Libya - The spirit of Christmas Past, by Gerry Catling (1958)

It was 0300 hours on Christmas Day in 1958 in Benghazi. I was sitting in what was euphemistically called the operations office, finishing the flight plan to Rome for the delayed East African Airways Argonaut on its way to London.

The office was a bare room in a wooden World War Two hut, with one table and a rickety chair discarded in turn by the Regia Aeronautica, the Luftwaffe and the RAF and now on the asset list of BOAC. The wind was blowing from the desert, bringing with it the sand flies, which usually accompanied you home after a 12 to 14 hour night shift, which could extend to 24 if northbound flights were delayed. Christmas spirit was noticeably absent; apart that is from my therapeutic thermos flask of Campari soda to wash the dust out of my throat.

The load signal showed only five passengers in transit, none disembarking and none joining. .The fuel figure for the engineer is engraved on my memory to this day – full main tanks, one and four auxiliaries…

15 minutes before the estimated time of arrival, I strolled along the dry drainage ditch beside the ramp, following my usual routine of stirring the four loaders from the Libyan agent from their sleep under insect-infested old sacks. Their function, when awake, was to push the passenger steps to the aircraft.

The aircraft arrived, shut down its engines and I went to the top of the steps. When I opened the door, I was faced with a rather wild-eyed chief steward who greeted me with the words, “I’ve got a miserable bunch of bastards here – can’t get the Christmas spirit going at all, even though I’ve been pouring drinks into them all the way from Khartoum - and telling a few jokes!”

After a few minutes, five dishevelled and exhausted looking passengers crept out of the cabin, down into a hut with a few tables, which was designated as the transit lounge. Here, the one-eyed, sweat stained cook/waiter who slept on top of the padlocked crate where the drinks were stored, placed before them five bottles of warm orange soda, which immediately attracted the attention of an army of flies.

After half an hour, the forlorn five with glazed eyes were escorted back on board with due BOAC ceremony, where they took seats as far away from the chief steward as possible. As I was preparing to leave the aircraft, he turned and said to me with a leer “I’m determined to cheer these buggers up and get them into the spirit of the season before we get to Rome.” With that, he produced an old portable wind-up gramophone, put in a new needle, and placed a 78rpm record on the turntable, which proceeded to play an exceedingly scratchy version of ‘Jingle Bells’. The look on the passengers’ faces was of horror and resignation.

I hastily said “Happy Christmas” to the leader of the festivities, slammed the aircraft door and prayed that all four engines would start. The Christmas Party took off into the breaking dawn, leaving me to the flight watch and marvelling at the passenger service offered by East African Airways.

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