Towards the end of our Empire
Towards the end of our Empire – Private Kent S/23179244 recalls his National Service in the early ‘50s
The troopship ‘Empire Fowey’ plunged her way across the wintery Bay of Biscay bound for the Far East. She entered a calm, blue Mediterranean with much relief for a thousand or so reinforcements on Her Majesty’s Service. A two-day refuelling break at Gibraltar gave the opportunity to overview the defined difference between the Atlantic and the emerald blue Mediterranean and check that the famous Apes still held sway and the traditional Gibraltar comfort stations were still open to all.
During the month-long voyage, the captain issued a clear cut, day by day guides to what could be spotted by the lower deck squaddies as well as our superiors on the upper deck. The Sunday morning service in the Grand Ballroom gave us a hint of the grandeur of this captured German liner compared to the head-to-toe three-tiered bunks in the troop accommodation of the lower decks.
The refreshing morning breeze was enhanced by the delightful smell of crisp white rolls issuing from the bakery, and the sight of flying fish as they skimmed the billows of the tropical oceans. Our passage through Suez was as expected, with Arab traders trying to free last week’s payday pittance before the Naafi swooped up the duty-free Indian Pale Ale.
The heat really hit us squaddies as we tumbled off a ship-to-shore dhow onto Aden’s dusty delights – the obscure memory of a dawn approach with a replica Big Ben welcoming us to this colony and crater city.
However, in sedate Colombo, one was able to take tea in the palm-lined Settlers’ Club Room, very aware of our recently-issued tropical calico uniforms which gave the game away – our nude un-suntanned knees for all to mock.
The magic of a tropical evening on deck well away from bingo, and deck sports as towering cloud formations rose into the heavens high above, with the flash lightning dramatizing the tropical scene. The magic quickly vanished as the ‘duty party’ later scrubbed the sticky floor with Izal (or some other foul-smelling detergent).
The Straits of Malacca gave us a hint of what was to come in ambushes in the Malayan plantations and crowded China downtown with the threat of riots never far away.
Then a dramatic dockside arrival in Singapore, lumbered with kit bags and prams, awaiting one’s turn and clutching a posting chitty (which was a mystery to customs military police). Eventually I was the only soul left behind – until I was dispatched under escort to G.H.Q. F.A.R.E.L.F – a lush, partitioned campus alongside the Botanical Gardens. After a 2-day wait I was picked up by an ancient Humber staff car and driven through Singapore’s many diverse and multi-cultural settlements, then out towards the Straits of Jahore and the RAF base at Saletar.
Sunderland flying boats – amazingly still in service – Meteors and Vampires lay around awaiting scrapping prior to the Brits’ departure. My work place was in a concrete bunker alongside the main runway where I was asked to interpret aerial photos taken at first light to catch the sight of bandit activity hidden away in the jungle. I was to check the flight path in order to record the exact location for military action by Commonwealth forces. This demanding intelligence gathering was essential to keep roads and railways bandit-free. My interservice unit demanded numerous and speedy sharp-eyed talent working on demand, except when conditions were foul and flying limited; then we were off-duty – free to explore and to enjoy the social life on which colonialists thrived. This was a shade embarrassing as, being non-commissioned, one wasn’t welcome everywhere! Generous leave permitted sea travel to Hong Kong and Malaya – the Life of Riley as we had to pay only for messing!
By the time of our return voyage to the UK, we had learnt the ropes of avoiding the most arduous duties. The ‘Asturias’ arrival at Southampton was most emotional as a military band let loose on ‘When the Saints Came Marching In’ – hardly a dry eye to be seen, no doubt because we had traversed the desert unscathed. The Suez action was played out well before and after our memorable 18-month detachment!!