Commander Menezes (representing the Indian Navy Advisor)

We had no idea that an Indian Air Force serviceman was buried at St. Luke’s but John Jackson, the churchyard manager at St. Luke’s, was able to confirm that “Chemhera Thomas Phillips,” aged 27, was indeed buried in Plot J35. However, apart from an entry for “Cheruhmera T. Phillips” in the Register of Deaths for the second quarter of 1955, all other avenues of research yielded no further information.

We were no wiser by the time we reached Remembrance, but placed a card and an Indian flag on F/Lt. Phillips’s grave, so that his service could be commemorated along with all the other pilots and ground crew buried in Airmen’s Corner.

The unmarked grave of F/Lt. C. T. “Tommy” Philip at St. Luke’s, Whyteleafe, during Remembrance 2022.

However, in March 2023, an email to the Bharat Rakshak website elicited an amazingly helpful reply from Jagan Pillarisetti which answered many of our questions.

Jagan knew straight away who our mystery pilot was – Flight Lieutenant Cherukara Thomas “Tommy” Philip (4035), the brother of the late Group Captain Cherukara George Immanuel “Phil” Philip, who he had interviewed in 2004 and 2005. His notes were augmented and transcribed by K. S. Nair. They appear online here:

By the old Moulmein Pagoda – Gp Capt George Philip

and here:

We are getting Spitfires! – Gp Capt George Philip

So here is “Tommy”  Philip’s story, told from the point of view of his brother, “Phil” Philip, and written by K. S. Nair, from Jagan Pillarisetti’s notes…

Philip’s mother, four sisters and two younger brothers, had all remained in Burma throughout WW2.  They stayed on in Moulmein, and lived there during the Japanese occupation.  Their neighbours were mostly retired service officers, with some judges, lawyers, and business people who owned rice mills and timber mills.  The neighbours were protective of Philip’s family.  Their house was near the dockyard, and considered in danger from bombing.  The neighbours took the family to an alternate location across the river, which was considered safer.

Philip’s brothers Eddie and Tommy both worked clandestinely for the Allies; for Force 136, the SOE branch that operated behind enemy lines in South-East Asia during WW2, and the ‘V’ Force.  Force 136 on the ground was made up substantially of people who lived in the area and knew the local languages.  Philip’s brothers spoke Burmese, had picked up Japanese, and were fluent in English.  They were therefore invaluable for liaison with Allied forces.  American agents had parachuted into Burma in advance of regular forces, contacted Philip’s brothers and worked with them.

“Some of the targets we took on – were targets given by my brother.  Came through the – their channel.  To Army intelligence sources.”

After the end of the war, most of Philip’s family chose to return to India.  Philip arranged for them to travel by ship to Madras, where they were met by other relatives who had driven from Trivandrum, in what was then still Travancore State.

However, Eddie Philip, the elder of Philip’s brothers, chose to stay on in Burma.  He was hoping to sell some family property in Victoria Point, and bring the proceeds back to India.

Unfortunately, in September 1948 Eddie Philip was caught in an ambush of Karen rebels by Burmese forces.  [The Karens had resisted the Japanese particularly fiercely during the Japanese occupation; the British had therefore armed and worked with them extensively; so much so that by the time the British returned, Burmese national forces had begun to consider the British, and by extension anyone who had worked with Force 136, to be sympathetic to the Karen rebel cause, and by implication possibly antagonistic to the Burmese nationalist cause.]  “And that was the end of my brother.  No news about my brother, after that.”  The only thing the family received was a longyi, said to be his brother’s, with bullet-holes in it.

Tommy on the beach in Kerala, Southern India. (With permission from his family).

Philip’s youngest brother Tommy [CT Philip] followed him into the Indian Air Force.  He came back to India from Burma with the rest of the family.  He went through the Selection Board, and was selected as a pilot.  There were a few questions over his lack of a “High School Certificate”, which would have been impossible to acquire in wartime Burma; but his keenness got him through the process.

Tommy in the cockpit of a Tiger Moth, probably during training. (Photo with permission from the family).

An officer at the Selection Board asked him, “By the way – Philip.  You got any relatives in the Air Force?”  “Yes, my brother is a Flight Lieutenant in the Air Force.”  “No wonder; why didn’t you tell me that at the beginning?”  Philip laughs at the recollection:

“This was Lazaro, with the big moustache.  And he wrote me a letter; he said, That brother of yours, nearly drove me crazy.  I should have recognized him, he’s like you, only difference is, he’s just short of six feet!  Tall.  His height is after my father.  And his face is after my mother.  But whereas, my face is after my father and my height is after my mother!  So, he couldn’t connect.  If he had seen Eddie, he would have known, he was five-ten.  Tommy was just a quarter-inch short of six feet.  People used to tell him, Do your hair like your brother – ”

Tommy in front of a Tiger Moth aircraft. (Photo with permission from his family).

Tommy Philip joined the Air Force, but suffered from severe airsickness during flying training.  This is actually not unusual, even among some who go on to become great pilots later.  Many experienced, successful pilots will confess to having suffered frequent air-sickness in the early stages of flying training.  Philip recalls that their mother used to feel sick, sitting in the back of a car, because of the smell of petrol.  So it was not unnatural or unusual.

Tommy (bottom left) and other pilots on a Harvard training aircraft, possibly taken when they got their “wings” at Service Flying Training School, or equivalent. (Photo with permission from the family).

But in those early post-Independence days, the aeromedical challenge was not fully understood, and Tommy did not have much support close at hand.  At the time, Philip was CFI in Jodhpur.  Tommy was on a course which went to Ambala.  (Courses used to alternate between Jodhpur and Ambala, during that period.)

“Tommy” Philip’s promotion to Probationary Pilot Officer from the Gazette of India, 9th June, 1951, confirms the correct spelling of his surname. It is unclear why the British documentation records his name as “Phillips.”

Tommy’s Tale:

In the early 1950s, Tommy was still flying Dakotas.  His duties included supply-dropping in the North-East, staging through Hashimara and Tezpur.

“And there was a drop to be done by Tommy.  And Francis told Tommy, This target – it’s a tricky target, but – you have a look at it – and, drop your supplies there.  Normally, you do a dummy run.  A dry run.  And the dry run was necessary in this case, because – after you drop the supplies, there’s not much of a run, to clear the trees in front.  And it was going up the slope.  In fact, coming – you can’t do it the other way, because the drop is too much.  And your supplies can’t be free-dropped too much.  And in the jungles there – only the odd … package used to be parachuted.  Others were free drops.  … Free drops should be as slow as possible and as low as possible.

“Francis had been there, and he told Tommy all about it – he said, Don’t worry, Tommy, I think you can do it.  Little bit of over-confidence must have come in.  Went over there, had a look at the place – said, Oh, I’ll do that.

“Now, I had told him – when he was disappointed, he couldn’t go onto fighters – I said, You fly Dakotas, sooner or later the Indian Air Force will get bombers.  And with your spirit, with your ability, and your experience on twin-engined aircraft – you’ll also quickly go onto a bomber.  And as a bomber – now, you are doing – dropping supplies.  But think of the supplies as bombs.  So as far as he was concerned, he was dropping bombs.  And he always wanted to make sure whether they were on target.  And he’d call out to his Sergeant and his Flight-Sergeant … And that used to make him very happy.  Because he’d ‘dropped his bombs’ correctly.

“Anyway.  He did this sortie.  Missed out.  Dropped his bombs correctly, got his thumbs up, he was very happy – clean forgot about the trees in front.  So he went into it.  He tried banking, and going between the gap – whatever gap was available.  The wings caught the trees.  And he crashed there.  Came down; he was burnt – he jumped out through the side window.  He had that silk scarf, which was part of the overalls.  Most of us had said that silk scarf was the wrong thing … It had caught fire, he got burnt – both his ears burnt, face partially burnt, here, there.”

Burnt and stumbling, Tommy found a stream, drank the cold water, and washed his face in it.  Philip believes that the cold water helped a lot.  Tommy’s feet had been burnt; his socks burnt off.  But he waded through that cold water, and those scars healed of themselves.  Philip recalls Sir Archibald MacIndoe, who started treating burn injuries with cold baths.  Strangely enough, Tommy was to meet Sir Archibald at India Club.

Rescue operations were mounted.  A planter in a little L-5 tried to land to bring him out, but he crashed as well.  A medical officer and assistant were dropped by parachute, with plasma, and gave Tommy a transfusion on the spot.  Finally an Indian Army Air OP pilot named, Philip thinks, Man Singh, who knew Philip slightly as a Squadron Leader, managed to fly him out.

A Dakota brought him to the MH in Poona, where Tommy endured treatment for ten months.  A senior Medical Officer used to do the dressing himself, religiously:

“It was very painful, but Tommy insisted, No, I only want that officer.  Famous Colonel [Colonel Joseph] – became a Major General.

“Anyway.  Tommy got out of here – went back to his squadron – ears were all curled up, like this, burnt – CO said, “Ah, now I suppose you want to go home and see your mother?”  No, Sir.  I want to go and drop.

“He was on UK couriers for some time.  In fact he first went there, in a UK [courier] – in a flight where Panditji [Nehru] … was going to Cairo, Russia, and England.”

When Tommy was on the courier route, he used to drop in at Philip’s home, in Princes Park in  Delhi.  It was summer, and common practice was to sleep on cots on the lawn.  Philip recalls:

“He used to lie outside, get up at about two o’ clock in the morning – with a nightmare.  He used to live through that crash.  And he’d empty one whole jug of water – it was a bluish, transparent jug – and go off to sleep.  I caught him one night – and he told me all – about what happens.  And he was perfectly all right.”

But Tommy still had severe keloid formations, overgrowths of scar tissue beyond the injury sites, particularly on his neck and around his ears.  It was suggested that he make use of his occasional visits to the UK to try and have them surgically removed.  The Air Force was supportive, and sent him to the UK in 1954 as supernumerary crew in one of their aircraft.  Tommy duly went into hospital in the UK for the purpose.

But there appears to have been a complication that was not adequately documented:  “ … I’m sure, with the excellence of our administration, they – they must have forgotten his medical papers.”

Philip is sure that his brother’s papers would have mentioned it, and that if Sir Archibald had known about it, he would have taken necessary precautions.  Unusually for a pilot (many of whom have a distinctly antagonistic attitude to doctors), Philip’s faith in the medical profession, his father’s professional brothers, is undiminished.

Sadly, Tommy did not recover from his anaesthesia, after the operation.  A young British doctor, by all accounts, made lengthy and heroic efforts to resuscitate him, clearly full of admiration for what aircrew endure:

“‘After what this boy’s been through!’  <There is a catch in Philip’s voice, as he recalls this>  He was not going to give up, he kept on at it.  And another doctor came, and said, Look – pretty soon I’ll be doing this for you, if you don’t stop.  They said, if he survives through midnight, and by two o’ clock in the morning, he’ll be OK.”

Some time during the night, Tommy Philip, who had survived a crash, and a difficult evacuation, and endured a year’s painful treatment, died on the operating table

Philip was at this time (1954-55) doing the course at Staff College, in Wellington in the Nilgiris district.  Tapeswar Basu was on the Directing Staff, of the College:

“Basu came to my house, with his wife, and said, Look, this is the news, bad news.  Go home, we haven’t informed your mother.  We didn’t want to inform her by signal.  Air Headquarters knew that I was there – and they knew Basu was there.  Oh, Krishna Rao was there [in Air Headquarters].  Krishna Rao told Basu, Look, tell Philip – We’re not sending the signal – Let him go home, and tell his mother.  I got into my old car – and, he says, Your leave has been granted.   … You push off, any time you want.  And my wife, she … got things into the car; I think we switched off within two hours after that.”

The entry for F/Lt. Philip’s in the burial register for St. Luke’s, showing the grave plot number on the left.

Philip says Tommy was buried in England, at an RAF cemetery, “Where my cousin is also buried, George Vurgese.”  Flying Officer George Vurgese, of the 12th Course, died in the UK in May 1944, and is buried in the Blacon, Chester cemetery. [Vurgese is indeed buried at Blacon Cemetery, but obviously F/Lt. Philip was laid to rest at St. Luke’s, Whyteleafe – ed].

Tony Adams and Linda Duffield (Kenley Revival volunteers) Dr. Joseph Chandy (Tommy’s nephew), Revd. Annie Kurk and John Jackson (churchyard manager) at F/Lt. Philip’s grave on 25/4/2023. (Photo: Neil Broughton).

The temporary marker placed on F/Lt. philip’s grave by his nephew, Dr. Joseph Chandy on 25/4/2023. (Photo: Tony Adams).

For the time-being, it remains a mystery why F/Lt. Philip’s grave remained unmarked. We are trying to ascertain whether he is entitled to an Air Ministry or Indian Air Force stone.

Rest in peace F/Lt. Cherukara Thomas Philip

Many thanks to:
The family of F/Lt. C. T. Philip
Tony Adams
Jagan Pillarisetti and K. S. Nair of the Bharat Rakshak website.
John Jackson and Revd. Annie Kurk at St. Luke’s, Whyteleafe.
Kev Barnes at the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. 
Jane Collman Williams for her hard work on the St. Luke’s graves at Remembrance.

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