The RAF is a hundred years old.

THE ROYAL AIR FORCE AT 100 YEARS OLD

The memories of that time from a draft account by Bryan Evers Sharwood-Smith. It is an extract from ‘Away Before Dawn’ – a book that I am working on for possible future publication.

My first combat was typical of what could happen to the very young and innocent. We were low and some miles over enemy territory, when my flight commander suddenly dived steeply, the remaining four machines of the flight following close behind. Soon the white tracer began to flash from his gun. ‘Houthulst Forest’ lay beneath us and I thought, if I thought at all, that he was firing into one of the camouflaged German encampments below. This was utterly exhilarating. I had not fired in anger before so I opened up, holding my machine in a dive until I had nearly expended a fully loaded ammunition drum. By this time the rest of the Flight had pulled out and turned for home, and frankly, even I was aware that we were too low down for prolonged heroics. When we landed I was at first severely reproved by my Flight Commander.
‘Never lag behind like that again!’
But then he added, ‘
That was quite a good show though, d’you think you hit ‘im?’

I had not realised that we had been diving on a German two-seater. True, I had a fleeting impression of a shadowy form flitting eastwards in the half light as I pulled out of my dive, but no more than that. German aircraft, unlike our own, were heavily camouflaged.

Months later, by which time I was much more battle-wise, a novice observer was to sit inert behind me during a brief flurry with a more numerous enemy patrol. He was in complete ignorance that anything untoward was happening. Indeed, he mentioned later that he had been feeling cold and miserable and thought that we were on our way home. His carelessness might have cost us our lives but, remembering my own early self, I repressed my wrath.

I was happy enough in 29, but as the CO realised full well, there was concern about my life expectancy. It was short enough for any front-line pilot, but my chances of survival were beginning to look very bleak. While the days slipped by I was simply not learning nearly fast enough. The CO thought that I would be safer on bombers and he arranged for my transfer to 57 squadron, flying DH4’s. But I was not safer on bombers. I disliked the great cumbrous things. Twice, owing to engine failure, I was forced to crash land on broken ground. Later still I was caught napping by a formation of Albatross Scouts and, though we shot down the leader, forcing him into an uncontrolled dive, our machine was riddled, and my observer was wounded in both hands, a bullet taking away both the foresight and the backsight of his Lewis gun. We got home with difficulty.

After four months in France I was sent home for a rest. My CO recorded depressingly that I was unlikely to make an ‘efficient’ pilot. I did not accept this and asked that I be posted for further training with fighters. My request was granted, and after my leave, I went to a training unit at Port Meadow near Oxford to fly Bristol fighters . There had been a squadron of these two-seater fighters operating from the same aerodrome from which I was flying bombers, and I had often admired them enviously as they roared overhead after take-off, their sleek snouts thrusting aggressively skywards.

During my leave from France two events took place of considerable importance. The first was the 21st March ‘Great Spring Offensive’, the German Army’s final attempt to end the war at least on their terms, if not with total victory. The Russians had recently surrendered releasing a massive force of German men and artillery from the Northern Front. The plan was to aim the main thrust at the British section of the Western Front, from the Somme battlefields to the Channel ports, thus inflicting an allied defeat before the Americans could arrive in strength. It was only halted after a long British tactical retreat from those Somme battlefields, held at such a cost back in 1916. We again suffered heavy losses in men and guns, as did the Germans.

The second event was the demise of the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Naval Air Service leading to the birth of the Royal Air Force on April 1st. Despite this bold initiative that created the world’s first dedicated national air force, the change was greeted with no great enthusiasm in either service, particularly in France. All manner of wild rumours circulated. One was that we would all have to share duties as orderly officer for our aerodromes, striding up and down officiously but uselessly with a telephone in one hand and file under an arm. Another by-product of the innovation was the new uniform. Air Force blue did not appear overseas for many months but the khaki variant with the leather peaked cap and navy type tunic came out with newly commissioned officers. As any squadron photograph of the time will show they were often to be worn in bizarre association with RFC uniform and with the army type uniform of seconded officers. This phenomenon was due to the degree of indulgence accorded us flying people. We also benefited from generous free transport, presumably in recognition of our dangerous occupation. This never seemed fair in our eyes. Already we were much more highly paid than the infantry who were faced daily with the mud and blood of the trenches and seemed to lead a far more unpleasant existence.

The young Angela: a eulogy to my little sister

Angela 5A day or so after Angela slipped away so peacefully with her two children, one on each side, Tania mentioned that the family had watched one of Angela’s favourite films about Africa.

All three of us children of Angela’s generation were conceived in Africa, and inevitably my mind went back to those very early days. That part of Northern Nigeria, once called the white man’s grave had become very much the white kid’s grave, European children being very vulnerable to the tropical diseases and climate. So in fact, like me, Angela was actually born in England, when our mother Joan was conveniently home on leave. Likewise Michael had been born in the cool climate of Cape Town when a wartime return to the UK was impossible.

So it was that shortly after June 8th 1949,   Michael and I were invited to help choose a name for our new sister. I can remember it very clearly as the name ‘Angela’ topped the short list. We were staying in the small attic flat at the top of our grandparents’ Victorian house in Leamington Spa. We had no home of our own in the UK. Michael was seven, I was three.

Five months after her birth Angela brought a second ray of sunshine to her brothers. And it was indeed literally ‘sunshine’. I should explain that the two of us, Angela’s brothers, had spent the previous three years in England, much of it boarded out. This was a Britain crippled by two World Wars and in the throes of post war austerity with severe winters, food, coal shortages – even starvation. Mother decided that, with the arrival of number three, family separations would end, for the time being at least. So, thanks to Angela, it was back to Nigeria with all the family together.

We flew out to Kano and then drove on to Sokoto, at the very edge of the Sahara. It was hot… up to 40 degrees C. or more in the day, and there was no air conditioning, no running water and only sand-fill toilets.  But it was our luxury to be together for the few months until Michael started at his new boarding school.

Our parents had thought that Sokoto was going to be it, and that Bryan would shortly retire…but no, fate in the form of promotion decided otherwise, and for Angela especially, a very different world began to open up.

First we moved to Kano, along with Timbuktu at the time still the great trading city of the Southern Sahara. In the cool of a Friday evening we could hear the Muezzin calling from the minaret of the great Mosque to bring the faithful to prayer.  Father became the senior Resident and we began for the first time to live in relative style as he took an increasing role in bringing Nigeria to independence. We began to welcome VIP’s including government ministers. The travel writer Joyce Packer wrote about us and Lady Edwina Mountbatten, not long from playing her part in bringing India to self rule also came to stay. There was a story that she had become very close to the Indian Prime minister Nehru… well, she wrote a letter that we still have at home, saying that it was in fact Angela that she fell in love with! To be strictly correct, Angela and Geoffrey – but by this time it was indeed the little girl, Angela now three years old, who was beginning to assert her personality.  Back in the UK on our leave my grandfather Mitchell quickly noticed the change. When Angela was in the room everyone knew about it. You might call it charisma; Grandad simply announced that the Angelic Host had arrived!

Before long we moved even further away from those early times of austerity. Father became Sir Bryan and mother, still only in her 30s, was Lady. We moved into Government House Kaduna, a kind of African-Edwardian official home, a long white building with upstairs bedrooms opening onto long verandas. For us children there were spiral staircases and mysterious corridors, for father and his aides – many rooms and offices. At the front of the house a long driveway led to a large portico for official cars, and then up a sweeping stairway into the main reception room. At the back, massive French windows led down more wide steps to the garden at the back. There were 70 acres of grounds, an ornamental garden at the front, at the back tennis courts, a bowling green and a 9 hole golf course put in by Bryan.

Angela settled in at once and began at the multicultural ‘Capital’ school, attracting many young friends both European and Nigerian.  She also began to express her love of animals – she rode the Arab horse Dugari with her mother, kept a flock of Muscovy ducks and a goat

Angela really thrived here in Kaduna and it was to be her home for another four years. Our half sister Sarah came to stay and took over as lady of the house while mother was away, father’s younger sister Iris came also.  After a few years Geoffrey was finally packed off to boarding school to join his brother, both of them just flying out for holidays. At Christmas the family was together again and we took the narrow gauge railway to the Hill Station, high up on the cool plateau at Jos. The Cornish mining community put on a traditional Christmas complete with a pantomime.

In fact Angela was to become a junior hostess, children, especially girls, being much loved in Nigeria. Angela would help serve food and drinks at receptions and learn the art of charming guests – local politicians, Prime ministers, the Sultan,  Emirs and the like. Finally there were the Royal visits, Princess Alexandria, the Queen mother and the Queen herself and Prince Philip. They were guests in what we children, the two boys watching newsreels and seeing tabloid centrespreads on school notice boards, considered naively to be ‘our house’… and Angela, as ever was there to welcome them. The Queen and Prince Philip even spent a few days in the Christmas Lodge at Jos.  Finally and sadly, a couple of years later, it was time for us all to leave Nigeria

Back in the UK and en route for Hythe to settle into our first UK home, we were delayed for a while in a railway waiting room. As a sign of changed times, Angela announced to the other passengers that ‘we are retired’ and proceeded to dance a Pas de Deux and other pieces from Swan Lake. Her now adolescent brothers shrank into the nearest corner anxious not to be seen as part of this eccentric family from Africa, with all their boxes and cases.

Hythe for all of us meant new friends and a quieter life. It also allowed Angela to see more of the relatives that Michael and I had come to know in our more frequent travels – Joan’s sister Barbara and our uncle and cousins…also aunts, uncles and cousins on the other side. Angela’s new school was a couple of doors up at the Huddleston’s where we came to know the family and where Angela made a lifelong friend in Rosie,  who was also later to be one of her bridesmaids.  As Rosie said a couple of days ago, Angela was ever rebellious as a child, but always fun to be with.

Angela went on to St Margaret’s School in Folkestone and then at thirteen years old, after the headmaster married the head girl, she was whistled away to spend the rest of her schooldays as a boarder at Ashford School, which incidentally she hated. In the holidays she could sometimes be found in the El Sombrero Coffee bar in Hythe, huddled away in the corner with Rosie and friends, jukebox playing in the corner. Michael and I were soon enough off to Scotland… to Universtiy.

Angela was always so proud of her brothers – something that we were flattered by, but always struggled to live up to. When she went to her smart Ladies Secretarial College in Dorset  she told her friends about us and suddenly we were being auctioned off, St Trinian’s like,  to a bunch of fortunately securely cloistered, girls – I have the letter from her at home  describing all this.

Angela went on to marry Colin and settle for a short time in a mews flat in Lancaster Gate. There was to be more travel and exotic locations as they lived for a while in Malta and Tunisa before starting their own family and settling down in Guilden Mordern.

For me, Angela was at her most inspiring as a mum to her own children, Tania and Alasdair. They meant the world to her. She was an intuitive mother; it all came so naturally to her as she always worked to give them the best possible start in life. She wanted so much to put just the same energy into being a grandmother.

Angela was also the perfect Auntie, often taking the care of small children, nephews and nieces at short notice. Speaking for our own family of three boys, she was wacky and utterly adorable, very much the favourite of the wider family.

Angela was above all an incredibly kind and generous person – someone who will always be remembered and very much loved.

‘No person is ever lost or forgotten’ – Hausa saying from Northern Nigeria

(Duniya ba ta mantawa da ma’abocin alheeri’)

Capital School Kaduna circa 1956
Angela at the Capital School, Kaduna – second row down second from left

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Marriages and children were to be preserved

Adapted from a piece written for Trevor Clark to include in his anthology ‘Was it only yesterday: the last generation of Nigeria’s Turawa’. Trevor asked me to summarise in 50 words what it meant to be a child in the colonial days, an impossible challenge.

 

Marriages and children were to be preserved, marriages from lengthy separations, children from the white kids’ grave.

Offspring, once bred, could be parked care of great-aunt, or home for colonial orphans.

Then there was change, heat dust and dysentery were the welcome price for family reunion, until…until it was time for a seven-year-old to grow up.

At home, pink gins were served among wicker chairs and evening chatter. But boarding school meant frozen milk, icy dorms, chilblains and the cut of the cane. Weekly letters sustained the sentence.

At last…time-out. There was elation at the airport, ‘Passengers for Tripoli, Kano, Lagos and Accra – follow the blue lights.’

In the bush on tour, beneath the Milky Way, I was only a raffia fence from the roar of a lion. One day, at Government House, father became ‘His Excellency’, and mother was a glimpse of long white gloves and the swish of satin as she rushed to meet guests.

My friends were the servants, Ali and Alkali: they told me magical stories, taught me pidgin and Hausa. Now all is distant memories, books, pictures, photos, dusty files and letters from illustrious visitors.