1946 In Hong Kong with the RAF
This extract from my Grandfather's memoirs covers his last posting with the RAF before being demobbed.
Rangoon was as deadly as ever but I was bucked by the thought of the Hong Kong posting. I waltzed into Postings as usual and there was my favourite Flight Sergeant, at his desk with his mug of char at his elbow. "Ah, you're back," said he, "have a cup of char." I parked myself and accepted his offer whilst the formalities of the posting were outlined.
It seemed that I would require a 'passage approval' for the journey, from Transport Section, and that it could take weeks before a place was available. "You mean I go by sea?" I asked. "Well of course," he replied, sounding somewhat surprised. I enquired about a flight but was told that special permission was required for that; he showed me a book of tickets and explained that each ticket required a signature from Transport and an approval-stamp. He held up a rubber stamp.
My spirits were beginning to droop when someone shouted from the next room that Chiefy was wanted on the 'phone. He excused himself and scuttled off, I idly perused the top ticket of the book. It was very simple and basic so, with all to gain and nothing to lose, I rubber-stamped it and slipped it into a pocket. When he returned I was finishing my tea and staring into space. Before leaving I made such arrangements as were necessary for the forwarding of my kit then went on reccy to find out more about the 'passage approval' system.
I found that the system could have been busted by a moron and, in fact, might have been designed by one; it appeared that there was no connection whatsoever between the signature, the rubber-stamping or the issue of an air-pass. I already had the stamp, I provided a signature and had no difficulty in obtaining a pass; I was to fly out in two days time. I made a bundle of my folding camp-kit and some sundries, wrapped it all up in the ground-sheet and tied it securely with thin rope, addressed it plainly to my home address and left it in care of R.A.F. stores in the belief that that was the last I would see of it. In fact, I received it almost two years later, exactly as I had left it. It seemed that God's slow-moving mill is not unique.
There was a motley collection of passengers aboard the aircraft when we took off from Hmawbi, most of them civilians bound for Hong Kong. There was a stop for lunch at Saigon during which I and two or three other service-types were drawn into some idle conversation, particularly with a man of Portugese extraction who told us he had skipped from Hong Kong ahead of the Japs and was now returning to pick up the threads again. He gave me the impression that he was a friendly type, just short of appearing too glib. He asked about our reason for living and remarked, en passant, that we could all meet again in Hong Kong, perhaps, in a social way. 'Perhaps' we replied, non-committally; we hadn't a clue what our situations would be.
We nearly didn't make Kai Tak airstrip. We ran into ten-tenths low cloud about a hundred miles off-shore and the nav, who seemed to be no more than a schoolboy, chose to maintain height rather than descend below the cloud. The result was, as I had feared, that we made the descent over the archipelago, completely blind to the hills beneath. When the engine-note changed, indicating descent, I got hot under the collar; I hadn't survived thus far only to fall victim to a sprog nav, but there was nothing I could do about it.
The bulkhead door between crew and passengers was open, so it was possible to see through the windscreen. We broke cloud at about five hundred feet above sea-level and were trapped in a horse-shoe of hills with very little room for manouvre; an extremely tight turn was the only option open to the pilot. There wasn't the slightest doubt that we had pushed Lady Luck to the extreme limit and I was furious about it, moreso because crews of passenger-carrying planes were supposed to have been hand-picked from the crews of disbanding squadrons.
On de-planing I hung back and complained to the pilot, a Flight Lt. He looked at my thin Pilot-Officer stripe and started to throw his rank about so I pointed out to him that, as a briefing-officer, I could put in a formal report which would fix him and his navigator for good, but that we all had to learn, for which reason I would let the matter ride. That shut him up.
As I approached the terminal building I was intercepted by our Portugese friend who asked if I would care to join him and his friends at a party on the following Wednesday; "There will be some of your officer-friends there," he added. I accepted, on the basis that I could see no reason to refuse, but it seemed somewhat precipitate nonetheless. I pondered over it for the next few days, but to no effect.
The senior briefing-officer was Fl. Lt. Blackburn (Blackie), a slim, dapper sort of chap, and the next in line was Fl. Lt. Frank Gardiner. Blackie was always referred to as 'Supremo' (after Mountbatten), Frank was 'Deputy Supremo' (after Slim) and I became 'Assistant Deputy (after Festing), from which it can be safely inferred that we were a completely happy crew. My first consideration, I was informed, was to familiarise myself with the routes on which we were to brief the crews, to which end I was presented with air-maps of China and Indo-China and told to study them at length.
The first things to catch the eye were the white areas on the maps, marked 'unexplored'. I immediately envisaged the work of air-surveys as being necessary and got quite excited about it; such work would really be worthwhile. Unfortunately, however, there were no routes over those areas; it seemed that Chiang Kai Chek's needs were of much lower priority than that of the people on the Singapore- Saigon- Hong Kong axis.
In fact the first actual job of work I did was to turn out for the station soccer-team against a local Chinese team. We played on the gravel at the side of the one and only runway but that did not prevent the bare-footed locals from winning the match!
I had a 'phone-call which confirmed the holding of the party on the Wednesday and so went along as arranged. It was a typical English-style 'gin and Jag' affair, nothing spared, and I got to wondering again what was at bottom of it. There was no shortage of beautiful women there, all wives as far as could be seen, and I suspected that we, the R.A.F., were being softened up for something. At about 1.am. the party folded up, we were thanked for coming along and were invited along for the following Wednesday.
Meanwhile, I was detailed to perform nav. duties on a flight to Saigon, and return, as part of the familiarisation programme. We spent the night in Saigon, someone else took the 'plane on to Bangkok and I joined a crew who were bound for Kai Tak. The pilot was a Warrant Officer Lisbona (Lizzy) who was something of a character. He was born in Portugal, lived in Germany in his early years, then in Egypt and, finally, French North Africa. I could see he was upset about something and was told that on the leg from Bangkok he had been torn off a strip by a Wing Commander of Air Transport Command for not briefing the passengers in respect of the sea-crossing. When we all boarded for the leg to Kai Tak, including the aforementioned Wing Co; Lizzy had the crew assemble with the passengers in the body of the aircraft and announced that he was about to brief everyone for the flight ahead which he proceeded to do in English, French, Arabic, German and Portugese!
The Wing Commander remained strangely quiet throughout!
A straight line from Saigon to Hong Kong would pass near or through the town of Da Nang on the north coast of what is now North Vietnam. About halfway between Saigon and Da Nang a large river emerges from the interior mountains and spreads itself out over sandy flats before entering the South China sea. It is a topographical feature impossible to miss but, according to my navigation, its position was fifty miles away from that shown on the map. I found this hard to believe but not as hard as finding out what error I had made, if any. I reported this at Kai Tak and also asked other navs, to check on it. They and I (on a subsequent occasion) confirmed this so I suppose I could add that to my small tally of cost-effectiveness vis-a-vis my expensive training.
Party night came along and after an hour or more of conviviality I became aware of Roberto, my Portugese host, at my side. He soon worked around to the question of what I had been up to during the week so I told him I had been to Saigon. "Do you know, John, I have one hundred thousand pounds in gold tied up in that place," he said. So now we knew what this was all about. I made sympathetic noises whilst I tried to work out what credence to place on his statement; after all, though that amount was much more than considerable in 1946 it was possible that a man of foresight and determination could have salted his wealth away in good time.
(The two establishments which catered for officers in Kowloon and Hong Kong were overflowing with food and booze which the Japs never seemed to know about, and I am referring to the best brands of wines and liqueurs among other items). He clicked on for a few seconds then asked me point-blank if I could help get the gold back into the Colony. The request wasn't altogether unexpected but I had been pondering on the pros and cons of the currency situation in which I knew that severe penalties had been imposed on those who had tried to make a dishonest shilling or two by taking advantage of the value-discrepancy between Indian and Burmese rupees. Against that was the not inconsiderable item of a ten percent commission for the risks involved; ten thousand pounds worth of gold would give an excellent start to civilian life. I asked for time to investigate the problem and gave an undertaking not to divulge his secret.
It took three days of cogitation to make up my mind. I had no scruples about the illegality of the deal (half or more of our so-called betters would have jumped at the deal), I figured a way could be found of getting the stuff home, but I couldn't rid myself of the feeling that I would be in amongst wolves and completely out of my depth. How could I exact payment should they refuse to divvy up? If they did pay, would it be because they were sure they could retrieve the sum? Finally, and to clinch the matter, was I prepared to risk further involvement and possible blackmail? It was that lack of certainty that it would be a one-off affair which turned me off; I told Roberto that I couldn't see a sure-fire way of doing the business but there was no reason why he shouldn't try someone else. I also wished him luck, I'm sure he deserved some after the trauma of Japanese Co-Prosperity schemes and the associated banana money.
End of up-market private parties for John! I wasn't bothered in the least, the cumulative effect of time-to-fill in Darjeeling and Rangoon, together with cheap facilities and almost universal entre into places was starting to pall and I looked forward more and more to repatriation and a new start at home.
Comic relief was provided by a visit to the briefing office by a Wing Commander Haines; he breezed in and asked which of us was Hansbury. "I am told you are a Beaufighter man," he said. I acknowledged as much and was thereby informed that on the morrow I would join his group for the purpose of ferrying three Beaufighters from Rangoon. Now that was something.
We flew as passengers to Saigon and stayed there the night and who should I run into again but my old Warringtonian; I was starting to see more of him out there than ever I did at home! I was invited to join him and his reprobate crew and so found myself in a Saigon bar that evening, coping with their latest invention. It was a rum-based cocktail with a raw egg mixed in. "It is the egg which does the trick," said George,"last night Taffy had an erection as big as an aircraft joy-stick and was practising landings, flat on his back in bed." We must have gone through a dozen or more of the concoctions but for my part I wasn’t as lucky as Taffy had been, I slept like a log.
It was lunch in Bangkok then on to Rangoon next day, at which place we arrived in time for me to look up an old aquaintance and so arrange for something by way of entertainment for the evening. It was just as well that I did; the accommodation for crews in transit was in what had once been a civic centre of some kind, and the plumbing system was completely defunct, just as the Japs had left it....unflushed, unwashed and unusable. It was so revolting that I didn't bother to return to it until 4am or thereabouts. I had to be up at 7am but I knew that my internal alarm system would ensure that.
I awoke at 6.55 and re-joined the Wing Co at the appointed time and was airborne at 0945 en route for Saigon. Our three aircraft flew in arrowhead formation with ours in the van so it was up to me to do the navigation. We overflew Bangkok and set course for Saigon and that was all I was aware of until, nearly an hour later, I woke up. There were no longer any jungle-clad mountains beneath us, only an endless succession of paddy-fields set in a spider-web of rivers the pattern of which bore little enough resemblance to that shown on the map. It had to be the start of the Mekong delta, however, so I gave the pilot a slight change of course to indicate that I was still alive, then set about finding out just where we were. It wasn't easy with such a featureless landscape beneath but the thing sorted itself out in due course.
There was a slight mishap on landing; as we came towards touch-down the cross-wind caused one wing to drop so we waddled a little from the one-wheel contact but the next one in wasn't so lucky; he really bounced and caused damage to the undercart. So, next morning, there were only two.
It was on the way to Kai Tak that I paid particular attention to the navigation for the purpose of checking the exact position of the big river in Vietnam. My answer was as before; the map-error was fifty miles. As we drew abreast of Hainan Island the pilot came through on the intercom and said he was weary of stooging and was going down to sea-level. With the command to the other pilot he put the nose down and levelled out at about ten feet above the waves. What followed was sheer delight; the other pilot closed in until his port wing was tucked in within feet of our starboard wing whilst we skimmed the white-caps at speed.
Under manual control the aircraft undulated slightly so that the sunlight glinted now and then from the wing-surfaces and there was a bird’s eye view of the other kite. Then, as on other like occasions, one could really see and admire the clean, streamlined shapes of the 'planes; it was as though one was part and parcel of the machines.
After a while I had to warn the pilot that ahead lay the archipelago. This was a routine matter only, it was up to the pilot as to what was done about it. I hoped we would continue with the low-level stuff and my hope was fulfilled; we skimmed the surface of the sea and weaved our 250m.p.h. way between the islands like a shuttle through the threads. Then we came to a place I recognised; we were entering the horse-shoe bay in which we so narrowly escaped destruction on that first flight I mentioned. Ahead of us appeared a V-shaped notch between the low hills but it wasn't what it seemed; each side of the V was the tail-end of an island and between the two was a narrow channel. The aircraft lifted gently over the low ground then banked swiftly to port along the channel, all in a matter of seconds. We shot out of the narrow mouth of the channel and a junk came out from behind the starboard headland, bang on a collision course.
Our aircraft were still in tight formation, wings tucked into each other, but never a word was spoken; our starboard wing and the other fellow's port wing lifted to form an arch as we shot over the junk at a few feet above mast-height. I saw men, women and children look up in fear at our sudden hurricane appearance and then we were past. I swivelled round in my seat and watched as the top-heavy junk slowly heeled over and capsized, blown over by the the slipstream from two 1600 horsepower engines. That junk was the home of at least two families as far as I could make out so I felt very bad about it; the exhilaration of low flying evaporated very quickly.
We entered the strait between Hong Kong and Kowloon and gazed down at the runway. It was no more than a macadam strip laid along the beach and bounded on the inshore side by a mountain ridge about five hundred feet high. As one flew along the downwind leg the wingtip seemed to almost scrape the mountainside. At the end, one turned and flew down the lower slopes then turned again to line up with the runway. Between the runway and the approaching aircraft was a pair of low summits which acted as a V-sight through which one could see the far end of the runway but not the near end. The drill then was to scrape through the V and put the nose down steeply whilst hoping for the best.
I mention this because it was the reason why night-landings were out of the question and because it led, in all probability, to me being given the job of carrying out a complete survey of the 'airfield' and its approaches as a prelude to the development of the place for future civilian flying. Why me, I never knew, but I spent hours on those hillsides watching aircraft land; I would stand on one of the two summits near the end of the runway and actually look down on the 'planes as they made their way through the notch prior to the nose-dive onto the runway. I often wonder if anything was made of my long report.
Briefing duties were very light indeed; so much so that I remember very little of them. My main memories are of jeep-trips to the beaches and long hours spent in the sea. The top floor of the Peninsular hotel in Kowloon was an Officers' Club as was part of the Gloucester Hotel in Hong Kong itself but there was little to do there except to patronise the bars. I again began to feel bored with the 'good life' and longed for something more meaningful. I had exhausted all the possibilities so far as the hills were concerned, during the first two weeks in the place and so began to feel trapped.
There came a day when an aircraft went missing and a bit of a tizzy developed. One of the resident pilots had been busy developing a system of controlled approach to the airfield which would enable incoming aircraft to be 'talked in' in thick weather. On this occasion he had flown out to the approach-area near Lantau Island and, whilst under airfield control, had just disappeared.
As the day wore on, without sight or sound of the 'plane, an air-sea rescue launch was dispatched to search the Lantau area. This action was supplemented in the evening by an air-search carried out by Wing Co Haines with myself as navigator. We flew along the Seaward side of the island then turned round the southern tip and along the mainland shore. In a small bay we located the air-sea rescue launch which flashed a message on its Aldis lamp to the effect that a crash had been located. As we buzzed the launch the crew waved their arms and pointed in the direction of the main mountain summit so off we went to see what could be seen.
It was for all the world like flying into the jaws of Glencoe from Loch Leven; the mountains were of the same type and size, rising steeply on both sides. We came to a saddle from which the valley on the far side turned sharply to the right, back to the seaward shore-line of the island. Almost immediately the crashed 'plane (what was left of it) could be seen high up near the crest of the summit-ridge; a great heat-scar stood out like a beacon on that dark flank of the mountain. We turned about and, at low speed, flew along the ridge for a look-see.
A dark scar ran along the flank of the ridge, no more than fifty feet or so below the crest, where the 'plane's starboard wingtip had scraped along, then came the tail-unit and, just ahead of it, a heap of ashes. We circled above the wreck but could see no sign of life and so, in gathering darkness, headed back to base.
I was summoned to the Group Captain's office next morning and, in my capacity as a mountaineer, was asked for an opinion on the feasibility of retrieving the bodies; Wingco Haines had assumed that there were no survivors (an assumption I shared with him) so I gave an opinion to the effect that retrieval would be a long, arduous business and, like as not, a messy and thankless task. He thought for a moment then told me to be ready to lead a reccy-cum-burial party next day; "Meanwhile," he added,"see that the party is properly equipped, I don't want any further calamities." I saw his point; there had been two civilian policemen on the 'plane as well as the crew. They had been offered a joy-ride as a kind of fraternal gesture and had left wives and young children to grieve. The whole colony was sad when the news got around. I was to guide the party to the scene, make an assessment of the situation and act accordingly but, for preference, bury the bodies.
The forty-knot drive to Lantau in the air-sea-rescue launch was a new and exciting experience but the three and a half thousand feet of scramble up to the wreck was a hot and gruelling affair which severely taxed the (in)competence of the group. I took them up a steepish rib which seemed to offer a direct route without the need to resort to actual climbing, and arrived at a point where we were level with the wreck and could approach it from its rear. Reading the signs was like reading a picture-book. The scar made by the wing-tip was a fifty-yard long gouge where the loose rock and heather had been torn out as the plane raked along the ridge, and the ash we had seen from the air was as fine as ground pepper, so fierce had been the fire. The tail-unit was almost intact and one engine was spotted some eight-hundred feet lower down the mountain. It was a sad and brooding sight.
"There are no bodies," someone said. I looked at the ashes and wondered which of them had once been human beings but I was off beam. The slight onshore breeze suddenly stopped and did a reverse and we got the unmistakable smell of death. I followed my nose and came across an R.A.F. blanket of all things; it was laid out as flat as the ground would permit and I went to raise it. There was what seemed to be a scarred tree-stump sticking up from underneath; which was queer, there were no trees on the mountain, then I realised it was the shattered stump of a human leg, literally roasted. Further examination showed the unmistakable contours of two human faces beneath the blanket. I recoiled with the shock of the sudden realisation and, though anything but squeamish, could not bring myself to raise the cover off those pathetic remains; to do so seemed to be an act of intrusion bordering on ghoulishness. It was obvious that others had been to the scene before us and I assumed it must have been the crew of the launch we had seen on our first search by air.
We found the other engine and a newly-erected cairn further ahead and about eight hundred feet below. The engine had been tom out on impact and, with body (or bodies), had been projected violently forward into a shallow gully down which it and the body/bodies had plunged and come to rest on a shelf of rock and heather. The cairn exuded the smell of death and its size indicated that two bodies lay underneath it. We strengthened the cairn With more boulders, wrested with considerable difficulty from the hard ground, then made our way back to the launch having done all that was possible. We had already built a large animal-proof cairn over the two bodies which lay under the blanket. Gazing across the hills to the China Sea with its dozens of small islands and its pattern of cloud-shadows, one felt that to be buried there could be very right and fitting; there was an atmosphere of peace and calm which suited the occasion. This thought was rudely jolted about a week later.
I was in the briefing-office when the 'phone rang; "For you," said Blackie. It was the Group Captain; "You had better come over here right away," he said. His message was that a War Graves Commission team had arrived and was charged with the task of exhuming the bodies for 'decent' burial in Hong Kong's military cemetery. Guess who had to guide them to the burial-grounds on the mountain!
Once again we sped across to Lantau on the air-sea rescue launch but there was little exhilaration for me in the trip; I wanted no part in digging up ten-day old scorched and battered corpses. The 'reclamation' team were, of course, quite devoid of feelings. They had recently arrived from the Pacific islands where they had been engaged in salvaging hundreds of remains of four-year old corpses buried there on the heels of the Japanese conquest. The team didn't lack feeling of course, they had merely come to terms with a job they had to do, even though they failed to see the logic of it. "Can't see what bloody use it is to dig up rotting corpses just to bury 'em again," said one chap. I figured that by pretending to have forgotten where the bodies lay, I could take the party on a roundabout route and so kill time to the point where either I 'failed' to find them or, at least, left too little time to start the digging. Once again it was the zephyr-breeze which decided the issue.
I had taken the party up the floor of the valley to the foot of the saddle at its head, passing the scene of the crash but three thousand feet below it, and there I halted, ostensibly for a short rest but mainly to work out how further to kill time. Taking as rough a line as possible, in order to dampen any ardour that the team may still entertain, I plodded slowly upwards, stopping at frequent intervals to make a play of looking for landmarks. At about 5pm we 'rested' on a slight swell of ground on the other side of which lay the remains of the crash.
I extolled the beauty of the view down the valley and did all I could to call off the expedition and thought I was on the point of success when the breeze shifted direction. There came the distinctive smell of decaying flesh and the game was up. The team sprang into action and soon located the cairn we had so laboriously erected. Fortunately, we had taken great pains with it, intending it to survive indefinitely, so I was thankful when the team chose to defer its destruction until next day. I could at least enjoy the sail back to Kowloon; no smells of death in the boat. I pointed down the hill to the lower cairn then headed back to the beach.
It had been a hot day and the launch had to anchor offshore because of shallow water so, having swum from launch to beach on the way in, it seemed the thing to do to swim back. I dumped my clobber in the dinghy with the non-swimmers and struck out for the launch; a distance of about a hundred yards. Half-way across there came a glint of bright light from my left wrist and I swore with the realisation that I had forgotten to take off my watch. An hour later, back in my billet, I opened the back of the watch and found nothing but a solid mass of corrosion. It was a grievous loss; my job as a nightfighter nav. didn't warrant the use of a navigation watch so I never was issued with one and so had to use my own. I had nursed it and regulated it so that it never varied more than ten to twenty seconds a week, for which reason I missed it very much A few days later I bumped into Dave West, the air-sea launch skipper and learned that the body-snatching job had been completed. "I am as sick as a pig, literally," he complained,"the boat stinks like a charnel-house and there is no way of curing it."
Some excitement developed on the news that a typhoon was on its way. It arrived on a Saturday night, heralded by winds which reached 80mph and accompanied by heavy rain, but it did not interfere with my sleep. At about 11am, after a lie-in, I crossed to the island for a pre- lunch noggin in an army mess and expressed my disappointment at the tameness of the event. "Not so tame as you might think," someone said,"take a look at the beach as you drive past to the swimming area." We didn't drive past because we couldn't a 20,000 ton ship had been lifted and dumped with its bows across the road. Damage to small craft was extensive.
Shortly after that, we, the British (we hadn't yet become 'the Brits') played host to a visiting American fleet. Once more I was summoned to the presence', i.e. the Groupy, and ’invited' to the reception at the Air Commodore's residence. "These people have fought in the Pacific, they will drip with medals and they will be proud of themselves," said Groupy,"also, they have taken a beating in the typhoon and need some shore-time; go talk to them and show your medals." This was double giggle and no mistake; first, I was neither a veteran operational type nor an expert at the social graces and, second, although I admired the guts and determination shown by the G.I's in their battles for the Pacific, I wasn't a great admirer of their New World culture. I had long been of that frame of mind which became epitomised by the story of the G.I. and the City of London broker, side by side in a wartime London 'bus queue. As they stood waiting a pre-war Austin 7 chugged by. The G.I. was dumbstruck for a moment then guffawed with laughter. "Say, do you know what we'd do with that in the States?" he said to the broker. "Not really," was the reply, "but, from what I have seen so far, you would either chew it, lean against it or take it to bed."
In the interests of diplomacy and good manners, rather than of duty, I circulated as best as I could and ended up in deep conversation with a lieutenant whose function was that of navigator. He was quietly spoken, knew his job but was modest about it and was the complete antithesis of my mental picture of his compatriots. I asked about the typhoon winds. "Pretty bad I guess," he replied, "the anemometer registered one-eighty knots then broke." One-eighty knots is 210mph! I enjoyed that excursion into polite society and I gathered that not all U.S. troops were farm-yokels from Nebraska and Oklahoma. However, my views were tempered rather than altered; the Americans can only do their best with what they've got.....which seems to me somewhat short for lack of a history.
A report was drawn up on the Lantau disaster from which it was deduced that, whilst in cloud, simulating the conditions for which the exercise was being conducted, the pilot had responded to a 'turn port' instruction by turning to starboard. Strong in his conviction that the plan, of his own making, would work, he followed every instruction meticulously up to the aberration which killed him and his passengers. A sad and gloomy affair.
Another week or two of routine affairs and 'the good life' led to feelings of boredom and irritation which no amount of sybaritic diversions could compensate for, and I began to fret for an end to it all. I was grossly under-employed and overburdened with time to kill; not my scene at all. The news that Blackie and I were next in line for repatriation came as a heartfelt relief. We hit on the idea of a joint farewell party. As though to set the seal on this highly acceptable situation there came proof that it was not just air-crashes and similar nasties which came in threes.
First was the repatriation news and second was a flight to Rangoon and back (for reasons I cannot remember) which involved six hours of unexpected astro-nav. The return from Rangoon was to have been a passenger flight for me and I was dreading the monotony and boredom of it, so I sought out the pilot who turned out to be an ex-117 Sqd colleague, Steve Coleman by name, and asked about the flight-plan. "See Taffy," he said," I leave all the route-planning to him." Taffy was as volatile a Welshman as one one could ever wish to meet, and his volatility, combined with his yearning for a quick return to his beloved Wales, led to his developing a more than average thirst for liquid solace. I found him nursing a thick head and in no mood for a six and a half hour night-flight. "You'll do the navigation?" he said, incredulously, "man, you are my butty for life." (Butty=mate). I informed Steve of the change and obtained his approval for a direct 900 mile sea-crossing instead of a dog-leg route via Bangkok for the sake of bashing the radio-beacons. Our destination for the morning was to be Kualalumpur.
We were airborne at 0100hrs on a clear, starlit night and for the next six and a half hours I had the intense pleasure of being not just in a world of my own but in my own personal universe. All the northern hemisphere navigation stars were available for use at one time or another, and the air was as smooth as silk, which made the use of the sextant easy and accurate. A good fix requires a three star shot which, with the associated table-references, takes about twenty minutes to complete, so with two shots per hour I was busy enough not to be bored. Apart from considerations of body-weight and engine-noise, I could well have imagined we were in orbit. It was a fantastic experience.
The third event was one last flip in a Beaufighter, again with Wingco Haine. We flew out to intercept and escort a VIP kite bound for Kai Tak; how important the person was I never knew, I never even got to know the name. It was sufficient to me that my last flight with the R.A.F. was in 'me darlin' Beaufighter'; nothing could have been more appropriate than that.
Two nights later Blackie and I held our farewell party in the Peninsular hotel. During the afternoon of that day I saw a most unusual sight; it was an ex-P & O liner fitted out as an 'amenity ship'. It was the only amenity I ever saw or heard of during the whole of my two and a half years in the Par East. I got Dave West to whisk me across the harbour in one of his boats and returned with a ten-gallon cask of beer, keg type. We had reserved the large dining-room in the Officers' Club on the tenth floor, seventy invited guests sat down to dinner and, at 10pm or so, I made a body-count of those who 'just came for the beer' and gave up at one hundred and eighty. It was some party until the bomb-aiming contest started. The idea was to 'bomb up' (a line of empty bottles on the window ledge) then wait for some hapless pedestrian(s) to appear on the pavement beneath. A good aimer could judge the time and distance such that the 'bomb', falling from ten floors up, would reach the ground at the exact spot the target occupied in the same time-interval. We managed to cotton on to this before the drunks attained the required proficiency but the idea caught on and began to spread so, having done our best, we left......just a few minutes before the local police arrived.
Regrettably, there were casualties; Dave West and another man never arrived back at base and we had trouble in locating him. It seemed that he and a few others had smuggled out of the foyer a large silver tray and that Dave had been cajoled into taking a pillion passenger, with tray, back to camp on his motor-bike. In the darkness a Chinese military truck, part of a convoy, had charged out of a side-street and sent Dave, passenger and bike skittering. Dave was in a Kowloon hospital, his passenger was in the morgue, the bike was a write-off and some Chinese soldiers were better off to the tune of one solid silver tray, of size three feet by two and beautifully engraved. What on earth the smugglers hoped to do with such a tray I couldn’t imagine, but I very much doubt that the Chinese would be stuck for ideas. Blackie and I visited Dave but he was himself hazy about the motive behind it all.
We returned to camp, finished our packing and on the following morning boarded the good ship Taos Victory. We had been given the option of going by air but, for two reasons, had opted for the boat. First, we secretly had entertained fears for our safety, considering the catalogue of disasters we were aquainted with in respect of flying and, second, we preferred a sea-cruise to the unutterable boredom of flying as passengers. As things turned out we made a very bad choice.
The Taos Victory was a 7000 ton Liberty ship which the Taos Indians would have sold as scrap, or given away. The hull was divided into five basic sections; a sharp end which housed the anchor-chain and assorted bric-a-brac, a forrard hold, a centre-section which housed the engine (down in the 'basement') and two cramped dining areas (officers/other ranks, immediately beneath the superstructure), an afterhold and a stern-section where the non-officer ship's crew seemed to hang around. The two holds were great steel caverns, each the full width of the ship and about as long, into which had been welded steel columns and beams as supports for rows of bunks, four deep. The modern battery hen would have felt entirely at home in the place. The forrard 'suite' was for the 'other ranks' and the aft 'suite' for officers. Part of the centre-section, next to the officers' suite, had been left empty as a 'recreational' area, and for any parades that may be necessary.
Essentially it was a steel box about forty feet wide (the ship's beam), thirty feet long and twelve feet or so in height. It wasn't completely empty, an old upright piano stood against the forrard bulkhead but it was soon established that we had no one who could play it. So much for recreation. And that was that; no promenade-deck, no swimming-pool, no canteen, no bar, no lounge, no seats.......just nothing, spelt NOTHING.
You would like a seat sir? Go through the recreation-room, up the steel stair to the main deck and just choose your spot Your view may be obstructed by your life-rafts and the crew’s life boats, not to mention a hundred and one items of deck-gear,the steel deck may be hard and as hot as hell but it is fairly clean. Have a pleasant voyage sir. We endured that steel hell for ten weeks with just three hours ashore at Singapore.
The hulk called in at Singapore for supplies and we were given shore-leave for the purpose of buying our 'duty-free'. By the time we had cleared the Malacca Strait and nosed into the Indian Ocean most of us had long since finished our liquor and were being ribbed by those who had hoarded the stuff. When the ship met the swell, caused by the monsoon winds, the captain steered into it so as to eliminate the rolling of the vessel, and the hoarders of booze were then constrained to stack it accordingly, which they did by tucking the bottles in the nooks formed at the meetings of the vertical stanchions and the beams which supported our bunks.
For ten days we pitched and tossed across the swell and were almost driven loony by the lift and dip of the propellor out of and back into the water as the stern of the ship rose and fell. For twenty-four hours a day we had 'dum dum dum...dum dum dum' as the three blades of the prop hit the sea in turn. For half the nights I would go up to the now empty gun-platforms at the sides of the bridge and watch the luminous effects as the ship thrusted its painful way through the water. The ship's design may have been suitable for other oceans but it certainly didn't conform to the Indian Ocean swell. As each forty-foot wave came at it, the vessel would lift slowly at the bows then dip down into the trough but would be just that wee bit behind each time. The result was that on the eighth or ninth time the bows would dig deep into the base of the oncoming wave instead of riding it.
A huge wall of green water would engulf the forecastle and for as long as ten seconds or more, it would seem as though the ship would never surface; then, very slowly, the green tide would pour down the scuppers and off the bows and the ship would surface like a great whale. I wasn't at all happy with all this.
As a young draughtsman at Lancashire Steel I had read reports of the Admiralty's efforts to develop all-welded hulls for its destroyers and how those hulls were prone to breaking their backs under severe bending conditions. The Liberty ships of WW2 were not only all-welded but mass-produced, and the average Indian Ocean roller was a veritable mountain of water weighing hundreds of tons.
There is an end to all things and it came, to the interminable pitching of the ship, during the eighth or ninth night. We had been informed that once the ship came into the partial protection of the African coast, it would be possible to alter course for Aden without too much rolling of the ship. Thus it was that some time in the early hours we were all rudely shaken out of the torpor (that passed as sleep) by a cacophony of sound compounded of the smashing of glass, the rumble of a moving mass across a steel floor and the twanging of piano-strings.
Through the medley of confusion and cries of 'what in hell goes on?' someone called out not to walk about on the deck. 'The bloody place is full of broken glass and whisky," he said. The ship slowly righted itself and started to roll the other way. From the direction of the recreation room came the rumble of wheels followed by an almighty crash and more twanging of piano-strings. "Christ its the piano," came a voice. Some of us made it into the rec. room but there was nothing we could do; the roll of the ship made it impossible to balance properly, and the weight of the piano gave it considerable momentum so we could only brace ourselves and watch as the piano rolled from side to side of the ship and reduced itself to firewood and twisted wires. As some wag remarked, the banging and twanging was as good a piece of music as many of the chamber-music variety.
Back in the bedroom-suite the booze-hoarders were loudly lamenting the fate of their erstwhile bottles of hooch. Storage against pitching was of no avail against rolling; hardly a bottle escaped, the place was swimming in liquor of all kinds.,and the deck was littered with broken glass.
The ship put in at Aden for supplies but there was no shore-leave; we watched the local boys diving for coins. In that unpolluted water a silver coin, wiggling its way down could be seen at depths of twenty feet or more. For my part I was appalled at the barren nature of the land; how anyone could live there I just could not understand. I suppose that if one believed in hell-fire after death, and had an inkling that such a place might well be their destination, then & few weeks of life in Aden would be a good introduction to a hell hereafter. This opinion was reinforced by the journey through the Red Sea and the Suez canal; infinite barrenness on either hand.
At our breakneck speed of ten knots we ploughed through the Mediterranean for the thick end of two days and saw nothing but a light-grey sky and dark-grey water; not unlike the Thames estuary on a grey day. Eventually we entered home waters by way of St George’s Channel and could see at least thirty yards of it, the fog being not quite as dense as it might have been.
It was there that I got one of my premonition-type feelings. Somewhere in the Indian Ocean, we officers had been invited up to the bridge of the ship and I, as a radar-nav. had expressed an interest in the ship’s radar gear. Now the crew was all-American and the Americans were not at all noted for their navigational ability so I was in no way surprised when I discovered that the officer concerned was not at all sure about the gear and its working. It followed, therefore, that being adrift in a thick fog in a busy sea-lane was, to me, akin to flying in cloud, and that a spot of que vive was called for. Somehow I just didn't trust our American Marco Polo.
As if to put this to the test there came the sound of a ship's syren from a direction starboard bow. The sound was repeated at frequent intervals and it became obvious that the two vessels were on l converging courses. I was leaning on the ship's rail next to Brian Wilkinson, one of my ex-colleagues from 117 Sqd, and I voiced my fears about American navigation. The blasts from the other ship got louder and louder until I felt it advisable to move to a position which would give us maximum choice of evasive tactics should a collision appear imminent. My disquiet wasn't as old-maidish as it may sound; the next blast was deafening and was followed by the sight of a ship's bows about fifty yards away on our own starboard bow. The two vessels seemed to heading for the same point so I started a mental count-down; as soon as I was sure where the point of impact would be, I would scarper away for safety. Brian was equally apprehensive and started to edge slowly to a more forrard position. I waited until I was reasonably sure that our stern would be sliced off, then I moved along with him. Without any apparent change of course from either ship, the other one passed our stern with no more than twenty yards to spare. I cannot believe that ships of that size can be manouvred to such close limits so I conclude that neither ship was concerned about the matter. I also wondered if the radar gear on our tub was installed for use or for ornament.
The crowning glory to our epic voyage was the entry into Liverpool Bay. I have referred to famine in Calcutta, the filth of the Middle East and the hopeless, barren nature of the Persian Gulf but these are more or less natural phenomena; for some real, man-made ordure the Liverpool Bay of 1946 would take the Gold...... ...set in platinum and encrusted with diamonds. Once in Liverpool Bay, one had no worries about fog, one just steered a course in line with the great streaks of brown, yellow, red, oily and frothy gunge which bobbed obscenely on the surface with the mouth of the Mersey as point of origin. One could literally follow one's nose.
As we stared at the filth an object bobbed by which, at first glance, could have been a body, but then came another and another until there was a flotilla in line-astern formation. They were bundles of tropical kit, bunged over the side of a ship just ahead of us. The fog was thinning and visibility improving and we could see that the other ship was carrying army types who, being completely browned off with the Far East and its jungles, were venting long-subdued feelings by consigning their effects to the chemical broth of Liverpool Bay.
A hint of sunshine heralded the clearing of the fog and there, in all its glory, was Liverpool itself, a black, sprawling mass on the skyline, enough to sick a pig. I thought of the clear waters of the Gulf of Aden where the boys dived for pennies and I pictured in my mind the fresh greens of the jungle. "Brian," I said, "this tub could turn right around and I wouldn't give a damn." After four and a half years of clean living, here I was, back in the tutty. I couldn't resist the thought that we might have done well to let the Luftwaffe clear the lot so as to facilitate a new start. I began to harbour the thought that perhaps Britain wasn't quite the best after all.
We disembarked at about 2pm on a hot day in June and went straight to a train, en route for the demob. centre at Hednesford in Staffordshire. Raking around in the deeper recesses of my mind I concluded that the train would cross the viaduct which spanned the River Weaver near Dutton so that I would enjoy an engine-driver’s view of one of my old and favourite haunts. I got the view alright but not the enjoyment; the whole landscape was covered in grime. Where was the green and pleasant land I had left behind? The brutal answer was that it never had been green, not in my lifetime anyway; it had been green only by comparison with the grime and filth of the industrial areas. I began to mull over the problem of where to live; no way could I go back to the old streets and grubby towns.
If I needed extra time to mull over the matter then I got an extra hour or so at Stafford. As the train pulled away there came a sudden jerk then a dead stop. After some minutes of waiting I stuck my head out of the window and saw that the locomotive had lost a connecting-rod; it was dangling from one end onto the track. It took about axl hour to steam up a replacement.
Throughout that hot and stifling journey we had relished the thoughts of drinking some good English beer, so we wasted no time in moving in and freshening up when we arrived at Hednesford. The evening was fresh and cool as we set course in search of a nice pub. "There it is," said someone front,"dig out your ackers." There is a heart-rending song about a pub with no beer.... we had found that pub. "Beer?" said one of the locals,"don’t you know it is rationed?" We worked up a mammoth thirst in the quest for beer but there was none to be had.
'D' day was two years gone, VE day was over a year old, yet Stafford had no beer. I began to see that places like Rangoon, Aden and the N. African desert may not be too bad after all; I certainly had little enough to enthuse about in respect of the past three months.
Having failed to catch a beer I did what I should have done in the first place, I sent a telegram to my wife to say that I would be home next day. At least the ’phone box still worked. The demob system was by now a well run-in machine (known as the sausage machine) so we were in and out in no time at all, complete with civvy suit and accessories. I retained my battle-dress, flying-boots, silk inner gloves and, of course, my dress-uniform. I wished afterwards that I might have tried a fiddle with my revolver; it would have made a nice souvenir. As it was, I squared for the Jap samurai sword which I had aquired from a dump of captured arms. To this impressive list of war-loot was added the staggering sum of eighty pounds by way of war gratuity.
(I type this on the eve of the 40th anniversary of 'D' day so I think it is appropriate to add that, at current prices, that eighty pounds would be worth about £2500. That sum would thus represent about 90% of available capital for the purpose of setting up house and finding my feet at a time when an average suburban semi costs about £25000. In such fashion does the British system reward its fighting men......and I was better off than a good many more, particularly the maimed and the widows.)
On the afternoon of June 24th I arrived at my wife's old home and knocked on the door. It was she who answered my knock. All I could say was, "Hello Penk, I'm back."