The climate at our first pre-war RAF station was a great relief from the heat of the plains and the mess itself was most luxurious, quite the best that we had ever seen. The luxury was to make up for the tedium of service in the far flung empire as well as to take the minds away from the hazards of flying over tribal hill country. All pilots carried "Goolie Chits" that stated that in the case of capture by tribesmen a good ransom would be paid providing their 'Wedding Tackle' was in place and intact. The mess itself was massive and ornate and a letter home dated 14th May 1944 describes as follows:-
"The billiard, ante room and dining rooms are huge and are panelled with wood that looks to be @ least 2 inches thick. The ante room is long with two huge fireplaces and decorated with carved wooden crests or previous squadrons. Above the panelling are mounted animal heads and at about twelve feet from the floor are the windows. The dimensions of the dining room are similar and in proportion to the dining table that is of heavy polished wood and eight feet wide by fifty feet long. Our poor little squadron is quite lost as there is ample room between each chair for another. Most of the table service is of heavy silver. I complained that I had to buy Mujid two mess uniforms but he is immensely proud, standing discretely behind me. He really is a gem and costs me his keep, uniforms etc: and £3 per month, most of which he manages to send home.
I am sharing a large room with an old friend, we also have a dressing room and a bathroom of similar size. There are four tennis courts, two of which are just outside our bungalow. Adjoining them is a small but wizard swimming pool. The form after work is to play a couple of sets and then retire to the pool. I hope to be able to learn to swim by the time we leave here. Unlike much of India there is much green in this area and the mountains take away any illusion of England but it is grand to get up in the morning and see the snow on them in the distance.
The tribal people are fine types and deserve full respect but people here will pinch anything, even the filter and filter holder for my camera which could be of no use other than a pretty piece of glass has vanished. The bar steward is a very smartly turned out young fellow who is justly famous for his cocktails, my favourite being 'Whisky Sour'. When he first served me one he hovered, waiting for me to take a sip; when I did he quizzed me in great detail as to how it was, too sour, too sweet: could I tell him if he could improve it in any way. He treats every officer in exactly the same way and stores it all away in his head, one would think, for ever. He is a Muslim and has never tasted alcohol.
A funny thing happened only a couple of days ago. The Group Senior Medical Officer was suffering from a severe hangover. He was flying over Peshawar in an old Anson and was bending over being sick when a bullet came through the floor and neatly creased the top of his bald head! I saw it the other day; all very amusing. We now have a permanent signals officer. When he arrived he told me that he had heard that 10 Sqdn signals was doing amazingly well. When I regretfully handed over, the CO was unusually effusive in thanking me. I am now looking for something else to get my teeth into. As far as my CO is concerned I am getting on as well as the rest of the boys."
I referred to my job as Signals Officer. A fighter squadron is a relatively small unit and each officer had to take on other duties as well as flying. It was, I suppose, inevitable that with a name like 'Sparkes' my allotted job would be looking after the radios etc: At the time that I was relinquishing that duty a serious fault had been revealed by our very efficient engineering officer. It seemed that the coolant systems in our Hurricanes were deteriorating at an alarming rate. This was traced to the coolant itself which was a mixture of distilled water and ethylene glycol. The glycol was from RAF stores and proved to be beyond suspicion, the water, however was another kettle of fish altogether. It was obtained from a local contractor. With stories of spies and independence for India abounding it was not surprising that there was a very real possibility that subversive elements could be indulging in a little sabotage. It was no surprise to anyone that the CO put me in charge of the investigation as he seemed to use me as a general 'trouble shooter' if something unusual occurred. Whether this was because he wanted to give me the opportunity to make a complete hash of things or just to keep my energies fully employed I never discovered.
I turned up at the contractors without warning complete with a Military Police escort but he must have been prepared for such an eventuality because a full range of the most ingenious stills was on display. (I was to use this experience later when we were forced to produce our own alcohol!). We were greeted by the most elaborate courtesy which was enough to make me smell a rat and after examining the apparatus and workshop I left with a sample of the distilled water. I went to the governmental analysis laboratory in Lahore and found myself in the same hotel in which Sneh and I had stayed. I was greeted as an old visitor and (bless them) they gave me our old room.
Enjoying an after dinner drink I was amused to see Mahommed Ali Jinna who became the first president of Pakistan with a few of his cronies sitting across the room. One night when Sneh and I were having our after dinner coffee a member of his party came over to us and after an 'excuse me' nod to me he engaged Sneh in an elaborate conversation in Urdu which soon left me uncomprehending. She was politeness itself but it was obvious that she had refused something. She turned to me and said "We must leave". As soon as we got to the room she told me furiously that he had invited us to join their party. She had refused because, as was well known, Jinna was planning the partition of India. I completely agreed with her but breathed a sigh of relief because I would have been in deep trouble. My position was already sensitive to say the least.
This time my presence was not noted which caused me no surprise. The following day I presented myself with my two samples at the laboratory where I had been expected. It was a most interesting experience and they needed little prompting to give me the grand tour. At one point I noticed a long bench with bunsen burners boiling beakers of what appeared to be water containing bits of meat, each with a hand written label attached to a leg of the tripod. These, it transpired, were various human organs under analysis. It seemed that poison was much used to rid the subcontinent in personal feuds, domestic or political.
The following morning I returned as arranged. The two samples had been analysed. The sample that was given me at the contractor's was pure distilled water. The 'distilled water' purchased for the coolant mixture was highly acidic and of the quality used to top up accumulators. That source was not used again and doubtless there would have been legal proceedings but the mills of the law grind exceeding slow and we had gone before any action was taken.
As far as the swimming reference is concerned I had never learned and am still unable to do so in spite of so many days afloat. Having spent most of the days of my childhood and youth very close to the sea it is natural that I should have met the fishermen of the area. They never learned to swim; perhaps that is why I never tried. This did not prevent my enjoying the swimming pool though. Acrobatics had always held a fascination for me and I enjoyed diving and by trusting my friends to be in the right place at the right time to haul me out it was possible to enjoy it to the full.
There was, however, one dicey occurrence. I happened to be duty officer and was fully clothed in my 'Blues' when a few chaps, larking about, gave me a shove. My balance being lost and a ducking inevitable, there was just time to jump so that I landed in the water feet first as we were always instructed if we were unfortunate as to parachute into water. The chaps at poolside thoroughly enjoyed the incident and as one described later, my hair was gently waving just below the water. For my part I was hoping that someone would soon rescue me and was wondering how long my breath would hold out; just when things were working up to what seemed like high pressure I let out a few precious bubbles, someone yelled that I could not swim and they got me out in no time. All jolly good fun and a good time was had by all.
Next: - The Prang
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Edward Sparkes ©1998