Chapter 9
Back to India, Spring 1942
Part 2


Asansol was the centre of the Indian Railway network and was run almost exclusively by Anglo-Indians. Originally the British ran the railways, but a lot of them intermarried with the Indians and eventually their offspring took over the running of the railways. The Anglo-Indian girls were very keen on getting an English husband, and dances were held at the local club to which all the troops were invited. The girls ranged in colour from pale white to jet black. This resulted in them being given nicknames like Rosy Dawn, and 23.59 (one minute to midnight). I heard rumours about what went on at the dances. One instance which Sid told me was that on a lorry bringing the troops and girls back from the dance, a voice suddenly said, ‘What dirty —’s got his hand up my girl’s dress?’ Sid said he was the culprit.

At Asansol we were billeted in a boy’s school, St. Vincent. It consisted of two three-storey buildings at right-angles to each other and about six feet apart. Now we had two pilots, Tapp and Tex, who were always attempting to outdo each other. One day Tex came back after a low level flight across the drome with grass cuttings in his engine nacelle. Tapp was determined not to be beaten and he dived into the square in front of the school, turned the plane on one side and flew between the two buildings. The only problem was that there was a water pipe joining the two buildings. He hit it and damaged the navigation lights, he was lucky that he didn’t crash. The CO immediately put a stop to these antics.

At the school there was a swimming pool with showers fitted over it. These were immediately taken up by the troops, but after a couple of days the water ran out. We investigated and found that it was fed from a large tank on the roof of the adjacent building. This tank was filled by a pump about ten feet down a well and when we checked this we found that a pipe about twenty feet long went down to the bottom where we could see a stream. We did some calculation and reckoned that if we put another three feet on the pipe it would reach down into the stream and if our calculations were correct we could lift the head of water right up to the tank. We managed to obtain another length of pipe, fixed it on and were successful. The only thing was that we had to ration the showers to about half-an-hour a day.

We were now too busy to put shows on, but we did start up a squadron magazine. Our squadron identity letters were AD, so I suggested that we call our magazine AD INF. There was a bit of opposition to this, some of them wanted to call it ‘Squadron Gen.’, but I pointed out that my title meant ‘for ever’, as well as ‘AD information’, so my idea was accepted. I realise now that I must have been a bit of a dictator. I know that I did get my own way on quite a lot of occasions.

Round about this time the Chindits had been formed to operated behind the Jap lines and a number of us were picked to go up north to keep them supplied. I was selected and I remember one of the other electricians, who I believe had got himself into a bit of trouble with a girl, asked me if I would swop with him. We didn’t know what we would be going into, but I had developed a bit of a superstition. As up to now I had always been lucky, I said I would not change in case I changed my luck.

So we went up to Assam and from there operated our aircraft over Parkar Hills into Burma. They called them hills but they were over 12000 feet high. The town was called Tezpur and was in the middle of the tea growing area. We were often invited to the planter’s homes for meals although quite a number of them were snobs. They used to comment on how nice it was to have civilized service personnel in the area. Apparently when the war started they thought they would do their bit and invite some of the regular soldiers for a meal. ‘Do you know, they drank out of the finger bowls!’ we were told.

We discovered that there was a proper theatre in the town so decided to put on another show. We borrowed the theatre and as most of our original cast were on the detachment we were able to write a number of sketches. I went to the theatre to find out what was there and found about twelve back drops and a large number of flats (the bits with scenery on them that come in from the side of the stage). I was sorting these out when a large black snake came out from underneath them. I ran and looking over my shoulder saw it making off in the other direction - it was as scared of me as I was of it.

The Sultan
There was a broken plank near the front of the stage so two of us got some wood, went under the stage and repaired it. When we told the theatre owner he said that they hadn’t dared to repair it because a king cobra had its nest under there. ‘Ignorance is bliss!’

One of the backdrops was the interior of a palace and another was a woodland scene. I was determined to use them. We had a finale where all the cast came on the stage into the palace. I arranged that the lights would go out, the forest backdrop would come down and forest flats were pushed in from the side.

We practised this and managed to get the blackout time down to eight seconds. Anyway, it all went to plan and afterward I asked one of our audience what he thought of the transformation scene. He replied that he never noticed it. The show ran for four nights and was the best that we ever produced.

On the normal squadron we had a charging plant to keep the various batteries we used in good working order. When we came on this detachment we had to leave it behind so I arranged to have five small Preston two-stroke engines which were normally used to charge up the large batteries on the aircraft engine starter trolleys. Once we got to Tezpur we fitted long range petrol tanks on these engines so that we could keep them running continuously. We fitted four of them in series to a charging board which we made up from a number of lampholders connected in series and parallel. We controlled the current by fitting various wattage lamps in the holders. Every day we took an engine out of service and fitted in the spare, this engine was now stripped down and decoked, tested out and was ready to go back the next day.

I had just finished the work on one engine in our workshop tent. We had a tarpaulin on the ground to keep down the dust. I filled the tank with petrol, connected the engine into the circuit, and lit a cigarette. Now the Indian matches were notoriously unreliable so we used to strike them away from us. I struck my match, the head caught fire and flew off straight into a small pool of petrol. I was trying to stamp out the fire at the same time yelling at the top of my voice,’ FIRE!’. Nobody came and I eventually got the fire out myself. The instrument mechanics had stored a number of oxygen cylinders in our tent and I don’t know what would have happened if the fire had reached them.

The monsoons had started cutting the railway line off, so that we could not get any spares sent up to us. One of our planes developed a faulty engine so it was tucked away in the corner of the drome and we cannibalized it whenever we required any spare parts. It was still there overgrown with jungle creepers when we returned to the squadron.

The weather was very hot, in fact you could burn your hand just touching the metal body of the aircraft. One day I was doing my inspection and climbed into the cockpit of the plane and passed out. When I recovered I went back to the flight hut and the sergeant took one look at me and said, ‘What’s wrong?’ I told him what had happened so he sent me straight down to the MO. He checked me over, had me jumping up and down on a stool and I noted that he had written ‘petit-mal’ with a query against it in his record. Anyway, he put me on Eastmans syrup, which I noted contained strychnine, and gave me two weeks excused duty.

I never did find out what was wrong with me but I think that it was a reaction to the fact that we had expected to run into trouble and instead had an easy time. I had in effect a reverse nervous breakdown. I spent my time during the excused duty by repairing some of the aircraft radios and transmitters. It just happened that shortly before the war I had been working in the factory that made these, employed on fault-finding and correction, so this job was easy.

We did regular airdrops to the Chindits until our aircraft became so unserviceable that they could no longer climb over the mountains, so the supplies were taken over by other units and directly the railways had been repaired we went back to our squadron. When we arrived there we found that all the rest of the squadron had been sent to a hill station for a month. This was a regular event in the Indian Army, because they reckoned that the Europeans could not stand the heat. We were told that we would be going up to the hill station and moved off the next day.

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