Recollections of SSgt Mike Hall, India, 1944-46

On return from leave F Squadron left Blakehill Farm with many regrets, as it had been a happy posting, and moved up north to a prewar airfield at North Luffenham, near Oakham. This was now October and we had a short refresher course which last about two weeks. We were very pleased when at the end of the course we returned to Blakehill. About this time at the end of 1944 there was a lot of talk about the “Second Front” and we also heard rumours of gliders being used in India against Japan. On our return to Blakehill in the middle of November these rumours became fact and volunteers were asked for. Although there is an unwritten rule in the army – “never volunteer for anything” – Wally and I decided we would do just that, and see other parts of the world. Both Wally and I needed new second pilots. George Hogg was no longer with us and Wally’s chap, Hartford, was inured. As a result of this I was give a young fellow called Davison from Durham and Wally had a chap of similar age called Davidson from Glasgow. We all got on well together. The plan was that the whole venture was to be a joint operation between the RAF and the Army. Because of the Arnhem losses the RAF supplied more pilots than the regiment so the command was under the RAF with army officers as second in command. There were to be three squadrons 668, 669 and 670. Wally and I with our new mates were to be with “D” Flight 668 squadron. Early in December the India draft left Blakehill for the last time and removed to a village on the outskirts of Braintree in Essex. Our billets were in a mushroom farm, no less. At this place there was very little to do and the waiting about did not improve the behaviour of some of the men. About the middle of the month the first party left by Dakota for India and we who were left behind were not pleased. Once again I had been left behind and once again I was lucky to be so treated for this party crashed in the Pyrenees with very few survivors. On 21st or 22nd December the four of us with about a dozen others left for London and had to report to the HQ of BOAC (the forerunner of British Airways) at Victoria. Although up until September 1939 I had lived in the Victoria area I had never been in a Pub. Wally soon put this right during the short waiting time by taking me to one in the bus yard at Victoria Station. Such debauchery! We were no travelling as civilians on a civilian service so our treatment was completely different to the army treatment. The airline had a private platform at Victoria, our luggage was weighed and labelled and loaded by porters onto a special Pullman train which was most luxurious with soft chairs and carpeted floors. All this with white coated waiters hovering around to serve us a wonderful meal, and I have loved luxury ever since. Our destination was Poole Harbour near Bournemouth which brought back happy memories. A coach, not an army truck, took us to a hotel overlooking the harbour called The Harbour Heights Hotel which, incidentally, is still in operation at the time of writing as one of the top hotels in the area. Our first class treatment continued and for me the war could have stopped right then. We were waited on hand and foot, early morning tea, and excellent meals. All this had to come to an end and we were due to leave by Sunderland flying boat from the harbour. This was 24th December, Christmas Eve. We met our two pilots for a short chat about the flight and the first pilot finished by saying “Don’t worry chaps I don’t intend to spend my Christmas Day flying down the Mediterranean. We boarded this amazing flying boat, settled down on make-shift seating and waited for take off. It was an entirely different sensation from land take-offs. The four engines roared and we sped along the water with a great rumbling noise made by the water skimming the hull. It was fascinating looking out of the port holds to see all the spray. India here we come. The pilot did a circle of the harbour, the engine noise fell away and we realised we were going in to “land”. When we got out the pilot winked at us and said there was fault in one engine. So Christmas Eve was spent in luxury. On Christmas Day once again we were called with cups of tea, cleaned shoes, the lot. We boarded the aircraft, took off, circled the harbour and “landed” once more. This time there was a so called fault in one of the other engines. We had our roast turkey in style and afterwards sat in front of a large open fire to drink the evening away. What a great chap this pilot was. Next morning up with the usual amenities, onto the aircraft and away we went, across France and the Pyrenees over the Mediterranean to North Africa and in the dusk we arrived at a place called Djerba. This was to be an overnight stop to refuel both us and the aircraft. As we stepped ashore we saw in the dark some tents, Arabs and loads of belching camels. Not a pretty sight. Once again the pilot came to our rescue and said that if we were agreeable he would get refuelled, not bother to stay the night and push on to Cairo. This would mean we would have a day and night to spend in Cairo. Of course we agreed with alacrity. It was about 8 o’clock when we approached Cairo. The pilot circled around the Pyramids to enable us to have a decent look. They really are amazing from the air. So on to the Nile where we touched down. Cairo from the air is also a sight to see. We were taken to the landing stage where tea was waiting and then a coach to our hotel. The hotel was in a rather seedy looking area, somewhat different to Harbour Heights. The manager then appeared, a rather fat greasy bloke in what looked like a vest, and took us up ten floors to our rooms and gave us breakfast. As we intended to make the most of our time in Cairo Wally and I soon tidied up and made for the sights. First on our list was the Cairo museum where we spent some time. All the ancient Egyptian artefacts are amazing, especially those from the tomb of Tutankhamen. They are fabulous and looked as though they had just been made, gold everywhere. We had lunch at a YMCA and then visited the El Alamein Club which had been given to allied soldiers by the Egyptians. For some reason or other it was a special day for afternoon tea was given free and there was a floor show of the belly dancing kind. It was now dark and there was no black-out in Cairo, it was ablaze with lights and something to see after five years of black outs, I shall never forget standing on the middle of the bridge crossing the Nile, a deep purple velvet sky covered in stars, somewhat like the sky in Italy, and myriads of lights twinkling all over the place reflected in the dark Nile. Before we returned to our hotel Wally and I walked amongst the shops and bazaars, shops full of gold jewellery and many other things we had not seen in years. On the way round these shops we were accosted or approached by several urchins asking if we would like to visit their “sister”, but wisely we refused the offer. In spite of the look or our hotel we slept quite well and prepared to continue our journey. Our next destination was Basra on the Euphrates, but on the way we had to put down on a large lake at a place called Habanya in Iraq to refuel. There was a permanent RAF station by the lake not very popular with the airmen as it was so isolated and very hot. We took off and flew over miles of uninteresting sand to arrive in Basra still in Iraq, where our super hotel awaited us. More excellent food and a good night’s sleep and we were off to our next stop at Bahrain in Saudi Arabia where we landed for breakfast for we had left Basra very early in order to be in Karachi that night the 29th December. Our food on board was always a cold meal of chicken or ham with salad, with fruit for sweet. This was all kept in an ice box. We flew across the Indian Ocean and landed at dusk at Karachi and were ferried ashore where I saw a signpost which said – London 6,000 miles. This was the end of our journey with BOAC and we had the last of many cups of tea with the crew. The previous three days had been an experience. Now the military authorities took over and what a difference. There were forms to fill in with many silly questions, so much so that I would not have been surprised to be asked the colour of my father’s socks at my christening. Such is the army. We boarded lorries which took us through the streets of Karachi, a large number of them being filthy and poverty stricken. On arrival at the RAF transit camp we were shown to sleeping quarters and there was meal waiting for us. For the first time I was called sahib. A whole week was spent at this camp and we found it quite enjoyable. There was a cinema on site which showed the very latest films and it also boasted a YMCA with meals available. We visit Karachi once or twice and the poverty and the number of poor emaciated and deformed beggars was a great shock. There were many souvenir shops, both good and bad, and restaurants run by Chinese. We dined at one such restaurant which was very clean with excellent food, including a memorable banana split. Having not seen a banana for many years this was a great treat – (more ice cream you see). New Year’s Eve was very quiet and one could get very maudlin at that time being so far from home. Our orders to move came in early January and we boarded a Dakota to take us to an air strip called Fatejhang some sixty miles S.West of Rawalpindi. The journey or five or six hundred miles across the Indus River was not without incident for we ran into extremely bad weather and had to land at a place called Gujrat, inhabited by a Canadian Air Force Squadron, where we had to stay for a couple of nights. We were well looked after and departed thanking them for their hospitality. Although we did not know it we were to meet again later. The camp at Fatejhang was in a terrible state when we arrived, nothing seemed to be organised, and to make matters worse the mini monsoon appeared to have followed us from Gujrat. Our billets, or huts, were made of mud brick with mud roofs, with the result that the incessant rain soon started to flood the place. After two or three days of heavy rain things were beyond a joke, it was no fun eating poor food whilst rain came in all round us, and our beds and bedding were very damp. Of course these conditions caused a lot of dissatisfaction, so the Wing Commander called a meeting only to tell us that in fact we need not have left England. There was, he said, to have been an airborne assault on Burma, but this had been cancelled, but in spite of this he had persuaded the powers that be to still let us come out in case other operations were required. This did not go down well with the chaps and partly explained the lack of proper facilities at Fatejhang. In his talk to us he said the rain would only last a couple more days. Luckily for him he was right. We all worked together and got the place a bit more habitable and after a few days we were to move to another airstrip about 30 miles away called Basal. Some fellows who had been there said it was worse that Fatejhang, but this turned out not to be the case. There were dry billets, wood for fires, a decent canteen and a library, there was also a football pitch. Most of the time here was spent trying to teach the RAF chaps a bit about infantry methods and the use of weapons. I don’t think they particularly liked it. The nearest town being Rawalpindi, once or twice a week liberty trucks were put on for any who wished to go, although the drive of 60 miles was not very popular. ‘Pindi was obviously a military town and centre, some shops and cafes, but mostly army camps and officers’ houses. One of the shops was a tailors and he said he could make a sports jacket for me in one day. I chose some material and he was true to his word. I used this jacket for some time after returning to England. After two weeks Dave and I had to return to Basal for conversion on to the American Waco glider with which I was not impressed. We had only been on this course for two days when the squadron was told to prepare for a move to the other side of India to Assam, where we would do a course at a jungle school and fly as second pilots in Dakotas into Burma to help in any way necessary. Of course we were all eager to go as we were getting rather bored. We left Basal on 29th January 1945 by train for Calcutta, for which we had to travel to Rawalpindi, but as this part of the journey took about six hours and we did not leave camp until 3am we arrived in Pindi about breakfast time. On learning that there would be a few hours before our next train would leave many of us went into town and found an old fashioned soldiers’ home staffed by dear old lady volunteers who provided us with a full English breakfast. It was a place right out of Rudyard Kipling and the Raj. When we returned to the station the train was waiting for us and we understood that this would be our home for four days. Accommodation was basic to say the least. Slatted wooden seats, but at least we did not have to fill the compartments to full capacity so we managed to have enough room to get to bed each night. The journey went quite well but Indian trains are something to see. Overcrowding is not a word known in India I should think. The public compartments are packed with bodies, and if there was no room inside then the outside would do. We passed through such places as Amritsar, Patna, and crossed the Ganges at Benares. At each station there were hoards of pathetic children begging for anything they could get, but if they were starving they would still not take any food we offered if it was not allowed by their faith. Food and fruit vendors would also come around in abundance. On 2nd February we arrived at Calcutta and were taken to a transit camp, and as we had a whole day free Wally and I decided to see the City. Calcutta is an amazing place. Cars, lorries and rickshaws, peddle cycles and pedestrians went wherever they pleased. There did not appear to be any traffic control. On top of all this there were sacred cows wandering about and emaciated beggars lying on the pavements. Then on the other hand there were obviously very well off Indians walking about, and expensive shops and restaurants. One such restaurant, which we had been told about, was Firpos which had a great reputation for good food. Wally and I soon found the place and in we went. It certainly lived up to its reputation and we thoroughly enjoyed the meal (with ice cream) especially after four days of army rations on the train. I must say that it did upset us a bit to look out of the window whilst eating our meal to see the beggars and poor children. We could not do much about it. The time came for us to return to our camp, but as we had been given a lift into town were not sure which way to go. We grabbed a rickshaw and tried to explain to the young fellow where it was and he did not appear too bright, but it was all “yes sahib”. Off we went and he took us down many dark and dirty streets and both Wally and I were getting a bit apprehensive for this looked like the worst part of Calcutta. The “driver” was brighter than we thought for he soon got us back to our camp. I think we paid him a bit more than he asked. More waiting and about three o’clock we boarded another train to take us to the Brahmaputra River. Some of the lads had complained about the conditions on the train that left Rawalpindi, but it was a palace compared to this one. It was filthy and smelly, and we were on it for eleven hours. On arrival at the river we had to get into a board of the Mississippi paddle boat style. To say that it was old would not be an exaggeration, it was ancient and full to the brim with passengers of every kind. The Brahmaputra being a very wide river it was not possible to see much of the shore life, but as it was pleasantly warm we enjoyed the ten hour journey. As always we were late in arriving and it was nearly midnight when we had a hot meal before we got on our next train. Wally, myself and our two “buddies” managed to get a small compartment to ourselves so we could spread out to get some sleep, I on the dirty floor. Our destination after all this travelling was a place called Lalaghat in Assam but we still had three more days travel. The countryside was quite interesting and there were several stops on the way. At one stop Wally and I got off the train to get a cup of tea at a canteen, so we joined the queue. At these tops one never knew the duration of the stops, some half an hour or more, some less. This stop turned out to be one of the lesser ones. We had just got our tea and the train started, and being the wrong end of the train from our compartment we ran like made to try and reach it. We were not successful and had to jump on where we could. By this time our cups had very little tea in them. At last we could see we were approaching our destination for we passed a field where there were a mass of these American gliders. When we arrived at the station there was the usual confusion as to what we should do, eventually trucks arrived and took us to our camp. After the experience of our previous camps we did not expect much, but we found a well laid our complex with well built huts made entirely of bamboo. We were twelve to a hut so it was quite comfortable, and of course as soon as we arrived there appeared large numbers of the local population hoping for employment was bearers. Wally and I found a lad called Wadid Ali, very quiet at first but he soon blossomed out and made us a bedside table each out of bamboo and erected one or two shelves which made us quite comfortable. I remember one day when we were returning to our hut from the mess, Wally and I were casually walking along with Wadid Ali behind us. Suddenly he shouted out “Sahib Stop” which we did of course. He then ran past us a few steps and started thrashing the longish grass in front of us with the stick he always carried. He had seen a poisonous snake in front of us and quickly despatched it to wherever snakes go when dead. We were very appreciative as he may have saved one of us from a horrible death. About a week passed before the first posting came through. I happened to be amongst the first batch and we joined RAF Transport Commander at a place called Comilla in Assam. Transport Command were doing a great job in supplying the 14th Army in Burma and evacuating wounded. I was attached to a crew as second pilot and they were a friendly bunch. The pilot had met members of the regiment when he towed gliders on D-Day to France. To fly from Assam to Burma it is necessary to fly over the Chin Hills which rise in places to 11,000 ft. From our air strip it was necessary to fly at 10,000 ft. to clear them. After crossing the range we came down to the plains of Burma and flew at tree top height to minimise the chance of attack by Jap fighters as were unarmed and unescorted. My first trip was to land troops at three different strips just the other side of the Chindwin River. We completed the job without mishap, but on return to Comilla it was found that our aircraft was out of order so the second trip was cancelled. I must say that I was disappointed as flying this twin engined aircraft was a bit different to a glider. The only time I did not care for it was on a later flight when we picked up a load of wounded who were in a bad way. Whilst flying over Burma it was easy to see the marks of war. Nearly every village had burned out huts and bomb craters round it, with empty trenches everywhere. At this time the 14th Army was pushing hard for Mandalay with all their supplies coming over the Chin Hills. These hills were covered in the thickest jungle with clearings here and there were small village huts were visible. We had, whilst in England, heard what terrible country and conditions our troops were having to fight through, and it certainly looked like hell. I was all set for my second trip, having got the feel of the aircraft, when I was told to pack up and return to Lalaghat on 21st February. On arrival we found the camp nearly empty. It was not until the 26th February that our party left for the jungle school in Kachar Hills. Apart from a few minutes flying Wacos on the 25th it seemed to us a great waste of time. The jungle school in the Kachar Hills was a large area of thick jungle with deep water courses, all kinds of trees and vegetation and of course various animals, the majority being monkeys. We travelled by road for the first part of the journey and then branched off over a rough track made on the bed of a temporarily dried river. On arrival at the camp in the middle of nowhere we met the Boss, an army major who had lived and worked in Burma for many years. We had two assistants, one a RAF Squadron Leader who also knew the country well, and the second was a young lady anthropologist called Ursula Graham-Bower. She was a remarkable young lady who left England before the war to study the hill tribes of Burma and Assam. One of the most interesting tribes was the Naga people, former head hunters and quite short in stature. She lived amongst them and eventually they were so taken with her they made her their “Queen”. These little chaps would do anything she asked and during the Jap war she organised the tribesmen into a whole series of observation posts and obtained valuable intelligence information for the 14th Army. Several of her Nagas were on the “staff” at the school and they would take us out in groups into the jungle to show us the pitfalls to avoid and also how to use plants and trees, especially bamboo, to ones advantage, the whole idea of the school was to learn about surviving in the jungle. What they did not know about this subject was not worth knowing, and the things they made out of bamboo were amazing. Amongst them were weapons, tools, cooking pots, drinking cups and one or two of the most lethal animal or enemy traps you could imagine. Thanks to Miss Bower they were very friendly. The camp was comfortable, excellent food and best of all after a hot sticky day in the jungle – a natural pool formed out of the river close by. I met Wally but left just as I arrived. We had a short chat and it was nice to see him again. He gave me some idea of what to expect. During the all too short week we were at the school it was really enjoyable in spite of the heavy programme. This consisted mainly of being taken out of the camp by the Major, we were in groups of four, and told to find out way back to camp. Although it was usually about seven miles from the camp we usually did twice that distance back by the time we finished. The last exercise we did was an all night affair. We were taken out by truck, dumped amongst the vegetation and told to be back at camp by the next evening using compass readings and our sense or direction to do so. We immediately started to build ourselves a “house” for the night made out of bamboo and any suitable plants we could find. This is where our Naga lessons came in useful – in theory. Some of the tall bushes had leaves the size of an umbrella and the idea was to build a bamboo frame and use these leaves as roofing. As I have said, this is alright in theory, but it so happened that this night it was pouring with rain before we started. As a result we could not assemble everything properly so we spent a miserable night in a very leaky house. In the morning we set off on our journey, up hills, down hills, through thick foliage in some places and elephant grass in another where, incidentally, we stumbled across several piles of fresh elephant dung, but luckily did not meet any of these lovely beasts. After several hours of this kind of terrain, fortunately it had stopped raining, we arrived back at camp to be greeted by a lovely smell of cooking which, because our only “food” during the previous 24 hours had been a ration of two Horlick tablets, to us was heaven. Of course we had to get washed and changed before eating so we stripped off and that is when we found them – leeches. How they managed to get under our clothing I could never understand, but there they were having a good old meal of my blood. Now I hope you are not eating whilst reading this but leeches just suck blood until they burst, and we all had patches of blood on our underclothes. Those that were still busily sucking had to be removed and the best way to do that was to apply the lighted end of a cigarette and off they would drop. What they lived off before we arrived I don’t know, some of mine bled for a week. However, the meal was superb, eaten alfresco under a deep blue sky. We all slept like logs. One other exercise we had to do was how to try and ascertain if a village you approached, if you had the misfortune to be lost in the jungle, was friendly to the Japs or to you. We were divided into pairs and had to approach a Naga who was sitting on the river bank. He was a member of the “village” and the rest were unseen in the bushes representing the “village”. On approaching him carefully we had to try and convey to him we would like to see the Headman. Off he went to his “village” and in the meantime we had to hide ourselves for it he returned with a chap with a red coat all was well, but if he returned with members of the tribe we would know the “village” was hostile and up to no good. I and my partner spoke to the young chap and off he went. We then waded through the river and hid half way up a hill and waited. Shortly out of the bush came a horde of Nagas carrying evil looking spears, so we knew we were not welcome. The whole tribe started searching the river bank opposite us, so my friend and I carefully climbed further up the hill and found a hole covered by a large fallen tree trunk. After a while they crossed the river to our side, all the while shouting out their war cries and brandishing their spears. Slowly they made their way up the hill towards us, on the way flushing out several of our chaps. For some reason or other, either they did not see us or they had found enough, they stopped short of my “hole” and returned from whence they came. There were only two pairs of us who managed to escape detection. The course ended, with some regrets as it was very interesting and exciting, on 5th March when we returned to Lalaghat hopefully to get a posting to a Dakota squadron. Luckily on the 6th March we were sent off to an air strip at a place called Hathazari near Chittagong on the coast north of Arakan. As there were two squadrons our group was split into two parties of eight, and I and friends ended up with No. 31 squadron. We were welcomed by the CO who posted us to flights where we would act as second pilots. The crew, who were extremely nice, consisted of two officers and two NCO’s, and by a coincidence the pilot F/L Moonie was an instructor at Weston on the Green when I was there in 1942. He came from New Zealand. It did not take long to settle into our basha which we shared with a Scottish lad and a Canadian who were very happy-go-lucky and great fun. We had a five day wait before my first flight, on 11th March to a place called Ngayan on the east bank of the Irrawaddy river, which was a supply drop and this meant we had to push large bales of rice and other goods out of the door at the rear of the aircraft. I particularly remember this trip as it was a very bumpy ride and after staggering about for around 20 minutes, making sure you did not go out with the rice, I was airsick for the first and only time. Between 11th March and 24th March I did fourteen trips either landing supplies, supply drops or another load of wounded. On some of the landing strips we arrived when there was obviously fighting going on around the strip, with our soldiers creeping through the long grass surrounding the landing strip with rifles at the ready. It transpired that the Japs were trying to retake the air strip and a shell landed not far away. This brought back memories of Arnhem and both I and F/L Moonie felt it was a good place to get out of. This kind of thing happened more than once. At one peaceful strip we landed, this was at Ngayan after the fighting had moved south, we went into the village where the inhabitants were drifting back and met the High Priest. Each village has several temples each with its own Buddah and some with gilded roofs. On 17th and 19th March we flew to a place called Meiktila which is about 100 miles south of Mandalay. This time we had to have permission to land as the airstrip frequently changed hands. Once again soldiers with rifles at the ready were seen and one or two shells were whining overhead. Once again we decided to leave as soon as possible. One town we passed over was called Imphal and it was here that the most important battle of the Burma campaign took place, for it transpired that if the battle was lost the Japs would have a gateway to India. Fortunately the battle was not lost but the cost was high. Of course as a result there is a military cemetery at Imphal with, to me, the most poignant inscription on the stone cross of any memorial I have seen. It reads – When you go home, Tell them of us, and say, For your tomorrow, We gave our today. - and I think of all those poor chaps thousands of miles away from home lying in their cold grave with just a name on a headstone. How stupid humankind is. Of course it was a great thrill when I was allowed to land this large aircraft for the first time. Luckily I did not make a mess of it and felt quite proud. We had 21 great days doing a worthwhile and interesting job helping the wonderful 14th Army – known as the Forgotten Army as all the talk of war centred on the war in Europe – and we had made many good friends, unfortunately none of whom did we see again. We arrived back at Lalaghat on 28th March but did not leave there until 19th April which caused ad feeling as we felt we could have been back with the Dakotas. There was a job to be done, to move about 100 gliders to be flown out before the chota (small) monsoons arrived. As with most things in the Army and RAF someone boobed and the Dakotas did not arrive to do the tugging until the monsoon had started, with the result the place was a quagmire, and nothing could be done until the rain stopped. Even when we had sight of 30 gliders being towed by two elephants. Our destination on leaving Lalaghat was an Officer Cadet Training Unit (OCTU) right over the other side of India south of Bombay. Once again it was a case of train, boat, train, with the usual delays, 12 hours wait on the boat, dirty ant ridden carriages, until we reach Calcutta where we stopped for two nights which enabled us to visit the city and enjoy the restaurants. At last we were provided with a troop train with collapsible bunks. The whole journey of 1,300 miles took just over 36 hours which was great going for Indian railways. We were not due to go into Bombay and it was intended we should change trains at a station called Kalyan, but as there was a cholera epidemic in the town it was decided we would go on to Bombay and stay at a RAF transit camp for the night. Of course we were delighted at this for it would have been a pity to have been so near Bombay and not visit the place. The camp was near the sear front in a well to do residential area, and served men arriving and leaving by boat. As we were not expected it took a time before we were settled in, but as soon as we were ready, about tea time, off we went into town and booked at seat at a cinema. Like all big cities and towns in India the contrast between rich and poor is disgusting, and those of the lower classes, in a very class ridden society, were treated by their own nationals in a very degrading way. The lowest class, the sweepers, had a terrible life. When we returned to camp we were told that we would not be leaving the next day, much to our delight, so it meant another day of leisure. We decided to visit the Breach (think this might be Beach) Candy Club which was built, as was the custom on those days, for use of Europeans. It was situated on the sea front with a large open air pool surrounded by green lawns with a club house serving tea, cakes, minerals and ice cream of excellent quality. We thought this was the life, being waited on hand and foot, and stayed for some time in the beautiful sunshine. When we left a taxi took is into Bombay centre via the promenade where all the modern houses and flats gleamed white in the sunshine. Once again it was a visit to another cinema and a bite to eat at a services canteen. That evening when it was dark I remember a few of us walked to the sea front which was lit by bright amber lights, and we sat in the lovely warm breeze wondering how this war would end. It certainly was the mysterious east. The next morning, 27th April, we left early for Belgaum via Poona. The train we boarded was electric, and as we had to climb over a fairly high range of hills called the Western Ghats we were pulled by two enormous engines. It was interesting to see that most of the equipment, including the trains, bore the sign “Made in Britain”. It was easy to see why we needed two engines for the line was climbing up these hills through cuttings and tunnels, a most impressive engineering job. From the top of the hills the view out across this part of India was amazing and quite awesome and our journey to Poona, which we reached about 1 o’clock, had been very interesting. As we had about four hours wait we went into town and visited a cinema after more ice cream. On our return to the station there was the usual confusion about our train and we did not leave until 10pm after the chaotic rush by the civilian population who would ride anywhere on top of the roof or standing on the running boards and holding on for dear life. We reached Belgaum at about 9am where we were met by a typical sergeant major, a bit like one of who met us at Tilshead on joining the regiment. The course at Belgaum was to be a six week course of infancy training mainly for the benefit of the RAF boys. Actually the course was longer, we arrived on 28th April and on 25th June. As the OCTU was a pre-war establishment it was very well organised and had first class facilities in every regard. Sport was well catered for and I enjoyed many a game of cricket. The town of Belgaum, being a military town, was extremely pleasant with a wonderful climate. On being delivered by truck to the camp we were unloaded at the mess for breakfast. What a meal it was, practically anything one wanted, and we all thought that if this was a sample of the catering we would be well satisfied. And so it turned out. There were mess rules about dress and although it was not compulsory to eat in the mess in the event there were two evenings when it was compulsory and we had to dress up in our best uniform to dine with the CO. Our billets consisted of a bungalow formed into two separate units, each unit had a bedroom and sitting room with a bathroom at the rear. Wally and I shared one “suite” and we had a bearer between the four of us. These bearers, or servants, were approved by the camp and ours was a chap named Shankar who was amazing. He had obviously worked for some time in this capacity with the result that we did not have to ask for anything. We knew what dress we would require each day for training and there it was ready for us to put on when returned from breakfast. In the afternoon when we came back from training, no doubt a bit hot and dirty, there would be a hot bath waiting for us followed by a pot of tea and cakes and our evening best dress laid out for us. What a man! The course itself was fairly easy for us army types and we really enjoyed the stay. We were formed into three mixed squadrons, Nos. 668, 669 and 670, and there was great competition between them, especially in sport. Wally and I were in 668, but unfortunately we were usually last. Whilst at Belgaum we had the news of VE Day so there had to be a celebration and this took the form of a Gymkhana given by the 5th Maharatta Light Infantry. It was a lovely day and to see this regiment with their colourful uniforms, beautiful horses and very smart soldiers was most enjoyable, with refreshments available the whole day, including ice cream. As our stay was longer than planned we had time to spare at the end, so visits were arranged to local sights. One was to a place called Gokok where there were 200 ft waterfalls, but our luck rang out this day for there was no water. Another day we were taken to the local jail where there were plenty of inmates, some who faced terms of 20 years in appalling conditions. We were taken to the death cells, there was only one inhabitant who was awaiting the result of his appeal, and we were shown the gallows. We departed on 25th June, very reluctantly, for return to Fatejhang. This journey took us on a different route but once again there was another range of hills to cross and it was monsoon time and we were to pass through the monsoon belt. I have never seen rain link it, so heavy it looked like fog, and I remember seeing a chap working in a field and by the time we had passed him he was up to his waist in water, a matter of seconds. After a tedious journey via Lahore, where we had to change trains, there was absolute chaos. The heat after Belgaum was really oppressive and we were told that the train would depart from platform 2 at 8pm, so off we went to platform 2 carrying all our kit. A short while later we were told platform 7 depart 10.30pm, then it was to be platform 5, not platform 7. Tempers were getting a bit frayed with the bother of moving our kit around in the heat. We eventually left at 3am thoroughly fed up. It turned out that there was a line over a bridge that had to be repaired. We arrived in Rawalpindi on 29th June to be welcomed by a terrific storm which fortunately did not last long, and went on to Fatejhang by truck. The next five days at Fatejhang were some of the worst I can remember. With temperatures over 100º everything was hot to the touch, at night we would get into a warm bed made worse by the fact that we had to use mosquito nets. On the 5th July the whole camp was moved to a hill station in the Murree Hills called Upper Topa. These stations had been built as summer residences for soldiers and their families to escape the excessive heat of the plains, and they are wonderful. Although only about 40 miles from Fatejhang the journey took nearly five hours owing to the steep twisting roads. The mountain ranges we could see from Upper Topa were awesome, and one a clear day we could see the Himalayas. Our stay was scheduled for 3 weeks, but owing to the surrender of the Japs our stay was prolonged and we stayed until 20th November. This was just like a holiday camp and we spent our time playing foot ball, hockey and tennis. There was a cinema and several excellent restaurants. As the war was no over there was no reason for any military training so we just spent our days enjoying ourselves as much as possible waiting for our “demob”. The date of each person’s demob was decided on age and length of service, and as I had been in the Army since day one of the war my number was quite low, number 27 in fact. Because Wally was a few years older than me his number was lower and he left for home just before Christmas. I did a small amount of flying with a very keen RAF Flying Officer who took me up in a Tiger Moth, which I had not flown before, and he started to do all sorts of aerobatics. Whilst we were getting up to these antics I could not help thinking what a fool he was, for I did not want to crash after surviving six and a half years of war. December passed, with a very pleasant Christmas, as did January 1946 mainly just amusing ourselves playing badminton, tennis and cricket, or just laying about in the comfortable heat reading. It was just a matter of waiting for your number to come up. On 17th February I and a few others left Fatejhang to travel to Bombay and the boat home. The journey took us through a large camp, where we stayed two nights, called Deolali. This camp had been in existence for many, many years, and was a staging post for soldiers returning home after their years of service in India, and over the years the British soldiers called it Doolally. The phrase “He is Doolally”, not heard so much these days, meant the poor chap was a bit out of his mind, as it was thought that long service in the heat and conditions in India had resulted in men losing their senses. On arrival in Bombay we boarded the liner “Durban Castle”, which had been converted into a troop ship, and sailed for home. The route took us up the Indian Ocean, through the Suez Canal, right across the Mediterranean and up to Liverpool. All the travel was very well organised, and on 22nd March 1946 I was demobilised at a Military Dispersal Unit in Northampton, issued with a civilian suit, I chose a dark grey chalk stripe number, which was not at all bad considering the mass production, a travel warrant and a small amount of cash. With all my worldly goods, which consisted of razor, tooth brush, hair brush, etc. and a few mementos of my employment with His Majesty , one of which was an aircrew escape pack issued to me when we left for Arnhem, which is still in my possession, I caught the train to Watford and home. So ended six and a half, in many respects, wasted years, but having said that, I consider having survived these years without any damage, except some might say mental, they were, in retrospect and perhaps including a little nostalgia, with all due respect to my dear Mary who has put up with me with great fortitude for fifty three years, the best years of my life. I made many friends, some of whom I still meet from time to time, and the comradeship and Regimental pride I shall always have with me in my mind. I have tried to record these events to the best that my memory and some old war time letters will allow. There are, no doubt, some errors as far as dates are concerned, for which I apologise, but in the main my story is just how it happened. Finally I must thank my dear friends Muriel Moody and Marion Eames. Muriel for typing the whole saga so beautifully, and Marion for undertaking the boring job of “Proof Reader”. Thank you both so very much.
Read More

Related People


Make a donation to Airborne Assault ParaData to help preserve the history of The Parachute Regiment and Airborne Forces