The exciting thing about looking back over life is the realisation
that it was all so unpredictable.
Sailing on first appointment to Northern Rhodesia on the good ship
DUNVEGAN CASTLE in 1938 the prospects were that, in 20 years time, my
annual salary would have risen from £350 to £1,000. Those 20 years were
to be spent administering a large district in the middle of a continent on
which I set foot for the first time in July of that year. It did not turn
out that way.
My first district, Mporokoso, numbered a bigger population of
elephants than of people. Rex Phillips, the D.C., threw me in at the deep
end and, after sending me on one tour of villages of two weeks with an
interpreter, sent me off again, six weeks after my arrival at the station,
with no-one who knew a word of English. It is largely to Rex's credit
that I passed both Lower and Higher language examinations within 18
After 9 months with Phillips and a year with Bush at Abercorn (known
locally as Mbala even in those days) the Italian entry into the war turned
the reluctance to release manpower into a panic thrusting forth of
everyone who would go and several who would have preferred to stay.
War in East Africa
So I took my part, as Senior Cipher Officer of the 11th African
Division, in the longest advance of military history. It was about 2,000
miles from Nairobi to Addis Ababa; I did not participate in the continued advance which ended at Gondar, another 350 miles on. The fastest part of
the advance was from Bura on 13th February, 1941 to Addis Ababa on 6th
April, 1941, an average of 76.6 miles a day. I slept beside the driver of
the vehicle, my right knee dropping against the engine cover and getting
burnt, my left knee dropping against the metal door which, in the Somali
sun, was nearly as hot. My driver, Francis, was a perfect gentleman from
Tanganyika. At night we enciphered and deciphered by as little light as
possible to avoid enemy detection.
In Addis Ababa we were overwhelmed with the flow of messages. From 7
a.m. to 10 a.m. I did all the administrative chores, changing code-words
throughout the division, issuing and withdrawing ciphers, making postings,
and so on. My sergeants were forbidden to spend more than 30 minutes
trying to unravel a corrupt message. Nor were they to ask for a repeat
because the signals people were choked up. So from 10 a.m. I wrestled
with corrupt messages, closing for the day at 10 p.m. Occasionally a
cipher sergeant would decode the first few words of a message as, "For
Wilmot, to be deciphered by Wilmot". Since all cipher messages were
secret, that usually meant that the message I deciphered was a pretty
abrupt rebuke of General Wetherall, the division's commander, by
Cunningham, who was in charge of the East Africa Force (later Command). I
had to hand such messages to Wetherall personally. He always struck me as
being entirely philosophical about them.
Occasionally, a message for my own attention was simply more top secret
than others. One such message was particularly exciting. As we
approached Addis Ababa the Italians were planning to circle anti-clockwise
starting in a south-westerly direction and coming back from the south-east
to attack our southern flank. The instruction from the Duke d'Aosta to his southern general was deciphered by our cipher-breaking section in
Kenya, re-enciphered in our own most secure cipher, deciphered by me and
handed to Wetherall 30 mintes after the Italians radio-signalled it.
At Addis Ababa I was one of 19 officers on the old palace balcony
when Haile Selassie, after 5 years exile, drove up the drive, lined by
Nigerian soldiers, mounted the steps and addressed the ecstatic crowds
Two months after we reached Addis Ababa I found myself in military
government, in de facto charge of the Wollega province, stationed at
Lekemti. The man nominally in charge was on the other side of the
battle-line further west. We never met. I acted on my own, communicating
direct with Addis Ababa, where Brigadier Lush headed the military
Government. Lush was from the administration in the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan.
After seven months in Ethiopia I was posted away and never saw Lush again
until we met in totally unpredictable circumstances more than 30 years
I spent time in British Somaliland, at Headquarters in Nairobi, in
the Reserved areas of Ethiopia (the Somali area Lord Rennell of Rodd hoped
to be able to hand back to Somalia, to right the wrongs of his uncle who
had agreed an unjustifiable boundary with Menelik in 1882), a month in
Mogadishu, several months as liaison officer with the military area
headquarters at Nanyuki, and back to British Somaliland where I became
Secretary to the Government in May 1945.
Transfer to Gold Coast
By courtesy of Commander Aylmer in Aden I hitch-hiked a lift on the
frigate Avon in December 1945 arriving in England four days after Christmas. After the Somali deserts the green of the English countryside,
seen from the train between Devonport and East Budleigh, was
breath-taking. By contrast the sheer lifelessness of the British people,
exhausted by a war which had been almost painless in East Africa,
depressed me. The exhilaration of the defeat of Japan (a relief now
largely forgotten) was soon lost in the drudgery of the years of recovery,
with even stricter rationing than during the war.
The War Office allowed me to work out my last few months of military
service in the Colonial Office where I handled Gold Coast affairs. I
married in June and returned to the Colonial Administrative Service in
November when a DC-3 took three days to fly me to Accra, bereft of my wife
until the following March when a troopship was at last available.
Our first four children were born in Accra where I was a Secretariat
officer and then a Ministry officer when the Ministry system began.
Almost the whole of my Gold Coast service was spent acting at a level one
above my substantive level. I had a close interest, from its inception,
in the Volta River project. The Crown Agents identified Sir William
Halcrow and Partners as consultants and I worked closely with Peter Scott,
the partner who developed the survey. Later, the project was split into
two by hiving off the Tema harbour scheme. Robert Jackson took over the
Volta River project and, as acting Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of
Communication and Works, I headed the inter-ministerial committee which
handled the harbour project. The construction of the new town and port of
Tema was well under way when I left Ghana in August 1955, unwilling to
transfer from Her Majesty's Colonial Administrative Service to the new
C.D.C. and Private Enterprise
I joined the Commonwealth (then Colonial) Development Corporation
under Lord Reith and, after four and a half months at the London
Headquarters, relieved the Regional Controller, West Africa, in Lagos.
When he returned from leave, I was posted to Singapore to relieve the
Regional Controller, Far East, who wanted a year to run a project dear to
his heart. In January 1958 the Regional Controller, West Africa, was
posted elsewhere and I took over. The period under Reith and his
successor, Sir Nutcombe Hulme, was challenging and fulfilling but my direct
contact with them was perhaps a mistake. When Sir Nutcombe Hulme left,
things changed and it was obvious that success does not always commend a
man to his superiors.
I was offered the Financial Directorship, and, four months later, the
chairmanship of Brandler and Rylke, timber operators in several West
African countries. When the company reorganisation was complete, I left
to head the African operations of an American economic and management
consulting company. Based in Lagos I developed projects all over Africa.
Executive control is more satisfying than an advisory role so I went
back into a company which had operations in both Nigeria and Ghana. In my
62nd year I retired from business and from 18 years in Lagos and became an
adviser to a church with a 1400 congregation, mainly in Northern Nigeria (the
number has doubled since then) and helped them primarily with their
publishing and bookselling business. We lived in Jos. This was a three
year contract but before it ended I was asked to put a post-graduate
School of Theology on the African map. My wife and I spent a year in
Nairobi, returned to Jos, and were summoned back to Nairobi in 1981 to be
first Principal of the Nairobi Evangelical Graduate School of Theology. We handed over to a Nigerian in 1984 who later handed over to a Sierra
Leonean. I spent much of my retirement raising support for the project in
Britain, Europe, USA, Canada and Australia, travelling extensively. I visited Kenya regularly and on three occaions gave a series of lectures.
Back in 1938 on the Dunvegan Castle I remember being somewhat
apprehensive when confessing to my fellow cadets that I had Christian
convictions. In fact the only response I got was from one of them who
patronisingly remarked, "It takes all kinds to make a world". During the
war, I was given a lay reader's licence by the Bishop of Mombasa and, in
the absence of chaplains in every area in which I served, was often
involved in taking services - both C of E, and "O.D." (Other
Denominations). Throughout my career, in the Colonial Administrative
Service and in business, I found or made time and energy for active
participation in stimulating Christian events including missions to
Universities and meetings for Christian leaders including missionaries.
In 1974, between two business appointments, I undertook, for the United
Bible Societies, a survey of the development and management needs of the
Bible Society of Nigeria. I was asked to discuss my report with the UBS
Committee in London and it was then that I met Brigadier Lush again. He
was a member of that committee.
It was a pleasant surprise to be remembered by old Ghanaian friends,
recently, and to be asked to take an active role in the new Anglo-Ghanaian
Society. Africa gets into the blood-stream and stays there. Who would
want it otherwise?