THE FADING MARGIN: serial 17.

Chapter ELEVEN

A Last Hurrah!

Part One

Characteristically, my diary marks what must have been the crowded last few days of my six months in India with a conspicuous blank. No philosophical reflections upon their significance. No regrets or excitement. No fond farewells. Only when Iraq had been disclosed as the regiment’s destination and my first and last voyage on a conventional troop ship had begun was the momentous shift in my experience as an amateur soldier briefly noticed.

Tuesday, 3 September, 1946: Bombay. Tugs move us slowly out of the basin at 7.15 am. A clear morning as we leave harbour and the sun is shining on the Taj and the Gateway of India. The pleasanter side of the city looks quite attractive. Passing the ‘Georgic’, decks crowded with troops bound (someone says) for home and demob. Bad attack of nostalgia as a result. Soon reach open sea. Ship rolls badly and troops start feeling it. Self OK so far. Lunch and dine briefly. Wednesday: Just started on eggs and bacon when suddenly obliged to leave saloon and was sick. Took to bunk. Curry and rice lunch stayed down. Bunk rest of day until light supper. Ship rolling abominably and most people ill. Thursday: Fair night & breakfast. Rolling reduced. On deck and read Stone of Chastity by Margery Sharp. Entertaining. Good curry lunch. Sleep until dinner. Wrote letters. Friday: Getting warmer as Gulf of Oman approaches. Read Nigel Balchin’s Mine Own Executioner. Excellent: could hardly put it down, but obliged to do so when warm air plus movement of ship induces nausea that sends me unsteadily to heads. Much humidity. Beautiful moon and sea. Saturday: Land sighted several times; great rugged cliffs and sandy shore. Read and sleep. At evening, round corner at head of Gulf of Oman. Sea dead calm. Sunday, 8 September: Very beautiful day with delightful breeze on deck all day. In evening, anchored at mouth of Shatt al Arab river. Terribly humid. C.O. calls officers’ conference and announces we are part of Force 401; purpose unspecified. Have developed unpleasant yellow tinge from anti-malarial mepacrin.

Britain had had a cardinal interest in the Middle East for at least 200 years. Until the discovery of oil in Persia in 1908 the interest had been that of protecting the approaches to India from the possible encroachments of any rival European power. Following the Royal Navy’s abandonment of coal in favour of oil during the First World War, her prime concern had been at all costs to safeguard the supply of the fuel that was indispensable both to her maritime security and (which came to the same thing) her national economy. Until the 1950s, all of Britain’s oil came from Abadan, downstream on the eastern side of the Shatt al Arab, at the entrance to the Persian Gulf. Jointly owned by the British Government and BP, Abadan was at that time the largest refinery in the world. Our first major military incursion in the region had been that of the catastrophic expedition from India under the command of Sir Charles Vere Ferrers Townshend in 1915 against the occupying Turks. With the defeat of the Turks throughout Arabia, and the establishment in 1921 of the ‘mandated territories’ (most of which were effectively under British rule) and the Kingdom of Iraq, the oil of the Gulf was safe until World War II. In 1941, the rabidly pro-Nazi Arab nationalist, Rashid Ali, together with four senior Army and Air Force commanders, carried out  a military coup d’état which included the capture of the RAF base at Habbaniya. Oil was by this time coming from Iraq itself as well as Persia; to secure both, as well as to protect the Allied supply lines of war material for Russia, a force was for the second time sent from India Command. This was PAI (Persia and Iraq) Force, which eventually came under the command of Lieutenant-General Henry (‘Jumbo’) Maitland Wilson. PAI Force did the business required and remained in Baghdad as a headquarters rump until the end of the war.

It was not long before the arrival of the third nightmare threat to Britain’s  supplies of oil from the Gulf. This time it was not trouble in Iraq that was the cause, but trouble in Persia. During the war, for the familiar reasons of oil and supply lines, the country had been invaded jointly by Britain, the USA and Russia. In 1945, when Britain and the USA withdrew, Russia continued effectively to occupy Azerbaijan and other northern provinces with the aim of establishing an autonomous Communist state. The nationalisation by Persia (later Iran) of the British-owned refinery of Abadan was the ambition of the Russia-backed Tudeh (Persian Communist) party, which in early 1946 fomented riots in Abadan. Once more, Britains’s entire economy and military security were menaced with imminent disaster; accordingly, Prime Minister Clement Attlee ordered a fighting force to be sent to the Gulf with the object of convincing Mohammed Reza Pahlavi and his ministers that if the Persians themselves could not regain control of the oil fields and protect Abadan, Britain herself would be obliged to do the job.

With post-war demobilisation at full spate in Europe, India was yet again the only place from which such a force could come. Sailing the same seas, braving the same heat and humidity, disembarking at the same port on the Shatt al Arab, a fighting force was hastily dispatched. This time, in 1946, where Major-General C.V.F. Townshend and Lieutenant-General H.M. Wilson had led, Major-General F.J. Loftus-Tottenham now followed. Born in 1898, first commissioned in 1916, he had been wounded in the Mesapotamian campaign in 1918, had twice served on the North-West frontier, had been Envoy Extraordinary to the King of Nepal and had commanded the 153rd Gurkha Parachute Battalion, the 33rd Indian Infantry Brigade and the 81st (West African) Division in Burma, where he had won two DSOs.

Monday, 9 September: Up at 5 am. Ship moves into river. Great groves of palm trees. Intense heat. Pass Abadan refinery; awful-looking place. Arrive Basra early afternoon but disembarkation not until 7 pm. Humidity truly appalling. By road to Shaibah. Bedroll not yet arrived so sleep in primitive conditions. Tuesday: Intense morning heat. God knows how we shall work in it. Chaos everywhere but I escape by being sent on advance party to permanent (?) camp. Bare, cruel place. Odd palm here and there. Dust. Mud buildings. No latrines fit for use. Water in short supply. Work until 2 pm, clearing buildings and erecting tents. IORs (Indian other ranks) not standing heat very well. Self pretty limp. Lunch and dinner at Naafi officers’ club, an oasis in this desert. Bed in hut with 2i/c (Second in Command) but move outside. Even there, terribly hot but huge and lovely moon in beautiful night sky. Wednesday: Start work 5.30 am. Sun blazing like fury from 6.15 am. Temp above 100. Sweat-soaked all day. Nothing to see but few dry palm trees, glare and mud. A merciless country. Slave all morning at erecting tents with men working well, considering. Am getting quite brown. Lunched and dined at club again. Dance night but only 4 women visible. Terrible German POW band. Beautiful night but dreadfully warm again. Thursday: Tents all day. Organise officers’ mess. Regiment moves in at 4 pm; level of chaos about usual. Sweat-soaked and gasping for air all night. Cool weather promised for middle of October. Pray heaven promise is kept. Feeling very bad-tempered.

The bad temper may have been partly attributable to an attack of dysentery, which took me into hospital for long enough for it to be ascertained that the condition was bacillary and not amoebic. On my return to the regiment the colonel summoned me to his office early one morning to tell me that he had been asked to release me as soon as possible from regimental duties in order for me to report to the G3* at Force Headquarters. It appeared that they had “some sort of a job” for me. As to what sort of a job I did not bother to enquire. Regimental life when the game of soldiers is being played in earnest may have its attractions. Regimental routines in which the highest achievements are erecting more canvas in the men’s lines so as to sleep only four to a tent instead of six, and improving the fly screens in the officers’ mess, held little appeal. In a couple of hours I had packed, said my good-byes and been driven into Basra.

The G3 was a captain only  a  few years older than myself. He was sorry it was all being sprung on me so suddenly, but the Force Commander had only just learnt that I had come in on the Varella and had been “rather miffed” that Delhi hadn’t kept him briefed on my whereabouts. Apparently……

The G3 was cut short by the opening of the door and the abrupt arrival (“Burst in” might not be too extravagant a description of his entrance) of an officer in jungle-green fatigues with red tabs on the tunic collar. He was notably tall and had a classic military moustache. It was as much his personality as his physical presence that seemed to fill the room. The G3 and I both jumped to our feet. For a moment the General said nothing; simply looking. Then, to me: “I think I may be the man you’re after”. Then, to the G3. “I take it you’ll fix him up with all comforts, Peter”?  And to me again: “Let’s go and have some lunch”.

Loftus-Tottenham “was a fine-looking man with a strong and forceful personality …The moment you met him you realised that he was a commander … a bulldog of a man … tenacious, stubborn”, wrote Arthur Swinson in Kohima, his book about the engagement between the British Fourteenth Army and the Japanese in Burma in 1944, which Mountbatten called “one of the greatest battles of history” and Field-Marshal Lord Wavell said was “one of the turning points of the war”. It was at Kohima that the man I now lunched with in his bungalow won the first of his two DSOs .

“A military officer acting as secretary and confidential assistant to a superior officer of General or flag rank”, says an Internet search engine for an explanation of the abbreviation ADC. As an admiral has his barge, so a General his ADC: it is an appurtenance of office; it goes with the territory. Even in smartest service dress with red tabs and a peaked hat Loftus-Tottenham was not easy to associate with anything so pacific as a secretary-cum-confidential-assistant. “A soldier’s soldier” came readily to the pen of one of his obituarists in 1987. “Someone who characterises the Army’s core values; in action, the sort of man everyone wants to have around”.

Being his  ADC wasn’t going to be a very  exciting job, the general warned: mostly making sure there was always plenty of clean ice for his gin and tonic. Though obviously it had to do with the man in the Rifle Brigade whom I had met in Ahmednagar, I never knew exactly by what means the general had acquired me and he never volunteered the information. What was obvious from his seemingly casual enquiries over lunch was that he had no need to be informed about the salient facts in my four-year-old military career. It was the first occasion in my life of realising that my interlocutor already knew the answers to most of the questions he was asking. It was not the last.

Though Force 401 was in Iraq with a serious military-cum-political purpose, there is remarkably little either in recollection or in my own records to illustrate the fact. Every few years, a wearisome ferreting for some rarely-remembered or needed possession unearths a multipage document entitled OPERATION FOXER. Prominently classified as S E C R E T, mimeographed (its origins were at least three decades too early for photocopying) on what was never better than army-issue paper which is now brittle and almost sepia with age, it concerns an exercise in which units of Force 401 simulate as realistically as possible a full-scale crossing of the Shatt al Arab with the obvious intention of occupying the Abadan refinery. The exercise requires the deployment of artillery, light armour and infantry together with appropriate landing craft. There is an inference in the text  of both air and naval support. The document must have been among my papers at the time of packing for my final return to England and been deliberately purloined as a souvenir; now, it is my only specific clue to the sort of military activity that appears to have engaged the Force during those Shaibah months, but squares with a diary note in which I record that “shambolic day and night operations drive Loftus almost to apoplexy, and result in major bollocking of senior officers”. “I don’t know if they’ll  frighten the Persians, but by God they frighten me”, said the General, paraphrasing Wellington. Boats were capsized. Men were drowned.

Though it was the main and most immediate one, Abadan is unlikely to have been the only reason for our presence in Shaibah. The Middle East in 1946 was, to put it vulgarly, a can of worms. The days of Iraq’s Hashemite monarchy were already numbered. In Palestine (through which a pipeline from Kirkuk, in northern Iraq, carried crude to a refinery at Haifa) Jewish militants had already in July blown up the King David Hotel with the loss of almost a hundred lives. In June, the first international shipment from the immensely rich Burgan oil field in Kuwait had taken place. In short, the threat to Britain’s oil interests in Iraq itself, and in neighbouring Arabia, that had been the origins of PAI Force had not disappeared with the end of the war in 1945.

Such considerations may in turn have been behind a particular conference in Baghdad that was attended by the General. We lodged in style with a prominent member of the British community distinguished by his charm, his urbanity and his rose garden. For considerations of security, we were strongly discouraged from exploring beyond the boundaries of our military world, nor, to tell the shameful truth, had I any compelling desire to do so. For a young man of twenty-two with a red armband and a captain’s three pips on his epaulets, our immediate and legitimate social scene, closer to the diplomatic as opposed to the commercial civilian milieu than was the case in Basra, was agreeable enough. There is a wistful remembrance of dolce far niente associated with those days in Baghdad. While my masters deliberated over sterner matters, I spent what seem now to have been hour after undisturbed hour lounging in a garden chair with cooling drinks on call and a breeze stirring the eucalyptus trees, reading Kinglake’s Eothen and daydreaming about travels that I would yet make in a world that was all  selections from Flecker.

What shall we tell you? Tales, marvellous tales

Of ships and stars and isles where good men rest,

Where nevermore the rose of sunset pales,

And winds and shadows fall towards the west.

Night was falling on Anglo-Arabia, but the garden was sweet with jasmine and orange blossom and for a while it was still black tie for dinner and thinly-sliced cucumber sandwiches for afternoon tea.

For the passing visitor at a certain social level, no other country of Arabia could so easily foster the illusion of embodying an intrinsic Englishness as Iraq in 1946. Constitutionally a creation of the English, ostensibly independent, it was virtually a British puppet. King Feisal, who had inherited the throne at the age of three, had been schooled at Harrow. The royal household in Baghdad embraced not only English nannies, governesses and tutors, but even English stable staff. Educated at Victoria College in Alexandria (described by Jan Morris as “a transplanted English public school … specifically designed to produce surrogate Britons”) Abdullillah, the Prince Regent, was thought by some to be more English than the English. I met him very briefly in Basra. “Big luncheon at Haji Mustafa’s” says one of the few entries in my diary for December, 1946. “Prince Abdullillah is guest of honour and servants barbarously slaughter six sheep on the landing stage to provide wonderfully delicious kouzi. Prince chats with General. Self perfunctorily acknowledged with rather limp handshake. Hope my bow was OK”. Jan Morris, who met him nine years later, has described him as reticent, formal, courtly and shy.

“Inexhaustibly interesting” was an opinion of diplomat Stewart Perowne, Oriental Counsellor at the British Embassy, talking about the kingdom of Iraq over dinner with the General and myself on a night train to Basra. The 48-year-old archeologist and historian had himself been going south and General Loftus had offered him a spare sleeping berth in our special carriage. Today, recollections of the man and the moment crowd irresistibly back whenever Iraq is in the news. He himself had originally discovered not a few of the treasured exhibits in the National Museum of Baghdad. Had he lived to know of its sack after the fall of the monstrous Saddam Hussein it would surely have broken his heart. Inevitably, the legendary Garden of Eden, said to have been the land between the Tigris and Euphrates, north of the Gulf, came into the conversation. The General had been invited to shoot in the wetlands and Perowne spoke at length about the region, of which I knew nothing and the General, I suspect, knew little more other than its possible strategic significance in any notional future manoeuvres. We did go shooting there, bagging both duck and snipe. Almost twenty years later, Wilfred Thesiger wrote his classic The Marsh Arabs, initiating popular attention for the extraordinary territory. Thirty more years on, and in revenge for the rebellion of Shiite rebels, who had taken refuge there, Saddam Hussein instituted the massive works of engineering by which the marshes were maliciously and catastrophically reduced from more than 6,000 square miles to fewer than 400 (the United Nations said it was one of the worst environmental disasters in history) and a culture that had existed for at least 3,000 years before the Garden of Eden had been thought of had been irrecoverably destroyed.

Saddam’s atrocities and their consequences provoked almost nightly bouts of nostalgia as the television cameras covered Operation Desert Storm and the liberation of Kuwait in 1991. Soon after our return from Baghhad, conceivably as a consequence of the discussions at PAI Force, we paid an official visit to the sheikhdom on the Gulf. ‘It looks like the timeless, mouldering east’, wrote an anonymous contributor to the Picture Post in July, 1946. ‘Fifty thousand people live in a city girdled by walls five miles in length. During the day they like to picnic in the desert. At night they pitch their tents round the bay to sleep’. Few places can have undergone a greater transformation in both appearance and way of life in the past half-century than the Gulf States. Kuwait in the twenty-first century bears as much resemblance to the Kuwait that we saw in 1946 as present-day Manhattan bears to the fur-trading island of the same name that Henry Hudson discovered 300 years ago. Pearl diving had made a vital contribution to the life of the sheikhdom until the large-scale production of cultured pearls by the Japanese in the 1930s. Boats sailed from Kuwait to the oyster beds of the Gulf coast at the beginning of the fearful desert summer, and sailed home at the end of it to sell both their harvest from the sea and the chests that had been embarked as plain rosewood but returned with the traditional (and, when genuinely antique, today highly-prized) brass work decoration executed during the four-months voyage. Now, in the year after Hiroshima, pearl fishing was fast becoming  more of a tourist attraction than a staple of the economy, and the desert where once only the Bedu had pitched their tents and milked their camels was picturesque with oil drilling rigs and Coca-Cola bottle caps. We called on the Sheikh in his mud-walled city and in his treasury delighted in the tactile pleasure of letting fortunes slip through our grasp by lifting handfuls of pearls from a superb old Kuwait chest and trickling them slowly back through our fingers.

Picturesque, too, were the falconers who travelled with the Sheikh and ourselves into the desert for a hunting foray. In their loose-fitting dish-dashahs that were whipped by the wind as their wearers rode a pickup, hawks hooded on their wrists and held protectively close to their chests, they would have pleased the eye of a Doughty or a Thesiger, though contrasting oddly with the General, conventionally uniformed, driving in an open jeep with the Sheikh beside him and myself in the back. It was the season of the annual migration of the bustard, the hubara, from central Asia, and the Sheikh said that he would be disappointed if we failed to kill at least two or three. On a good day, with three hawks, it was possible to kill many more. We killed four. Once, the Sheikh said, we might have bagged a gazelle, but there were regrettably far fewer of them than there used to be. When the hunt was finished, we gathered where carpets had been spread colourfully on the desert floor with a giant platter holding a kouzi for a centrepiece. Years later, assembled for shooting lunches on Scottish moors, I whimsically never failed to be reminded of Kuwait and thought how the delectable young lamb, stuffed principally with pistachios, pine kernels and almonds, deserved to have been prefaced by a dram or two of the single malt that accompanied the generously provisioned Scottish picnic baskets.

* General Staff Officer. category 3

______

NEXT FRIDAY,  15 March Serial 18:  Chapter Eleven, A Last Hurrah, Part Two. 

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