Libya - Monkeys in a Hangar, by Ralph Glazer (1954)
As a trainee on a familiarisation posting to Tripoli, I was given the job of meeting and greeting IPs (Important Passengers) while BOAC Tripoli Station got on with its work.
My very first IP was Sir Julian Huxley, the eminent zoologist, who was in transit through Tripoli en route to a conference in Nigeria. Sir Julian was fascinated by the rhesus monkeys living in the rafters of the wartime hangar which served as a makeshift passenger terminal.
Libya was a long way from their natural habitat, he said, and these particular monkeys seemed to belong to an Indian sub-species. So what were they doing in Tripoli? I told him that they had escaped from a freighter aircraft while being carried from India to London six months before. There was no time to tell him more; we had reached the aircraft steps, and Sir Julian was keen to be on his way.
People who had been on duty at the time told me what had happened. That night, at about 3 am, muffled roars and terrible animal screams erupted from the night-stopping Avro York freighter parked outside the hangar; a tiger had broken out of its crate, and was starting to eat the monkeys, its fellow-passengers.
The two Supercargoes (animal handlers) travelling with the freighter were called out from their hotel in Tripoli. Through the windows of the York they could see what was happening inside the aircraft, but were at a loss as to what to do. They could only suggest: get someone to shoot the tiger.
Nobody could suggest anything else, but BOAC had good contacts with the British Army units still in Libya, and a marksman was soon at the Airport, assessing the situation. He returned with a sniper rifle and a heavy duty hand gun obtained from the regimental armoury, and having decided that it would not be possible to shoot the tiger from outside the aircraft, he armed himself with the hand gun in case he came face to face with the tiger, and, displaying the sort of courage which wins medals in combat, he got onto the flight deck by way of the crew ladder, taking the sniper rifle with him.
However, there was no sign of the tiger, the monkeys had grown very quiet, and from the flight deck the marksman had an unobstructed view of the entire length – nearly 50 feet – of the aircraft interior. And then he saw the tiger, lying on the floor close to the aft bulkhead, apparently fast asleep after its monkey dinner, and with the help of the gun sight on the sniper rifle, he killed the tiger with a single shot to the head. Afterwards, he said that he had felt sorry for the tiger, a truly magnificent animal, but he could scarcely have allowed it to prowl about the aircraft eating monkeys until, needing a change of diet, it started to eat the crew.
As soon as the York’s loading doors were opened, the surviving monkeys from the cage which the tiger had broken into – about twenty of them - came tumbling out of the aircraft, made for the hangar and climbed up to the rafters, where they had stayed ever since, making a thorough nuisance of themselves, coming down frequently to raid kitchens, gardens and farms in search of food.
The body of the tiger was moved into cold storage, and extra help was brought in to clear the monkey body parts and general mess left by the slaughter of the monkeys.
All BOAC animal freighters had been fitted with leak-proof floors to shield the under-floor control cables from contamination by body fluids dripping down from livestock. This facilitated a thorough cleansing of the aircraft floor. Remaining livestock, including almost 2000 more monkeys and hundreds of finches, were left in place, and the aircraft continued to London the following morning, the crew having enjoyed 24 more hours in Tripoli, in those days a pleasant seaside resort with a large Italian population, a relic of the time before WW 2 when Libya was an Italian colony.
Tiger hunting was once the indulgence of wealthy celebrities. Usually, a goat would be tethered to a stake in a clearing in the jungle, to act as live bait to attract the tiger, and as the tiger broke cover, it would be shot by the hunter from a ‘howdah’ placed on the back of an elephant. The tiger would be brought back to base camp, and claimed as a personal trophy by the hunter.
Our own tiger was shot in rather different circumstances – inside a British freighter aircraft, on Libyan soil – but was nonetheless the rightful trophy of the marksman who had shot it, and BOAC Tripoli were glad to arrange its delivery to the marksman’s regiment, who sent it to a taxidermist in London, where it was made into a splendid tiger skin rug, with a mounted lifelike, snarling head.
The rug was moved to the bar in the officers’ mess in the regimental headquarters in Yorkshire, and officers who have over-indulged at the bar still sober up instantly at the sight of that tiger’s snarling head.