I never did discover whether or not my camouflage ideas for Abadan were ever used. Who could I have asked? I was only an NCO and knew no one who could tell me. And in any case I was soon too far away to feel involved. But somebody in Cairo had presumably considered my attributes good enough for another job.
I was sent to Basra, in Southern Iraq. And why was I there? Naturally I wasn't told. Given a one-man ridge tent I was directed to a small military encampment on the city's outskirts where most of the British administrative staff also lived. During the day I was allotted a desk in a corner of a large office in a building near the docks. The other occupants were an Intelligence captain and his sergeant office manager. Neither knew why I was there and made it clear that I was not a welcome addition.
There was no job for me, not even clerical work, thankfully, and only minimal conversation. Both captain and sergeant spoke Arabic and held lengthy conversations in that language, often sotto voce, as though fearing I too could speak Arabic.
I sometimes wondered whether they dabbled in the black market, for the overpowering humid heat, the smell of sewers, the flies and the corrosive atmosphere of Basra would in time have undermined any man's resistance to temptation. This hardly surprised me, for while in a Cairo transit camp I'd been warned of the corruption rife in the city.
Basra was Iraq's second largest city and principal port and had been so for more that two thousand years. In ancient times it had been the centre of Arabic letters, poetry, science, commerce and finance, but when I was there it had only become important for the pursuance of the war effort, being convenient for disembarking Indian and Colonial troops as well as for unloading food and military equipment for both the Western Allies and Russia, as well as a trickle of civilian goods for Iraqi merchants.
Since there were insufficient troops or local police adequately to guard these items, it was little wonder that the black market flourished.
With neither friendship nor work to engage me in the office I spent much of my time, despite the heat, exploring the city and its surroundings. The Shatt-al-Arah River on which the docks were sited acted both as a port and a sewer for the city.
The local Swamp-Arabs were desperately poor and provided a continuous stream of ant-like activity, unloading much of the cargoes by hand, for there appeared to be little heavy lifting gear. Their pitiful need for money to survive induced them to take terrible risks to their health by carrying enormous loads single handed down perilous gangplanks rather than sharing their burdens and thus their pay with others. I remember seeing one man carrying a grand piano on his back. For extra support he wore a canvas strap across his forehead and used two sticks to help him maintain his balance. No wonder the midday furnace heat and the intensity of heavy work resulted in so many premature deaths. All the Europeans were advised to cool off every half-hour in a basha. This was a reed hut some ten feet by five with wooden bench seating inside. Open doorways at each end were faced by reed screens, over which a native attendant continuously splashed water. In this manner even a slight breeze entering the hut could be water-cooled to prove a ten minute haven of respite.
Basra was also the home of Sinbad, the hero of The Thousand and One Nights. He was prominent there around 800 A.D. not only as a sailor but a prosperous merchant who ran a fleet of ships that traded with the East Indies and China, carrying everything: ivory, spices, diamonds, silks and slaves. You name it. He also continued to be the locals' legend of commercial achievement, for many establishments monopolized his name such as the Sinbad Restaurant, the Sinbad Laundry, the Sinbad Barbers and many others.
One day I was able to borrow a truck and drove nearly two miles up by the river to Sinbad's Lighthouse. This was a circular stone tower some forty feet high. It was still in reasonable condition, except for the top, which was crumbling away. But what surprised me were the millions of tiny sea-shells covering the ground in every direction suggesting that at some past date the sea must have reached this far inland and hence the need for a lighthouse.
And then suddenly, one evening, the gloom lifted.
Basra's best watering hole was the city's International Airport. Its large reception hall was reasonably cool. The high domed ceiling of Moorish design was painted blue. Down in one corner the bar served a queue of thirsty servicemen every evening. On this occasion, while queuing for a drink I got into conversation with someone behind me, an American Army sergeant.
When about to order I turned to him and asked, "What'll you have?"
"Well, thank you. I'd like a scotch, please."
Feeling generous, I bought him a double and a large John Collins for myself. We took our drinks and sat at a nearby table.
It is seldom in life that you meet a stranger and find that you are both on the same mental wavelength, hold similar views, enthusiasms and dislikes for practically everything, and are happy to listen to each other indefinitely. For that is what happened that evening. Happily we talked and talked, finding that we shared identical views on war and women, life and death and everything else that mattered. We enjoyed the same films, music and books; the Marx Brothers, Gilbert and Sullivan, Mozart and Benny Goodman, Hemingway and Steinbeck and agreed totally on the incompetence of our own generals.
A bell rang and a voice shouted, "Last Orders, Please."
My friend lifted his arm with a hand holding a currency note. Immediately, of course, a waiter was at his side. "Yes, sir?"
"A dozen double John Collins and a dozen double whisky and soda please. And you can keep the change."
And so this wonderful evening continued. At one stage I noticed a soldier at a nearby table who couldn't find his feet. Since he'd given me a lift to the airport with some of his mates who were in no position to help, I felt I had an obligation. Even today, I can still remember picking him up, hoisting him over my shoulder in a fireman's lift, going outside and dumping him in the back of his truck and then rejoining my friend.
I have sometimes wondered, by then well into my tray of drinks, whether it was only a normal serviceman's courtesy, or was I trying to impress my American friend with my sobriety? I never knew, for we continued to blast each other's ears off where we had been interrupted.
At one point he took from his pocket an American paperback anthology of verse to read aloud a stanza we both knew and enjoyed. He then insisted that I keep the book. And this I still treasure.
Eventually, and regretfully, the drinks were finished and it was time to leave. "I'll give you a lift back to your camp," he offered. Although I held uncharitable doubts about his driving ability, I was in no position to say so, and we took off in his jeep.
You can understand why I was reluctant to enter my encampment via the guard hut, so I asked him to drop me at a point by the perimeter fence where I knew I could wriggle beneath it. We bade each other emotional farewells, swearing eternal brotherhood, though of course never expecting to meet again.
Once inside the compound I could just blearily see the white speck in the distance I knew had to be my tent and started walking unsteadily towards it. Damn it! I thought, I could just as easily progress on my hands and knees, which I did.
The next thing I remember was a loud sniffing noise by my ear and sat up with head-splitting abruptness to bright sunlight. Three pariah dogs that were hoping I might be edible yelped and scampered away.
Although I spent the next two days in bed, believe me I have never regretted a single moment of that glorious evening. And, incidentally it is the only time I have ever been totally drunk and incapable.
A few days later the Intelligence captain told me I should go to the docks the next morning and report to the Adjutant of the 31st Indian Armoured Division who would be disembarking there.
I needed no second bidding. And so began what was to he sometimes a hilarious Cook's Tour of Iraq.