December. Aden 1965. An aggressively hot and dusty place surrounded by harsh grey mountains and arid tracts of sandy desert. A place too, where the hatred of the local populace for us British servicemen was a palpable force daily translated into acts of murder and terrorism. An environment where death lurked in an empty beer can by the roadside, a provocative poster wired to a roadside bomb or in many everyday objects booby trapped to maim and kill. Where sudden sniper fire and grenade attack were expected at any time. A situation where it was essential to venture forth only in groups of at least three, warily suspicious, armed and prepared to open fire to defend yourself.
Not then a good place for celebration of the season of goodwill for the Army, Royal Air Force or Royal Navy personnel stationed far from home and the company of loved ones at this time of year. There were no mobile phones for a quick call home then, no webcams, no Email and computers as we use them now were a science fiction dream.
Links with home then were a matter of sitting down quietly and applying pen to paper while trying to keep the sweat in that ferocious heat from dripping onto the page. Telephone calls home were available but expensive and uncertain so letter writing was the main means of keeping in touch with wife and family.
However, we were there and had to make the best of it. ‘If you can’t take a joke you shouldn’t have joined’ was the usual wry comment when anyone complained.
As Christmas Day approached celebrations were organised. Parties in the mostly male dominated service establishments, in which alcohol was the mainspring of the merriment or the means of temporarily forgetting the separation from family and friends at home. The Forces Radio service broadcast special request programmes from relatives in Britain, Christmas decorations went up as we all tried to make our lives festive for a few days.
It was the Christmas Carol Service that made that Aden 1965 so memorable for me. The Padres who looked after our spiritual welfare and did so much to ‘ease our troubled minds’ in other more practical ways, arranged an inter-denominational Carol Service in the open air on a clear space in the centre of Royal Air Force Station Steamer Point.
Hundreds of us made our way down to the place on a night exactly like the night of the Nativity as legend would have us believe. A deep purple unclouded sky with larger-than-life brilliant stars in the clear atmosphere. No Angel of the Lord on High but just the jarring note of a helicopter, its blades whop-whopping away to remind us that someone up there had to keep an eye open for the terrorists.
As the old familiar carols ascended into the night sky many a lump was brought into the throat of us lonely soldiers, sailors and airmen in that hostile country. Afterwards as we streamed away to our barracks we felt something of the spirit of Christmas and somehow nearer to our loved ones so far away.
Yes, I shall always remember my Aden Christmas.