The Company had recently bought a new type of Lockheed aircraft that were larger, faster, and could fly higher. Later, this type was known as the Judson. Indeed, Mr Chamberlain had been in one of them on his last two trips. For the first time in our experience, both passengers and crew were provided with an oxygen supply for use when flying at high altitudes. It was a simple affair, just a small tube beside each seat that could be sucked to obtain reviving oxygen. These aircraft were intended to start a service to Lisbon, and thence onwards for our South Atlantic venture. Although they themselves were not capable of flying the real ocean crossing, a new British type that could was being developed at a factory near our Heston base. It was symptomatic of the state of British Aviation that we had no presence on that route, although by one method or another, both the French and the Germans had been crossing that ocean for some years.
Our first step was to get the Lisbon sector organised and in operation. Several survey flights were made to Our Oldest Ally, landing at the small grass aerodrome of Cintra, some distance from the city itself. We stayed at the pretty village of the same name and paid a duty visit to the ancient castle there. On the first of my three flights, we made a familiarisation visit to Seville, and on the return back to London took Mr Oswold Pirouw, the South African Foreign Minister, to Salamanca to visit his friend Franco. With my views on the principle of the civil war, a visit to the opponent of democracy was not to my liking, but duty was duty. At least it now enabled me to say, when people boast that once again they had taken their holiday at Benidorm, 0h, the last time I was in Spain was in the civil war, not mentioning that it was only for an hour. Although none of us spoke Portuguese, we were able to cope with the vagaries of the local railways and visit the capital a few times. On one occasion we also went to Estoril, paying my first and last visit to a casino. That I think was the most demoralising experience of my whole career, seeing crowds of morons trying to win money.
One evening in Lisbon, about six of us went into a bar for a beer. Then the question arose of who wanted another. Four it seemed. Mr Hessey, who was down there as our temporary manager, said that he would give the order as he would be understood. That's all right, I'll do it came an eager voice. I didn't know you spoke Portuguese, Prowse said Hessey. Fluently replied the irrepressible David, hissing to attract a waiter, as was the custom. Fouro moro beerso pleaso. And what is more, we got them!
Unfortunately, almost on the eve of the opening of the full service to Lisbon, it was cancelled due to political problems. This had a roll-on effect, for it led in the spring to plans for the opening of new routes into Europe. One was to Warsaw via Berlin, and best of all, a return to Budapest. A quick route now, with only a single stop at Frankfurt. Many changes had taken place in Central Europe. With Austria already part of Germany, and despite the Peace In Our Time episode of Mr Chamberlain, as everyone expected, things had gone wrong for Czechoslovakia. By early March, the country has virtually collapsed. Hungary had taken what it called one of its lost provinces, while Germany had annexed the rest of the country. Hitler personally entered Prague on March I7th. On 24th a familiarisation flight vas made to Budapest, on which I went, seeing that I was the expert on that city. Outbound, we called at Frankfurt, and inbound at Vienna. East of Frankfurt, things did not seem right, for I had to call up the radio stations in Austria, and what up to a week before had been Czechoslovakia, using their new German names or rather their new German callsigns. And they had been old and familiar friends in the past.
By good fortune, in mid April I was on the inaugural flight out of Buda after a very pleasant clear Sunday there. It had been like going back home. Although we now stayed at a different hotel than that of the Imperial days, I soon found my old friend Holly Barchy still staying at the CarIton. Lambert, he said, was still around, but pulled a face, muttering something about a Hungarian girl friend. I have often wondered about this. Was he keeping out of the way of the others or was he sinking out of sight in anticipation of future possibilities. After all he spoke German and Hungarian fluently, and was no admirer of the Nazis. Perhaps he was up to something on behalf of somebody. H.M.G? Who knows!
The next four months or so were the best in my pre-war flying career. For reasons of convenience, our crews were divided more or less into two groups - those who flew the smaller Lockheeds and those who flew the larger ones, the I4s. In addition there was a strong tendency to keep a particular crew together, and for most of the time I flew with Slosher Slocum, so called because be was reputed to have been some form of boxing champion whilst in the RAF. By no means was he an aggressive character; quite the reverse. Apparently a little naive, under the surface he was Quite A Lad! What was more to the point, particular crews seemed to be kept on the same route, and ours was the Buda one. Even more to our advantage, the captain of the opposite crew liked his weekends at home, so we collected more than our ration of the banks of the Danube. This meant that I went there 30 times that summer, seven or so being weekends. Not bad at all!
On my first weekend trip, the steward (we now carried them on these larger aircraft), said that he was meeting a LOT Polish Airline crew he had been out with in Warsaw a few days before, and asked if I would like to come along. They were staying not too far from us he said, so about ten o'clock we went to find them, and as they wanted breakfast we repaired to the nearby Carlton. This was familiar ground to me. The steward and myself only wanted a coffee out of politeness, but the Poles demanded breakfast. It came - a large brandy each. As they all spoke some form of English, and as our steward spoke very fluent German, we all got on quite well together, especially as they had also met my old friend Alf Woodall in Warsaw. They then said that we were to visit an Annual Trade Fair then being held somewhere, called a taxi and off we went to the Angol Park, or some such place. Arriving there I was interested to see how large it was, that there were many specialised pavilions with exhibitors of various nationalities, all set in a beautiful park area. I prepared to spend an interesting morning. But not a bit of it! The Poles said Kom! and made a bee-line to what I found was the wine pavilion. Squeezing through the crowded entrance, they pushed their way across to a particular booth where there was a great open-arm welcome from a bevy of Hungarian beauties. Two of the ladies, who seemed to be in charge, spoke extremely good English so all was well. Of course it was Tokay all round at once, followed quickly by some more, and some more, and then some more. All at about eleven in the morning. After a while, it seemed to be agreed that fresh air was needed, so we left the pavilion by the nearest door, went right round the building, and back in again through the same opening. This exercise seemed to take place at about hourly intervals. Eventually I insisted, insisted with great difficulty, on buying a round of drinks. This comprised a dozen glasses of Tokay and I was asked to pay about one and sixpence. About two, or maybe three o'clock, it was decided that we should have some lunch, so the Poles led the way to an open air eatery for a bowl of gulyas. With it came a litre of cold lager, all on top of a similar amount of white wine. Much later, having returned to the girls, still dealing with the wine within me and trying to keep one of the pillars from tipping over, moves for departure were made. I was doing my best to say farewell and thank you, when one Pole said, No, you see them later. We take them out. Tonight we shall 'ave a party.
So, later that evening, the LOT boys arrived in a taxi into which we also crowded, and proceeded through the tunnel under the hill into the old part of the town, Budi itself. The LOT captain claimed to speak Magyar, having been a prisoner or war, but he seemed to have some difficulty in making the taxi driver understand where we wanted to go. He kept saying Harom quack quack quack, much to the puzzlement of the driver and our own amusement. Harom meant three, I knew, but what the quack quack bit meant was a mystery. Eventually we arrived at the right place, which turned out to be a restaurant called The Three Billed Duck, whatever that was in Magyar. Inside, the girls were already seated around a long table, a gypsy band was playing in the corner, and the place was full of very cheerful diners, both inside and in a garden outside . Although the drinking was not now so furious, we had an excellent dinner, and there was much merriment. When the girl came round selling flowers and picture postcards, there were a great many sent off to wives and sweethearts, and I got the Pole who knew Alf Woodall to sign one, together with a Rosa and a Heidi, and sent that off to Alf. Mrs Alf took a poor view of this, not realising it was from me. Then there were toasts to Hungary and the Hungarians, to Poland and the Poles, and of course to ourselves. Each had to be followed by a typical or national song. Our offering was my own rendering of Tipperary, in which I was joined, not only by the band, but by many of the diners as well. How they recognised the tune from my singing I do not know. But it did seem to be rather well known!
Then came an incident I had only seen on films and didn't really believe. Opposite us was a large and quite merry party who also drank many toasts. Suddenly, all the men stood up, raised their glasses to one of the ladies, drank her health and promptly threw the empty glasses against the wall. Fresh ones were called for so that another lady could be toasted, and they too were flung down. I gathered that it was, or had, been the custom in order that the glass could never be defiled after drinking to beauty. No one seemed to mind, and there was no doubt that all would be added to the bill.
After this Sunday outing, I made firm friends with the two sisters who had been in charge of the booth at the fair. They came from a wine dealing family and ran a shop near to where we were staying, the Dunaplota Hotel. This shop dealt with the tourist trade and also conducted an export business. The elder of the two was Rosa, and her younger sister was Piri, who become a modest girl friend of mine for the rest of the summer. Rosa was the more extrovert of the two, and a few weeks later she came over to London on a business trip. Collecting her at a small party of friends, I was told the story of how she had been over the previous year, arriving at Dover with a very large quantity of miniature bottles of wine in her baggage. The customs officer had naturally queried this, to be told that they were trade samples. Here, have a few. When she arrived back home a week or so later, waiting for her was an order for a couple of mixed cases - from the Dover customs men. Smooth, these Hungarians !
So through my new friends, I was able to see Bida through non-tourist eyes. Undoubtedly, the nicest place around is Margaret Island, slap in the middle of the Danube, in the centre of the city. It is quite beautiful, mainly flowered parklands through which one can walk. I say is, because during the writing of this book I made a visit, and over 40 years later, it remains the same. There were then a couple of first class hotels, an open air auditorium, and the famous Palatinus Baths. This was and still is a large grassed and flowered area with a huge swimming bath, and another smaller, more conventional one, with artificial waves at hourly intervals. But the pride of it all is the shallow medicinal bath, filled with somewhat evil smelling hot water welling up from its springs. Even with the smell of sulphur, people would soak themselves for hours, having quite a social life, playing chess or draughts with giant carved pieces, or just gossiping (chiefly the latter). We all went there one Sunday, all being the sisters, a couple of friends (quiet ones this time) and had quite a picnic. On another occasion I was taken to the open air opera on the island. I knew of the event, and tried to see from the posters which opera it was to be. But no - Magyar is too difficult. The occasion turned out to be a State one, and we all had to rise for the National Anthem when the Regent himself arrived. He was an Admiral, Horthy, although the country has no seaboard. The performance took place on a flat grassed arena in front of tiered seats, the first half being devoted to ballet. But I still didn't know the name of the opera. Then after the interval, a couple of horsedrawn caravans were led out and the horses staked down while some scene shifters in costume proceeded to erect a couple of small tents and awnings. A mystery still! Soon a clown appeared and started to sing - then I knew what I was to hear, for he broke into On with the motley.
By good fortune I was in Buda the weekend of the annual Festival of Saint Stephan, when his relic was taken in procession round the town. Thousands came in for this event, many hundreds sleeping all night on the pavements to get a good position, and also because they had nowhere else to go. I did not actually see the procession myself, but that evening, together with a gathering of friends, went to Rosa and Piri's flat which overlooked the Danube, just across from the Gelert Hill. This gave us a fine view of a magnificent firework display on its crest. The grand finale was a set piece showing the frontiers of Hungary, with the lost provinces outlined in sparkling red. Then the white boundary of Hungary extended to extinguish the red out of the province obtained from Czechoslovakia the previous year, and bring it back into the Motherland. Vast cheers arose from the crowds below, and of course it called for toasts to the Grosser Ungarn. This German bit was for my benefit, so that I could understand. With my tongue in my cheek owing to my views, I too raised my glass.
The most interesting sight of the evening however, was seen a little while later through the window of the opposite apartment down the side street. The lights went on in a bedroom, and a dozen or more people entered, both children and adults. I was told that some country folk must have hired the hotel room for the night, and I was curious to see how many could be accommodated, for there seemed to be only one bed, albeit a large one. The children and some adults were packed head to toe in this bed, but there were quite a few left over. Some clearly were going to sleep on the floor, and there must also have been a divan somewhere. All were dressed in their finery, the men with the brightly embroidered short sleeved jackets, and the women in flouncy skirts. One lady was somewhat rotund, perhaps a grandmother, I thought. She took off her blouse and skirt. Then an underskirt. Then another. And another. Finally, after removing four or five, she turned out to be a rather slim person, still completely covered in underwear, in which she apparently was to sleep, for then she squeezed herself into the overcrowded bed.
There was another pleasant evening when I dined and also supped on Pate de Foi Gras washed down with Tokay — straight from the barrel. We were to attend the celebratory final of the Annual Folk Dancing Festival, a quite important event I gathered. When I arrived at the shop ready to go, there was a certain amount of panic in the air, for a coach load of Swedish tourists had ordered three or four bottles each, and they had to be ready in the morning, first thing. A couple of girls I had met at the fair were there helping out, and I set too as well. Someone went out for a couple of yards of bread and a pile of patˇ, which we consumed as the bottles were filled, corked and labelled, our own glasses being topped up straight from the barrel. Halfway through we had to rush to the theatre, where I enjoyed the show even though I knew nothing of folk dancing. For the finale, the teams marched on in quick time from both sides of the stage, wheeled around and lined up. As the last member of one team came out from the wings, she was followed by an obvious cleaning lady, complete with brush over her shoulder. Then a hand appeared through the curtain, and she was smartly hauled backwards into the air and disappeared out of sight, amid much hilarity from the audience. Then it was back to the shop to completed the bottling and finish off the patˇ.
Later came the time when I danced the czardas, the traditional Hungarian dance. On the Blue Danube at that, in the moonlight! The girls had said that they hoped I would be there on a particular day, as we could then go to the annual tasting of the new wine, held on one of the river boats. I could imagine the scene. Long rows of tables in the ship’s saloon ladened with bottles and glasses; me strolling along taking a sip here, a sip there, nodding my head and appearing very knowledgeable about everything. In reality, of course, I knew the difference between red and white and that was about all. Fortunately, I was there on the right day and told to bring along my two friends, the pilots. So we three arrived at the riverfront to find, not just a moored boat, but one already crowded with laughing, chattering people, with hundreds still arriving. At the sight of this the captain cried off, but Freddie the second pilot and myself decided to go. Not that we had much option, for from an upperdeck we could hear cries of welcome and see the waving of feminine hands.
On going up the gangway, everyone was presented with a half bottle of wine and a foot long roll of sweet bread. Finding our way to the upper deck we found that a whole section seemed to have been taken over by our party. There were Rosa and Piri, some other girls I had met from time to time, a Finn, a couple of American students from the University and a bus load of plump Swedish women, twenty two of them. Of course, everyone was armed with the half bottle, and Rosa had taken the added precaution of bringing a small barrelful as well. And most of the Swedes didn't drink! The boat set sail up-river, the gypsy bands started up, the party got under way and dancing began. And what dancing! Those Magyar dances really got one worked up, and even the teetotal Swedes joined in. Then the wine ran out. Fortunately, we found that more could be purchased at a cabin below decks. To get there was the problem, as the narrower section of the deck near to us was impassible. We solved the problem by going along the ship's rail — on the outside. Down in the cabin I asked in my best German “How much?” and was told “Seventy pengoes.” Thrusting a hundred note into the lady’s hand, we waited for the bottle and the change. But it wasn’t seventy, it was seventeen. So much for my German! After about five or so had been thrust upon us we had to call a halt and somehow managed to get back to the party, still having to clamber along the outside of the rail, this time with an armful of bottles.
Eventually, the boat turned round and we arrived back at Buda around midnight to disgorge about a thousand drunks. Fortunately, Freddie and I had only a few hundred yards to walk back to our hotel, because as we heard later, things got out of hand. The Finn was clapped in jail, at least one of the Americans was to be sent home, and someone else had been beaten up and taken to hospital.
Not all our outings were so cultural; there were also nightclubs, and if one was careful these were affordable. It would not be true to say that the crews spent most of their spare evenings in them, but we had our moments. At the Moulin Rouge, the tenor Saxophonist was a young English chap, and he was only too delighted to be given the previous day’s Sunday papers with the football results in them, surreptitiously slipped to him as he played. Another popular spot was at the Grand Hotel on Margaret Island. There the dance floor was circular, with the bank occupying the far section. Around the whole area was a raised rim, a foot or so wide, and during the dancing periods this slowly revolved, so that one could stand on it and at least go through the motions of dancing. But — while doing this, you disappeared round the curtains at the back of the band. Needless to say, and this was the stock joke, many a man reappeared covered in lipstick. Great applause! We were quite frequent visitors to this place, but resolutely refused to buy their expensive champagne, nor would we drink whisky sodas. We insisted on beer, and provided we always sat at the far balcony table by the band, we got it. In fact, it was our belief that they kept a special small stock for us alone.
The finest night club was the Arizona. From the entrance, you ascended a short staircase into the club itself, again with a circular dance floor. All around were the inevitable small tables, each with its number prominently displayed, and a telephone. Inset into the wall quite high above the far end of the dance floor was a box from which the band held forth. This was flanked on either side by a balcony, each with a number of rather roomy alcoves, seating about eight, decorated on the wall behind by a large, plaster oyster shell. During the cabaret performance, if a solo turn was to come on, the centre yard or so of dance floor would disappear downwards and then come up high, bearing the artist as on a pedestal. Also during these periods the whole band would move forward on a ramp to a much more prominent position overlooking the show. It was quite a place!
Things were easy at the Arizona. Most of the small tables, particularly near the entrance, were occupied by some beauty. Why else did a nightclub exist? If one was so inclined, or if one caught your eye, you just asked on your telephone for the girl’s table, she would answer, look you over and if her assessment was favourable, and I don't suppose it ever was not, she would come over and join you. When dancing was in progress, it was not unknown for one of the hostesses to gently weave to the centre of the floor, nod to the drummer in the band who would press a button and she, with partner, would disappear into the nether regions where a passionate kiss would be bestowed on her hitherto unsuspecting friend. Much to the delight of the faces peering down upon them. A similar arrangement was possible in the alcoves, where the press of a switch would cause the whole contraption to descend about six feet. But the worst, for some, was the oyster shell behind the seats. The great thing was to take a newcomer there, usually someone on his first trip to Buda, get a glass or two inside him and then surreptitiously pull a small lever. At this, the shell would gently nod back and forth. I have seen the unsuspecting innocents white and shaken as he caught sight of the nodding shell from the corner of his eye. DTs at my age!
Our other main destination, Warsaw, wasn't a bad old place and it has the distinction of being the only one where I have been completely baffled by language difficulties. The first instance of this was at the airport, where both the Ladies and the Gents were at the head of a Grand stairway, Gents on the left and Ladies on the right. As far as I ever discovered, they both had the some label on the door. There was probably some small accent on one of them, but we never found out. Embarrassment for us had been avoided as we were given directions; sometimes I see foreign passengers in some difficulty, although the Poles seemed to know the right door.
One warm Sunday afternoon Slosher, Ben Prowse, the second pilot who later became a distinguished Captain, and myself went for an afternoon's sight seeing walk. Crossing the Vistula, we entered what I suppose was the local equivalent of Hyde Park. Here Slosher decided that we all needed icecream, so we went into the refreshment garden. When the waiter came, we asked for icecream. Naturally he didn't understand, so French was tried, as we had been told that this was by way of being a second language in Warsaw. No luck. We tried German, Swedish, Norwegian, a word or so of Portuguese, and even dog Arabic. Still he didn't understand. Then the penny dropped. With a look of triumph and understanding, he whisked off, to return only a moment later with a tray. Tea. Of course, we were English! But it was lemon, so we tried again, asking this time for milk. No success. Then he brought over a man who seemed to speak French. I explained that we really wanted icecream, but as the tea had arrived, we’d like some milk. He nodded with complete understanding, and with a quick word to the waiter, strolled off. With a knowing smile, the waiter returned — with a dish of ice cubes. So we gave up.
Fortunately a few minutes later a ‘Stop-me-and-buy-one’ man came down the pathway, and it was simplicity itself to step over the rail and without the slightest difficulty whatsoever, obtain three cornets. Pinguin, the man’s board said, so I presume that was the local Walls.