Tempests 1947-1949 by Rufus Heald
"Rufus Remembers" is an autobiography written by Rufus Heald, one of Britain's most experienced pilots. A pilot with experience on types as Spitfire, Tempest, Vampire, Meteor and Hunter.
Rufus Heald flew Hawker Tempest Mk. II from Agra (20 Sqn) and the Mk. VI from Khartoum/Asmara/Mogadishu/Deversoir with 213 Squadron. About 250 hours altogether.
Chapter 2 in his autobiography is about his time with the Tempest, and Rufus has kindly given the permission to publish that chapter on The Hawker Tempest Page. A huge thanks to Rufus!
Interested in a copy of the book? Available through Amazon.co.uk!
Chapter 2, Tempests 1947-1949:
After a bit of research, I found out where No 20 Squadron was based. It was located at Agra, about 100 miles South South East of Delhi. To get there involved a cruise on a troop ship through the Mediterranean, down the Suez Canal, along the Red Sea and across to Karachi. Here we were shepherded into a magnificent example of the Indian State Railways and we proceeded steadily on our way to Delhi. After spending the best part of a day in Delhi, I was put on another train and a few hours later arrived at Agra, to be met by a small vehicle which took me the 3 or 4 miles out to the airfield. I hadn’t really thought about it, but having been trained on Spitfires, I expected the Squadron to be equipped with Spitfire aircraft but that only goes to show how simple I am. When I introduced myself to the Squadron Commander I was surprised to notice that they had a long line of Mark II Tempests, but no Spitfires. In order to convert new pilots such as myself, there was a Squadron Harvard and we were given a couple of trips in the back seat to familiarise us with the local area and to simulate the handling of the Tempest. The local area was quite different to anything I had ever seen before. To the East of the Airfield was the town of Agra with the Red Fort on the bank of the river Jumna and a bit up river from the town was the Taj Mahal. Truely one of the Seven Wonders of the World, it is the most wonderful structure I have ever seen. From an aircraft, in particular, one can see it in its entirety. I can only imagine what it would have been like if the second tomb, in black marble, had been built on the opposite bank of the river. It was a very short sighted decision which was made, when the Emperor Shah Jehan died, to put his body alongside that of his wife in the Taj Mahal and not in the Black marble duplicate on the other side of the river.
I have nothing but happy memories of my time flying Tempests. The Mk II was fitted with an air cooled engine and so was far more suitable in hot climates than the liquid cooled versions, since it did not have the ability to boil. The Centaurus engine was the most complicated device I have ever come across. It was a multi cylinder radial engine with sleeve valves - with all the moving, sliding, twisting bits which that involved, but with a two speed two stage supercharger, with intercooler, it turned out an awful lot of power and speaking from my personal experience it was fully reliable. With a propeller of over 14 feet diameter, it was a bit of a handful on take off - indeed we needed to use port brake in the early stages of the take off run in order to keep straight - but once in the air, it flew like a real gentleman. As a weapons platform all Marks of Tempests were absolutely rock steady and it was possible to aim its principal weapon, the three inch ‘drain pipe’ rocket with a 60 lb. warhead, with astonishing accuracy. The aircraft was immensely strong and was just about unbreakable. While I was there, I managed to learn enough Hindi to make my self understood but with the passing of time many of my memories of India seem to have faded but one or two occurrences still stick in my memory. I will tell you about some of the incidents which I remember from my time there.
At Agra many of our meals were eaten out of doors. One of the disadvantages of this was that the local population of Kites, a local large hawk knew exactly when and where we were likely to eat and they assembled in their formations waiting to pillage our meals. Their technique was to swoop down as we walked to our tables and snatch the meat off the plates. Putting a cover over the meal didn’t work for long as they just used to knock the plate out of our hands, onto the ground and then snatch the nice juicy meat. We decided one day that Something must be done ! The next day saw a steady stream of pilots carrying plates, walking to the shaded area where the tables were all set out. This time we didn’t try to stop the theft of food from our plates. What the kites didn’t know was that we had prepared some special ‘fighter pilot meals’ for them ! Naturally, the assembled birds soon started the attack. With their normal high speed dive, they arrived and grabbed the small piece of meat on the plate. It was then they found out what we had done. No ! Nothing which might hurt them. After all, they flew almost as well as we did. What we did do, was attach a small model aircraft to the meat by means of a 3 - 4 foot length of strong twine. After their attack, off went the kites clutching our bits of meat, hotly pursued by a small ‘RAF Fighter’ When the bird swung its feet forward to reach the meat with its beak in order to eat it, it saw the pursuing ‘fighter aircraft’. Instant panic ! But no matter how hard they weaved, climbed, turned or manoeuvred, they couldn’t shake off their pursuing ‘RAF Fighter’ Within 15 minutes the sky was full of ‘dog fighting’ Kites, each with its own personal ‘RAF Fighter’ on its tail. It was some time before we all stopped laughing and the sky slowly cleared. I have no idea how long the birds hung onto the meat but every time they looked, nemesis in the form of an RAF fighter, complete with roundels, was following them ! Strangely, there was a shortage of Kites in the vicinity of the camp after that.
Animals seem to figure largely in my memories of India. It was very much a local custom to rest in the heat of the day and after lunch ( tiffin to you) I frequently stretched out on my bed (Charpoy to the locals) and rested my eyelids. There were a number of flying insects in the area and there was fly netting over the windows which was supposed to keep them out. This was not very efficient so we used to encourage the small house lizards to ‘adopt’ our rooms. I had a couple, who used to patrol my room and they kept the place pretty clear of anything which flew. One day, having eaten well, I stripped off and was resting my eyelids, while I lay on my back on the charpoy and was soon fast asleep. The larger of my lizards was on the wall to the right of my head. The charpoy was positioned in the corner of the room against the wall which was on my left hand side and unbeknown to me a large juicy insect landed about half way up the wall, approximately level with my ankles. My guardian lizard had spotted this landing and decided that it would make a nice lunch. With no more ado the lizard launched himself in the direction of his meal. This was a diagonal track starting on my right shoulder, across my chest in a straight line across my naked sweaty body, to my left knee from where he launched himself up the wall. The shock to my system triggered a hurried reaction and I think I passed the lizard about half way up the wall. I swear I must have reached the ceiling first from, not a ‘standing’ start but a ‘lying on my back’ start ! If there had been records for ‘vertical acceleration’ I would have easily broken the world record. Or would the lizard have counted as outside assistance. ?
Another typical RAF ‘sport’ took place in the evening. The local road into town passed close to the camp and after a few beers it was considered to be a good local game to wander to the roundabout by the camp entrance. Here convoys of ox-carts plodded slowly towards town, aiming for the morning market. The animals were trained to follow the one in front, so we would wait until a suitable sized convey arrived and then without waking the driver of the lead vehicle who was sleeping happily, we would lead his ox round until it reached the back of the last wagon. This it would then follow. In the morning, when one of the drivers woke up he would be a bit suprised to see that all the oxen had been following the cart ahead all night in a circle round the same roundabout.
There was another RAF Squadron of Tempests in India who were based at Rawlpindi and periodically, we used to send a couple of aircraft up there on a visit. The ‘official’ reason for the flights was to provide navigational practice and for an exchange of operational techniques and ideas. However there was another reason. At Rawlpindi, there was a very good local brewery and it seemed very unprofessional to ignore the fact So steps were taken to take advantage of the location of this brewery ! The aircraft going up there used to carry long range drop tanks. Three of these were used to carry petrol but the fourth was a highly polished (internally) and sterilised container which was used to transport 90 gallons of best beer all the way back to Agra. As you can imagine, this had a very beneficial effect on the morale of my Squadron !
Eventually, the politicians decided that the partition of British India was a ‘good thing’ and so the nations of India and Pakistan were formed. So far as we were concerned, we were surplus to requirements and so the Squadron was disbanded. The aircraft were presented to the Indian and Pakistan Governments (one Squadron to each), and we pilots were all shipped home. But not before we had spent some time ‘resting’, first at Karachi and later at Bombay from where we boarded another troopship and returned to the UK. Here I was sent on 14 days leave at the end of which I had to report at Southampton for shipment to the Middle East where I was destined to board yet another troop ship which was to take me to Port Said in order to join No 213 Squadron, which formed part of No 324 Mobile Wing.
Moving on now to the Middle East, I spent my first few days at the reception camp at El Hamra. This was to give us a chance to acclimatise to the heat before moving to Khartoum in the Sudan. It was a most uncomfortable tented camp where everything was covered with sand or flies or both and I was glad to get out of it and on my way South. Khartoum lies on the East bank of the Nile, with the village of Omdurman opposite it on the West bank. It was famous for the defence of the city by General Kitchener and its later relief by General Gordon. There are statues of both of these Generals in the town. I had found it extremely hot in central India but it was a great deal hotter in the Sudan and in those days there was no air conditioning ! but we survived somehow. The aircraft were not quite the same as the ones I had been flying in India. They were the Mark VI version which has the liquid cooled Napier Sabre engine. This was a 24 cylinder engine with two crankshafts and the cylinders in four rows of six forming in effect two flat 12 cylinder engines. Tucked on the back was the two speed two stage supercharger (with intercooler) and on the front the very large radiator. Being a Tropicalised version of the Mark V aircraft there was an additional oil cooler mounted in the leading edge of the port wing. This engine gave a massive amount of power but was pretty reliable.
My first flight was intended to be a familiarisation flight to get used to the new type of aircraft and to have a look round the local flying area. In the event it was not to work out like that. When I took off, I made sure that I held the aircraft down, to pick up climbing speed and when I raised the nose I looked at the air speed indicator. It was either reading ‘zero’ or ‘360 knots’ Both were very unlikely so it seemed probable that I had no airspeed indicator. Naturally, the first thing I did was to check to see if I had left the cover on the pitot head. I hadn’t ! That helped my reputation but did nothing to help me land the beast ! I called on the radio and asked the Tower to contact the Squadron and ask them to get someone airborne for me to formate on so that I could have some indication of my speed when I came in to land. About 20 minutes later I saw an aircraft taxi out and when airborne he called me. It was Flight Lieutenant Les Lunn, my flight commander. He suggested that I closed on him and practised my formation flying and then in a while he would make an approach to land and overshoot at the last moment, leaving me to land. So that was what we did. When the time to land arrived, I made sure that I was slowly overtaking the other aircraft and when he overshot, I closed my throttle slowly and hoped for the best. I ended up with a complete anti climax and it all became a non event. (I like them.) When we looked, the plumbing inside the port wing had come disconnected, hence the ‘no airspeed’. That is the sort of hassle I could well have done without on my first solo on type.
Being part of a Mobile Wing, there were a number of incidents and detachments which have stuck in my memory and taking them in approximately chronological order, my first memory is of one fine sunny day when I was airborne from Khartoum in the Sudan to do some general handing. Also at Khartoum on detachment was the prototype of the single seat Vampire jet fighter which had gone there to complete it’s tropical trials. On this particular day, the Vampire had gone off to do some fuel consumption tests. All was reasonably serene until about three quarters of an hour into my flight. Suddenly I heard a call on the Radio. It was from the Vampire pilot. He had been so engrossed in his trial and in ensuring that his flying and his fuel figures were accurate, that he had omitted to turn round and he was now so far away that he didn’t have enough fuel to get home. I must add here that all the early jet fighters, which includes the Vampire and even more so the Meteor, had very short range fuel tanks and we regularly ran them down to less than 5 minutes reserve. Anyhow, to return to the Sudan, Khartoum tower gave him a heading to steer to get home and told him that there were no airfields south of Khartoum. This was in 1948 remember. The Vampire pilot used his remaining fuel to get as far as he possibly could and then when the engine finally ran out, he glided, still on course for Khartoum.. The Vampire is an excellent glider, we used to get better than 3 miles per thousand feet in a glide and, as he was around 30,000 feet when the engine stopped, he managed an extra 100 miles just gliding. Meanwhile I and another pilot who had also heard the radio calls, positioned ourselves along his track until we spotted him and then we trailed on behind his aircraft like a pair of vultures. It was evident that he was not going to be able to reach Khartoum and he announced that he intended to bail out. This seemed to be a bit of a waste of an aircraft so we smartly informed him that the Wing’s weapons range was only about a mile from him and the ground there was flat and hard, hard enough to take a three ton lorry with no difficulty and definitely hard enough to take his aircraft. He turned towards the bombing range and after lowering the undercarriage and flaps by use of the emergency system, he carried out a very nice landing with no damage at all to the aircraft. Meanwhile back at base, a Fuel tanker was got ready and together with a light truck to carry a starter trolley, the rescue convoy set off. After about an hour’s drive they reached the Vampire and filled the tanks about half full. This was more than enough to get him safely home, so the starter trolley was plugged in, the engine was started, and in a cloud of sand, he took off again and returned to Khartoum, a somewhat embarrassed test pilot.
Being a Mobile Wing, we were always ready to move at very little notice and on 3rd April, 1948 the Squadron was ordered to send a detachment to Asmara, the main town in Eritrea. The aircraft and ground crew were rapidly on their way, together with many cases full of spares and ammunition. We had to commandeer a BOAC Dakota to help carry the ground crew. I didn’t go on the first wave but I followed on 15th April. Each aircraft returned to Khartoum when it was due for routine servicing and a practice had grown up of buzzing the airfield at Asmara before returning to Base. A few days after arriving, I was detailed to take an aircraft back so, being in those days both young and foolish, I decided that I would give them the beat up to end all beat ups. Now-a-days, I’m not nearly so young but probably just about as foolish ! Anyhow, I went to the far corner of the airfield, applied full power, released the brakes, raised the tail, and in due course got airborne. Holding the aircraft parallel to the surface of the airfield, I raised the undercarriage and was then able to descend (slightly). Maintaining full power, and lining up with the crewroon I let the aircraft accelerate. The Tempest is probably the fasting accelerating aircraft ever built, and the 0 - 300 time is amazingly short , - certainly much better than modern jets,- and I was going very fast when I reached the buildings. Leaving it to the last moment, I pulled up, over the crew-room and went on my way, with a couple of climbing rolls for good measure. Apparently my wake vortex caused the whole of the wooden hut to jump some two inches into the air. This was not a popular move. I continued my way blissfully unaware of the displeasure behind me. After a while, the radiator temperature got a bit higher than usual and I eased the throttle back slightly to help cool it down a little. This caused me to slow down and as a result the air flow through the radiator was reduced and the temperature rose again. So I had to descend slowly to keep the speed up. Unfortunately this meant that I was getting into hotter air, and it really is HOT in the Sudan. So the temperature went up again, and up and up. Finally Khartoum appeared on the horizon and I called for a straight in approach. This was approved and I landed, leaving the undercarriage and flaps to the very last moment. As the aircraft settled itself on to the runway and the airflow ceased, so the temperature rapidly increased until at 130 degrees Centigrade all the safety disks blew out and the front of the aircraft was enveloped in a ball of steam and glycol. Undoing my straps, I nipped round to the frond and to my horror I found the radiator was full of grass which I had picked up in my run across the airfield at Asmara. I quickly grabbed most of it and dumped it away from the aircraft, hidden from the tower by the ball of steam. Back at Asmara, the other pilots looked at the airfield and noticed a groove where my propeller had cut a swathe in the long grass, pointing directly at the Crew-room hut. For some reason or other, beat-ups were banned after that. I can’t think why.
Shifta hunting !
Shortly after our arrival in Eritrea we were asked to lay on a fire power demonstration for the local chiefs and head men. There was an escarpment some 20 miles away which made a natural grand stand and about half of a mile from it was a small densely wooded hill. The dummy scenario was that a bunch of Shifta (bandits) had been reported to be hiding on the wooded hill, and the aircraft would be called in to flush them out to where loyal troops were waiting. The Headmen were all gathered on the edge of the escarpment and our Army Liaison officer (Captain Claud Histed of the South Staffordshire Regiment) called us in over the radio. The Squadron had six aircraft on detachment in Eritria and we attacked singly, in line astern. The first attack was a salvo of eight rockets from each aircraft and the second attack was a strafing run firing 4, twenty millimetre cannon from each aircraft. It was quite an impressive attack with lots of noise and smoke but what made it infinitely more impressive and very much convinced all the chiefs and head men of our importance and skill, was the fact that a band of about 40 Shifta scuttled out of the back of the woods and took to their heels. Unbeknown to any one, there really was a band of them hiding on that hill!
One morning at Asmara, I and another pilot were on the early shift so we were in the crew room when the red phone rang. Scramble! We nipped out to the aircraft which we had prepared earlier, climbed in and set off. As soon as we were airborne, Air Traffic told us where to go and we were informed that a gang of Shifta had raided several villages during the night and stolen all their cattle. The herd was heading towards Ethiopia and the pursuing forces didn’t expect to catch up with them before they got across the border. Could we help ? We pressed on to the area while I thought about this. When we got there we had no problem finding the stolen cattle. The herd was a large one and it was being driven hard so there was a good dust cloud. I had a bright idea. Turning my guns on, I put a line of 20 m.m. high explosive shells across the front of the cattle just a few yards ahead of them. They didn’t seem to like this, so they stopped, turned round and ran in the opposite direction as if their lives depended on it. Every time a bunch of them looked like slowing down, a short burst of canon fire soon got them going again. We managed to scatter the heard to ‘Hell and High Water’ as the saying goes. As a result almost all the cattle were recovered later by their lawful owners. Cattle are the main ‘currency’ of the area, so these flocks represented most of the wealth of the villages concerned.
During the Squadron’s detachment from Khartoum to Asmara, we gave air support to a locally raised force of troops. These were the genuine ‘fuzzy wuzzies’ of the days of Kitchener and General Gordon. They had heavily greased bouffant hair styles, hence the name. They also happened to be very fierce tribal soldiers. When the local ‘troubles’ were considered over, there was a farewell parade for these locally enlisted troops. They received their pay for the campaign but first they had to hand in their rifles and the 50 rounds of ammunition with which they had been issued. When they had been in action, they had to retain the empty cartridge cases in order to be issued with replacements. After the parade, there was a march past followed by a ‘charge past’ in which the entire native force sprinted past the reviewing party brandishing their rifles and screaming the most bloodthirsty expressions. Then the rifles were handed in, the ammunition counted and the pay issued. Then the real party started. The various members of the force vied with each other to produce the wildest tribal dances. And these were for the benefit of the dancers not for the benefit of tourists so they were the real thing. I was one of the four or five RAF pilots invited to attend the parade so I got a first hand view of it all. During a bit of a lull in the proceedings I wandered about the camp and I happened to notice a group of twelve guys who didn’t seem to be enjoying the festivities. Being the perennial Nosy Parker, I found our interpreter and asked him :
"Who are those people and why are they not taking part in the fun and games. ?"
"What people Sir ?" he asked looking puzzled.
"Those twelve over there in the white clothing" I replied.
"I’m sorry Sir" he answered, "But there is nobody over there." And he walked off.
This had me a bit nonplussed so I took a photograph of them and went to discuss them with one of the other pilots. Something delayed me and it was a while before I got back to where the twelve guys had been standing. Sure enough there was no one there. It was only later that I heard that the local forces didn’t take prisoners. These twelve had been a group of Shifta who had been caught. About five minutes after my initial sighting, I gather they were taken round the back of the camp and beheaded. It’s no wonder they didn’t look as though they were enjoying the party. As far as the interpreter was concerned, they were dead men and so didn’t exist. Which is why he couldn’t see them. They were non-persons. I think I am probably the only person ever to take a photograph of Shifta prisoners.
We had some interesting trips while we were at Asmara. On one such trip we were taken to visit a village in the hills which was also to the site of a Monastery. The village was much the same as any other village but the Monastery was an extraordinary feat of engineering. The ‘road’ to the Monastery consisted of a footpath some 18 inches wide along the top of a ridge between two mountains. The Monastery was on the far mountain and there was no other way up to it. The cliffs were reported to be un-climbable. Everything needed to build, furnish, equip or supply the Monastery had to be carried along this ‘road’. The rock sloped down at 45 degrees on both sides for over 200 yards and, Yes!, in answer to our question, people frequently fall off, - or get blown off by the wind. This was believed to show that the people concerned had led less than perfect lives so was only to be expected. We did not volunteer to cross over ! Somehow I feel that some of the monks stayed in the Monastery because they couldn’t face the return trip !
The next incident occurred on my birthday (14th July 1948). My aircraft had been off line with some technical snag so I borrowed the Squadron Commander’s aircraft. The Oxygen needed to be re-filled but apart from that the aircraft was on top line. We took off as a section of four aircraft and I was in the Number three position. For those who are not familiar with the finger four formation, the leader’s number two man flies on one side of him and the number three on his other side. My own number two (Red 4) formated outside me. When in a battle formation we stayed in the same layout but much further out and during turns of more than 45 degrees, we crossed over /under the leader and so ended up on the other side. During the climb up to our operating altitude which was to have been about 25000 feet, I was on the leaders right with my own number two outside me. the aircraft were spaced with the wing tips not quite overlapping and I was about 6 to 10 feet behind the leader. As we passed about 16000 feet, my number two has reported that I seemed to fall over in the cockpit, and my aircraft slowly rolled to the right and went on rolling. He took evasive action and followed me down. As he passed an altitude of 3000 feet, he says he was doing wellover 500 knots (575 m.p.h.) and my aircraft was pulling away and still rolling. He pulled out fairly hard to avoid hitting the ground. It was at about this time that I woke up, looked up, saw trees growing downwards, didn’t believe it, rolled the right way up and pulled very hard on the control column. My hands must have remembered to pull for long enough, because my next recollection is finding myself at some 6000 feet with the aircraft hanging on it’s prop and wallowing near the stall. The rest of the formation, which had been following us rather more circumspectly, noticed a plume of dust which they thought was my aircraft striking the ground. It wasn’t. It was the wake vortex stirred up by my manoeuvre. There is no doubt that I must have been a long way below 200 feet at the bottom and was probably well under 50 feet. I went out like a light from the ‘G’ and I don’t know what loading the aircraft reached because the accelerometer broke when it reached double figures, but it was well over the permitted +6G and was probably around the 12 - 14G figure. When I regained consciousness, at about 6,000 feet with the aircraft hanging on its propeller and wallowing like a pig, I hadn’t a clue what was going on so I called the other aircraft. The formation leader instructed me to return to base and land. Slowly I gathered my wits about me, remembered Khartoum, found the airfield and called the tower to let them know that I had a major problem and wanted a priority landing. They informed me that a Brigand aircraft (2 engine light bomber / ground attack aircraft) was back-tracking the runway and I could not land This stimulated a rather blunt message from me, telling them to get him out of the way because I was going to land anyhow. I did. The Brigand turned off the runway onto soft sand and took a long time to be dug out. Shortly after crossing the edge of the airfield, I saw the Air Traffic building, a two storey red and white chequered affair, fly across the runway. It was followed by a second one. I didn’t believe it and leant on the engine cut out. I regained consciousness in the ambulance. The aircraft had just rolled to a standstill without further damage. A careful investigation determined that the Oxygen which had been put into my aircraft - or rather the Squadron Commander’s aircraft - had been contaminated. There was still a load of CTC (Carbon-tetra-chloride) in it. A mix of CTC and Oxygen produces a lethal gas called Phosgene. That is what I had been breathing. The aircraft’s Oxygen system is designed to give you very little extra oxygen at low level but more and more as you get higher. At 16,000 feet, there was enough to make me loose consciousness. I was not a pretty sight when they recovered me from the aircxraft, but I got 14 days sick leave out of it, and the Squadron Commander’s aircraft was written off. The wings looked like corrugated iron they had so many wrinkles. But somehow they had stayed attached to the aircraft.
While I am talking about my time at Khartoum, it is perhaps worth mentioning that one of the training aids used by the Royal Air Force to teach fighter pilots the skills of shooting at moving targets was the clay pigeon range. At Khartoum there was no clay pigeon installation but instead, the pilots were shipped up river to a Government rest house at a place called Jebel Aulia. There was a Dam here across the Nile to form a vast lake and there were some of the largest Perch in the world resident in the spillways. It was not uncommon for them to run to over 150 pounds and they made a useful addition to the food in the Messes. The official reason for sending the crews of the resident Fighter squadron down here for the week end, was to enable them to practice their shooting skills on the vast flocks of duck and geese which lived in the area. The unofficial reason for sending us there was so that we could have a really relaxing time and let our hair down without anyone around to complain! We drove to the rest house and unloaded all our kit by about 3 p.m. and then the shot guns were issued together with a large stock of ammunition. We proceeded in a non military manner to the area where we would get the best of the evening flights of duck and geese. Each pilot was accompanied by one or two of the local Sudanese boys - ages about 8 -12 years old, who acted as spotters of incoming flights and also as retrievers of any birds unlucky enough to be shot down. These lads had quite remarkable eyesight. They could spot a duck or a ‘whizzer’ (goose) at the most phenomenal ranges and the encouraged us to open fire while the birds were at about 200 yards range. Needless to say we took the bait and blazed away with both barrels, and on many occasions had time to reload twice before the birds had passed us. Very occasionally we managed to hit one and inevitable one’s rank went up when this happened. By dark most of us were at least ‘colonels’ and one guy was even a ‘general’. This was the moment when we returned to the rest house and sampled the rations. Oddly enough there were several cases of hard liquor, not to mention many boxes of beer. (The water was considered unfit to drink and shooting is thirsty work ) After a large meal, we retired to bed, only to be woken up at 3 a.m. to get out to catch the morning flights. Needless to say, the shooting was even less accurate than it had been during the previous evening. and at about 9 o’clock we returned to the rest house for breakfast. While we waited for the evening flights some of us used to put a line into the dam sluices with a spinner on the end of it, and try to catch one of the huge Nile Perch. Some times we succeeded but more often than not we failed. This process continued all weekend, Friday, Saturday and Sunday but after the evening flight on Sunday, we all climbed back into the trucks and returned to Khartoum. I don’t know if it improved our shooting but it was a hell of a good way to spend a week end. But our turn only came round about once every three months.
The other animals with which we came into contact were both inhabitants of the Nile. For those who don’t know about the Nile, South of Khartoum, it consists of two rivers. The Blue Nile which comes down from the hills of Ethiopia and the White Nile which comes up through the Southern Sudan, having risen in Uganda. The reason for these names, strangely enough is because the Blue Nile is lovely clear clean water, and looks Blue in colour, and the White Nile which has particles of clay in suspension and which is definitely ‘White’ in colour. The two rivers meet at Khartoum and flow North eventually reaching the sea at the Nile Delta North of Cairo. The waters of the Blue and White Nile’s do not mix for a long time and for several miles the right hand bank of the river has ‘blue’ water and is safe for bathing and the left side is milky ‘white’ and is unsafe. Safe in this context means safe from the Bilhazia snail. This little chap lives in the waters of the White Nile and carries a parasite which can get into the body. There if affects the liver - and other parts - and does the person no good at all ! The solution is simple. Bathe in the Blue Nile if you wish but never in the White Nile. However that is not all the story. There are also beasts known as Crocodiles. They are ugly, hungry, patient and lethal if they decide to take a bite. They tend to grow to very large size in the Nile - 15 feet is not unknown and they certainly like red meat ! They live quite a lone time and I understand that they have not evolved significantly for several thousand years and are much the same as they were in prehistoric times. One of the training exercises which we developed, was for our Army Liaison Officer (Captain Claud Histed, of the South Staffordshire Regiment) to take a trip down the Nile and find a village where the headman had reported that the crocodiles were a nuisance and kept killing villagers. We would then organise a ‘shoot’. But a shoot with a difference. Instead of rifles, we used 20 mm cannon. We would treat the crocodiles as ‘enemy tanks or soft skinned vehicles’ and the Army Liaison Officer would call down an air strike which then proceeded to strafe the animals. Many were killed in this manner and the locals all approved and sent profuse thanks for reducing the dangers of living on the banks of the Nile. Not only was it good fun and helpful to the local residents but it was very good training for our operational role.
On the 17th August 1948, the Squadron was sent to Mogadishu to cover the withdrawal of British forces from the Ogaden, an area between Somalia and Ethiopia. On arrival, the airfield was very much as it had been when the Italian Air Force left it in a hurry, several years earlier. We soon set about getting it habitable for humans and the CO gave me a job which I could well have done without. Behind the flight buildings and offices, there was a very large privy. What is described as ‘a 24 holer’. It stank to high heaven and was several feet deep in what I can best describe as slurry. On top of the ‘slurry’ was a layer about three feet thick of flies and maggots I was tasked to remove or otherwise make it sanitary. This posed quite a problem The pit was lined with rocks and had stood, festering slowly for several years. I thought about this and finally came to a decision. Returning to the flight line, I scrounged about 30 gallons of waste oil and about 10 gallons of 130 octane petrol. This was all poured carefully down one of the 24 openings in the wooden, and partially rotten, top of the pit and we all returned to a safe distance, having left several of the lids in an open position. Armed with a ‘Two star red’ distress flare, I took careful aim and fired. The first flare was all that was needed. There was an almighty WHOOSH and 24 columns of flame shot into the air accompanied by most of the remaining 24 lids. It was a highly dramatic ending to a most insalubrious installation. Not only that, but the fire burned for over an hour by which time it had destroyed completely, the vast number of maggots and flies in the pit and, at the end of this time, the rock walls finally gave up the ghost and fell in to the pit neatly sealing it. Very little was needed in the way of tidying up and the C.O. was quite pleased with me for once.
Eventually the Detachment came to an end. The Ogaden was handed over with no problems and the Squadron was directed to move up to Deversoir in the Canal Zone where it was due to join the rest of the Wing. When we were all ready, the Squadron set off on the first leg which took us to Aden. Here we were scheduled to night stop, continuing North, to the Canal Zone, the next day with a refuelling stop at Port Sudan, about half way up the Red Sea. The following morning several of the aircraft, including mine, went unserviceable for some reason or other and rather than wait until they were fixed, the Squadron Commander told me to wait at Aden until they were all serviceable and then bring them up to Deversoir. It was nearly mid day before we were all ready and off we went, arriving at Port Sudan at about 3 o’clock in the afternoon. Here we eventually managed to get refuelled but by then it was too late to get to Deversoir before dark, and in those days, night flights were prohibited over the Canal Zone. As a result we all moved into the Port Sudan Hotel, together with the pilots of three more aircraft which had technical problems which developed at Port Sudan. I now had eight aircraft in my care. Early the next morning a Dakota landed just before a tremendous storm broke. This had the effect of making the mud runway into a sludge runway and there was no possibility of anyone being able to get airborne until the runway dried. Local opinion was that it would take 3 - 4 days to dry out. Fortunately the Dakota which landed, had been carrying some of our own ground crew up to Deversoir so we were able to get the sick aircraft serviced while we waited. On the third day, I decided to have a look at the runway. The pilots drove up to the airfield and we all walked along the runway in line abreast. The up wind end of the runway was still soft but I decided that there was just enough of it which had dried out and so I decided that we would give it a go. We isolated the engine air filters, to gain a little more power and I did the first take off. I managed to unstick OK just before the soft bit so the rest followed me. We had decided that we would make the trip a bit more useful than just a ferry flight, so we didn’t tell Deversoir that we were coming and on arrival we attacked the airfield with a series of co-ordinated, dummy rocket and bomb attacks. This showed up a number of weaknesses in our air defence scheme and it was hastily re written, The first Arab - Israel war was just about to start and we had no idea if the politicians would get us involved. - So we prepared ourselves ‘just in case’
Inspie of, or maybe because of, the poleticians, we did get involved and on 22nd November 1948, as a dress rehearsal for the real thing, we had a wing ‘Balbo’ down the Red Sea. A ‘Balbo’ is so called after the Italian General Balbo who led a large formation of Italian flying boats on a trip across the Atlantic. In our case, both 6 and 213 Squadrons were involved. The Station Commander led such formations and I flew as his number 2. The aircraft were all armed with 8 sixty pound Rockets and full ammunition for the 20 mm. cannon. We went down the Red Sea at very low level - about 50 feet for about 150 miles and then the wing carried out a series of attacks on some simulated targets near the coast. After totally destroying the ‘enemy’ we formed up to return to the Canal Zone - still at 50 feet. - After some 15 minutes, I thought I heard a call on the radio. No one else seemed to have noticed it so I told the formation leader that I thought Base was calling. He instructed me to pull up and see what they wanted so I climbed to about 500 feet above the sea and gave them a call. They replied with the information that the weather was deteriorating rapidly with a severe sandstorm and they advised an immediate recovery back to base. This information was passed on to the Formation leader who made a totally original and long to be remembered call. " Every man for himself, GO GO GO." Some thirty throttles were pushed fully forward and all the aircraft accelerated to their maximum speed. Sure enough when we got back to the Zone, the visibility below about 2000 feet was down to about 50 yards. Since the aircraft in those days carried nothing in the way of avionic navigation aids we were all rather poorly placed. Around 30 Tempests started milling around the Canal Zone in the middle of the sand storm looking for somewhere to land . Not my idea of fun. I managed to catch sight of the threshold of one of the runways at an airfield near ours so a very rapid turn, a quick lowering of the undercarriage and flaps, followed by a call to Fayid Tower that I was about to land on Runway 24 (I think it was). This provoked a call from another Tempest pilot, "I’m landing on Runway 06." This threw me a bit, but not to be beaten, I came out with the call " OK You keep right, I’ll keep left.............As you were, lets both keep right!" Anyhow, very shortly, I was on the ground and presumably so was he . - On the opposite end of the same runway that I was on ! I kept my aircraft close to the right hand edge of the runway, which I could just see, and eventually I reached the other end. So did the other guy. ! Neither of us saw the other at any time, but the runway was wide enough - fortunately ! Every pilot in the wing managed to get his aircraft down safely somewhere but we were spread over the six or so airfields in the Canal Zone.
Some two months later, on the 7th January 1949, my aircraft had been used in the morning by another pilot for an escort job and for that it had been fully armed. Since there was a war in progress between Egypt and Israel for some flights we were armed and on others, we were not. The aircraft always carried full ammunition tanks, but when ‘unarmed’ the mechanism to feed the ammunition to the guns was removed. This was a bit of kit called a BFM or Belt Feed Mechanism. If these were fitted, a card was hung on the control column saying ‘Guns cocked - ready to fire’. On this particular day, the wing was stood down for the afternoon and we all retired to the Mess for lunch followed by a bit of recreation. In my case that meant working on an Air-Sea rescue boat which we had salvaged and were trying to get seaworthy again. Not long after lunch, the Tannoy burst into life, recalling all personnel and instructing the Wing to Scramble. I stopped a passing Army lorry and told the driver to give me a ride up to the Flight Line, where I grabbed my helmet and parachute and ran to my aircraft. I pulled the chocks away, the ground crew having not arrived there yet, scrambled up to the cockpit, opened the canopy, got in, chucked out the card saying ‘guns cocked - ready to fire,’ pressed the primer pump motor, and fired a starter cartridge. The engine burst into life so, releasing the brakes, I rolled towards the runway and caught up with the Station Commander who was my ‘Number 1’ on such occasions. My own ‘number 2’ went as spare man for the Squadron, and in fact he ended up in one of the empty slots, where a pilot had been off base when the alert went off and so couldn’t take his own place. We got airborne, - still doing up our harness and settling into the routine. The Wing climbed in a ‘Battle Formation’ to around 10,000 feet. What most of us didn’t know at the time, was that a formation of 4 Spitfires from another airfield had gone out in the morning for a reconnaissance of the battle field area and none of them had returned. Our primary task was to try and find out what had happened to them. In fact, all four had been shot down The first one, flown by a friend of mine, F/Sgt Frank Close, had been hit by ground fire, the pilot having been forced to bail out and the other three were shot down by Israeli fighters. The Israeli Airforce had both Me109s and Spitfires while the Egyptian Air Force had also got Spitfires and some Macchi 202 aircraft which look very like the Me 109. So identification of friend from foe was not easy, to say the least. Anyhow, we proceeded towards the area where the Spitfires had vanished and as we approached the ‘nominal’ border with Israel, we were attacked by the Israeli Air Force. Sadly, my own number two, Pilot Officer David Tattersfield was hit in the first attack and was killed when his aircraft crashed in the desert. In my own case, I found myself head on to a Me109 who was happily shooting at me. Flicking the safety catch to fire I pressed my trigger but to my dismay, nothing happened. The only thing that entered my head was that, like an idiot, I had forgotten to turn something on, so my hand flashed round the cockpit and the best I could do was put the navigation lights on! The Me109 pilot was not over frightened by this ! He broke over the top of me so I turned hard, to try and get behind him, while I sorted out why my guns would not fire. I found a Spitfire on my tail who was firing happily (and hitting me) so I jettisoned my drop tanks (which almost hit him) and took fairly violent evasive action. I gather that I was reported by the Israeli pilot of the Spitfire as ‘last seen losing height rapidly with smoke pouring from the engine.’ This was correct but the smoke was due to my over-boosting the engine and I was losing height because although the Spitfire could out turn me, my aircraft was quite a lot faster and I needed that speed.! The official Israeli Air Force report claimed me as a ‘probable’. I’m delighted that this was an over assessment ! In due course, I joined up with the Station Commander again and when the skies had cleared, we went home. I still have a bullet which was removed from the armour plate behind the seat. Incidentally I have since met two of the Israeli guys who were there that day. One of them had an entry in his logbook stating that he had shot down an RAF aircraft that day. Sadly, I was able to countersign the entry confirming his claim. The second Israeli pilot was on the same Weapons Instructor Course as I was, at the RAF Central Gunnery School at Leconfield in Yorkshire, in 1951. It’s a small world in aviation. The reason why my guns would not fire was because, the Wing having been stood down, the armourers decided to service all the BFMs and had taken them out, intending to replace them later. - but had left the cards in the cockpits.
Not long after the Wing was detached to Deversoir, on the North edge of the Great Bitter Lake, I was put in charge of the sailing club. We didn’t have many boats nor did we have much enthusiasm. What we did have was one of the old war time Mk 2 Airborne Lifeboats. This had a wooden hull, designed I believe by Uffa Fox, which in operational form was dropped from an aircraft - usually a Wellington - to survivors in a liferaft. At bow and stern it had automatically inflating flexible rubber floatation bags which made it self righting. It was fitted with a mast and sail, both pretty small and it had a marine version of the Austin 10 engine. There were numerous waterproof lockers in the hull which contained a variety of ‘goodies’, intended to enable crashed aircrew to stay alive. Our version had no inflatable bags and the engine was a bit tatty, to say the least so it was removed and put into an empty hut near the Sergeant’s Mess. Here it was worked on by a few keen volunteers and by the end of our first winter at Deversoir it had been completely overhauled and re-installed in the boat. Eventually the great day came for a ‘test flight’ To our amazement it worked well and the boat chugged around at a fair rate of knots. There were one or two minor adjustments needed and we decided to take it for a longer run the following day. In due course I and a friend set out, and went some miles out into the Great Bitter Lake. We both had a swim in the much cleaner water away from the coast and we set off home. Our route took us past a flotilla of some 15 fishing boats which were based in the bay next to the sailing club. The wind had vanished and as a result, the becalmed boats were being sculled very slowly homewards. So, being a kind chap, I tied a long rope to a strong point on the stern of the lifeboat and took a slow orbit round the fishing boats. The crews got the idea and all tied their boats to the rope and we set off for home. With 15 boats to tow we were only making slow progress - indeed very little faster than they were being sculled - but with a great deal less effort. I took the boats right into their bay and they slipped the tow at appropriate moments, to run gently ashore while I returned to the sailing club jetty. I moored the lifeboat and when I had made everything secure, made my way to the club house and there on the step was a large basket of prawns many of which were still alive and so obviously very fresh. They made a nice addition to the supper in the Mess that evening. Strangely, we hardly ever had any kit stolen from the Club after that.
One Saturday I and five other guys set off from Deversoir in the airborne lifeboat on a long haul across the Great Bitter Lake towards Fayid. We had been offered an old Fairmile launch as a club house and we wanted to see what needed doing to it, to make it sea worthy so that we could tow it back. The wind was fresh to strong, right in our faces and the boat could only make about 7 or 8 knots into it. The temperature was bitterly cold and I for one, was wearing three sweaters under my waterproof jacket. We all huddled in the stern keeping out of the wind as best we could. Suddenly we noticed that we had a problem. The bows were awash. Hurriedly cutting the engine to a tick over, we started to bail frantically but within another two minutes the boat simply sank under us. A motley selection of debris came to the surface including some empty Jerry-cans. These we collected and tied together. It was several miles into wind to get to Fayid and just about as far down wind to get back to Deversoir so we slowly paddled down wind. About an hour after we were due at Fayid, the guy who had gone round by road was getting concerned as he couldn’t even see us in the distance. So he phoned Deversoir to see if we were going to come ? He was told that we left three hours ago on what should have been a two hour trip. Fortunately he had his head screwed on properly and he instigated a search party. A boat belonging to the Suez Canal Company was found at the Canal Station, where the Suez Canal enters the Bitter Lakes and this set off along our probable track. Meanwhile we were beginning to suffer from hypothermia so I decided to take one of the Jerry-cans and set off to try and get assistance for the others who were in a worse condition than I was. After what seemed like an age, I spotted the outbound searching boat and violent splashing attracted it’s attention. I told them where the others were and told them not to wait for me. They chucked me a life belt and went on to where the others were floating and drifting about a mile behind me. They were all picked up and taken at full speed to the Canal Station where several ambulances had been waiting for us. Meanwhile I continued to drift and I was beginning to wonder if they had forgotten me when I saw a rowing boat coming towards me. The two RAF guys in it hauled me over the stern and set off back to the Canal where I was transferred to an ambulance and then taken to join the others in the Station Sick Quarters. Slowly, very slowly, we thawed out aided by a large urn of sweet tea. I was surprised by how many visitors we had - each of whom was given a cuppa.- but I realised why when I was able to taste the ‘additives’ which had been slipped into the urn by our ‘friends’. Needless to say, we were kept in for ‘observation’ for a few days and then three of us were found to have hepatitis and three had pleurisy or pneumonia. Naturally I had hepatitis and pleurisy together. Indeed I was quite ill and what was worse I was off alcohol for 12 months when I eventually recovered.
Not long after that extended swim and its consequences, I was Tour-expired and they shipped me back to the UK for yet another period of 14 days leave. At the end of my leave I was told to report to Great Massingham just outside Norwich. Here I was employed in the Operations Room while they decided what to do with me.
Copyright Rufus Heald