An Erk’s Progress: 4. 20 Squadron

Eventually we arrived at our destination, Peshawar in the North West Frontier Province where we were met by a shooting-brake driven by a huge ginger-haired L.A.C. He was the C.O.’s chauffeur normally, but had been sent down to pick us up rather than use a larger vehicle.

As far as we could see Peshawar cantonment was a very pleasant place with trees and flowering shrubs lining every street and acres of lush grass stretching in all directions. Later visits confirmed our good fortune and the fact that there were quite a few really good shops, not to mention the “loose-wallah” bazaar where one could have a good haggle over the price of every article.

Meantime we were introduced to our billets. These consisted of two very long, thick-walled buildings completely devoid of windows, but having several large doors leading out onto a stone floored verandah on either side. Inside, the beds were spaced out about six feet apart and between each bed was some sort of dressing table or desk, all well equipped with table lamp, radios and books. These it transpired were not supplied by the service, but had to be hired at 5 annas per week. Above each bed, suspended from a moving wooden framework, was a piece of hessian the length of the bed, and this was kept in continuous motion backwards and forwards across the beds by an electric motor at the end of the bungalow. They were known as “Punkahs” and were in my opinion much better than fans for keeping one cool. Their biggest disadvantage proved to be the expertise required in dodging them when one came in after lights out, especially if one happened to be slightly inebriated. In the centre of each half of the bungalow was a rifle rack bolted to the floor and the rifles were in turn fastened to the rack with stout padlocks and chains.

Along the outside of the verandah hung screens made of bamboo canes which could be rolled up in the evening or lowered and kept cool with buckets of water during the heat of the day.

Across the square, which, I am pleased to record was never used as such, was another long building which housed the dining room and sergeants’ mess, and similarly opposite the other bungalow was the canteen, reading rooms and the like. In front of the canteen was a fair sized lawn on which were laid out small tables and chairs underneath coloured umbrellas, and dotted around plenty of trees to provide shade during the heat of the day – not that there was ever anyone there most times until the cool of the evening.

Two kinds of beer were available: a mild, which for some reason was called “straight”, often drunk with lemon, and a pilsner type of beer not unlike bitter.

Anyway I found myself allocated to No.20 (AC) Squadron and of course the first thing I had to learn was the squadron history, which I found of such interest as to feel that it might merit some mention at this point.

It appears that the squadron was formed at Netheravon on September 1st 1915 and amongst its annals is recorded the fact that pilot Sgt. Thomas Mottershead was the only N.C.O. to win a V.C. in the 1914-18 War. Together with his observer Lt. Gower in an FE2d he was on patrol in January 1917 when they were attacked by German fighter planes. They were hit and set on fire and the citation states that he flew his plane so skillfully, deliberately directing the flames onto his own cockpit. Lt. Gower sprayed him with a fire extinguisher and was himself thrown clear when the plane landed, but Sgt. Motterhead lost his life pinned in the blazing wreckage. The C.O. at that time was a Major G.H. Malcolm, and it was just about then that one Capt. D.C. Cunnell, whilst engaged along with six other FEs in a classic encounter with 12 Albatross scouts, shot down the famous Baron von Richthofen – “The Red Knight” – who was never quite the same again. Six days later Cunnell himself was killed. In September 1917 the Squadron was re-equipped with Bristol Fighters, which it retained till the end of the war, leaving France for India in May 1919. It moved to Peshawar in 1928 and acted as an escort for No.70 Squadron during the evacuation of Kabul. In 1931 the Bristol Fighters were replaced by Westland Wapitis, which in turn gave way to Hawker Audax, and it was with these that the squadron was equipped when I joined it. The Audax was a twin-seater bi-plane with a top speed of around 120mph armed with one Vickers gun firing forward through the airscrew and one Lewis gun on a scarf-mounting on the rear cockpit.

The squadron crest consisted of an eagle perched on a sword to portray its connections with the Army and a rising sun in the background indicative of its long association with the East, and the motto “Facta non Verba” – Deeds not Words.

Our C.O. was Squadron Leader Basil Emby, who served with the Hawker Audax and Westland Lysander, 20 Squadron from October 1937 at Peshawar until the end of September 1938, and who later on was to perform some daring deeds and participate in some equally daring escapes from P.O.W. camps in Germany; and who by the end of the 2nd World War had been knighted and had risen to Air Vice Marshall in Chief Fighter Command at Stanmore.

All along I felt, as I’m sure we all did, that there was something special about 20 Squadron. Most of the chaps had been there several years already and had picked up quite a smattering of Urdu and knew straight away if any of the bearers or other paid servants were trying to pull a fast one – which was fairly frequently.

On the whole there was a feeling of intense pride in the squadron, more akin to a soldier’s pride in his regiment, than I had so far encountered in the R.A.F. Of course there was always some sort of scuffle going on with the tribesmen in those days and no doubt this helped, to some extent, to inculcate this feeling of pride and togetherness more closely.

In all there were, I think, about eight squadrons in India at this time. No. 5 was equipped with Valentia BT aircraft. Nos. 11, 28 and 39 had Audax and No. 60 was still flying the old Wapitis. I can’t remember what the others had.

Transport within the cantonment area was by Tonga – a horse drawn, two-wheeled vehicle covered by a hood to keep the heat off, capable of carrying three passengers who sat back to back with the driver. Sometimes of an evening, after a few drinks, one of the passengers would exchange places with the terrified driver and a chariot race would ensue between him and one of his mates in another Tonga. On the whole the “Tonga-wallahs” took it all in good part and were usually suitably rewarded.

Our living quarters had, so I’m told, originally been used as elephant stables, but I am unable to vouch for this though certainly the building was high enough. One very tatty old notice at the bottom end – a relic from bygone days – warned that the shooting of natives was forbidden on the verandahs.

I personally think that our bearers were reasonably well treated, receiving one rupee per week from each of his sahibs. Considering that he probably looked after maybe 15 sahibs, and taking into account the tips he and his chockras received together with the unwanted odds and ends of food and clothing that was passed down, they didn’t do too badly. The average coolie working from dawn till dusk was only earning 6 annas a day and had no perks. Looking back now I wouldn’t mind betting that many of our old servants mourn the passing of the British Raj.

We in our bungalow were particularly fortunate. Our bearer had been with the squadron for years. He was extremely industrious and his children were always to be found squatting outside on the verandah eager and ready to run an errand secure in the knowledge that he would receive baksheesh for going.


Introduction | Chapter 3 | Chapter 5


Comments are closed.

ThreesWrite in your Inbox

See the next #ThreeGoodQuestions historical research example, updates about Avarice of Empire, and my latest blogs before they’re published on the website. The ThreesWrite Newsletter is free, and you’ll never get more than one email per month.