Chapter 23: Airborne, 1946

All the units were settled into the buildings I had allotted to them and were reasonably content, though this was no longer my business. I found that I was now the Commanding Officer of the Divisional Signals unit. My Adjutant, Lewis Golden, was an Airborne veteran who had survived the Arnhem operation and in due course wrote a critical appraisal of the battle that was well received. I knew the Indian side and he the airborne - a good combination.

The unit had been involved in serious training for many months in preparation for the invasion of Malaya. Now our aircraft were busy on other tasks. We could do useful work in upgrading trade skills and therefore pay, particularly for the Indians who were all volunteer soldiers. All airborne soldiers enjoy activities that keep them fit and these were not hard to contrive. Repatriation was getting under way and we were losing men faster than they were being replaced. There were a few minor operations to respond to that are worth recording. It must be remembered that this was a time of a good deal of political upheaval and uncertainty.

There was mutiny aboard an Indian Navy ship in the harbour and one of the ways that displeasure was shown was by firing off shells indiscriminately into Karachi. Fortunately knowledge of the correct fusing of shells was poor and few, if any, exploded. I happened to be in Clifton sitting at my desk when a shell landed close by. My sturdy Staffordshire Bull Terrier took fright and leapt into my lap. No damage was reported. Our gunners deployed in the harbour area but no assault on the vessel was needed as the mutiny fizzled out.

Reports in modern times of flooding in Bangladesh and Orissa are familiar events often displayed on our television screens. One such in 1946 called for airborne assistance to provide communications and medical help. This was easily provided and we were glad to be involved in a useful activity.

Viewing from the air
Carrying out air reconnaissance.

The third event of note took place whilst I was completing a parachute course near Rawalpindi. There is a small Himalayan river valley state called Chitral that is now in northern Pakistan. The ruler was dying and trouble was expected between the three brothers and their partisans to decide who should be the next ruler. I carried out an air reconnaissance in a Dakota with an Engineer officer. Would it be possible to drop some peacekeeping troops in to suppress squabbles? The pass to enter the valley on foot is 8000 feet high and it is said that the first motor car to be provided for the ruler was carried over the pass in pieces by coolies and assembled when it reached the capital, itself at 4000ft. The flight was thankfully in good weather and the views magnificent, though we travelled in the empty body of the plane, watching through a double door opening in the side. The magnificence in no way diminished when we reached town of Chitral itself on the river of the same name. Ahead was the snow-clad Tirich Mir, a peak of more than 25,000 feet. We circled a number of times to assess the dropping possibilities. With steep rocky walls on either side it was dangerous to descend appreciably but we were able to see a fast running rocky river at one side and liberally strewn rocks elsewhere over the whole area. Add to this the wayward behaviour of winds in such an area it was quite clear that we would not wish to take part in a jump in the neighbourhood. We reported accordingly and were glad to learn in due course that his Highness had recovered from his illness.

The portion of my unit in Quetta required an occasional visit. One such was to attend a parade of formidable size at which Field Marshal Auchinleck would be presenting medals to the many who had been awarded them. At that time, and for many years thereafter, public address equipment was inadequate, but our Signals did the best they could. At the last minute I was handed the pages of names and awards and told that I was to do the announcing. By this time in India I could make a reasonable attempt to pronounce the names of northern and southern Indians and of Gurkhas. The only moment of alarm came when I saw a string of letters that could not be translated into any medal I had ever heard of. Decoding the commonly used letters, D for Distinguished, C for Cross, E for Empire and so on I made a bold announcement. I am glad to say that it was never challenged.

Back at Division, more staff replacements were coming out from England with their wives and the social round had high priority as is right after years of war. The Sergeants’ Mess soon built up their contacts and one does not inquire deeply into the off-duty activity of soldiers. As a camp follower in my youth and also when serving I had formed the view that a Commanding Officer in an Officers’ Mess dampened initiative, so I set up house with another bachelor in one of the bungalows.

About this time I received great help from Henry Oliver, my police friend in Quetta, for which he should be ever blessed. He wrote to tell me that a decorative young lady called Sheelah Eagan, recently out from England, had been causing quite a stir in the Staff College neighbourhood. Her parents were in Karachi, where her father headed the North Western Railway organization for the State of Sind and she would be joining them. As advised I was quick to make contact and was soon a close friend of all the family. I now had my own ‘Kalachi’, a modern dancing girl of great beauty to equal the one of the legend of Karachi’s founder. Such dreams take time. However there was much to enjoy meanwhile.

Sheelah Eagan in Quetta
Sheelah in Quetta

The prestigious Sind Club welcomed soldiers of a certain seniority to join. Swimming and entertainment facilities were good and dining out there was an inexpensive treat, the best remembered speciality being sherry spiked with chilies in clear soup. Nearby was the Gymkhana Club with its tennis courts and dances; a meeting place at any time of day. Beach parties were popular particularly up the coast to the north where there were several cliff-backed bays so that each party could choose its own. Wandering fishermen might offer one fresh lobsters to take home for the pot.

It was now the summer of 1946 and I had completed ten years service. I had travelled the world and learned much, but what general assessment could be made? In most of my appointments I had been my own master. I had not yet served in a cohesive regiment, anywhere, nor had I experienced any period of formation training such as most of my contemporaries would have had. I had played no part in any of the major operations that would drive our enemies to the point of surrender. On the other hand three years in officer training at different levels had left me with the widest selection of friends through different age groups. This was a treasure in store.

Those being repatriated would travel by sea. Called to Deolali (or Doolally as the soldiers pronounced it) they would be formed into drafts and called forward when a vessel was available. However air passages were coming into use too. The York, a passenger version of the Lancaster bomber, had been developed. The Lancaster, being originally conceived to carry high-density cargo, such as bombs, space for the passengers was the problem and not the payload. Those granted home leave, and I was soon to be one of them, would be flown home and back again. We had a flying fright not long before: a Dakota load of our senior officers was flying via Jodhpur to Delhi and it was dark as we approached Willingdon airfield. Instructions came over the air that we should divert to Palam. To guide him our New Zealand pilot asked for the bearing of the runway and soon he saw the lights. There was only one line of them, but this was not unusual in case of a diversion as the flares took time to light. It was very late in the approach when the pilot saw bullock carts and realized that the lights were for a road and not a runway. In a moment power was thrown on and we climbed, though not before one of the wings, near to its root, struck some obstacle. Quick pilot reactions had saved the day. We shall never know who suffered the greatest fright, the bullock-cart drivers or ourselves. In the event we landed safely and all inspected in awe the giant bite, three foot wide and half as deep in the leading edge of one of the wings. Thankfully my longer flight to England was without incident. Fuel capacity for the York did not permit the long ranges common in later years. We stopped in Cairo and spent the night in a houseboat on the river Nile, completing the flight to London the next day.

I do not recall any great celebrations or emotional scenes on reaching home in Benson. It seemed that we picked up the threads seamlessly where we had dropped them seven and half years earlier. Aware of Britain’s rationing and shortages I had brought what I could of materials from India and these were put to good use. What I do remember vividly is the harshness of that 1947 winter. Not only was there an abundance of snow but our water main froze in the ground. Fortunately Mill Lane House, with stream running nearby, had a deep well and retained the ancient hand pump with which we could prime the head tank. Malcolm, my brother, had devised a Heath Robinson float and string contrivance which signalled when the tank-level was getting low. Surprisingly I seemed to feel the cold less than those who remained in England.

Malcolm soon paid us a visit. He had been released from the Army and was practising his hotel management skills at The George Hotel in Yarmouth, Isle of Wight, the owner being one of our skiing friends of many years. Malcolm would be running the skiing in St Cergue for its short season and a family party would be going there. I had more ambitious plans, setting off for Mürren in the Swiss Oberland. This was the Mecca of British skiing with its Kandahar Ski Club and the redoubtable Arnold Lunn, shortly to be knighted for his services to British skiing. Having converted to Catholicism he was mischievously referred to as the Ski Pope.

Arnie, as he was known, was the author of the British Ski Year Books that in their prime ran to 800 pages. These not only provided a record of events and equipment development but debated many issues about the way in which the sport was moving, an issue on which he was in close discussion with the prime movers of many nations. Few people in any sport can have played such an important and central role over such a long period. Another important character of the early days, a foil for Arnie, was Deggers - Alan d’Egville, skier, cartoonist and writer. As after dinner speakers these two were amongst the greatest entertainers I have heard.

The Palace Hotel in Mürren contained a small room on the ground floor called ‘Room 4’ that could justifiably be described as a major centre for the development of the sport of skiing in all its aspects.

It is hard to convey a picture of skiing in that age. This important resort had but one ski lift - and that a double hook that pulled skiers up the slope of the main racecourse. Piste machines did not exist, so one skied on what snow nature provided. This could be ice hard, deep and soft, miserable breakable crust or stamped out for a class or a race. Soft snow skiing and touring was a great pleasure of the age. Above all, numbers were small and one got to know a great many people.

A notice pinned to a board announced that the British Championships were due to take place and those wishing to compete should record their names. I rang Malcolm and suggested that he should take part. He agreed and I wrote up our two names. The day came, the start list shown and Malcolm was not listed. Arnie had supposed wrongly that I had written my name up twice. He raced as last man. There had been heavy snow overnight, perhaps a metre in depth. The philosophy of the time was that races should be run in ‘the conditions of the day’. Arnie’s view was that the best skier was the one who could handle any type of snow. He spoke of the danger of ski races becoming like Cresta and bobsleigh competitions on carefully prepared courses. He preferred courses where competitors were free to choose their own way from the starting point to the finish. His foresight was accurate. Big money professional skiing moved exactly in the way he foresaw, providing a spectacle that could be sold and presented to audiences sitting in armchairs.

On this occasion the few controls intended were removed and everyone had free choice and Malcolm, more of a ski mountaineer than a racer, was the winner. The slalom race was a different matter. This form of race on steep slopes, with every turn marked by a ‘gate’, was relatively new. Few people had appreciated that it would be a help to use shorter skis. In fact most of us only had one set. Arnie had unwisely told Malcolm that, with his lead, he was bound to win the Championship. Malcolm was beaten into second place.

In due course Malcolm received a charming letter from Arnie, saying how sorry he was that he had deleted his name from the entry list. However he was delighted that Mr A N Other who had taken part in so many races had at last become the British Downhill Champion.

Back in England enquiry showed that my recall to go to university was a strong possibility. I made a snowy drive to Cambridge to see the admissions tutor for Clare College and sought advice and assurance that there would be a place for me. It was interesting to discover that he, Nick Hammond, a classical scholar, had won a DSO in Greece where his modern Greek was valuable. Another Clare don, well into his 50s, had taken to parachuting as part of his medical work on parachute injuries. The contribution from such learned men in all ways, including research, was valuable and laudable.

It was well into spring of 1947 when it was time to return to Karachi. There was still snow on England’s south coast when I embarked on a flying boat. This was the most comfortable and gentlemanly way to travel. The ‘boat’ has to be large enough to float and the payload is limited, so there is plenty of space. The weight problem also influences the quantity of fuel to be carried. We flew first to Biscarosse, a lake by the coast near Bordeaux, and then on to Catania on the coast of Sicily. There we spent the night comfortably in a hotel. Our second day brought a landing on the Nile at Cairo before proceeding to Iraq where we landed at Habbiniyah on a lake near Baghdad. A night was spent there in circumstances not up to the standard to which we had become accustomed. The third day saw us welcomed at Karachi where I received the warmest of welcomes and enjoyed the busy life of my last few months in India.

I missed the disastrous development of slaughter and mayhem of the separation of Pakistan from India in 1948. It is a sorry tale. It is no good considering what might have been done better. Terror released on such a gigantic scale was hard to forecast and impossible to stop before it had run its course.

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