Mr. George Thompson on leave at Darjeeling, India in May 1945.
- Contributed by
- People in story:
- Mr. George Thompson
- Location of story:
- Poona, Calcutta, Bengal, India.
- Background to story:
- Royal Air Force
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 22 December 2005
Part two of an edited oral history interview with Mr. George Thompson conducted by Jenny Ford on behalf of Bedford Museum.
“Well, funnily enough as a schoolboy I was always fascinated about India. I think it was because there was there was a chappie of my own age that went to school with me who lived locally and he was an Anglo-India, he was born in India. He used to talk about it and it always fascinated me and I always said, ‘If I’m going overseas I hope it will be India’ and of course it was. I’m glad I did really because I took advantage of seeing the place while I was there as much as I could and on one occasion up in Bengal the Photographic Officer said, ‘I want a volunteer to go to Delhi to bring some photographic equipment back.’ I like a shot said, ‘I’ll go!’ So I went on a nice long journey, again by train, to Delhi. When I get to Delhi, see the Photographic Officer there to be told, ‘Oh, it’s not here’ he said, it’s at Lahore!’ I said ‘Well, I’ve never been to Lahore before so I don’t mind that.’ I said ‘But I’ve never been to Delhi before’ I said, ‘is there a possible chance of delaying my visit just a short time to give me a chance to have a look around the place?’ He said, ‘I think that can be arranged.’ So he arranged a billet for me so I hired a cycle and cycled around Delhi. Visited the Red Fort which is a beautiful place to see, very historic. And the Jama Masjid Mosque and I still have a lovely knife, a souvenir, all made of ivory with little elephants. I went off in my khaki shorts and that because it was hot but lo and behold when I got to Lahore all the Airmen there were wearing their Blue serge because it was cold. So I was a bit cold! But I wasn’t there long, I just stayed one night and then I escorted the equipment because it came back by rail, I had to travel back by rail with it. It was a box and I had to keep an eye on it. It was a little bit difficult for me because it had to be handled on a couple of occasions and of course the Indians they wanted money for doing it, they didn’t do anything voluntary. It was embarrassing trying to get it moved and then them coming round asking for money. I wasn’t paid any money to disperse for handling charges or expenses - I had to do it out of my own pay.
I found people very helpful when I arrived at a strange place. I remember arriving at Lahore Station - he was an Indian and he could speak English and he said, ‘Can I help you?’ I said, well I wanted to know where the RAF Unit place was and he said, ‘Oh, well I can tell you’ and he gave me information. Apparently he’d been to this country so he was interested in helping an English person. That was useful otherwise you just had to fend for yourself. Seeing various trains — I know the first time when I’d got to India I decided to have a trip into Bombay myself under my own steam — just to have a look round. And it seemed very strange for the first time to be in a country where you are the only white person and you are mixing with all the people clad differently to yourself so to speak. Well, you just accept it.
Bengal actually the Station at Salbiani was on a main line, a railway line. The village itself well, it was just a few tumble down places, not proper built brick buildings, how does one describe these? I don’t know whether they were built of bamboo but wooden shack type of buildings, I mean it was a very, very small place. But another thing that was interesting we had a Methodist Minister come to visit to take our Church Parades and what have you from a Methodist Station — I might be getting confused about the name of the place, whether Salbiani was this Mission Station place and not the name of the airfield, I can’t remember. Anyway this Minister came from the Methodist Mission there and he invited a couple of us to go to spend a few days at Christmas with them at the Station. So of course he gave me instructions, I had to get on at the railway station near the camp and then he told me the place to get off, the next station up the line where there would be a bus waiting to take you to this Mission. Much to my surprise when I arrived there, there was this so called bus, it was just like a cart with like a cage really, the bus was more or less like a little cage rather than — with seats inside and of course it was chock-a-block full. I thought, oh dear what do I do now? So I went up to the driver, who had got two people already sitting on his left hand side — he was here and he’d got two squashed there — and he said, ‘Yes.’ So I had to sit on the right hand side of him squashed between him and the door of the bus that wouldn’t close so I had to hold it closed. Quite an experience because off we go — don’t keep to the road — just go where it’s flat because the road was more or less non existent, it was just a track so he used to take short cuts where it was more convenient. And lo and behold we stopped once to pick up two or three people, I wondered what was going to happen. Anyway, they climbed on top, they sat on the top of the bus and we’d go a little bit farther and there’s two more people! Now I’ve never seen anything like this in all my life — well I have seen it now! But it was really funny. I’ve got a photograph because these last two sat on these two great big mudguards! So off we go with four of us, the driver and three of us in the driving part, full at the back, three or four on top with the luggage and two sitting on the mudguards so that was another experience. But it was very nice when we got there because there was a different atmosphere in the village altogether compared with other villages. The children were all dressed, well they were dressed more like the Europeans rather than the Indians and as well as being a Church it was a Hospital as well. An Irish doctor, Dr. MacGuire his name was he came from Ireland, he was in charge and they had a maternity ward. And it was interesting because people, when they came to the hospital their relatives used to come and they used to sleep in out places, bring their own food and stay there. I enjoyed that because I saw the children do their Christmas plays, all in Urdu. We used to sing Carols, we used to sing in English but they used to sing in their own language.
I did bring home a lot of terracotta models of various Indian tradesmen. That was funny too really because when I told you we travelled from Bombay to Calcutta we stopped at Banaries on the way, a big station there and of course as soon as we stopped there were people trying to sell you stuff, ‘come outside!’ This chappie had got all these little - there were about a dozen of them - little figures made of clay and painted trying to sell them to me. And of course the fun in India is you don’t pay what they ask you, you start bartering all the time and I forget what he started with, he wanted five rupees or something like that and I said, ‘No!’ And I kept beating him down until it got to one rupee and I said, ‘No!’ one rupee.’ And then all of a sudden just as the train was about to go ‘Thik Hai, Sahib,’ ‘Thik Hai, Sahib’ — alright — so I gave him a rupee and he gave me these things. So I thought now I’ve got them what do I do with them? So I wrapped them up and put them in my bedroll to save them from getting broken and indeed I brought them home. I had them at home but I don’t know why they lost colour very quickly. It’s very funny with circumstances. But lo and behold there was somebody living not living far away from here, one of the roads - it’s a bit hazy now but they had something to do with local Methodist Church and they’d been out to this Mission so they called to see my mother, to see me! Of course they saw all these little things and I told them how I got them.
Now at Bengal of course we were operating against the Japs in Burma and beyond. My job as a photographer was to — well actually I was the only driver in the Photographic Section which consisted of about a dozen of us including some members of the Royal India Air Force as well. And funnily enough three of them came from various parts of India and they spoke their own dialect of course and English was the common language between them, which was rather interesting. My duty was to load the cameras (F24 cameras) fix the cameras on the aircraft before they went on Ops. And we had some kind of mechanism - a T36 control that was fitted in the Bomber Aimer’s compartment of the aircraft, in the front. So that when they made a bombing run they would switch this machine or this little gadget on and it would operate the camera and the number of photographs it would take. It could be altered, so many photographs a second. If the aircraft were going to make a very low attack of course then the photographs - the control would be set so the camera would take the photographs very, very quicky, so the whole area would be covered by the shots. If they were flying from a great height, then with a long focus lens in the aircraft then of course they didn’t need to photograph so frequently because the area they covered would be wider. Another thing that was interesting — we used to fit mirrors on the end of the cameras - on the barrel of the end of the camera, at an angle so that if they were doing dive bombing - when they came out of the dive bomb they could still photograph the bombs falling which they left behind them. It was quite an interesting job this really because I used to wait for the aircraft to come back from their raids.
They were all daytime raids. I used to take the Airmen round before they went off at the various Banjo sites as we called them where the aircraft were sited. The F24 cameras were fitted in the belly part of the aircraft and I had to make sure that they were all operating because with a hot climate the surface of the focal plane - the glass part of it used to get sticky so I had to make sure that when the magazine was fitted on the top of the focal plane so that the film actually moved and wasn’t sticking — to make sure that everything was OK. And I also had to make sure that everyone was fitted correctly, all the cameras were fitted correctly. Then the next thing was waiting for them to come back from their Ops. And as soon as they came back one after the other I used to have to drive round with the crew so to speak, the photographic crew and we took the magazines off the cameras and back to our darkrooms. I just laugh when I say darkrooms because being out in India it is brilliant sunshine most days and the darkrooms - well they were semi-dark then! I often wondered how we got results without the films being fogged really. I mean it was amazing! However! And of course another thing I was lucky really in a good way because to keep the developer cool for processing our department was supplied with ice and as a luxury I used to keep a bottle of beer on the ice! Which was very, very nice during the hot weather.
The films were developed in a special tank because they were on a reel and they passed through. The film that was used was five inches wide and of course on a long reel, it could vary the length of the reel according to how much they were going to use and it took photographs five inches square. When they used film we used to have to fix the long length of film onto a rotary kind of a windmill type of wooden frame that rotated to dry the film. That was one of the things, trying to keep the temperature of the developer and the fixing agent down to reasonable levels which was a bit of a job. But as we’d got this ice that helped considerably!
We had contact printers for printing the film. They took the film - like a little box to shape with a glass platten on the top - which the film used to pass over from the reel on the left. We used to wind the film over with the negatives and then put the paper on, bring the clamp down to hold the paper in contact with the film. And then it was more or less fairly automated in a way because the densities of the film were decided by more or less the first shot. After the first exposure was made then the rest were the same. And of course it was quite interesting really seeing the results — taking these prints and looking at them ourselves even before the Intelligence Officers received them. I mean, although we didn’t know where they’d been of course or what their objective was but we could tell from the results with the bombs - seeing photographs of the bombs falling. They were falling on railway sidings or huge buildings and things. The information was written on the film before it was printed, they wrote that on so it would be on them all. It would be on all the photographs.
We didn’t enlarge them but the photographs — a point of interest — the photographs that were taken they were always photographed so that there would be 60% overlap each time. So each new photograph only contained 40% extra, the other was covering the shot before so that if there was a miss in the camera at least you haven’t lost the ground covered through the lack of that shot, so they made sure of that.”
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