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Journal of a Flight Sergeant / Radio Specialist - Chapter 5

by Jim Bbrowning

Contributed by 
Jim Bbrowning
People in story: 
James S Browning
Location of story: 
Iraq Ch 5 reflections
Background to story: 
Royal Air Force
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
05 January 2005

Chapter 5 - Reflections
Back in the camp we found things pretty hot after the cool of the hills and pretty soon we were boiling under the summer sun. Again it was work and sweat by day and night. Again and again the padre would break the monotony by arranging a swim up the river or a trip to the ruins of the ancient city of Ninvah which were only about four miles from town. These trips were quite interesting although there was not much to see. On a little hill near the inner wall there are still a few old buildings round a holy minaret. Among these is supposed to be Jonah's tomb but as the buildings are still inhabited and the ground is holy ground we infidels were not allowed inside the village.

The outer and inner walls we could see or at least, the outlines of them as they are buried in sand dunes. The outer one had been excavated at parts and one of the great gates had been uncovered with the huge winged bulls which formed its posts practically undamaged. Very little else has been uncovered as the work had only fairly recently been started and was of course temporarily postponed. A really good guide could have made it much more interesting. Our means of transport on these trips were the local arabanyas, a type of old fashioned carriage and pair, only the carriages were a bit shaky and the horses a couple of overworked and underfed broken down hacks.

Occasionally we would chuck a detonator into the river at a quiet spot so that we might provide ourselves with a feed of fresh Tigris salmon. On these occasions it was interesting to note how quickly a mob of Iraqi's would appear from apparently bare country and wade in to gather the fish. The Arab races have a curious faculty for producing mobs from nothing in no time at all.

Occasionally Pete Tarelli, Lilly Thwaites and myself used to visit a family in town with whom we had become friendly while at the monastery. There I made my second contact with native dishes though this time it was better food and better prepared. The best of them was called khuba and was a sort of flat pie made of two layers of packed rice and wheat between the mixture of rice and small pieces of mutton. This is a very tasty dish and is best served with a pickle made from lettuce stalk and scrap which is called chussie from 'il chuss' the lettuce. This dish is peculiar to Mosul and with it we had leben, Kirkuk leben, which is famous throughout the country. One can often see little Muslim sacks of leben hanging in the cool places in a train, the travellers' lunch. We had too a dish which was surely the grandfather of the haggis, a dish made in the lining of the sheep's stomach which is packed with rice, corn and scraps of meat and seasoning. Perhaps the best of all was one which you may have had. If you haven't, try it, it's lush. Take a young marrow or cucumber and skin it, cut off the ends and scrape out the seeds. The cavity this has formed is stuffed with small pieces of meat and seasoning and the ends plugged up. The dish now is ready for roasting or grilling in suet or fat. How's that for style, suit Mrs Keating? Don't imagine that we had all these dishes at once though we could have had them if we had wished. As it was, we had a hard job convincing them that we had had enough when we had. This family, was an exception to the Iraqi rule, being a nice educated middle class family. Don't imagine that we had all these dishes at once though we could have had, then if we had wised, as it was, we had a hard job convincing them that we had had enough when we had. This family was an exception to the Iraqi rule, being a nice educated middle class family.

I'd talk for days but news is scarce,
This room's as lonely as a hearse,
Some lads have gone, and others leaving,
Filling our laden hearts with grieving.
We know we'll miss each friendly face,
And find it hard to part with grace,
A grip of hand, a nod, a smile
Mean God be with you all the while.
For we are men, and what commotion
If men should dare show emotion.
So strifle up our hearts,
Say all the best and mind the tarts.
Any line which seems to show
That we don't mind how soon they go.
Right to the last we're quite inane
We stutter out "We'll meet again",
Although we know the odds would run
At something more than ten to one
Those ties which we are soon to sever
Will more than likely break forever.
We've been together now for ages,
And we've filled a good few pages
In the diary we call life.
A diary full of mental strife.
For many partings such as these
Can quite out balance days of ease,
And not for years do we find pleasure
In looking up the diary's measure
Of friendships made, not to be broken,
Tho' now we miss the word unspoken.
Were we not men but something less,
Perhaps when we'd found happiness,
There'd be no need to let it go,
But we might simply chum along,
Ever on our lips a song
In praise of He who reigns above,
Who sent us friends whom we could love
And keep throughout the passing years,
Nor never know a parting's tears. James S Browning

Later I was posted and caught up with my unit who were in tents beside the oil wells. I was only there for a fortnight and I think I say enough when I say that it stank horribly as did the neighbouring town of Kirkuk. From there we joined a convoy and set off for Persia.

The camp we had just left was still pretty warm and now we found ourselves winding up through passes twelve and fourteen thousand feet high, in intense cold. We travelled most uncomfortably in the backs of gharries passing through some wildly beautiful country. Soon after we crossed the border, we began to see stretches of green grass and vegetation, a welcome change to our eyes tired of the monotonous greys and browns of Iraq. We began to see people too and noticed a difference in their dress. Very few of the men wore the long thithasher but were mainly dressed in very ragged European or semi-European clothes or cast off Persian army garb. Almost without exception they wore peaked caps. But it was in the women's dress that we noticed the greatest difference. The women wore a long black trousers over which was a coloured knee length frock. Over all, instead of the black abbah, they wore a brightly coloured long cloth covering the head and reaching the ground. This cloth is caught across the chest and pulled across the face in dusty weather or at the approach of white men. Their dwellings are much the same mud hovels as are found in Iraq and here too the population is sharply divided into the rich class and the poor. The division is even sharper in Persia than in Iraq owing to the greater number of foreign traders. We had to have strong guards on our convoy from the moment we stopped until the moment we left though we stopped in the most deserted looking spots for these people, like the Iraqi's, gather like flies from nowhere and they are the sort who would pinch the sugar from your chai right under your nose and come back for the milk. After passing through the very mountainous country we came out of these rolling hills. Coming round one of these hills we suddenly saw the golden domes of the temple in the holy city of Qum. One is allowed to walk right up to this temple which is very beautiful, but photographs of it are forbidden, strictly. The legend runs that an ancient king had a sister who died a virgin so he took her bones to Qum and there built a shrine and temple with golden domes, promising that anyone who visited the shrine would be sure of a place in heaven. It is thought that this was partly to induce more of the population northwards to the old town which was an important halting place for travellers on the way to the Caspian sea.

Passing along the sides of the great salt lakes and marshes we came eventually and suddenly upon the city and capital of Persia, the Paris of the east, Teheran. This is a sight which fills me with surprise. After travelling through miles of practically deserted, bare and inhospitable land, a modern city suddenly appears without previously giving the slightest warning of it's existence. I can't say much about Lebanon as I didn't like the place so didn't spend a great deal of time there, in any case with our restricted bounds and time we didn’t have much chance to find things which may have been interesting.

Teheran is quite a big city of mostly big modern buildings, the main part of which were built by the Germans and the French. Some of the older buildings have some very beautiful mosaic work in the walls and domed roofs. The population is very cosmopolitan especially in the present time when it is full of refugees. The Persians themselves have no business sense so the shops and offices are controlled mainly by Armenians and French. The cost of stuff is absolutely prohibitive and the ordinary B.O.R can only afford to spend one night a week in town. After that he is broke. Alternatively, he can spend a cheap night at the cinema but that is almost as bad as the cinema in Iraq, for every few feet of the film, the story is interrupted while the story is explained in Persian writing to the audience so that they might understand the humour and enjoy the thrills. The citizens, with few exceptions, are out to bleed the troops of everything they have. The only place really for the troops is the services club run by the women folk of the British Legation and their friends.

For the rest of the town, sorry, city, is composed of wide centrally divided streets along which drive crazy motorcar drivers with no road sense whatsoever and seemingly with the ambition to deafen everyone within range of their electric horns. This perpetual din is added to by the calls of street vendors selling everything from a needle to an anchor, first or fifth hand, and the babel of gesticulating people so that this hotch - potch of a population seems to be a terrifically noisy uncontrolled mob. The city is well situated in the hills in good country with plenty of water (not on tap at all points) and seems to be very healthy. The climate is quite good, not too hot in the summer and in late winter, ideal for winter sports which are plentiful. While there I played football against the Persian international team, a very fine one, on the pitch of the stadium which was built in the hope of attracting the Olympic Games, an impossibility owing to the poor travelling facilities of the country. The stadium though is quite a fine one. I had quite an interesting and enjoyable time acting as an instructor in a school which was opened in Lebanon for improving men of my trade, but I was quite glad when it closed and I moved with my unit to where I am now (Khorsabad).

When we landed here, the snow was quite deep on the ground and it continued to rain and snow for another couple of months. There is nothing here and for that I am quite grateful for I can't abide these people.


Everywhere one goes out here one sees the inevitable, four gallon petrol tin used by both natives and troops for all sorts of weird purposes. The tin is easily the most popular of articles for barter purposes. Next comes a tin of bully. Everywhere absolutely everywhere, one sees the petrol tin in some form of another.

The poor native is very close to the animal. I have seen whilst on convoy old and young wogs, fighting like dogs in the refuge pit for scraps of food, porridge thick with dirt or a few used tea leaves. It is a truly disgusting spectacle and their very childishness takes away any feelings of pity which one may entertain. It is not a nice sight to see a grown man crying in anger and vexation because some other has stolen his tit-bit nor to see another grown man kick young children aside so that he may be the one to salvage old bully tins.

All classes are very childish and quite effeminate. It is quite common to see two men walking along the main street like a pair of lovers. I have seen them stop and comb their hair and rearrange their ties at almost every mirror. I have seen them in a studio primping and posing before having a portrait taken. Cruelty is natural with them and they have no time for a man who is soft in his dealings. The expect hard words and blows, give them an inch and they take a mile. Unfortunately we have no choice, we are made to treat them leniently.
I have made very little reference to the heat which is just as well for it has really got to be experienced to be believed. If I give you figures, you can only say "that's so many degrees hotter than our hottest", but it still gives you no conception of what it's like. As the temperature rises, each degree seems to bring a far greater amount of heat than the previous one. But what is most desperate is that the nights are never cooler that the highest day time temperatures in blightly so that sweating is continuous. In Egypt it is never so hot during the day, the record high is I believe is at least twenty degrees cooler than the Iraqi average high, and also in Egypt the nights are cool. Of all the Middle East countries, Palestine is easily the best. The Jordan valley is extremely fertile and beautiful to see it makes one wonder why the Jews ever left it.

To crown the heat in Iraq is monotony dull dreary endless monotony enough to drive a man crazy or at least leave him unbalanced in his mind. There is no social life and no contact with the opposite sex. Though not a ladies man myself, even I missed that contact, for after all one does tire of purely male company especially if that company is the same all the time. Time spent in the Iraq command is a dead blank in a man's life, it is a payment he makes for his country for which there is no return on the credit side but a mental and physical depreciation on the debit side.

It's a good thing that man has a short memory for the green things in life and remembers mainly the good ones as you can see from this letter alone.

Now I am back to almost where I started from in Egypt. From where I am sitting writing, I can see the Pyramids and the Sphynx??? and as I watch them I realise that after all two years is a very short time and nothing really changes and not very much matters. Often when we receive newspapers and picture papers giving details of the great hospitality extended to the Yanks, Greeks, Polish, French etc., etc., by the folks at home our blood boils over in righteous anger. Compared with the foreign troops the life of the British soldier at home or abroad is a misery. It is impossible to describe the misery of being the most ill-dressed soldier in a foreign land, which is entirely uncharitable to our persons or minds. Can you blame lads who, surrounded by petty restrictions, frustrated in every little wish, get themselves drunk at the first opportunity in order to try and escape boredom for a little while.

Thank God this war must end some time and pray God that it will be soon. That we may return to a world in which there is some sanity and in which people are fairly rational.

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Message 1 - The Journal of a flight sergeant

Posted on: 05 January 2005 by Jim Bbrowning



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