My Service at RAF Fayid 1953 – 1955.
By: Alan (Fred) F Merryweather. LAC 4106778
|Maybe it was the September of 1953 that we flew from Southend-on-Sea Airport in a Dakota operated by BKS, an airline formed in 1951 by Barnby Keenan and Stevens, later absorbed into British Airways. The crew and attendant wore RAF officers' uniforms, in case of a forced landing in Egypt, we were told. The plane headed for the south of France, near Nice, where the airport was adjacent to the sea. Then on to RAF Luqa on Malta where we stayed the night.|
it was when strolling in Valletta that evening I first experienced that sweet, sickly smell of olive oil used for cooking mingling with the dust, dryness and heat. Next day, equipped with lunchboxes provided by the Hotel Phoenicia, we took off to fly over the Med to land at RAF El Adem for refuelling. Amid much turbulence, we flew eastwards across North Africa until suddenly the wide green swathe bounding the Nile came into view and we were soon nearing RAF Fayid where we landed. Instructed to get out of the aircraft, we were put onto buses and prevented from getting back into the plane to pick up our hand luggage. I was one of three who were unable to recover our greatcoats and it was to be more than a year before we were re-equipped with them at public expense. On arrival at the transit camp I recall feeling ill looking at some cold lamb on a plate. Was it safe to eat? Flies were everywhere and so, so hot.
RAF Fayid and 216 Squadron . I was sent back to Fayid and after collecting the prescribed signatures against the many places listed on the Arrivals form, became officially on the strength of 216 Squadron, commanded by Squadron Leader Swift. We were billeted in one of the few permanent buildings for Other Ranks throughout the otherwise overwhelmingly tented Canal Zone .
There was the air of disaffection about Two-Sixteen Squadron, (so named as it was originally No. 16 Squadron) and it was known as the Zift - useless, no good. Not too much esprit de corps, plenty of grumbling and sometimes a ‘Roll on death; demob's too far away' outlook. Maybe some of this disgruntlement could be accounted for by being On Active Service but not paid the higher rate. Or was it fuelled by a lack of discipline within the Squadron? We walked to work, dressed as we chose, some scruffily. Were we ever lined up for daily registration or inspection? Maybe life was too lax, too informal and perhaps a general smartening up of discipline might have produced a better atmosphere. However, weekly parades on the main square and billet inspections were held every Saturday, I think. Apart from badgering by Flt Lt Trainer to take part in sports activities, there was little organised about our leisure time. He pressed me into basketball the moment I arrived on the squadron and I had to play that afternoon. Something else which didn't make for personal happiness was the arrival of a ‘Dear John' letter shortly after I settled in, but I soon got over that.
My job was to check the TR 1154 / 1155 transmitters and receivers, the intercom, direction finders and VHF transmitters. These tricky to tune VHFs were in heavy black boxes which but were later replaced by a much smaller item, easily tuned using a bulb. Indeed, the work I had to do really didn't need my six-months training since anything that didn't work properly was replaced with a similar item from the repair unit. The only serious mistake, I recall, was forgetting to replace the aerial of one of the two VHFs. The other failed when the plane was doing circuits and bumps and had to signal for permission to land by firing its Verey pistol. Nobody inspected the equipment. Family letters which I kept show that this was shortly after arrival and after telling my dad about it, he wrote back very strongly telling me to be more responsible. In those days a father's word was not often ignored.
Work was mornings only in the summer, but shorter working hours in winter plus Monday and Friday afternoons. The rest of the time we were left very much to our own devices. Strangely, no mention is made of the Canal Zone service on the website: http://shop4research.co.uk/history.htm
The atmosphere in the billet was much as you'd expect with around 40 or so young men from all parts of the country thrown together, most wishing to be back home. True there were arguments, rivalries but nothing really serious. North versus South, Scots against the English, a few ruffled red and white rose petals and so on, but one thing united most of them when an argument broke out. They disliked Londoners!
The Squadron operated about 8 Vickers Vallettas, nicknamed 'Pigs', which were used for transport of equipment, and personnel sensibly always in backwards facing seats. Occasionally they were fitted out for paratroop training. The armourer, who also drove the tractor, did this, as the only other servicing task he had was to check the aircraft's Verey pistol. Paratroop operations included painting the floor near the aircraft door with carborundum paste and fitting equipment under the body for dropping canisters.
Three civilian workers were employed for general labouring, Mahmoud, Chico and Hassan, and another in and around the office block and flight crew rooms. The ever cheerful Hassan who spoke some English, had had some education and always made it clear he was a Palestinian, a cut above the Egyptians. I had no idea then what his nationality meant or why he wasn't living in his own country. Gerry, who sold ice cream from a trolley he pushed around the camp was another Palestinian. Who then realised the significance of their presence in Egypt ? Who cared about the poor state of the natives? I was brought up in an age where much of the map of the world was coloured pink and how we acted seemed part of the natural order of things. The political reason for my being there probably never crossed my mind.
The airframe riggers had the most lengthy jobs as their schedule included so many different checks. The engine fitters seemed to have to change ignition harnesses
all too frequently, a difficult and dirty task. Two or three very accomplished chippies in civilian life made a spacious crew hut with a small kitchen adjacent out of the packing case of an aircraft wing.
Fly-past of 216 Squadron Vallettas
The somewhat flamboyant Flt Lt Newton who was reputed to have flown a Valetta upside down, reckoned that the planes would fly faster if the bodywork were polished. We were set to work using tins of polish drawn from Stores, but they were so old that the suspended cleaning paste had set rock hard, so we poured most of the superfluous fluid away on the sand. Aviation spirit was sometimes used to dry-clean clothes, drawn from the aircraft into a drum. It was a welcome job in summer so as to be able to dip arms in as far as they would go and rapidly cool down afterwards. Not just a very stupid thing to do as the fuel had a high lead content, but doubtless a punishable offence.
On the 18th February 1956 a York aircraft, chartered by the Royal Air Force to take back to Britain servicemen who had completed their tour of duty in the Canal Zone, landed in Malta to re-fuel. Soon after take-off, smoke was seen coming from one of the engines and from a height of 1,000 feet it went into a dive and crashed near Zurrieg, exploding on impact. There were no survivors. On board were two of our colleagues, LAC D Brown from Dundee, and LAC M M J (Taff) Nurse from South Wales . Taff was a big-boned, friendly hulk of a rugby player. He'd managed to bend the side of his iron bedstead after plonking down on it too hard one day.
Weather. I recall the hot Khamsin blowing in sand and irritating fleas from the Sahara, but not that it was ever very severe or long-lasting and I grew used to summer's heat and still enjoy really hot weather. Part of the secret of enduring hot nights was not to fidget. It was usually too hot underneath mosquito nets so they were seldom used. Occasionally distant lightning could be seen from the direction of the Med, and late one evening many of us clambered onto the billet roof to get a better view of a spectacular storm. The only time in the twenty months that I was there that it rained; there was a rush outdoors to stand in it.
Nasties. There are plenty of unpleasant memories of bed bugs which almost always bit me on the forearms. They could be found in the corners of the bed and bedding and a few drops of Dettol in the bed joints would easily deal with them there, or put them in bright sunlight and they'd swiftly die. Although one of the other squadron billets was fumigated, it was not understood where they came from. Towards the end of my tour I took the risk of prising off the bottom framework of the window nearest to my bed and underneath was a disgusting nursery-cum-graveyard, hundreds of bugs with their ghastly odour. All that had been needed was for the gap beneath the frame to have been sealed. At the end of my tour, when my personal belongings went back in the customary box we were allowed to send free of charge, (made by Neil Thorley now deceased, with my initials beautifully painted by a Scottish driver or clerk on the squadron), I was scared that bug eggs would be carried back home. Fortunately this didn't happen.
A vehicle known as the honey bus was used to empty the latrine buckets, there being no sewage system. The strange thing about it was that although its offensive odour was clearly detected from afar, if standing nearby it so overpowered the senses that it didn't seem to smell at all.
If going for a shower at night it was advisable to take a shoe to kill cockroaches which could be up to three inches long. One day I was standing near Mahmoud, when
the only locust I'd ever seen flew past. He grabbed it, tore off its wings and ate it!
Guard and Other Duties. Night guard came round about once every two weeks. In summertime it was a pleasure to be by the perimeter fence and wonder at the vast canopy of unfamiliar stars on welcome cool and moonless nights. In winter the cold nights and brisk wind were feared as although it never froze or snowed, the wind chill factor meant that it was extremely cold. We donned pyjamas and KD underneath working blue and with a greatcoat on top were not very agile but even those layers didn't keep out the cold. The African guards, whose only conversation was “Jambo” had huts to stand in and if on duty at a remote part of the airfield, it was possible to get behind the one to find some shelter. My very first guard duty was a very worrying experience. I saw a York on the runway, sparks shooting out of the exhausts as it revved up prior to take-off, the exhausts glowing white hot in the dark night and I was concerned that the plane might catch fire. Yet something told me that it was not in danger, so I backed away from firing my Verey pistol and so avoided being made to look foolish.
The five squadrons at Fayid had a disproportionate number of NCOs––Sergeant Pilots––and, as they controlled the guard rosters, the chances were quite high of one being in charge at the same time as a guard duty came round. It was always necessary to have a word with the Sergeant Pilot so that our names could be put down for the mobile patrol wagon. If lucky to get this plum duty, the truck would draw up at our billet and we would go inside, returning with our mattresses. That meant that most of the night was spent sleeping whilst the driver stayed awake, repose being disturbed only when the vehicle made a periodic tour of the airfield.
Only once did I guard a part of the perimeter fence near the officer's quarters. Between two guarded areas, there was a searchlight powered by an enormous static diesel engine. It was the duty of guards to start the beast and flash the searchlight around once every two hours. Fortunately, my fellow guard was an engine mechanic so he knew how to get it going. The handle could not be turned without releasing some of the pressure in the piston chambers and to do this the long rod with a series of plugs lying alongside the engine, had to be lifted until the motor fired into life. The bar was then slammed down to seal the chambers. After doing as required, we lit up cigarettes despite that it was forbidden to smoke on duty and that the Officer of the Guard was a known martinet. Suddenly, out of the darkness a figure appeared. It was he. After the usual identification exchanges we were accused of smoking. We denied it. After the second time he repeated his accusation, my experienced colleague hit the diesel's exhaust with his rifle butt very hard and a shower of sparks flew out. I can still hear his words. “That's what you saw, Sir.” he said, and the officer turned on his heel and went away without saying a word. I wonder if this became one of the stories he told in his mess?
Around June 1955, when a York arrived from the atomic testing station at Woomera in Australia , I was ordered with two others to guard the aircraft for 24 hours. This was to be the most wearying day of my life. Naturally I kept under the shadow of the wings and fuselage to avoid the sun, but it was only on a subsequent two-hour duty that I was told to keep at wing-tip's distance from the plane as it was carrying radioactive samples. Nevertheless, I seem to have suffered no ill-effects.
Once I was ordered to be a guard on the bus which carried children to school. This involved drawing a Sten gun from the Armoury with a clip of live bullets. The journey was only a few miles, but being out on the road in any vehicle at any time was always a time of anxiety in case of attack.
Since there was at least one successful attempt to break into the camp and steal from the NAAFI, (or so it was said), and there were active Fedayeen in the Zone, there was good cause to be alert when doing guard duty. But the only time I was really worried was when put on duty at the small wireless station, situated about a quarter of a mile from the main camp. It was a lonely vigil and I clearly recall being able to see distant images of Genevieve on the screen of the open-air cinema at the main camp.
Twice I did the Air Traffic Control guard duty, a very boring place to be on the very small area at the top of the tower. The second time I came very close to catastrophe as I must have dozed off leaning against the pillar of the tower. The sound of footsteps roused me as an officer ran up the ladder and accused me of being asleep. A guard had fired a Verey pistol and I'd not hurried down to report it. By a miracle, the officer was from 216 Squadron, a National Serviceman and he gave me a good talking to, including the then unknown fact that, annually, the Valletta manufacturer awarded the Vickers Trophy to the best squadron flying their planes. Success was based on performance in many areas, probably including flying hours and certainly disciplinary proceedings had an adverse effect, especially Courts Martial. So, for that reason he overlooked my lapse.
I was only once put on Fire Piquet. This duty lasted for a week and seemed to consist mainly of sitting around waiting for something to happen. It did, but I was too slow to get on the fire tender so had to run to the airfield where a petrol-electric set used to power a huge vacuum cleaner was on fire near to an aircraft. Someone thought that the chromium plated exhaust, multi-hued due to the high temperature, needed cleaning and he'd applied a fuel-soaked rag to it.
A hazy memory is of a night exercise and maybe of arms being drawn from the Armoury. It was a couple of hours of chaos. Nobody seemed to have a clear idea of where we were supposed to assemble or what to do.
Only once was I instructed to open up the Squadron buildings for early flying and this needed an early call. It was booked and a white towel was duly put across the bottom of my bed. Unfortunately, the early caller was late, but I signed his book all the same. On arrival, breathless at the squadron buildings, Sqdn. Ldr. Swift was there, furious and he went for me. There was no excuse for having kept him waiting.
Getting a seat on a plane doing circuits and bumps was a fine way of cooling down during the long hot summer days, but twice I went up as an observer looking for the wreckage of a Valletta which crashed on the 2 April 1954, perhaps on its way to or from Habbaniya. This place, rarely heard of nowadays was the main RAF base in Iraq . We flew over the rugged mountainous terrain of the Sinai and other deserts with no signs of life whatsoever. The second time, I was privileged to be in the second pilot's seat, but after flying across the Canal, Flt Lt Keddie believed he could smell aviation spirit so he headed back to base. Unfortunately, my place was then taken by an officer. POR's, (Personnel Occurrence Reports) noticed the number of sorties flown looking for the lost Valletta and it was found in a week or so, as were one or maybe two other untraced planes. The bodies of the crew, Flt Lt K W Brimley, Flg Off B Sherburn and Sgt T O Powell lie in Fayid cemetery, a beautifully maintained place, according to accounts elsewhere on this site.
Advancement. I wasted my opportunities. Destined for a career in the insurance industry the RAF would have paid for tuition and all fees for the insurance exams I later had to take; but I foolishly preferred to laze around. Considering that my job gave me no practical experience of radio it was probably unwise to apply for promotion to Senior Aircraftman (SAC). Later, having doubts about my ability to even pass a test for my current LAC rank, I went to the Trading Standards Testing Section (TSTS) and told the Sergeant that I wished to withdraw. From the top pocket of his jacket he produced pad of forms F.252, the dreaded charge sheets and said that if I didn't agree to take the exam he'd fill one in. So I meekly went away.
Mischief. There was lot of drinking on the camp. Tennants Lager was the usual brew and of course almost everybody smoked. Cigarettes and beer were very cheap. I can't recall there ever being any fights, except that on one occasion, somebody in drink broke off the neck of a beer bottle and became threatening. An occasional folly was to pour beer inside the piano to ‘give it a drink'. Frequent targets of too much alcohol were fire extinguishers. I recall several of us once set off a cream-coloured 40-gallon foam extinguisher and were alarmed at the amount that came out of it. But its contents went over the sand and disappeared. Usually jealously guarded by its owners, there was an electric toaster in the billet. This was made from a coil of Eureka high resistance wire fitted into a wooden frame. Bread was placed directly on top of the wire and after few slices had been toasted, the device would catch fire and had to be disconnected from the mains, then dropped into a bucket of water to cool down. Occasionally I would back-tune a TRll55 radio to the same frequency as Radio Moscow and tap out garbage on the Morse code key so as to interfere with their transmissions. For its time, a most extraordinary POR was posted on the notice board. This was that an airman was charged with the offence of buggery with a Sudanese. Mahmoud, our native, once said he was willing to be queeniewallahed by anyone willing to pay.
Rest and Relaxation. Having since met people from other camps who were fortunate to be motivated to take part in things such as forming concert parties, doing theatricals and so on, how I now wish I'd made more effort and better use of my time. Distant Mount Shubra was visited by a few after getting permission to cross the main runway, but I never went. One privilege was to be able to get on a plane to Aden , the objective being to buy duty-free goods there. This meant taking orders from anybody who wanted things like cameras, spirits and clothing, all transactions being paid for in British Postal Orders. On arrival I was stunned not so much by the heat as the humidity. A brass cap badge went almost green in a day. Most of the day was spent there buying. When the shopkeeper saw how much money I had, he started to put the shutters up – with me inside, but I protested and so he took them down again. Everything on the shopping list was supplied and, if he didn't have it, he sent a boy away to get it.
Regrettably I turned down the opportunity of a week's holiday in Cyprus , but I was once given a seat on a plane to RAF Nicosia, coming back with a few bottles of Commandaria. There were other much rarer trips, a training flight to Blighty and back in three or four of days or so, one stopping-off point being Istres in France . Aberdare in Kenya was another occasional destination for the Vallettas.
One day we listened on an aircraft radio as an American Globemaster prepared to land on the longest runway in the Canal Zone . Generally speaking, we were scornful of the Gobs (Gobshites) as they were called. The pilot looking where to land, jokingly said that he could see the panhandle, “But where's the runway?” The plane parked at some distance from the squadrons and the men inside were driven away in buses to the Officers' Mess. These were among the first soldiers en route for Vietnam .
There was a Gramophone Society on the base and through it I managed to track down a piano and some music in a locked hut and tried to improve my playing. In the days when LPs were nearly £2 each, I ordered four which were slightly cheaper as they were duty-free and I managed to hear all of them. Unfortunately on its being sent back home, Customs opened the package and damaged the delicate surfaces of the discs.
Although I didn't go to the entertainment put on by a troupe from Blighty, it was said that the popular singer Donald Peers was infuriated by people in the audience shouting "Quack, quack". So he stopped his performance and said that if people didn't want to hear him sing, he'd go off stage. His hit song was ' By a Babbling
Near the Olympia Club was the place to go to for a swim. It was on the banks of the Great Bitter Lake , part of the Suez Canal and there it had a rectangular barrier made from old wooden barges forming a very large swimming pool. It was forbidden to swim without plimsolls as there was a shellfish with a very sharp spine which could produce a poisonous wound, or so it was said. The very first time I went there I was obviously very white (a moon-man) and was accosted by an Egyptian with a monkey on a lead wearing a red Fez . The animal had been taught to get its hand into pockets to steal money. It was another Arab who engaged me in some kind of game with coins, and being raw to the wiles of the natives, I lost money to him. I quickly learned of the tenacity of the natives to do business and how necessary it was to avoid them unless there was something you wished to buy. Offering a ridiculously low price was the best way to be rid of them as anything realistic might signal a wish to trade.
I had a suit made by a tailor in Fayid village but it wasn't a total success as the trousers were a little short and the material poor, but for the occasional evening at the Olympia Club something different from service dress was needed. I recall going to two evening events there. There was a lot of beer but little fraternising between officers and men. The village had a good SPCK(?) bookshop. I bought a Shorter Oxford English Dictionary there and it was only a couple of years ago that it was replaced by
a more modern one. One afternoon a slender elderly-looking man dressed in Edwardian-style clothes was pointed out and I was told it was ‘Old Bill', one of the announcers on the Canal Zone Radio. His well-spoken voice was frequently heard, and he loved to slowly savour the words ‘Johann Sebastian Bach', his favourite composer. (Who was Old Bill and what became of him?) An abiding and pleasant memory of the radio service is of the music played at the close of broadcasting every day. It was a military band playing Evening Hymn and Last Post , the hymn tune Now the Day is Over skilfully intertwined with The Last Post . I've never heard it since.
Changes Accompanying Peace. After the 1955 treaty was signed with the Egyptian government, the security situation calmed down dramatically and conditions became even more relaxed. Chairs, armchairs, even an old settee and a broken-down aircraft seat appeared around some parts of the inside of the perimeter fence so guards were able to take life more easily during each two-hour stint. The treaty also meant we were soon supplied with fresh vegetables and pristine currency. The state
of the previous Egyptian currency notes was terrible - filthy and barely recognisable. For smaller denominations of piastres, (known as ackers), as they were in short
supply the NAAFI produced red and green plastic tokens.
Another benefit of easier relations with the Egyptians was that a coach tour to Cairo was arranged. This was to be one of the most memorable days of my life as it was such a revelation. Firstly we were taken to the Sultan Hassan Mosque and afterwards to the museum. Tutenkhamun's treasure was an unforgettable sight; there was so much of it. The inner sarcophagus and the three three-sided coverings of the coffin, all covered in beaten gold were something I've never forgotten. Afterwards, a very quick walk through The Garden of Allah where gaudily-coloured, highly-scented bottles of perfume were sold. Finally to Gizah to see the Pyramids and Sphinx. The latter was a disappointment as I knew there was a temple between its paws but had wrongly assumed that ‘temple' implied massiveness. Standing by the Great Pyramid, we were invited to pay to see ‘the boy,' an old man, run to the top of the pyramid in a given number of minutes which seemed totally inadequate to reach the summit and get down again. A deal was struck with the climber's canny manager and ‘the boy' fulfilled his part and was duly paid.
One day a rather ancient-looking plane of the Egyptian air force landed. It was a very strange feeling saluting their officers, our erstwhile enemies.
The AOC's Inspection, early 1955. The Squadron buildings and equipment had to be smartened up and plenty of light blue paint was on hand, some of which was poured onto the sand and covered up. But I missed the Parade as I woke up feeling ill and reported sick. MO's are particularly vigilant over malingerers at such a time, but tonsillitis was diagnosed so I was put into hospital for a week.
The Boycott of the Airmen's Mess in 1955. Being almost omnivorous and not finicky, I didn't find the food all that bad, but there were frequent complaints about it. True, scrambled egg was more like flavourless blancmange, and rubbery mashed potato made from Pom was nowhere near as acceptable as powdered potato is
today. Discontent gave birth to action. Word spread that there was to be a boycott of the Airmen's Mess and someone painted in very large letters on the outside wall of the open-air cinema ‘BOYCOTT THE SHITHOUSE ON …DAY'. The action was 100% solid, save for a detachment of about a dozen soldiers who were marched to and from meals. The only other places to get food were at the NAAFI and YMCA which were packed out. The boycott lasted perhaps only a couple of days, but a strange event may have contributed to its collapse. I was at the open-air cinema to see the film Out of the Clouds, a tale woven around Heathrow airport and in one scene a young Jewess was pleading with an immigration officer to be let into England . She said, “We were cold, we were hungry. Do you know what it's like to be hungry?” At this, the audience, who by now were certainly very hungry reacted with an outburst of shouting, laughing and jeering. Shortly afterwards, the names of three or four airmen were read out over the Tannoy instructing them to report to the guardroom. It was commonly believed that they were the ringleaders. The boycott collapsed but the food was much better.
© Alan F Merryweather
Cirencester, Glos, March 2006.
Full account can be found here http://www.britains-smallwars.com/Canal/life-at-fayid.html