Journeys and Resting Places

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Chapter 9: Posted to Poona

One of the perquisites of railway travel for officers in India was the use of Form E. On this there were two rates; when travelling on temporary duty one could claim 1½ 1st Class fares as Subsistence Allowance, while if travel was on permanent posting, 2½ 1st Class fares were given. When you consider that with a Travel Warrant one only paid half a 1st Class fare in the first place, it was a profitable exercise. The only snag was the complicated claim form which had to be filled in after the journey. I had filled one in after my journey to Arkonam but the Indian Army Accountants at Meerut had sent it back as wrongly completed and after several more tries and rejections I gave it up and forgot about it. This form pursued me round the country and was only cleared after I had got help from an expert much later on. Once I had learned the drill, however, I had no more trouble and it was a useful source of extra cash, as I moved from place to place.

Thursday, the 7th of March, was very hot and the train journey over hundreds of miles of the Deccan plateau was tiring. I lifted the louvered shutters on the sunny side of the train and drew up the wire mesh screens on the shady side; this gave a draught of hot dusty air and soon everything was covered with a gritty layer. The country was very dry and arid, patches of scrubby bushes and fantastic boulder hills broken only by the occasional village and patch of cultivation. The usual procedure of telegraphing ahead for meals was carried out but the train only waited for 15 to 30 minutes at stations while passengers had a meal. After another night on the train, I reached Poona just about dawn and was ready for my breakfast at Kalyan, the next stop. In the late morning we reached Bombay and I rang for transport to No.1 Company Headquarters.

Bombay Station swarmed with licensed coolie porters dressed in dingy red shorts and shirts worn outside, with their nominal charge of “One Anna” printed boldly across the front in black. They also wore red turbans and had numbered brass armbands; it was advisable to note these numbers when you engaged porters for your luggage. You also had to be careful how many you engaged, as odd ones, carrying a small parcel or bag for you, expected the same reward as ones carrying a heavy steel trunk or bed roll. They always got paid much more than their nominal fee, and if you were changing trains it was a good idea not to pay them until your connecting train came in and your luggage was loaded on board; otherwise you would need to engage more of them to load your gear! They always seemed to have stick-like arms and legs and I always had qualms to see one carrying my heavy steel trunk on his head supported by such spindly thin bare-footed legs.

From the station I was taken by truck to the south end of Bombay Island where Company Headquarters was sited at Colaba and here I met the Company Commander, Major Rowe. He took me to lunch at the R.A.F. Base H.Q. Mess in the summer palace of the Maharajah of Kutch on Malabar Hill, about four miles to the north of Colaba, a lavish building overlooking the Arabian Sea. Here, among others, I met the R.A.F. Chief Signals Officer. After lunch we went back to the Company Office where I was briefed about my new job which was to be in Poona (now known as Pune) where I was to take over 234 Indian Line Section. On the 5th of March, I had reached the rank of full Lieutenant after six months as a 2nd Lieutenant. Captain Roberts, the Second-in-Command, booked me a reservation on the “Deccan Queen”, leaving Bombay at 5.20 pm. and I was on my travels again.

The journey by train up through the hills of the Western Ghats in the evening sunshine was splendid. Deep valleys, steep razor-like ridges and barren mountain-sides. It was a very relaxing journey as I had a compartment to myself and also managed to get a tray of tea and cakes. After nightfall, there were bush fires to be seen in some of the gorges and mountainsides. When I reached Poona, I was met by a Havildar with a truck and taken to the Poona airfield near Yeravda where I found the Mess Secretary of No.10 Squadron, R.A.F. and arranged for a room. As at Arkonam, the rooms were in concrete-floored blocks but with the advantage of ablution and latrine rooms at one end of each block. My room was only a few doors away from one of these places which was very convenient. The first thing I noticed was the dried skin of a large cobra hanging up on a verandah!

Our Officers Quarters occupied a group of ten blocks about a mile or so south of the runways with a conveniently placed Mess nearby. This building was on a raised concrete platform approached by a flight of concrete steps between flower beds filled with luxurious Canna lilies. On one occasion, someone had killed a large “Rat-snake” several yards long and thick in proportion, and laid it out full length on the Mess verandah at the top of the steps so that people bounding up the steps would be surprised and hopefully jump off into the flower beds! Not far from the Mess was a large emergency water-tank, sunk into the ground, which harboured many noisy frogs, usually at their noisiest in the evenings. It was said that a Squadron Leader ended up in this tank during the Christmas festivities. About three-quarters of a mile west was the Yeravda Jail with a clock which struck the hours on a particularly mournful-sounding bell, and I would lie in bed at night listening to this and counting the hours late at night.

I engaged a Bearer named Francis who proved to be very satisfactory and dealt with my daily laundry and other arrangements. He spoke fair English and often used the phrase - “You want it I get it” - if I asked him about anything. I sent him to the Poona bazaar once to buy me a brass jug called a lota which I wanted for an ornament, but instead of the plain brass article he bought me a plated one which was not as attractive although he thought it a superior one such as a sahib might like.

Figure 9.1: Sahib Off Duty! Relaxing outside my room on Poona Airfield

Our quarters were about four miles from Poona city, over the Mula River and past the railway station. The streets to the north of the railway line were laid out in an open manner with wide tree-lined roads and some gardens. It was here that the Poona Club was situated. Beyond the station was the Indian city with narrow built-up houses and shops, some with jutting balconies of carved wood. There was a good bookshop which I visited frequently and bought a number of books from while I was at Poona. There were several coffee shops which served a refreshing cup of iced coffee in tall glasses, the waiter pouring it into the glass from a height so as to produce a foaming head.

Having settled in my room, I then had to take over the No.234 Indian Line Section which was under the control of Lt Pat.E.Williams who was being posted to Bangalore after he had handed over to me. This process took nearly a week owing to the size and complexity of the Section. Pat took it all in a very easy-going manner and we paid several visits to the Poona Club with his friends to use the open-air swimming pool and laze on the terrace in the afternoons. We were not members but just gate-crashed in a confident manner and got away with it although I think there was at least one paid-up officer member in our party sometimes! Pat Williams seemed always short of money and we made several trips into the Indian city where a merchant or baniya was always prepared to cash cheques for a British officer for a small commission. The usual charge was about one percent of the total amount.

I took advantage of this method of getting money myself as there were no other ways of cashing a cheque at these airfields and there were no banks. It always worried me that any nondescript merchant would accept your cheque for one hundred rupees (about £7.50), made out for say Rs.100 As.14 to include his commission. What happened to the cheques, and how many hands they passed through was a mystery, but the system always worked. On one of my subsequent visits to this merchant for money after Pat had left the area, it transpired that one of Pat's cheques had been returned by the bank and the merchant was anxious to trace his whereabouts! The matter was solved after some correspondence.

An Army unit had a scale of personnel and stores laid down in what was known as a War Establishment and this was the basis for handing/taking over a particular unit, everything having to be checked and accounted for on the W.E. list. There had been only a relatively few items in the Arkonam Detachment but the Poona Section was much larger and had a number of vehicles. There were about 63 Indians, mostly Dogras, including a Jemadar, eleven N.C.O.s, Drivers, Signalmen and eight Non-Combatants who were known as Followers. These included a Cook, Barber, Water-carrier, Boot-maker, and several Sweepers. Not all of these men were at Poona, a sizable detachment with a British Corporal operated at the airfield at Hakimpet near Secunderabad, another detachment was at Bombay Company Headquarters, and a third detachment was at Sambre, near the town of Belgaum, in charge of L/Hav.Jagan Nath, where they had a very easy time away from supervision. I never saw any of these men but was in touch by telephone, teleprinter and mail, receiving regular reports and returns. I was also in contact with an Air Trooping Signal Section, a small independent unit at the nearby Air Trooping Transit Camp. This was made up of nine B.O.R.s and twelve Punjabi Muslims. Among them were switchboard operators and a teleprinter mechanic.

The Dogras were Hindus from the region of Jammu and Kashmir, and there were two main castes, all of my Signalmen claiming to be Brahmans. In the Army caste distinctions were minimised and they made no bones about sharing their food with me when out in the field. The Dogras were a hardy and martial race, and I found them good soldiers despite a tendency to squabble between themselves. A lot of them were overdue for leave and restless and once I had to put two men in the guardroom overnight for fighting. After a while, I was able to send 17 men at a time on leave and send others on release from the Army in batches of three or four as their periods of service expired. This had a good effect and eliminated the bad elements in the Section, greatly reducing the number of written applications which used to roll in.

Figure 9.2: 234 Indian Line Section, H.Q. Personnel, Poona, July 1946.

I was responsible for the maintenance of six teleprinters operating at Flying Control on meteorological and signal networks over India and managed to get a teleprinter mechanic, Sigmn. Moores, who had worked for me at times at Arkonam, posted to the Air Trooping Signal Section to save having to bring a man up from Bombay on the train when we had a problem. Apart from these teleprinters, our work was with the R.A.F., Army, and Post & Telegraph Department in connection with the Station telephone exchange, and involved line installation and the recovery of disused routes and poles.

To begin with, my big problem was the paperwork. Pat Williams had filled a large cupboard with files, in many cases a single letter being filed in one cover and it was quite difficult to trace any letter you wanted. I spent much time in applying Occam's Razor to this mass of files, much to the distaste of my Section Havildar who was a born bureaucrat. We ended up with about thirty files and some sort of order in each one.

The Section Office consisted of two rooms, an outer one where Havildar Prem Chand, the senior Indian N.C.O. operated, and an inner one where I had my desk. This room had one window and led directly into the outer room without a door. The whole place was very poky and bare of comforts. Apart from my desk and chair the room only had only a large cupboard for files, and the bare concrete floor was uncarpeted. We had no typewriter, all correspondence being conducted in longhand with indelible pencil and carbon copies. At times I was able to get the loan of an ancient typewriter from an Indian Air Force officer who lived in a room near mine, and the nominal rolls were typed on this machine.

The Indian Signalmen were quartered near the extreme westerly boundary of the Group Domestic site where they occupied four bashas, one being the Section Stores with a resident Storekeeper to keep an eye on things. A few hundred yards away to the south-east was the Cookhouse and Followers' quarters in an earth-floored basha which also served as a messroom. I inspected all these places weekly and held a parade of the Section vehicles from time to time in order to see that they were being properly maintained and all M.T. tool kits were as they should be. Many tools were very worn and I found it very difficult to get replacements through the usual channels.

These parades were held on Saturday mornings and the drivers would let down the tailboards of the trucks and lay out their M.T. tools for checking, together with the tool lists and other vehicle documents. On one occasion, at the approach of the hot weather, a large “dust-devil” approached the parade ground and moved rapidly across the area, removing all the papers from the tailboard of one truck and taking them high into the air, while we all scattered out of the way. The drivers had to chase across the countryside to rescue their documents as the “dust-devil” subsided. These “dust-devils” were a feature of the area as the hot weather increased, seemingly appearing out of nowhere and increasing in intensity before finally collapsing. The powerful vortex of rising air carried dust, grit and any other loose objects upwards in a strong blast of hot air and was to be avoided for comfort's sake!

I also held a weekly parade for the Section except for those on duty, and while it was not really a drill parade they had to turn out at times with rifles and be inspected. Our rifles were normally held in the Station Armoury and only drawn out for these parades. I managed to get a few photographs of the men on these parades, one which was taken near the I.O.R.s quarters shows the Section H.Q. Personnel, a slight blur in the foreground showing the Section kitten which would not sit still!

Figure 9.3: A parade of Signalmen of H.Q.Section at Poona.

Shortly after taking over the Section, the senior Havildar, Prem Chand invited me on an evening outing to a pleasure-ground near Poona known as Hollywood City. This was a large fairground partly inside a building and part open-air, gaudy with bright coloured lights and very noisy. It was very crowded and obviously a popular night spot; I think I must have been the only European present. Part of the complex was a concert hall where our party adjourned to see a musical and dancing performance. Prem Chand had a crush on one of the performers, an Indian lady who sang and danced, so we had to sit near the front so as to get the full treatment! It became rather tedious after a while. A small Indian band sat at one side of the stage while a succession of ladies in magnificent saris danced and sang to their accompaniment. Most of the dancing was with hands and arms and a peculiar sideways neck movement holding the head vertical. Bare feet with metal anklets and bells also came into the performance. Prem Chand had brought presents of a coconut and a bottle of orange squash to give to his chosen lady; unfortunately, the bottle of squash, which he had put under his seat got broken so he had to be content with giving her a coconut only and seemed very put out.

I was given some money from Company H.Q. from a leisure fund for Indian troops, and they decided they would like some books to read. Jemadar Maheshru Singh and I went down to Poona bazaar and found an Indian bookseller. The Jemadar chose a number of books in Urdu and Hindi script which he assured me the men would enjoy. I never found out what they were about except that some were “romances” but they got well used. I found that the Army H.Q. in Poona also had some facilities for the welfare of Indian troops and could supply a regular free newspaper called Jawan as well as vernacular magazines, so we took advantage of this service, sending a truck down regularly to get supplies. Sometimes I went also and collected copies of Jawan in English, Roman-Urdu, Urdu, Hindi, Marathi, Gurmukhi, Tamil and Telegu! At the time, I was learning Urdu but found the script too difficult, especially as printed in the newspapers. The title “Jawan” means “Soldier” but has a more heroic ring about it than the usual word sipahi (sepoy). The Army Welfare also supplied us with a wind-up portable gramophone, a supply of needles and a regular change of Indian records which were very popular being about the only entertainment available. The driver who collected the weekly newspapers also changed the records when everyone wanted a change. Towards the end of my stay at Poona the gramophone was stolen from our storeroom one night despite the presence of the Storeman, so I had to call for a Court of Inquiry into its loss by independent officers from Bombay. I never found out the outcome as I had left Poona before the Court was convened.

There was often a rowdy drinking group of R.A.F. officers in the Mess in the evenings and I never went back there after dinner, spending the time in my room reading or writing. At first, I found that the singing and din from the Mess which went on until a late hour was a nuisance, and became heartily sick of hearing one particularly popular record played on the radiogram at full volume night after night. It was called “Rum and Coca-Cola” or at least that was the constant refrain! So I changed rooms and moved to a vacant end room of a block on the eastern edge of the site which was very peaceful. The neighbours were quiet although after a time a pair of House Mynahs made a nest on the top of the wall in one corner where it joined the roof. Every morning I was awakened by them screeching as they started to feed their chicks. They resented me being there in bed and always made a noise when Francis brought me chhota haziri in the early mornings. One bird would face into the room and swear at us in its own way. These House Mynahs were not the same species as the well known talking Hill Mynahs, but were large brown birds with yellow beaks, eye-patches and legs, black and white wings and tails. The word mynah is the Urdu for starling and these birds behave like our starlings and are even noisier.

From my room I only had to go round the end of the block and could then walk over a wide expanse of rough empty ground, cut by several deep gullies or nullahs which were quite dry except in the monsoons. This expanse of open ground extended almost two miles without break before it ended at the Tata Factory. I spent much time walking over it as it had a number of interesting features, being rich in termite hills, lizards and occasional snakes. Several pye-dogs lived in the area but they were very wary after being shot at and were difficult to approach. I tried to stalk one once but never got within a hundred yards of it. Usually, I wore a bush shirt and shorts but on one occasion I took a walk one afternoon over this open ground without a shirt and although I was not away for more than an hour, my shoulders were quite badly burned, large blisters soon coming up and I had a few uncomfortable days until it healed and the skin peeled off in large sheets. I never actively sun-bathed as some did, lying out in time sun on their camp beds, but I was often out in the sun most of the day wearing my uniform hat and never suffered any other burn problems. My knees became quite brown though!

So-called Tree Rats, a kind of squirrel, were very common around our area and sometimes came into our rooms looking for food. I found one dead in my room one day, and its bushy tail looked so attractive that I got my bearer to cut it off with a razor blade as a souvenir. I think I later sent it home in a letter to Margaret! On one occasion as I lay in bed in the early morning with my cup of tea, Francis having gone for my hot water for shaving leaving the door open, a large mangy and revolting pye dog walked in, saw me, calmly turned and walked out much to my relief!

There was a Station Cinema on the Domestic Site not far away which I went to sometimes in the evening. It was a very basic cinema with no frills but quite good value at one rupee (7½ pence) for an evening's entertainment. One week the film “The Way Ahead”, a wartime classic of the time was to be shown, and I thought I would take the Jemadar to see it with me as a treat. He was not a particularly bright man and his English was not very good but I thought that even if he didn't understand the dialogue he might enjoy the film. However, when we got there I found that there had been a change of film and they were showing “Michael Strogof”, a highly dramatic and lurid epic about a Russian officer captured by the Mongol Hordes invading Russia. I found the American dialogue hard to follow but the Jemadar seemed to enjoy the action thoroughly. We got some funny looks from the airmen as I don't suppose an Indian officer had ever been seen in the cinema before.

Insects were plentiful especially at night and I would sit in my room at my desk with the window open and a reading lamp on, watching the moths, beetles and other creatures that flew in attracted by the light. Sometimes, a large mantis would fly in and perch on the desk, preying on moths and other insects that dropped nearby. There were always small geckos or wall-lizards which would appear in the pool of light from the lamp and snap up odd morsels. Just outside the verandah on the bare ground between the blocks of rooms was a termite colony. This looked like a small volcano about six inches high and eighteen inches across with a central irregular hole around which crowds of termites swarmed at night. They were guarded by soldiers with formidable jaws who stood at the edges of the hole to keep other creatures at bay.

On my trips into Poona on Saturday afternoons I found some good bookshops and bought a number of books at different times so I was not short of reading matter. Among the books I bought were a chemistry textbook (Holmyard) and one about the Mongols called “Batu Khan” on the 27th of March, for Rs.9/6/0 (70 pence). On the 12th of May I bought a fascinating book about Sivaji for Rs.2/8/0 (18p) and later, a Bible for Rs.6/8/0 (48p) on the 5th of June, and the complete works of Edgar Allan Poe for Rs.15 (£1.12) and a copy of the Koran Rs.4/0/0 (30 pence), on the 15th of June. I still have these books except for the chemistry textbook which was thrown out. I usually got a lift into Poona on an R.A.F. truck but sometimes shared a taxi with other officers. As a rule I walked back over the Yeravda Bridge and past the Deccan College. I never visited the famous Connaught Boat Club situated near the confluence of the Murtha and Mula Rivers above the weir as this was a rather up-stage establishment for the “society people”.

The R.A.F., pursuing their policy of installing a network of navigational radar stations (“G” Chain), were building one in the Western Ghats at the top of the hill-fort of Purandhar, a prominent feature at 4675 feet above sea level. This very steep hill was crowned with the crumbling remains of stone fortifications dating back to early Mogul times. The radar station was in two parts, the main building being in the lower fort and the transmitters on the summit of the fort, about 800 feet higher up. We were required to run telephone lines between the two, which involved taking field cables up some precipitous cliffs and over the old ramparts of the upper fort.

Access to even the lower fort and the R.A.F. site was difficult, the only way up from the village of Purandhar on the plain was by a narrow dirt road which zig-zagged to and fro (“hither and yon” as Prem Chand used to say) up the very steep rocky hillside for about two miles. The only vehicles that could use this road were 4-wheel drive jeeps which carried people and stores up several times a day. It was said that through the heavy wear that these jeeps were subjected to, it was necessary to put about half a gallon of oil in the engine after each journey. It was quite a hair raising trip, perched in a jeep with steep drops from the road and numerous hairpin bends round which we ground in low gear.

Figure 9.4: Linesmen working under difficulties.

I had several trips out to Purandhar with my signalmen and quite enjoyed these outings. The journey from Poona airfield was about 30 miles by road, starting with a steep but good road from Poona up Diva Ghat to a fairly level plateau. The road across here to Sasvad was rather rough going and then we were advised to drive across the river through a shallow ford well away from the town and avoid using the town bridge owing to local tendency to stone any vehicles crossing it. My drivers and signalmen always enjoyed this river crossing, and a small group of locals usually gathered to watch, no doubt in the hope of seeing us get stuck. Even after several weeks of monsoon rain the river here was said to be fordable on a stony bottom, although the Mula River at Poona was in full flood.

Sasvad had some big temples with burning ghats near the river, and also a large fort-like citadel which I would have liked to explore. (The natives, however, were supposed not to be friendly!) From Sasvad to Purandhar, the road was gently uphill through small Mahratta villages and just past Purandhar the road ended at a small cleared area at the base of the hill. Having transported our equipment and ourselves to the Lower Fort terrace in several jeep loads, we had to carry cables and wooden poles up to the foot of the cliffs and haul them up on ropes so we could build our telephone lines out clear of the bastion walls down a sheer drop of several hundred feet. It was tiring work and I had a slight mishap when I slipped and fell into a clump of spiny Euphorbia. As I was wearing shorts, it was quite a painful experience!

Of course, I took the opportunity to explore the whole of the hilltop which was covered in places with the ruins of mosques and other buildings, mostly just heaps of stone, but the gateways and bastions on the north side were still standing although the battlements had gone. Another prominent hill to the east was Vazirgarh, also an old fortified stronghold, but too far away for me to visit. Both sites have great natural defences and have been in use since the fourteenth century. South west and south of Poona are a number of impressive and historically important hill-forts in the Mahratta country, and there are many stories connected with them during the early 17th century when the Mahrattas were in revolt against the Great Moguls. The most important forts are:- Sinhgarh, Torna, Rajgarh, Purandhar and Pratapgarh.

During this work I had a meal of curry and chapattis with the signalmen who had brought prepared dixies of food which they heated over a wood fire on the hillside. I was invited to join them and we had a very good hot curry dinner sitting on the ground round the fire. Eating curry with your fingers is not difficult with the help of pieces of chapatti! They all seemed to enjoy the outing despite the hard work and wanted to come again on the next expedition. I told them about the treasure supposedly buried under the Shendi Bastion and we had a good look around the cliffs on which it stands. There was a deep dark crevice into which one could crawl but was probably a lurking place for snakes so we didn't venture to explore.

On a later occasion I invited Mr.Conceisio, the local P&T telephone manager, to come with us to Purandhar and fitted him up with a camp chair in the back of our truck. He was a rather stout pompous man, very full of his own importance and rarely left his office in Poona where I often had to call on him to smooth out problems with his employees on the airfield. In the manner of Indian bureaucrats he usually kept me waiting in the outer office until he could find time to see me but we got on fairly well. I think he was of Portuguese/Indian origin. The weather was hot and the roads very dusty but he seemed to enjoy the ordeal of 30 miles in the back of the truck and the jeep ride. He brought his camera and took some photos of Purandhar and the working party. Coming back, I let him sit in the cab with the driver and I took the camp chair for a change. On the way down Diva Ghat, we ran over a large snake, several yards long, which seemed to be asleep across the road.

The earliest mention of Purandhar was in the reign of the first Bahmani king, Sultan Alau-d Din I (1347-58), a fierce, bigoted Muslim who obtained possession of almost the whole of the Maharashtra from the Purandhar Range to the Cauvery River in Mysore. Purandhar was fortified in 1350 with a single path leading to the summit. The fort was well supplied with water from catchment areas that filled up during the monsoons. When the Bahmani kingdom broke up in 1512, the fort came into the possession of the Nizam Shahi kings of Ahmadnagar. During their early rule, Purandhar was among the forts reserved by the Government and never entrusted to Jagirdars or estate-holders. However, when Sultan Bahadur Nizam Shah granted Poona to Maloji, grandfather of Sivaji in 1597, this fort passed into his hands. Sivaji was born in Poona on the 16th of April 1627, and the same year the Moguls took the fort from the son of Maloji, Shahaji, during the reign of the emperor Jahangir. It was held by the forces of the Sultans of Bijapur until it was recaptured by Sivaji by trickery in 1646.

An attempt to recapture Purandhar by the Bijapur army was defeated by the treacherous murder of its leader, Afzul Khan, by Sivaji himself and a surprise ambush of the leaderless Bijapur army. After this episode, the Mahrattas under Sivaji's leadershiyr held the fort until forced to surrender to the superior forces sent by the emperor, Aurangzeb in 1665. This army was lead by the Rajput, Raja Jai Singh, and the Afghan, Dilir Khan, both formidable adversaries. Sivaji was coerced into a visit to the court of Aurangzeb at Agra, but after a while realising he was in a trap, contrived to escape. In the ensuing Mahratta revolt, he recaptured Purandhar again in 1670 and it was held from after his death in 1680 until Aurangzeb took it again in 1705 from Tarabhai, the widow of Rajaram, Sivaji's son. With the coming into power of the Peshwas of Poona, after the descendants of Sivaji, Purandhar was the usual stronghold to which they retreated in times of strife. It was surrendered to the British in 1818.

Figure 9.5: Party of linesmen on the road at Deva Ghat during one of our trips to Purandhar.

Looking to the south-west from the Officers Mess car park, one could see in the distance a range of rocky hills with steep, north-facing scarps rising above the ten mile long Khadadwasla Lake which lies in a westerly-trending valley. On the summits of these hills were a number of forts, rich in history, dating to the time of the Moguls and Sivaji. These forts commanded the passes through the mountains to Bijapur and were originally held by Muslim commanders. Conditions at one fort, Torna, were very bleak and during the monsoon in 1646, the Commander finally lost patience with all the rain and isolation, and marched his garrison down to the comfort of of the plains until the weather got better! Sivaji took advantage of this move and occupied the fort with a band of hillmen, seizing the arsenal and treasury. With the help of these supplies of arms for his followers, and the money for bribery, and using delaying tactics in dealing with the Bijapur authorities who demanded an explanation of his action, Sivaji not only fortified another site at Rajgarh, but bribed his way into possession of the important fort of Sinhgarh, eleven miles south-west of Poona. Shortly after this he also occupied Purandhar by trickery so that within a year, while the Bijapur authorities were still arguing about his action at Torna, he had control of a chain of strong forts dominating the approaches to his own lands at Poona.

Much later, after his submission to the Mogul Emperor, Aurangzeb, in 1665, many of these forts were taken over by the Moguls, but within a few years, Sivaji regained control of most of them. Finally, Purandhar and Singharh were soon the only forts near Poona remaining in Mogul hands and the Mahrattas proceeded to recapture these. The first attack was on the formidable fort of Sinhgarh where steep basalt cliffs tower to 1400 feet above Khadadwasla Lake. The walls of the fort were built at the top of fifty-feet high, sheer, rocky cliffs, and the stronghold was manned by a about a thousand Muslim troops led by a renowned captain, Udai Baun. Sivaji, urged on by his mother, planned an attack on this fort which was led by one of his best captains, Tanaji. The assault was made up the sheer rock face, a rope being carried up by a trained hill-iguana of large size to enable the attackers to reach the summit. In the ensuing fighting, Tanaji was killed but the garrison was taken by surprise, the fort captured and fires lit as a signal to Sivaji in Poona.

Seeing these rugged hills with their forts I was always keen to visit them but never had the opportunity, especially as I could not get any maps of the wild area where they were, or the transport needed to travel there. The only occasion that I managed to get a few days leave I spent it the Poona area. I had my meals in the Mess and went out for local walks, on my own, especially to a rugged hilly area to the north of the airfield. After passing through a cultivated region beyond the runways, I came to rougher country, which rose to a series of flat topped hills, some of which I climbed. From here, I had a grand view across the airfield and Poona towards the Western Ghats with its hillforts. The rocky ground was covered with low thorny scrub between boulders, and there were plenty of lizards, some being quite large iguanas which stood quite still and I didn't notice them until I got close when they moved off at great speed, often giving me quite a start! There were also a few bare trees which could be heard “singing” as I approached them owing to large numbers of Cicada-like insects swarming in them, a most unusual effect. Some of the lower growing bushes and plants were infested with large green and brown grasshoppers which took off with a loud whirr of wings as I passed by. Although this two day break was short I enjoyed it but was glad to get back to routine next day.

I managed to get hold of a supply of 9mm ammunition and a Sten gun from the R.A.F., so was able to organise some weapon training with my N.C.O.s and Signalmen. After a short training session with empty magazines, I took them on a morning's firing at targets on the R.A.F. firing range. Here at a distance of about 15 yards, they blazed off all the ammunition in single shots and short bursts and thoroughly enjoyed themselves. I was glad that it all went off without mishaps or accidents as the Sten was a crude and lethal weapon. I had to supervise them individually, ensuring that each man held the gun correctly, taking care to keep the fingers of his left hand well clear of the bolt mechanism which could easily remove the finger tips of a carelessly placed hand.

At about this time I got a request from Company H.Q. in Bombay to pay a visit to a British Signalman who was in an isolation hospital at Poona, so I went to see if I could do anything for him. He had suffered a near fatal attack of smallpox, having been an objector to vaccination for some reason of his own, but had by then recovered. I was allowed to visit him for a short time in a private ward. The poor fellow was very badly disfigured by smallpox scars and in a very low and depressed state. He was waiting for hospital clearance before being sent back to the U.K. on compassionate release but was very conscious of his terrible facial appearance and dreaded meeting people. There was nothing I could get for him that he wasn't able to get at the hospital and I came away full of sympathy for him. I never saw him again as he was very soon flown home.

Apart from the Camp Cinema which I visited from time to time, there was little opportunity for public entertainment so the rare concert or play was well attended. Once, a touring E.N.S.A. (Entertainments National Service Association) group put on a good play which was very amusing; it concerned the rivalry between an American G.I. and a British sailor for the affections of a girl but even though the plot was trivial, the dialogue was very funny. The R.A.F. also put on a show called “Airscrewy”, and Eddie Holgate, one of my friends, took part. It was made up of a number of sketches and musical pieces and was very enjoyable, especially as all the performers were well known to us and there was a lot of leg-pulling.

The shows were put on in the Camp Cinema which had a stage and did not show films every night. One night, as we walked back over the waste ground from the cinema, there was a disturbance in a group of airmen ahead of us. When we got near, we found that someone had trodden on a snake in the dark. It was fortunate that he had not been bitten, as when it had been stamped to death, it turned out to be a Banded Krait, one of a group of small snakes regarded as being as venomous as cobras. This specimen was only a few feet long with wide bands of yellow and black along its length.

Figure 9.6: Camp Entertainment: “Of course when I was at Poonah - ”

As I wore a complete change of K.D. shorts and bush shirt each day, with a pair of K.D. slacks and long-sleeved jacket at night, and all these garments (with underwear and socks) were washed daily by the dhobi, they had to be replaced as they became shabby. There was an Officers' Shop at Command H.Q. in Poona and I was able to buy khaki drill by the yard, stockings and socks, underwear, towels and sheets at advantageous prices. I had my shorts, slacks, jackets and shirts made by an Indian tailor or darzi who worked in a room near our quarters, supplying him with the cloth and being measured. The completed garments were always ready in a day or two. I thought I might look smart in an outfit of olive-green drill as worn by some Indian Army units, so I bought a length of material and had a jacket and a pair of slacks made from it. Unfortunately, the tailor cut the jacket on the tight side, and although it looked very good, it wasn't the most comfortable wear on a hot night. The cloth belts for these drill jackets had an interchangeable brass buckle which my bearer polished for me daily. In the same block of rooms where the tailor operated was one occupied by a shoemaker or mochi, who made me a pair of very comfortable leather shoes with crepe soles. In army slang, these were known as “brothel-creepers”. He also made me a pair of open-toed sandals or chapplis. These were a regular army issue to the Indian troops under the Storeman's designation as “Chapplis, Frontier pattern”, and were worn usually off duty. The shoemaker would only require an outline drawing of one's foot on a piece of paper in order to make a shoe, so I wrote to Margaret for such a pattern and had a pair of shoes made for her. I don't think she allowed enough room round her feet when she drew the outlines because the finished shoes were too tight and she didn't wear them. We were allowed to send a limited number of duty-free parcels home by Forces Mail; after wrapping them in paper the parcels had to be sewn up in calico with a Customs Declaration pasted on before sending away. Knowing the food rationing problems at home, I sent some large tins of clarified butter and tinned “Spam” to Frodsham and Farnworth when I could get them and I think they all arrived safely.

Figure 9.7: I bought some olive-green drill from the Officers Shop and had it made into a jacket and slacks by a local tailor. He made it fit too snugly for comfort and consequently because of this I only wore it on special occasions.

The Station Officer's Mess Committee invited the Nursing Sisters from the Poona Military Hospital to a reception and we were all prevailed upon to entertain them. The Mess Secretary approached us all to help out so I found myself trying to be sociable in a group of R.A.F. officers and Army Nurses. We had to treat them to drinks and I found this difficult as I didn't drink and was quite unfamiliar with the names of the cocktails I was asked to get from the bar. I had never heard of a “John Collins” or any of the other exotic things they wanted. As soon as I could extract myself from the throng, I made my escape and went back to my room for a quiet read!

Due to the shrinking commitments of our telephone services which were increasingly being taken over by the civilian Posts & Telegraph Department, we were busily engaged in the recovery of many miles of poled field cable routes round airfields. My detachments at Sambre and Hakimpet were doing the same, and were selling off the wooden poles locally and salvaging the field cable. I had one group of Signalmen always employed on this work on the airfield and went out to direct operations from time to time. It was slow work to dig out the wooden poles and I speeded it up by using one of our larger trucks to pull them over with a rope. It was probably rather naughty to use a truck for this but as the poles were usually only 15 feet long and were rather rotten at the base after being in the ground for many years, it worked very well and saved the men a lot of labour.

As we were recovering so much cable we soon ran out of steel cable drums so I took a working party to the Poona Army Dump to get a supply. We loaded a truck with them and at the same time the driver, on his own account “acquired” some scrap M.T. tools, spanners, pliers, etc. for his mates. This was a bit of a racket really, for if the drivers had tool deficiencies through whatever reason, they were supposed to pay for them by stoppages of pay, but if they could produce a tool that was considered unserviceable they could get it replaced by a new one. I only had to sign for the cable drums, and did not know about these tools until much later!

By this time the weather was getting very hot and the dump closed down at noon as metal became too hot to handle after being in the sun until then. I had much trouble with the civilian telephone engineer who worked on the airfield during this transitional period and we had arguments about who should do what until I went to see his boss, Mr.Conceisio, in his Poona office. It was eventually decided that they would be responsible for phones, and we would look after the supply of lines, but this was always a source of friction when it came to practice.

On Sunday mornings, I would attend at a nearby hut which was used as a chapel, for a short service held by the R.A.F. Padre, a Methodist Minister. He had a close association with the Poona Methodist Church and organised a weekly truck to take a party from the airfield to the Sunday evening service at this church. I went regularly to this service which was normally quite short and followed by tea and biscuits and some social event before the truck took us back to the camp. A “spelling-bee” was a popular item and I won a quite undeserved reputation for correct spelling on one occasion when I was the only person able to spell “saccharine”! One of my R.A.F. officer friends gave a talk on “Radioactivity” and borrowed my chemistry textbook to refresh his memory on the subject.

One Saturday, the R.A.F. Padre and I had an outing to visit the Ramabai Mukti mission station at Kedgaon, about 35 miles to the east of Poona. He got hold of a station waggon and with one or two others we made a reconnaissance trip with the idea of taking a party of airmen to the mission at a later date. The site was in the open level country between the Poona-Dhond road and railway line, and covered 114 acres with its buildings, farm and gardens. Ramabai was a high-caste Indian lady who became a Christian and after being widowed, became involved in the relief of poor Hindu widows, blind girls and unwanted girl children. The mission was staffed by Indian and international missionaries, one of whom was Miss Craddock, the sister of Mrs.Snell whose husband was in charge of the Frodsham branch of the National Children's Home. There were several other missionaries including several from the U.S.A. They made us very welcome and showed us round the mission compounds. Although basic and without frills, everywhere was very neat and tidy. The small girls in one compound were very lively and surrounded us in a bright-eyed, cheerful group. They liked to be picked up and held up high in the air so we had to do this for them. I was very impressed by their fragility and it was no effort at all to pick up and swing in the air the thin skinny bodies of these tiny girls who felt like dolls.

Another compound was reserved for older blind girls, and we were told that a major problem was to ensure that it was kept free from snakes for the safety of the residents. We did not see any of these blind girls and we were not allowed into the compounds for widows and older residents. After some refreshments, we returned to Poona, and not long afterwards, the Padre organised another visit with a truckload of airmen and others. I joined this party and this time we had a more extended tour of the site, going round the farming area and visiting the missionary cemetery across the railway lines. The weather had been threatening for some time and on the way back to the Mission, a severe thunderstorm broke accompanied by torrential rain. On one of the railway lines was a large, empty, steel waggon into which we all climbed rapidly to wait for the end of the downpour. The ground was soon flooded and lightning was striking the railway lines and surrounding fields. We started to debate how safe we were in a steel truck on steel rails and people started to get more and more nervous.

One group thought that the truck would act as a Faraday Cage and we would be quite safe; a view I shared. Others suggested that as lightening was an oscillatory discharge, it could jump from the steel roof to our heads in taking the path of least resistance. As the storm went on, everyone became more nervous and finally most of them made a dash through the rain for the Mission. A few of us waited until the rain had lessened a little and then ran for it, so we never found out which theory was correct! We all got very wet in going the relatively short distance, but once inside were able to dry off by a stove in the kitchen.

The more extensively soaked earlier group were wrapped in blankets while their clothes were drying and sat round with cups of tea having a sing song. On the whole, it was a very interesting day out! (Years later, Miss Craddock was on leave at Frodsham and came to see us. The Mission was still flourishing but she said that, since Indian independence, they were having a lot of trouble with the Poona bureaucrats when they wanted anything done.)

The long road between Poona and Kedgaon was quite busy with bullock cart traffic. The road was wide enough to allow two vehicles to pass but had a decided camber so as to drain off the monsoon rains. There was an earthen “hard shoulder” on each side before the ground fell away into drainage ditches. Although metalled, the constant traffic of the iron-rimmed wheels of the bullock-carts, which normally travelled in the middle of the road, had worn two broad, shallow ruts. Once in these grooves, the carts travelled as though on a railway, the drivers often dozing off while the patient bullocks plodded on their way. Driving a truck on these roads was tedious, as one was continually meeting or passing carts which could not give way quickly and needed to be hooted at. A story circulated in the Mess that, at night, it was possible to turn a cart round quietly at a suitable junction, and send it back the way it had come without wakening the driver, and if a series of carts was involved, the bullocks would all turn after each other, all the drivers being fast asleep!

During May, I was able to taste my first mango as they became plentiful and cheap. At about this time also we were bothered by “mango-flies”, small black flies which did not bite but had a very irritating habit of hovering just in front of one's eyes, seemingly attracted by the moisture. They were very persistent and the only way to discourage them was to smoke. I bought a pipe and started to smoke it when they were troublesome and found this quite effective. I never smoked cigarettes and was never a serious pipe smoker but kept up the practice until after I got home to the U.K. until Margaret stopped me!

Eddie Holgate had moved to another R.A.F. station but came to visit his friends at Poona, and at the same time Pat Williams came for several days on leave from Bangalore. There was a room shortage so they stayed with me, moving in with two charpoys and their gear. They also hired two bicycles so they could get into town and back at odd hours, so my room was rather full. They were out most of the days at the Poona Club and elsewhere, but spent the evenings drinking in the Mess, coming in well after midnight, rather “tiddly”, on several nights and waking me up. As you might expect, they came in speaking in exaggerated whispers and knocking things over in their attempts not to wake me up. I pretended to be asleep as I knew that once we got talking, we would be at it for a long time.

Towards the end of June, the weather, which had been getting hotter and more oppressive became changeable and we started to get dust storms and some heavy rain. The rain quickly dried up in the hot sun and made things very humid and uncomfortable. It was very interesting to see the surrounding bare earth near my quarters rapidly take on a covering of green as plants started to grow. This was accompanied by a sudden increase in the insect population, with many flying moths and beetles crowding round my reading lamp at night. It was as though everything was waking up after sleeping during the hot weather.

At the beginning of July 1946, I received orders to hand over 234 Indian Line Section at Poona to a new Indian officer and then move to Bombay, where I was to be based at Company H.Q. I had enjoyed a great deal of independence at Poona with only a small degree of contact with H.Q. at Bombay, and now was to come into closer contact with my superiors on a daily basis. The Indian officer duly arrived and turned out to be a fairly newly commissioned young Sikh, 2/Lt. Jagbir Singh. As he was taking over my room he stayed with me during the week necessary to introduce him our work and check stores and equipment. He was quite easy to get on with and spoke very good English, so we managed very well. I had not worked with Sikhs before so it was a good chance to learn about them. All Sikhs have the name “Singh” which means “Lion-hearted”, or “Lion”, and are usually referred to by their first names. They wear their hair long, wound into a bun which is fastened with a ribbon and covered by a turban, and in the Army they wind their beards around a cord which is then tucked behind their ears. It was interesting to watch Jagbir wind his turban round his head every morning; I sometimes held the end of this long length of cloth while he rotated towards me, winding it round his head in tight folds.

Sikhs have five ritual symbols known as the five “K”s; Kesha, or uncut hair, Khanga, a small steel comb set in the hair, Kara, a steel bracelet on the wrist - a rudimentary war-quoit or discus, Kirpan, a sword or small dagger, and Khachha, short underpants for modesty. All these things have a religious significance. Sikhism as a distinct creed dates back to the 15th century when Guru Nanak, the founder, set up a new religious group, an offshoot from Hinduism. At first it was a sect of quiet mystics proclaiming the unity of God in a similar manner to Islam, but later after much persecution from the Moguls, it became a fierce military order, by the time of the Emperor Jahangir. The Granth Sahib or Adi Granth, the Sikh sacred text, was compiled in 1604 by the fifth Guru, Arjun, who was later executed by the Moguls. The tenth and last Guru, Govind Singh who was murdered in 1708, is regarded as the real founder of the Sikh military power which he organised to oppose the Moguls. Once initiated, the members of the Sikh brotherhood were known as the Khalsa or “Pure”; this is referred to in the common Sikh greeting of “Sat Shri Akhal !”

Jagbir was very intrigued with a crossword puzzle in a Sunday paper, and had obviously never seen one before. He became very excited at the prospect of winning a prize of Rs.100 or so, and rapidly completed the simple puzzle. I had to show him that his chances were very slim, as not only would there be vast numbers of entries but as there were lots of alternative answers, the chance of getting the correct solution was remote.

When the handing over process was completed, I packed my gear and moved by train to Bombay, arriving at Bombay Central to be picked up by a truck and taken to the H.Q. of No.1 Company 5 Indian Air Formation Signals at Colaba Point, where I had been on the 8th of March. Major Rowe had left and been replaced by a Sikh, Major Gurbachan Singh with Captain Ali Khan as his second-in-command. I was to replace Lt. John Handy, who, as well as being O/C.273Ind Tele Op Section was Company Imprest Account Holder for pay. And so having first arrived in Bombay in October 1945, I found myself back there again.