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Air Trooping

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If You’ve Time to Spare, Go by Air

When the trooper’s on the tide .. Rudyard Kipling.

ARRSE often contains references to 1950s Air Trooping, but these may be obscure to those who never experienced it, so I thought I would tap out a few lines to give an idea of what was involved.

I joined the Navy to see the world and by golly I did just that. At the end of 1955 after touring northern Europe as far as Leningrad, and then the Mediterranean, I, with sun-drenched beaches of coral sand in mind, expressed a desire to see the Far East. Unfortunately so did everyone else I knew, so, to teach me true humility and to test my sense of humour I was sent to a submarine depot ship in Portland, where it was so cold that one day I fainted clean out at the wheel of a launch in the middle of the harbour. However the cherub on the main truck was only temporarily off-duty and, when HMS Maidstone paid off for refit in March 1956 I was sent instructions to fly out to Singapore to join HMS Newfoundland.

I was sent absolutely reams of bumf telling me to get this and that jab, to get passed medically fit for flying - if that were the drill today wouldn’t the doctors be in clover? - to wear plain clothes, not to take more than £10 in sterling notes out of the country (austerity still hanging in there, remember?), asking for my weight fully clothed and telling me not to bring more than 95lbs of baggage, and much, much more, all riveting reading. Tucked away somewhere in all this was a plane ticket, awarding me a seat in Row 7 of Skyways’ luxury airliner. Skyways and its partner Airtours, both also involved in the infant holiday charter flight industry, had been thrown the air trooping crust by the Government which had, in true Socialist form, reserved all the regular commercial routes for the nationalised airlines (BOAC and BEA).

Eventually on 4th May I reported to the “London Assembly Centre” at (aka and ex-Goodge Street Deep Shelter). Here one spent an indifferent night, I seem to remember on a camp bed, while various pongo drafts were mustered with lots of stamping and decibels right by one’s ear. My party was called at 0545 on Saturday 5th and at 0715 we were bussed out to Stansted, and a second breakfast, via the litter-covered slopes of Epping Forest. I had just turned nineteen and little suspected that I was about to embark on a real four-day eye-opener, particularly in the matter of what real poverty looks like.

Our aircraft was a Handley Page Hermes, civil sibling of the Hastings and developed from the Halifax bomber. Other flights had used the Avro York, similarly developed from the Lancaster, but one of these had recently crashed and so all the Yorks had been grounded. This event had caused a bottle-neck in air trooping, and a delay to my own flight involving some compulsory extra leave, so it’s an ill wind that blows nobody any good. I would have appreciated that circumstance more if I had had any pay left to enjoy it with! It had recently been decided that air passengers were safer if seated facing aft, so all the seats in the Hermes had been unbolted and put back 180º about. Unfortunately the Hermes flew noticeably nose up, and the original seat design reflected this. The result was that even when fully reclined, the back of the rotated seat was still nearly vertical. As an aid to economy the aircraft packed in fourteen rows of seats in banks of five, so together with the seat problem there was damn-all legroom. But the Hermes flew pretty steadily, weather apart, and a Fleet Air Arm pilot on board who was allowed a session at the controls reported that it handled like a London bus. The reason the troopers had to use these aircraft was that nobody else would buy them, paying passengers preferring the more modern American Skymasters, Constellations and Stratocruisers. The nationalised airlines were allowed dollars to buy these but not so the independents.

We took off at 1100, all sixty-seven of us, including four babes in arms whose mothers probably long remembered this period as a low point in their lives. As we climbed the stewardesses brought round dishes of boiled sweets to suck to relieve the change of pressure; the Hermes was only pressurised to 4000 feet. We were predominantly an Army party with only a small naval contingent. To cheer us up on our way to takeoff we had been taxied past the wreck of the York which had caused the delay to our passage. The route took us over Hastings and Dieppe and eventually, after a dog-leg around the Alps - which stuck up too far for piston-engined airliners, even at 11,500 feet - past Corsica to Naples, where we had a fine view of Mount Vesuvius. Somewhere over France lunch appeared, which was the first major challenge. Instead of the modern plastic tray and plastic dishes, it was more like a pusser’s packed lunch, contained in a flimsy cardboard box such as cakes are sold in. This collapsed as soon as one tried to cut anything with the plastic knife provided, thus producing an instant course in lap-management. Then our first stop, at Brindisi at 1700(-1), where we were served a truly horrible and disgusting cup of alleged coffee. I had thought that Italians might be quite good at coffee, but I knew better after that.

Off again at 1825, flying through the closing night. I started a long letter to a young lady in England, who never wrote back (and never married). We landed at Beirut at 0040(-2) for a very late dinner at what for us was two in the morning. Although we were not leaving the airport precincts, we were each laboriously issued with a visa and our passports were then impounded. The French zeal for bureaucracy had obviously left its mark. The gangway to the restaurant hosted a very luxurious bookstall, entirely devoted to pornography, all written in English. Waiters brought round bottles of beer to go with our steaks and we thought, Oh Good, Skyways is going to stand us all a drink. The same waiters then brought round the bill, four shillings a bottle which was A LOT in those days.

We left Beirut without a tear at 0240 and, bolt upright in our “reclining” seats, shifted and fidgeted until we landed at Bahrein at 0825(-4) on the Sunday. Bahrein was already at boiling point. We were taken to a corrugated-iron Crab mess where we were fed tepid corned beef fritters for breakfast, all runny inside the soggy batter, one of the most revolting meals of my entire life. Uncomfortable or not, I was jolly glad to get back on board good old G-ALDE - we were getting institutionalised by now and regarded “our” aircraft as “home”. Hours of trackless, empty desert later, we landed for the night (ah - a bed!) at Karachi.

Before were allowed off the aircraft a functionary came on board and sprayed us all with DDT - crew as well - they were not quite quick enough to slam the flight deck door shut - in case we were importing any insects into Pakistan, the reason being, as far as one could determine by observation, that that country was already full of the things and had no room for more.

There followed a bus ride to Minwallah’s Grand Hotel for a dinner of chicken which seemed to have been on a keep fit routine. to the point of being all lean tendon and no meat. The journey exposed me for the first time to the sight of eastern squalor - people living out their lives beside the road in filthy shacks made of bamboo and sacking, not faring much better than the local cattle whose skin barely covered their bones.

Tired though we were it was a noisy night in our chalet, with chickchacks chattering in the roof, and much banging from the next room where two engineers destined for the same ship were busily mending the lavatory cistern, eventually bequeathing to Mr Minwallah one that worked, whereas the one for our room didn’t.

So we were happy to leave this experience behind when we eventually took off again at 0910(-5), after an hour’s delay while an oiled-up plug was seen to - to Skyways/Airwork’s credit this was the only mechanical hiccup we were to experience. I must have been on page 17 of that unappreciated letter by now.

Desert seemed to stretch all the way to Delhi where we arrived for an airport lunch at 1250(-5½). The sheer blast of heat as one stepped out of the aircraft was one hell of a shock and I suppose explained the apparent lethargy of most of the visible locals. In contrast to Beirut the airport stalls exhibited exquisite handwork and products of local cottage industries but we had many months to go before the mind would have to turn to buying rabbits. At lunch one could see the pongo National Servicemen sweating profusely - their “plain clothes” were standard 1950s Teddy Boy stuff, with heavy crepe-soled brothel-creepers but albeit without the bicycle chain under the collar, and with the associated duck’s-arse hairstyle modified to fit under the beret where the sergeant-major wouldn’t notice it. They, poor things, were in for an even bigger shock when they got into a real war in the Malayan jungle.

The lunch must have been part-way decent as I have no note to the contrary. However we must have been put through it fairly quickly as at 1400 we were off again, landing at Calcutta at 1740 local after passing over the holy city of Benares. Now a strange thing happened. All the families were taken off the plane and a perspiring major read the riot act to all the remaining males, regardless of rank. This was a bit of a puzzle as we had all been very good boys. However it turned out that some previous trooping flight had made it to the hotel during the local evening rush hour. Thomas Atkins and his chums had gone out on the balconies where they noticed various comely maidens in the crowd below, so had made innocent friendly greetings to them. The locals hadn’t liked this and the police eventually had to get the fire brigade in to stop the rioting natives from burning down the hotel.

As it was we then had a very long. hot and sweaty wait for a bus, ramshackle and filthy dirty as it was, to take us from Dum-Dum (that the bullets are named after) airport to the city, past incredibly thin animals and people, and over a river which gave every indication via the windowless bus of being a very busy sewer. In the city proper, traders and craftsmen were busy in open shops, just as they were in fifteenth-century London - and indeed as we were to see, in 1957 Hong Kong - and sacred cows, apparently reasonably fed, lay chewing the cud unmolested on the sidewalks. What a contrast to arrive at the incredibly grand Great Eastern hotel, a true survivor of the glories of the Raj.

After brushing teeth in Coca-Cola, to avoid contracting cholera or worse from the tap water, the night was spent listening to tramcars clanging below and a cousin of Big Ben chiming the quarters, until we were called at 0315. After some excellent coffee we were bussed back to Dum-Dum, through streets lined with recumbent bodies, a dirty loin-cloth and sleeping mat seemingly their only possessions in the world. At the airport a dog with raw patches of skin showing through its mangy fur idly slept out its life. A seemingly high-born woman in a green silk sari, both she and her baby caste-marked and festooned with jewels and silver ornaments appeared perfectly content to sit on the dusty pavement.

Soon after take-off one of the passengers fainted from heat exhaustion and had to be revived with oxygen. The stewardesses then gave us all a precautionary drink of heavily-salted orange squash and seemed hurt that nobody wanted seconds.

The next stop was Bangkok where, not leaving the airport, we were served excellent steaks, spiced and beautifully cooked. The Thais seemed to be far better fed, clothed and housed than the previous day’s Indians, and to carry themselves with far more self-respect. After lunch we made the last hop, over thick jungle and blue sea, to arrive at 1725(-7½) at Singapore’s then-new Payar Lebar airport. We stepped out into our first experience of that totally humid sticky heat I was to get to know so well. The trip had taken four days with thirty-nine hours in the air.

Something over a year later I flew home in an RAF Comet (sacked from civilian service after the Elba crash, for being unsafe) from Changi. The trip via Negombo (Colombo), Bahrein and El Adem in Libya took eighteen hours and was over in twenty-four, flying high above the turbulence among the cosmic rays at 40,000 feet. The leg from Hong Kong to Singapore had been made aboard the troopship Oxfordshire, her maiden voyage and probably her last in that role. The Goodge Street hole later burned out. I suppose I must have been one of the last people to have to use it.

January 2001