Christmas 1954 my first Christmas away from home - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

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Christmas 1954 my first Christmas away from home


This was, theoretically, the main entrance to RAF Gangodawila. In practice only VIPs entered this way. Note: someone is sweeping up on the right hand side so perhaps a VIP was due.
In the next few days I got to know everyone else. It was obvious that Chiefy Owen was rather odd, an introspective person who confined himself mainly to his single quarters which he referred to as the Sergeants' Mess. He was rarely seen outside his quarters for days on end and only spoke to the airmen when absolutely necessary. These days, whenever I watch the regular repeat showings of BBC TV's Dad's Army series from the 1960s and 70s, I marvel at the distinct resemblance Chiefy Owen had, in both stature and demeanour, to Captain Mainwaring. The nearest commissioned officer was the Signals Officer at the Signals Control Centre (SCC) in Negombo and he, Flight Lieutenant Gibbs, visited the unit once a fortnight to pay all our salaries. Gibbs, I was told, was quite decent and might talk to me on his next visit but thereafter would probably forget my name. It was all friendly but rather dispiriting as a welcome.

The long barrack room was normally kept in semi-darkness because there were usually shift workers in bed sleeping off night watch or about to go on night duty. There were ceiling fans along the length of the room; all the beds were supplied with mosquito nets and all but the most brave or stupid slept under them at night. Washing facilities were on the opposite side of the square - cold water showers but no baths. Toilet facilities were in a hut at the farthest corner of the secure compound. At first I wondered why they were so far away but I soon found out why. Inside the toilet 'hut' there was a row of four rudimentary compartments each housing a toilet seat over a large bucket standing in a truly noxious earth pit. There were no washing facilities inside the toilets but the hut was cleaned out daily by a jovial Tamil chap whom no-one seemed to wish to talk to. His name was definitely racist by today's standards so I won't mention it here - but it described his skin colour. Once a week the cesspit was cleaned out completely when a truck turned up to carry away the bulk waste. You had to make sure you were not caught short during that activity.

Christmas Day was a very strange day, my first-ever Christmas away from home. Flt Lt Gibbs, came for the day and he served our dinner at 1.15pm. He spoke to me at some length and made me feel very welcome but I noticed that Chiefy was always at his elbow. Gibbs had obviously read my personal file because he asked me what I thought about my visit to the Aircrew Selection Centre. I told him that I thought I had been rejected because no-one had briefed me about what to expect. He also asked me how I had got on at the Radio School at Locking. I told him that I had enjoyed it very much and that I hoped one day to be commissioned in a ground branch.

Christmas Dinner was an excellent meal with large portions of chicken each and all the usual trimmings. According to my diary, I thought someone had been over-zealous with the brandy in the brandy sauce; I was a teetotaller so that could have been the first alcohol that ever passed my lips. After dinner we were entertained for a while with dancing and singing performed by the local villagers and later we had a fancy dress party in the barrack room. There is something not quite right about a fancy dress party when only males are present. It all seemed a bit pointless but eventually it was time for the BBC's annual Christmas 'Round the World' programme followed by the Queen's speech broadcast live from London on the BBC General Overseas Service at 15.00 hrs GMT, 20.30 pm local time. I had listened to that programme and the late King's speeches every year for as long as I could remember. I think we were all very quiet and homesick after that.

The 'fancy dress' party - the only one I've ever been to where there were no females present! For the record, and because I'm sure you will want to know, I am third from the right in the middle row - the one with the drooping sun glasses. Sandy, our faithful room servant, is on the extreme left. Second from the right, kneeling, is the chap who every day cleaned the 'earth' toilet block; his name then would be considered racist these days and I'm afraid I never knew his real name.

On the afternoon of 30th December I went on my first visit to Colombo with a couple of other chaps. We went in the Army Signals van so it didn't cost me anything. It was very hot and very humid. We had a couple of ice cream sodas in a café and then walked to a picture house about a mile and a half away. It was pleasantly cool inside the almost empty cinema and I enjoyed the film (Marilyn Munroe in River of No Return in Cinemascope).

Just about all the servicemen at Gangodawila reckoned that Singapore was the place to be, although it was all based largely on hearsay because only a couple of them had ever been there. In my diary I wrote: "I've already decided that I don't want to stay here for the full 2½ year tour", and I began to speculate how I could get a posting to Singapore.

I also recorded in my diary that I had already sent off an application to the Regent Institute in London for a combined journalism and short story writing correspondence course. I knew that the RAF would pay all the costs of recognised and approved correspondence courses because Flight Lieutenant Gibbs had told me that on Christmas Day and had said that he would recommend my application. From a very early age and throughout my school years I had been keen on writing stories - fact and fiction.

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