The Daring Rescue of Two Downed Airmen from Afghani Tribesmen – 100 Years Ago

Paul Macro

8 mins

20 Sep 2019

Ernest “Bill” Macro enlisted in the Army in 1915, aged 19, having been an engineering student at the University of London.  His training in England completed he was posted with the 22nd Motor Machine Gun Battery (22 MMG) to India, for the period 1916-1919.

This posting would have taken the whole battery by surprise; they had volunteered expecting to fight in France, on the Western Front. Instead they found themselves half-way round the globe.

The 22 MMG was attached to 4th Rawalpindi Brigade in 2nd Rawalpindi Division, and they took part in the Third Afghan War.  During this conflict, in late July 1919, Bill was involved in an action near Badama Post, on the North West Frontier (modern day Pakistan), to recover the crew of a crashed British aircraft.

Corporal Ernest ‘Bill’ Macro.

The Third Afghan War

When the Afghans initiated the Third Afghan War by invading British India through the Khyber Pass in May 1919, British forces were mobilised.

The 22 MMG were sent forward to Parachinar to reinforce a local militia of loyal tribes in the North-West Frontier called the Kurram Force, who were under the command of Major Percy Charles Russel Dodd.

Recruited from the Turis and Bangash tribes of the Kurram, it numbered about 1,350 largely Shia Mohammedans. They were bitterly opposed to the orthodox Sunni tribes who surrounded the valley.

The 22 MMG left Rawalpindi for Parachinar by train on 14 May 1919. Bill and his comrades, both British and local, were in for a challenge. Facing them in the central Kurram and Waziristan theatre was the most compact and formidable of three Afghan forces. It consisted of 16 battalions of regular infantry, two of pioneers, four regiments of cavalry and 60 guns.

An MMG team in action, 1919.

The war ends but skirmishes continue

Nevertheless, despite a number of setbacks, British and Indian forces met that challenge. The invading Afghans were driven back in early June. A ceasefire was signed shortly after, but the mood was still tense and various clashes took place as discontent bubbled up amongst the tribes.

One such clash was the action at Badama Post just before the peace treaty formally ended the war in early August.

The Official History records how the British learned of a gathering of tribes in the Khurramana, who were believed to be intending to attack either Sadda or Badama posts, or one of the British convoys travelling between Thal and Parachinar.

Bill Macro reported that:

On July 30th 1919 [sic] a report was received in Parachinar by Major Malony, [sic] OC 22nd Battery, MMG, that large numbers of tribesmen were collecting in the Khurmana Valley for the purpose of attacking a convoy expected to pass along the Thal-Parachinar Rd.

On receipt of this message Major Malony detailed Sgt Macro to take No. 3 Section, 22 Battery MMG and patrol the road from Parachinar to Sadda, and there to rendezvous with Major Dodd to exchange information.

The rendezvous was effected in the late afternoon, and Major Dodd reported that the tribesmen appeared to be dispersing owing to the arrival of the MMG section.

Ernest ‘Bill’ Macro

The 22 MMG war diary records that the report was received on 29 July and No. 3 Section were sent out that afternoon to spend the night at Sadda Post.

A Bristol Fighter is shot down

A Bristol Fighter, flying over the Khyber Pass.

At the same time, aeroplanes were being flown to recce the gathering, in protection of the convoy.  It was one of these aircraft which was brought down, and although the Official History records it as being “shot down at short range by a party concealed on the hill side”, we will probably never know whether this was by a group of tribesmen firing a volley or by a single marksman.

The pilot, Acting Captain George Eastwood, was shot through the chest. This was sufficient to bring down the Bristol Fighter BF4626.

The Official History then records that the aircrew roughly dismantled the aircraft, but given that Eastwood had been shot through the chest and his observer, 2nd Lieutenant David Lapraik, had been bashed in the face, this seems unlikely. The aircrew were seriously injured.

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The rescue operation

It is clear that the Kurram Militia were the first to reach and assist the aircrew, which, given they were stationed at Badama Post seems reasonable.

Bill Macro records:

An aeroplane was seen to zoom down into a valley beyond Badama Post.  As the plane did not reappear it was assumed it had been shot down and Major Dodd set off on horseback, accompanied by a few militiamen.

No 3 Sect. MMG prepared for action and also set off for the post, but as there was no road, had to pick their way along the hilltop, and so did not arrive at the post until some minutes after Major Dodd.

He reported that some of his militia were bringing in the two wounded airmen, and Sgt Macro ordered one of his Ford vans to be cleared ready to take the airmen to hospital.  The airmen, who were too badly injured even to help themselves, were given first aid, and dispatched to Kohut.

Ernest ‘Bill’ Macro

Badama Post today.

Salvaging equipment from the wreckage

Bill’s report then continues, to describe what happened next:

Sgt Macro, who had had RAF experience, realising that the wrecked plane would contain probably more than 1000 rounds of ammunition, possibly bombs and machine guns which would be of great value to the tribesmen, volunteered to go down to the wrecked plane, which was lying at the bottom of a dry river bed, to see what could be salvaged.

Major Dodd said he would accompany him, and, although he hadn’t sufficient men to picket the hillside, would bring a few men with him to carry back anything salvaged.  Sgt Macro positioned his two machine guns so that they could give covering fire if necessary, placed the section under the command of Cpl Warburton, and climbed down the hillside to the wrecked plane.

A photo of Captain Percy Dodd, taken in 1913.

The tribesmen, encouraged by their success, commenced to reassemble and the party was subjected to an increasing volume of sniping, but most of the party were able to lie under cover of the rocks and no one was hit.

The plane had crashed on its nose leaving the tail up in the air.  Sgt Macro climbed into the cockpit, released the bombs from the rack, and having examined them to see if they were safe to handle, sent them up to the post.

He then handed out the boxes and drums of ammunition, dismounted the Lewis gun, dismantled the Vickers, and passed them out to the militia to carry away.  The only part of the Vickers not salvaged was the barrel casing, which couldn’t be got at because of the crashed engine.

It was now beginning to get dark, and the tribesmen, getting bolder, were closing in along the hillsides, so the party withdrew to Badama Post.  This was too small to hold the MMG Section, so this withdrew to Sadda, where Major Dodd also spent the night.

Ernest ‘Bill’ Macro

The War Diary of the Kurram Militia for this day also records that during the initial recovery of the aircrew a Lance Duffadhar went missing.

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Meanwhile a party of 3rd Guides Battalion (one of the Infantry battalions reinforcing Parachinar) had been forced marching with guns from Parachinar to Sadda throughout 30 July.

This column arrived at Sadda and Badama in the morning of 31 July and went straight into action to try and recover the remainder of the aircraft, with covering fire from the artillery and machine guns from the 22 MMG. War diaries and the Official History are all in agreement that only the aircraft’s engine was recovered.

The following morning the section returned to Badama and found that, despite flares having been fired over the wreck at intervals during the night, the tribesmen had managed to carry away all but the plane’s engine.

The MMG Section gave covering fire, and a party of militiamen got to the plane, and managed to carry the engine to Badama Post.  The MMG Section returned to Sadda to await the return of scouts regarding the movements of the tribesmen.

That evening the scouts reported that the tribesmen were dispersing and returning to their villages, so the next day No 3 section MMG returned to Parachinar.

Ernest ‘Bill’ Macro

The War Diary of the Kurram Militia for this day, 31 July, also records that the body of the missing Lance Duffadhar was recovered. However, the CWGC records detail of a single Lance Duffadhar casualty from the Kurram Militia in late July 1919, one Miru Mian, killed 30 July. He is remembered on the Delhi Memorial (India Gate).

What happened to the pilots: Eastwood and Lapraik?

David Lapraik.

George Eastwood’s casualty card records that in the incident at Badama he was shot through the chest and evacuated to Simla, and then to the UK on 22 Sep 1919 on-board the SS Bremen.

It appears George discharged in December 1919, married, had a son, and subsequently died in Truro.

David Lapraik’s casualty card records that he was not as seriously wounded as his pilot, but suffered facial lacerations and lost 3 teeth. He was almost certainly suffering from shock and possibly concussion. David too was evacuated to Simla, but subsequently returned to the squadron. By late September, he was flying bombing missions again.

He was discharged on 18 May 1920 and died in 1966, his occupation being recorded as “Newsagent – retired”.

Return to Rawalpindi

No 3section 22 MMG at Cambridge Barracks, Rawalpindi.

Bill returned to Parachinar with his section of the 22 MMG, and the Official History records that activity in the Kurram Valley ceased with the 8 August signing of the peace treaty at Rawalpindi.

The 22 MMG War Diary continues to the end of August, but activity is confined to routine patrolling and escorting a visit by the C-in-C throughout the month.  The Battery must have returned to their lines in Rawalpindi shortly after, and from then on their disbandment and demobilisation proceeded swiftly.

Bill returned to the UK and was demobilised 8 December 1919.

Paul Macro is the son of Army Officers and both his grandparents were involved in the First World War. He has been an Army Officer throughout his adult life and a keen student of history, military history in particular. Action at Badama Post: The Third Afghan War, is his first book and was published on 30 September 2019, by Casemate Publishing.

Action at Badama Post from Casemate Publishing is out now. Casemate is offering 30% discount for readers of History Hit when you order at www.casematepublishers.co.uk. Simply add the book to your basket and apply voucher code ABPHH19 before proceeding to checkout.