CHRISTMAS ISLAND RECOLLECTIONS

A story from Dave Whyte


My Recollections of Christmas Island. February 1957.

 

Although my unit was 61 Fd Sqn, 38 Corps Engr Regt stationed at Osnabruck in Germany, I was in Chatham on a higher Trades Training course when the news of the entire Corps posting to Christmas Island emerged. I was quietly excited about the posting but filled with trepidation when I found out they were going to sail on the "flat bottomed tub" called "Dunera". I did not particularly enjoy the regular one-night trips from Harwich to the Hook of Holland so it was difficult to imagine how I would cope on the high seas for six weeks.

 

It was indeed my lucky day, the date of my final exams were two weeks after the Dunera had sailed and I also had to cram in two weeks embarkation leave. It was decided that I would fly over after my exams and leave were finished, I would probably arrive about a week before the ship docked. With organising skills of this nature can anyone doubt why we won the Second World War. I eventually arrived at RAF Lyneham and met up with another seven members of my unit who had managed to avoid sailing for various reasons and were all eager to fly in the luxurious Comet Jet airliner, which would take us to the Island. I say luxurious, as the Comet was the first jet airliner in the world; even the Americans did not have one.

 

I had never flown before so I considered myself lucky to be on such a wonderful aircraft. I must admit I had great difficulty putting to the back of my mind that the only reason the Royal Air Force had these aircraft was the fact that they had been breaking up behind the cockpit whilst flying, this resulted in numerous crashes. I was relieved to hear that the RAF had strengthened all the cockpits when they got the aircraft and were now considered airworthy. We were instructed that the Comet was designed as a short haul aircraft and would require numerous refuelling stops on the route. The time arrived at last for our long awaited departure. The plane looked really great as we mounted the steps and we settled down for take off. It was quite a pleasant experience for my first take off and I was starting to think that I would enjoy the trip when the Pilot announced that the undercarriage would not go up and he would have to jettison the fuel and land, this operation took about an hour. After landing we were told that the flight would be delayed until the next day.

 

True to their word we took off and flew to Iceland to refuel then off to Goose Bay in Canada for an overnight stop. Although the snow was very deep outside the accommodation was nice and warm. In the morning we set off to Offutt in Central America for another fuelling stop before heading to San Francisco for an overnight stay. When we arrived at San Francisco airport the next morning to catch our Comet to Honolulu we were told the Head Winds were too high and the aircraft was grounded for 24 hours. This was rather pleasant; it gave us a chance to have a look around. The following day was the same; Headwinds too high, "come back in 24 hours". The following day, we were told there was no chance of the head winds lessening within the next few days so we were all booked onto a Civil Airlines DC6B. I was now becoming most accustomed to air travel and it was a shock to find that the aircraft, which I was flying in, could only fly at half the speed of the Comet. The journey would take about twice as long to arrive at its destination.

 

The journey was quite uneventful and we were given some free sun tan lotion and a packet of cigarettes. I can still remember the Cigs, they were called Camel. On the side of the packet it said something like: "Camel are Sweet Smelling", obviously, unlike any Camel that I had ever encountered before or since. We finally landed at Honolulu then transferred to Hickham United States Air Force Base to await an aircraft for Christmas Island. In the morning we had to report to the Air Movements Officer who would notify us of flight availability. If there were no flights we would receive $3 for one days overseas allowance. This daily routine went on for 7 days. It was a shock to our systems when they finally found space on an aircraft for the final leg of our journey.

 

The aircraft we were about to board looked more like something that the local scrap yard had rejected as being unfit for useful junk. It was the illustrious Hastings. When we were all seated the engines started up with a massive plume of smoke and flames belching out, I was convinced it was on fire. Ten days prior to this I had been travelling in the most sophisticated jet airliner in the world and was now relegated to a flying dustbin. The Crew assured us the safety record of Transport Command was second to none, they had never lost a passenger, (Yet! I thought). I listened to his every word but had slight reservations when I noticed a large gap at the foot of the door, air conditioning, I tried to convince myself. Then we went through a rain cloud and the rain poured in through the door, I started to wonder if I should have made out my last will and testament before I left the UK. Although the crew had assured us of their marvellous safety record I couldn't help thinking "There is a first time for everything!" We finally arrived on Christmas Island at the same time as the ship docked, listening to my comrades I did not hear anyone suggesting a transfer to the Royal Navy I think my journey was the most enjoyable of the two.

 

I was shown the tent that would be my home for the next nine months; I picked a bed space and asked where the lockers were so that I could put my kit away. I was informed there were none and we had to make our own out of the old packing cases and crates which were piled up outside. I don't know if someone from the logistics department had forgotten to order up furniture, or if all the resources had been spent on the two Atomic and Three Hydrogen bombs that I would witness during my tour of duty.

 

The lockers constructed were of all shapes and sizes. Hinges had to be made out of metal bands or strips of cloth and hasps and staples were also unavailable. Our purpose on the Island was to assist the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment, build roads, erect Twynham huts so that the softer elements of Her Majesty's Forces who followed us would not be required to endure the same hardships that we had encountered, and any other tasks required. Driving licences were not required and the Troop Commander could give you a chit saying you were permitted to drive any military vehicle on Christmas Island. I was unable to drive when I arrived, so a friend showed me the basics in a dumper truck he was using on the building sites. At one of the Morning parades our Sergeant Major said "Put up your hand if you can drive", my hand immediately shot into the air; after all, I had driven the dumper on a few occasions. I was enthralled when the Sgt Major said, "Right Whyte, report to the MT Corporal and tell him I sent you". I was over the moon; the prospect of getting my very own dumper to drive around in would be like a status symbol.

 

I duly reported to the MT Cpl, he looked at me, pointed and said that is your vehicle take it away. I looked in awe at the monster, a Three Ton Bedford Q.L. Tipper Truck with a winch on the rear, nothing like the little dumper. I climbed up into the cab, must have been about six feet from the ground. I was shaking from top to bottom with nerves. Eventually I got the truck started and put it into gear, I shot back into a pile of timber and punctured two tyres. The Corporal did not appear amused, but his men replaced the tyres rather quickly. I didn't dare say I had never driven before so I tried to bluff it out.

 

When the truck was ready I headed out for the open still shaking like a leaf. I was moving forward at last. Once I got on the quiet open roads I changed up the gearbox and was delighted with my progress. This was to be short lived, as I decided to change down a gear, and couldn't. No one had ever explained about double de-clutch or gearboxes without synchromesh gears. I had to put the truck in neutral and apply the brakes. When I stopped I was then able to proceed in a lower gear. During the next few weeks my driving skills improved, but with no stretch of the imagination could I count myself as proficient.

 

We were notified a Hydrogen bomb was to be being tested and all personnel had to move to the opposite side of the Island when the RAF Valiant took off with the bomb aboard. All vehicles had to be lined up in convoy formation for an early start in the morning. I was not particularly worried about driving in the convoy until I was informed I had to take a passenger, none other that the Corporal in charge of MT. I knew I would be kicked off driving when he found out I had still not mastered the art of changing gears. Although worried in the evening before, I tried to put it out of my mind. Early in the morning we were awoken and the entire unit made their way to the vehicles. I climbed into the drivers seat and the Cpl jumped into the Passengers seat. I switched on the ignition pressed the starter and got Rrrrrrr, Rrrrr, the battery had gone flat overnight. The Cpl said nip out and use the starting handle and I will operate the throttle. I jumped out and the Cpl sat in the drivers seat, a few turns of the starting handle and the truck burst into life. I run round and jumped into the passenger seat explaining that I was afraid that the engine may cut out and we would lose our place in the convoy if I got back in the driver's seat. The Cpl reluctantly accepted this as logical. I had got away with it this time, but there was the return journey still to come.

 

We waited for several hours until the aircraft took off with the bomb and then informed that it was safe to return to our posts. Someone was certainly looking after me that day, when the Cpl and I returned to the truck it had a flat tyre, Honestly, I was not guilty. The Cpl told me to stay with the vehicle whilst he returned to base and made arrangements for someone to fix it. My skills progressed quite rapidly after the initial setbacks. After a few months of practice the Sgt Major's driver went away to Honolulu for a weeks leave and I was selected to drive him around.

 

 It was only a one-ton truck that he used but the gearbox was even more awkward than the one in my vehicle, it was a crash box up and down through the gears. I managed without any real difficulty and was complemented by the Sgt Major when his driver returned. If only he had known the truth a few months before. If you were issued with a vehicle you treated it as your own personal transport, there was no requirement to account for fuel or mileage. If there was a good picture showing at the Port or Main Camp I would tell my mates that I was going and they would pile into the back of the tipper truck and off we would go. There was basically one rule when driving around, if you saw Hitch Hikers you picked them up, you were not permitted to leave anyone stranded.

 

When we were building roads I was given the job of driving a Road Roller down the length of the road to be surfaced to ensure that it had been well and truly flattened. One starts to wonder if driving these contraptions affects your sanity I stopped once because a "chit chat" (small lizard) crossed in front of me, yet a few moments later ran over a hermit crab.

 

It was pointless to try and talk to yourself or sing; the noise from the diesel engine was so loud you couldn't hear a thing. I had been on the rollers for a few weeks and one day I was at the far end of the Island and it suddenly dawned on me that I would be late for dinner if I didn't get a move on. I opened up the engine compartment and turned the throttle wide open, there was black smoke belching from the funnel, I climbed aboard and set off, I must have been doing at least 10 miles an hour, (almost double the normal speed) I managed to get back in time for Dinner.

 

Next morning when I went to pick up the road roller I was told there were two broken push rods in the engine and the radiator was leaking. I couldn't possibly imagine how that happened. I have never been able to drink beer; in fact half a pint will come up a lot quicker than it goes down. Whenever our troop had a beach party, barbeque and booze I was the allocated driver to take them and bring them back from the designated site. For this, I was allowed to drive the newer Bedford R.L which had seats fitted in the back and was more like driving a private car.

 

When our time on the Island came to an end we were told we would be flying home, as I was an experienced flier now I was looking forward to it. Most of our kit had been despatched in containers back to the UK and we were interested only in the stuff we would be carrying with us, Duty Free for example. I managed to get a bottle of Queen Anne Rare Scotch Whisky and cigarettes so I was all set for the journey home.

 

If memory serves me right I think it was on a BOAC DC7. There were three of us in a row, one chap, known as the "Beast", he was a Corporal (No! not MT) who had worked in the stores and spent every penny he ever earned on drink. I cannot remember the name of the third member in our row but shortly after take off he said: "I have a bottle of Whisky shall I open it", the Beast did not need a second invitation so we drank the bottle between us. After this was finished I suggested we open my bottle of Rare Queen Anne, this also vanished. No! The Beast had not been able to buy a bottle to bring with him.

 

The journey was certainly flying by (pardon the pun) and we were soon landing at New York. We immediately made our way to the bar and asked for whisky on the rocks, the measures appeared so minute that we had gulped them over before the barman could turn his back. I lost count six or eight when the Sergeant Major came up and said "Take it easy Whyte, you have been off the hard stuff for a long time!" I answered, "Oh I'm alright Sir". I still don't know how, but I boarded the aircraft sat down, then we took off. Once airborne my stomach started to churn a little so I went to the toilet to try and get rid of some of the drink. I sat on the toilet with my head in the sink. I remember someone coming to the toilet door and asking me if I was OK, I must have opened the door and said I was.

 

The next thing I remember was wakening up in my seat on the aircraft. I said to my pals, "how did I get here" and their answer was, "You were a right terror on the plane, you chased the hostess up and down the alley and said some disgraceful things to her!" I was absolutely shocked, I know I had been away from the fairer sex for over nine months but this was no excuse. I saw the hostess coming towards me, I do not want to be unfair to her but she looked a proper Battleaxe. As she approached I plucked up courage and said, "Excuse me, I would like to apologise for anything that I may have said or done to you" she stared at me, then barked like a Regimental Sergeant Major in the Brigade of Guards "You never said or did anything to me" then stormed off. I still wonder if she was disappointed. What a thing to do to mates. I got home safe and sound in the end. It was certainly an experience, flying there and flying back, the bit in the middle was also superb

 : Dave Whyte. 10 April 2003