Thomas Nutt obituary: One of the few Irish survivors from WWII’s Burma front

Donegal native was a gregarious man who travelled widely and had an entrepreneurial streak

Thomas Ernest Nutt pictured talking at a family gathering at Ballymoney in 2010. Photograph: Colin Mearns

Thomas Ernest Nutt pictured talking at a family gathering at Ballymoney in 2010. Photograph: Colin Mearns


Thomas Nutt

Born: April 5th, 1923

Died: June 12th, 2020

Donegal native Thomas Nutt, who has died in his 99th year, was one of few Irish survivors from the British forces of the forgotten Burma front in the second World War.

He served as an aircraft electrician with the UK’s Royal Air Force (RAF). He was proud of not having fought, saying: “We did not drop bombs or go out to shoot down aircraft. Our main duties were saving lives, evacuating sick or wounded soldiers, dropping supplies and occasionally evacuating civilians from war zones.”

He enlisted in the early days of the war, soon after leaving school. In early 1943 he was one of hundreds of servicemen packed in bunks in the hold of a ship that sailed from Liverpool. Only after passing north Africa did he realised India was their destination.

The voyage was seven weeks of boredom under threat of German submarine attack. He disembarked in Mumbai (then Bombay) and then undertook a six-day train journey to Kolkata (then Calcutta).

From Kolkata, he was posted to northeast India as a member of the RAF’s air support unit. Its task was to relay radio messages from the army requesting air support in combat, and also supply drops.

As Japanese forces advanced into India, his unit had to retreat. With a porous front line, they had to constantly check with locals whether there were Japanese forces in their path.

However, living conditions were a greater threat than Japanese forces. On his first posting, the unit lived in bamboo huts. There being no beds, they slept on the floor. There was neither cookhouse nor washhouse. Poisonous snakes abounded.

His second posting was beside a valley whose name meant “valley of the deadly mosquito”. There he caught malaria, fortunately a mild bout. The unit had to flee the base when a comrade became critically ill with bubonic plague.

He later worked on planes supplying British units fighting behind the Japanese lines. That sometimes meant pushing supplies out the open door of the plane, while tethered by a line. One comrade fell out and dangled for a time before being pulled back in. Sometimes the planes were delivering mules to the units. Working on them afterwards was not pleasant.

There were exotic experiences. He ate in Chinese restaurants, over a generation before such appeared in Ireland. From Indian civilians working on bases he learned some Hindi. A pilot diverted one flight to pass Mount Everest, so he got a good look.

He noted life in the RAF differed from army life. RAF personnel in India were overwhelmingly tradesmen, free of army discipline, able to run their own lives as long as they got their jobs done.

He was always noted for being gregarious. One posting was in the south of India. The Catholic parish there ran a club in a church hall. He being Irish, they assumed he was Catholic. He didn’t inform them he was Presbyterian and enjoyed the supper and entertainment every Sunday evening.

In the summer of 1945 he began training as a radar technician but the end of the war also saw an end to that. The atomic bombing of Japan at the end of the war left him with mixed feelings and he later wrote “we believed that the wiping out of two cities was too much.”

In 1946 he returned home. Demobilised, he furthered his education at Greenmount Agricultural College. He then joined the Northern Ireland civil service. Married, he settled outside Lisburn in the 1950s. He became a rate collector for Lisburn Rural District Council, transferring back to the civil service when local government was reorganised.

Thomas Ernest Nutt had travelled widely from his birth in April 1923 in Quigley’s Point, Co Donegal, on the Donegal shore of Lough Foyle, the second-youngest of eight children to John Nutt, a farmer, and his wife Margaret (née Boyd). His father was from the Quigley’s Point area, his mother a native of north Antrim. He made use of both his Christian names, always Ernie to family, always Tommy to others.

He attended Whitecastle National School, often riding there on a donkey. While in class, the donkey would be set loose in a field. In 1932 the family moved to Ballymoney, Co Antrim where he attended Dalriada Grammar School.

He always had an enterprising streak and combined part-time farming with being a civil servant. He raised and kept cattle and at one stage, grew mushrooms. In the early 1970s he served briefly in the Ulster Defence Regiment. He had energy, being a fiercely competitive table tennis player into his 80s. He loved Irish literature, particularly Wilde and Yeats and had a great interest in Irish history, particularly the United Irishmen.

Above all he was a family man. He is survived by his wife Esther (Nan); daughters Esther, Carol, Elizabeth and Kathleen, and son Adrian.