I had a tough war and not enough medals to show for it. An ungrateful nation ignored my encounters with more than one deadly enemy: I got nothing for drinking for weeks from a well at the bottom of which we eventually discovered a dead Jap. While hardship and boredom were the lot of many, few were as unprepared as I. You see, where I come from – a nice part of Vienna - very little Urdu was spoken, so you can imagine that when I stood before the court martial as a defending officer of an Urdu-speaking soldier accused of knifing a comrade, I felt I was being tested on a rather specialised field of battle.
Let me fill you in. When the Army discovered that I spoke more than just English, they had just received a request for a linguist to be attached to the Indian Army. So they packed me off on a troopship bound for Bombay and straight onto a course to learn how to build landing fields in the jungle. When it was decided that it would be the Burmese jungle, they moved the course from Bombay to Calcutta. Life was expensive in the city and in no time I found myself in debt. The only way for an officer and gentleman to earn a bit extra was to go on another course since officers who passed an interpreters’ exam received an additional allowance. The trouble was that I needed to learn Burmese and the only course available was for Urdu. But my need was great and, as they believe at the War Office, there is English and there is foreign.
In record time, I was declared a competent interpreter both of Urdu and of American air-strip laying manuals. Off to Burma next? Don't you believe it. They wanted me to teach airport construction to officers newly arrived in Ceylon. And would I mind conducting a crack team of other ranks, including jeeps, lorries, food (including live goats), on the journey south? Kindly observe the distance from Calcutta to Madras, our point of embarkation for Colombo. My sergeant appointed himself navigator and contrived a route which took in every village that was home to one of my squad. The hospitality I received at our overnight stops was daunting, as were the logistics of obtaining the extra food and fuel to cover a fortnight’s journey that should have taken half that time. Not that the delay mattered: no one was expecting us at the other end - which was just as well since I arrived with two men fewer than I had signed for. The goats, I knew, we had eaten, but the missing soldiers ... ?
We arrived late at night, and made for the airport for somewhere to sleep. When the men were fed and watered, I decided to take a walk round the perimeter to get my bearings. In the darkness I saw some movement, and then, more clearly, German soldiers crawling on their bellies towards me. Wehrmacht, I thought, but who had tipped them off that I was coming? Their helmets were unmistakable. Halt, I cried with a German accent and shone my torch. The shiny helmets continued to advance slowly, propelled by the tortoises underneath, whose shells looked uncannily like German soldiers’ headgear. Time to turn in.
I was made welcome in the RAF officers’ mess. One young pilot attached himself to me straightaway. He was a beautiful boy, straight out of H. E. Bates. I could sense that something was wrong because I found him in tears one morning soon after my arrival. The others kept their distance, and I made it my business to piece together his story.
He had flown Hurricanes in the Battle of Britain and lived to tell the tale. Then he had had some kind of breakdown and got this posting to Colombo and the job of taking up a two-seater aircraft once a day, taking a weather reading, and bringing it down again. His day’s work took 25 minutes. There was only one snag: he was afraid of flying. Every day, at 10 am, he turned up in the hangar, sweating and shaking, never knowing whether he could manage as much as taxi for take-off. The MO would not give him calming-down pills because he said he could not allow him to fly under the influence, so I pretended to be badly shaken by having seen a cobra in my hut (no point challenging the identity of a Singhalese snake in Urdu) and got hold of some Benzedrine, which I passed to my friend. It did not help much. In spite of all the talking and reassurance, he got worse. Some days I had to yank him out of bed and help him to get dressed. In the end, he asked me whether I would go up with him. It seemed churlish to refuse. So I put on his spare gear, strapped myself in behind him and prayed that he would not have an attack at 5,000 feet and ask me to take over. We carried on like this for a while, until one day he was mysteriously gone. I never found out where or why, but I was asked by the station commander to pack up his kit, perhaps because I was Army and saved some RAF face. Or perhaps it was intended as a thank-you when he said that he could wangle it for me to do the daily weather flight. I declined, not having the heart to tell him that I didn’t know how to fly a plane.
The second and final part of this article will appear in next month’s issue of the Journal.