MEMORIES OF CAR NICOBAR
By Stuart Renshaw (M2369)
After a spell at Changi I went to what must have been the best posting in the RAF – to Car Nicobar – an island in the Bay of Bengal. As a lad, one of the few books I had read was Coral Island by R M Ballantyne and never in my wildest dreams did I ever think I would live on such an island. I flew out in October 1955 and the flight took us firstly to RAF Butterworth for refuelling and then out over the Bay of Bengal for a couple of hours to Car Nicobar, but when we approached the island, it was in the midst of a heavy thunderstorm. It was on the one day of the week when two aircraft arrived at a similar time, ours from Singapore and the other from RAF Negombo (Sri Lanka now) but Ceylon in those days. We were being buffeted around and in and out of cloud then at one point we were dropping like a stone and suddenly could see the tops of palm trees on the island then we rose rapidly again. The Air Traffic lad told me later how concerned he had been because our pilot had been told to keep circling at 1500 feet and the other one at 1,000 feet but then ours said he was going to drop down to see what he thought about the weather for a landing but in doing this he crossed through the flight level of the other aircraft and with the minimum amount of aids there, it wasn’t the cleverest of things to do. Anyway, we eventually landed safely.
Once on the island, I joined up with about 25 or so airmen and one officer together with around 8,000 local inhabitants, who were delightful, friendly and happy as they lived their very primitive life style with very little money changing hands, bartering was the main way of obtaining items you may require. I was advised before going there to take some cheap brightly coloured shirts from Singapore and they would be good for exchanging for souvenir items, such as cowry shells and carvings the locals would do.
I arrived in the South Westerly monsoon, when the weather could be quite stormy with high seas but there were good sunny spells too. It improved during my period of four and a half months as the North Easterly monsoon set in. This gave lighter winds, more sunshine and beautiful weather on many days, but still with the odd shower around. In those days I was a reasonable swimmer but when I saw the state of the sea and waves in the South Westerly monsoon, I couldn’t imagine anyone swimming in those conditions, but the lads who had been there for a time ran in to the sea and timed their arrival at the big waves and were swept up high, so you could see their silhouette in the waves which must have been 15 feet, then they would dive down the other side and you would lose sight of them. It took a bit of courage to risk doing it to start with but once you thought you had it sorted out, it was exhilarating and that is when trouble could strike. I remember becoming over confident once I thought I’d got it sussed out. Occasionally two waves would come in very quick succession (which I’ve since read about) due to an effect caused by the coral reef and on this particular day, I dived over the wave but then got caught in a second wave as it crashed down on me. I knew I was being tossed around and when I opened my eyes it was dark. This was when it was easy to panic. I realised I just had to keep holding my breath as I hadn’t a clue as to which way to swim. Fortunately it got lighter in the one direction and by the time I broke the surface I couldn’t hold my breath any longer – I was lucky no other wave was coming down on me. I came out as quickly as I could, quite shaken but much wiser. By the time the North Easterly monsoon became established with only small waves, you could see through the clear water all the coral formations and fish – unbelievably beautiful !
We worked every day in the Met office, the two of us sharing either earlies or lates with never a day off. Everyone was given a second job to do on the island and my second job was to help the air Traffic lad run the NAAFI shop. The CO gave me the customary interview and briefing on arrival and explained what I was required to do on taking over the shop duties. We would normally work alternative days (lunch times and evenings) and at the end of the day you had to do a complete stock check of all the items sold, from soap, toothpaste etc to soft drinks, beers chocolate, cigarettes and all the other items stocked which anyone on the camp may require. We worked in Rupees and Annas and the books and money had to balance every evening with all the sales details carefully logged. Any short fall in the takings had to come out of our own pockets, but to help this, we were given one Anna (under 1p) when we sold one brand of soft drink and one brand of beer. If we didn’t make any mistakes or break anything, any surplus could slowly build up for ourselves – so you really did learn how to be careful. I managed to just about live on what profits we made but it was a very simple life.
For evening entertainment we had one bingo night a week and three quite modern films were flown out from Singapore for us to see and those evenings could be very interesting. You can imagine with no officer present in the NAAFI if the film was not very good, there was plenty of banter and the humour generated by the lads could beat many a film, so even if it was a poor film we could come away having had a good laugh and a great evening. On the other evenings there was darts, cards, chess and the odd board game to play.
There were a couple of wild water buffalo that roamed the area, snakes around which you had to be wary of and I had a narrow escape one day in our hydrogen shed. It was an open ended Nissan style shed in which we kept cylinders of hydrogen for filling our met balloons. We had to release these balloons and follow them through a theodolite and then calculate the wind speeds and directions using a complicated multi-curser slide rule. These observations were very important for the weather forecasters at Changi in forecasting the winds for aircraft crossing the Bay of Bengal. On this particular occasion we had got down to our last cylinder of hydrogen, which in the past could never be opened for some reason but now I was told by signal from Changi – it must be opened. I sought the help of “Chiefy” the RAF technician responsible for anything and everything on the camp and on visiting aircraft. He tried to open it with his equipment and couldn’t – he said send a signal back that it won’t open. I did this but was told again in no uncertain manner it had to be opened. I tried all sorts of things with no luck and in the end I lay on top of it with a leg each side as it lay on the broken coral surface and wrapped rags around the top, then hitting it with a hammer – something that would never be tolerated normally. I did manage to get some movement on the cap which we later found must have been hammered on because there was no threads left. However as I lifted it up, a green viper leapt in to the air and it had been lying down the length of the cylinder – my leg must have almost been touching it. I immediately dropped the cylinder and grabbed a broom handle we kept there for this sort of eventuality and it tried to get me but luckily I managed to kill it. I must admit I went a bit over the top because it kept moving when I thought I’d killed it so I battered it some more, but when I took it to the doc as we had to – he was very annoyed as he hadn’t got one of these in his display jars for snake recognition and this one was now too smashed up for him to use.
Finally it was time for my last swim in the lagoon, my last day of work in the Met Office, (situated in the Control Tower) and to use my return ticket back to Changi – a sort of sad day!!
After spending such a happy time there I was greatly saddened to hear in 2004 about the Tsunami which devastated the island with tremendous loss of life. The Indian Air Force lost over 100 personnel including their met staff. The base re-opened again a few months later but it must have taken a great deal of work, and I understand the island is still one of these places which is very difficult to get permission to visit.
Like so many of us who did not look forward to National Service before we joined up, I know it did me the world of good and they used to say you join as a boy and come out a man, and I really do believe that to be true in most cases. I also consider myself to have been extremely fortunate with my postings.
I’ve written these notes whilst I am still able to remember certain things which can be read by the family and to anyone else who may be interested. I would have liked to know more about my grandfather’s life in World War I, but the facilities didn’t exist for this in those days.
If anyone who reads this page can add anything worthwhile, I’d be more than pleased to hear from them and for anyone who may have known me, again I’d be delighted if they would contact me.
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