Copyright: G J Wright 2018
In RAF Marine Craft
In May 1950, I turned 18 and had to register under the National Service Act. The alternative was two years working in a coal mine. I knew of only one who chose to do that. I registered and in August was invited to attend for a medical and selection at Brooklands Avenue in Cambridge. I passed the medical A1 and having chosen to try for the RAF, I went on with about two dozen others to sit a ‘test’. I remember that the RAF recruiting sergeant said; “If you can’t pass this, we’ll give you a rifle and put you in the Army”. The test was very hard; such questions as, “how many sixpences in a florin?”, “which letter comes after ‘H’ in the alphabet?” It seems that I passed and a few weeks later received a letter, a railway warrant and instructions to report to RAF Padgate in Lancashire.
Shortly after arriving at Padgate, the whole intake was marched into a large hanger and was addressed by a highly-decorated Group Captain, a WWII pilot. The gist of the message was that if you had School Certificate then you could apply for aircrew — so naturally several dozen of us did just that. We were transferred to the potential aircrew flight and were instructed to place a circle of white plastic behind the cap badge. If we expected some form of special treatment; we were mistaken, and the next six weeks was take up with cookhouse, mess and cleaning duties.
So, when it was decided that I did not have sufficient visual acuity for aircrew — it transpired that I was mildly astigmatic — I was posted to RAF West Kirby in the Wirral Peninsula for basic training or “Square bashing”. The intake was allocated barrack huts with about 25 airmen in each. The huts were spotless, the floors polished, the beds aligned and made up each morning with the sheets and blankets folded and placed in prescribed fashion. Heating, and this was the winter of 1950/51, was by means of two, potbellied anthracite stoves which were also cleaned with black lead to within an inch of their lives. The stoves were not lit until after tea at 5.30pm and so never really succeeded in heating the hut, but they made fair toast.
For most of us it was our first experience of living and sleeping in a community and some took to it better than others. Standards were imposed according to the book by the DIs (Drill Instructors), usually corporals displaying WWII medals, and some were ex-Army. The standards were regimental and the barracks immaculate for five days, but generally relaxed after the Saturday morning parade — until Monday morning when, of necessity, they would shine again. One member of our squad simply could not cope and consistently fell below the required standard, everyone tried to help him but it proved impossible. Finally, one morning whilst the unfortunate lad was still asleep, his bed was picked up, with him in it, and deposited outside, together with his kit bag (stuffed with stale food and other delights), pack and accoutrements. He tended to smell a bit.
The hierarchy got the message and the poor lad was not seen again, probably discharged as unlikely to become efficient — I often wondered if it was a clever ruse. Reminds me of the story, doubtless apocryphal, of the recruit who walked around a camp picking up pieces of paper and repeatedly saying “That’s not it”. When he was handed his discharge papers, he said, “That’s it!”
For all practical purposes, apart from PT or when in bed, we lived in Air Force blue army style battledress, complete with gaiters and highly polished ammunition boots with steel studs and, curiously, a collar and tie. Not just a collar and tie, but something which I had not encountered before, a detachable starched collar which, unless carefully prepared, tended to chafe the neck. The crowning glory of this ensemble was the highly-polished boots. There are many theories on how boots should be worked up to the required standard, especially the toe cap which should shine like a mirror. Among the most favoured was the ‘burning’ technique in which a liberal coating of boot polish was spread over the toe cap, it was then briefly ignited until the polish was seen to melt evenly. A good deal of care was needed in pursuing this approach. Sometimes the spreading of the polish was done by heating the handle of a spoon and using this to evenly spread the polish. With brush and cloth, the coating of polish could soon be brought up to a perfect sheen. Some lads, who seem to have the knack, were more successful than others. I recall that perfection of boot polishing caused more worry and heart-ache than anything else we experienced.
Recruits were allowed out of the camp at weekends and, with several others, I made a number of trips to surrounding districts, including Chester and Liverpool. These trips were all made wearing best blue uniform.
Time passed quickly and we soon became adept at arms drill, using the SMLE number four rifle with a 6-inch bayonet. Although there were some lectures, most of our time was spent on the square or doing physical training. We had some anti-gas training which consisted of donning respirators and waiting in a sealed room for the instructor to release a teargas canister – towards the end of the session we were ordered to remove the respirator before being allowed to depart into the fresh air outside.
The formal Saturday morning parades were carried out to the marching tunes played by the station band and concluded with a March past at which the station commander took the salute. The parade that everyone waited for was the final passing out parade with a march past to the strains of the official RAF March.
Aircrew apart, those who knew, held that if there was no overseas posting within six weeks then you were bound to stay in the UK. At that time, the RAF had stations in Gibraltar, Cyprus, the Suez Canal Zone, Nairobi, Habbaniya in Iraq, Khormakser in Aden, the Maldives, Singapore and Hong Kong, to name but a few, and not forgetting Germany.
I decide to sign on for a three-year engagement as a photographer. In hindsight, should have stuck with that trade, but at Cardington I suggested that there had been a mistake and that I had selected motor boat crew. At that time, air sea rescue was still done using 68-foot-high speed launches and 57-foot pinnaces — the latter with a hold and derrick and were used for torpedo recovery — although the ASR pinnace had a deck house built over the hold.
Flying boats were tended by seaplane tenders, refuellers and bomb scows, together with several smaller communication craft. It transpired that there were two and a half vacancies a week in the trade and presumably I scored one of the halves.
So, in the early winter of 1950 I was posted to Calshot on the Solent, to the RAF Marine Craft Training School. The camp was old, dating from WWI and the Schneider Trophy seaplane races in the 20s and 30s. Sunderland flying boats were moored on a trot in the Solent and at the end of Calshot Spit was a large, wide, slipway where the aircraft were hauled out for maintenance.
The principal instructor was one “Tommy” Thomson, a flight lieutenant, who had served with T E Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) who, as Aircraftsman Shaw, he had served in RAF Marine Craft in the 1930s. In fact, Shaw, had been seconded to the Power Boat Company at Cowes and was instrumental in developing the hard chine planing hull of the high-speed launches, seaplane tenders and these days fast recreational boats.
The 68-foot-high speed launch that was in service during my time, sported three Napier Sea Lion aircraft engines which consumed 66 gallons of aviation fuel an hour at about 30 knots. Launches of various shapes and sizes were used through the war, but all were replaced by the 68-footer which was known as the “Hants and Dorset” because the deckhouse was said to resemble the buses used by that company.
Until late 1940, the launches had all been unarmed and went to the aid of any pilot in the water, friend or foe. Then, when the Luftwaffe took to strafing the boats in the channel, they were armed with two aircraft turrets on the bridge wings, each with four Browning machine guns. Some launches also then carried an Oerlikan 20 mm gun aft and twin Lewis gun mounts on the bridge. They were of triple diagonal timber construction with a hard chine. The HSL was also equipped with a target towing winch in the stern.
Many years later when serving with the Royal Navy in the Persian Gulf I was invited on trip in a 68 foot HSL from the RAF MCU in Bahrain and found that the three old 500 hp Napier Sea Lion engines had been replaced by two 1800 hp Rolls Royce Merlins, the legendary Spitfire engine, which produced a remarkable turn of speed.
We learned basic coastal navigation, signalling with flags and lamps, rope and wire cable work, anchor and cable layouts for flying boats and launch moorings. Although the RAF employed civilian riggers, we did have a session on splicing heavy wire rope, which proved something of an undertaking. These were used as strops on the heavy mooring buoys. We had sessions at the helm of a pinnace steering compass courses and on one occasion circumnavigated the Isle of Wight — the atmosphere in the enclosed wheelhouse was made almost unbearable by Tommy Thomson’s noisome pipe.
Among the rather antique barracks and facilities was a camp cinema which was heated — it was already November — by two large anthracite pot belly stoves which glowed but really produced little heat, except in close proximity. On arrival at Calshot we had been issued with a white heavy wool roll neck submarine sweater which we naturally adopted as elegant warm cinema wear. One Thursday evening I and a friend entered the cinema and were confronted by two service policemen who immediately put us on the charge for being improperly dressed! Before the CO the next morning, we were sentenced to 2 days confined to barracks – this would not have been too bad, but for the fact that we had 48 hour leave passes for the weekend. As well as being confined to barracks, this punishment also included the chore of reporting to the guard room three times during the day in Field Service Marching Order which was minutely inspected by the SP on duty.
In the evening of the first day, a Friday, we were visited in the barracks after the 6 p.m. parade by the unit’s Warrant Officer who, to our amazement, told us that he had managed to have the punishment reduced to one day and that we should plan to go on our 48 hour pass the following morning. The W0 had served in marine craft through World War II and had become a prisoner of war of the Japanese after, legend had it, that he had rammed an HSL into a Japanese destroyer. He was a large, courteous man, rather like a father figure, but I no longer remember his name. But he made our day and the weekend.
During course at Calshot, we had several weekend leaves and for the return journey I would leave St Ives late in the evening of Sunday and arrive at Liverpool Street Station at about 10.30pm. The Union Jack Club was conveniently near Waterloo Station and so I would spend the night there and catch an early train to Southampton. 31 December 1950 fell on a Sunday and returning to London, I went straight to Trafalgar Square where I saw in the New Year among the crowds.
Early in 1951, training completed, I was posted to the 1104 Marine Craft Unit at Bridlington on the east coast of Yorkshire. It was a small unit charged, among other things, with the policing of the air to sea firing range 8 miles to the South and off the Lincolnshire coast. We had two 42-foot seaplane tenders which were powered by twin diesel engines, and one 23-foot marine tender. Our parent station was RAF Driffield and the Bridlington unit was so small that we were accommodated in civilian billets. I recall that my billet was in Windsor Crescent and the owner, Mrs Brown, a large, homely lady who felt that it was her job to mother the boys. There were four of us in the billet including a flight sergeant who was coxswain of one of the seaplane tenders.
We would make a leisurely run down to Skipsea in a seaplane tender and moor to one of the buoys positioned just off the range. The range consisted of several moored whale back targets which had armoured tops heavy enough to resist any damage from 6lb dumb practice bombs or rockets. The launch was in VHF radio contact with any aircraft using the range. Occasionally when in civilian boats drew near to the area we would drop the mooring and warn them off. There was a large tugboat called the “Yorkshireman” which in summer took paying passengers for trips around the bay. Sometimes the “Yorkshireman” would stray into the prohibited range area, we would drop the mooring and the coxswain would circle the tugboat at speed whilst we fired red Verey cartridges. At first, I was puzzled by this as the tug master must have been fully aware that he was entering a prohibited area, but it soon became clear that the “Chiefy” was merely producing a thrill for the passengers and earning his evening beer!
On one trip to Skipsea in the seaplane tender, we were cruising along at a leisurely 15 knots with me and the other crewmen standing on the steps on either side of the wheelhouse projecting from the waist up when we suffered a nerve shattering shock. A meteor aircraft passed just over the launch at full speed on the same heading and we felt the noise and the jet blast!
At low water, spring tides, Bridlington Harbour would become almost completely empty and the launches would settle onto the mud. Consequently, when we were notified that an aircraft of the Royal Flight would be passing in either direction and coinciding with low water we were obliged to spend the night moored to a buoy outside the harbour. This could be very uncomfortable and I remember on one occasion there was a considerable swell and I lost my supper which I dumped out of the wheelhouse hatch. The following morning when the flight sergeant discovered the mess, I was justifiably obliged to clean it up.
Although my stay at Bridlington was relatively short, several things remain in my memory. Mrs Brown followed the local custom of providing “high tea” rather than supper and soon after my arrival I was confronted with a kipper – something that, until then, I had been unable to face. I picked at it gingerly and to my surprise found that I enjoyed it and kippers have since remained a favourite.
Whilst at Bridlington I volunteered for a two-week detachment to the national musketry site at Bisley to work in the butts during some championship shooting. Our job consisted of signalling the scores after each bout and pasting the targets to eliminate the bullet holes. We were in a concrete bunker well below the level of the targets which was faced by a deep layer of earth. We had an opportunity to explore the site, the various clubrooms and gun shops.
Sometimes during that summer of 1951, a bunch of us would visit Scarborough a favourite Yorkshire seaside resort which was only a few miles to the north and among other entertainments was the “stare”. We would stop in the main street and fix our gaze on a blank area of sky and before long everyone in the Street would be staring at nothing! In the crew room of the unit at Bridlington was a signed, framed photograph of T E Lawrence who had also served at Bridlington in the early 1930s. The MCU at Bridlington and the RAF Station at Driffield no longer exist.
About July 1951 I finally received my heart’s desire, a foreign posting. The posting was to Iwakuni near Hiroshima in Japan. On returning from my two weeks’ embarkation leave I found that the draft had been cancelled because the base at Iwakuni had been taken over by the Australians. The new draft was to Fanara on the Bitter Lakes in the Suez Canal zone. I then went to Lytham St Anne near Blackpool to the RAF Pending Dispatch Centre where I found that the draft had again been amended to Aden. We joined HMT Lancashire which was lying in the stream off the Royal Liver Building. Dawn the next day found the ship in the Western Approaches and heading for the Bay of Biscay.
The Lancashire, owned by the Bibby Line, with its single “Woodbine” funnel had been launched in 1914 and had just undergone a complete £1m refit. The holds had been converted into accommodation for other ranks with standee berths, with scores of three let-down bunks on each side of two central pillars. Access to the deck was by way of vertical ladders against the hold bulkheads. The ship, single screw of about 10,000 gross tons with a speed of around 15 knots had served as commodore ship for the Juno Beach D-Day landings in June 1944. She was scrapped in 1956.
I recall the voyage as a leisurely cruise, almost a holiday, and with exception of some swells in the Atlantic, through relatively calm seas. Passing Gibraltar, the ship tended to hug the North African coast and I remember Algiers showing as a cluster of white specks on the distant coastline. Brother Ted bequeathed me a white canvas money belt from his Navy days in which I assiduously kept my 1250 RAF identity card and the small amount of money I had. One day I returned to the troop deck from the heads and realised that I had left the belt behind. I quickly returned, but the belt had gone. I reported the loss and to my amazement the belt was returned to me after a couple of hours.
At Port Said we were allowed shore leave and old hands warned us to watch the shoe-shine boys who tended not to take no for an answer and were adept at throwing a contrasting colour over footwear and then running away. Passing through the Suez Canal was an event and we were soon steaming on our leisurely way down the Red Sea resplendent in our new khaki drill uniform. There were parades, lifeboat drills and activities on the ship, but one diversion stands out — anyone so inclined could report to an army sergeant on the poop and enter a shooting competition. Inflated balloons were lowered over the stern into the wake on a length of string and these became the targets at varying ranges.
After the passage down the Red Sea, through the Bab el Mandeb into the Gulf of Aden, the Lancashire entered Aden harbour in daylight and moored to two large buoys in the stream. In those days, there was no wharfage for large ships and all moored and bunkered in the stream. We landed over the Prince of Wales Pier from whence we were collected by Bedford RL troop carriers and transported to the RAF Station at Khormakser. After refuelling, the ship sailed on to the Far East and Korea where the UN sponsored war continued.
In 1951, Aden Colony and Protectorate was quiescent and servicing the constant stream of passing ships with bunkers and duty-free shopping for passengers and crew. Shops at Steamer Point seemed to be owned in the main by Indians, with the odd Chinese and occasional Somali. There was also an ancient Jewish population. The shopping area of Steamer Point or Tawahi was open to servicemen, but the old town in the Crater was out of bounds. No matter at what time of the day or night a liner moored in the harbour, the Crescent in Steamer Point, a duty-free port, came alive and all the shops and bars opened. There was however access to Jebel Shamsan through the Crater Pass. The Jebel, at 553 metres, is the highest point of the Shamsan range and had been inhabited for several thousand years. Ancient features remained, such as Sheba’s Tanks, large cisterns design to catch rain water run-off from the mountain, and the remains of a ring of Arab, Portuguese and Turkish forts.
Being in a strategic location at the mouth of the Red Sea, the trade route from India and the East, Aden had a chequered and warlike history, but what is today South Yemen, was in 1951 the Colony and Protectorate of Aden. Aden’s modern history begins with the occupation of the harbour by Captain Stafford Bettesworth Haines of the Indian Navy in 1839. Under Turkish Occupation and later under the rule of the Sultan of Lahej, Aden had declined to a small fishing village with only about 600 inhabitants. However, within a few years, under the guidance of Haines, the population increased again to some 20,000 inhabitants. Aden remained under British rule until 1967 when it reverted to the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen on November 30, 1967.
At RAF Khormakser there were three large three storey barrack blocks and the Marine Craft Unit personnel were accommodated in 3 Block Middle West. The barracks were divided into east and west, and each floor was surrounded by a wide veranda. Newcomers, or ‘Moon men’, with pale knees and unbleached khaki drill, invariably had to occupy a bed space on the veranda and wait for a space inside to become vacant. The inside rooms were fitted with large electric ceiling fans, but those outside had to rely on the meagre breezes. It never happened whilst I was on the veranda, but from time to time sandstorms would roll down from the desert and blanket everything, inside and out, with a fine dust. Each bed space was equipped with a bed, a mattress, foot locker, a bedside locker with a cupboard and drawer, and a wardrobe, each of steel. At first, I was mystified by the fact that all bed legs were placed in a 50 cigarette tins filled with paraffin, but I soon followed suit. Bed bugs were endemic and voracious and the only to prevent invasion of the bed was the paraffin moat.
A novel addition was an Arab bearer, Ali, who was responsible for cleaning the room and veranda, bed making, collection and return of dhobi, polishing boots, and shining uniform brass. At weekends, he would run errands to the Naafi canteen for filled rolls and char. It was here that I first encountered the chip butty. Ali was sometimes assisted or relieved by a younger brother. Every day each floor would be visited by a young hawker, Mr Ahmed who, from a couple of large baskets, sold fruit, confectionery, shoe polish and laces, brasso — you name it and Mr Ahmed had it, or would find it. Sometimes he would catch one of the morning trucks down to the unit and set up shop in the crew room. Ahmed, with his broken English, was a quick learner and had become a master of repartee and doubtful humour, typically barrack room and much of it unrepeatable. Ahmed kept a carefully annotated book in which purchases could be chalked up until pay day. He put up with a lot, but was always cheeky and cheerful.
The Marine Craft Unit was based at Jebel Hadid a couple of miles from the main gate of RAF Khormakser. We were up early, at least by 6 a.m when it was cool, and possibly slightly before, and after breakfast were transported to the unit in a Bedford RL troop carrier just before 7 a.m. The truck was driven by an Arab who maintained transport to and from Khormakser throughout the day. Work for the day finished at noon when we returned to the airfield for lunch. The rest of the day was free, except for those, usually two, who would remain at the unit overnight tending moorings until relieved the following morning at 7 a.m.
I was assigned as stern-sheets-man in the AOC’s launch, a 37-foot seaplane tender designated for use of the Air Officer Commanding, an Air Vice Marshal, various senior officers and visiting VIPs. The corporal coxswain was Harry Adamson, a Protestant Northern Irishman from Banbridge in County Down. The bowman, Liam Batt, a Catholic — or a left kicker as Harry dubbed him — was from Cork in the Irish Republic and commonly known as Paddy. This led to some amusing, good natured exchanges. Harry was an extrovert with an endless stock of repartee full of colloquialisms, and a great love of beer. Although Paddy took the occasional ale, he was more sober and practised weight lifting in his spare time. On duty, we wore white overalls and rode on the wheelhouse steps when under way, and took position fore and after with polished brass boat hooks held vertically when coming alongside. Paddy would tap his boat hook twice and in unison we would raise the tool horizontally above our heads, count to three and lower to the waist, count to three, and down to the knees ready to hook onto the gangway. In fact, a series of drill movements.
With the throttles closed and the launch just moving in preparation for coming alongside, this berthing manoeuvre, with precise timing, was polished to perfection. The cabin behind the wheelhouse was about ten feet long and behind that an open cockpit with the two Perkins diesels side by side and a gangway between. The deck at the stern outside the cockpit combing was no more than three feet wide with a hatch giving access to the steering gear slightly off centre. Standing at the stern called for good balance and agility in going forward and so long as the coxswain played his part, all was well. Some months after I arrived, we were alongside a ship with a stand-in coxswain — as I recall, one Corporal Bob Delpech — we eased away from the gangway when Bob opened the throttles wide. Caught unaware, I described a graceful head over heels, boat hook and all, into filthy, oil slicked water of the Aden harbour — to the delight of passengers on the rail of the ship — raising a black mark for the RAF Marine Craft Section. Wearing life jackets was unheard of in those days.
Bob Delpech, a dapper gentleman was from the Seychelles who cultivated a debonair air, as much French as anything. He was second coxswain on one of the HSLs and encouraged by the skipper, a Flight Lieutenant ‘Jim’ Hawkins, he would put on a diving stunt whenever the launch went to sea. There was often a large swell outside the harbour and setting the launch at an appropriate speed the forward part of the boat would rise and fall through a considerable arc. Clad only in his rather skimpy bathing slip, Bob would stand on the bridge wing and dive into the face of a swell. I’m not sure how dangerous this trick was, but he was an accomplished swimmer and diver and always entered the sea cleanly.
Many years later in New Zealand, I found myself talking with the Chief of the Air Staff who mentioned that when he was air attaché in London he had been contacted by the Seychelles High Commissioner who was trying to find relics for an RAF Marine Craft Museum. I said, “Stop there, I’ll tell you his name” and he confirmed that it was indeed Bob Delpech!
Added 20 August 2022
Sir Robert Delpech passed away peacefully on 8th February aged 97. Former High Commissioner for Seychelles, he served in the Royal Navy & RAF. He will be missed by his children, Roger, Simon, Dominique and stepdaughter Sarah . He outlived two wives; Marjorie and Valerie. Funeral Service on Wednesday 26th February, at Parc Gwyn Crematorium, Narbeth, at 2.30pm. Donations payable to “The Shipwrecked Mariners Society” c/o funeral directors W & MJ Rossiters & Sons Ltd or http://www.rossitersfunerals.co.uk
Our duties were not confined to troopships and we often carried VIP passengers to and from warships and the large P & O liners and those of the British India Company plying to India and the East. On one occasion, we picked up Field Marshal Lord Slim from the P & O liner “Oronsay”. He was on his way to take up the appointment of Governor General of Australia. When later we returned him to the ship, he stopped at the gangway, put out his hand and said “My compliments and please thank the coxswain”. This was in line with all that I later read about Bill Slim.
On another occasion, we took someone out to a US destroyer and were instructed to lie alongside and wait. We became an object of interest to the many matelots aimlessly swabbing the quarter deck and inevitably got into conversation with them. We declined offers of American cigarettes because none of us smoked and this was unusual back then. One chap said “How long do you guys stay in the god-forsaken hole?” and we had difficulty in convincing them that our tour was for two years, and that there were no dames—at least for other ranks—that is, enlisted men!
Sometimes late in the evening or at night, we would get a message through the camp guardroom that the launch was required to be alongside Prince of Wales Pier or at ship at a certain time. Usually there was sufficient time to dress, get down to the unit and run down the harbour, but not infrequently Paddy and I would find the coxswain, Harry, non-compos mentis on his bed after a hard evening in the corporal’s mess. We would dress him, hauled him down to the launch and lay him in the cabin whilst we motored down the harbour. At Prince of Wales Pier, we walked him up and down until he was sober enough to know what day of week it was! He would then do the appointed task and collapse back into the cabin immediately we were released. The following morning, he would have difficulty remembering the event. Later when he returned to the UK and was stationed at Castle Archdale in Northern Ireland, he received treatment and went on the wagon. I seem to recall that the instigator of this miracle was a lady who had insisted, after Paddy overturned a Morris 8 Tourer in which she was a passenger.
Number 8 Squadron was the incumbent at Khormaksar and flew Bristol Brigand bombers which were heavy aircraft with a poor reputation. 84 Squadron had used Brigands operationally in Malaya where they had accrued a catalogue of faults, among them frequent failure of the undercarriage. One afternoon we were watching from the balcony of 3 block as a solitary Brigand practised asymmetric or single engine touch and goes. On one approach, a red Verey light went up from the tower, causing the plane to open the throttle to go around on the single engine, but at this, the aircraft reared up, turned on its back and slammed down on an island in the adjacent salt pans. It took some time for the fire crew to get gear the island, but by this time the machine had largely burnt out. The pilot, a Wing Commander, was killed. The reason for the red on the final approach was because the undercarriage had failed to deploy. About a week after this incident we were instructed to take the Station Commander out to a newly arrived troopship where he was to meet the wife and two small children of the Brigand pilot.
There was an open-air cinema in the camp and a salt water swimming pool on the East Beach, 15 minutes’ walk from the barrack. Some people played football or hockey late in the afternoons and curiously Harry Adamson was an aficionado of the latter and for some time tried desperately to get me involved. I turned out a couple of times — just to fill in for someone who was on duty, Harry said, — but I did not become hooked. One of the boys on the unit spent more time flying to other stations, Habbaniya, Eastleigh, Singapore or the Canal Zone to represent Khormaksar at boxing. Prior was not a very likeable character and his typical greeting was to throw a fake punch accompanied by a curious sniffing sound. Many times, I and other had extra duties because Prior was away boxing.
The cinema was a brick built roofless structure with wooden lattice openings in the walls. I can’t recall if there was a charge, but predictably it was very popular and since at that latitude there was very little change in the time of sunset, which was typically fast and between six and 7 p.m., and so there was no impediment to nightly shows.
The Cinema at Khomaksar
Among popular films at the time were those by the Austrian diver Hans Hass who with his assistant, a young female called Lotte, had produced underwater films depicting coral and fish life in the Red Sea and the West Indies. For all the novelty of underwater photography at that time, I suspect that it was not marine biology that was the primary interest, but the shapely Lotte. The unit’s own performer, Ron (Blondie) Harper would, depending upon the theme of the film, put on a show by dressing appropriately. He would wait until just before the film was due to start and then would parade down the centre aisle dressed as a cowboy with a Stetson or a soldier complete with a tin hat. Blondie was always a showman and his efforts were greeted with much noise and applause. Quite the performer.
Officers and senior NCOs were allocated houses in the “married patch”, but other ranks had to endure the two years without female company, hence the popularity of films featuring shapely young women. I don’t recall being overly stressed by this, but there is little doubt that some boys did suffer. I recall one National Servicemen, a wireless technician, who was attached to our unit who never cease to complain that as a 19-year-old he should be in England chasing girls. From the start, he constantly made applications for transfer back to England and eventually the Air Force relented and posted him to Cyprus. ORs lived in barracks cheek by jowl where there was little or no opportunity to indulge in alternatives, but junior NCOs, corporals, often had a room of their own. A case did occur when the service police found a corporal in flagrante delicto with a young airman. This gave rise to one of Ahmed, the fruit boy’s, stock retorts “Who you think I are, fucking Corporal Bristow?”
Apart from visits to the camp cinema or the library, there was little or no entertainment and so one would look elsewhere for things to pass the time. Trips to Steamer Point were easy by taxi and exploring the shops could be entertaining, some of which sported signs boasting “By appointment to the RAF”. The Marina Hotel served as a meeting place and was famous for its Tom Collins which, based upon gin, came in a tall iced glass frosted about the rim with sugar and a slice of lemon. Since Aden was a duty-free port, all alcohol was ridiculously cheap — a 26-ounce bottle of beer, Carlsberg, Heineken or Amstel, cost one shilling. During my first few months in Aden, the currency was switched from the Indian rupee to the East African Shilling. The Naafi served only beer to other ranks, although a blind eye was turned to a few bottles of spirits acquired elsewhere and imported into the camp at Christmas.
Several of the boys in the unit had turned a windowless baggage room in the barrack into a photographic darkroom. The interior was lined with heavy timber luggage racks which served as benches for developing dishes and with a small accommodation an enlarger could be mounted on one bench. Several pieces of the horizontal timber racks were removed to this purpose. The room was properly dark, but very hot and security from inadvertent door opening was assured by removing the exterior latch handle. You just had to remember to make sure that the other half was available inside; otherwise one had to call out to passers-by to get the handle from one of the boys. Light proof film developing tanks would be loaded in the dark and the actual processing carried out in the adjacent bathroom where there was running water. But, the tap water temperature was extraordinarily high, way above the ideal 68o F needed for processing, but tables provided the correct developing time against the temperature. To avoid reticulation, in which the film emulsion softened and cracked or wrinkled, it was necessary to first use a photographic hardener solution.
Slowly, over the months I acquired the necessary kit. First a 1951 Super Ikonta 6X6cms 120 camera with a Synchro Compur shutter and a coated 80mm 2.8 Zeiss Tessar lens. This was followed by a Weston Master exposure meter, then an enlarger and ancillary equipment: dishes, a thermometer, film developing tanks and film clips, chemicals and printing paper. Looking back, I remain puzzled at how I managed to collect this gear on such a miserable wage! The Indian duka wallahs in Steamer Point were very accommodating and so I’m sure some was on deferred payment and of course all else, food, clothing and shelter (such as it was) was found by our generous employer. I still have many of the photographs I processed and printed in that Turkish Bath in 3 Block Middle West.
I had hopes of seeing something of the interior of Aden Protectorate and decided that perhaps I could learn at least a smattering of Arabic. The strange alphabet did not make this easy, but I thought that I could make something of it by learning vocabulary orally and recording it phonetically in the Roman alphabet. The Arabic alphabet has 28 characters, 22 of which have up to four variations, depending upon where they stand in a word. The station library had little or nothing to offer and I realised that Arab contacts around Khormakser, Ahmed the fruit boy, Ali the bearer and the khalasies (seamen) down at the unit would not be much help and so I knew that I should look elsewhere.
The Aden Protectorate Levies consisted of young tribesmen, boys really, who were ‘volunteered’ by their tribal leaders in the Protectorate to serve an engagement as soldiers. So, one afternoon I walked over to the Levy camp at Lake Lines where I picked a group at random and was invited to sit down with them. “Taal Gonny, tafadhal, iglis”. I explained that I wanted to learn to speak Arabic. One spoke a little English and soon there was roars of laughter as I attempted to pronounce Arabic words after them, at the same time trying to convert what they said phonetically and write it down. After a couple of months, using many circumlocutions, I was able to hold simple conversations.
In 1928, when Aden became an RAF command, the Aden Protectorate levies were taken over and latterly are commanded by officers and NCOs of the RAF Regiment. As well as assisting the police on internal security, the levies were responsible for the defence of RAF airstrips which were scattered around the Protectorate.
On days off, usually after a night duty, one could wander over to the hangers on the airfield and look for a chance to fly on a local test flight, or, if lucky, on a trip to one of the outlying airfields. I remember one flight in a Vickers Valetta to Beihan in the Wadi Hadramaut in the eastern Protectorate. The approach to the strip was quite hair raising as the descent led to a 90° turn into and between the walls of the Wadi and the landing some distance from the town. We had been warned that on no account should we give the locals any lead pencils, which apparently were used as a lubricant on their ancient firearms. Sure enough, on landing and standing in the shade under the wing, we were beset by fierce looking armed tribesman who immediately demanded pencils. The buildings in the town of Beihan were all clustered together and judging by the windows rose to five or six stories and decorated in curious patterns.
I should explain the expression “Gonny”. In the South Arabian dialect ‘J’ as in Jebel becomes a hard consonant and is sounded as ‘G’. All ‘other rank’ Europeans were called ‘Johnny’, hence “Gonny”.
On another occasion, the only flight available was a test in an ancient Avro Anson. This aircraft dated from before World War II during which it had been used for training and reconnaissance. It was curious in that the passenger portion of the fuselage was rather like a glasshouse but gave good visibility all round. On this flight, I recall flying along quite sedately at some altitude when a horn sounded and the plane lurched and lost altitude. I had never heard of a stall warning horn, but this apparently was all part of the aircraft test programme.
Sometime during 1952 Khormaksar was visited by a Canberra bomber on a training flight from Cyprus. I believe that it was the first jet aircraft to visit Aden and it caused some consternation among the locals who couldn’t understand how it could fly without propellers. As they put it, ‘Marfeesh bunkah” or no fans.
Christmas and New Year allowed for some relaxation of the rules and in 1951 the barracks were decorated and a large baggage room was converted into a party venue. The room was decorated; two wooden wardrobes were set on their sides and became a bar. A bath in one of the corporal’s bunks was filled with large blocks of ice and dozens of bottles of beer. Large, 26 0unce, bottles of beer, Carlsberg, Heineken, Yacht and Amstel, cost one shilling each at duty free prices. On Christmas morning, we were visited by the Station Commander, a Group Captain, and the Station Warrant Officer, who each took a small glass of beer. In the evening, the Unit Warrant Officer, Taff Williams and his wife, and several other NCOs and their wives came and stayed over for the entertainment. Sherry was produced for the ladies. Entertainment consisted mainly of sing songs and some solos from well lubricated members of the unit. The bar and the ice filled bath remained until New Year.
Everyone was entitled to two weeks’ local leave each year which could be taken in Aden, at the Nyala Beach camp near Mombasa in Kenya, or at Asmara in Eritrea. The attraction of the latter was that at 8000 feet it was highest RAF Station in the world and quite cool; ideal for people suffering from prickly heat. The city of Asmara was Italian Colonial with good shops, cafes, bars and the people, some of mixed blood were particularly handsome. So, I choose Asmara. In 1952 a new leave scheme was set up whereby troops could travel to Nairobi and spend two weeks on a farm in the Mau Mau emergency area, ostensibly to help with defence of the homestead.
Prickly heat was the scourge of Aden and almost everyone would suffer from it to a greater or lesser degree. It took the form of a red irritating rash and the urge to scratch became almost irresistible; to succumb could lead to infection. I pretty much escaped the worst of it, but some were very badly affected with the rash all over their body. One airman persuaded the cooks to let him spend time in the meat refrigerator at the mess; they took pity on him, but he overdid the treatment and went to hospital with pneumonia! At Khormaksar it was always hot and in the winter relatively dry, but in summer the humidity would soar and in July 1953 the whole command ceased work with the temperature well over 100 degrees Fahrenheit and humidity above 90%. In the eighteen months, I spent in Aden it rained twice, each time with large drops and lasted about ten minutes! For most of the year the range of jagged mountains which stood at up to 6000 feet and about 100 miles to the north, was obscured by the humidity haze and were quite invisible, but when the haze cleared they became an object of interest.
In 1952 I took my local leave and arranged to go to Dhala, in the mountains near the Yemen border, and stayed at the Levy camp. I travelled on a supply truck, a Bedford RL and spent most of the journey sitting on the spare wheel which was mounted between the cab and the truck body. First to Lahej, and then across the narrow strip of desert to the foot hills where we met the first obstacle, a rough narrow road up an escarpment that had apparently been built by Italian POWs during the war and consisted of a series of six zigzags. As we climbed, progress became slower with a lot of bottom gear work and at one point a bend was so acute that the driver had to make what amounted to a three-point turn. As we came out on to higher country, we stopped at several villages where inevitably I became the centre of interest to the rapidly gathering crowd. After some mysterious dealings by the driver, his escort, and local notaries, at one village we were invited into the top room of a house where there was no acute joint between the floor and the walls, but a gentle curve which was strewn with cushions. Small cups of strong coffee and some dates were duly served. No women were in evidence, and the refreshments were brought in by boys.
As we approached Dhala, the countryside flattened off a little but we appeared to be in a bowl set between hills and mountains. There was evidence of sparse cultivation which appeared to be mainly of millet, but interspersed with lots of small trees with intensely green leaves which I assumed was tea. I later learned that in fact these trees were Quat (Catha edulis), a mild narcotic which every Arab male in Aden used. They would take to charpoy with a glass and a flask of water which they would periodically sluiced through the wad of leaves which they chewed and built up in a cheek. Many, especially the chawkidars (watchmen), said that it helped to keep them awake, but evidence suggested that it was more likely to put them to sleep! Later, I was to again run into Quat in Kenya where it was known as Miraa and there was a law prohibiting possession and use. A Dakota aircraft loaded with Quat would fly into Khormaksar daily from Ethiopia, such was the volume consumed. On several occasions, the Dakota was replaced by a three engined JU52.
Only new stems and leaves were picked and made up into small paper wrapped bundles for sale. Later, on the way back to Aden, I bought a bundle for Ali the bearer.
Dhala, with Jebel Jehaf beyond
The Levy camp, outside the village of Dhala was composed of tents of varying sizes surrounded by a waist high loose stone wall with sangas at the corners. I was allocated a bed in a tent and messed with the RAF Regiment ORs, when I wasn’t invited by the young Arab soldiers to communal rice and boiled goat! I spent 10 days at the camp, sometimes just sitting, talking and improving my Arabic, short expeditions accompanied by two armed askari into the nearby hills to shoot pigeons. One day I went on a trip up to the Yemen border with the British agricultural officer.
On the Yemen border with the AO
He explained that the administration was trying to encourage locals to grow food crops, rather than Quat, but that it was an uphill battle. He pointed to the small stone towers spaced around the crop which had doors above head height and were entered by ladders which were pulled up after the occupant had entered; these were the guard towers where the owners sat with rifles guarding the Quat. Dhala was in a bowl in the hills and stood at about 5000 feet and nearby Jebel Jihaf at over 7000; ice was not unknown in winter and although it was a rocky and dry landscape, there was sufficient rain and ground water to support modest agriculture. Millet and other crops and fruit were grown on small plots, some of which were irrigated.
Among those at the camp at Dhala during my stay was an RAF radio technician who I learned walked and hitched from camp to camp and avoided going down to Aden. He was a quiet, taciturn chap who had reputedly become a Muslim. He paid scant regard to uniform and dressed in a mixture of that and local gear and always wore sandals. I often wondered what became of him.
En route to Dhala
When I returned to Aden from Dhala, on impulse, I applied for a commission in the RAF Regiment with the idea that if I managed to pick up sufficient Arabic, I might return to the Aden Protectorate Levies. To my surprise, I found that the application was taken seriously and found myself spending my days off in the Regiment Lines training. I recall a session on the PIAT anti-tank weapon which was a WWII device that used the energy of a large spring to fire a projectile. Another time I had to research and deliver a talk on RAF Marine Craft to a company. A surprising development was that when on my way to the APL in Lake Lines the Regiment boys on the main gate started to call me ‘Sir’. I cannot now remember what happened to this application, I was very keen at the time but suspect that after I was put on a 6-month detachment to Masira, when I returned to Aden I was almost tour expired and so the application lapsed.
Among the troopers calling at Aden was the Empire Windrush in which, serving as second officer, was the brother of Peter Watt of Hemingford Abbots who, in turn was the long-time friend of my brother Ted. I can’t now recall his first name but under instructions from Ted I went out to the Windrush where I was warmly welcomed. I went out in civvies, white shorts, white shirt and sandles, in one of our launches and was greeted at the head of the gangway by a quartermaster and two Service Policemen. I had to smile quietly to myself as I waited, when the latter, all pipe clay and gaiters, started to chat, addressing me as ‘Sir’! I thought it politic not to disillusion him.
In Aden, the unit was heavily engaged on embarkation duties to and from the many troopships and liners that took on bunkers in the port. Apart from training runs in the 68-foot-high speed launch, we were sometimes called on, day or night, to tow splash targets for the guns and searchlights of 50 Coast Battery Royal Artillery who were ensconced in fortifications around the harbour approaches. The splash targets consisted of stout wooden frames with metal scoops at the rear which projected a plume of water into the air.
After a night duty at the unit I was awoken by the bearer to find two service policemen standing by my bed. They were enquiring, they said, about the disappearance of eight large carbon dioxide fire extinguisher cylinders from over the fuel tanks on the HSL 2603. Did I know anything about this, or had I heard any activity at the end of the jetty during the night. I didn’t and I hadn’t. They said that I would be needed later to make a statement. In the meantime, clearer heads down at the unit had reached another conclusion and on sending down a diver, the cylinders were found to be lying on the bottom under the launch. The hatch had been lifted and there was damage to the toe rail along the edge of the deck as the cylinders had gone over the side. I never learned the technicalities, but it seems that a valve had parted at the head of one cylinder and this had started a chain reaction losing the others and the escaping compressed gas had lifted the heavy cylinders like a rocket, over the side.
In the autumn of 1952 I was sent on six-month detachment to Masira Island off the coast of Oman and about 1000 miles East of Aden. We flew in a Vickers Valetta first to the small RAF station at Riyan, near Mukallah, then to Salah in Oman and thence to Masira. RAF Masira dated from WWII when Catalina flying boats patrolled from there to Socotra and the African coast, guarding the entrance to the Red Sea against Japanese submarines. In 1952 it formed part of a chain of RAF stations linking Aden to the Persian Gulf and finally Habbaniya in Iraq by way of Shaiba at Basra.
I remember the flight as high, refreshingly cool and steady, above the ocean. A direct route between Aden and Masira would have taken us well inland across the Hadramaut and Oman and quite apart from the fact that the aircraft delivered personal, stores and mail to the two intervening posts, it was also said that an inadvertent landing among the tribes could be bad for the health. I never learned the truth, but it was said that aircrew were issued with “Goolie chits” printed in Arabic promising a reward for the return of the bearer, unharmed, to the nearest British authority.
The CO at Masira was a Flight Lieutenant reputedly on station as a punishment from a fighter squadron in Malta and there were 16 other ranks, a platoon of Aden Protectorate Levies commanded by a Flying Officer of the RAF Regiment. We had scheduled flights passing through on Tuesday and Thursday one week, and on Wednesday of the other; these flights were invariably by Valetta aircraft.
I relieved my predecessor who returned to Aden and I took over the boat, equipment, stores and a local called Ghalib who helped clean and maintain the boat. The boat was an 18-foot planing dinghy powered by a Meadows four-cylinder petrol engine, and was kept at a jetty a mile or so from the camp. There was a tin shed on the wharf for stores and fuel and there was also a small bench. My main tasks were to stand-by when aircraft landed or took off and to help unload dhows which brought aviation fuel down from Kuwait in 40 gallon drums.
The camp was pretty basic, consisting of four WWII Nissen huts as living quarters, a row of more substantial buildings providing a mess, a cinema (once a week) and a canteen displaying a sign: “Last Chance Saloon – prop: Dutch Henry Brown”, and the officers’ quarters. There were no fans or air-conditioning. We had plumbing in the camp but if I knew whence the water came, I’ve forgotten — probably a bore. Electricity for communications, refrigeration and lighting was from a diesel generator.
Near the jetty there was a large old concrete fresh water storage tank which we filled with sea water and used for swimming. The water around the jetty was beautifully clear and clean but I had not been there long before a saw a moderately sized shark swimming lazily around. This was the first time I’d actually seen a shark and remember being struck by its beauty.
The runways were of compacted gypsum, as were those in Aden. Masira Island was 40 miles long by 12 miles at the widest and best described as a desert island. Just above the beach and beyond the airfield on the northern side of the island stood a monument to the memory of those from the SS Baron Inverdale who were massacred on the spot in 1904. A few hundred metres to the south was a cemetery demarcated by rocks said to contain the bodies of those killed. Why they were massacred and by whom was not mentioned. A fishing village called Hilf stood on the shore to the south of the airfield with a small population who lived in poverty. They also supplied labour including a very efficient dhobi wallah, called Ali.
Careened, The Boom after unloading
A couple of days before Christmas 1952 a 500-ton dhow, a Boom, from Kuwait arrived with a load of aviation fuel which had, of course, to be unloaded immediately. The Boom stood off at anchor at about one hundred metres or so from the beach. A platform was rigged alongside the dhow and the fuel drums lowered by a whip to be roped together in batches of eight by the coolies. On the end of the rope was an eye and as I motored slowly past I hooked the eye over the Samson post and took up the strain. The drums just floated and offered a lot of resistance making the tow very slow. At the beach, coolies rolled the drums up to a small, narrow gauge diesel railway (also left over from the war) from whence they were transferred to the dump at the camp. Along with the two fire trucks, an ancient crane, and old Ford 4 by 4, the locomotive was maintained and driven by Corporal ‘Paddy’ O’Brien. The complete unloading took four days.
Paddy would also use the crane to hoist the boat onto the wharf when a bottom clean and fresh anti fouling paint became necessary. At that time, I had little or no experience with motor vehicles and when Paddy would sometimes pick me up or deliver me to the wharf in the old Ford, I was fascinated to see him change gear without using the clutch, with never a miss. I gather that it was just a matter of knowing the correct engine revs for the change; otherwise it was necessary to double declutch.
Apart from the mandatory operational standby, I was supposed to do a ten-minute boat test run every day, but following an informal arrangement with Flying Officer Basson, the CO of the APL detachment, I would skip some days and save the fuel for use on unofficial outings! Basson, who was perhaps a few years older than me, would appear at the wharf and join me in whatever I was doing, scraping, painting, cleaning the bilges, or just having a cup of tea.
F/O Basson in the bilge, self holding boat
His duties with the detachment were light and I concluded that he was just bored. I recall one occasion when he, I and several of the boys went south along the coast on a falling tide, quite suddenly found the boat sitting in mud. Attempts to turn and head for deeper water were thwarted by the large skeg protecting the propeller and serving as the rudder post. There was nothing for it, but to go over the side and manually back the boat out following the rut carved in the mud by the keel and skeg. We were aware that sting rays lived in the mud flats, but were lucky and managed to refloat the boat and somewhat chastened headed back to the wharf. Another trip took us across the ten-mile strait to the mainland where on landing we were confronted by several wild looking gentlemen armed with rifles and bandoliers. Knowing that we should not be there anyway, we beat a hasty retreat amid considerable nervous laughter. Looking back, I blanch when I recall that we had no means of communication with the camp and this was well before the days of handy handheld radios. Several of the boys were keen to try shark shooting and so we took a .303 rifle (I can’t imagine where that came from – probably Mr Basson) out into deeper water and trailing a bloody bait, trolled for shark. We never had a shot and it was only many years later that I discovered that a bullet fired into water did not penetrate very far, a foot or so, and then fell gently to the bottom, like a stone.
The CO became convinced that I was a fluent Arabic speaker and was often called on by him as interpreter and was charged with clearing the runway of donkeys and other stock on scheduled flight days. This didn’t call for any great linguistic skills, just a threat to shoot the animals if they were not moved. At the wharf, I was adopted by several Arab boys from the fishing village who would appear on odd days to either fish from the wharf or try to make conversation. One, Gossop, who had been a favourite at the camp for some time and always attended the film nights, disappeared for a few weeks and when he reappeared, he had a badly burned and scarred left forearm. He said that he had fallen into a cooking fire somewhere on the mainland.
Once a year a small Indian owned coaster, the Vehlo, was chartered to deliver stores and equipment to the stations along the coast and it always carried one man and a boat, a 23-foot marine tender, from the Unit in Aden. In the spring of 1953 not long before my departure, the Vehlo arrived with Ron (Blondie) Harper. Ron had spiky blond hair which he never seemed to be able to control and had the reputation of being something of a joker; he certainly had scant regard for rules and regulations. He invited himself for a meal in the mess for which I was subsequently blamed by Dobson, the cook, and a hell of a row ensued with the CO entering the fray to cool things down. I had not invited Ron to a meal, he had invited himself but Dobson wouldn’t have this. I couldn’t see it, but Dobson insisted that all the meals were carefully planned against available rations and that an extra mouth had upset his carefully laid calculations.
With a lot of time on our hands, there was remarkably little friction at Masira and in hindsight I regard my time there as one of the most carefree spells of my life. Apart from a weekly film, there was remarkably little entertainment and with the medium wave radios available to us, we could tune only one station; Radio Ceylon loud and clear and which seemed to endlessly play the tune Blue Tango and advertise W H Samuel Ever Right watches.
At the end of March 1952, I returned to Aden to find the unit changed. Harry Adamson and Paddy Batt had gone, tour expired, and another crew manned the AOCs launch and with only about three months to tourex myself, I found myself switched around the other launches. My particular buddy, Donald Percival, a radio mechanic on the unit had also returned to England. I restarted my afternoon visits to Lake Lines and found the Masira APL detachment had also returned with my friend Corporal Ahmed Mohamed Aulagi.
On 26 May 1953 I turned 21 and the private room in the Naafi was booked for a party. I was presented with a large wooden key which had been made by the unit chippy, Sergeant Wright, the duty-free beer flowed and an iced cake was produced with 21 candles. Everything went well until late in the evening when an altercation broke out between two of the guests and we had trouble separating them. Like all the single storey building s in the camp, the Naafi was surrounded by a wide concrete veranda that stood about half a metre above ground level. I had one of the two by holding his arms behind his back and we sat down heavily against the concrete with him on my lower legs. When I tried to stand I had an intense pain in my left ankle which necessitated a trip to No.5 General Hospital in Steamer Point for an x-ray. It was nothing serious, just a cracked cuneiform bone in the ankle, but I was in plaster for about two weeks and was placed on light duties. I was lucky that the plaster was relatively small and on for a short time, but chaps who had long arm or leg plasters in that climate, suffered agonies from itching and prickly heat. Acquisition of a long knitting needle was essential!
I should add that for two birthdays and two Christmases in Aden I received a full-sized iced cake with marzipan all neatly packed in a sturdy tin, wrapped with brown paper and then sewn into an outer wrapping of linen. The rich fruit cakes were intact and up to mum’s usual high standard, but on a couple of occasions the thick icing had cracked and suffered a bit. The packing was by Aunt Frances and she did her very best to protect the contents. I also received the local paper, the Hunts Post, every week tied using mum’s special folding and tying technique!
By this time the use of troopships for personnel movements was in decline and at the end of June 1953 I was told to pack and be ready to fly at a moment’s notice. I waited a couple of weeks and then one morning was told to report to the hanger where I found that I would fly to Egypt in a Valetta, the personal aircraft of the command medical officer, an Air Vice Marshal. Although the flight was scheduled as direct to Fayid in the Suez Canal, we landed at Port Sudan with engine trouble and had to spend a couple of days waiting for repairs. We were accommodated in the Red Sea Hotel and spent some time sightseeing, including a trip in a glass bottomed boat to see the famous Red Sea coral reefs. Finally, we landed at Fayid and then spent a frustrating month in a transit camp. I managed to get a lift to the Marine Craft Unit at Fanara on the Great Bitter Lake where I met several people I knew. The unit at Fanara was interesting because this had been my original posting before the draft was shifted to Aden. The visit convinced me that I had had the better deal.
Then we had instructions to report to movements at RAF Abu Sueir where we boarded a Hastings aircraft for Lyneham. Most of the interior was taken up by two Bristol Hercules engines and the passengers, four of us, sat in single seats down the port side. In daylight, we flew over the Egyptian and Libyan deserts where the remains of WWII battles were still visible, and finally landed at RAF Luqa in Malta. We were given a meal in the mess and I was surprised to find that the Maltese language included a lot of Arabic. The local mess stewards lost no time plying us with trinkets, cheap watches and souvenirs — I don’t recall that they did much trade. On take-off after dark, we flew over the Grand Harbour and the sky below the aircraft was lit by colourful bursting rockets, quite a display and apparently, part of a nightly ritual purportedly to drive away evil spirits. My seat was just over the leading edge of the left wing and I was disconcerted to notice that the engine exhausts glowed red hot, with licks of blue flame. I dozed away the time and we landed at Lyneham at about 3.00am. On disembarkation, we were ushered into the customs hall and invited to declare any dutiable goods — fortunately I had prepared a list on my new Olivetti Lettera 22 typewriter and passed through without any duty payment. Goods personally held for one year or more could be imported duty free.
The shops in Aden were always ready to back-date receipts, but mine were all dated on the day of purchase. We were taken to a dining hall and given breakfast and there noticed that one of our number had not appeared from customs. Eventually he arrived with a very long face and told us that everything he owned had been confiscated because some of his receipts were backdated to before the goods were had left the factory and he had no funds to pay duty! We felt that this was a bit harsh, but it was a lesson learned and in all my future comings and goings, I never played games with customs.
From the dining hall, we were taken to movements and issued with railway warrants and a one month leave pass, thus ended my first foreign adventure.
When I returned to the UK from Aden in July 1953, after a month’s disembarkation leave, I was posted to the RAF Marine Craft Unit at Felixstowe Dock in Suffolk. I was due to finish my three-year engagement in the RAF in November. Ironically it was whilst at Felixstowe dock that I took part in my only sea search and rescue. A Meteor aircraft from RAF Wattisham had crashed off Southwold. When we arrived in the area a small coaster and the Southwold lifeboat were already searching. After some time, we found a complete flying suit and helmet floating face down in the water but upon getting a boathook on the suit, found that it was empty. Nearby we found some body parts including intestines which the coxswain instructed us to recover and place in a bucket. The contents of the intestines could serve as an aid to identification.
On the way, back to Felixstowe, I was in the galley making tea when the launch appeared to hit something solid and everything on the stove finished up on the deck. In the wheelhouse, I learned that the launch had hit the wake of the Harwich to Hook overnight ferry at speed. Back in Felixstowe late in the evening a meal was laid on and the coxswain appeared with an earthenware 1-gallon jug of rum which, he said had been submerged in the floods earlier in the year. The Seal appeared to be intact and the contents proved to be good — too good, I couldn’t face rum for years after that.
The unit at Felixstowe was small, I have forgotten the complement, but some of the hands lived in the married quarters outside the docks. One I remember was fitter marine, a joker called Smith, or Smudger as he was popularly known. In those days’ pay was disbursed at a weekly parade at which the accounts officer and the station warrant officer sat at a blanket covered table whilst a clerk called the names of the recipients. On hearing your name, you responded with the last three numbers of your service serial number. To prove a point and to prove that the ceremonial response was meaningless, Smudger adopted the practice of, instead of sounding his last three, said simply, “Knife, fork, spoon”. To the best of my knowledge he was never picked up for this breach of the rules!
Smudger had a bicycle which he used to ride from his quarters to the unit. The actual docks were used by all sorts including coal merchants who delivered coal in sacks on horse drawn wagons. It seems that the Service Policemen at the dock gates had been watching Smudger who had formed the habit of walking his bike home with a large sack balanced on the crossbar. One day they stopped him and asked what was in the sack—suspecting that he had been picking up coal. In all innocence Smudger replied “Horse shit corporal”. The corporal asked again, only to get the same reply. Then Smudger was ordered to take the bag into the guardroom with its highly-polished floors. On being ordered to up end the bag he did so, leaving a neat pile of steaming horse shit in the centre of the immaculate floor— “Good for my vegetable patch you see corporal”.
Copyright: G J Wright 2018