Persian Gulf & East African Cruises
HMS Newfoundland & Gambia 1954/55
IAN EPPS - 1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - 5
by Ian Epps

When I last wrote of my air journey to Ceylon in October 1954 I wondered if at this late stage anyone who was in the band would ever read it much less reply. Well one of the original band did, Frank Coleman. We have since sent a few e-mails to each other and agreed that we will try and put together an account of the year we spent out on the East Indies Station on two cruisers; the "Newfoundland" and the "Gambia" with a break in between at the base establishment in Trincomalee, HMS Highflier. Looking back it turned out to be an interesting and varied year. Now with the assistance of Frank, who knew all the dates, and places we visited, and a few photos from both of our collections we set sail.

Frank Coleman - ?? - Paddy Fullerton - Bill Bailet
?? - ? Silcox - ??
?? - Harry Kershaw - Tex Tyler - ??
The band mess, (not a lot of room)
If you can put a name top the question marks please let me know

On our first cruise we set off to India and the Persian Gulf where Great Britain had many oil interests. We left Trincomalee on the 10th October and our first port of call was Bombay and what an eye opener it was too many of us! It was the first time we'd realised that families could live and die where they'd been born. This included the pavements outside a big department store on some of the main streets as we saw while we were there.

Bombay was dry, that meant no booze for us ashore or so everyone thought, other than the Naval Canteen in the docks. When I think back, most of us were well pleased to sail away from the poverty and smells of Bombay. It was a dismal place!

When we returned onboard it was then up the "Gulf" to Bahrain! The Gulf was very "dry" in those days and the only place you could get a drink was in the "English Oil Company club", (now part of BP), which was behind high fencing and you had to be lucky enough to have received an invitation just to get inside.

Up the Gulf it was very much a case of showing the flag, as even then the locals were beginning to question why we had so much control over their country and lives. We sailed up the Gulf towards Basra which at the time was very much under British influence.

We eventually arrived on the 25th November 1954, and it rained. And it rained, and it rained! The kind of wet that gets everywhere, no matter how hard you try to keep dry. But to make matters worse, the roads were a mixture of oil and sand. I can assure you it's not pleasant when you get that stuff on your shoes; not to mention trying to get the muck off should you be unfortunate enough to get it on your trousers.

Basra Harbour

After Basra it was back down to Dubai and then on to Shaja where we "Beat Retreat" on the RAF airfield where we had to stop for refuelling, as you will remember from my last episode, when we, the band, were on our way from England to Ceylon.

Beat Retreat Shaja

The local Sheik had lain on a feast for us in his tents. We were seated on rugs around huge dishes of rice with mutton or goat, with a couple of plates of the real top of the shop delicacy; "sheep's eyes". Sheep's eyes are considered by the Arab's a very rare and delicious delicacy and to say that they were "looking" at us would be a gross understatement. I can't remember there being any rush to try them.

The feast, sorry it's a bit out of focus
(You should have seen the state of the original, thank goodness for Photoshop)

Then it was onto Khor Kuwai and Muscat. Muscat at that time was only an ancient walled city. No skyscrapers or tourist hotels, and it was very forbidding in a couple of ways. The laws, as regards the local women, were very explicit; leave them alone or suffer dire consequences, and, if you were still ashore when it got dark, which you shouldn't have been, you had to be carrying a lantern or you could get shot.

The fort overlooking Muscat

I think most of the ship's company were glad to see the back of the Gulf and soon we were on our way back to "Trinco". We spent Christmas at sea.

The ship had a competition for the best decorated mess, the band's first effort was a hangman's noose with a notice "£1 a swing" attached to it, but we were "persuaded" by Bandmaster Winchester and the Captain of Marines that this was not an acceptable entry for the decoration competition.

We arrived back on the 31st December 1956 and on the 4th January 1957 we were off to Calcutta. One of our engagements was a cocktail party for the Deputy High Commissioner in his garden. When we got there we were shown where we were playing and the man himself came over to us and asked if we would like refreshment. I can assure you the band were not best pleased when Bandy Winchester said "No thank you sir we will wait until we have finished".

The cocktail party eventually came to an end. We were "as dry as a bone" but Bandy Winchester insisted that we packed all the instruments and music into the lorry before we went over with the Deputy High Commissioner to the bar.

The bar was a table with a sheet as a backdrop behind it. Immediately behind the "Bar" was a bath with bottles of beer in ice to keep them cool. The Commissioner said that if we had beer we were not to mingle with the remaining guests as they would want it, the beer that is, and it would be too expensive for them in any case.

He went on to say that he would be quite happy if we felt the need to drink spirits and instructed the barman to use decent sized glasses and we were to mingle with his guests.

It then transpired that Bandy Winchester had done a gig for the DHC before. Needless to say we had difficulties getting back onto the ship. Once back on board, two of the band (Solo Cornets we think) were in such a state that they spent the night up "forrard" in cells. Frank Coleman became a cell sentry, (more, we believe as a precaution, so that they would come to no "harm"). The rest of the band was "locked down" in to the mess.

Finally, we went on to Colombo where we had the reverse of a "Pier-head Jump". We parted company with the ship, which was returning to England; the hard part was that we were formed up on the end of the mole of Colombo harbour playing them out.

Playing HMS Newfoundland out of Colombo

We had to wait in HMS Highflyer in Trincomalee for a spell until the "Gambia" arrived on station to take us on a cruise to the east coast of Africa.

We spent four months ashore in Ceylon before our "new" ship HMS Gambia arrived on May 26th 1957. I must admit the conditions at HMS Highflyer were very pleasant. Our living quarters long, low huts which had open sides with slatted blinds. These blinds could be lowered in the evening to keep some of the "mossies" out. Those that did get in were made short work of by the Geckos. The only problem was they got so full they couldn't hang on to the ceiling and ended up on the floor. However, they soon recovered and went back for another feed.

In the village, there was a beach club for our use and dockyard personnel called the "Nicholson Lodge". A few of us spent most of our afternoons there while we were in Highflyer, but don't tell everyone! The lodge served good tea and had a very pleasant and secluded bay where some of us spent most of our time swimming and snorkelling over the reef.

Nicholson Lodge for tea and swimming

During our time in Highflyer we made quite a few trips over to Colombo playing for various official functions including a broadcast on Radio Ceylon. No fancy transport in those days, a couple of RAF lorries was our lot and even these were unreliable and the AA was never around when you needed them.

No fancy transport in those days, a couple of RAF lorries was our lot and even
these were unreliable and the AA was never around when you needed them.
All too soon our stay in Highflyer came to an end and we joined our new "home" HMS Gambia and we were off on a cruise down the east coast of Africa where we still had colonies and the flag had to be shown.

First stop was the island of Mauritius, now one of the favoured stops for any cruise liner, where as normal we Beat Retreat, played for a cocktail party; and as we had a very good concert party we put on the show at the local army barracks. We had a full week in Port Louise and even the band found time between engagements to get ashore to see the local sights. Then it was off to Mombassa.

Kenya had just settled down after the worst of the problems with the fight for independence by the Mau Mau and it was thought that it would be a good idea to send the band and concert party up to Nairobi to entertain the white population.

Instead of staying in the local army barracks we were accommodated with the local settlers, what a joy that was. Tex Tyler, Wally Walton and I were accommodated with a Major Cade whose career had included the army, white hunter,(well it was the 50's), animal trapper for zoos, guard for picture companies making films like Mogambo and Born Free and now helping to set up and run the Nairobi National Park.

Tex Tyler, Myself, Major Cade and Wally Walton outside the
gates to the Nairobi National Game Park

What an eye opener it was for us to be so near to animals in the wild, in those days. Only people with bottomless pockets could afford holidays in Africa and even for them it was difficult as there was a limit on how much money you could take out of the UK. I seem to recollect it was around £50. Money went a long way then.

A sight that has always stayed with me was the grandeur of the view across the Rift Valley; this was a time before the BBC had really started making the nature programmes that opened our eyes to the world from the comfort of a chair at home. All too soon it was back on the train to Mombassa and the ship.

Our next port of call was Dar es Salaam in Tanganyika, now Tanzania. Before the 1939/45 war Tanganyika was a German colony and the buildings reflected this; but surprisingly English was well understood and it made no difference to the enjoyment of swimming in the Indian Ocean. The band as normal was well engaged with Guard and Bands, cocktail parties and a concert; however, we did make good use of the Ocean. Then it was off to our last port of call on the cruise, Mahe in the Seychelles islands.

I think the Seychelles were one of the most beautiful places we went in the whole year, the scenery both in the town and in the country was superb. I and many of the band wished we could have stayed longer but it was off to sea and exercises in the Indian Ocean on our way back to Trinco'.

August 1955 was spent on exercises, the Indian Navy came on a visit and the bands got together for both sport and music.

Beating Retreat with the Indian Navy Band

Then it was time to say goodbye to the Gambia. Musns Coleman and Compton travelled as the sole passengers to Negumbo in a R.A.F. cargo plane having had two seats bolted to the deck of the plane. Then it was into Colombo where they played The Last Post and Reveille to commemorate Battle of Britain Day. They joined up with the rest of the Band at Diyatalawa (travelling by train) on 17th Sept. They had the distinction of in twelve months of seeing Ceylon by sea, road, rail, and air. It was Trinco from 24 Sept to the 6th October and then back to Negumbo with the rest of the band ready to return to the UK.

The 7th Oct saw us leave Ceylon on a Hermes of Britavia Airline to Karachi. The plane was an improvement on the York but the night stops this time were not as grand as our outward flight. At Karachi the Hotel was in a compound like the set for Fort Laramie. At Nicosia the Hotel was on the Murder Mile. I think the least said about the trip the better, I think the Admiralty were still trying to get over the cost of our trip out.

Handley Page Hermes as used by the RAF in the Berlin Air Lift

Even leaving Nicosia there was a tense moment when the plane turned back off the runway, and then it was to Blackbush where we landed at 2.50 pm on 9th Oct 1955. I'm told that our relief band had trouble with the plane on their way out from England.

Back to a land where you could drink the water out of the tap, have a cup of tea with real cow's milk and the beer tasted like beer and in those days there was nobody sleeping on the pavements outside shops as we had found in Bombay, now-a-days quite a common sight in England. It seems that in some areas this country has gone backwards.

Ian Epps

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