THE FADING MARGIN: serial 18.Posted: March 15, 2013
A Last Hurrah!
If the hunting trip in Kuwait contributed to any ideas that the General may have developed as regards a possible defensive occupation of the sheikhdom he did not say, or it was intelligence he never shared with his ADC; but we saw the strategic lie of the land and even though it was a banner whose power to impress was universally on the wane, we showed the flag. Though the drilling rigs were busy in 1946 and the crude oil reserves of the area were said to be equal to those of Iran, we could never have imagined the horror forty-five years later of more than 700 wells, deliberately fired on the orders of Saddam, spewing their smoke and flames into the sky where the falcons had flown. Could this sprawling metropolis of skyscrapers and multilane traffic be the same part of the world where we had played with the sheikh’s pearls in a rosewood chest? Could this be the place where our host had wanted to present me with a superb pair of gold and pearl drop earrings for the General’s wife? It had been an offer that I had been obliged to refuse on the spurious grounds that the wives of senior British army officers were not permitted to enjoy such largesse when in active service zones, but in reality because the long-serving resident British Political Agent advised me that the Ruler eagerly desired a jeep, and that an acceptance without an appropriate quid pro quo would constitute a diplomatic gaffe that would never be lived down.
Shortly after our return from Kuwait I started getting headaches, having bouts of nausea and generally being unwell. The cool season was in full swing and I was reluctant to be excluded from it. Eventually, the General himself ordered me to see the headquarters doctor and within hours I found myself in the Shaibah military hospital. “Tom Kemp, who has died aged 89, was the oldest surviving England rugby captain; he was also one of only three men who played rugby for England both before and after the Second World War … He trained as a doctor at St.Mary’s Hospital in London … During the war he became a lieutenant-colonel in the Royal Army Medical Corps, serving in the Middle East”. Reading the Daily Telegraph obituary in January, 2005, I could see his face as clearly as when first I saw it looking down at me in Shaibah. How was I feeling? he asked, glancing up from the notes on the clipboard hooked on the end of my bed. “Pretty awful”, I said. Tom said he wasn’t surprised: infective hepatitis wasn’t calculated to make one feel like a spring lamb. I was in hospital for more than a week, during which time, once or twice accompanied by the General and his wife, he saw me daily. He was head of the Force’s Medical Division and if he was slightly inclined to give the Force Commander’s ADC attention bordering on the privileged it would hardly have been surprising. The General and the rest of headquarters staff liked him, and afterwards I saw a lot of him. Nine years my senior, his attitude towards me was saved from the avuncular or paternal by his own enduring youthfulness and innocence of the slightest self-regard or pomposity. He had been at school at Denistone, but had friends who had been at the ISC. We talked about rugger. He heard that I had trained as a pilot at Marshalls airfield, Cambridge, where he had been an undergraduate at Clare. I had often walked in its grounds, I told him, and envied him his membership of such a beautiful college. I ought to try it myself, Tom said; his Cambridge years had been some of the best of his life.
Thanks to him, I discovered Cyprus. It was his earnest recommendation that after the malaria in India, the dysentery to mark my arrival in the Gulf and, now, the hepatitis, I should have a change of climate and environment. With heavy irony, the General said that he would do his best to manage without me. My brother David, who was with the RAF in Palestine, had married a girl in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (a ‘Waaf’). After their wedding they had gone to Cyprus, where I unconventionally joined them for a few days of their honeymoon and a few more of my sick leave in what seems now to have been an idyll of delights. At home there was still rationing. Mass tourism was not yet so much as a smudge on the horizon. In Germany they were still clearing the rubble from their devastated cities and had not yet dreamed of rising early to stake their claims on Mediterranean beaches. Not one person in a thousand beyond Spain had heard of the Costa Brava, let alone a peasant dish called paella or a concoction of wine and fruit called sangria. It was twenty years or more before the calamari on the menus of waterfront restaurants in the isles of Greece needed to be imported frozen from China. In Cyprus I swam alone where Aphrodite is said to have risen from the foam and the package holidaymakers now pullulate, walked by myself on unfrequented paths in the Troodos mountains, had solitary picnics high in the ruins of the castle of St. Hilarion. It would be eleven years before Harold Macmillan would tell the British that they had never had it so good, but in 1946 the tourist in Cyprus might with some justice have been warned that he never would have it so good again.
Back in Basra stamina was necessary to survive the social round. The principally British staffs of shipping, oil, banking, and lesser trades were prominent and busy participants. Several consular offices were actively represented. Invitations issued by the Royal Navy were highly prized. Nor, as the archives of the Iraq Times could show, were movers and shakers among the indigenous population idle.
Basra. “Sheikh Ahmad Noori Bashayan’s party was given on Thursday in the garden of his house at Silihiyah … the rich colour of the bougainvillaea covering the veranda made marked contrast with the uniform green of the surrounding date gardens … On Friday Sayid Hamid el Nakeeb gave a very large luncheon party to at least 200 guests in the garden and courtyard of his house in Basra City. On Friday evening Sayid Najim-ed-Din el Nakeeb entertained a large number of guests to dinner at his house down river. On Saturday the monthly dance took place at the British Club. The music provided by the Punjabi band was excellent. On Sunday Hajji Mustafa Taha es-Salman gave a big and, as usual, very excellent luncheon party at his house on the river … Without prejudice to parties in previous seasons, it may be said that those of the last week set a standard of excellence hard to surpass.”
The account is taken verbatim from IN AND AROUND BASRA, a yellowing column clipped from the local paper and discovered in a largely unrewarding search for mementoes of 1946 to augment information provided by an increasingly sketchy diary. Had such reports been accompanied by guest lists the names of Major-General F.J. Loftus-Tottenham, his wife and his ADC would have appeared in them. As a matter of course, the Commander of Force 401 and his normal personal entourage were liable to be invited to any major social event. Their attendance was likely to depend on the advice given to the General by his ADC, who in his turn crucially relied on the advice of others whose local, and in some cases specialised, knowledge equipped them for sorting the social sheep from the goats. Acceptance or refusal could be interpreted as approval or disapproval of something other than the would-be host’s merely social status. The very presence of the Force in Iraq had implications that could engage a level of diplomacy higher than that on which I was qualified to function, and there were moments when I was obliged to seek counsel from our embassy in Baghdad. When in doubt, a meticulously crafted conveyance of regrets was always preferable to an indiscreet acceptance.
There are reasons for suspecting that at least as much of my energy was spent in these matters of civil protocol as in the discharge of more martial responsibilities. Landed in situations in which he was obliged to exchange inconsequentialities with people whose company he had not sought, and in circumstances he would normally have taken pains to avoid, the General’s anger afterwards could be such that anyone responsible was well advised to seek deep shelter. He was capable of being the most kind and gentle of men, but to say that he did not suffer fools gladly would be dangerously to underrate his capacity for wrath. Once, when I had made a mess of something or other and he had rapped me over the knuckles, I was not so much injured by the rebuke as desolate with the knowledge that I had disappointed him. Later in the day, when he gruffly suggested that if I had nothing better to do that evening I might like to dine with him and his wife at their bungalow, I felt as a child might feel when he has lost his most treasured possession, then found it again.
“Mrs. Loftus”, as the Chief of Staff, a close friend of long-standing, called the general’s wife, was an ADC’s delight. Dependably one of the best-looking women in any mixed company, discreetly vivacious, familiar since birth with the ways of the British army in India, her wisdom and diplomacy could anticipate storms before ever they became tempests or wonderfully calm them if they did. I did not know it at the time (neither they nor anyone else ever spoke of it; the Chief of Staff told me only when we were both civilians again), but two of their three sons, both in their early twenties, both Gurkhas, had been killed in action; one in Italy at Monte Casino, the other in Burma under his father’s own command. Though they would not have admitted it even to themselves, there must have been times when my very existence must have appeared almost as an affront to them, yet they treated me with unfailing kindness and forbearance. Much later in life, listening to the headmaster of Westminster School extolling the virtue of fortitude from the pulpit in the Abbey, they came poignantly to mind. Exemplars of the British military Raj at its inimitable best, their like was soon to be extinct.
So passed the last few months of my own trifling term in uniform and almost the last of the General’s long career in the service he loved. We routinely visited component units of the Force, largely consisting of Indian troops (Pakistan was not yet a political reality), who took part in manoeuvres that became increasingly academic as the need for our existence appeared to recede. We danced attendance on such travellers engaged in more urgent business as came our way and rated our salutes. They were months when the world east of Suez was a melting pot. Apart from any part Force 401 might be playing in geopolitics, its significance in the logistics of air travel made Basra an almost unavoidable airport of call for those concerned with the shifts of military and civil power resulting from the end of the war and the future of India. Memory identifies in particular Generals Wavell, Dempsey, Auchinlech and Slim. Once or twice, Admiral Mountbatten (“Lord Louis“), head of South-East Asia Command and soon to be the last Viceroy of India, now engaged in the preliminaries to Independence and Partition, came through, accompanied by his wife. All used the airport as a refuelling and comfort stop.
General Sir Miles Dempsey, who had recently been appointed Military Commander for the whole of the Middle East, arrived in his own Dakota and inspected the Force at Shaibah. In 1944 he had commanded the British Second Army in Europe; now, noticing the France and Germany campaign ribbon on my tunic, he asked what formation I had served in, and, when told, remarked that I must be finding the desert quite a change from the Reichwald Forest. Auchinlech and Slim, both old personal friends of my commander, later to be met again in London clubs and drawing rooms, chatted amicably. Only Mountbatten managed to combine imperiousness with condescension. Afterwards, listening to General Loftus and the Chief of Staff talking about the occasion over drinks in the General’s bungalow, I realised that in spite of all popular glamorisation of the scion of the German House of Battenberg, the Viceroy Designate’s unpopularity ran deep and wide.
I misreport those months in Iraq if I give the impression of having played the dutiful ADC innocent of intensely selfish indulgencies. That Alexandra has not already featured in earlier pages, and out of regard for the reader will rarely do so in those that follow, is inversely proportionate to her significance. Twenty-five years old, a graduate of Mount Holyoke College, the unmarried daughter of American academics resident in Basra, she was a quibble or two short of beauty but distinctive enough to be one of the most sought-after young women in circulation. She was in Iraq on holiday after relinquishing a wartime commission in the American armed services and before joining the U.S. Foreign Service. My General, who was himself not indifferent to her charm, and who approved of my evidently better-than-passing regard for her, more than half-seriously cautioned that she might be a spy in the pay of American petro-diplomatic interests, bent on obtaining useful information from a patently vulnerable young officer with access to useful military and geopolitical secrets. It did not prevent him from letting me have his staff car to collect her for dinner or take her on midnight picnics into the desert. In today’s jargon Alex and I were ‘an item’ and it puzzles me still that I did not fall deeply in love with her. If I had had any secrets worth the telling she could have had them for a whisper, yet my most daring confidence was to quote Flecker at her under those star-filled desert skies.
But when the deep red light of day is level with the lone highway,
And some to Mecca turn to pray, and I toward thy bed, Yasmin;
Shower down thy love, O burning bright! For one night or the other night,
Will come the Gardener in white, and gathered flowers are dead, Yasmin.
Alex was staying with her parents, whose manners and morals were to say the least conservative, while my own quarters neighboured those of my colleagues too closely to permit of any breach of discretion. Still, the sentiment was the thing.
The visit of General Dempsey and his immediate entourage from Cairo proved unexpectedly rewarding. Early the following year a high-level conference in London required the attendance of the General, but not myself. Being, in any case, due for leave, wanting to see more of the place of which I had seen so little en route from England, I shamelessly used my Shaibah acquaintance with General Dempsey’s ADC, and my local connections with the RAF, to contrive a return trip to Cairo. This time I was better equipped to profit from the opportunity. Before leaving Iraq I had obtained introductions from Stewart Perowne that opened doors not only in Egypt, but in Jordan and Syria. Accompanied by a succession of guides that money could not have secured but Perowne’s standing in the world of antiquities did, I not only saw more of the Valley of the Kings and the Tutankhamun Museum, but (thanks again to the RAF and Middle East Command connections) marvelled at Jordan’s famously ‘rose-red’ city of Petra without another tourist in sight and Syria’s (at that time notionally inaccessible) Krak des Chevaliers, which T.E. Lawrence said was “perhaps the best preserved and most wholly admirable castle in the world”.
Finally, persuaded that its comparative closeness represented an opportunity that might not soon come again, and with my movements facilitated by the same kindly agencies, I crossed the border into the Lebanon and went skiing near Beirut. “Went skiing” is to view the occasion through a bountifully distorting lens. Though I had not been puffed up by my début in the hills near Liège in 1945, the experience had been equally dangerous in that it had failed to temper enthusiasm with cautious respect. Hiring skis, a taxi, and two boys who spoke enough French to assure me that they would take me to the best slopes in the country, I was driven into the mountains overlooking the narrow coast and escorted to the top of descents compared with which those in the Ardennes had been the most modest of inclines in the least spectacular of landscapes. There were no lifts, nor any sign that anyone but myself, companions included, had so much as thought about skiing. The idea was that I would descend for a few hundred yards and that, taking it in turns, one of the boys would then carry my skis back to the top. The snow was hard, the terrain was what with characteristic exactitude of expression the French might call accidenté. The many boulders were avoided not by technical skill, which I had not even begun to possess, but by hurling myself bodily aside in ill-judged preference to the acute risk of breaking a limb or a joint through incompetent disposition of the feet and legs. I made two runs and miraculously survived both. The first was exhilarating, if frightening. The second convinced me that the pleasures of the downhill were outweighed by the exertions of the up. The two boys did not dissent.
The Lebanon was my last hurrah for quite a long while: before the snows melted my number literally was up. I could have applied for demobilisation to be deferred, but only for a minimum of a year and the General said that unless I was thinking of making a career in the army it would hardly be worth it: Force 401 would be disbanded in less than half that time and he himself out of a job. He would be sorry to lose me, but better, he would have thought, for me to go while the going was good and I could at least travel home in style.
Thus on a day in April, 1947, a four-engined Short Empire Class flying boat belonging to British Oversea Airways Corporation – successor to Imperial Airways – rose from the Shatt al-Arab near Basra, bound for Cairo, Sicily, Marseilles and England. Most of the passengers were army officers who had boarded at Karachi. With the single exception of myself, none had less than a crown on the shoulders of his uniform. Then, and for years to come, the flying boat was by far the fastest and most comfortable way between India and home, and only special high authority, or priority attaching to exalted rank, could secure a passage. As ADC to a general I possessed one of those prerequisites. There was a poetic symbolism in the water surging up and over the cabin window a few inches from my face, blinding the view, threatening to engulf the entire aircraft as we neared the end of our take-off run. Within minutes a white-jacketed steward was serving drinks, and as the palm groves fell away beneath us and the desert took their place I downed a gin and tonic to enhance an acute awareness of my privilege. It was all a far cry from a converted Liberator bomber or a four-berth cabin on an overcrowded troop ship, though even they had represented luxury compared with the fashion in which most men in uniform were obliged to travel at the time.
Of the rest of the journey one recollection alone survives. At Catania, on the east coast of Sicily, a shore excursion enabled me injudiciously to buy a large quantity of Gorgonzola, which I knew would be a sumptuous addition to the wartime rationing that persisted at home. We had been airborne again for a very short while when the steward asked if by chance anyone had brought cheese on board. Shamefacedly, I confessed. Gingerly, the steward removed the offending parcel from the overhead locker, courteously assuring me that I would be able to retrieve it from the hold. My fellow passengers generously accepted my apologies and a brigadier from GHQ in Delhi said that he hoped I wouldn’t be tempted by a ripe Camembert when we got to Marseilles.
Thus within 24 hours of our departure from the Shatt al-Arab we came to rest in Poole Harbour, Dorset. To a month, five years had passed since I first put army uniform on. In less than a week I would discard it, never to wear it again. At the time of my first parade the worst of the London Blitz was over but the “Baedeker” raids on York, Norwich, Bath, Exeter and Canterbury were just beginning. Operation Blue – the German advance towards Stalingrad – had not yet started. Singapore had only just fallen to the Japanese. Now, as I made my way home to Sussex and the primroses, World War II had been over for almost two years, half the world had been laid waste and the greatest empire that the world had ever seen had reached the last stage of dismemberment. And at the end of May I would be all of twenty-three.
NEXT FRIDAY, 22 March, Serial 19: Chapter Twelve, Going Up Late, Part One.