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Marching on to Laffan's Plain - Chapter 4

by Alan Shaw

Contributed by 
Alan Shaw
People in story: 
Lieutenant Alan Linsley Shaw RE
Location of story: 
Halifax, Yorks to Bombay via Cape Town
Background to story: 
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
01 November 2004

In 1942 India awaited , virtually unchanged. This was a typical scene on the Saugor to Jhansi road, central India.The bullock cart had not changed because it was perfect for the job it had to do.

Passage to India?

When they wanted a man
to encourage the van
or to shout “hullaloo” in the rear,
or to storm a redoubt,
they straightway sent out
for Abdul, the Bulbul Ameer

(From page 244 of “The Scottish Student’s Songbook” 3rd Edition 1892. But around 1990 the Scottish Universities announced cessation of publication of this book “ because students no longer sing” .How sad!)

Ten thousand miles away by sea, less than three months since the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbour, the Japanese Army had taken Singapore and 50,000 British and imperial troops and were advancing rapidly through Burma. By the 7th March they entered Rangoon, by 20th May they had reached the Chindwin River and the first Burma campaign was over. The south west monsoon with its torrential rains was now in full swing and both sides at a standstill. Censorship ruled.

On 27th February 1942, after a riotous farewell evening at 222 Field Company’s Officers Mess at Winchester I arrived home in Edinburgh in the early hours of the following day. Marjory and I made the most of our last few days of married life on one weeks embarkation leave before I was required to report to the RE Depot, now moved from Chatham to the old Duke of Wellington’ Regimental Depot at Halifax, on 7th March 1942.

Time was made even shorter by the need to acquire tropical kit and make up luggage into three categories: “Cabin” (one large or two small suitcases) “Wanted on Voyage” and “Not wanted on Voyage”.The two latter embraced my trusty “valise” or canvas bedding roll stuffed with last minute additions and a black painted insect proof metal cabin trunk.

The secret posting letter from War Office Cheltenhan to CRE 47 Div merely said “for tropical service”. A stronger hint was the two page schedule of rates of pay for an officer serving with various branches of the Indian Army, and a fleeting reference to “India & Burma - Essential Mufti” . Two paragraphs seemed outdated by events, but we obeyed instructions: :-

“BAGGAGE:Your allowance is 4 cwts and this must not be exceeded”

“MUFTI: You are advised to take out one suit of well cut plain clothes which can be copied out there as required: Take any additional mufti within your authorised scale of baggage, you may require it on leave.”

“Mufti” had not been worn in the UK for two and a half years. A cheering note was that the pay of a married RE Lieutenant under 30 years of age, serving with the Indian Army, was over £50 per month.It was true that of this only £4.50 was marriage allowance!

Setting off for Halifax on 7th March I discovered on arrival that Marjory could join me until the sailing date.As a working school teacher in term time she had to apply for headmasters permission. A few months earlier another colleague at that school had been refused. Her husband sailed for the East and was taken prisoner at Singapore on 15th February. The headmaster was so upset by that experience that Marjory was told to go on indefinite leave until my departure. We had another treasured week together.

On 17th March 1942 our RE Officers Draft RGHOF left Halifax railway station for an unknown destination. As the train entered a long dark tunnel no one spoke. Each was submerged in his own private thoughts.

A couple of hours later the train came to rest at Liverpool quayside. Dimly visible in driving sleet, a line of grey troopships lay in the River Mersey. Motor launches ferried us to them. As ours approached the accommodation ladder of a twin funnelled ship the Embarkation Staff Officer leading us missed his footing, fell into the dark, swirling waters of the River Mersey and was swept away to his death.

The rest of us made the transfer to the ladder heart in mouth, but without further incident. It was a gloomy start to our voyaging. I shared a two berth cabin with another young RE officer who I had not met before. We were on the starboard side (the hot side on an outward passage to India) but considered ourselves very fortunate.Our new home was the “Nieuw Holland” of 11,066 gross tonnage of the Netherlands KPM line and now under British management. Launched in 1927 and registered in Batavia,with a top speed of 15 knots,she had been designed to carry 123 1st class and 50 3rd class passengers, plus a crew of 199,on the Java-Australia service. As a troopship she now carried 2,000 passengers.

Officers all had cabins but the troops lived in mess decks and slept in hammocks, conditions identical to those in the troopship “Neuralia” when I had sailed to Scandinavia on a Scotttish schoolboys holiday tour ten years earlier. However this time our troops were to endure a 10,000 mile two month voyage, mostly through the tropics and under blacked out conditions at night. Some time after dark the convoy slipped its moorings and headed out into the Irish sea, zigzagging in unison for protection against U-boats once out of the Mersey estuary. A day or so later we sailed up the Clyde estuary into the great anchorage known as the ‘Tail of the Bank”.

Here we merged into one of the biggest convoys ever assembled. Ships of all shapes, size, and descriptions lay at anchor. Ahead of the “Nieuw Holland lay the 20,000 ton “Orion” of the P and O line, carrying 5,000 troops. Not far away to starboard the graceful lines of a two funnel ship proclaimed her Union Castle Line origin. Nearby was a curiously shaped two funnel Royal Navy depot ship.The more knowledgeable among us discerned under the uniform grey paint many famous ocean liners including the “Winchester Castle”.

Like all troopships “Nieuw Holland”had a military Commandant, an elderly Lt Colonel “dug out”of retirement for the duration of the war, supported by an Adjutant, Regimental Sergeant Major, and various Non Commissioned officers.Their job was to prevent the voyage from becoming a pleasure cruise by continuously creating employment for everyone on board. Perhaps it only seemed like that. We had to be kept fit enough to be of use when we landed in India two months later.

There were deck games, physical training sessions, Urdu lessons for those destined to join the Indian Army, and for the officers, a roster of Orderly Officer duties stretching some way into the future. These involved attendance on the ship’s captain and the Commandant during daily inspection of every person and nook and cranny in the ship, inspection of food and hygiene in the troop decks. Sunday church services included a choir recruited and rehearsed during weekdays. Evenings were occupied by chess or bridge, or by a sing-song around the piano in the Officers Lounge. The tradition of self entertainment still lingered on and many were quite musically talented.

As the weather improved and temperature steadily increased large canvas ventilating tubes were rigged from the masts and ducted through open hatchways into the troopdecks below. To eliminate any possibility of the convoy’s position being known and possibly signalled to the enemy, the captain’s estimate of daily latitude and longitude was never disclosed. However, each day, one of the passengers, an RAF Flight Lieutenant with a very accurate watch and a sextant went up to the boat deck behind one of the funnels and discreetly shot the sun. We always knew our approximate position and the bearing on which we were sailing was obvious enough at any time.

The convoy sailed from the Clyde on 23rd March.”Nieuw Holland” carried, as well as our RE Officers draft RGHOF for India, elements of the 5th British Division (“Y” shoulder flash) and 29th Independent Brigade Group (shoulder flash white ring on a black square) and a Commando unit.We sailed West into the Atlantic past the Mull of Kintyre with frequent spells of zigzagging. At a siren blast from the convoy Commodore’s ship all ships turned together through an angle of 45 degrees. It was amazing that there were no collisions.

One day, at about the latitude of the Canary Islands, we noticed that despite a heavy overcast of low cloud the temperature was comfortably mild. We remained out of sight of land until in the first week of April we entered the harbour of Freetown, Sierra Leone, and lay there, unable to go ashore, for five days. Powerful naval units joined us. We were prevented from sailing, we were told, by the suspected presence of German submarines in the offing.The real reason was not disclosed until long after. On or about 9th April our giant convoy resumed its passage for a further two weeks to the Cape of Good Hope. There it split into two, one half going to Durban

To our delight our half sailed into Cape Town Harbour.As our ship tied up in the brilliant afternoon sun, an army staff car arrived on the quayside and decanted an Embarkation Staff Officer. The driver also emerged, an extremely attractive girl in military uniform, who evoked a deafening barrage of wolf whistles and unbelieving cries of “Look! - a woman!" The entire complement rushed to the port side to see this vision and “Nieuw Holland” took on an alarming list shorewards.

There was great excitement on being told we could go ashore. A few weeks earlier a convoy of Dominion troops had come ashore and out of boredom vandalised areas of the city. The good citizens now took positive action to prevent a recurrence by preparing for us a memorable programme of hospitality. They referred to us as “Imperial troops” making us feel important.

We continued to be based on our respective ships but rarely stepped on board until the convoy resumed its voyage.Vivid memories remain of being taken with several shipboard friends to the Kelvingrove Country Club, to the Rotunda Ballroom, and to the private houses of residents who were members of the Hospitality Committee. We were taken up Table Mountain by cable car and visited many historic places in and around Cape Town. The April climate was superb.There was no night time black-out. Cape Town seemed paradise on earth. For those in our convoy who did not survive the war it was a last experience of Western hospitality. Those who did return retained a lifetime memory of South African kindness..

Three days later our convoy resumed its voyage to India. But its composition seemed to have changed. On the way south from Freetown I had seen, close by, the battleship “Malaya”. I had been aboard her as a schoolboy during a Fleet visit to the Firth of Forth. Then she had had two funnels, but now like other refitted naval ships she had a single combined funnel. Her place alongside us had been taken later by a three funnel eight inch gunned “County” class cruiser. Some time after leaving Cape Town another battleship sailed nearby. It had a single combined funnel but with the addition of a black smoke deflector, one of the old “R” class battleships.

Eventually the news came that Madagascar had been successfully invaded (Code named “Operation Ironclad”). The delay at Freetown had been the first meeting, under Rear-Admiral Syfret, Commander-in-Chief of the combined operations force to plan final details of this invasion.”Winchester Castle” was the Assault headquarters ship, “Malaya” was the flagship of Admiral Syfret, until he reached South Africa when “Malaya” was ordered back to the Mediterranean, to be replaced as his flagship by “Ramilies” from the far Eastern Fleet.The three funnel cruiser was “Devonshire” who also took part. Our convoy had acted as cover.

We arrived in India on Sunday 17th May 1942. Long before the coast was sighted “Nieuw Holland” sailed in a flat calm, through small groups of picturesque fishing boats, seemingly too frail to be so far out of sight of land. We entered Bombay harbour and tied up at a quayside.

The Disembarkation Staff Officer came on board. There was a brief opportunity for us all to go ashore. Some hired two wheeled rickshaws, pulled by men sweating profusely in the heat. It was a shock to find ourselves employing human beings as draft animals in this way. But to them it was their livelihood. Bombay’s average daily temperature range in May is 91 to 80 degrees F, with relative humidity 74 to 68%. The sights and smells ranged from the sublimely exotic to the horrific. We had been given a fleeting snapshot view of the multi-facetted paradox which is India.

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These messages were added to this story by site members between June 2003 and January 2006. It is no longer possible to leave messages here. Find out more about the site contributors.

Message 1 - Never trust your memory !

Posted on: 01 November 2004 by Ron Goldstein

Hi Alan
Thanks for this beautifully told story.
One slight quibble....
You say:
"If they wanted a man
to encourage the van
or to shout “hullaloo” in the rear,
or to storm a redoubt,
they straightway sent out
for Abdul Abulbul Amir"

My version, first learnt at the C and B.G. boys club camp in 1936, went as follows:

"If you wanted a man to encourage the van,
or harass the foe from the rear,
Storm fort or redoubt,you had only to shout
For Abdul Abulbul Amir




Message 2 - Never trust your memory !

Posted on: 01 November 2004 by Ron Goldstein

Hi Alan

Ron here again !
Since my last comment I have searched on GOOGLE and found loads of versions, if you call up then it's the same as the one I remember.




Message 3 - Never trust your memory !

Posted on: 01 November 2004 by Peter - WW2 Site Helper


I enjoyed all four episodes of your story. Excellent stuuf!

One very minor point that you can quickly put right. In episode 3 here A3198864 you repeat the sory (scroll down half way). Just click Edit on the right to highlight and delete.

To save click around, here is the most popular version of Abdul Abalbul Amir, the old Crimean War song:

The sons of the prophet are hardy and bold,
And quite unaccustomed to fear,
But the bravest of these was a man, I am told,
Named Abdul Abulbul Amir.

This son of the desert, in battle aroused,
Could spit twenty men on his spear.
A terrible creature, both sober and soused
Was Abdul Abulbul Amir.

When they needed a man to encourage the van,
Or to harass the foe from the rear,
Or to storm a redoubt, they had only to shout
For Abdul Abulbul Amir.

There are heroes aplenty and men known to fame
In the troops that were led by the Czar;
But the bravest of these was a man by the name
Of Ivan Skavinsky Skivar.

He could imitate Irving, play Euchre and pool
And perform on the Spanish Guitar.
In fact, quite the cream of the Muscovite team
Was Ivan Skavinsky Skivar.

The ladies all loved him, his rivals were few;
He could drink them all under the bar.
As gallant or tank, there was no one to rank
With Ivan Skavinsky Skivar.

One day this bold Russian had shouldered his gun
And donned his most truculent sneer
Downtown he did go, where he trod on the toe
Of Abdul Abulbul Amir.

"Young man" quoth Abdul, "has life grown so dull,
That you wish to end your career?
Vile infidel know, you have trod on the toe
Of Abdul Abulbul Amir."

"So take your last look at sunshine and brook
And send your regrets to the Czar;
By this I imply you are going to die,
Count Ivan Skavinsky Skivar."

Quoth Ivan, "My friend, your remarks, in the end,
Will avail you but little, I fear,
For you ne'er will survive to repeat them alive,
Mr. Abdul Abulbul Amir!"

Then this bold mameluke drew his trusty skibouque
With a cry of "Allah Akbar!"
And with murderous intent, he ferociously went
For Ivan Skavinsky Skivar.

Then they parried and thrust and they side-stepped and
'Till their blood would have filled a great pot.
The philologist blokes, who seldom crack jokes,
Say that hash was first made on that spot.

They fought all that night, 'neath the pale yellow moon;
The din, it was heard from afar;
And great multitudes came, so great was the fame
of Abdul and Ivan Skivar.

As Abdul's long knife was extracting the life -
In fact, he was shouting "Huzzah!" -
He felt himself struck by that wily Kalmuck,
Count Ivan Skavinsky Skivar.

The sultan drove by in his red-breasted fly,
Expecting the victor to cheer;
But he only drew nigh to hear the last sigh
Of Abdul Abulbul Amir.

Czar Petrovich, too, in his spectacles blue
Rode up in his new crested car.
He arrived just in time to exchange a last line
With Ivan Skavinsky Skivar.

A loud-sounding splash from the Danube was heard
Resounding o'er meadows afar;
It came from the sack fitting close to the back
Of Ivan Skavinsky Skivar.

There's a tomb rises up where the blue Danube flows;
Engraved there in characters clear;
"Ah stranger, when passing, please pray for the soul
Of Abdul Abulbul Amir."

A Muscovite maiden her lone vigil keeps,
'Neath the light of the cold northern star;
And the name that she murmurs in vain as she weeps
Is Ivan Skavinsky Skivar. <devil>


Peter <cheers>


Message 4 - Never trust your memory !

Posted on: 03 November 2004 by Alan Shaw

Dear all,
We may all be right! However I try to write about actuality as I remember it. I played the ukelele from the age of 12 (1928) and at that time sang the version popularised by American folk singer Frank Crumit on ( I think Columbia) 78 gramophone record. I knew no other until in late 1942 when living in Colombo, Ceylon (Sri Lanka). I bought the Scottish and British Student's Songbooks - two massive tomes, one at least with a traditional version of Abdul.

From there on, in Ceylon and the Burma campaign an Indian officer friend ( also a ukelele player) and I at officers mess parties, through these books! We would pass them round the assembled guests and call for a choice. Many would know and like me prefer the Frank Crumit version from his records. If I may I will check the Crumit version from the internet and come back to you.
I will check the internet for it and come back to you.

Regards, Alan



Message 5 - Never trust your memory !

Posted on: 03 November 2004 by Alan Shaw

Many thanks.
I have been trying to spot the repetition you mention but failed so far. Could you please give a a couple of lines to lead me in to that problem so that I can delete as you suggest?
Regarding my version of the verse from Abdul my elder daughter has some audio casettes I produced over the years for our two grandchildren.
Why I am still persevering is that the word "hullaloo!" is one I associate only with Frank Crumit's song.and although I will be 88 this month my memory for such things has so far been very good. - Not that I can always remember what day it is!!
When I am satisfied that the search has run cold I will be glad to use the version you have so kindly produced.


Message 6 - Never trust your memory !

Posted on: 08 November 2004 by Alan Shaw


I referred the verse at head of Chapter 4 to Edinburgh City Libraries . Their Gary phoned me this evening (8th November) to say the version in "The Scottish Students Songbook" (of which they have several copies) reads as I have submitted, with the exception of the last line viz: "Abdul Abulbul Amir".(used by Frank Crumit)

In the Scottish version this reads as "Abdul the Bulbul Ameer" .

May I submit that my version combines the best of both worlds? It may well be be the way Lt-Col John Elisha IE and I used to sing it together!. If so it would be historically crrect in the context!




Message 7 - Never trust your memory !

Posted on: 08 November 2004 by Alan Shaw


Many thanks again for your version of "Abdul. I have replied to Ron as he raised that issue first.

Regarding A3198864 (Chapter 3 ) you seem to suggest I have duplicated part of the Chapter 3 story somewhere in the middle.

The only thing I have detected is that I have mentioned the 4 ounce gelignite primer in page 2 paragraph 6 as part of the general configuration of the mine.

Then in page 3, paragraph 3, in discussing various risks presented by the mine I have mentioned the primer gelignite ( simply a putty -like "filler", allowed in process of manufacture to soak up liquid nitro-glycerine and hold it safely) as exuding drops of liquid nitroglycerine

Just a flick of a fingernail on to a single drop of liquid nitroglycerine causes it to explode.

That over 350,000 of these mines, with a practical shelf life of less than six months (who would want to pick one up after that time) were ordered to be sown around certain coasts of the United Kingdom despite the above fact, well known to explosive experts, probably illustrates the "backs to the wall" mentality of the post Dunkirk period. I have mentioned the fatalities incurred over the subsequent years.

I hope I have taken up the point you intended. Please do not hesitate to let me know if I have missed something.




Message 8 - Never trust your memory !

Posted on: 09 November 2004 by Ron Goldstein

Dear Alan,Peter

I have much enjoyed the Albul Abulbul nit-picking and am more than happy to let Alan stick to his remembered version.
However, what the thread DID remind me of was some correspondence that I was involved in between 29/8/01 and 5/9/01 in the Times 'Letters to the Editor' column.
(I paraphrase here to save space)

Letter 1 on 29/8/01
told of the Cowboy and Indian chase piano music that used to accompany cowboy films. It cited the music as being: diddle-diddle-dum, diddle-diddle-dum, etc.

Letter 2 on 3/9/01
then said it should have been: diddle-dum, diddle-dum, diddle-dum-dum-dum.(referring of course to Rossini's William Tell)

Letter 3 on 4/9/01
(my contribution) claimed 78 years of authority and many chilhood hours of Tom Mix, Buck Jones and Hoot Gibson films.
I said it should have been: diddle-diddle-dum, diddle-diddle-dum, dum dum dum dum dum dum dum (I hope you're counting the 'dum's Peter)

Letter 5 on 5/9/01
said it hated to question my 78 years of authority but insisted that the music always included 8 not 7 'dums'.

The letter closed with the wonderful punch line 'Is this yet another instance of dumming down?'




Message 9 - Never trust your memory !

Posted on: 10 November 2004 by Alan Shaw

Dear Ron/ Peter,

Fascinating how many people all over the world know about Abdul!

Edinburgh Central Library were able to phone quoting the Scottish Students Songbook version of my verse. It is identical except that the last line instead of "Abdul Abulbul Amir" uses "Abdul the Bulbul Ameer"!

Based on word count I apparently score 90 per cent on a memory of 60 years ago!

Percy French who wrote the original sold it to a London music publisher for £10. He never received a penny in royalties!

I propose to change my version to agree with the Scottish Students Songbook. But I'll wait until I receive a hard copy
of the SSSB from Norwich Library in a few days.

Is the gelignite story the one you were referring to and are you happy with my reply?




Message 10 - Never trust your memory !

Posted on: 12 November 2004 by Alan Shaw

Hello Ron/Peter,

I have had the good fortune to borrow from Norwich Millenium Library in wellnigh perfect condition "The Scottish Students Songbook" 3rd Edition 1892 containing on pps 244-45 the music and lyrics of "Abdul, the Bulbul Ameer".

Altering my original presentation by substituting "When" for the initial "If" and the last line to "Abdul, the Bulbul Ameer" makes it agree with the Scottish Students Songbook. I have corrected my "Marching on to Laffan;s Plain - Chapter 4" accordingly.

My understanding of the copyright position for music and lyrics is that it expires 70 years after the authors death. The S.S.B. page 244 footnotes "By special permission of Mr John Blockley 16 Mortimer Street, London W."

Was it Blockley who bought the original rights of Percy French' s lyric "Abdul Abul Amir" from Percy for £10? around 1872 -77?

Perhaps you could confirm to me that there is no copyright problem?




Message 11 - Never trust your memory !

Posted on: 14 November 2004 by Peter - WW2 Site Helper


I've been offline for about a week. Sorry, I gave you the wrong reference. The duplication is in "Marching on to Laffan's Plain - Chapter 2" (not Chapter 3) here


The chapter starts with:

"“Hurrah for the CRE”

Edinburgh friend Ian Millar and I were posted to 504 Field Park Company R E of the 47th (London) Division at St Albans. Our “Bow Bells”shoulder flash identified the Division with below it the horizontal blue and red strip of the Sapper, the heraldry of World War 2. I found myself a billet with a local bank official and his wife and eight year old daughter(Mr & Mrs Cockle & Christine,19 Palfrey Close), handed over my billeting allowance to Mrs Cockle and became one of the family. ... etc"

and about half way down we get:

"“Hurrah for the CRE”

Edinburgh friend Ian Millar and I were posted to 504 Field Park Company R E of the 47th (London) Division at St Albans. Our “Bow Bells”shoulder flash identified the Division with below it the horizontal blue and red strip of the Sapper, the heraldry of World War 2. I found myself a billet with a local bank official and his wife and eight year old daughter(Mr & Mrs Cockle & Christine,19 Palfrey Close), handed over my billeting allowance to Mrs Cockle and became one of the family. ... etc"

Best regards,


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