Libya to Sri Lanka via overnight stops at Habbaniya and Mauripur - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

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Libya to Sri Lanka via overnight stops at Habbaniya and Mauripur

Sunday 12 December 1954. We took off from Idris dead on time at 0930 local time and flew east across the Mediterranean heading towards Cyprus. Many of the passengers that had boarded in Lyneham, including the squadron leader next to me, had now left the flight and so I was able to move into the window seat. Before we reached Cyprus I plucked up courage and asked the AQM if I could have a look round the cockpit. He said he would ask the captain and a few minutes later he returned and took me up front. The flight crew made me very welcome and I stayed about 20 minutes. The captain was sitting back twiddling his thumbs letting George, the automatic pilot, do all the work. The engineer had instruments in front and on both sides of him. The signaller occasionally pressed his Morse key and fiddled around with his TR1154/55 while the navigator seemed to be the only one doing any work.

We didn't actually fly over Cyprus but left it a mile or two on our port side. The visibility was good and we could see quite a lot of the island, especially the central mountains. For the second day running it was dark for the last hour before landing. We landed at RAF Habbaniya, Iraq, at 1650 GMT, 1950 local time. We were taken by coach the two miles to the main camp and were dropped off outside a large tent, which was what passed for Reception. An RAF police corporal booked us in but then we had to move to another location, a proper building this time not a tent, for a meal.

The NCO in charge of us was an Irish sergeant who seemed to be very fed up with life. In the dining hall while waiting for some of the others to finish, another chap and myself poked our heads outside the door to see what we could see. That seemed to make the sergeant see red for he started shouting and bawling and told us to sit down. Even the locals came out of the kitchen to watch. Then he gave us all a lecture about people who "think they know everything". He seemed very bitter with his lot. (I saw this character again on my way home from Sri Lanka and I actually felt sorry for him then because he was still there but I was on my way home at the end of my tour.)

After that we went for our bedding and it was then that we came into contact with the mud. Everywhere was covered with it and in places it was difficult to see the narrow, paved paths. The same bitter sergeant issued us with our bedding but he'd cooled off a bit by then. We didn't get any sheets or pillow slips and the pillows were damp. The sergeant showed us to our accommodation - large tents with six beds in each and left us to our own devices. After depositing our kit we went in search of the NAAFI. I had a couple of cups of coffee and bought another writing pad because, as is obvious, this one is almost full. In change I got some coins which looked like cog wheels. (I still have those coins.)

None of us could sleep when we first got into bed and we spent quite some time talking before we dropped off to sleep. No sooner had we put the lights out than I had to put them on again because a flap on the tent wall had fallen in on me and a stout pole threatened to knock me on the head. It only took a couple of minutes to secure it and off went the lights again.

Above: Mick Harley (left) and David 'Tombstone' Gaunt outside our tent at RAF Habbaniya
Monday 13 December 1954. We were woken at 0715 local time. Breakfast ended at 0730 so we had no time to get washed - not that the prospect of washing in that place appealed to us. The sight that greeted our eyes as we went out of the tent was truly amazing. What we had seen in the dark last night was nothing to what we saw then. Oceans of mud and muddy water covered everything. We then went over to the airmen's lounge to wait for the transport to take us to the airfield. There, who should we meet of all people but Dick Lewis from GSp22 at Locking, smiles all over his face as always. From him we were able to get some information as to what happened to those of our class who went to the Middle East. They had been given 7 days embarkation leave - only those bound for the Far East got 14. All of them but Jim King and himself had been sent to the Canal Zone (lucky devils). He, Dick, had been sent to Habbaniya for posting elsewhere and he didn't know what had happened to Jim. He could only stop for a few minutes because he and another chap were in the middle of clearing preparatory to leaving Habbaniya.

It was obviously an enormous camp and was supposed to have within its bounds everything you could possibly want by way of entertainment, food and shops for a full 2½ year tour. Baghdad is the nearest town of any size and that is nearly sixty miles away and apparently RAF personnel rarely bother to go there. The road back towards the airfield from the domestic site was very narrow and bumpy; it twisted and turned all over the place. At one point we had to cross the River Euphrates which, together with the Tigris the other major river of the region, I had learned about in Bible lessons at primary school in Wakefield. I couldn't remember the biblical connections but I doubt if the scenery had changed much since biblical times. After crossing the very rickety bridge over the Euphrates there was a short but steep hill up onto the airfield itself.

We took off from Habbaniya at 0915 local time and straightaway disappeared into a layer of cloud. We soon climbed above that and found brilliant sunshine on top, but that wasn't to last. Soon after passing Kuwait and going over the Persian Gulf (for that is what it was called in 1954) we ran into more cloud and got rather shaken about. I was well on the way to being sick when, after about two hours of it, we ran into clear skies once more and our troubles, or mine at any rate, were more or less over. After that the flight seemed to pass very quickly. We put our watches forward another two hours and we landed in Mauripur, on the outskirts of Karachi, at 1857 local time (1357 GMT).

As soon as the plane doors were opened, and that was only after a lengthy delay, a Pakistani civilian came into the cabin and walked up and down the gangway spraying the interior and its occupants with some vile smelling disinfectant. He was followed by an RAF Movements Officer who told us that the doors had to be kept closed for five minutes. They were apparently protecting themselves, and the Pakistani nation, from any Yellow Fever we may have brought in with us. While we were waiting in the aircraft for any bugs to die off, the Movements Officer informed us that we were on a Royal Pakistan Air Force station and that the conditions were very poor because of that. I thought that was not a very polite way of putting it. We began to wonder if Mauripur could possibly be any worse than Habbaniya.

When we de-planed we were taken into a building where we had to produce our Yellow Fever inoculation certificates for examination and then we had to pass the Customs Officer. One of the NCO aircrew had five bottles of spirits which he had bought at Idris and Habbaniya. They were confiscated but he was told he could have them back the next day before we took off. He seemed to know the score so he'd probably done the run several times before. We could change money in that same building but we were advised that most things we might want to buy were very expensive so no-one bothered. That night Mick Harley, Tombstone Gaunt and I had a whole room in a barrack block to ourselves. We had a Bearer to clean our shoes and make our beds for us - that was another first. We packed our blue uniforms away into our large kit bags and got out our Khaki Dress tropical kit ready to wear tomorrow - but first we tried it on.

Above: This is a picture that I discovered later I should not have taken for security reasons. I took it from my seat in the Hastings shortly after we landed at Mauripur on 13 December 1954.
Tuesday 14 December 1954. This is the last day of our journey to Ceylon. Breakfast was really horrible: some queer lumpy porridge and some sort of milk which tasted like nothing else on earth. We took off from Mauripur at 0815 local time. The trip, avoiding over-flying the Indian mainland for political reasons which were not explained to us, was uneventful with good weather all the way until we neared Ceylon when it became very cloudy. We landed at RAF Negombo (the name was changed in 1957 to RAF Katunayake) at 1545 local time, 5½ hours ahead of GMT, and a few minutes later it started pouring with rain just as we were about to disembark. For six of us Ceylon was our final destination and we collected our heavy baggage before we left the aircraft. In the terminal building we had our documents checked and then we were sent to a transit billet where we re-joined the few remaining airmen from our flight who were going on to Changi, Singapore, the following day. They were still in their blue uniforms because they had not been permitted to unload their heavy baggage from the Hastings. They seemed to think we looked very amusing in our khaki shorts which reached down to our knees however much we tried to haul them higher.

Mike, Tombstone and I got drenched going to tea but it was warm rain. We cavorted along the mostly-deserted camp roads like schoolchildren, splashing in the many puddles. We met a few other airmen along the way, all of whom were dressed in very short shorts, flip-flops on their feet, and carrying locally made, highly decorated umbrellas. Our own faces, arms and legs, were deathly white by comparison with theirs and for the first time we heard the jibe, "Look - Moon Men". Clearly our first two essential tasks will be to get a tan and adjust the length of our shorts.

That was the end of my in-flight log. The trip from RAF Lyneham to RAF Negombo had taken four days, a total of roughly 30 flying hours.

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