In end May 65, I think we were 15 or so, posted to 221 Sqn at Kalaikunda, equipped with Vampires, for our initial operational training. A 3 tonner awaited our arrival. Surprise! Surprise! It was for us AND our luggage. Hadn’t they heard of staff cars for commissioned officers in this dump? We made the 15 Km odd or whatever it was journey in one piece, just about. The journey had only two scenes. barren wasteland or congested little villages and of course large Army Camps en route
Air Force Station, Kalaikunda, looked almost heavenly – spruce, clean and spread out. We went past an imposing building “Officers Mess ->”. We went past imposing double storied bachelor accommodation and landed up in another wasteland. Filled with tents that looked as if they existed when Adam and Eve were around. This we learnt was the Shiksha Camp. Specially erected for the USAF ranks who were positioned there just after the ’62 war to oversee US aid. They had been equipped with A/Cs, gen sets, fridges etc. No kidding!
But hey, there were 4 navar cots, not charpais please note, and the special bonus of two small Godrej cupboards for the 4 of us and nothing else. Believe it or not, we had fun, great fun. Flew some, drank beer khullam khulla at the bar every saturday afternoon, had rum at night at 4 annas, (25p) a peg. Bar limit Rs 25/- a month – could drink all night on that. It was the darn coke which was 8 annas that ruined our budget.
To cut to the chase, we learnt a bit about operational flying and then they started trusting us to learn coding and decoding cypher messages. The first chosen was AK ‘Mucchad’ Singh – one day’s training, one day’s duty under supervision and the third day train the next sucker. So AK trained Suresh Malkani and supervised him the next day. Then it was my turn. Will I ever forget that date!
29 Aug 65 dawned and Suresh tutored me with the help of many phone calls to AK. After the 15th call, AK got fed up and came to the cypher room. He freaked out at Suresh, who gave it right back to him saying “You never supervised me yesterday, so shut up!” They were good teachers. This is all I remember of my training. On 30th I was the cypher officer under absentee supervisor Suresh Malkani. One went to the cypher room only if there was a message. There were none, bliss.
At 5.30 pm, when I came back from my walk/run whatever, there was pandemonium. “Where the @##%$% **()& were you, you %^%$#@?” Sqn Ldr Banerjee the Station Signal Officer had come looking for me, found me absent and taken my supervisor with him to decode a flash message. For those who remember them days – a flash message was to be decoded pronto, pronto and the Station Commander kept informed on land line every 10 mins and the Sig Offr every min. His office was next to the cypher room. One just shouted out the progress and he screamed back “Faster clown!” My absence was already Strike 1 with Banjo, I was a marked man. Anyway I ran to the cypher room, who had any transport with 3 months service?
Banjo was rushing out with a piece of paper in his hands. Banjo was a tough guy, you didn’t mess with the likes of him. Over 6′ tall and built like a wall. I saluted and said “You called me Sir?” – Strike 2! He squatted me away like one does a fly and his momentum carried him out of the room. Then Mr Supervisor Malkani gave me both barrels, I gave him three. After we had both emptied our barrels, Suresh told me, ‘We are in $hit” “Tell me about it” said I. Just then Banjo returned to tell us both about it. He groaned, looked at me first with maybe, just maybe a hint of pity “This idiot trained you yesterday?” “Yes, Sir” “God help us all” said Banjo. Then he screamed at me “Where the hell were you? Don’t you know you are on call for the full 24 hrs?” “No, Sir” I quickly pushed a chair under him while he shook his head in disbelief.
The reality was that the flash was from EAC, that the balloon was about to go up and make ready for war. That was delivered by Banjo himself to the Station Commander, Gp Capt Naik, incidentally our Geeta Sanadi’s father. Never saw Geeta, though we passed their house thrice daily to the mess and back to our palace on stilts. Banjo then turned to us, if looks could kill! Gave us a dummy message each and gave us 15 mins to decode it, he just sat there & growled deep in his throat like a bull dog. We too sat. I had a vague idea, I was scared of this guy, remembered to take out the code sheet. Malkani was a little better. Banjo groaned, then he groaned some more. Then he growled at Malkani “Who trained you?” “AK Singh, Sir”. “Call him here immediately. Do you guys know we may be at war within the next hour?” Malkani dutifully looked down. Being near the door, I got out fast to go to Banjo’s office and called the Mess to send someone to contact AK in his tent and send him jaldi, jaldi to the cypher room.
AK arrived panting 45 mins later. During that time Banjo read out the riot act, the Air Force Act for dereliction of duty, emphasised we had no rights as we were Pilot Officers, hence probationers. As if we knew what that meant. He finally told us when AK arrived, that from now on, till further orders, all three of us would be together and function as one Duty Cypher Officer and asked us to pray like hell. He prophesied our chances of coming out of this ordeal alive were marginal. We were to remain together at all times, even to the extent of sleeping in the same bed if need be. He allowed us to leave for dinner and be available at a moments notice. We were then to be in the Cypher Room by 5.30 am.
Walking back shaken to the bone, the bright side finally hit us – we had beaten the system and put them all in a flap, never mind the abuse and the insults. We were one for all and all for one from that moment on. Had Sholay been released then we would probably have put our arms around each other and sung “Yeh Dooostiii”
30th August came and almost passed. about 6 pm there was another flash! We were there. First hollering averted. Then Banjo came out saying Stn Cdr had called a meeting of all Sqn Cdrs and Station HQ Staff in the ATC Conference Room. We three nitwits were to decode the flash and keep Base Ops, also in the ATC, informed every 10 mins about progress. Before leaving he checked that we had got the correct code sheets etc and left. Lastly, once decoded I was to ring up the Base Ops, who would send a transport and i was to hand deliver the message to Groupie Naik in the Conference Room. Yes, Sir we said.
Then we got onto it, we worked and hey presto words started forming. Strangely after about 15 words were done, Suresh piped up “I think we are in $hit again”. None of the words made sense. Disjointed letters except for a few actual words, one of which I remember even to-day was “camel”. Then it struck me – this was some code which only the Stn Cdr would know about. What didn’t strike me was why would someone send a coded message which contained another coded message? It didn’t strike my brilliant companions either. Anyway we finished it after about half an hour and rang for the transport. Then I made my little puppy dog eyes at my friends and said ‘lets all go’. They lit up their smokes and went for a walk in the corridor. The transport arrived. I took the paper. Looked again beseechingly at my ‘friends’. To their credit, they had pity in their eyes, but their hearts were made of stone. I reached to the Conference Room.
As I stood in the doorway my salute remained stuck. That room was awe inspiring. There was the Station Commander, a wonderful, soft spoken, gentle human being. There was Wg Cdr Pete Wilson, CO 16 Sqn, Canberras. The greatest Canberra pilot if not the best pilot this country ever produced and who became a household name. There was Wg Cdr Denis La Fontaine, Commanding 14 Sqn, Hunters, later to become Chief. There was Wg Cdr Dicky Law, a Punjabi with a gruff voice that could turn Pilot Officers into worms. Then there was Banjo etc etcs. Groupie gave me a smile said come, Banjo scowled and I’m sure crossed his fingers. Groupie read the message. He read it again. Then he nodded at Banjo and called him over. “Banjo, I think something is wrong, makes no sense to me. Does this make any sense to you Denis?” Denis read it. Denis passed it to Pete Wilson. He read it. He called Banjo to his chair and said something to him. Banjo turned, put his hand on my shoulder, I felt proud. Then he squeezed it so hard I nearly cried out and through that pain he whispered something in my ear. All I could say was “Pardon, Sir?” He kept pressing, he kept whispering, but this time I heard something. The words “Base Ops & let me know”. Then, very reluctantly, I think, he released his grip on my shoulder. I bolted out. Went to the Base ops next door.
There I phoned my two partners in crime. “Banjo said bring the cypher books to the Ops Room and let him know, he’ll decode it. Im sending the transport” I sat 10 mins while Sqn Ldr Puri, who was in charge of the Ops room offered me a glass of water. Think he realised I needed it. My friends arrived loaded with cypher books. I asked one of the airmen to call Banjo from the conference. Puri looked alarmed but didn’t say anything. Banjo came in.
STRIKE III – he stopped. His mouth opened. It closed. He rushed to me. He put his hands in his pockets. “What in God’s name have you done????????” Luckily with the conference Room next door he couldn’t scream at me. Thankful for small mercies. I told him got the books and called him exactly, as he told me to do, of course I remembered the Sir at the end. He shivered in anger. A chill went down my spine. “You blithering idotttt! I said ring up the Command Ops room on the scrambler from our ops room and tell them to give us the message directly.” Now why couldn’t he have said it so clearly the last time? Then he cranked the scrambler and got the message. Would you believe what it was? All it said was that the flash yesterday was incorrectly dated 30 Aug instead of the 29th!
Banjo lost it completely. He shouted, “You @#$#@$##@ did you have to send a Flash to say that?” Then he regained composure. He asked the guy sweetly, “what did you say your name was?” “Pilot Officer who? OK son, are you and Cooper, Malkani & AK Singh course mates? Ah I thought so. I understand. Not your fault.” “That gentlemen, was your course mate. Why am I not surprised?” He asked us gently to wait he would pass the message to Groupie and be right back. He kept his word. Then he told us to collect every scrap of paper and every book that was brought there and he led us out onto the adjoining tarmac. It was pitch dark. Then he let fly – we would be court martialled, we would be put under close arrest “And as for you Cooper, I will personally strangle you with my bare hands” He could too, thats what bothered me. I think they heard him in the Shiksha camp too and our wonderful course mates laughed themselves silly.
He followed us back to his office. We in the one tonner and him on his Vespa. Once there he got us into the Cypher Room and layed down the law. We were to be locked into the cypher room. Not a piece of paper was to leave the room without his permission. We would sleep on chairs, the main door would be open and the heavy iron grill door would be locked from outside and the key kept with the Sergeant in the room opposite. If we wanted to go to the loo, sarge would let us out, escort us there and back. For meals we could use the canteen in stn HQs, but it would be consumed in his office only. We were allowed to get sandwiches from the mess from dinner, as the canteen would be closed at the time. With that he turned around, locked that heavy iron grill door and my first thought was of the Bastille during the French revolution.
The night passed, we slept some, talked some, smoked some. Banjo arrived in the morning. Scowled, checked the lock, told us to pay the civilian helper and order some tea. We said Sir, our money is in the tents. He loaned us two bucks for tea and breakfast and said send for it then. Pay for your own lunch. We decoded messages, no more flashes, the day passed. banjo went home. Banjo came back in the morning. He brought a flask of coffee for us. Sent us one by one to the tents for a bath & shave. We felt ‘achey din anewale hain’. He went home in the evening. Our faces fell. About 11 pm the Sgt came and said Sir wants to talk to AK Singh. AK Singh was then set free. Suresh and I asked AK to smuggle in our transistors first thing in the morning. Also more cigs. The next day Banjo brought us coffee and sandwiches! After an hour he sent for AK Singh. Put him in the room and set us free. The next day onwards normal roster duties were resumed.
Strangely, that was the only time I ever was put on cypher duties in my entire career. Did Banjo put some remarks in my personal file? I wonder…..
ps – I have added some mirchi masala. Banjo wasn’t such an ogre. In fact we got to know him after that. He was really a gentle sober man. We were the problem!