Castel Benito

I was only four years old but the excitement of my first flight is still a vivid memory. We had been delayed by the ‘smog’, a debilitating form of winter air pollution that regularly brought post-war London to a standstill. It was still grey and drizzly when we eventually boarded our a BOAC York aircraft, a converted Lancaster bomber, for the fourteen hour flight. There would be two refuelling stops. The second, at Castel Benito near Tripoli, was to prepare for the long desert crossing to Kano.

By the time I was eight, and already a seasoned air passenger, I took a closer interest in the story of RAF Castel Benito. Just the Italian name was utterly captivating but it was the old wartime hangar and terminal building that most caught my attention. The jagged shell holes in the rusting corrugated doors were testament to the furious aerial bombardment that had taken place when the airfield had been captured in 1943, during the North African Desert campaign.

My brother and I often travelled together on what came to be called ‘the milk runs’. These were aerial shuttles that moved school children, often via Castel Benito, to and from the furthest reaches of Empire. It was an Empire that, in the early 1950s, still seemed reassuringly and unimaginably large. Mr Selby, our geography teacher, did not hesitate to remind us of this, once he had finished chatting in Welsh with Mrs Selby as she hovered around at the open classroom door.
‘You see, boys, the sun never sets on the Empire’.
We all waved our hands hoping to be asked to explain, ‘Please Sir, is it because the Empire stretches all the way from West to East and the sun is always shining somewhere’.
Mr Selby performed his classroom tour as he printed a smudgy black outline of the continents in our exercise books. We knew what was required and dutifully coloured in the relevant parts with our red crayon.
But in reality, as we soon enough discovered, the end of Empire was getting close and the focus for my parents was on development time that had been lost during the war. Schools, universities, hospitals, farms, transport, but especially politics and politicians all vied for available funds. The colonial officers all worked around the clock as Nigeria hurried to independence.

When I made my first ‘milk run’ it followed eight long months of family separation. Mostly I was at a boarding school, Milner Court, although Easter had been spent at another institution in Dorset. This was another prep school that operated as a kind of short-term foster home for colonial orphans. When the time finally arrived to leave for Nigeria my brother was there too. We couldn’t wait to climb onto the airport bus at Victoria station and get away, completely unconcerned at the prospect of the long unaccompanied journey that clearly worried my grandmother, as we exchanged goodbyes through the glass windows.

School was a very distant memory when we touched down at RAF Castel Benito a few hours later. Stirred from our sleep by the cabin staff we descended the lighted metal stairway to find ourselves on a tarmac apron in the desert under a canopy of stars and planets. Looking back as we made our way to the terminal building the four engined C4 Argonaut airliner was an impressive sight as the Union Flag fluttered from a small mast at the open cockpit window. It was truly a ship of the skies. Lit up by yellow interior lights the cabin crew could be seen through rectangular windows as they hurried to clean up for the final leg to Kano. Service trucks and a tanker were already clustered around the undercarriage while an engineer on a metal ladder checked out one of the four piston engines that would soon power us across more than fifteen hundred miles of desert. By this time, we had already become the most expert of aeronautical spotters. The advantages of a pressurised cabin and the details of other aircraft powered by Rolls Royce Merlin engines could readily be explained to a bemused adult…and at some length.

Inside the flood-lit hangar there was a makeshift civilian air terminal. Groups of cane chairs and tables were arranged on the terrace in front of a single storey inner building containing a bar and some offices. Large three bladed fans, suspended from the ceiling, swished lazily over a sweaty barman who served us bottles of iced cola in exchange for our BOAC transit cards.

Waiting for our aircraft to be refuelled we picked up some friends and wandered out to explore the limits of the passenger area. The Libyan policemen were the main quarry as they guarded the boundary. We gathered round them, fascinated by their snappy Italian serge uniforms, the high peaked caps and the shades tucked into top pockets – not to mention their long shiny boots and white gaiters. Most fascinating of all, and slightly sinister too, was the brown leather hand gun holster, the butt of the weapon just visible where a looped cord attached it to a leather belt Once it became clear that we were not showing sufficient respect we were angrily waved back to the terminal to await our call.

A few hours later, soon after dawn had broken over the oasis town of Tamanrasset and the more distant and craggy Ahaggar mountains, as they jutted through the morning haze, we began our descent for Kano airport.

The Resident in Kano, the senior colonial officer, was Tim Johnston. Mr Johnston had been a fighter pilot during the war when he was heavily involved in the heroic defence of Malta, an awesome story for an eight year old. He and his wife Berrice met us at the airport and took us the house that had been our home only a couple of years earlier, so it was strange to be back. On our parents’ instructions we were expected to sleep for the rest of the morning before transferring to a four seater Auster aircraft for the flight down to Kaduna. My parents had clearly forgotten that the sheer excitement of travelling meant that children of our ages would never simply fall asleep according to adult convenience and we chatted away for three hours until it was time to return to the airport for the one hour flight to our home at Kaduna.

In those days children would be passed around between relatives, friends and institutions rather like packages in a private mail service. We had no concept of what it meant to the lives of those kind friends and relatives that had to feed us, clean us and put us on trains, coaches and aircraft as we shuttled around Europe and Africa. It must have caused them some inconvenience but they hardly ever complained…so we generally remained blissfully unaware!

The featured image is of a BOAC Argonaut parked in front of the airport building at Kano in the 1950s

Post Script: The Johnstons’ story has been told by their daughter Carolyn in a remarkable collection of letters and diary entries. When we visited the Johnstons in Kano we were told all about their daughter Carolyn, but we never seemed to meet. When Carolyn was in Nigeria we were back in the UK, and vice versa. It was to be a very long time before we did meet. In fact it was in Edinburgh not very long after my own return to Northern Nigeria in 2010.
‘Harmattan, A Wind of Change’ by Carolyn Johnston. The Radcliffe Press 2010.
ISBN 978 1 84885 143 6

One thought on “Castel Benito

  1. ronaldmackay

    More intriguing details and again, I have the impression that those omitted may be as interesting – or even more telling – than those included. Just as boys and girls like Geoff and his brother and sister had “no concept of what it meant to the lives of those kind friends and relatives that had to feed us, clean us and put us on trains, coaches and aircraft as we shuttled around Europe and Africa” so most of us – the readers of this reminiscence – have no idea what life was like for the children of colonial employees. Geoff is giving us a glimpse.
    I’d no idea that BOAC began with ex-WW11 aircraft; that employees of the Colonial Office had to make their own arrangements for their children to be schooled in the UK, to be taken care of during school holidays, to constantly call on the goodwill of family members to see to the welfare of their children; that brothers and sisters might not only be separated for long periods from their parents almost from birth but also from each other; that long-hauls had to be made in propeller aircraft that required frequent refueling along the route; or the effect of such peripatetic and enforced independence had on these little lives.
    I for one am keen for more!

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