Thoughts on Lifelong Learning.
Following the recent stories here about the war and shortly after, I thought I would add a a little about the ending of the British Empire. This was when we had bases all over the world, one of them was Aden. Our time in Aden in 1966 was coming to an end – we were on a war footing and would be out of there in November 1967. Aden was then a British protectorate now, of course, it is part of Yemen. Please note that I am not in the photo above – it is just to give a general impression of a street scene in Aden in 1966.
It was hot on the bus, very hot. There was no glass in the windows, it had been replaced by wire mesh to reduce the risk of lethal flying glass shards in the event of a close bomb explosion. It also had the side benefit of providing some ventilation. This was not air conditioning, the wind blowing in through the mesh was over forty degrees so it was a contrast to the cool comfort of the plane. It was like sitting in an oven with a hair dryer blowing in your face.
The driver was an RAF corporal who stopped the khaki painted bus on the airport apron near the parked VC10 and shouted ‘Sheba Ship’ several times. When there was no movement in response to this he sighed and then tried a more reasonable sounding, ‘This bus is to take anyone to the Royal Navy shore base in the dockyard here in Aden, also known as HMS Sheba or Sheba Ship’. There were two Naval bases in Aden, the other one was in the town and called by all ‘Sheba Shore’to differentiate them. At this there was some movement and a slow trickle of young men started towards the bus, all struggling in the 45 degree heat in UK clothes to carry a kit bag, a suitcase and a holdall, complete with a raincoat, always known as a ‘Burberry’ over one arm.
We had just landed at RAF Khormaksar at Steamer Point in Aden, Yemen. It was 1966. The flight from London had been long and the plane was filled by families returning after a trip home to England to break up the long stay in a foreign country to accompany their husbands on their long posting to this remnant of the British Empire – always called ‘Empire’, never ‘The Empire’ .Aden had been a self governing British Colony since 1963 but there was now great pressure from the local tribes for full independence. Britain was resisting this because of oil. The BP refinery there was a very useful supplier of fuel if there were access problems to the Persian Gulf and Aden was now the second busiest harbour in the world, after New York, so there there were many trade and access issues to sort out.
The many children had been fretful on the flight, shouting, screaming, running up and down the aisle, getting in the way of the harassed stewardesses and so ensuring sleep was unlikely, if not impossible.
There were three of us, on our way to join our first ship. Malcolm Joy from Plymouth, called ‘Malc’, ‘Taff’ Bartlett from Swansea – never did find out his real name – and myself ‘Dick’ Kefford. We had joined the Royal Navy three years before, spending a year, eight months in my case but that is another story, at HM Fisgard at Torpoint, Cornwall followed by two years at HMS Collingwood, near Fareham in Hampshire. We were Artificer Apprentices starting our year at sea before returning to ‘Collingwood for a year to complete our training. The idea was to ‘join the fleet’ and spend a year on a ship, with some time in each of the Engineering departments that matched our specialities, mine was Control Engineering so, in addition to the general electrics, I could expect to spend some time on navaids and weapons.
The driver put the ancient bus into gear with a crunch and set off through the streets of Aden to the Naval Base and Dockyard behind the Crescent. It was unlike anything I had been used to as it was my first trip abroad and something of a culture shock. The sheer scruffiness, dirt and suspect smells were something of a surprise. The town was full of open fronted little houses that doubled as shops, selling anything from electrical goods, watches and jewellery to soft drinks. Over it all loomed the extinct volcano that housed the infamous ‘Crater’. We arrived at HMS Sheba. I should note here that all ships and shore bases in the Royal Navy are always treated as ships and so called HMS. Leaving a shore base to go home or for an evening out is always known as ‘Going ashore’.
We expected to be driven down to the dockside to meet our ship but were told to go straight to the guardhouse and report in. We did. There we were told that the ship had been diverted in the Mediterranean and so would be at Aden two weeks later than planned but we were not to worry, they would find us plenty of things to do. My ‘things’ consisted of joining the security detail to guard the base.
After doing the usual Navy ‘joining routine’ which is the same where ever you are in the world and consists mainly of getting ticks on a ‘chitty’ as you let the various departments know you have arrived, Catering and Pay were the most important but you also had to pick up a set of bedding and be assigned somewhere to sleep – in our case it was the transit mess as we would, hopefully, only be there for a short time. I dropped my bedding off there which was the first time I had ever come across air conditioning – it was freezing cold after the outside heat. I claimed a bed by plonking my bedding on it and then I left Taff and Malc and went to the guardhouse for my briefing.
As is usual with a colonial power, the local people didn’t like us much and wanted to get rid of us so the whole Aden garrison was on a war footing. This was the time of the Crater operation by Colonel ‘Mad Mitch’ Mitchell and bombs were going off daily. I was issued with a rifle at the armoury. This was an ancient Lee Enfield, bolt action 303 and ten rounds. I was told to load the magazine and take it, the rife and myself to the weapons sand pit where the Chief of the Watch was waiting. He explained the war situation, gave me a copy of the ‘Green Card – Orders for opening fire in Aden’ – checked that I had fired a 303 before and understood how to use it safely and sent me off for a 4 hour guard patrolling watch with an AB ( Able Seaman ) who was Sheba Ship’s Company and so based in Aden for two years.
There I was, eighteen years old, with a loaded rifle in my hands with orders to shoot to kill, never aim to wound as he might still capable of shooting you, any intruder who refused my shouted orders to stop – which had to be in Arabic, ‘Waqqaf’ and English. A week before I had been in a classroom in Hampshire learning how to look after a ship’s electrical systems – another culture shock. Time to grow up quickly. This became even more real when I learned from my new watch buddy that two intruders had been shot dead by my predecessors a few weeks before. There had been the mandatory court of enquiry but they had been cleared and, in fact, recommended for their action in protecting the base. I still have the green card and can remember the Arab challenges we had to shout on sighting a suspect – ‘Stop – Waqqaf, Stop – Waqqaf – Stop or I will open fire, Stop – Waqqaf – I am opening fire now.’
The worst thing about having a rifle loaded with live ammunition was that, at first was a fearsome responsibility but, after a few days, it became almost a pleasure to feel that you had the power of life and death over other people. I found this really scary so I wanted to get rid of it as soon as possible. This confirmed for me the dictum that ‘ All power corrupts and …’
Walking around the base for a our four hour watch on random routes pre determined by choosing route cards from a box in the guard room was boring after a time, especially at night. My oppo who was always on watch with me was a bit of a ‘Jack the lad’ so had an inexhaustible fund of sea stories that passed the time and although I took them all with a pinch of salt, they gave me a lot of information about life at sea. One night he was in a really bad mood and was determined to ‘have some fun’, as he put it. The wardroom fronted on to Aden harbour so we were instructed to keep a close lookout over the water for intruding swimmers as they might be carrying a bomb. He flung some cups that had been left one of the harbour side tables far out into the water, unslung his rifle from his shoulder and shouted the three escalating challenges before firing twice into the darkness. I went to the nearest phone on he wall, as I had been told to do if there were any incidents, and called the guardhouse where the standby guard, who slept in their clothes, was shaken awake and told to get down to the harbour side in double quick time. The Officer of the Day was also called and soon there was the makings of a small army around us. The Chief of the Watch took control, calmed it all down and asked my oppo what had happened. He explained that he thought he had seen a swimmer in the water, shouted the challenges and then opened fire when there was no response. The Chief asked if I had seen anyone. I said I had seen some splashing but couldn’t say if it was a swimmer and confirmed the rest of his story. Searchlights were used to scan the water but nothing could be seen so everyone stood down and things gradually returned to normal. At the end of our watch we had to sit down and write a report because ‘a weapon had been discharged’ but nothing further came of it. It certainly livened up a quiet night though.
We were told to patrol without a round in the breech so the bolt had to be worked to load a round from the magazine and the safety catch taken off before you could open fire. This was obviously for safety, ours but mostly other people’s. At the end of the watch, the procedure was, point the rifle down into the sandbox, remove the magazine from the rifle, pull back the bolt, visually check the breech was empty, close the bolt, take off the safety and then pull the trigger as a final check. Nothing should happen of course because there were no rounds in the rifle but one night there was a bang when my oppo pulled the trigger. He had been walking around all during the watch with the rifle ready to fire. He got reported for that episode and I had a different buddy on my watch after that. Probably just as well for my safety, he was a real nutter.
Taff and Malc had also been put on guard duty by this time so, when our time off coincided, we used to go ashore together. One day we decided to go to the Lido which was a protected area of the beach, complete with shark nets, where the families congregated to swim and socialise. We decided to walk, carrying our towels rolled up with the swimming trunks. We got to the lido and changed into our trunks and came across the peculiar status symbols in Aden. There were no thoughts of having too much sun back then unless you allowed yourself to be sunburned and blistered so there were no sun creams or any of that stuff. I don’t think a connection had even been made between melanoma and sun burn. The result of this was that once people had got a little sun tan to protect them, everyone spent as much time in the sun as they could so that the longest stayers had the darkest sun tan. So there we were, totally white and sticking out as what we would now call ‘Newbies’ advertising our need to be patronised as ’white knees’.
We had a good swim in spite of the mockery and started walking back to Sheba. Part way there a bomb went off in the street about a hundred yards away. We walked a little faster after that and resolved in future to take a taxi when we wanted to go for a swim. We were debriefed on the explosion when we got back after our swim and an apocryphal story circulated around the base that one of the questions we were asked was, ‘What steps did you take after the explosion?’ The answer came, ‘F***** great big ones’ No truth in it of course but that should never be enough to spoil a good story
We also went to the cinema few times. This was an open air one, of course, but it was peculiar in that it was built as normal cinema with walls and tiered seats but just without a roof. I can still remember being sat there waiting for the film to start and hearing the rustling sound of the leaves being blown around the floor in the evening breeze with the slight smell of drains wafting around.
This was a time when attitudes were very different to what they are now. An example is the casual, unthinking racism of the day. There had not been much immigration to the UK by then so most people’s experience of different races and cultures was limited to the time they had spent in the forces, travelling around the British Empire. There was an air of assumed superiority towards other races in their own countries as they were mostly the people being ruled by the British – this was before the days when most countries became independent. When these attitudes were combined with the Navy tradition of having its own names for everything and everyone the result was a language that would be unacceptable today. As an example, everyone in Aden, or any other country come to that, was addressed as ‘John’ and taxis were known as ‘fast blacks’. I am sure this has all changed now and not before time.
We often went shopping in Ma’lla, one of the small towns that make up Aden. The others are Tawali and Crater. We were banned from Crater because of the security situation there and Tawali was further to walk. Ma’lla was full of little shops selling jewellery and electronics. As an example a ‘genuine’ Rolex could be had for under a pound and would run for at least a week. Everything had to be haggled for, no one took the posted price seriously, it was just to get the haggling started. This was a whole new experience for English people who were used to paying the asking price. This led to a great deal of black catting when you got back to the base with your spoils, chuffed at how little you had paid and then one of your oppos would quiz you on the price and usually ended up saying, ‘you paid how much? I got one last week for a fifth of that.’ This tended to increase your desire to fight the good fight and learn how to haggle, including all the tricks such as comparing with ‘a shop just around the corner’ and being prepared to walk away from a too high price.
It was a strange life and we were very happy when we were told that our ship, HMS Eskimo, was arriving a few days later. We would then spend a year in the Persian Gulf – that’s another story!
© Richard Kefford Eorðdraca
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