I once boarded a plane with not the faintest idea of where it was going; and before you ask, the answer is no, I wasn’t under the influence.
The sorry saga began two weeks earlier.
7.45 a.m., I am at the start of a busy day, sitting at the control desk in the guardroom of an RAF base a hundred miles north of London. Before pinning it up on the notice board I casually flicked through the latest copy of Station Routine Orders, there it was, the bombshell, my number, rank and name, three months detachment, flying out two weeks’ later. They didn’t ask if I would like to go, no consultation, no warning, no asking for volunteers. My first reaction was, how on earth am I going to explain this to my wife?
As a teenager growing up in Dublin my personality was more suited to the craic going on in the Rainbow Café than to the drudgery of O’Connell’s CBS., so, like many others before me, I took off at seventeen and joined the Royal Air Force looking for great adventures; I wasn’t disappointed.
On the day in question I was twenty-two years old, five years in the RAF police service, living an idyllic life with my beautiful wife of six months in a lovely flat in the student quarter of Cambridge city. Our first child was due at Christmas.
Three months detachment. It was a shocker. Detachment was used when a temporary Increase in personnel was required in a specific area to cover an unforeseen situation, usually involving conflict. When I enquired about the intended destination the answer was curt.
‘It’s confidential, you’ll find out when you get there.’
Next day I was told to report to Clothing Stores to be kitted out with a tropical uniform. Jeez, thanks a million, that narrows it down a tad. Only a couple of dozen military bases around the world require tropical kit, some of them in areas markedly less friendly than others. At least I’ll be coming home, hopefully in one piece, with a suntan, in December.
‘Report to R.A.F. Brize Norton 29th August 1500 hours’ appeared on the SRO notice board. We closed up our flat for the duration, my wife left to stay with her mother in Dublin and I boarded a train to Oxford. On arrival I was directed to a large assembly hall bursting at the seams with several hundred army and air force personnel, young men and women with kitbags and equipment, lounging about, some seated, playing card games or reading novels, many stretched out on the floor, catnapping with kitbags for pillows. Gingerly stepping over bags and bodies I slowly picked my way through the crowded hall on the off chance I might find a familiar face.
Sure enough, I eventually heard a shout,
‘Hey Paddy, over here’.
An arm waving in the distance beckoned me over. It was Alan Morrison from Aberdeen. We had spent two and a half years together on a relentless quest to find the tastiest beer the German bier kellers had to offer while stationed at an RAF air base close to the Dutch border. I dumped my kitbag on the floor, hunkered down and after introductions to his companions I asked,
‘Anyone know where we’re going?’
‘Not a f**kin clue’, was the chorus of answers. We settled down to wait for orders. We waited, and waited, and waited. Two days later, in the late evening, a clipboard man came in shouting ‘boarding in half an hour’ and started to check off names.
Our fully loaded plane took off and headed southeast. It was a military passenger jet staffed by all male personnel who were sworn to silence.
‘You’ll find out when you get there,’ was the mantra. After several hours we touched down in a darkened airfield with just the runway lights showing. Taxiing to a halt we parked beside a remote building and disembarked. It was a comfortable enough hall with seating and a small café at one end.
I quizzed the guy behind the counter, ‘Where are we?’
‘Istanbul’, he answered.
Two hours later as orange streaks pierced the cloudless night sky we sped down the runway, lifted gracefully into the air and headed southeast in the direction of the Persian Gulf. We dozed fitfully for several hours and descended once more, this time coming in low over a flat calm sea approaching what looked like a desert island with a few buildings and clumps of palm trees scattered about. It was a small island connected by a causeway to the much larger island of Bahrain. Royal Air Force Muharraq shared the international airfield with the civilian authorities. We taxied to another holding centre.
‘Leave your stuff on the kite,’ barked the air quartermaster. Obviously, we wouldn’t be staying here either. We were fed and watered in the base cookhouse while the re-fuelling took place.
We got back on board and flew south over the Emirates and west over Oman and along the coast of South Arabia, as it was called then. A nervous ripple of excitement washed through the cabin as we realised where we were bound for, and what our perilous duties would entail, reaching the Yemeni port city of Aden late in the afternoon. The recent BBC tv series ‘The Last Post’ is based on events in Aden at that time.
I stepped through the aircraft door and flinched, glancing to my right thinking the engines were still running and I had accidently walked into the exhaust such was the blast of heat that assailed me.
“Get a move on” from the air quartermaster and the push from behind sent me clattering down the steps in a mad dash to the comfort of the air-conditioned arrivals hall.
A military coach with a heavily armed escort took our small group of thirty to our sleeping accommodation, located halfway up the slope of an extinct volcano. The billet, once a stable, was a long single storey building with a flat roof backing onto a cliff face. It was impeccably clean with a tiled floor and three huge fans in the high ceiling, but no air conditioning. A wide veranda with low sloping roof along the front and sides ensured the sun would never reach the interior.
The building had two doors on the front, several windows and a further door at each gable end. All of these were folded back against the walls and never closed, even in winter.
Sleeping was difficult until you got used to it, too hot for any form of clothing, just a single topsheet to protect us from the flies. These were the worst kind of flies: the big noisy ones we could deal with but these innocuous, silent little feckers with tiny feet scurrying to and fro on bare skin were a constant source of intense irritation. Mealtimes involved sitting with a fork in one hand while swatting the same flies from your plate with the other. Before eating a slice of bread an inspection was necessary to remove the unfortunate weevils incinerated in the baking, unless of course you liked the crunchy taste.
To satisfy our occasional need for alcoholic sustenance we were provided with our own little bar that opened at weekends, a rickety wooden shed, home to a friendly family of geckos, just fifty metres from the billet. A couple of benches lined the interior with a few chairs and tables on a rough concrete floor. At one end was a makeshift bar, a chest fridge behind with a small selection of beers and soft drinks. Two windows, one door, one naked light bulb, a few Carlsbergs and we couldn’t be happier. The shed backed onto a sheer drop of thirty metres to a tiny shanty town squeezed between the steep sides of a narrow ravine.
The view from our veranda opened up to the brilliant blue waters of the Gulf of Aden, less than a mile away, a remote corner of the Indian ocean you could almost reach out to touch. Between us and the sea, at the foot of the slope stood a group of 4-storey apartment blocks that housed the permanent military complement of the base, an assortment of naval, air force, army and special forces personnel, sent here to deal with this final chapter in the country’s successful struggle to gain independence.
Every evening at sunset a soldier from a Scottish regiment, in full regalia, appeared on one of the flat roofs and played the bagpipes for half an hour of sweet nostalgia; people who were able to, stopped what they were doing and indulged themselves in quiet therapeutic reflection.
Three months later, having dodged several violent incidents I went home unscathed, complete with a campaign service medal for duty in a war zone, in time for the arrival of my beautiful new daughter.
(c) H.P. Moore