- Contributed by
- Rupert Lyons
- Location of story:
- The Arabian Sea, Basra
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 13 November 2005
Three comrades. Date and location unkown.
…when midnight arrived we all assembled around Pat Hoper. He broke the seal of the envelope, pulled out a paper, and read aloud;
for a moment he faltered, he could not bring himself to breath the word,
This was the most terrible news; there was no one in the Indian Army who hadn’t been to Iraq at least half a dozen times, one way or another, the most frightful country in the world. Everyone looked really cheesed off. We were to go up the Persian Gulf, then on to Basra, 90 miles up the Shatt al Arab. A most frightful place. There has long been a saying in India, that ‘The Persian Gulf is the arse of the world, and Basra is 90 miles up it’. However, apart from the disappointment, there was nothing to do but get on with it.
And so we ploughed up the Shatt al Arab, landed and disembarked at Basra, then went up to Shaibah, ironically known as ‘Shiba by the Sea’. The RAF had a big aerodrome there, and we had camps around and about.
They were all heavily defended with barbed wire, as there was much thieving of army equipment by the Kurds. They were about in large numbers and would come thieving most nights…and as you know, as everybody has often said, ‘The Kurds and the Iraqis are the only people in the world who can steal the sugar out of your tea’. And once again we had to put another gannet apron around the perimeter and fill it in with lose barbed wire.
There was pretty nothing much to do there. The RAF did have some good amenities, squash courts, swimming pools and all the rest of it. And we had a bit of fun aboard the two sloops that were part of the Persian Gulf police squadron…or whatever you call it. There was ‘The Wren’ and the ‘Wild Goose’. We knew the people pretty well and used to dine aboard with them sometimes and they would come and dine with us, and that sort of thing. Sometimes we would go shooting in the desert…shooting Gazelle, which was fine for the pot, but I never much liked shooting them, they were such wonderful creatures. They had no cover at all, they just ran and ran and ran until they were absolutely exhausted. It was, I thought, not a particularly sporting game at all.
There was a good officers club at Shaibah, though fading a bit because the whole place was closing up. It had a German band from the large prisoner of war camp. We went there on our first evening in Iraq and we asked these chaps to play us ‘Lillie Marlene’. They were happily playing this with great gusto when suddenly in came this very old Colonel, who screamed at them;
“Stop that playing at once!”
The band stopped playing and the Colonel came over,
“Did you tell them to play that?”
“Yes, of course we did”
“Well it’s not allowed…I shall have to report you, I’m afraid”
“That’s quite alright’ I said, ‘you can report us as much you like”
So again I got into trouble staight away.
Then of course there was the seedy side to Basra, which wasn’t very inviting. It had a walled city called ‘The Bullring’ in which the red light district existed. Outside this there was a more up to date courtesan type of establishment, were many of these girls, apparently, had been sold for so many years to the Madam of the place. Every year that passed they got nearer their freedom, until eventually they could either stay on or leave to start their own establishment. The Madam was, apparently, quite an educated person and a great fashion lover, keeping a marvellous wardrobe of clothes that the girls could wear if they were being taken anywhere nice, out to diner or something like that. Then there was the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company club, which we belonged to. However the meat was always terribly suspect. In fact they always told you when you had a steak, to watch out for things like tumours and cut around them, before you ate the rest of it.
Well unfortunately Pat Hoper got himself involved in very deep water with some crazy ideas, all of which leaked out to headquarters. He was sent home to the UK, pretty promptly, and I took over command.
Um…we were all very sympathetic towards the Kurds, but they really were a most dreadful lot to say the least, really the most awful people. They would come at night some times on raiding parties, with stolen army lorries of course, throw a grappling iron over the wire and drag it away. Then they would drive in with Bren guns blazing (all stolen stuff), throwing grenades all over the place, and try to steal whatever they could. So I arranged to put a minefield around our place, so that if they came, they’d get blown up. I also complained to the Chief of Police about the raiding, and he came out to see us,
“Well look here…you’re allowed to shoot these Kurds if they’re actually trying to get onto your premises. If you see them in the distance, you can watch them, but once they come down pretty close you can shoot them”
When we thought they were planning a raid or anything like that with their scouts down below, well…not so much we, but others would shoot them and then drag them and drop them on the wire, so that when the Police Inspector came he would look and say;
“Oh…that’s all right”
At our camp we had this Glaswegian regimental medical officer, who unfortunately had a very pronounced accent. Most of the British officers found it difficult to understand what he was saying, but the poor Sepoys didn’t have a clue. I eventually had to send them up to the Indian Medical Hospital, to get some sense going. I think, though, he felt a bit hurt about this. So when there was a vacancy for one officer to go back to the UK for Christmas I offered it to him. He said that he’d love to go…so off he went.
Now in our camp there was this wooden hut, and every morning some Germans would come out, 7 or 8 of them with a Captain, and march off to do some work somewhere, and then would return in the evening. Eventually we got talking to the Captain and he told us they were in the Africa Corps, and that we had fought many battles together. Thus we had a certain affinity with them.
The Labour government of the time had great sympathy for soldiers serving overseas, so they sent a lady, the Welfare Officer, out to Basra. She came out to see us in a smart new uniform, and asked us if we wanted any amenities. I said;
“Yes please, we’d like all the sorts of amenities that are going”
“Well what about radios?”
Yes we could do with radios. Battery operated radios powerful enough to get India and Radio Cairo”
“What do you want that for?”
“Well the Sepoy’s like that sort of music”
“Oh I see…well we’ve got some of those. How many do the want?”
“Well 30 would be nice…is that too many?”
“No you can have as many as you like”
Then she said that as Christmas was drawing near we would be sent all sorts of Christmas fare. I said that it won’t be much use really, as we had nowhere to store such fare.
“Don’t you have any refrigerators…we’ll send you some… how many would you like?”
“Two would be rather nice, wouldn’t they”
So these two paraffin operated refrigerators arrived, and shortly after they kept sending suckling pigs, dozens of them. I couldn’t understand it. Why couldn’t they send us some legs of pork that would be nicely roasted? I rang her up and asked her about this, and she said that suckling pigs are thought to be the most succulent for roasting, and the government thought that we should have the best. Then I said that our Sepoys are not the sort of people who eat pork, so we’ll have to eat them all ourselves.
“Have you anything else you can send?” I asked.
“Yes you can have turkeys, guinea fowl and pheasants, stuff like that”
“Oh yes, that’ll be much appreciated…you can send some of that out”
So in a few days the other refrigerator was full of this feathered stuff.
Then I saw the Germans going back to their hut, and it seemed so sad that they were going to have such a meagre Christmas, and here we were with all the extra things, Christmas Puddings, tins of biscuit, chocolates, brandy, champagne, and all sorts of stuff… sent out by the benign Labour government. So I said to the mess;
“Don’t you think it would be a good idea if we invite those Germans from the hut to spend Christmas day with us”
They said it would be a very good idea, so I saw the Captain and explained that they could come over on Christmas morning and we would look after them. And so they came, and drank heartily and ate…really I’ve never seen people eat like them…they must have been most terribly hungry.
And they stayed the whole day and…ah…unfortunately we had a few toasts that night, so boxing day turned into another party. And so on it went.
They returned to their hut and came out again for New Year and we had another great party. Eventually all the stuff was eaten up and they went back to their hut.
Now unfortunately at this time our Scottish Captain friend arrived back from holiday. I sent a staff car to fetch him back from Shiba. The German Captain went to welcome him back with his hand extended. The Glaswegian simply punched him in the mouth, knocking two of his teeth out.
I placed the medical officer under arrest and sent him back to his tent under guard, whilst I made arrangements for an enquiry. He returned to his tent with floods of tears. I went to see him and asked what it was all about.
“It’s all right for you” he said “You’re not a Jew…”
He then told me that back in Glasgow he had seen the newsreels that showed the gas chambers, and how he had learnt of all the massacres that the Germans carried out on the Jews. I felt very sorry for him and said;
“Yes I do appreciate that, but you really can’t go around hitting prisoners of war, especially a German Captain…It’s against the rules”.
The poor old Jewish doctor was up before the General, who was very kind and considerate and said ‘don’t do that sort of thing again’ or words to that effect. Unfortunately he’d spilt the beans about these parties we’d been having with the Germans, so I had to go and see the General myself and try and explain. But there was no real need for an explanation, I could see from his decorations that he was an old ‘desert man’ and…well…that was the great brotherhood of those who had served in the desert, so everything was all right…
© Copyright of content contributed to this Archive rests with the author. Find out how you can use this.