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 Post subject: Trincomalee - 1943
 Post Posted: Fri Sep 08, 2006 1:56 am 
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Trincomalee - 1943

Contributed by maxphilip
People in story: Philip Max Skelsey
Location of story: Trincomalee, Ceylon
Background to story: Royal Air Force
Article ID: A3790343
Contributed on: 15 March 2005

1943. Trincomalee on the north-east coast of Ceylon (now ‘Sri Lanka’). Looking down from the top of a hill near our camp I could see Hurricane fighter aircraft on the airfield at China Bay far below, like small moths in the distance, there to protect the aircraft carrier and battleships of the Far Eastern Fleet riding at anchor in the harbour. In the evenings, the sun dropping towards the sea, the sky was a mass of colour: turquoise, salmon-pink, deep crimson. At night, when we walked towards the town past red-brick bungalows, fireflies flitting and hovering among the palm trees, twin-engine Catalina reconnaissance planes came in low over the harbour, their headlights knifing the darkness.

Attempts to become an observer in a night-fighter had gone awry and I was working as an ‘AC Plonk’ (Aircraftman 1st.Clsss) in a RAF control room (a ‘Filter Room’) linked to radar stations on the coast. We plotted the course of British and American aircraft setting out on patrol over the Bay of Bengal or returning to base. Flight plans were given to us in advance and they confirmed these by transmitting IFF (‘Identification Friendly’), a vertical flash on the radar screen. One night a single unknown plane appeared on the screens flying directly towards us from the east. No IFF appeared. It was an enemy plane and the Hurricanes took off. We guided them towards their target and they shot it down.

We lived on the edge of the jungle in huts made out of dried palm leaves. When we were out, chipmunks and rats came out of the trees and into the huts to chew any clothes and soap they could find. Occasionally we saw a snake or a scorpion but ants abounded. It was fatal to leave pieces of chocolate on the tables by our beds. We tried putting each table leg into a round cigarette tin and filling it with paraffin. Even this didn’t work.

Suicide squads of ants dived into the paraffin and constructed bridges with their dead bodies. Their comrades marched across these, up the table legs and attacked the chocolate. We were fed a monotonous diet of bully beef, stew and dehydrated potatoes, all out of tins, but could make up for this by visits to a Chinese restaurant in the town serving plenty of English food so that we ate much better than our families at home where food was severely rationed.

There was a corrugated iron cinema in the town where I saw ‘Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man’ and Greer Garson in ‘Mrs.Miniver’.

Sometimes in the evenings we sat in the canteen, drinking tea and sticky sweet cakes. Little flying beetles circled around. If we crushed them, their tiny bodies exuded an odour of sweet dung. As soon as it grew dark we had to change into long trousers and roll our shirtsleeves down to the wrists to protect ourselves from mosquitoes. We tried putting cream on our faces but this got sticky with perspiration and then started to drip onto our shirts. We slept under mosquito nets. I never caught malaria but suffered from attacks of bacillary dysentery, diarrhoea with a high temperature. One afternoon I lay in a hospital bed, recovering from an attack, listening to music on the wireless: dance music from the thirties — Ambrose, Roy Fox, Lew Stone, one of those bands — smooth, elegant, stream-lined music, reminding me of home, of the late-night programmes I used to hear on the BBC from hotels and night clubs in London. We could sometimes pick up the Free French broadcasting from Brazzaville in North Africa or a Vichy French station at Saigon in Indo-China but the music was probably coming from one of our own stations nearby, broadcasting to British troops. The music stopped and a girl with a low, seductive voice announced that we were listening to Radio Jakarta - in the Dutch East Indies, occupied by the Japanese. There are no notes of exactly what she said in my letters home or my diary, all of which I still have, but I remember most of it, particularly the menacing undertone. The Far Eastern Fleet is at anchor in the harbour of Trincomalee. Any day now Japanese bombers will arrive overhead and destroy it. Pearl Harbour will be repeated. Those listening who are in the British forces should get out before it is too late.

It was very hot. My temperature was still up but I wanted to see for myself. I staggered out of bed and across to the balcony, looking down to the harbour. It was still empty, as it had been when I came into hospital. I had watched the Fleet depart some days ago, the aircraft carrier rocking gently from side to side on the waves, silhouetted against the sky as it disappeared over the horizon. I stayed on the balcony, looking down to the harbour, listening to the wireless behind me, engulfed with a feeling of deep satisfaction. The girl had been spouting what we used to call ‘duff gen’, absolute rubbish.

I left Trinco in April 1944 and after a few weeks in Colombo set off for Assam and later Burma. I never returned to Ceylon. In the last five years or so Trinco started to develop as a seaside resort after being caught up in the fighting with Tamil rebels but on Boxing Day 2004 it was hit by the tsunami. Looking down from the hill behind our former camp I would have seen, not Hurricane fighters but some of the 30,000 people who lost their homes huddled together on China Bay.


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