by Peter Platt
(The events described in this narrative took place in Borneo in the '60s during confrontation with Indonesia. Confrontation arose following President Sukarno's claim that many indigenes of Sarawak and Sabah had not been consulted as to whether or not they wished to join with Malaya and Singapore in the formation of the Federation of Malaysia. He was, I understand, quite justified in his complaint; very few of the interior tribes - Dusuns, Dyaks, Muruts, etc. - had been polled, but perhaps Sukarno was interested more in territorial gains than the niceties of democracy. He decided to send forces into Sabah and Sarawak ostensibly to discover the democratic desires of the head hunting tribes: Malaysia set out to confront those forces and asked Britain to honour treaty obligations and send help.... )
"So you're leaving us," said young Fred Poynson, newly arrived at the station from a Locking apprenticeship where clearly he'd been a go-getter for he wore pristine corporal stripes: no junior technician novitiate for him.
Eh? - What do you mean?"
"You're posted. Haven't you read SROs?" He smirked superiority - a sprog who crackled with well pressed ambition and would doubtless retire a wing commander to spend his declining years in the golf club reminiscing about the MEAF and Suez - or I suppose, in his case, the Falklands.
Well, of course I'd not read SROs - who did? People like Poynson had been created to do just that for you. It was they who caused those wodges of foolscap, suspended by bulldog clip, to curl at the corners, much to the despair of the flight sergeant. "Airman, press them SROs." I went and read SROs just to make sure Poynson spoke truth - and he did. I was indeed posted.
"Where the hell's Labuan?" I asked of a Poynson-like clone avidly reading over my shoulder all the wisdom writ, signed and gestetnered by the station adjutant.
"Borneo!" he snarled disparagingly.
"Oh! er - thanks" - and I didn't dare ask where Borneo was but slipped around to the station education section to dig out the one and only atlas, slightly out of date in that half the world was coloured pink which, at least, made it easier to find British North Borneo and Labuan.
Labuan means safe anchorage which is what it felt like on landing after having flown there in a Caledonian Airways Britannia. It was an island of some charm sitting in sun kissed blue seas with white sand beaches fringed by palm. There was no monsoon, and although it rained nearly every day the cloud bursts were predictable so outdoor activities could be planned. It was possible, with some imagination, to describe an unaccompanied tour there as a tropical island camping holiday - with real camp food to boot. After a while though one tired of all these riches and became a little bored - despite the hidden treasures of the education section library and there being a more or less permanent convoy of tankers sailing from Singapore bearing cargoes of Tiger beer. (To be fair, not all found the place boring: I know of one guy, from the 69th, who later told me he had thoroughly enjoyed Labuan because his wife wasn't there.) This boredom, though, could become quite oppressive; as a man of action I decided to do something about it.
Now our squadron - 209 - flew Single and Twin Pioneer aircraft into jungle airstrips; the planes were very good at short take offs and landings - they could land on a pocket handkerchief we boasted. In fact, they'd been designed for the GPO by Scottish Aviation to land and to take off carrying Royal Mail to all those pocket handkerchief islands which smother the seas to the west and north of Scotland. Post for puffins! Presumably it was felt that the Royal Mail sent this way would be much safer; it wouldn't have to go by sea so wouldn't get wet. Unfortunately, the riveting at Scottish Aviation wasn't too hot and in rain Pioneer aircraft leaked like sieves. The Ministry of Supply, not really knowing what to do with leaking aircraft, quite naturally dumped them on the air force - and in particular on 209 squadron (a fine, fine squadron) far, far away out there in the far east.
The main function of the squadron at Labuan was to fly our army friends to remote jungle airstrips; really we were practising a form of apartheid - we were separating them from us and dumping them in the jungle the better to lead an heroic life. And in doing this we would freely offer another service. Every night in Labuan it rains and a great deal of this water, as explained, would seep through poorly riveted joints into aircraft panelling. So early in the morning, as the Twin Pioneer rushed down a pocket handkerchief with its cargo of troops and adjusted attitude for take off, so the Pongos would all be showered. They became sweet smelling heros, as befits soldiers of the Queen. And sometimes, I believe, our duties actually involved picking up guys from the jungle - those that survived - and bringing them back so they could enjoy a few Tiger beers before being switched back to shower and apartheid mode.
But in this business of Confrontation we also had another subsidiary, but secret, function - which I know I can safely reveal because you've all signed the Official Secrets Act. 209 squadron was involved in psychological warfare.
The psychological warfare we practised had been devised by the USAAF during the last years of world war II: it was used to encourage Japanese soldiers to surrender: the soldiers were marooned on Pacific islands as MacArthur leap frogged his way towards Japan. Large loudspeakers, driven by powerful amplifiers, were strapped to the underbelly of C47s. Japanese speaking American personnel would then advise, with amplified voice, the marooned to throw down their arms and go home. We know the Japanese did throw down their arms but that was probably more to do with defeat and starvation rather than the effectiveness of "voice broadcasts". I believe we had used the technique in Malaya in the '50s but don't know to what effect; certainly the bulk and size of equipment we fitted to the Twin Pins suggested years of that vintage - or perhaps even earlier. But we had progressed beyond the Americans; we did not require Malay speaking personnel - it could all be done on tape.
In callow youth didn't we join the air force to fly? Didn't we apply for aircrew and zoom off to London environs to swing on ropes cunningly suspended by spring, and fail to learn not to tread on green paint but to tread on black - or was it the other way round? And at the end didn't the adjudicating officer say "Well done, that man, well done" and fail us - well he did me. Stupid man! But now was my big chance.
In this secret warfare, waged against intrepid, infiltrating Indonesians, 209 squadron needed Voice Broadcast Operators (VBOs) - supernumerary aircrew. You didn't have to swing on ropes, nor not tread on black paint. Any fool was accepted - great squadron 209 - and the reward was:- flying suit, bone dome, jungle boots and bullet proof vest. Oh! - and there was flying pay too: 2/6d a day. Yippee! Boredom banished by enablement of more Tiger beer imbibation. Keep those tankers coming.
There was, however, a serious side to this. The Wilson government, which quite rightly had cancelled the wildly inflationary TSR2 programme, didn't lightly throw half-crowns at slightly ageing corporals with a drug habit. Certainly not! The money was paid because the job was dangerous. I'm not saying anything against 209 squadron pilots, you understand - they did a lovely job with their leaky planes. But it was war, and as aircrew I was at the sharp end. So I had no compunction whatsoever in saluting for, and accepting, an extra 17/6d each pay day; it was fair reward for risks undertaken. And indeed Cassandra of the "Daily Mirror" had agreed all this some years previously when he had been given a jolly in a Valiant - that was before the wings had started to drop off. He'd been most impressed; been be-dazzled by the brilliance of CRT displays, the flash of the navigator's sliderule, the magnificent effort of the much over worked air electronics officer (Ken Snape asked me to put that bit in), the smooth-tongued chit-chat of the smarmy, safely seated ejector-seat pilots (and that bit too), and had written in his column in the "Mirror" fulsome praise indeed saying "aircrew deserve their pay", describing them - and me too now! - as "scholars of the air".
As an aerial scholar I immediately set my mind to mastering the complex operational details of big amplifiers, not to mention the arcane switching sequences required to make light grey, standard issue tape-recorders work. In the lulls between visitations to the NAAFI wagon I took on the airs of aircrew and lolled around in chairs in the crew tent wearing a bullet proof vest over flying suit with jungle boots on feet ready to sprint for the Twin Pin should the call come. I modestly forbore to wear my bone dome but would occasionally walk idly around the dispersal area with the thing tucked under my arm. As all aircrew believe, I was wildly popular with the ground crew.
...Other than that, nothing much really happened. Oh, we'd have an occasional panic when seats had to be stripped out and I would supervise my junior corporal, Cyril Brown of the 84th, in attaching a couple of streamlined loudspeakers beneath the Twin Pin and in fitting big amplifiers and standard issue tape-recorder inside. I would then take charge and test the system, playing one of Brown's tapes full blast through the speakers. The Twin Pin would bounce up and down with the sonic power of Treeny Lopez reflected from the ground until the tower phoned through and told us to put a sock in it. And I continued to drink away my 17/6d each week and, like all aircrew, began to feel I wasn't paid nearly enough.
This must have gone on for about 40, perhaps 45, weeks. In fact, I was beginning to think I'd never have to go through the tape-recorder switch-on sequence in anger. Then it all happened, and I had my one and only operational flight - well, two really, as you shall see.
East is east and west is west and never the twain shall meet. I know exactly what Kipling means. I, too, cannot understand the oriental mind. Local elections were pending and great rallying speeches, perhaps in the Malayan Churchillian fashion, were to be broadcast by the national network. The Malaysian government was most anxious that the tribes in the interior of Sabah should hear these broadcasts. Clearly, Sukarno's jibe about not polling head hunters was getting through. And this is the oriental bit I can't understand: the government wanted me as VBO to play tapes from the skies over various bits of Sabah where the head hunters lived to tell them that they should listen to forthcoming election broadcasts on the wireless. I kid you not! - I was told that that was the message on the tape. I didn't understand it either: I didn't see the need to go to the expense of sending up a Twin Pin to deliver this message; I would have thought it could have been conveyed more cheaply by radio - but perhaps my mind was puddled by Tiger beer.
I asked Brown to fit speakers, amplifiers and tape-recorder to the Twin Pin as I needed to dress. Somewhat later I approached the vibrant aeronautic-electronic-sonic machine in full flying regalia and with quavering courage, for I'd not done this before.
"Where's the loop tape?" I asked.
"Wo' loo' tai'?" queried Brown in east London accent.
"The one I'm supposed to be playing to the Dusuns, you bloody idiot."
"I dun' kno'. Try th' bloody air radia secshun," said Brown and walked off in a sulk because I'd mentioned his idiocy.
I grabbed the Land Rover and rushed round to ARS - a place I didn't like visiting too often on account of the sergeant who was in charge: he was a little .. er .. slimey. Yes, slimey. Could he have been an ex-app, you ask? I doubt it - probably an ex-boy! Anyway, I asked the sergeant about the loop tape and he unlocked a steel locker, took out the tape but would only give it me after I'd signed. Clearly the mission was classified.
When I got back to the aircraft pan, clutching the top security loop tape, both pilots were waiting for me, having completed the pre-flight checks.
"Come on Corp," they called familiarly, for I was one of them now, "let's get going."
We bundled into the Twin Pin and were soon taxiing to a point seven eighths along the runway so we could use the remaining eighth for one of our famous pocket handkerchief take-offs. During this peri-track cruise it occurred to me that the tape had not been checked. I put it on the recorder and ran it through with the big power amps still switched off. I could hear nothing. I turned up the volume control and put my ear to the internal loudspeaker and could still hear nothing. I switched on my mic to speak through the intercom: "Skipper," I uttered in the manner of Ginger addressing Biggles, "I don't think there's anything on this tape."
"Hmm!" breathed Skipper. There was then but the briefest nano-second pause which I instantly recognised as being the only thinking time necessary for a scholar of the air to come to a decision: "We'll carry out orders Corp, and test the full system over the broadcast zone," he announced courageously. And so saying he slammed open the throttles, released the brakes and the aircraft leapt forward; the wheels had made barely two revolutions before we were airborne and crossing the sparkling blue waters of Brunei Bay heading for the lushly green, but forbidding, interior.
At the broadcast zone Skipper's voice crackled over the intercom: "OK Corp, give it a whirl!"
I instantly sprang to action, simultaneously switching the massive power amplifiers from "Stand by" to "On", setting the tape in motion, and turning all volume controls fully clockwise: tape hiss issued from the underslung speakers drowning the mighty roar of the two Alvis Leonides engines.
"Home!" said Skipper decisively.
* * * * *
Back at base we three aircrew approached the sergeant at ARS.
"Look here my good man, what mean you by giving my Corp here a tape full of hiss?" enquired Skipper of the sergeant.
You could see the sergeant didn't like being questioned so incisively; he squirmed, shifting weight from foot to foot, his furtive eyes taking on an oleaginous glaze. It took him quite a few nano-seconds to reply: "Well - er - that's - er - That's what Malay sounds like!" he lied through nicotine stained teeth.
"I don't think so!" interjected the co-pilot: "When I'm not out here at the sharp end cargoing Pongos into apartheid, and am on a more cushy number back at squadron HQ in Seletar, my wife and I often stroll around the bazaars of Singapore listening to the natives speaking and I can assure you it doesn't sound like hiss."
That stumped the sergeant; his eyes searched the floor for more falsehoods. Quite a few hundred nano-seconds passed: "Corporal Platt must have wiped the tape!" he finally blurted out, an obvious lie which not only attacked my competence as VBO but cast a slur upon the squadron's training programme.
I quietly, but firmly, pointed out to the sod that I had spent hours in the ground crew tent mastering the arcane switching sequence of light grey standard issue tape-recorders and telling him that I was more than competent. "And anyway," I concluded, "aircrew don't make mistakes."
"You aircrew?" sneered the sergeant, his face twisted with malevolence. "You failed at swinging on ropes suspended by springs - you couldn't even swing through trees like a bloody monkey!"
This venomous attack was the sergeant's undoing. He did not know Skipper's full name: Flt Lt Sir Sebastian St.John-Monkey, bart, AFC, who quite naturally took the sergeant's last words as a personal attack upon himself.
Skipper mastered his rising hackles by dint of great self control. He turned to me, flashing a smile to still my anger, and said quietly "OK Corp, I'll deal with this. You run along to the mess and have your lunch." I knew Skipper would scupper the sergeant good and proper and give him his just deserts, so saluted smartly, about turned and marched out of ARS.
As I progressed purposefully down the rutted road to Membedai site, where a tin basher hut served as airmen's mess, I mused on the possible fate awaiting the sergeant: busting to J/T and a posting to Saxa Vord would be fair I thought.
I was seated in the mess and had eaten barely four spoonfuls of Compo Irish stew when the chubby form of Brown approached in his stumble-shuffle-manner: "'Ey Platt'," he articulated as best an East Ender can, "Skip'er wan's yer bac' a' th' sqwadrn, qwic'!"
Pushing aside the delightful dish from the emerald isle I chased after the shuffling chub of Brown who then drove both of us at high bounce speed o'er the ruts to the dispersal area. Skipper waved delightedly as we approached: "Hello Corp," he called cheerily, "good of you to come so quickly," and thrusting a tape splicing block into my hand told me to jump in. He fast taxied to the runway end and we were soon winging our way through azure skies clotted hither and thither with fleecy cloud. Ah! the captivating delights of tropical flight.
No sooner were we across the Bay than we were descending to land on a sixpence at Brunei City: a one tonner was waiting to whisk Skipper, me and tape-recorder to Radio Brunei. There, officials hurried us through corridors to a studio where the acoustic might have been dead but that could not be said of a lovely lady seated at a table. The low lighting of the studio was pierced by her wide teeth-white smile: her large brown eyes focused on me (I thought); her lips moved seductively (I thought); her voice was darkly sensuous (I thought):
"You wish me to make another tape recording?" she asked. (Oh please, I thought, thinking of the Biblical injunction "Go forth and multiply".)
"That's right" said Skipper in matter of fact tones that removed virtual from reality. "Go to it, Corp."
"Beg pardon Skipper?"
"Record the lady."
"Oh! Oh, yes!"
It took a little time to set recording levels. The recorder was on the floor and when all was ready I sat at her feet and asked her to read the prepared words. She spoke them beautifully and I couldn't help noticing her dusky breasts quivering briefly each time she snatched breath. A second take was necessary in case levels were incorrect. Skipper wouldn't allow a third.
As we STOL unstuck I busied myself cutting tape and splicing it into a loop. En route for the broadcast zone there was plenty of time to check the loop by playing it more or less continuously through the internal speaker of the recorder. Ooohh! She had a wonderful voice; you didn't need to understand Malay - it just oozed sex. A voice to excite a thousand men.
That was it!
It is amazing how insightful the mind is at altitude. Doubtless, that's why Cassandra had called aircrew "scholars"; it was the effect of the thin air; it sharpens the little grey cells. Well, my little grey cells were suddenly sharp at 2000 feet I now knew how the tape had been wiped! It was those guys in ARS. I bet it was! They'd erased that lovely voice. Accidentally, of course. Each night they'd borrow the loop and play the tape, fantasizing in the dark of their tents. In the excitement of a moment the tape-recorder had inadvertently been knocked to record...
Further thought on this inspired insight was interrupted: "OK Corp, we're there. Roll the tape."
Skipper eased back the throttles and flew slow circles above the broadcast zone: a voice to excite a thousand men boomed across the jungle.
Before submitting this article to public scrutiny I passed a draft copy to a friend for comment: if this has entertained, all credit to him for suggesting deletion of the tasteless. His main criticism, however, was that I had written as one in his sixties unchanged from his twenties: he is right. He queried how I viewed those halcyon days from the perspective of maturity: I hadn't considered it. He gave me a copy of "The World Since 1945" by T E Vadney, 2nd edition, referring me to pp374-80; is that really why I drank Tiger beer?