Armoured division

The 31st Indian Armoured Division was in trouble. Deep trouble, and I could understand why.

They'd probably been stationed in India since the Mutiny and by the time I joined them had become a pretty proud bunch, accustomed to durbars and other spectacular displays in colourful uniforms and impressive drill formations. The Division comprised regiments of Indian sepoys such as Dogras, and Rajputs, Sikhs, Gurkhas (bless 'em) and others beyond my memory. All retained their traditional customs, religious persuasions and special foods.

In addition there were British engineering, artillery and signal units.

The senior officers were British, with Indians commissioned in the lower ranks with a scattering of British subalterns. At home in India, the officers had enjoyed polo, tent-pegging and wild pig-sticking, so horses were essential commodities for lancer regiments, hauling artillery as well as for day to day officer mobility.

But the division had just been mechanized and were having difficulty transferring their affections for their much-loved horses to dissecting the entrails of tanks and armoured cars and even the prospect of fighting inside them. Traumatic for many, I imagined, and this was in addition to having now to dress in monochrome khaki, more suited for North African warfare. But enough of their problems; I was about to have plenty of my own.

The Division was about to travel to Baghdad and thence to the vast inhospitable plain to the west where they would undertake large scale manoeuvres, the better to familiarize themselves with their new equipment. I was to accompany them and teach them something about camouflage, a discipline hitherto foreign to their concept of warfare.

The desert route they were to follow north was well established, being marked by upright 45-gallon oil drums painted blue and filled with sand. I was given a 15-hundredweight truck and a Sikh corporal driver. As I belonged to no established divisional unit, my driver and I were expected to travel at the rear of the convoy. This would have meant driving the three hundred and so miles, at the slow speed of the vehicles ahead of us, and being enveloped in their dust the whole way.

Bugger that for a lark, I decided.

Happily, my Sikh driver agreed with me. I was lucky to have him, for he was to be a marvellous companion, spoke excellent English and with a first name beyond my powers pronunciation was happy to he called Singh, spelt S I N G H, the surname adopted by strict male Sikhs. I soon became Bob.

After he'd dumped his gear in the back of the truck, I told him of my concern about our journey north and suggested a different route.

"What do you say," I began, "that we lag behind the convoy and once it's out of sight, make our own way across the desert to Baghdad? We'll load up with enough petrol, water and rations. I've got a compass and a map of sorts. We both have guns and ammunition in case we run into any hostile tribesmen and we can sleep turn-and-turn about. How about it?"

He agreed with enthusiasm, his huge grin confirming our mutual contempt for authority. So that's what we did, taking turns to drive.

It was slow going, of course, travelling by compass across Iraq's wilderness. But we set our own pace, stopping whenever we wanted to, and mercifully drove free of dust.

On one occasion he said, "I think maybe we're coming to Ur. You see that small dark pointed shape ahead, on the horizon?"

"Yep," I probably answered noncommittally, having little reason to think I was soon to receive a cultural shock, for Singh was dead right. Purely by chance we were about to arrive at Ur; the remains of the capital city of the kingdom of Sumaria, founded some five and a half thousand years ago, whose destruction was attributed to Noah's flood, as described in the Book of Genesis. Worse was to follow, for the River Euphrates, upon which the city had depended, particularly for irrigation, changed its course to a valley some ten miles distant.

All this I was to read about later.

Soon we arrived at the ziggurat, a stepped pyramid some forty to fifty feet high and still well preserved. This was the only remaining significant feature of what had once been a thriving and highly developed civilization so long ago and since forgotten.

But Professor Leonard Woolley had excavated much of Ur in the nineteen twenties, and there were still large notices in Arabic and English warning against entering any of the dark interiors of half-exposed buildings.

I recognised too, with surprise, an important Sumarian invention. This was the first recorded example of the keystone; a wedge-shaped brick set in the top of a semi-circular brick archway that actually strengthened the weightbearing properties of the whole structure. Surprising, because this had also been a feature of the bricklaying we had been taught during our initial sappers' training in Chatham.

Naturally, I took photographs of this as well as the ziggurat and other features. But as I've told you, the Army eventually confiscated nearly all my prints and negatives as being detrimental to the war effort, particularly, no doubt that shot of Tony Gizzi doing a handstand on the beach at El Daba.

I'm no stranger to antiquities myself, having climbed the great pyramid near Cairo and seen the Pharaoh's sarcophagus inside. I've also visited ancient sites in the Lebanon and Syria. But Ur was not a welcoming place. Its solitude, remoteness, and atmosphere of brooding malevolence, a symptom perhaps of the mass human sacrifices made on its ziggurat long ago, didn't encourage us to linger. So we soon left.

The rest of our journey was uneventful and we rejoined the division encamped on Baghdad's outskirts. Once settled in I was abruptly to learn and respect the singularity of some of the Indian Army's religious customs.

Each native regiment was allotted an area for its own purposes; tent lines, water supply cooking and ablution facilities etc. One evening on my way to my tent I passed the cooks an Indian regiment preparing a meal. A few minutes later a breathless orderly found me and told me to report to the divisional adjutant ak dumm! (Immediately!)

This I did, to be told by a furious major, that I had passed too close to the regiment's cooks preparing a meal. My infidel's shadow had fallen over their food thus defiling it. Everything so polluted had therefore had to be destroyed. Live and learn.

One day I was instructed to report to the divisional Intelligence officer, a British captain, to be told of my future duties. The interview was short and to the point. The officer was not perhaps himself fully aware of the importance of camouflage in modern warfare, but was obviously duty-bound to obey his instructions.

"Sergeant," he began, "so you've been sent to join us as a camouflage wallah." (Black mark! Wallah, was a pejorative caste term in India). He continued, "The division will be divided into two forces, blue force and green force. Each will represent an opposing army and will fight a tactical battle on the plains out there," pointing. "You and your driver will be issued with white armbands and your vehicle will fly a white flag indicating that you are an official umpire. You will drive unhindered anywhere and correct any examples you see of bad camouflage. Is that clear?"

Listening to his stilted and carefully memorised speech I was beginning to resent being treated as a low caste idiot. But I answered, "Fine. No problem, Sir."

"But first," he continued, "you are required to give a lecture on camouflage to all the senior officers, including the general. Can you manage that?"

"Again, no problem, Sir. I see there's a big marquee near Headquarters section. Can we use that for the talk? And I'd like to have a couple of days to get some props together."

And so it was arranged.

The engineers, who recognised my cap-badge, were only too happy to help, and I soon had the replica of a salmon in an illuminated box.

From what Singh had told me of the Division's placid life in India, I concluded that it was unprepared for the noise and confusion it would encounter in modern warfare and needed a little harmless, if noisy education.

If you've troubled to listen this far you'll have gathered that Quartermasters are usually an unloved species, only too eager to meet a friendly face; and even happier if that face can do them a favour. Their Quartermaster was only too glad to unburden himself of boxes of gelignite, long past their use-by date, together with detonators and slow-burning fuse. He asked no questions and said there was plenty more if I wanted it.

It was easy to find a Gurkha havildar, or sergeant, who spoke some English and was willing to lend me six or seven of his men on the afternoon of my forthcoming lecture.

It was agreed that all the officers attending would be seated shortly after lunch. While they were eating I took the Havildar and his men to the marquee's entrance and carefully concealed them a short distance away. I had chosen Gurkhas since they were, and still are probably the most highly disciplined troops in the world. Had they been ordered to lie there for the next three days, quiet and unmoving, they would have done so, without question.

With the marquee comfortably full, I stood on a platform and started my lecture. Naturally, it was a simplified version of the course I had attended in Maadi, emphasising that most people, even officers, look but don't see. And so on, including the use of the model salmon to illustrate the difference between shade and shadow.

When I had nearly finished I gave a sign to the havildar. He and a Gurkha then rolled back the canvas end walls of the tent to allow more space for my audience.

"Gentlemen," I concluded, "that more or less ends what I have to say, but I'd be glad if you would please gather at the open end of the marquee, for I'd like to show you something that may prove instructive."

So that's where they gathered. "Facing you," I said, "are six enemy snipers who have you in their sights. Can you spot them?"

From then on it was purely guesswork. None of the snipers could be seen, but by pointing at low thorn-bushes, rocky outcrops and natural folds in the earth, five men were eventually located who stood up when called upon by the havildar. They all wore full battle-dress and carried rifles.

"There's still one more," I said, and they continued to guess, unsuccessfully.

I was standing next to the general. How far dare I go? "He's very near, Sir, and he's got you in his sights." But it was no use. There was only silence. I nodded to the havildar, who called out the remaining name.

To the astonishment of them all, a figure arose from the ground only about fifteen feet away, shaking the dust from his tunic. And then everyone clapped.

When they had all left, the Intelligence captain approached me, smiling. "Your lecture, and then that demonstration were absolutely brilliant," he conceded, then added, "but you shouldn't treat them like shit."

I almost laughed. He'd got it right.

*   *   *

When the manoeuvres began, Singh and I were to have more entertainment than anyone is ever likely to get in the Iraqi desert. He knew my plans and more remarkably, had no fear of explosives, let alone driving over rock-strewn ground in a truck packed with them all in a highly volatile state. Perhaps they added a touch of spice to our contributions to the manoeuvres, however foolish that may have been.

Whenever we saw grievous neglect of camouflage precautions, I would detonate a pack of six or so sticks of gelignite as near as safety permitted to wake up those responsible and hopefully soil their underwear. I would then inform the officer in charge of his neglect, estimate the number of putative deaths and wounded by enemy bombing, and warn him that it was my duty to report the casualties to Headquarters. I was obviously exceeding my remit by my methods of correcting lax camouflage, but nobody complained. Would they have dared?

Perhaps our most spectacular success was when we saw a queue of British soldiers queuing for a meal outside a large white mess tent.

The phalanx of men was four deep and about a hundred and fifty yards long, beautifully regimented in a straight line. A dream for any fighter pilot with loaded machine guns.

In the back of the truck I prepared six bundles of gelignite, making fairly hefty charges. The detonators I fitted with slow burning fuses of suitable lengths.

At the end of the queue and about twenty feet from it, stood our truck. Shielded from sight behind it, I quickly dug a hole a foot or so deep, lit the fuse of a pack of explosives with a cheroot I was smoking, placed the charge in the hole and covered everything with the loose spoil.

"Okay, Singh," I whispered, for him to drive on a further fourteen feet, parallel to the queue, and stop, where I repeated the performance.

With all the charges in place, we withdrew a short distance to watch the results.

They were not long in coming. Bomb blast, as I've probably told you, can be wildly unpredictable, but I knew my charges would be noisy but harmless, the force being directed upwards. And when a charge is compressed, even by loose earth, its detonative force is vastly increased.

The progressive explosions of the six charges was the nearest I could get to simulating a successful enemy bombing raid.

And by God, how the men ran, scattering their eating-irons in their panic, while Singh and I hugged each other, howling with laughter. To Hell with inter-regimental non fraternizing rules.

But the fun was not yet over. Eventually, from somewhere appeared a short, purplefaced, very much British Indian Army type brigadier.

Breathless, (he'd probably been running too,) he marched up to within three feet of me and demanded, "Are you responsible for that, sergeant?"

"Well, yes, Sir," I replied. "And I regret to inform you, Sir, that of the easily identified column of men I estimate the casualties to be thirty dead and twenty seriously wounded. And, Sir," (just for good measure), "I've seen similar tragedies in North Africa due to bad grouping."

There was nothing he could do. I wore the white armband of an umpire. I was inviolate To my long-lasting joy he just remained there, jumping up and down, generating a degree of fury which if scientifically applied could have heated a house, but unable to believe that he, a British brigadier had been reprimanded by a sergeant.

I even began to think there might be a God. But best, by far the best of all, I was taller than him.

By this time, my white-flagged vehicle and I were becoming unpopular with both Armies, and perhaps, after all, some of them were learning. But not all, alas for I was soon narrowly to escape becoming the manoeuvre's first fatality. It happened like this.

Laager is a word borrowed from the Boers during the South African war and means a fortified encampment made by a circle of wagons. American Western films often depict the same formation, employed by settlers when attacked by mounted Red Indians.

This may surprise you; and it certainly surprised me, for that was the formation we discovered one evening, laagered for the night in a natural depression making them invisible from a distance; but not from the air.

And bingo, there in the centre of the circle of vehicles stood their large Headquarters van, sprouting a long radio antenna. It was a peaceful scene. I could see no one about except a Gurkha sentry standing by the rear door of the Headquarters van.

First I lit a small cheroot, ideal for lighting fuses. Nowhere mentioned in instruction manuals, but devised by myself since it left both hands free; riddling with matches is always a time-wasting nuisance. Carrying a spade and a bundle of gelignite I started to walk slowly down the incline, looking for a suitable place to play them a short burst of Handel's Firework Music.

I had not gone far when out of the back door of the HQ van stepped a tall British subaltern. Why? I was never to know. Perhaps he was going for a leak. Turning as though to walk up the incline, he spotted me.

To his credit, his reflexes were excellent but disturbing.

Turning the sentry around to face me, he pointed and shouted, "Go get him!" or words to that effect in Gurkhali.

Gurkhas are not trained to think, but to act, and to act damn fast. And this one did. He immediately lowered his rifle, with its unattractive bayonet, and charged.

As you are probably aware, Gurkhas come from Nepal, a very hilly country. Most inhabitants are short, but nature has compensated for this deficiency by equipping them with strong legs, the better to run up steep hills; this being one of their troops' specialities

And what about me, you are wondering?

At this distance of time my recollections of the event are still sharp. In situations like that, thank God, training takes over, and I had been trained to think fast and to meet any emergency in whatever way I thought best. Maybe I should have been terrified. But I honestly don't remember experiencing terror. And of that I am certain, for I was young, healthy and strong. Moreover I had put down the gelignite the better to grip the spade. To run, I knew, would have been madness.

Then suddenly, the subaltern realised what he had set in motion. Fortunately he was tall: well over six foot. Up the slope he raced, and yes, grabbed the Gurkha by his collar and yanked him to a standstill within six feet of me, shouting "Halt!"

I don't remember an apology. One would have been superfluous. Quits, let's say.

Perhaps it's natural that I can remember nothing further worth recording while with the Division. The manoeuvres ended and so my attachment ended too. My next posting was Mosul, a town some two hundred miles north of Baghdad. Of course I wasn't told why.

Before I left however the Intelligence captain mentioned casually that he'd received instructions to inform me that someone had recommended I be commissioned. He didn't say by whom and I didn't ask. My orders were merely to hold myself in readiness for a call to return to Cairo and attend an Officers Selection Board and thence, hopefully, to an OCTU, an Officer Cadet's Training Unit.

Corporal Singh and I enjoyed a long memorable farewell. Who said strict Sikhs don't drink? Well, perhaps only at night, in the back of a fifteen hundredweight truck.

Copyright Bob Thwaites, 2007