© BM 2008
Chapter Five – Episode 7
Alex Millar woke up with a start. For several long seconds he was unsure where he was. This was something he had felt increasingly in the last year or so, ever since joining the Army. He looked around him and saw the familiar faces of so many of his friends, and comrades, most of whom were asleep, some of whom were reading. The heavy drone of the engines came to him, and the Spartan, cramped interior of the Hastings brought a full awareness of where, exactly, he was. He turned to the soldier next to him.
“Nick, any idea where we are?”
“Not a bloody clue, mate. The last thing I remember was leaving Cyprus. I think that was about two, or three, hours ago. I think the next stop is Aden. Do you know that you bloody snore?”
“I bloody don’t, do I?”
“You bloody do, my old son, and it ain’t all that pleasant. Has your girlfriend never told you?”
“Oh, shit,” thought Alex, “how do I answer that one?” Instead he said, “Piss off, Private Elliot, you always did talk a load of bollocks.” All of which was much easier than admitting that he did not have a girl friend, and that he had never been to bed with any woman, who might have told him that he snored.
He closed his eyes, and tried to sleep. Sleep stubbornly refused to return, and he lay back in the uncomfortable seat, with his eyes closed. He had come a long way, and grown up even more in his year in the Army. He was nineteen years of age, employed by Her Majesty the Queen to defend the British Empire, and to keep the world safe for democracy, or so he had been informed by the officers and NCO’s who had trained him. Therefore, he could hardly admit to his best friend, the street wise East End Londoner, that he was still a virgin. This was not a matter of choice, he had no plans to be a monk. It had just happened that way, despite his best efforts. Still, it was not an admission that he wanted to make to any of these randy bastards in his unit. Perhaps the reported free and easy ways of the girls in the Far East might provide the means to solve that particular problem. The old soldiers, back in Yorkshire, spoke very highly of their charms, and many unusual tricks.
He reflected that he was a bit unlucky not to be going out to the Far East on a troopship, as most soldiers were still doing. The use of aircraft seemed in 1956 to be a daring innovation, not as good as a sea voyage, but at least he was going.
In retrospect he considered that joining the Army at the time of the Suez crisis had not been really smart. It had come as a major blow to the prestige of the British Army to be forced, after a successful invasion of Egypt, to be obliged by the politicians, under pressure from the Americans, to withdraw. But then, he supposed that the French and the Israelis had not been all that pleased about it either. Alex had watched all these events unfolding while he was undergoing his basic training at Catterick, and had been very depressed that they had happened when they did, and he had been unable to play any part. Like many others, he had listened to the radio with a great deal of apprehension as the Russians made threatening noises, and it appeared for a time that a new world war could eventuate. It hadn’t happened, at least that time.
He had enjoyed basic training, even if he had found it to be very demanding physically. He had been astonished by the wide cross section of young men who had made up his intake. National service was still in place, although Alex had been in a regular squad. The National servicemen could not understand why anyone had joined the Army voluntarily, and the regular soldiers looked down on their dragooned and lesser-paid brothers. There were Scots, Welsh, one or two from Ulster, like himself, and a variety of Englishmen, from all over the country. There was even one lad from Donegal, who had refuted Alex’s claim that he, Alex, was an Ulsterman. He, Donal, had pointed out very firmly to Alex that Donegal was also Ulster, and suggested that Alex should refer to his homeland as “the North of Ireland,” or “ Northern Ireland”, if he chose, but not Ulster.
This Alex had declined, with some vehemence, to do, whereupon Donal called him a Protestant bastard. They were pulled apart from the resulting fight by their hut mates, who were reduced to fits of laughter to learn that two Catholic Irishmen had been fighting over religion, the same religion, and their own religion, at that. Alex and Donal subsequently became firm friends, and Alex had been disappointed that his newly acquired friend had gone off to join the Royal Military Police, at Inkerman Barracks in Woking, in the south of England.
Alex found it difficult to understand the Geordies, and the Scousers, and was totally lost when the two spoke to each other. He was treated pretty much the same as anyone else, getting a nickname, again pretty well like everyone else. At first he was called “Dusty”, a name he did not mind and did not understand until it was explained to him. Even then, he had not minded. Then it was the unthinking “Paddy”, which all Irishmen were called, from whatever side of the border they came, and to which he objected with a passion, and to which he did not respond. Donal was also nicknamed Paddy, but he didn’t seem to care very much. After a while both of Alex’s nicknames died out, and he was universally called by his Christian name, Alex. Donal remained Paddy.
The Army was, as far as Alex was concerned, full of surprises. It had employed him as a driver, and after his basic training, he was sent off to do his driver training in the west of England. He had trained on a wide variety of vehicles, including a 30cwt Bedford truck, which his instructor had, on one occasion, required him to drive, sweating with worry, about fifteen miles, into a nearby town. The sergeant had purchased bacon and sausages from a butcher’s, while Alex sat behind the wheel and cooled down. Supplies wrapped in a brown paper parcel, the sergeant climbed back into the passenger seat.
“All right, lad, what are you waiting for? Start the bloody thing.”
“Where are we going, sarge?”
“Where are we going, where are we going? Where the bloody hell do you think we are going? Back to the bloody camp, of course.”
Alex had learned enough not to argue, and not to ask stupid questions, so he started the Bedford, with a dutiful, “Right, sarge” and drove back to camp. As they pulled up outside MTD section, he was bold enough to ask a question, which he hoped was not stupid.
“How did I do, sarge? Did I pass?”
“Oh, yes, lad. You passed before we left the camp, but I needed to do some shopping.”
He drove Land Rovers, Austins and Morris’s and a very grand Humber Super Snipe staff car. He had greatly enjoyed all of this, and had finished second in his course. Despite what to him was, in his own mind, a major achievement, the powers that be had then decided that Private Millar should become a soldier, a proper soldier, an infantryman. And a soldier he had become, a proper soldier, with a rifle in his hands. After infantry training he was posted to the second battalion of the Green Howards, and within a few weeks was further posted to Singapore. He had been home on leave to see his parents, and his mother was upset that her first born was off to the Far East.
“What will you eat,” she quizzed him.
Alex, who had found no problems with Army food, was unexcited by the food question. “Whatever they give me.”
“I’ve read that it’s very hot out there, won’t you be too warm?
He had laughed, “Mum, they issue us with tropical gear, shorts, short sleeved shirts, and long socks. We’ll be fine.”
“Alex, are there many girls out there, you know the kind of girls I mean?”
He knew exactly the kind of girls she meant, and he hoped to meet a few. “Mum, you know me better than that.” Whether she believed his light hearted dismissal of the question, he never knew.
He thought for a moment his mother was about to explain about sex and the dangers that the Catholic Church saw in it, but she changed the subject. It was as close as he ever came to a lesson on sex from his parents, and unenlightening as it was, it was one hundred per cent more than he had received at school. His father took his homecoming pragmatically, and greeted him as he came in the door as if he had been away for a day’s work, and not for ten months.
“How did you come from the boat?”
“I took the tram to Donegall Square, and changed there. Got off at the top of the street, and the milkman gave me a lift on the cart.”
“That old horse of his is on his last legs. I heard they were going to pension it off, and give Harry one of those electric things.”
“Aye, he mentioned that.”
They shook hands.
His father took his pipe from his mouth and regarded his son thoughtfully. “How’s the Army, son?”
“It’s great, Dad, I’m really liking it.”
His father put his pipe back in his mouth, and returned to his newspaper. “Good.”
The Hastings touched down at Aden, all the young soldiers straining to look out of the windows at the alternating views of the vivid blue sea, or the dazzling white town. The captain of the Hastings, seemingly, to Alex, a very old RAF squadron leader of about thirty-five, immediately declared the aircraft unserviceable, and retreated with his crew to the Officers’ Mess. Alex Millar was immensely pleased by this development, and even more pleased by the news that the Hastings would take a week to become airworthy, with parts required to be flown out from RAF Akrotiri in Cyprus, possibly RAF Changi in Singapore, or even all the way from England.
The Company was accommodated at the local barracks, just outside Aden Town, and in tents, as the brick barracks were fully occupied by the garrison. They settled in quickly, and were immediately paraded, to be inspected by a major in the Gordon Highlanders, whom Alex was disappointed to note was not in a kilt. The major did not appear to be overjoyed at the prospect of having one hundred and twenty extra hands, many of whom were raw young soldiers. He explained that he was Major MacLeod, was a career soldier, and possessed a very low opinion of the Royal Air Force, and their aircrew, who had caused him this burden. He informed them that he, personally, did not care one penny if any or all of the Green Howards, a very inferior regiment, got knifed, or caught the clap, or found disaster in one of a million other ways. However, he continued, he had a responsibility to Her Majesty to ensure the great expense of training them was not wasted. He assured them that this was a responsibility that he took very seriously, and that in order to fulfil his task of saving their lives, he was prepared to kill any or all of them. Alex risked a quick sideways glance at his platoon corporal who was grinning at the major’s words. Corporal McMichael must have had eyes in the side of his head, because he picked up on Millar’s actions. “Look to your front, Private Millar”, he hissed, “or I will rip your balls off and you can wear them as earrings.”
They were dismissed, and marched into the Mess, where they were briefed by a laconic RMP captain to the effect that Aden was a highly dangerous place, and that the rebels agitating for independence were not above killing British soldiers. The captain informed them that these unspeakable rascals were covertly supported by many in the town, and given the opportunity, they, the townsfolk, also unspeakable rascals, would do the same. The captain pointed out that the town itself was relatively safe, as it was heavily policed by the Army, but large parts of it, including the Souk, were out of bounds. He rubbed his jaw, and looked round in silence at the audience, many of whom were, by this time, badly scared.
“Now then, gentlemen, I am certain that many of you will have plans to put your private parts into places where I would not put my swagger stick.” He raised the swagger stick and regarded it speculatively. “Let me tell you that to do so is not only morally and medically wrong, but will cause you to be arrested by one of my policemen, who have been serving in this God forsaken hole for so long, that they may forget their manners. You may also wish to recall that getting a dose of VD is an offence contrary to Queen’s Regulations, to say nothing of the risk you are running of your dicks dropping off.” He went on to caution against attempting any liaisons with local girls, all of whom were Muslims, and whose brothers/fathers/uncles were very talented at the surgical removal of the testicles of anyone interfering with their womenfolk.
The RMP captain gave way to an eager, and bespectacled, Army medical officer, also with the rank of captain. In addition to general hygiene advice, he, too, banged the VD drum in even greater, and to Alex, even more disgusting detail. Nick Elliot, who was sitting beside him, whispered under his breath, “What a load of bollocks!” Eventually, they were given duties for the remainder of that day, and for the following.
It was two days before Alex was able to go into town, unarmed. He was indignant at this, and even more indignant at the explanation that the loss of one inexperienced soldier was considerably less serious that the loss of one rifle, which could be used to kill many British soldiers. It was with some apprehension that he and four others walked into Aden. His worst fears were not met. Alex was fascinated by almost everything he saw. The brilliant brassy sun burned at his face, arms and legs with a fierceness he could not believe, from a sky so blue he could not believe that either. The buildings were universally white, and reflected the sun so strongly that he squinted, and reached for his Army issue sunglasses. There were numerous minarets that he correctly assumed to be mosques. There were more shops in Aden than he had imagined, and at least as many stalls, all seemingly run by Indians, or Pakistanis, Alex could not determine which. Electrical goods abounded, with televisions, radios, and hi fi systems everywhere. He resolved to count his money on return to the barracks, and see if he had enough to buy a camera.
They visited the harbour, where a buzzing melange of small coasters, and Arab dhows rolled lazily on a gentle swell, the surface of the water streaked by the rainbow colours of oil. About half a mile offshore there was a large white ship, which he assumed to be a cruise liner, and the streets were awash with mostly white tourists, mostly elderly, and, as far as he could tell, mostly American. Alex enjoyed the colour, and the noise, and the sun prickling the exposed parts of his body. He liked it all, mostly because it was different from Belfast. The one matter he found difficulty in liking was the ever present, pervasive smell. It appeared to be a mixture of Oriental spices, sweat, rotting fruit, and human excrement. Longer serving soldiers had told him that the smell was just “Aden”, and he wouldn’t notice it after a while.
They finished up inevitably, in a bar, in which a number of British soldiers were drinking. The street outside contained a pair of Redcaps, armed with sub machine guns, and two more Military Policemen were in a Land Rover on the other side of the street. Nick suggested that they have a look for some girls, but was shouted down by the others who still had visions of their penises dropping off. Nick subsided with a shrug, and a dismissive “Wankers!” Alex was glad, as he had determined to leave this part of his education to Singapore.
The brief and unscheduled stopover in Aden, holiday some called it, lasted for seven days, and Alex was able to have two further days of wide-eyed wanderings before climbing once more into the Hastings. They were allowed to drive in convoy to a beach outside of town, which was much used by British soldiers. He noticed two small identical concrete installations at either end of the beach, about seven hundred yards apart, manned by the Army. On inquiring their purpose of an NCO, it was explained that the beach was protected on a 24-hour basis. He further inquired why this was necessary, and instantly regretted the question. The sergeant looked at him for several seconds, as one might look at a particularly dim child.
“Because, sonny, the bastards might plant some fucking mines in the fucking sand, and when soldier boy is playing with his bucket and spade, he might just get his fucking legs blown off.”
This answer seemed so eminently sensible and obvious that Alex wondered why he had not thought of it himself.
He looked at the on duty soldiers with a new interest, and was pleased to note how alert, confident and watchful they all seemed. None of them looked very much older than himself, and he wondered if, one day, he too might look like them.
He wandered down to the sea, picking his route very carefully, just in case. The water was warm and crystal clear. The beach was shelving very slightly, and he was able to walk almost one hundred yards before the water reached his waist. The sand was white, with small stones, and smaller shells on the bottom, glinting as the sunlight shafted through the water. All around dozens of rainbow coloured fish swam unconcernedly, with some, braver, or more curious, than others, stopping to nibble on his toes. He swam for over an hour, alternately diving into the apparently tideless sea, and floating on his back, with the sun, all the time, burning at his skin. He thought that, so far, the Army was not too bad. He was being paid by Her Majesty to go swimming and sun bathing in the Indian Ocean, or whatever this stretch of water was called. Admittedly, he reasoned with himself, he was not paid a great deal, but then, one out of two was not bad. He tried to remember when he had last been swimming in the sea, and decided that it had been at Bangor, in County Down, when he was seventeen. Although it had been in July, the water had been freezing, and he had been worried at that time that his penis might drop off, but with the cold and not the clap. He had ridden his bicycle all the way from Belfast, and was hot and sticky. A swim had seemed a great idea, but only until the time that Alex and his mates had got into the water. Standing here now, with the warm clear sea up to his waist, he resolved that he would never ever try swimming in the Irish Sea again.
On their last day of freedom, they walked into Aden again, and Alex bought his camera, a small compact Olympus. As he was leaving the shop, the Indian trader inquired politely if “Sir” would like some film to go with his purchase, gravely pointing out that “the apparatus will work much more satisfactorily with a film.”
The logic of this was inescapable, and Alex, blushingly, passed over the Olympus to the Indian who fitted a film.
“Try to use it in the first two years, sir,” he solemnly advised the embarrassed Millar, who assured him that he would. He offered to pay, but the Indian refused.
“Oh, no sir, please accept it as my humble gift. God save the Queen!”
“God save the Queen,” mumbled Millar, and escaped into the street.
The Hastings took off successfully, to everyone’s relief, and via Gan and Penang, staggered its way eastwards to land heavily, and with what seemed a sigh of relief at RAF Changi. The aircraft rumbled to a stop, and then turned around at the end of the airstrip and rumbled back to the hard standing area.
With the shouted encouragement of the NCO’s, they quickly piled off the aircraft on to Singapore soil. The shock was immediate, and lasted for three or four days. It was like walking into an oven, a wet oven, as a great blanket of hot moist air engulfed them on the concrete. The heat was not like Aden, hot and dry, but overpoweringly humid. It took Alex’s breath away, and he gasped for air. They formed up and very smartly marched off to the buildings, glad for what little relief the corrugated iron roofed shed could provide at RAF Changi. The Air Force crew of the Hastings followed in a small gaggle, and the skipper saluted casually as he passed. “Good luck, boys. Welcome to paradise.” Alex wondered if the pilot was going to u/s the aircraft again.
They hung around for what seemed to be a long time, collecting and checking their gear, before a small fleet of 30cwt Bedfords appeared, and they clambered on board. The officers went by Land Rover, but their NCO’s and men used the Bedfords. Alex had not seen a Bedford since he had finished his driver training, and regarded the ugly trucks with a professional and affectionate eye.
“I can drive one of these,” he informed Nick Elliot with some pride.
Elliot was unimpressed. “Good for you, mate, but the Army wants you to be a soldier, and to go out and kill people with your little gun, and not run them down with a bleeding lorry.”
There was no sensible answer to this, and Alex did not try to give one.
The journey to Panglin was fairly short, and through some impressively congested streets. No one in the streets paid any attention to the company of Green Howards bumping up and down on the backs of the trucks, making less than stately progress towards their new home.
Panglin was less of an Army barracks than a small town. They shuddered to a halt inside the main gate, poured from the trucks, and were hastily lined up. Their Company Commander, who had reached Singapore about a week before his men, inspected them, wished them welcome, and gave the standard military advice on obeying orders, drinking little, respecting the civilian population, and keeping their penises out of warm damp places. Even he did not expect this last piece of wisdom to be observed. Finally they were dismissed, and allowed to occupy their new quarters. Millar’s Company were on the first floor of a long, red roofed, and white painted building, where all the windows were wide open. This had the effect of allowing some breeze to blow through, and make living a little more bearable. He wondered why there were windows at all. The answer to this became very evident on the first occasion it rained, and the big shutters were closed.
They settled down quickly, and equally quickly discovered that the barracks contained many amenities, not all of which the soldiers availed themselves. There was a cinema, with current films showing every night. There were civilian shops, as well as the NAAFI, a camp barber’s shop, a library, and a multi denominational church. There were messes for all ranks, and the food was adjudged to be pretty good. There was also a great variety of classrooms, and workshops, a firing range, and a well-secured Armoury.
The newcomers quickly settled into a not unpleasant regime of drilling and weapons training, and free time in Singapore. The city was a constant delight to Alex Millar, with its kaleidoscope of people; Chinese, Malay, Indians of different groupings and skin colour, and many people of indeterminate racial background. The Chinese predominated. The presence of the military was everywhere. The British Army provided most to this military hotch potch, intermingled with the Royal Air Force, and Royal Navy men, all of whom appeared to Alex to be somewhat older than the soldiers, and many of whom seemed to have a rank. There was also a much smaller number of servicewomen, mostly from the RAF, and shore based RN establishments. To an even smaller extent there were Australians and New Zealanders from all three services, and very often sailors from the US Navy. Topping off this mixture were many European civilians, male and female, at whose functions Alex could only guess. This was to be his home for the next two years, and he was very pleased by the prospect.
He noticed that a great many soldiers owned cars. They were almost exclusively older British cars, from the late forties, or early fifties. As each owner reached the end of his time, and went off to a new posting, the car was sold on to another member of the military, usually at a lower price, and in an increasingly less pristine state. The cars seemed to be like a modern example of camp followers. In Wellington’s army, it would have been women who were handed on, as, for one reason or another, their previous menfolk departed, sometimes on posting, but more usually because they were dead. Now it was ageing Austins and Morris’s, and even one or two MG’s and Triumphs.
Alex also noticed the huge number, and wide variety, of food stalls, selling meals for two or three dollars. These “makan” carts were popular with the local people, and with many in the military as well. Millar decided that he could manage without either a hand me down car, or the “makan” carts. He did learn that “makan” was a Malay word for food.
To Alex’s surprise, he, and his comrades were allowed much more free time than he had expected, and much more than they had been given in England. He enjoyed the Army, and its occasionally strange ways. He learned to curb his natural tendency to “argue the toss”, as his father would have put it. He frequently failed to understand why things were done, but decided to go ahead and do them, not that he had a great deal of choice. The longer he remained a soldier, the more he looked at the NCO’s, and officers, and the more he believed that he was capable of doing the jobs they did. He decided that he wanted to be commissioned, and set himself a target of getting there by the time he was twenty-eight. Accordingly, he found himself gradually drawing away from his fellow soldiers, whose main interests seemed to be drinking, and chasing girls, although not necessarily in that order. Not that he had anything against either drink or girls, although he recognised that it as his own shyness, which had, to date, prevented him from fulfilling his plans in regard to the latter. He also discovered his inability to drink great quantities of beer, and this, too, gradually estranged him from his mates. He found himself increasingly on his own in Singapore, in his free time, and took much delight in visiting the various attractions in the “Lion City.”
He visited “Change Alley”, Raffles hotel, and watched many games of cricket on the Padang, near St Anne’s Cathedral. As he had developed into a fairly useful, if gritty, opening batsman, and occasionally successful off spinner, he even played on Singapore’s famous ground in a couple of games. He delighted in Tiger Balm Gardens, and could wander for several hours at a time among the sculptures, waterfalls and bridges, which were the features. As most of the other visitors were locals, he felt more at home than visiting the drinking dens and brothels favoured by his mates.
During one of his regular visits to “Change Alley”, the winding narrow market, he met Anne. She had had her handbag snatched from her, and was in tears when Alex saw her. She was seventeen and the daughter of an RAF flight sergeant who was serving at Tengah, and living in married quarters on the station, with her parents. Alex had insisted on hiring a taxi and taking her home. Her father was a tall, wiry, and pleasant man, who responded to Private Millar’s “Good afternoon, flight sergeant”, with “The name’s Bob.” Anne’s mother, Molly, was a plump and permanently distracted woman, with a somewhat bemused look on her face most of the time. Anne was dark haired, slim, with deep brown eyes, and in a very short time, Alex decided that he had fallen in love with her. He was shattered when she told him that she was returning to England in a few months, as the schooling system in Singapore was not designed to go beyond a normal secondary education. They began going out together, and Mr and Mrs East did not appear to have any problems with this. Increasingly Alex and Anne became more intimate in their kissing, and he sensed that the time was approaching when they would make love. He felt a deep panic at the prospect, as he did not really know what to do, or what was expected of him. He decided that he needed to get some practice.
Half a dozen or so of the occupants of the first floor decided to go into town on Saturday evening. They did not ask Alex, on whom they had long since given up. He sat on the edge of his bed, looking at them all, shaving, combing hair, applying liberal amounts of aftershave and putting on their civvies. They talked endlessly, laughing and joking, pushing each other, and boasting of their sexual conquests.
“Can I come with you?”
No one seemed to have heard him, so he repeated the question, a little more loudly. “Can I come with you bastards?”
The talking stopped, and they paused in their preparations. “Who said that? I’m sure I heard someone speak.” It was Dick Mason who posed this sarcastic question. Nick Elliot turned to him quickly.
“Close your fucking mouth, you dickhead.” He turned to Millar. “Sure, mate. Come along, you’re welcome.”
So, six young soldiers of the Empire went out on a Saturday night in Singapore to enjoy themselves. The normal routine was followed. They had a few “Tigers”, a Chinese meal, and ended up in Mama San’s place off the Orchard Road. They were all fairly drunk, but happily so, and at twenty years of age a few beers and a prawn curry did little to diminish sexual desire. Mama greeted them with what appeared to be great joy. She kissed and hugged Elliot.
“Nick oh las, very nice girls tonight, all new, all clean girls. No trouble with Redcaps. Good cheap prices for British soldier. Come in, come in.” She put her arm around him, and he around her, the tall slim young Londoner, and the short fat middle aged Chinese woman.
Nick laughed. “Mama, I’ve brought you a new customer, my friend, Alex. I want you to find him a nice tender young Chinese girl. Good clean girl, none of your usual old whores. Someone with big tits and a tight pussy.”
She disengaged herself from him and took Millar by the hand. “Master Ah lex. Come, I find nice girl for you.”
They all went inside into a big room with a variety of settees, on which were seated ten or twelve young Chinese girls, all of whom looked to be aged about sixteen. There were two or three other young white males, who appeared to be servicemen. It was still a bit early, and most potential customers were still somewhere else, finishing their curries. The girls rose to greet the newcomers, with what Alex thought was genuine pleasure. Mama guided Millar towards a girl who looked almost identical to each of the others.
“Master Ah lex, she Sharon. Good Christian girl, she give you nice time.”
They sat together, and Sharon ordered some drinks, a Tiger for him, and something orange with a straw and a little paper umbrella in it for herself. They began talking, with Sharon doing most of the talking. She chattered away in her appealing child like English, and reminded Alex of a small bright bird. She was very attractive, with almost white skin, and the normal almond shaped eyes of the Chinese. She smelt glorious, sending his pulses racing, and causing reactions in other parts of his body.
Elliot leaned across to him when Sharon excused herself to go to the toilet.
“How are you getting on, mate?”
“Great, Nick, just great.”
“Did you come prepared?”
Millar looked at him. “What are you on about?”
Elliot looked at him with a despairing look on his face. “Alex, you’re not safe to be let out of the fucking camp. Are you prepared? Have you got a French letter with you? It ain’t worth believing Mama, most of these fucking birds will have the clap.” He reached over and gave his friend two Durex. “Don’t you know any fucking thing? You pick these up as you leave the camp, from the Guardroom. You don’t want to give your English bird a dose of syphilis, do you?” He turned away for a moment, and turned back again. “Alex, my old mate, if you want to become an officer, it’s about time you learned a little bit more about life, because you know fuck all about most of it. I hope you know how to use those bleeding things.”
He pressed something into Alex’s hand and when he opened his fingers there was a great wad of Singaporean banknotes. “Just in case you need it, mate.” He turned away as his own girl came back from the toilet, laughing with Sharon, and both glancing at him, Alex.
After about an hour, Sharon took his hand and led him upstairs, and into a small room, an alcove really, off a long corridor. She let go of his hand and indicated he sit on the bed, which, apart from a small table and chair, was the only furniture the room contained. She reached over her back and undid the zip on her tight little dress. He heard the noise of the zip, and then the dress slipped to her feet, and she stepped out of it. He did not think that he had ever seen anything so beautiful in his life. She then undid her brassiere and he revised his opinion. She slipped out of her knickers, and he revised it once more.
“You like?” she asked him.
He nodded wordlessly.
“You want to touch?”
He remained wordless, and she walked over to him and stood just in front of him, her small breasts level with his face. “You touch.”
He was unable to move. She took one of his hands and put it on her breast. A moment later she took the other and placed it between her legs. She smiled. “Now you like?”
“You’re beautiful,” he croaked.
She shook her head, a little sadly. “No, just a girl.”
One month later, he and Anne made love, and he asked her to marry him. She said yes.
Two days later, the Company got on a train and began the long two-day journey up the Malay Peninsula to Penang. As part of the Commonwealth agreement to protect Malaya from the communist insurgency, 28 Commonwealth Infantry Brigade sent a company from Singapore to provide security for the Royal Australian Air Force base at Butterworth in the State of Penang, and on the mainland opposite the city of Georgetown. They were to relieve the Australians, and would, in a month’s time, be, in turn, relieved by the New Zealanders. In a short period of one month, Alex Millar was on his way to being a man, and to becoming a soldier.
RAAF Butterworth had started life as an RAF station, and in the early days of the Japanese war, had been on the front line as the Imperial Japanese Army had poured its way down the Malay Peninsula. From Butterworth, Squadron Leader Rueben Scarfe had taken off in a flight of seven Blenheims to take on the Zeros of the Emperor’s Air Force. All seven Blenheims had been shot down almost immediately, and nearly all the crews killed. Their flight commander, Scarfe, had been taken, seriously wounded, to Alor Star British Military Hospital, where he died in the arms of his wife, who was a hospital nursing sister. For his bravery, Squadron Leader Scarfe was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross. In the early part of the Malayan Emergency Butterworth was the base from which Spitfires and then Meteors of the RAF, and Lincoln bombers of the RAAF pounded Communist Terrorist targets hidden in the deep dark jungles on the spine of Malaya. Things were quieter now, with the Australians flying Sabre jet fighters, and helicopters, as well as the Lincolns, and the British also using choppers, and maintaining a Bloodhound Surface to Air missile (SAM) squadron.
Into this nationally mixed environment the Green Howards stepped. They found that the security of the base was the responsibility of the RAAF, who used RAAF and RAF policemen, and the SAM unit was protected by the RAF Regiment, the so called “Rock Apes.” Alex and his mates wondered what their own role was. They were quickly advised.
The day after arrival they were called to yet another of what seemed to be endless briefings. Their guide on this occasion was an RAAF flight lieutenant, who informed them in that uniquely Australian way that he was the Base Provost Officer, or Station Security Officer, if they were happier with RAF terminology. He told them that he didn’t give a shit either way. His job was to police the base area, and protect the military personnel serving there, and their families. The job of the Army was to back up his efforts, and to take action against any CT’s who were operating outside the wire. He pointed out that the RAAF Act contained all of the clauses and sanctions of the Army Act, and would be used, if need be. In addition to his own policemen, there was a number of Military Police working with his unit, and they were probably more accustomed to the unpleasant ways of soldiers than his own SPs.
This officer also warned them of the dangers posed by their desire to pursue their sexual urgings, but added, as if not believing his own advice, that if they did perversely decide to indulge their wicked desires, they should bloody well do it in those establishments passed by the Medical Department, as all others were out of bounds. Using the latter places would not only get them arrested and charged, but would, in all probability lead to their dicks dropping off. Millar scratched his groin area speculatively, and Elliot elbowed him in the ribs.
“You should keep it in your trousers, mate.”
“Fuck off, Nick,” was his almost automatic response.
Butterworth had very little to recommend it, and Prai, a few miles down the road to the south, had even less. There was an RAAF swimming pool to which the young soldiers would repair, about a mile from the base, and where a few “Tigers” and some passable food were available. They would go there in their free time, acquire a suntan, and watch the young wives of the RAAF and RAF men. The Air Force seemed a little more relaxed about visits to certain establishments in Georgetown than the Army was in Singapore. Alex did not avail himself of these comforts, as he believed he was saving himself for Anne, back in Singapore.
Georgetown, on the island of Penang, or Pulau Pinang in Malay, was the capital and largest town in the State of Penang and had a predominantly Chinese population. It was a pleasant place. The civilian police had a laissez faire attitude, particularly towards British, New Zealand or Australian servicemen. They took the view that, if you had a white face, whether you were wearing uniform or civilian clothing, you were subject to Queen’s Regulations, and, therefore, unless you could prove to the contrary, you were the responsibility of the Air Force police. They, the Air Force police, be they Australian or British, were firm but fair, and were recognisably more tolerant than the RMP in Singapore. However, the Air Force police also had a policy. They believed that any white male in Georgetown was a serviceman from one or other of the three services, subject to Queen’s regulations, and you could only prove that to the contrary after arrival at the Guardhouse. The only exception to this theory was that a white male in civilian dress in Georgetown could possibly be a subject of Uncle Sam, but the end result was the same. You could explain it to the sergeant in the Guardhouse.
Millar and his comrades frequently took a taxi from the base and caught the Ferry at Prai. These lumbering green giants took about twenty minutes to make the three-mile journey across the Straits to Georgetown. The ferries carried vehicles as well as pedestrians, and Millar was fascinated in studying his fellow passengers to determine who they were or where they came from. Perhaps understandably, the majority were Chinese, although he had already learned that there was a number of Chinese dialects, almost like Scottish clans. He was also amazed to see how much the skin colour of the Chinese varied from almost white to almost black. Certainly his long held belief that the Chinese were all yellow skinned was very wide of the mark. He had learned that Indians were also of many different races and languages, and again varied in colour from shiny blue black Tamils to much lighter skinned races from Northern India. The Malays, as with the other races, kept themselves to themselves. There were further smaller numbers of races and peoples in the pot pourri that was Penang; Thais, Burmese, Sri Lankans, and Eurasians of a bewildering mixture of ethnic backgrounds. Then, of course, there were many “Europeans”, as the locals called all white people, and nearly all of these were service people. The ‘lingua franca’ of this disparate mixture of peoples was English. Alex thought back to his discussions with Father Larkin at school, and wondered how far the good father would have got by speaking Irish. That seemed like another life, an almost forgotten life, in an other distant and unreal world.
Alex Millar enjoyed Penang, and his time at Butterworth. He missed Anne, but not much else at Singapore. At the beginning of his third week, he received a letter from her saying she had a date to return to England, and they would only have three days together on his return. He fretted about this, and began counting the days and hours, which he had not done before she sent her message.
Three days before their expected return, news came of an incident at the Dublin rubber plantation, about fifteen miles north and east of the Air Base. Seven Malay workers had been murdered by the terrorists, at about 1100 hours, and the CT’s had made off into the jungle. Incidents in 1957 in Penang State were extremely rare.
The Company was immediately ordered to readiness and in the early afternoon, number three platoon had clambered aboard a large RAF Belvedere helicopter, and was airlifted to Dublin. They disembarked at the plantation airstrip, a short dirt strip, clawed out of the bush and suitable for only light aircraft or helicopters. The new arrivals at once noticed three smaller RAF Whirlwind helicopters, all of which were capable of carrying ten or eleven men. They were not given much time to spend staring at the helicopters.
An RAF flight sergeant saw them, and shouted. “You men, I need six of you over here. Snap to it.”
As Millar and several of his comrades were only about ten yards from the NCO, the latter’s intentions were pretty obvious, but to reinforce his point, the RAF man pointed at them, and growled “I do mean you, and I do mean now. Get over here. This is not a discussion.”
They trotted over and chorused “Yes, flight sergeant.”
“These things need fuel to get them into the air, and more important, to keep them up there. Now, as you young gentlemen will be going off to chase those nasty CT’s, you will be anxious to know the choppers are properly fuelled. Yes?”
“Yes, flight sergeant.”
“Right, well get those stirrup pumps, and those forty four gallon drums, and LAC Hughes will show you how to refuel them. This is what is known as inter service co-operation.” He then bellowed at a tall languid airman, in dirty blue overalls, with the emblem of a propeller on his upper arm. “LAC Hughes. Keep an eye on these soldier boys.”
Hughes was clearly destined to be an NCO, as he supervised the soldiers without once taking his hands from his pockets. As soon as they had completed the refuelling, one of the Whirlwinds took off almost at once with a small detachment of Gurkhas to secure the landing ground. This they did, apparently without problems, and the others followed in the gathering gloom, caused not by approaching night, but by the great banks of clouds that were building up. They landed only just before the rains came, and proceeded to set up camp as the tropical rainstorm began. Rainfall in the tropics is different to that in Europe. Particularly during the monsoon, or wet, season, it does not rain, but it pours sometimes so heavily it is almost impossible for a man to see more than three feet in front of him. Frequently, each day will commence with clear skies and brilliant sunshine, and then as the day continues, the atmosphere grows increasingly heavier, the clouds build up into great gathering squadrons of grey cumulous which erupt at around four in the afternoon. So it was this afternoon.
It rained for about two hours, as they were setting up camp. The water poured into their clothing and equipment, soaking their tents and washing away the ground sheets. It turned the clearing where they were camped into a fiercely flowing river of brown mud, but there was no alternative but to carry on in the business in which they were engaged. Almost as quickly as it had began, and equally predictably, the rains stopped, at about six, and there was a short period of daylight to complete the setting up, before the day died in a magnificent tropical sunset seen over to the west, towards Butterworth, home and safety.
During the night, they all did their best to dry off and get some sleep. It was almost impossible to achieve rest, as the endless sounds of the jungle added to the preparations in the camp, and the need for each man to stand a period of two hours guard. Alex did not sleep, and he doubted if anyone had. He was scared, with visions of the CT’s being just outside their defensive ring, waiting to kill them all, as they had done to the seven Malay plantation workers.
The arrival of first light was a relief to them all, and they were gathered together to be briefed on their mission. The group, which had carried out the attack on the Dublin Estate, was believed to be about fourteen or fifteen strong, and was heading east and north up into the highlands. They were believed to have about twelve hours headstart, and the British were to follow and destroy them, however long it took. They would be supplied from the air, and would travel as lightly as possible. They would be accompanied by the Gurkhas, and a number of Malay trackers. Millar looked at both these groups. The Gurkhas with their fearsome, and well deserved reputations, stood impassively listening, their NCO’s quietly translating, and the Malay guides, small wiry men, crouched on their haunches. They were also accompanied by a European Special Branch police superintendent, dressed in khaki with black flashes. He translated for the Malays.
Millar whispered to Nick Elliot “The little guys are Dyaks.”
“The little Malay guys are Dyaks.”
“You’re talking crap, Alex, a dyke is a lesbian.”
“Not dykes, you dick, I said Dyaks. They are from Sarawak. They are trackers, and are in the Sarawak Rangers.”
“Stone me, Alex, you have really learned a lot since you decided to be an officer. I thought they might have been in Queen’s Park Rangers.”
“Don’t be so bleeding sarcastic, Private Elliot. I just told you that the little guys are trackers.”
“Are they any good?”
“Best in the world. I read somewhere they have a habit of cutting off people’s heads.”
“Fuck me, mate. What with them and the bleeding Gurkhas, and their big knives, I’m glad they are on our side.”
Alex Millar was left with the impression that Nick Elliot was not taking him entirely seriously, so he shut up.
The Gurkhas and the Malays went off first, followed after about a half-hour by the British soldiers. They walked, rather than marched, in stretches of two hours, and stopped for fifteen minutes. They continued, in almost complete silence until the heat of the day became too great, when a break of two hours was ordered, and a meal taken. Then they continued until the rain came again. The jungle was a green mysterious place, fetid, humid and frightening. It was criss crossed with streams, and rivulets, and small rivers, some of which they could step over, others had to be waded, up to their waists. Moisture was everywhere, running along the ground, dripping from the foliage, or tumbling out of the sky. They were never dry, and the sweat added to the discomfort of the men, a number of whom took to trying their large Army handkerchiefs across their foreheads, bandanna style, to stop the sweat trickling into their eyes.
At each stop they sank exhausted to the ground, and sat as in a stupor, and even when on perimeter duty at these times, they acted as in a daze. Alex found no difficulty in sleeping now, either at night, for spells of two hours, or for ten minutes snatched as they rested. They neither saw, nor heard, anything of the enemy, nor the Gurkhas, and little of the Malay trackers. On the fifth day, they came upon a small habitation, comprising six or seven huts, more shelters really, constructed of branches and leaves. The Malay tracker had found the place, and it was examined by one of the two officers, the Malay, and the Special Branch policeman. The policeman found some papers which he stuffed into a leather pouch he kept inside his shirt, and he nodded to the Army officer. The soldiers were ordered to search and destroy the huts, an action that took less than half an hour. They found small quantities of food, mostly rice and vegetables, and a handful of tins. They punctured the tins, and burnt the food. The miserable huts were torched, and went up in seconds.
At this time, the insurgents in Malaya had been at war with the Government for nearly ten years, and they were losing. Their numbers were decreasing by the month, with loses to disease, malnutrition, and jungle madness adding to the killed, captured and surrendered that the Security Forces could claim. It was estimated that total CT numbers were now down to perhaps a thousand, and these were increasingly being squeezed into the inhospitable highlands, or the border region with Thailand. It was probably towards this area that the present band was headed.
After seven days they had not encountered the enemy, and the pursuit, such as it was, was called off. Captain Archer briefed them and explained that the Gurkhas had caught up with the raiders about seven miles to the north, and in the ensuing fight, had killed three and captured one. The others, believed to be another seven or eight had broken off the fight, and were being pursued. The Special Branch man, accompanied by the Malay left to join up with the successful Gurkhas, and to interrogate the prisoner. The Green Howards, led by the second Malay, found a small clearing, which they further cleared, and sat down to await the RAF choppers. Just before dusk on the seventh day, they were back at Butterworth, where they showered, had a few Tigers, and fell into their beds, like dead men.
Two days later, they were back at Panglin, where Alex rang Flight Sergeant East, and learned that Anne had returned to England a week previously. She had said she would write. He went into town with a few of the others, had a few beers, and a curry, and went to Mama San’s. Sharon was not there, and the fat Chinese woman had no idea where she had gone.
“Girls come, girls go, Master Ah lex. No problem, plenty other girls.”
He had declined, and took a trishaw down Orchard Road where he found a bar, got drunk, and fell asleep.