July 44-Jan 45
A parachute had to be collected from the store and returned after a flight. It was tightly packed in a rectilinear canvas bag which had a webbing handle and a very obvious, big, rectangular metal pull. Inevitably someone would pick it up by the pull whereupon the whole bag opened and the parachute would spread out along the floor. The penalty was a fine of, I think, a half day’s pay, of which half went to charity and half to the packer. They took a long while to pack properly and each one had a code number traceable to the woman packer.
Every flight involved navigation and some bombing at “high level”, ie. near 8 or 9,000 feet I think. Bombing targets were 50 miles NW of Winnipeg and 100 and 200 miles to the West. Generally flights covered 400 to 500 miles and lasted 3 hours or more. On my first flying day I did two flights totalling over 6 hours, one early morning, the other at night. Routes were planned to avoid trespassing into North Dakota, 40 miles south.
So, about the 9th of January, two or three hundred of RAF personnel were taken in buses to Halifax port and transferred to the “Mauritania”. This was a liner launched c.1940/1 to replace an earlier “Mauritania”, and immediately converted to a troopship so probably not ready until 1942/3. We were assigned an area on the second deck, complete with hammocks, and issued with instructions on times and place for meals. We heard that a large number of Canadian troops would be embarking in the afternoon, so went up to the top or main deck to watch.
They were part of a French Canadian regiment who clearly weren’t enamoured with the prospect of a trip to Europe. We were fascinated to see the first half dozen walk up a gangway towards the third deck, and, while they did so, throw their kit and rifles overboard into the water. With the prospect of an unarmed regiment, and a dock full of kit, embarkation was brought to a temporary halt, and was completed after dark. We were told there was some sort of prison accommodation on the ship, where the miscreants spent their transatlantic voyage. Segregated, we saw and heard nothing else of the soldiers, so presumably there were no further problems. If they ever came up on deck it was not visible to us.
UK Jan 45-Jan 46
Halfpenny Green was, and is, an airfield adjacent to the eponymous village, some 6 miles from Stourbridge, and towards the Birmingham conurbation. It was then used by No.3 Advanced Flying Unit. For me it was primarily air bomber duty, though one was expected to assist the navigator to some extent, and occasionally combine both jobs.
There were a few Officer pilots but most were NCOs, and the majority had formerly been with active squadrons, bomber or fighter, and several belonged to unofficial “clubs”. The Caterpillar Club had members who had parachuted to safety, and wore a small copper pin badge of a caterpillar, concealed beneath a pocket flap or jacket collar. There were two or three pilots who were members of The Guinea Pig Club. They needed no badge, since they had recovered from extensive burns, and undergone pioneering plastic surgery under Archibald McIndoe, who was later knighted. One, a Flying Officer, had a severely “reconstructed” face; no matter at the time, but one felt for his difficulties after demobilisation.
Two Polish Sergeants were renowned for somewhat eccentric flying habits, a custom which seemed to be related to most RAF Poles, and finding you had one of them as pilot was considered a prelude to adventure.
On the Station there were a number of Free French Air Force personnel, being trained similarly to ourselves, though with French pilots. The only times we were in contact was off duty, and for a while about twenty shared accommodation with us in a Nissen hut. They were a friendly bunch, with no more English than we had French. A few were from France but most seemed to have originated from Algeria and Morocco. We managed simple communication and one taught me the words of several popular French songs, “J’Attendrai”,etc. For the first time, we encountered an item of French forces ritual, perhaps, the daily issue of about a half pint of red wine. They were quite willing to share but it was such unpleasant stuff that after the first sips further offers were graciously declined.
Flying started two days after arrival. Again, the ubiquitous Anson was used, although some Blenheims, and Bolingbrokes, a version of the Blenheim, appeared available. There were different types of target for day and night bombing. Some time was taken learning details of the, to us, new Mark 13 bombsight fitted in all the aircraft. The previous one, the Mark 9, could not take account of the aircraft’s attitude; if a wing dipped slightly, or the nose rose or fell from level flight, the target appeared to move away from the sighting lines. The new bombsight incorporated gyroscopes in a large box that negated the effect of minor aircraft movement and made the sighting operation much more accurate. Although new to us, the Mark 13 had been with Bomber Command for quite a while.
Generally things went well. Lincoln and Gloucester cathedrals were often targets, and one long night included Romsey Abbey and railway sidings at Goole, on the Humber. On that trip a warning was given not to overshoot the Romsey Abbey area since anti-aircraft batteries around Southampton and Portsmouth were somewhat trigger happy.
With the end of hostilities the RAF found it needed an expanded Transport Command with the capacity to move not only freight but people, military and civilian, on a regular basis to “outposts of empire”. It was, in effect, becoming a sort of airline, and therefore at airfields along routes - termed “Staging Posts”- there was a necessity for staff to deal with the complexities of the mass movement of passengers and goods.…
We were then assigned to particular Staging Posts, and that at Singapore came to me. I have no idea how the distribution worked, whether those who joined later were sent further, if family commitments had any bearing, or if names were randomly ticked on a list, which seemed most likely.
There were, perhaps, three or four bases in the UK which may have dealt with different routes, and that at Waterbeach, 5 miles NE of Cambridge, served the Far East. From here the route could be Malta, Cyprus, Haifa, Colombo, and Singapore. The latter was then the hub for “local” traffic to Malaya, Burma, Hong Kong, Thailand, the Dutch East Indies, and Australia. If there were problems in Palestine, Cairo could be used as a diversionary stopover, or even the ludicrously isolated desert airfield at Shaibah in Iraq.
Going East Jan 46
The aircraft was an ex-US Liberator bomber, converted by sealing the bomb bay doors, putting in some kind of flooring along the fuselage, and canvas seating down the sides. Since there were no windows a few lights were arranged in the top, and an Elsan in the tail end. Obviously unpressurised, it would have to fly below 10,000 ft. There was a quite inadequate heating system, but I don’t recall the details; it was uncomfortable and cold. Ration packs were issued, as were flasks of tea, overseen by a steward. He also gave out information on progress, but, for the most part, wisely retreated to the crew quarters. We sat and pondered our fates, amid the noise and increasing cold.
We took off around 11am, and 3 hours later landed in Southern France at an airfield at Istres, for refuelling. It was then another 4 hours to Castel Benito, in Libya, where we spent the night in wooden barracks, and could relish the warmth.
The next morning, shortly after breakfast, we were airborne again, and a few hours later were descending past the pyramids to an RAF airfield outside Cairo. A little before the pilot announced that he was having trouble with one of the plane’s four engines and there would be a delay of a day or two. I’m not sure if Cairo was a diversion (from Haifa) or an intended stopover, but it became an excellent break, lasting four days until the engine was fixed. Meanwhile we were well fed and billeted in a camp nearer Cairo city.
Egyptian currency, £’s and piastres, was obtainable at the camp, so on the second afternoon, armed with a simple map, a small group explored an allegedly civilised area of bazaars and coffee shops, though the latter were filled with characters smoking hookahs. Everywhere was crowded, noisy, and not a little intimidating. One was constantly being harangued to purchase unsavoury foods, ridiculous produce “to be sent home”, or to be taken to see some incredibly lewd shows. It was colourful, but hot, smelly, and rather frightening as an initial excursion, so after a couple of hours we retreated to the comparative peace at the camp, and I scribbled some messages home on postcards.
Early on the 7th we were told to be ready for an after lunch take-off, this time to Shaibah, Iraq, where we would spend the night, and then go on to Karachi. Shaibah was an airfield in a desert, and encompassed by high, heavy wire fencing, with guard posts at intervals. So far as I remember it had the normal issue of hutments with brick built control tower and HQ buildings. Once settled in we were told to take no notice if gunfire broke out during the night. The RAF Regiment was in charge of security and, to keep them alert, any Bedouin tribesmen in the area would ride past the perimeter fence, shooting through it. Apparently this happened on a weekly basis, and return fire was expected, though it was a sort of game.
It was late on the 9th of January when we landed at Karachi airport, and finally parted with the converted Liberator and its general discomfort, to be driven through the hot, crowded squalor of part of the city, to a transit camp. Apart from feeding etc. there was the matter of currency, and getting rupees, annas, and pies against our sterling. If you hadn’t changed back Egyptian money while in Cairo it was too bad.
The morning after arrival all the RAF personnel with me were singled out for a medical check and inoculations. It made no difference that all those we’d had a fortnight back were listed in our paybooks and documents, and signed by an MO, they would all be done again! Protestations being useless we went through the rigmarole once more, though it was agreed that the smallpox scratch would be on the other arm.
There was no chance of a visit to the city for the next morning I, with a half dozen strangers, was back at the airport to board a plane bound for Poona. By now I knew better than to query why I was on such a peculiar and indirect route; a previous enquiry elicited the reply “Because you’re on the manifest!” However, our transport was a Dakota, the general workhorse among aircraft, and though temporary, the seating was fairly comfortable.
The distance was only about 600 miles, and reached by the afternoon of the 11th. After being shown to our billets a half dozen, mostly RAF, were called to an office to be told that in two days, on the 13th, there would be a train journey to Madras, and from there anyone bound for Singapore would probably go by boat. In the meantime we were free to look at Poona.
The name was familiar from childhood tales, and perhaps rather as I expected. Fairly large, and very much a military town with numerous barracks interspersed with streets of houses, generally bungalows, often with front and back gardens, quiet and well maintained. There were some Indian-run shops but the main shopping areas seemed to be more towards the non-white districts. The place that held me for much of that day’s ramble was a church, and particularly its cemetery. There were the tombs and graves of Generals and lesser men, wives, and so often children, going back for a century or more, and especially interesting were those of the staff of the East India Company. (More than 50 years later I would find a similar but much smaller cemetery in Macao).
It was mid-afternoon when the train drew to a halt at a small station, a shortish platform only on the left hand side of the train, and no buildings at all that were visible, and to each end there seemed to be jungle, while monkeys cluttering the few trees beside the platform decided to descend and jump to the bars alongside the carriage windows. General instructions included one against feeding monkeys which was initially ignored but soon enough adopted when it was realised how vicious they were.
Within minutes, in this apparently desolate spot, men and boys appeared on the platform, shouting and jostling and armed with baskets of fruit and vegetables, boxes or trays of drinks, and even small silverware trinkets. A minor bedlam accompanied by monkeys leaping back and forth and trying to cling to the window frames. Some transactions were undertaken, mainly for fruit, and always via the windows. After a while, realising that business was exhausted, the traders melted away, simply disappearing behind the platform. They were replaced by children, utilising the usual begging stances, but they were only a handful (start giving and the number would multiply) so it became relatively peaceful.
We now heard that the stop was the result of problems with the engine, and this was a suitable place to wait for a replacement, although one could not be expected until the next morning. (It may have been that here there was a double stretch of line to facilitate any train going in the opposite direction.) With the prospect of a cramped sleep I was with a number who emerged to stretch their legs. The first surprise was to see that many of the occupants of the front coaches were alongside the track as well as on the platform because of their numbers, and they were part of a West African regiment, probably Nigerian. All were over 6ft.and, incongrously, were under the command of a white Lieutenant who was no more than 5ft. high.
A handful of us went into a part of Madras one afternoon but didn’t linger for very long. Lots of small shops and stalls, and while it was not at all dangerous, elements of the Independence Movements were visible in posters and pamphlets. ( There was serious support for the aims of the late Chandra Bose, said to have been killed in an air crash in August 1945. After the Japanese surrender he had escaped British clutches, while continuing his campaign for anti-British violence from some other country. He had worked with the Japanese during the War, when, to assist them, he had raised his 40,000 strong Indian National Army in Burma ). I think we tired of the general bustle, the smell, and particularly the beggars of all ages, many having been deliberately distorted when very small so their whole lives would be spent in the profession. Some could only haul themselves along the pavements by their hands, their leg joints having been broken. Others had one useful arm and leg, while those lying on rags or old blankets looked as if they had been left there to die. Quite unlike Egypt.
The ship was not what we had expected. A Royal Navy vessel, perhaps about 80ft long and with pointed bows, otherwise like a decked landing craft though I think there were hatches for loading stores etc into the hold. There was a wheelhouse towards the stern and companion ways leading below to a galley, a mess room, crew’s bunks, washroom and toilets. Beyond were a number of tiered bunks in alcoves, more than we would use but here we would sleep and store our kit…
Come nightfall and the temperature dropped from hot to very warm. The best place to be was on deck so most of us brought a mattress up and slept under the stars. At daybreak down for ablutions and after breakfast up on deck again.
We had sailed well after the monsoon period and the boat ploughed through quite calm seas for four days, and must have passed between some of the Nicobar Islands, though I don’t recall seeing anything other than a ship or two. Then, after dark, the lights of Singapore appeared, and an hour later we berthed at one of the numerous jetties in the large harbour. With farewells to the crew, and accompanied by our kit, we sampled terra firma at the end of a voyage of almost 1900 miles.
In all I had travelled over 8000 miles, 5600 by air, 600 by train, and 1900 by ship, and it had taken around 19 days. Had I gone by air, as I guess was originally intended, it may have been only 1000 miles less but unlikely, with various stops, to have taken more than 6 or 7 days. Still, I was grateful for the experience, and India certainly made an impression. The cities were chaotic, and therefore appeared unsafe, though with the little experience I had, it seemed that people completely ignored you unless there was a possibility of business. Poverty imposed itself everywhere, and at first that was disturbing, until you realised it formed such a large part of Indian society it was accepted as a natural condition, especially by those suffering it.
Part 2 - Singapore
|Hemlock Snr's war - Brief extracts