Carfax Troop, 55 AD Sqn RCT: Ian Brookes

Part 1

Ian LEFT: 2/Lt Ian Brookes, July 1967

It was my honour and great privilege to be the Australian exchange officer as 2Lt Troop Commander of 387 Carfax Troop, 55 Sqn, 15 Air Dispatch Regiment at RAF Changi from 08 Nov 1966 to 13 May 1968. With the passage of time and hindsight I now regard this posting and that which was to follow as the Capt. OC Det 176 Air Dispatch Company in South Vietnam in 1969 as the two most interesting assignments in my 26 years’ service in the Australian Army.

Prior to commissioning in the Australian Army, I had previous service in the British Army in the 53/85 KSLI and as Infantry Section Commander in C Coy, 3rd Battalion The Royal Australian Regiment in Malaya. So to be back in FARELF (Far East Land Forces) suited me just fine because I had workable but limited Bahasa Malay, which was a useful thing in the pasar malam (night markets) and in Bugis Street and the Changi back beach bars. It also meant that although only a 2Lt, I was an experienced one. I should point out that at that time Australian army officers spent three years in the rank of 2LT but British officers only spent 2 years in the rank. So for all of my time in 15 AD Regt I was the junior officer in the Regiment!

Sqn Admin Inspection
If you can't get ahead, get a hat
15 AD Regiment Annual Admin Inspection, Seletar, Singapore. 1968
L-R: 2i/c Dan Moncton: Visiting General : Lt. Ian Brookes : C.O. Lt. Col. Peter Benson

Singapore was a fabulous place to be in the mid- sixties. It was still very much the era of the British Raj but all of that was about to come to a sudden end with the arrival of Dennis Healy one day when he announced that it was all over and everyone out! I have good reason to remember the visit of the then British Minister for Defence. An assortment of officers and their wives had been assembled at Tanglin Barracks to meet this political demi-god. To my absolute horror, my then wife, long deceased, was violently sick at his feet! Don’t think that did my career much good!

387 Carfax Tp was based at RAF Changi. Our working accommodation comprised TP HQ inside a small, old, pre WW 11 fire station and our working site was a former WWII Japanese fighter aircraft hangar. Surrounding the old fire station were some of the classic old Changi barrack blocks and we had part of one of these. All very much the stuff of history really, and even more so when the Change Murals painted by POW were restored nearby.

I had initially been offered a Married Quarter (MQ) in one of the huge pre-war, two story bungalows in the grounds of the near-by 19 Signals Regiment next to RAF Changi. It was vast! One could have held a regimental reunion in it. I passed on that and settled for a much smaller and more suitably sized Quarter administered by AUSTARM Tanglin at Jalan Seni, just off the Bukit Timah Road.

Because we worked tropical hours starting early in the morning I had an even earlier start each day. I used to drive my bomb of an old Ford Zephyr Six from my MQ and through the then Tampines Swamps each day. I found that I was paid something called Domiciliary Transport Allowance for getting myself to and from work.

We really prized the cooler part of the day. Anything to do with Air Despatch is physical work and rigging, regardless of load type, was hot and sweaty work in Singapore’s climate just 60 miles north of the Equator. Nominally we ended work at about 14:00 but in reality just worked until all tasks for the day, mostly packing and rigging were completed.

Sqn HQ was fairly close by and based at Changi Back Beach area at Telok Paku not far from the RAF Survival School. My Sqn Comd was Maj. Donald Hobbs, ex SAS, and Capt. Ray Craig was the Ops Officer. To his great credit, the Sqn Comd. left me pretty much alone to run my own unit even though I strongly suspected that he greatly missed having some troops to play with. And play with us he did occasionally but it was good fun.

I well remember a night time “Escape and Evasion” exercise he set up where we leapt off a boat in to the water and in small groups navigated our way around a small island off Singapore Editor’s note: Pulau Ubin it was, and Cpls Jamieson’s & Stubbs’s sections beat the boat to the pick up point by a good margin and sat singing, “Why are we waiting”.

Carfax men in a boat
On the way to Fort Iskander
Ian Brookes on the left with David ‘Banjo’ Kirkland behind him

On another occasion we made a deep jungle trek to a former Malay Emergency fort, Fort Iskander, which, surprisingly, was exactly the way it was on the day it was last used and with the maps and op orders still up on the walls inside. I really enjoyed this exercise as I was fully comfortable and at home in the jungle given my past experience. Of additional interest were the very small Orang Asli aboriginal people. The women were topless and wore very interesting belts of old silver coins. Amusingly, as the officer, I was issued with a Stirling sub-machine gun and twenty round of ammunition in case we encountered any large cats! I ask you! A burst of 9mm would only make a cat angry! An SLR or Shot Gun loaded SSG would have been more realistic. I still have B&W photos of me in a small local watercraft, more a hollowed out tree trunk really, with the Sterling. But it was a good exercise and I enjoyed it. I had also found the obligatory Air Crew Survival Course a most interesting and enjoyable experience although most of the RAF course members were terrified of the jungle and all the creepy-crawlies and noises of southern Johore etc. We never did eat the small money we caught and killed. It just looked far too much like a small child to all of us.

Talking of Exercises reminds me of EX ‘Gedgerley’ which had us based on the airstrip inside 28 Commonwealth Brigade camp at Terendak near Malacca. The exercise was uneventful enough except for being in a Twin Pioneer that took off and then suddenly had both engines running very irregularly and missing a lot of the time. The exercise dummy load went straight out the door and in to the sea and we just managed to land. The official explanation was water contaminated fuel. There is another aspect of this exercise that sticks in my mind.

Camp area ex GedgerleyTractor and three tonner
Carfax Area, Exercise ‘Gedgerley’
The Bedford RL displays the famous ‘Black Cat’ of 17 Division.
Note the water bag on the radiator. When wetted, evaporation cooled the water

I had been told that on a certain date and time Ghurkha Transport would turn up for us to load up and get back to Singapore. This duly happened when a small Ghurkha Cpl and a section of Bedford RLs turned up, and he came looking for me. He had his task orders written on the inside of a Woodbine’s (Nuffield Rear Diffs – horrible smokes) packet. We quickly loaded up and I gave the order to set off and took the lead in the Land Rover for much of the way but prior to the causeway slipped back a few vehicles to let the Ghurkha Cpl do his stuff with his Tpt Section. Now the road from Malacca to Singapore was pretty good and we sat on about 60 mph for much of the way. However, outside the old Paya Lebar police station we had to suddenly stop at a pedestrian crossing. Unfortunately, the Bedford RL loaded with the Massey Ferguson fork lift ran right over the top of a small Fiat car in front of it. Fortunately no one hurt but the Fiat was totalled.

Now this is where it got interesting. I asked the Ghurkha driver why he had failed to stop. His reply was, “No brakes Sir!”. “What? When did your brakes fail?”. “ I’ve had no brakes since we left Terendak Sir“. “Why didn’t you tell me man?”. “You didn’t ask me Sir!”. Talk about loyal Ghurkhas! Fortunately the Ghurkha Tpt Unit had to sort that one out much to my relief.

At the time I was a very keen parachutist, and had been a founding member and secretary treasurer of the 3RAP Parachute Club. In fact, we had brought sports parachuting in to Malay and regularly jumped on to the Malacca airstrip. So with this background, it was only natural that I and several others in the unit volunteered to take part in the Andover FARELF parachuting trials and my log book shows that I made three descents from the Andover. The first stick on 15 December 1967 nearly put all of us in to the sea in an unintended water jump and it took a lot of work to actually land just on HMS Simbang. But by 7 May 1968 they had got things sorted out and it was a very easy descent on to the DZ marker. I also in common with many others volunteered for a helicopter day and night roping course. I can’t remember the main helicopter type name but it was twin rotor and bent like a banana. Was it a Westland Sycamore? (more likely a Whirlwind - Ed.) Civvies just don’t know what they are missing what with courses like these. Great stuff.

Sea Survival trainingLEFT: Sea Survival Training off Changi.
Lt. Ian Brookes on the left. Centre rear, Alex McCorkell, Right, L/Cpl Bill Alexander

The memory fades but some names stick with me forty odd years later - especially those of Sgt Jack Dwyer and S/Sgt Alan Smithies as do those of AD Crew Commanders Cpl Peter Stubbs and L/Cpl Ayres, and the orderly room clerk Pte Rapjohns. If ever a soldier was hard done by it was poor Rapjohns. He had missed out on the GSM Clasp Borneo by just a couple of hours because he had been put on an early chalk out instead of on the last or on a chalk a day or two later still. I’ve often wondered if that got sorted out.

L/Cpl Ayres was something of a wag. One of the officers of a nearby unit was going out with an RAF pharmacist and he would come and wait in our TP HQ until his lady came off duty. Without fail most days Ayres would come in to the building and announce loudly for all to hear, “Sir’s Bird’s here Sir”. I wonder what Ayres is doing these days?

Jack Dwyer was a passionate diver and really came in to his element when the Vulcan Nuclear Bombers were cut up for scrap in Singapore. Jack was able to “acquire” through the RAF WO’s and Sgt’s Mess network several very high pressure air bottles and their refilling machine off one of the Vulcans together with some related valves and pressure regulators. Jack later dived on several old wartime wrecks along the coast of Malaya. These ex Vulcan air bottles gave him very extended dive and decompression times.

I have special reasons to remember both the 15 AD Rgt RSM and the RQMS. Both splendid fellows, even if my relationship with the RSM got off to a very poor start because he was determined to “correct” my Australian drill and convert me to British army foot drill the first time we had a regimental parade at Seletar. At the conclusion of the parade I was taken down to the Rgt Tpt Compound and he was determined to drill the errors out of 2LT Brookes. I for my part was not bothered by RSMs and was as equally determine to stand my ground and stood my ground. I was, after all, being paid by the Australian army and wearing a slouch hat! We reached a sort of Mexican stand–off and got along famously after that. As previously stated, the RQMS was a splendid chap too and I am sorry to have forgotten his name. Both of us fully understood how the “Q” system worked and were able to “assist” each other on occasions. I well remember one board of survey where we simply wrote off a 1cwt blacksmiths anvil due to flood damage! Squared the ledgers up nicely it did. Just don”t ask me why we had a blacksmith’s anvil on the regimental Q account. But the problem was solved.

I think my worst ordeal was preparing for my first AD Categorization Exam by the Air Despatch Examining Team - ADET. Although I was already a qualified Australian RAAF Air Movements Officer and a Supervisor Aerial Delivery as well as a qualified Air Dispatcher, not one of the aircraft I was to be tested on was in service with the RAAF so everything about Andovers, Beverleys, Twin and Single Pioneers etc. was completely new to me. However, my old log book shows that Mr. H.A. Carver stated on 14 June 1967 that I had gained a very good first time categorisation and only needed a few more aircraft for a higher cat! What a relief it was to have got the cat out of the way!

Another senior NCO that I got to like very much was WO Master Pilot Tapping. One day Mr. Tapping kindly invited me to go flying with him in a Single Pioneer. It wasn’t until we had taken off from RAAF Seletar that he announced that we were going to do some aircraft carrier landings (Ed: HMS Bulwark) and take offs at sea! Well, what an experience. We did about fifteen carrier landings and take offs and with the carrier headed in to wind and under way we landed on a sixpence so to speak.

My log book also shows that on 05 November 1967, I was crew commander for an emergency blood plasma drop to HMS Ajax required for the survivors of a Shackleton maritime reconnaissance aircraft that had crashed at sea. Now the flight out was interesting as the pilot simply took us straight over Indonesia, the quickest and shortest way of getting to HMS Ajax. The route back was politically correct and far longer. Sometime later I was able to take a flight in a Shackleton. I knew within the first hour that I had made a mistake. The word Spartan hardly begins to describe the insides of a Shackleton. I was very pleased to get back to RAF Seletar some 15 hours or so later.

In February 1968 I was sent at almost immediate notice up to RAAF Butterworth to take temporary command of 389 Iskander TP. The then OC, Capt. Tony Stormer, was away on a promotion course in, I think, Hong Kong, and 2LT Clive … had committed some form of indiscretion and been banished from the base and sent kit and caboodle back to Singapore! Thus leaving no officer available to supervise the running of the troop and its active involvement supply dropping to the Malay Police Field Force Forts along the Malaysia/Thai border region. I flew up in a Bristol “Frightener” which appeared to be a collection of rivets held together by curiosity. Supplying all these forts and the Royal Malaysian Forcs was very interesting work as we were supply dropping from RAAF 2 SQN Dakota, wide side door aircraft, and using the old despatch board, and flying over very rugged terrain indeed with huge up/down draughts and the consequent rapid changes in positive to negative G forces. We packed/rigged for air drop all manner of things but I especially remember the crates of chickens, the odd goat and one cow – more a calf really! On my first drop I was startled to see one of the crates of chickens burst open when the chute opened and to discover that not only do chooks not fly well at altitude but they also self-pluck. But all good things come to an end as did my daily commute from Penang to RAF Butterworth on the old ferry. RAAF Butterworth was more like a country club with an inconvenient airfield in it.

Back to RAF Changi and another incident which sticks in my mind. One of our drivers had been tasked in to Malaya and return in a Land Rover. Well, this smart Alec had filled the tool boxes and other cavities of his rover with all the beer he could fit in. Unfortunately for him, coming across the causeway back in to Singapore he was caught in a rare joint Singapore Police/Military Police snap check of military vehicles and caught red handed. Things got a bit complicated here and he was put before a Singapore magistrate and charged with smuggling and was remanded in custody pending formally being handed over to the Military Police. As, at this point, it was a civil charge, and he was entitled to bail but, like most squaddies in Singapore, he had no money except on paydays! So, I fell the troop in and explained the situation to them and advised that, if they so wished, they could pass the hat around and I would take the bail money and get their comrade released on bail. Not a soul moved. Not one. Not one of the troops made eye contact with me! I got the message and fell the troop out and stood them down for the day.

A day or so later he was formally handed over to the Military Police and duly sentenced to 30 days imprisonment at the Military Corrective Establishment (MCE) at FARELF HQ at Tanglin. Now this was the first time I had ever heard of this MCE, but I was to get to know it quite well as it was my duty to visit the prisoner every seven days, and to enquire if he had any complaints about his treatment etc. there. Each week I would present myself at this very colonial structure and be admitted in to this Beau Geste-like fort and announce the name of the prisoner I had come to see. Then a minute or two later would come the barked commands of, “Prisoner! At the double!”, and, “Prisoner! Double mark time!”, repeatedly until this double-marking-time figure was before me and, still in double mark time mode, I was informed by quite the evilest, meanest, looking red cap I have ever seen that here is your prisoner and please question him. Well, of course he never had any complaints and life was just lovely, Sir, really it is Sir. No complaints at all Sir. Couldn’t ask to be in a nicer place than this Sir! At the end of his sentence I took the unit rover to collect him and bring him back to join the TP. God he was fit and his kit was spotless!

I’m now 72 years of age and still very active in various things in SE Asia and especially so in Cambodia where I am much involved in matters relating to prevention of blindness and with some local traditional potters. I’ve been back to Singapore a number of times but only the street names remain the same and anything we knew has long since gone.

In 1992 I was sent by the UN from Phnom Penh with a sack of US$ to set up a UN Office in Singapore as the United Nations Transitional Authority In Cambodia (UNTAC) Office in Singapore. My brief was to be operation in three days but it took me four as I had to find and lease premises, furniture, recruit and employ local staff and get communications up and running with multiple phone and fax lines, never mind getting our computers etc. Singapore in 1992 left me quite cold. I’m so glad I knew it in its good old days. I’ve not been back since.

They were great days. Thanks lads and my apologies for not remember more of your names.

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