Solomon Islands – August/September 1972

Ex. Squint

E Troop E21/R241

Operate in 2 Phases from Honiara, Solomon Islands to Melbourne & Singapore

A participant’s story by John Mugford

The exercise began as usual and all went to plan until we came into RAF Akrotiri at the end of the first leg of the journey – we had a very heavy landing and as a result the RAF pilots decided that they could not continue with the Hercules that we were in. As a result we had a couple of days in Cyprus while they arranged a replacement a very nice holiday! When the replacement landed we got involved with the transfer of the load.

We then took off for Masirah – shortly after take-off the pilot turned off and feathered one of the engines so we landed on three. The crew were happy that the problem was resolved so we took off for Gan again soon after take-off the same engine was taken out of service and once again we landed on three engines. In a repeat of the situation at Masirah we again took off on schedule for our flight to Singapore. Once again the same engine failed and we landed on three engines in Singapore where amazingly the crew decided that the engine needed replacing!! This involved sourcing a new engine and flying it from the UK, this resulted in a stay of 5 days in Singapore which made us all very sad!!

The pilots went off to their 5 star hotel and we were despatched to SAF Tengah (ex RAF) where we were lodged in some old barracks. Under the leadership of FUB Williams and Fred (?) who had spent some time in Singapore in the past, we were introduced to the concept of Char Wallahs and Room Wallahs. It was like going home and having your Mum doing everything for you and all at a very low cost thanks to FUB and Fred negotiating the rate. FUB then introduced us to the joys of down-town Singapore from the Tangle Inn in Tang Lin on to Boogis Street and the delightful toilets in the lake of urine with the sailors performing the dance of the flaming a***holes on the roof. He also introduced us to the Kai Tai’s who were apparent because they were better looking ‘ladies’. We also ‘dined’ at Abduls sampling his famous curry with the questionable meat.

In the day we were taken to Change Alley and tutored in the art of bartering – quite an eye opener for me but I came back with many souvenirs. I remember Fred bartering for some fishing kit taking each individual piece and getting the lowest price then when the addition had been made he started again to barter on the whole kit – I was amazed but the store holder was not phased and the negotiation continued in a friendly atmosphere. The big fly in the ointment was that we were never prepared for the financial outlay that these activities incurred – but someone (Think it was the RAF) arranged for us to have an impromptu pay day which saved the day.

After 5 days the holiday came to an end and we took off for Darwin and then onto Townsville where the pilots needed a break (poor souls), so we stayed in the Townsville Travel Lodge Hotel (as seen in the photo).

Ian Leonard (RIP) and Roy Evers outside Travelodge Townsville Australia Sep 72
Ian Leonard and Roy Evers outside the Townsville Travel Lodge

As we had to leave the airfield Australian Customs required a full baggage inspection of personal luggage. They made a point of confiscating any of the Mayfair and Penthouse magazines found, much to the disgust of the owners! We stayed overnight and went to look for some life in the town – we found that the licensing hours in Queensland at that time meant that pubs were only open for 1 hour a day (This seems so ludicrous that I challenge my memory) – the result was a huge scrum at the bar and the buying of multiple rounds – absolute chaos. We were glad to realise that these rules did not apply to the hotel where as guests we could drink when we liked. Incidentally this was where I first encountered Reef and Beef which has remained a favourite of mine. The hotel also did very nice bright orange bath towels which seemed to fit suitcases rather well. I recall we couldn’t swim in the sea as the box jellyfish were around so we had to use the hotel pool (picture witnesses).

Tavel Lodge Townsville Sept 1972_edited

Finally we took off and landed uneventfully at Henderson Field, Honiara, Guadalcanal, Solomon Islands.

Small map

Large map

The rest of the exercise was pretty much an anti-climax!! As an historical reference – during the Second World War, Guadalcanal marked the final extent of Japanese incursion in the Pacific and Henderson Field became a huge prize which was fought over in a long and bloody battle. The evidence of this struggle was apparent all over the island in the many military objects abandoned and rusting. I recall walking out on the reef at low tide and seeing a Japanese Submarine just below the waterline off the reef (Subs were used to bring supplies in during the final days of the conflict) The names of the places were evocative of this struggle – Red Beach, Bloody Ridge and the waters off the coast were known as Iron Bottom Sound due to the sheer amount of shipping sunk there.

Iron Bottom SoundSome of the WWII wreckage overlooking Iron Bottom Sound

As a personal aside one of the first ships to be sunk in the area was the USS Mugford – which was named for an Admiral Mugford who served on the Union side in the American Civil war.

We pitched the tents that we borrowed, on Signal Hill, Suva Ridge overlooking Honiara – looking back inland there were multiple jungle covered ridges, which emphasised the problems of invasion.

Taffs TentJohn (Taff) Mugford ‘at home’ on Signal Hill, Honiara

The toilets were simply a ditch covered with wooden boxes with toilet seats on top. This was OK initially, but as time went on the ditches became inundated with flies which meant that when you lifted the toilet seat you were engulfed in a cloud of flies and more importantly when you sat down there were still flies trying to escape. I recall That Ray Heeley decided to sort the problem by dropping thunder flashes in the ditch – the result was not what he expected – but made an awful odorous mess!!

Camp Mercury BSIP Cookhouse bar and card school
Briefing Room, Mess Hall & Bar with card-school in progress!

I recall drinking at the bar below the main house (old disused met office) and ducking and diving to avoid the huge flying beetles that came to visit the lights. One night after a particularly heavy session, I was awoken by Ian Leonard rushing out of our tent with his sleeping bag burning on his back! The tent was on fire which was a little sobering;  our other tent mate was Jim McCabe and he was fast asleep – I rushed over to wake him – he came awake and instead of scrambling out of the tent he sat up and started shouting “Fire Fire and keep on shouting”, then promptly went back to sleep – I had to drag him, camp bed Sleeping bag and all out of the tent. Luckily we put the fire out and there was only minimal damage though Ian suffered some minor burns.

Guadalcanal Sept 1972_edited

I also recall going on trips along the coast – going through numerous fords and seeing some pretty primitive villages but the people appeared very happy – we came to a war memorial constructed by the Japanese to commemorate their dead – a sobering thought.

Bloody Ridge Trip Guadalcanal Sept 1972_edited
‘Searching for the War’ – Bloody Ridge, Guadalcanal

I also recall swimming in the local river with the local kids – swinging on ropes and dropping into the river. Paddy Keay and Orph Mable hired a mini-moke and spent a full day driving through the centre of the island on very poor dirt roads. They came across a school and medical centre run by a few nuns in one village.  It was like something out of a 1950’s Humphrey Bogart film set. Unfortunately the mini-moke didn’t have any shade, and both Paddy and Orph ended up with rather red legs (very painful – Orph) from the sun!

I also recall the YOS (the same YOS who insisted on putting padlocks on the ‘Secure’ TENT), who was on a fitness campaign challenging anyone to a race down off the ridge and back. Unbeknown to him, Orph was an accomplished runner and was happy to take up the challenge – The YOS was well beaten and last seen wandering off muttering about ‘ringers’ having first handed over the liquid prize.

We even managed to get in some work and I believe that the exercise was a success – or maybe not as the Regiment was to return again!  (July/August 1974 – Exercise Pasha E21/R241)

Finally the exercise finished and we were informed that the Crypto flight would be part of an RAF exercise to see how quickly they could get a Hercules back to the UK. Consequently the route home was seeded with replacement RAF crews at each stop, so that only refuelling would be required. It all started with a tactical take off from Henderson Field (take off in as short a space as possible, followed by steeply banking at what seemed like palm tree height) which was pretty frightening especially when you are sat sideways, strapped into a canvas seat! The actual journey took 72 hours of which 56 were in the air – by the time we got to RAF Lyneham I was deaf and needed to lose my ‘sea legs’. There were compensations; we were well looked after along the route – at each stop we were well fed – mainly breakfasts so Orph tells me – and the bar was always open, the RAF having suspended their rules on drinking and flying!

ADDENDUM

As we were putting in a link to the RA Signals in Melbourne, The powers-that-be decided that we should send some support/liaison to Australia. The ‘chosen ones’ were Sgt Jim Brown, Keith (Bones) Jones and Owen Evans. By all accounts later, they were well received and thoroughly enjoyed seeing how it was done down under. – Orph

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