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Underage RAF hero who flew missions against Japanese over Burmese jungle

A Belfast man who lied about his age in order to join the RAF and then took part in the war in Burma against the Japanese has died.

Robert Brooks was just 16 when he enlisted in 1942 after a relative altered his birth certificate to read that he was 18, the minimum age for entry to the service.

After basic training in Kent he was posted with 117 Squadron to Burma which, despite the horrors of war, he later described as the "best days of his life".

A flight engineer, Robert was one of the air crew tasked to support Major General Orde Wingate and his Chindits, who were fighting in the jungle.

He flew missions dropping off soldiers behind enemy lines and then airlifting in supplies.

The planes operated from small airstrips and the soldiers had, on occasion, to literally swing the tail of the aircraft around to allow it to take off again. On one occasion Robert learned that men of the Welsh Fusiliers were surrounded by Japanese troops and running out of food and ammunition, so he asked his commanding officer to be allowed to fly rescue missions.

His concern was heightened by the fact his brother Billy was a member of the regiment and he feared he could be killed. A total of eight planes took off within 20 minutes of being given the all-clear.

They flew in so low that on return to base they had to pick branches and other debris out of the wings.

It was a campaign that left a lasting impression on Robert and, in November 2015, just after he had turned 90, he laid his own personal wreath at the Cenotaph in Belfast in commemoration of those who fought and perished in that arena of war.

He was concerned that those who had fought and died in Burma had been forgotten by the general public, whose main knowledge was confined to the war in Europe.

He wrote his own epitaph on the wreath: "In proud remembrance of Major General Orde Wingate and his brave soldiers of the Chindit Brigade who fell during his first Chindit operation behind enemy lines in Burma - operation LONGCLOTH, March 1943 and those Chindits who fell in a similar operation in March 1944 - operation THURSDAY."

The wreath is now in St George's Church in High Street, Belfast.

After the war Robert served in what is now Zimbabwe, training new pilots in transport operations, and he later went to Germany before leaving the RAF in 1954. He promptly enlisted in the Territorial Army in Northern Ireland, first in the Royal Artillery and later in the Royal Engineers, from which he retired in 1978 with the honorary rank of Major.

A civil servant, he worked his way up the career ladder to become a health and safety inspector.

A family member recalled that every time he got promoted at work he would tell his wife to get "her glad rags on" and they would go dancing at the Orpheus ballroom in Belfast.

When he retired from the Civil Service he formed a safety consultancy business with a former colleague, which he continued until his wife Mona fell ill.

An avid gardener, Robert formed several gardening clubs and societies. His interest in horticulture dated from his schooldays when his father ran a market gardening business from allotments in the Fortwilliam area of Belfast.

He was also an active member of his church, firstly Kirkpatrick Memorial in Ballyhackamore, and latterly St Mark's Church on Holywood Road.

Recalling his father's role in World War II, his son David said: "Because of his Christian beliefs he always felt sorrow that he had taken part in a war in which millions of people had died. He always said that there are no winners in war."

Robert was predeceased by Mona and is survived by David, four grandchildren and their partners, and two great-grandchildren.

A celebration of his life will be held in St Mark's Church tomorrow at 11.30am, with burial afterwards at Roselawn Cemetery.

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