Mosul, and after

Iraq was a great place to escape from. Mosul was even better ... the heat, the flies, the stench of sewage, the natives - everything. Knowing that my departure for Egypt was assured, if not imminent, kept me sane.

The vacated living quarters of the Mosul Oil Company a short distance from the city was a convenient dumping ground for odd-bod vagrants like me who belonged to no established unit. Out of sight and out of mind was possibly GHQ's philosophy. As expected, none was told why we were there. No beds, so we slept on concrete floors. No hardship for me. The one advantage was an excellent swimming pool.

Many, such as myself were NCOs and appeared to be potential cadets awaiting transport to the OCTU, (Officer Cadet Selection Board).

After all, promotion was the driving force of our training; more pay, better food, more perks, more authority and hopefully less work. But I was already a full sergeant. I could progress no higher as an NCO other than into a backwater job as a warrant officer where work would be mostly administrative. Not my forte.

I was then shunted around the area to no perceptible purpose At one point I was in northern Iran, or Persia as it was then known, close to the Russian border.

My postings were never explained and there were no apparent threat of local hostilities where I might have been of use. In one town I had to step smartly off the pavement, avoiding a dead rat the size of an Alsatian dog in the gutter to make way for a Russian general who wanted, and got, the pavement to himself. He was about six foot six tall and five foot wide. I could hear him coming by the clanking of the rows of medals on his chest. I didn't bother to salute. He wouldn't have noticed me anyway.

At one transit camp, I was stung painfully by a scorpion. Later when punctured behind my right ear by a hornet (it knew exactly where to go) I was paralysed down the right side of my body for three days, lying on my concrete mattress. For the following three days I rolled around like a chronic alcoholic, frequently falling down. I remember the medical orderly corporal offering me sympathy and aspirins, the best he could prescribe, but cheerfully assuring me that had I broken a leg his medical skills would have been far more apparent.

One day a swarm of locusts enveloped the truck I was driving. In multibillions they darkened the sky, smashing into everything, and devouring all that was edible in their path. I saw a train brought to a standstill by the mass of creatures covering the rails and the engine's driving wheels turning furiously to no purpose, unable to grip the rails made slippery by their bodies.

Eventually I received an order to report to Baghdad to join a group of cadet hopefuls being assembled for transit to Cairo. The journey occupies many heart-wrenching pages of my diary, so I'll have drastically to shorten it. The Nairn Brothers ran a daily air-conditioned coach service between Damascus and Baghdad. We potential cadets, feeling secure sitting at the right hand of God, were told that we were to travel in the luxury we so obviously deserved.

I think the number of each OCTU course at Maadi was about twenty five. Anyone failing to arrive in time to be registered was presumably cast into outer darkness and forgotten. I planned to get there early - FAST!

It's worth recording that with so many disparate units in the Allied forces such as Popsky's Private Army, the Poles, and the French Foreign Legion, uniformity of dress was impracticable. To save myself the daily chore of polishing my brass cap badge whilst with the Armoured Division I had obtained an officer's cap with a bronze RE badge that needed no cleaning. This gave me a certain cachet of bogus authority that nobody chose to challenge.

Those of us for transit to Cairo were paraded with our kit. Then the vehicle we presumed would to take us to the Nairn depot arrived. It looked a wreck. It could possibly have held ten men in minor discomfort for a short journey. Twenty or so bodies with their kit bags and rifles became a different matter.

But in good humour we all scrambled aboard. No-one was prepared to be left behind to face the horrors of further service in Iraq. And surely, it would only mean a short ride. Then we learned that this was to be our sole means of transport for the nearly five-hundred-mile cross-country journey to Damascus! But a meal would await us some fifty miles out. And so we drove off.

As you may imagine we were horrified, but we'd all experienced Army cockups before and knew better than just to moan. We got organized. Kitbags, rifles and other essentials were stacked high at one end. Valueless souvenirs were confiscated by common consent and thrown out. Hard luck, Mate. The only logical seating was to form a rough square with all our legs overlapping in the middle. Those suffering cramp, and at times we all did, required other legs to be untangled, allowing the sufferer to retrieve his own, stretch and assume a new position among the mass of other limbs.

Those needing to pee had to get both consent and assistance to struggle to the tail gate and urinate over it, held upright by those nearest to them and often taking long impatient minutes by a water-work system unfamiliar with and reluctant to adjust to its new surroundings.

Fifty miles out and we stopped at a native hut where a meal of sorts was awaiting us. My diary tells me it was soup of dubious origin, two rissoles, a chipatti and sugarless tea. Eating and drinking we all walked around stretching our aching limbs. No further meals were promised.

Back aboard we repositioned ourselves, to no better advantage. Darkness fell. It started to rain. Hard. In buckets. Maybe the first time for ten or more years. The torn and patched canvas covering was no protection. We cursed loudly, sang army songs and told smutty stories against the rattle and banging of the truck while steam arose from our hot wet bodies. Eventually the downpour ceased. And by some strange alchemy our mood changed from misery to high-pitched humour and hysterical hilarity. After all, things couldn't get worse.

The native driver shouted there were vehicles ahead and he was going to stop. The lights were those of an Indian regiment travelling in the opposite direction.

We all disembarked to stretch and relieve ourselves. The Indians, seeing our sorry state made us gallons of hot sweet tea. Glorious; a brew that has never, tasted as good. And so we continued westwards.

Eventually dawn broke; we were approaching the outskirts of Damascus. We tore away the useless canvas covering the better to see our surroundings. The sun was rising and the morning had a delicious nip in the air. We reached a proper road bordered by lush grass, bushes and the vivid green foliage of trees. A stream joined the road, gurgling and splattering along at its side. Colour everywhere. Then an Arab driving a herd of goats with the usual to-ing and fro-ing by him and his goats and ourselves trying to get past, and as we did so he looked up grinning and waved a greeting to us. What a change from the dour Iraqi.

A cross-roads and the babbling brook changed for tramlines and a group of brightly clad women in floral pattern dresses taking their garden produce to market. Then into the town itself. Clean bright buildings. Streets and pavements full of people hurrying to work. More noise now. The clattering of lorries and tramcars. A young girl carrying her books, wearing a black alpaca dress with white cotton Eton collar and a long pigtail on her serious way to the Greek school. The sky a solid blue and the sun, proud of its job making a colourful tableau out of everything.

We thankfully disembarked at a transit camp after thirty hours of desert travel and were given breakfast. After being allotted beds, we were told we could rest before continuing our journey the next morning,

But not for me. After a wash and a shave I slipped unobserved from the camp and hailed a taxi to take me to the station.

Military travel was controlled by the RTO, the Railway Transport Office. There's an Army expression: Bullshit Baffles Brains. Let's see if it's true, I decided.

After saluting the transport captain I affected an accent in keeping with my officer's headgear and asked for a movement order that would take me to Cairo, by the quickest possible means.

"What for, sergeant?" he asked, "and what unit are you with?"

I assumed the tired resignation of one accustomed to dealing with incompetence. "I have no unit, and I'm travelling alone," I explained. "I've just come from Azarkayzan in Persia, up by the Russian border and had a lift from Baghdad with a truckload of men that arrived this morning at the transit camp. I have vital information for an Intelligence Officer at General Headquarters in Cairo, who's expecting me. It's too sensitive to be committed to paper so I may only consult him personally. I hope you understand."

Fortunately his grasp of North Persian topography was as sketchy as my own, for I got my Movement Order, proving that Bullshit can Baffle . . .

On the next train south I grabbed a first class compartment under the suspicious eyes of transport police. Seeing two RE corporals I invited them to join me both for company and a belief of safety in numbers. The railway was of a slightly narrower gauge than main lines. The engine too was smaller and appreciably slower. The train carried army personnel as well as civilians.

The Syrian plain is not of sand but rich red earth, well cultivated. We stopped frequently at small wayside halts to allow parties of brightly clothed figures to alight and make their way along footpaths to distant villages. After some eighty miles we descended into the Jordan Valley that was even more beautiful, with masses of colourful wild flowers.

At one point two Palestine Policeman with an Arab in leg-chains joined our compartment. He and his captors were on the best of terms, talking amicably in English, laughing, exchanging cigarettes, apparently without a care in the world.

One of the policemen told us that they were taking their prisoner to jail where he would undoubtedly be hanged. He had been wanted for many years to face various charges including murder, attempted murder, robbery with violence and so on. We were shown some of the stolen gold Turkish coins he had been carrying. His was captured after keeping the police at bay with a rifle, and allowing his friends to escape. Yet he, a seemingly pleasant young man of perhaps thirty, was indifferent to his fate and couldn't have cared less.

He turned to me smiling and spread his arms in an eloquent gesture, "Why should I worry?" he asked. "It's all in the capable hands of Allah!"

What a belief to envy!

At the next stop, in need of a hot drink, we three REs knowing our way around a steam locomotive wriggled beneath it and filled our mess tins with boiling water to make tea. Other men noting our source of hot water for an essential brew-up followed our example This meant a further delay as the furious driver had to replenish the engine's tank with water from a small nearby hillside stream and then wait to get pressure up before we could move on. A glorious journey, when I remember it.

We reached Haifa at nine-thirty. Dead tired, I needed luxury for a night and booked in at the Savoy Hotel. Had a magnificent dinner, then up in a lift to a beautiful bedroom with a balcony overlooking the town and the Med, and so to bed. But the novelty of clean sheets and a well-sprung mattress kept me furiously awake. Eventually in desperation I pulled sheet and pillow to the floor and slept soundly until mid-morning.

*   *   *

I'll not bore you with all my means of travel by road, rail and ferry across the Suez Canal to Cairo and thence to the OCTU at Maadi.

Our accommodation was comfortable and informal. The staff of officers treated us as equals and subjected us to a series of private discussions covering our pre-war backgrounds, our service records and future aspirations. We used their officers' mess for meals and relaxation and where our culinary deportment was doubtless under scrutiny.

Individually we were set theoretical problems; if for instance we were in such and such a place and so and so happened how would we react?

At an outdoor test to discern possible powers of leadership I was painfully lucky to meet a colleague who promised me his total obedience. It happened like this.

A square area of some fifty yards had been enclosed by rope supported by wooden stakes four feet high. Two teams of ten men were lined up against the ropes facing each other, fifty yards apart. All were blindfolded and wore white shirts bearing large black numbers, back and front, from one to ten. Each team had a sighted commander. The task of an attacking commander was to control his men by shouting their numbers and so to retrieve a paperfilled sandbag placed at the centre of the defending line immediately behind the rope.

The defending commander would use his men, also by shouting individual numbers, to spread their arms and catch any attackers who would then remove their blindfolds and leave the square. A receipt for chaos, you will have guessed. And how right you are. For this was exactly what was intended: a bloodless battlefield the better to judge men's split-second reactions.

Captured earlier and having left the square, I had been able to watch a contest where there appeared to he no plan of attack and little cohesive thought by either side resulting in a melee of chaos. My next spell was as a blindfolded defender. My commander, losing control, ran me headfirst into another of his team. Both shocked, winded and floored by the impact we removed our blindfolds and stood up. The result of course was instant brotherhood in adversity. We left the arena.

It was shortly my turn to command the attacking team. The collision had given me an idea. "You're number ten," I said to my brother sufferer, "and you're on the far right."

"Yes," he agreed.

"When I take charge," I continued, "will you run as fast as you can in a straight line if I promise you will hit nobody?"

"Okay," he agreed. "I'm sure we can trust each other after that wallop."

And that's how it worked.

In charge of my attacking team I ordered half the men to advance slowly, bending low. After they had gone some ten paces I ordered the remainder on a similar course.

When all were well clear of the base line I ordered all to a slow left incline. My opponent seeing a powerful phalanx approaching at an angle diverted his entire force towards them, but failed to notice my number ten.

"Number ten," I roared. "Run!" and he did, straight. Then, "Stop! Feel for the rope. Left turn and walk. Stop. Feel under rope for sandbag. Got it! Return way you came. Stop. Turn right and run."

All this he did, as promised, so that we retrieved the sandbag in little over a minute.

The final event was an obstacle course for teams of five who had to take with them a telegraph pole and a length of rope. Most of the obstacles we met required lateral thinking. A ditch had to be crossed for instance, using a number of planks lying nearby, none of which however was long enough to span the gap. Another obstacle, I remember, required us to crawl beneath a large tarpaulin pegged to the ground, taking the pole with us. How I blessed being taught knots and lashings at Chatham. The clove hitch is the most useful knot of all. Two inverse loops over a pole actually tighten the more it is pulled. "You four," I shouted, "crawl under the tarp with the loose end of the rope. Get clear and when I shout PULL, heave!"

A clove hitch over the thick end of the pole and my shout had the pole and me clinging to it, through in seconds.

Easy, I allowed myself to think, but the next task was my nemesis. We duly succeeded in getting ourselves with the pole over a high horizontal bar but only by my being carted off to hospital having been too ambitious.

A small consolation: in hospital I was visited by the brigadier. He congratulated me on having passed the OCTU and also for my team breaking the time record for the obstacle course.

But I still cannot fully straighten my right arm.

Copyright Bob Thwaites, 2007