Mess Secretary, 1943 - Peter Briscoe
By Peter Briscoe
Word had come down that following completion of conversion from Hudsons to Dakotas; the squadron was on the move from outside Delhi, at Palam, to a new base at Basal, outside Rawalapindi. Here rumour had it we would be training paratroopers and dropping supplies.
I was chatting with the adjutant, F/LT A. Chalmers about developments when W/C Pearson, our CO filled the doorway (as only he could) and announced we were going t have to establish separate messing facilities for all ranks. This was the first time the squadron would not be a guest unit but would be on their own. Subsequently a notice was posted calling an Officers Mess meeting. Though I had planned to be there, I had not given the problem much thought. That is until I saw W/C Pearson the day of the meeting and he said, ‘Ah Briscoe, you are the new Mess Secretary!’ I certainly did not understand him and said something like “Yes Sir the meeting is to night”. At the appointed hour all the officers were assembled. The chairmam then said, ‘As the first order of business we will accept nominations for the post of Mess Secretary’. S/L Frankie Bell: said, ‘I nominate Peter Briscoe.’ Quick as a flash W/C Pearson said ‘I move nominations close.’ Everyone roared with laughter - a put up job if ever there was one! The meeting drew to a close with everyone pledging a nominal loan to the mess to start up the bar. Very important business!
Next day found me deep in logistics with F/LT Chalmers, our adjutant and certainly my main guide as we moved into unfamiliar territory. Apart from cooks, he had a prospect to take over bar duties and help organize the catering. Then to finances, apparently we could borrow from the Central Reserve fund a maximum of 4,000 rupees for the purchase of essentials to get the Mess off the ground. This covered the purchase of pots & pans, crockery, glasses, cutlery etc., etc. Our first step was to compile a list of requirements based on what was in use at our host mess in Palam. Then we placed our orders by signal to the supply depots with instructions that we would pickup. Next, organizing squadron aircraft flying our routes to collect our supplies from Bombay, Cawnpore etc. F/LT Chalmers was busy organizing the Airman’s Mess and the N.C.O. Mess so that all supplies could be collected at one time.
It was in September 1943 that we eventually took up official residence at Basal. One of my first duties was to arrange a meeting with the manager, Marks and Spencer, provisioners. Since I was armed with a sizeable bank account, I thought I would not encounter any problem purchasing adequate liquor supplies. While the reception was friendly, supplies of liquor were limited and confined mainly to gin, some Scotch and liqueurs. About this time, the R.C.A.F. Officers started to receive a liquor allowance and each officer opted for one bottle of rye whiskey per month and donated it to the mess. This was a real bonus as we got underway.
Suggestions were many as to how to improve the ‘basha’ hut that was the mess lounge. The consensus was an English pub decor. The first step was a bar constructed by maintenance. This we painted black and fronted by red leatherette. (I remember this clearly as I was dismissed as a painter). Then came the inevitable dartboard, cards etc. I was still looking for suitable pictures to brighten up the room, when a special trip took our crew to Colombo, Ceylon. Like to day, everything seemed expensive until I saw a very large (coffee table size) book of English hunting prints in a bookstore. Having them framed was easy and we had, if I recall correctly, 25 prints which everyone enjoyed.
Now to operations. Bar that is! The staff of one - ‘Henry’ - was an excellent choice, steady and reliable. However it was immediately apparent because of the hours and other duties, Henry needed help. He suggested another airman, his mate ‘Bill’ who, had been a bartender in an English private club.
The ‘Adj.’ and I had lengthy interviews with ‘Bill’ who appeared an excellent choice. In a week, he proved himself. Courteous, yet not familiar, adept now he was working ‘on his own turf’ - we had a gem.
The month-end rolled around and I was preoccupied with the finances trying to establish whether or not we had made a profit. Each officer had his own notebook at the bar, entered his drinks, initialing the entry. At month-end I priced out each book and transferred the charge for drinks to the Officer’s Mess Bill. I had inventory to take etc. etc. However, when all was done we showed a profit. Quite a surprise! I reviewed the charges (our pricing was quite in line with other messes) and my basic accounting seemed okay. The next month was the test. This time we ended up with a hefty profit and after a thorough check, I was mystified. We paid off the Officer’s initial loans and I was still in the dark. Asking pointed questions of ‘Henry’, he suggested I spend an evening at the bar when ‘Bill’ was serving. There was however a slight delay in responding, for about this time, a fine chap, PLO Frank Palmer (asst. Adj.) came aboard as assistant secretary since it was foreseen that when flying operations moved to Burma I would not be available.
The particular evening I joined ‘Bill’, the bar was busy. At the outset, it was easy to see why ‘Bill’ was so popular. Watching him deftly pouring drinks (Gin and Squash was the drink of choice) his measure moving swiftly from glass to glass you appreciated a professional in action. As the evening progressed and I busied myself with a variety of jobs, I realized from the conversations at the bar, ‘Bill’ was well aware what everyone in the ‘Mess’ had had to drink. At some point 1 saw that in the blur of pouring drinks those who had had several drinks got a shade less than full measure. I realized what I saw was the ingrained habit of a lifetime, where the bartender increased the house percentage by up to 10%. I had lots to think about. Could I change ‘Bill’? - Probably not! After all everyone felt him indispensable and tried to buy him drinks which he politely refused, though I am certain Henry and he had a nightcap at the end of the day. In any event was a 10% shortcoming all that serious? All the officers were the beneficiaries of the profit and a well-run mess. Certainly some were more than better off!
It was late and time to go. After a goodnight to ‘Henry’ I turned to Bill, ‘Everything all right, sir?’ he inquired. ‘Yes, thank you, Bill - keep up the good work!’
I picked up my flashlight and walked out into the night.