(T.E. Lawrence Society, P.O. Box 728, Oxford OX2 6YP)
© Ivor Catt 1997. Published in The T.E. Lawrence Society Newsletter No. 45, Spring 1998, up to;
"…. Oh yes! I knew a little Lawrence's state of mind after the war."
[Signed] Sydney E. Catt. December 1976
T. E. Lawrence (Aircraftsman Shaw) as I knew him.
I first saw Lawrence at Amman in August 1921 with King Abdullah: the first King of Transjordan. Lawrence was visiting Abdullah who, with Feisal his brother, had been two of the Arab leaders who had assisted Lawrence in the Arab revolt, which had helped greatly in the defeat of the Turks in the Middle East
I was one of a desert survey party which had been sent off from Baghdad by King Feisal on July 4th 1921.
None of us spoke to Lawrence, who kept in the background of the king's party. Since the end of the war, Lawrence had become famous and had hit the headlines. The last idea I could have had was that I would see more of him in far different circumstances.
The Arabs adored Lawrence. I was to find this out a little later on when I was back at Amman waiting to fly back with the first Air Mail over the route which had been the purpose of the Desert Survey.
I had time to kill, so one day I took a long walk into the hills. I met three Arabs sitting by a stream. After the usual Arab greetings I sat with them for a rest. In my limited Arabic, I began to talk with them, and soon they mentioned Aurens. Where was he? Will he come back to us?, etc. etc. It was obvious that Lawrence had impressed them deeply. It seemed strange that I had seen him in Amman a week or two before. They could not have known about it.
In November 1926 I boarded the troopship Derbyshire to return to Baghdad. I had not been on the ship long before I heard that Shaw was on board. He had been in and out of the R.A.F. since 1922 when he had enlisted under the name of Ross. I soon picked him out, sitting on the deck with a big book which was his constant companion. It turned out to be a volume of Pepys' Diary.
As the voyage went on he just became one of the crowd, but kept very much to himself. Troopships were always crowded to capacity and terribly uncomfortable, but Shaw would find a spot to settle in with his Pepys.
When going on Orderly Sergeants Rounds, when I reached the Airmen's troopdeck where Shaw messed, I asked the Mess Orderly where Shaw slept. He pointed to a corner of the floor and said, "There". I suppose it was a little more comfortable than some of the places where he had slept during his desert activities.
We were sailing down the Suez Canal, and I was again Orderly Sergeant. Coming up from his troopdeck, I almost bumped into Shaw, who was standing on the hatch, gazing over the desert to the east. Whatever was he thinking? I felt I must say something. The sun was streaming down, and, in a way, it all looked very pleasant. I just said to him; "Amazing sight, isn't it." He quietly replied; "It's amazing that I was the Commanding Officer over there," and I left him to his thoughts.
A few days later, when going across the Indian Ocean, I had to interview all the aircraft hands and ask them where they would like to be posted to in India. On my asking Shaw, he said he didn't mind where he went.
As I changed ships to go on to Baghdad, I saw no more of Shaw for the time being. He spent quite a time at Karachi, and was then sent to Miranshah, a very outlandish spot within a few miles of the Afghan/Pakistan border.
Lawrence (Shaw) was not allowed to remain in peace at Miranshah for long, as stupid journalists began to connect his name with a revolt which broke out across the border with Afghanistan.
Lawrence had become so much a legend that newspapers were only too eager to publish any rubbish about him. Things got so bad that, in the circumstances, the decision of the Government of India to have Lawrence sent home was inevitable. On January 8th a929 he left Miranshah by air, and on January 12th left Bombay on the P&O ship Rajputana.
In the meantime, I had moved from Baghdad to Aden, where I soon learnt that the only place to get a good meal was on the P&O liners. It was possible to have a late breakfast on the outgoing boat on Sunday morning, and a dinner on the homegoing boat on Wednesday evenings. I was having dinner on the Rajputana when the steward said; "Have one of your V.I.P.s on board this time." It turned out to be Shaw on his way home. I did not speak or make myself known to him.
I was to see much more of Shaw as, after my five years abroad, I was posted home and went to Mount Batten Plymouth, where I arrived late in 1931. Shaw was already there, and I was soon to become more than an acquaintance, as I was to meet him practically every day. Mount Batten was a very small camp.
I was now a Warrant Officer, responsible for all electrical and radio equipment.
Shaw was posted to the Airline Section. Like everybody else with any brains, he soon realised that the old fashioned naval pinnaces and slow motor boats were far from ideal craft to serve flying boats, especially when after a serious crash, it took so long for the rescue craft to reach the crash. Shaw accordingly started a campaign to impress the Air Ministry with the need for a new type of boat to act as tenders. Because of this, Shaw became one of the team which designed the modern speed boat which came into use. He put up suggestions for the improvement of electrical equipment. Before passing them on to Air Ministry, I had to discuss these with him. All his ideas were plain common sense.
I never tired of talking to him about anything. He had a charming voice, and his eyes fascinated me.
He would do the humblest of jobs. On going into the hangar one day, I saw him scraping up the grease and filth from the bottom of a boat from which the engine had been removed. "Do you have to do that, Shaw?" I asked him. He quietly replied; "Somebody has to do it, sir." It suddenly brought to my mind the time when I was an aircraftsman working in a large technical store washing engine parts with a bucket of paraffin. The Flight Sergeant in charge came to me and said; "We've been talking about you, Catt, as we think you shouldn't be doing this. So we are putting you up to remuster to a storekeeper." This was in order that I should become a tradesman. Like Shaw, I was happy as I was, and like Shaw, I had no wish to be otherwise. Unlike Shaw, I was not able to stay at the bottom of things. Being an experienced telegraphist, I found myself in charge of a watch on Baghdad main wireless station, and in trouble for refusing promotion, or rather, for not wearing my stripes.
I was in the Command rifle team [Syd played soccer for the R.A.F., also rugger, got to the R.A.F. tennis final, shot for the R.A.F., and later when I (his son) knew him, played golf for the R.A.F.] for Bisley and., after a practice shoot one afternoon, I ran into Shaw walking up the camp road. I joined him. During the conversation I said; "I understand you were pretty good with one of these," tapping my rifle. "Oh yes, Sir," he replied, "I did have a few notches in mine, but I'm no longer keen." He did not in fact do, or seem to take any interest in sport of any kind, unless one can count his motor cycling as such. [Syd had had a narrow escape on his motor cycle. I.C.]
I lived just outside the camp boundary [in married quarters overlooking the river and Plymouth, I.C.], so I said I would be Orderly Officer for the holiday period, so that as many officers as possible could go on Christmas Leave. At midnight on Christmas Eve, while doing midnight rounds, I saw a light in the marine section hangar, and was surprised to find the door unlocked. On going through the scruffy office, I was amazed to find Shaw scribbling away at the table. "Good gracious me, Shaw, I said; having a merry Christmas?" "Oh yes, Sir," he said; "Just passing the time." But after sitting and talking for a few minutes, I realised he would sooner the room than my company. So, wishing him a Merry Christmas, I said goodnight. It was a bitterly cold night, and when I suggested that it might be a bit cold, he said he was quite comfortable. That night he was actually working on his translation of the Odyssey, which was published shortly afterwards. To be doing something like that under such awful conditions was, to me, amazing.
He used to get a new Brough Superior motor cycle every year, and one time when the discip. bloke was on leave I helped him with his job. Just before lunch one day I heard the bike screech in and stop outside. Shaw came in and dropped his leave pass on the table. "Where've you been, Shaw," I asked him. "I've just come down from town after seeing Sir Philip," he replied. Sir Philip was, of course, the present Air Minister. I looked up at the clock amazed, and asked him when he left London. "Just after breakfast," he said. I then said, "I want you to go a little easier, old chap, or you will be killing yourself on that thing." On hearing of his death, my mind flashed back to this chat with him.
He invited me to Clouds Hill, his cottage in Dorset, and I now regret deeply that I did not manage to fit it in. It would have been marvellous to have been tête-á- tête with him there, if only for a couple of days. [Syd was newly married. Never in my experience did his wife (my mother) mention Lawrence. I.C.] He loved music, and I used to talk music with him [Syd and his wife first met when singing in Cairo cathedral choir. I.C.] At the time, the B.B.C. was in the doldrums. For good music we relied on the German and French stations. When discussing this with Shaw, he said that as far as he was concerned, the B.B.C. could close down. He would gladly pay the licence fee to listen to the continentals. When on duty and having to stay in the Mess, I would borrow new recordings from him to pass the time. At this time, much was being written about him. If I saw mention of anything in the Observer or other papers, I would say to him; "I see so-and-so is talking about you again." If this was a book or magazine article, he would say, "You will find a copy in my locker. Go and help yourself."
I never saw Shaw in civilian clothes. When going out for the evening with Lady Astor, or visiting Sir Philip Sassoon, he would wear uniform breeches and puttees. This was the most uncomfortable dress, let alone uniform, ever conceived. He would also have with him the stupid little walking-out cane.
I had the extreme good fortune to meet Lawrence's mother. This was a fascinating experience.
Some time after the war, my wife and I stayed at Charney Manor [Quaker] Guest House when Mrs. Lawrence was there, with her other son A.W. [Syd's wife was a Quaker. C.M. is near Oxford.] I knew Stonehenge well, and we had recently seen Avebury Ring and some of the other historical remains. The conversation turned on these, and we were amazed at the knowledge Mrs. Lawrence had of the subject, upon which she expounded at length.
They had no car, and as A.W. had some visiting to do, I ran him around.
The visit ended tragically for them. Due to some stupid mistake by one of the maids, the central heating in Mrs. Lawrence's room failed, and she caught a bad chill which necessitated her removal to the Oxford hospital where she died after a couple of days. [In conversation, Syd told me more than once that Mrs. Lawrence sat outside too long with him and the other two on a cool summer evening, and that was the way she caught a chill. A minor contradiction. I.C.]
I never mentioned to her or to A.W. that I had known T.E. fairly well, but perhaps I should have done.
To many, the life Lawrence led in the R.A.F. might seem enigmatical. But, in many ways, I understood his feelings. I felt like dropping out of everything in the same way. I was terribly depressed after a miserable time at the end of my [first world] war service as an infantryman, and found it difficult to settle down. My last months of army service were spent in the Khyber Pass as I was caught up in the Afridi War which carried on for a long time after the war in Europe had ended. I did not get home and demobilised until 1920. I had not been home long before everything seemed to fall flat, and I soon longed to get away from it all.
I had been accepted by the Marconi Company [which employed his son in its decadent phase 50 years later. I.C.] and was awaiting the start of a new term [in their training school]. I had a few days to kill, which I was killing by doing London museums, art galleries etc. Strolling along the Strand, I saw that poster, which Lawrence saw, with the chap in blue, the sun streaming down, the mosque in the background, and the caption "Join the R.A.F. and see the world. Apply 4 Henrietta Street, round the corner." So, having nothing better to do, I went round the corner and, like Lawrence, as i was told that I could go to Egypt next week, I joined the R.A.F. as a humble aircrafthand. When I saw Liverpool disappearing from the stern of the Cunarder Teutonic, I felt very happy to be getting away from it all.
I did not cancel my place at [Marconi's] college, care two hoots what pay I should get, or anything. Fortunately, I had a pretty good bank account, so that if I got sick of the R.A.F., I could get away from that too [presumably since he would be able to afford to buy himself out. I.C.].
Oh yes! I knew a little Lawrence's state of mind after the war.
[Signed] Sydney E. Catt. December 1976
[Syd died 1986 approx.. Poor copy transcribed and slightly edited by his only son I.C. on 2aug97.]
[For access to Syd's 180pp unpublished autobiography "What a Life!", refer to Ivor Catt, 121 Westfields, St. Albans AL3 4JR, England]
Extracts from "What a Life", 180 pp, by Sydney Catt.
The last three pages indicate that "What a life" was written, or at least discontinued, in 1974. The signature at the end of "T. E. Lawrence (Aircraftsman Shaw) as I knew him." is dec76. Thus, it seems likely that the latter is generally extracted from the former as a result of interest in the particular "Lawrence" dimension of Syd's life. Thus, generally we get little more from the latter to add to the former. [Added a few hours later on. I now doubt this rationalisation. The two versions are too different, and must have been written independently.]
8 and 13aug97, Ivor Catt cursorily found items on TEL in the latter on pp43, 44, 77, 93, 94, 95, 97. There may of course be more, including flashbacks and flashforwards that Syd indulges in. I do not however expect to find much more.
I did not go to Egypt 'next week', as the chap at the recruiting office said I would, but commenced square bashing. I was taught how to march, salute, stand to attention, stand at ease, and the rest. I was not the only old soldier in my section. Most of us had done much more than the people instructing us. We took it all as a big joke. Life was all a joke, as we just had nothing to worry about. We did various fatigues, such as potato peeling in the cookhouse, coal lorry, general cleaning up, and what not.
Work had started on the sports stadium. When we had learnt how to march, salute and stand to attention, we became labourers on this. This was fine. With a few others, I became one of a team going to surrounding factories on a Leyland lorry to get loads of ashes. We went as far afield as Ealing and Southall, to gasworks, margarine factories, and anywhere where ashes were to be got. The weather was getting warm, and we wore nothing but boots, socks and a suit of overalls. We enjoyed every minute of it.
One just cannot talk about the Uxbridge of those days without mentioning the stupid clot who was in charge, Group Captain B.C. He was a product of the army. It was said he had had a distinguished career. If this is so, he must have changed drastically, because no pre-war officer I had served with would behave to all under him as this man did. As we were the lowest of the low, to whom he could do no damage, we delighted in taking the mickey out of him. We would go out of our way to meet him just to see what the poor idiot would find fault with in our dress, the way we were walking, dusty boots or what have you. We were always sure to have something wrong, even if it was only the stupid puttees the R.A.F. issue. It was impossible to put them on without having open gaps at the bottoms of the turns. We called them horse bandages. He had built up around him a gang of officers and N.C.O.s of like ilk. Even the corporals delighted in terrorising all who came under their charge. The damage this gang must have caused before the Air Ministry did eventually sort them out was alarming. [p44] There was Stiffy, in charge of training, and the proud boaster of having the loudest voice in Christendom. It was said that when he was the officer in charge of the R.A.F. detachment on any ceremonial occasion in Central London, he would try to make his voice heard in Uxbridge umpteen miles away. How lucky we were, we who had seen the rough side of service, in the trenches in France or, in my case, the heartbreaking time I had had in India. There was clean water in the taps, a bed of sorts at night, and the bawling and shouting from these poor simpletons just blew over us. Those of us who had seen army or naval life in the raw were able to comfort some of the younger ones who were finding the life a bit too much. We could not believe that the R.A.F. was going to be like this. We told them life would be different when we got away from Uxbridge, as indeed it was. But even then, one met vestiges of this mentality some years afterwards.
I can only refer you to T.E. Lawrence's chapter in 'The Mint' for a better account of this mad house as it was. He was there two years after me. It is possible that he had something to do with cleaning out the rubbish there. I wonder if B.C. would have tried to humiliate Lawrence had he known who he really was. To B.C., he was 352087 A.C.2 Ross. I was to serve with, and get to know, Lawrence fairly well later on. In my humble opinion, B.C. was not fit to lick Lawrence's boots.
"The news soon got around that Shaw (T.E. Lawrence) was on board, and I was impatient to get a glimpse of this famous character. So much had been written about this 'uncrowned king of Arabia' and his exploits with the Arabs, assisting, to great extent, in clearing the Turks from the Hejaz. It was general knowledge that he was in the R.A.F. as an aircrafthand, and an air of mystery was being built around him.
I first saw him sitting on the deck reading a large book which I later found was a volume of Pepys' Diary. He would queue at the ship's canteen and buy an apple, or anything that was going, with the other troops. He seemed quite contented with the life he had chosen. The weather had turned as lovely as it can at this time of the year in the Mediterranean. Sailing along the coast of North Africa and seeing Tangiers shining in the sun in the distance all come back to me now, as does the remembrance of watching the endless chain of coolies with their small baskets, with endless chanting, coaling the ship at Port Said. The port was arrayed in glad rags because, we were told, King Fuad was making a visit there. We dropped about 360 chaps who were for Egypt and Palestine.
Although I had come up the Canal twice, this was to be my first time to go down it. The Canal organisation must have been very good, because we only arrived at Port Said at 4 O'clock in the afternoon, and yet we were coaled and had taken on the necessary stores to sail at midnight.
I was orderly sergeant. next day, going down the canal, when inspecting No. 2 Troop Deck, I asked which mess Shaw was on. he was on the corner table, and I asked the Mess Orderly where Shaw slept. Ho nodded to the corner, and said that Shaw curled up there. I guessed that it was as comfy as many places he had slept in during his desert days. As I came on to the deck, Shaw was standing in the hatch, gazing out over the desert. There was no one near him. I looked at him for a bit, then went up to him and said; "A lovely picture, isn't it." He turned to me and quietly said; "Yes. And to think that I was the commanding officer there at one time." I could have made conversation by mentioning my desert experiences, but I did not like to do so. After a few inane remarks I left him to his thoughts. I thought of the Arabs who had spoken to me near Amman, asking if he was coming back. I wonder what he would have replied to that.
I was to speak to Shaw again. I was Orderly Sergeant as we travelled across the Indian Ocean. I paraded all aircrafthands and asked them where and what they wanted to do on arrival in India, where they all seemed to be going. Shaw just replied, when I asked him what he wanted to do; "I really don't mind at all." in that beautiful, quiet voice that I was later to become so fond of listening to."
....1931 was now slipping away and as I expected an early posting home we decided to leave our wedding to that. ........
How lucky I was to get to such a delightful spot as Plymouth, and to find myself with an interesting job of work. It was my first connection with seaplanes and flying boats, there being no land planes at all. From the wireless point of view, it was the same as other places, with one exception; it had one of the three direction finding stations in the country. The other two were at Andover and Bircham Newton. Compared with modern direction finding equipment, these were crude affairs, with large frame aerials suspended on a 70 foot mast, working on the long wave band.
Unlike land plane stations, there was a large marine section for the necessary boats needed, and on the strength of this was Leading Aircraftman Shaw. I had caught up with him again, and from now on I was to see him almost daily in one way or another, meeting him to talk with him on matters in which I was involved. I tried hard to get to know him, but he was a bit of an enigma. I doubt if anybody really got to know him. He was fascinating to talk to, if only to listen to his voice and look into his wonderful blue eyes. He was musical, so I was able to talk music with him. I remember discussing the B.B.C. with him one time, when he said the B.B.C. could close down and we would still pay our receiver charge and get its worth from the foreign stations, which were so much better. He had a lot of records, and if I was on duty and stuck in the mess for the evening, I could always go to him and borrow some.
There was a bad crash in the Sound, and Shaw was in the first boat to hurry to it. He realised that if he had had something faster than the antiquated dinghies and pinnaces then in use, lives might have been saved. After much discussion, Air Ministry agreed, and Shaw, who had some very good ideas about speed boats, went to work at Southampton with Scott-Pain, to produce a high speed power boat with its stepped bottom, which was one of Shaw's ideas.
One day, as I was going into a hangar, Shaw was in a dinghy cleaning up the filth and grease and oil from under the engine had just been removed. I couldn't help but say to him; "Do you have to do that, Shaw?" He quietly said to me; "Somebody's got to do it, Sir."
He was ten years older than me, and therefore quite old to be in a barrack room with a crowd of young airmen, but on my asking some of them how they got on with him, they always said; "Fine. He's one of us."
He had one of the powerful Brough Superior motor bikes with the huge V twin engine, which he changed every year for a new one. One time, the discip. was on leave, and as his office was opposite mine, I did some of his work. Late on morning, I heard Shaw's bike hounding down the road, to stop outside. He came in and handed me his pass form. He said he had been to London to see Sir Philip (Sassoon was Air Minister at the time). "What time did you leave London?" I asked. "Soon after breakfast," he said. He had done London - Plymouth in a forenoon, and I quietly said to him; "You will be killing yourself on that bike at this rate." How I thought of that conversation with him when he did actually kill himself on his beloved Brough.
The troops always called across to him for the meaning of any awkward word they might see. One day, one of them said to him; "Gee, Shaw, you must know every word in the dictionary." "But I do," he quietly replied.
I wish I had kept some of the letters he wrote about electrical equipment, which I handled, and had to talk to him about. His writing was beautiful, and all the things he tried to get done were sane and sensible ideas.
Warrant Officers took turns at being Orderly Officer of the Day. Since I was living just outside the gate, and staying put for Xmas, I did the duty over the holiday so that as many as possible could go. One of the duties was to inspect all flying boats at moorings to see if any were making water. About midnight on Christmas Eve I noticed a light in the marine section shed, and found the door unlocked. On making my way through the boats, I saw a light in the office, and was amazed to find Shaw scribbling there. "God, Shaw," I said; "Having a Merry Christmas?" "Oh yes, Sir," he said, "Just passing the time." After chatting a short time with him and pointing to the sheets of paper on the table, I said; "You seem to be busy, so I'll buzz off. Night-night." I wondered what the dickens he was doing, and found he was working on the Odyssey, which was published later. I just cannot understand a brilliant brain doing a work of this standard in a boat shed on a scruffy table on a cold winter's night. As I walked away, I thought, What a pity!
I am sure of one thing about him. He was much happier hobnobbing with humble folk than with the high and mighty.
Once I asked him if he still had any connections with the tribes he had worked with during the war. He said he did get news from some of them at times.
We all knew about Clouds Hill, his retreat in Dorset, and he did say to me once that I must go and see it, but I never got round to it. He did not want the limelight, and the beautiful monument of him in the little Dorset church in not the sort of thing he would have wished for.
Coming from shooting practice, I ran into Shaw and walked into camp with him. Patting my gun, I said; "You have the reputation of being pretty useful with one of these. Why don't you come and have a crack with us?" He turned, smiled in the cheekish way he had, and said; "Yes, I did get a few notches in mine, but that's all over." Since he once hit a petrol tin four out of five shots at 400 yards, he was a very good shot. But that was before the war, and his desert revolt exploits. [I don't know what Syd's talking about here. I.C.]
I find it very difficult to believe that the T.E. that I knew was the same T.E. as depicted in his letters edited by David Garnett, or the T.E. of the Seven Pillars, but I do understand the T.E. of The Mint, because his mental attitude in that is akin to my own. [Ivor gave Syd The Mint in 1955, and Syd expressed surprise and sorrow that T.E. had bleated in that way. This tends towards contradiction with Syd's story. Syd told Ivor he went through bad basic training under awful war damaged Baden Powell in Uxbridge in 1920, within two years of Lawrence, and that although bad, T.E. must have been through far worse before, as had Syd. Ivor had similar basic training hell in Hednesford decades later, in 1953. The concept of sadism masquerading as strict discipline was first (to Ivor's knowledge) broached only in a 1997 reminisce on National Service by Auberon Waugh on TV. (I think it was AW).]
Years later, I was to meet his mother and brother at Charney Manor. I was to find out what a marvellous woman she was. After supper on our first evening, we got chatting archaeology with two females in the small lounge. We got on to Stonehenge and Avebury. An elderly lady and a man sat by reading, and on one of us querying a point, the dear thing said; "Perhaps I can help you,", and forthwith went on to give a most interesting explanation of the whole subject. As soon as I could get clear, I ran to the warden and asked who the charming little woman was. He replied that she was the mother of T.E. Lawrence, and was with his brother. There were only six of us there, so we were soon mixing well. They had no car, so the doctor came to oxford with us to do some business. I made no mention that I had been with T.E. since he had been dead for some time. I now wish that I had, because we were the last people to be in her company. She caught a chill, was hurried into hospital in Oxford, and was dead within a couple of days."