A novel by
This book is essentially a work of fiction, with some references to historic facts and known technical achievements. Some facts and achievements have been distorted in time or location to enable the characters in the story to carry out their allotted tasks.
All characters in this book are fictitious, with the exception of well-known people long deceased, to whom the author has credited some actions which may be implausible.
Some names have been disguised, but astute readers may be able to discover links to real people. To quote an old newspaper adage:
“Never let the truth stand in the way of a good story.”
In the interest of maintaining an air of authenticity, the spelling of some place names may not appear as it is seen today, but have been shown as they were spelt at the time of the events. Similarly, the use of imperial units of measurement has been maintained, and a comparison between metric and imperial units is provided for the reader’s convenience.
Imperial Units Metric Units (approximate)
1 foot 30 centimetres
1 yard 1.1 metres
1 mile 1.61 kilometres
1 pound weight 0.45 kilograms
1 ton 1.01 tonnes
1 imperial gallon 4.54 litres
10 miles per hour 16.11 kilometres per hour.
London, September – October, 1934
The passenger aircraft gently touched down on the grass airfield at Croydon, turned left, and rolled forward on to the concrete apron outside the passenger terminal. The mist of the late September morning had cleared, and the mid-day sun tried to penetrate the low clouds, throwing shafts of light onto the adjacent grasslands.
Martin Jamieson, the manager of Alltrans Air Services, appeared at the doorway of the passenger terminal as the aircraft stopped, and watched as the ground staff chocked the wheels, placed the steps below the passenger door, and clipped the door in an open position. There were only five passengers arriving on this flight from Paris, one of whom was Frank Barber, a senior sales manager for de Havilland Aircraft, and Jamieson greeted Barber as he stepped carefully from the sloping floor of the aircraft onto the waiting step.
“’Morning Frank,” called Martin, “A pleasant flight, I hope?”
“Certainly,” replied Frank. “Good to see you again. Always good to be back in England, and to be able to converse properly. I’m looking forward to some real food though, not the fancy fairy food I’ve been eating recently, although the French wine was good“.
Jamieson smiled, and glimpsed his friend’s portly shape beneath his well-cut suit.
“I’m sure your clients would have looked after you quite well’, he laughed, “although I must admit they are sometimes a bit heavy handed with their spices“.
Barber collected his luggage, a travelling case and a small briefcase, and accompanied Jamieson into the passenger terminal building. Passing quickly through immigration, they proceeded into the Customs area, where the other newly arrived passengers had already gathered. The Customs inspector, showing obvious disinterest in his job, glanced at each passenger’s passport, and looked briefly at the opened cases on the bench in front of him. The last case belonged to Barber, and looked similar to other passenger’s cases. Barber’s case contained the usual passenger’s clothing, and two small parcels, each badly wrapped in brown paper. Polished metal was visible at one end of each parcel.
The Customs inspector’s interest was suddenly aroused, and he removed the parcels.
“What are these?” he asked sharply.
“Engine parts,” replied Barber, noting the inspector’s manner.
“You haven’t declared these,” barked the inspector. “You can’t bring motor bits and pieces into this country from overseas and sell them here without paying duty. “How much did you pay for them? Have you got a receipt?”.
Barber straightened his shoulders and looked squarely at the inspector. “Inspector, I am the sales manager for de Havilland aircraft. The items which you see in front of you are some components of a new type of carburettor for aircraft engines, which is being developed by my company. They are still in an early stage of development, and are definitely not for sale. I am fully aware of the regulations for the international transit of goods, and as incomplete items, they have no commercial value. They are not required to be declared, or to have duty levied upon them. However, they are delicate, so please return the items to my case with due care.”
The Customs inspector knew when he was beaten, and did as Barber requested. He placed Barber’s passport on the lid of the case, and walked away without a word. Jamieson was rather embarrassed by the action of the inspector, and retrieved Barber’s case from the bench.
“Sorry about that, Frank”, he growled. He’s not the type of chap to reflect a good image of His Majesty’s Customs to the travelling public. I’ll have a word with the airport manager when I see him.”
“That’s all right, Martin,” replied Barber. “I’m used to mixing it with chaps like that. You know the type, put them in a uniform and give them some authority, and they act like that fellow Hitler, in Germany. They walked further into the building, and Jamieson ushered Barber into his sparsely furnished office, littered with files and bundles of papers, and a chalk board which had seen better days. Jamieson signalled his secretary to bring tea and biscuits.
“How has the world been treating you lately, Martin?” asked Barber. “Have you had some good figures lately?”
“Things have been slow for quite a while,” Jamieson replied, “but there’s been a small increase in passenger traffic lately, and we’ve been lucky to have been awarded part
of the European mail contract, although there’s not much profit in it.“
Barber had forgotten to remove the cork and cotton wool earplugs issued to each passenger, and now removed them and tapped his ears. Jamieson noted Barber’s discomfort, and offered sympathy.
“I see that you’re still bothered by engine noise, Frank. You know, it doesn’t seem to bother some people, but I suppose they’re just the lucky few.”
Jamieson’s secretary entered, and placed a tray of tea and biscuits on the desk.
“Yes,”agreed Barber. “I suppose noise is one of the most irritating problems associated with air travel, besides the weather.” He reached for a biscuit, and added “It’s really a trade-off, you know. The faster we fly, the more noise is generated. Of course, we can muffle noise to some degree, but the more we muffle the engine noise, the more power we lose, and the more power we need to generate to maintain speed, thus using more fuel, and the whole system becomes un-economic.”
“Sounds like a dog chasing it’s tail” said Jamieson, “but we do get some adverse comments regarding noise, particularly from older people.“
They both sipped their tea, and Jamieson dunked his biscuit. Rain spattered on the dusty window. Barber sat back in his chair, and made a steeple with his hands.
“You know, Martin, our design department has been toying with the problem of noise and engine power and fuel consumption for some time, and have come up with a few ideas which show some promise. As a matter of fact, that’s one of the reasons for my visit here.”
Jamieson placed his tea cup on his desk, and gave his full attention to Barber. “I’m interested,” he said, looking squarely at Barber. What can you tell about these ideas?”
Barber reached into his briefcase, and pulled out some loose papers. “Well, these ideas are just in the early stages, but they do seem to be heading in the right direction.” He spread three sheets of paper on the desk, two of which were drawings of an aircraft, and one showing some calculations. “Our chief engineer, Allan Howe, has taken the design of the DH84 Dragon, and enlarged it somewhat to produce a ten-seater, and the key item in the new design is the new six cylinder Gipsy engine. The engine is presently undergoing trials, and he thinks it has great possibilities. Howe calls this latest design the “Type 89”.
Jamieson leaned forward over the desk, and looked at the spidery drawings. “It looks like a DH84 Dragon,” he said, “but it’s bigger all around.”
“That’s just the point,” said Barber, leaning forward until their heads were almost touching. “With a bigger aircraft, using more powerful motors, we can reduce the scale of the problems associated with the Dragon, and at the same time improve the carrying capacity of the aircraft, and the passenger comfort.” He pushed the third sheet of paper towards Jamieson. “Howe has done some performance estimates, and they look pretty good.”
Jamieson looked at the figures, and read them aloud, his grey moustache twitching.
Cruising speed with 10 passengers: 140 miles per hour.
Maximum take-off weight: 6000 pounds.
Range at cruising speed: 500 miles
Maximum altitude: 16000 feet
Landing speed 60 miles per hour
Fuel capacity: 80 gallons
Fuel consumption: 19 gallons per hour.
He sat back in his chair, his brow furrowed in thought. “I must admit, Frank, these figures look quite impressive. But what about the additional fuel consumption of the six cylinder engines? The aircraft will have to carry additional fuel, which will add to the maximum take-off weight, and will also affect the range of the aircraft.”
Barber also relaxed in his chair, and smiled. “That’s where the technical boys come in,” he said. “I’ve been in France discussing engine performance with people from the French aviation industry, and when I showed them the new carburettor design, they became quite excited, and expressed the opinion that the engine should be able to produce maximum power at the top of the speed curve, giving the aircraft, as they put it, “tres rapidement.”
Jamieson’s eyes reflected the excitement he felt. “All these ideas seem to be quite practical, and on the surface, commercially viable,” he said, “but what are you doing about it in real terms?”
“To be quite blunt, nothing,” replied Barber, “apart from applying for a patent for the carburettor design. The aircraft industry is dead at the moment, as you know, with lots of aircraft sitting around quietly deteriorating, and good skilled men scratching for a living.” He gathered his papers together, and sighed. “We’ve only got a small design team now, as the government has greatly reduced funding for the development of prototypes for the air force. Alan Hagar is in charge of the structural design team, and Colin Thorn looks after engine development. They only have three people each. A few years ago, our drawing office had rows and rows of draftsmen and engineers, but now the place is practically empty.”
He stood up, and grasped his travelling case and brief case. “Its’ the old story. The sales department is trying to sell new planes to a non-existent market, and is being blamed for not succeeding in doing the impossible.” Offering his hand to Jamieson, he said, “And on that sour note, Martin, I’ll wish you goodbye. I hope I’ll see you again, if I still have a job.”
A few minutes after Barber had left the office, a young Alltrans pilot knocked on the office door, and immediately entered. Jamieson looked up from his writing, and pointing to a chair, waved at the pilot to sit down.
The pilot, Bob Greaves, had been employed by Alltrans Air Services for five years, but since 1929, like so many others, his job was the victim of the financial depression, and he was now working only three days per week, with subsequent loss of income. To make ends meet, his wife, Margaret, had reluctantly taken work in a local dry cleaning shop doing clothing repairs, but frequently reminded Bob that such work was demeaning for the wife of an airline pilot. However, they had so far managed to pay the rent for their small flat in Wallington, not far from the airfield at Croydon, and maintained a careful and quiet lifestyle.
Greaves was clutching an aircraft log book, complete with the landing receipt and refuelling carnet from Le Bourget airport, and handed it to Jamieson for inspection.
“Well, Bob, how was it”? asked Jamieson, in anticipation of a report from the pilot. Instead, he noticed that Greaves appeared to be rather flushed, and was immediately
Greaves placed the log book and papers on the desk, and took a deep breath before commencing his report. “The trip went very well, with good weather conditions on both outbound and inbound legs, and although we met the usual fog over the channel, it wasn’t any bother. Accommodation at Le Bourget was quite good, and I met a chap from Boulton-Paul aircraft who was quite sociable.” He wriggled in the chair, gathering his thoughts.
“The only problem I had was when I arrived back here. Some fellow from Customs wanted my copy of the fuel carnet, and became quite nasty when I wouldn’t give it to him. He said something about filling up with fuel in France, using half of it on the way back, and not paying tax on the remainder. I asked him what he expected me to do? Did he expect me to only carry enough fuel to fly between Le Bourget and Croydon? What was I expected to do if there was a strong headwind on the way back, or if Croydon was fogged out? I told him that I always handed the carnet to the Alltrans manager, and that all carnets are forwarded to Customs at the end of the month. Is there some new rule that I don’t know about?”
Jamieson realized that was a long speech for Greaves, who was usually a man of few words. “Don’t worry about it Bob,” said Jamieson. “Nothing has changed. I think the fellow must be confused. But tell me, can you describe this Customs fellow? What did he look like?”
“The name on his dustcoat was Colin Weatherby”, replied Greaves. He described the man, and added, “He looked like he wanted to pick a fight with anybody.”
“Yes,” replied Greaves. “It’s likely he was the same chap who was on duty earlier this morning. I saw him in action, a nasty piece of work. I heard that a fellow has been transferred here from Hendon, as he was difficult to get along with, and I think his name is Weatherby.”
“Sounds like bad weather to me,” quipped Greaves, who had now relaxed, having found support from Jamieson. He had hoped to receive a briefing for future flying work, but as he had fulfilled his quota of three days flying for the week, Greaves was not surprised when no other work was offered. However, Jamieson seemed reluctant to let him go, so he waited.
“Tell me, Bob,” said Jamieson in a friendly manner, “what do you think of the Dragon from a pilot’s point of view?”
The question surprised Greaves, but he responded quickly. “Not a bad kite,” he said. “It responds well enough, but it could do with a bit more power in rough weather, and a few frills to aid navigation over the Channel.” He thought for a moment, then added “It does float a bit on landing, and I’ve been worried about over-runs a few times on short strips. It’s a bit noisy, and as cold as a frog. All things considered, it’s a good enough machine for the job, but rather under-powered.”
Jamieson pursed his lips, deep in thought, then reached for a pencil. “Given the opportunity, and a limited budget, what would you do to the Dragon to improve it from your point of view? You know I’m not a pilot. I want to hear it from the chap at the front end, a hands-on opinion.”
Greaves stumbled. “Well….I…..er” He thought quickly. What’s going on here? I came in here to give him a report, and he wants to know about aircraft handling. What should I say? His scrambled thoughts were interrupted by the telephone, which Jamieson answered quickly.
“No. Refuel immediately please. I’ll let you know the details later.” He hung up.
The telephone call had given Greaves time to collect his thoughts, so he had prepared his reply when Jamieson had finished talking. “Well, more speed would make the plane easier to handle in turbulent weather. Also, it gets bloody cold up there, so some heating in the cockpit and perhaps in the passenger cabin would be nice.” He stopped speaking, and looked at Jamieson’s eyes for a reaction. Seeing nothing, he continued. “The problem with floating on landing could be greatly reduced with wing flaps, similar to the style that Westland have on their bombers. Then you would have much greater control of the aircraft at low speed, and if we had wheel brakes too, that would be a great help in turning the plane when parking on the apron.”
Again he saw no reaction from Jamieson, except that he appeared to be making notes on a paper. “A radio transmitter and receiver would help a lot when trying to find an airfield in bad weather. We could get a local weather report, runway condition, and wind direction, all of which would make the pilot’s job easier.” He was now in full swing, so he bravely added, “We could do with some decent landing lights when we’re landing on those rough airstrips up north. You never know when you’re going to bump into something solid.”
Jamieson looked up and smiled. “That’s quite a list, however, it gives me food for thought, and there’s always room for improvement in aircraft design. I’ve asked for your comments because I had a chap in here this morning from de Havilland, who was talking about increasing the speed of the Dragon by using more powerful engines. If de Havilland are serious about major changes, it would be better if they heard a pilot’s viewpoint. Well, thanks for your contribution, Bob. I’ll pass these notes on to de Havilland.”
Three weeks later, Jamieson was surprised to receive a telephone call from Frank Barber. “ ‘Morning, Frank,” called Martin. How are things in foggy Croydon?”
Jamieson detected a hint of high spirits in Barber’s voice, and was curious to know the real reason for his call. “Come on, Frank,” he replied. “You don’t really want a weather report from down here, although if you are really interested, I’ve heard that someone is going to run a pipeline from Parliament House to Croydon, and use the hot air to blow away the fog.”
Barber laughed. “Don’t be too hard on the pollies,” he said. “Somebody in the air ministry has become aware of the political situation in Germany, and it’s quite likely that the aircraft industry will soon receive a shot in the arm.”
“Well, good luck to you,” Jamieson replied. “It’s about time somebody realised how important the aircraft industry is to this country. As it happens, I think things are starting to pick up, as our bookings for the next few weeks are quite pleasing.”
“That’s good to hear, replied Barber. “It puts me in a better position to ask a favour of you. I’ll be brief. Firstly, thank you for your comments regarding the suggested items for inclusion in the new aircraft design. Your comments were discussed by the design team, and your ideas were considered to be very practical.”
Jamieson struggled to form a reply. “Well
, Frank, I…..er…. I’m flattered to think that you thought so highly of the ideas. But let me set the record straight, before we proceed further. The main thrust of those ideas was provided by one of our young pilots, Bob Greaves. He’s only been with our company for five years, but he really knows how to handle a Dragon. He’ll be pleased to know that his comments were worthwhile.”
“It sounds like you have a good man there, Martin,” Barber replied. “Now, when we met a few weeks ago, I showed you a preliminary line drawing of the DH89 Dragon. Things have moved quickly since then, partly because of the government’s interest in the aircraft industry, and partly because Geoffrey de Havilland himself has shown keen interest in the proposed aircraft, and would like to develop it further.”
“The design office people have put in many hours producing large scale plans of the aircraft, and Geoffrey thought you may be interested to see how your ideas look on paper. Could you spare a day to come and chat with the design team? We’ll put on a good lunch, of course. Bring your man Greaves with you, if you like. I’m sure he’d like to meet Geoffrey de Havilland and the team.”
“I’m very pleased to accept your invitation, Frank, and I’m sure Greaves will be too. Let’s say next Thursday.“
Later that Friday afternoon, Jamieson called Greaves into his office. “Shut the door, Bob, please, and take a seat.”
Greaves was apprehensive about this unexpected summons. He had heard about what happens in unexpected meetings on a Friday afternoon, and recalled somebody saying that “if they’re going to sack you, they always do it on a Friday afternoon, to give you the weekend to get over it”. As Jamieson looked for some papers in a filing cabinet, Greaves quickly thought about the consequences of losing his job that afternoon, and how long he and Margaret could exist on their small savings, and Margaret’s meagre income.
Finding the papers, Jamieson turned to his desk, and sat heavily in his chair. “Now, let’s see what we have here,” he began. Greaves looking at the bundle of loose pages and scribbles, was relieved to see there was no formal printing on the pages, so perhaps he wasn’t going to get the sack after all. A feeling of relief surged through him, then he had a second thought. Those scribbles might be notes from a telephone conversation with a nosy civil servant complaining about improper airfield movements, such as low flying, improper taxiing procedures, incorrect completion of the many forms required for air
navigation, or querying the amount of fuel used. His doubts returned, and he looked downcast again.
Jamieson sat back in his chair, and toyed with a pencil. “Bob, you remember that chat we had a few weeks ago about possible improvements to Dragon aircraft?”
“Er, yes, I do,” replied Greaves, unsure of in which direction the conversation was heading. “Something about better aircraft performance in the future?”
“That’s it . I sent your comments to de Havilland, and they thought highly of them.”
Greaves’ head jerked upwards, mouth open. His mind was in a whirl. He wasn’t going to be sacked after all!
Jamieson continued. “Now Bob, next Thursday I’ve been asked to visit the design people at de Havilland, and they have expressed the opinion that they would like to discuss some features of their new aircraft with a person well experienced in the operations of DH84 type aircraft. This means you. Next Thursday will be counted as an additional working day for you, so we’ll get an early start, around 8.00 a.m. We’ll take our number two Dragon up to de Havilland at Hatfield, as a test run after its 100 hour service. Harry Rogers can do your regular run to Paris on that day in the number one Dragon
Greaves had now regained his composure, and looking much happier than when he had entered the office, replied brightly, “That’s very kind of you, sir. I’d like that very much.“
Jamieson looked again at his scribbled notes. “See if you can polish up those ideas you mentioned earlier. Speaking of which, it’s quite likely that Geoffrey de Havilland will attend the meeting, so you’d better spruce up a bit.”
Greaves mind whirled again. Geoffrey de Havilland! The driving force behind the de Havilland company, and the most respected aircraft designer in England! He thought of himself, a partly-educated scruffy pilot with moderate skills, who happened to find his way into aviation through the generosity of a rich uncle, attending a meeting with the big names in aviation. The other two pilots at Alltrans would be jealous, but that would be their bad luck, and his good fortune. Roll on next Thursday!
He arrived home at his flat a little earlier than usual, having managed to catch an earlier train. There was a spring in his step as he entered, and he could not help grinning as he greeted his wife. “Hullo sweetie,” he said brightly. “Have you had a good day?”
Margaret kissed him, then stepped back, and said cautiously, “I’ve had an ordinary day, doing a bit of clothing repair work, and a little shopping. But what are you grinning about? Did you find a five pound note on your way home?”
“Better than that, my love,” he exclaimed. “I’ve been asked by Jamieson to attend a meeting next Thursday at de Havilland in Hatfield, and Geoffrey de Havilland himself will be there. They want to talk about some details on a new plane.”
Margaret sat down on a kitchen chair, uncertain as to how such a prestigious event could come about, and why Bob was chosen. “B-But what brought this on?” she stammered. “What will the meeting be about? You’re a pilot, not a designer.”
“Well, you may remember me telling you about a short discussion I had with Jamieson a few weeks ago, about a few features on the Dragon which could be improved. Apparently, he forwarded my comments to de Havilland, and now they want to speak to me personally, being someone who has spent a lot of time in the front seat. I’ve got to think about this, and make a few notes for the meeting.”
“But that’s wonderful!” she exclaimed. “That should look good in your record. My, things are looking up!”
“Yes,” said Greaves, “and speaking of looking good, I’ve got to spruce up a bit for this meeting, so I’ll get a proper haircut, and I’d like you to find me a decent shirt and tie, brush up my sports coat, and iron those grey trousers. I’d better look the part, even though I’ll be out of my depth amongst all those experts.”
London, November 1934
The following Thursday morning was cold, dull, and overcast, as Greaves and Jamieson, clad in warm clothing for their short flight to the de Havilland factory at Hatfield, watched a workman push open the sliding doors of the Alltrans hangar, rolled the Dragon to a small tractor, and pull the biplane onto the apron. Jamieson quickly looked over the fabric covered wings and tail, checking for tears in the cloth, while Greaves checked the fuel level in each wing tank, and drained a small sample of petrol from each tank, checking for signs of water. As Greaves started an engine, the noise reverberated through the cold metallic walls of the hangar, statling a family of pigeons.
They boarded the aircraft. Greaves pushed through the narrow entrance into the pilot’s position in the nose of the plane, and settled into the padded seat. There was no room for a co-pilot, as Greaves had only a few instruments to check in the confined space. Jamieson had remembered to bring a blanket, and settled himself into a front passenger seat.
With the engines warmed up, Greaves taxied out to the end of the airstrip, and turned the Dragon into the wind. The green flag on top of the control tower dipped quickly, and Greaves acknowledged with a wave of his hand, before accelerating the Dragon down the grassed runway, and into the morning mist.
They departed from Croydon at 8.00a.m. as scheduled, and were glad of their warm clothing as they flew below cloud all the way to the airfield at hatfield near the de Havilland factory. Greaves took this opportunity to demonstrate to Jamieson the difficulty of trying to identify places on the ground as an aid to navigation, and trying to maintain a smooth flight for passenger comfort at the same time. While wind direction was usually known beforehand, the wind speed was unpredictable, thus the course of the aircraft had to be constantly watched, to avoid drifting off course.
When the aircraft had climbed to just below cloud level, Jamieson stood in the curtain opening beteen the cabin and the cockpit, to the right of Greaves, to enable him to hear Greaves’ voice over the roar of the engines. He noted that the railway line could be clearly seen in the dull conditions, and shouted to Greaves, “The railway line looks clear enough.”
Greaves grinned, and shouted back. “Railway lines can be a help when they happen to be going to the same place as you want to go to, but they have a bad habit of forking off into different directions. They can be more hindrance than help. Also, if your’re travelling late in the evening, and need a quick navigational check, you can’t see them in the dusk. Besides that, the bloody windows fog up, and you can fly right over them and not see them.”
Jamieson leaned back, and stood up as far as possible under the low cabin ceiling. “Hmm, yes, yes. I can see that you’re pretty busy up here, and you have to be on your toes the whole time. There’s quite a lot to do.”
“Yes,” shouted Greaves. “Any navigational aid would be of great assistance. Some of the bigger airfields are being fitted with radio direction finding equipment, and an RDF receiver in an aircraft wouldn’t cost that much. They can pick up a signal from a transmitter, and you just follow the signal until you’re home. They aren’t very big, and I think a unit could fit down here, by my left knee.”
“Right,” said Jamieson. “We’ll mention it at the meeting.”
Hatfield came into view, and in response to the green flare fired from the control tower, they touched down on the concrete runway, taxied to the apron, and were met by Frank Barber, who drove them to a large brick building with a high vaulted roof behind the row of hangars. The vast manufacturing area was poorly heated with coal fired burners in several positions, and the workers were well rugged up as they carried out their tasks. They were shown over some of the production areas, with steel fuselage frames being welded in jigs, and beechwood wing frames being assembled in jigs, and covered with linen.
Making their way past a stockpile of new engines being un-crated, they walked towards the executive lunchroom, where they were introduced to those staff members scheduled to attend the design meeting. The staff members seemed to be uncomfortable in their dark suits, and looked like they would rather be in their regular white overalls.
Lunch was a simple affair, and the talk around the table was about features of different aircraft, particularly the Schneider Trophy race for seaplanes, and the aircraft recently entered by the Supermarine aircraft company, in opposition to de Havilland.
The luncheon party then adjourned to the meeting room near the large drawing office, which was practically empty, with just a few men in dust coats standing or sitting at their huge drawing boards. By contrast, the meeting room was crowded, with representatives from all design departments in attendance, and scattered around the table were drawings or sketches of various aircraft components.
Jamieson and Greaves were introduced, then sat quietly as the meeting discussed various technical items related to the new design. As the last of the technical matters were finalised, the meeting room door opened, and a man of tall, lean stature with whisps of grey hair entered. He carried a satchel, and moved purposefully to a vacant chair, while the men around him shifted in their seats to give him space. This was Geoffrey de Havilland, the driving force behind one of the largest and most successful companies in the British aviation industry. He was introduced to Jamieson and Greaves, and sat back to listen to a summary of the technical details which he had missed. After clarifying some minor points, de Havilland took control of the meeting, and briskly opened the general discussion.
“Right. Now, gentlemen, let’s show our visitors where we are in this project. Let’s see the overall picture.” Large scale general arrangement drawings were rolled out onto the meeting table, and the structural engineer pointed out the manner in which the larger engines and fuel tanks had been incorporated into the wing structure.
Jamieson looked at the smooth lines of the body and wings, and commented, “It looks quite pleasing, almost like a bird. There isn’t a straight line anywhere.”
de Havilland turned to the engineering designer, and said, “The overall success of this aircraft depends on the engines
, you know, Colin. If we put lots of fancy equipment in the aircraft, we’ll need to get every ounce of power we can from these engines.”
The engineer shuffled his papers, and replied. ”Our initial test figures were a little disappointing, but with the modifications to the carburettors suggested by the French, the latest power output readings are well above our expectations, I’m pleased to say.”
“That certainly is good news,” agreed de Havilland, puffing on his pipe. “Another bit of good news, which I can now tell you,” he said, looking carefully around the table, “is that this will be the last biplane type aircraft to be built by this company.” A murmur passed around the meeting. “As you know, technical advances in monoplane construction have advanced quickly, using new types of steel and fabrication processes which produce a very strong wing spar. This construction, together with riveted aluminium skin, can produce a very rigid lightweight wing, able to withstand the great forces to which aircraft wings are subjected.” He paused, and puffed on his pipe again. “However, we are not the first company to use this type of construction. We believe that the Lockheed and Douglas companies in America are well advanced in using this type of construction. We will all have a lot to learn in a very short time.”
de Havilland let the expected murmurs travel through the meeting, then tapped his pipe on the table, gaining attention. “Now, all that is in the future,” he said. “For the present, the company finds itself in a very good position, from a commercial point of view, and we seem to have weathered the recent financial depression relatively well. We now have the opportunity to take an established and well-proven aircraft design, the DH84 Dragon, and to improve this design further, using the new six-cylinder engines.” A murmur of agreement swept through the meeting, and de Havilland continued.
“We will be able to produce the new aircraft very quickly, as we will use the existing tooling and construction methods of the DH84 to build a limited number of the new aircraft, which we have named the DH89, using our existing supplies of aircraft timber and coverings, in the time period between now and the commencement of all-metallic construction. We expect to achieve considerable cost savings using this approach, and we hope to entice new and existing customers to purchase these aircraft, by incorporating some features which our sales department have suggested.”
He turned, and addressed the left side of the conference table. “Mr Jamieson and Mr Greaves, from Alltrans Air Services in Croydon, have good operating knowledge of the DH 84, and have kindly come here this afternoon to discuss some features which they feel may be of assistance in adding comfort and safety to aircraft operations. Mr Jamieson, could you please present your suggestions in detail.”
Jamieson now stood and began his presentation, leaning over the table to point out the positions of the proposed features on the large drawings, and giving reasons for the suggested inclusions of various items of equipment. He called on Greaves for support in detailing the practical applications of the equipment, and Greaves explained the function of the proposed equipment with growing confidence. After very little discussion, the meeting accepted the inclusion of cockpit and cabin heating, wing flaps, brakes, RDF equipment, radio receiver and transmitter, landing light, and as much cork insulation as possible to be built into the floor and sides of the aircraft to reduce noise transmission.
Before concluding, Jamieson turned to Greaves and said with a smile, “Is that the end of your little list, Bob?”
Greaves pointed to the side view drawing of the aircraft, and said, “Well, we could do with some trousers.”
“Trousers?” echoed Jamieson. “What do you mean?” Somebody sniggered.
Greaves snatched a nearby pencil, and quickly sketched a metal fairing over the undercarriage framework shown on the drawing, thus hiding the framework and shock absorbers behind the fairing. Viewed from the front, the fairing looked like a pair of trousers, with the wheels barely visible underneath.
The result was outstanding. The engine cowling, fuel tank, and undercarriage fairing immediately became one unit, greatly enhancing the smooth rounded lines of the aircraft. There were cries of “Yes, yes,” from around the table, and de Havilland nodded his approval.
Always the salesman, Frank Barber now addressed the meeting. After thanking Jamieson and Greaves for their contribution, he concluded his speech saying: “Here we have a good looking aircraft, with lots of potential, but I feel that it lacks a proper identification. It would be inappropriate to call it “Type 89” for the rest of its life. It needs a name which reflects its’ potential, something with which the customers could identify.”
Mutterings again swept the table, and several names were suggested. Barber called the meeting to order. “Gentlemen, the heart of any aircraft are the engines, and when I was discussing engine performance with the French engineers a few weeks ago, they commented that the power of the new engines would certainly give the aircraft good speed, or to put it in French terms, “tres rapidement.” I therefore propose that this aircraft be known as the “de Havilland Rapide.”
London, Thursday 13 July 1939
Five years had passed since the Rapide first flew, and the world of air travel was a very different world indeed. As expected, the intervening years had seen a marked increase in the volume of world air transport. The Americans and Germans had led the way in the development of all-metal aircraft, while the British and French companies still hedged their bets with composite designs using fabric covered wooden wings, with a metal framed fuselage. Avro and Hawker were using this structure with some success in England, and Morane-Saulnier in France also felt that all-metal construction would never entirely replace wooden components.
Demand for the Rapide had been greater than expected, and they were now being produced at the rate of four aircraft per month. Their cruising speed of 140 miles per hour appealed to many customers, as did the range of optional equipment with which the aircraft could be fitted.
On this warm July morning, Martin Jamieson was in his office, waiting on the arrival of Frank Barber from de Havilland’s, who had telephoned him the previous day, requesting a meeting at his earliest possible opportunity. Barber would not reveal what the meeting would be about, other than to say that the meeting could lead to “an interesting development.“
Alltrans Air Services had sold its three Dragon aircraft in recent years, and had purchased three Rapides, the most recent of which had been fitted with “luxury appointments.” Although this aircraft had been fitted with only six leather upholstered seats instead of the usual eight wicker framed seats, it had also been fitted with a small toilet and wash basin at the rear of the cabin, and a small drinks bar and sink opposite the cabin door. A folding seventh seat was provided near the doorway, for the cabin steward. Alltrans were using this aircraft for longer flights to Central European cities, and the service was popular with passengers.
Frank Barber had driven from Hatfield to Croydon for the meeting, and arrived promptly at ten o’clock. After exchanging the usual pleasantries with Jamieson, and drinking the inevitable cup of tea, Barber opened the discussion.
“Martin, a situation has arisen within our sales department regarding the sale of a Rapide. Briefly, we need to engage the services of a private contractor to deliver this aircraft overseas at short notice.”
“Seems straightforward,” said Jamieson. “We would be happy to oblige, if the arrangement would be profitable to us.”
“Excellent,” replied Barber. “I’m sure we can work out some mutually acceptable arrangement. But before we start discussing the financial aspects, there are two more related issues of which I should make you aware.“ He wriggled deeply into his chair.
“To be quite honest, Martin, I am reluctant to address these issues, but as Alltrans have been good customers of de Havilland, and we have developed a good business relationship over the years, I feel that you will appreciate the difficulties of this particular situation.”
“Flattery will get you everywhere,” laughed Jamieson. “But go ahead, don’t hold back, tell me about it.”
“Well,” said Barber, “To put it bluntly, we’ve sold an aircraft which we haven’t got. One of our overseas agents has made a promise to a buyer regarding delivery of a special Rapide, without first checking that we could fulfill the order. Our production line is already working at top speed, and we just can’t accommodate a “special” right now. The buyer wants the aircraft to be fitted with every conceivable option, including the luxury cabin trim similar to your latest aircraft, G-TKO. Unless we can meet the delivery date, we’ll lose the sale.”
“Yes, I appreciate your situation, Frank, but how can Alltrans help?”
Barber leaned forward in his chair, and looked directly at Jamieson.
“Martin, you happen to have a Rapide which would fit our buyer’s specification exactly. What I propose is this. Your aircraft G-TKO is only about one year old, and has probably completed about 800 hours of flying, so by my estimate, it’s still quite new. If our overseas agent can persuade his buyer into accepting a nearly new aircraft, which conforms to his requirements, and could be delivered within seven weeks, then everybody would be happy.”
“You mean that our latest aircraft, G-TKO, would be sold to your agent’s buyer if he approves?”
“That’s the gist of it,” replied Barber, “but we wouldn’t leave Alltrans without an aircraft. “Our first prototype Rapide, G-ANE, is still airworthy, and we’ve been using it to try out different radios, undercarriage refinements, rudder balances, and such things. It isn’t exactly pretty inside, but we could install new seats, smarten it up a bit, and paint it to your approval. The aircraft would be on loan to Alltrans, at no cost to you, and we would provide Alltrans with a brand new aircraft, with the same fittings as G-TKO, when it comes off the production line in about ten weeks.”
“That sounds feasible,” said Jamieson. “Let’s see if I understand you correctly. G-TKO goes overseas, we get G-ANE for ten weeks, with the leather seats and painted in Alltrans colours, and then you will give us a new Rapide, with all the niceties, at the end of ten weeks, all at no cost to Alltrans.”
“Correct,” replied Barber. “Do you think your board would approve?”
“Well, I don’t see any disadvantage to Alltrans,” said Jamieson. “In fact, your promise of a brand new aircraft at no cost to Alltrans would certainly appeal to them. I think they’d approve.” He thought for a moment. “But there’s one point which I don’t understand. Surely the deHavilland production line can turn out a Rapide with all the nice fittings in seven weeks? Why can’t you take an aircraft straight from the production line, put all the goodies in it, and deliver it?”
“Yes, Martin, I thought you’d ask that question, but I was avoiding it until we had settled the initial matter. The full story is that the buyer is a company called Westair, situated in Australia.”
“Australia!” exclaimed Jamieson. “Phew! I see your problem. It would take weeks to fit out an aircraft and ship it to Australia.’
“Indeed,” agreed Barber. “It would be impossible to do that within the time available. The agent has been trying hard to get an extension of time, but to no avail.”
“Hmmm“, mumbled Jamieson. “Even if the aircraft left England in the next few days, the delivery date would be difficult to achieve.” He became quite agitated. “It would take weeks to organise everything. Those middle eastern countries are difficult to deal with. They want fuel vouchers, visas, customs and health documents, forwarding papers, bribe money, everything before you leave England, and I wouldn’t land a magic carpet on some of their airfields.”
“I know, I know,” you’re quite right, of course,” Barber agreed. “But in order to avoid the majority of overnight stops and paperwork hassles, I was thinking of stripping the aircraft, crating it, and sending it part of the way by sea. A good ship stopping at three or four ports, and going around the Cape could reach Calcutta in, say, two or three weeks, with a minimum of fuss. Then allow a week to re-assemble and test the aircraft, and a further ten days to fly to Darwin, in Northern Australia, and that’s about five weeks total. I’d prefer to go via Suez, of course, but there are long delays in going through the canal at present, because of the political situation.”
Jamieson said, ”Wait a minute,” and wiped the perspiration from his brow. This was getting too much, he thought. Trying to crate up an aircraft, arrange a small mountain of spare parts, find a suitable ship, arrange transport to the docks, and travel to Calcutta, all in about four weeks, was bordering on being impossible. There were far too many things which could go wrong.
Carefully replacing his handkerchief, he continued. “Frank, it sounds very risky. On top of all that you’ve said, you’ve got to find people who are available for such a jaunt, capable of flying long distances in God knows what weather conditions, and probably doing some maintenance as well. That’s a very tall order.”
“Well,… er….um…..that’s another delicate matter I wish to discuss with you,” said Barber with hesitation in his voice. “I don’t know how to put this to you, Martin, and you’ll think I’ve got a damned cheek, but the fact of the matter is, I’d like to borrow two of your pilots for about ten weeks.”
”Ye Gods!” exclaimed Jamieson. “That would virtually close us down! We’d lose our customers! We rely on providing a regular service to major cities, both here and on the continent. Our opposition would grab routes which we have taken years to establish! As much as I would like to help, Frank, that proposal seems to be out of the question.” His face was flushed as he turned away from Frank Barber.
“Now hold on, hold on, Martin,” said Barber soothingly. “It’s not as bad as all that. I’ve heard that Avion de France have recently closed their route to Austria and Italy, because of the political disturbances there. They are sure to have two spare pilots who would be glad of ten weeks employment, and experience with a British airline. Most of them speak English reasonably well, and they fly Moranes or Dewoitines which are of a similar size to the Rapide. I’m sure they could be quite useful. Besides that, I’ve already made some preliminary enquiries.”
Jamieson was quiet for a short time, thinking about the possibilities of maintaining their present service with the promised aircraft and replacement pilots. That sly old fox Barber, he thought, had planned his approach well, and knew his target even better. There was a possibility that the scheme would work, but planning the innumerable details would be like trying to assemble a jigsaw puzzle while wearing gloves.
The silence was broken by Barber, saying “What do you think, Martin? Have we got a chance?”
Martin Jamieson sighed. “I can see that you’ve thought of all the angles,” he said. “Look, I agree that it just might work, if all goes well, but I can’t offer any guarantee on performance. As you well know, there are too many loose ends over which we have no control. I’ll have to put this to the board, for their approval.”
“Excellent, Martin, excellent,” Barber replied, the enthusiasm showing in his voice. “Could you give me an answer tomorrow?”
“Tomorrow!” Jamieson exclaimed. “The board doesn’t meet until the 26th, and I’ll have to prepare a report for submission, showing feasibility, costs, everything.”
Barber was silent, and scratched his head. Jamieson waited. Perhaps Barber had been caught out on that point, he thought.
“Yes, Martin,” said Barber calmly. “It is a tricky situation, and because of that, I outlined the scheme to Geoffrey de Havilland yesterday. He thought that the scheme had a chance of success, and mentioned that he went to school with George Harrows, whom I believe is one of your three directors. Geoffrey’s secretary told me that he was meeting Harrows last night, so he may have mentioned this proposal to him. Could you perhaps ring Harrows, and find out if any discussion has taken place?”
Jamieson sat back in his chair. “I’ve been out-smarted,” he thought. The trap had been baited, sprung, and the rabbit neatly caught. He and Barber were only the pawns in the plot, while the real manoeuvring had been taking place at a much higher level.
It was time to surrender.
The next morning, Bob Greaves was alone in the pilot’s office, writing his weekly report. It was a surprisingly good office, on a corner of the building, with space for four desks and some filing cabinets. The morning sun was shaded by striped canvas awnings on the windows, which overlooked the airfield. Greaves looked up as Jamieson walked into the office without knocking, an action which immediately put Greaves on guard.
“ ‘Morning, Bob,” said Jamieson, walking towards Greaves and sitting on an adjacent desk. “Keeping up to date, eh?“
“Just the weekly report, sir,” Greaves replied. “Nothing major to report, but I’ll get maintenance to check the aileron cables on TKO. They could be a bit slack.”
“Ah, yes, TKO,” replied Jamieson. “That’s what I want to talk to you about.” He took a deep breath. “Bob, I know that TKO is your favourite aircraft, and I don’t know how to put this to you gently, but the fact is, I’ve sold it.”
Greaves stared at Jamieson, with eyes wide open and mouth agape, thinking quickly. This was a Friday. Was the story about being fired on a Friday true after all? If the plane had gone, then perhaps he was being pushed out too.
“You….you’ve sold it?” he exclaimed. “But….but why? It’s a good aircraft, nearly new. It….it hasn’t given us any trouble, and nobody’s bent it.”
“It’s a long story, Bob,” Jamieson replied. “Get yourself a cup of tea, and one for me, and we’ll have a chat. I think you’ll be interested in what I have to say.”
Greaves was astounded at the sudden sale of TKO. Was the company going badly? He thought not, as bookings had been steadily rising over the past few weeks, and the aircraft had been performing faultlessly. What had gone wrong? He poured the two cups of tea with an unsteady hand.
When they were both seated, Jamieson continued. “As I said, Bob, it’s a long story. I’ve always been one to grasp at an opportunity when it appears, and that’s what I’ve done now. I’ve sold TKO because I’ve been presented with a good business opportunity, a bit different from our usual passenger service, and I hope that you’ll agree to be part of this new venture. Actually, I would have liked Harry Rogers to be here too, but he’s been delayed in Brussels.”
Greaves was relieved to hear that he still had a job, and that Harry Rogers was to be included in whatever the new venture may be. He liked Rogers, and had checked him out on handling Rapides when he first joined the company two years ago. He was younger than himself, single, full of energy, a very good navigator, and most importantly, a careful pilot.
Jamieson looked straight at Greaves, and placed both hands flat on the table in front of him. “Bob, TKO is going to Australia, and I want you and Rogers to deliver it.”
Greaves reaction was immediate. “Ye Gods,” he cried. “Australia! That’s twelve thousand miles away, and then we have to get back! The logistics of a trip like that would be enormous!”
Jamieson watched Greave’s reaction with interest, and thought that his response was not entirely negative, so he continued his explanation.
“Apparently, de Havilland’s Australian agent has a client who wants a fully fitted Rapide as soon as possible. de Havilland’s can’t provide such an aircraft at short notice, so the buyer has agreed to purchase a nearly-new aircraft, and TKO fits the requirements perfectly. By the time you have completed the round trip, de Havilland’s will have completed building another aircraft to replace TKO, and they will provide that aircraft at no cost to Alltrans.“
Jamieson took a deep breath. “Now here comes the part which will be of interest to you. de Havilland will pay for all transport costs, including crew salaries, which will be at five percent above your present rate, and a bonus upon successful delivery of the aircraft within the prescribed time. I think you will agree that de Havilland’s proposal is quite attractive, both to Alltrans and to yourself.”
Greaves did not have to think for long about the proposition. “Well, …er…I…er…think the proposal is generous. The buyer in Australia must be quite prosperous to be able to afford the substantial delivery costs. Do we know who the buyer is?”
“Frank Barber said something about a big mining company, who wish to use the aircraft as executive transport, so they must have good backing,” replied Jamieson. “I take it that you will accept this mission?”
“Well, basically I’m happy to go, and rather pleased to know that you have confidence in me to do the job,” he replied. “I’d like to hear Harry’s reaction to the scheme, and I’d be happier knowing that I had a good assistant.” He thought for a moment. “I imagine that we’ll be away for a couple of months, so I’d better clear it with Margaret, too.”
“Yes, of course,” Jamieson replied. “No doubt your wife will express some concern about your being away for such a long time, but I think we can offset that to some degree. You see, it would be difficult to fly the plane over the Mediterranean, due to the present political unrest, so I thought we could crate the plane, with a few spares, and ship it to a port where there is an established airfield, say Calcutta, then re-assemble the plane, and fly the remainder of the journey to Darwin, Australia.”
“Yes, I think that would be the safest approach,” replied Greaves.
Jamieson continued. “So with at least three weeks at sea, and return passage by sea, you could probably take your wife with you.”
“An excellent idea, sir,” said Greaves, who had already thought of the same idea, but he was pleased to think that Jamieson had considered his family circumstances in the overall scheme. “I’m sure that Margaret would welcome the opportunity to travel to Australia. She’s quite good at organising things, and she could attend to details such as visas, health certificates, accommodation, and food. I’ll talk with her tonight, and let you know tomorrow.”
“There is one other small matter,” Jamieson added, looking out of the window. “The buyer has insisted that delivery of the aircraft be achieved within eight weeks, which leaves us minimum time for preparation and paperwork. I think you should go home at lunchtime, take the rest of the day off, and discuss this matter with your wife.” He turned towards Greaves. “If she is in favour of the scheme, I suggest you start finalising your affairs immediately. Rogers will be here later this morning, and I’ll tell him what I’ve told you. Being a single chap, he likes to get around a bit, so I’m hoping he will seize this opportunity.”
[_ London, 12 July -- 19 July 1939 _]
As expected, Harry Rogers welcomed the opportunity to travel overseas with great enthusiasm. The next day, he flew Rapide G-TKO from Croydon to de Havilland’s factory in Hatfield, to be dismantled and crated for shipping. He flew over Hendon airfield, and north to Hatfield, taking only fifteen minutes for the thirty mile journey, and dismantling of G-TKO commenced before lunch.
Barber had advised Jamieson that de Havilland’s used a separate packing contractor for sending overseas goods, and that the contractor could be relied upon to pack and crate the aircraft components and spare parts carefully and correctly. The contractor was already on site, taking measurements for the construction of four crates.
Greaves and Rogers had discussed the navigational problems likely to be encountered on the journey, and agreed that only two items be added to the aircraft’s equipment list. They had noted the distance between some of their proposed refuelling stops, particularly the last leg of the route between Timor Island and Darwin, Australia, and were concerned that this leg involved flying nearly 500 miles over open sea. This distance was the maximum range of the Rapide, when flying in good weather conditions of which there was no guarantee, and a small deviation from their intended route at the start of the flight could escalate into a considerable deviation when extended over a distance of 500 miles.
They would need a drift sight, which was an instrument to measure aircraft sideways drift due to wind velocity and direction. Rogers purchased a drift sight, and set it into a hole cut into the floor of the aircraft, next to the proposed position of the navigator’s table. They would also need provision for storage of a reserve fuel supply, to supplement the 40 gallon capacity of each wing tank, to ensure sufficient fuel for the longest legs of their journey. Rogers arranged for the three left side passenger seats to be removed, and stored in the luggage bay, and for a wooden cradle to be constructed to fit inside the cabin, which would hold six four-gallon drums of petrol, which would increase the range of the aircraft by 177 miles.
Dismantling of the aircraft took less time than Harry Rogers thought it would. The propellers were removed from each engine, and the engines drained of oil and coolant before they were lifted out of the airframe and separately crated. The airframe was then supported from above, and the trousers, wheels, and undercarriage legs removed, and placed in the same crates as the engines, with straw packing. Next, the tailplane and fin were removed, and the upper and lower wing halves and wire bracing. All the fabric covered components of the wings and tail were stored in another crate, well packed with straw, with each piece of wire bracing numbered before being placed in a canvas bag. The petrol tanks within the remaining wing stubs were drained, filled with nitrogen gas, and sealed, and the starting batteries removed from under the floor.
The airframe now sat forlornly on the hangar floor, looking naked and decrepit in its stripped condition. All openings into the framework were sealed with strips of glued cloth, and a large tarpaulin was tied over the framework to deter curious spectators from damaging the linen covering.
A fourth crate was produced, to carry the various engine spare parts which might be required, together with linen cloth, bracing wire, fabric dope, batteries, spare wheel assembly, and wing mounting brackets. Harry checked that each crate was suitably labelled, and accompanied by a loading manifest nailed to the crate. At the end of the third day at the de Havilland factory, Harry was satisfied that all the necessary equipment had been accounted for, and returned to Croydon to report to Jamieson, who had been fortunate in obtaining space for the aircraft on a freighter travelling to India.
“We’ve been lucky,” said Jamieson. “The ship is already loaded with two small aircraft to be used in Ceylon. They had reserved space for three, but the third aircraft space was cancelled a few days ago. The shipping agent is pleased to have our aircraft on board, although it is larger than they had anticipated. They will sail on Saturday 29 July, so you’ve got three days to arrange your affairs, then you’re away.”
“That’s great,” replied Harry. “I’ve never been on a ship before, so I’m looking forward to three weeks at sea. I’ve heard the tropical weather can be a bit tiring, so I’ll take it easy while I can. Pity it’s not a passenger ship though, as there could have been one or two young ladies on board. Oh well, I suppose I’ll just have to spend my time reviewing the maps we have for the sub-continent and the Netherlands East Indies.”
“You make it sound like a paid holiday,” laughed Jamieson. “Perhaps I should deduct this time from your holiday schedule.” Harry was relieved to note that Jamieson was joking, but he really didn’t care either way. It was going to be an adventure, and he would give it his full attention.
The next three days were spent in a flurry of planning and packing of personal items and minor equipment. As expected, Margaret Greaves had welcomed the opportunity to travel overseas, and immediately thought of the many domestic matters which would have to be attended to in a very short time, including arranging visas, vaccinations and health certificates for three people. They each had five injections to protect against the various tropical diseases they may encounter, packed lightweight clothing suitable for warm climates, and paid their flat rental for two months in advance.
Jamieson’s secretary had arranged clearances for the aircraft at all their stops, together with fuel carnets in English, French, and Dutch, and made enquiries regarding accommodation where possible. She also gave the crew three hundred pounds in cash, to cover their living expenses for the next three weeks, and arranged for further cash to be made available at Calcutta and Darwin. Margaret was pleased to be put in charge of the money, as it gave her some responsibility as a crew member during the journey.
Their day of departure from the flat was dull and overcast. The Greaves had arranged to meet Harry and Jamieson at Tilbury docks at 7.00am, two hours before the scheduled sailing time, and had arranged to be picked up by cab at 6.00am. They stood in the hallway of their flat, and had a final look at the rooms which had been their home for two years.
“Well, goodbye flat,” said Bob Greaves jokingly. “Don’t get too grubby while we’re away.”
Their luggage was loaded into the cab, and they were driven through the quiet early morning streets of London, to the ship waiting at Tilbury docks.
They would never return to their flat. World events would change their lives.
[_ Colombo, Ceylon, 9 -- 16 August, 1939 _]
The merchant ship Jervis Bay, of 14000 tons displacement, had left Tilbury docks on the 22nd of July, with a cargo of machine tools, manchester, kitchen ware, mail, and three aircraft, in crates. She had called at Tenerife, Cape Town, Colombo, and was now headed for Calcutta, India. She had been built in 1916 as a passenger liner, designed for operations to Australia and the Far East., but the rigors of more than twenty years of service had now caught up with the Jervis Bay, and she was now relegated to the status of a fast merchant ship.
The two smaller aircraft had been off-loaded in Colombo, and the Rapide was still in the rear hold. The manager of the shipping company had stressed to the captain that if the Rapide suffered any damage or delay in transit, his next appointment would be commanding a canal barge in the Midlands.
The Jervis Bay had the capacity to accommodate eight passengers in four rather austere cabins, but on this trip, only three cabins were occupied. Bob Greaves and Margaret shared one cabin, and Harry Rogers occupied another. The third cabin was occupied by a middle-aged man of stocky appearance, who had arrived rather late for boarding at Tilbury, and carried his two large suitcases with difficulty. He was introduced by the purser as Mr Colin Weatherby, and described himself as “a civil servant, attached to the Customs Office,” and quietly retreated to his cabin.
The ship proceeded southwards, stopping overnight at Tenerife, and crossed the equator, but the group saw little of the fourth passenger. Weatherby seemed reluctant to mix with the other passengers, meeting with them only at mealtimes. He spent much of his time reading extensively about Australia, but chose his words carefully when pressed about the nature of his voyage, and Greaves assumed that Weatherby’s voyage had something to do with his connection to the Customs Office.
One day, Greaves mentioned that the group were delivering an aircraft to Australia, and this information attracted Weatherby’s attention.
“An aircraft, eh? Are you going to fly it when you get to Australia?”
“Not exactly within Australia,” replied Greaves. “We’re travelling by sea only as far as Calcutta, and then flying the remaining distance to Darwin, Australia.”
“Well!” exclaimed Weatherby. “That’s a real adventure, flying from India to Australia. I know it’s been done many times before, but I believe it’s not an easy journey, and takes quite a bit of arranging.”
“It certainly does,” replied Greaves, wondering how far he could explore this topic of conversation. “There are many things which have to be attended to, both for the aircraft and ourselves.” He paused. “But I should think that you have had experience with some strange things in your time at the Customs Office.”
It was obviously a leading question, and Greaves could see that Weatherby was thinking about how to frame his reply. “Well, yes,” he replied, “I did have a small involvement with air freight at one time, but it was all rather straightforward. I had a nice office in Croydon, and I had cause to travel to some other airfields, in a supervisory capacity, of course.” He lied quite easily, and his confident manner added to the credibility of his reply.
“But I recently decided that the Customs Office didn’t offer sufficient scope for a man of my position,” he continued, “So I thought I would pull up stakes and relocate to somewhere a bit warmer than old England. I intend to re-settle in Australia, where I believe there are more opportunities to achieve the more important things in life.”
“That was a major break-through,” Greaves thought. “At last we know something of his background. I think I’ve seen this fellow hanging about Croydon on a few occasions. He hasn’t said anything about a wife, so I assume he’s not married.”
“You’ve chosen a rather slow way to travel,” Harry said bluntly.” A passenger liner would have taken only five weeks to travel to Australia through the Suez Canal.”
Weatherby now realised that his movements were being questioned, and adopted a defensive attitude. “Oh certainly,” he replied, “But passenger liners are so crowded, and then there’s the problem of sharing a cabin with a stranger, whereas on a freighter I have my own cabin, and I don’t mind the longer voyage. By the way, do you play cards?”
“Yes, we all do,” replied Harry. “Perhaps we could play a game or two after dinner?”
“Excellent. I’ll look forward to it,” said Weatherby. A plan was already forming in his mind. If this group are getting off at Calcutta, I’ll play along with them until two days before we dock, and then I’ll bleed them dry. It was an old ruse, but one which he had successfully used many times before, although the plan had failed on his last attempt. He had joined a group in a hotel playing poker for small sums, and he and another player had consistently won. He was cajoled into playing for a large jackpot, and lost heavily when the other “small winner” won a considerable sum. The situation became worse when he was deluded into playing another hand, “to get his money back,” as his playing partners said. The stakes were high, and when he lost again, he had to write an IOU for a large sum, and he suspected that he had been “set up.” He could not afford to pay off the debt on his meagre salary, so it became prudent that he should leave the country, and as he had very few personal affects, and rented a small flat, he had managed to disappear from his job and immediate surroundings quite easily.
“Now,” he thought, “I’ll play their simple card games, and switch to poker later on. I might even get a nice little bundle, enough to start me off in Australia.”
Weatherby was keen to match his skills against those of the other passengers, and on most evenings he played a social game of whist or five hundred, to ingratiate himself into their company. He always wore a bright yellow tie when playing, which he said was his ”lucky tie.” Poker was not mentioned at this stage, but Weatherby felt that he should sharpen his skills at every opportunity.
The Jervis Bay had now called at three ports, and Weatherby had left the ship for a short time at each port, and found a gambling saloon where he could try his luck. He avoided the roulette, baccarat, and mah-jong tables, and concentrated on poker, playing against European opponents wherever possible. His performance was mediocre at first, but had improved markedly by the time the ship had departed from Colombo, and he had managed to almost recover his initial gambling stake.
However, his hopes of relieving the Alltrans crew of some money quickly faded, as when the ship docked in Colombo to unload the two small aircraft, the group were unexpectedly joined by a fourth member.
The stranger was first noticed by Greaves and Rogers, as they stood on the pier watching the crates containing the small aircraft being unloaded. The crates were long and slim, and were clearly marked “aircraft parts.“ As the wharf labourers unfastened the crate from the crane wire, the man approached the crate, and was told to “bugger off” by the labouring crew. His unkempt appearance and uncertain movements indicated that he was possibly a vagrant, perhaps looking for something to steal.
The man stood aside, and watched the labouring crew move away. He shuffled towards the crate on the wharf, and bent towards a large brown stain on the side of the crate. He rubbed the stain, and smelt the stain on his hand.
“Hydraulic oil,” he said loudly in a broad Scottish accent, to nobody in particular. “Ye’ve not drained the hydraulic tank, ye daft fools.” Shaking his head, he moved away, but tripped over a large bolt protruding from the wharf decking, fell heavily, and lay on the wharf, moaning softly.
Greaves and Rogers, having watched these events, exchanged glances, and moved to pick up the fallen man. As they lifted him into a sitting position, the reason for the man’s shuffling walk became evident, as the smell of alcohol and sweat reached them.
“Are you all right, fella?’ asked Rogers. The man didn’t reply at first, being disoriented by his stumble.
“Careless, that’s whit they are,” mumbled the man, and gasped for breath. “It’s nae guid enough.”
Uncertain of what the man was saying, Greaves and Rogers lifted the man to his feet, and helped him to walk a few steps to a nearby box, where he sat down heavily.
Gazing around, the man caught sight of the stained crate, and pointed a shaky hand at it, saying, ”Look at that. There’ll be oil in the electrics noo. All ruined.”
Greaves and Rogers assessed the situation immediately. Greaves asked the man, “Have you come to collect these crates?”
“Nae, laddie,” replied the man, “But Ah ken fine whit’s in them.”
“Oh, you’ve worked with aircraft, then?” asked Rogers.
“Aye, aye,” mumbled the man. “ Ah wis a rigger.”
Greaves took Rogers’ arm, and pulled him to one side. “Here’s a bit of luck, Harry,” If this chap knows his stuff, an extra hand could be of great help when we re-assemble the plane, or if we have to pull the plane out of a bog or something.”
“What!” exclaimed Rogers. “He couldn’t pull the cork out of a bottle, although he seems to have had lots of practice. He’d just be a liability.”
They returned to the man, sitting unsteadily on the box.
“Do you live here? Do you work here?” Greaves asked the man, who thought for a while before replying.
“Nae, laddie. Until last week Ah wis workin’ for Thurston Airlines, but they dinna need me ony mair. Ah’ll find ma way tae India, an’ perhaps get a joab there.”
Greaves was determined to find out more about this man.
“I’m Bob Greaves, and this is Harry Rogers,” said Greaves. “What’s your name?”
“Gordon Muir,” replied the man, his Scottish accent becoming more slurred as he became tired. “Ye wouldn’t have a wee dram on ye, Ah suppose?”
Rogers smiled, and replied, “I think you need a drink of a different kind, Gordon. There’s a coffee stall at the wharf entrance. Let’s see if we can straighten you out.”
Their subsequent discussion, over numerous cups of coffee and three plates of fried vegetable patties, greatly enhanced Greaves’ opinion of Muir, although Rogers was still sceptical. It emerged that Muir had indeed been an aircraft rigger with numerous small airlines throughout Africa and India, and had managed to keep his job at Thurston Airlines for nearly three years, until his drinking problem got the better of him. Having been trained in the maintenance of biplanes, with their wooden structure and linen covering, he had no knowledge or training in the maintenance of all-metal aircraft, and was despondent about his future.
However, he brightened when he learned that Greaves and Rogers had a biplane to be made ready for service in Australia, and mentioned some technical items of which they should be aware when re-rigging their aircraft. When Muir left to find a toilet, Greaves and Rogers discussed him, and Greaves expressed the opinion that he may be a useful man to have around when they were re-assembling their plane in Calcutta, and at their many stops between Calcutta and Darwin.
“What would Jamieson think of this arrangement?” Rogers asked.
“This is an opportunity to take him at his word,” replied Greaves. “You were present when he told me I had a free hand to do whatever I thought necessary to ensure delivery of the plane by the third of September. I’d like to have Muir in charge of the rigging and loading, rather than trust it to some unknown local. Our lives depend upon getting it right.”
“I quite agree in principle,” replied Rogers, but we’ve only known Muir for about two hours. It’s hardly an outstanding recommendation, and if he hits the bottle, we could be worse off than if we used a local.”
“You’re quite right, of course, but two hours of meaningful discussion carries more weight with me than an introduction and a handshake and trying to give instructions through an interpreter. He obviously knows more about rigging than you or me put together, so I think we should give him a go.”
Rogers signalled that Muir was returning from the toilet. Muir sat down, and Greaves opened the discussion.
“Well, Gordon, what are your plans now?” asked Greaves.
“Och, Ah’ll pick up ma kit frae the boarding hoose, an’ see if the local airline, Tatra Air, need a hand,” he replied. “Ah’m sure to get a few day’s work hereabouts.”
“Not too many parties, then?” asked Rogers.
“Parties?” Muir paused for a moment. “Och, ye mean drinkin!” he exclaimed. “No, no. Ah like a dram, sure enough, but Ah nivver touch the stuff when Ah’m workin,’” he said confidently.
Greaves looked at Rogers, who nodded approval.
“Gordon, we’ve mentioned to you about our job to re-assemble the Rapide, and then to fly it in stages to Darwin,” said Greaves. ”From your knowledge of aircraft, this will be no easy matter, and we have a tight schedule to keep. There could be times when a skilled man would be of great assistance, and we were thinking that you may like to join us. We could pay you, say, four pounds a week, and your keep?”
“That’s guid of ye tae offer,” replied Muir. “Ah must say Ah like the idea. Ye seem an honest enough pair, an’ Ah’ll pull ma weight, dinna worry aboot that.”
The trio took two rickshaws, collected Muir’s kit from the boarding house, and returned to the pier. As they approached the gangway, Greaves saw Margaret waving from the deck of the ship. “Ah, there’s Margaret now,” he said to Muir. “Margaret’s my wife, who takes care of the paperwork and accommodation.”
Muir stopped suddenly. “A wummin,” he said. “Ye never said onythin’ aboot a wummin.”
“Er, no, I didn’t “ replied Greaves. “is it important to you?”
“This is man’s work,” growled Muir. “Wummin can cause trouble on a job like this.”
“Trouble?” replied Greaves. “No, no. Margaret is quite good at organising things. She’s good at paperwork, food, and money, and how to get her own way.“
Muir was silent. Rogers spoke up. “Let me assure you, Gordon, Margaret works as hard as any of us, and she’s a good team member.”
“Ah, weel, that’s a’ richt then,” replied Gordon, but he sounded unconvinced.
Gordon was introduced to Margaret, who was somewhat taken back by the unexpected addition to the crew. Although polite, her voice indicated that she was unsure of the suitability of the Scotsman.
Margaret pulled Bob aside. “Which gutter did you get him from? He stinks!”
Bob Greaves defended his decision. “My dear, I know he seems a bit rough now, but he’ll scrub up all right. A good rigger would be invaluable to us. I’ll take him to our cabin, and fit him out. His passport is up to date.”
“Make sure he scrubs well,” said Margaret sharply. “I don’t want anything to do with him until he’s presentable.”
“Harry, would you take Margaret for a drink in the lounge, while Gordon and I attend to a few details?” asked Greaves.
Muir and Greaves went to Greaves’ cabin, and while Muir showered and changed, Greaves located the purser, explained the situation, had Muir’s passport and visa stamped by the immigration officer, and paid Muir’s passage to Calcutta.
Harry Rogers and Margaret returned to the cabin as Muir finished dressing. He had shaved his stubble beard, and looked smart in Bob’s white shirt. Perhaps softened by the drink, Margaret’s attitude changed when she saw the renewed Muir. “Ah, Gordon, you look a new man. I’ve seen that shirt somewhere before,” she smiled.
“Aye, thank ye,” he replied. It’s a guid fit, but Ah’ll be gettin’ masel’ some new kit in Calcutta.”
“Right,” said Greaves. Let’s go and have dinner. We sail in half an hour.”
At sea, 16 – 19 August, 1939.
Their passage between Colombo and Calcutta was not smooth sailing, as a strong swell was causing the ship to pitch severely. The crew had relaxed on the unusually calm passage from Tilbury to Tenerife, Cape Town, and Colombo, and had enjoyed their short stops at the three ports. However, the trio had now become a foursome, and as they had only four days of travel before reaching Calcutta, Greaves proposed that everybody should review their duties upon arrival, and that a final check be made of all paperwork and small packages carried with them.
The turbulent seas disrupted their work, as they were all affected by sea sickness and general lethargy. They had no appetite or desire to do anything, other than to sit on a platform behind the bridge, reading or sleeping. Gordon Muir was less affected than the others, and was of the opinion that “a wee dram” helped to settle his stomach. He was on good terms with a steward, who ensured that his “wee dram” glass was never empty.
During the afternoon of the last day of their voyage, Greaves thought about every possible hazard that could occur on their flight over mountainous country and dangerous waters on their planned air route to Singapore, then further to Bali and Darwin. The Dutch East Indies were composed of many small islands, and there were very few places where an aircraft could land if it became necessary. Certainly, the route had been travelled before, but usually by bigger aircraft with a longer range between stops, such as those which participated in the England to Australia air race of 1934.
Bob Greaves would have loved to have spoken to some of the entrants in that race, to hear first hand of their successes and failures, and to be able to judge for himself the type of hazards his group might have to face. He smiled as he recalled that the race had been won by a de Havilland aircraft, but he thought that perhaps that earlier victory was a good omen.
A steward approached the group, whisky bottle in hand, and Muir offered his glass. Seeing this, Greaves decided to intervene.
“Just a minute, Gordon,” he said sharply. “Don’t you think we should start to be prepared for our arrival tomorrow? We’ll all have to be alert to ensure that everything is unloaded safely. We can’t afford to make any mistakes.”
Muir looked uncertainly at Greaves, and paused before making his reply. “Ah ken fine whit ye mean, Boab. Ye think Ah canna hauld ma drink.”
Greaves sensed the making of a conflict, and waved the steward away before replying.
“Your drinking capacity is not in question, Gordon. You’ve amply demonstrated your capacity for hard liquor, but I think it’s time to smarten up now. We’ve got a big day tomorrow, and I want everybody to be on their toes.”
He stood up, and placed his hands on his hips. If there was to be a physical challenge, he would be ready for it. Suddenly, Margaret stepped forward and said, “Gordon, have you got a clean shirt for our arrival tomorrow? We’ve got to make a good impression with the locals.” She waited for Muir to reply, and noted that he was unsettled by this new voice and direction.
“Whit? Whit? A shirt?” It was obvious that he was thinking of a reply, and that he was the focus of attention. “Oh, aye, aye,” he replied slowly. “Ah’ll dae some washin’ noo, and hang it in the engine room ower nicht.”
The situation had cooled a little, and Greaves seized the opportunity to break up the group, and to set Muir a task to get him moving. “Gordon, I believe the chief engineer is one of your countrymen, and I‘d like you to use your influence with him, to obtain a small favour. Would you ask him if he could spare two pieces of steel pipe, about three inches in diameter, and about five feet long, please? I’d ask him myself, but I think you may have a better chance of success than I would. Even so, if you could spare a bottle of whisky, I’m sure he would appreciate it.”
“Och, aye,” replied Muir, who was glad of the opportunity to do something meaningful, and to see a new face after their recent miserable days of seasickness. He lurched away, grumbling quietly to himself.
An hour later, Greaves was getting ready for dinner when there was a knock on the cabin door. A steward was standing there, looking worried.
“Excuse me sir, but could you come with me to the chief engineer’s cabin, please? A passenger in your group is unwell.”
Greaves knew immediately that the passenger referred to was Muir, and guessed at the likely cause of him being unwell. He berated himself for becoming involved with Muir, and he and Rogers accompanied the steward down three levels of stairs to the chief engineer’s cabin. The chief engineer was sprawled in a chair, and Muir was sleeping on the engineer’s bed. Weatherby had apparently joined the party, and was slumped in a chair, trying to focus his eyes on the visitors. An empty whisky bottle provided evidence of their recent indulgence.
“You’re too late, the party’s over,” mumbled Weatherby. Greaves and Rogers ignored him, and lifted Muir to his feet, but he folded at the knees. They finally got him positioned between them, and with the assistance of the steward, managed to assist Muir up the many steps to the cabin deck, and to lay him on his bed, where he slept soundly.
Conversation during dinner that night was stilted, as Greaves was obviously displeased with both himself and Muir. There was no sign of Weatherby. Greaves realised that he had been foolish to permit Muir to meet another Scotsman, when carrying a bottle of whisky. Muir had been engaged to provide additional skilled assistance when called upon, and he, Greaves, had prejudiced the success of the important day tomorrow by his own action.
“Look, he said, when coffee was served. “This business with Muir has created a difficult situation, and I know I’m to blame for creating it” he said. “We’ll just have to rely on ourselves to ensure that the unloading is carried out properly, and to keep an eye on the smaller boxes to ensure they don’t disappear.”
“Now, Margaret,” he continued, “I don’t want you to be on the wharf when the equipment is being unloaded. It’ll be no place for a lady, with those labourers hanging about. I would like you to talk with the Tatra Airlines people, and to check on the accommodation which they’ve arranged for us. If it’s some distance from the airport, make sure they have arranged transport for us, to be available at any time. Oh, and food. See if they can arrange some decent food for us at a reliable restaurant. We’ll be here for about a week, so it will be good business for somebody.”
He paused for breath, and then continued. “Harry, your job will be to keep a check on the paperwork of the boxes and crates as they are unloaded. Supervise the loading onto whatever vehicles have been arranged, and satisfy whatever the Customs people require. I suggest that it would be advisable to send all the vehicles through Customs as one group, as we don’t want them to go wandering off in all directions, never to be seen again. Let the Tatra foreman know that you’re a wake-up to dodgy tricks.”
“That’s fine, Bob, but what will you do?” he asked.
“I’ll settle with the Immigration people, then I’ll meet you at Customs, to pay for any charges we may incur.”
“And what about Muir?’ Margaret asked.
“Well, I don’t think he will be fit enough to do anything meaningful in the morning, so I’ll get him to act as an escort to you, Margaret, when you’re checking on the accommodation and food. I have no idea where the Tatra people have arranged to put us, so it would be advisable to have two people there to ensure that the accommodation will be satisfactory.”
Greaves looked at Margaret and Harry. “Any comments?” he asked.
“No,” replied Harry. “I think you’ve covered everything. But if Muir doesn’t pull his weight, I think we should drop him now. We’ll be too busy to play nursemaid to a drunk.”
Greaves sensed the antagonism in Harry’s reply, but said nothing. He’d had enough problems for one day, and any discussions about Muir would be the last straw.
“Let’s go to bed,” he said. “We’ll see what happens in the morning.”
By six o’clock next morning, the Jervis Bay was steaming slowly up the Ganges river, to the docks not far from the river mouth. The darkening clouds foretold of rain during the morning, and the air was heavy with the smells of a million people living in crowded and unsanitary conditions.
The ship docked soon after, amidst heavy rain, and it was then that Margaret realised that nobody had packed wet weather clothing, and that her parasol would be useless in such heavy rain. Her second surprise occurred as she entered the dining room, when she saw Muir already at the table, shaved and wearing a white shirt and pressed trousers, doing justice to a large plate of sausages, bacon, eggs, and toast.
“Guid morning, Margaret,” he said brightly, as she sat down. “It’s a fine day tae be arrivin’ in a foreign country, an’ it’s guid tae hae solid ground aboot ye.”
She returned his greeting. “Good morning Gordon. I believe you weren’t feeling very well last night. How are you feeling this morning?”
“Ah’m fine noo, Margaret,” he replied, “But truthfully, Ah canna remember much aboot last night. Ah wis drinkin’ wi’ thon engineer man, an’ then Ah woke up this mornin.’ Did somethin’ happen?”
“You had to be carried upstairs to your cabin, Gordon,” she said sharply. “You were totally drunk. My husband was depending on you to assist with the unloading, and he was very concerned that you would not be capable.”
“Ach, Ah may have had a dram too many,” he said, waving his fork, “But as ye can see, Ah’m fine noo. I’ll be ready for whatever’s happenin.’
This was a fact which Margaret couldn’t deny, and she watched as he ate heartily, while she nibbled on toast. “He certainly can consume a lot of alcohol,” she thought.
Bob and Harry appeared, and carefully hid their surprise at Muir’s appearance. Muir immediately apologised for “disturbin’ the peace” the previous evening, and promised that he would remain sober for the rest of the trip, as he had no more whisky with him.
Greaves again reviewed the proposed activities for unloading the equipment, and commented that the heavy rain may slow the loading on to the transport vehicles. “We’re going to be uncomfortable for a few hours,” he said. “We’ll be outside for most of the time, and we haven’t got any wet weather gear.”
Muir replied immediately. “That’ll be nae problem,” he said. “Ah ken there’s a market on the other side of the river. Ah remember it from when Ah wis here a few years ago. If you can get me through the Customs an’ Immigration people, Ah’m sure Ah can get ye some gear frae the market.”
“Right,” said Greaves, “That’s your first job then.” He handed Muir a few banknotes. “After you get through Immigration and Customs, nip over to the market, change the money into rupees, and see what you can find. Then come back here, and go with Margaret and the Tatra agent to look at our accommodation.”
After breakfast, Margaret handed out the crew’s passports, visas, and health certificates, and Muir left the wharf and disappeared into the city. Margaret ensured that all personal luggage was accounted for, and waited in the shelter of the immigration office for the unloading of aircraft components to begin.
The threatened rain had arrived at last, and an hour later, Muir returned from the market in a rickshaw, with several large soggy parcels tied with string. With the aid of the rickshaw man, he had managed to buy four rain capes, made with linen and coated with black rubber. He had also bought four pairs of leather sandals, of a type worn by the local people, and four cloth hats, which although not waterproof, directed rain away from the face. There was much laughter among the group as they tried on their rainwear, and exchanged clothing as they found a suitable size.
As they were finishing, a ship’s crewman approached the group, carrying two lengths of steel pipe with screwed ends, compliments of the ship’s engineer. Greaves waved his thanks to the engineer, who was standing on the deck, and added the pipes to the items of loose equipment on the wharf. Weatherby was not on the deck, and Greaves dismissed him from further thought.
The Tatra Air agent arrived in his small car, accompanied by a truck towing a long trailer,
and several horse drawn carts. The agent introduced himself as “Mister Bundah Singh, acting upon instructions personally given to me by Mister Murali Tatra himself.” Greaves introduced Rogers, Margaret, and Muir, and arranged for Margaret and Muir to accompany Bundah Singh to check on their accommodation, while Rogers and he would keep a close watch on the unloading of equipment from the ship’s hold.
Bundah Singh’s small car weaved its way through the crowded streets, narrowly avoiding barrows of fruit at the roadside, and sellers of goods shouting to prospective buyers from their doorways. The heavy rain had stopped, and the steamy heat rising from the wet ground added to the pervading odour of cooking smells and putrefaction which flooded the streets. Heading westwards from the city, the streets became less crowded, and were lined with a few old trees struggling to survive. As the car approached the top of a gentle rise, the passengers could see a group of well-kept two storey buildings, surrounded by modest trees and greenery. The furthest building of the group was painted bright pink, and it was here that the car stopped. With difficulty, Muir refrained from commenting on the décor of the building.
The trio were ushered into the building by a doorman, who was dressed in a uniform reminiscent of a sepoy soldier from the days of the British Raj. They were greeted by the hotel manager, who addressed them in moderately good English, and spoke to the Tatra agent in brisk Hindi. While Bundah Singh waited downstairs, Margaret and Muir were directed upstairs, and shown into two bedrooms of neat appearance, each provided with two beds, appropriate furniture, and a wash basin. Margaret was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the rooms, and was further satisfied when the manager stated that “other facilities” were located at the end of the corridor, for the exclusive use of hotel guests.
After confirming their length of stay to be approximately seven days, Margaret and Muir were approached by Bundah Singh, who smiled and nodded as Margaret told him that they were pleased with their accommodation. “I have further pleasure for you, Madam,” he said with a heavy accent. “Another motor car is now waiting for you here. Please to return downstairs”.
Outside, an ancient car with a canvas roof was parked at the kerb, with the young driver standing in the shade of a tree, smoking a dark cigarette. Muir looked carefully at the vehicle, assessing its potential to carry five people without damage to life or limb. The car had obviously seen better days, and the springs showing through the battered upholstery promised to impart an everlasting memory to passengers.
“Hurricane is very good car, sir,” said a high pitched voice behind him. “She will take you anywhere. I am very good driver, sir, know all the roads.”
Although doubtful of the car’s capabilities, Muir turned to see the young driver smiling broadly, his gleaming teeth and bright eyes attesting to youthful vigour. “What is your name?” he asked.
“I am Rawal, sir,” he replied. “Very good driver, sir, I drive you anytime. Driving I have been for Mister Tatra for one month.”
Muir smiled at the self-proclaimed recommendation, and asked, “Why dae ye call your car Hurricane?”
“Ah, sir,” the driver replied, “She is very good car. She can get you anywhere in a hurry. She is Hurricane.”
Muir sighed, and carefully entered the car with Margaret.
On the wharf, unloading of the various crates was a slow and noisy affair. In the ships’ hold, the wooden crates had been positioned on each side of the aircraft fuselage, and had to be moved first, so as to gain access to the fuselage. The ships’ crane hoisted two crates together in its large net, and placed the net carefully on the wharf, accompanied by much shouting and arm waving by the labourers, and were then slid up long planks, onto the waiting horse-drawn carts. When all of the crates had been loaded onto the carts, the fuselage was clear for lifting.
In the ships’ hold, Muir put himself in charge of tying the four lengths of slinging rope to the strongest points of the fuselage, ensuring that no damage was done to the plywood covering of the steel framework. This remarkably strong construction had stood up well during the voyage, but as the wing fastening joints were now exposed to rain, the crew hurried to replace the tarpaulins. The truck towing the long trailer was brought on to the wharf, and positioned alongside the ship. In contrast to the unloading of the crates, the lifting of the fuselage was carried out in silence. As the fuselage was lifted clear of the ships’ deck, a low murmur could be heard from the labourers, as they were puzzled by the strange shape hidden under the tarpaulins. Greaves directed the crane operator in lowering the fuselage on to the long trailer, and shouted at the labourers not to stand on the fuselage when tying the fuselage on to the trailer.
Led by the horse-drawn carts, the convoy left the wharf and proceeded to the Customs shed, while the crew walked to the Immigration Office, where their documents were quickly processed. Still wearing their rainproof capes, the crew walked along the muddy road to the Customs shed, where the carts were waiting. The Customs officers were dressed in khaki overalls, and their supervisor was wearing a khaki shirt with red epaulettes, and a white turban. He was perspiring heavily, and looked displeased as he saw the carts and trailer truck waiting in the rain, knowing that the contents of the vehicles would have to be examined in the downpour.
Greaves handed the supervisor the bills of lading, which he accepted grudgingly, and sat at his desk to examine the documents. Greaves and Rogers stood by, dripping water from their capes on to the floor. After quickly looking through the bills, the Customs supervisor rose from his chair, and stood at the door, counting the waiting carts, and shook his head. He was clearly uncertain of what to do. Should he order the tarpaulins to be removed, and the crates opened? He would then have to go outside in the rain to inspect the goods, a most uncomfortable task in this weather.
Returning to his desk, he again studied the bills of lading, and frowned. “A wind generator?“ he growled. “Why do you wish to make wind here? We have enough already.”
Rogers smiled, and replied,”No, sir. It is really a small wind driven generator for making electricity for the aircraft.”
The Customs supervisor nodded, and looked at more papers. “Dope,” he said. “Does this drink contain alcohol?” Without waiting for a reply, he continued. “Alcoholic drinks should be declared separately. They are subject to tax in this country. If you cannot pay, they will be confiscated.”
He was becoming agitated, and Greaves quickly spoke to explain the situation. “It is not an alcoholic drink at all,” he said. “It is a clear paint, based on cellulose lacquer, used to shrink linen cloth on an aeroplane. It is an industrial material, and is duty free.”
The Customs supervisor looked at Greaves, and assessed the veracity of his replies. Being nearly lunchtime, and with the rain still falling heavily, he wasn’t enthusiastic about going out into the rain, and examining items of mechanical equipment, about which he knew nothing. The Englishmen were well organised, he thought, and looked very business-like in their black capes. He doubted if he could bully them into parting with some bribe money, and as the aroma of spicy curry wafted through into his office from the small kitchen in the back room, he stamped the documents accordingly.
Dum Dum Airfield, Calcutta. 20 August 1939
Dum Dum Airfield, home of the Bengal Flying Club, Tatra Air, and two smaller airlines, was located on a small flat strip of land close to an arm of the river delta. The ground was of low elevation, and although it flooded during the monsoon, and sometimes at high tide, the single runway had been raised slightly above the surrounding fields, sufficiently for it to be seen by pilots. It was the only area of flat land not encumbered by humpies, tents, and large wooden crates, used as housing by the local beggars. The windsock at the northern end of the runway was superfluous, as the smoke from numerous cooking fires provided adequate indication of wind direction.
Upon arrival at the airfield, the transport convoy was directed to the furthest hangar which could be seen from the gatehouse. The hangar building, provided by Tatra Air, was a large galvanised iron shed of simple construction, well braced to withstand high winds. The concrete floor was raised above the level of the surrounding grass field, in an attempt to maintain a dry working area in all weather conditions. It was the last in a row of four hangars, and was evidently the oldest, as the other three had ventilated roofs, windows, and doors mounted on rails. A pile of discarded aircraft components and used tyres was in one corner, and a family of cats in the other.
The transport convoy of carts and the long trailer drew to a stop at the hangar, and as the rain had now stopped, the Tatra Air manager directed the labourers to unload the crates and to place them inside the hangar, on three sides of the building, leaving the central floor area free for the trailer to be unloaded. As this work commenced, Greaves and Rogers were approached by a group of Europeans, who introduced themselves as members of the Bengal Flying Club. The club members were pleased to meet some new people, and to learn of their intention to fly to Australia. The new arrivals were immediately accepted into the club as “visiting members,” and as they had not eaten since their early breakfast, they were quickly escorted a short distance to the club building, for a late lunch. They were about to enter the building, when they were hailed by a shout from an approaching vehicle, which Rogers recognised as Muir’s voice.
“Awa’ there, Harry. Ye made it a’richt,“ he shouted, his broad accent seemingly strengthened by the humid weather. As Muir got out and opened the car door for Margaret, an audible gasp of surprise was heard from the club members as she stepped from the vehicle. It was unusual for a lady to be seen in the club rooms, as most of the club members were either English businessmen, off-duty military personnel, or wealthy local traders and officials.
Greaves immediately took Margaret’s hand, introduced her to the various members, and he was pleased at the effect which her presence had caused amongst the gathering. Bundah Singh did not join the group, but drove his car a short distance to the hangar, to watch the unloading of the carts, and to ensure that no items disappeared.
After a light lunch, the crew farewelled the club members, with promises to share their hospitality again very soon, and walked to their allocated hangar. The unloading of the carts was nearly completed, with the simple trolley mounted block and tackle above the doorway being used to unload the heavier crates from the carts, the crates being slid on rollers to stand along the walls of the hangar.
A truck arrived, carrying numerous wooden supporting stands, planks, and two ladders, which were quickly off-loaded. The Tatra Air manager then directed the labourers to carefully remove the tarpaulins from the trailer truck, and the trailer was backed into the hangar. Using the pulley block, the fuselage was carefully lifted from the trailer, and lifted to a short distance above floor level. Supporting stands were then positioned under the wing stubs, at a height to allow later fitting of the engines and propellers. With the fuselage sitting securely on the stands, Greaves and Rogers could now relax, and leave the unloading of other equipment to the labourers.
Muir looked at the crates and boxes of equipment scattered around the hangar, and voiced his disapproval. “This is nae guid,” he said. “Some o’ this stuff will disappear ower-nicht, and we’ll be left high an’ dry.”
His comment was quickly accepted by Greaves, who summoned Bundah Singh, and arranged for an overnight guard to be positioned in the hangar. However, this action still didn’t satisfy Muir, who directed two labourers to construct a large tool box from the components of the wing crates. A large padlock was then obtained, and the box secured with a length of chain from the rubbish heap.
As the first mosquitoes arrived to sample fresh English blood, the crew retired to their hotel, well pleased with their first day of work.
After discussion with Rogers and Muir, Greaves estimated that it would take seven days to re-assemble and flight test the Rapide. Aided by the labourers hired from Tatra Air, the three men went to work, confident that they could meet the deadline. With the tarpaulins removed, they inspected the fuselage frame and wing stubs for damage, of which there was none. The fuselage was lifted by the block and tackle to shoulder height above the floor, and the undercarriage legs bolted into position. The wheels were then fitted and the aircraft lowered, allowing it to be moved about on its wheels.
Then came the delicate task of lifting the engines into the steel framework on each wing stub. After several attempts at lifting and lowering the right engine, it was finally bolted into the frame. Lifting the left engine, the labourers were confident that they could position it easily, but while turning the swinging engine on the chain, it swung too far, and collided heavily with the frame. The noise of the collision startled everyone, and there was a moment of silence as people realised what had happened.
Greaves immediately took control of the situation. “Lift the engine up slowly, and pull the chain trolley to the front,” he ordered. “Right. Now move the trolley further away, and hold it steady so I can look at the frame.” He squeezed between the engine and the frame, and looked at the engine mounting brackets. “No damage,” he said happily. “All noise and no damage.”
But as the engine was again lowered into the frame, a dark line could be seen on the exhaust pipe, close to the exhaust manifold.
“Bob, I think you’d better have a look at this.“ It was Harry Rogers who spoke, pointing at the exhaust pipe on the side of the engine. “It’s cracked.”
The implications of this discovery were far reaching. If the crack was not rectified, the hot exhaust gas would heat the exposed edges of the crack to red heat, and when the petrol-air mixture was set to “rich,” there was a good chance that the mixture would ignite, resulting in a long flame blowing back from the engine, which would probably burn the fabric wing covering.
“Bugger,” said Greaves. “We were doing so well, too. We’ll have to weld it.“
Gordon Muir entered the hangar, and saw the group standing around with long faces.
“Whit’s a’ this, then?” he asked. “A stop work meetin‘?”
Rogers pointed to the cracked exhaust pipe. “Here’s the problem. We can’t fly with this.”
Muir looked at the pipe from the top, and then from underneath. “It’s just a wee crack,“ he said. “Ah can weld it.”
“What!” exclaimed Greaves. “you know how to weld?”
“Och, aye. Ah can weld it with a good rod and the gas,” he replied confidently. “Ah’ll clean it up a bit first, and it’ll be as strong as ever. Can we get gas frae the Tatra people?”
A heavy weight was lifted from Greaves shoulders. “Excellent,” he declared. “Excellent. “Get one of the boys to help you to unbolt that pipe from the engine block, and I’ll talk to the Tatra manager about borrowing a welding set.”
The repair was carried out within an hour, and Greaves was pleased with the result. He had new respect for Gordon Muir.
During the lunch break next day, Margaret mentioned that she had little to do at present, and that she would like to go shopping in the market. Rawal was instructed to accompany Margaret to the market, but as they were leaving, Greaves hurried to the waiting car.
“I’d like you to buy a few things for the trip while you’re at the market,” he said. “I need a dozen pieces of cardboard tubing, about a foot long, and a pair of scissors.”
“Whatever for?” enquired Margaret. “are you going to decorate the aircraft cabin?”
“Not quite,” replied Greaves. “I’m going to cut up our maps into strips, showing only our proposed route, and put the strips onto rollers so as we can handle them more easily on the navigator’s table. Also, see if you can buy four thermos flasks, some packets of tea and sugar, and a few biscuits. That should do for nibbles when we’re flying.”
Margaret and Rawal had completed their purchases at the market, when they were approached by two ladies whom Margaret recognised from the Bengal Flying Club. As the women stood chatting in the shade of a tree, their talk turned to clothing and fashion.
“My dear,” said an older woman, “I think it would be wise if you didn’t wear European clothing when you fly to the East Indies. They are very fussy about women’s clothing down there, and in some places women are covered from head to toe.”
“Oh, yes indeed,” chirped the other woman. “When we travel by ship to Singapore, I always wear a blouse and skirt on the ship, but I change into a sari when I go ashore. I find that I get better service in the shops when I’m dressed like a local.”
They escorted Margaret to a dress shop, where after much haggling, Margaret bought two saris, two strings of beads, and two pairs of leather sandals. She was pleased with her new clothes, and thanked the ladies for their advice, and promised to have lunch with them at the flying club.
In the excitement of buying clothes and haggling over the prices, she had forgotten to buy the thermos flasks, until she was reminded by Rawal to buy “four hot teapots for drinking tea.” They drove back to the hotel in good spirits.
The next few days saw the wings and tail fitted and aligned under the direction of Muir, while Greaves and Rogers concentrated on connecting the fuel systems and instrument wiring to each engine. Next came fitting the bracing wires and control cables, all of which had been marked to indicate their previous setting. When this work was completed, they dismissed the Tatra Air labourers, leaving the final adjustments to be carried out by themselves.
Three seats from the left side of the plane were removed from the cabin, and stored in the luggage compartment. The wooden fuel storage cradle which had been made in the de Havilland factory was assembled, and fastened to the floor in place of the three seats. Six four gallon petrol cans were fastened to the cradle, and a copper pipe was run from the filling cap on the fuel tank of each engine into the cabin, through small holes in the Perspex windows. Petrol could then be pumped from the cans into the fuel tanks of each engine from within the cabin, using a hand pump, but this system was to be used only when necessary, as petrol fumes would fill the cabin during the filling process.
The work of re-assembling the aircraft had taken five days, and that evening the crew celebrated their achievement by having dinner at the Bengal Flying Club. They were sitting in the lounge room after dinner, listening to the Indian band play European popular music, and Bob Greaves and Margaret were dancing.
A card game was in progress in the room next door, and Rogers noticed a familiar face through the glass wall. Suddenly, the sound of raised voices could be heard coming from the card room, and the guests and dancers turned to discover the source of the noise. Two card players were arguing at the card table, their faces flushed and threatening. The floor manager approached the table, and spoke to one of the men, who rose from his chair, shouting threats to both the players and the manager, who signalled to a waiter, and together they escorted the card player from the building.
The music had stopped, and Greaves and Margaret walked back to their table.
“Did you see that?’ asked Rogers, as Greaves approached. “Did you see who that noisy oaf was?”
“No,” replied Greaves. “We were on the other side of the room. Did you see who it was?”
“Certainly!” exclaimed Rogers. “It was our old friend Weatherby! I think he must have had a few drinks, and the cards weren’t going his way.”
“He must have got off the ship after us, but what on earth could have brought him here?”
“God knows, but I hope he doesn’t find out that we’re here. It really is a small world.”
The final stages of bringing the aircraft into flying condition were now at hand. The Tatra Air manager had arranged for the local aircraft inspector to carry out inspection of the aircraft the following day, so the crew carried out the remaining items of work which they knew would be examined by the inspector.
Jamieson had arranged for a new radio to be installed in the Rapide, to replace the existing radio, which was of a type better suited to European frequencies. Harry Rogers had some knowledge of radio technicalities, and eagerly watched the radio technician at work. The technician had brought new batteries, and these were connected to the wind-driven generator on the upper wing, and tested. Finally, the radio aerial wire was run between the cabin and the tail fin, and the installation was complete.
The loop aerial for the radio direction finding equipment was installed, but could not be tested until the aircraft was flying, so the next step was to refuel the aircraft and test the engines. A small tractor towed the aircraft to the refuelling bay, the tanks were filled, and the engines hand primed. The aircraft was towed away from the refuelling bay, and Greaves climbed into the cockpit to carry out the engine starting procedure. The left engine started reasonably well, after emitting a long stream of flame from the priming mixture, and Muir’s welding of the exhaust pipe was found to be successful, with no visible leaks.
The right engine, however, refused to start. No amount of priming, swinging on the propeller, or adjusting of throttle settings would induce it to fire, and a conference was called to discuss the matter.
“We’re running out of ideas and time,” declared Greaves. “We’ve got to get this engine running before the inspector gets here, because he may not be available again for some weeks. If that happens, we won’t be able to meet our deadline for delivery of the aircraft to Australia. Now, let’s review what we’ve done, because the fault must be in something which we haven’t done.”
Rogers spoke up. “But we’ve checked everything thoroughly. The fuel system must be OK, because both fuel pumps are delivering fuel. The spark plugs are new, and the magnetos were serviced by de Havilland. Perhaps we should hire an engineer from Tatra to look over the engine.”
“Yes,” said Greaves. “I think that’s our only chance. It’s embarrassing though, that we can’t solve a simple problem like this. All we’ve done is take a perfectly good engine out of the crate, bolt on the propeller, make all the connections, and it just won’t go. A first year apprentice should be able to get that engine running.”
“Er, hang on a minute, Bob,” said Rogers. “You’ve just said something that rings a bell. When I was at de Havilland’s watching the dismantling sequence, I also saw the packer putting the engines into the crates. In one crate, they put the engine in first, then the propeller, and then they tried to put in a spare cylinder head, but it wouldn’t fit. I remember now that one old fellow said that if they removed the magneto, the cylinder head would fit into the crate OK. I didn’t actually see them put the cylinder head into the crate, but that’s what they must have done. I wonder if something happened to the magneto when it was removed?”
“Right,” said Greaves. “There’s only one way to find out, and that’s to pull off the magneto. It’s our last chance.”
Rogers unscrewed the magneto cover to provide access to the retaining bolts. Looking at the workings of the magneto, his heart missed a beat. “Look here! Look here!” he cried. “Here’s the answer.”
Greaves looked over Rogers’ shoulder, and immediately saw that the magneto had been installed wrongly, being 180 degrees from its correct position. “Damn and blast!” shouted Greaves. “We’ve been sabotaged by the packing man. I’ve never seen anything like it! No wonder the bloody thing wouldn’t fire!”
The feeling of impending doom had been lifted from the group by this discovery. It was a matter of minutes to remove the magneto and replace it correctly. Being well flooded with petrol, the engine fired on the first attempt, with a long yellow flame from the exhaust. There were smiles all around as the engine ran up to speed, and they didn’t care about the deafening noise it made. They were ready for the airworthiness inspection, then the test flight, and then they would finally be on their way to Australia.
Saturday 26 August 1939. Flight testing.
As arranged, the officer from the Department of Civil Aviation arrived the next day. All of the inspection panels had been removed from the Rapide in readiness for the inspection, and Margaret had produced the current registration certificate and details of the last inspection for his attention. Tatra Air had two Rapides in their fleet, so the inspector was aware of the critical points to which he should pay special attention.
Wearing white overalls, the inspector approached the aircraft, and he was a few paces away when he noticed the copper fuel filling pipe attached to the petrol tank filling cap, and leading through the hole in the side window of the Rapide.
“Well, what have we here?” he asked, “An unauthorised modification to the fuel system?”
“Yes, that’s our tank filling system for long range flights,” Greaves replied. “There’s a filling pipe for each engine, and we carry cans of petrol in the cabin, and top up the tanks as required.”
The inspector was aghast. “But this is clearly a modification to the aircraft,” he said. “It hasn’t been approved by the aircraft manufacturer, or tested for safety compliance. I cannot allow this equipment to remain.”
Greaves tried to play down their use of the system. “We’ll probably never use it,” he said. “It’s just for emergency.”
“There probably will be an emergency if you tried to use that system,” said the inspector. “You haven’t fitted an earthing wire.”
At that point, Greaves capitulated. With all the hustle and bustle in re-assembling the aircraft, they had forgotten to provide an earthing wire between the six petrol cans and a substantial metal part of the aircraft, and Greaves blamed himself for overlooking that vital point.
Greaves took Rogers aside, and said softly, “Pull out the filling pipes, but don’t throw them away. We’ll take them with us, and re-fit them later in the trip, and we’ll fit an earthing wire, too.”
The inspector continued his examination of the airframe, now alert for any other unauthorised modifications. As the aircraft was less than a year old, there was no evidence of corrosion on any of the metal fittings, and he checked the tightness of the wing and tail fixings in accordance with the maintenance schedule. He checked the tension of the wing and tail bracing wires, and Muir showed him how the wires had been re-fitted to their original tension, using his own strain gauge.
The static test now being successfully completed, but with removal of the petrol tank filling system heavily underlined on the report form, the ground movement tests were now undertaken. The engines were started, and with the inspector at the controls, the plane was taxied down the spare runway almost at take-off speed, then the brakes were applied. The aircraft slowed, then shuddered as it came to a stop in a straight line. This was satisfactory, and the inspector said that he was now ready for a flight test.
The inspector made some notes on the report form, and asked “Who’s coming with me?”
Greaves took Rogers by the arm, and they walked towards the Rapide. “You should go, Harry,” he said. “This will be a good opportunity for you to try out the radio.”
“What, me?” cried Rogers, in mock disgust. “You want me to go flying in a plane that’s been taken apart, then reassembled by a crew of amateurs? I’m not crazy.”
“Ah, but think of the glory,” joked Greaves. “The excitement of it all. Will you really get off the ground, will the tail fall off, will you return to mother earth in one piece? You could get a medal for this.”
“A medal!” exclaimed Rogers. “That’s no good to me. I want a fat bonus for this, and danger money for taking my life in my hands…….” By this time, they had reached the aircraft, and Greaves pushed Rogers up the steps and in the door.
“Farewell dear friend,” laughed Greaves, closing the door. “We’ll think about you over lunch.”
Rogers walked in a bent-over position up the sloping aisle- way of the Rapide, and sat at the navigator ’s table, behind the inspector. Although he had flown the Rapide on many previous occasions, Rogers couldn’t help feeling a little concerned about this flight, and Greaves’ words about the tail falling off didn’t help. He buckled into his seat, and gave a “thumbs up” to the inspector, who aligned the Rapide on the spare runway, and pushed the throttles forward. The Rapide accelerated quickly down the runway, and without any passenger loading, lifted quickly into the air.
The flight test took only twenty minutes, with Rogers managing to tune the radio to the local transmitter, and receiving a good signal. Upon returning to the airfield, the inspector taxied the Rapide to the hangar, and completed his report, finishing with a tick in the “satisfactory” column. He then completed a temporary Certificate of Airworthiness form, mentioning that he would forward the official form to the Australian authorities in due course.
Stage two of the Rapide delivery program was now completed, and they were on schedule for stage three. This achievement called for a party at the Bengal Flying Club, and they invited the manager from Tatra Air, the inspector, the air traffic controller, the club members, the radio fitter, and Rawal, who was later sent away to bring more refreshment in his Hurricane. The party continued until the early hours of the following morning, and there were a few sore heads the next day.
When the crew finally gathered together in the hotel the following afternoon, Greaves said that they should spend the remainder of the afternoon packing their equipment into the Rapide, and generally tidying the hangar in preparation for leaving the following morning. This move was agreed upon by everybody, and they proceeded to the hangar in Rawal’s car.
Approaching the hangar, Rogers looked at the Rapide from a distance, and thought that the effects of last night’s party were still being felt, as the nose of the aircraft seemed higher than usual. They unlocked the tool box, and then the door of the aircraft, and it was then that Rogers gave a shout.
“Oh bugger! Look at this!” he exclaimed. “Some sod has stolen the tail wheel. The whole bloody wheel!”
Greaves and Muir hurried across from the doorway. “Damn! Just when we thought we’d overcome all the problems, this happens. We’ve got a spare tyre and tube for the tail wheel, but not the hub. Where was the guard last night?”
Muir knelt down, and looked at the metal yoke. “It’s no’ sae bad,” he said. Ah can mak up a skid tae bolt on tae the yoke. It’ll be fine until we can get anither hub.”
“A skid, eh? said Greaves. “That’s a good idea. If you can do that, Gordon, we’ll be OK. How long would it take?”
“Ach, there’ll be a guid day’s work in it,” he growled. “I’ll be needin’ the equipment in the Tatra workshop again.“
“Right,” said Greaves, his mind quickly adjusting to the situation. “Harry, if you and Margaret can start loading the tools into the plane, and tidy up this place a bit, Gordon and I will go to Tatra Air and report this theft to the manager. That should be sufficient excuse to get permission to use their workshop again.”
Rawal drove Greaves and Muir to the Tatra Air office, where Greaves reported the theft of the tail wheel to Bundah Singh, who looked uncomfortable as he listened to Greaves’ complaint. The manager was clearly embarrassed by this development.
“Hmmm, I’m sorry that this has happened,” he said. “I thought we had sufficient security for your aircraft and equipment, and I put two reliable fellows on duty, in seven hour shifts. I’ll have a word with them later this afternoon. What will you do for a tail wheel?”
“Well, if we can use your workshop again, Gordon thinks he can make up a tail skid to bolt on to the yoke. Tomorrow, I’ll send a telegram to Jamieson to arrange for a replacement to be sent to Australia. I hope our client will understand our circumstances.”
“Of course, of course,” said Bundah Singh. “Do whatever you want in the workshop. I’m sure there’s enough metal and equipment there to build a skid.” He paused. “Wait a minute though. I had lunch with a fellow at the airforce base last week, and he mentioned that there was a pile of old wrecks in a corner of their airfield. You might find a wheel there. Let me give him a call to see if he can help.”
The call was made, and Bundah Singh said, “You could be in luck. He thinks there are a few wheels there which may be suitable.He said if you could come straightaway, he’ll show you to the “graveyard” himself.”
Thanking Bundah Singh for his involvement, Rawal drove them to a remote airfield on the other side of the city, the home of a squadron of light bombers used to pursue rebels in the northern mountains. The supply officer was expecting them, and they drove in a light truck to a corner of the airfield, where a large heap of rusting airframes and broken woodwork showed the demise of several aircraft.
“Now, then,” said the officer. “Somebody turned over a Hawker Nimrod a few weeks ago. I think it’s over here,” he said, pointing to the twisted remains of a small aircraft. “We haven’t stripped it yet, so if you pull those wings away, you’ll see the rear of the fuselage. The tail wheel might be suitable.”
Greaves and Muir climbed on to the shaky heap, and pushed the broken wing away. They were delighted to see the undamaged tail wheel in place, and Muir quickly noted the tyre size. “Here’s luck,” he growled. “It’s the same diameter, but different width. Ah can put a spacer on each side, and then it will fit the yoke gae fine.”
“You’d better take it quickly, then,” said the officer. “It’ll be dark soon, and the security officer doesn’t like people wandering about the field at night.”
Moving quickly, Muir produced a spanner from his tool kit, unbolted the wheel, and lifted it into the truck. Travelling back to the airfield gate, Greaves expressed his thanks to the officer, and said, “You’ve been a great help to us, but how do we pay for the wheel? What’s the procedure?”
The officer smiled, and said, “In this case, there is no procedure. The aircraft has been written off, and a tail wheel is an expendable component of no commercial value. Eventually, it would be dumped into a hole with all the other junk, and seeing that I’m the officer in charge of maintenance, you’re doing me a good turn by disposing of damaged equipment.”
Greaves again expressed his appreciation, and transferred the wheel into Rawal’s car. “That’s enough excitement for this afternoon, Rawal,” he said. “Take us back to the airfield. We’ll lock up, have dinner at the hotel, and get ready for an early start in the morning.”
Driving back, Muir spoke to Greaves. “Weel Bob, ye’ve got your plane in the air, and on schedule, and that’s the main thing. Ah’ll mak up the spacer plates and bolt on the tail wheel first thing in the morning, and that’s my work completed. Ah must say Ah’ve enjoyed these last three weeks. It’s been guid work, and guid company.”
“Gordon, you’ve been a great help to our project, and we’ve been pleased to have you with us. We’re sorry to see you go. What will you do next?”
“Ah’ll speak to Bundah Singh, and see if they could use an aircraft fitter in their workshop for a few weeks. If that works oot, Ah think Ah’ll stay in the hotel if it’s no’ too expensive. But if Ah canna get a joab, Ah’ll tak a ship tae Singapore. There’s a big airfield on the east coast.”
“Yes, that sounds practical,” agreed Greaves. “I thought you’d do something like that. Look, we’ll be passing through Singapore on our way down south. We haven’t got much of a load, and we’re not licenced to carry passengers on this trip, but there’s a seat available if you want it.”
“That’s very guid o’ ye,” replied Muir. “It’s no’ very often that somebody maks me an offer like that. Ah think Ah’ve got mair chance o’ work in Singapore than here, anyway. Ah’m pleased tae accept your offer,” and they shook hands. “Perhaps Ah could do a wee bit o’ maintenance work on the aircraft. Ah’ve watched the refuelling men at work, an’ Ah’m sure Ah could dae a job like that, an’ Ah know aboot the filters an’ spark plugs.”
‘Yes, that would be a great help,” replied Greaves. “Apparently, some of our refuelling stops are rather primitive, so I don’t really know what to expect. We’ve got to do the best we can with what we’ve got.”
Next morning, the group paid their hotel bill, loaded their baggage into Hurricane, and travelled for the last time to the airfield. As the crew arrived at the hangar, Bundah Singh drove up in his car, and enquired about their tail wheel problem.
“All solved,” replied Greaves with a smile. “We manged to get a suitable wheel from your air force friend. Muir will quickly make up a couple of spacer plates in your workshop, bolt on the tail wheel, and we should be away by lunchtime. Our first stop is Akyab, which should take us about two and a half hours, with a little headwind, so we’ll get there well before dark. We’re just doing the final tidying and loading now.”
“It’s a good day for flying,” remarked Bundah Singh. “By the way, I’ve made a few enquiries about the theft of your tail wheel. The security guards were at fault, of course. It seems that the guard for the later shift didn’t show up for his shift. The guard on the earlier shift waited past the change-over time, then went looking for the late shift guard. He knew there was a party in the club, so he rode his bicycle to the club, and sure enough, the late shift guard was there, and was in fine form, having been there for a number of hours.”
“Yes,“ said Rogers. I saw a guard there fairly early in the evening, enjoying himself.”
“Apparently, he was well primed,” continued Bundah Singh. “The early shift guard rebuked him, hustled him out of the club, and saw him off on his bicycle in the direction of the hangar. The late shift guard said that he didn’t know what happened, but he woke up in a ditch some time in the early morning, with the bicycle on top of him.”
“Hmmm,” said Rogers. “Drunk on duty. That’s a chargeable offence.”
“Quite so,” said Bundah Singh. “It seems that the hangar was unguarded for at least three hours, and that the theft occurred during that time. I’m holding the late shift guard responsible for this, and he will probably lose his job. Once again, I must apologize for this inconvenience. Has it delayed your schedule?”
“Not really,” said Greaves. “We had allowed seven days for re-assembling and testing, and as everything went better than expected, we had a little time to spare.”
As he spoke, he looked over the manager’s shoulder at a worker pushing a wheel barrow, which had a new rubber tyre and a shiny green painted hub, which Greaves recognised as the Rapide tail wheel. He sighed, and said, “We had better get on with our loading. I’ve spoken to the tower, and we’re clear to go anytime before ten o’clock.”
[_ Calcutta -- Akyab -- Rangoon, Sunday 27 August 1939. _]
The Rapide was lightly loaded, and carried only the four people, luggage, and a box of spare parts and tyres. The six drums of petrol for reserve use had not been filled, but had been placed in the crate on the left side of the aircraft, and a hinged table had been built over the top of the drums, to enable the route maps to be displayed.
Greaves and Rogers had decided that the navigator should sit on the right side of the cabin, to enable notes to be passed through the narrow opening to the cockpit. Margaret Greaves and Gordon Muir sat on the remaining seats on the right hand side of the cabin, with drums of fabric dope and engine oil tied to the floor on the left side, to balance their weight.
The pilots had discussed their proposed route on several occasions, and decided that it would be better to have a number of short stops, rather than to travel as far as possible each day. Although time consuming, they agreed that besides permitting the pilots to share flying duties, having more stops would enable them to obtain weather condition reports for the next leg, and to top up with fuel if possible.
They had taken off from Dum Dum at 9.00a.m., just as a light breeze wafted across the airfield, bringing with it the smells of early morning cooking from the primitive shelters nearby. With the engines running on full power for climbing away from the airfield, communication was impossible, and it wasn’t until they had climbed to 3000 feet over the Ganges delta that Greaves could reduce power to cruising speed, and shout to Rogers.
“She’s doing well, Harry. Revs are steady, and the oil temperature and pressure are spot on. How are things in the cabin?”
“All OK,” he replied. “Margaret looked a bit worried at first, as it’s her first flight, but she’s let go of the armrests now, so I think she’s settled in. The drift indicator shows that we’ve got wind from the south east at this altitude, so lay off about three degrees until we reach the coast near Chittagong.”
“OK. Anything on the radio?”
“Nothing useful, only chatter in Hindi. I don’t expect to hear anything until after lunch.“
They flew due east from Calcutta, over the muddy water from the Ganges spilling into the Bay of Bengal, then nearing Chittagong, they turned and followed the coastline to Akyab, which came into view in little more than an hour. Descending to get a better view, Greaves struggled to identify the airfield amongst the tropical growth, and it wasn’t until Rogers saw pieces of what appeared to be an aeroplane on the ground next to an old shed, that they recognised that the narrow cleared strip of land near the shed was the landing ground. Greaves flew a low circuit over the strip to check for obstacles, and noted the wind direction from the smoky cooking fires in the village nearby.
Their landing was bumpy, but after a few squeals from Margaret, they rolled to a stop near the old shed. Even when they had removed their cork and cotton wool ear plugs, they found that they were speaking louder than usual, and appreciated their quiet bushland surroundings.
Margaret had been told that Akyab was an established refuelling stop, but it was a few minutes before two young men appeared from the direction of the village. They spoke only Burmese, but indicated by gestures that fuel was stored in the old shed, which they unlocked, and showed Greaves a stack of large drums inside. Margaret attempted to give the men a fuel carnet issued by the British Consulate in Rangoon, written in Burmese with a copy in English, but the men refused to accept the carnet, and the situation had become tense.
“What do these people want?” fumed Greaves. “They’ve got the petrol, and we’ve got the paperwork, so what are they being difficult about? They must provide fuel for aircraft two or three times a week.”
Gordon Muir had been watching the proceedings from the side, and now stepped forward to comment. “Ye ken, Bob, some of these village people are gae fussy aboot dealin’ wi’ wummin. They say it’s bad for their position tae be seen doin’ business wi’ wummin. I’ve seen that happen in India, an’ that could be the same here. If Margaret wisnae aroond, the situation micht be different.”
“No business with women, eh?” replied Greaves. “OK then, we’ll give it a try.” Greaves took the papers from Margaret, and she sat down under a tree some distance away. The village headman smiled, and took the carnet from Greaves, gave him a delivery slip written in Burmese, and with a wave of his hand, walked away in the direction of the village.
Greaves breathed a sigh of relief. “Well done, Gordon. You got us out of a sticky situation.”
“Aye, it’s just ane o’ they things ye pick up after knockin’ aboot India for a few years,” he replied. “It’s just a matter o’ gettin’ used tae it. The people themsel are fine, once ye dae things their way.”
“Right then,” said Greaves. “We’ve got one 44 gallon drum of fuel, although God knows what’s written on this copy. It could read 400 gallons for all I know. It’s all curls and squiggles. Let’s get on with the refuelling, then get out of here.”
Using a hand pump and a chamois leather filter, they refilled each fuel tank from the drum. Gordon Muir watched as the earthing strap was connected to the undercarriage leg, and then to a metal stake pressed into the ground. He knew that by counting the number of pumping strokes, an equal amount of fuel would be delivered to each tank. He noted how a small amount of fuel was drained from each tank into a glass tube, to check that there was no water in the fuel, and he would remember these steps for a later time.
Harry Rogers took the sand shovel from their tool box, and walked down the runway, taking the top off the largest bumps and flattening the tallest grass clumps. They had spent two hours at Akyab in refuelling and having lunch, and Greaves was aware that the Rapide would require a longer take-off run in the afternoon heat.
It was Harry’s turn to fly this afternoon, and Greaves would navigate. Their plan was to follow the coast southwards from Akyab for about 250 miles, thus avoiding the Arakan mountains, and then turn eastwards across low country until they reached the mouth of the Irrawaddy river, and follow it upstream to Rangoon. Leaving Akyab, they could see clouds building up along the coastline as they flew southwards, and Harry flew at 7000 feet altitude to avoid the turbulent air below the clouds. The clouds thickened to the extent that the coastline could no longer be seen from 7000 feet, and Harry reluctantly decided to drop down through the clouds to 1000 feet, in order to check their position. The Rapide lurched and bumped as they descended, and Margaret now experienced the unpleasantness of air sickness, but recovered when they had reached the lower altitude, and made use of the cramped little toilet at the rear of the cabin.
Although they could now see the coastline, Greaves was no longer sure of their position, but had calculated that from their airspeed and elapsed time, they should be due west of Rangoon. However, if they were further north than he had estimated, they would meet the Arakan mountains if they turned eastwards now. He stood up, and held on to the cockpit doorway as he spoke to Rogers.
“Harry, I’m not sure how far down the coast we are. We should be about due west of Rangoon, but with all this cloud about, we’ve probably got a headwind which we can’t allow for. If we turn eastwards now, we could run into the mountain range, and we’d be unable to climb above it because of poor visibility. What do you think we should do?”
“The only landmark we’ve got is the coast itself,” replied Rogers. “If the cloud stays above sea level, which I think it will at this time of day, we could just follow the coast around the tip of the peninsular, and fly on until we can see Rangoon.”
“Yes, that seems like the safest option,” said Greaves. “Once we turn east, we’ll have a strong southerly wind on our right, so I’ll try and get a drift reading for you. We’re too far away to get a radio fix just yet.”
Exactly an hour after turning eastwards around the peninsula, the wide mouth of the Irrawaddy delta came into view, and they followed the river inland for twenty miles to the city of Rangoon. On each side of the river, small freighters moved slowly in the muddy stream, and hundreds of labourers toiled to load and unload the ships around the many rough warehouses on the embankments. At low altitude, the humidity of the late afternoon air pervaded the cabin, and the smell of drying fish added to the unpleasant atmosphere.
Greaves used the radio to contact the airfield control tower, for landing instructions, and was pleased to hear a British voice replying to his request. They flew low over the city, but kept a respectful distance from the golden-topped Shwedagon pagoda to the north. A little further on, the British -controlled Mingladon airfield was easily seen, and Rogers was pleased to note the buildings, hangars, and windsocks grouped near the roadway. They landed smoothly on the grass strip, and taxied to the passenger terminal, where they were met by British ground staff, and were directed to park the Rapide overnight in a fenced enclosure, ready for Customs inspection. They had hoped to refuel the Rapide before leaving the area, but were immediately directed to proceed to the Customs and Immigration offices without delay.
As the group were “aircrew in transit”, they passed quickly through Immigration and Customs, but Greaves was requested to accompany a Customs officer to the Rapide, for aircraft inspection. The officer looked briefly into the luggage locker and cabin, and was quietly amused by the cramped toilet, and wished Greaves a pleasant stay.
Leaving the airfield, the crew saw a waiting area for rickshaw carriers, with men standing about waiting to be allocated jobs. The rickshaw men were muscular youths, wearing colourful shirts and long skirts, of a style worn by all the local men, and leather sandals. Their teeth were rotten and stained red from chewing betel nut and lime, but they seemed to be happy in their tiresome work. The rickshaw men did not speak English, but their manager quickly responded to their call for three rickshaws, and spoke sufficient English to enable him to translate their request for transport to their hotel.
Their accommodation was not really a hotel, he said, but a boarding house used by many travellers. He directed the rickshaw men to take the group to a money exchange office, and then to the boarding house, which they later found to be located nearly two miles from the airfield, along the dusty road towards the city.
The crew were unsure of what to expect at the boarding house, this being their first experience of living in temporary accommodation in an Asian community. The boarding house was a large, rambling, single storey building of dark timber construction, surrounded by a mass of low trees and vines. They were shown to their rooms by the manager, and were surprised to find that their rooms were of generous size, each with two beds, table and chairs, a hanging rail, and a small window with a tattered curtain. The beds were provided with a straw filled mattress, and a single sheet, and two cotton rugs served as a floor covering. The bare timber walls provided a home for innumerable insects.
Bob and Margaret looked at each other with raised eyebrows, assessing the suitability of their accommodation. They had expected to find different types of accommodation on this trip, and they laughed together at their initial reaction to their new surroundings. Margaret squealed at the sight of large beetles scuttling across the floor, and the grey geckos stalking flies on the ceiling.
“Well, it certainly is different,” remarked Bob. “We’re really into the heart of Asia now.’
“Oh, I knew it wouldn’t be like home,’ replied Margaret, “But those beds are primitive, and those insects! They might get into our bags!”
“I’m sure they will,” said Bob. “But that’s the fun of experiencing a different country. You never know what to expect. Anyway, I’m hungry, so let’s find somewhere to eat.”
Meeting with Rogers and Muir, the crew were directed to a “café” a short distance along the road. There were a few chairs scattered outside a timber hut, and from the aroma of cooking coming from inside, the crew correctly assumed that this was the “café.” All conversation within the “café” ceased as the four foreigners entered, and sat at a vacant table, while the manager hurried across to brush insects from the table with a soiled cloth. From a pocket in his longi, the manager produced a battered card, which he placed in front of Greaves. The card was written in the curls and wriggles of Burmese writing, but an earlier traveller had written in English “bread“, “meat“, “vegetables“, alongside each group of curls and wriggles. The manager grinned and nodded, as Greaves pointed to each group of characters, and held up four fingers.
Their food was seved in chipped bowls, accompanied by a stained spoon, but it was hot and surprisingly tasty. As they were finishing their meal, a large rat ran across the floor, and Margaret squealed, much to the amusement of the customers. However, each of the crew were silent for a while, wondering about the degree of cleanliness in the kitchen at the back of the small hut. The grinning manager held up five fingers, and Greaves thrust some coloured notes into his hand, and smiled in return.
As they were leaving, Rogers asked, “Did he charge extra for the floor show?”, but Margaret was not amused.
Heavy drops of rain started to fall as the crew walked back to the boarding house, and they ran the last few yards. The rain thundered down, making speech impossible, then stopped suddenly, giving way to the sounds of thousands of insects and small animals in the adjacent bush, each clamouring to be heard in the wet undergrowth.
They spent a restless night in the close humidity of their rooms, and were up at sunrise for a quick wash in the primitive washroom, before returning to the “café” for a quick breakfast of scented rice, eggs, and coffee. Margaret managed to buy some sweet buns and four flasks of coffee, for the crew to have on their three hour flight to Songkhla, their first stop in Malaya. Only two rickshaws were available for their return to the airfield, so Greaves and Muir travelled in one, and their personal baggage in the other. Margaret and Rogers stayed behind to pay their bill, and to take some photographs, enabling Greaves and Muir to refuel the Rapide, including the six reserve drums, and to get departure clearance from Immigration and the airfield controller. They also took this opportunity to re-install the copper tubing system between the cabin and each main fuel tank.
The refuelling was nearly completed when Margaret and Rogers returned to the airfield. The overnight rain had been very heavy, and Greaves was concerned about having sufficient length of runway to enable the fully loaded Rapide to become airborne, and discussed with Rogers the possibility of reducing their load.
“We can’t shed any load, because we need everything on board for the trip,” said Rogers. “The only thing we can do is to reduce our fuel load, but it’s 400 miles from Rangoon to Bangkok, and with our nominal range of 500 miles, we’ve only got a margin of 100 miles to spare in the main tanks. That’s 20 per cent of our range, or 40 minutes flying time. Bob, I really think it would be dangerous to reduce our fuel capacity, especially as we have to cross the mountain range on the Burmese-Siamese border.”
“You’re quite right, of course,” Greaves noted. “Our safety margin using only the main tanks is minimal, so our only alternative is to change our route. I know we agreed to fly from Rangoon across the bay to Moulmein, and then straight to Bangkok, but I now think we should consider a different route. I suggest that from Moulmein, we follow the coast line generally south along the Malay peninsular, until we come to the Tavoy peninsular, which should be easy to spot as it’s the only peninsular in the area. By that time, we should have used about two-thirds of our fuel load, reducing our weight and enabling us to top up from the reserve drums, before we climb over the mountain range ,and then it’s a straight run to Bangkok. What do you think of that?”
“I’m all for it,” replied Rogers, “But we still have the problem of lifting off from the wet ground at this end. Let’s walk down the strip and see if we can find a drier area.”
They were still discussing details of the new route when a car approached, and a British airforce officer got out, and introduced himself as flying officer Peter Bradley, attached to the British Consulate in Rangoon.
“I saw your Rapide parked here as I came in the gate,” he explained. “It’s good to see a different aircraft in this part of the world. We usually only get airforce planes such as Avro’s and Wapiti’s and the like, all getting a hard life from service crews. You know, it’s a bit of a shame that we didn’t know you were coming. The adjutant usually lets us know when civilian flights are coming through. We like to see some new faces now and then, and I’m sure everybody would like to see a smart kite like this.”
“I’m sure we would have enjoyed your company,” said Greaves. “I’d like to stay over for a day, but we’re up against a tight schedule, and some of our later stops are an unknown quality. But now we’re concerned about getting off the ground. What do you think about the condition of the field?”
Bradley walked a few paces down the field, and looked at the passing clouds. “At this time of year, it usually rains around lunchtime,” he said, “So you’ve got a few hours for it to dry out before the next shower, not that it will dry very much, of course. But think about this idea. You’re not carrying much of a load by our standards, so you should move fairly quickly once you’re rolling. When we’re faced with a situation like this, we get some of the lads to drive up and down the runway in a truck a few times, which compacts the ground to some degree. They then spread a bit of sand on the wet patches, and the resulting surface is sufficient for one take-off. I can arrange this if you like.”
“That sounds like an excellent idea,” replied Greaves. “We’d really appreciate any help you could give us in getting airborne, as we’re carrying a lot of fuel.”
“No trouble at all,” replied Bradley. “It will keep the lads busy for an hour, and if the wind stays where it is, you’ll have no trouble in getting away.”
They parted company, and Bradley drove away to arrange the sand truck.
The crew returned to the comfort of the passenger lounge, away from the sun which was streaming through the broken clouds, and adding discomfort to the humid atmosphere. Greaves had advised the control tower that they would take off at 9.00 a.m., and when the truck driver waved to indicate their work was completed, the crew boarded the Rapide, and taxied to the end of the sand strip. Greaves opened the throttles wide, and they took off in a shower of wet sand, heading southwards toward the coast of Siam.
[_ Rangoon --- Bangkok, Monday 28 August 1939 _]
The head wind which had aided their take-off now acted as a resistance to their flight, and Rogers, acting as navigator, noted that their ground speed was less than their indicated airspeed, and passed a note to Greaves, who nodded and pointed to the fuel gauges, meaning that he was aware that they would use more than the normal amount of fuel, because of the headwind. Greaves climbed the Rapide to 9000 feet, in order to determine the wind velocity above the clouds, but as there was no appreciable difference in wind velocity, they descended again to 3000 feet, in order to keep the coastline in view. After two hours of flight, Margaret unwrapped the sweet buns she had bought at the “café,” and poured warm coffee for the crew.
Greaves and Rogers had established a system to enable them to change positions in flight. The Rapide was unique in having only one seating position in the cockpit, as the pilot usually did the navigation as well as flying, on the short haul routes. As the pilot’s cockpit was rather cramped, their plan involved Greaves wriggling out of the pilot’s seat, and keeping control of the Rapide’s joystick by standing to one side and reaching out with his left arm. Rogers would then squeeze between Greaves and the cabin bulkhead, climb over the back rest of the pilot’s seat, and quickly take the joystick as Greaves moved into the cabin.
These actions produced a few bumps which were felt in the cabin, but Margaret had remembered to store the coffee cups before the change of pilots. With Rogers now at the controls, Greaves calculated that they had travelled 250 miles in 2 hours, and had burnt 40 gallons of fuel. As the headwind had caused the Rapide to burn more fuel than normal, Greaves decided to transfer their reserve supply of 24 gallons into the main tanks now, while they still had comfortable flying conditions. With the assistance of Muir, they used the hand pump to transfer 12 gallons into each wing tank, and opened the sliding windows in the cockpit and the escape hatch in the roof, to reduce the strong smell of petrol within the cabin.
Arriving at Torey Point, Rogers now turned the Rapide due east, and headed towards the mountain range dimly seen through the distant haze. They passed through cloud and turbulence at 6000 feet, and saw the top of the approaching mountain range at 7500 feet. Taking the Rapide to a comfortable altitude of 9000 feet, they found there was little turbulence, and looked down upon the mountain tops as islands in a sea of clouds.
Once over the mountain range, Rogers gradually decreased altitude until the shore line of the Bight of Bankok was in sight, and let the course drift with the southerly wind, until they were near the Chao Phraya river, which led them to the city of Bangkok itself. The elaborately decorated roofs of the Buddhist pagodas shone in the afternoon sun, and they were pleased to see the landing ground to the east of the city, well away from the seething mass of people in the streets.
Greaves tried to contact the control tower by radio, but there was no reply. As the Rapide touched down on the grass airfield, Greaves noticed a red and white sports monoplane within a large hangar, and immediately thought that such a plane was probably owned by a rich businessman or perhaps royalty, as he had read that the King of Siam had a son who was an accomplished pilot. The airfield was shared with the army, but there was no sign of any military aircraft, only a Handley Page Hercules aircraft standing outside the passenger terminal. As there was plenty of ground space available adjacent the terminal building, Rogers taxied the Rapide close to the terminal building, and switched off the engines.
A man wearing a red longi and crisp white shirt hurried from the building, waving his arms frantically, and shouting in what Rogers assumed was heavily accented English. Muir opened the cabin door, and the man ran to the door and continued his wild actions, but Greaves shook his head and shrugged his shoulders, indicating that he did not understand. Placing the passenger steps in position, he stepped down from the aircraft, and was followed by Muir. The man’s diatribe continued, with Greaves and Muir standing together, and looking bewildered.
Suddenly, Muir spoke to the man in Hindi, and the effect on the man was instantaneous. He stopped shouting, lowered his arms, turned, and walked towards the building. Greaves was surprised by this sudden turn of events, and turned to Muir.
“I didn’t know that you could speak Siamese,” he said. “What did you say to him?”
“Ah canna speak Siamese,” Muir replied gruffly. “Ah spoke a few words of Hindi. Ah’m no’ sure whit Ah said, but Ah hope Ah said somethin’ like ‘get me somebody who speaks English.’ Ah’ve no idea whit a’ the arm wavin’ was aboot.”
“Well, whatever you said, it certainly achieved a result,” laughed Greaves. “Let’s wait and see what happens.”
A few minutes later, a man wearing a blue longi and white shirt came from the building and approached the group.
“Good morning, gentlemen,” he said, in clear precise English. “Welcome to Bangkok. “I’m afraid you have upset my controller by arriving unannounced. Is your radio not working?”
“The radio is working well,” declared Greaves. “I tried for some time to contact you on the correct frequency, but there was no reply.” He handed the man a chart showing various radio frequencies for different areas. “We flew over the field, looking for a green flare, but there was nothing at all.”
“Ah, yes, here is the problem,” the man said, looking at the chart. “This frequency was changed a few weeks ago, after a political disturbance, as some rebels were using the old frequency to cause trouble. I will write the new frequency for you. My name is Ha Saw, and I am the airfield manager.”
Greaves was pleased that the manager had understood the circumstances of their arrival, and relaxed his wary attitude. Having introduced all members of the crew, the meeting became light-hearted.
“You have flown here from London, England?” queried the manager. “That is a long distance in such a small aircraft.”
Greaves explained that they had not flown from London, and that their destination was Darwin, Australia, which they hoped to reach in ten days. “We’ve flown about 1000 miles since leaving Calcutta, so our plane is due for a quick service. Have you got a spare hangar which we could use overnight?”
The manager looked around. “Yes, he replied, pointing to a hangar next to the sports plane. “Take that one, but please move your aircraft quickly. The airfield is now closed, because the Prince will be flying this afternoon. That is why the control tower was not manned. The Prince flies every Wednesday afternoon, so all air traffic is grounded.”
Greaves thought of how such a rule would affect flying at Croydon, and smiled at the disruption it would cause.
“When you have moved your plane, would you kindly report to the Immigration and Customs desks, with all members of your group?”
“Certainly,” replied Greaves. “We have booked accommodation at the Black Elephant Hotel. Could you tell us where it is, please?”
“Ah, the Black Elephant,” replied the Manager. “You have chosen a hotel which will not be to you liking, I am afraid. It is for Siamese people, not for European visitors.”
He frowned. “I’m sure your wife would enjoy some feminine company, after spending many days with men only,” he said. “I have a large house, not far from here, and my wife would like to speak English with an English lady. You must all come and spend the night at my house, and enjoy our hospitality.”
Greaves started to protest, but Ha Saw held up his hand. “No, no, I insist,” he said. “It is not often we get an opportunity like this, to speak with real English people. I have it all worked out. I will telephone my wife to make arrangements for four guests, and to prepare a special dinner. It will be an honour for me to host English aviators.”
Greaves spluttered his thanks, and Margaret smiled coyly at Ha Saw. Rogers and Muir nodded at the thought of a good dinner, a decent bed, and comfortable surroundings.
Ha Saw went away to attend to the arrangements, and Rogers taxied the Rapide across the field to the spare hangar, where it took the efforts of three men to move it backwards into the hangar. They immediately started to service the engines, while Margaret and Muir attended to the paperwork necessary for the Immigration and Customs officers.
Margaret changed some money into Siamese bhats, bought food and drink at a stall
at the rear of the building, and took it to the men in the hangar. The crew were wearing their old working clothes, sitting on old oil drums, and eating their lunch, when suddenly a group of three men and three soldiers appeared at the front of the hangar. Greaves stood up as a well dressed man approached the crew.
Without introduction, the man asked, “Do you own this aircraft?”
“No,” replied Greaves. “I fly the aircraft for a British company.”
“Yes,” replied the man. “I noted that the registration was British. Will you be here for a few days?”
Greaves was now becoming cautious, and apprehensive about answering questions put by a stranger. “We are staying here overnight, and going to Alor Star tomorrow. May I ask the nature of your enquiries?”
“Certainly. Forgive me for not introducing myself, but our people prefer to keep a low profile. I am Bukit Saravane, first secretary to His Highness Prince Shinwasi, who is the tall man standing in the doorway. His Highness has not seen an aircraft of this type before, and has expressed an interest in looking at it.”
The conversation had been heard by the work crew, and they were shocked to find that they were in the presence of royalty. Without a word, they all immediately stood up.
Greaves broke their silence. “His Highness is welcome to examine our aircraft at any time, and we are honoured that he should do so.”
Bukit Saravane quickly translated this into Siamese, and moved to assist the Prince up the three steps into the sloping floor of the aircraft. The Prince was followed by other members of the royal party, and the small cabin became crowded, because of the space taken by the reserve fuel tanks. Bukit Saravane and Greaves remained at the door of the Rapide, to allow better movement of people within the cabin, and to provide weight at the rear of the aircraft, to prevent it from tipping forward onto its nose.
The Prince moved out of the cockpit and into the cabin, and spoke to Bukit Saravane, who translated the Prince’s comments into English. “His highness would like to know the performance details of the aircraft, and your opinion of how it flies.”
Greaves knew most of the performance details by heart, and guessed the details of items of which he was not sure, and this was relayed to the Prince. Greaves then commented on the plane, using his hands to demonstrate where necessary. This too, was relayed to the Prince, and Greaves then took the opportunity to bring the Prince’s attention to some of the fittings of the aircraft. He mentioned each item individually, and waited for the translation and the Prince’s comments. He mentioned the leather finished seats and arm rests, tassled curtains, carpeted floor, magazine holder on the back of each seat, individual seat lighting, cabin heating system, the toilet and wash basin behind the rear door, and the sink and drinks cabinet opposite the door. Finally, Greaves mentioned that provision could be made for a cabin steward.
The Prince nodded slowly as each item was translated and explained to him, then spoke to Bukit Seravane, who in turn directed the other members of the Royal party to leave the plane. This done, the Prince returned to the cockpit, and sat in the pilot’s seat. Bukit Seravane and Greaves stood in the cabin, adjacent the cockpit.
“His Highness would like you to demonstrate the controls,” Bukit Seravane said. “He is a good pilot.”
Greaves feined surprise at hearing this statement, and leaned through the doorway to point to each item. He noted the usual controls, then mentioned flaps, brakes, radio,and RDF equipment. In so doing, he reached forward to touch the RDF controls, and steadied himself in the cramped cockpit by touching the Prince’s shoulder.
His hand was quickly pulled away by Bukit Seravane, saying, “You must not touch the Prince!” Greaves immediately recognised that he had committed a social error, and apologised profusely. He was interrupted by the Prince, who smiled and spoke quietly to Bukit Seravane, who quickly translated to Greaves.
“His Highness says that you are a good man, and that you must be a good pilot to be in charge of such a fine aircraft. His Highness wishes to travel a short distance in your aircraft, and wishes to know if this could be arranged.”
Greaves thought quickly. He really wanted to get on with servicing the aircraft, but he could hardly refuse what amounted to a royal command. “Please tell His Highness that the aircraft is presently being serviced, but that we would be pleased to take him on a demonstration flight early tomorrow morning.”
Bukit Seravane translated this to the Prince, who smiled and nodded towards Greaves to indicate his acceptance. “Seven o’clock would be suitable,” said Bukit Seravane.
Later that afternoon, with servicing completed, the crew were driven to the house of Ha Saw, where they were introduced to Ha Saw’s wife, Ma Kham, before dressing for dinner. Margaret was quickly spirited away by Ma Kham, and wasn’t seen again until just before dinner, when she re-appeared wearing her only sleeveless dress, an iridescent creation which she had bought in Tenerife, adorned with gold trinkets, green sandals, and a ruby-studded headband, all of which she had borrowed from Ma Kham.
Greaves and Rogers were dressed in more formal outfits of long sleeved white shirts, beige trousers, and brown shoes. Muir was wearing a bright blue over-shirt, with white trousers, and new leather sandals. With his sun-tanned appearance, Rogers commented that he looked like a Malayan tea planter on holiday.
The crew enjoyed drinks in the spacious lounge room of Ha Saw’s house, under the gentle breeze from the cooling fans, before proceeding into the dining room where the long table was set for eight people. When they were seated, two children appeared at the doorway, and were invited to sit at the table by Ha Saw.
“These are our children,” said Ha Saw, “Kim Sha and Neah Palo.” The children stepped forward, bowed to the guests, and sat at the table. “Our daughter is thirteen years, and our son is ten years,” said Ma Kham. “Next year he will attend the Buddhist school for one year.”
“Oh, they are both charming,” said Margaret, “and so tall. You must be very proud of them.”
“They are learning quickly,” said Ma Kham, “but there are very few children living in this area.” She waved her hand to indicate other large houses nearby. “They must travel a long way to school each day. There is no school here that teaches English, so a servant drives them to school in another district. They do not have opportunity to mix with other children.”
Over a fine dinner, the problems of raising children were discussed, and although none of the aircrew had any knowledge of raising children, it was a revelation of the problems of child raising in the tropics. When dinner was finished, the children left the table, and the guests retired into the comfortable lounge room. Coffee was brought by the servants, and Greaves took this opportunity to mention that they had an appointment with the Prince early the next morning, for a demonstration flight.
“Mister Greaves!” Ha Saw exclaimed. “That is indeed a great honour. For a foreigner to be introduced to His Highness, and then to fly him in an aeroplane, is unheard of. Not only that, but it is an honour for me to host such a man. Your journey has brought honour to my house, and I am forever in your debt.”
Of course, Greaves insisted that the crew were proud to be of service to the royal family, and that it was Ha Saw’s good judgement that the Rapide should be placed next to Prince’s aircraft. The four men then played cards, while the ladies chatted, and servants brought drinks and nuts throughout the evening. Later, Rogers pointed to his watch, and Greaves took the hint.
“Ha Saw, this has been a most enjoyable evening for us all,” he said, “and we shall remember this evening forever. But now we must retire, as we shall be up early in the morning, and we will contact you in your office before we depart.”
After a sound sleep in luxurious surroundings, the crew were at the airfield by 6.30 a.m., to warm the Rapide’s engines and to advise the control tower of their intentions. The tower had already been advised of the Prince’s flight, and had closed the airfield until 8.00 a.m. Margaret and Muir tidied the cabin, stored the maps and other loose equipment, and draped a tarpaulin over the reserve tanks.
Just before 7.00 a.m., the royal party drove through the airfield gates, accompanied by a light truck carrying soldiers. Bukit Saravane hastened to open the car door for the Prince, and the crew bowed as he approached. Greaves explained to Bukit Saravane that the Rapide could carry only three passengers at present, because of the reserve tanks within the cabin space.
Bukit Saravane smiled and said, “His Highness noted the tanks yesterday, and mentioned that point to me. His Highness has directed that his chief of security and myself should occupy the two other seats.”
Greaves nodded, and was introduced to the chief of security, who was holding a cigarette in his left hand. Greaves explained to Bukit Saravane that it would be wise not to smoke with six tins of petrol in the cabin, and this message was relayed to the chief of security, who grudgingly stamped out his cigarette.
The royal party boarded the Rapide, crouching as they moved up the sloping floor of the aisle to their seats. Greaves checked their seat belts, handed out the cork and cotton wool earplugs, and moved forward into the cockpit. After a final radio check with the control tower, he taxied the Rapide to the well-worn strip along the centre of the airfield, and took off towards the west, away from the rising sun.
When he had settled the aircraft at 4000 feet, he asked Bukit Saravane if the Prince would like to stand in the cockpit doorway, to observe the use of some of the cockpit equipment. The Prince responded quickly to the invitation, but Bukit Saravane also had to stand near the doorway to translate Greaves’ words to the Prince.
However, this awkward situation was accomplished without too much difficulty, and Greaves managed to demonstrate the control locks for “hands off” operation, slow flying with flaps down, and flying on one engine only. As they turned back towards the airfield, Greaves demonstrated the Radio Direction Finding equipment, by noting the strength of the incoming signal from the control tower, and flying each side of the signal until the signal disappeared when the Rapide was directly above the transmitter.
Greaves sensed that Bukit Saravane was having difficulty in translating some of his words to the Prince, but he was assured that the Prince fully understood how the equipment operated. Greaves directed that the men should all return to their seats in preparation for landing, and brought the Rapide slowly into the airfield with flaps fully extended. He taxied the Rapide back to the passenger terminal, where Rogers opened the passenger door,and positioned the steps. The Prince was the first to leave the aircraft, and stood by the wingtip as the other two men descended. The three men stood talking, accompanied by much hand waving and pointing, and Bukit Saravane was writing in a small note book as Greaves left the plane, to be met by Rogers.
“How did it go, Bob?” asked Rogers. “Did you show them a trick or two?”
“Oh, I did a few gentle turns above some pagodas,” replied Greaves. “The Prince didn’t blink an eye when I switched off one engine, but I thought Saravane was going to have a heart attack, so I switched it on again quickly, and luckily it didn’t backfire, or he would have had to retire to the toilet.”
They were approached by Bukit Saravane. “The Prince wishes to thank you for the demonstration,” he said. “His Highness is pleased with the flying of the aircraft, and the comfortable features of the aircraft. He would like to fly the plane himself, but he realises that this is impossible with only one pilot’s seat.
The Prince interrupted and spoke to Seravane, who nodded to the Prince, then addressed Greaves again. “His Highness wishes to know how long it would take to make an aircraft like this, and to send it here, to Bangkok, by sea.”
Greaves was not prepared for this question, and was unsure of it’s implication. “Er, Mister Saravane, are you saying that the Prince is thinking about buying a Rapide?”
“No, Mister Greaves,” said Saravane, returning the compliment, “His Highness is not thinking about buying a Rapide. He definitely wants to buy a Rapide.”
Greaves took a deep breath, and looked at Rogers, who shrugged his shoulders, and said nothing. Greaves thought quickly, assessing the situation. He was not an aircraft salesman, and there were probably a hundred details and a small mountain of paperwork to accompany the sale of an aircraft, he thought, so I should stall for time.
“Please congratulate His Highness on his decision to purchase an aircraft of this type,” he said to Bukit Saravane. “He will find this aircraft is a delight to fly. I will contact my manager in London, later this afternoon, from Singapore, and a de Havilland representative will contact His Highness at the earliest opportunity.”
Rogers nodded earnestly. He had noted Greaves diplomatic reply, and how he had neatly side-stepped discussion of the numerous details involved with buying an aircraft.
Greaves bowed to the Prince, shook hands with Bukit Seravane, and the royal party left the airfield. Rogers and Muir taxied the Rapide to the refuelling hardstand, to enable them to fill the main and reserve tanks for the 500 mile flight along the western coast of the Gulf of Siam, to Songklha, a small sea port near the Malayan border.
[_ Bangkok --- Songkhla --- Alor Star. Monday 29 August 1939 _]
Bob and Margaret Greaves attended to some last minute details at the Immigration and Customs desks, and filed their clearance papers for the aircraft to proceed to Singapore, as there were no clearance stations at their proposed route through Songklha and Alor Star. It was nearly 9.00 a.m. when the Rapide departed, and as the weather forecast was for low level cloud across the Gulf of Siam, the crew were not surprised to encounter cloud as they climbed to their cruising altltude of 4000 feet.
“Harry, give me a course direct to Songklha,” shouted Greaves. “If we can’t follow the coastline, we’ll take a short cut across the Gulf, and descend when we think we’re in the vicinity of Songklha.”
Harry Rogers agreed with this decision, although he recognised the risks involved. If an engine failed, they would have to fly the whole route through cloud at a low level, and if they had to ditch, they would be hard to find in the vast waters of the Gulf of Siam. However, if they could find the top of the cloud layer, they could fly above the cloud in calm weather, and be able to estimate the wind direction and strength by looking down upon the cloud tops.
Rogers scribbled a course on a note pad, and handed it to Greaves. The Rapide climbed to 10,000 feet, which was Greaves “rule of thumb” ceiling for comfortable cabin conditions, as above this altitude, he had noted that the amount of oxygen in the air decreased rapidly, and breathing became more difficult. Rogers looked at the altimeter through the cockpit doorway, and shook his head. Greaves pointed his finger upwards, indicating that he would ascend further through the clouds. Suddenly, at 12,000 feet, they broke through the top of the cloud layer into bright sunshine, and Rogers immediately took a sun sighting to determine their position, while the cabin passengers commented on the wonderful cloud shapes.
Rogers was unhappy with the sun angle reading, as the aircraft’s position was becoming closer to the equator, making a small error of reading to become a big difference in the position of latitude. In order to minimise the error, Rogers removed one of the emergency escape panels in the roof, and by standing on the petrol tins in the cabin, with the top half of his body protruding through the roof opening, he managed to take three readings of the sun angle at five minute intervals, thus producing a reasonably accurate calculation of their present position.
Their longitude position was of secondary importance at this stage, because Songkhla was due south of Bangkok, and by maintaining that course, they would eventually cross a shore line. In that case, they would then fly north or south along the shore line until they identified their position, provided that the cloud didn’t extend to sea level. If Rogers could keep an accurate track of their position, with estimates of wind drift speed above the clouds, then their landfall position would be somewhere close to Songkhla.
Rogers knew that the maximum risk would be in flying at very low level below cloud from the sea towards land. The mountains along the shore line rose steeply out of the sea without warning, and if they had to fly above the wave tops to enable them to see ahead, they would have to take quick avoiding action when the mountains suddenly appeared.
They had now been flying for three hours, and Margaret distributed tea from the thermos flasks and buns from the previous day. Rogers estimated that they had used three quarters of their main fuel supply, and it would soon be necessary to pump fuel from the reserve drums into the wing tanks while they were still flying in reasonably calm weather.
“Let me do something, Harry,” said Muir. “I’ve been sitting here watching the clouds go by, while you’ve been taking readings and doing calculations for three hours. Look, it’s only 24 gallons, say half an hour’s work. No problem at all.”
The hand pumping was no problem, but the smell of petrol vapour within the cabin was very strong, even with the emergency hatch open. “Gordon, put six gallons into each tank, then have a rest for a while, “ said Harry. “That smell is making me quite dizzy, and I don’t want to make a mistake in doing these calculations. I’m sure Margaret has had enough, too.”
There was some tea remaining in the thermos, so they shared it out while waiting for the fumes to dissipate. After twenty minutes, Greaves passed a note saying that he would commence descending shortly. “Can you wait a bit until we’ve finished pumping?” shouted Rogers. Greaves replied with a “thumbs up,” and Muir re-commenced pumping with renewed energy. After fifteen minutes, Muir had completed pumping, and sealed the fuel transfer pipe, preventing the escape of fuel vapour into the cabin.
Rogers leaned into the cockpit, and gave Greaves a “thumbs up” sign, and took a slip of paper from Greaves with “A1000” written on it, indicating that Greaves wanted to descend to 1000 feet over the sea, to determine if the cloud extended to sea level. The Rapide descended through turbulent cloud with heavy bumps felt by the passengers, and they all looked for changes in cloud conditions which might enable them to see land. Although flying at 1000 feet was uncomfortable, Greaves was of the opinion that it was far better to descend early and suffer a few bumps, than to descend later and suffer one big bump by flying into the side of a mountain.
At 1000 feet, and according to Rogers’ calculations, approaching the coastline, Greaves was becoming anxious, but it wasn’t until the Rapide had descended to 500 feet that small breaks in the cloud began to appear. Then with a whoop of joy which could be heard above the engine noise, Greaves pushed the Rapide down to 300 feet, and the dark outline of a mountain range could be seen in the distance. Rogers left his seat, and explained the situation to Margaret and Muir, noting the relief with which the news was received. “The wind was stronger than I thought,” said Rogers, pointing to some lakes which could be seen below. “That’s Lake Thala Luang, which is about forty miles north of Songkhla. Now that we can see the shore line, we’ll follow the shore to Songkhla.”
Songkhla was a small seaport, with ships tied up at the long wharf, and two ships waiting outside the harbour entrance. It was essentially a commercial port, with warehouses scattered around, two cranes, and a railway line running north-south. There were no hotels, but three large single storey wooden buildings with iron roofs appeared to be communial meeting places. The short airstrip to the north of the town worried Greaves, and he flew a circuit over the field at low level, to get a better view of the field, and to scare away the single cow which had strayed onto the field. There was no windsock, but the usual smoke from the village provided adequate indication of wind direction.
Greaves let the Rapide descend slowly, and as it bumped along the uneven surface of the field, he felt tired, as if he had flown fourteen hours, not four hours. The padlocked iron shed at the end of the field could only be the fuel storage shed, he thought, so he taxied the Rapide close to the shed, and switched off the engines. The crew were all glad to get out and stretch their legs, and as the tinkling sound of the hot engines cooling down broke the silence of the airfield, Muir spoke for all of them, when he remarked “Man, but this is awfu’ hot. I thocht yon Bangkok wis hot, but this is terrible.”
A man appeared, walking along the roadway, accompanied by a small boy and a dog. He introduced himself in broken English as the “field master,” and after examining Greaves’ fuel carnet, which had been stamped in Bangkok, he unlocked the door of the fuel shed and pointed to the fuel drums, marked “Avgas 100”. Greaves signed for two drums (88 gallons) and Muir proceeded to fill each wing tank, leaving about one third of a drum unused.
“What about the six cabin drums?” asked Muir. “We’ve got enough to fill three drums.”
“Not this time, Gordon, replied Rogers. “I’m flying the next leg, and with this short bumpy field, the high temperature, and those mountains not far away, I want to keep the weight down, and to get every bit of lift we can. We’re only going to the other side of the peninsular, to Alor Star, which is about eighty miles away, but the mountain range which we have to cross over is 7000 feet high, so we have to climb quickly to clear the tops.”
Margaret had bought two bottles of water and a bag of what she thought were meat balls wrapped in vegetable leaves from the boy, and paid him five bhat, which was the price he indicated by holding up five fingers. She was glad to receive this meagre offering, as there were no other vendors to be seen. Greaves and Rogers had now rested for an hour, and after a quick inspection of the Rapide, the crew boarded, and Rogers taxied the aircraft to the end of the runway. Turning into the wind, he held the brakes on, applied full throttle, and with the engines screaming, the Rapide quickly accelerated forward, clearing the trees at the end of the field by a narrow margin.
“Nicely done, Harry,” commented Bob Greaves. “You’ve been practicing that.”
“No, it’s those lousy fields in the north of Scotland that have shaken the devil out of me,” replied Rogers. “Those Scots lairds are too tight-fisted to set aside a bit of land for a good field, or to spend a shilling to have the grass cut.”
Greaves smiled at the reply, as it was too difficult to maintain conversation above the engine noise. He scribbled a note, and handed it to Rogers.
“Railway line approaching from west crosses mountains. Suggest following if possible.”
Rogers nodded acknowledgement. Shortly after, a railway line came into view, snaking its way around the mountain sides, and passed through a convenient gap in the mountains which fortunately had very little cloud. They climbed to 8000 feet without difficulty, and watched as the railway line twisted and turned its way down the mountainside, towards the sea port of Alor Star. Descending quickly to 3000 feet when they had cleared the mountains, they saw the coast ahead, and the small island of Alor Star just off the coast.
Approaching the island, the airfield was easily seen from above, being a well-cleared area adjacent a sports field, with a warehouse and smaller buildings nearby. This was indeed a pleasant surprise after the inadequacies of Songkhla, thought Rogers, as he noted a wind sock at each end of the field. He had positioned the Rapide into final approach, engines at quarter throttle, flaps down, and had crossed the end of the field when an open truck with several men in the back appeared from between two buildings, and crossed the field, unaware of the approaching aircraft.
The engines backfired in protest as Rogers slammed the throttles forward too quickly, and frantically wound up the flaps. The noise of the backfire alerted the truck driver and passengers, and Rogers swore as he struggled to lift the Rapide clear of the truck. The truck drived stared open-mouthed at the approaching aircraft, but Rogers couldn’t hear the screams of the men in the back of the truck. The Rapide passed above the truck with only a few feet to spare, and Greaves, who couldn’t see the near-disaster from the navigator’s position, wondered why Rogers had aborted the landing.
He unfastened his seat belt, and leaned forward into the cockpit as the Rapide climbed steeply. Without turning his head, Rogers knew Greaves was there, and pointed to the truck as he turned the Rapide sharply over the end of the field. Greaves immediately knew what had happened, and gasped. He looked at Rogers, now ashen-faced but clearly very angry, and Rogers made a circular motion with his finger, indicating that he would go around again for a second attempt.
However, in contrast to his signalled intention to Greaves, Rogers flew down the length of the field at very low altitude, as he said later, “to clear the field of any more damn fool truck drivers.” He then executed a text -book approach, landed gracefully, and taxied to a building which had two large glass windows, with “Alor Star” painted above.
Now that the engines were silent, Rogers made a lot of noise himself, giving his voluble opinion on truck drivers, lazy Malayan workers, and their lack of ancestry. Greaves and Rogers left the Rapide quickly, hoping to rebuke the truck driver, but the only sign of the truck was a cloud of dust moving down the road.
Greaves thought quickly, and took the arm of an agitated Rogers. “If this is a refuelling stop, there must be somebody in charge, so let’s go and file an incident report.” Leaving Margaret and Muir, they walked to the building with large glass windows, and Greaves asked the desk clerk, who appeared to be a local Malay, for the airfield manager. The desk clerk could not speak English, so Greaves produced his British passport with a large Union flag on the inside cover. This action produced the required effect, as the clerk mumbled something and disappeared behind a wooden screen, reappearing a minute later followed by a chubby bald man wearing strong glasses, and wiping his mouth with a serviette.
“Good afternoon, gentlemen,” said the chubby man. “Can I be of assistance to you?”
“You’re damn right you can,” said Rogers, anxious to tell his story of the landing incident.
“Some fool in a truck….”
“Just a minute, Harry,” interrupted Greaves. “Let’s settle down a bit. Let me have a few words.” Greaves addressed the manager. “Good morning sir. I assume that you are the airfield manager?”
“I am indeed,” replied the chubby man. “I am Singrit Natani, airfield manager. Have you just arrived by aeroplane?”
“Yes, we landed just a few minutes ago. We……..”
“Please produce your passports, visas, health certificates, and aircraft clearance certificates,” said the manager. “You have flown your aircraft twice over my field at very low level, and I am most displeased with this display of careless flying. You British people think that you can enter a country and do what you like. We have rules which must be obeyed by everybody!”
This was all too much for Rogers, who pushed in front of Greaves, and shouted at the manager. “Stuff your certificates! We were nearly killed because one of your truck drivers crossed the field just as we were landing. You know as well as I do that vehicles must give way to all aircraft traffic at all times. Your stupid bloody truck driver came straight across the field without looking, and nearly caused the death of four people, plus the men in the truck. There is absolutely no excuse for this action. Don’t talk to me about rules. It is your responsibility as airfield manager to instruct your people about airfield safety, and it is your responsibility to ensure that the safety rules are followed!”
“Well done, Harry. I couldn’t have put it better myself,” said Greaves, turning to the manager. “My co-pilot has described to you the reason why we are here. He is understandably most upset about nearly being killed by the careless action of your airfield staff. I fully support all that he has just said, and add that never in all my years of flying have I seen a more blatant disregard of airfield safety. My co-pilot made a return sweep over the airfield to ensure that there were no more vehicles attempting to cross while our aircraft was landing, an action which I consider to be a very wise move. Under the International Rules for Aircraft Safety, I am obliged to submit a report on this incident, which I will do shortly.
A pretty Malay girl came from behind the wooden screen, carrying a large tray bearing the remains of a meal, and walked further into the building.
The manager was silent for a minute, then said slowly, “I did not see any truck. You are making an excuse for your careless flying.”
Rogers took a deep breath, and was about to give another outburst, but Greaves put a hand on his shoulder, and said, “Mister Natani, I see that you have just finished your lunch, which you enjoyed in the company of the young lady who has just left your office. I put it to you, Mister Natani, that you had no reason to be looking out of your office window while you were eating your lunch in the presence of the young lady. Of course you didn’t see a truck. You were entertaining a young lady, which you are entitled to do in your postion as airfield manager.”
Natani was silent. He understood the logic in this statement, and it offered him a way out of this difficult situation. If he hadn’t seen the truck, then it was only the word of the pilot against the word of an unknown truck driver, but he had a good idea of whose truck it might have been.
Greaves continued. “Mister Natani, we will submit our papers to the Customs and Immigration officers immediately. We will tie down our aircraft near the refuelling hardstand, and would appreciate the services of your refuelling officer immediately. I will give him the refuelling carnet when the work is completed. Our aircraft will depart at 9.00a.m. tomorrow morning.”
Natani nodded, and retired behind the wooden screen. Greaves took this action to indicate that the discussion had finished, and took Rogers arm and hastened out of the building.
“Phew! He was a nasty piece of work,” said Rogers. “He seemed to enjoy bullying foreigners, but didn’t like it when you gave him a piece of his own medicine. How did you know he had just had lunch?”
“I didn’t,” replied Greaves. “I just guessed. However, I think we should be very careful in what we do around here. Let’s get the Customs and Immigration people sorted out, and the Rapide refuelled while it’s still light.
At the aircraft, Greaves recounted the incident with the manager to Margaret and to Gordon Muir. “I’ve got a bad feeling about this place,” he said. “Tonight, we’ll all sleep in the aircraft, and be out of here well before 9 o’clock tomorrow morning. The sun gets up at 5.30, and so will we.”
With refuelling completed, including the six reserve drums, Greaves, Margaret and Rogers took a taxi to the town centre, leaving Gordon Muir to watch over the aircraft, which had been tied down near the hardstand, but facing in a southerly direction at Muir’s insistance.
The trio had a quick dinner at a restaurant on the waterfront, and bought a large bowl of curry, nan bread, fruit, and four bottles of water to take away. Returning to the aircraft, they could see the Rapide standing in the moonlight, with the cabin door clearly in view. Muir was sitting on a petrol drum, trying to read an English language newspaper by the moonlight. He welcomed the hot food and drink, and reported that everything was quiet. He had built a small tower of petrol drums under the rear of the aircraft, in order to lessen the slope of the floor when they were sleeping. ‘It’s no’ brilliant, but it’ll be an improvement,” he commented.
“This floor’s going to be very hard to sleep on,” remarked Margaret. I think we should empty our suitcases onto the floor, to make a bed, or we’ll all be very stiff in the morning.”
“Right, let’s do that,” said Greaves, “but I suggest we don’t use the aircraft’s toilet. Just take the shovel from the luggage locker, and go into the bush over there.”
“Ah’ll go first, an’ check the area,” said Muir. He returned about ten minutes later, with a wry grin on his face. “The bushes are guid,” he said, “but it’s also a rubbish dump. Ah’ve brocht these old tins along, an’ Ah think they micht be useful’ tae us.”
“Old tins?” queried Rogers. “What on earth would we do with old tins?”
“They’re just the thing tae gie a wee surprise tae onyone who happens tae be wanderin’ aboot in the dark. A wee trick Ah learned aboot when we wis bothered by bandits in the Sudan.”
Muir waited until everybody had completed their trip to the bushes, and took the spare roll of aerial wire from the spares box. He made four columns of old tins, and placed two columns on each side of the Rapide, near the wing tips. He filled the bottom tin on each column with earth, and tied one end of the aerial wire to the upper tin in each column, pulling the wire tightly between each pair of columns, so that if the wire was disturbed, the empty tin would fall on to the hardstand, and make a noise. Muir then placed one drum of petrol on each side of the Rapide, with the lids unscrewed, and attached the hand pump to the outlet on the drum nearest the cabin doorway.
Inside the Rapide, the three remaining seats had been unbolted from the floor, to create room for three people to lie down. The crew emptied their suitcases onto the floor, to make a soft surface for sleeping, and managed to make three sleeping spaces down the right side of the floor. They would take turns to sit on the floor, keeping watch, and Muir volunteered to take the first watch, saying that he would wake Margaret at midnight.
The trio settled down for the night on their makeshift beds, and Muir opened the cabin door, and sat outside. Working by moonlight, he cut a hole in the bottom of a small tin using his pocket knife, and fitted it over the nozzle of the petrol pump, near the grip. Then taking a pencil from his pocket, he broke it in half, carved one piece into a D shape, and rammed it into the nozzle outlet. He screwed the petrol hose into the petrol drum, and pumped the handpiece a few times until a fine stream of petrol sprayed onto the concrete near the warning wire, and returned inside the cabin, leaving the door ajar.
It was nearly midnight when Muir heard softly spoken voices outside the aircraft. Waking Rogers, he signalled him to remain quiet, and gently opened the cabin door as Rogers staggered into position behind him, shovel in hand. Muir was down the steps and close to the petrol drum when one of the intruders saw him, and moved forward. The sound of the empty tin hitting the concrete seemed very loud, and was followed by an exclamation by an intruder. The intruders stopped, trying to identify the source of the sound, and as an intruder moved away, the noise seemed to follow him. Muir gave two strokes of the petrol pump, and applied his cigarette lighter to the nozzle.
The result was amazing. Not only did the pump discharge a fine stream of burning petrol in the direction of the intruder, but it set fire to the petrol on the concrete, where Muir had tried the pump earlier. The nearest intruder was standing between the two lines of fire, screaming, and the other was running away. The fire quickly consumed the spilt fuel, and the intruder leaped over the remaining flames and ran away, howling like a dog.
“We’ll no’ see those buggers agin the nicht,” growled Muir. “Let’s get rid o’ the evidence afore there are questions asked. Jam those drums under the tail like the others, and I’ll hide the pump in the spares box.”
Greaves had woken just as the last frightened intruder ran away, and came to the cabin door. “What’s going on? Who’s yelling? What’s that smell?”
“It’s OK, Bob,“ said Rogers. “We’ve got the situation under control. We had two unwanted visitors here, but Gordon’s early warning system had them beat. Then Gordon produced a flame thrower, and set their world on fire. It was a great show.”
“A what? A flame thrower? Here?” exclaimed Greaves.
“Gordon made one from bits and pieces from the dump. It works very well. It scared the wits out of the intruders, and me, too.” Rogers beamed, and Muir wiped his hands on an oily rag.
“Good God!” gasped Greaves. “We’ll all be in gaol by morning. They’ll keep us locked up for weeks!”
“No, no,” interrupted Muir. “Thon bandits won’t be sayin’ onythin’ aboot this. They’ll be watchin’ their ane backsides, because they havnae done the job they wiz sent tae dae.
If onybody asks, there wiz some petrol spilt on the groond, an’ it wiz ma cigarette butt that started it off”.
Greaves gave a long sigh. “Well then, let’s pretend that nothing happened, and hope that all goes well. I’ll take the next watch.”
But Greaves didn’t take the next watch. Margaret insisted that as she was now wide awake, the least she could do was to keep watch. Greaves reluctantly agreed to this, and returned to his pile of clothing on the floor. Yesterday had been a long day, and tonight’s activities had added to his concerns.
At about four o’clock, Margaret was sitting in the rear corner, sucking on a large mango seed to keep awake, when she heard a squeaking, chattering noise outside. Seeing nothing through the side windows, she turned on the cabin lights from the switch above the doorway, and turned to the windows again, when two small monkey faces appeared at the window. She screamed.
Muir was the first to react. “Whit is it? Where are they?” he shouted, lurching barefoot towards the cabin door.
“It…..it’s allright, I think. It’s just monkeys,” she said in a small voice. Muir looked through the window, where the reflected light from the cabin showed two small monkeys gripping on the the engine support framework, and chattering to each other. Even the dour Muir could see the funny side of this situation, and opening the cabin door, he waved his fist at the two jesters. “Get awa, ye wee monkeys,“ he shouted, and they scurried away.
Greaves and Rogers were well awake by this time, and laughed as Margaret told of her fright. “But mind you,” said Greaves, always the careful one, “if they had jumped on the wing covering, their claws could have torn it, and we would have to patch the holes before we could leave.”
They agreed that it was a strong possibility, and that they should look at the covering before leaving, just to be sure.
“Well, there’s no point in trying to sleep now, said Greaves, “so let’s pack up this rubbish, have a quick bite, and get out of here before there’s any more trouble.”
By 5.30 a.m., it was light enough to see the end of the field, so they inspected the fabric covering, and finding no tears, drank the last of the tea in the thermos flasks, and took off on their 500 mile flight to Singapore.
[_ Alor Star --- Kuala Lumpur --- Singapore, Wednesday 30 August 1939 _]
“It’s a great day to be flying,” remarked Rogers, as he looked at the sea fog below. “Just follow the coastline until you run out of land, turn left, and there you are. The further away we are from Alor Star, the happier I’ll be.”
This was shouted to Bob Greaves over the noise of the engines, and he smiled at the fast-receding memory of their last stop. Less than two hours flight to Kuala Lumpur, and a hot shower, a change of clothes, and a good feed before the next 250 miles to Singapore. The only thing that concerned him at the moment was the sea fog, which was common in the Malacca Straits, and a nuisance to mariners. Flying above the fog was pleasant, but they couldn’t plot their position accurately, or use the drift gauge to check wind direction and velocity.
They wouldn’t dare to fly beneath the fog, as it usually extended down to sea level, and blind flying at sea level could lead to very wet feet. Their only assistance would come from their new Direction Finding Radio device, and after one and a half hours flying, Greaves passed a note to Rogers: KL 90 deg east? DFR?
Rogers was a step ahead of this request, as he had been watching the DFR needle for ten minutes. He scribbled a note to Greaves: KL 92 east by DFR Possible light headwind.
Rogers now contacted the Kuala Lumpur control tower, and advised of their position. The controller advised that conditions at the airfield were fine, but the westerly approach was restricted by sea fog, which would probably lift in an hour or two. He cursed quietly to himself. In two hours they would be out of fuel, and would have to land somewhere. Their options were to either to turn inland at high altitude, above Kuala Lumpur, and wait until they could see the airfield, or proceed to Malacca, where there was a landing ground and fuel, and hope that the sea fog had cleared by that time, or to press on to Singapore, and hope that the small amount of fuel remaining in two of the reserve drums would be sufficient to enable them to reach Singapore.
Rogers wrote all of this in simplified form on a note to Greaves. A few minutes later,Greaves returned a note, reading: Going down for a look. Rogers knew this was a risky move, and told the others to keep a lookout for a break in the fog. Muir took a pair of binoculars, and lay on top of the reserve fuel drums, looking down through a window on the left of the aircraft.
Greaves took the Rapide down to 1000 feet, but there was no break in the fog. He signalled for Rogers to stand behind him and look through the windscreen, and took the Rapide down to 300 feet. At this level, patchy breaks were beginning to appear in the fog, and Rogers was about to comment on this, when there was a wild yell from Muir.
“A ship! A ship! Ah saw a ship, but it was gaein’ the wrong way!
“The wrong way?” yelled Rogers. “Which way?”
“Tae the left, east,” yelled Muir.
Rogers thought quickly. If the ship was going to the east, then it must have been going into a port. Good. If we can follow the ship, we’re safe. He yelled at Greaves to make a climbing turn to the left, and held tightly to the reserve fuel cradle as the turn was completed. A minute later, they made a steep turn to the right, following the wake of a freighter. Greaves lowered the flaps, reducing the airspeed to 80 miles per hour, endeavouring to keep the freighter in sight, and realised that they must be in the Swettenham Channel, leading to Kuala Lumpur.
The sea fog gradually disappeared as they flew upstream, following the channel, quickly dispersing with the ground heat now trapped below the cloud mass. Greaves climbed again to 1500 feet, and immediately saw a flat land area surrounded by buildings, with a
few light aircraft parked at one end of the field. “These Asian airfields are not much to look at,” he thought, “but at least it’s somewhere to land safely. It’s only 7.30 a.m., and we’re halfway through our day’s flying schedule.”
The easterly wind did present a problem, however, as the airfield ran north-south in order to clear some hills. He wound on some left rudder trim, and adjusted the aileron trim to compensate for the wind approaching from the left. Giving his position to the Kuala Lumpur controller, he was directed to hold his position north of the airfield until a large aircraft had cleared the field, and he noted a Handley Page 42 biplane climbing away over the mudflats. He was cleared to land soon after, and upon touching down, he was relieved to find a “Follow Me” car waiting to guide him through the maze of landing strips.
Greaves taxied the Rapide to the refuelling area. Muir filled the main tanks and reserve drums, and after parking the aircraft in holding area, the crew caught a lift in a truck to the terminal building, where an Armstrong Whitworth “Atalanta” aircraft was standing outside. The building was a large rambling single storey timber structure, with a large sign above the doorway: “Simpang Airfield. Kuala Lumpur Flying Club.”
The flying club building was in marked contrast to the facilities at Alor Star, and the crew were pleased to use the showers and to enjoy a large breakfast, after their early morning start. Rogers sat next to a local pilot in the crowded canteen, and commented on the airfield.
“I’m flying the Atalanta today, just a quick trip down the coast to deliver mail and freight,” said the pilot. We’ve got a good load, and we’ll need every bit of the runway to get airborne. We used to fly from the polo field on the other side of the river until recently. It was a much bigger field, but the local Sultan kicked us off, because he said that the aircraft frightened his ponies. What a waste of a good field.”
As everybody now appeared to be well rested, Greaves decided to finish the day with an easy 200 mile flight to Singapore, where aircraft servicing facilities and accommodation had been arranged. Clearance for departure at ten o’clock was obtained, but they were delayed for a few minutes while the Atalanta took a long take off run, and headed south towards Singapore, with the Rapide following soon after.
Rogers was flying this short leg, and positioned the Rapide between the railway line and the coast, at a steady 4000 feet. Ahead, he could see clouds starting to build up, and considered which options he had to maintain comfortable flying conditions. As it was only a short leg, there was no point in climbing above the heavy cumulus clouds, as they could extend to a great height. “Better to get under it if I can,” he thought. “As long as I stay west of the railway line, I’m OK.”
The first rain squall came after only fifteen minutes of flight, and continued for half an hour. The railway line had become lost to view in the downpour, and it was impossible to determine their position with any certainty. The Rapide felt the full impact of each wind gust, and Margaret was beginning to doubt the wisdom of having such a large breakfast. However, Rogers had maintained the original heading as best he could, and as the squall lessened and died, he was pleased to see that they were still over water, and he could see a port which probably was Malacca in the far eastern direction.
“That’s good,” he thought. “Not too far off course, and only 120 miles to Singapore, less than two hours run.” He thought about their original flight plan, which was to run down the eastern coast of the peninsular from Songkhla to Singapore. “With these squalls,” he thought,”we would have been pushed up against the mountains, a very scary business.”
But the squalls returned with renewed energy, and the Rapide rocked with their ferocity. They were again flying blind, with Greaves checking their estimated position every few minutes, and hoping to sight an identifiable point to determine their position. After half an hour, he scribbled a note to Rogers: “estimate lat 1.5 degrees N”, and received a note in return: “OK. Will turn east at A1000. Need RDF.”
“This is really flying by guess and by God,” thought Rogers, but he brightened when several ships appeared through the rain, and he knew they were in the vicinity of the Singapore shipping channel. The RDF meter showed that they were a bit south of course, but he wouldn’t bother Greaves with that detail just yet. He requested a position check from Singapore control tower, and a little later he could see numerous ships crowding the waterways, with cranes busy loading and unloading ships at the wharf.
Rogers knew that the airfield was at the eastern end of the island, and requested permission to land. This was granted, with the advice that the airfield “may be a bit soggy at the northern end.” Rogers did a fly-over to check the field, but as there was so much water lying on the field, he sought Greaves’ opinion. They decided that one track was as good as any other, and landed the Rapide gently on the wet grass, Rogers being careful not to use the brakes too early, which could cause a skid. The wheels sent up a spray of water, slowing quickly on the wet grass, and Rogers held the nose up to prevent tipping forward. Keeping a straight line in this situation was impossible, but as there was plenty of room to manoeuvre on the field, Rogers let the aircraft find its own track in the mud.
But their luck had run out. The track led to a large mud hole a short distance away, and the Rapide spun sharply to the right and stopped, with the right hand wheel bogged in the mud. Greaves was the first person at the doorway, and placed the boarding steps in position outside the door, but as the Rapide was leaning heavily to the right, there was a considerable gap between the floor of the aircraft and the top step. However, by sitting on the floor of the aircraft, he managed to wriggle down and place his feet on the top step, but as he put his weight onto the steps, they toppled sideways into the mud, and Greaves collapsed into the mud pool on his hands and knees.
Muir stood in the doorway watching Greaves wallow about in the mud. “Whit are ye daen’ doon there, laddie?” he growled. “Huv ye lost a shillin‘?” Turning to Margaret and Rogers, he added, “Ye’ve got tae see this. Here’s oor leader at mornin’ prayer, wearin’ his Sunday best.” Margaret, Rogers and Muir crowded the doorway, and added their ribald comments to Greaves’ predicament, although it was difficult to see what clothes he was wearing, under his generous coating of mud.
“Blast and damn!” declared Greaves, as he attempted to regain a footing. Steadying himself against the lower wing of the Rapide, and swearing quietly to himself, he looked up pleadingly at the crew, gathered around the cabin doorway. Muir and Rogers took off their shoes and rolled up their trouser legs, leaving Margaret to attend to her dress as appropriate. They dropped from the Rapide into the sea of mud, and helped the very wet Greaves to his feet. He was not amused by his predicament, and was worried about the Rapide, as the right wingtip was now close to being immersed in mud.
“We’ll need to get some help to get us out of this mess,” said Rogers. “Bob, you should stay here with Margaret. There’s no point in you trying to move around in that condition. Gordon and I will walk to the manager’s office, and try to arrange something.”
It was nearly 500 yards to the terminal building, and they wiped their bare feet on the mat in the foyer as they entered. After finding their way to the manager’s office, they briefly explained their situation to the female clerk, who looked at their muddy condition. and directed them to sit on the rattan chairs, not the upholstered chairs, and went to find the manager.
A tall, thin, Englishman introduced himself as Bernard Thorne. “I believe you fellows have got a Rapide parked in the middle of the field,” he said without smiling.
“Yes, it’s bogged,” replied Rogers. “I’m Harry Rogers, second pilot, and this is Gordon Muir, our mechanic.” Muir suppressed a smile at his sudden elevation in status, and wondered if he should be put on the payroll. “I’m not impressed by the condition of the field,” continued Rogers. “It’s not only that it’s covered with water, but there’s a bloody great bog hole in what otherwise would be a nice straight run up to the terminal, and our aircraft is stuck in it. Surely your controller must know whether or not the field is suitable for landing. There’s a big difference between being “a bit wet” as he said, and rendering the field inoperable because of a bog hole. Our plane could have been damaged if we had hit that bog hole at high speed.”
“You could see water on the field, but you chose to land your aircraft,” said Thorne. “Surely the result of your action is your responsibility.”
“Mister Thorne.” said Rogers, starting to become irritated. “We were hardly in a position where we could step out and measure the depth of water. The controller cleared us to land, and indicated that the field was wet at the northern end. He didn’t say anything about the middle of the field, and from the air we could see that there was water over the entire field. We had approval to land, so we did, but we ran into a soggy patch and stopped. We were lucky not to have nosed over. The controller should have directed us to land on some higher ground, and now we’ve got all this trouble because of the condition of the field. I am not complaining about water on the field, but I am complaining about the bog hole, which represents an unsafe surface for landing, and that is clearly your responsibility.”
“Hmmm, yes, we must look into that,” said the manager. “But the sooner your plane is off the field the better. I don’t know what the controller will do about landing other aircraft.”
“That’s his problem,” declared Rogers sharply. “As far as I’m concerned, the controller got us into this problem, and the field clearly has inadequate drainage, and that’s what I’ll put in my incident report. Now, what can you do about removing our aircraft?”
Thorne’s attitude softened at the mention of an incident report. “The controller has already contacted me and advised that you may require assistance,” said the manager, and watched as relief spread over Rogers’ face. “Our maintenance people will send a tractor and equipment out shortly. You realise, of course, the moving your aircraft will be undertaken entirely at your risk and cost?”
“Oh, is that so?” said Rogers. “Let me remind you, Mister Thorne, that there are a number of items which I could emphasize in my report, should I find it necessary.
One. The controller should have been aware of any part of the airfield which was unsuitable or unsafe for aircraft movements. Apparently, nobody has told the controller of the true condition of the field. Two. Consequently, the controller failed to advise our aircraft of the unsafe area of the field. Three. You, the manager, are responsible for maintaining the field in a safe and useable condition. Your regular inspection, if there was any, should have revealed that the airfield has inadequate drainage, and an uneven and unstable surface, and remedial action should have been undertaken. This situation appears to have been present for some time, yet you have allowed the field to remain in use, while in an unsafe condition. Is that sufficient, Mister Thorne? I suggest that you don’t worsen the situation by pressing for towing costs. I will wait for your maintenance crew at the aircraft.”
With that, Rogers and Muir walked out of the office, much to the relief of the clerk, who set about wiping mud from the rattan chairs and polished flooring. Walking back across the field, they arrived at the Rapide at the same time as the maintenance crew, with their tractor and trailer.
The maintenance foreman, a strong Malay who spoke a little English, looked briefly at the bogged aircraft and barked brisk orders to his crew. Two long planks were slid under the belly of the aircraft, and the bucket of the tractor placed under the front end of the planks. As the tractor moved slowly forward, the whole front end of the aircraft was lifted clear of the mud, with the tail resting on the ground. The crew brought bundles of dried grass and rattan mats from the trailer, which were placed under each wheel.
A strong rope was attached to the towing eye on the bottom of the fuselage, below the pilot’s seat, and the aircraft slowly lowered down on to the grass mats. With the tractor now in front of the aircraft, the large tractor wheels bit into the mud and slowly pulled the Rapide forward, with Margaret sitting in the doorway to provide some tail weight. The aircraft moved forward about ten yards, then the mats were pulled up, and replaced in front of the aircraft again, and this process was repeated four times, until the aircraft was resting on solid ground.
Rogers wanted to taxi the aircraft to the refuelling bay hardstand, but the foreman insisted, by using many hand signs, that he would tow the Rapide to the hardstand, and Rogers agreed.
With the towing completed, Rogers gave the foreman some money, and indicated that it was to be shared among the crew, and with smiles all around, the crew departed.
Rogers and Muir commenced refuelling the Rapide, and as Greaves was in no condition to assist, he and Margaret went into the terminal building to telephone the de Havilland representative. Their mud-splattered clothes looked greatly out of place amongst the well-dressed people in the terminal, and having made the telephone call, they were sitting near the telephone box when they were approached by a well-dressed business man. The man looked at the bare-footed mud splattered man sitting next to a woman in a crumpled dress, and turned away. Looking around him, but seeing nobody in the vicinity, he approached the couple and said, “Excuse me, but are you Mister Greaves?”
“Certainly, sir, I’m Bob Greaves, and you must be Mister Farrington from de Havilland?”
“Neville Farrington. I’m pleased to meet you.”
“This is my wife, Margaret, who is our administration officer.”
“I’m pleased to meet you, Mister Farrington.” said Margaret. “Please forgive our appearances, as we’ve run into a little difficulty with our aircraft this afternoon.”
“Yes,“ said Greaves, “Our aircraft became bogged on the field, and we had to seek assistance from the manager, who provided a tractor and some men to pull us out. We got a bit muddy in the process.”
“You’ve certainly got a good coating there,” replied Farrington. “Now, call me Neville. But we can’t stand around here chatting all afternoon. Let me take you to your hotel, where you can clean up, and we’ll have a spot of lunch.”
“That’s very good of you, Neville,” replied Greaves, “but our other two crew members will have finished refuelling by this time, and they will be wanting lunch. Could you take all of us?”
“Of course, of course, no trouble at all. I’m driving a Morris six, so I can take four passengers comfortably, although if you don’t mind, I’ll put a couple of rugs on the seats to protect the upholstery.”
“Yes, of course,” replied Greaves. “It’s a long story, but I’ll tell you about it over lunch.”
Farrington was authorised to drive on to the airfield, so Rogers and Muir were surprised when the black Morris drove on to the airfield, and stopped near the mud spattered Rapide. After being introduced to the crew, Farrington looked at the Rapide, and said,”That’s a very interesting colour scheme you’ve got there. I didn’t know we were producing a two-toned speckled colour scheme like that. Very well done it is, too. Underside of the wings, fuselage, over the registration letters. Very thorough, I’m sure.”
Rogers smiled at the joke. “Oh, it didn’t take very long to apply the speckles, just a few seconds, really.”
Farrington appreciated the dry humour, and added, “Well, seeing that the aircraft really belongs to the Australian customer, we’d better keep it in good condition, so I’ll include thorough cleaning with my instructions to the maintenance crew who will be doing the service, which Jamieson has requested we provide for you. Are there any particular items which we should look at during the service, as well as the usual maintenance?”
“Nothing, really,” replied Greaves, “although we’ve heard that the Gipsy Six mark 2 engines can be a bit fussy with valve settings, so if you could have those checked, it would be appreciated, as this is our last service for 2300 miles.”
Rogers spoke up. “I think that some of the radio frequencies we have been given may be out of date, so a list of current frequencies would be of great help.”
“Be assured that those items will be attended to,” said Farrington, as they walked to the car. “But we’d better get going now, as I’m sure you want to clean up. I’ve booked you in at the Royal Hotel, in Orchard Road. The city is about ten miles from the airfield, so you’ll see some countryside as we drive in.”
Farrington was as good as his word. While the crew were showering and finding clean clothes, he had arranged for the Rapide to undergo a full service the following day, which fitted in nicely with the rest day that Greaves had included in their travel schedule. After a late lunch, Farrington left the group to their own devices, saying only that he would meet them in two day’s time, before they left on their 600 mile flight to Batavia. The remainder of the afternoon was spent in sleeping, as everybody was tired after the early morning start, the flight through the fog from Alor Star, the extraction of the Rapide from the bog hole, and the effects of a good lunch. Later, Margaret bundled their muddy clothes and sent them to the hotel laundry, to be cleaned while the crew were enjoying the comforts of the hotel pool.
As evening approached, the city became alive with brightly coloured signs, roadside stalls selling carved wooden animals, jewellery, and tasty snacks. The warm, still night encouraged the aromas of ginger and spices to waft through the narrow streets of the market area, and the crew mingled with the crowd of Malays, Indians, and Siamese surging into the numerous small cafés offering tempting delights. They had decided to forgo the starched formality of the hotel dining room, and as they stood looking in a café window displaying samples of popular dishes, they were quickly hustled inside by a spruiker, and shown to a recently vacated table.
An English language menu was produced, and the crew tried to picture the various dishes listed, and to relate them to the samples shown in the window.
“I really don’t know what to choose,” said Margaret. “It all looks so nice in the window. I’ve never heard of some of these meats and vegetables. But let’s splash out tonight. We haven’t been living in hotels for some nights, so we can afford to be a bit reckless for once.”
“Yes, we seem to be doing all right here,” remarked Rogers. “This spread is fit for a king!”
Greaves froze in horror. “Ye Gods!” he exclaimed. “A king! I’ve completely forgotten about the aircraft for Prince Shinwasi. Harry, we’ll have to make a list of the Prince’s requirements first thing in the morning, and give it to Farrington.”
“Certainly,” agreed Rogers. “I must admit that I hadn’t given it a thought. Anyway, let’s enjoy this lot now, and we’ll sort it out in the morning.”
Their huge meal was supported by locally made beer, with Malay spirits for Muir. After the third course had been eaten, his broad Scottish accent had become noticeably blurred, and his reactions slower.
“Yon spirit fair creeps up on ye,” he declared, “but it’s no match for the highland brew.” Greaves and Rogers were supporting him as they left the café, and returned to the hotel.
They passed a newspaper stand outside the hotel, and Rogers saw the headline “Poland Threatened” on the hoarding. Buying a newspaper, he tucked it under his arm as he and Greaves manoeuvred the unsteady Muir up the stairs and into the hotel. They mumbled a greeting to the concierge as they entered, with Muir singing quietly to himself.
It wasn’t until after they had put Muir to bed that Rogers had a chance to read the newspaper. He was in Greaves’ room, and exclaimed in a shocked voice, “Good Lord, Bob, look at this! This could mean trouble!”
Greaves looked over his shoulder, and quickly read the main points of the news item. “It’s trouble all right. If this goes any further, the sparks will really fly.”
“What is it, Bob? What’s the matter?” asked Margaret as she entered the room. “What sparks?”
“That bloody Hitler is threatening to invade Poland,” said Greaves. “He’s already marched into Austria and Czechoslovakia, and now he says that Germany has an “historic claim” on most of Poland. It makes Neville Chamberlain’s claim of “peace in our time” seem worthless.”
“There could be something in this report,” declared Rogers. “I read somewhere that the government has been distributing thousands of gas masks to warehouses around London, and making preparation to relocate thousands of children from London to the countryside. Something is definitely brewing, and I don’t like the smell. Britain has a strong defence agreement with Poland, and we could become involved in all of this.”
Margaret sat heavily into a lounge chair, and looked very worried. “Bob, if the worst comes to the worst, what can we do? We’re on the other side of the world from all of this. Our flat in London might be damaged, and our parents and Harry’s parents are still in London. They could be in danger from bombing.”
Nobody spoke for a while, each person privately assessing the situation. Finally, Greaves broke the silence. “It’s just a possibility at present. There’s no point in getting anxious about it at this stage. We’ve got a job to do, and that means getting the Rapide to Australia in one piece. When we’ve done that, we may well find that this disturbance has blown over, and we can head back home again with money in our pockets. Now, I’m tired, and I’d like to go to bed.”
Muir woke before six the next morning, and slowly came to realise that there was something unusual about the manner in which he had gone to sleep. He was sharing a room with Harry Rogers, as usual, but his shirt and trousers were on the far side of the room, neatly folded on a chair, and his small suitcase was under his bed, next to his shoes. He sat on the edge of the bed, trying to recall the circumstances that had led to this outbreak of neatness. Unable to recall anything other than being in a café the previous evening, he staggered down the corridor to the toilet, where he further contemplated his scattered remembrances of the previous evening’s events.
Having concluded that he must have been drinking, and that somebody, presumably Rogers, had assisted him in getting to bed, he made his unsteady way back to his room, where he noticed a newspaper on the table, and being disinclined to get dressed just then, sat down to read the paper.
Rogers was woken by a loud “Booger me!” and realised that Muir was up and about. “Whit’s the matter wi’ this bloody givvernment,” shouted Muir. “Dae they no’ ken whit they’re lettin’ themselves in fur? It’s 1914 a’ ower agin.”
Rogers was now well and truly awake. “Keep it down, keep it down, man,” he said. “This is our rest day. Let people sleep. It’s too hot to get excited.”
“But look at this!” cried Muir, waving the paper. “The wurruld has gone mad, again. They’ll be at each other’s throats in a few days, an’ there’ll be bombin’ an’ food rationin’ an’ sojers everywhere. Chamberlain wis supposed tae put an end tae a’ this!”
“Yes, yes,” replied Rogers, “But it’s only a possibility at present. I’m sure it will all blow over in a week. But don’t mention this to Margaret. She got quite upset when we read this last night.”
Over a light breakfast, the crew discussed what they could recall of Prince Shinwasi’s instructions regarding his order for a new aircraft. They weren’t due to meet Farrington until dinner, but Greaves thought they couldn’t afford to waste a day before informing Farrington of the order. He jotted down a few notes, and rang Farrington when his office opened at eight o’clock.
“Prince who? How do you spell that? Siamese royalty?” Farrington had some difficulty in comprehending that the crew had been in contact with the Siamese royal household, and that the Prince had been a passenger in their aircraft. He was speechless when Greaves told him that the Prince wanted to buy a Rapide with all the optional trimmings, and could Farrington please contact the Prince’s first secretary to discuss delivery?
“You chaps seem to have done very well indeed,” said Farrington. “Head office will be pleased to hear about this one. We don’t get a chance to sell an aircraft to royalty every day, although I can’t claim to have initiated the sale in this case. I’m sure head office will let you have some commission on the sale price, so you’ll be able to celebrate in style.”
“It didn’t really take much selling,” replied Greaves. The Rapide just sold itself. Actually, I don’t know if the Prince is licenced to fly twin engined aircraft, but that’s his problem.”
“Right. There’s a weekly Hercules flight to Bangkok every Friday, so I’ll personally go and chat to the first secretary. I always feel that the personal touch goes down well with the upper class. Now, back to your aircraft for a moment. The maintenance people have told me that your aircraft will be ready this afternoon. They looked at the valves late yesterday, and found them all OK, but said that the straining wires and control wires could do with tightening, and they’ll do that today. I’d like to meet you at your hotel early tomorrow morning, to give you the servicing papers, radio schedules, and drive you to the airport. As you’ll be leaving Malayan airspace, I’ll steer you through Immigration and Customs, to ensure there are no delays. You’ll have a long flight tomorrow, with headwind all the way, so I’ll join you for breakfast at six o’clock.”
Thus relieved of their responsibilities for the day, the crew were free to wander around the city, and to enjoy the sights and shops. Bob and Margaret took a taxi to the botanic gardens, and were amazed at the variety of tropical plants and birds which thrived in the lush undergrowth. They mentally compared the plants with the simple garden surrounding their flat in London, and thought that the warm and moist tropical climate of Singapore was far superior to the ever-changing English climate. Returning to their hotel in mid-afternoon, they slept, then swam in the pool, enjoying their last touch of luxury for a few days.
Rogers and Muir bought some small items at a market, near the eastern end of Orchard Road, and seeing a small parkland, they were about to walk across the park when they were stopped by a notice: “Restricted Area. Access to Military Personnel Only.” Rogers was puzzled by the notice. “A restricted area in the middle of a public park? That’s a funny damn thing.“ Turning away from the notice, they saw two smartly dressed soldiers approaching, and Rogers decided to find out more about the restricted area.
Rogers hailed the soldiers as they approached. “ ’Morning, gents. We’re visitors to Singapore, and we’re a bit surprised to find a restricted area in this parkland. Could you tell us what it’s all about?”
The soldiers looked at one another, and the sergeant asked “Where are you from?”
“London,” replied Rogers, “and my friend is from Glasgow.”
“Are you tourists?”
“No. We’re part of a crew delivering an aeroplane to Australia. This is our rest day, so we’re having a look around.”
“Well, don’t look too much around here,” said the sergeant, brusquely. “This is an army signals area, a restricted area, just like the sign says.”
“Oh, is it?” said Muir casually. “I canna see ony army buildings aroond here.”
“They’re all underground, away from prying eyes, like yours,” said the sergeant sharply.
“I suggest that you move away.”
Rogers and Muir quickly realised they were not welcome in the park, and moved towards the exit. Muir was in need of a refreshment after their encounter, and the pair found solace in a small bar, where they ordered local beer. The barman was friendly, and they asked him about the restricted area in the park.
“Yes, it’s a signals station all right,” said the barman. “It’s linked to other signal stations at the northern end of the peninsula, and to the big guns overlooking the channel. Oh yes, Singapore is well defended.”
Moving on from the bar, they sat in a picture theatre for a while, and enjoyed a western movie before returning to the hotel to sleep. The tropical climate was pleasantly relaxing for the crew, and when they met late in the afternoon, they again decided to have dinner in a small café, and to return early in the evening to pack their freshly laundered clothes, and to prepare for an early start next morning.
Farrington arrived promptly at six the next morning, and they enjoyed a large breakfast. He handed over all the necessary paperwork, and mentioned that the maintenance and hangar charges would be settled by de Havilland.
“One more thing,” added Farrington. “I’ve been in touch with the palace in Bangkok, and confirmed that I will meet with them on Friday. Now, as a thank you for your involvement in procuring this sale, your hotel bill will be settled by de Havilland Singapore. It’s the least we can do.”
Greaves thanked Farrington on behalf of the crew, and sent Muir and Margaret to buy food and tea for their flight to Batavia, while he and Rogers discussed their proposed route with Farrington. The crew were then driven to the airfield by Farrington, who again guided them through the Customs and Immigration formalities.
Rogers lodged their flight plan at the flight control desk, together with the aircraft clearance papers. “Yes, these are fine,” said the desk clerk. “I see on your entry card that there’s an airfield service fee to be paid. Your aircraft must be the Rapide that was bogged yesterday afternoon.”
“Yes, that was our aircraft,” agreed Rogers, “but we had agreed with the manager that there was to be no charge.“
“No, the manager has signed the service fee card himself,” replied the desk clerk. “You could check with him, but he is not present this morning.”
Rogers realised that there was nothing to be gained by further discussion, which would only upset their schedule. “How much is the fee?” he asked.
“All up, your total cost is two thousand six hundred and fifty ringgits, or ten pounds and eighteen shillings in British currency, to be paid in cash, please.”
Rogers turned pale. He didn’t have that amount of money with him, and it was far more than he expected. “Er, are you sure that’s correct?” he asked. “It seems quite a lot for two hours work.”
The clerk examined the bill. “Hmm. Hire of tractor, trailer, and driver, use of grass matting and packing, towing and lifting equipment, hire of labourers. Yes, the amount is correct. Payment must be received before the tower will clear the aircraft.”
Rogers walked despondently across to the Immigration desk, where the others had just completed their documentation, and explained to Greaves that the airfield service fee had to be paid in cash prior to take off.
“Seems a bit strange,” said Greaves. “I would have thought they would have invoiced the company as they do for landing fees. Anyway, Margaret is the only person with any folding money, so get it from her.”
Rogers received the money, paid the desk clerk, got a receipt written on a plain receipt form, and rejoined the group. The Rapide was parked near the refuelling bay, some distance away, so they loaded their luggage on to a parcel trolley, and said goodbye to Farrington, who insisted that they call on him during their return trip.
Walking along the perimeter road to the Rapide, Greaves suddenly stopped. “We’ve been got at!” he cried. “It’s a swindle! The aircraft bogging affair was a stunt. I know what they’ve done. The tower has let us believe that the field is OK to land on, so we chose the most convenient track, and got bogged. We had to hire a tractor and some men, because we had no alternative. They could charge us whatever they liked for the services fee, and wouldn’t clear the aircraft until they were paid, in cash. They gave you a receipt, but it was on plain paper, which could have been issued anywhere, so there is no record of any transaction at the airfield. Yes, the tower controller and the flight desk controller have got a nice little racket going there, and there’s not a damn thing we can do about it.”
The crew saw the logic in Greaves outburst, and each expressed their opinion of the situation in uncomplimentary terms. However, Margaret saw a brighter side of the situation. “There’s one good point. We didn’t have to pay our hotel bill, so we‘re not too badly off.”
Disappointed with this turn of events, they loaded their luggage into the Rapide‘s locker, and tossed a coin to see who would fly the first leg of their five hour flight to Batavia. Greaves won the toss, and immediately went into the cockpit, leaving Rogers and Muir to carry out the usual pre-flight checks. At ten o’clock, they were waiting for take-off clearance when a large four-engine biplane landed, and taxied towards the terminal.
“Bob, look at the de Havilland 86 that’s just touched down. The registration letters are “VH”. I haven’t seen those letters before.”
“Nor have I,” replied Greaves, “but I think it’s our first Australian registered plane, probably just arrived from down under.”
“Look at the company name,“ said Rogers. “QANTAS”. “Most unusual. Must be an Australian native name or something.”
“No, it’s an acronym for something, but I’ve forgotten what. Probably something quite straightforward, like “Quick And Nifty To Anywhere Sunny”, or something like that. I read somewhere that the Aussies have got the concession to fly between Australia and Singapore, where they’ll meet up with Imperial Airways for the flight to London, or with KLM for the flight to Amsterdam.”
“Well, they’ve tied up another loose end of the world’s air transport system, so good luck to them,” declared Rogers. “I hope it’s successful for them.”
The tower radioed permission to take off soon after, and after a long run to avoid muddy patches, they lifted off, and set course for Batavia.
[_ Singapore --- Batavia, Friday 01 September 1939 _]
“We’re lucky today,” declared Greaves. “An easy route. A predictable twenty miles per hour head wind, not too much cloud, head 155 degrees until we meet the entrance to Bangka Strait, change pilots, keep on 155 degrees over established landmarks, and we’ll bump into Batavia. Piece of cake.”
“Less of the ‘bump into’ bit, please,“ replied Rogers, shouting above the engine noise. “I’ll be flying the last leg, remember, and it’ll be a bit breezy over the strait. There could be a lot of wind to blow us all over the place. I’ll try to get a weather report on the radio.”
“I’ve been thinking about our pilot change-over routine,” said Greaves. “We were a bit shakey last time, so here’s what I suggest. Trim the aircraft slightly nose down, then get the book that Margaret’s reading and jam it between the dashboard and the control yoke. That should hold the plane steady while we change over.”
“Or better still,” said Rogers with a smile, “jam two cushions between the control yoke and the back of the seat, and we can play cards while the plane flies itself!”
Rogers shuffled some papers on the navigation table. “I’ve checked our fuel consumption for the previous legs, and allowing for headwinds, we’ve used nineteen gallons per hour, so at our cruising speed of 140 miles per hour, we can remain airborne for five and a half hours, before we get wet. With our reserve fuel capacity of twenty four gallons, we have a range of 770 miles, which is a safe margin over our route distance of 600 miles.”
“Sounds fine,” said Greaves, “but look at those high level clouds. They look as if they’re blowing more southerly than north west. We could actually have a tail wind if we climb high enough, so let’s get going and have a free ride while we can.”
Greaves was correct regarding the tail wind, although it was difficult to estimate the effect of the wind on their distance travelled, as the wind at sea level was blowing in the opposite direction. However, they passed over Singhep island after only 42 minutes, and Rogers passed a note to Greaves that they had a tail wind of about 30 miles per hour.
Later, following the Bangka channel, the high level clouds disappeared, and the tailwind became turbulent as the wind changed direction to the expected headwind. Greaves dropped to 4000 feet, where he thought the wind speed would be much the same as at the higher level, but the view would be more interesting. He could feel the changes in the aircraft trim, as Margaret and Muir often changed position from each side of the aircraft to look at the dense jungle below, and noted the occasional river winding it’s way to the sea. He thought it would be a very nasty place to have engine failure.
Three hours of flying brought them to the southern end of Bangka island, and Greaves signalled Rogers that it was time to change pilots. Margaret’s book was suitably jammed between the dashboard and the control yoke, and the two pilots quickly changed position with little difficulty. Greaves felt that he had earned a cup of tea, so Margaret issued tea and sandwiches all around.
Rogers passed a note to Greaves saying that as the headwind seemed to be variable, he was going to follow the eastern coast of Sumatra island to the southern tip, to accurately determine their position, then turn due east to Batavia, on the coast of Java Island. After considering the additional distance to be travelled, and noting that they had sufficient fuel, Greaves signalled his approval with a “thumbs up.”
Rogers had just settled into the pilot’s seat when he saw an aircraft ahead and slightly below the Rapide. “Ha!” he exclaimed. “There’s a Fokker 18 ahead of us, probably the one I saw at Singapore. He’ll need every bit of power he can crank out of those three engines, if he expects to get home before dark. He probably took off well before us, and has been battling the headwind ever since.”
They were quickly overtaking the Fokker, and Greaves was thinking in practical terms about the load carrying capacity of such a plane. “Think of all the fuel that could be carried in that thick wing,” he said. “It must have a very long range.”
He had no sooner spoken, when they saw a large puff of black smoke appear from the Fokker’s centre engine. “Oh God, he’s lost an engine!“ Rogers exclaimed.
Greaves leapt up from the navigator’s table, and stood behind Rogers, eyes fixed on the drama unfolding ahead. Greaves spoke softly, willing the Fokker pilot to control the situation. “Come on, man. Nose down, blow the smoke away. Dive if you must.” and then to Rogers. “Harry! Full throttle now! He probably doesn’t know we’re behind him, so pull up beside him and we’ll give him a wave. We can’t do anything for him, except let him know he’s not alone.”
The Rapide quickly overtook the struggling Fokker, and Rogers positioned the Rapide level with the Fokker, and to it’s right. They couldn’t see the face of the Fokker pilot, as the cockpit was hidden by smoke from the damaged engine, which was now stationary. However, as the smoke lessened, they could see a hand waving at the window, which assured the Rapide crew that their presence had been acknowledged.
“Thank God he’s seen us,“ said Rogers. “He must have got the fright of his life when the engine packed up, and another fright when we suddenly appeared from nowhere”.
“I think he’ll settle down a bit now,” said Greaves. “Harry, give us a position about half a mile ahead of the Fokker, and drop to about 2000 feet. Waggle the wings as you pass him, and he might get the message to follow behind. He won’t want to navigate and fly in that condition, so we’ll lead him back to the small airfield at Palembang, and hope that he can see sufficiently to land there. I’ll give you a course to follow.”
Greaves returned to the navigator’s table, and quickly plotted a course from their present estimated position. He passed a note to Rogers: 270 deg, 80 miles. As they turned on to the new heading, the crew watched anxiously as the heavily loaded Fokker lurched through the turn, losing too much altitude, following the Rapide. Rogers had now slowed the Rapide to a speed matching the Fokker, but was having difficulty in maintaining stable flight.
“I’ll try ten degrees of flap,” shouted Rogers. Winding down the flaps, the crew could feel the immediate effect on the aircraft, as it became increasingly more stable until it returned to smooth flight, and Greaves silently thanked the designers at de Havilland for providing this feature.
The Fokker had settled in some distance behind the Rapide, but had lost altitude in making the turn, and Greaves imagined the difficulty the pilot was experiencing in trying to gain more altitude. With the wind direction now from the tail, the aircraft no longer had the benefit of the wind speed passing over the front of the wings, generating additional lift, and the aircraft had to generate forward speed by use of the engines alone. The Fokker now had only two-thirds of its normal engine power, and was struggling to maintain a reasonable height.
After half an hour, Rogers could see the sparkle of a river ahead, and increased the speed of the Rapide to pull ahead of the Fokker, in order to determine the location of the airfield at Palembang. Fortunately, the airfield was located on one of the river flats, and appeared to be of reasonable size. Rogers tried the radio, but there was no reply, and he suspected that the control tower people had gone to lunch.
Greaves could see Rogers frustration at being unable to contact the control tower before the arrival of the Fokker, and decided that the only way to attract attention in this situation was to rely on an old-fashioned method. Rummaging around in the tool box, he found the emergency Verey pistol, and loaded it with a red flare. He returned to the cockpit, and waving the pistol in front of Rogers, he shouted, “Do a low run over the field.”
Rogers obliged, and passed over the field at 200 feet, while Greaves opened the cockpit side window, and discharged the red flare at the control tower. The flare descended in an arc, and lay on the grass a few metres in front of the control tower, disgorging a great volume of red smoke. Rogers turned the Rapide back over the field again, and the crew could see activity on the field, with men running to a red painted shed, and more people leaving the adjacent building. The Fokker was now approaching at low altitude, still smoking badly, its wings wobbling as the pilot tried to keep the aircraft level. Rogers turned away from the airfield, giving the Fokker pilot as much room as possible to manoeuvre his slow aircraft.
The Fokker approached into the wind, and cleared the low bushes at the end of the airfield at minimum height. The aircraft seemed to hover above the landing strip, then collapsed on to the grass, as the undercarriage took the weight of the heavy aircraft. The fire truck was already moving towards the smoking aircraft, as it lay with one wing resting on the grass, the broken undercarriage now jammed beneath the wing.
Having seen the aircraft safely down, Rogers now pointed the Rapide on a 135 degree course, until Greaves could work out a more accurate course for a direct route to Batavia. The crew clustered around the cockpit curtain, each feeling thankful that the Fokker had managed to reach Palembang without mishap. “I was so frightened,” said Margaret. “I thought that poor man was going to crash into the jungle, never to be seen again.”
“Ah wis worrit that the plane would catch fire, an’ burn the poor booger, an’ we couldn’a dae a damn thing aboot it,” declared Muir. “It wid be a terrible way tae go.”
“It was a risky business all right,” said Greaves, “but all’s well that ends well. Now, let’s pump a bit of fuel into the tanks, or we’ll be kissing the tree tops too.”
Muir readied the aircraft for fuel transfer from the reserve drums, and pumped solidly while Greaves worked out an accurate course for Batavia, which he gave to Rogers as 148 degrees, allowing two degrees for the easterly wind. The country over which they were now travelling appeared to be jungle, crossed by several large rivers, reinforcing Margaret’s view that an aircraft going down in that area may never be seen again. With the smell of petrol vapour gradually lessening in the cabin, they crossed the coast, knowing that they were less than 100 miles from Batavia.
Another forty five minutes brought them over a vast area of thousands of timber houses, which extended over the countryside for as far as the eye could see. The Radio Direction Finder indicated a signal from a position near some small hills to the east of the city, and turning onto this course, they saw an open area some distance ahead, and two concrete runways shimmering through the late afternoon haze.
“Well, look at this!” declared Rogers. “The first concrete strips we’ve seen since Croydon. They must have a lot of traffic here to warrant concrete strips. Even Singapore hasn’t got concrete, and I thought that was a busy field.”
“It’s certainly a welcome sight,” said Greaves, “but I think the concrete is more for necessity than just a luxury feature. The Dutch must be landing some rather heavy aircraft here, and a grass field would take a fair pounding. Remember the Fokker at Palembang? I thought that plane was going to dig up the turf as it landed. But I think the main reason for using concrete here is because the field is rather low lying, and with the water run-off from those hills, it would become soggy very quickly during the monsoon. Singapore would do well to follow this example of how to maintain an airfield under all conditions.”
Rogers’ request for permission to land was answered in heavily accented English, and they touched down on the crowded airfield, and taxied towards the refuelling bay. “Ha!” exclaimed Rogers, pointing to a bulky aircraft at the side of the terminal. “That’s a Fokker 18 over there, and a KLM DC 3 flying Amsterdam to Batavia. That’s the first Fokker I’ve seen up close. The wing must be three feet thick at the main spar, and look at those three big radial engines. That plane could lift an elephant!”
“With all that fuel in the wing tanks, they could probably fly around the world non-stop,” chirped Rogers. “I suppose somebody might do that some day. It might take weeks of flying.”
“I can’t see the point of it,” replied Greaves. “You’d have to carry a lot of food, and have at least three pilots, lots of navigational check points, and a big toilet. Besides, you’d never get off the ground with all that fuel.”
Rogers took up the challenge. “Well, you could invent a system of refuelling in mid-air, with one plane flying on top of another, and a long hose between them.”
Greaves smiled. “I think that would be very dangerous. Just don’t ask me to fly with you when you try it.”
They waited until the refuelling bay became vacant, and left Muir to undertake refuelling of the Rapide with Greaves as supervisor, to ensure that the procedure was carried out correctly. With this completed, they taxied the Rapide into the allocated place on the apron, and the crew tumbled out, glad to stretch their legs after the long flight. Greaves was unsure of the weather forecast, and directed Muir to tie down the Rapide, and again supervised his actions.
“This is all good practice for your fuel handler’s ticket,” said Greaves, pulling on an anchor rope. “By the time we get to Darwin, you’ll be ready to get your Ground Operations Certificate, a very useful qualification.”
“Aye,” said Muir. “A Jack o’ all trades, an’ master o’ nane.”
“No, no. Don’t sell yourself short, Gordon,” advised Greaves. “You’ve got many skills to your name, and with the right ticket, you’ll always get a job somewhere.”
The crew carried their luggage into the terminal, and proceeded to the immigration desk, where Margaret handed over the crews’ papers. The Dutch immigration officer was having difficulty understanding Margaret’s British accent, and they were making slow progress, until a female voice behind them interrupted their interview.
“Madam, could I help with the language?”
A tall fair haired girl, wearing the blue and silver uniform of KLM aircrew, had spoken to Margaret, who turned towards the girl, and saw the confident smile of a person well used to assisting people in difficult situations.
“I speak their language, and I think I know where is the difficulty,” said the girl softly.
“Oh, yes please,” replied Margaret. “That would be very kind of you. There seems to be a problem with our visas. We have copies of our visas in Dutch, but I think that the officer is confused about something. If you could please explain to the officer that our visas were issued to us in London, that may help the situation.”
The young woman then spoke to the immigration officer, who nodded, and pointed to Greaves’ passport, then to the visa written in Dutch. A conversation between the two then followed, leaving the crew puzzled as to what was being discussed. The remaining three passports and visas were then opened, and placed on the desk, with further conversation between the two. The immigration officer finally nodded, and gathering up all the passports and visas, walked away from the desk. The young woman turned and spoke to Margaret, her lilting voice and sparkling eyes indicating a successful conclusion.
“The officer says that there is the irregularity on the passports and visas, and this he has shown to me. The birthdates on the passports and English language visas correspond, but the birthdates on the Dutch language passports are different. This happens on three visas only, as the papers for Mister Muir are correct. I have seen that the visas written in Dutch language were issued by the office of the Netherlands consulate in London, and I think is here the problem. In the Netherlands, we write the month first, then the date, but in English, the date is written first, then the month. This I have discussed with the officer, but he is now to speak with his superior. You must wait here until he returns.”
A feeling of relief swept through the crew. “Phew!,” said Greaves. I thought it was something serious.”
“Ach, Ah thocht Ah wid be visitin’ ye in gaol,” laughed Muir.
“That was wonderful!,” said Margaret to the young woman. “You were so clever to notice that small difference. Thank you so much for your help.”
Rogers said nothing. He was still stunned by the presence of the attractive young woman, his mouth moving slowly, but without sound.
“We are aircrew in transit,” said Greaves to the young woman. “My name is Bob Greaves, and this is my wife, Margaret. Introducing the others, he said, “This gentleman is our second pilot, Harry Rogers, and this gentleman is our rigger, Gordon Muir. We are very pleased that you have been able to explain our situation to the officer.”
With a smile, Rogers turned to face the girl, and in so doing, knocked over his flight bag, spilling charts and pencils onto the floor. The girl took the opportunity of this interruption to introduce herself. “My name is Marian Botha, and I am air hostess with KLM . My aircraft arrived today earlier. I am very pleased to meet you all. Have you got sleeping for tonight?”
“Yes, thank you,” replied Rogers, finally finding the courage to speak, and intrigued by the distorted English. “We have booked accommodation in one of the transit houses, somewhere near the airfield.”
“Oh, our crew are also in transit house,” replied Marian, smiling at him. At that point, the Immigration officer returned, and spoke briefly to Marian, before handing back the passports and visas to the crew, with a brief “All is OK.” The Customs officer didn’t bother to look at the small amount of hand luggage they were carrying, and waved them through.
Rogers’ brain was in a whirl. He had actually spoken to this fair goddess, and she had smiled. “You must walk with me to the transit houses,” said Marian. “They are over there, beside the palm trees.”
Leaving the terminal, the crew walked towards a group of raised wooden houses gathered under some tall palms, and set within a neat garden area, heavily planted with tropical flowers and colourful bushes. Rogers fell into step beside Marian, and tried to engage her in conversation.
“You are very lucky to have such a wonderful job, visiting places such as this, but I suppose you don’t get much of a chance to go shopping or sight-seeing on overnight stops,” he said.
“Oh, I get used to it,” replied Marian. “but it is not an easy job. Sometimes the passengers require many things, and the noise of the engines makes it difficult for me to speak to them. In Dutch I hear and speak well, but in English or French I find it difficult to follow. Also, the movement of the plane makes it difficult to serve drinks, and I am always spilling things.”
“Yes, I can understand that,” replied Rogers, “but speaking of food, where is the canteen?’
“Cantin? I do not know that word. What does it mean?”
“Canteen. The café. The restaurant. The brasserie. The bistro. They all have the same meaning.”
“Oh, that is big problem with the language English,” said Marian. “There are so many words which are meaning the same.”
“Don’t you worry about the English language,” laughed Rogers. “Your English is quite good enough for anybody to understand,” and they exchanged smiles.
“But there is no cantin here,” said Marian. “We are far from the city, so each cabin has a houseboy, to cook food and to attend to the fire, and to heat water.”
Rogers thought quickly. He wasn’t going to pass up an opportunity to get to know this pretty girl better, and searched his mind for a suitable excuse to extend their meeting.
“That’s a shame,” he replied. “I’ve been travelling with my crew for nearly a month, and I’d really like to talk to someone else about different things, instead of just talking with my crew about aeroplanes and flying. It would be nice if we could have dinner together somewhere, in some quiet little place, with some nice food and some gentle music.”
“Oh, that would be nice, Harry, but my crew always stay together. I have arranged to meet a friend from the DC-3 you saw at the terminal. We always meet when our flights cross at Batavia or Singapore.”
Rogers felt deflated. Of course, a bright and pretty girl like Marian would have lots of men keen to entertain her, he thought. He was a fool not to have thought of it before. Damn. She probably knew every flight captain at every stop-over between here and Amsterdam, and he, a miserable second officer, would stand no chance.
“Yes,” Marian continued, “our flights usually cross once each week. She is also a hostess, and we met at training school two years ago. She is engaged to a flight captain, but they cannot be married until the question of military service is settled.”
Rogers’ heart missed a beat. She? The friend is female! Engaged! This was his lucky day! They were now approaching the row of cabins. It was now or never.
“My crew are in cabin number two,” said Marian. You are in cabin number six, at the end.”
“Er, Marian, do any of your crew members speak English?” Rogers asked.
“Yes, we all speak a little English,” replied Marian. “But not as much as I do. Why do you ask?”
“Well, er, I thought perhaps we could all join together after dinner for a few drinks, and perhaps have a game of cards, and a few laughs,” said Rogers carefully. “Perhaps your crew mates would come too.”
“That could be done,” replied Marian. “I will talk to the captain to see if it would be suitable. But we must not be too late, as we are returning to Singapore in the morning.”
By this time, Greaves, Margaret, and Muir had caught up with Rogers and Marian, and Rogers explained that he had invited the Dutch crew to a social evening in cabin number six, sometime after dinner.
“Good idea,” declared Greaves. “We might have a few language difficulties though. Still, if we can all squeeze in to cabin six, I’m sure we can make it work.”
Marian said goodbye, and the crew were greeted by the houseboy at cabin six, which was really a complete house, with three bedrooms, a large common room, opening onto a timber patio, and a kitchen, laundry, and bathroom. Rogers had difficulty explaining to the houseboy that more people would be arriving for a party later, but after being assured that the extra people would not be requiring food, the houseboy settled into his established routine.
The arrival of night was heralded by the chirping of innumerable insects and bush creatures, which reached a crescendo, then settled into a steady hum, accentuating the scents of the still evening air. The house boy from cabin two arrived with a note saying that the Dutch crew would be pleased to visit cabin six, and promptly at eight o’clock they arrived, with sticky toffees and bottles of Bols gin. The houseboy had produced some pancakes, which, when topped with the cheese from the Dutch crew, made a pleasant addition to the bowls of peanuts and fruit on the tables.
After introductions, including Marian’s friend Greta from the DC-3, the party got underway, with lots of hilarious misunderstandings in language, and humorous anecdotes which had to be explained in both languages. The supply of Bols fell rapidly, and was supplemented by a large bottle of Scotch whisky produced by Muir, although Rogers had no idea where he had bought it. The three women managed to separate themselves from the men, and chatted amongst themselves, while the men played poker with a mixture of Dutch, British, and Malayan coins. Later, Muir discovered a record player and a few records in a corner of the room, and managed to get it going. Rogers quickly approached Marian and asked her to dance, before the Dutch crew realised that the record player was working. He was strangely confident that she would be keen to dance with him, and they moved gracefully across the floor. Bob and Margaret Greaves were good dancers, and even Gordon Muir managed to ask Greta for a dance.
As the evening progressed, Margaret noticed that Rogers and Marian were missing, and later found them outside on the decking, standing closely together.
The effects of the alcohol were starting to show, and as both crews were flying the next day, a halt was called at eleven o’clock, and after boisterous farewells, the Dutch crew returned to cabin two. Marian volunteered to walk with Greta to the administration building, where she was staying in a small flat, and Rogers offered to accompany them.
The trio walked slowly to the administration building, and Greta took her leave, smiling and saying something in Dutch to Marian as she went inside. Rogers took Marian’s arm, and they walked slowly down the roadway to the cabins under the trees, enjoying the warm scented air of the tropical night. They stood closely together outside cabin number two, and kissed in the darkness. Harry Rogers realized that the girl from Koninklijke Luchvaart Maatschappij had won his heart.
[_ Batavia --- Rembang --- Surabaya --- Waingapu. Saturday 02 September, 1939 _]
“You know,” said Greaves, wiping chicken curry from his chin, “I had planned to make our next stop at Surabaya, but as the weather seems so good, and we and the Rapide are holding together pretty well, I think we should over-fly Surabaya, and proceed to Waingapu, on Sumba island. It’s about 630 miles, or about five hours continuous flying, so what do you all think about that?”
They were enjoying a good breakfast cooked by the houseboy, and they felt the benefit of some spicy food after the party on the previous night. Rogers had been strangely quiet so far this morning, but he was the first to reply to Greaves’ question.
“If we can pick up half a days’ flying time, and an overnight stop, then I’m all for it,” he said. “We’ll have a few hours in hand if we become delayed later.”
“An’ whit wid ye do wi’ a few spare hours in this part of the wurruld, Ah’m wonderin’?” said Muir. “Wid it huv onythin’ tae dae wi’ thon lassie ye met last nicht? Ah didn’a hear ye come in. Ye must huv been gey late.”
“Yes, well, we did stand around talking for a while,” replied Rogers. “She is a very interesting girl. Her grandfather was Louis Botha, the Boer soldier and later Prime Minister of the Orange Free State in southern Africa.”
“You‘ve done well there,” said Margaret. “I thought she was very intelligent, and most attractive. It’s a shame she had to return so soon, as I’m sure you’d want to see more of her.”
“It’s not likely,” replied Rogers, “but she does travel to London on odd occasions, so I took the opportunity to give her the Trans Air telephone number.”
“Good luck, Harry,” said Bob Greaves, “but let’s get back to the original question. Do we fly straight through to Waingapu, or not?”
“The flying doesn’t bother me at all,” said Margaret, “but sitting in those small seats for hours on end is becoming rather a pain. I can only read so many books, it’s almost impossible to talk because of the noise, and I do hate using that little toilet.”
“Aye, aye,” growled Muir. “It’s fine flyin’ for a while, but then it gets awfu’ borin’ just readin’ a’ the time. If ye can save a day or twa, Ah’m all for it.”
“Right, that’s it then,” exclaimed Greaves. “We’ll cut out the stops at Surabaya and Ende, and extend our flying time to six or seven hours each day. I know they’ll be long days, but it should be worth it, and we’ll save a few pounds in accommodation expenses. We’ll certainly have to refill the tanks in flight, but we seem to be managing this all right, so we’ll keep using the same procedure.”
“Aye, that’s fine,” said Muir. “Now there’s ane or twa wee things Ah’m wantin’ at the stall near the terminal, so Ah’ll be awa’ for a few minutes.” He went outside, and walked towards the terminal.
As the crew were vacating the transit house, Muir returned with three parcels and a grin on his face. Unwrapping the parcels, he held up his purchases for inspection.
“Good Lord!” exclaimed Rogers. “What’s that? A dartboard?”
“Aye, it is. Ah thocht we could put it up on the toilet door, an’ hae a wee gamie when we’re bored.”
They all laughed at the prospect of trying to play darts within an aeroplane, and Muir unwrapped his remaining parcels, a cribbage board with playing cards, and a brightly coloured floral shirt.
“Well done, Gordon,” shouted Rogers. “Cribbage will certainly help to pass the time, the darts will be a test of skill, and your shirt is so bright it will keep us awake at night.”
“Right, then,” declared Greaves. “We’ve got a long way to go, so let’s get going.”
The easterly wind blowing across the Netherlands East Indies presented a strong resistance to the Rapide’s easterly progress. The control tower at Batavia had advised that the wind velocity could be as high as forty miles per hour at this time of year, and that they should make due allowance in their flight plan for this wind.
Rogers had carefully followed the coastline for the 300 miles to Rembang, and this had taken three hours, indicating that the headwind was living up to it’s reputation. At this point, the crew drank their thermos tea, and ate the little sweet rice cakes provided by the houseboy. They had used sixty gallons of fuel so far, and it became obvious that they would have to refuel at Surabaya in order to complete their journey to Waingapu without in-flight refuelling.
Greaves radioed ahead to the airfield at Surabaya, advising of their change of flight plan, and their request for refuelling. Their request was acknowledged, but Greaves was surprised to receive a return call from Surabaya, asking him to contact the airfield manager at Surabaya after they had completed refuelling.
Rogers continued to follow the coastline until he could see a large industrial town and port. He found the airfield without difficulty, landed on the neatly mown strip, and taxied to the refuelling bay. Muir was again allocated the task of refuelling, under Rogers’ supervision, while Margaret bought more tea and food from the local food stall, and Greaves went in search of the airfield manager‘s office. The office was constructed entirely of dark wood, but was surprisingly light and airy, with a high ceiling and circulating fans providing a gentle air movement in the mid-day heat. He was shown into the manager’s office, and introduced himself to the manager. Greaves was tired after the flight, and was in no mood for tolerating the petty technicalities likely to be presented by the manager. There was a third person in the office, a stoutly built man whom the manager introduced as Martin Van Haltren, local manager for KLM airlines, who shook his hand firmly, and greeted him effusively.
Greaves was puzzled by his spirited reception, and sat in a rattan chair, wondering what the warm reception was all about. He was anxious to get out of the office as soon as possible, have some lunch, and continue the long flight to Waingapu. Addressing the airfield manager, he asked, “Is there a problem with refuelling? I’m sure our paperwork is up to date.”
“No, no, Mister Greaves,” replied the manager, in heavily accented English. “Please be assured there is no problem with refuelling, or with your passports or visas. However, I have had a request from the KLM office at Palembang to contact you if possible. Unfortunately, you had left Batavia before this request came through, and it was my intention to pass the message on to Waingapu, as per your flight plan. But then, our controller notified me to say that you had requested permission to refuel here, so I have taken this opportunity to contact you personally.”
“But we didn’t land at Palembang,” declared Greaves. “We flew over the airfield twice, and then continued to Batavia.”
“Ah, yes, but that is the point,” said Martin Van Haltren. “If you had landed at Palembang, I should never have been presented with this opportunity to thank you personally for your actions involving our aircraft.”
Greaves thought quickly. Palembang. The Fokker with the smoking engine. Diverted to Palembang. Fired a flare over the airfield. Proceeded to Batavia. “Er, yes, the Fokker with the smoky engine. He landed alright, and we went on our way.”
Van Haltren continued. “Mister Greaves, you obviously went out of your way to assist our pilot, who could barely control his aircraft, much less find his way to the airfield at Palembang. There was much smoke in the cockpit, and there was a strong chance that he would have crashed into the jungle, and we would have lost a good pilot. The pilot has explained all of this to me, how you guided him into Palembang, and alerted the emergency service. We are indebted to you. It took some time to identify your aircraft, as the pilot could only describe your aircraft as a British registered Rapide, and we contacted Singapore to determine your flight plan. This information arrived after you had departed from Batavia.”
“Well, we did what we could, and we were glad to see him down safely,” replied Greaves.
“Mister Greaves, on behalf of KLM Royal Dutch Airlines, we are most grateful for your assistance, and place ourselves at your service for the rest of your journey. Any assistance which we can give to yourselves or your aircraft will be provided at no charge.”
“That’s very kind of you, Mister Van Haltren, but there’s really no need………”
“But I insist, Mister Greaves. A letter explaining all of this will be sent to your London office shortly. Please extend my appreciation to your crew.”
After more hand-shaking, Greaves took his leave, and returned to the Rapide. “We’re in the good books,” he announced. “We got a big thank-you from the KLM people regarding our assistance to that Fokker near Palembang yesterday. They’ve offered to give us anything we want between here and Darwin.”
“That’s very good of them,” declared Rogers, because at the rate we’re burning fuel because of this headwind, we’re going to have to get more fuel at Denpassar, to enable us to get to Waingapu safely. This is going to be a long day.”
“Right. We can arrange that while we’re in the air,” said Greaves. “let’s get going.”
The flight from Surabaya to Denpassar on Bali island was only 200 miles, but it took two hours of flying against the headwind, and forty gallons of fuel. The airfield was on a small peninsular on the southern side of the island, and as Greaves approached the airfield from the north, he noticed the red patches on the green-covered mountains, and guessed that the coffee bushes were in bloom. “Good timing,“ he thought. “We had springtime in April, and now we’ve got another spring in September.“
They landed on a sand-covered runway near the coast. Muir did all the necessary work to refuel the Rapide, again under Rogers’ supervision, while Bob and Margaret bought some food and drinks at a nearby stall. Greaves updated his flight plan at the controller’s office, which was manned by an Indian wearing a white turban, who read the flight plan carefully.
“Ah, Rapide aircraft G-TKO,” said the clerk with a wide grin. “You have come from Palembang, yes?”
“Yes, that’s correct,” replied Greaves.
“I have brother who works in control office in Palembang,” continued the smiling Indian, his turban nodding from side to side as he spoke. “He has told me about British Rapide aircraft leading Fokker aircraft into Palembang yesterday. We do not see British planes in Bali, only Fokkers and Junkers, therefore I am thinking you must be this man. My brother says you must be very good man.”
Greaves smiled at the clerk, and took his leave. He walked back to the Rapide, where Muir was tidying up after refuelling, and Rogers was checking tyre pressures. Greaves knelt beside Rogers, and whispered, “How is Muir handling the refuelling?“
“Very well indeed,” whispered Rogers in reply. “He hasn’t put a foot wrong from the start. It’s almost as if he’s done all this before.”
“Strange that you should say that. I’ve been thinking the same thing myself. I noticed that he did a very professional job when he tied down the plane in Singapore the other day. Something tells me there’s more to Mister Muir than he’s told us.“
Standing up, he said to Rogers, ”It looks like we’ve got a reputation around these islands. Even the desk clerk in the control office knew about our involvement with the Fokker. We’ll be getting swelled heads. Let’s push on. We’ve got another 350 miles to go before it gets dark.”
The crew boarded the aircraft, and Muir being the last man to board, locked the door behind him. As he settled into his seat, he heard Rogers speaking to Greaves, before the engines were started.
“Course 98 degrees, allowing three degrees for wind from the east,” said Rogers. “Flying time about three and a half hours. If we kept on going, we’d bump into Darwin.”
Muir had no more to do for three and a half hours, and as he looked out of the window at the various aircraft on the field, he visualised their course in his mind. They would fly more or less in a straight line, with two more stops, and it would all be over. Darwin. That isolated outpost of colonial Australia. White people in the big island down under. He thought that was going to enjoy the next few months, and sat back with a grin on his face. Very nice. He put his earplugs in as the engines started with a roar.
The Rapide climbed away from Bali, and turned towards the east, with the sun streaming into the cabin through the side windows. The islands of Lombok and Sumbawa were densely green and rugged, with waterfalls visibly cascading into the sea. The many fishing boats which dotted the ocean were being tossed around by the turbulent seas, and Margaret was glad that the bumps she felt were nothing compared with the battering the fishing boats would be getting. “Another three hours of this,“ she thought, discarding her book in disgust.
Muir was screwing a hook into the toilet door. “This’ll be interesting,” he shouted to Margaret over the engine noise. He had hung the dartboard on the hook, and was now sitting on the floor of the aisle way, throwing darts at the swinging board. Two darts had hit the board, without scoring.
“It’s nae guid,” he declared to Margaret. “It’s like tryin’ tae shoot pheasant wi’ a rifle.” Margaret tried her skills in the same manner, with equal lack of success. Not to be discouraged, Muir found a small screwdriver in the tool box, and used it as a nail to fasten the bottom of the dartboard into the toilet door. Throwing again, he was reasonably successful, and they each managed to shoot a moderate score in their cramped surroundings.
After the pilots had changed over, and having eaten their in-flight snack, Margaret and Muir dozed in their seats, with the late afternoon sun warming the cabin and contributing to the general lethargy. The northern coast of Sumba Island came into view at about 6.30 p.m., and Rogers followed the coastline, leading to the port of Waingapu, where in the fading light, they could see a large white flying boat moored offshore.
“That looks encouraging,” shouted Greaves from the navigator’s position. “The Aussies are using flying boats between Surabaya and Darwin, and this must be a refuelling stop. It would be a good chance to chat with some of their crew.”
“I don’t think I’ll be doing much chatting tonight,” declared Rogers. “It’s been nearly ten hours since we left Batavia, and this is our third stop for today. After we’ve refuelled, I’m going straight to bed. Wake me up at Christmas.”
Waingapu, Sumba Island, 02 September 1939
The position of controller at Waingapu airfield required very little of the officer’s time. Cargo-carrying aircraft movements were few, and didn’t need the services of a controller, but international air regulations required a controller to be present during the departure and landing of passenger-carrying aircraft. With plenty of time to spare, the controller sought to supplement his income by fishing in the tidal waters, and this provided him not only with income, but a means of enjoying the challenge of fishing, and getting away from his wife and four noisy children. The controller had completed his day’s fishing, and at 6.30 p.m., he was comfortably sitting in the timber tower structure overlooking the wide bay of Waingapu harbour.
He was expecting the Qantas flight from Batavia to arrive soon, and when the buzzer from the sound direction indicator rang, and the dial needle swung to the west, he expected to hear the deep, friendly voice of a Qantas flying boat pilot seeking a report on the condition of the surface of the bay, and permission to land. His thoughts were shattered when a voice from an aircraft identifying itself as George Toc King Orange^^*^^ requested permission to land. Surely those Australians were playing another joke on him, and he remembered the panic which was caused the previous year, when they pretended that they had the King of Australia on board, and asked, “was the reception party ready?”
The controller knew that the letter “G” was the prefix for British registered aircraft, but nobody had told him that an unscheduled aircraft was in the vicinity. Ah, this was another trick, he thought. Perhaps this time they would pretend that the King of England was on board. Blast those Aussies! He returned the call formally. “Waingapu tower to aircraft George Toe King Orange. Wind is from the east at ten knots, producing choppy seas at the northern end, grading to calm seas at the wharf. The harbour launch will direct you to the mooring buoy. You have permission to land.”
Rogers couldn’t believe what he had heard. “Bob,” he shouted. “The controller thinks we are a flying boat coming in to port. He’s talking about choppy seas being calm at the wharf. The fellow must be the harbour master as well as the flight controller.”
“That’s strange,” Greaves shouted back. “but perhaps he’s been on the jungle juice. If we’ve got permission to land, do a circuit so as he can see us, then land normally.”
The controller was surprised to see the Rapide appear from the direction of the setting sun, and he wondered about the circumstances of this event. Ah, there must have been a last minute change of aircraft in Batavia. As usual, nobody has thought to tell me of this. I must quickly cancel the harbour launch, and stand-down the crew. As the Rapide made a circuit of the airfield, the controller reached for his binoculars, and checked the registration letters, confirming that it was indeed the aircraft which had called in.
He had just completed arranging the cancellation of the harbour launch and standing -down the crew, when the buzzer from the sound direction indicator rang again. The controller froze. “This cannot be true,” he thought. It must be those village lads again, beating drums near the sound receiver on the mountain top. I will speak to the village elders again.” The controller reached for his binoculars again, and scanned the sky to the west, just to make sure. “Mother of God! Another aircraft! A four engined aircraft! It must be the flight from Batavia, and I have cancelled the harbour launch and crew!
The controller had no option but to hastily recall the harbour launch and crew, much to his embarrassment. The launch officer was very upset, and queried the sanity of the controller. His crew “were running about like mad dogs,” he said. “Launch, tie up, launch again. Was this an un-scheduled exercise?” He would discuss this with the controller later.
The flying boat had radioed for permission to land, and made a long, low, approach from the west, gently skimming the water before settling down, and pushing a small bow wave in front as the pilot turned to look for the harbour launch, which was only now proceeding at high speed in the direction of the mooring buoy. The controller slumped heavily into his chair. “Holy Mother!, he thought. How could a perfectly good days fishing end up in a glorious mess like this? Tonight I will go home, drink too much, and kick the dog.”
Waingapu was not a big town, and owed it’s existence to the wide sheltered bay which provided anchorage for the fleet of fishing boats at one end, and a clear movement area for flying boats at the other. With the flying boats had come many secondary industries providing services to the flying boats, by way of fuel, maintenance services, and passenger accommodation.
Greaves had landed the Rapide on the short grass runway close to the shore line of the island, and taxied to the small refuelling area cut out of the encroaching jungle. There was no sign of the harbour from this position, and he assumed that it would be on the other side of the headland, with larger refuelling facilities for the Qantas flying boats.
While Muir was attending to the refuelling, Margaret ascertained the location of the small hotel at which their accommodation had been booked, and she was looking for a taxi when Greaves arrived. He had been at the KLM office, arranging for a quick engine service to be provided by KLM at Koepang, their next refuelling stop, prior to the 500 mile crossing of open sea to their landfall at Darwin, and Greaves reminded the desk clerk that the charge for this service was to be directed to the KLM office in Surabaya.
With refuelling and tying-down now completed by Muir and Rogers, the crew took a taxi to their accommodation, and showered and relaxed after their long day. By 8.30 p.m., they had all recovered their energy to a certain extent, and walked down the main street to find a suitable restaurant, where they quickly found that there were only two restaurants suitable for Europeans. The first restaurant at which they tried to get a meal was crowded with passengers and flight crew from the Qantas flying boat, and although they were heartily welcomed by the flight crew, there were no vacant tables remaining. Reluctantly, they were directed to another smaller restaurant, where there were vacant tables.
The crew ordered a large dish of assorted types of fish, which was served with a small mountain of saffron coloured rice, and vegetables of an unknown type. Three bowls of spicy sauce accompanied the main dish, and the crew struggled to demolish all that was served. They had nearly completed their meal, when there were sounds of laughter outside. The door burst open, and five Australian flight crew lurched into the restaurant.
“Ah, here you are!” exclaimed a tall pilot. “The adventurers from the motherland! We thought we’d find you here. We’ve had enough of being nice to passengers, so we’ve come to broaden our minds with some tall tales from far away. What are you drinking?”
The Qantas crew quickly pushed three tables together, and the two crews started swapping stories of air travel, with Margaret and the stewardess contributing their share of anecdotes. “It’s good of you to seek us out,” said Greaves at a break in the conversation. We were just having a quiet night after a long day, and as it’s our last night as a crew, we were reminiscing about our trip in general, and thinking about getting back to England.”
“You were thinking about getting back to England?” said the second pilot. “If I were in your position, I wouldn’t think too long about it. Things are going badly with Adolf Hitler, and there’s a great deal of talk about war. The reserves have been put on 24 hours notice, and some children have already been evacuated from London. You may have trouble getting back at all.”
A silence fell over the group, as each person considered his or her own situation should war eventuate. It was Muir who was first to break the silence. “It’ll no be easy, Ah grant ye that. Ah remember hoo it was the last time, wi’ the Mediterranean sealed off an’ convoys o’ ships bein’ escorted everywhere. But the lads here could gae hame through the Panama canal, an’ get across the Atlantic in an American ship. It’ll nae be sae bad.”
“We haven’t heard any news since we were in Singapore,” said Greaves. “We knew there was a lot of political disturbance about Czechoslovakia and the Sudentenland, but from what you’re saying, it seems like the situation has worsened.”
“It certainly has,” said the first pilot. “I’ve heard that if war is declared, some of our younger pilots are planning to join the airforce, in order to have a crack at the Germans before the fighting fizzles out. Mind you, if there is any fighting, I’m sure it will all be over by Christmas.”
“Did you hear that, Margaret?” asked Greaves. “Christmas. We may not be home for another four months. We may even still be in Australia at Christmas time. Can you imagine celebrating Christmas here, in the middle of the wet season, with all types of flies and indescribable bugs trying to burrow into your Christmas pudding, and the perspiration running down your back?“ He paused to watch Margaret’s expression, but she countered his question with a different approach.
“I think it would be quite interesting either way,” said Margaret brightly. “We would have a choice of travelling by ship across the Pacific to America, then perhaps by rail to New York on the east coast, and then by ship across the Atlantic to England, or spending four months in Australia, where it would be nice and warm. We could enjoy having Christmas in Australia, and we could even travel to Sydney or Melbourne, before going home through the Suez Canal, and perhaps see something in Egypt.”
“I hope Alltrans will pay us for the extra time,” said Rogers. “It would be nice to be paid to travel around Australia for four months. We could try shooting crocodiles or jumbucks or something, and see that bloody great rock they’ve got in the middle of the desert.”
The group laughed and joked for an hour, the talk of war now forgotten. Greaves called a halt to the merriment at 10 p.m., and the crews each went their own way into the still tropical night.
[_ Waingapu --- Koepang --- Darwin. Sunday 03 September 1939. _]
By six o’clock the next morning, the crew had finished their light breakfast at the hotel, and had caught a taxi to the airfield. Greaves obtained a weather report from the desk clerk, and was pleased to see that the strong easterly winds which they had encountered yesterday had dropped to a gentle breeze of only ten miles per hour, with fine conditions expected for the remainder of the day. With this encouraging news, the crew hurried through the Immigration and Customs inspections, as this was their last port under Dutch control.
It was Rogers turn to fly, and while the other crew members were untying and inspecting the aircraft, he walked to the furthest end of the airstrip, to ascertain the condition of the short runway.
Having satisfied himself that the Rapide could safely lift off before the end of the runway, he was walking back to the aircraft when he heard a wild yell from Greaves.
“Lookout! There’s a snake here! A black snake, wrapped around the tail wheel!”
Greaves had retreated from the tail of the Rapide, and the others gathered around him, keeping a useful distance from the snake, which they could now see as it moved it’s head in response to the disturbance.
“It looks a nasty piece of work,” declared Rogers. “How on earth are we going to get rid of it?”
“We could try pokin’ it wi’ a lang stick,” said Muir, without much conviction, but Ah’d no be game tae try.”
“If we threw something at it, we could knock a hole in the tail fabric,” said Greaves, “and if we used fire, we’d probably burn the plane.”
They were standing at the right-hand side of the Rapide, near the luggage locker door. “I’ve got it!” shouted Rogers. “There’s two long pieces of pipe in the luggage locker, which we got from the ship. Margaret, give me a hand here.”
He lifted out some of the luggage from the locker, and passed them to Margaret, then slid out a piece of pipe. Margaret reached for the pipe, paused, and screamed. She turned quickly, and ran from the Rapide, still screaming. Rogers stood beside the open door, puzzled by her reaction.
“What’s the matter? What’s wrong?” he yelled. Greaves and Muir were equally puzzled.
“A mouse! A mouse! There’s a mouse inside the pipe!”
The men turned towards the pipe, just in time to see a little brown mouse drop from the pipe, onto the grass, and scamper towards the tail of the plane. That was it’s mistake. Within a second, the snake had uncoiled itself from the tail wheel, and pursued the mouse through the grass.
“Fer the love o’ God, let’s get oot o’ here” said Muir, grabbing pieces of luggage and throwing them into the locker. The worried look on Muir’s face was amusing to Greaves and Rogers, who did their best to hide their laughter. Margaret was not amused, and after being assured that the mouse was no longer in the vicinity, she quickly boarded the Rapide, anxious to get away from the grassed area.
Rogers was still a little concerned about the length of the airstrip, and although the Rapide was facing into the wind, giving maximum lift to the plane, he pressed heavily on the brakes, and pushed the throttles forward. The Rapide shuddered as it strained forward against the brakes, the engines roaring, and as Rogers suddenly released the brakes, the Rapide accelerated quickly down the runway, and lifted off well before the end of the strip. He turned to look at Greaves, who grinned and gave him a “thumbs up.”
There wasn’t a great deal to see on the 240 mile sea crossing to Koepang. The morning sun accentuated the colours of the sea, and the many fishing boats added to the colourful scene with their brightly coloured sails. The Rapide’s airspeed had now increased to 130 miles per hour, giving a flight time of two hours, and as Margaret and Muir had seen similar views before, they played cribbage all the way.
Koepang airfield, at the southern tip of Timor island, was another refuelling stop for the Qantas flying boats and de Havilland DH 86 aircraft on the inter-island service. Landing on the compacted coral runway, Rogers taxied the Rapide to the refuelling bay, while Greaves contacted the service manager, and reminded him that they only required a spark plug change and oil change. The service manager promised that the Rapide would be available in one hour.
“Whit aboot some breakfast?” said Muir. “Ah’ve only had tea an’ toast, an’ that winna last me for four hours o’ flyin.’
Greaves pretended that he wasn’t interested in breakfast. “We’ve got to clear Immigration and Customs,” he said casually, “as this is Portuguese territory, but I suppose it won’t take long. We might have a few minutes to spare while we’re waiting on the Rapide.”
Muir grasped at the opportunity. “There’s likely tae be a wee stall around the corner. Ah’ll awa’ an’ look.”
Muir had guessed correctly. There were four tables at the stall, and the cooking pots showed a selection of curries, chicken, and fish, bubbling in spicy sauce. Greaves, Rogers, and Margaret all selected curries, and Muir thought the fish looked “gae fine.” After breakfast, Margaret bought the inevitable buns and tea for their flight.
The service manager gave the Rapide a good report, and Greaves was confident they would have a trouble free crossing in fine weather. After a quick inspection at the Immigration and Customs office, they left Koepang for Darwin in high spirits.
“Our last leg,” said Greaves, who was navigating. “Who would have thought a few weeks ago that today we’d be about to arrive in Australia? After all that we’ve seen and done, England seems so far away now.”
“Oh yes,” replied Margaret, “but I’m glad it’s our last flight in this noisy plane. I”ll be glad to see the last of it. I’ve been thinking about our flat in Wallington, and whether we should buy a dog when we get home. A little terrier would be nice.”
Muir was dozing in the rear seat, waiting to be called for fuel pumping duty, and Rogers was fiddling with the radio channels in the cockpit. By chance, he had found Radio Australia on the airwaves, and had heard the news that the British government had given the German government 24 hours in which to reply to the British demands for Germany to withdraw their troops from the Polish border. He kept this news to himself.
Greaves was on his hands and knees in front of the navigator’s table, using the drift sight to determine if there was any noticeable drift from their set course, as a small error at the start of a long flight could lead to being a long way off course at the end of 500 miles. In a few minutes it would be noon, and he would take a sun sight through the emergency hatch in the roof. Getting up from his kneeling position, he felt a sharp pain in his lower stomach. He sat in the navigator’s chair, and tried to concentrate on the charts, but found that he couldn’t. The pain in his stomach was now a constant ache, and he went to the toilet to seek relief. Returning to the navigator’s table, he found that the time was now a few minutes past noon, and it would be useless to take a sun sight.
From the cockpit, Rogers waved him forward, and shouted, “Take over for a minute please, Bob. I’ve got to go down the back.” They changed positions, and the first thoughts of trouble entered Greaves’ mind as he settled into the pilot seat. He quickly dismissed thoughts of illness, and told himself that it was just a co-incidence that both pilots need to go to the toilet. He checked the heading of 95 degrees, and all the engine gauges.
Rogers returned looking pale. “I don’t feel so good,” he said. “We may have to change over again.” Greaves looked around to reply to Rogers, and saw Margaret opening the toilet door. “Oh Christ,” he said to himself, “we’ve done it this time.”
He shouted to Rogers. “Margaret’s in there now. This is bad. We’ve each picked up some bug from the food. We can’t fly without a pilot, and we’re 150 miles from Koepang. Muir will be next to go down, so wake him and tell him what’s happening. Tell him to start pumping fuel now, while he’s still able, as we’ll need a safety margin in case we go off course. I missed the sun sight, so we could be well off course by the time we reach the coast.”
Rogers shook Muir’s shoulder. “Aye, aye, whit is it?” said Muir, straining to focus his eyes in the mid-day brightness of the cabin.
“We’re ill. Bob and I. We’ve both got stomach pains, and Margaret too. It must have been the food at Koepang. You’ve got to start pumping petrol now, as you’ll probably get it soon. Two drums will be enough. Bugger, I’m going to be sick.” He looked around for a container, but there was only the tool box, and he vomited heavily into it.
Rogers was now on his knees in the aisle way, leaning over the tool box and clutching his stomach. Muir was now very much awake, and quickly assessed the situation. “If the pilots pass oot, we’re a’ deid,” he thought. “But without fuel, we’ll a’ be shark food.” He quickly rigged the hand pump, and connected the hose to the left tank. He pumped rapidly for a few minutes, but he wasn’t young any more, and tired quickly. “Damn, half a drum left.” He pumped more slowly now, timing his strokes to an even rhythm. The pump now made a sucking noise, drawing air from the empty drum.
“Guid God,” he thought. “Three people a’ bein’ sick an’ only ane toilet.” He looked at the empty drum, and reached for the vomit-covered tool box. Rogers had now collapsed into the navigator’s seat, his head on the table, eyes closed, and one arm hanging loosely over the edge of the table. Vomit dribbled from his mouth. Muir took a large wet screwdriver and hammer from the tool box, and started to cut the top off the empty drum, using the screwdriver as a chisel.
In his weakened state, Greaves noticed the fuel gauge for the left engine was now showing an increase in fuel level, and he was relieved. He heard the continual banging noise coming from the cabin, but he was reluctant to turn around to investigate because that would make his dizziness worse. Besides, the pain in his stomach was now acute, and any movement would make it unbearable. He was feeling very tired.
The banging noise stopped, and Muir appeared at the narrow doorway. “Ah’ve made anither toilet box,” he said. “Margaret’s locked hersel’ in the toilet, so ye’d better use the old petrol drum.”
Greaves was surprised at Muir’s ingenuity, but he was quickly reminded of his own condition when he stood up. “Gordon, I’ve got to go now!” he shouted. “Come and hold this stick! Just hold it where it is.”
Muir pushed past Greaves, and grabbed the spectacle-shaped control column. Greaves was now at the back of the cabin, sitting on the fuel drum, his trousers around his ankles. Muir assessed the situation. “Christ,” he thought, “I’m the only man alive on this sinking ship.” He sat firmly in the pilot’s seat, his fingers firmly gripping the control column. “Guid God, it’s a lang time since I’ve been here.” He felt the movements of the Rapide as it moved gently up and down in the air currents, and he racked his brain to recall the advice of his instructor, so many years ago. “Trim a little nose down, and hold it up with the stick. Hold the stick gently, man, don’t strangle it.”
“Aye, aye, that had been fine for a single seat fighter, but whit aboot a muckle great passenger plane? An’ whit aboot drift? Ah’ve got nae idea frae which direction the wind is comin.’ An’ whit course Ah’m supposed tae hold, onyway? Wait a meenit! Whit did Harry say, the other day when we wis leavin’ Denpasar? Ninety-eight degrees an’ we’ll bump in tae Darwin? Or wis it eighty-nine degrees? Dear God. The compass is showin’ a hunnert degrees noo, so I’ll settle for ninety-eight degrees. Where’s Bob? Ach, he’s still sittin’ there. A’ this is gae fine, but Ah canna stay here forever. Ah hope he disnae expect me tae land it. Ach, Ah’ll worry aboot that later.”
He had relaxed a little now, but his concentration on flying had made him unaware that Greaves had slowly made his way forward, and was now firmly holding on to the cockpit door frame with both hands. Greaves gave a groan, clutched his stomach, and sank to the floor.
“It’s a’ richt, it’s a’ richt,’” shouted Muir, turning to see Greaves collapse. “It’s comin’ back tae me noo, like ridin’ a bike.” Greaves managed a weak smile, and closed his eyes.
“Christ Almighty,” thought Muir. “Ah’ve got twa sleepin’ beauties here, an’ twa hoors till we reach the coast somewhere. Ah’ll be needin’ some help here,damn quick.”
Whit wis Harry doin’ wi’ the wee knobs on the radio? Ah ken he pressed yon wee button tae speak tae somebody. Let’s see whit happens.”
“Hullo, is onybody there? Hullo, hullo?”
Naethin’. Damn. Whit else huv Ah got? Ach, ye fool. The headset on the floor.
Bending to reach for the headset, his left foot pressed against the rudder bar, and the Rapide gently swung to the left as he retrieved the headset. Putting the earphones over his head, he tried the radio again.
“Hullo, is onybody there? Hullo? Are ye there?”
This time, he heard voices from Radio Australia, discussing weather conditions in Torres
Strait. Realising that it was a radio program, he swore softly.
That’s nae bloody guid. Whit’s this wee chart stuck on here for? Frequencies? Whit dae they do? Kilocycles? Ah’ve seen that somewhere afore. Aye, on this dial wi’ the numbers. That must mean somethin.’ Denpasar, Dili, Wain-somethin’, Koepang, Bathurst, ……ach, Ah’ll try them a’.
He noted the frequency for Denpasar, and pressed the transmit button.
“Hullo? Is onybody there? Hullo?”
A burst of static mixed with rapid Hindi assailed his eardrums, and he quickly reduced the volume.
Bloody locals, probably listenin’ tae the races. Dili, eight hunnert an’ somethin.’
Faint chatter in a foreign language assured him that he was doing something correctly.
Hmmm. No idea whit that is. Whit’s next? Ah. Wain-somethin,’ where we were yesterday. Twelve hunnert exactly. Ach. Mair foreign language stuff. Is there naebody tae speak English? Koepang. Aye, that wis a grand breakfast. Richt roond tae seventeen fifty. Ah’m needin’ new glesses.
A deep gutteral voice came through strongly, but he pressed the transmit button, and hoped.
“Hullo? Onybody there? Speak English?”
A pause. Then a strong burst in what sounded like Spanish made him sit up.
“Hullo? Are ye there? Dae ye hear me?”
More noises from the Spanish speaker, who sounded slightly annoyed.
Ach, Ah’ll try something’ else. Let’s see. Bathurst. That’s a fine British name. Nineteen fifty on the dial.
“Hullo? Is onybody there? Hullo?”
A continuous low pitched humming noise came through the headset.
Hmmm. Must need mair volume. Receiver volume an’ transmitter volume. Ah’m daein’ well at this. Here gaes.
“Hullo? Is onybody there? Hullo?”
Ach, bugger. Ah’m runnin’ oot o’ numbers here. Whit am Ah gaein‘………..
“Fair go, mate. Yer nearly blew my ears orf. Who are yer?
“Man, Ah’m glad tae hear yer voice. Ah’ve been tryin’ everywhere tae find somebody speakin’ English. Ah’m needin’ a wee bit o’ help here.”
“Orright, orright, but who are yer, Scotty? I haven’t heard yer before.”
“Ma name’s Gordon Muir, an’ Ah’m in an aeroplane somewhere. There’s twa pilots, but they’ve both passed oot. They’re on the floor.”
“Righto, Scotty, now let’s get this straight. Yer in an aeroplane with two pilots, an’ both of them have passed out on the floor. Then who’s flyin’ the plane?
“Weel, Ah suppose Ah am, but Ah dinna ken much aboot flyin’ modern planes.”
“Stone th’ crows. Yer talkin’ ter me, but yer don’t know how ter fly the plane? Get away. Yer havin’ me on. What’s yer call sign?^^*^^
“Er, George Toc King somethin’, Ah think.” ^^*^^^^^^
“Bullshit. Yer wastin’ my time. You’ll get into big trouble fer usin’ the radio like this. Get orf.”
A sudden feeling of desperation overcame Muir. “Wait, man, wait! Ah’m here by mysel’!
Ah canna handle a plane like this! There’s fower people on board! Ye’ve got tae dae somethin’”.
“Go on. You’re tellin’ me you’re in a British registered plane. Where did you come from?”
“Frae Calcutta, aboot six days ago. The pilots are deliverin’ this plane tae somebody in Darwin. Ah’m just the rigger an’ mechanic, an’ Ah dinna ken how tae fly this plane, Ah’m tellin’ ye!
The rising anxiety in Muir’s voice caused the radio operator to reconsider the situation before him, and he turned from his radio to the man in the next room. “Father, Father O’Leary,” he called, and Muir heard the muffled sounds of a discussion rising and falling in the headset. A new voice came on to the airwaves.
“Good afternoon, sir. I’m Father Patrick O’Leary, at Bathurst Island Mission. Can I be of assistance to you?”
“Faither, Ah’ve nivver spoken tae a priest in ma life, but it’s damn glad Ah am tae be speakin’ tae ye. Yon man on the radio winna believe that Ah’m flyin’ this plane by mysel’, an’ Ah’m feart tae let go o’ the wheel.”
“Yes, my operator has briefly described your situation. Could you tell me your name?”
“Gordon Muir, frae Bonnybridge, Scotland. They’ve both passed oot, an’ the wife’s been in the toilet for an oor, an’ Ah dinna ken whar Ah’m goin’.
“Where did you take off from, Gordon?”
“This morning’ we took aff frae Wain-somethin’, an’ then stopped at Koepang for breakfast. It must hae been somethin’ they ate, but Ah’m feelin’ fine, just awfu’ scared. Ah’ve nivver flown a plane like this.”
The priest had been listening carefully to the broad accent further distorted by the airwaves, and was alerted to the words “like this.“ Was there something hidden in these words?”
“Er, have you had any flying experience, Gordon?”
“Ach, Ah used tae fly a wee plane years ago, but Ah huvnae touched a plane for fifteen years. This is a big plane, an’ it’s a’ new tae me.”
Muir heard further muffled discussion through the headset.
“Where are you now, Gordon?”
“Ower the sea, 5000 feet.”
“What is your compass bearing, Gordon?”
“About ninety degrees. Oh Christ, it wis nearly a hunnert degrees a wee while ago.”
“I’m sure Christ will understand your situation, Gordon. Now hold your course steady, while I talk to a man who knows about aeroplanes.”
At the mission, Father O’Leary spoke to the pilot of a battered Fairchild Argus aircraft, which served all the island missions in northern Australia. The plane usually carried a mixed cargo of people, freight, pigs, and building materials to the missions, and was widely known as “Burke’s Bus.“ The pilot, Bill Burke, was presently having lunch with Father O’Leary.
“I think it’s a genuine call, Bill. He seems to have had some flying experience many years ago, but his voice sounds very distraught, and he’s definitely not in control of the situation. What can we do?”
Bill Burke had been listening to the conversation with Muir on the spare headset. “If he flew from Koepang this morning, and flew a compass bearing of 100 degrees, at about 120 miles per hour, he’d be about halfway across. But if the wind gets him, and he wanders all over the sky, he could be a long way south, and finish up in the scrub country near Bonaparte Gulf. It’d be impossible to find him there. I think we should notify Darwin control. Keep him talking for a while.”
Burke ran the 300 yards to where the Argus sat in the mid-day sun, its fat radial engine and high wing providing adequate shade for the mission dogs. He contacted the Darwin controller on the aircraft emergency channel, and was immediately switched through to the services co-ordinator, and explained the situation.
Malcolm Macdonald, a bearded no-nonsense veteran of many emergency situations, listened to Burke’s story. He thought for a minute, then replied, choosing his words carefully.
“Bill, I’ll trust your judgement on this one, but it certainly sounds strange. A plane of unknown type flying from Koepang without a regular pilot, but with a wild Scotsman at the wheel, and other people on board. I certainly hope it’s not somebody playing the fool. I’ll start things going here.”
“I think we should send out search aircraft on two bearings, say 90 degrees and 100 degrees, giving us two chances of finding him. What do you think, Macka?”
“I think we need to pin him down more accurately than two bearings. I’d like to use the Radio Direction Finder first. That could be much quicker, provided that his plane has RDF. What type of plane is it, Bill?”
He hasn’t mentioned that, but I’ll find out if he’s got RDF. Hold on, I’ll be a few minutes.”
Running the 300 yards back to the mission, Burke realised that he wasn’t really in a fit condition for this type of activity. Arriving breathless at the door, he stood gasping in the doorway, and heard Father O’Leary talking on the radio.
“A rapid plane, very fast………You mean that’s it’s name?…………Two engines and six seats………Hold on a minute, Gordon, somebody wants to talk to me……..Gordon, look at the instrument panel, and see if there’s a dial marked “Radio Direction Finder”……….There is, eh? Switch it on, but don’t touch anything else. Now wait a minute while the people in Darwin work things out.”
Burke again dashed out of the door, and arrived at the Argus completely out of breath. He wrenched the door open, and fell into the seat. Pressing the headset to his ear, he gasped, “Yes, Macka, he’s got RDF switched on now, and from the description he gave, the plane seems to be a de Havilland Rapide, but I’ve never seen one.”
“Excellent,” said Macdonald. “We’ll concentrate the beam between 80 and 110 degrees. Tell him to fly zero degrees for 3 minutes, then 180 degrees for 6 minutes, then zero degrees for 3 minutes, then back on to 100 degrees. Tell him to listen for the dots and dashes in his headset, and to note the time when he hears the dots and dashes. Then, if you could get your “Bus” ready at the end of the field, I’ll give you the signal to take off when we’ve located him on our receiver.”
Burke walked the last hundred yards back to the mission. His face was red, his heart beating quickly, and he was becoming dizzy. He sat heavily into the seat next to Father O’Leary, unable to talk. Reaching for paper and a pencil from the cluttered table, he wrote the instruction for flying the route given by Macdonald, and handed them to the priest.
Muir received the instructions, and scribbled them on the back of a chart, without comment. It was all becoming too much for him to do, and his mind raced, trying to fulfill the instructions in the correct order. O God, Ah’ve tae turn this plane, an’ look at the time, an’ turn again. Rudder, aileron. Too much! Too much! Christ, Ah’m a’ ower the sky. Swing back noo. Whar’s yon compass? Aye, that’s aboot zero. O Christ, the signal’s here. Only one minute? Turn again tae 180. Bugger, Ah’m losin’ height. Two hunnert degrees? No’ sae bad. Ah’ve tae turn it mair slowly. Wis it six minutes in this direction? Look at that. Watter as far as Ah can see. Ah’m fair roastin’ in this cabin, but at least Ah’m nae swimmin’. Six minutes. Nae signal. Bugger. A bit less rudder this time, mair aileron. Hmmm. Zero. That swung damn quick. Lost more height. Three minutes, near enough. Christ, Ah’m tired. Turn tae ninety agin. Ah’m a’ ower the place. Damn.
Muir’s unorthodox flying had aroused Greaves, who now sat on the floor, facing backwards, against the cockpit bulkhead. Rogers had fallen off the table, and had now crawled to the rear of the plane, where he discovered the empty fuel drum, and its new purpose. Sitting on the drum, he looked forward along the aisle to where Greaves was propped against the bulkhead. The question of who was flying the Rapide did not occur to him.
Greaves could hear Muir speaking on the radio, but he could not comprehend what was happening. He lifted his head, and the cabin swung lazily into view. O God, I remember now. I was tired, and I fell over. That sounds like Muir talking on the radio, but he can’t use a radio. Yes, he was holding the wheel for a minute. There’s Harry, down the back. Muir’s still talking, but who’s flying? Stomach’s settled a bit. I’ll move to the doorway……..He’s flying! The old bugger’s flying it! But he doesn’t know how to fly…….
He leaned forward , peering into the cockpit to make sure that he wasn’t seeing things.
No, I’m not seeing things. That’s Muir all right.
Muir saw his movements, and turned to face him. “Tak it easy, Boab. We’re still gaein’ tae Darwin. Yon radio man says tae keep at a hunnert degrees. How are ye feelin’?”
Greaves gathered his thoughts, and tried to hold them together while he constructed a reply. “I’m a bit shaky, my guts ache, and I’m thirsty.”
“Ye’d better stay whar ye are. Ah’m daein’ a’ richt sae far. Yon radio man wants tae know if we see onythin’, but there’s naethin’ tae see.”
In the office of the emergency services controller, Macdonald had noted the signal received from the RDF unit, and was talking to Bill Burke, on the emergency frequency.
“He intercepted the 110 degree reciprocal signal eight minutes ago, but there’s been nothing since, so if you fly out on 290 degrees for half an hour, you may see him. He may have drifted out as far as 310 reciprocal, and as far as we know, he’s still at 5000 feet. Good luck.”
The Fairchild Argus rumbled down the dusty runway, and lurched into the afternoon sky. There were only three passenger seats fitted, as the previous day’s flight from Goulbourn Island Mission had included a pair of cockerels, which didn’t enjoy their high altltude experience. One cockerel had escaped from its cage, and annihilated two dozen baby chicks, leaving blood, feathers, and bodies scattered throughout the rear of the cabin. However, this decoration did not deter the present occupants of the cabin, three teen-aged mission boys who had fought viciously for the right to join in the search, and Bill Burke could hear their squeals of excitement through his headset as they pointed out various features of the terrain below.
Burke spoke to the search controller. “Macka, you’ve probably heard me dancing in and out on 290 reciprocal, but there’s nothing out here, not even a fishing boat. Have you heard anything?”
The search controller’s voice came back clearly. “No, Bill. We’ve heard an aircraft crossing the beam at 290 reciprocal, and we’ve assumed that’s you. My guess is that he’s running on 90 degrees, but the wind could be pushing him further south. Can you judge the wind where you are?”
“No, Macka. There are patchy clouds, but no sign of cloud movement. I’ve been up for nearly an hour now, so I’ll swing around to 180 degrees, and cross the beam in about ten minutes, so you’ll know where I am. I can’t get through to Father O’Leary, as he’s probably busy talking to the mystery pilot, but………Just a minute, Macka, the boys are yelling about something.”
Wild yells and screeches were coming from the boys in the back, and a grubby black hand pulled at his shoulder, while another pointed towards the south. He could see nothing for a few seconds, until a flash of the sun on wings indicated an aircraft.
“Macka, I was turning as we last spoke, and the boys have spotted him, well south of me, slightly below, but going like a bat out of hell. There’s no way I’ll be able to catch up with him, so tell O’Leary to tell him to slow down, circle his present position, and I’ll change to 1950 to talk to O’Leary. Burke out.”
Burke could see an aircraft now travelling away from him, and starting to turn left. He put the nose of the Argus down, to gain speed, and the old engine howled in protest. The distant plane was now head-on to him, but with the sun behind the Argus, he knew the pilot couldn’t see him. He could now see that the aircraft was a biplane, and was completing an erratic turn, mainly skidding through the sky with wobbling wings. Burke tuned his radio to the Mission frequency, and heard Father O’Leary’s voice.
“………..slowed your engines a bit. Good. We believe the search plane is somewhere to your left. Can you see it?”
Burke cut in. “Father, Bill Burke. He’s still well in front of me, to my right. I can’t go any faster. Tell him to do another circle.”
Burke watched the distant plane skid through another circle, and wobble eastwards again. Suddenly, the plane turned sharply left, climbing. The radio crackled, then burst into life. “Bill, O’Leary. He’s seen you.” The relief was evident in his voice. “I can’t understand what he’s saying. I think it’s a foreign language. Please wait.”
The biplane skidded left again, now head-on to the Argus, and climbing.
“Father, tell him to return to 90 degrees, otherwise we’ll be physically joined. I’ll try to pass in front of him if I can.”
The Rapide was now much closer, and Burke thought he would have to take avoiding action, but the biplane turned tail, and levelled out. For a short time, the aircraft flew side by side, about 300 yards apart, but Burke could only see the outline of the pilot through the Rapide’s extensive windows. He could see no sign of passengers. The boys in the cabin of the Argus were yelling and waving at the Rapide, but there was no response.
In the Rapide, Greaves had heard Muir’s words repeating the instructions from the priest. His mind was becoming more rational, and he knew there was a problem with the relative speed of the two aircraft. “Flaps,” he said. “Pull that lever halfway down.”
Muir pulled the lever too far down and too quickly, and the aircraft appeared to stop dead in the sky.
Burke saw the Rapide seemingly stand still in the sky. The nose began to fall, then the aircraft lurched forward again. Burke was closer now, and he could see more detail of the aircraft. “Flaps! The bugger’s got flaps! Christ, I hope he knows what he’s doing.”
The sudden deceleration of the Rapide threw Greaves forward into the cockpit, and he grabbed the flaps lever as he fell against the dashboard, pushing the lever forward as he fell. The flaps returned to the “up” position, and Greaves recovered his breath as he disentangled himself from the cockpit fittings. “Bring the lever down slowly, “ he said to the startled Muir, “but only to the halfway position.”
The sudden deceleration had also thrown Rogers from his seat on the make-shift toilet, and he collided heavily with the end of the reserve fuel cradle. He lay stunned on the floor for a few moments, until the stench from the contents of the toilet drum, which were now scattered over himself and the floor, finally compelled him to summon sufficient strength to remove his wet trousers, and lurch into a seat, where he strapped himself in.
The Argus had built up speed by losing height, and now crept past the Rapide, much to the excitement of the mission boys, who cheered wildly when Rogers feebly returned their wave. Burke spoke into the headset microphone again. “Father, I’m now just in front of the Rapide, and there seems to be some movement within the cabin. Could you ask them what their situation is?”
The reply came back shortly. “The original pilot has recovered a little, and has been giving instructions to the temporary pilot. They seem to be managing OK. There was no mention of other crew members. Do you want them to try landing at the Mission?”
Burke answered quickly. “I can see Bathurst Island in the distance now. I don’t think your field is wide enough for a novice pilot to attempt a landing there, and you haven’t got any emergency services. Ask them if they can stay in the air for another half an hour, and if they can, I’ll guide them into Darwin.”
Moments later, the radio crackled again. “They say one fuel tank is low, but they should have enough fuel to reach Darwin. The temporary pilot is most unhappy about landing the aircraft, but says he will do his best with lots of instructions from the original pilot.”
Burke’s reply was brief. “That’s fine, Father. I’ll now change to the emergency channel, and advise Darwin control of the situation. Burke out.”
The civil airfield at Parap, a suburb of Darwin, was located just near the racecourse. It had a crossed runway system, one arm running north-south, and the other arm running north-west to south-east. Macdonald looked at the large map of the area on the wall, showing the town, port, shipping approaches, and the airfield. He reached for the microphone on his desk.
“Bill, I’d like you to bring him in away from the town, over the quarantine station and the mud flats, and approach the north-west to south-east runway directly from the southern end. The wind is directly from the north, at about ten knots, so that’s not too bad. I’ve got the fire truck and ambulance on the run-off road at the north-western end of the runway, and alerted the hospital. O’Leary is saying a prayer.”
At about 2.30 pm, Burke gave the controller his position as 10 miles south-west of the township, at 1500 feet, with the Rapide about half a mile behind. He descended to 500 feet as he approached the coast, and turned so as to approach the runway from the south-east, and made a low sweep over the runway for the Rapide to follow. Climbing away at the end of the runway, he made a sharp right turn over the wasteland, and was shocked to see the Rapide well to the right of the racecourse, hopelessly out of position.
“Macka, he’s way off to the right. Tell him to fly over the runway, and make a left turn over the sea. I’ll meet him there, and tell him to stick close to my tail.”
Greaves apparently had a similar thought, and the Rapide now flew parallel with the runway, then swung left, over the sea. Burke increased his speed to establish a position in front of the Rapide, and now circled two miles off shore, waiting for the Rapide to close in. The boys in the cabin screamed wildly, as the Rapide approached.
With the speed of the Rapide now reduced to just above landing speed, Burke maintained his position about 300 yards in front, and made a gentle left turn over the mud flats, to align the planes with the runway.
Greaves was kneeling on the floor beside Muir, knowing that in the event of a hard landing, he would probably be thrown against the dashboard again, or in the worst case, through the windscreen. “You’re doing fine, Gordon,” he said. “Just relax, and do whatever he does. Come a bit left, and be ready to pull the stick back a little and to reduce speed a little, once we are over the end of the runway.”
Burke touched down at the end of the runway, rolled a few yards, applied full power, and took off again, much to the delight of the boys in the back. This was the best ride they had ever had, and they knew their story would be told around the campfires for many days.
Greaves was tiring in his kneeling position, and he was having difficulty keeping his eyes focussed on the aircraft in front. Muir was perspiring freely, but his mouth was dry.
“Left rudder a bit. Straighten up. Nose down further. Point the nose at the end of the runway. Keep the wings level. You’re doing fine. Pull back a little now. Drop your speed a little. You’ll feel a little bump, but hold it steady.”
The Rapide touched the runway surface, and lifted off again. Greaves reached in front of Muir, and pushed the throttles forward a little, and the Rapide flew on, just above the runway. He gently pulled the throttles back, and the Rapide touched the runway with the right wheel, lurched to the left, touched with the left wheel, then both wheels rolled freely along the runway, swinging to the left and on to the grass at the side.
“A little right rudder, hold it on until the nose comes around, then press gently on both brakes.”
The Rapide quickly lost speed, and rolled to a stop opposite the fire truck. Greaves turned the engine ignition master switch at his side, and the engines died.
Muir leaned back in the pilot’s seat, and exhaled deeply. His face was white, and his heartbeat was rapid. Greaves crawled back into the cabin, and leaned against the navigator’s table. Rogers was sitting in the rear seat, eyes closed, with both hands gripping the arm rests. The toilet door opened, and Margaret took two steps into the cabin. The filth on the floor was now trickling slowly back into the toilet. She leaned against the small cabin sink, and cried.
8.00 pm, Darwin, Sunday 03 September, 1939.
Macdonald made arrangements for the Rapide to be towed into the general parking area, and tied down. He also collected the crew’s suitcases from the Rapides’ luggage locker, and followed the ambulance which took the crew to the hospital at Kahlin Bay, on the western side of the town. Greaves, Rogers, and Margaret were bathed, and treated for food poisoning. Muir was treated for nervous exhaustion, and they were all confined to bed for 24 hours.
In the men’s ward, Greaves, Rogers, and Muir slept for the remainder of the afternoon, but woke when dinner was served. Greaves and Rogers didn’t feel hungry, but the nurse insisted that they must eat something, and drink plenty of water. Muir complained that the food was tasteless. After dinner, the men sat in their bedside chairs, talking quietly. The strident sounds of insects occasionally broke the stillness of the night, and the fragrant frangipanni bushes outside the open windows added to the serenity.
Greaves was very disappointed with their hazardous arrival in Darwin. “What an absolute shambles. After all our messing about getting here, we were brought down by a tiny bug. We had a few minor problems during our journey, but we overcame them, and maintained our schedule. But for the whole exercise to be undermined by an unseen assailant is too much. It’s most unfair. And then having to suffer the indignity of being rescued by the emergency service, and escorted to the field, …….it’s……it’s…… extremely embarrassing.”
“I know Jamieson won’t be impressed when he hears about it,” said Rogers. He had been given an anti-nausea injection, and was still drowsy. “Still, we delivered his aeroplane in one piece, but it will take a week to clean it up.”
Muir was propped up in bed, supported by pillows, his eyes closed. “Ah nivver want tae see anither aeroplane again. Ah’m goin’ tae buy a wee boat, an’ go fishin’.”
Greaves stood up, and walked unsteadily across the room. He sat on the end of Muir’s bed, and took a deep breath. “Gordon, this is an opportunity for me to say something important, something which I’ve been thinking about for a long time. You got us out of another difficult situation today, and we all owe you a vote of thanks, not to mention our lives. Without your skill, we’d all be shark food now. But some events have got us puzzled, Gordon. We’ve noticed that you knew exactly what to do about refuelling and tying down the Rapide, and you did it properly. Then today you took over control of the Rapide, and handled it well enough to get us to Darwin. Now in my opinion, nobody could take control of an aircraft and fly it in the manner which you did without having previous knowledge and flying experience. Harry and I think that your knowledge of aircraft is considerably more than you’ve told us. Are we correct?”
Muir took a deep breath, and was silent for a minute, looking out of the window. He turned and looked at Greaves, his face still showing the strain of recent events.
“Aye, aye, you’re richt. Ah huvnae always been a rigger, ye ken. Ah wis trained tae be an aircraft rigger durin’ the war, so Ah knew a bit aboot aircraft. When Ah wis demobbed, Ah got a job workin’ wi’ sheet metal, an’ somebody asked me tae make a cowlin’ for an aeroplane engine. Then Ah made ither aeroplane pieces, an’ got interested in flyin,’ an’ took flyin’ lessons. When Ah had aboot twenty oors, a fella asked me tae tak a few cases o’ whisky up tae Kirkwall, in the Orkneys. Well, that wis the start o’ it. Ah soon found oot that the whisky wis stolen, but the money wis so guid that Ah kept makin’ trips tae Kirkwall, Lerwick, an’ the wee islands in the Hebrides. Aye, it wis guid money a’ richt, an’ grand flyin’ when the weather wis guid.”
He took a sip of water. “Then one day, the boss asked me tae tak a passenger across the watter, as well as the whisky. He looked tae be a rough character, an’ Ah wisnae keen on it, but there wis mair money, so Ah said OK. We wis nearly across, when the engine started runnin’ rough, an’ we came doon on the beach at Stornoway. We hit rocks in the sand, an’ the plane wis wrecked, an’ he wis killed. The whole set-up wis investigated by the polis, an’ Ah got three years, an’ my flyin’ licence cancelled.”
The strain was telling on him, and he swallowed hard. “After that, Ah left Scotland, an’ wandered through Europe, gettin’ work as a rigger or metal worker where Ah could. Ah’ve been a lot o’ places, an’ seen a lot o’ things, but noo Ah’m tired, an’ Ah think Ah’ll stay here for a bit, whar it’s nice an’ warm.”
“I don’t give a damn what you’ve done in the past, Gordon,” said Rogers. As far as I’m concerned, the only reasons we’re here tonight are because you ate fish instead of curry at Koepang, and because you tried your best to keep us in the air, and you succeeded. We literally owe you our lives. At this point of time, there’s little we can do to show our appreciation, but I’m sure Bob and Margaret will think of something.”
Greaves stood up, and put his hand on Muir’s shoulder. “Thank you for telling us your story, Gordon. We’ve certainly benefited from your earlier experiences. Do you think you might stay in Australia for a while?“
“Aye, Ah think Ah will. Ah’ve heard there’s some grand fishin’ in these watters, an’ Ah’d like tae try that.”
“We should contact the local Immigration and Customs people as soon as we can,” said Greaves. “The hospital authorities have probably informed them that we’re here, so we’d better show up before somebody panics.”
“It seems strange, doesn’t it?” said Rogers. “Of all the places we’ve arrived at over the past few weeks, this is our final stop. When I hand over my passport, I’ll know I’ve finally arrived. Mission completed. Now for a nice cruise back to England, in time for Christmas.”
“I’ll have to face the music tomorrow, and contact the de Havilland office,” said Greaves. “I hope Sinclair hasn’t promised to deliver the plane straight away, and I hope he’ll understand the situation. It’s going to be embarrassing.”
“Yes, music, “ declared Rogers. “Good idea. Switch on the radio, Gordon, and we’ll have some music. It’s too quiet around here.”
They continued to chat, discussing the impending meeting with David Sinclair, the local de Havilland manager. At 9.15 p.m., the radio was broadcasting musical selections submitted by listeners, when the announcer interrupted the program.
“We interrupt this program to bring you an important announcement from the Prime Minister of Australia, the Right Honourable R.G. Menzies.”
“Just a minute,” said Greaves. “Be quiet. Let’s listen to this announcement.” The conversation in the ward died away, and the Prime Minister spoke in a deep, sombre, voice.
“It is my melancholy duty to inform you that, in consequence of a persistence of Germany in her invasion of Poland, Great Britain has declared war upon her, and that, as a result, Australia is also at war.” ^^*^^^^^^
“Dear God,” said Greaves.
“Huv they goan maad?” growled Muir.
“Oh shit,” proclaimed Rogers.
They listened to the remainder of the seven minute broadcast in silence.
“Well, that’s torn it,” said Greaves. “We knew the situation was bad, but we didn’t think it was that bad. We’d better see about getting back to England as soon as possible.”
“We might not have a job when we get back,” remarked Rogers. “People won’t want to be flying around when there’s a war on.”
“It’s not just that,” said Greaves, getting up from his chair and reaching for his dressing gown. “It’s quite possible that all private and commercial flying will be banned. People like us will probably be conscripted into the air force, and commercial aircraft will be commandeered into service as freighters or troop carriers. I’m going to see Margaret.”
In the women’s ward, Margaret was happily chatting to the two other ward occupants,
“………and then it was my turn. I didn’t care what the others were doing, I just ran to the toilet and locked myself in. I didn’t care what the aeroplane was doing, I just kept on being sick into the toilet, and the plane was jumping around, and I had to use the toilet every few minutes. Oh, it was awful! I must have gone to sleep for a while, sitting on the toilet, because I banged my head on the wall when the plane was making a turn. I really thought my last moments had come.”
Her gripping account of the events enthralled the two women patients, who pressed her with numerous questions, and Margaret enjoyed her new status as a survivor.
The night nurse told Margaret that her husband wanted to see her as a matter of urgency, and provided her with a hospital gown and sandals, before escorting her into the patient’s lounge room, where Bob Greaves was waiting.
“Hullo dear,” said Margaret. “The nurse said you wanted to see me straight away.”
A sofa became vacant, and they occupied it . “What’s the matter, Bob? What’s the urgency?”
“Now Margaret,” replied Greaves. “We’ve just heard something most unpleasant on the radio,and it will affect all of us.”
“Oh, it sounds serious. What’s it all about?”
“Well, you know how in recent weeks we’ve heard odd rumblings about the political situation in Europe. We’ve heard a radio broadcast, a few minutes ago, stating that England is now at war with Germany, which means that Australia is also at war.”
Margaret’s face went pale, and she breathed rapidly, covering her face. Tears started to flow. “What about my parents, and our flat? They said that during the last war, the Germans bombed houses, and ordinary people were killed. Bob, we should go home now!”
“Yes, my dear, I think we should go home as quickly as possible. If your parents have to move, they’ll need all the help they can get. We’ll send them a telegram tomorrow, to let them know we’re making arrangements.”
“Yes, yes, we must do that quickly. Can you finish up in a few days?”
“Hopefully, they’ll let us out of here tomorrow, then we’ll have to report to Immigration and Customs, and then I’ll contact David Sinclair from de Havilland’s. Then we’ll have to thoroughly clean the Rapide’s cabin, demolish the fuel cradle, and re-fit the three seats we’ve stuffed into the luggage locker. All that should take at least two days. Sinclair might know somebody in shipping who might be able to arrange a couple of cabins on a ship leaving soon, but I’m not sure what is the government policy about passenger ships sailing in a time of war.”
“Oo, I hadn’t thought of that. Perhaps we could fly home, but we’d have to cross over Italy and France, and I wouldn’t like that.”
“Hmmm. I’ll send a telegram to Jamieson, and ask his advice. But for the present, I’m going to get some sleep. Try not to worry about this, my dear. We’ll have things sorted out in a few days. Sleep well. Good night.”
As news of the war spread, there were many sleepless people in the hospital that night, and the night nurses tried to maintain an air of quiet authority among those patients who tossed in their bed, wandered through the corridors, or constantly called for assistance.
Monday morning dawned with a buzz of expectation amongst patients and staff, and every news broadcast was heard with rapt attention. The doctor examined each crew member late in the morning, and pronounced them well enough to leave hospital, with the warning that they should not attempt anything strenuous for a few days, and to eat only easily digestable food. After collecting their luggage from the hospital store room, they changed into fresh clothing, and Greaves telephoned David Sinclair at de Havilland to explain their situation.
Sinclair was an active, middle-aged man, with bright eyes and a brisk manner. His fair curly hair was beginning to thin on top, but he had the bright personality necessary to influence prospective buyers in a competitive market. He appeared to be very casual about the whole Rapide episode. “Don’t worry at all about it, Bob. All’s well that ends well. Hells bells, you folks certainly know how to make a spectacular arrival, but if you’d given us some notice, we could’ve arranged a brass band.”
Greaves was relieved that Sinclair had taken the episode so well. “They say that there’s no such thing as bad advertising,” said Greaves. “All the airline people will know by this time that de Havilland have got a new Rapide, so we’d better start cleaning it up for your demonstration flights. But before that, we’re being held to ransom here at the hospital, because we can’t pay their bill. Could you please come and bail us out?”
“Well, there’s no doubt about it,” drawled Sinclair. “You’re in the country for five minutes, and you want me to pay your hospital bill. I think I’ll let the hospital feed you to the crocs.”
“We’re too tough for the crocs,” joked Greaves. “They only eat soft Aussies. Anyway, we’ve got to check in at Immigration and Customs as soon as possible, or our next accommodation will be as guests of His Majesty.”
Sinclair and an assistant arrived soon after, driving two cars, and after introductions all around, he drove them to the arrivals desk at the airfield, where their passports were checked, and the Customs and Immigration officers were keen to hear first hand the story of their arrival. Next, they drove to the aircraft parking area on the western side of the airfield, and looked sadly at the Rapide, now tied down with stakes, and resting awkwardly on a flat tyre.
“Well, David, there she is,” declared Greaves. “I know she looks a bit poorly at the moment, but she’s done us good service, and never missed a beat. I think the cabin will be a bit of a mess.”
“I’m sure it is,” said Sinclair, but I think we should see the extent of the damage soon, so as we can make arrangements for cleaning. I’ve got the key from Macdonald.”
Sinclair briefly looked inside, and quickly retreated. “We’ll get the professional cleaners in for this job, but first we’ll have to remove that bloody awful reserve fuel cradle. I’ll get my lads onto this straight away.”
The group walked back to the cars. “We’re terribly sorry for all this mess,” said Rogers. I can see we’ve given you a lot of work you didn’t expect.”
“Yes, that‘s so,” said Sinclair, “but for some unknown reason, the mining company who were so anxious to get their hands on the plane haven’t been bothering me for a week. However, I’ll tell them that the plane has arrived, and that we’re waiting on the airworthiness inspector, before it can be registered in Australia. That should keep them quiet for a few days. Now I’ll take you to your hotel. I’ve booked you in at the Darwin Hotel, in Mitchell Street.”
Driving back to Darwin township, Greaves raised the subject of the Prime Minister’s recent announcement. “What do you think about last night’s announcement about war in Europe, David? Do you think it will affect your business?”
“Huh!” exclaimed Sinclair. “I think that’s just a flash in the pan. They might fire a few shots, and sink the odd ship or two, but it’ll be all over before Christmas. The steel company which bought the Rapide will probably increase their production for a while, to build up their reserves, but I don’t think the war will have any lasting effect on either their business or our business.”
“Have you heard from your Singapore office lately?” asked Greaves.
“Ah, yes. I was speaking to Farrington yesterday, and he mentioned that you managed to win a sale to Siamese royalty. That should look good in the end of year report. Well done! He also said that you got a mention in the Straits Times, concerning an incident with a KLM Fokker. You fellows seem to have all the fun. You must tell me about it over lunch.”
On the outskirts of Darwin township, Sinclair stopped at the de Havilland office to make some phone calls. His assistant, driving the second car, arranged to take Margaret and Muir for a quick drive around the township, and they would meet at Ishikawa’s Japanese restaurant later.
Greaves and Muir sat in the waiting room, looking at pictures of de Havilland aircraft on the walls, while Sinclair made phone calls. He emerged from his office, looking exasperated.
“I’ve had a message from a local company called Guinea Air, which has a contract with the steel company which bought your Rapide, Baker Hill Limited, to provide a pilot whenever they need to fly somewhere, which is quite often. Their regular pilot has developed appendicitis, and won’t be available for another month. Guinea Air have tried the Aero Club, but no luck, so they’ve asked me if I knew anybody who might be available. I don’t suppose you’d be interested in staying here for a few weeks, and picking up a bit of work?”
“Not a chance,” said Greaves. “We’re homeward bound.”
Over lunch, the crew discussed their proposed method of travel back to England, and Sinclair advised that they should discuss this with his usual travel agent immediately. Margaret and Muir declined, and said that they would wander through the town.
After lunch, Sinclair introduced Greaves and Muir to his travel agent. Greaves explained his requirements, but the travel agent sat grim-faced, and shook his head. “I have several people in the same situation, all wanting to return to England immediately. Things are in a bit of an uproar at present, because of the hostilities announcement, and shipping arrangements are being revised every hour. I really can’t offer you any useful advice until the shipping lines give me some firm departure dates.”
“Hmmm,” said Greaves, his mind racing, thinking of schemes and discarding them almost immediately. “Apart from the regular routes, do you know of any freighters which may take a few passengers, and travel via irregular routes?”
The travel agent stood, and pointed to a large world map on the wall. “The regular route from Darwin is by coastal steamer to Perth, then across the Indian Ocean to Cape Town, and up the west coast of Africa to Tenerife, Lisbon, and London. At present, I imagine that all shipping approaching the English Channel would be subject to hostile action, and ships would have to take their chances.”
He paused to let this information have effect, then continued. “Alternatively, and at much greater expense, you could fly to Singapore with Qantas, then fly with KLM to Calcutta, Karachi, Bahrain, Cairo, Tripoli, Algiers, Rome, Paris, and London. However, we don’t know if it is safe to fly over the Mediterranean at present, as Italy is a strong ally of Germany, and may deny passage to foreign aircraft. It’s all so uncertain at present. I suggest that you contact me in a week or so, and I may then be in a better position to help you.”
They left the travel agent’s office very disheartened. Sinclair drove them to a bank, where Jamieson had arranged to have money available, before leaving them at their hotel. Later, they sent telegrams to Margaret’s parents, Roger’s parents, and to Jamieson, outlining their situation.
Over dinner that night, the crew discussed alternative routes of travel, and agreed that the safest route would be to get a ship to Lisbon, and then find another ship, preferably a neutral ship, and travel to Cork or Dublin, then a ferry to England.
Margaret was enthusiastic about this scheme. “Oh yes, that sounds great! There are bound to be lots of ships at Lisbon. We could be home well before Christmas!”
“I must say I agree with Margaret,” said Rogers. “That route appears to offer minimum difficulty, and I think we should take it.”
“It winna bother me at a’,” growled Muir. “It’s warm here, an’ there’s a few pubs aboot. I’ll buy masel’ a wee boat, an’ go fishin’ every second day.”
Rogers was curious. “Every second day? Why not every day?”
“Ach, I’ve got tae gie masel’ some drinkin’ time, lad.”
“Right, that’s decided then,” said Greaves. “Now we’ve got to put our remaining time here to good use. I’ll get the travel agent to enquire about passage to Perth, hopefully to co-incide with shipping to Cape Town and Lisbon. Tomorrow, we can help to clean up the Rapide, then enjoy ourselves while we can.”
But it didn’t work out that way.
Darwin, 05 September, 1939.
Next morning, the crew helped de Havilland’s team to remove the soiled items and fuel cradle from the Rapide’s cabin, then watched as the cleaners used a small high pressure hose to wash every surface. There was nothing else they could do, so they walked back to the office of the Emergency Services Controller. Macdonald was pleased to see them, and he appreciated the thanks they offered for his involvement in their rescue. Macdonald explained how the emergency services system operated, and the involvement of Father O’Leary and Bill Burke and his “Burke’s Bus.”
As they were leaving, Macdonald caught Greaves’ elbow, and said, “Just a minute, Bob. It seems that pilots are in short supply at the moment. I had a call yesterday from the director of Island Mission Services, wanting to know if I knew of a pilot who may want a bit of extra work for a few weeks. It seems that Bill Burke is getting married to a girl in Broome in about two weeks time, and the director would like to maintain the air service while Burke is away. Now, if it happens that you can’t get a passage to England soon, would you be interested in a few weeks work?”
Greaves laughed. “Here we are, thousands of miles from home, quietly enjoying ourselves, and you want me to work! Yesterday, David Sinclair from de Havilland said that Guinea Air wanted a replacement pilot, because their regular man had appendicitis! We just want to go home, and fly our regular routes.”
Macdonald shrugged, and led the way out of his office. “Oh well, the Mission Service will just have to look elsewhere. I just thought that you might be here for some time, because of your difficulties with travelling arrangements, and because of the war………”
His voice trailed off as he realised that Greaves, Rogers, Margaret, and Muir were not behind him. They were still standing by his desk, looking at each other, then they all started talking at once.
“We could do it, Bob,” said Rogers. “I could fly for the Mission Service, and you could fly the Baker Hill people when required. It would only be for a few weeks, and it would be a great experience. We could make a few pounds, and in that time the situation in England may have eased, and we’ll be able to sail home without difficulty.”
“Oh no!,” cried Margaret. “I want to go home now! I want to see my parents, and to have a proper Christmas. I was talking to a lady in a shop, and she said that it gets very hot and sticky next month, with lots of thunderstorms. I want to live in our own flat, and buy a dog!”
Muir added his comment from the doorway. “Thunderstorms are nae guid for fishin’ frae a wee boat.”
Greaves ignored Margaret’s plea. “You’re right, Harry. It might just work out. Some of those island strips might be a bit rough, though, and you’d have to get an endorsement on your licence for the Fairchild Argus.”
“Hmmm. That could be a problem,” said Rogers. “Bill Burke carries passengers, and I can’t carry passengers without an endorsement. I don’t think I could get an endorsement here in Darwin. I’d probably have to fly south to Perth to contact a flight instructor.”
“No, no, nothing like that,” said Macdonald. “I’m sure it could be arranged. You’ve just got to speak to the right person.”
“Excellent!” cried Rogers. “Who is this chap, and where can I find him.”
“You’ve found him,” said Macdonald. “It’s me.”
The next day, each member of the Rapide crew went their own way, which was just as well, because there was a distinct chill in the Greaves’ relationship. Harry Rogers went to an interview with the director of Island Mission Services, Margaret Greaves stayed at the hotel to organise her clothes, Bob Greaves went to speak with Ron Edmonds at Guinea Air, and Gordon Muir went to see a man about a boat.
The men were away from the hotel for the whole day, which suited Margaret. She had met with little female company during the past few weeks, and she was very pleased to find another lady in the hotel laundry, where they had each brought a bundle of soiled clothing. They both managed to find some common ground in complaining about their husband’s work, and Margaret was very scathing in her comments about Bob.
“After all those weeks at sea, then flying all that way down the coast of Malaya and Java, and that terrible sea crossing from Timor, he still wants to go flying around Darwin. You’d think he would have had enough flying for a few weeks, and try to get us on a ship or plane to anywhere, but no, he’s got to fiddle with planes, and go gallivanting about. If I had the opportunity, I’d go straight home, and leave him here to play with his planes.”
Harry Rogers was having second thoughts about flying around the numerous islands in the vicinity of Darwin. “I’ll bet they’ll be short, uphill, narrow, with trees right down to the edge,” he thought. He’d flown on to some rough airfields in northern Scotland, which were not very pleasant, and tried to imagine himself doing this in “Burke’s Bus,” with a load of noisy natives and squealing pigs.
However, his interview with the director of Island Mission services went surprisingly well, and both parties thought that they could work amicably with the other. The director suggested that he should fly with Bill Burke for a day or two, “just to get the hang of it,” and to make a final decision at that time. Rogers returned to the hotel in a better frame of mind.
The Guinea Air hangar was one of a group of hangars at the northern end of the airfield, each leased from the government. It was next but one from the de Havilland hangar, and Greaves could see men at work on the Rapide as he approached the hangar. The manager of Guinea Air, Ron Edmonds, welcomed him, and showed him into a cluttered office.
“I must say I was surprised when David Sinclair said that you might be interested in putting in a few hours. You’ve hardly had time to settle down from that long flight, and I’ve heard you’ve had some adventures along the way. I really thought you’d be taking it easy for a while.”
Greaves smiled. “Well, it’s a combination of circumstances, really. We were planning to travel back to England, but with the war situation, we can’t be assured of a passage, so while we’re waiting for things to settle down, David thought that I may be of assistance to Guinea Air.”
“Indeed you may certainly be of assistance. Our regular pilot is ill, and will be unavailable for a few weeks. Our contract with Baker Hill is for the provision of a pilot for their Rapide. It’s quite straightforward flying. As well as their steel-making business, Baker Hill are carrying out exploratory work at several proposed mining sites in remote areas, thus the need for an aircraft. Your passengers will be executives on some occasions, and mining people on other occasions. You may have to stay overnight in tents now and then, but you’ll certainly see quite a bit of the country.”
He paused, looking for a reaction from Greaves, but there was none. He continued. “We have to give a good impression to some of the people we meet. Have you got a uniform or something like that?”
“No, we were travelling light from England, but I could get a couple of white shirts and some blue trousers and black shoes if you like.”
“That would be excellent,” said Edmonds. “Pity we haven’t got a hostess for the executive flights.”
“Well, I suppose I could ask my wife, Margaret, if she’s interested. I’m sure she could do whatever is required.”
“That would be really good!” exclaimed Edmonds. “That would really be a touch of class. I’d be most grateful if you could persuade her.”
They parted, and Greaves felt both relieved and happy as he caught a taxi back to the hotel, and reached his room just as Margaret appeared with a large bag of washing. She greeted him coldly, but he assumed a happy disposition.
“Margaret, my dear, we’re back in the flying business. Guinea Air want to pay me a good rate for flying the Rapide. They want me to wear a simple uniform, so I’ll need some white shirts, blue trousers, and black shoes. But here’s the best part. On some flights, they would like a hostess, and I mentioned that you might be interested in that.”
“Well, you can think again,” she replied sharply. “There are two reasons why I’m not interested in that idea. Firstly, I’ve had enough of flying in that noisy damn plane, being shaken all over the sky. I can’t think of anything worse than trying to be nice to people when my brain is rattled by continuous noise, and walking bent-over along that narrow aisle way spilling drinks in all directions.” She paused.
“Allright,” said Greaves. “You said there were two reasons. What’s the other?”
“You should know how. It must have been that night in Tenerife, when we returned from that walk along the beach, where we saw those people……”
“But the doctor said you couldn’t have children. He said that the bits and pieces……..”
“You make me sound like a damned aeroplane. The doctor was wrong. Against all the odds, and after all this time, it’s happened. I don’t know what to think. A long time ago, we really wanted a child, but now, with the war, and being so far from my parents, I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.”
He held her closely, and they did both.
Muir returned to the hotel before dinner that evening, having clearly been celebrating the purchase of his “wee boat.” Rogers questioned him about details of the boat, and of the seller.
“He’s a guid man, a machine operator, workin’ on the new airfield they’re buildin’ for the air force. They’ve just aboot finished it noo, an’ he’s wantin’ tae gae back tae Cairns, so he’s no’ needin’ the boat. It’s a bonny boat, wi’ a full cabin, an’ a kitchen, an’ bunks, an’ a fine diesel engine. We went oot intae the harbour in it, an’ it handles gae fine. He says it’ll dae twelve knots in a guid sea. Ah gave him twenty pounds deposit, an’ I’ll gie him the rest when it’s sent frae the bank in Delhi. Ah’m fair chuffed aboot it.”
“Congratulations Gordon, said Rogers. “Where will you keep the boat?”
“He’s got a moorin’ near the pearlin’ fleet, under Railway Hill, an’ pays the harbour master six pounds a year for it. He’ll leave his fishin’ gear for me, too.”
“Gordon, if this fellow is going back to Cairns, where does he live now?” asked Greaves.
“Ach, he’s a family man wi’ three bairns, an’ he rents a guid size hoose at the top end o’ Mitchell Street, aroond the corner frae the motor garage.”
There was a short silence as Greaves looked at Margaret. She raised her eyebrows, but didn’t reply.
Greaves continued. “So his house will be up for rental again soon, Gordon?”
“Aye, he’ll be gaein’ tae see Simmons, the agent, next week, so he says, an’ then his company will send a’ his furniture tae Cairns. His wife canna wait.”
“Gordon, I’m thinking that as we’ll be here for at least two or three weeks, we could probably rent the house for a month, and that would be cheaper and quieter than living in this hotel. What do you fellows think about that?”
The agreement was unanimous, and even Margaret managed to look pleased about the idea.
The next few days were a flurry of activity, with Rogers arranging to meet Bill Burke, Greaves shopping for new clothes, and Margaret making arrangements to see a doctor. Muir was absent the whole of each day, working on his boat, and studying marine charts of the harbour area.
The previous owner of Muir’s boat announced that he would be leaving Darwin in two weeks, and the estate agent was pleased to rent the house to Greaves for a month, with an extension if required. He told Greaves that he was the owner of the house, as he had inherited it some years previously, and was waiting for prices to rise before selling it.
Rogers wasn’t impressed by the performance of “Burke’s Bus.” “It’s like trying to fly an elephant,” he cried. “Slow to get rolling, rocks from side to side, swings badly to the left on take-off, and struggles to get off the ground. It’s got brakes, but it certainly doesn’t need flaps, as it will fall out of the sky quite readily. The engine sounds like a weaving machine fighting with a bucket of bolts. No wonder Burke looks so fit. After lifting all sorts of things into the cabin, and tying them down, you have to have the strength of a gorilla to operate the flying controls.”
“But what about the landing strips?“ asked Greaves.
“As I thought, they’re very primitive. Narrow and rough, usually carved out of the jungle, with long grass hiding the bumps. On my second landing, I stepped out of the cabin onto the wheel fairing, and as I looked down to step off, I found we had run over a large black snake, which wasn’t very happy about our arrival. Fortunately, the Mission boys caught it, and said it was good to eat. Believe me, this is not going to be an easy job. No wonder Burke wants some time off.”
By the end of the week, there was still no positive news about the availability of passage to England, and the first doubts had begun to appear in the attitudes of the crew. The proposed quick departure from Darwin, and the dream of being home before Christmas had begun to fade, and were now being replaced by the reality of being trapped in Darwin for a considerable time.
The Rapide had been thoroughly cleaned, the curtains washed, the carpet replaced, and Sinclair had arranged for a hand-over inspection by Macdonald. He had previously arranged for new Australian registration letters to be made available for the Rapide, and the new letters were quickly painted on in time for the hand-over flight. John Travers, the local manager of Baker Hill Limited, had requested BHLD as the registration letters, and he smiled as he walked to the aircraft, accompanied by Sinclair and four BHL executives.
The Rapide looked very smart as it stood in the morning sun, with the maroon fuselage contrasting with the cream wings. The engine cowlings had also been painted in the maroon colour, with the engine exhausts painted black, and the wooden propellers polished in their natural colour. The registration letters on the fuselage side were underscored with the words Baker Hill Limited, ensuring that there was no doubt as to whom the aircraft belonged .
Sinclair stopped at the cabin door, as Greaves stood alongside, ready to assist the passengers up the three steps into the cabin. His white shirt had been hastily embroidered above the pocket with BHL in blue cotton, and BHL staff had found four strips of gold tape for the epaulettes.
“Here she is, John,” said Sinclair, patting the fuselage and grinning. “She’s been a long time coming, but I’m sure you’ll find her well worth the wait. May I introduce captain Bob Greaves, the leader of the crew which brought her from England, the first aeroplane in the BHL fleet.” Introductions were made, and Greaves ushered the executives through the narrow door, and into the cabin. He ensured that they were strapped in and comfortable in the fine leather seats, and handed out cork and cotton earplugs.
Greaves stood at the cockpit doorway, and pointed out the various features of the cabin fittings, noting the grunts of approval from the passengers. He kept the best fitting till last. “The cabinet on my left below the sink is not the first aid cabinet. It contains liquid refreshment of a more social nature, which will be made available after take-off.”
There were smiles and cheers from the passengers as Travers held up the cabinet key for all to see. Greaves settled in to the cockpit, and wished that his take-off from Darwin airfield would be less dramatic than his arrival. Climbing away from the field, Greaves could see the pearling fleet heading out, their sails white against the turquoise sea. He swung to the north, over the new area called Nightcliff, and he could see the new air force base being built nearby, with two long hard-surfaced airstrips. He continued in a long sweep around to the south, and shouted to Sinclair to warn the passengers that he was going to demonstrate how the Rapide could fly on one engine.
He did this a few minutes later, and could hear comments and laughter from the cabin, although he couldn’t distinguish the words. Turning west over the quarantine station, he flew over the township on both engines, and made a sign to Travers to open the drinks cabinet. The resulting cheer from the cabin confirmed that the cabinet had been opened.
Greaves throttled back to reduce engine noise, and swung left over the coast, then left as he reached the highway, over a large cattle station called Humpty Doo, with the name painted on the roof of a large shed, and wondered about the origin of the name. Approaching the airfield from the south, he signalled to Travers that he was going to land, and made a long slow approach over the railway line, touching down with hardly a bump on the airfield. He taxied to the de Havilland hangar, and switched off.
The executives were quite jovial as they departed from the Rapide, and Greaves overheard Travers joking with Sinclair. “I don’t know why you sold us a plane with two engines, David. One engine seemed to do the job perfectly well.”
Later, Sinclair shook Greaves’ hand warmly, and looked very pleased. “It couldn’t have been better, Bob. Well done.”
Rogers had now completed three days flying with Bill Burke, and had become more tolerant of the heavy flying characteristics of the Fairchild Argus. He had made notes of the features of each landing field on the nearby islands, and of the happy but noisy behaviour of the island people. Macdonald had arranged to accompany Burke and Rogers the next day, as they had to make a quick trip to Bathurst Island Mission, and this would be a good opportunity for Macdonald to examine Rogers’ flying capability on the Fairchild Argus.
The next day was not a good day for flying. A strong westerly wind was blowing, and a few large drops of rain fell reluctantly from the darkening sky. Macdonald asked Rogers if he wished to proceed with the examination.
“Certainly. This weather reminds me of Scotland, so I’m used to a few bumps. Anyway, Bill promised Father O’Leary that we would pick up his visitor and get him back to the station in time for the afternoon train, so we’re committed.”
The flight to Bathurst Island was rough, but Macdonald, sitting next to the pilot, watched every move which Rogers made. The flight took only twenty minutes, and as Rogers made his approach to the small landing strip, Macdonald barked “Emergency situation. Cattle on the landing strip.” Rogers opened the throttle, and pulled up the nose of the Fairchild, leaving the spectators on the ground puzzled. As Rogers was turning away from the landing strip, Macdonald reached across in front of Rogers, and flicked off the engine ignition switch. “Emergency situation. Engine failure.” he barked.
Rogers had been expecting some sort of test under emergency conditions to be presented, but he was surprised that Macdonald would initiate an engine failure test when the aircraft was turning steeply to the left, at low level. Rogers pushed the nose down, to maintain speed as much as possible, and gently straightened the course using ailerons before using the rudder. He was surprised at how much height had been lost in those few seconds, and managed a quick glance through a side window to check the horizon. Macdonald barked “Restart engine,” and activated the ignition switch. Rogers pulled the starting switch, and heard the engine turning over, but it failed to start.
The Fairchild was now in a precarious position, at low altitude over dense jungle and without power. Rogers reached for the starting switch again, with the mixture control lever adjacent, and remembered Burke’s comment on the first day of instruction. “She’s like a good woman. Performs better after a good drink.” Pushing the lever to “rich”, he tried the starter again, and heard the rattle of the mechanisim, followed by the roar of the big seven cylinder radial engine bursting into life. He gently pulled the nose up, and heard Macdonald clearing his throat. “You may land,” is all that he said.
A white-faced Burke was first out of the Fairchild through the cargo door as it rolled to a stop, and had his cigarette glowing fiercely as Rogers and Macdonald made their exit. Father O’Leary emerged from a near-by hut, and walked quickly towards the plane. “Have you had engine trouble?” he asked.
“No, no,” replied Rogers calmly. “Just practicing emergency conditions.” He introduced Macdonald, and they retired to the Mission house for tea. Burke was lighting his second cigarette before they reached the house.
At the hotel, Greaves was reading a telegram from Jamieson, in reply to his earlier report. Rogers and Margaret were listening anxiously.
“European situation deteriorating rapidly. Civil flying severely curtailed, likely to cease soon. Alltrans unable to provide further financial support in foreseeable future, suggest you find employment in Australia. Will gladly attend to any of your outstanding matters here, please advise. Deeply regret this situation, many thanks for job well done. Regards, Jamieson.”
“That’s torn it,” declared Rogers. “No more playing remittance man in the South Pacific. Here we are, isolated on the other side of the world, a few hours work every week to pay the rent, and now we’ve lost our jobs at home. Didn’t they transport criminals to Australia some years ago?”
“That’s strange,” said Greaves. “That’s just how I feel. But I’m afraid there’s a bit more to it than just paying the rent.” He walked across to Margaret, and put his arm around her.
“It’s time the secret came out, my dear.” He turned towards Rogers and Muir, both slumped into armchairs, and said, “We’re getting another crew member, a very little one.” He paused, noting the puzzled expression on Rogers’ face. “Margaret and I are going to become parents.”
Muir was the first to respond, leaping out of his chair with surprising agility. “My, that’s grand. Let me shake yer haund, lad. Oh Margaret, Ah thocht ye’ve been a bit quiet lately, but that’s grand news.” He squeezed her hand, and kissed her cheek. “Ah’m sure the bairn couldn’a hae a better mother.” A single tear ran down Margaret’s cheek.
After a stunned silence, Rogers also lurched to his feet, grinning. “Well, this trip has been full of surprises, but this is the greatest surprise of all. Well done, you two.” He gripped Greaves’ hand. “Congratulations, Bob. This will make a new man of you. A family man, eh? Responsibilities and all that . I’ll bet he gets his wings on this sixteenth birthday. Ah, Margaret.” He stepped forward, and kissed her cheek. “I’ m so pleased for you, Margaret, a mother- to- be. We ’ll have to take good care of you now. No more carrying baskets of washing here and there, and running after taxis. Good food, and lots of rest, and sunshine.”
“Thanks, Harry,” said Margaret, smiling. “But what’s this about getting wings on his sixteenth birthday? That “him” might be a “her.”
“Oh gosh, I hadn’t thought of that,” mumbled Rogers, blushing. “I think………I suppose
……….er, well, anything’s possible, isn’t it?”
“And Bob, “said Margaret, “you’ll be pleased to know I’ve given up the idea of getting a dog.”
Greaves was planning his first flight with Guinea Air the following day. Flying south from Darwin, they would stop at Katherine for fuel, and to collect some mining equipment for an exploration team working in an area just over the border into Western Australia. There would be four passengers; a geologist , a surveyor, and two drillers. The drillers worked seven days per week, three weeks on, nine days off, and would replace two other drillers whose shift had finished. They were glad to have the opportunity to return to Darwin by air, instead of their usual 440 mile rough ride in the truck to Katherine, then the 180 mile train trip to Darwin.
The instructions which Greaves had received from Ron Edwards were simple. “Follow the railway line to Katherine, get some fuel, load the mining equipment, and steer 250 degrees over the mountains. It gets a bit bouncy over the hills, so keep some air under you. The wind will probably push you to the south, so look for a long arm inlet from the sea, at the end of a mountain range. Ivanhoe station is at the end of the arm, near the junction of two rivers. There’s a radio at Ivanhoe, so I’ll tell them to listen out at about eleven o’clock, for fifteen minutes.”
There was a gentle breeze when Greaves took off at 7 o’clock next morning, but he could see from the clouds there was turbulence at high altitude. He managed to fly above the turbulence, much to the relief of the passengers, who then managed to doze a little, hoping to lessen the stupefying effect of the engine noise. They refuelled at Katherine, and loaded the mining equipment, including some long lengths of drilling rods, and boxes of diamond tipped drilling bits.
Taking off an hour later, Greaves maintained a steady course over the mountains, and eventually saw Ivanhoe station near the river junction. The landing strip was compacted earth, and Greaves could see a covered truck waiting near the windsock at the end of the strip. The drillers were unloading the equipment as the station manager drove up, curious about the new aeroplane.
“Yes, its very different to the Fox Moth,” said Greaves. “It’s really an executive transport, not intended for carrying goods.”
“Gawd, look at them fancy seats,” said the manager. “an’ curtains an’ carpet. Struth! Them executives do pretty well fer themselves.”
“They certainly do,” replied Greaves. “It’s even got a toilet, and a drinks cabinet, just there,” he said, pointing to the small sink.
“Well, bugger me! Drinks!” exclaimed the manager, and he was overheard by a driller.
“Drinks? What, on the plane?”
“Yair, in that little cabinet,” said the manager, pointing.
“ Shit, I thought it was the first -aid cabinet, ” roared the driller. “I’ve sat right next to it fer three bloomin’ hours, an’ never wet me whistle!”
There was much laughter, but the station manager said that lunch was ready, and they’d “better get it now, or the cook’ll get real snarly.”
They enjoyed a good lunch, and as the off-duty drillers and surveyor prepared to board the Rapide for the return journey, Greaves noticed that one of the drillers had wet mud on his boots, and dried mud on his trousers. He approached the driller.
“Excuse me sir, but would you mind placing your boots in the luggage locker? They seem to be a bit muddy. I’ll put a towel on the seat for you to sit on.”
The burly driller looked at Greaves in disbelief. “Wot? Take me boots orf an’ sit there in me socks fer three hours? An’ wots wrong wif me trousers? Don’cha like the colour? He became angry. “Listen mate. I’m not takin’ me boots orf just cos’ ter ride in yer fancy plane.” He attempted to shoulder Greaves away from the cabin steps. “If yer don’t like me boots, then that’s your problem. There’s my bloody seat, an’ I’m goin’ ter Darwin.”
Greaves stood fast in front of the steps. “Sir, this aircraft will not leave the ground until you have complied with my request. I’m sure the other passengers would not appreciate sitting here in the hot sun all afternoon while you argue about taking off your boots. Please give me your boots, and I’ll put them in the luggage locker for you.”
“An’ who do yer think you are, sport? All tarted up in yer white shirt an’ pommy accent. Yer think yer can order people around, just because yer talk different. Well, yer not gunna order me around, fella.”
Greaves’ patience was wearing thin. “Sir, there is only one person in control here. I am the captain of this aircraft, and it is my duty to instruct you to remove your boots, in order to protect the trimmings of this aircraft. If you choose not to comply with my instruction, then you will not be permitted to board this aircraft.”
Greaves was now supported by the other driller. “Come on, Jacko. Shut yer face, take yer boots orf, an’ get in. It’s ‘ot sittin’ ‘ere.”
Jacko was about to reply when Greaves added, ”The bar will be opened once we are in the air.”
The effect on Jacko was magical. His eyes lit up, and a smile spread across his sunburnt face, showing his broken and discoloured teeth. “Well, that’s more like it,” he said with a grin. His muddy boots came off quickly, and pulling a grubby jacket from his bag, he scrambled on board, placed the jacket over the seat, and yelled, ”Let’s go!”
Greaves was unperturbed, as he checked the passengers seat belts. Bending across Jacko, he said, “I’ll fasten your seat belt for you, sir,” and clipped the ends together.
“Wot’s this fer?” asked Jacko, disliking the restraint of the seat belt.
Greaves bent over Jacko, and whispered confidentially in his ear. “Er, you haven’t flown before, have you, sir?” asked Greaves.
“No, I ain’t, but wots this ‘ere belt business about?”
“That’s to hold you into your seat, sir, in case we have to loop the loop,” replied Greaves.
Jacko’s sunburnt complexion faded quickly, and his eyes widened. Greaves moved quickly through the cabin, and with a satisfied grin, entered the cockpit.
[_ Darwin, late 1939 --- late 1941. _]
The next month passed quickly, with both Greaves and Rogers completing several flights for their employers. Margaret had relentlessly pursued the travel agent regarding the possibility of travelling by sea to England, but she had not received any encouraging news.
The crew had now negotiated a monthly lease on their house with the estate agent, who was glad to see the house occupied. Muir spent a great deal of time working on his boat, or fishing, according to the weather, which was now becoming unsettled as the wet season approached. Heavy cumulus clouds had been accumulating over the past few weeks, and the atmosphere was hot and humid. People’s tempers were delicately poised, and occasionally a fight would break out at the local hotel.
November stretched into December, and the wet season announced its arrival with a colossal thunderstorm, accompanied by strong winds, heavy rain, and spectacular
lightning. When weather conditions permitted, flights were quickly undertaken, but were limited in scope and number, and landing strips which were normally hard packed earth became strips of sticky black mud, impossible to lift a boot off, much less an aeroplane.
Greaves was now the only pilot accredited to fly the Rapide, as when the Guinea Air pilot assigned to fly the Rapide had returned from sick leave, he had immediately resigned his position. The Royal Australian Air Force were encouraging civilian pilots to enlist for the duration of the war, and the Guinea Air pilot had taken this opportunity.
Harry Rogers was in the small office used by Island Mission Services at the airfield, and had been busy flying on most days, but it was hard work, with continual problems regarding loading of equipment, local people, animals, mail, and the condition of landing fields. As he was sorting the Christmas mail required to be delivered on his next flight, the Director approached, waving a letter.
“A bit of bad news, Harry. Bill Burke has decided to stay in Broome with his new wife, and has tendered his resignation. He’s been offered a position with MacRobertson Miller Airlines, flying the Broome-Perth route.”
“Well, lucky Bill,” replied Rogers. “I think they fly Avro Tens or HP 42’s on that route. Sounds like a comfortable job.”
“Yes, very good. I…….er,…….I was wondering if you would care to fly full-time for the Mission? We could work out a suitable salary for you, and you’d be home most nights, no deadlines or strict timetables. You’d be your own boss in the transport department.”
Rogers quickly considered the offer. In this Godforsaken part of the world, any offer of steady employment was not to be refused, under the present wartime situation, and he grasped the opportunity. “I’d like that, sir. It would be like running my own airline.”
When the rains finally stopped in February, the landing strips suddenly became green fields, and the new grass provided good cover for millions of insects, each anxious to be heard, and constantly harassed by frogs, snakes, and birds. There were still some non-flying days, and BHL executives had noticed that the cabin of the Rapide was looking rather worn, due mainly to the drillers’ soiled clothing, and lengths of drill piping on the floor. Travers made arrangements for a general re-fit, with the carpet being replaced with linoleum, the mould-stained curtains replaced with new curtains, and the heavy leather-covered seats replaced with lightweight woven cane seats, with loose cushions.
The elegant appearance of the cabin had gone, and it now looked very utilitarian.
Greaves had just returned from a trip when Ron Edmonds called him into the Guinea Air office. “There’s been an accident at the airstrip which the airforce are building at Batchelor, about 60 miles south. A bulldozer driver has been badly injured, and can’t be brought out by road, and the airforce can’t use an Anson to bring him out because the new strip is too short at present, and too rough. They’ve asked if the Rapide is available, because they know it can lift off in 600 feet.”
Greaves considered the possibility. “Yes, with a light load it could get off allright, but we’d have to take out two seats to get a stretcher in. Even then, I’m not sure if we could get a stretcher through the doorway.”
Edmonds scratched his head. “The airforce have seen the Rapide parked here, and they think it’s a Guinea Air plane. I’ll have to get permission from John Travers at BHL before we do anything. Meanwhile, get the Rapide refuelled, and tell two of the hangar crew to be prepared to remove two seats quickly, as soon as I can get approval.”
Greaves was in the hangar when Edmonds entered a few minutes later. “We’ve got permission to proceed,” said Edmonds, “but all costs are to be sent to the airforce. I’ll tell the airforce we can do the job, provided they can get a stretcher through the doorway.”
Shortly after, an airforce ambulance arrived, with a stretcher fitted with folding handles, a doctor, and a box of first aid equipment. Within half an hour, they were in the air, following the main road for the short flight to Batchelor airfield. Greaves flew down the length of the partially completed strip, and could see the overturned bulldozer at one end, with people standing around. A grader which had been clearing light scrub made a hasty departure, leaving a convenient dust cloud from which Greaves could determine wind direction. As he touched down, Greaves could feel the control column shaking as he applied heavy pressure to the brakes, and pulled up in a cloud of dust which drifted slowly towards the group standing around the injured man.
As the doctor attended to the injured driver, the site foreman described the accident to Greaves. “Yair, he wuz makin’ a heap with th’ logs, an’ he got a track on top of a log, an’ it rolled away, an’ th’ dozer turned over, an’ rolled down th’ slope. Silly bugger!”
The doctor watched as the patient was placed onto the stretcher, and manoeuvred through the Rapide’s doorway. “He doesn’t look too good,” remarked Greaves.
“Internal injuries,” said the doctor bluntly. “Probably some organs crushed, loss of blood, and shock. I doubt if he’ll make it to hospital.”
A watering truck had sprinkled water onto the strip while the patient was being examined. Greaves taxied down to the other end of the strip, turned, and accelerated quickly along the strip, taking off with only feet to spare.
Greaves could feel the aircraft respond to the movements of the doctor as he moved around the cabin, and made small adjustments to the controls. By turning in his seat, Greaves could see into the right hand side of the cabin, but the left hand side was obscured by the cockpit wall. He couldn’t see that the stretcher was now covered by a green sheet.
Margaret’s pregnancy was starting to show, and she found her condition to be very tiring in the hot and humid weather. She had received a short letter from her mother, saying that air raids had started, and that everybody and everything was directed towards the war effort. Her nephew was in the navy, and had seen some action in the South Atlantic, where the British navy had scored a victory over the German cruiser Graf Spee.
The letter brought on another feeling of abandonment and hopelessness, and she thought everything had gone wrong with her life, blaming Bob and his flying career, but her wrath was aimed primarily at Alltrans, for accepting the challenge to deliver the Rapide to Australia. If only she could be at home in England with her parents at Christmas time, things would be all right.
Christmas came, and people’s thoughts of a quick end to the war were dashed. Margaret longed for the crisp air and bright lights of London’s Christmas shopping, the bustling crowds, and the sound of carols. She forced herself to walk to the shops every day, not only for exercise, but to keep in contact with other women. She had formed a friendship with Shirley Williams, a lady younger than herself, but who was already a mother, and whose husband was manager of a farming equipment store. Together, they sought out ways to manage their household budgets, and to contribute whatever spare time they had to the war effort.
After months of inactivity, the German army finally attacked in force during May, and quickly over-ran Belgium and Holland. British troops in northern France were hard pressed by the number and speed of enemy troops, and were surrounded at Dunkirk. An enormous rescue effort was organised by the British, to return their troops to England, and this was widely reported in the Northern Standard, Darwin’s weekly newspaper. Concurrent with this development, the newspaper reported on the progress of talks between American and Japanese government officials, about Japanese expansionist policies in the Pacific area. Rogers noticed this as he relaxed in a lounge chair after a trying day in the Fairchild, now re-named “Rogers Rocket.”
“Look at this, Bob. Here’s another article about the Japanese proposing to to expand into South-east Asia and the Pacific islands. People aren’t going to like that idea.”
Bob Greaves read the article. “It certainly looks like sabre-rattling to me. The Americans have major interests in the Pacific islands, especially in the Philippines, and they certainly won’t tolerate any interference by the Japanese. The French and the Dutch each have considerable colonies in Asia too, and I’m sure they won’t be happy about any Japanese expansion into their areas.”
Muir commented from the other side of the room. “Thon Japanese are cocky wee buggers. Look whit they did in China. When they wanted mair land, they just took it, an’ naebody stopped them.”
“It’s a delicate situation allright,” said Rogers. “If they do try to take more land, how far do you think they’ll go?”
“It’s hard to say,” replied Greaves. “They’ve already occupied Korea and Manchuria, so they might try to take Formosa, off the Chinese mainland. They’d probably like a warmer climate, where they can grow crops, so they might even go for some of the smaller islands in the Marianas. Anyway, it won’t bother us here in Australia.”
Margaret was now approaching the end of her pregnancy. She had endured the previous months with traditional British staunchness, but was now becoming tired of the burden of carrying the child, and wished that it was all over.
Resting after lunch, she was taken by surprise by the pain of her first contraction, and was again surprised when this was followed by more contractions. She had discussed with Bob the possibility of being alone when contractions occurred, and knew that she must now activate her plan. Retrieving her packed hospital bag, she telephoned Guinea Air and left a message for Bob, telling him where she was.
Margaret waited by the front door for the taxi to arrive, and considered her situation. This was definitely not how she had imagined her childbirth would be like. She was away from her London home, without her parents, living in a remote country where it was always hot, with only Bob, Harry, and “that scruffy Scotsman” for regular company. She would go to the little two-storey hospital overlooking Kahlin Bay, where the registrar said she would be well looked after, but she had her doubts. Darwin was a drab little town, an offshoot of an outpost, the furthermost colony from England. She longed for her homeland of tradition and security, and she felt very much alone.
Greaves was angry. On the return trip from Daly Waters Station, he had landed at Katherine to refuel, and found that the motor of the fuel transfer pump on the tanker-trailer had not yet been repaired from its failure that morning, when he had to pump the last thirty gallons into the Rapide by hand. Various explanations had been given, all of which sounded rather dubious to Greaves, the result being that he had to pump a further thirty gallons by hand that afternoon. The passengers had waited under a crude shelter, in the hot sun, and grumbled amongst themselves.
Greaves was still in a bad mood when he landed at Darwin an hour later, in the approaching darkness, and taxied to the passenger terminal, where he was surprised to find Ron Edmonds waiting for him. Greaves helped the passengers to disembark, and Edmonds approached as he closed the cabin door.
“Good trip, Bob? No problems?”
“The flight was fine, except for a faulty fuel pump on the tanker at Katherine. It failed in the morning, and they still hadn’t fixed it by the afternoon. I had to pump sixty gallons myself.”
“Oh well, don’t worry about that now. There’s another delivery which I’m sure you’ll be interested in.”
Greaves frowned. “Another delivery? At this time? It’ll be dark in twenty minutes.”
Edmonds smiled. “That’s just enough time for you to get to the hospital comfortably. Margaret took herself to the hospital just after lunch, so things should be happening at anytime. I rang a taxi for you when you radioed your approach, and it’s waiting now.”
Greaves waved his thanks as he ran towards the taxi.
Thomas Edward Greaves celebrated his first birthday in May 1941, and appeared to enjoy the fuss that was made of him by the few people present. Margaret’s friend Shirley Williams was there, and a neighbour, Emily Young, who worked at the Post Office, brought her young son, and the three children made a great deal of noise together. Greaves, Rogers, and Muir withdrew from the women, and went outside to smoke and discuss the progress of the war.
“Europe will never be the same,” said Rogers. “With Hitler having occupied France and Poland, and now advancing into Russia, I think the Germans are going to be very difficult to stop.”
“Aye, it’s goin’ tae be a lang war,” growled Muir, sucking on his pipe. “We huvn’ae done sae well at a,’ whit wi’ Dunkirk, Norway, Battle O’ Britain, an’ now Italy has teamed up wi’ Germany, an’ there’s fichtin’ in North Africa.”
“But don’t forget the old Jervis Bay, taking on the Admiral Scheer,” said Greaves, shaking his finger. “That was a good piece of work.”
They sat for a moment, each recalling their weeks aboard the Jervis Bay, now at the bottom of the Atlantic. “Aye,” said Muir. “They wis brave men a’richt.”
“The Japanese are still threatening to occupy more of China and Manchuria,” said Rogers. “That’s a lot of ground to cover. I just hope they don’t decide to expand southwards, because if they do, we could get a lot of refugees here in Australia.”
“I don’t think anybody could stop them if they did,” replied Greaves. “The Americans won’t even lend a few destroyers to Britain. They just sit there in Washington and say it’s not their war. They’re as much use as wings on an elephant.”
The following week, John Travers paid an unexpected visit to Guinea Air, where he discussed with Ron Edmonds the effect of the war on business.
“Yes, Ron, all our resources are being channelled into the war effort. Our aluminium smelter at Wollongong has been completed, and our steel smelters at Whyalla and Newcastle are working 24 hours each day.”
“That sounds like good business,” commented Edmonds. “You’re going to have a good year.”
“That’s all very well, but we’re fully committed to making steel and aluminium. All our ancillary staff have been directed into other positions, and we don’t envisage undertaking any further exploration work until after the war. In short, we don’t need the Rapide any more, and we’re wondering if your company would consider buying it.”
Ron Edmonds thought quickly. Guinea Air had recently written off an Avro 10 which had hit a flock of birds while landing at Groote Island, and the Rapide would be an excellent replacement. However, the insurance from the Avro would only partly cover the price of the Rapide, but it was too good an opportunity to pass over. He sat back in his chair, and twiddled a pencil between his fingers.
“Let me think about it for a few days, John, and perhaps we might be able to do something with it.”
Greaves was scheduled for a short trip southwards the next day, and Edmonds called him into his office before the flight. Having explained the situation to Greaves, Edmonds concluded his story.
“So there you have it, Bob. It’s a good opportunity to get a good plane at what I think will be a good price, but frankly, I don’t want to go borrowing money at this time. If BHL will consider structuring payments over three or four years, then I think Guinea Air could handle the situation. On the other hand, if I had a working partner who was prepared to contribute to the payments for the Rapide, and a percentage of the maintenance costs, then that would take the pressure off my situation, and present a stronger base to present to BHL for structuring the ownership payments. Would you be interested in being a part-owner of the Rapide?”
Greaves took two deep breaths, and gripped the armrests on his chair. “That’s very good of you to ask me, Ron, but your whole idea depends on how much charter work we can get for the Rapide. I know you kept the Avro 10 busy enough, but I’m not sure how much work will be available in the future, because of the war situation. People may not wish to travel around so much, and aviation fuel may be in short supply.”
Edmonds nodded, and straightened some papers on his desk. “I know there’s always a risk in the aviation business, Bob, but I don’t think the demand for air transport in this area will drop off to any great extent. People need food, and the beef industry will always be busy. Anyway, think about it for a couple of days, and let me know what you think.”
The next day, Greaves was waiting in line at the Post Office, sending one of Margaret’s letters to England, when he felt a hand on his shoulder.
“G’day stranger. How’s the flying business?”
Greaves turned at the sound of David Sinclair’s voice. “Ah, David. Good to see you again. Are de Havilland keeping you busy?”
“Not really. The war has virtually stopped all sales of new commercial aircraft, so I’m presently just handling the paperwork for spare parts for existing aircraft, and talking with the air force about things which I can’t mention. I’m thinking about taking up an agency for Lockheed. Their all-metal aircraft are greatly different from de Havilland’s, but I think they’re better suited to a tropical climate. What’s your situation?”
“Well, I’m in a difficult situation at present. BHL have decided to discontinue their exploratory work because of the war, and they want to sell the Rapide. Ron Edmonds wants to buy the Rapide, but he’s asked me if I’m interested in buying a half share in the aircraft. While I think it would be a good buy, I doubt if we could find sufficient work for the Rapide to be profitable.”
“Now there’s a thought, Bob. MacRobertson Miller have been flying up the west coast to Broome for years, but they’ve never gone as far as Darwin. It may be worthwhile to contact the Department of Civil Aviation in Canberra, and see if you can get the rights for the Broome to Darwin leg, about 700 miles.You could pick up the beef trade from Wyndham and Derby too. There’s a lot of industry there now, because a great deal of beef is going overseas. Anyway, you’re just the man I want to see. There’s a letter for you from de Havilland head office, sent care of my office. Call in on your way back.”
That evening, Greaves spoke to Margaret about Sinclair’s idea for the Broome-Darwin route, and how Edmonds thought that he should pursue it. “You know, the only way to achieve a reasonably steady income in the present business climate is to seek my own work, and if that means getting a bank loan to get a share of the Rapide, then that’s the way it will have to be. Sinclair gave me a letter from de Havilland head office, so I’d better see what it’s all about.”
He sat down and opened the letter. “Ye gods!” he cried, leaping out of his chair. “Look at this! A cheque for six hundred and thirty English pounds!”
Rogers rushed to his side, and Muir choked on his pipe.
“Wh…What’s it for?” spluttered Rogers.
“It’s for the Rapide. It’s a commission fee for demonstrating the Rapide to that Prince in Siam, nearly two years ago. They sold a Rapide to him earlier this year. The fellow in Singapore said that we’d get something out of it, and he was right! And there’s a one hundred pound bonus from de Havilland for getting to Darwin on time. Wow! Six hundred and thirty pounds!”
They all gathered around to look at the cheque. “No wonder these aircraft people live so well,” said Rogers. “With an income like that, I should have been an aircraft salesman.”
“Now, it’s to be shared between us, remember,” said Greaves. “We transported the Rapide as a team, and we should be rewarded as a team. That means we get two hundred and ten pounds each.”
“But don’t I count?” queried Margaret. “I played a part too, you know. I handled all your paperwork, and organised the accommodation and food. I should get something.”
“You’re quite right, my dear,” said Greaves. You should be included in this accounting.”
“Aye, but Ah’m not officially part of yer team,” said Muir. “Ah only came on board at Calcutta, an’ Ah wis only a passenger.”
“Rubbish,” said Greaves. “You’ve played a major part in getting us here, and if it wasn’t for your assistance, we’d never have got here on time. You deserve whatever we get.”
“That’s over one hundred and fifty seven pounds each,” said Rogers. “A useful sum.”
“No, no, it’s no’ richt,” declared Muir. “Ye paid me a wage for my workin’ time, an’ Ah’m happy to accept that. Ah’m no’ part of yer sales commission, or yer bonus. Ah’m no’ takin’ ony money from ye.”
“Well, if you insist, Gordon,” said Greaves, “but as far as I’m concerned, you should get a share.”
“Speakin’ o’ sharin,’ said Muir, “ye’ll no be payin’ ony mair lease money on this hoose.”
“No more lease payments?” said Rogers. “What do you mean?”
“Ah’ve decided Ah like Darwin,” said Muir. “It’s warm, an’ Ah like fishin frae ma wee boat. Ah’ve decided tae live here, so Ah had a wee word wi’ the real estate mannie, an Ah’ve bocht this hoose.”
Thee was silence in the room. Nobody could believe what they had just heard. Muir had bought the house? Had he been drinking again? Was he aware of what he had said?
Margaret was the first to recover. “Er, did you say that you’ve bought this house, Gordon?”
“Aye, that Ah have. It’s a fine hoose, an’ Ah enjoy yer company, an’ I get a laugh frae the bairn, an’ Ah’d like fine tae stay here.”
“But Gordon, houses cost a lot of money. How could you afford such a purchase?”
“Ach, thon real estate mannie is a guid lad. He arranged wi’ a real estate mannie in Bonnybridge tae sell ane o’ ma shops in the High Street, an’ it all went on frae there. Ah’ve closed ma account wi’ the bank in India, an’ transferred a’ the money here.”
Greaves couldn’t believe his ears. Was this the same smelly, drunken, Gordon Muir that they had literally picked up on the wharf in Calcutta? He was now talking about real estate holdings in Bonnybridge, Scotland, of considerable value.
Muir continued. “Dinna worry aboot gettin’ a loan frae the bank for yer aeroplane, Bob. Let me know how much ye want, an’ I’ll fix it up.”
“Now there’s a reason to have a party if ever I heard one,” cried Rogers.
A few days later, Greaves took the Qantas flight to Brisbane, via Mount Isa and Longreach, carrying a lot of paperwork to the Department of Civil Aviation office. He managed to arrange a preliminary permit to operate air services between Darwin and Broome, and returned to Darwin to complete the arrangements with Edmonds and BHL.
One morning, a few days later, Greaves arrived at the hangar earlier than usual, and opened the large hangar door. The early morning sun shone straight into the hangar, on to the newly painted fuselage of the Rapide, now with a white upper section and dark green below the windows, and “Guinea Air” painted in red on the nose. He stood back, and looked at the aircraft. “Look at that,” he said to himself. “I would never have thought that to be possible, just two years ago. Here I am, living in another country, with a young son, and owning half an aeroplane.” Greaves wasn’t a religious person, but he gave a quiet “thank you” to whomever arranged these events.
For a few weeks, Edmonds and Greaves used the Rapide to carry out general commercial flying within a radius of 400 miles from Darwin, and had made approaches to contacts in Wyndham, Derby, and Broome regarding their new air service. They had made one trial flight, taking one day each way to travel the 700 mile journey, and left advertising material with several people.
Edmonds had been in his office all morning, and was thinking about lunch, when the telephone rang. It was Malcolm Macdonald from Emergency Services.
“G‘day, Macka,” exclaimed Edmonds. “We haven’t heard from you for quite a while. What are you going to hit us for this time?”
“No, no, nothing like that. I’m pleased to say that you lads have been keeping your noses clean recently. This time, the tables are turned. I was wondering if you could help me with a problem on Bathurst Island?”
“Certainly, Macka. It always pays to keep sweet with the law. What can we do for you?”
‘We’ve had a call from Father O’Leary at the Mission. Bill Burke has run off the airstrip when taking off, and damaged his aircraft. He’s OK, just a bit shaken up. I’ve got to go and inspect the damage, but our own plane is out of action, and the only available plane that Qantas have is too big for the airstrip. So, if your Rapide is available, could you please fly me to the airstrip?”
“Yes, yes, of course, Macka. Come to my office in half an hour. But I should tell you that it wasn’t Bill Burke that was flying the “Bus.” He’s now working from Broome, and the regular pilot is a young chap named Harry Rogers, a friend of Bob Greaves, my regular Rapide pilot.”
Edmonds went into the hangar, where Greaves was sorting out some papers on a desk.
“Bob, Macdonald has asked us to help him with a small problem. Harry’s had a minor accident at Bathurst Mission. He’s OK, but the old “Bus” is damaged, and Macka wants to go over and inspect it with one of his mechanics. Can you take the Rapide over there in half an hour?”
Greaves’ face went white, and he held on to a wing for support. Recovering quickly, he wiped his hands on a rag. “He’s all right, you say?”
“Yes, he’s fine, just shaken up a bit. Macka wants to get there before the rain comes, and he’ll be here in half and hour.”
It was only a twenty minute flight across Clarence Strait to the Mission Station, and Greaves could see the wrecked Argus at the far end of the strip as he approached. He could feel his heart thumping as the Rapide rolled to the end of the strip, and the full impact of the damage could be seen. The Argus had hit the trees heavily, and the right wing had been torn off, together with the right wheel. Fortunately, the plane was still upright, and the cabin door was hanging loosely.
Greaves left Macdonald and his mechanic to do their work, and went into Father O’Leary’s office, where Rogers was sitting in a chair, with his nose bandaged and a black eye. He could see that Rogers was distressed and angry at the event, but encouraged him to talk about it, thinking that it might help to relieve the tension.
“It was a normal take-off, with a light load,” said Rogers, who was wrapped in a blanket, despite the warm weather. “I’d just lifted off, when there was an almighty “bang” from the engine, and the propeller stopped immediately. I was only a few feet up, and the plane fell out of the sky and into the trees. I couldn’t do a damn thing about it.” He gripped his cup of tea firmly in one hand, and wiped his bandaged nose with the other.
“You know,” he continued, “it’s probably a good thing that this happened. I’ve hated flying that old rattletrap for some time now. It shook and rattled and staggered all over the sky, and I never knew what it was going to do next. It’s time that I had a change. I’ve heard that the air force is looking for experienced pilots, and I’ve been thinking that I might join up for the duration. It would be a great experience.”
Greaves saw that Rogers was still in shock, but he could appreciate the reason for what Rogers had said.
“You’re probably right about that, Harry. You’re young enough to join up, and you’d be trained to fly a variety of aircraft, and get a steady salary as well. Half your luck.”
Macdonald came into the office. “Well, that’s the end of the Argus. The back’s broken, and the remaining wing is twisted. The mechanic thinks that the cause of the engine failure was a broken master connecting rod, and that destroyed the engine.
Father O’Leary, who had been listening to the discussion, looked worried. “But what can we do with the Argus? It’s too dangerous to leave there, as the children will cut themselves on the metal, and it looks terrible.”
Macdonald had the answer. “Father, I’ll write to your Director, saying that the Argus is completely destroyed, and he should forward the letter to the Mission’s insurers. Once the insurers have agreed to that, the airforce may be interested in recovering some parts from it, such as the wheels and instruments, for their own Argus. They may even remove the aluminium components, and sell them for scrap, and that will be the end of the Argus. She’s had a good life, Father. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.
“May she rest in pieces,” said Father O’Leary with a smile. “But the Director won’t be happy about this. Just the other day he was complaining about the costs of operating our Mission, and now we’ve lost the aircraft which served all the island Missions.”
“I think there may be a brighter side to this event,” said Greaves. “By not having an aircraft, the Mission will save money in operating costs, owning costs, and on-goings, such as insurance and the pilot’s salary. You could probably save money by contracting your transport requirements to a private company, such as Guinea Air. Let me work out a few figures for you. I’m sure the Director will be pleasantly surprised.”
Darwin, Sunday 7 December 1941
Harry Rogers was as good as his word, and enlisted in the Royal Australian Air Force in June. He was readily accepted into the service, as he was an accomplished pilot and of good health, with a moderate level of education, and completed his initial training at Amberley air force base in Queensland.
His next posting was to Richmond in New South Wales, where he undertook general flying training in two-seater trainer type aircraft, even though he held a current pilot’s licence. Passing that course without difficulty, Harry wasn’t surprised to be posted to the transport squadron of an Operational Training Unit, as he exceeded the acceptable age for flying faster aircraft. Flying the Avro Ansons, Lockheed Hudsons, and Douglas DC3 aircraft was both enjoyable and a challenge, as each type of aircraft had it’s own particular characteristics and vices.
Having completed the O.T.U. course with a high mark, Harry was selected to undertake a course for training as a pilot officer, a course which included leadership, administration, decorum, and non-flying responsibilities. As the course was scheduled to commence on 10th December, the trainee officers were granted 14 day’s leave before starting the course, and Harry had managed to hitch a ride from Richmond to Darwin in a DC3, which would be returning to Richmond on the 9th December.
Greaves met Harry at the RAAF base, and he was pleased to see that service life appeared to suit Harry, as he had gained weight and seemed quite cheerful.
Greaves had arranged to meet Harry at the RAAF base, and greeted him warmly as he arrived at the terminal. “Harry, you old son of a gun. Well, look at you. Neat uniform, wings, and a white shoulder tab as well. Is this the same Harry Rogers that used to fly for Island Mission Services, wearing a scruffy shirt and shorts?”
Harry laughed. “Look at yourself,” he said, smiling. “You seem to be doing pretty well as part owner of an airline. Your customers must be paying their bills.”
“It’s really good to see you again, Bob,” said Harry. “It’s also good to be back in the tropics again, after that cold and windy dog house at Richmond. I never realised I’d miss this place so much, until after I’d been away for a while.”
As they walked to the car, Greaves looked around at the various aircraft parked around the workshops and the airfield. There were some aircraft which he didn’t recognise, but he was surprised to see rows of American P40 Kittyhawk fighters standing next to a few Hawker Demon biplanes, and some Hudson bombers.
“This is my first visit to the new airfield, and I didn’t know that we had so many aircraft stationed here,” said Greaves. “No wonder that there are Wirraways parked on the civil airfield. They certainly haven’t got room for them here.”
“Yes, I’ve heard that there are smaller airfields being built at several places south of Darwin,” said Rogers. “The government is really building up it’s defence forces across the top end. There’s airfields at Batchelor, Adelaide River, Seven Mile, Tennant Creek, and Daly Waters, and refuelling stops at places like Milingimbi, Drysdale, and Groote Eylandt.”
They drove back to the house in Daly Street, where Margaret and Muir were preparing a welcoming dinner for their guest. Muir had provided the fish for their dinner, and Margaret had grilled several pieces, suitably garnished with local vegetables. After a boisterous welcome for the cadet officer, the group settled down to enjoy their hearty meal, washed down with copious amounts of beer, while Rogers regailed them with stories of his training.
“The initial training course wasn’t so bad,” he said. “There was a lot of regulatory stuff to be learnt, such as how to salute, who to salute, when to salute, and so on, and the parade ground stuff certainly smartened up a few people who thought it was a laugh, but the worst thing about it was that the sergeant didn’t give us enough time to change from one set of clothing into another. We’d finish our morning calisthenics, and the sergeant would announce that the next class would be radio procedures. That was fine, except that our huts were far away on the other side of the base, and we had to get there, change, and run back again all in six minutes, which of course was impossible. The sergeant would stand at the parade ground, looking at his watch, and when we had all finally staggered in, announce that the last eight people to arrive would report to him at 1700 hours, ready to do six laps of the parade ground.”
“I thought you were looking rather trim,” said Margaret. “All that exercise must have been good for you.”
“It certainly was,” said Rogers. “But we finally got our own back on the sergeant. A fellow in our troop had been detailed to wash some glassware in the medical centre, and happened to notice some Epsom salt in the pharmacy. He stole a packet of the stuff, and gave it to a friend of his who had been detailed to assist in the sergeant’s mess. This fellow managed to tip the whole packet into the soup one night, so that during the night there was a continual stream of NCO’s going to the ablutions. The sergeant was late for morning parade, much to the displeasure of the parade officer, and there was hardly a sergeant to be seen anywhere for the whole day.”
“Well done,” cried Greaves. “The voice of the masses is heard at high level.”
“He got his own back, though,” laughed Rogers. “He was nice to us for two days, and on the third day, he marched us for three miles in full kit to a swamp just outside the base. Then he marched us through the swamp, up to our waists in stinking mud, and back to base. At the base, he announced that we were to appear on parade the next morning in full kit, nicely cleaned, with boots polished. Nobody slept that night.”
“It sounds as though you had a good time,” said Greaves. “But I think it’s just a method of sorting out who can take the rough with the good.”
Greaves wasn’t scheduled to fly the next day, which was just as well, as his head was in no condition to make quick decisions. However, Muir was an habitually early riser, and was listening to the radio news in the kitchen, when the general patter of local news was interrupted by the newsreader.
“We interrupt this broadcast with the news that an unconfirmed report has been received from the United States Radio Network on the island of Hawaii, at approximately 8.00am, Central Pacific time. The report states that Japanese aircraft have attacked the United States naval base at Pearl Harbour, and have caused widespread damage, including the sinking of capital ships. Further details of this report will be made available as they come to hand.”
Muir was stunned. He had long expected that the Japanese would try to gain sovereignty of land by force, but to attack the American naval base without warning was definitely a very low act. He considered waking Greaves and Rogers to break the news, but remembered their condition of the previous night, and changed his mind.
Ah hour later, both Margaret and Bob got up to attend to Thomas, and Muir broke the news to them as he poured cups of tea.
“Ah’ve been listenin’ tae the news on the radio, an’ the wurrst has happened,” he said in a sombre tone. “Thon Japanese navy has attacked the American naval base in Honolulu, an’ sunk some ships. Ah canna imagine why they’d dae such a thing.”
Margaret gave a little squeal, and gripped Thomas tightly. Greaves sat heavily onto a kitchen chair, and quietly said “O God, no.”
There was silence in the kitchen for a moment, then Margaret cried out. “But that means a bigger war. The Americans will be at war with the Japanese. We’ll be stuck here in Australia for years!”
Greaves took a deep breath, and spoke crisply. “This means that the whole world is at war again, World War 2. We certainly didn’t learn any lessons from World War 1, some 20 years ago. However, the Americans will certainly do something about the Japanese now, and this could be an excuse for them to enter the European conflict too. Where’s Harry this morning?”
“He’s no’ up yet,” growled Muir. “If he’s no’ up before the next news at nine o’clock, Ah’ll get him up tae hear the news. That should wake him up.”
Rogers managed to struggle out of bed a short time later, and appeared in the kitchen wearing only shorts, looking bleary-eyed, and with his hair uncombed.
“Look at this fine example of officer material,” chided Greaves. “He couldn’t lead a dozen chooks out of their pen. This is the type of fighting man that’s going to war against the Japanese.”
Rogers sat down gently on a vacant chair, and looked slowly around him, focussing his eyes on Greaves.
“Wh…..What’s that about war with the Japanese?” he mumbled.
“Yes, it’s on,” declared Greaves. “While you’ve been sleeping in an alcoholic haze, the Japanese have attacked American warships in Pearl Harbour, and the Americans are not amused.”
Rogers sat upright, his eyes now wide open. “Ye Gods,” he spluttered. “now we’re for it. The world is at war again.” He sat quietly for a moment, thinking about what he had just said. “America will probably form an alliance with England, which means that Australia will also be at war with the Japanese. When is the next news broadcast?”
As the day progressed, further news reports stated that President Roosevelt had called a special meeting of congress to be held the following day, to discuss events at Pearl Harbour. Other items in the news report stated that Japanese landings were under way in the northern Philippines, Hong Kong, and the Mariana Islands.
Rogers tried to telephone the adjutant at the air force base, but he could only leave a message with the operator, as all the lines were busy.
Margaret went shopping, in an attempt to clear her mind of the morning’s bad news, and reflected on her situation as stood looking at the limited range of goods displayed in the shop window. Young Thomas Greaves reached out of his pusher to squash a beetle against the shop window. He was now eighteen months old, and took considerable interest in the activities around him, including watching the display of lightning and thunder on most afternoons, and the movements of the noisy aircraft using the newly completed air force base, three miles from the town.
Margaret was becoming morose because of her inability to return to England. Two years ago, she would never have thought that she would still be in this miserable town on the other side of the world, with it’s moist tropical heat and annoying insects. Her thoughts were of London at Christmas time, with it’s colour and activity, sparkling lights and bustling shoppers, although from the newsreels she had seen recently, London had undergone a dramatic change for the worst during the past year. This would be her third Christmas away from home, and although letters from her parents indicated that they seemed to be managing reasonably well, Margaret new the difficulties under which the British people were living, with severe food rationing, limited coal for heating, and sleepless nights from enemy bombing. Who were those people that had said in 1939 that it would be “all over by Christmas?”
Returning home later that afternoon, Margaret was preparing dinner when Gordon Muir burst through the door, in a state of high excitement.
“Ye’ll nivver guess who Ah wis speakin’ tae this afternoon.” He paused, checking that he had the attention of the group. “Oor auld frien’ frae the Jervis Bay, Colin Weatherby.”
“Oh no!” exclaimed Greaves. “Weatherby, here in Darwin! This is a really bad day. First the Japanese, now Weatherby. What did he want?”
“Ach, he’s no’ sae bad,” said Muir. “We had a few drinks at the pub, an’ he’s tellin’ me that he’s a manager at thon big tradin’ company, Brown & Phillip, or some such name. He stayed on the ship after we left, an’ it called intae a few ports, but he liked Darwin, so he stayed here. He’s been here nearly twa years, an’ lives in a boardin’ hoose in Gardners Road. He’s comin’ fishin’ wi’ me on Thursday.”
Muir stopped, and took two deep breaths. “But ye’d nivver guess whit he’s been daein’ in his spare time. He’s been at the Top End Aero Club, takin’ flyin’ lessons, an’ he’s got a licence now! He said he got the idea frae talkin’ wi ’you an’ Harry on the ship, an’ when he saw the wee planes takin’ off frae the airfield, he thocht he’d gie it a go!”
“Well, I’d never have thought it possible,” said Greaves. “I always took him to be a shady character, and always on the lookout for a good time, but he must have some skills to enable him to get a pilot’s licence.”
“Ach, he has a guid time a’ richt,“ said Muir. “He’s takin’ me pig shootin’ tae some place near Chambers Bay, the weekend after next. We’ll fly up tae a wee camp he’s got up there. He wis surprised tae hear that ye wis still in Australia.”
“I don’t think he’ll be doing much flying now,” said Greaves. “With petrol rationing now in force, he’ll be lucky to fly once a month.”
Dinner that night was very subdued. They listened to the radio news broadcast, but there was no further news of the attack on Pearl Harbour. They discussed how the civil defence plan drafted recently by the Chief Warden, Andrew Mills, was to be put into action, and how civilians had the responsibility to carry out various duties to ensure the operation of the town services. Did this mean that the authorities expected an invasion ? Rogers packed his bag, ready for departure in the morning.
None of the group slept soundly, as each person thought about the impending effect of the Japanese invasion of countries to the north. Could war actually come to Australia? Margaret thought that food rationing might occur, and imagined ways in which she could make the food go further. Greaves was worried about employment in the future, as supplies of aviation fuel would be further reduced. Would his flights to the Mission Stations be reduced, or would the Rapide be commandeered into the armed services?
There was no answer to these questions at present, but Greaves was a family man, and without an aircraft to fly, he would be out of a job. The Rapide was not yet fully paid, and he had to keep up with the payments and the on-going costs, even though the number of passengers he had carried recently had fallen. But flying was his life, it was the only skill he had, and it was his duty to provide for the upkeep and well-being of his family. The situation gnawed at him until the early hours of the next day, when he finally slept.
Muir lay quietly for a while, sleeping off the effects of his meeting with Weatherby. He woke suddenly, thinking of something which Weatherby had said, something about fuel. They had been talking about the new petrol rationing scheme, and Weatherby had casually remarked that he wasn’t greatly concerned about it. Yes, that was it. How could Weatherby not be concerned by petrol rationing? There was only one tankful per month allowed for private use, and he drove a big car, and private flying would surely be very low on the list of “allowable uses.” A devilish thought occurred to him. Did Weatherby have a private source of fuel? He would keep that thought in mind when he next spoke with Weatherby.
Harry Rogers prepared to leave the house in Daly Street the next morning with mixed feelings. As much as he loved the people with whom he had shared his life for the past two years, he knew that the time had come for him to take the next step in his own life, and he had mixed emotions regarding whatever lay before him. He was a member of the armed services, and had sworn to do everything possible to defend Australia should the need arise, and now his services were very much in demand.
Margaret and Thomas were waiting at the front door of the house, as Rogers struggled along the corridor with his heavy kit bag. He kissed Margaret, and then Thomas, who held tightly to the lapel of his uniform. Margaret looked rather flushed, and said, “Do write and tell us what you’re doing, Harry. We’ve been good company these past two years, and I’m sorry that the war has broken up the team. Do be careful out there. Thomas and I will miss you greatly.” She hugged him, and a tear fell onto his collar.
Greaves and Muir drove Rogers to the RAAF base, where a crowd of people were farewelling their men at the gates. Muir lifted Rogers’ kit bag out of the car, and shook his hand warmly. “Guid luck wi’ the officer’s course,” he growled. “It’ll tak a fair bit o’ study an’ sweat, but it’ll be worth it. We’ve had a guid time, lad, an’ Ah’m glad tae see ye movin’ on tae better things. Tak care o’ yersel’ now, lad, an gie thon Japs a guid belt from me. We’ll aye be thinking’ o’ ye.”
Greaves stepped forward., took Harry’s hand, and held it tightly. “Harry, what can I say? We’ve both come a long way since we first met in Jamieson’s office, a hundred years ago. I’ll write and tell Jamieson what you’re doing. You’ve got a wonderful opportunity ahead of you, a real career. I’ll be proud to shake your hand at your passing out parade. Don’t take any chances, and we’ll look forward to seeing you when you get some leave. Keep plenty of air under your wings.” Greaves hugged him, and turned away quickly.
Harry fumbled with his raincoat, and looked at his friends. “Thanks for coming to see me off, fellas. You know, I’ve had a great time these past two years, done lots of things I could never have done in England, and met some good people. You two have made it easy for me, and I want you to know that I appreciate being with you both. I couldn’t have wished for better people to work with, and to live with, and to be my close friends. I’ll be thinking of you all, and I hope to see you again soon.”
He picked up his kit bag, waved, and walked towards the gatehouse.
Darwin, 20 December 1941
Margaret Greaves looked at the sticky cake mixture in her cooking bowl. This was the third Christmas cake which she had made in Darwin, and she fervently hoped there would not be another. Supplies of foodstuff in the shops had quickly declined after Prime Minister John Curtin’s announcement of war with Japan, ten days ago, and an atmosphere of foreboding could be felt in the streets.
A column of army trucks rumbled down the street, taking the first group of women, children, aged and infirm people to be evacuated to the southern states. The civil defence organisation had ordered the evacuation after a “false alarm” air raid warning on the night of 12th December, and the established plan was quickly put into action.
The idea of cooking a Christmas cake in a hot oven was most inappropriate, as the room temperature was already 90 degrees F, and young Thomas was uncomfortable in the high humidity, protesting about anything and everything. His discordant noises were beginning to aggravate Margaret, and she quickly emptied the contents of the bowl into a cake tin, placed it into the oven, and slammed the door. Turning back to the table, she saw that a small gecko was availing itself of the sticky remnants of cake mixture on the mixing spoon, and propelled the spoon, mixing bowl, and gecko out of the door at great speed.
It was unfortunate that Bob Greaves returned home at that time. He had been flying all day, transporting patients from the hospital to the railway terminus at Alice Springs, a round trip of 1700 miles in two days. The Rapide had been modified by removing the six seats, leaving only a small uncomfortable seat for a nurse near the cabin door, and providing four racks, to carry patients in stretchers. The Avro 10 had been similarly fitted, and the aircraft had flown together, refuelling at Katherine and Tennant Creek for the six hour flight.
Greaves sensed that all was not well when he saw the mixing bowl rolling along the pathway, and cautiously entered the house. Margaret was sitting in a chair, crying quietly into a tea towel, with Thomas pulling at her apron. Assessing the situation, he comforted her, and Margaret responded by loudly voicing her opinion of Darwin, heat, Thomas, Christmas, Flying, and the Japanese nation.
Neatly avoiding all of these topics, Greaves spoke of the revenue he was accumulating from the trips to Alice springs, and how they had nearly paid off the amount owing to the bank. He mentioned that as all private flying in the Northern Territory had now been prohibited, the RAAF adjutant had contacted Guinea Air with a scheme to forming a RAAF-controlled organisation called Civilian Air Transport Services (CATS), which would provide air and road transport for civilians with urgent needs, and this would mean further revenue.
‘That’s all very well for them,” snapped Margaret, “but that means we’ll still be here when the Japanese come knocking on our door. I’ve been here for two years and three Christmasses, and I’ve had enough of Darwin. I want to be somewhere else, away from aeroplanes, soldiers, heat, and war, and I want to live my life comfortably and bring up Thomas properly.”
Greaves was about to reply, saying that it was their duty to continue to do whatever they could for the war effort, when Muir arrived, bringing with him his usual alcohol-fuelled jovial manner.
“Ah’ve got a joab,” he announced. “The air force was wantin’ companies tae provide re-fuellin’ services tae non-military aircraft, as they huvnae got enough men for the joab. Ah’ve still got ma re-fuelling’ ticket, an’ Ah went tae the Shell office, an’ they signed me up straight awa’. Ah’m tae drive a truck an’ pump fuel, startin’ tomorra.”
“That’s great news, Gordon,” said Greaves. “I know you like being involved with aircraft, and you’ll be doing your bit for the war effort as well.”
“Aye. Ah saw Weatherby in the pub, an’ he thocht it wis a guid move, too. He wis interested in how the fuel wis measured at the tanker, but Ah didn’a ken. Ah think it’ll be measured by a meter, because the Shell man said Ah’d huv tae fill in a paper for each plane.”
It was only then that Muir remembered that fuel had been a topic of conversation when he had met with Weatherby previously, and he again thought that it was a strange connection.
Christmas and New Year passed relatively quietly in Darwin, as there were only about 2500 civilians remaining in the town, many having been evacuated by coastal trading ships to the eastern states. Others had been transported in trucks and civil aircraft to Alice Springs, from where they could travel south by train to Adelaide and Melbourne.
Heavy monsoonal rain soaked the town on the first day of 1942, but most of the inhabitants were unaware of the rain, sleeping late after welcoming in the New Year.
The radio continued to bring disconcerting news regarding the advancing menace of Japanese forces, which had now occupied Hong Kong, and were said to be moving towards the Philippines, from where they could attack the rich food producing areas of the Dutch East Indies. The remaining civilian population of Darwin were beginning to be worried, and the Chief Warden continued to stress the necessity of vigilance and preparation, which added further to their concerns.
Greaves was fully occupied each day in flying to and from Alice Springs, with Ron Edmonds flying the Avro 10 on alternate days. The maintenance staff were working each night, servicing the aircraft so as to be ready for operation the next day, and the strain on pilots and ground staff was beginning to show. The Fox Moth, which could carry two passengers with limited luggage, had been pressed into service as a feeder aircraft, to bring in people from outlying areas, ready for transfer to ships or trucks.
The monsoon suddenly ceased in late January, bringing suitable weather for Muir and Weatherby to travel to the camp in Chambers Bay, for fishing and shooting. Because of the ban on private flying, they didn’t fly in as previously arranged, but travelled in a light truck driven by Markos, a Greek friend of Weatherby’s, for the forty mile journey. Muir was surprised at the amount of food loaded onto the truck, together with two large drums of fuel, which Markos said were for their boat.
It was a two hour drive along the rough road to their camp, but upon arrival, Muir was pleased to see that the camp was bigger than he had expected, with three sleeping tents, a storage tent, and a covered cooking and eating area. A small creek ran along the edge of the campsite, discharging into Chambers Bay, and a short, narrow airstrip had been cut out of the jungle some distance away. Muir noticed more that twenty large fuel drums in the long grass near the airstrip, and queried Markos about them.
Markos looked carefully at Muir, and thought about his answer. “Ah, these drums is no good, they are empty,“ replied Markos, shaking his head. “These drums I will cut up soon, make good pots for lobster.”
Muir nodded, and thought no more about the drums. The trio went pig shooting during the day, and fished during the early morning and evening, being very successful each time. Weatherby had brought a large wooden box filled with beer and ice, into which the prepared cuts of fish and pork were packed, ready to be taken back to Darwin.
As they were leaving on the evening of the third day, Muir walked down the track leading to the primitive toilet, and thumped on one of the empty drums as he walked past. The thump produced a dull thud on the drum, and Muir stopped in surprise. He tried to push the drum, but it was too heavy, and it was then that he noticed the dull red triangle painted onto the side of the drum which had not been visible from the path.
He tried another drum, and found it was also very heavy. Muir had handled many drums of aviation fuel recently, and he new exactly what was in the drums. Weatherby’s interest in fuel now had an important meaning to Muir, and he quickly changed his opinion about the smiling Colin Weatherby.
As the trio drove back into Darwin township, they were surprised to see that a great number of soldiers had arrived at Larrakeyah Barracks during the three days in which they had been away. Military vehicles now outnumbered private cars in the streets, soldiers were erecting barbed wire entanglements along the beaches, and anti-aircraft guns were being assembled in vacant areas. Darwin was getting ready for war.
Darwin, Thursday 19 February, 1942
The morning of 19 February was fine and sunny, and at 10.00am people were attending to their business in Mitchell Street, where the shopkeepers were standing at their shop doorways, chatting with the passing pedestrians. Colin Weatherby, manager of the Brown & Phillip trading company, had collected the shop takings from the previous day, and was on his way to the bank to deposit the cash. Passing the office of the Northern Standard newspaper, he saw the headline “Singapore Falls” on a display board, and bought a newspaper.
He stood on the footpath, and read how Singapore had fallen to the Japanese a few days before, and of the loss of 17000 men of the 8th Division who had been forced to surrender. Engrossed in the details of the newspaper, he paid no attention to the noise of aircraft passing above until the air raid siren sounded, causing him to look up. He was startled to see that the aircraft all carried large red spots on their wings and fuselage, and as they passed over, he heard the noise of explosions in the distance.
A man ran past him, shouting, “Air raid, air raid!”. Weatherby immediately agreed with that conclusion, and wondered where he could shelter. Realising that he was in no immediate danger, as the sound of explosions came from the airfield, he ran back to the Brown & Phillip building, a block away, and stood outside with a small group of employees. Suddenly, their previously safe position was no longer safe. Having dropped their bombs, the aircraft returned to the town, and proceeded to machine gun the military vehicles in the street, while the group of employees huddled on the ground in a narrow laneway.
The planes made a few low sweeps over the town and departed, leaving the frightened employees to stir from their exposed position. Weatherby looked down Mitchell street in the direction of the harbour, and saw heavy smoke pouring from several ships. Five more Japanese planes appeared from the north at low level, intent on bombing the wharf area and moored ships. Weatherby saw the bombs fall from the aircraft, and quickly retreated into the limited shelter of the laneway. Two bombs overshot the wharf, and hit the Post Office and bank offices only a block away from the terrified group in the laneway.
The group could feel the percussion of the explosions, and the pressure wave hurt their ears. After a minute, Weatherby rose and looked down the street, where he could see the Post Office burning fiercely, and a large dust cloud rising from the rear of the two banks on the corner of Bennet and Smith Streets. Grabbing the satchel containing the money which he had intended to deposit in the bank, Weatherby ran to the vacant land behind the banks, where he was shocked to see that a bomb had fallen amongst the bank staff sheltering in the trench, and he was sickened at the sight of body parts scattered over a wide area. As he looked around the devastated area, he saw that the side wall of one bank had been demolished, and he could see through the dust and smoke right into the bank, where the strongroom door leaned awkwardly on its hinges.
Still holding the satchel, he climbed carefully through the wall opening, and looked into the strongroom. He had never seen the inside of a bank strongroom, and was amazed at the rows of metal boxes arranged against the walls, each containing bundles of banknotes. An idea suddenly occurred to him. He was alone in what remained of the building, and there was nobody who could see him. Quickly filling his satchel with bundles of large denomination banknotes, he smiled as he thought of an improvement to his original idea. Looking around, he saw a tilting trolley which had been used to bring the boxes of banknotes into the strongroom. “Trolley in, trolley out,” he thought.
Loading two metal boxes onto the trolley, and placing his satchel on top, he pushed the trolley through the rubble on the floor of the bank, and parked it just inside the front door. His car was parked behind the Brown & Phillips building, only a block away, and the keys were in his pocket.
Weatherby was now driven by greed, avarice, and good fortune. He had stumbled on a gold mine, and he was carrying out the perfect crime to consolidate his position. Running the short distance to his car along the deserted street, he tried to imagine how much money was in the two boxes and satchel. All of the bundles on notes he had taken were bundles of ten-pound notes, and their total value was impossible to guess, but he settled on a figure of two hundred thousand pounds as a nice round number, enough to keep him in luxury for the rest of his life.
Quickly retrieving his car, he drove it slowly down the street, avoiding pieces of concrete and timber which had been dislodged by the bomb blasts. People were beginning to re-appear on the street, and he knew he had to get out of the area quickly. He didn’t know where he would drive to, but he’d think of something. Retrieving the trolley from within the bank, he was loading the second box into his car when a friendly voice hailed him.
“Colin! Fancy seein’ ye here! Ah wis damn scared when thon wee planes flew ower. Where wis you?”
He turned quickly at the sound of Muir’s voice, his face red, and teeth tightly clenched. “Gordon! Well! I’m glad to see you’re OK. It was a frightening experience, but some people over there haven’t been so lucky.”
Muir looked at the metal boxes. “Man, you’re still workin’ amongst a’ of this? Whit’s sae important aboot thon boxes?”
Weatherby thought quickly. “This nosey old soak could upset everything. I’ve got to get rid of him.” “Files,” he replied quickly. “These are office files which are most important. We’re sending them to Adelaide for safety.” He picked up the heavy satchel with a jerk, and the stitching of the handle broke away, upsetting the satchel onto one end, and a bundle of banknotes fell out.
Muir couldn’t help but to see the banknotes with their distinctive bank binding. Looking past Weatherby, he could see inside the bank, and the open strongroom door beyond. “Huv ye been makin’ a quick withdrawal, Colin?” he queried.
Weatherby knew that he had been discovered, but such was the character of the man that he decided to brazen it out. He didn’t reply to Muir, who watched as Weatherby gathered the bundle of notes and threw the satchel and notes into the boot of his car.
Reaching further into the boot, he said,”Gordon, there’s something I’d like you to do for me.” Weatherby pulled out his pig-shooting rifle from the boot, and looked menacingly at Muir. “I’d like you to get into the car with me, Gordon, and we’ll go for a little ride.”
Muir was now aware that Weatherby had robbed the bank, and that it was in his interest to co-operate if he wished to remain alive. He didn’t speak until the car was approaching the last of the shops in Mitchell Street.
“Colin, dae ye realise whit yer doin,’ man? Robbery’s a crime, an’ ye’d be better tae abandon the stuff noo, an’ be well oot o’ it.”
“Shut up Gordon,” said Weatherby sharply. “You’re going to help me to get away from here, and you’d better co-operate, or you’ll be just another casualty of war.”
Weatherby stopped the car outside a large leathergoods store, got out, and locked the car, leaving Muir inside. Entering the store, he looked for suitcases, but not seeing any, asked the shop assistant, who was surprised to find that he had a customer.
“Two suitcases, eh? You must be going on holiday.”
“No, I’m moving south,” said Weatherby. The air raid this morning has made that decision for me.”
“I believe I’ve got the last two suitcases out the back somewhere,” said the assistant. “There’s been quite a run on them. Wait here for a minute while I get them.”
Weatherby looked through the glass panelled door to his car parked in the street, where Muir was sitting in the car, apparently resting, with his head on the dashboard.
But Muir was far from resting. He knew that Weatherby was a desperate man, who would resort to violence to ensure the success of the robbery. Being locked in the car, there was little that Muir could do to upset Weatherby’s plan, except to sabotage the car. He leaned forward and reached under the dashboard, grabbed a handful of wires, and pulled hard, but the wires were firmly attached to the equipment.
The sales assistant returned to the shop, carrying two brown suitcases, and Weatherby noted the attached price tags. “What! Three pounds ten shillings each! That’s a bit rich!”
But the shop assistant was unimpressed by Weatherby’s outburst. “These are the last two suitcases in the shop, and possibly the last suitcases in Darwin. Take it or leave it.”
Weatherby didn’t want to cause a fuss, so he paid quickly and returned to the car, throwing the suitcases onto the back seat.
Muir was silent until the car turned on to the road leading to the airfield. “Ah ken fine whit ye huv in mind,” he said. “Yer gaein’ tae put the money intae the suitcases, an’ hire a plane, an’ fly oot o’ here.”
Weatherby acknowledged the thinking of the older man. “Not bad at all,” he said. “Nearly right, in fact. But I want to delay discovery of the robbery and my movements for as long as possible, and private flying has been banned, so there are no planes for hire. I’m going to steal a plane, and you’re going to help me push it into position for a quick take-off.”
They entered the airfield, and parked the car between two hangars. The whole area was deserted, and Muir thought that the airfield staff had probably gone to the RAAF airfield two miles away, from where he could see several columns of smoke arising from the Japanese attacks. Weatherby looked at the Avro Avian in the workshop hangar, and swore. “Bugger! That’s the plane I wanted,” he said angrily, seeing the Avian in a state of disrepair. The two other hangars were closed and locked, and the only other aircraft in sight was the white and green Rapide of Guinea Air.
The lack of a suitable aircraft was an item which Weatherby hadn’t counted on, and the Rapide was his only solution. He had never flown a twin-engine plane, but had been a passenger in a Fokker F8 a few months ago, when it was being tested after a re-fit, and had noticed how the pilot used the throttles. He thought about flying the Rapide. “It’s just the same as any other aircraft, but a bit faster. It’ll probably swing left a bit on take-off, but once I’m in the air, I’ll be OK. I’ve come too far to abandon the scheme now.”
Muir was still in the car. Weatherby opened the boot, and retrieved his rifle before opening Muir’s door. “Get out,” he demanded.
Muir staggered out, disappointed that he had been unable to prevent Weatherby from succeeding with his plan. Weatherby pushed him in the direction of the Guinea Air office, and said, “Get me the key to the Rapide from the board, and don’t try to use the telephone, or the next call you make will be to the angels.”
Muir reluctantly did as he was told. He had never been in the Guinea Air office, but it was the same as any other flight office, with keys and notices displayed on a large notice board, and papers scattered about on desks. As he walked back to the car with the key, he could see Weatherby unloading the suitcases and boxes from the car, and considered making a rush for the rifle which was leaning against the car, but decided that Weatherby was far too alert for such an action to be successful.
“Now, get the tractor and tow the Rapide to the refuelling bay,” snarled Weatherby. “I know you can handle refuelling. Greaves told me. I want both tanks filled to the brim.”
Muir did what he was told, and as he topped up the tanks of the Rapide, he could see Weatherby transferring money from the metal boxes to the suitcases. A gentle smile came to his lips as he screwed the lid onto the first tank, and replaced the vent pipe plug. With an even bigger smile, he did the same to the other tank.
Weatherby approached, carrying a heavy suitcase in each hand. He lifted each case into the Rapide’s cabin, and turned to Muir. “Just one thing left to do, Gordon, so come with me.”
They walked together back to the Guinea Air office, and Weatherby stopped at the boot of the car to collect a length of rope, and the rifle leaning against the car, before entering the Guinea Air office.
“Now Gordon, I’m sure you’ll understand when I say that I have to keep you out of the way for a while,” said Weatherby. “I don’t want anybody to alert the police just now, so I’m going to leave you tied to a chair while I fly south.”
Muir had been pushed too far. As Weatherby turned to pick up the rope, Muir leaped forward and put an arm around Weatherby’s neck, in an attempt to throw him off balance, but Weatherby leaned forward and twisted his body, throwing Muir onto the floor. Weatherby grabbed the rifle, and jabbed the butt hard into the older man’s stomach.
Muir doubled up in pain, and it was an easy task for Weatherby to tie Muir’s hands together, and then to tie the rope end to the table leg. He pulled the telephone wire out of the wall plug, and threw the handset onto the floor, shattering the case. For good measure, he gave Muir a kick in the ribs as he went out of the door, and walked calmly to the Rapide.
Weatherby patted the suitcases and smiled as he walked up the sloping floor of the Rapide to the cockpit. He settled into the pilot’s seat, and studied the instruments before switching on the ignition and pulling the starting knob for the left engine. The engine started with a roar, and Weatherby hastily put his foot on the brakes before starting the right engine. It was all too easy, he thought. All he had to do was to follow the road southwards, towards Alice Springs. He knew he would probably run out of fuel before reaching Alice Springs, but it would be an easy task to land in the desert near the road, where he could unload the suitcases and hitch a ride for the remainder of the journey to the rail terminus. He would be just another refugee whose car had broken down, and needed a lift into Alice Springs.
Feeling very pleased with himself, he released the brakes without waiting for the engines to warm up, taxied to the end of the runway, turned into the wind, pushed the throttles forward, and accelerated quickly down the runway. His first impression of the Rapide was that it responded quickly to the controls, and seemed eager to get into the air. Being uncertain as to the required take-off speed, he held the aircraft on the runway until the airspeed indicator showed 100 miles per hour, then gently lifted the Rapide into the air.
As the end of the runway passed beneath him, Weatherby heard the right engine splutter and stop. He instinctively turned and looked at the engine, as the aircraft slowed. Weatherby didn’t know much about aircraft engines, but what he saw made his blood suddenly chill. The white rag streaming from the fuel tank vent pipe told him everything he needed to know. Glancing quickly at the left engine, he saw another white rag streaming from its vent pipe. His heart raced madly, as he realised Muir had deliberately replaced the vent plugs after topping up the tanks, and the fuel pumps wouldn’t work against a vacuum. The engines had been running on the small amount of fuel in the carburettor bowls and the delivery pipes, and the left engine spluttered to a stop in confirmation.
The Rapide had only climbed to fifty feet, and as the nose of the Rapide suddenly dropped, Weatherby could see the trees rising to meet him. The white and green Rapide plunged nose first into the trees on the shore line of Fannie Bay, and the 80 gallons of fuel in the tanks added another column of smoke into the sky.
19 August, 1995
Darwin NT 800
I write in appreciation of your recent article celebrating the end of World War 2, with particular reference to events within Darwin township, and some of the civilian personnel who stayed in Darwin throughout the conflict. The civilian personnel with whom I have had contact were involved in the provision of air transport services both commercially and later under the control of the RAAF, and your readers may be interested in the outcome of their activities.
Harold Rogers was an experienced pilot who had trained in England, and joined Island Mission Services in 1939, flying passengers and equipment to various Mission Stations throughout the Territory. He enlisted in the RAAF in June 1941, and after training in Queensland and in various bases on the east coast, he was posted to Port Moresby, New Guinea, in 1943. He carried out a number of operations against enemy forces, and failed to return from a mission to Lae early in 1944.
Gordon Muir was an aircraft rigger with Civilian Air Transport Services, and later with Guinea Air. A keen amateur fisherman, he established a sports fishing company after the war, and was a well known character about the town.
Robert Greaves was the senior pilot who flew an aircraft from Calcutta to Darwin in 1939. He later became a partner in Guinea Air, and flew with Civilian Air Transport Services during the war. In 1946, he was on holiday in London with his wife and child, but contracted pneumonia, and died after a short illness.
Margaret Greaves was the wife of Robert Greaves, and was actively engaged in the establishment and operation of a charitable organisation serving the families of aircrew who had suffered because of the war. She returned to England in 1946 with her husband and child, and did not return to Australia.
I trust this information will be of assistance in adding to the history of all Darwin civilians who contributed to the war effort in those dark days.
Thomas E. Greaves, M.D., R.A.C.S. Royal Flying Doctor Service, Alice Springs..
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* Australian Government, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.