Sunday, 16 September 2012

Last stop Karachi 1946!

'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

part 2 of 2

Whether these Royal Enfields were sold in great numbers locally or not I’m not sure, but I well remember new Royal Enfields being on sale in Elphinstone Street from one of the shops there.  Later on of course, Royal Enfields were built and produced in India, and in fact they are still made near Madras today.  The Bullet model being one of several very successful machines.

As an MT driver I made many trips around Karachi during my nine months stay.  Regular trips were made up to the large RAF station at Mauripur, a main stopping and refuelling place for aircraft in-transit and also journeys to the RAF station at Drigh Road.

Another daily run was to deliver and collect mail for our office. I remember this mainly because the building was such an architecturally impressive large Victorian style house standing in its own grounds and set back at the end of a drive from the main gateway.  I think it was used as a hospital for service personnel but two or three small rooms had been allocated for service mail operations. 

I have since wondered what the name of the house was and what it is used for now, but all I can remember of the route to get there is that I used to drive straight down the long road from our unit and the boat basin, turn right somewhere near the KPT building and close to where a poor policeman stood on his box in the blazing sun most of the day directing traffic.  It was an anti-clockwise 4 or 5 kilometers from there.

The policeman that I have mentioned who stood on his box at the cross roads was always good for a bit of entertainment.  One day coming back from Mauripur in my truck and waiting for him to give me the signal to turn right up the Keamari road, four flat bed camel carts appeared out of the dock gates loaded with packages. 

The leading driver, followed by the others, ignored the policeman’s signal to stop and in 10 seconds the whole crossroads was in chaos.  The policeman jumped down from his box and tried to remonstrate with the drivers of the wagon-train of camels and the language between the two factions I could guess, was not the sort that would be heard in the Karachi Polo Club, even I could sense that!

A similar thing happened a month or two later when again I was waiting for the signal by the policeman to proceed and a camel cart came out of the same dock gates piled high with boxes of Palmolive soap.  The camel, frightened by a noise panicked and jumped forward and shot the load of Palmolive cases off the flatbed cart and right across the intersection.  The entertainment at these crossroads could be better than a night out at the theatre.

I also made one trip round the coast eastwards to a place called Korangi Creek where the Imperial Airways flying boats and later BOAC (British Overseas Air Corporation) used to call in for refuelling on their way to Singapore and Australia.  I had taken one of our RAF marine engineers with me, who normally worked at West Wharf on the RAF. HSLs (High Speed Launches) and Pinnaces.  The RAF kept a small boat at Korangi which was experiencing engine trouble. The engineer managed to repair the engine and he decided to bring it back himself round the coast to West Wharf by sea.  I returned in the truck alone and got caught in a violent blinding sand storm, quite the worst I had experienced on the way back between Korangi and Karachi forcing me to stop for some time to allow it to blow over.

One other incident that could have had much more serious consequences was in the yard where our mechanic did the servicing of our trucks.  He had two large wooden sheds, one as a store for oils and tins of petrol etc. and the other as his workshop.

We had an old local Muslim man there, who was employed in the MT yard to do lots of odd jobs such as greasing, tyre changing, and generally to help out on anything that needed to be done.  He was a very nice old man of probably 60, spoke very good English and all the young lads liked and respected him and used to call him Pop as they looked on him as a sort of father figure.

He was a most conscientious worker and totally loyal to our unit.  I remember once while talking to him it came up about his very red beard.  As a young 21 year old I was quite ignorant of the reason for this red beard.  He was so very proud to tell me that it indicated he had made the journey to Mecca and had gone by Dhow from Karachi on a pilgrimage.  

One boiling hot day the wooden shed in which the cans of petrol were kept, suddenly burst into flames due to the high temperature in the locked shed, and Pop, being the sort of man he was, tried to rescue some of the equipment when the flames were belching out.  In doing so he got burned on the hands and wrists.

John 'Dusty' Miller, in Sept 2005
We took him up to the Medical officer to dress his burns and sent him home but the next day he turned up as usual and carried on.  By the time we got the fire extinguished the sheds were completely destroyed and the odd thing was that the English 2 gallon petrol cans that were inside had split wide open, but the petrol in the 4-gallon American ‘Jerry cans’ had completely evaporated and were blown up like big round balloons.

Apart from the odd argument between our boys and the local tonga walla over the price of a trip back to Keamari, during the whole nine months of my stay in Karachi I never ever got the feeling that the local population resented us British airmen being there, indeed I think the local shopkeepers in Elphinstone Street welcomed us. 

Whether South African Europeans felt quite as secure I am not sure, as just near the boat basin at Keamari and on the corner of our football pitch a large notice had been erected by KMC warning them that “South African Europeans would not be welcome to Karachi in view of the racial discrimination made in their country and the anti-Indian legislation passed by them”.

Saturday night visiting restaurants, bazaars, shops and cinemas were an enjoyable and regular part of our off-duty hours and I can still remember in some of the narrow poorly lit streets, stallholders who had only oil lamps or candles to display their goods, with the exotic sweet smell of incense issuing from small smouldering Josh Sticks in the gloom - a truly romantic vision of the East.

On one of these Saturday night visits to the cinema, four of us had booked the best seats for the latest film Caesar and Cleopatra. Starring Claude Rains and Vivien Leigh.  The seats we got, turned out to be upholstered soft two-seater settees and proved so comfortable that I only saw 15 minutes of the show and dropped off to sleep, missing the rest of the performance.

Our boys had a very good relationship with the civilian KPT staff and we worked well together. My memories of these KPT chaps were that most of them seemed to carry a clipboard and pencil, which was understandable as they were mainly engaged in checking goods on and off the ships.

It was now early June 1947 and I would have completed my obligatory 2½-year tour in India the following month.  The date for the handover to self-rule was scheduled for Aug 15th and all British forces were to leave.  The local population was naturally excited and looking forward to this day of Independence from British rule and the chance at last to run their own country since the days of Queen Victoria.

I was told to report to the transit camp at Worli in Bombay by 15th June where I would be boarding a troopship home to the UK.  This of course was going to involve another long train journey right up to Lahore and down.

As it happened I had an old RAF pal who was stationed at Mauripur and who worked on flying control duties there.  He pulled a few strings with an officer friend of his and arranged for me to fly down on the daily Dakota flight to Bombay. The time came to say my good-byes to all my pals and I left Keamari to go up to Mauripur the night before as take off was 7 a.m. the next morning. 

I remember it so clearly, it was a gorgeous warm sunny morning as I boarded the old ‘Dak’ and as we sat at the end of the runway waiting for take-off I was of course happy to be going home after 2½ years away from my family but I was also sad to be leaving a city I had so much enjoyed and of course my unit at Keamari where I had made so many friends in the last 9 months.

As we climbed out of Mauripur I was able to get a last look down at Keamari and the boat basin and could actually see the roof of the living quarters I had just left and thinking that all my mates were down there, lying on their ‘charpoys ’under their mosquito nets.


As I mentioned at the beginning of this diary, I was brought up to the simple, uncomplicated ways of life, working on our little farm in the country in England.  There are times in our lives when opportunities present themselves and we have to make decisions as to whether to take them or not.  As it happens I didn’t have any option in this, other than to follow the course I did, and it is with regret that it took World War 2 to give me this opportunity.

As any sane and normal person will agree, wars between nations are an abomination to mankind but inevitably out of all the ‘fallout’ there will be some winners and some losers.  I count myself as one of the winners. Had it not been for the war I would have probably spent the rest of my life in an insular and narrow existence in the village where I was born.  By joining the RAF in 1944 I was catapulted into a world where I could satisfy my dreams of travel and curiosities of other cultures, and what’s more, the travel and food came free.

Having whetted my appetite by these experiences I have since gone on to travel to other countries whenever funds and time off work would allow, but one of my greatest regrets is that I never made it back to Karachi.  Sadly the political situation there at times made it very difficult for westerners to visit in safety.

I have recently celebrated my 79th birthday and I now find I have a lot of time to just sit and think, and although I don’t have any clinical idea of the workings and complexities of the human brain, in my simple way, I have always imagined it to be a very complex organ, inside which, is a vast array of small cubicles with a small sensor light over each.  Some of these lights are shining bright Green, but some are now only flickering, and some have completely gone out, but one of the lights keeps flashing RED with a notice over the top saying “MEMORY CELLS UNDER STRESS”.  It’s a symptom of reaching 79.

Author with wife on his 80th Birthday

(Editor’s note: Mr Miller, soon turning 87 years of age in Sept 2012, is retired and settled in the village of Forton, county of Somerset in England.)

This is a series which draws out memories of various people from the United Kingdom who lived in different parts of the subcontinent, pre-1947. Most of the memoirs will be published weekly. These people are now residing in different parts of the world. The series was published in print in The News TNS in 2005. It has been arranged and edited by Ali Jan 

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