Friday, 14 September 2012

Last stop Karachi 1946!

 Part 1 of 2
As the title suggests 'Last Stop Karachi 1946-47' is a personal narrative of a young Englishman enlisted in RAF finally ending up in Karachi. He was an RAF driver, miles away from his pastoral home who enjoyed the simple pleasures in life in the British India. Edited by Ali Jan

by John ‘Dusty’ Miller

Author: John 'Dusty' Miller. Enjoying a game of tennis in Karachi

I had enlisted in the RAF – a raw ‘wet behind the ears’ 18 year old recruit, never having been away from home alone previously - born into a quiet rural way of life and later working on my father’s smallholding in the country.  All the signs were that this comfortable way of life was about to change ‘PDQ’ and I was now in for a few shocks.  My romantic dream of service life was not going to be quite as I had first expected when I first so light-heartedly enlisted. 

Over the next seven months, along with all my newfound mates we undertook the obligatory 6 weeks of training (square bashing) and went on to complete our training as drivers Motor Transport (MT).  At the passing-out parade a particularly sadistic Flight Sergeant old timer reminded us all that we were about to leave the feather bed comforts of Britain’s shores and to get a taste of what life was like in the real world.     

So it was that I found myself in Liverpool docks England on January 2nd 1945 climbing a ship gangplank, kit bag over my shoulder together with hundreds of other Army and RAF (Royal Air Force) personnel.  The ship I was boarding was the peacetime ocean going liner “Caernarvon Castle” which had recently been converted into a troop carrier in US.

We were never given any indication as to where our final destination would be.  It was a policy of the wartime government, for security reasons, not to divulge this information due to troop convoys leaving Britain being targeted by Hitler’s U-boats in Atlantic Ocean shipping lanes.

Of course, this secrecy fostered all sorts of speculation among us lads below deck and various wild forecasts and guesses were made.  As one particularly bright member said, “Well it must be the Orient we’re going to, as otherwise we wouldn’t have been issued with tropical kit” - i.e. khaki shorts, bush shirts and khaki stockings.  But then another ‘bright spark’ announced that issuing tropical kit to embarking troops was just a ‘blind’ and designed to confuse the Hitler spy network.  An older cousin of his had previously gone out on a troopship kitted out the same way and finished up landing in Alaska!  Apocryphal as the story may have been, it was never the less, quite a ‘perishing’ thought - if you really think about it.
 Picnicking with English and Anglo-Indian native friends at Holiday Hut Manora. (Author, 2nd from left in back row)

The following day Jan 3rd we set sail as the winter sun was dropping below the horizon and when we looked out the next morning we had joined five other troopships, an aircraft carrier and two corvettes, the corvettes acting as protection escorts on each flank of the convoy.

Again the speculation among us lads below deck arose as to our likely destination.  Some had tried to determine compass direction and said that we were definitely going west towards America and our hopes were raised that it may be Canada where lots of RAF personnel were serving on aircrew training.  The mystery went on for several days and then it was reported that we were now going due south and soon after this we changed again to due east.  It was only solved when 10 days after leaving Liverpool we anchored off Gibraltar. 

A member of the permanent crew of the ship said that it was common for troop convoys to use indirect routes to Gibraltar from Britain to avoid attack from submarines, and convoys often made big box routes west out into the Atlantic and then east into Gibraltar.  Hence the reason we took 10 days getting there instead of the normal one or two.

We made our way through the Mediterranean unescorted, calling at Port Said then down the Suez Canal into the Red Sea, again stopping for a few hours at Aden before leaving for Bombay, where we berthed on the 27thJan.  I spent a few days at the Worli transit camp there awaiting a posting, which turned out to be Madras.  Off I went by train to join a small unit repairing military vehicles in three civilian garages called Simpson’s.  We employed all local labour in the repair shops and it was my job as a driver to run errands for mail etc.

After three months I was again posted to an RAF station out in the wilds at Kolar, about 80 kilometers east of Bangalore and after several months there I again moved on to Vizagapatam, (now known as Vishakapatnam) a port on the East coast of India where I spent 6 months.

A day after my 21st birthday in late September I got another posting come through from our Group Headquarters down at Bangalore.  It was to join 57 EU (Embarkation Unit) Keamari Karachi.

I collected my railway warrant the next day and left Vizag with some reluctance as despite its uncomfortable sticky climate I had enjoyed my stay there and had made some very good pals in the MT and around the camp.

"Farewell Karachi, I'll miss you": Just before take-off Mauripur Airport 1947
My train route north took me first across to Hyderabad in Andhra Pradesh and then further north through Nagpur, Jhansi, Agra and Delhi.  The train made an extended stop in Delhi very early one morning, giving me plenty of time to get breakfast on the station in a Spencer’s restaurant – an excellent chain of eating places that covered most parts of the main line railway network in India in those days.

Logically one would expect the direction of the rail journey from Delhi and on to Karachi would be to the southwest from Delhi and which would be about 1100 kilometers as the crow flies, but the story goes, that for some reason the RAF hierarchy decreed that during the summer months no RAF personnel would be allowed to travel that route due to the extreme temperatures across part of the Thar Desert.  Consequently, all personnel had to go north up to Lahore and then down to Karachi, stretching the journey to a distance of approximately 1650 kilometers.

I arrived on Lahore railway station and had a wait of a few hours before the train left for Karachi in the middle of the afternoon. One lasting memory of this journey was the utter desolation and remoteness of this region with just sand and cacti pushing through the dunes for hours on end.  It was the most uncomfortable railway journey that I had ever made in India to date.  I was in a noisy clattering carriage on my own, with just wooden slatted benches to sit on. Getting any sleep was almost impossible with sand blowing through the compartment. 

One indelible scar of the journey was that during one of the many stops along the way I bought a cup of chai in my mug and stood it on my posh newly purchased green tin trunk.  These metal travelling trunks were an essential part of every service man’s equipment when moving from one station to another.  During the night I must have dozed off despite the discomforts of the journey and when I awoke the chai had spilled all over my lovely new trunk and sand had set in it like concrete – never to be erased again.

I remember pulling into Hyderabad and after a short stop arrived in Karachi later in the day.  An RAF truck driver picked me up from the railway station and I was pleasantly surprised not only by the small number of personnel but the situation of the unit as well.  Although my memory of the road layout after nearly 60 years is a little hazy our Keamari premises were on the right, and at the end of a tree lined straight road up from the large KPT building.  Across the road from our quarters we looked out on to a piece of spare ground which was our football pitch and just to the right a clock tower and small boat basin.  I quickly got the feeling that I was going to enjoy my stay in Keamari, it being a very convenient place to get into town for shopping and to the picture houses on our day off.

Our living quarters were a nice surprise, modern built, two level building, with RAF personnel occupying the upper level and Army boys on the ground floor.  I think the army chaps were engaged on roughly the same duties as we were around the docks with embarkation, loading and unloading freight etc.  Within the compound and through a gateway behind a high wall there was a large building, which was occupied by all the clerical staff both Army and RAF.

The clerical staff was not only Army and RAF personnel but also quite a number of native ladies who were employed and attached to the Services and wore smart khaki uniforms.  They lived at home within the Karachi city area and it was one of my jobs several days a week to go out early with my truck and pick them up from their homes and bring them into work, then later in the afternoon return them.

One of the most striking things I noticed about Karachi soon after arriving was the climate change from what I had left in the ‘sweatbox’ at ‘Visag. The temperature drop at night came as a relief and also the complete lack of humidity during the day.

In our MT section we had an assortment of five or six vehicles ranging from a Ford V8 station wagon, two small 15cwt Ford trucks, a couple of 3 ton Chevrolet trucks and a mobile crane for use in some of the open warehouses around the docks.

One memory of those days of 1946-7 was that while working in some of the warehouses in and around the docks, to see scores of British built civilian Jowett ‘Bradford’ vans being unloaded from the ships and stored in the sheds ready for dispatch to various parts of India.  These Jowett ‘Bradfords’ were a newly designed cheap utility van with a small twin cylinder engine and which proved to be very economical to run.  Other warehouses were full of brand new Royal Enfield motorcycles. To me this was a sure sign that many of Britain’s factories had already made the switch over from military to civilian production, post war.

-to be continued
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