Chapter 22: Odd Job Man
I set off for the Airborne Division in Bilaspur with a train trip of 400 miles south to Karachi. Quetta’s altitude is over 5000 feet, whilst Karachi’s is shown as a mere 13ft. Once there I arranged an onward flight to Bilaspur and was taking lunch when I noticed a General with Airborne wings on his tunic at a table nearby. I recognized him as Eric Down, my Divisional Commander to be, and ‘reported for duty’ there and then. In short time I was welcomed, instructed to stay in Karachi and given the formidable task of organizing accommodation in the Karachi area for most of his Division, including Headquarters, Divisional units of all kinds and two Brigades, each of 2000 or more men. The third Brigade would go to Quetta. For the second time in my service a substantial organization was joining me rather than leaving me to travel to them.
A modern guidebook tells me that I was in a place that was originally a little fishing village where Kalachi, a dancing girl of great beauty lived. Tales of her loveliness and charm be-dazzled strangers from far flung lands. Karachi has changed quite a bit since then. As a city of around 400,000 in 1945 it was a pleasant place. It suffered overwhelming expansion after the partition of India in 1947. It was the choice of many Moslems who found themselves in the reduced India to migrate westward to Pakistan, the newly created country of their religion. Much extra accommodation was needed. Shantytowns grew up with shacks of tin or wood or even cardboard. Karachi is now a city of seven million with properly developed buildings. High-rise buildings everywhere change the whole character of the place. Karachi was the capital of Pakistan for the first twelve years of its existence and is still the largest city in the country.
My base for starting work was to be in Clifton, on a lengthy but uninviting peninsula to the south east of the city. The area was undeveloped then and in the main remains so. Some is salt marsh, and there is little vegetation. Swimming is possible but the sand or its substitute is black and one comes out of the sea covered in small shiny platelets of mica. We took over a few wartime wooden huts there and started work. A rough and ready rugger ground was available for our recreation. Gradually the staff of Divisional Headquarters arrived and took possession.
I learned that our eventual divisional area was to be some way to the north east of the city. During the war years in Burma the Americans had developed a substantial Air Force base in the area. I had some idea of the area. Towards the end of the Tina affair I had visited Karachi a few times, courtesy of the US Air Force and knew some of the main landmarks. I was not entirely at a loss, therefore, when I was told that the Americans had departed and it was their buildings that I was to take over and prepare for our settlement there. The general location was some twenty miles away from Clifton. Driving up there in the jeep provided I recalled the monumental aircraft hangar at Drigh Road that had nothing to do with the Americans. It was built in the late 1920s when the Airships R100 and R101 were being developed and it was hoped to provide airship travel to India. Airship disasters put an end to the project, but the hangar remains. The modern Karachi airport is beyond the hangar and is very probably a development of US facilities.
Further out, the spread-out military town in an area of sparsely growing scrubland, too dry to support useful crops. All too little information was available about the buildings, their condition and previous employment. I would have to build up my own records and map of the layout. First impressions were that there was much that was good, but that in the joy of leaving India considerable wanton damage had been perpetrated which would call for repair. It would be useful to have a helper and fortune provided one. A miscreant, often in trouble, had been sent to Division from his unit. I recognized him as a member of a family I had known well in Catterick before the war. Perhaps because of this connection he was assigned to me for whatever help he could give. He was full of initiative, which was not always well directed and I can imagine that the word ‘irresponsible’ appeared regularly in his confidential reports. He was a willing worker, wholehearted in things that interested him and a welcome companion.
Some home leave for those who had been long abroad became available and my Staff College friend Powell Jones, who was now my senior officer, disappeared for two months leaving me very much a one man band. There was a surreal aspect to our project. We surveyed the area like archeologists, working out what various structures might have been used for and then creating the new usage, fitting organizations of different size and requirement as best we could. At the same time the military services responsible for building, repairs and supply of furniture had to be involved. Although no action was possible until the appropriate piece of paper had been received and approved locally I was convinced of the value of being known personally at various levels in the organizations themselves.
And then, out of the blue, orders were received from Delhi. I was to proceed there at once on promotion to join a team to run an all-India internal defence exercise. Brief enquiry obtained me a berth in a desirable chummery in New Delhi where I arrived to find three inmates. One I knew as a skiing friend from childhood. I had been greatly impressed by the fact that his father’s firm produced powerful hydraulic buffers for the railways. Another I had known at Oundle, but the third was new to me. Next I acquired a bicycle, the main means of transport for everyone at this time. I was then ready for business.
There appeared to be great secrecy about our work at the time, though it must have been clear to everyone that, with the political discussions on the future of India going on, we were facing troublous times. There was a need to test and enhance readiness throughout the Services and Civilian organizations. Army, Navy, Air Force, Police, Hospitals were all involved and the communications which bound them all together had to work. We were shut off in a small suite of rooms with ever-increasing summer temperatures to work in. There we had a DIY approach to our work. I remember our group putting together books of instructions by hand for all participants. Each book was around a hundred pages that had been duplicated in the office. I was sent off to the Government printers to discover how these volumes could be bound under security supervision, and so it went on.
Our lunch breaks provided time to cycle to the Gymkhana Club for a quick swim and a refreshing draft of a Murree Brewery product. We certainly busy though I cannot remember making any special Signals contribution to the scheme - I was serving more as a General Staff Officer than a Signals specialist.
All this may sound too much like drudgery, but there was a bright side. Major General Ashton Wade, a Signals officer, was in charge of the project. He served with the 2nd Division in France and been involved in its reconstitution after Dunkirk. He arrived in India with the Division as a Colonel in 1942 and was immediately promoted to Major General for employment at GHQ. He later commanded Madras Area for three years - this was at a time which included preparations there for the invasion of Malaya.
When the office work in Delhi was complete it was time for representatives to visit the various Command areas to give briefings. General Wade decided to go to Southern Command in Bangalore and that I should accompany him. In this way I came to know him well. I learned that, like Brigadier Ralph Bagnold, he was one of those officers chosen to go to Cambridge when War ended in 1918. He went to Clare College; the College that I had been due to join in 1939. These two senior members of my Corps were my gurus and in my mind illustrated the value of broadening my horizons by similar experience. I kept in touch with both and admired their achievements in life long after they left the Army. Bagnold lived to the age of 93 and Wade to 96. Another great man deserves mention too. During my stay I was invited to a reception given by Field Marshal Auchinleck, that many Indian officers of all ranks attended. It was moving to see the veneration and indeed love that he had generated amongst them. I was beginning to appreciate the great human beings amongst Commanders.
Madras and Bangalore provided a change from northern India. They had much to offer, as we were to discover on a tour many years later. Soon after the all-India defence exercise completion my task was over and it was time to return to Karachi.