An Erk’s Progress: 5. The North West Frontier

Our day consisted of breakfast, then down to the hangers where we carried out our battery charging, testing of wireless gear and repairing where necessary. Each of us would be given a certain duty, which usually lasted for a week, then we would change round and be doing something quite different for the following week.

Our Warrant Officer I/C the Signals section was called Rogers, nicknamed “Happy Rogers” because he wasn’t, but he was dead cushy and thought quite a lot of his lads even though he didn’t often show it. One of the jobs was on the trainer where a large model of the surrounding country was laid out on a huge table. Underneath this model were numerous lamps which could be lit by an operator whilst up in a gallery. The pilots had to take their turn signalling down, by buzzer, the clock code positions where the lamps, which represented falling shells, were flashing. I’m afraid some of them were pretty clueless at “shell spotting” and their morse was so bad as to be almost unreadable. “Happy Rogers” was only too well aware of their shortcomings in this direction and so he organised special classes and we operators had to take turns week about sending morse to the pilots. I fear they took it all rather light-heartedly but I suppose it must have helped them to some extent.

When not actually actively engaged in operations we would be kept busy either on “puff” shoots or on some sort of exercise with the Army, which after all was the sole reason for our existence. There was a large, cumbersome piece of equipment in the form of a wooden pyramid mounted on a trailer. The pyramid section was, in turn, festooned with numerous terminal blocks adjacent to which reels of strong, steel-strengthened insulated cables were mounted on axles. By reeling out these cables to different lengths it was possible to provide quite a fair number of widely spaced points all connected to small bags of explosive. These could then be set off at will by making the appropriate connections at the pyramid. The resultant explosion was, of course, quite small but sufficient to be visible to an aircraft flying in the area. It was now up to the pilot on spotting an explosion to report by wireless their positions using an imaginary clock code in which the pyramid was the centre.

This indeed was the principle employed on a “live” shoot in which the centre of the clock would be the enemy position. The exploding live shells fired by the artillery were the equivalent of the “puffs” used in practice and would be reported by wireless to an operator with a pack set situated beside the Gun Position Officer. As the “fall of shot” position came through so would the G.P.O. make the necessary correction to his guns until the aircraft signalled “Go” which indicated that the shells were now falling on the prescribed target area.

Peshawar is of course more or less situated at one end of the Khyber Pass. Some thirty miles further up in the direction of Afghanistan lies the town of Landi Kotal. The name itself means “town of 10,000 thieves” which is perhaps a trifle unkind, but at least it can be truly said that one could buy almost anything from any part of the world – all smuggled in to the huge bazaar along the various caravan routes. It has indeed been elsewhere described as a most exotic supermarket in the middle of nowhere.

The frontier between India and Afghanistan stretched for about 1,000 miles and was at that time divided into two administrative regions, the North West Frontier Province and Baluchistan, each with its own provincial government and governor, and each directly responsible to the central Government of India. The North West Frontier was some 400 miles long and 100 plus miles in depth and Peshawar was its capital. The terrain was of a mountainous nature and except for the odd fertile valley was largely devoid of vegetation. It was very hot in summer and extremely cold in winter. The area was occupied by many different tribes and each village had its own observation tower from which to keep a wary eye open for raids from its neighbours. The main tribes were the Mohmads, who had been a source of much trouble about 1935, the Afrides and the Wazirs.

The Khyber Pass is a very fine example of British engineering endeavour. Its fame is based more on history than the beauty of its scenery. The mountain sides are covered with sad little graveyards and regimental plaques on the cliff faces. Every male over the age of twelve carries a rifle and very often a revolver as well, plus as much ammunition slung across his chest as one human body can accommodate. Family blood feuds are still carried on and Afridi women are expected to take over the defence of their compounds in emergency.

There are two roads through the Khyber. The old one, which has been in use for some 3,500 years, follows the river for most of the way at the foot of the mountains, but the new one, built by the British around the side of the mountains, is considerably shorter.

On almost every hilltop stands a small fort commanding the stretch of road to the next bend and these are all manned by men of the Khyber Rifles. This unit, a magnificent body of men whose training was in the hands of British officers, and whose headquarters was at the big fort at Jamrud, had many a bloody skirmish with the wild men from the hills.

Every R.A.F. station has its “character” and Peshawar was no different in this respect from any other. One of the wireless operators was a huge fellow called Wilber Wright whose one burning ambition was to be allowed to roam at will amongst the nomadic tribes, and to share their food and way of life. He owned a complete Pathan outfit as regards dress and had after some four years acquired a fluent command of the Pushtu language. He was held in high esteem by the local Afridi tribesmen who regarded him as one of themselves and referred to him constantly as the “Pathan Sahib”. Needless to say his nomadic activities were frowned on by the authorities, both civil and military, and more than once he was brought back from his wanderings by the civilian police. Nothing deterred him, however and he continued to sally forth from time to time until eventually he was repatriated to the UK.

It was now September 1939 and the long expected announcement from Downing Street came over the BBC’s short-wave overseas service. We were at war with the Third Reich. That evening Squadron Leader Embry summoned us to a meeting on the lawn outside the canteen where he had laid on several sacks of beer. He gave us all a pep talk on how this was the great day for which all our training had prepared us and how we must be patient and not lose heart if we were not immediately to be called upon actively to fight for hearth and home. I well remember the scorn with which he received his chauffeur Smith’s comments that, “We’ll be safer out here sir!”

Anyway life carried on much as before except that where we had always finished work at midday and had every Thursday off as “Queen Victoria’s Day”, we were now required to put in a full day – a grievous blow indeed!

All of a sudden, so it seemed, trouble of a more serious nature broke out in Waziristan along the Afghan border. Thousands of Wazirs had banded together under a new leader called the Shami Pir. He was of Persian extraction, married to a German, and had stirred up a fanatical religious fervour amongst the local tribes. Last report showed that his men were advancing towards Kabul with the object of deposing the ruler there. This the British Raj could not tolerate and so as there was insufficient time for the Army to act, 20 Squadron from Peshawar, 28 Squadron from Ambala, and No. 5 Squadron of troop carrying Valentias were ordered to proceed to Miranshah at once.

Between Peshawar and Miranshah lay the Kohat Pass, a slightly smaller version of the Khyber but extremely steep in places with hairpin bends and sheer drops onto the rocks below. It was a nerve-racking journey what with the heat and dust and the eternal thirst. Our rifles lay on the floor of the truck underneath piles of bedrolls, kitbags and the like and it would have been impossible to have got at them had the need arisen.

Miranshah turned out to be a veritable “foreign legion” battlemented type of fort situated in the middle of a plain with rugged hills some mile or so away on all sides. The fort itself was divided almost equally between the R.A.F. and the Tochi scouts, who had been recruited locally from amongst the Wazirs. They were a well-trained unit and their C.O, Lieutenant Irving-Andrews, was to become the first V.C. of the Second World War during the abortive landings in France.

There was one brick built bungalow but for the most part we were allocated tents. Each tent was large enough to hold four charpoys, plus sufficient space to take our “dressing tables” which consisted of two empty bomb boxes one on top of the other. All the tents were wired up with electric lights and each had a brick fireplace in which we could get a fire going as it was near Christmas time and quite cold in the evenings.

The cookhouse and dining hall were brick built, as was the canteen, and I came to like it fairly quickly. I remember how I was queuing up for my first meal at the service hatch. In front of me was a scruffy figure in tattered khaki and dust covered chapplies looking absolutely exhausted – it was my old mate Eddie Ellis! He had just returned from a fortnight out on column with the Royal Corps of Signals! We had our meal together and he recounted his adventures and we arranged to celebrate that evening with a few beers.

Behind our tent was a tennis court of sorts and on the wall dividing it from the Tochi lines had been painted a large white square. This was our screen where we were to see some jolly good films provided by a travelling cinema, which toured round the various outposts from time to time.

The Signals Cabin was situated right in the centre of our part of the fort and we were directed there to meet Corporal Percival, our new boss. He turned out to be a decent sort of chap whose only fault was that he had a wicked temper if things went wrong. I remember him trying to fix some equipment once and he just couldn’t get it right. He was shouting and swearing at it and eventually threw his hammer away in disgust. Unfortunately it went through the window and that made him even madder.

We had two “T.19.B” transmitters, one “R1084” receiver, and one “R68”, I think it was called. We were to keep 24-hour continuous watch with Peshawar as control and Kohat, Ambala and Karachi as the other stations. Radio communication across the sub-continent was often bedevilled by excessive static due to the oft-recurring dust storms and it could be terribly difficult at times to get through. However I must confess that I enjoyed operating not only here but at Peshawar and Kohat main stations later on. There were no such things as teleprinters and so wireless communications were extremely important.

Heliograph was used very successfully up on the frontier due to the ever-present sun and the various army units relied on it very largely for their day-to-day short signals. When it came to air to ground exercises we often had to resort to a rather antideluvian system of message dropping and picking up. The usual thing was for the pilot to fly reasonably low over the dropping area and as the leading edge of his lower wing crossed the target zone the occupant of the rear cockpit would lean over the side and throw out the message in a small red and yellow bag trailing coloured streamers behind to enable the ground staff to observe its fall more readily.

When it came to the Army’s turn to answer this message they in turn would place their message in the same bag and attach it to a rope stretched between upright posts. The pilot would then fly between and slightly above the posts whilst his wireles operator or airgunner would lower a long hooked arm and pick up the rope with its attachment. The arm was then raised and the bag pulled into the rear cockpit through a small hole in the floor. The Audax were sometimes referred to as “‘ARTS with ‘ook.”

Hawker Audax

It was customary for everyone not on duty to spend the evenings drinking and one would have thought we had shares in the Murree brewery. I remember one such occasion when we had been imbibing more than usual, which resulted in nearly everyone staggering off to bed in a stupor. Sometime later we were awakened by the most unholy row going on, shouting and shots being fired. The raid alarm was going full blast. We thought we were under attack and the camp was bright with flames coming from the direction of the canteen. It turned out that the duty officer had fallen asleep smoking a cigarette which had set alight to his mosquito net which in turn set fire to his tent. The shots were due to the ammunition in his revolver exploding in the heat from the fire, whilst the raid alarm had been set off in mistake for the fire alarm.

One of the lads had a small West Highland type dog, which was very popular with everyone and was continually being stroked and made a fuss of. During one of our drinking sessions this little fellow had been passed around and petted from one to the other. Next morning he was found to have rabies and was tied up securely in one of the tents. He was foaming at the mouth and quite incensed with rage. We were told he must be left to die naturally in order that serum could be taken from him, but meantime anyone who had been bitten or even licked on an open wound was in great danger. Of course there was a mild panic as nobody could remember for sure whether they had handled the dog. The C.O. sent for me and gave me a most immediate message for H.Q. saying that rabies had been confirmed and that several people, seven I think, had been nipped or licked the previous evening and asking for supplies of anti-rabic serum to be flown in immediately. The reply indicated that there was no serum at Peshawar or Kohat and that it would have to come from New Delhi. It was essential that the treatment be given within four days and as each day passed, those who were contacts became more and more alarmed and were beginning to wilt visibly. At last towards evening on the third day an old Valentia from No 5 Squadron came limping over the hills bringing the much-needed supplies. Hardly had it touched down than the contacts fled in the direction of the sick bay pulling their trousers down in readiness for their injections.

At the same time as all this was going on several cases of spinal-meningitis were reported from the Tochi scouts lines and there was also an outbreak of smallpox. We were made to open up the sides of our tents each morning and had to gargle twice daily with a potassium permanganate solution. At tea break we all sat in a circle well spaced out from our nearest neighbours and I think everyone was looking at everyone else with grave suspicion during this time. One of our chaps did in fact catch meningitis and died. Strangely enough he was one of my comrades from the “rabble” of Cranwell days and though I cannot recall his name he is in the photo taken outside our hut at Cranwell.

One thing I haven’t mentioned so far and that is that in those days aircrew as such had not yet become widespread in India which meant that any wireless operator could be called up to fly as and when required. Apart from this we had Wireless Operator Air Gunners who in addition to the “sparks” badge wore a metal bullet with wings, and they in fact did most of the flying for obvious reasons.

It was now mid-December 1940 and the Shami Pir was still keeping up his religious ranting and generally making a nuisance of himself, so I was detached along with Bert Heslop and Ron Jones to Tocol in one of the columns sent out to take punitive action against him. We were encamped on a plain at Todachina by Christmas; the snow was 18″ deep and it was bitterly cold. Jones was with the Royal Corps of Signals and Hesie and I were with the 21st Medium Battery Royal Artillery in a 4ft deep “funk” hole and couldn’t get to sleep for the cold. Lofty Clarke, the Royal Artilley L/Cpl, had the brilliant idea that we should creep along to the mule lines and pinch the tarpaulin that covered them. This we did and stretched it over the top of our hole and though it didn’t do much to keep us warm at least it kept the snow off. What did warm us up came with the sudden appearance of a small chocra’s face looking down on us and asking if we wanted some char. His idea of tea couldn’t have been better for somehow or other it arrived well laced with Scotch, stolen no doubt from the officers mess tent.

The camp was surrounded by wild mountains in all directions, but there were a few small hills roughly a mile or so from our perimeter and again roughly spaced around us. These sangers had been built up with sacks of earth and each was manned by men of the Tochi scouts. One night there were some almighty screams coming from the south-east sanger and it appears that the tribesmen got between them and the main camp. Next morning there were about 90 mutilated bodies laid out in a row and as we buried them the tribesmen were firing on the grave diggers.

One evening an Audax flew low over the column and dropped some mail, cigars and a bottle of whisky, suspended in a valve crate using two sheets off someone’s bed as a parachute. It came down with quite a thud but the bottle survived the shock and we were anticipating a celebration later on, but as it happened this was marred because the aircraft was shot down by rifle fire shortly after making the drop and the pilot and Jock Dibble the Wireless Operator Air Gunner were both killed.

The pilot had been hit in the leg and had baled out leaving Jock in the rear cockpit quite unaware that anything was wrong until it was too late. The pilot’s parachute didn’t open fully and so he paid with his life for deserting the A/Gunner.

Leaflets were dropped on the Shami Pir’s men ordering them to return to their villages, failing which punitive action would be taken against their villages. Eventually Squadron Leader Embry and two other pilots carried out a bombing mission against the tribesmen who abandoned their planned invasion of Afghanistan. The Shami Pir asked for and was given British protection and was eventually taken to Delhi and thereafter expelled from the country. The trouble subsided as quickly as it had arisen, and Razcol and Tocol returned to base and we landed back at Miranshah just in time for Christmas.

The only barrack room we converted into an English style pub and by charging approx. 10 rupees per head we were able to stock up with all kinds of drinks, and throughout the Christmas period one could wander in and have a glass at anytime. One evening we invited Lieut. Irving-Andrews, C.O. of the Tochi Scouts, over for a Jirgah. He was a great big hefty chap and was downing the beer so quickly that we thought we’d better put a stop to it before he’d drunk us dry. We made up a large bowl of punch into which went everything we could lay our hands on plus a few extra items which wouldn’t appear in any recipe book. Irving-Andrews had a sample glass, pronounced it first class and like Oliver Twist called for more – unlike Oliver Twist he was not denied. By midnight we were all pretty well-oiled, but poor old Irving-Andrews was absolutely paralytic. We humped his huge carcass onto a charpoy and transported him round to the sick bay where all efforts to revive him came to naught and so we were left with the problem of how to get him back to his quarters without his men seeing him in such a shocking condition. Between our part of the fort and the Tochi lines was a high wall and the only route was by means of a ladder from our side to the top of the wall and another from the top down into the Tochi camp. Anyway something had to be done so we carried him on the charpoy to the foot of the ladder. I went over and explained to the two sentries that their sahib had been taken ill and we were bringing him home. I still laugh at the memory of it for it presented an incongruous sight as two of our biggest chaps did their best to hoist Irving-Andrews up the ladder. His feet would keep slipping and dangling through between the rungs and his head was rolling from side to side like some giant puppet. Going down the other side was even more ridiculous because the two sentries presented arms as we carried him past them at the foot of the ladder.

Anyway he was none the worse and was up next day and insisted on flying in the back seat of an Audax with Basil Embry at the controls. He wanted to do a parachute jump, but our C.O. wouldn’t let him and from the ground we could see Embry turning round and beating his passenger over the head with something in an attempt to prevent him from jumping out. Later on during the abortive early landings in France, Irving-Andrews was to become the first V.C. of World War II.

The German news broadcasts were reporting, to our great amusement, how the tribesmen were driving back the British in the N.W.F.P. A load of rubbish, of course, and indeed we saw little or nothing of them. Events of much graver concern were quickly pushing the frontier skirmishes into the background. Hitler and Stalin were having a get together and it was generally believed that Russia would be coming into the war on Germany’s side. The nearest Russian air base was a mere 200 miles or so from India and our squadrons were equipped with Wapitis, Audax and Valentias, which would have been absolutely useless against modern aircraft. It was decided we should be equipped with Blenheims and Lysanders, and arrangements were made for us to return to Peshawar at once.

Here all wireless operators were given a medical, and all pilots were given two hours flying dual control on the one and only Blenheim in the whole of the sub-continent. They were now considered sufficiently experienced to handle these, to us, flying coffins, but we operators had no great faith in their prowess.

Anyway No. 5 Squadron sent up some Valentia BT’s and we were on our way. The Valentia was a large twin-engined biplane used as a day bomber cum troop carrier. The pilot and co-pilot sat in an open cockpit whilst the troops were in a cabin behind them. The wireless transmitter and receiver were mounted just behind the pilot and communication between him and the wireless operator was by written message through a small hatchway.

Vickers Valentia

Our route took us first of all westwards to Karachi where we refuelled. The pilot decided to stay here overnight and so we headed for the canteen where we got down to a spot of serious drinking with the H.Q. W/Ops. Drigh Road, as the camp was more often than not referred to, was situated on the edge of the Sind desert some few miles further inland than the town itself. Camel trains frequently passed by at night and the R.A.F. men returning to the camp at night liked to come across such a caravan where the driver was sitting asleep on the rear camel. They would take hold of the rope on the leading camel and gently turn it round through 180 degrees so that the whole outfit would be heading back whence it came.

Up early next morning and on along the coastline to the old Imperial Airways landing ground at Shargah in Oman. Here we were billeted for the night in the passenger’s quarters and had an opportunity to visit the civilian wireless cabin and chat to the radio officer on duty. He was a middle aged Scot and was most enthusiastic in showing us his latest direction-finding equipment and we had a drink with him later on after he closed down his watch. On the tarmac were three Hannibal aircraft that looked even more antiquated than our Valentias, which is saying something!

Next day we moved up into Trans-Jordan and landed at Amman to refuel and it was decided we would stop there overnight. We drew some blankets from stores and were allocated a small space in the corner of the hanger. The dining room was spotlessly clean and the food matched up to the best anywhere I’d been before. As I was laying out my knife, fork and spoon on the table, a tall, lanky lad leaned over my shoulder and whispered that the “yellow peril” would get me. It was Jimmy Milne, my old buddy with whom I used to listen to Fu Manchu’s machinations at Evanton. I was pleased to see him and introduced him to my friends and he in turn was equally pleased and insisted in buying us drinks all evening.

Amman appeared to be a very well organised camp and certainly there was very little “bull” and I think we would all like to have stayed on a bit longer. However, we had to press on via Ismalia, where we noticed a Gloster Gladiator squadron, to Heliopolis just outside Cairo, and arrived there late in the afternoon. It took us the rest of the afternoon to get settled into our quarters and then we had a meal. The apron outside the hanger was, for want of a better word, cluttered up with aircraft and there were old Blenheim MK1’s parked all over the place. They had finished their useful life in Blighty and they were in a really disgusting state. We had to spend hours working inside them in terrific heat as the all-metal bodies became almost too hot to touch.

We were looking forward eagerly to seeing Cairo and were agreeably surprised to find the electric trains so efficient and up to date. Once in the city we would start off at the American Long Bar and gradually work our way downwards via the Monseigner, the Micky-Mouse, the Chat Noire and end up usually there. It was a rather dark sort of bar with tunnel-like caverns set in the walls and the barmaid used to try it on and get a free drink. We weren’t having any however and when she got annoyed by our refusal she would call to several black waiters to chuck us out. This was the signal to charge and as they got between us and the door we would form up in a line and go full pelt at them. They in turn would scatter in confusion. The amazing thing is that the same procedure occurred every time we went in the place. It was almost as though they were having a little game with us.

One thing about the Monseigner – as soon as we opened the door we were met by a huge black fellow who offered us a list of the gramophone records that were available and asked us to choose what music we would like. Here also one always got a free snack with the drinks – quite a pleasant place really!

As each day passed we heard tales of how the Blenheims, which had set off for India, were coming to grief on the way due to inexperience of the pilots and crews; so it was with considerable relief that I learned that a Valentia going to Karachi was short of a wireless operator due to sickness. I volunteered to take his place, and being accepted, hurriedly packed my gear and took farewell of my friends. This aircraft was one of a flight of three and as I took my place beside the radio equipment I was pleased to find that it was a 1082/1083 with which I was thoroughly acquainted. The return route was roughly the same as before except that we stopped overnight at two camps, Shaibah and Habbanya in Iraq. All my service life I had heard about the former station and it had a reputation for dust and heat and even had a special song written about it called the “Shaibah Blues” that was too ribald to be set down here.

I believe it was about 120 degrees in the shade when we touched down and we were glad when evening came and we were able to repair to the lawn outside the canteen and slake our thirst with a few well-deserved pints. I remember how we all felt that the bearers were far too cheeky by half and we certainly would never have allowed such familiarity up on the frontier.

A short hop from here and we were at Habbanya. Compared to Shaibah it was a real holiday camp and there was even a large outdoor swimming pool filled with delicious cool, blue water, which even from the air looked very inviting. Here again then a nice tidy station providing excellent, well-cooked meals in a clean even-temperatured dining hall.

We were on our way once more and were just about in sight of the Persian Gulf when the starboard engine seized up. I signalled the flight commander that we were in trouble and he gave our pilot the choice of either following the coast or crossing the Gulf at a point where there were two islands. He chose the most direct route and we landed safely at Bahrain.

Because of our engine trouble we had to spend a few days on the islands whilst repairs were carried out. This was the hottest place I had been to so far and the humidity was exceptionally high. I well remember how, when one took a shower and dried off, during the time taken to hang up the towel one was covered in sweat again.

We got to know some sailors who were on shore leave from a couple of destroyers at anchor off the island. They invited us to a bit of a boozeup in the Naval canteen and we spent a really good evening singing boat-songs and telling yarns. Round about 10pm they wanted to close the place and chuck us out but we managed to persuade the Chief Petty Officer to send a signal by lamp to the ship asking for an extension. This gave us another quarter of an hour drinking before the “not granted” reply came and we were unceremoniously ejected into the street. Fortunately we had a well stocked ice-box back at our billet and so we were able to continue well into the “wee sma’ ‘oors.”

The engine trouble was now cleared up to the pilot’s satisfaction, and so we made our way back to Karachi where I said goodbye to the other crew members, and entrained for Peshawar arriving just in time for a shower and a quick drink before going to bed.

During my absence Eddie Ellis, Bill Robinson and another chap had found out that we were entitled to three weeks leave, and guessing that I would be eager to come along, had booked time off and organised two Oldsmobile cars to take us up into the native state of Kashmir. We were to stay on a house-boat on Lake Naginbah, just a short trip by river from the capital, Srinagar.

Within a day or so of our arrival we were hailed by a man passing by in a Shakari who, at our invitation, came on board for a drink. He turned out to be an Australian representing his firm as a buyer of carved wooden objects such as small tables, trinket and cigarette boxes and the like. He told us that there was a good club in town and invited us along that evening as his guests. We arrived at the Srinagar club about 8pm and were introduced all round and before the evening was through we were all getting along famously. They made us very welcome and we were enrolled there and then as temporary members for the duration of our stay.

The club secretary was a retired Colonel who was married to a Persian lady of high birth, a princess I believe, but I cannot now be sure. They had one daughter who used to run little tea dances and Eddie Ellis was quite taken with her. The colonel was a really delightful man with a wealth of experiences and many an exciting tale to recount of his life in the army.

Our Australian friend asked us round to dinner one evening and when we arrived his servant told us the sahib and memsahib were both out, but were expecting us and would be back soon. We were shown into a beautifully furnished room to await his master. Before long we heard the chatter of young female voices as his three daughters arrived home from school. We heard a whispered discussion going on in the hall and presently the youngest girl came in, paid her respects and asked if we would care for a drink and to please help ourselves to cigarettes. It was only a short time before her parents arrived and after a drink with them we were ushered into the dining room where we proceeded to partake of a splendid meal served by two bearers dressed in their traditional garb. Altogether a delightful evening and indeed a very satisfying friendship.

That night when we arrived back at the house-boat we heard on the late night news that France had capitulated. It was a sad blow especially for the French people who were on the next house-boat. The old lady was quite inconsolable and both she and her two daughters wept bitterly.

Next day we went to have a look at the famous Shalimar Gardens and were quite amazed at the sheer beauty of their man-made pools and clear water as it tumbled down from one level to the one below and so on for some considerable distance, finally ending up in a lake.

Next day we were up early and on our way back to Peshawar and the heat of the plains, but as it turned out it was our station’s turn to go to the hill station at lower Topah near Murree, so no sooner were we back in Peshawar than we had to pack our gear once again.

I had heard a lot about the hill station. How it was just like being back in Blighty and so on. It sounded too good to be true, but for once the rumours turned out to be indeed true and as we wound our way up from Rawalpindi we could see a change in the vegetation with the passing of every few miles and it became quite chilly on the back of the trucks.

The camp was situated some 4/5,000 feet above sea level in well-wooded country and the tops of some of the higher hills were shrouded in mist. In the distance away down the valley lay Rawalpindi just out of sight, and there was an air of peace and tranquility everywhere. At first it seemed cold after Peshawar and we found the rarified atmosphere made us puff and blow at the slightest exertion. It was marvellous having to pull the blankets up at night and I for one slept like a log. The billets were situated at the highest point in the camp and the roadway outside dropped away towards the guardroom at one end and down towards the canteen and wireless cabin in the other. This latter was a marvellous arrangement for the duty operator was kept liberally supplied with food and drinks by his mates in the canteen just across the road. Nobody ever raised any complaints even though it must have been well known what went on.

We had to turn out for PT each morning before breakfast, but it was no great hardship as the exercises were specially designed gradually to get us accustomed to the altitude. There was a small village just up the road where one could buy various sandalwood boxes, trinkets and material decorated with peacocks and the like, whilst Murree, the nearest town was within easy walking distance. Here there was a post office, some fairly decent shops and a couple of restaurants where one could get quite a decent meal at a reasonable price. In the village itself there was also a small cafe over some shops and one of the main attractions was a riding stable where one could hire a pony very cheaply. I had never before ridden a horse, but was persuaded to have a go. I’m afraid we were incompatible for we had only gone about a mile when the brute decided to get rid of me and tried to throw me over a fence into a ditch. I managed to dismount and ended up leading the darned thing back to the stable much to the amusement of the owner. I’ve never been on a horse since!

Several weeks went by pleasantly enough and we took our turn on watch, but even that was a picnic for we had very few messages to deal with, and the char-wallah seemed to spend most of his day squatting outside so we were always well supplied with tea. The bearers at Lower Topa were rather more independent than those we had been used to, possibly because they had no permanent sahibs and had to do for so many different types and never got to know or be known by anyone for more than a few weeks at a time.

Although the weather was warm and sunny during the daytime, we had some rain and thunderstorms almost every evening. To see lightning hissing down into the valley was a wonderful if somewhat awesome spectacle and the jagged forks and then flashes of sheet lightning followed one another every few seconds.

We spent much time on photography whilst we were here and I remember I had a Zeiss Ikon of which I was very proud. All films were carefully tagged and put safely away until our return to Peshawar where we, as members of the photographic society, had the use of a well equipped dark room and where, by virtue of our membership, we could buy paper, films and the like at reduced prices.

All too soon our rest period came to an end and we were winding our way down to Rawalpindi and back over the same route to Peshawar. The heat down on the plains was terrific and for a while we longed for the Murree Hills but we soon got back into our old routine and in a way it was nice to be back in what we had come to regard as home.

On our first morning down at the workshops we were surprised to find a Lysander standing on the tarmac alongside an Audax and of course as it was the first we had seen we eagerly took our turn exploring the cockpit and so on. This was the aircraft which was to replace our old Audax, but it was the only one I was to see on 20 Squadron, for the squadron was to be split up for coastal patrol duties.

So it came about that “A” flight was despatched post haste to Madras on 8th April 1940, and the other two flights to Bombay and Calcutta respectively. I was attached to “A” flight and soon found myself scrambling for a bed in the one billet which was R.A.F. St. Thomas Mount, a small airfield just outside Madras. Bert Heslop and R.K.J. Jones were the two other wireless operators and though we got on well enough with Jones he was a teetotaler, whilst Bert, like myself, was fond of a drink.

The wireless duties were so few and far between that I cannot remember what they consisted of but imagine we must have done little other than keep the batteries charged and the radios in working order. Indeed it came about that I ended up in charge of the cookhouse, but even here, apart from deciding on the menu I had nothing to do. I remember building a pen behind the cookhouse and getting hold of some ducks, which we fattened up on left over scraps. Now and again we would have “Aylesbury duckling” for dinner but I used to hate watching them being killed. The way cook used to do it was by slitting the unfortunate creature’s throat with a bread knife.

St. Thomas Mount was a small village sort of place with a R.C. church, a few houses, a drinking house – you couldn’t really call it a pub – and a police station, which was occupied by the Chingleput division of the armed reserve police. The Indian policemen were officered by British sergeants who were to all intents and purposes treated as commissioned officers in the army. One evening whilst out drinking, Hessie and I got into conversation with three of these chaps and met their inspector, a man who liked to believe and have everyone else believe that he was still a young fellow. At the slightest provocation he would get up on the table and give an exhibition of tap dancing, and to be honest he was very adept at it and would keep going for ages encouraged for a joke by all who watched.

The senior sergeant was a Geordie called Houghton who, because of his ample figure, came to be known as “Busty”. He was married to an Anglo-Indian woman and it wasn’t long before we received an invitation round to his place for a meal. We eagerly accepted and insisted that we provide the beer. Next evening I borrowed a couple of tea urns from the cookhouse and we filled them up with straight or mild beer and poured in a couple of bottles of Japanese pilsner and a bottle of Scotch for good measure and off we went round to the police station.

Busty and his wife and the other two sergeants and their wives were all ready for us and had laid out a really smashing feast of roast duck, roast chicken and all sorts of home made curried puffs and goodness knows what else. They had arranged it all under one of the verandahs of the police station and had an old wind-up gramophone and lots of Bing Crosby records and cigarettes galore. We had a grand evening and indeed were still singing away at 2 o’clock in the morning. Our inspector friend, of course, gave his usual polished performance and needed no second bidding to give us an encore.

This turned out to be a once a week engagement officially, but unofficially it was not unknown for us, after a night out in Madras, to call in on our way back and waken them up. Many a time Busty’s wife had to get out of bed to see to us. However they never once grumbled and always seemed quite pleased to join us in a glass or two. But thinking back now there must have been times when they wished us a hundred miles away.

Busty had a burning desire to get back to his native Northumberland for a spot of leave, but after a few drinks he used to say his wife wouldn’t let him in case he failed to return. I’m quite sure he never would have left her and I think she should have taken a chance anyway!

One night as we were chatting on the lawn outside the ale house with our tea urn of beer on the table, the inspector came running towards us in a state of great anxiety. It appeared his 18-year-old daughter had been taken ill with sunstroke and was in a bad way. The doctor had sent him out to try and get some ice to pack round her in an attempt to reduce her temperature. The only ice we had was in our tea urn so naturally we fished it out and rushed it round to his bungalow. It was all to no avail, however, and she died early next morning. He was distraught, and as his wife was ill in bed he seemed unable to decide what to do. Busty asked us if we would carry the coffin at the funeral and we agreed to do so. The burial took place almost immediately and six of us did duty as pallbearers. It was a pitiable affair. The wog priest couldn’t rush through the service quickly enough and the poor old chap wanted to stay behind and shovel the earth back into the grave. We had to drag him away.

An electric railway ran from St. Thomas Mount into the city of Madras and this was well run and well maintained, keeping reasonably to the published timetable. Madras itself like most Eastern cities was teaming with life and we often went for a meal in the restaurant upstairs in the railway station. Here one could sit looking out over the city centre watching the speeding squealing trams and the ever-moving mass of people who scurried this way and that like so many ants. Beggars were squatting all over the place, their limbs imaginatively maimed and severed by the begging syndicates and their never to be forgotten whine of “Baksheesh sahib – no father, no mother, no sister, no brother – every day never coming sahib!” As evening fell they would lay themselves down side by side on the pavements reserving their bed spaces for the night until it became almost impossible to walk without having to step over them.

It was usually pretty late before we got back to camp after a night out. At the entrance was a large, white-painted iron five-barred gate and alongside it a small wicket gate to admit pedestrians. One night we arrived back at the gate to find our entrance barred by a large cobra, which had attached itself to the gatepost and was rearing up and looking quite dangerous. It took us about an hour to dislodge it with sticks and stones, and eventually one of the drivers finished it off with a large piece from the branch of a tree.

Although we were stationed here for a couple of months little of interest occurred worth reporting and I don’t know what we should have done to while away the hours if it hadn’t been for our friendship with Busty Houghton and his colleagues in the Police Station at St. Thomas Mount.

Next thing we were on our way back to Peshawar, but no sooner were we unpacked than we were on our way again, on 10th June 1941, to Secunderabad near Hyderabad Sind. In fact the camp was called Begumpet and was newly built whilst the airfield itself was indeed that of the Nizam of Hyderabad. Once again our duties were anything but laborious. We had a couple of operators on watch at a time whilst the rest of us were employed inspecting and maintaining the rather obsolete wireless sets used for air to ground communications – lack of communication would be a more accurate phrase for as far as I recall communication was lost as soon as the aircraft were out of sight.

This didn’t seem to matter, however, just so long as the wiring was all neatly arranged and the sets looked clean and shiny.

We had taken Sherzaman, our canteen bearer, with us and as he knew us all he didn’t bother to take cash for our orders, but kept a note in his little book until pay day when he would go round and collect not only the outstanding debts but a good bit of baksheesh as well from the fat sahib, friend of the fat sahib, etc. The camp durzi had come along too in order, so he told us, to escape from the police as he had done some Hindu to death during Ramadan. How true this was we never did find out and nobody ever bothered to mention the fact to anyone in authority.

Whilst I was at Begumpet I developed a most painful sciatica down my left leg and could hardly walk. I didn’t go sick because the “quack” had a very poor reputation and was avoided by all and sundry except in extreme emergency. Anyway it lasted for several weeks and I used to dose myself with aspirins and lots of ale. I often wondered afterwards if the latter might have caused it in the first place. Anyway whilst here an Indian Air Force officer was killed in a crash and we had to provide a funeral party. I can still see the funeral pyre – he was a Sikh – and as the flames licked up around the coffin the body would sit up due to muscular spasms. Every time it did so two men with poles would knock it down again. The smell of burning flesh was horrible and the wind was in a direction that wafted the smoke and smell over the firing party.

Anyway it was worth it for we all had a day off. I remember this incident vividly, because it was at the time when the R.A.F. drill changed from marching in fours to threes and we had to practice specially on the morning of the funeral.

The C.O. decided that he should organise a dance for the officers and their ladies, and the Nizam of Hyderabad authorised the use of his aircraft hanger for the occasion. We in the signals section got the job of fixing up the lighting arrangements. An artificial fence was erected intertwined with odd foliage and decorated with coloured lamps. The event was pronounced a great success.

Rumour had it that we were going back to base straight away. As it turned out we didn’t return to Peshawar right away, but three or four of us including Jones and Eddie Ellis were flown to Fort Akalgar to take part in an exercise with the army. We moved into a cave-like billet with our usual pack-set and battery charger. The room contained four beds and a white trestle table and a few folding wooden chairs. We kept watch open from about 9am to 4pm. It was all pretty pointless. The messages were in code and so of no interest. If it hadn’t been for our portable gramophone we’d have been bored to tears. We didn’t have many records – one or two of Fats Waller, one of a boy soprano whose name eludes me, and one of Enrico Caruso singing “Марагі.”

The Army people wouldn’t leave us in peace and we were ordered to turn out on parade with rifles and bayonets. What a fiasco! We were not in the habit of being drilled and it came as a bit of a shock. I was ticked off for having a spider down the barrel of my rifle and the other lads faired no better.

There was nothing to do so we spent most of our time clustered round the chap whose turn it was to keep watch. The food was atrocious and consisted of lamb stew every day. We did do a bit of fishing with makeshift hooks and lines in a nearby canal. Did quite well really and caught a number of mud fish, which we persuaded the cook to do for us. Rather a disappointment however as the mud fish tasted as revolting as it looked.

A pleasant surprise awaited me in the discovery that my “tapes” had come through accompanied by my second G.C. (Good Conduct stripe) and best of all my I.G.S. (Indian General Service) ribbon. The medal itself would have to wait till after the war.

We spent quite some time taking photos and developing and printing them in our little dark room. George Pell had in the meantime acquired an 8mm cine camera and made some amusing little films with us as his actors.

Our canteen bearer, Sherzeman, had fled the camp due to some trouble over a knife attack.

We thought at last we can settle back into some kind of civilised routine and in this belief decided to do a spot of socialising and went along several times to the local branch of the Toc H. Here we enjoyed meeting all sorts of people and heard some very interesting speakers who told of their travels and showed lantern slides of places they had visited. Perhaps the most interesting of them was Tubby Clayton, the founder of Toc H, who told us how it was named Talbot House, hence the abbreviation, “Toc” having been the phonetic symbol for the letter T as used during the Great War. Indeed it was still in use right up to the beginning of World War II when it was replaced by “T” for Tommy.

We carried out various little tasks in the community such as the delivery of library books to patients in the local hospital. A hospital to which I was myself admitted suffering from sand-fly fever. On my discharge from there, on returning to camp, I found that in the company of one or two others, mainly aero engine fitters and one electrician, we were bound for Bangalore in Southern India. Little did I know that I should never again return to the North West Frontier Province.


Introduction | Chapter 4 | Chapter 6


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.