Copyright: G J Wright 2018
1955: THE CENTRAL FIREARMS BUREAU AT CID HEADQUARTERS NAIROBI
Arriving in Nairobi from the PTS at Kiganjo I was allocated quarters in the Hospital Hill Inspectors Mess. I then reported to Superintendent Vernon Smith, who was in charge at the Central Firearms Bureau (CFB) at CID Headquarters. The office was a large hut, probably ex-military, with a long counter running lengthways where one handled enquiries and dealt with applications for renewal of firearms certificates or initial applications for possession of a firearm.
Photo: Nairobi – August 1955
Until the declaration of a State of Emergency in 1952, firearms licensing had been very casually handled by the Administration, records were poor or non-existent and many of the European population, especially the older families, owned dozens of firearms of all descriptions, many unregistered. Almost all of these weapons were simply left lying around, propped in corners, in large unsecured wall mounted gun racks, glass fronted cabinets, or in vehicles.
In response to the Mau Mau emergency, a new Firearms Ordinance was enacted in 1953, based upon the UK Arms Act, the new law changed all this. Policy dictated that private individuals, including white hunters and farmers, could hold no more than one heavy rifle, a smaller calibre rifle, a shotgun and a pistol or revolver. When not in actual use, arms were to be kept in an approved steel, lockable gun safe which would be secured to the structure of a building. The official, approved gun cabinets of several types were manufactured by an engineering firm in Nairobi, Wali Mohamed Limited. Rectangular cabinets could be firmly bolted to a solid wall, using concealed bolts, or a circular type that could be set into a concrete floor and concealed beneath a rug or other object.
In charge of the front office was Chief Inspector Eric Sales who had been a navigator in Mosquitos during the war. Eric was cool, calm and collected. The office was manned by two other uniformed officers, supported by several female clerical staff.
I was soon into the swing of things and the clientele began to fall into various categories, those who had a genuine need for a firearm, those who took a chance on securing a firearms licence just for the hell of it, and those who sought a permit for a pistol or revolver for the prestige that they felt accrued, mainly Asians. The only criteria likely to be successful, was the first.
Excess firearms were collected, receipted, and stored in the Police Arms Store at Gilgil in the Rift Valley. Some had dozens, or scores, of firearms in the store. One, Prince Windisch-Graetz, a pretender to the Austrian throne, had hundreds. Licensees could exchange firearms for another held in the arms store.
Back then, all records were stored in carefully sorted paper files all contained in common steel filing cabinets. Apart from the perception and decision of the licensing officer as to the suitability of the applicant to hold a licence, there were no other police checks. People who had an application refused had a right of appeal to the Secretary for Defence and many were not slow to exercise this right. Few, if any, appeals succeeded.
Being at the CFB gave me an opportunity to sort out the question of my .22 Hornet rifle. It transpired that under the Game Ordinance a .22 could not be licensed for anything other than bird shooting and the fact that the Hornet was considerably more powerful than the ordinary .22 long rifle did not alter this ruling. The Hornet could be used by a farmer or land owner to shoot anything on his land, but not by a private individual. The rifle was a pretty little piece and so it was with reluctance that I took a temporary permit and placed it with Messrs Shaw and Hunter, gunsmiths, for sale.
The work could not be described as uninteresting and many would have felt that I had hit upon a cosy niche, but it was not the sort of life that I had expected, or indeed had joined the Kenya Police for. So, a few weeks after arriving at the CFB, I asked for an interview with Superintendent Smith. I stood in front of his desk and said that I wanted to request a transfer to general duties, preferably in Central or Rift Valley Province. Mr Smith did not mince words, he roared and the gist of his message was that I’d damn well do what I was told and that there would be no transfer. I had heard of knees knocking, but this was the first time that I had had such an experience! As I got to the door of his office, he said “Wait” and in a more amicable tone explained that it was those who became proficient in administration who gained promotion. I should have listened! I did in fact learn a lot about administration, record keeping, files and cross referencing and so on.
Vernon Smith had been a constable in the Brighton through the war, had learned German and passed the City and Guilds examination in the language. In 1945 he had applied for a position in the Allied Control Commission Police in Germany, had been accepted and eventually became a Major. He also acquired a German wife. From time to time, Prince Wisdisch-Graetz would arrive at the CFB with an entourage of African servants all carrying wooden boxes containing game birds and dripping water from melting ice. On one occasion, I went to Smith’s office to announce the Prince only to find that he had followed me and entered behind me. Smith leapt up, extending his hand to the Prince, he said “ ’Allo Prince, wie getz?”. The conversation then continued in German.
To the staff of CFB, Smith was known as “Dad”. Later when I was Provincial Firearms Officer Nyanza Province I would attend periodic departmental meetings in Nairobi. The meetings would be held in the office but afterwards we would adjourn to a hotel in, I think, Sadler Street, for drinks. Dad would take a seat where he could watch comings and goings through the main entrance. Conversation would frequently be interrupted when he would comment on a female walking through reception, shocking we innocent young men with remarks such as “Cor, I could bottle that”.
Applicants for Firearms Certificates or for renewals completed a form 3 on which, among other things, they were required to state the purpose for which the firearms and ammunition were required. Some of the reasons were unintentionally humorous, such as the very dark Pakistani gentleman who entered “White hunter”, another, an Indian, said that he wanted a rifle to shoot tigers.
Some weeks after my roasting about a transfer to general duties, I was summoned to the presence and told that with immediate effect I was posted to Kisumu on Lake Victoria to become the Provincial Firearms Officer, Nyanza Province. As I was leaving his office, Mr Smith said “Wright, what’s acrophobia?” I had to admit that I hadn’t a clue — “Well find out then”. I seemed that the incumbent PROFO Nyanza, one Dirk Salmon, had reported that he could not do the job because he suffered from acrophobia which, it transpired, is a morbid fear of heights.
I did not then know Dirk Salmon, but on meeting him I suspected that there was more to his acrophobia than he would admit. He was a suave, cool gentleman and I think that he found Kisumu too tame for his tastes and yearned for the bright lights of Nairobi. He had a Morris Minor Tourer and told me that when he drove up to Kisumu, he had descended the Mau escarpment on the right-hand side of the road, away from the edge! The job necessitated visit by road to the Provincial outposts of Kericho, Kisii and Kakamega, but as I recall there were no great height perils in Nyanza, but it seemed that it was all too much for Dirk.
I travelled to Kisumu by train overnight and on arrival was allocated accommodation in the Inspectors Mess which, at that time, had about six occupants. The Provincial transport officer, John Norris, in the absence of any formal structure, ran the mess. John was afflicted with a very bad stutter and a liking for fish pie! He was in his fifties and had been an engineer in the Cunard transatlantic liners. The mess was an old colonial style building with wide verandas all round, a large central dining room and lounge and bedrooms at either end.
Provincial Police Headquarters Nyanza was a brick and tile building with a two-storey central part with a formal entrance and single storey wings on either side. My office was in one of the wings and I had an armoury in the central part of the building. I went with Dirk Salmon to the office, where he introduced me to my secretary, Pam Butler. Pam’s husband was a District Officer and both had been born and raised in India where he had been a Superintendent of Police. Pam spoke several Indian languages which were to prove useful when Asian applicants arrived in twos or threes and had discussions in their own language!
I found that in addition to my job as Provincial Firearms Officer, I was also ex-officio Immigration Officer and so had to bone up on the Immigration Ordinance. This was not an onerous job, but Kisumu was one of the entry points to Kenya and it was known that Asian sugar cane farmers at Miwani flew cheap Indian labour to Kampala to enter by the back door.
Not long after I arrived in Kisumu, I had a memo from Vernon Smith advising that he was about to take leave and the Secretary for Defence had decreed that the number of privately licensed pistols and revolvers was to be reduced by 90 per cent.
Nyanza was not subject to the State of Emergency that held in the Central and Rift Valley Provinces but this had not prevented the settlers around Kericho and Sotik in the Highlands to the East of the Province from behaving as if it were. Many of these settlers were former military officers and full of arrogance. I remember Dick Terry telling me that when he was stationed at Sotik, he was called to a farm to deal with a report of a theft. On arrival, he saw the owner who upbraided him for not saluting — it transpired that the owner was a former brigadier who felt still entitled to a salute.
As soon as the 90% ruling became known, the local Member of the House of Representatives; Mrs Agnes Shaw, began organising protest meetings at Kericho and Sotik. Things became very heated and at one meeting the police firearms officer at Kisumu was dubbed a “Blind bureaucratic machine”. A few refusals engendered appeals, but as far as I recall, none were successful.
The protests continued, but Mrs Shaw was told that if she any issues with the policy then she should take them up with the Secretary for Defence. I had not met Mrs Shaw, but a few months later I walking down a corridor in Provincial Headquarters when I was stopped by a matronly lady who introduced herself as Agnes Shaw and she wanted to know if I’d be voting for her in the upcoming legislative election. With some delight, I told her that I was the “Blind bureaucratic machine”.
At the same time, a firearms loan scheme was introduced throughout the Colony whereat a person with a genuine need, such as a bank or government officer on safari, could apply for a temporary permit and select a weapon from a small number kept by the licensing officer. In Nyanza, the scheme did not get a lot of use.
Among the Asian community in Nyanza possession of a pistol “because of the Mau Maus sahib” was a matter of some prestige, particularly among the Indian sugar cane farmers at Miwani who occupied strip along the foot of the Nandi hills just out of Kisumu. After a refusal, several of them just refused to give up and I had weekly visits from several of them including a large Sikh gentleman who would place an inflated rubber ring on a chair before begging for the return of his licence — “Piles you see sir”. On one memorable occasion, he arrived heavily bandaged and recounted a tale of how on his way home one night, he drove his new Mercedes into the rear of a bullock hauled sanitary night cart — “Shit all over the place sir”. The only illumination on those carts was a smoky paraffin lantern swinging from the offside shaft.
One day a diminutive, curiously dressed gentleman arrived with a shot gun and a firearms permit issued by a District Commissioner in 1939. Barnassi Dass Singh wore a short black tunic, a strange headgear, a sword (Kirpan) on his belt and was apparently a Sikh priest. The shot gun, with hammers, was a veritable museum piece and was clearly unsafe and all the ammunition had the indent of a firing pin on the percussion cap, but had not fired. He had no English and using pigeon Swahili I found that he had more of the ammunition at home in Miwani. I told him that I could not issue a Firearms Certificate for the gun, seized it and gave him a receipt.
A few days after his office visit, I borrowed a motor cycle from the Traffic Branch and went out to the Singh residence at Miwani to collect the ammunition. I was greeted by Mr and Mrs Singh who made a great fuss, strewing marigold petals on the path whilst ushering me into their modest abode, there they indicated that I should sit and promptly fell to their knees and started to kiss my shoes. I leapt up, asked for the ‘rasasi’, gave him a receipt and rode away. Not very polite in Sikh terms, but I found it all rather embarrassing. Thereafter and for many months I would arrive back at my office and Pam would announce; “Your friend has been”, pointing to a bag of guavas by my desk.
From time to time I was required to visit the local firearms dealer in Victoria Street, Messrs Dhanji Manji, and check their records. Here the reception was always courteous and the registers meticulously kept. The dealer was required to confirm any purchases, with details, to the Firearms Officer within a set time. A Firearms Certificate was in the form of a small booklet and it was recorded details of any firearms that a holder was permitted to acquire, together with subsequent purchases of ammunition. When applying for annual renewal of a Certificate, the holder had to state the amount of unused ammunition held and the amount of any bought during the year.
Firearms held for sporting or pest control purposes were expected to use a reasonable amount of ammunition in a year, but small arms for personal protection would use smaller quantities for familiarisation and practise. It seemed to me that a weapon that had never been fired could serve no useful purpose and presented a distinct risk both to the owner and the community, in that the owner could not quickly and instinctively use it in an emergency. Faced with an applicant for renewal I would note the quantity of ammo held, usually twenty-five rounds, and the amount bought during the year — which invariably amounted to nil. To the question; how many times have you fired this weapon? The answer was likely to be “Sahib, I am firing this gun all times, isn’t it”. So where did you get the ammunition to fire it many times, you have the same number of rounds as when you bought the pistol, and have bought none. Confusion!
Asked to demonstrate how they would fire the weapon, most applicants held the gun in the firing position and simply jerked it — I almost expected them to say “Bang, bang”. Asked if there was not something else they needed to do, most would just stare blankly at the pistol. Taking the pistol, I would demonstrate how to cock and fire, making sure that the magazine platform was lowered a fraction — otherwise the slide would jam and could not be returned to the ready position when the magazine was empty of rounds. Clicking home the magazine I would hand the pistol back and ask the applicant to demonstrate — of course, the slide would jam in the back position. More confusion as the applicant tried to remedy the situation, several even tried to hammer the slide back by banging the slide against the underside of the desk. Application denied on the grounds that the applicant had used no ammunition for practise and was incompetent in the use of the weapon. It was fortunate that most civilian firearms holders seemed to favour automatics; otherwise this ruse would not have worked.
Early in 1956, the superintendent in charge of CID, Doug Espie, sent for me; “Have you any idea how much money has been collected this month in Kisumu in your name?” he asked. My turn for confusion, “None”, I replied. “Well quite a bit, but don’t worry we know who is doing the collecting and it’s not you”. It turned out that a certain Sikh sub-inspector in the traffic branch had undertaken to speak to me about granting firearms licences — for a price.
After the old Inspectors Mess closed and we moved to accommodation above a shop in Victoria Street, I returned one afternoon to be greeted by the cook who indicated a wooden box with my name on it and which proved to contain twelve bottle of Johnny Walker whisky. There was no indication of whence it came. I reported this to Doug Espie who said he would get back to me. He did and suggested that the whisky should be incorporated into the stock of the Mess bar. I never learned who had delivered the box.
Every couple of months I would make the journey by Landrover to the Police Arms Store at Gilgil taking surrendered arms for deposit and occasionally some for exchange. Sometimes I would go on to Nairobi for departmental meetings. I would occasionally arrange to meet Dick Terry who was at that time at the North Kinangop Police Station and we would have dinner at the Brown Trout Hotel. The Kinangop on the western flanks of the Aberdare Mountains was at that time a hotbed of Mau Mau activity and one evening, returning to the Police Station where I had left my Land Rover we found a tree across the road. Dick backed up and we studied the scene. When nothing happened, leaving Dick in his Morris Minor, I approached the fallen tree with my .45 Webley drawn — still nothing happened. Deciding that it was just a fallen tree rather than an ambush, I managed to clear enough timber for Dick to pass and we drove on to the station.
Kisumu was a rather quiet and uninspiring place, but we always seemed to find things to do when off-duty. I joined the Kisumu Yacht Club and eventually bought an old 16-foot sharpie which was in dire need of some care and attention, but nothing that a scrub and a lick of paint wouldn’t fix. As well as an unfinished concrete club house, there was a circular thatched bar, a large flag mast and a polished brass canon. Just off the club lived a colony of hippopotamus which were often encountered when sailing away. The club held local races and once a year a day long race around an island at the head of the Gulf of Kavirondo. This tended to be a bit of a mission as the sun was a fierce and quite often the wind dropped to nothing causing contestants to be becalmed. In, I think 1957, my boat was disqualified because my crew, Des Hardman, a local bank official, had been seen using a large umbrella as a sun shade. Other crews objected and said that we had been using it as a sail. A ruse of coursed, but it worked.
To the West of Kisumu was a range of hills running into the distance and the top of which lived the Nandi tribe, Nilo-Hamites, who were warlike and quite unlike the Nilotic Luo who lived on the plains. In fact, it is from this tribe that Kenya later drew many of its Olympic track champions. The face of the hills is steep and scrub covered which covers and hides the many rocky outcrops which make climbing difficult. One Sunday I set out with Jim Cade, the Provincial wireless technician, and another young policeman, a Scotsman, intending to climb to Nandi Rock, a large flat-topped feature from which, legend has it, in the bad old days, the Nandi had thrown Luo who wanted to be free to return to Luo Land. We climbed for two hours and the sun got hotter, we ran out of water. With still some way to go to the summit and the fact that our friend was suffering a good deal from the heat and lack of water, we abandoned the climb and made for a Sikh farmhouse among the sugar cane plantations where we found some water. We had set out for a Sunday stroll which took on the elements of a nightmare. We were grossly ill prepared. I never did get to the Nandi Rock.
From time to time, Mike Jeffers the traffic officer would set up a speed check on one of the roads leading into Kisumu. There were no hand-held radar speed guns in those days and a site needed elaborate preparation and execution. First the Ministry of Works surveyed a half mile stretch of the road and placed lines on the road at start and finish. I was recruited by Mike to man the ingress point armed with a pack set VHF radio where, hidden off the road I would watch an approaching car and call “Now” as the car passed over the line. Mike would start his stop watch and wait for the vehicle to pass over the exit line. He would then quickly calculate its speed and then tell a post further down the road whether or not to stop the car. Traffic was relatively light and it was a time-consuming process for very little actual return, especially when one considers that a plea of not-guilty necessitated all involved in lengthy court proceedings.
Occasionally Superintendent Bernard Ruck of Special Branch would enlist me to take a large, cumbersome reel tape recorder to an out of town political meetings where I would set up the equipment and a conspicuous microphone at the venue. This was to have a sequel a few years later when at Lamu I received a signal to report to Mr Ruck in Nairobi, when he offered me a position in Special Branch.
I never understood why he couldn’t have used some of his own staff to cover these inconsequential political meetings, but it made an interesting change from the Firearms Bureau. I recall on one occasion when a well-known local politician, Oginga Odinga, was holding a meeting near Kakamega. Before the meeting, Odinga, who had just returned from a Commonwealth Parliamentary meeting at Lancaster House in London wandered over, waving a giraffe tail fly whisk, to pass the time of day and said, “Ah Inspector, are you too from London?”. Odinga became a Minister in the post-independence government and played a large part in maintaining the stability of the country at that time. His son, Railia Odinga became Prime Minister in 2012 and is under investigation by the ICC for his part in promoting violence between his supporters and those of Mwai Kibaki, a Kikuyu presidential candidate.
One day, a colleague, one Alexander Oscar Kaye, approached me in the mess on an immigration matter. Kaye, former RAF aircrew and sometimes member of the CID in Nairobi has been involved in an incident which resulted in him being shot in the leg. He had a curious fast walk and I always remember him as clutching a flat brief case, he was never without it, and inside was a privately licensed .45 calibre Llama automatic pistol. He wanted to bring out from the UK through Kampala his fiancé and asked me to issue a temporary immigration permit to be in force until they could be married. I did.
Peter Pierce, a Senior Immigration Officer in Nairobi, contacted me and asked if I would be able to go with him to do a check at the property of Hindocha Brothers Limited at Miwani. Hindochas were probably the biggest sugar manufacturers in Kenya and had a factory and extensive cane plantations. Immigration had intelligence that they were importing cheap labour from India by way of the back door, through Uganda.
On the appointed day, Mr Pierce arrived and we drove out to Miwani to find Mr Hindocha Senior enthroned, dhoti clad and crossed legged, on a well-polished concrete slab in a corner of the office. A clerk was called to translate and Peter Pierce introduced himself and told Hindocha that he would like to see all their staff, from the factory and the cane fields, as soon as possible. Hindocha sent for one of his sons, one of the brothers, who spoke English and Pierce repeated his request. After a lengthy discussion with his father in, I think in Gujerati, the son left to arrange matters. Hindocha senior clapped his hands and ordered bottles of cold Vimto for Peter and myself—this was a foul sweet soft drink much favoured by the Asian community. Time passed and Peter Pierce repeated his request.
After almost an hour the son returned and said that all the staff were waiting outside. As he turned to the door Peter spoke to him in the language he and his father had been using earlier—confusion and dismay. Peter told me later that he had told the son that he had better collect the illegal workers and hide them in the sugar cane, and to do so quickly because we were not prepared to wait all day. Peter had been born and raised in India and was fluent in several regional languages.
In 1957 I received a telegram from my mother telling me that my father had died. Communications in those days was slow and tedious but I booked a telephone call to my friends the Radfords. I cannot now recall how I notified my mother that she should be at the Radfords at a certain time, probably a telegram. However, in order to call UK I had to book an international call 24 hours in advance and then at the appointed time sit by the phone. At 7 PM, Kenya time, the telephone rang and the operator told me that I was connected. The connection was appalling and hardly intelligible. In the end my mother handed the phone to Dorothy Radford who had once worked as a telephone operator for the GPO. My mother confirmed that she did not wish me to return to the UK for the funeral. A sad time.
During 1956 and 57 I recall three VIP visits to Kisumu all of which I became involved with as an escort. First, Aly Khan visited the large Indian Ismailia community, followed about a year later by his son, Karim, the Aga Khan or head of the Ismailia sect of Islam. Lastly, HRH the Princess Margaret visited Kenya and spent a day in Kisumu.
Mike Jeffers and I led Aly Khan from the airport in a traffic Peugeot wagon, around the town and later back to the airport. It’s the latter that sticks in my mind when on the airport road we found ourselves being overtaken by His Serene Highness who seemed to be in a hurry. He gave us a toot and disappeared at speed in a cloud of dust! He lived up to his reputation as a bit of a wild man.
His son, Karim, the young Aga Khan, in contrast, was a gentleman in all respects—I’m tempted to say, an English gentleman. His mother was in fact one of the Guinness family. His PA, an English chap called Curtiss, was from Cambridge and so we had that in common. This time, three of us, myself, Mike Jeffers and Des Hunt, escorted the visitor on motor bikes. I’m not sure how a foreign prince, a Serene Highness, qualified for such treatment, but those were the orders.
As I recall, Karim spent about three days in Kisumu, visiting and spending time at all the important Ismaili sites and one evening there was a party in a large marquee at which, surprisingly for a Muslim sect, wine and spirits were available. When he visited the Aga Khan Girls’ High School it was arranged that he should be photographed with a group of senior students. The group was arranged and as he sat in the centre waiting for the photographs, other girls raced forward, flung themselves at his feet and kissed his shoes. He looked directly at me, grinned, and winked.
On the final day, Mr Curtiss said that HH would desperately like a swim, was there anywhere private where his wish could be accommodated. I contacted Superintendent Vic Aubrey and he said take him to the Nyanza Club and sign him in under my name (Aubrey’s). We did, but this resulted in Vic Aubrey being threatened by the committee with ‘black balling’ for introducing a non-European into the club!
In 1958, Princess Margaret flew in and spent one day in Kisumu. Four of us were to ride in the back of an open Landrover which was to follow the royal car where ever it went. Two of us carried loaded rifles, and one each of the others a shot gun and a Sterling SMG, but these weapons where to be wrapped in blankets and kept out of sight on the floor of the truck. The rifle carriers were to watch the top of buildings on either side of the road, and the shotgun and SMG to keep an eye on the crowds.
As the procession passed up Victoria Street and entered the central square, we found a large parade of old African ex-servicemen arraigned in their best clothes, many wearing old KAR bush hats and all displaying their WWII medals. Many of them had walked long distances from their homes in the reserves. The cars did not even slow, much less stop, and continued through the square at about 40mph. How to win friends and influence people.
After a number of formal engagements, HRH was taken to the Provincial Commissioner’s house on the shores of Lake Victoria for lunch. The house faced open grassland toward the lake shore was encircled by a string of African constables who had been instructed to remain down in the grass and out of sight. When Princess Margaret stepped out on to the terrace, to her astonishment, they rose as one and stood to attention. Mid-afternoon we escorted her back to the airfield and thus ended a forgettable visit! The buzz at the time was that the Kenya visit had been a cover for a quick trip to the Congo where Peter Townsend was serving as Air Attaché. Maybe.
One memorable incident of my stay in Kisumu was when a large, kilt wearing, caber tossing, and I daresay claymore wielding, Scotsman who commanded a rural Police Stations who took a sanitation problem into his own hands. He made the mistake of shining a torch down the hole beneath his long-drop lavatory and it moved—at least the cockroaches on the walls moved. Jock, whose name I forget, ever resourceful, poured five gallons of petrol down the hole which must have vaporised almost instantly. When Jock fired a Very pistol into the hole the small wooden hut took off like a rocket and he barely escaped with singed whiskers as a jet of flame shot heavenward.
In September 1958, I sailed for England in the British India liner, the Kenya, for six months leave. A call at Aden, through the Canal and the Straits of Messina to Marseilles, Barcelona, Gibraltar. We had time ashore at each stop and finally reached London.
Copyright: G J Wright 2018