So what next?

We were not given marks, or told how we had performed. This was the first course of its kind, and there were no benchmarks against which our competence could be measured. Doubtless the captain's report on the performance of individuals was passed on to someone, but to whom? None of us knew.

In my own case, as I had surmised, the subtleties of camouflage would be of little value to the more robust activities of an engineering field company. So I was told to hold myself in readiness somewhere, probably Abbassia barracks, until further notice.

I had not long to wait.

Much of what I have said is not of course verbatim. It can only be conjecture, based on notes I made at the time. But I do remember that when I was told to report to Army GHQ in Cairo it seemed natural enough. It was only much later that the magnitude of the task I was given made me realise its importance - and my own insignificance. At the time I wasn't overwhelmed by my instructions; Service life was always full of surprises.

At GHQ an Intelligence officer took me to a large-scale map on the wall. "This, sergeant, is the Persian Gulf," he said, "and up here," pointing, "is the Island of Abadan, just off the coast of Kuwait. On the island is the oil refinery that provides the vital petrol for our vehicles and aircraft. German advances in the Balkans will soon put it within range of their bombers, so we want you to go up there and devise a camouflage scheme for us."

Put like that it sounded a simple straightforward exercise. But why, I wondered, hadn't somebody thought of it before? Could it be that there was still enough petrol for Cairo GHQ staff cars to take officers to Gezirah races and polo matches?

I was told to report to Kuwait city where I would be given an aircraft, its pilot and an aerial photographer. I should then introduce myself to the manager of the oil refinery, an Englishman, who had been told to expect someone who would undertake the project and to please afford him his full cooperation.

The aircraft proved to be a twin-engine Anson bomber, rapidly approaching obsolescence, and slow enough for the aerial photography I would need. The sergeant pilot had only been told to fly to Kuwait and await my arrival for further instructions. The aerial photographer was a corporal who knew nothing about the job but was happy to try anything that kept him away from his front line work.

In due course I crossed the stretch of water between the mainland and the island to find the refinery manager. When we met I explained who I was and why I was there. For a moment, he hesitated and looked over my shoulder as though I were merely the emissary for of a group of military boffins. But when he realised that a sergeant was in fact the sole camouflage expert, his magnificent self-control was enough to disguise his possible true emotions, for I was given all the help I could have wanted.

Understandably, I began to wonder whether this was to be another top-secret farce like the Turkish affair, since nobody apart from me appeared to have been briefed. My orders were to prepare a camouflage scheme regardless of the expense of men or materials. This suggested that at least somebody considered it important.

I remember my shock when I first flew over Abadan and saw the refinery on its northern tip and below it the village of whitewashed, red-roofed bungalows housing the refinery's operatives. My God ! I thought how could anyone camouflage the huge shining steel oil tanks and miles of glittering pipe-work, easily visible from afar by any aircraft?

However, eventually my panic subsided and two thoughts began to emerge. First, the shining metalwork had to be sprayed dull. Second, the Germans must have known from maps where the island was and the position of the refinery. The only course, I decided was to distort the northern coastline to make it appear larger and the refinery more difficult to locate for precision bombing. And this became the basis of my plan, for the refinery manager had promised to provide as much crude oil as might be needed.

For the next few days we flew over Abadan on a predetermined grid photographing the vital area. With the dozens of enlargements provided we overlapped adjacent prints to complete the larger montage I wanted.

My idea was to anchor a series of pontoons and other small craft around the northern end of Abadan and use them to support an area of netting which would reach the shore. The netting, similar to that used to camouflage heavy weaponry could be made locally, with long strips of canvas interwoven in random patterns. This in turn would be sprayed with brown crude oil to create distorting shapes. The crude oil pattern would also be continued over the land, including the refinery and the bungalow village to hinder precision bombing.

We stuck the composite montage of photographs to a board and covered it with a sheet of cellophane. With black and brown chinagraph pencils it was then easy for me to mark in the positions for the pontoons and larger craft, crosshatching to suggest the netting and colour in brown the random patterns to be oil-sprayed over the vital areas. This I hoped would achieve the desired visual confusion.

In the manager's office I typed out in detail my recommendations with additional observations: that the pontoons should be equipped with masts to keep the netting well above water level; that the larger craft be moored around the netting's perimeter to act both as stabilizers and to carry navigational warning lights at night and finally that a small residential Army team would he necessary for maintenance purposes such as undertaking repairs caused by rough seas.

My work completed, I thanked my two assistants and asked the pilot if he could perhaps give the photographer and me a lift back to Cairo?

"Not bloody likely, Mate," he said. "I'm not flying that plane anywhere. The fucking thing's falling to pieces. It's the only one we could spare you, being Army. As far as I'm concerned I'm leaving it here for scrap!"

So I made my own way back to Cairo and reported with my suggestions to the same Intelligence officer. After a cursory glance at my offerings he thanked me and said he would pass them to the department concerned for their decision - which in Army terminology could mean, this year, next year, sometime, never.

He then suggested I made myself available somewhere - Abbassia Barracks again, should they wish to reach me.

So there I remained for a while - in limbo. I belonged to no unit to which I could transfer any allegiance nor develop any friendships. I felt something of an outcast; my only tangible assets were the ability to handle high explosives and an initial grasp of camouflage; unlikely bedfellows one might think. Yet strangely enough it was these two subjects that were soon to offer me one of the most memorable episodes of my war.

Copyright Bob Thwaites, 2007