Wireless Telegraphers operating at the camp in Kanpur, India, 1944.Monte Houstoun
Group of five RAF cypher clerks stand with the son of their house "bearer". Kanpur, India, 1944.Monte Houstoun
Monte Houstoun, Kanpur, India, 1944.Monte Houstoun
A hat race on Christmas day, in Chakera, India, 1945.Monte Houstoun
Monte Houstoun during an event of The Memory Project in Halifax, Nova Scotia, September 2010.Historica Canada
"oh, your case came up in court. He says, you were convicted and fined and released without even leaving your cell. Fast justice."
I got a job as assistant to the press attaché in the British Consulate General in Barcelona. Assistant to the press attaché was a fine name for a messenger boy. I enjoyed doing that work, going messages, and one of the important things that I did do was to distribute news bulletins which came to us from the embassy in Madrid. They were mimeographed and sent by courier to us and I was to distribute them to known friends of the Allied cause. [General Francisco] Franco of course was a strong supporter of the German cause, so we had to be very careful and make sure these bulletins got into the right hands.
I was intercepted one day by – actually it was a Falangist member [the Falange was the right-wing political party headed by Franco] who called the police and had me arrested. Funnily enough, they never found, I don’t know what I was arrested for because they never found the bulletins on me. And I managed to drop them off on the seat somewhere or other so they wouldn’t be traced back to me. But I did have copies of the London Illustrated News, which I believe, I don’t know if it’s a weekly or a monthly publication. And there’s mainly pictures – it has a few articles in it, but mainly pictures, especially during wartime, it was showing the Allied efforts in the war and showing the bombed and trashed German planes that we had to show. Obviously, the bias was on the Allied side.
So the sergeant who booked me in, when he was finished, he asked if I could see the magazine so I said, yeah, sure, [he said,] I’ll get it back to you. I said, okay, fine. So I let him have it, so he had lots of anti-German propaganda. And then a couple of hours later or so, somebody, another policeman came downstairs with the magazine and said, the sergeant asked me to bring it down to you. And I said, oh good, thank you. He says, before I do this, could I read it? Well, they couldn’t read it but they could look the pictures. And I said, yeah, sure, go ahead. So he sat in the chair outside my cell and had a look at the pictures, asked me quite a few questions, and then handed it to me and said, thank you very much and left.
As soon as he left, the policeman who was looking after the inmates of the cells came over to me and says, what did that guy give you? I said, oh, just a magazine. Let me see it. So I showed it to him. Oh, he says, could I look at it? So they were all interested in the magazine because I’d been arrested for having it.
But then eventually, I was taken out of my cell and brought upstairs and told, okay, you can go home. And I says, fine, good, thank you, so I left. But I didn’t go home, I went to the consulate general to find out what had happened. And they told me, oh, your case came up in court. He says, you were convicted and fined and released without even leaving your cell. Fast justice.
Coincidentally, while I’d been in the cell, approval had come through from wherever it came that I had permission to travel to Britain and be a candidate to join the RAF [Royal Air Force]. I had put in less than two hours flying or trying to fly, and I was taken off course for health reasons, because of my getting sick. Of course, this is the unhappiest day of my life. Here am I with all my buddies who were going to be heroes and I’m stuck on the ground now. So I was certainly not delighted with that.
And then I was soon sent away to a transit camp and then back onto a troop ship and back to Britain. And, kind of vague now, but oh yes, I’d been in touch with a brother who was also in the air force and he had told me to, he had applied for training in the codes and ciphers. And he said, why don’t you do the same thing. So I did. And then we were sent off to various training sites. And the one I got was in the Transvaal, between Johannesburg and Pretoria. That made an interesting point of view because in South Africa, there was a strong element of the Dutch descendents and there was a name for them but at the moment, it escapes me. And they were very much against the war and a lot of those people sided with Germany. Only I guess because we were not in the land of Europeans, we were offsite.
But anyway, they often tried to pick fights with us. And we were warned to avoid them as much as possible because we would never win, no matter what happened, we would never win in the eyes of the law. So we had to be careful and I know that one night, I did, myself and another guy, went in a restaurant and we were paying our bill to leave and noticed there was a Royal Navy guy in uniform with two of these Dutch settlers. Can’t think of their name, but anyway, I wanted to find out, wanted to make sure that he was in good company, because that’s the kind of thing, they did, come up, befriended to you and then take them into a black van and beat you up.
But unfortunately, this fellow was a little too drunk for that and they, when I asked him if he needed help, he took a swing at me. And he missed because he was so drunk and I stepped back anyway. But so we left him and left, went outside where we were met by two other ones. And in fact, there were four of them, because…no, just the two. I can remember one of them cussed at me very belligerently. I don’t remember exactly what happened but I managed to get him, my arm around his neck and holding his head down. So I figured the best way to end it is just to bring up my knee in his face, which I did and he instantly collapsed. And my buddy by that time had also done something to defend himself but he was in worse shape than I was. But anyway, we left before the police came because we would never be, it was our fault, causing a fight, if the police came.
Got to Durban [South Africa], as it was known then, Dubai I think it is now, and I was sent to Agra in the central provinces. And I was very fortunate to be able to see the Taj Mahal by moonlight, which is the way you’re supposed to see it, and it is beautiful. But I wasn’t there for very long before I was sent onto Kanpur or Cawnpore as it’s pronounced in English, which is a large maintenance unit, repair place for planes and aero engines. And that’s where I spent most of my time in India, there.
Interview date: 1 October 2010