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Richard Knott

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Habbaniya

Middle East Posting: Jack Knott and Freya Stark


 

Compared to some, my father Jack was an intrepid traveller, thinking nothing of driving through the night to Portugal or Austria in the post-war years.  But his love of the road was of a different order to Freya Stark’s who always assumed that any journey was possible, and a God-given right.  Perhaps that difference reflected their disparate backgrounds: hers – exotic, cosmopolitan, comfortable; Jack’s – urban, grey, short-lived, and narrow; Freya brought up in an artist’s sprawling house near Dartmoor, its grounds thick with rhododendrons; and my orphaned father from his Black Country two-up, two-down, with its weedy yard and outside privy.  She regarded the wider world as hers to explore; he, though, would have chosen to see the war out in gloomy boredom in some obscure RAF station in the English Home Counties.  That was all to change in 1942 when Jack was posted to the Middle East.

 

Did their paths ever cross?  It’s certainly possible.  Was he perhaps part of her police protection on one of the occasions when she passed through Habbaniya?  One thing is certain: Freya understood exactly why she was in Arabia, writing in her diary towards the end of March 1942, that ‘Hitler must make for oil or die.’  Jack was not a man to keep a diary, or care about the bigger picture.   He was there simply because his luck had run out and some miserable bugger behind a comfortable desk had decided that Jack Knott’s war would not be complete without taking in some years in the desert sun, and, before that, a long sea voyage around the Cape of Good Hope.

Another extract from ‘Posted in Wartime‘ (Pen & Sword, March 2017); the quotation from Freya Stark is from ‘Dust in the Lion’s Paw’, page 129.

 

Noel Coward and Jack Knott, Iraq 1943


RAF Habbanya, Iraq, 1943.

There is a photo in my possession where my father is sweltering in 130 degrees heat.  This is the RAF station at Habbaniya.  When he stepped out of the aircraft there, Noel Coward thought it like ‘stepping into a blast furnace’.  The day Noel entertained the men at Habbaniya, ‘my father must have been sitting in the audience; I can see him resolutely unmoved and the entertainer with a smile welded to his face, streaming with sweat, that clipped voice singing about an England that my father would only dimly have recognised.’

‘The routine of life in this distant outpost of Empire was lifted by such visitors passing through: politicians and comedians, soldiers and singers, either on their way to somewhere else, or there to make ‘Have a Banana’ – Habbaniya – seem that little bit closer to home.  Jack saw two TUC members en route to Moscow (he disapproved); Eden and Mountbatten (the kind of aristocrats whose sleek hair and well-cut clothes Jack sought to emulate and always felt marked out a man for great things); and the entertainers – Jack Benny (too slick); Larry Adler (not bad); Winnie Shaw (‘Boy what a girl she was!’);and Noël Coward (not really Jack’s sort of thing .)

Two extracts from chapter 10 of ‘Posted in Wartime‘.

 

 

‘Posted in Wartime’ – What’s It About?


‘Wartime exile then is a key theme in this book; it is what connects the six principal characters, both the celebrated and the unknown.  ‘Posted in Wartime’ has a double meaning of course: the first of which refers to the role and nature of written correspondence during the war – the impact, for example, of censorship and stretched lines of communication, the slow and unreliable postal service on which those sent abroad relied for news and reassurance.  Even, presumably, my tight-lipped father.   The second meaning concerns the despatching of  individuals to far corners of the world, sent hither and thither to fight, police, drive transports, administrate, liaise, or entertain.  That process was often the result of some anonymous civil servant’s whim or staff officer’s hunch which duly consigned someone to a rattling, cold Liberator or DC3, or a transcontinental train; or, more likely, some rusty troop-ship beating its way from one fly-blown port to another.’

That’s it basically.  The book is concerned with the following key issues/newsworthy items: what wartime service does to people; the nature of exile; how people’s background determines the kind of war one faced; and how wartime service changes lives forever.  There are a number of very topical locations in the book as well, including Iraq and Palestine.

In addition there are a significant number of interesting people who appear within the book, including:   Tony Benn, Roald Dahl, Ian Fleming, Greta Garbo and Evelyn Waugh.  I’ll provide some more information tomorrow about the book’s main characters, including my mysterious father!

 

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