Chapter 16: Kashmir & Mhow II, 1943-44
Travel in India took time and would consume a week of my leave. However I was not being rushed and even the travel would give me my first visit to what is now Pakistan. By good fortune I met a couple of skiers in Pindi Sports in Rawalpindi when searching for equipment. We arranged to share a taxi and set off together the next day. From Murree and beyond we breathed mountain air. In the early afternoon there was a landslide which stopped us for a couple of hours with blasting and heaving at work. Learning of a second disruption I walked on to find a scar running a thousand feet up the mountain leaving a rock and mud barrier across the road or where the road had been. At this point our baggage had to be carried by coolies as we climbed four hundred feet to a point where it was safe to cross. New transport was provided on the far side to take us to a Dak bungalow where we spent the night. Mile upon mile of twisting road then took us first to Srinagar and then on to Tangmarg. Here we were provided with ponies, whilst coolies portered the baggage on another long climb. Snowbound Gulmarg, lit up in the fading light, was a welcoming picture. It stands at an altitude of 9000 feet.
Ponies were also used for the ascent of the skiing mountain through magnificent mature trees to the alpine hut two thousand feet higher. The skier rode his mount with his personal servant, his bearer, carrying skis and sticks behind him. Though this sounds arduous for these mountain folk, work at this time of year was hard to come by so what they earned was very welcome.
Views were magnificent with the great Nanga Parbat to the north at nearly 27,000 feet adding to the glory. Climbing to the top of Apharwat, the local mountain at more than half this figure, was a severe physical test. Nedou’s Hotel in Gulmarg provided the social centre with personal rooms in a number of huts spread around it. The skiers, by and large, were capable and included some with great mountaineering experience. A Viceregal party joined us, known as the Band of Hope, the family name of the Viceroy. Bunty, the youngest, stayed on with half a dozen of us for an extra week in the mountain hut. She was full of fun and constructive humour and plainly enjoyed being away from the formal behaviour required in Delhi. At the end, with weather uncertain, I took the opportunity of setting off to Srinagar with the delectable Betty McCay to meet her friends there, explore the houseboat life and take many photographs of what was then a very beautiful resort.
John Cruddas drove us to Rawalpindi where our hotelier was greatly impressed by Bunty’s formal title, The Lady Doreen Hope, and we got similar good service at the Station. The railway official deputed to look after our interests came to say that the train was waiting. He was wrong. It was on its way when we stepped out of the waiting room and there were great cries of “This is Viceroy’s daughter. Stop the train…” and fortunately they did. My short Delhi stay covered meals at Viceroy’s Lodge and a meeting with Major General Ralph Vyvyan, the Signal Officer-in-Chief, who had been a subaltern with my father.
My new task in Mhow, aged 27, was effectively that of Chief Instructor and second in command and involved the starting of additional courses: the Advanced Wireless Course, Senior Officers Course and Junior Commanders Course. The Long Lines Course had been transferred to Agra. This was an important moment in the history of our signalling. Up to this point our main links had been contrived by an arcane practice largely based on the human skill of our morse operators. From now on science became the major player. New equipments were flowing in and it was important that officers and senior soldiers directly connected with the provision of high level links should be properly instructed.
When I arrived back at duty the first wireless course was due to start a fortnight later and nothing was ready: no class rooms, no equipment rooms and no equipment. I do not know if the difficulty exists today but it was then ritual to do everything ‘through the usual channels’. I was already somewhat of a heretic in this practice, observing that many obstacles disappeared when there was personal contact between the person in need at one end and the supplier at the other. In our case equipment was vital to the course and the Garrison Engineer could not carry out the building changes suggested without authorisation from Delhi. Within a couple of days common sense prevailed and I set off, being back in GHQ five days after I had left there. Two days were needed to clear the building permit and arrange for the release of a long list of equipment and then off by train to Agra to the Central Ordnance Depot (COD).
Frequency requirements were resolved by a visit to the Chief Signal Officer and at the COD a Signals Sergeant was the knowledgeable man who led me round from hut to hut with the list of requirements. I also got advice about rail transport. Colonel Nat Gould helped with the provision of a building to sort out what the COD provided. Nat was a great character from the earliest days of the Corps. Joining the ranks he had been a ‘Rough Rider’, probably in the horsed element of the first ever Signals Display Team. Later he was a distinguished Secretary of our Indian Signals Association. The next day was spent at the COD with my Signals friend deciding what to do about the NAs. If something was Not Available, what might do instead? Then there was much paperwork and the arranging of road transport for the most important items. Sunday followed with a closed COD, which enabled me to become a tourist and see the Taj Mahal. On Monday the road party left and on the next rail trucks were loaded, no loading being possible until all the paperwork was complete. The course in Mhow was launched on time.
In mid June the rains came and I invested in an airtight trunk and a drying agent. Books, cameras and the like need protection from the steamy damp if they are to survive in reasonable condition. My Horsfield cousin and near twin Nicholas arrived on a few days’ leave. An artist and temporary soldier then, he was in due course granted a retrospective show at the Walker Gallery in Liverpool. We have been close friends all our lives. Ralph Skrine, a relation of my FitzGerald uncle, arrived at the OTS Mhow, so I got more family news.
Our first Senior Officers course went well. Part of it involved a tour to Signals establishments in Agra and Delhi that made me aware that much had changed during my time at Mhow. I needed to make more visits myself if the STC was to be kept up to date.
In mid-December Major General Ralph Vyvyan the Signal Officer in Chief, my father’s friend, visited us. The tale of his meeting with the Commandant is astonishing. I was invited to be present. The Commandant chatted for ten minutes or so about the STC and then said “I will now hand you over to David Horsfield. He knows far more about this place than I do.” I offer a historical explanation which may have brought about such an off-hand attitude. In the twenties it was considered ‘bad form’ to show too much keenness and ambition. An uncle of mine who commanded a Cameronian Battalion mentioned this and declared that he regretted the inhibition that resulted. A damper of enthusiasm arose from the view that it was the Regiment and nothing beyond the Regiment that was important. The Staff College was for pen pushers and no place for real soldiers. If such was the cause, the result in this instance was a Commandant who not only was slow to make decisions but often failed to make them at all. When he was away from the office for a few days the Adjutant would call me and I would do my best to clear all the pending trays in his office. It was no joy to me to be told by him that he was embarrassed by constantly leaving me to do all the work.
I had an enjoyable tour with the SOinC. Our technical training was considered good and the operator training excellent. He would send people from the Indian training centres to see what we were doing. Officer training was in our hands anyway. A nice man.
Early in the New Year of 1944 I spent a fortnight in Delhi visiting the Signals units there: Signal Offices, High-speed communications, Experimental Centre and seeing much of new equipment and methods of use. Lionel Stones and Alec Lamb had moved from Mhow to Delhi and looked after me. On a Sunday Lionel took me on a tour of Indian antiquities and impressed me by translating Sanskrit inscriptions on monuments where they occurred.
Back in Mhow a week later I was told that the SOinC had obtained a Sapper vacancy for me at the Staff College and that I should report to Quetta within a week. I left Mhow and many friends three days later. I am still in touch with two instructor survivors over 55 years later.