Journeys and Resting Places

Copyright © 2012. All rights reserved.
The moral rights of the author and editors have been asserted.

Chapter 8: Arrival at Arkonam

The town of Arkonam (now known as Arakkonam) which had grown up around an important railway junction was a mile or so north of the Airfield Headquarters. Here were the Flying Control building, Station Headquarters, and groups of operational buildings where I had my Signal Office. The living quarters were another two miles to the south by road, and lay to the south of the 1600 yard long secondary runway. They were approached by a side road passing the Guard Room which controlled access. The Officers Mess and quarters came first, followed by the N.C.O.s and Airmens Mess and their quarters to the east. All these were scattered single-story buildings, huts and bashas.

The airfield was run by R.A.F. Transport Command who were operating an Air Trooping scheme to repatriate troops from Burma and the Far East, who were going home for demobilisation. The aircraft used were Douglas DC3 Dakotas. As there were some problems with this operation, the expected numbers of aircraft never materialised; in fact, only a few aircraft each day - usually one or two - were dealt with as a rule. Even so, a fully operational airfield was maintained with engineering, re-fuelling, signalling, and meteorological sections capable of handling up to thirty aircraft a day. A small Air Trooping Transit Camp supplied accommodation, food and entertainment for troops in transit.

The Officers Quarters were rows of rooms built on concrete bases which were extended along one side to form a continuous open verandah. The buildings had tiled roofs which extended over the verandahs. The individual small rooms were of basic construction, a door opened on to the verandah and there were windows front and back. The floors were of bare concrete, the walls of white-washed coarse plaster, and the rafters and tiled roof were exposed. None of the woodwork was painted and the windows were made of plastic film reinforced with embedded textile mesh. The furnishings were equally spartan, consisting of a charpoy fitted with a light wooden frame to support a mosquito net, a table, a wash-stand, and a wardrobe, all in matching plain, unpainted, brown wood. The wardrobe was held off the floor on four wooden blocks, presumably as an anti-termite measure.

The rains continued for a few weeks and I was fully occupied in settling in and finding my way around. One of the first things I bought was a steel trunk to provide safe storage. The padlock for it was a plated, heavy brass, hand-made specimen with five levers, made at Aligarh and stamped “Honesty”! My signal detachment was made up of L/Cpl.J.E.Galpin, Signalmen Bainbridge, McQuiston, Mills and Wingate, and a group of Madrassi Linesmen who were posted back to St.Thomas' Mount before I got to know them by name. Apparently, they had been a source of trouble for some time and were replaced by a group of about twenty Punjabis led by Naik Mohammed Khan and L/Naik Mohammed Aslan Khan. The latter could be called an “Old Soldier” as he had joined the Army in 1929! (a true “purana miles”!). They were very proud Moslems and there was some friction between them and the Indian Aircraftsmen. This caused me some problems I could have well done without.

I engaged a Madrassi bearer named Anthony, a small skinny man who wore a perpetual worried look and turned out not to be very honest, although he performed his duties fairly well. His pay was Rs.30 - 35 per month (£2.25 - £2.65), according to his work. This was the standard rate for a bearer who did perhaps three hours work a day. It didn't seem to depend on performance, some bearers being more capable than others, and with officers moving about bearers were changed quite frequently. Some bearers had quite amusing letters (chitties) of recommendation.

His most creditable effort was to provide me with a daily hot bath in a galvanised tub in my room, for which he boiled a petrol can of water over a wood fire out in the open. He brought me chhota haziri from the Mess first thing every morning together with a jug of hot water for washing and shaving, laid out clean clothes for the day and took away dirty ones for the dhobi to wash. There was a story that dhobis went over shirts with a rock so as to crack all the buttons! The bearer then went back to the Mess, put on his white coat and waited on me at breakfast. He did the same for tiffin (lunch) and dinner and in between these times he went home to a local village.

About two hundred yards away from my quarters stood the Officers Mess, built in a similar style but a much larger building with a dining room, bar, lounge and kitchens. Its woodwork was painted and it was more comfortably furnished. A further fifty yards to the north were the Ablutions, a long narrow building with shower cubicles and latrines. The latter were simple but practical, consisting of a long, large diameter, horizontal drainpipe passing through a series of cubicles each with a fixed wooden seat.

The Other Ranks quarters covered a larger area to the north-east and were even more basic than ours. Their concrete walls ended about four feet from the ground, the remainder being made from an infilling of woven matting known as “tati” supported by wooden posts. These buildings known as “bashas” had a single long room without partitions, the walls being lined on both sides with charpoys as in a barrack room. Bashas had only one door at the side and were fitted with ceiling fans and speed controls, but while the B.O.R. (British Other Ranks) huts had electric light, the I.O.R. (Indian Other Ranks) had none. Instead, they were issued with paraffin lamps as the I.O.R.s considered electric light to be bad for the eyes. This was the standard practice at this period.

In the operational area near Flying Control I had a small office and a few other rooms containing teleprinters for which I was responsible. These were operated by my signalmen on various Indian networks including a meteorological one. I had to send a daily return on these and arrange for their repair and maintenance. One particular circuit was very troublesome, the line over which it worked being very long and passing over hilly areas subject to electrical storms. It frequently chattered away printing long meaningless text even when no messages were being sent. I was also responsible for the station telephone exchange which at this time was being changed over to a manual 100 line system. The wiring was being carried out by my signalmen but the exchange was operated by civilian staff of the P&T (Posts and Telegraphs), the equivalent of our G.P.O.

As the living quarters were so far from the operational site we were transported by station wagon or truck depending on our rank, a weary bumpy journey, four times a day in overcrowded sweaty conditions, involving sharp time-keeping or hanging about in order not to miss the transport. I found it very irksome. To begin with I only had one truck since the other Section vehicle had been written off in Capt.Ashwin's train accident, and I couldn't use this for my own transport as it was in constant use. Very soon I lost even this truck when it was badly damaged by a falling palm tree. Dead palms tend to rot internally at ground level, and assisted by termite attack the centres become hollow although the thick trunk appears sound. They are very heavy and our driver chose to park his truck against one; he probably reversed into it, but luckily escaped injury when the tree fell along the length of the truck and crushed the driver's cab. After this, I had to beg the loan of a truck from the R.A.F. for the use of my line parties.

When I took over the detachment of 210 Indian Wing Section at Arkonam I signed for equipment much of which was no longer of use or was unserviceable; knowing the methods of Army quartermasters I disposed of as much as I could back to stores at St.Thomas' Mount. Major Dando claimed that there was more equipment at Arkonam that was not on my list including nearly 100 miles of cable. Accordingly, I set out with Cpl.Galpin and a small party of signalmen and walked all round the airfield to see what we could find. We checked all the cable installations and found several large drums of lead-sheathed telephone cable that everyone had forgotten about, lying about on rough ground. Unfortunately, the wooden cable drums were badly eaten by termites and crumbled at a touch leaving the heavy coils of cable in an untidy pile. One drum we came across even had a bee's nest in it so we left it alone; the Indian linesmen wouldn't go near it as wild bees can be very dangerous.

The roads on the airfield were made of rammed earth covered with overlapping strips of bituminised hessian (“Bithess” Roads), and during the rains they became very uneven as water got under the seams and muddy pot-holes formed under the surfaces when vehicles ran on the them. On either side of the principal roads were monsoon ditches to carry off storm water. These were two or three feet wide and deep and were cleared out periodically by Indian Pioneer troops. Unfortunately, one of our telephone cables crossed one of these ditches and the men who had cleared out the ditch had exposed it. Not liking the look of an untidy cable stretched across their tidy ditch they had stamped it down with their boots so it conformed to the sides and bottom of the trench. This was not a good thing to do to a 54 pair, paper-insulated, lead-sheathed cable and water got in through cracks in the lead sheath when the monsoon ditch filled up. The Engineering Officer would complain about poor speech on his phone and I would explain the position and tell him to wait for sunny weather!

The R.A.F. Signal Officer, Flt/Lt. Grey, was posted early in December and was replaced by Flt/Lt. George Lister. During my Army service I met a number of people who were good companions and enjoyable company but I would not like to have to associate with some of them in civilian life. George was one of these. He was an unusual man, very friendly and outspoken in a pleasant way. He had a very independent and adventurous manner and rather erratic in behaviour. He had been in the R.A.F. a long time and had been the sole survivor of a plane crash in West Africa early in the War. Having recovered from his injuries he was later again the sole survivor of a group when a V2 rocket exploded on an airfield in Holland. He had a nervous twitch of the head when he got excited but despite everything he was a very pleasant individual and we got along well together. We occasionally walked along the secondary runway to the Transit Camp cinema in the evening or took a short walk in the surrounding countryside before dark.

I enjoyed the fresh fruit we could get from local traders, green bananas and oranges - deliciously sweet! They were cheap and plentiful. I soon learned to close my windows unless I was in the room as monkeys came in and pilfered any fruit lying about. I had to chase four or five out from time to time. They lived around the site in the trees and bushes but spent most of the time walking around in groups on the ground. My table stood under the window that opened on to the verandah and I usually slept with this open. One morning I noticed dusty prints of bare feet on the table showing that I'd had a visitor in the night. Fortunately nothing was missing and it didn't happen again.

The room to the left of mine was occupied by F/O. Tony Hart who was a hunting and shooting enthusiast. He kept a shotgun in his room and I was sometimes awakened by him firing a shot out of his window from his charpoy when he woke up in the early morning. He shot at birds, stray dogs and any other targets which took his fancy. He was a likeable and cheerful young man who organised hunting trips with like-minded officers and airmen, and we were served up with the resulting products in the Mess. I remember some kind of venison came up regularly and on one memorable occasion we had Snipe, a pathetic tiny bird lying on a piece of toast with its legs up in the air. Once, they claimed to have shot a leopard which charged them in thick brush and as they were all armed with service rifles the hunters were as much at risk from each other as they were from the leopard.

About three rooms to the right of mine was the Met. Officer, a most serious and boring man who told long-winded accounts of the time he had spent as a guest of the Rajah of Jhansi. “Line-shooting” was a well known R.A.F. affliction and he was an expert. He always went to bed very early as he had to brief pilots in the early morning about the weather for their flights. There were some high-spirited members of the Mess who spent most evenings in the bar and one evening they decided to have some fun. At a late hour they let off a smoke generator in his room and drove him out. I woke up in the early hours with a most painful sore throat and bad headache and noticed an overpowering smell of smoke in my room. I opened the windows and door and went out into the fresh air; everything was quiet and it wasn't until the next day that I heard what had happened. I had slept soundly through all the rumpus and the smoke had penetrated all the adjacent rooms through the roof gaps. I had a very sore throat for days. There was serious trouble for these jokers later on, when, as the Mess was being repainted, the Station Adjutant's small dog was painted bright blue one night. There was blue paint everywhere.

Tony Hart acquired a small monkey as a pet and kept it tethered on the verandah until he got tired of the mess it made; when he wanted to keep a leopard cub he was firmly told it was not on. There were many interesting creatures to be seen in the area including lizards which appeared on the walls of our rooms at times, colourful butterflies and at night, fireflies. These were beetles about half an inch long which emitted a pulsating glow from the rear underneath segments of their bodies. I caught a few and took them into my mosquito net at night so as to watch the greenish light they emitted as they crawled about above my head.

I had a canvas bucket which my bearer kept filled with water for washing and one morning as I lifted it to pour water into my wash bowl I put my hand under the base to find a small snake curled up just under the edge. I dropped it in rather a hurry! Termites lived in the wall of my room and would emerge at times to build a length of mud tube a few inches long up the wall at one place. Sometimes, while I was in my bath-tub, I would amuse myself by breaking off this small mud tube and watching the termite workers repair it with fresh mud. This they did very quickly as they did not like light.

The Engineering Officer, who also had a room along the verandah, was laid up in bed with a severe attack of an Athlete's Foot infection in his groin and was hardly able to walk. One morning he called out loudly for help. Several of us ran to see and found that he had seen a rat running round his room. We chased it round and eventually killed it with sticks, shifting his furniture about, and in the process knocking his wardrobe off its blocks. After a few days he complained of a foul smell and on investigation another rat in a flattened state was found under his wardrobe!

Largely owing to language difficulties, I had some problems with the Naik and his Punjabi signalmen. They didn't get on too well with Cpl.Galpin and the British signalmen who tended to boss them about and they wouldn't stand for this. I asked for advice from Major Dando who arranged for two experienced Urdu-speaking officers to come and help sort things out. These officers from St.Thomas' Mount were the Adjutant, Capt.De.St.Croix, known as “Dusty” and the O/C 239 Line Maintenance Section, Capt.Pogson, “Poggie”, who were passing through the Arkonam Air Trooping Transit Camp on their way home for release from the Army. The Punjabis who knew them well, gave a feast in their honour, (for which we paid). The party was held one evening in the I.O.R basha where we sat round a table tastefully covered with an army blanket on which stood a bowl of roses and some smouldering udibatti sticks.

The meal was unusual and interesting as we had six distinct courses of various Punjabi foods served in moderate portions while between some courses we were given a fried egg each. Not too easy to eat in the Indian manner using our fingers as there were no knives or forks. Only the right hand was used for eating, the left hand being reserved for other uses (offering an interesting perspective on Matthew 6:3 “Let not thy right hand know what thy left hand doeth”). Later, I had many other meals with Indian troops and got quite used to handling rice, curries and other dishes using only my fingers with the help, in the case of runny food, of pieces of chapatti, the pancake-like unleavened bread which usually was served with a meal. We were given spoons to eat the later courses of spicy, milky puddings. Moslems are forbidden wine so we drank water and glasses of sweet, spicy tea. We were all garlanded with flowers and there was much talk in Urdu in which I played a negligible part. Among other things it was explained to the Naik that I was new to India and didn't speak their language, which I thought was obvious. Everything ended very amicably at about 11 o'clock. Earlier in the day, the B.O.R.s had been given a talking to, and things were much easier afterwards. I never saw these two officers again as they flew off to the U.K. on the next day's trooping flight.

Three civilian employees of the P&T. were attached to my unit to carry out telephone instrument and switchboard maintenance and look after the civil carrier telephone system, while I was responsible for the telephone lines round the airfield. Two of these men only spoke Tamil but the other knew a few words of Urdu and English and was very willing once he understood what was wanted. Much of our conversation was by signs and drawings on paper. One of the others, named Gopal, earned Rs.40 (£3) per month and would cheerfully walk miles round the airfield during the heat of the day to check a faulty phone. Sometimes there was only a trivial fault which he put right, and even after missing a meal on this long journey he was quite cheerful and happy when he returned.

It was quite pleasant being on detachment and left to my own devices but I was often harassed by telephone calls from Major Dando who landed me with difficult problems at times. He had a very inconvenient habit of ringing me up when I was having my evening tub before changing for dinner in the Mess and was very demanding of my spare time. Fortunately, I had no duties in connection with the R.A.F. administration and only had to look after my own men for rations and pay, sending in necessary returns as required. As I had no vehicles I had no maintenance and record problems either. One job Major Dando gave me was very onerous. I was sent a list of radio frequencies and times at which an Army wireless station somewhere in South India was sending out experimental transmissions and was required to monitor these transmissions and report signal strengths at Arkonam. The transmissions were being sent over several days at intervals of a few hours, the important ones being overnight, so I borrowed a very fine aircraft communications receiver from the R.A.F., installed accumulator batteries in my room and tried to receive at least some of the signals. Despite several sleepless nights I failed to intercept a single transmission and sent in a NIL return. Some time later I was told that the experiment had been cancelled and by some oversight I had not been informed. I kept the set for some time however, as it was interesting to play with during the evenings.

A day or two before Christmas, George Lister and I took a walk south of the domestic area for about a mile over rice fields to the Cooum River from which our water supply came. The river bed was nearly dry but the supply came from concrete structures sunk deeply into it. The rice fields were also nearly dry but we had to walk along the low earth bunds which separated them. On the banks of the river were some attractive low trees with feathery leaves so we took a large branch back to the Mess for a Christmas tree. Placed in a sand bucket at the entrance and lit by a small electric light it looked fine.

Christmas was a great day. We were garlanded by our bearers and each given a lime fruit which seemed to be the traditional local offering. Later, the usual Christmas football match between Officers and Other Ranks was played, the rules and numbers of players being rather elastic. The game was interrupted by a bullock-cart which was driven across the pitch by a group of officers. George attempted to ride on the bullock but was neatly tossed off, much to his surprise. Some of the officers travelled back to their rooms after the match on a 15 cwt truck, and I have never seen a more overloaded vehicle. George was fooling about and climbing on the roof of the cab, disappeared through the observation hatch on top, landing head first between the three or so officers sitting there. How the driver managed to steer the truck beats me.

It was customary for the officers and senior N.C.O.s to serve Christmas dinner to the Other Ranks and before this happened we all adjourned to the Sergeants Mess for a drink. I was given a half-tumbler of neat whisky which I sipped and then left on the floor under my chair when we went to serve dinner. On return I was glad to see that the glass was empty! We served dinner to the men, taking care that our own men got special attention with free cigarettes and drinks. A visiting Group Captain was very surprised to see a Flying Officer wearing eight stripes on his sleeves as he served out meals! We had a good dinner later and spent the rest of the day lazing about.

Boxing Day was scorchingly hot and George and I went for a walk through the local village of Perumchchi, a squalid mud village, to the great fascination of the villagers as few Europeans ever went there. The people were very poor as were most of the South Indian villagers. Their water supply for all purposes was the neighbouring tank or lake, and there was no sanitation. As we travelled to work each day along the road we used to see villagers squatting out in the fields at discrete distances from each other.

We had very little contact with the local people, and there was not much scope for shopping apart from visiting fruit-sellers and traders. I was able to buy a cotton tablecloth which I used as a bedspread and now serves as a dust cover on my printers. I also bought a durrie, a coarse cotton mat for my room. These were so cheap that I bought a fresh one nearly every time I moved stations as they never got cleaned. I was able to get chocolates and sweets from the Mess and bought a book on Military Urdu from a visiting trader on February the 15th, 1946, which I still have.

I got hold of the address of a Madras bookshop (Higginbotham's, I seem to recall) and wrote to them for a list of inexpensive books on Hinduism and South India. They sent me a list and I ordered one or two by post, rashly sending a Rs.5 note to cover the cost. Needless to say I never heard from them again and didn't get a chance to follow it up as I soon moved away from the area.

Just after Christmas I had another problem. The R.A.F. brought charges against L/Cpl Galpin on account of some wild behaviour in the Airmens Mess on Christmas Day. The charge sheets were delivered to me by a very supercilious R.A.F. Warrant Officer who expressed his opinion that the charges were too serious for me to deal with. I had no one to turn to for advice so spent a few evenings studying Army Regulations on such matters and eventually decided to deal with the case myself. I rather doubted whether in fact I actually had the full powers of a Detachment Commander and I expect I broke all the rules, but after formally parading the culprit in my office and listening to the evidence, I gave Galpin a good dressing-down and marked the charge sheets “Admonished”. I sent copies to the R.A.F. Warrant Officer and heard no more about the matter although I expect I provoked some harsh comments from him.

The day after New Year's Day, I called on George who had a room in a nearby block to mine and found he was under close arrest and confined to his quarters with an officer custodian. He was on a Court Martial charge after an incident the previous night at the Sergeants Mess, the full details of which I never heard but it was said to have involved an indecent assault on an N.C.O. at a drunken party. He tended to behave erratically but I had always found him very well mannered and politely behaved and was very surprised at this charge. After a preliminary hearing he resumed his normal duties for a time, but was required to go to a Services Hospital near Madras for a psychiatric examination. He asked me to go with him for moral support and as his appointment was on a Saturday, I was able to take time off and go. He drove an R.A.F. 15cwt truck and we set off along the road to Madras through Sriperumbudur where we stopped for refreshment.

The only likely building had a sign saying “Brahmins' Coffee House” and was near a temple. We went inside and sat on a wooden form at a bare wooden table with a few locals in robes, presumably Brahmins. They made no objections, so, using signs we asked for drinks and were served with brass beakers, half-filled with “coffee” and standing in shallow brass dishes containing more “coffee”. This arrangement was new to us so we watched the others and saw that they topped up their beakers from the dishes from time to time. The liquid was quite hot so we supposed it was a method of preventing scalded fingers! We reached the hospital and I waited in the truck while George went inside for his examination. This took some time and he came out very shaken. He had been locked for a time in a small room containing a chair, table and bed, all firmly bolted to the floor. On the table were an enamel plate and a wooden spoon; he felt he was being put away. After a time he was interviewed and questioned before being told to report back in the evening to collect a report to take to the Station M.O. at Arkonam.

To pass the time we went into Madras and visited Moors' Market, a most fascinating bazaar area. Amongst other things I bought a small second-hand pocket watch with a thick glass (made by the West End Watch Company, Bombay), which gave me very good service. Up till then I had been using a lady's wrist watch which Margaret had lent me before I left home. At the market, I also bought two small beans which each contained twelve miniature elephants carved from ivory. These cost me one rupee each.

We called back at the hospital compound in the evening to collect George's report. He didn't want to go back as he was in a very nervous state and was very concerned that they might keep him locked up. I persuaded him that it would be better to face up to it as it might be some sort of test of his morale. In the event he went in and after a short wait he was given his report and we drove back to Arkonam. Very soon after this he was posted away to a Services Hospital at Bangalore to await his court-martial.

Before he went to see the psychiatrist he gave me a book entitled “Clinical Aspects of Psycho-analysis” asking me to keep it as he didn't want it found amongst his kit if he had to go in for treatment. This book was a professional monograph and consisted of a number of case histories, making rather dreary reading. I kept it for many years and it finally went to a Frodsham book-sale. When George left Arkonam, the job of Signal Officer was taken over by a new arrival, Flt.Lt. Dennis Watt, who was a more conventional officer, and with whom I was soon on very good terms.

The 2nd of January was made memorable by the arrival of a badly-needed vehicle for the use of my Detachment. It was rather old and battered but gave us good service. The driver who came with the truck from St.Thomas' Mount, was a surly little Punjabi Mohammedan named Suba Khan, who would drive his truck anywhere, on roads, or cross country, regardless of comfort or the vehicle's springs.

I had seen on the signal diagrams in my office that there was an emergency landing ground about nine miles west of Arkonam near a place called Vedal, and we were supposed to have a telephone line to it. With my new transport I was able to go and visit the site. We found it to be remote from any habitation, a deserted dirt-runway with one small brick building - no sign of a telephone - apart from a row of poles leading away towards Arkonam. Any wires had long gone. There was a tendency for some of the villagers to steal copper wire and many of the long airline routes were wired with galvanised iron wire to discourage this, as well as for economy. In hilly country, some of these long spans of galvanised-iron wire, which could be up to 1500 feet long were most impressive.

One of the Indian line parties, under my direction, was erecting a poled telephone line through the domestic site, planning to put one of the poles in a hole dug near the end of the block of rooms where I lived. The work took several days and the holes were dug first. On returning from the Mess after dinner one night, I took a short cut through the jungly ground in this area. I fell into this post-hole in the dark and badly sprained my right thumb - it's never been the same since! The annoying thing was that I had planned the route.

My bearer, Anthony, found himself in trouble early in January. He started to collect second helpings of food for me on his own account and the Mess staff caught him eating it himself in a corner. He had apparently been doing this for some time. As he had been getting more and more unsatisfactory, I replaced him with another Madrassi called Lazarus, a Christian like Anthony but a much nicer individual, very cheerful, speaking English fairly well, and very efficient in his work. He lived with his wife and family in a nearby village. Early in 1946 there was a severe smallpox epidemic in South India during which he lost most of his children. At this time, on the advice of the Station M.O., most of us went for a further vaccination even though we had been fairly recently vaccinated when we came to India.

At this time, as the weather became hotter, a regular R.A.F. team was organised to destroy the pariah dogs which abound everywhere in India. They would drive round all the runways and taxi-tracks in an open truck carrying a number of airmen armed with shotguns. They disposed of any stray dogs they encountered in an effort to reduce risks to aircraft on landing and the chances of disease, many of these semi-wild dogs carrying rabies. As many as fourteen were said to be accounted for on one patrol. These scavenging pye-dogs were common all over the country and some were revolting specimens, diseased and mangy, while others looked like ordinary mongrels.

Despite the heavy rain there had been in November the monsoon had been poor and by January many of the large tanks and streams had dried up. Fields of rice dried out in the hot sun and the crops were very poor. The villagers had to lift water from deep wells for domestic use and to irrigate fields near the villages but conditions of drought and famine appeared. Conditions were very bad farther south and Lord Wavell arrived at Arkonam in a silver-coloured Dakota to pay an official inspection of the worst hit areas of South India. One day I drove across the bed of a tank which was quite dry and parched but normally irrigated many square miles of ricefields. The rice crop was usually harvested and threshed on the bare ground. The sheaves were spread on the ground and bullocks driven over them to tread out the grain. The straw was removed and the residue winnowed by throwing it into the air with flat baskets for the wind to blow away the chaff.

In a hot country like India, disease is endemic in some areas and tends to appear in times of famine. Bubonic plague is an example; the first signs being a “rat-fall”, the appearance of dead rats in the streets of villages. Such an outbreak occurred in the area of Chittoor about 45 miles to the west of Arkonam in the early part of 1946.

The R.A.F. were at this time setting up a chain of “Gee” navigational radar stations over India, to provide easier aircraft navigation by providing a country-wide signal grid. I had orders from Major Dando to make a ground survey, and estimate quantities of stores needed to build an airline route from Arkonam to a high point near Chittoor where one of these “Gee” stations was to be built. The site was in some rather rocky hills just south of Chittoor and he sent me a rather inadequate large scale map of the site which was known as Chases' Hill; I was also loaned a truck and two Punjabi drivers for the day.

We had to pass through Arkonam which was generally out of bounds to us, although I had to drive there from time to time on duty. On one occasion I saw what I thought was a European in native garb sweeping the streets, but on closer examination, thought he must be a half-caste or albino with almost blonde hair; most unusual. Farther on, the road led us into the dead end of a courtyard of a large temple and we had to reverse out. Our map was very sketchy and the road seemed to end at the village of Ponnai. However, by taking to the wide, dried-up river bed of the Poini River for about a mile we were able to get on a track near the village of Narasingarayanpet which took us to the Chittoor road not far from our target. When we reached a point on the road north of Chases’ Hill, I got the truck off the road and after telling the two drivers to wait there, I set off to walk the two or three miles over the hills to the summit. The country was quite deserted and barren, the hills and ridges trackless and covered with rocks and scrub, but I could see where the highest ground was. I had not gone very far when one of the drivers came running after me and said he wanted to come with me. They had had an animated discussion and must have decided I needed an escort!

As I didn't know what I was going to meet on this journey, I was carrying a revolver and six rounds of ammunition. I felt this was rather melodramatic so kept it out of sight as we normally never carried arms. We climbed over a series of very rocky hills trying to keep to the ridges where there were fewer thorny bushes and eventually reached the summit plateau known as Chases' Hill Pillar, at a height of about 1000 feet. We saw no snakes or other animals; everywhere was barren. On the summit, to my surprise, the land was being cleared and levelled by a working party of the West African Pioneer Battalion under the direction of an English captain. We had a chat and I saw that the work was in its early stages. I found that they had needed to make or improve a jeep track up the hill from the west - (it wasn't on my map), and he lent me his jeep and driver to get back to my truck on the road, down a very steep and circuitous route which my truck would never have managed. The Punjabi driver, dozing in his cab, was very surprised to see us arrive back in style and the two men had a long and excited conversation about it.

Figure 8.1: This picture was only taken for show as I never wore a holster and ammo pouch at any other time.

I then had to go into Chittoor to visit the Post Office to enquire about telephone lines, so keeping a sharp look out for dead rats, we drove into this small town. The Post Office turned out to be a small single story building and after finding the postmaster, I learnt that there was no telephone system in the area at all! On returning to Arkonam, I sent the truck and its drivers back to St.Thomas' Mount as they were keen to do and refused offers of food and overnight accommodation. Over the next few days I worked out the details for a poled route over the 45 miles or so required and sent them to Major Dando. I never heard anything more about it, and often wondered why they needed lines anyway when a radio link would have been much more economical.

Except as a quick and temporary expedient, wooden telegraph poles were little used in India as they suffered from the attentions of termites. We used them for our field cable lines on the airfields however. The usual permanent poles were of eight-feet long, tapered sections of riveted, galvanised, steel sheet, which fitted into each other to give the desired height. Long distance routes using metal poles were connected with galvanised iron wire weighing from 150 to 600 pounds per mile. In hilly country the poles could be as much as 500 yards apart, the cable sagging over 60 feet between them, a most impressive sight.

Dennis Watts and I sometimes went for short outings before it got dark to see some of the nearby villages. There was one away to the east which had a large, impressive and highly coloured image of a Hindu god near a small temple, and Dennis drove me out there in a signals truck on one occasion. He decided to take a short cut across a dried up river bed several hundred yards across (this was the River Kallar near the village of Attur), but we had only travelled a short distance before getting stuck in the sand. We struggled for a long time trying to drive out of the dry sand but only got more deeply stuck and it was getting darker all the time. Finally, we took a drawer out of the signals truck fittings and broke it up to make boards for digging out and to put under the wheels and after much labour managed to reverse on to firmer ground. We were both exhausted and resolved to keep off sandy river beds in future.

Dennis organised a few outings for anyone who was interested and on Sunday morning, the 3rd of February 1946, we took a party to Conjeeveram, about twelve miles by truck to see the famous temples. It was a hot sunny day and we visited the two largest temples, the Ekambaraswaram Temple and the Varadarajaswami Temple. Both were very complex and interesting. Conjeeveram, formerly called Kanchi, was the ancient city of the Pallava kings and some of the temples date from the 7th or 8th century. The Chinese Buddhist pilgrim, Hsuan Tsang, visited Conjeeveram in A.D. 640 and wrote an account of the region. Conjeeveram is an important Hindu religious site and one of the seven holy cities of India. In early days there were many Buddhist monasteries but these are gone, some of the sites being taken over by the numerous present day temples. There are said to be over a hundred shrines, the larger temples dating from the sixteenth century.

We first visited the largest, the Ekambaraswaram Temple, devoted to Siva, the principal shrine being the Siva Lingam in a surviving possibly 8th century building. In front of the complex is a large granite pavilion where the image of the god is rested on its annual tour of the town. The pillars of this pavilion are carved with floral and geometrical designs and traders have a few stalls in the corners where images and temple offerings are sold. I bought a plaster image of Lakshmi, goddess of wealth and beauty for 5 annas (about 2 pence) and a soapstone effigy of Ganesh, the elephant-headed god of wisdom and success for about the same amount. A wide range of effigies was available including all ten avatars of Vishnu. From the pavilion an avenue led up to the main gateway with its tower or gopuram, 188 feet high, all ten stories of it covered with sculpted figures. It is said to bear the marks of cannon balls fired during the wars with the French in the 18th century.

Here we had to remove our shoes and walk round in our stockinged feet but we were allowed to enter the outer courtyard which had a large central tank. Some of the stones in the high outer wall were carved with small images of Buddha, showing them to be the relics of a much older building destroyed for its stones. Passing through a labyrinth of pillars on a marriage shrine platform, we entered an inner courtyard containing the main temple building as well as a number of smaller shrines. The marriage shrine was an open pavilion with a large dais sculptured with scenes from Hindu mythology, where marriage ceremonies were performed. The smaller shrines were small shelters with gods and images just inside their doors. A shrine of Ganesh had a crudely carved, three-feet high stone image, well anointed with oil and dabs of vermilion on the head in the Sivite manner. Another shrine was a symbolic stone version of the Siva Lingam, the custom being to offer it coconuts by breaking them on the top and allowing the milk to run over it.

Two trees, a mango and a fig, had been grown round each other in another part of the courtyard, and they were surrounded by “snakestones”, which we thought was to do with a fertility ritual. Outside the main temple, a large stone bull had just been completed to supplement or replace an ancient one which was quite black from anointments of oil and butter. We were not allowed inside the main inner temple which was guarded by two large, fierce-looking warriors carved from wood and painted and dressed in cotton garments. We gave a priest some money and he let us look into the temple doorway while he held an oil lamp near the Siva Lingam many yards away in the unlit temple. The news had gone round and on our way out of the courtyards we were pestered by Brahmins, holy-men, and beggars, all crying out for money.

Our next visit was to the Varadarajaswami Temple, a smaller complex, dedicated to Vishnu. This was a more attractive and cleaner place than the last one. The priests here wore the Vishnuvite forehead markings and had two sub-castes with a great deal of rivalry, and apparently, great trouble is taken to decide precedence and who shall carry out ceremonies. Litigation in the Courts was said to have taken place over a dispute as to the precise caste-mark the image of Vishnu should wear on its forehead. These marks are made with a white clay crayon, and a red powder mixed with ghee.

The entrance was under another gopuram with the usual crowd of beggars and here we left our shoes. A beautifully carved granite pavilion of 100 columns stood in the courtyard, an excellent example of Vijayanagan work of the 16th century. At each corner hung carved swinging chains cut out of single pieces of granite, and the faces of the pillars were covered with carvings in relief of Hindu mythological scenes. One showed an Indian horseman attacking a Portuguese musketeer, an early contemporary record. Several panels had been defaced but the majority were intact. A feature in all Hindu temples are the sculptures of small erotic scenes, often high up near the roof, well above eye level, and there were a number on these pillars.

We were not allowed to see the image of Vishnu in the temple, even from the doorway, as, according to the priests, it was his time for sleeping. This lump of stone is treated with great respect like a king, being “fed” at regular intervals, allowed to “sleep”, and regularly washed. Each year he is carried round the streets in a juggernaut car to see the people and the fields. The Brahmins, and many Hindus for that matter, have all their hair shaved off except for a long lock at the back. This is said to serve as a hand-grip at their funeral ceremonies when their skulls are split to allow their souls to escape. When I was visiting the deserted landing ground at Vedal, I passed a Hindu cremation ceremony at the roadside, the first I had seen. A large funeral pyre was surrounded by priests and people in bright clothes. There are no Hindu burial grounds, the cremations taking place wherever required, and no monuments are to be seen. I once saw, at a roadside, a small pile of stones with an iron trident standing upright in it. This was said to be the site of cremation of a sadhu or holy-man, a religious mendicant who must have been a follower of Siva as the trident is one of his symbols.

After this interesting day out, we planned another outing to Sholingur, a large village about sixteen miles to the west. It was in an area of steep rocky hills on one of which a temple was built. This was our objective and we started to climb to it. It was a pilgrimage site approached by over a thousand stone steps, all of which had the red paint mark of Vishnu in the centre of the riser. At intervals, small shelters gave welcome rest and shade as there was a very hot sun. Here and there on the ascent were stone models of a pair of the soles of bare feet side by side, and the bushes at the side of the steps contained small pieces of coloured cloth wrapped around small stones. We couldn't find any explanation for these customs. The last hundred or so steps were cut in the solid rock and led steeply up to a gopuram where we had to remove our shoes. The peak was so small that the courtyard walls fell away almost sheer on some sides, and the temple itself nearly filled the courtyard. Some of the more active airmen in our party had raced to the top and rather upset the priests by trying to get in the temple, so we were not allowed even in the doorway of the shrine despite offering money.

A long brass flagpole carrying small bells, and a few carved stone lotus flowers were all that could be seen except for the view which was spectacular, mountains and valleys, villages and tanks. One priest brought a garland of flowers and put it over my head indicating that it had come from the image of Vishnu itself. Everyone was greatly amused but I felt he merited a small cash reward! To our surprise he had a little English and told us that the god was a thousand years old and had been living in an old temple near the bottom of the hill before he came to the summit. We might look in this temple as it was no longer used. Each year, he was carried in procession down to the village of Sholingur where he was feasted. He said the gopuram was 400 years old. It was very weather-beaten and many of the plaster figures had disintegrated.

On our way down to the road we visited the old deserted temple, a solidly-built, stone building which looked very old. It was very dark inside with bats in a corner and a few lizards on the walls, but gave us a good idea of the inside of a Hindu temple. A wide stone porch with carved pillars opened into a tall room with pillared aisles and a floor of beaten earth. There were no windows. The shrine itself was a wide stone shelf, about three feet from the ground, where the image of Vishnu had stood. It stood in a recess, on the walls of which several very lifelike lizards were carved. They seemed to be alive in the dim light from the doorway. Several small rooms led off to the sides of the shrine but were in a ruinous condition and too dark to explore, quite possibly harbouring snakes.

Some days later, as I was being driven along a remote taxi-track on the east of the airfield by Suba Khan, we were suddenly faced with a Dakota aircraft taxiing towards us. Without hesitation, he drove off to the side over some very rough ground, a very uncomfortable ride! Life was very hectic at times! One day, I was called to the telephone exchange because it had suddenly lost a lot of lines, and found that a fifty four pair telephone cable nearby had been cut by a bulldozer. The repair had to be effected by civilian P&T personnel at this time so I had to bring a repair man from Madras which took nearly a day.

In the evening, after dinner, Dennis Watts and I realised that the lines to the R.A.F transmitting aerials ran through this cable, and emergency measures were called for, even though the transmitters were in little use at this time. We had alternative lines in field cable erected by my linesmen so we tried to put them to use. We helped ourselves to a jeep and drove up and down the roads between Flying Control and the transmitting aerials time after time in an attempt to sort out the connections. The wires from the poles were led down to wooden boxes near their bases and it was quite exciting, unscrewing and opening these in the dark as we didn't know what we would find inside. Fortunately, there were no snakes, only plenty of lizards which startled us as they darted out. Unfortunately, the cables were obscurely labelled and after hours of this very tiring and fruitless activity, we had to give up, quite exhausted, at about three-thirty in the morning. Fortunately the transmitters had not been required overnight and the P&T repair-man appeared next morning and normality was restored in a few hours.

The road from H.Q. to the transmitting aerials was about three miles long and ran south alongside the Arkonam to Chingleput railway line, a one metre gauge, single-track line. It passed the side road to our living quarters and farther on there was a track to the right over a level-crossing, leading to the transmitting aerials. This was the scene of the fatal accident in which Captain Ashwin was involved when, he carelessly drove right across here into the path of a train. Alongside the railway was a telephone airline route on poles belonging to the railway, and it was only when I got a letter from the P&T asking whether we still required this route as they wanted to dismantle it, that I found out that our linesmen had been naughty in using some miles of these wires to save running field cable to the transmitters! I needed to speak to the local P&T official at Arkonam once, but there seemed to be no telephone link to Arkonam. I went to look for him and found him up a pole in the railway siding, speaking on a portable phone to Bangalore. He used to ring me up in this manner at times, even though he had no fixed telephone himself.

I was on friendly terms with the Punjabis and sometimes went to see their line parties at work. One day, while I was watching them at work, one of the men gave me a violent push to one side and then did a war-dance on the place where I had been standing. Apparently, he had seen a small snake crawl under the instep of my boot and reacted quickly, and rather excessively, I thought, as I would have liked to have seen the snake before it was mangled. Once, I organised a “Tea-Party” with them, and took along Dennis Watts as he had never experienced one of these events. We had a meal for which I had paid them, and tried on Phnjabi puggrees for a photograph, to their great amusement. They didn't have one big enough to fit my head properly! The puggrees were wound on conical, pointed hats called kullas.

Figure 8.2: Flt.Lt. Dennis Watt, R.A.F. and myself wearing Punjabi pagris on a visit to the Indian Signalmen of my Section.

In February, Transport Command was involved in flying food supplies into Burma to relieve famine; some aircrews from Arkonam took part in, this operation which called for some low-flying in a mountainous region to drop sacks of rice in famine areas. During the weeks taken for this operation, one of the Dakotas crashed into a mountainside with the total loss of the crew and the despatching party.

In the early months of 1946 there was much resentment among R.A.F. servicemen who went on strike at some airfields in India, Ceylon and at Singapore, in protest at the slowness of release from the Service after the war. Even under normal conditions there was always unrest and political agitation in India, but now matters came to a head. Early in February there was a mutiny of Indian Navy ratings at Bombay, who, stirred up by Nationalist agitators, came on the streets in support of Congress demonstrations. The mutiny was put down by British troops but there was serious rioting in Bombay and other cities. In Bombay, the riots were quelled by the Police assisted by the Army using armoured cars. About sixty people were killed in Bombay alone and banks, shops and grain warehouses were set on fire. At St.Thomas' Mount, Poona and other airfields, the R.I.A.F. airmen went on strike for a time for political reasons. We had no trouble at Arkonam but in Madras, rioters caused much damage and the Army assisted the Police in breaking up the mobs. Between Arkonam and Madras a train was stopped by a mob who sat on the lines. They ransacked and burnt the carriages, injuring many people. We were not too much affected apart from some sabotage of the P&T telephone lines.

One effect of these disturbances was that I received orders to parade all my signalmen and read out the relevant Army Regulations with regard to disaffection and mutinous behaviour with their consequent penalties and punishments. They took it all very stolidly and there was no reaction. I expect that the military authorities had remembered the Mutiny of 1857 and were worried. The Army authorities in the 109 (Bangalore) Area also decided that all officers should have arms so I was issued with a Smith and Wesson 0.38” calibre revolver despite already having my Webley. In its wisdom, the Army didn't issue any ammunition to go with this new revolver, so I now had just enough cartridges to load both weapons once!

Rumours arose concerning the ending of the Air Trooping Scheme and the closure of the airfield and it became obvious that changes were on the way. My bearer, Lazarus, wanted to move away so I took on another Madrassi servant, a Hindu named Krishna. He didn't speak such good English as Lazarus, but we could understand one another and he proved quite satisfactory in his work. I was able to write a true letter of recommendation for Lazarus as he had been a good bearer and I had been pleased with his work.

By this time I was becoming very familiar with our communication network in South India and the place names on the diagrams were not so strange to me. The names of these places had quite a ring to them and tripped off the tongue easily. For example:- Bobbili, Begumpet, Cocanada, Hakimpet, Tadepallegudem, Trichinopoly, Masulipatam, Negapatam, Ulunderpet and Vizagapatam to name a few. I never had any occasion or opportunity to learn any of the South Indian languages or their attractive scripts, but I had acquired a little Urdu and could generally get along with my long-suffering Punjabis but I'm sure they found it hard to understand me. Probably the local languages of Tamil and Telugu were as strange to them as they were to me, but some of them knew a few English words and most of them could write their names in Roman script on an acquittance roll for their pay. The few who couldn't write, e.g., the Sweepers and Cooks, gave a thumbprint instead.

Changes now began to take place in Army Signals organisation and I was ordered to take over the small Air Trooping Signal Section belonging to Madras Signals, a quite independent unit with which we had never been involved. Quartermaster Sergeant H.Tayler of Madras Signals and our Company Quartermaster Sergeant from No.3 Company at St.Thomas' Mount, arrived at Arkonam and we organised a check of their stores and equipment so I could officially take over this new Section. This taking over and the filling in the various army forms was completed on Tuesday, the 19th of February, but only a few days later I got instructions to hand this section back to L/Sgt. D.S.C.Park, who had been in charge of it before. So, I had hardly any chance to get involved with it. Obviously, things were in a state of flux! This handing over didn't take long as all the equipment and stores had been checked only a few days before, so, by the end of the week conditions were much the same as before.

The last Dakota took off from the airfield at about 09.15 on the morning of Monday, the 25th of February after a farewell ceremony, and it looked as though the closing-down rumours were correct after all, especially as some of my R.A.F. friends were being posted away. On Friday, the 1st of March, I received a teleprinter signal instructing me to hand over the Detachment and all stores to L/Sgt.D.S.C.Park and return to St.Thomas' Mount prior to moving to Bombay. No.5 Indian Air Formation Signals had responsibilities over parts of India covered by 225 Group R.A.F. airfields and this included the Bombay area, so although I would be part of the same Regiment, I would now be in No.2 Company which had its headquarters at Bombay.

It involved quite a lot of work to check our stores and installations and brief L/Sgt. Park about our commitments, but it was completed in two days and I was able to settle my own affairs, pay my bills and pack my belongings so I could move on the following Monday. Although I was not sorry to leave Arkonam which was short on amenities, I was going to miss the Punjabi linesmen and my R.A.F. friends. It was a rare thing to meet people again at other stations, although I did come across the odd one from time to time.

As an excuse for a truck ride on my move to St.Thomas' Mount I decided to return some surplus accumulator batteries. I found that four of my R.A.F. friends were keen to get a lift to Madras as the airfield was closing down and they were moving. When we had loaded all our kit and the accumulators, it was obvious that the 15 cwt truck was overloaded so I had the accumulators taken off again. So much for my excuse! The truck was piled with all our kit and I chose to ride in the back in the fresh air while one of the R.A.F. officers shared the cab with Pir Khan. After our farewells, we left at about two o'clock after lunch on Monday, the 4th of March, and travelled to Sriperumbudur along very dusty roads. I could see in the distance the temple towers of Conjeeveram away to the south over the palms as we turned off to the east on the Madras road.

An interesting feature of these Indian roads was that besides milestones, they also had furlong markers, perhaps a relic of early British colonial days. The trees at the roadsides were numbered in white paint, a precaution against firewood collectors from the villages. Wood was the main fuel in these parts and you saw women and children scouring the countryside for twigs and branches for their cooking fires.

We looked for somewhere to get a drink to wash the dust from our throats when we reached Sriperumbudur, and as I couldn't persuade the others to try the temple “coffee shop”, we bought some coconuts from a wayside seller. They were complete large green nuts and the seller neatly chopped off the tops so we could drink the delicious milk inside. When we had finished, we threw away the nuts; it seemed quite ridiculous to throw away a large coconut as we would throw away an apple core at home. However, they were not wasted as there was an immediate scramble for them by a small crowd of village boys, who wanted to eat the coconut contents. At places near the villages there were toddy shops or stalls selling toddy or palm-wine, said to be a potent brew, but we didn't fancy trying it. It is made by fermenting the sap from palm trees, men climbing to the tops and cutting into them so that the sap could be collected in cups.

As we carried on through Sriberumbudur, we stopped to have another look at the Juggernaut car with its elaborate wood carvings. As there had been much rioting in Madras a few weeks previously, I was rather apprehensive and even Pir Khan muttered something about “Congress wallahs”. However, when we reached Madras everything was normal apart from there being more rubbish in the streets. I dropped my passengers at the railway station and continued to St.Thomas’ Mount arriving in time late afternoon. I called to see Major Dando and found that my movement order was for Wednesday, the 6th of March, so I found a room for a few days. This was a rather better one than those at Arkonam, having an adjoining “ablution” room with a shower and a “thunderbox”. Outside the block of rooms sat a young girl sweeper who attended to this receptacle every time it had been used. I managed to get hold of Saba, my original bearer, and arranged for him to look after me again.

Next day, a fellow officer was going into Madras on business and I was offered a ride with him passing old Fort St.George and returning along Marine Drive to have a look at the ocean and the surfboats. I still didn't get a chance to visit the cathedral of St.Thome, where the remains of St.Thomas are alleged to be; it is said that one of his fingers is exposed to view in a box. His martyrdom took place on the 21st of December, A.D.68 according to tradition.

The next day, Wednesday, the 6th of March, I left Madras by train at 10.30 pm. sleeping well and only waking as the train reached Guntakal the next morning, oblivious to having passed through Arkonam again in the night.