My Unfinished Father – A Life Lived to the Full
A Life Lived to the Full
03/07/1938 – 18/10/2018
Part 8 – Pages 73 – 80 – Part 2
Malaysia 1969 – Butterworth Beach
It’s funny, how well I can remember some things and how badly others. I have long believed that we flew directly to Penang via Singapore. We didn’t. We departed on 23rd of September 1969 and flew to Sydney’s Kingsford Smith airport.
The following day we continued on our way via a shortened stop over at Payah Lebar Airport in Singapore. We were allowed off the aircraft and we had the shock of our lives. We stepped out into a baker’s oven. It fairly took your breath away.
And then, having refuelled, we landed an hour or so later at RAAF Butterworth. It was still very humid and we, Margaret and I, were tired. Our first concern was to get the kids to bed and I found a couple of Service Police who turned up with that purpose in mind. We all piled into a Land Rover but did not get very far before we were stopped by a very large man wearing a padre’s uniform.
“Flying Officer Matier,” he addressed himself directly to me. “Did you bring your boots?”
It was perhaps the strangest question I had ever been asked.
“I’m Padre English” he announced. “I’m the football officer and I wanted to talk to you before you got away.”
“I did bring my boots’ I replied. “They are in my case.”
“I’m leaving soon and I wondered if you would like to succeed me as football officer?”
After such a welcome I felt I could hardly refuse.
The Land Rover took off and very soon we were all in bed. It had been a very exhausting day.
It took us a couple of weeks to settle in, both domestically and at work. Our married quarter, which had been where the previous holder of my position had lived, was fine. It was, in fact, better than fine; it was excellent.
In addition to the house, a three bed roomed dwelling built entirely on the first floor, had the servants’ quarters on the ground floor, was very well kept and we felt we could be happy there. It was fully furnished. Additionally, Bill Perret had left behind three domestics, Choy, Sharon, both Chinese, and an Indian gardener who all knew what to do.
We hired a car and got out a bit in our first few weeks to visit some of the local highlights, all of which were on the island of Penang. Penang was one of the states of Malaysia and was in two parts. There was the part on the mainland, called Province Wellesley, presumably named after Wellington, or his brother; and then the island of Penang, which just happened to be duty free. I was not much interested in alcohol or tobacco but was very interested in music. I used to buy long playing record albums which cost about six dollars on the island and ten dollars on the mainland. I used to slip these into my briefcase which I declined to open to Customs’ officers.
We took the ferry, a very large green ship which ran a continuous service across the three miles across the sea to Georgetown the island’s capital. The ferries are a thing of the past as a bridge was built many years since.
Telok Ayer Tauer beach Kampung
Our address was 978 Robina Park, in the village of Telok Ayer Tauer. It was suitably romantic.
We drove round the island one Sunday, driving up and down Penang Hill, 2743 feet in height. There was an RAF radar station at the top which I would visit later. This time we contented ourselves with visiting the tourist venues, like the giant Buddha. We also visited Fort Cornwallis which was a memorial to Britain’s colonial history.
I was delighted to learn that the Assistant Provost Marshal was my old friend, Sqn Ldr Peter Dent, with whom I established an excellent working relationship. It helped that Maggie also liked him. Sadly this period of peace and brotherhood only lasted three months. Bob was responsible for all aspects of RAAF security on Penang Island and my job, as Base Provost Officer, if you were RAAF, or Station Security officer, if you were RAF, was to protect the base and the base facilities. Within RAAF Butterworth was RAF Penang, a complete RAF unit entirely within the Base. Also within the perimeter was 33(Bloodhound) Squadron.
I discovered these things as I went along as there appeared to be no one to instruct me.
The RAF Police at Changi played a bit of a dirty trick on me by visiting my unit at night and putting slips of paper on the tails of the Mirages which stated ‘This aircraft has been blown up.’ I learned a great deal from this exercise.
In the meanwhile I played my first game of football on the evening of Saturday 25th October. I think it was probably the last game at Butterworth for the old football officer, Padre English. I was out of breath after five minutes and completely knackered at the end of the game. We lost 3-1 to Penang Sports Club. I had little time to mourn, as I was back in action three days later, this time winning 3-1. And once again I was playing one week later against RAF Penang whom we beat 2-1.
It was then that I was told I had to take the RAAF team to Seria in Brunei for a long scheduled game against Shell Oil Brunei. When I told Margaret she was not best pleased, accusing me of going on booze up of a trip. This I considered unfair criticism as I had no part in the planning of the trip. However, I was very pleased to go.
On Friday 7th November we took off in an RAAF Dakota for the long haul flying eastwards across the Malayan Peninsula to Kuantan where we refuelled. The ‘Dak’ or C47 was not the most comfortable aircraft to travel in, as the seats were lengthwise along the fuselage with freight of various kinds strapped up the middle.
We were all obliged to wear uniform as, at the time; Malaysia was in ‘confrontation’ with Indonesia. This had been going on for some years and if a Westerner was caught by them in civilian clothes they could be shot as spies. It was deemed as better not to take that chance.
We refuelled again in Kutching in Sarawak and then set off for part three of our flight, this time to Seria in Brunei. We touched down about 1630 to be met by a character called Major John Baly whose function was to pick up any spare officers who had not made suitable arrangements for a bed for the night. There were two in this category, myself and an RAF Flying Officer, Don Deckley. All of the others seemed to have made their own arrangements. With John Baly and his Land Rover we were soon introduced to another world.
First there was the Officers’ Mess. It was a palace. No, I mean that it was a real royal palace. At the time of the 1963 uprising when a mob of Indonesian supporting rebels had tried to overthrow the Sultan, the rising had been put down, allegedly in one afternoon, in one day by the Ghurkhas. The Sultan had presented the palace, called ‘istana’ in Malay, to the Officers of the tenth Ghurkhas.
Since that time a number of single story houses had been added, built in the gardens, as accommodation for single officers. Don and I were allocated a house. These were four bedroomed dwellings with a shared kitchen and lounge area. The bedrooms were en suite.
We unpacked and then, as previously advised; we wandered over to the bar of the Mess. It was a splendid room. Some of the characters who were in the Mess were equally splendid, but in a different sense. The dress was casual, casual in the extreme, almost careless in fact.
We met up again with John Baly who introduced us to two rather elderly captains, called Charles and Edward. Charles had only one eye and a pronounced stammer.
He studied me very carefully with his solitary eye. “What is your outfit, old boy?”
“I am in the Royal Australian Air Force” was my reply.
“And what is your rank?”
“I am a flying officer.”
“Oh, you are a pilot.”
“No, flying officer is only a rank. It is equivalent to lieutenant in the army.”
“Extraordinary, is it not, Edward.”
“Truly extraordinary, is it not, Charles? And that is why you have ‘Australia’ on your shoulder then?”
Here Charles turned to Don “And who are you serving with?”
“I am with the RAF; the Royal Air Force.”
Charles savoured these words for some seconds before responding. “Ah, yes. You are one of ours then?”
I think we both realised that we were ‘having the piss taken.’
They wandered off and John returned
“Sorry to inflict those two on you. They are remarkable. Charles lost his eye in Aden and got an MC in exchange. .” He shook his head.
Something almost equally remarkable next occurred. We were introduced to the PMC, or President of the Mess Committee. I think he was a Colonel, but there was no way to be sure. He was dressed in an old shirt and riding trousers, which had split at the crotch so we had a good view of the PMC’s underpants. Despite his odd sense of dress he was an extremely erudite man and talked about horses. He, apparently, had six which were stabled with the only other horses in the state, the six owned by the Sultan.
I noticed that the PMC was in bare feet with bits of straw clinging to his bare toes.
At this point a Ghurkha soldier entered and called out for the orderly officer. He presented this worthy with some paper signals on a silver salver. Shortly afterwards Don and I departed to clean up a little bit before returning to the Mess for dinner. It had been an astonishing day.
The following day was a Saturday and I played on day one of a two day game of cricket. The RAAF batted first. We scored 102. I went in at number eleven and hung about for a while for nil not out.
I then played an entire game of football at right back. It was a bit tiring but we won 3-1 against the Panaga Sports club. The following day I played the second day of the cricket which we duly won by 36 runs. At 5 pm we played our second game of football but we were all pretty tired at this stage and playing at left back, we lost 3-1.
I seriously do not know how I did it. We were invited to a couple of parties by the guys from Shell and about ten in the evening I staggered off to bed. I have no idea how I got back to the Officers Mess but eventually I made it to bed.
I felt a hand on my shoulder, shaking me gently and a voice which said “Your chai, sir.” I awoke gradually to find myself staring into a walnut brown face with shining white teeth of a Ghurkha soldier.
“Sorry, who are you?”
“Corporal Balladur, sir. I will take you to the landing strip.” He indicated a cup of steaming tea. “Your chai is ready.”
“Thank you. Have you woken Mr Deckley?”
“He is not there, sir.”
“Oh, he’s up early.”
“No, sir. His bed not slept in.”
I thought, “My God, where the hell has he gone?”
I got up, gulped down my tea, and had a quick shower and dressed in Uniform. Corporal Balladur was waiting outside, standing beside the Land Rover. He began to get in. “We go now, sir”
“No, we don’t.”
“My orders are to leave now.”
I tapped my badge of rank on my shoulder. “And my orders are to wait here.”
Corporal Balladur stiffened. “Yes sir.”
And we stood there for about fifteen minutes, each minute more tense than the previous one. Then I saw a figure hurrying up the path. It was dressed in a Batik shirt and shorts. It had no shoes. It was the missing Flg off Deckley.
“Where the hell have you been?” I demanded.
“I don’t remember.”
“The last time I saw you, you were chatting up that big blonde Dutch woman.”
“Ah yes, I remember now.”
“Get in the car.”
“I have got to pack.”
“I have packed your gear. It’s on the back seat. Get dressed in the Land Rover.”
He climbed into the back while I got in the front. Balladur looked sideways at me, a suspicion of a smile playing on his lips. “We go now, sir.”
“Yes, please corporal.”
We took off for the strip which we reached quite soon. Everything was all action around the Dakota. Don climbed out, tucking his shirt into his trousers. I walked round to the driver’s side of the car where Balladur was standing. I drew myself up and gave him an immaculate salute. “Corporal Balladur, you are a very good soldier.”
Corporal Balladur returned my salute. “And you are a very good soldier too, sir.” In all my time in the RAAF it was the highest piece of military praise I have ever received. Balladur recognised a quality in my action; you don’t leave your mates behind.
Sometime later in my Malaysia posting I had another meeting with the Ghurkhas. A number of western airliners had been hijacked by the PLO, the Palestinian terrorists, and had subsequently been blown up in the Jordanian desert. The RAF issued orders that all RAF aircraft flying anywhere had to be inspected and all personnel searched.
A company of Ghurkhas was flying out to Brunei and my policemen were given the painstaking job of searching a large number of men and all their hold and carry on possessions.
This we did while their officer stood by with mounting impatience but with impeccable manners.
We found nothing of course and in the end I apologised. “That’s fine,” he replied “We must all obey orders.”
And very soon we were in the air again calling in at Kutching and Kuantan on our way back to Butterworth. The pleasing contours of the island were a welcome sight. Unfortunately, Margaret was not pleased with me and refused to sleep with me for over a month as a punishment. It was only later that I suspected something else was going on.
At Christmas 1969, Peter Dent, the APM, was transferred, to my regret and replaced by Sqn Ldr Mervyn Hongland. This was someone I did not know and had never met, but was someone for whom I developed a severe loathing. From my viewpoint he was lacking in a number of personal qualities, most noticeable of which was an inability to keep his attention focused on his own wife, Phil.
Evidence of this was displayed quite early on in his time in posting. With a huge air base on the mainland, with perhaps 1000 mostly young men, a lively trade had grown up in young women, offering their wares to the servicemen. They formed brothels, mostly on the island of Penang. The RAAF medicos offered their services to keep the brothels as hygienic as possible. The brothels that did not get a clean bill of health were declared out of bounds and became the responsibility of the Service Police.
Occasionally, I would go with my policemen on the ‘Penang Patrol’ which necessitated calling at the out of bounds brothels. One morning, about one in the morning, we found ourselves outside such a place. With Corporals Stewart and Crompton I found myself being greeted by a large Chinese woman whom we addressed as ‘Mama San.’
I touched the peak of my cap. “Morning Mama. We would like to check to see if you have Aussie boys here.”
“No, master, there are no Aussie boys in here, or English boys.”
We went in and she was almost right, almost. There was just one European. He was a fat, middle added man, working very hard on a young Chinese girl. There was something vaguely familiar in the sight.
“Fuck off, Brian’ was the message from the figure. It was Sqn Ldr Hongland.
I considered this for a moment or two. Was it a lawful command? Probably it was not. “Good morning, sir,’ was my well thought out response and I left. The boys had found nothing.
In the morning I was in my office before the squadron leader when he called me in. “Did anything happen last night?”
“No, sir, it was very quiet.’ The incident was never again mentioned. Sometimes discretion IS the better part of valour.
About this time Rory began to develop a series of what the doctors called ‘Monsoon’ blisters. These were large liquid filled blisters all over his body and he had to be lanced every time we took him to the hospital. This was a process that a six year old boy did not welcome as it was very painful and his body sometimes held up to thirty blisters.. After a period of about ten weeks I grew tired of this painful weekly visit as I could not see my son in pain.
We decided to follow advice given us by Choy to see a Chinese doctor. We hired a car and visited the island to go to the doctor’s.
“Have you seen these before” I asked him.
“Oh yes, it is quite common.”
He charged me twenty dollars and gave a tube of ointment. “This will fix it.”
I looked dubiously at the tube. “What do I do?”
“Smear a little on his nose when he goes to bed.”
I took the ointment and with grave doubts left. We applied the ointment that night and the blisters began to clear up. After about four weeks the problem disappeared, never to reappear. My belief in the superiority of western medicine disappeared for ever. The twenty dollars I gave to the Chinese doctor was the best twenty dollars I have ever spent.
At around February 1969 we felt that we would never have a better opportunity to make a visit home and I arranged to have a period of leave in April and May.
In the meantime we received an invitation to spend a day at Penang Races from a Sikh friend. We stood on the terraces watching all that was going on, and listening to people shouting the odds and describing the racehorses. We both looked around very carefully. We could not see any horses. At length there was a great shout of ‘They are off.’
“Harban,” I said, “Where are the horses?”
“Oh they’re in Singapore.”
It was explained that Malaysia was not a good country for horses and on Race days, while the racing was going on in Singapore, the races were relayed as they were being run in Singapore. This happened all over the country and people enjoyed their second hand race days. In short, there were not enough horses to run a proper race day, so we will settle for something less.
We also explored the Penang Hill railway and found a photographer at the top that could play clever tricks with his camera. One photograph features Margaret standing with her hand out flat and our two children standing in her hand. He was a very clever chap.
We also had a snake charmer come round the houses showing off his snakes. Snakes frighten me and I kept away but to my surprise, Maggie was happy to handle them. Not for me.
I also learned that it was the function of various officers to volunteer to act as paymaster to a particular unit, with a senior NCO to help him. My assistant was a Sgt Williams. Once when we made a mistake between us we ended up a dollar short in our recce, so I donated a dollar but made the mistake of telling the paymaster, a neighbour and friend, what I had done. I was severely chastised and given my dollar back, a dollar which was replaced by one from the ‘under and overs’ tin. You live and learn.
I realised that I was tired. I had played twenty one games of football since the beginning of the year, winning five and drawing five. I needed a holiday and I am sure that Maggie was happy to be going home for a break.
And all too soon it was time to take the MSA flight down to Singapore one afternoon. We booked into a hotel and then took the kids to the Tiger Balm Gardens. Tiger Balm was a very popular ointment, much favoured by Chinese people. The manufacturers had built the magnificent gardens as a place for the public to visit.
We returned to our hotel and fell into bed.
Pages 72 – 80