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From Port Talbort to the Cocos Keeling Islands - Part Three

by bedfordmuseum

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Archive List > Royal Air Force

Contributed by 
People in story: 
Mr. George Thompson
Location of story: 
Bengal, India, Cocos Keeling Islands, Pacific Ocean and UK
Background to story: 
Royal Air Force
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
22 December 2005

Mr. George Thompson, seated 1st left on the beach of Cocos Keeling Island, 1945.

Part three of an edited oral history interview with Mr. George Thompson conducted by Jenny Ford on behalf of Bedford Museum.

“It was very hot out there of course and we were entitled to some leaves and I took advantage. Although a lot of the chaps used to grumble about the hot weather all the time but although they were entitled to leaves they very often just didn’t take advantage of them for some reason or other. I had two very nice leaves. I had a leave up in - the first one was up in Naini Tal that’s right up in the foothills of the Himalayas. And what an awe inspiring sight to climb a few extra feet and then look out beyond — see all the snow clad Himalayas before you — a marvellous sight, absolutely marvellous!

Although it seemed never ending to us I suppose, the war going on and no sign of a Second Front being started. We used to have a map on the wall to follow the course of the war and bombings and what have you. I remember on one occasion there was one Scottish chap, he was always grumbling about waiting for the Second Front and I happened to go for breakfast early one morning and I heard ‘All India’ radio announce that the Second Front had started. So full of excitement I rushed back to the billet and told this chap, it’s started at last. He wouldn’t believe me of course until he heard it himself later on, on the ‘All India’ radio so that was another point that sticks in my memory.

The other leave I had was up to Darjeeling. Now this was really quite an interesting trip because from the foothills to Himalayas you climb on a narrow gauge railway up to over 7,000 feet. And in some of the parts where the mountain was so steep it had to kind of shunt forward and then backwards to another level and then shunt forwards again to gain the height. And in point of fact at the top it made a circuit right round so that the driver could almost touch the last carriage as it went under the tunnel. That was built by the British of course years ago. An interesting fact too of that trip was that the train stopped about half way up at a little station called I think Kersong and we piled out of the carriages, because there were quite a lot of other Airmen on leave as well. We entered a large building on the side of the railway and lo and behold when we got inside there it was all spread out with luscious food — sandwiches and cakes and oh, lovely! So of course we all had a good tuck in and I’d had quite a bit to eat and I went up to some lady and I said, ‘Look, I’ve had all this food but nobody’s asked me for any money’ and she said, ‘oh, didn’t you know boys? She said, ‘It’s VE Day today so it’s on the house!’ So I always remember now where I was at the end of the war in Europe. So that brings back happy memories. That was quite a nice leave up there. We had invitations to tea gardens and tea plantations. And there was one good thing we were allowed to send parcels home occasionally and I sent several parcels back to England during the war years containing tea to my parents and some friends who were grateful during the days of rationing of course. So that was very nice. Also we could buy linen stuff - that was good. We used to get poplin shirts made quite cheaply and things like that so that was very nice

I started with 356 Squadron when I was posted to Bengal, the Station was there. We were bombing Burma and Java and Sumatra, Rangoon and Mandalay. But you see the trouble was that it was a long way for the aircraft to go. Especially when we kind of cleared the Japs out of Burma the distance became very great for the bombers meaning that with their heavy load of fuel it meant the bomb load wasn’t as heavy as it might have been. So it was a problem. It was then that the authorities, war people found that there was an island, a British owned island in the Pacific which was 600 miles from Java and Sumatra thus about half way between Ceylon and Perth (Australia) and it was this coral atoll, the Cocos Keeling Islands. Beautiful little setting there, this little coral atoll. One of the islands was just long enough and just wide enough, barely half a mile wide, just long enough to take a landing strip down the center to take the Heavy Bombers, the Liberators. A Pioneer Corp went in and felled all the coconut palms there was nothing but coconut palms. The atoll was occupied by people living there — quite an interesting story that - by a Scottish family, by the name of Ross whose forebearers had discovered the island years ago and the first member of the Ross family - he made it his home, took his wife and settled there and it’s been held by the Ross family right up until — it was still owned by the descendants, right up to 1945 during the war.

Then our Unit, we sailed from Calcutta. We cross the Equator and went through the formalities so I’ve still got my certificate, a member of the ‘Neptune Club’! And then we arrived at this coral atoll, a beautiful sight, there wasn’t a cloud in sky as we were sailing and then suddenly we saw some lovely white billowy white clouds just in one spot. And as we grew nearer the clouds were over this little atoll — just white billowy clouds. We couldn’t get right to the shores because the coral reef extended quite a way out so we had to disembark from the ship and got on landing barges and then made the rest of the journey on those.

The equipment came on the ship and that was brought ashore before us because in point of fact before we left Calcutta we had to pack all the cameras up in cases ready for transportation, all the equipment and everything. Then of course when we arrived we had to sort it all out. I took advantage as I had a little home made bedside table next to my bed in Bengal so I thought I might as well try — so I kind of dismantled it and put it amongst other stuff and that arrived! So I had my table back with me when I got to the Cocos Keeling Islands.

We left Calcutta before the Atom bombs had been dropped, we left Calcutta and we arrived on the Cocos Keeling Islands oh, only a very short time before the Atom bomb was dropped. But as I say we unloaded all the stuff and on the Island we had a very nice mobile darkroom one of the modern RAF, yes it was a modern darkroom. Our vehicle was all equipped. It had got it’s own devices to keep it cool, to keep the chemicals cool and everything so you know it was quite nice so we were able to work there directly. But of course as things happened we didn’t really need it. Because it wasn’t very long after we’d kind of — well in point of fact before the aircraft had got sorted out to go on bombing raids the two Atom bombs were dropped and within a short time afterwards the war in the Far East was over. So our aircraft then and flights were used to drop supplies, food and stuff to Prisoner of War camps - where they could locate them. So although we didn’t help the war effort by bombing we certainly helped the Prisoners to survive and get back home again.

It was quite nice on the Island, there wasn’t much there of course apart from coconut palms. We had a NAAFI where we could get our beers, supplies. We used to do our washing in the sea. Well we were allowed about a pint of drinking water a day because there was no water supply on the Island at all, it was just coral sand and we were warned not to foul the ground in any way. Also, another thing I should mention they also had these crabs, land crabs. Now you’ve probably seen films of the Christmas Islands with all those land crabs there well we had that type of crab on the Island. But of course not so many and I can’t remember them being pink like I’ve seen them in the film but they were white but just the same. They were scavengers and we were told not to kill them at all because they were scavengers and clean the place up. I know when we first arrived on the Island we were under canvas and we had to sleep on the floor and it wasn’t a very nice thought sometimes to think that one of these land crabs would pay us a visit during the night. But I didn’t see many of them and I always said that one of the dangers that we suffered on the Island was in fact falling coconuts because all our canvas tents were under palm trees. And coconuts when they are ripe they just fall down and also bring some of the branches with them. That’s how the tree grows - the branches drop off as the tree grows higher. I know that I’ve had several near misses, I’ve been outside cleaning my teeth and a coconut has fallen off the tree a few yards off, quite unprepared.

We had a male voice choir on the Island. I used to take part in that - that was quite nice. We had a little church too with a Padre there. We used to have nice little Services. It was a six month Station actually but I never did my six months because after the war, after the bombs had been dropped of course our demobilisation numbers - we all had numbers according to how long a service we’d done. And as I’d been in more or less from the beginning of the war I think my number was about 27 or something like that. It was touch and go as to whether I would be home in time for Christmas in 1945. It so happened that my number was called up. There was another chap from Bedford, his number came up, I think his number was 26. He said, ‘Cheerio’ to me one day because he was going to fly back to Bombay and anyway I saw him the next day and I said, ‘I thought you’d gone?’ He said, ‘Well,’ he said, ‘we started off but the weather conditions were so bad that the Pilot decided not to fly through it. But take a word of advice from me’ he said, ‘that when you go wrap something, warm yourself up because they are trying fly pretty high above it.’ So anyway I did what he said and lo and behold of course they flew very low and I’d these warm things and with this heat I was perspiring, just the opposite! We flew to Ceylon that was quite a long air trip. Just a little bit of a fright when we got on - because we flew back on the bombers and we had to stand on take-off. We had to stand in the bomb bay compartment until the aircraft got really airborne. And as we stood there I could see through a chink in the bomb bay doors — first of all I could see the landing strip then I could see the sea and then I could see the landing strip and then I could see the sea. So once the noise of the aircraft had stopped I said, ‘What’s happening?’ And somebody at the end said, ‘Well we’ve got a bit of trouble, they can’t get the landing gear up!’ So after saying ‘Our Father which art in Heaven’ — eventually they were working and they got them up alright. So just a little fright but it did put me off flying for some time. It was a very long journey. We flew to the north of Ceylon, to Kankesantura spent the night there and got in another aircraft and that took us to Bombay and funnily enough the ship that we were to go home on was the sister ship to the Monarch of Burmuda, it was the Empress of Burmuda. It had got something wrong with one of the engines and there was some doubt as to whether it could make the speed to get us back to England, but it did. We got back in time for Christmas 1945!”

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