Return to the U.K. from the Seychelles
This was an adventure within the adventure. Having completed our survey work on the islands and the Royal Navy also having finished the charting of the seas around the Seychelles, we were due to leave for Mombasa, in Kenya, on the HMS Owen about the middle of March 1958. We would then travel to Nairobi by train and Mick Dyall and myself would fly back to the UK with our favourite airline, the Royal Air Force, whilst the other surveyors would be flown back to Cyprus or Aden. Departure date was Sunday 9th March and the ship was to set sail at about 8 p.m. All non-essential crew members and of course we R.E. surveyors were all ashore enjoying the pleasures of this tropical paradise for a last time.
At about 10.30 a.m. the Owen received emergency sailing orders from the Admiralty in London. A seaquake (now better known as a tsunami) had caused extensive damage in the Maldive Islands to the south-west of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and the Owen was being sent to give help. The sailors were rounded up as quickly as possible, a very difficult task as they were spread throughout the pubs and clubs of the capital Victoria and in fact some could not be found in time and were left behind. We R.E. surveyors were all found, some at the Pirates’ Arms, some at Sharkey’s, some on a pic-nic on the beach, and were told that we were being left behind and our bags and belongings had been dumped on the jetty. I can’t say that the prospect of some extra days on shore, with little or no work to do, particularly bothered us (except for Captain Mills perhaps).
The ship sailed at some time in the early afternoon and we waved it goodbye from the pier. I didn’t realise at that moment that I was also waving goodbye to all my kit. In the haste and confusion, the mariners had not put my bags ashore with the rest. By the time I realised, it was too late. I was left with just what I had on, a light cotton khaki shirt, a pair of khaki shorts, underpants and a pair of non-regulation sandals. No head-gear (beret or jungle hat), no jacket, no long trousers, no web belt, no other military markings apart from a removable arm-band with my corporal’s stripes. This was no real problem in the tropics of course but was to prove problematic later on. Captain Mills did buy me a pair of long cotton trousers, another shirt and some underwear which gave me a change of clothing so at least I could wash the dirty ones through, but they were more suited to a tropical tourist rather than to a soldier.
We spent another very enjoyable week on Mahè before we definitely had to say goodbye to our girlfriends and board a civilian liner (I think it was called the States of Bombay, quickly nicknamed the States of Decay) bound for Bombay (now Mumbai). The ship plyed the route from Capetown, Durban, Mombasa, Seychelles, Bombay, to Karachi and return, stopping off at the Seychelles every two or three weeks in one direction or the other. The trip to Bombay, which took about six days if I remember correctly, was very pleasant. The crew and almost all the passengers were of Indian and Pakistan nationality, although some were living in South Africa or the East African states (Kenya, Tanganyika and Uganda).
On the first or second day we crossed the equator but I don’t remember there being any particular celebration to mark the event. Being as many of the passengers had done the trip several times, if Neptune had stepped aboard he would probably have risked being dumped unceremoniously straight back into his natural domain. Each evening after dinner there was some entertainment for the passengers in the ship’s lounge and one evening we Brits were invited to sing a song. Someone decided we would give a barber’s shop type rendering of the Foggy Foggy Dew, in my opinion not a particularly good choice for the particular audience we had. However we harmonised quite well considering our complete lack of practice and our effort was received graciously. Perhaps (fortunately) few if any of our audience followed the words too closely.
On arrival at Bombay (Mumbai) on the Saturday afternoon, we were immediately transboarded onto the cruiser HMS Gambia which was to sail on Tuesday bound for Aden. During the four or five day voyage to Aden, the Gambia carried out sea exercises, which consisted of RAF fighter-bombers from Aden and the other south Arabian peninsular RAF bases “attacking” the ship, which replied by firing live shells at the planes but with a 20° offset. In other words, the gun-sights were offset by 20° relative to the gun barrel. However it was quite exciting to see the shells bursting in the air behind the planes. I bet the pilots were happy too to see the shells bursting behind the planes.
Once at Aden, Mick and I were told that we were to fly back to the U.K. on Good Friday in, of all things, a Blackburn Beverly transport plane, a journey which would take two days! On Good Friday morning we took off in our mastodontic means of transport together with about six other passengers and perhaps four civilian cars belonging to Service personnel who had bought them duty-free in Aden and were getting them home free-of-charge, courtesy of the British taxpayer. Passenger accomodation in a Blackburn Beverly is not like first class on British Airways. It’s not even remotely comparable to business or tourist class on British Airways nor on the lowest cut-price carrier in existence. It’s rather like sitting in a canvas bucket-seat half-way up the wall of an aircraft hangar with a precarious gangway to reach the toilet. And the on-board meals were a perfect match. Anyway, we survived refuelling stops at Wadi Saidna (near Khartoum) and Wadi Halfa (near the Egyptian border), both in the Sudan, and arrived in the late afternoon at El Adem RAF base near Tobruk in north-east Libya. Here we were told that one of the plane’s engines was giving trouble so we would have to stay there until a replacement engine was flown in from Aden and mounted.
This happened during the course of the following morning and we left in the early afternoon, making a refuelling stop at Benina airport just outside Benghazi, and landing for a night stopover at Malta. We were taken to an transit Army camp for overnight accomodation and it was here that my lack of military clothing caused me my first major problem. I still only possessed the few rags I had left the Seychelles with. Walking through the camp I was affronted by the Regimental Sergeant Major with his pace-stick tucked neatly under his left arm. He looked me up and down and, controlling his mounting blood-pressure with some difficulty, asked of me “And who’s Army do you belong to, Corporal? You look as though you’ve been washed up by the incoming tide.”
Of course he wasn’t very far from the truth, so I took a deep breath and told my story. “Sir, I was in the Seychelles doing survey work when a seaquake hit the Maldives. My ship the HMS Owen had to leave on emergency sailing orders and I was left behind without my kit. I spent a further week in the Seychelles, a total of ten days on two other ships, four days in Aden and two days on a Blackburn Beverly with only what I am wearing. Tomorrow I go back to the U.K. where I hope to be issued replacement clothing.” He looked at me for some moments without speaking. He must have been trying to decide if I was telling the truth or not. I’m sure that of all the excuses and explanations he had listened to throughout his Army career, he had never heard one to top mine. Finally he turned on his heels and marched away without a word, probably to the Sergeants’ Mess to have a stiff whisky. I heaved a sigh of relief and, not without a smile on my lips, went on my way.
The next morning we boarded the B.B. again and were on our way, destination RAF Lyneham in Wiltshire. It was Easter Sunday and this, as the pilot soon informed us, meant that we could not make the scheduled refuelling stop at a French Air Force base in the south of France as the ground personnel had the day off. “Hopefully – continued the pilot – we will have enough fuel to reach Lyneham.” My unspoken question “And what happens if we don’t have enough?” went unanswered. However the journey was uneventful, the fuel was sufficient and we landed safely at Lyneham in the middle of a snow storm. From the warmth of the Mediterranean to the freezing cold of Lyneham and dressed for the tropics.
The RAF ground personnel looked at me in astonishment and one finally said innocently "Don't you feel a bit cold, mate?” Without repeating all my tragic story I conveyed the general sense of the situation to him and, to my great surprise but gratitude, he went off and quickly returned with a heavy roll-neck woolly sweater which he said was “buckshee”. Now feeling a little warmer I jumped into the Austin Champion jeep which had come to meet Mick and myself and take us back to dear old Fernhurst camp. My Seychelles adventure was over but remains in my memory as a real highlight of my life, an experience I shall never forget. And the breadfruit is still calling me back (and not only the breadfruit).
thanks to Trevor "Bill" Powell for this contribution
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