Flt Lt Keith McDonald

Keith McDonald completed his first tour on Shackletons at St Mawgan towards the end of the 1950s. During this period, he was selected to go on detachment to Christmas Island to fly Shackletons on weather reconnaissance for Operation Grapple (the H-bomb trials). In 1960, Keith was posted to Aden where he became Captain to a dedicated crew that included Flt Lt Sandy McMillan as First Navigator on Shackletons with 37 Squadron. When his tour was over, Keith was posted to CFS at Little Rissington but refused to become an instructor. Instead, he was sent to Cosford as a Boy Entrant Flight Commander ..... (as a punishment perhaps!).

“I presented myself to the Squadron Commander who said that Hoppy was about to go on a raid. I was to tag along. So off we set, from Khormaksar airfield, northward across the coastal plain towards the jagged range of red mountains which abruptly jutted up to about 7,000 feet. Levelling out above the peaks, we set about locating the particular Wadi in which the dissident rotters were thought to be. There were thousands of identical wadis, and when we thought we had found the right one we ran in and released a 1,000lb bomb, of which we had 15. Thus we passed the next few hours until they had all been dropped. But it seemed to me that even using the cloud of dust and smoke from the first bomb as a marker the next half a dozen bombs were scattered miles around. I joined the bomb aimer down in the nose to learn more about the art of distributing the minimum number of bombs over the widest possible area, thus leaving the presumed target quite unscathed in the middle.


His total equipment, computer and sight, was a piece of cardboard inscribed ‘Lancaster Emergency Hand Held Bomb Sight’. Certainly, the Lancaster and Shackleton flew at much the same speeds and the bombs we carried had probably been minted during World War II, but this seemed to be giving the enemy an unfair advantage. “Who or what was the enemy?”, I asked. Allegedly a band of rebels, but their allegiances seemed tenuous and who they were rebelling against was a matter of opinion. The information of their whereabouts was rumour, and locating the right spot to attack was even more vague.


A very poor state of affairs it seemed, but I was new to this game and knew nothing of local conditions or politics, and I was keen to do my duty and get on with the job of serving Queen and Country. We just had to use what was available.


In between I spent the time looking for somewhere to bring Daphne and Diana to live, but it was a depressing situation. Sandy and Jan managed to find a private flat and moved in as the heat was about to set in. One day the flags were all pointing the way they had done for the last five months, the next day they hung lifeless, and the day after that they all streamed in the opposite direction while heat and humidity went up. Corrosion was a serious problem in those conditions. There were few cars more than four years old. The aircraft had to be extensively unbolted and rebolted again at frequent intervals or else it all became permanently fossilised. They had to be parked out in the open because the hangars were too small. Next morning there were sometimes sand dunes across the aircraft floor. We took a length of suction hose with us on flights, one end was poked out of the pilots window and that caused a strong suction at the other end which hoovered up the sand.


One very unpopular flying task was border patrol of the ‘Empty Quarter’ desert. This was a prohibited area to prevent gun-runners and smugglers. In the cool season it was simply boring, but in the hot season visibility was poor because of dust in the air, so we had to fly at low level. In turn that meant bumpy conditions and heat. The temperature in the aircraft was driven further up by machinery and the sun beating in. It sometimes exceeded 50º C. Flights lasted ten hours. Opening the windows just increased the noise and dust. For months not a thing was to be seen, then suddenly we spotted a camel train. We dropped leaflets on them which told them to stay where they were and the Army would come and investigate them, but they simply waved and pressed on, so we put a burst of cannon fire across their bows. They instantly leapt off their camels and legged it across the desert. But of course there was no protection, nowhere to run to, and after covering about 200 yards it evidently occurred to them too. So they dug down into the sand.


We called up the Army but it was going to take them a good four hours to get there, so we just had to be patient. Eventually they came into sight and a terrible time they were having. The trucks kept sinking into the sand necessitating furious digging if they were going to make it before nightfall - or ever. Finally they made it and surrounded the camel train. Having got the camels unloaded, they called us and asked if we knew what the loads were. Astonishingly, we did not. It turned out that the camel train had spent two weeks heading from the coast to a salt hole in .the desert. Having loaded up they were on the two-week return trip. Times was hard, they were only going to get today’s equivalent of 50p a bag, and they did not appreciate our cannon fire. But they were not carrying anything illegal or suspicious. So apart from a stern ticking off about being in a prohibited area they were allowed to continue. Everybody was so surprised by this revelation that we all forgot to ask the obvious question - why take salt to the coast which is littered with salt pans producing umpteen tons a day of the stuff?


The working day started at 07:00 and finished at 13:00. After lunch, unless I was flying, I usually went swimming in the sea at Tarshyne Beach. Once a week in the evening there was a film show in the mess. Occasionally there was a dining-in night, complete with monkey jacket, stiff shirt, gold buttons, the lot. Sandy had bought a beautiful little Renault Floride sports car. Driving back to his flat after one of these dining-in nights he decided to drive along the beach instead of the road, and duly got bogged down. He managed to get out again after much very sweaty digging, but when he got home and was half undressed he realised that he had removed his gold studs to open his shirt and had left them on the beach. He wrapped a cotton cloth around his middle, and wearing that and his monkey jacket, returned to the beach and searched. After some time on his hands and knees a voice suddenly said behind him: “And what does Sahib think he is up to?” It was two members of the local constabulary, and they clearly did not believe his explanation. Both antics and garb were not natural, but then he suddenly spotted his gold buttons glinting in the moonlight. Laughs and good cheer all round.


Life was fairly civilised except for things like no fresh milk, and goods were cheap. So were cigarettes and booze. Most people drank Alsop's beer which came in litre bottles. Restaurants were few but of reasonable standard. The airfield was base to ourselves, three transport squadrons, a fighter squadron, a reconnaissance flight, and a helicopter search and rescue flight. Most of the social life tended to polarise along these divisions.


Although I had been born and brought up in similar temperatures I did not like the climate at all. Most of us had about five or six showers a day, but it was noticeable to me that those who suffered badly from rashes and prickly heat were those who used great quantities of soap. I only used just enough to get the dirt off. The tap water, from bore holes, was widely held to be the cause of all ills, and we were told to boil the very life out of it before drinking it. Since the average body needed about a gallon of water a day that took some boiling. I felt that given a little acclimatisation its hygienic qualities were acceptable and that mineral salts - as in Epsom salts - were the moving force.


There was a home leave scheme, but it seemed to be grudgingly granted after much cringeing subservience. I took advantage of it and flew back to see Daphne. Apart from that welcome aspect I found the greenness of the home countryside and the clarity of the cool fresh air unbelievable, quite different from my first arrival in UK, eight years earlier.


At last the temperature slowly fell to more civilised levels. Even better I found a flat, and early 1961 the family came out to join me at about the best time of the year.


Aden, British Empire version, consisted of an extinct volcano on the end of a peninsula jutting out to sea. The airfield of Khormaksar straddled this peninsula, and was bypassed by a causeway linking town and mainland. Over this causeway came merchandise from the adjoining territories, and fruit and vegetables from the mountains. The crater contained a town actually called Crater, accessed by a cleft in the rocks, and it was the main Arab town and market place. Outside the cleft, the road led into Maala which was much more cosmopolitan and the scene of urban development, and after Maala came the town of Steamer Point, beloved of steamers and their passengers, ending up in the Tarshyne district where we went swimming.


It never rained, so buildings and roads never got washed. They somehow collected griminess, but never passed it on. In Crater there were some ancient structures reputed to have been built as storage water tanks thousands of years ago. They had never held water, but contained some of the few green and flowering things in the colony. It had probably been on the edge of a more prosperous area in the past. Not far to the east lay the Wadi Hadramaut, which allegedly was the source of the Queen of Sheba’s wealth and was still one of the major merchant and political entities.

Daphne joined me in Aden after some months due to my difficulty in obtaining accommodation. Our little girl was 2 years old and adapted very well, but Daphne found the heat rather awful. However, she did appreciate having her own Ayah, who did most things about the flat. We used to go to the beautiful beach at Tarshyne and enjoyed that so much. After putting up with the flat in Maala and then a high rise flat in Crater, we were given a Married Quarter at Khormaksar which was very pleasant. We particularly enjoyed getting away on holiday to Africa, visiting relatives, and  spending a week at Mukeiras up in the hills. That turned out to be not too far from the refuge of troublesome Mohammed Aidrus, but we only met friendliness in Mukeiras.

Our flat was in Maala, towards the Crater end, which made it very convenient for getting about. It was next to a school for blind children, and it was fascinating to watch them playing football with a bell in the ball and advertising their presence vocally. The other side was quite different. It was a dog compound. There was an official dog catcher, and his takings for the day ended up in this compound. Never anything big or rough, but far more noisy. Most of them were wild or nearly so and on being locked up they just screamed all night. It got too much one night and I tried to get in to protest, but could not get any answer. So I went out into the street, climbed a wall and jumped into the darkness. I landed on something warm and hairy, but far too big to be dog or night watchman. It at once identified itself as a startled donkey and added its yelling to that of the dogs. Somewhat discouraged by this poor return I searched for the watchman. He was fast asleep on the floor. What he was employed for, or who would want to pinch a mob of half-crazed dogs, was beyond me. Only the donkey calmed down and kept quiet.