Soqotra during World War II

This article was sent to me by Keith and John Austin, sons of the author, the late Robert Austin. Keith and John tell me that their father always wanted to return to Soqotra but never made it back.

What follows is a rare and unique account of life on Soqotra during World WarII.

(Download this account as a Word document)

We were at the Army Transit camp at Khormaksar where we spent several days awaiting our posting. The weather was warm and sunny and we were able to get the local bus into Aden town, mainly Steamer Point to look round.

After several days of waiting I was called out and told to be ready to move off at 5.30 the next morning to Socotra, at this point I had never heard of the place but I soon found that it was a small island some 600 miles east of Aden in the India Ocean. Next morning up early and transport down to the airfield, when I got there a Lockheed Hudson was waiting with a crew and one or two other passengers and quite a lot of freight. In the aircraft there were a few seats on each side of the aircraft, but mainly we were amongst the boxes of freight.

We took off about 6am as the sun was rising, a lovely sight and soon we were over the Gulf of Aden heading for the coast of East Africa. After about two hours flying we landed at Bender Kasim on the coast of Eritrea. Quite an experience as the pilot found he had no brakes when he landed so at the end of the runway he just turned the aircraft round and round until it stopped and then taxied over to the camp. We had some lunch with the lads on the camp, and then the pilot told us we couldn't continue until some spares for the brakes arrived so we had three days wait here.

There wasn't much to do, we went down to the beach once or twice otherwise laid on our charpoys, reading most of the day. Bender Kasim was a native village with a few signs of Italian occupation, very little vegetation but quite a lot of local fishing, sharks amongst other fish. Finally the Hudson was made ready and we took off mid-morning for the 1½ hour flight to Socotra. I saw the island ahead barren and mainly volcanic rock, we circled once and then landed perfectly on the runway made of sand soaked in oil. There were thousands of barrels of petrol laying in rows which looked strange lines from above. As soon as we landed someone came aboard and sprayed the inside of the aircraft and before we were allowed to leave. I was met by Bill Smith, who I was to relieve. He carried my kit and had a bed ready for me in the billet. Some tea was next and he then told me quickly about the job and said he was returning to Aden on the same plane on his way home.[Top]

He acted so strangely that I think he was really sand-happy, a condition we were all to get into later. I watched the plane take off and heard it drone into the distance and then realised for the first time in my life that I was completely isolated. I walked back to the billet and set about settling into my new home.

There were about 50 airmen on the island which was reduced to 20 after a few weeks. The first question asked of me was "What have you done to get posted here ?". Everyone else seemed to have some sort of record. One wanted to marry a girl in Cyprus, one got a girl pregnant in England, one had been in the glasshouse in Egypt, but for me I didn't even know what I had done. There was a Wellington Squadron here used for anti-submarine patrols but it left soon after my arrival. A detachment of Aden Levies for guard duty and a number of Indian Army for general duties.

Altogether I spent about 15 months on the island of Socotra and from the beginning I was determined to make the most of it and enjoy my stay if I could. Because of the mosquito problem and the risk of malaria we slept under mosquito nets, wore long trousers and long sleeved shirts in the evenings and were supposed to use mosquito repellant cream on our hands and face but this last item was not always used.[Top]

There was only one town of any size on the island, Hadibo, about a mile from our camp and it was from here that we got most of our native labour. The Sultan of Socotra, who was also Sultan of Mahra, resided in a place in the hills and we only saw him on a few occasions but his chief man who we called '"is Prime Minister" was the main point of contact to sort out any problems. There were one or two small villages on the north side of the island, but otherwise the island was sparsely populated. There were no shops or industries on the island, the main work consisted of fishing, pearl gathering and in the town dates were cultivated and a little millet. Goat's wool blankets were woven by the women and sent to Aden on the occasional dhow that called in. Although the religion was muslim it was not taken very seriously.

In April and May the monsoon season came, it started with torrential rain which filled all the dry rivers and in our billet the water came in one end and flowed out the other, this lasted about three days and then strong winds blew, putting sand into everything and this kept up for about 6-8 weeks. It was a very trying time on the island, the hot winds were depressing and the end of the monsoon season was most welcome.

There was a small navy detachment for signal purposes on the island who left a few weeks after my arrival. When they left they wanted to take their diesel generator with them so a landing craft was sent from Aden, but unfortunately could not come inshore so we organised a local dhow to take the generator out to the landing craft. All went well and we got it onto the dhow and out to the landing craft which was about 300 yards off shore. Ropes were slung under the generator and the crane on the landing craft started to lift it. Unfortunately a rope broke and the generator fell straight through the bottom of the dhow into about 30 feet of water, no one was hurt but the dhow owner created a fuss about who was going to pay for his dhow. It was beached alright and as far as I know the generator remained at the bottom of the sea.

The morning after I arrived on Socotra I was taken up to the transmitter station which was about mile from the camp. Here were the same transmitters that I was familiar with at Lochans. There was one frequency for Aden and the other outstations, Ryan, Sallahia Messirah. One frequency for other units in Ceylon, Karachi, Mombassa and Hargeisha in Eritrea. One frequency for aircraft and a Radio Beacon, whose call sign was S.O.C. in morse. There was a big Hallicrafter radio receiver for monitoring, but we usually had it tuned to the BBC service from London. At first we operated a 24 hour service and this meant night duty at the transmitter station. I sometimes wondered what would have happened if a Japanese submarine had landed, they could have wiped out the transmitter station as there were no guards, but nothing ever happened.

Shortly after my arrival we went on a 6.0 am to 10 pm rota and later to 6 am to 6 pm. When finishing a shift in the evening it was always an experience to walk back to the camp in complete darkness with only the stars, and occasionally the moon above and as you approached the camp you had to make sure that the Aden Levies guarding the camp, who knew no English, were aware that it was you and didn't shoot.

We had a native worker who was employed as a cleaner at the transmitter station and to save us having to get up early each morning we trained him in the sequence of switching on the transmitters, it was very good and it worked well. One day he was listening to the radio and realised that London time was 5 hours different to Socotra time and asked me why. I never did find a way of explaining the difference but it did show he had enough intelligence to work it out himself.

During this time I continued the City & Guilds Correspondence Course for Radio Communications and did most of the work whilst I was on watch as there was little other work to do until there was a breakdown. Often it was so hot and humid that sweat used to run down my nose on to the papers I was using but generally I found the best way to deal with the heat (90-100°F, with humidity 80-95°) was to ignore it completely and get on with the job in hand. I used to try and do one lesson a week and post it off to the tutor in London. Correspondence Courses were allowed to go air mail and they came back about 3 weeks later.

We also had a good library service where you could order any books you wanted and I did much reading, music, Politics and Economics generally, but also quite a few biographies. This period improved my general education considerably and in the run up to the General Election of 1945, I was very vocal amongst the 20 or so airmen on the island, even though I had no vote. During the General Election of 1945 I remember that we always got a signal each day to say who was giving a Party Political broadcast on the Overseas Service that evening or the following day. On the occasion of the Communist Party broadcast this was missed and just before the broadcast a top priority signal was sent from London. "Harry Pollitt speaks on behalf of the Communist Party tonight at 20.00 GMT". [Top]

In my spare time I used to help the cook in the kitchen, everything was cooked on wood burning stoves and camels used to bring wood each week that had been collected on the island. We used to buy a baby shark from the native fishermen for about 1 Rupee (about 1/6) and that night we had shark steaks for dinner, they were good to eat and very white flesh. We never had any fresh meat at this time so did a deal with our colleagues in Hargeishe in Eritrea by radio for them to send us a gazelle on the weekly aircraft and we would return a baby shark. The gazelle was very good to eat but we had to eat it the same day before it went rotten.

Having been a grocer I was soon put in charge of the NAAFI (there was no staff) but we didn't have much to sell, some South African Canned fruit, Australian biscuits and American chocolate occasionally. We were always short of soap and toothpaste but we had a huge stock of Canadian beer which always needed sorting as many bottles were cloudy. There was also a considerable stock of German wine that had been captured in the Western Desert. The C.O. allowed me to issue this for any special occasions, so every ones birthday was celebrated, plus anything else we could find. We never paid anything for the wine so one day when we had an Air Ministry Auditor arrive we had a deficit on wine and one transmitter missing, which I had sawn up to make two tables for our billet.

Each afternoon we found time for a swim, usually in the sea but occasionally we went to a water hole about half a mile from the sea, this was almost fresh water and although we tested it to 1,000 feet we never found the real depth. It was about 100 feet across and was used by most of the native children who could swim very well. At the sea the beach shelved very steeply and we never swam far from the beach due mainly to the fear of sharks. We had an old ship's lifeboat which we used to anchor about 100 lengths from the beach and swim out to, often from the boat we could see baby sharks swimming about but they never attacked us.

The good swimming was one of the best features of the island and the sea used to vary from calm to very rough but we managed to swim in all conditions apart from the worst of the monsoon. We always had a lorry to get around in and I had my first experience of learning to drive. On the one occasion that we had an ENSA concert party to entertain us we took the party including the three lady artists for a midnight bathe in the sea. We took several lorries and pointed their headlights out to sea and we all enjoyed the swim, even at midnight the water must still have been in the upper 75f. From time to time we organised walks over the hills, the island was only 10 miles wide and we were based on the northern side about mid-way and about a mile from the beach. We came across many dried up river beds, odd natives living in caves and various stunted growth trees, one known as the Dragon's Blood Tree.

One of our past times was the drilling of the native boys and we taught them to march left, right, left, right. It was interesting that in Douglas Botting’s book of the Oxford University Expedition to Socotra in 1956 that they found native boys still playing this game.

I have mentioned that we had a Sultan of Socotra who had someone who we called his Prime Minister. He arrived one day and said the Sultan was not very well and could our Medical Orderly see him, this was arranged and the Sultan duly arrived on a camel. The Medical Orderly soon diagnosed Syphilis and could treat him with the American injections that he had but the C.O. felt he should get clearance from the Governor of Aden in case anything went wrong. So that evening a radio message was sent to Aden asking if it was possible to treat a Syphilitic Sultan. The response from all the other outstations was electric with enquiries of what was going on. Anyway, the Governor approved the treatment and the Sultan received his jabs. The Medical Orderly then asked diplomatically where the Sultan had been and was told by the Prime Minister that only with his harem. So the next thing was that one morning 14 camels arrived with the 14 wives of the harem for inspection by the Medical Orderly. Of course, we all had to be around to see the harem arrive but were disappointed with the poor appearance of the harem. Anyway one girl was diagnosed to have V.D., and received the usual jabs, for good measure all the other wives in the harem also received jabs and then returned to the hills. Unfortunately the poor girI with syphilis was thrown out of the harem and some weeks later we found her wandering alone on the other side of the island. We took her to the head man of a nearby village who agreed to take her in and we found out later that she had been married to one of the villagers. If we hadn't taken her in she would probably have died of exposure so at least perhaps we did a good turn.

Each week we had an aircraft from Aden which brought all our supplies, mail and anything we wanted. It usually left early on a Wednesday morning, flew to Hargeisha or Bender Kasim and then on to Socotra, often it broke down on the way and arrived one or two days late, they were mainly old aircraft in use, Hudsons, Baltimores, Mitchells, Dakotas and Wellingtons. Each week a feature film was sent out so we had some entertainment.

When we walked into the.nearby main town of the island Hadibo, I often bartered for pearls which were collected from the huge piles of shells on the shore. I got a good collection of pearls hoping to make a necklace for someone in the future but unfortunately I had them stolen apart from a few very small pearls. [Top]

The East African locust control used to visit us regularly to check on the quantity of locusts on the island because they believed that locusts could hop from one island to another and reach East Africa from Socotra. They used to have jars of alcohol into which they popped locusts and they used to go all over the island catching locusts.

The end of the war in Europe came in May 1945 and we organised a celebration on the island, the Sultan was invited who brought native drummers and dancers, we lit a huge bonfire and had a big celebration. When the Sultan left we retired to our largest hut and had a further celebration with much beer, wine and spirits, unfortunately I, not being used to much drink, passed out and was put to bed where I stayed for two days being very ill. In the July I celebrated my 21st birthday and in view of my work in looking after the beer and wine the C.O. suggested we should have a real celebration so we arranged one for an evening, the cook made some sandwiches and cake. We had unlimited free beer and wine and by the end of the evening most of us were beyond caring about anything, the C.O. joined us. He was a grand chap, an ex-bomber pilot who had been grounded, he didn't mind bad language so long as it wasn't detrimental to women and this he strongly objected too.

I must mention the cats we had at the transmitter station, one grey who was intact, a tabby and a black one who were of doubtful potential as the natives made an obnoxious scent by castrating cats. We fed these cats and when we were leaving the island I didn't like the thought of leaving them to the natives so I borrowed the C.O's pistol and we shot them one at a time but not before one of them had scratched my chest when it realised what was happening and I have the marks to this day.

At the transmitter station there was an Indian Army detachment nearby and I often had long talks with an officer about the future of India. His father had a margarine factory in Bombay and we used to discuss how India could become independent little realising how near it really was. We also had an officer of the Aden Levies who in civvy street was a carpet salesman and was a member of the Zoological Society, he got us all interested in capturing a rare species of fox that inhabited the island. Many weeks passed and one day this fox was seen, it was chased into a drain pipe and we put a net over one end and tried to chase it out from the other, sadly, as it emerged from the pipe one of our lads was too enthusiastic and hit it on the head and killed it outright. We never saw another of these foxes and so London Zoo never got this species. Scorpions were a menace on the island and we often had them running about the billet but we usually got well out of the way. One day one of the lads woke up to find a scorpion round his - testicles, he let out a shriek and we lifted him and lowered him into a fire bucket full of water. The scorpion floated on the water and released its grip on the poor lad’s testicles. So ended an experience.

Generally food rations were meagre and it was only occasionally that we could supplement them from the NAAFI, there was little fresh food mainly dried and tinned, we had lime juice made from local grown limes. Our bread baked by the Indian Army usually had weevils in it, and we used to fish these out before eating it. There was always a supply of multi-vitamin tablets in the mess room and we were encouraged to have these each day. My health generally on the island was good. I only had one bad spot when I developed a huge boil on my leg. It was treated by the Medical Orderly but it took several weeks to heal. At night we used to see the lights of ships out at sea passing on their way from the Far East to Aden and though we often signalled them with an Aldis lamp we never received a reply. The moonlight over the volcanic mountains was a sight that always fascinated me and the noises at night of crickets and other animals were absorbing.

From time to time we had visiting aircraft, mainly American and Dutch for re-fuelling, one Catalina Flying Boat called in on its way to Columbo, after it left us it flew for about eight hours and the whole crew went to sleep in bunks after putting the aircraft on the automatic pilot. Before the flight was finished there was a widespread search for a missing aircraft but it safely turned up in Columbo. [Top]

I always remember one American plane, a Flying Fortress that had come from the States and on its way to India, they landed for re-fuelling and on getting out asked "Are the natives hostile", so much for the Americans but they were always generous with their soap and toothpaste which was always in short supply.

We had a small cemetery near to the camp in which were buried those killed in air crashes on the island, there were some Canadians, some Australians and one or two British. For Armistice Day on November 11th, we had a short service at the cemetery conducted by our C.O. Just after the end of the war the Canadian authorities asked for the bodies of the Canadians to be returned to Canada, they sent a Dakota and some coffins and we put the bones and what else was left in each coffin with a name on each and sent them back to Canada.

In the Signals Section we always kept in close touch with our colleagues in the other outstations and at Aden. One of the airmen whose father was seriously ill at home was granted special leave to visit him in England. We knew the next plane from Socotra to Aden, we got the Aden operators to fix up a place on the aircraft from Aden/Cairo and the operators found a Mosquito going from Cairo to London and we heard later that he got home in 48 hours. Our two main Wireless Operators were Lofty Sharp, who, in civvy street worked on London Underground and when I returned home I visited him when he was Station Foreman at Kensington Station, and Chess? who came from Birmingham, when he left to go home he realised he had contracted malaria but wanted to hide it until he got home. He travelled on the same plane as myself when we left Socotra and in the Transit Camp at Aden each time he had an attack we put him to bed with a lot of blankets on and hoped he would sweat it out. We got him on the plane at Aden alright but he had another attack at Cairo and was put in sick quarters for six weeks before being sent home.

One night we had a real crisis when an aircraft was lost over the Indian Ocean and the only transmitter it could hear was ours. The operators asked for more power so we turned the transmitter up until the large valves were red hot but we got them back to their base even though the valves were U/S afterwards. Later we got a letter of thanks from the crew for our help.

Towards the end of our stay on Socotra I needed some dental treatment so flew back to Aden, the unit was being closed down and I never returned to the island again.

I enjoyed my stay on Socotra, I developed a lot during the period, both in my relations with the others on the island and my general education through extensive reading and a high level of discussions on many topics from perpetual motion to politics and economics. The run up to the general election was the highlight of our political discussions and the election of the Labour Government was greeted with enthusiasm by most of us. We tried in our spare time to help the native population, the men who worked for us on the camp often brought their wives and children for treatment by the medical orderly despite the protests from the witch doctors who preferred the hot iron to cure a pain rather than some of our medicine. Under the direction of the Medical Orderly we went round the villages spraying oil on any stagnant water that mosquitos could breed on. The natives didn't like this as it left multi-coloured patterns on their drinking water. Once I got acclimatised I could stand the heat and the flies and quite liked the environment of the island.

Robert Austin [Top]