In Bugle 1022 Arthur Cooper of Pelsall began the tale of his experiences in India at the end of the Second World War. Arthur served with the 59th Medium Regiment Royal Artillery, landing on the beaches of Normandy in 1944 and fighting his way across France, Belgium, Holland, and into Germany.
With the Nazis defeated, Arthur received the news that he was to be posted to India in preparation for the Allied invasion of Japanese-held Malaya.
Fortunately for him, en route, the Japanese surrendered and the war came to an end.
At first Arthur was posted to Kamareddi, deep in the Indian jungle. This week Arthur tells of his time at Deolali, where he worked in a special camp helping soldiers returning from Burma, completing the necessary paperwork to send them on their way home, before he finally got his own chance to go back to England.
Arthur writes: “On arrival at the Homeward Bound Trooping Depot at Deolali, we were met by the Battery Sergeant Major, who lined us up and gave us a pep talk about the camp and future duties we could expect to be doing. We were issued with red and grey epaulettes to indicate we were now members of the camp staff and marched off to our quarters, which turned out to be a bevy of tents right outside the documentation buildings.
“The camp was split into two distinct areas, one called Munro, and the other Darna. There was the battery office and guardroom, officers’ and NCOs’ sleeping quarters, guard buildings, documentation offices, outside toilets and showers. Also, a large canteen, built like an aircraft hangar, a char-wallah’s tin shack, and shacks belonging to the darzi (tailor), nappi (barber), and the dhobi-wallah (laundry servant). Not far away were the villages of Deolali and Nasik Road, the latter renowned for its numerous loose-wallahs (thieves), cinema and bazaar.
“Most of the villagers worked for the military in the camp and one of them was a young Hindu boy called Ramlee. He spoke a little English and didn’t waste any time in asking to be our tent bearer. He had a pile of chits stating he was a trustworthy and reliable individual, so we employed him.
“He became like a younger brother to us and went about his work with a happy enthusiasm. He brought us our hot pani (water), first thing in the morning for shaving, made our beds, blancoed our webbing, cleaned our boots and put our mosquito nets up at night. He went to the charwallah and brought endless mugs of hot tea during office hours, did any odd errands and, most important of all, guarded our tent and belongings during our absence. For all this Ramlee received 25 rupees a week, which was the equivalent of £1.12s.6d. We thought he was worth every rupee, and considering the average working class Indian family could live comfortably on 30-40 rupees a week, Ramlee was earning a small fortune and he started saving for his dowry.
“It wasn’t long before the first draft of Burma lads arrived and our work started in earnest. Every Burma veteran had to pass through the transit camp and be given a 10-page special release document before they could leave India Command and embarkation at Bombay. We had to interview them all individually, help them fill the necessary forms and liaise with the troopship authorities, and then formulate a draft of men ready for transit. On completion of these tasks a special parade was held and names of the men going home read out by the BSM. We then escorted the men to the station at Deolali for a train to Bombay.
“The work we did a Deolali gave all the staff a mixed bag of emotions. On the one hand, the job had a tendency to be tedious but, on the other hand, we were helping a brave set of lads get back home and reunited with their loved ones as quickly as possible. They were all good lads, but you could see at a glance the suffering they had gone through. Most of them had a yellow complexion, from the antimalarial drug Mepacrine, and nearly all of them had lost a lot of weight. The mental scars were etched on their faces, after years of fighting the notorious Japanese in the jungle. During the interviews, harrowing stories were told, too gruesome to describe, stories from hell that I shall never forget. You could not help but admire those brave men.
“Most of our duties were carried out between 8am and 1pm, because, due to the scorching heat in the afternoon, we tended to rest on our charpoys (rope beds) in the shade after lunch, and took 14 salt tablets a day to prevent dehydration. I was always in the showers, as I suffered badly from prickly heat and often wore chapals (sandals) in the water to prevent catching athlete’s foot.
“As time went on we began to experience more trouble from the local thieves, so we decided to do something about it. We always slept with our cash under our pillows, but even that wasn’t enough sometimes. One night we caught a loose-wallah, stark naked with his body covered in thick grease, but we lost him in the resulting melee. If we caught a thief, he would be handed over to the camp police and dealt with severely.
“Apart from daily interviewing and form-filling, we sometimes had other tasks to perform, like the day we were ordered to dismantle one of the tents. We had to disturb a pile of stones, which unknown to us was hiding a huge cobra. It shot out and quickly slithered away, with one of our chaps in hot pursuit, intent on slaying it, but one of the camp workers shouted not to kill it. There was an old Indian tale that if you killed a snake in spite, its mate would track you down and spite you back. So we allowed the cobra to escape.
“In all my time in India, I only ever saw five snakes, and two of those came from a snake charmer’s basket, but I always carried a razorblade in the top of my stocking, in case I was bitten, which, thankfully, never occurred. There were a few painful scorpion bites acquired in the camp, but luckily none were fatal.
“Tiffin, the midday meal, was served at 1pm, when everyone made their way to the big canteen, formed an orderly queue and waited for the Indian cooks to dish up the food. When you had finished, you had to run the gauntlet of hundreds of hawks that circled menacingly. Outside the canteen there were two large bins, one for leftover food, the other full of hot water to wash your mess tin in. I can vividly recall my first meal in camp, when Ilearnt a salutary lesson. As I came to the bins I suddenly felt a sharp smack across the side of my face as a hawkdived at me, grabbed my mess tin in his talons, and took off, brushing me with its large wings, to drop my tin some distance away. From then on, I was always on my guard after meals and held my knife and fork upright in my hands, something those devilish birds didn’t like. We all felt like enjoying an hour’s sport, shooting the hawks out of the sky, but it was strictly forbidden because they helped keep the vermin down in the camp.
“I never thought I would come across bubonic plague but there was an outbreak in a village not far from camp and everyone was given a very painful plague jab. Nobody was allowed in the village and all vehicles had to drive straight through without stopping. The CO even rewarded any Indians who brought in dead rats to be incinerated. I can’t tell you how relieved we all were when the all clear was given. I think the situation was made worse by the images of the Black Death we all could remember from our school days.
“I had a lot of admiration for some of the tradesmen employed in the camp. They were very talented and clever people, who could make something out of nothing. The darzi-wallah was especially gifted and made me a pair of sandals out of a bush hat and a dressing gown out of an American army blanket, with my initials embroidered on each pocket. I also enjoyed my visits to the bazaar, where you could spend hours bartering. I bought a beautiful Taj Mahal tapestry, a rose bowl with carved legs, and a crocodile handbag, all for next to nothing.
“Health was never really a problem but we did suffer from minor ailments and on one occasion I caught ringworm. I found out that the bibis (women) were washing my clothes in a polluted river; the ringworm infected my clothes and then infected me. From that moment on, all my washing was done in the camp.
“Every so often we were given leave and managed to spend some time enjoying the delights of Bombay, starting at the military sleeping quarters at Colaba Causeway. Here, you had a good view of Marine Drive and the Malabar Hill; it was a lovely sight, especially when it was all lit up at night. I usually teamed up with other lads from Deolali and we’d go to the Metro cinema, where the Indian films had English subtitles. We went to the Chinese restaurants, enjoying huge amounts of shark’s fin and bamboo shoots. I remember visiting the Prince of Wales Museum several times and being impressed by the huge manta ray that hung from the ceiling.
“Although most of Bombay was open to our curiosity, there were certain areas that were strictly out of bounds. Grant Road was one such area, which abounded with prostitutes and pimps, while the military police kept up a constant patrol to deter some soldiers’ natural instincts. Even if you wished to visit the famous Crawford Bazaar, you needed a pass from the provost marshal.
“Sometimes, we used the gharry-wallah to take us around Bombay. We’d pass along streets full of sacred cows, wandering at will, and small children pestering us for tips. I was appalled by the abject poverty we saw and the open sewers than stank to high heaven. We never drank any of the water and were careful of what we ate, especially the fruit which, although it looked appetizing, had probably been grown on a sewage farm.
“One of the most terrifying moments of my life happened on the streets of Bombay. The Indian navy had just mutinied and there had been frequent clashes between Hindus and Muslims, but going to Bombay had become a habit and we thought nothing of it. I’d teamed up with a sergeant from the HBTD staff and we took a stroll down the Hornby Road. All of a sudden, a large crowd of angry Muslims surged out from a side street. They were armed with swords, wooden batons and carrying stones and they headed straight for us. The sergeant and I were both unarmed and wearing our green tropical uniforms with the RA badge fixed firmly to our forage caps. Scared to death, we both froze in our tracks, with no apparent means of escape.
“The sergeant said out of the corner of his mouth, ‘Keep a cool head and carry on walking as if nothing is wrong.’ Easier said than done, and a few prayers were said. But then, just like in the western films, the cavalry arrived to save our bacon. A military jeep had been coming up the road behind us and the driver, seeing our plight, had driven past us to confront the raging mob. Out jumped a subedar (senior viceroy’s commissioned officer), wearing uniform and a topi, followed by four Indian policemen carrying their lathes. The subedar fired some shots into the air and the police waded into the crowd, hauling out two chaps who were the apparent ringleaders. They were bundled into the back of the jeep and the hostile crowd began to disperse. The subedar told us that once the ringleaders were detained, there wouldn’t be any more trouble but, just in case, he advised us to get out of the area.
“Away from Bombay, and not far from Deolali, was Lake Bala, a place we would often frequent if we had just the one day’s leave. It was a hilly spot, and we fried eggs on the rocks.
“Back at the camp, I recall the time Freddy Mills the boxer passed through on his way back to England. He gave an exhibition of his boxing skills and he amused us by sticking his chin out for some of the lads to have a crack at. Afterwards, this very likeable sportsman would hold their arms up in triumph, accompanied by a raucous round of applause from those watching. He told us he expected to fight Gus Lesnevich when he arrived back home and we all wished him the very best of luck.
“Another familiar name to pass through Deolali camp was Jimmy Perry – remember the TV series It Ain’t Half Hot Mum? A lot of the scenes from the series came from his experiences at Deolali.
“Visitors, other than soldiers, were rare but one day a stray dog arrived and decided to stay. The lads took a shine to him, fed him and named him Gunga, and we got used to having him around. Gunga developed a strange fascination for our camp bugler and every morning, when the bugler strode out for reveille, Gunga would trot after him, squat down and unleash a terrible howling. Credit to the bugler, he was never put off by the dog’s antics. No one was more delighted than the bugler when Gunga decided to turn tail and leave the camp for pastures new.
“Whether you were in the depths of the jungle or the more comfortable surroundings of the camp, you couldn’t beat the receipt of mail from home. I was very fortunate and never ran short but some of the lads, sadly, never received anything. So we enjoyed sharing each other’s messages from home, and the arrival of post brought us closer together.
“On the whole, behaviour at the camp was good, with everyone looking forward to completing their short stay and boarding the troopships for home, but the strain some of the men had been under for many months in a hostile environment led to the occasional altercation. One incident involved a member of the draft striking an officer and the CO had no choice but to sentence him to one month’s detention at the glasshouse at Trimulgherry in the Dolaan. The officer involved had a reputation for being a strict disciplinarian and the rest of us didn’t take too kindly to his attitude and the punishment given to one of the Burma veterans. During our morning parade, the BSM asked for two volunteers to escort the prisoner to Trimulgherry, but not a single man stepped forward because everyone was furious at the way things had been handled. The same day, I was summoned to the battery office and informed that I, and a sergeant from the draft, had been detailed as escorts and to be ready to leave next morning.
“Both of us were unhappy to be burdened with the responsibility and decided to visit the soldier in his cell that night, to explain our position. Thankfully, he understood and didn’t blame us for anything.
“Next day, we started our 400 mile journey to Secunderabad. We had a compartment to ourselves on the train and were able to stretch out. Nevertheless, the journey was tiring and when we arrived at our destination all three of us felt worse for wear. A military police jeep was waiting to take us direct to the prison and when we arrived the building look as if it belonged to a film set in a foreign legion adventure. We banged on the iron-studded door and it was opened by two overweight warders. They carried swagger sticks under their arms, looked extremely mean and began howling their heads off, ‘Prisoner and escort at the double, quick march!’ My sergeant colleague was livid, informing the warders, as the two of us weren’t prisoners, we wouldn’t be doubling anywhere. After a frosty confrontation, the prisoner was taken away and we returned to Deolali.
“That wasn’t our last experience of Trimulgherry prison. Three weeks later, while on parade, the BSM asked for two volunteers to escort the prisoner back from his incarceration. Every single soldier stepped forward, in sympathy with the soldier who had been locked up, but the BSM, in the end, decided to send the sergeant and myself back to do the honours.
“Some of the days at Deolali flew by, while others dragged on relentlessly. Being with men who were departing home nearly every day made you feel a little homesick, but I knew the Burma veterans deserved it more than me. Then, it was my turn to join the draft and bid farewell to India! I was told I’d been in India for two months longer than I should have and my posting had finally come to an end. I was jubilant, yet a little sorry to leave so many good friends behind.
“We had a final get-together in the canteen and the lads played ‘Don’t Leave Now’ over the Tannoy. Ramlee and another bearer carried my kit to the station, and I was happy enough to give both of them 30 rupees each, leaving Ramlee in tears as the train left the station.
“I left India aboard the troopship Nea Hellas and spent Christmas Day 1946 afloat on the Arabian Sea. Little did I know then that the following year would bring much grief and bloodshed to the Indian subcontinent, as the Indian people struggled for their independence.”