White Water Landings, by J M Pett and Geoffrey Pett
This book isn’t out yet, in fact, the cover reveal and publication information will be out on Monday. But it’s Valentine’s Day, and I couldn’t resist giving you a preview of the love story inside the memoirs of the Imperial Airways Flying Boat Service in Africa which started in the 1930s and was overtaken by World War 2. Geoffrey is based in Cairo, Egypt, and Frances is a few thousand miles away.
I grew up with this story, which is around 1500 words, in case you wonder before you start!
A little side trip
(From White Water Landings, Chapter 19, J M Pett & Geoffrey Pett, forthcoming)
Frances, my fiancee, was still down in Kampala, Uganda, carrying on her work. I don’t know whether she was thinking of coming up or whether she was just enjoying herself down in Kampala! In the middle of March 1943, I was granted three weeks local leave as a result of the time that I’d spent without any leave at all. This was obviously the time to get myself down to Kampala and organise things down there.
There was quite a lot of amusement about this, because the staff around knew jolly well that Maxwell had been objecting to my getting married and objecting to me going down to Kampala which of course was outside his area of control. Then he put a ban on me using our own flights as well, so people thought I really was in trouble! But my usual friends the South African Air Force chaps, they rallied round and I was offered a place down south from Cairo. The South African Air Force Transport Squadron took me all the way and I arrived in Kampala about midday on the 22nd March. I checked in at the Imperial Hotel saying I’d be there just a few days, then I went down to the hospital to find Frances, to check up and find out if she was still willing to say ‘yes’.
At the hospital I was told she was on night duty; she was over at the nurses’ home sleeping, as she’d come off duty earlier on that day. But as it was early afternoon by that time I went down to the nurses’ home and explained to the receptionist there that I wanted to see her. She told Frances that there was a ‘gentleman in uniform asking for her at the entrance’. Frances was reported to have said, “he’ll have to wait, I’m sleeping”, but was persuaded to come along. Of course when she saw me, not knowing that I was going to be there, it was a huge shock!
The next day I went down to the Celtic church to see the local priest. We had a chat and he asked when I wanted to get married, and I said “by the end of the week!”
And he sort of giggled and said, “you don’t really mean that.”
And I said “Yes I do, I’ve only got a fourteen day leave and I want to get married and go off on our honeymoon and then I have to get back up to Cairo.”
So he appreciated that but said “you’ll of course need a special licence.”
I could see there were many obstacles still, but asked, “well where do I get that from?”
“You’ll have to apply through the local district office to get the Governor to sign it, and if you want a nuptial mass, I’ll have to get permission from the Archbishop in Nairobi, because of course this is during Lent.”
So that really started a bit of panic, it would probably be at least a week before we got the permissions through and could arrange the ceremony.
We did eventually get the licences, but the Governor, who had to sign the special licence, was on safari doing a tour! I had to hire a runner to be able to take the licence out to him, catch up with him, get him to sign it and the runner bring the licence back again! So there was at least two days lost in the runner going out and coming back. The special licence for which I paid £5, number 206, was signed by the Governor dated the 27th March 1943, and it accepted that I could get married under that licence within seven days of the date of the licence. I had to plan as much as possible on knowing that I had to get back to Cairo so that I could report back at the end of my leave on the 11th April. And I really did have to worry about getting back to Cairo, as everything northbound was priority traffic.
Frances was very busy because she was doing her normal nursing duty and making plans. When she came off-duty and before she went to sleep we used to have a chat and get ourselves up to date. We were talking about a honeymoon, and the problems with that were the trains, either eastbound or westbound through Kampala, only operating eastbound on the Friday and westbound on a Saturday. As a result, I made up my mind that if we got married on the Friday we’d get the train and go up to the Mountains of the Moon, which I thought sounded romantic, and I suggested therefore to Frances that we got married on the 1st April. I thought I’d always remember that date! But she said, oh she couldn’t do that, and although she always said later that she wasn’t going to let me make an April Fool of her, it was because she would not be able to do all the work of the reorganisation of the nursing schedule in time. So we fixed that we would have the wedding on the 2nd providing we got all the permissions.
We were not having anything elaborate in the way of our wedding, just the nuptial mass – we weren’t going to have a major reception afterwards as we didn’t really know people there anyway apart from Frances’ nursing friends and the station manager, David Paton. But for any wedding mass at all, we would of course fast before communion, so after the wedding ceremony what we really wanted was some breakfast, it was the first time we’d have something to eat! So I arranged with the hotel that we would have a wedding breakfast, which would be just an ordinary breakfast from the menu of the hotel. Some people thought it was rather extraordinary. I remember David Paton making some comment subsequently, that we didn’t even have any champagne!
On the morning of the wedding I walked down from the hotel to the Church of Christ the King which was the Catholic church in Kampala. I found a flight lieutenant in uniform who asked, “Are you Geoffrey Pett” so I said yes, and he said “Oh I’m Morris Walter, I’m your best man.” That was the first time I met him! I don’t know who organised him but apparently he was the Met Officer at the RAF station there and it didn’t worry me at all, if he was to be the official witness that was grand! Frances of course had a Lady in Waiting, it was one of the wives there, Mrs McHugh. So we had two official witnesses, and I don’t remember if there was anybody other than David Paton and the two official witnesses there.
Because we were getting married on the Saturday, we got onto the train and went down to Jinja. It was a lovely little hotel. It was on the road along the waterways where the water tumbles out of Lake Victoria at Owen Stanley Falls, which run up to Lake Kirga, which then carries on westbound and goes into the Murchison Falls and tumbles down into the Albert Nile. That earlier part of it is called Victoria Nile.
One or two things I remember about being in that hotel is firstly the sound of the natives walking past. When there were several of them going about their business they used to chant; you had this wonderful African chant, it really was most impressive. The other thing that Frances noticed most particularly was the hippos. There were quite a lot of hippos in the waterways around there and they used to snort during the night and used to wake her up with this snorting! They used to wander close up to the hotel and almost walk in through the windows, and snorting just outside the hotel! And the other thing that I remember too was the table at breakfast time, on the table was a vase of white gardenias, which were growing around in the garden of the hotel. I thought was very nice of the hotel people to pick the white gardenias and make a little spray of them on our breakfast table for us!
After our five days honeymooning we had to get back, well I had to get back because I’d only allowed myself three days to get from Kampala back up to Cairo otherwise I’d be overstaying my leave. We went back to Kampala and it was then that I got a real blow. I got a message through from Lagos via David Paton, saying the skipper who had kindly said he would make an experimental landing at Laropi in order to “check the facilities” said he wouldn’t be on the service, so it wouldn’t be happening. That rather stymied my plans. It was impossible for me to hope to get on the flight from Kampala because I knew there were already passengers for Imperial Airways queuing, priority ones that had been offloaded were sitting in Kampala waiting to get up, and one of the people who was waiting to carry on going northbound was Maxwell’s wife!
I decided that the best thing was to get up to Juba where I knew there were far more aircraft around and moving through. Getting to Juba, and from there back to Cairo, was a story I told to my children many times, and they never tired of hearing it.
(c) J M Pett 2015
White Water Landings is due for publication May 2015.