1954 - Life at Car Nicobar (Memories of an Indian Island)

by Ian R. Austin
Ian Austin was a RAF (British Royal Air Force) corporal posted at Car Nicobar during 1954 and 1955. Presently Ian lives in Chelmsford, Essex county [not very far from London].

RAF Camp at Car Nicobar 1954

RAF Camp at Car Nicobar

Car Nicobar was one of the smallest and lesser known R.A.F. detachment. This detachment was used mainly as a re-fueling station for small airplanes like  DC3's, Bristol Freighter and Valetta's (Valetta was known as pig). RAF maintained a medium frequency radio beacon as well in the Island. After Indian independence from 1947 to 1956 Car Nicobar airfield was leased to the RAF (British - Royal Air Force), then passed to IAF (Indian Air Force).

Flights from Gan Island (Maldives) and Srilanka (Negombo) to Singapore (Changi/Butterworth) used to take stops for manual refueling and that's how Car Nicobar detachment received utility supplies from Singapore and far Srilanka. The airbase detachment was handed over to Indian Air force gradually.

Car Nicobar - Few facts :
Car Nicobar is approximately 6x6 miles in size
Car Nicobar is located 1,00 miles either way between Ceylon & Changi
The Nicobar islands were part of the British Empire from 1869 to 1947
These islands were Invaded by Japan in 1942 and liberated by British Indian forces on 7/10/1945.

The following description is in Ian's own words about Car Nicobar and his activities:


 At 18 I got my call-up papers for National Service. On the 29th July 1952 I went to Southend-on-Sea for a medical and during that visit I signed up for the RAF and also for an extra year of service, which gave me more money and an increased chance of a decent posting.

My basic training was held at West Kirby from 29th October 1952 for a period of eight weeks - during that time my soul was not my own, and I never questioned instructions given to me - but let me hasten to add that on the passing out parade I felt that it had been worth it.

After Christmas I started my trade training for the medical branch at Lytham St Annes for a further eight weeks - covering all aspects of the trade from basic first aid to hospital work and national emergency’s. My first posting in April 1953 was to RAF Andover in Hampshire, being a small grass airfield it was quiet in one respect, but we were involved with doing medicals for service and civilian pilots, also providing cover for the ambulance service in the Andover area. Whilst there I was promoted to corporal in July 1953, then in October I was advised of my posting to Hong Kong.

After 3 weeks embarkation leave in December 1953 I joined HTL Lancaster (Bibby Line) at Liverpool Docks in February 1954. The journey took 4/6 weeks going through the Mediterranean to Port Said, where we re-fuelled and took on fresh provisions. From there we went through the Suez canal, into the Red Sea for a further stop at Aden, before going into the Arabian Sea. Then on to Ceylon (now Sri-Lanka) before the Indian Ocean and finally Singapore. During the voyage my posting was changed from Hong Kong to Singapore. At Singapore I was assigned to work in the surgical ward in RAF Hospital Changi, many of the patients I was involved with were wounded service personnel as a result of the conflict in mainland Malaya with the Communist. During my off duty periods I was able to visit the island of Singapore and the mainland.

                    In August 1954 I was advised of a new posting to the Indian island of Car Nicobar, an island I knew nothing about. After a week of training in jungle survival, run by the Malay army and instruction on sole running of a base station sick quarters, I was on my way out in a Valetta of the RAF. The three and a half hour flight took me up to Butterworth in North Malaya, then on to Car Nicobar.

First sight of the island was amazing - a small dot in the middle of the Indian Ocean. As we got nearer and lower I saw the dark green foliage of the island, glimpses of lovely crescent bays of golden sands and villages with beehive houses; then the small air strip appeared with a collection of buildings. the camp to be my home for the next year.
                    Once I arrived I was soon off with the person I was replacing, as he had to show me the sick quarters and give me a quick run down of what I was responsible for, before he caught the same plane back to Singapore after it had been re-fuelled. The air strip had been built by the Japanese during the second world war -before it was liberated in September 1945. During the occupation a number of the Nicobarese were murdered by the Japanese.

My Duties: Running the station sick quarters and keeping it clean and fully stocked, also maintaining and the health and hygiene of the camp. The following list covers my duties:
Administration of first aid to staff and Nicobarese
Ensuring all staff had taken their daily anti-malaria tablets (Paladrin)
Guarantee that salt tablets were always available
Ensure drinking water was safe and that the correct PH factor was maintained
Spraying camp site with DDT solution against mosquito’s breeding Control of rats, mice and other vermin (snakes & crabs)
Driving the ambulance and maintaining it Daily inspection of camp buildings with hygiene in mind
Ensuring all staff inoculations were up to date
Checking the camps emergency rations in the bonded store
Liaison with the islands Indian Doctor.

I had one Nicobarese working for me, but his help was very much as and when. His name was Nicholas Thomas. During my stay I was referred to as “Doc” or “Doc Austin”.

As most of the planes came and departed during the morning (unless there was an emergency) most people were able to stand-down for the remainder of the day, to do their main duties. Because it was such a small camp, while aircraft were about we all helped to turn the them around. The main aircraft we had landing were Hastings, Valetta’s, Avro’s, Bristol’s and Mosquito’s.

General working days:  The camp itself had approx 20 to 25 staff, four to five days of the week we had at least one aircraft that would use this staging post, occasionally we had two. The aircraft would either bring staff and provisions for the camp, topping up with fuel for onward journey or sometimes planes either had to make emergency landings. Our working days were governed by which aircraft were due in and when. This information was circulated round camp by word of mouth and the sounding of the fire bell. About half an hour before the aircraft was due all the people involved moved in their vehicles to the landing strip to clear it of locals and livestock. Then we waited, blocking off all the tracks until the plane landed. On landing we followed it to the dispersal point, where all hands would help to load, un-load, and re-fuel. On departure the process was reversed. We waited whilst the aircraft cleared the field, then we returned to base. All hands stood down once the aircraft had passed the point of no return. Any in-coming flights from Singapore would bring in mail, staff, supplies and provisions for the kitchen and shop, plus any other items needed for the camp.

Fuel: Fuel for aircraft and the power generating plant for the camp was shipped in by sea in drums. These had to be lowered onto a raft or floated ashore. Afterwards the locals helped us to load them on to a Bedford truck. From there it was taken to the fuel dumps well away from the camp. When the fuel bowser needed filling, it had to be pumped from the drums. Any new trucks for the camp also came by Ship and were rafted ashore.

Shop: The N.C.O’s on the camp took it in turns to run this, in it we sold Tiger bottled beer, soft drinks, sweets, cigarettes (tins of 50), stationery, soap and tooth paste etc. We opened it when possible at lunch time then again in the evening. We were responsible for reordering stock and balancing the books. Some evenings we ran Tombola or showed films flown from Changi. All the site facilities were available to staff and the Nicobarese and Indians: in most cases it was only men who came in to the shop.

Free time: Once the camp had stood down, and the staff had completed their duties, they were free to do what they wanted. With the use of the Bedford, Ambulance or Land Rover, we could go off to any of the numerous beaches at Mus Bay, Sanai, Malacca, Lapati or Kimios for swimming and fishing.

15 August 1954

15 August 1954

As an alternative we could go walking and had the opportunity of taking photos of the island. Football and cricket was played with the Nicobarese and the Indians, while we were invited to watch their wrestling matches, canoe racing and pig fights.

At Christmas 1954 we attended their Carol Service, after which we were given presents by the villagers. I was presented with a large bunch of bananas, fresh coconuts, a model of their fishing canoe, bow and arrows, fishing net and a pair of complete dried out coco nuts (of which I still have). On various occasion I was invited out for meals with the Indian Doctor, Dr & Mrs. B Panigrahi, and also the resident India engineer who often cooked his special chicken curry complete with many bottles of Tiger beer. A great number of photos were taken with my 35mm Balda camera. These covered various subject matters relating to the camp, planes, even in the villages and life itself. The Nicobarese appeared to be more than happy to see us about and on numerous occasions offered us fresh fruit. Most of the pictures of villages and bays were taken on the east side of the island leading from the camp to Mus Bay. Later we built our own darkroom so we could develop and print our own films. Colour film had to be sent to Kodak.

End of tour of Duty: February 1955 was the end of my six month tour of duty, so I had to return to Singapore for a two week holiday, which I spend at Changi and the Malaya mainland. On reporting back for duty I was offered a further six months tour, which I happily accepted! The memory of such a working holiday will always remain with me forever. Few people have had such a memorable time. It’s hard to fully explain in detail the experience. I hope I have been able to share some of my pleasure from the past with you.

General thoughts and opinions: As already indicated relations between the Nicobarese and the Indians with the RAF was good as far as I could gauge. The main daily point of contact was with the male population in respect of our work, with the ladies it was at social events and while we were visiting their villages and homes The Nicobarese were very sociable, quite happy to talk to us and more than generous with their hospitality. When I was told of my posting to Car-Nicobar I was given no reason why we were there, or told how to conduct myself during my time there. I was not aware of any trouble spots. The only contact I had with the Indian authorities was with the island doctor and the site engineer, this relationship could not have been better.

Car Nicobar Island 1954