Christmas 1944. RAF Bengal India. George Barker-Read. ‘Memories Class’
I had been working hard the preceding three months leading up to Xmas ’44.
Apart from my normal duties as Corporal i/c Instrument Repairers on ‘B’ Flight, 159 Squadron (Liberators) at RAF Digri in Bengal, India, somehow I had become saddled with the job of producing a show for Christmas.
Looking back I find it hard to believe, as I had no previous stage experience of any kind and 159 Squadron was a first rate unit of up to 800 very talented people. The entertainments committee had just descended on me and said “we think you can produce a Christmas show this year—will you do it?” So I just got on with it!
We were operating four engine Consolidated B24 ‘Liberator’ bombers from an airfield built in flat paddy fields far from any towns 100 miles due west of Calcutta. I had been on 159 since it started at Molesworth back in 1942, and by now the personnel had become one large family. The commanding officer was W/Cmdr Jacky Blackburn, much decorated and a “wizard” C.O -- an outstanding and very popular officer. The squadron was heavily engaged in bombing operations against the Japanese in Burma and beyond to the east.
All military camps had some sort of home made entertainment for Christmas, and with a squadron strength of 800 it was inevitable there was hidden talent in our midst-- Lofty Laughton for instance! Corporal Alan Laughton, squadron office clerk, was an exceptional classical pianist and talented in other directions such as script writing, so of course my first port of call was to my friend Alan Laughton. Between us we made a start.
Firstly an appeal for anyone interested in the show, performing or playing an instrument or any practical help in construction was called for. Although ‘out in the blue’ in Bengal, RAF Digri was a well established heavy bomber base, with at least two squadrons of Liberators operating, and another secret unit employed dropping ‘Joes’ behind enemy lines. There were in total about 2000 airmen, no women at all,
at Digri, and the camp cinema operated by a civilian contractor was held in a large ‘bashar’ or primitive hut with about 100 seats. Just the large cinema screen, no stage or proscenium or curtain, but showing fairly recent Hollywood films, giving film shows on four nights each week. So at least we had a building to perform in.
While I felt confident I could organise things generally and eventually pull an entertainment together, I could do nothing musically for the show myself. Alan Laughton of course could not have been bettered. Well over six feet tall, blond with a rather awkward way of moving, Alan was sort of performing just standing still! He had passed all sorts of piano playing exams, and although not university educated, he was certainly no duffer.
We had a good response to our initial appeal, and Alan decided there was enough to form a small band, he leading from piano also accompanying soloists and several musical sketches. Eventually he and I, on a trip to Calcutta to a military store for E.N.S.A. equipment, acquired about a dozen musical instruments, a collection of costumes and ‘props’, some excellent Leichner stage make-up, a few wigs, and lastly sufficient curtaining to make an overlapping stage curtain, with proscenium front. Quite a profitable journey this trip, and together with the squadron expertise, sufficient to put on a Christmas show.
We had no stage as such, but an excellent squadron carpenter—one ‘Chippy’ Thomas, who journeyed into the large local village with the cinema contractor and together they acquired sufficient timber to build an adequate stage. Being a professional stage carpenter in ‘civy street’, Chippy Thomas took over completely all stage construction, but the large main curtain and ‘wings’ were produced by the cinema contractor, made somewhere by local labour, and became part of cinema shows from then on. Stage sound, ‘mikes’ and amplifiers were all modified and installed by squadron electricians and radio people, and we actually had a theatre make–up artist who was delighted with the big box of Leichner make up! So the show was at least professionally ‘made up’.
We had roughly a dozen would-be entertainers with a band of ten players. A compere who sang; a romantic interlude couple-- small man and very large ‘lady’ duet, a stand up comic very good, and of course Blondie Yeomans, almost a female without make-up.! There were six large sketches on stage involving six or more players, one particularly good called “Inside Information”, about operational intelligence—a punkah-wallah called ‘Asti Wappus’ who always had the correct gen about ops being on or off-- the whole written by Flt. Lt. George Betterley who also played Asti… George was in fact the Squadron Intelligence Officer. Alan Laughton wrote and played in a good sketch called W.A.C.(I.), about the Women’s Army Corps (Indian) …’We’re five little Wakki’s with very large black eyes’ etc, very funny and very topical at the time. Arthur Hindle, a Canadian and born comedian did his stuff, several singers and the old sketch ‘I want to be an Actor’ all ran well.
The band played, soloists preformed and there was plenty for the audience to join in.
There were altogether twenty items in the programme which took three hours to run, the show being given for three nights.
At the end of the final performance our Commanding Officer came on stage and thanked the entire company, saying it was the best camp show he had seen.
It really was a ‘Good Show’ --an Air Force expression which adequately sums up the unstinting efforts of all concerned.
G B-R. Feb. 2004-05-04