Born in 1922, Alan was called up and passed for RAF service in November 1941. Qualifying as a Wireless Operator a year later, he then found himself posted to 33 ANS Mount Hope at Hamilton in Canada. Passing out dux of Course 66A in 1943 and not yet 21, Alan found himself initially awarded the Observer’s winged “O” and commissioned Pilot Officer to boot.
Alan Carter 1922-2003: the Observer as Navigator (Carter family collection)
In Canada, Alan was another of those newly-commissioned BCATP graduates given the white armlet or brassard to wear with his de-badged airman’s clobber, while waiting to re-kit with Officer’s uniform. Compelled on return to the UK to replace his Observer badge with the Navigator’s “N”, he retained the original badge. Later finding himself in a rather more observer-friendly environment, he was able to “put it up” once more!
Posted to the Middle East, in February 1944 he and his pilot F/Sgt Johnny Birch ferried a Beaufighter to Cairo via Rabat in Algeria. By June 1944 the pair had been posted to 211 Squadron operating in Burma, joining them there at Feni in July. Alan and Johnny completed their 200-hour “tour” with 211 in April 1945. After further Burma theatre service with 224 Group and ACSEAC Comm, Alan was repatriated to the UK in June 1946.
His pilot, Johnny Birch, survived the war but died while instructing in Mosquito T3 RR292 of 204 Advanced Flying School at RAF Driffield on 29 June 1948. In the course of an attempted single-engine overshoot (aborting a landing on one engine to go round again), the aircraft stalled, yawed and one wing hit the ground, causing the aircraft to break up killing both crew.
Alan’s narrative of his RAF service was brought to my attention by his son Dave, who got in touch in late 2003. By then Alan himself was very ill. Despite this, Dave had been at pains to pull together his Dad’s memoirs, One Man in the Forgotten War. Alan Carter died in November 2003 at Cromer in Norfolk after a long struggle. Dave was later able to put the full version of his father’s narrative on-line for all to see, as part of his own e-publishing effort, though the full story is no longer available.
Alan’s story provides a very detailed insight into service life, from call-up in late 1941 through initial training and qualification, to Burma and his tour with 211 Squadron and later service, and finally his return to civvy street. Here, I’ve been able (with Dave’s kind permission) to include that part of Alan’s narrative about his time with 211 Squadron in Burma from July 1944 to April 1945. I’ve silently made a couple of very minor spelling corrections and one or two amplifications shown in the usual way with square brackets.
One Man in the Forgotten War
211 at Chiringa
On arrival at Feni on the 1st [of] July 1944 we reported to 211 Squadron Headquarters and were greeted with “Where have you been? We have been waiting for you for months”. After languishing in dreadful transit camps for four and a half months we were not very amused. We soon recovered our equilibrium, however, when we heard that there was to be a party in the Officers’ Mess that evening.
In fact, Mess parties proved to be a regular feature of life on 211 Squadron, their purpose being partly to alleviate the boredom of living away from any form of civilisation, but mainly to divert our minds from the casualty rate. For the first three weeks I spent on 211 Squadron there were no casualties. Then, within the space of a week three aircraft failed to return to base. After that the same rate of loss seemed to continue, at the rate of one per week.
Many years later I was lent a copy of Lord Louis Mountbatten’s report on the campaign in South East Asia to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and it contained a brief reference to the Beaufighter Squadrons to the effect that they performed very useful work disrupting enemy communications but suffered the highest casualty rate of all types of aircraft in the Command.
We spent only a week at Feni, carrying out only a short air test while we were there. A week after we arrived the Squadron moved to Chiringa, partly because Feni was a fair weather airstrip and Chiringa an all weather strip, so that we could fly throughout the monsoon as directed by Lord Louis. The other reason was that Chiringa was closer to the front line, so that by moving we effectively extended our range. Naturally the aircrew that had been longest on the Squadron flew the aircraft to Chiringa, whilst ”the New Boys” like ourselves had to travel with the ground staff by train.
The train was made up with third class carriages, with no upholstery and no provision for mosquito nets, so, since we travelled overnight, we had to get such sleep as we could, what with the wooden seats and the mosquitoes! The railway took us via Chittagong to Dohazari, where we transferred to lorries for the rest of the journey - or at least part of the rest of the journey, for there was a river to cross just before we got to Chiringa, and the monsoon had caused it to burst its banks and carry the bridge away. So we had to be ferried across the river in sampans, leaving our kit to follow.
There wasn’t a lot of my kit to follow, as the heavier items, including my camp kit, had been left behind in Cairo, to follow by sea while I flew to India. I therefore had to make do as best I could. It was some weeks before we got our kit across the river and some months before the balance of my kit arrived from Cairo. Meanwhile we survived and I slept for a while on a bamboo bed constructed by an Indian workman and later on a stretcher borrowed from the sick bay.
The monsoon was by now in full spate, and even the ditches, dug to take away the surface water, overflowed. This happened one lunchtime, which got it extended and the bar kept open, as it was impossible to do any work. The Flight Commander of “B" flight was Squadron Leader John Muller-Rowland, generally known as “MR” who asserted that it would be possible to make his way from the Mess to his billet by paddling himself in a galvanised bath. He set out from the Mess, but the bath was not sufficiently buoyant, and he slowly disappeared under the water. I had a deep ditch to cross on my way to my billet, and normally crossed it by means of a log laid from bank to bank. This, however, was now under water (everything was under water) and I had to feel my way across, being guided by an electric lighting wire above it, but resisting any urge to use it to steady myself by taking hold of it.
The Commanding Officer was Wing Commander PE (Pat) Meagher and he was much respected, leading by example. He used to fly on his own, never taking a Navigator. His advice to us was to fly as low as we safely could, in order to make it as difficult as possible for Japanese gunners to get us in their gun sights. If, however, we were flying over the sea and the sea was calm, making it difficult to judge our height, we should go up to 50 feet (his own words). After a few months he was to be promoted to Group Captain when he took over command of 901 Wing at Chiringa from Group Captain Lynch. Our task on each operational flight, unless given a specific target to attack was to fly along a predetermined stretch of road, railway or river and attack with our four 20mm cannon any target that presented itself.
Our first operational flight was to fly along a stretch of the River Chindwin and shoot up anything that moved. We didn’t see anything so to that extent it was an uneventful foray. However, we learned our first lesson when by a navigational error I allowed Johnny to fly at a dangerous 2,000 feet over the town of Monywa. When I saw puffs of anti-aircraft fire surrounding us, I screamed at Johnny “They’re shooting at us!” and he immediately went down to zero feet and started to weave. Fortunately we got clear without being hit and completed our task without further trouble. When we returned to Chiringa we found it covered by a rainstorm making it impossible to land. We then flew westwards until we were over the sea when we deemed it safe to descend below cloud. We were then able to fly below cloud at a height of only a few hundred feet until we were able to land at Chittagong. The weather did not improve so we stayed the night and returned to Chiringa the following day.
Navigation over Burma was a simple matter, which was just as well, the main function of the Navigator being to sit facing backwards and keep a very sharp look-out for enemy aircraft, warning the Pilot of any features or likely defended areas which might be met. Navigating an aircraft while facing backwards was a knack, and it was not necessary to follow the refinements we had been taught over a period of months!
There was practically no magnetic variation to affect our compass reading, so we would fly true tracks, ignoring any wind since there were certain features which stood out and it was possible to aim for a particular landmark such as a prominent bend in the river or, for example, Mount Popa, which was an extinct volcano some two or three thousand feet high which could easily be seen some distance away. Instead of painstakingly keeping a log we would make notes on our map and elaborate on them at our de-briefing after we had landed.
Our third operation required us to fly northwards along the main Rangoon to Mandalay railway line from Yamethin, breaking off just before Mandalay. At a junction called Thazi we found a train in the station and made several attacks on it. I thought I heard the sound of machine guns as we attacked, but only faintly, above the noise of our engines, but I said nothing and we continued our attack and then resumed our patrol, flying northwards until we came across another train, with an engine at each end, at a little place called Bilin. We shot up each engine and then raked the whole train with our cannon fire, and when we had completed our patrol we set course for Base.
Not unnaturally we were feeling rather pleased with ourselves, and on our way back, while we were crossing the mountain range called the Arakan Yoma I scrambled over the ammunition hoppers and squeezed in next to Johnny, flying the aircraft in order to get the feel of it, in case of emergency on any future occasion. As we approached Chiringa I returned to my seat under the cupola towards the rear of the aircraft and strapped myself in ready for landing. As we touched down on the runway, the tail lifted and the aircraft developed a violent swing to starboard. Johnny couldn’t hold it; he tried to but the tail came up and we should have turned on our back had he not let it go. We did a spectacular ground loop, and I watched as the port wing dipped and dug into the ground (by this time we were off the runway) and the port undercarriage parted company with the rest of the aircraft. I can still see it rolling along parallel with the runway.
After what seemed an eternity, although it must have been only a matter of seconds, we came to rest in a cloud of dust and while I was methodically making sure that my Browning machine gun was made safe and collecting my equipment people were running up to us and banging on the side of the aircraft indicating that we should get out quickly, while the fire tender came racing up and when Johnny and I were clear they smothered the aircraft in foam to prevent it catching fire. Later we were told that what I had earlier heard at Thazi must indeed have been Japanese machine gun fire, because a bullet had hit the starboard wheel, puncturing the tyre and this was obviously what had caused the aircraft to swing. There were bullet holes elsewhere, notably in the rudder.
On a few occasions we experienced the attention of the enemy, usually because we had been injudicious in flying too close to a known well defended place. Machine gun and small arms fire was often very accurate but could only be a problem when we were flying at a low altitude, and even then it was difficult for the enemy to get us in their sights if we kept very low, as the Beaufighter could hardly be heard until it was past. Hence the nickname by the Japanese, “Whispering Death”. We had to fly a little higher to make an attack and this was the time when we were most vulnerable. We were hit, but fortunately with inconsequential damage as far as the crew were concerned, when we were patrolling the Toungup Pass road, because we had to fly higher than would normally be prudent because of the nature of the terrain. Otherwise we suffered the attention of light anti-aircraft fire, fortunately without damage, only when we were flying higher than we should, and in a known defended area. This was on one or two occasions because of navigational error, but could be when we were flying at night, by the light of a full moon when we couldn’t fly at our usual low altitude.
On one occasion we were flying northwards along the western side of the Rangoon to Mandalay railway line, when I realised that we were approaching Toungoo, where the airfield was to the west of the town, and would certainly be heavily defended. I therefore yelled to Johnny to turn back for a while, and after a minute or so, we crossed to the other side of the railway line and resumed our northerly patrol taking a much safer course. This was made evident to us a minute or so later when I spotted a Japanese fighter at the same height as we were (less than 50 feet) flying southwards, that is in the direction we had just been going. He was undoubtedly aware of our presence, and had it not been that I had omitted to cross the railway line when I should, he might well have been in a position to attack us. This was a good example of the luck everybody needs.
Generally when we were attacked by anti-aircraft fire, I was the one who saw it and, although he didn’t say anything about it, I have often wondered whether Johnny thought I was exaggerating. There was, however, one occasion when it was Johnny who saw the attack first. It was a misty morning in the spring over the Irawaddy delta, and we were flying higher than we normally did because of the half-light when Johnny gave a yell and increased our speed to the maximum, going down almost to ground level and taking evasive action. A Japanese machine gunner evidently had us in his sights, because I could see the spiralling vapour trails left by each bullet coming up towards us. It really was a fascinating sight, particularly since they missed us!
We had the occasional long-range trip an example being a patrol of the railway south of Moulmein. The route we would take was to fly down the coast of Burma, via Oyster Island, past the three Baronga Islands, Ramree and Cheduba Islands and passing over Foul Island mud volcano and the middle of the three Calventuros Islands before turning westwards to cross the Irrawaddy delta and the Gulf of Martaban to hit the Tenasserim Coast just south of Moulmein, returning the same way. There were caches on each of the middle Calventuras Island, Foul Island and Oyster Island, and if we were in real trouble we were told to try and make it to one of them, when we would stand a good chance of being rescued, either by an air-sea rescue launch or by an amphibious aircraft, such as the Walrus or Sea Otter.
I always mentally ticked off each of these three islands on our way back, each one being one stage nearer Base, and Oyster Island, just off the Burma coast at Akyab was a particularly welcome sight, since it meant that we were approaching our home base. It was a rocky island with a white lighthouse on it. At high tide little could be seen apart from the lighthouse, but at low tide the full extent of the rocks was revealed. I often wondered why the Japanese didn’t have a fighter aircraft patrolling Oyster Island when one of us was known to be on our way back but we never saw any evidence of enemy activity in that area. On each occasion when we were flying back along the coast I took the opportunity to make my way to the front of the aircraft and practice “low flying” over the fluffy clouds. It was good fun and good practice as well, in case of future emergency.
Our longest operational trip, lasting 6 hours 50 minutes, was to the road north of Chiengrai, in Siam. On our way there, we passed near Mount Popa when we attacked a lorry, setting it on fire. We continued on our way with no delay since our destination was at extreme range and in due course we came across the Chiengrai road in the midst of wooded country. A lorry was making its way along the road so we made to attack it, but our four cannons all failed to fire. I then went through the re-cocking procedure and Johnny made another attack on the vehicle, but this time only one shell was fired before our cannons jammed again. Johnny then attempted to manoeuvre the aircraft so that I could get a few shots at the lorry with my machine gun but largely because of the terrain I found it impossible to get the lorry in my sights without being in danger of shooting ourselves in the tail. So we had to return to base after a frustrating episode. We had, however, set a lorry on fire on our way out, so our trip was not entirely wasted.
The Beaufighter was a tough aircraft, although with rocket blast plates attached it could not easily maintain height on one engine. I have already recounted my own experience of crashing on returning from a successful operational flight when a lucky machine gun bullet hit our starboard wheel. I witnessed two other crashes at Chiringa, from both of which the crew walked away. In the first, one of the tyres had been burst, causing the aircraft to swing violently on touching down. The pilot applied corrective action in the form of opposite brake, but this, coupled with the effect of the flat tyre, caused the tail to come up and the aircraft performed a somersault. Those of us watching were fearful for the safety of the crew, but first the pilot’s bottom hatch, now on top of the inverted aircraft, opened and then that of the navigator and they both walked away unaided.
On another occasion a Beaufighter was taking off when it swung to starboard and practically became airborne when it “landed" on top of another in dispersal. They both ended up a mass of tangled metal, and petrol was everywhere, but both the crew members escaped unscathed. What is more, the aircraft didn’t catch fire, thanks to the prompt action of the fire crew.
My time on 211 Squadron was interrupted by two periods of leave, and a course at Ranchi. My first period of leave was spent in Darjeeling, which was refreshingly cool after the heat of the plains. To get there we were flown to Calcutta and we then took the train from Sealdah to Siliguri at the foot of the Himalayas. There were then three possibilities. The first was to take the train on the mountain railway via Kurseong where the railway ran along the Main Street and Ghum, the highest point on the railway at over 8,000 feet. This took seven hours. The second was to take the ‘bus which was a bit quicker whilst the quickest, taking about three hours, was to take a taxi. We took a taxi.
It was a most enjoyable leave and a treat to leave the heat and humidity of the plains behind us, if only for two weeks. My one regret was that we were shrouded in cloud, which prevented us from seeing the majesty of the Himalayas. Everest was too far away to see, since it was no more than a speck in the distance, even in good visibility. Kanchenjunga was, however only some 800 feet less high than Everest, and, so we heard, towered above Darjeeling. We heard that Kanchenjunga appeared briefly through the clouds at about 6 o’clock one morning, but I am afraid we missed it. My second period of leave came early in January 1945 when the weather was fine and by no means too hot, so I spent it in Calcutta.
The course at Ranchi started on 20th November 1944 and lasted three weeks. Ranchi was at an altitude of about 2,000 feet and was, therefore, particularly in late November, pleasantly cool. We were the second choice for the course, the crew who were first choice failing to return from an operation, although they suffered some sort of trouble and diverted to Myitkina, in order to avoid having to fly over the Arakan Yoma, the highest mountain in the range being Mount Victoria, over 10,000 feet high.
Despite our protests we had to go on the course. It consisted of low level ground attack instruction and practice, and an instructor’s element. We had been flying regularly for nearly four months while engaging the enemy in low level ground attack so we took the view that this part of the course was irrelevant as far as we were concerned while the instructor’s element did not interest us. We completed the course and were glad to get back to the Squadron.
Earlier, when we had returned from one of our periods of leave we heard that the Squadron had been engaged on a strike on Japanese shipping in the Gulf of Martaban, south of Rangoon, which we had missed. However we were not to miss a strike on the 18th October on the Rangoon airfields of Mingaladon, Hmawbi and Zayatkwin. All three squadrons from Chiringa were involved, 177 and 27 Squadrons as well as ourselves.
A squadron of Mosquitoes were brought in and the USAAF contributed some P47 Thunderbolts which dive-bombed their targets. For some days we knew that there was something special in the wind and the day before the operation was due to take place six crews from 211 Squadron were briefed as to our part. We were given Mingaladon, which we were to approach and attack at low level. At 6.55 am on 18th October 1944 we took off in company with many other aircraft. It was always our practice to observe strict wireless and radio silence, particularly when flying outwards on an operation, and we flew as low as possible in order not to alert the enemy. The Americans, however, kept up a continuous stream of chatter for some considerable time, much of it asking whether their undercarriage was fully retracted, and they flew at 10,000 feet. We were not surprised, therefore, when approaching Mingaladon we found Japanese Oscar fighters circling the target airfield at 2,000 feet. Two aircraft of 211 Squadron continued with their attack. One returned to Base.
In company with the remaining three we turned back, and were followed by a fighter. By opening our throttles fully we attained the speed of 240 [340?] knots and gradually drew away from our pursuer, while all the time my attention was divided between keeping the Oscar in the sights of my machine gun in case he came within range and watching out for any others who might come on the scene. As soon as we deemed it safe to do so, Johnny throttled the engines back for fear of them overheating and seizing up, whereupon the Japanese fighter started to gain on us. We then opened up again for a while and finally lost the fighter, and made our way back to base.
In the early months of 1945 the monsoon was approaching and we had to climb above the clouds which were building up over the Arakan Yoma in order to be sure of clearing the mountain peaks. Since the contours shown on the maps were not reliable we reckoned that the only way to be sure of clearing the peaks was to avoid going into the cloud.
On this particular occasion we flew through an electric storm, between the towering cumulus clouds, when we noticed an electrical discharge round the tips of the propellers, along the leading edges of the wings and tailplane and along the aerial. This continued for perhaps ten minutes. It did us no harm, as all the metal parts of the aircraft were bonded together, and there would be danger only if it became earthed, and that couldn’t happen at over 10,000 feet! While the display did last, however it was very spectacular!
The food was adequate, and the cooks made the best of the rations that were available. To supplement these, a party went into the jungle one day on a pigeon shoot, so that evening we enjoyed pigeon for dinner. There was not a lot of meat on them I seem to remember. On another occasion a goat unwisely strayed a little to close to the mess, so we had roast goat on the menu that evening. It was coarse meat, and not unpalatable, although Trefor Greig, the Squadron Adjutant, could not bring himself to eat any as he had watched the goat playing that afternoon with Puddles, the mess dachshund.
One of the Mess waiters was Anthony Fernandes, who had the habit of serving the soup with his thumb firmly in the middle of the plate. This was bad enough, but we reckoned that he had the biggest and blackest thumb of any Indian!
When dusk approached a generator came into action and produced electric light for the mess. This enabled us to have our evening meal and a drink in a modest degree of comfort, given the circumstances. With the dark came the insects, and a daily dose of mepacrine was designed to keep the inevitable mosquito bites from causing malaria.
There was an insect we knew as a dive-bomber, probably of the beetle family, about an inch long, or more accurately, round, which would fly around and then without warning close its wings and drop to the floor. Frogs invaded the mess in the evening, and would swallow anything that we happened to drop on the floor within easy reach. One of our diversions was to drop a lighted cigarette end onto the floor in front of a frog, and, sure enough it was pounced on and spat out almost immediately. Not surprisingly the frog was quiet for some minutes afterwards!
There was an occasional flight to Calcutta in order to take a crew on leave and bring back another who had completed their leave. Sometimes one crew would do the round trip, going one day and returning the next. At other times a crew would fly to Calcutta, leaving the aircraft to be brought back by another crew returning from leave. Occasionally the aircraft would become unserviceable, giving a little extra time in Calcutta.
We would use Alipore airfield in Calcutta, mainly because it was convenient to the centre of town. Unfortunately, however, the runway was constructed in the bend of the River Hooghly, where Bramah Kites, scavengers of great renown, used to circle to the great danger of aircraft taking off and landing. A Bramah Kite hitting an aircraft would do a great deal of damage and it would cause a dreadful smell which would linger for ages.
On arrival at Calcutta the drill was invariably to head for Firpo’s, a restaurant in Chowringhee and tank up with their John Collins in the long bar. This was made with a local gin, Haywards, which while not generally preferred, made a good John Collins at Firpo’s when mixed with fresh lime. When we had satisfied ourselves with a few John Collins we would then move to the restaurant where the main (and most popular) dish was an excellent prawn mayonnaise. On one occasion there was no prawn mayonnaise left and this caused trouble!
When we had finished our lunch (more correctly the prawn mayonnaise) at Firpo’s we would make our way to Aircrew House in Russell Street. This was a residential club for aircrew, which both commissioned and non-commissioned aircrew could use. Before leaving we would buy a dozen cases of the local gin (Carew’s) and rum (Rosa) in order to replenish the stocks of the Sergeants’ and Officers’ Messes, and load them up in the aircraft before taking off for Chiringa.
While in Calcutta a good way of spending the afternoon was to go to one of the local cinemas. There were two next door to one another, the Lighthouse and the Elphinstone. They each had a bar at the back of the auditorium and both had well-upholstered easy chairs and settees instead of the customary tip-up seats back home. They both had efficient airconditioning, which was a great attraction in a tropical country where a spot as cool as one of the cinemas was extremely difficult to find!
While on 211 Squadron I had to do only one turn as Orderly Officer, and was extremely lucky to have as my Orderly Sergeant the Squadron Warrant Officer “Chiefy” Platnauer who was one of the old school, his service going back to pre-war days. I had to do very little myself, merely lending the authority of my rank when required. It was an education! I can recall only one incident when we were inspecting the followers’ quarters and there was one elderly Indian with white whiskers, who apparently should not have been there. “Chiefy” immediately went into action, saying “What’s Farver Christmas doing here. Get ‘im off the camp immediately!” And he went! I must admit I found it hard to keep a straight face.
One of Lord Louis Mountbatten’s visits was to Chiringa and the three Squadrons (27, 177 and 211) were lined up by the airstrip to await the arrival of his aircraft. He inspected the Officers and within my own earshot had something different to say to each person. He asked me how long had I been in South East Asia, and when I replied that it had been only a few months, he commented “Ah, a new boy, like me". After inspecting the Officers he motioned the whole company to gather round him and then mounted the soap box that had “conveniently” been left close by and opened his remarks with the words “People call you the Forgotten Army. They’re wrong, why, nobody’s even heard of you!” This brought the house down, and he then proceeded to give us a pep talk on the future campaign.
We had welcome instructions from 224 Group that we were to stand down for Christmas Day , and the morning’s programme included a fancy dress football match between the Officers’ and the Sergeants’ Messes. After suitable lubrication the Sergeants’ Mess acted out a skit, based on that wellknown chorus “Sister Anna will carry the banner etc” and during the course of it the Air Officer Commanding, Air Commodore the Earl of Bandon, otherwise known as “Paddy” Bandon or “The Abandoned Earl” appeared on the scene and thought it all a huge joke. We all repaired to the airmen’s Mess where, in accordance with the best traditions we served the airmen with their Christmas Dinner, and the cookhouse staff did us all proud, with special Christmas rations being flown in for the purpose.
The tour of operations at the time Johnny and I joined the Squadron was 300 operational flying hours, but this was shortly reduced to 200 hours, whilst “MR” decided to go on and complete his 300. As far as we were concerned Johnny and I not unnaturally became a little more cautious as the 200 hour mark approached, and on our way back after completing our tour by patrolling a section of the Irrawaddy delta in the area surrounding Bassein we were even more delighted than usual to pass for the last time Oyster Island lighthouse. On this trip we saw nothing to shoot up. In fact, for the last few operations the targets became fewer and fewer. Perhaps this was because we were doing a good job and keeping the enemy from moving. At least, that is what we like to think!
Having completed our tour, I was summoned to our Commanding Officer, Wing Commander RCO Lovelock, who had succeeded Pat Meagher, and told that I was posted to the War Room of 224 Group at Akyab, and here Johnny Birch and I split up. On 7th April 1945, I was flown from Chiringa for the last time, leaving for Akyab which had recently been re-taken from the Japanese.
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