Incident On The Khyber Pass
"A letter to Pam Massey"
When the squadron was becoming a cohesive unit and training we were waiting to go into action we were in Risalpur an RAF station way up north of Peshawar and a busload of us decided to go up to have a look at the Khyber Pass. I decided to see what was at the foot of a ridge so I just walked down to take a look. There were shouts from my comrades and I looked up to see a small group of very angry looking gentlemen in uniform closing on me. Sizing up the situation I decided that an attempt to climb back would mean a few bullets in the back before I had gone very far. They were decidedly agitated so I just put up my hands at about 45 degrees. One grabbed each arm and I was held between them while one of the others snapped the bolt of his rifle and pointed at my midriff from about ten feet away minus the length of his rifle and a long, ugly bayonet.
I was marched towards the frontier post but to impress my lack of alarm insisted that I bend down to fasten my shoe laces. At this point my friends who had been following the twists and turns on the ridge thought that I had been knocked to the ground (true that I was being 'helped' along with frequent jabs of the brassbound rifle butts) but wiser heads prevailed. On arrival at the blockhouse that was the entry station I was seated on a large boulder while everyone jabbered excitedly in Pushtu which was completely baffling to me. A very tall green-eyed frontier guard was detailed to look after me to whom I offered a very strong peppermint from a bag from my pocket. (You, having lived in 'hot parts' will remember that sucking on a peppermint does not encourage that dark patch of sweat on the back as much as a glass of water.) My offer was declined with such exquisite courtesy that I made the same gesture at intervals.
Meanwhile I gathered that we were waiting for the one bus that made the journey from Kabul to Peshawar to come in case there was someone aboard to interpret. It finally jolted to a halt and the frontier post officer came out waving his arms excitedly but with a smartly uniformed officer of the Afghan Airforce. He ignored me completely but some moments later he turned to me and said in faultless English that he was travelling with his commanding officer who was training the pilots in the A.A.F. He did not know if he could do anything but if his commanding officer could identify me he would see if he could do anything but it was doubtful.
I was sat on my rock again, this time with my back to the road. After about ten minutes he appeared with his commanding officer to whom he had explained the situation. We quite literally fell upon one another's necks. He was my old commanding officer whom I had left in England a few months before! Amazed at this show of affection the young officer whose uncle was officer in charge of the whole frontier said he would phone his uncle; he tried, could not get through and on his own cognisance said that he would phone his uncle from Peshawar. From whom he later got a terrific rocket. I should never have been released!
I was placed on the bus in his charge and was met on the other side of the frontier by my excited brother officers but that was not the end: Oh no! Things were pretty sensitive at that time. Technically, I had led a party of four men in uniform across a frontier; this, under international law constituted an 'invasion'. Churchill was informed and I was to be court martialled. Before this could take place there had to be a Court of Inquiry. This was convened and I was marched to a chair facing a panel of officers the leader of which was a young F/Lt a year or two older than I was. He was quite informal and asked why I had crossed the frontier. "There was this dirty great insect flying along so I chased after it"
He then told me that the Afghan soldier had fired his rifle but it had jammed. I was just telling him that it had looked pretty old anyway but he cut me short. "Why did you cross the frontier?' 'was it not marked properly?" Grasping the straw I explained that I would never have crossed a properly marked frontier and could he help me out of the dilemma. He whispered hurriedly to the other officers and he asked me to draw my chair up to the table. Having been reminded of the seriousness of the situation we bungled up an explanation. This meant another trip to the Khyber. I was asked to take them to the exact spot that I had crossed the border. Everyone agreed that the line of stones were far too far apart and that the whitewash had worn off. This finally resulted in closing up the stones and whitewashing them!
He has become one of my closest friends. One day we were talking about my ability to create 'situations' and why it was. He later sent me a letter setting out all the things that had happened since we met. I have not thrown it away and it will "turn up" I am sure. On much prompting I have tried to find a photograph of myself in flying kit. We no more photographed one another in kit than we would photograph in the loo. I have finally found a shot of myself sitting on a propeller boss, blurred, out of focus, against the light but I will see what can be done. All of the others have probably been given to transitory girl friends.
P.Bruce Hepburn was a high flyer; was once sales manager for Penguin books. Rosemary, his wife ever able to feed and accommodate multitudes is going blind, Bruce is still bright as a button but none of us is getting any younger.
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Edward Sparkes ©1998-2002