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The Army Years.
(page 3 of 6)


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Our first operational posting was to the city of Madras; we were stationed at Fort St George on the coast, overlooking the Bay of Bengal. The battery headquarters was established in a group of buildings inside the ancient fort and our "Ack-Ack" detachments were manning gun sites in remote positions around the port of Madras and on the embattlements of Fort St George.

Apart from my involvement in the ongoing training of our Indian troops, such as gunnery courses etc., I was also part of the site "Ack-Ack" Operations Room team, where we maintained a twenty-four-hour vigil, plotting the aircraft movements over our sector. We were also in direct contact by field-telephone with all of our gun sites, which were manned by Indian gunners, whose use of the English language was somewhat limited.

The general rule in the Indian army at that time was that the Indian recruits were taught English as a subject as part of their basic training, as all orders and commands were given in English. This often proved to be difficult as there were so many diverse languages and dialects in the country; some recruits had difficulty in conversing with one another and some were illiterate, although the Indians were quick learners and very keen to get things right.

The official Phrase Book 1942, to translate between English, Urdu and Tamil
This photocopy, taken from the printed version of these Annals, is possibly of Alf's original phrase book, although I could never find the book itself.

They also had their own Indian Officers (Subidhars and Jemidhars) and their NCO's (Havildars and Naiks) who often acted as interpreters. British Officers were expected to speak Urdu, but the British Other Ranks were not compelled to learn any Indian language although they were expected to encourage the Indian troops to practice their English as much as possible. The outcome, of course, was that we found ourselves learning smatterings of several languages from the Indians themselves: the most common language amongst our Madrassies was Tamil but some spoke Telegu or Malayalam.

During my three and a half years in India, I was attached to at least three different Indian army regiments, all units of the Indian artillery, later to be called the "Royal Indian Artillery", although some of them proudly retained the regimental titles of their predecessor regiments such as "The Ninth Rajputs" and "The Sixth Punjabs".

I only remember having two periods of leave away from the camps where I was stationed. The first, while I was stationed at Madras was in July 1944, when I spent two weeks in a hill station at Ootacamund in the Nilgiri Hills. It was, apparently, a favourite spot for Officers' wives and families as the climate was not unlike England in the summer.

It was quite small but had several English-style shops and houses. Thousands of feet above sea level, it boasted a lake and a popular Botanical Gardens. It was strangely cool there after the monstrous heat of Madras. "Ooty", as the town was affectionately called, was reached by a single-track narrow-gauge railway, called the Blue Mountain Express.

The Nilgiri Library in Ootacamund
The Nilgiri Libarary at Ootacamund ("Ooty")

The Blue Mountain Express railway at Ootacamund
The Blue Mountain Express railway at "Ooty"

The Botanical Gardens at Ootacamund
The Botanical Gardens at "Ooty"

St Steven's Church at Ootacamund
St Steven's Church at "Ooty"

My second leave in India was taken in 1945, I can't remember the month but it was probably early in the year, certainly before VJ day, which happened in August. We were stationed at Gulanchi near Poona and I went on leave with a fellow Sergeant from the same unit as me. We chose to go to Madras for our leave because we knew the town quite well and we were to meet his brother there who was on leave with the RAMC in India.

Photograph of Clem Circuit, Cyril Circuit & Alf Allen in Madras, 1945.
On leave in Madras, 1945.
Left to right: Private Clem Circuit, Royal Army Medical Corps; Sergeant Cyril Circuit, Royal Indian Artillery and Sergeant Alf Allen, Royal Indian Artillery.
Click here to go to a caricature of Cyril Circuit drawn by Alf in 1946.

I must have spent three Christmases in India. The first one, which was in 1943, I remember very well, as we were stationed at Fort St George in Madras. I was a Bombardier in charge of the "Ack-Ack" Operations Room and on duty most of Christmas Day. I was relieved from my post to have lunch in the Sergeants Mess but my pre-lunch drink was doctored by my mess-mates and had the effect of spoiling the whole of my lunch. I awoke on my bed about five hours later having completely missed the Christmas celebrations. I've never been able to abide the smell of gin to this day.

The Forces Canteen in Poona in 1944
The Lady Lumley Forces Canteen (For Troops Only) in Poona in 1944

My second Christmas, 1944, was probably also spent in the Madras area but I can't recall exactly where we were. I was a Sergeant by then.

The Christmas of 1945 was something special: the war was now over, we had just celebrated VJ day and we all knew it was to be our last Christmas in India. We were stationed at Gulanchi and as the senior NCO of our group of British Other Ranks, I was appointed "President" of the Mess. Army tradition has it that at Christmas it is the duty of the Officers of the unit to serve up the Christmas Dinner and as this was our first peacetime Christmas we made sure the Officers did their job. I can't remember what the food was, but we certainly enjoyed the occasion!

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.

Text by Alf Allen 1999. Edited and spell-checked by Mike Allen 2003.
Most photos taken by Alf and most illustrations drawn by him; scanned from his albums, etc., now in my possession and digitally edited 2003-2005.
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