Although many service personnel took the opportunity to buy impressive motorcars which were considerably cheaper in the Gulf, the size of the island suggested that a bicycle would be more appropriate. However, shortly after I arrived in Bahrain I had the chance to buy a Morris Mini Moke. The Moke was based on the Mini engine with a utility jeep like body with a rectangular windscreen. The canopy had been lost, but the framework was intact and the seller, a tour expired army officer, provided me with enough green rexine cloth to fabricate a new one. This vehicle was to be my undoing!
About this time, November 1966, I was invited to a commissioning ceremony for a newly arrived minesweeper. After the commissioning protocols had been observed, guests were invited to take refreshments. Prominent among the offerings were champagne cocktails which I learned were bubbles heavily fortified with brandy, a suitable beverage with which to bless the fortunes of one of the last all timber ships in the Royal Navy.
Predictably, the celebrations lasted well into the afternoon and on leaving I was ready to return to my quarters. Entering HMS Jufair at slow speed I took a corner too wide and contacted a Land Rover parked outside the Petty Offices mess. Damage to either vehicle was superficial, mainly scratched paint, but I sustained a cut on my forehead and on my right knee. At sick quarters my wounds were dressed and it was decided that I should be conveyed to the RAF hospital at Muharraq for observation. I was consigned to a ward containing one other, a young RAF pilot.
For many years my sleeping apparel had been a kikoi, a cylinder of cloth extending from the waist to the ankles and neatly folded and secured at the top front. I found this both convenient and comfortable. I had no idea of the heated discussion taking place outside the ward between Sister Maureen Kirkham and Sister Mary Johnson of the Princess Mary’s Royal Air Force Nursing Service. It seems that they had determined that I should be obliged to wear issue pyjamas but could not agree as to which of them would so instruct me. Both had cold feet and I continued to wear my kikoi.
Sister Maureen Kirkham conducts the AOC
Matrom: Kay Walsh, the AOC, Maureen Kirkham
But, they did seek my help in deciding how to carve up a pineapple which had been gifted to them. The fruit was duly cut up and enjoyed by the four of us in the ward. Sister Maureen was sitting on the foot of my bed when the door swung open and in walked the Station Commander, a group captain, commonly known as “Twink”. He brushed aside the pineapple explanation, said “just visiting”, turned and left.
After a couple of days, it was decided that I had not sustained concussion and I was discharged. Two weeks later I telephoned the nursing sister’s quarters and asked to speak to Maureen Kirkham. She came to the phone and agreed that, yes, she did remember me. A few days later I collected her and we drove across the causeway to Manama and the RAF Malcolm Club where we enjoyed an authentic curry dinner. When we arrived at the club Maureen reached behind the seat of the Moke but found that her expensive suede coat was no longer there. It was of such quality that some lucky Arab is probably still wearing it. The insurance company paid up and did not quibble.
This was the first of many dates and in December 1966 I asked Maureen to be my wife. On 17 February 1967 we were married at St Christopher’s Church Manama by the RAF Padre, Stanley Brinkman.
A couple of days before the wedding the Commodore’s Flag Lieutenant called at my office and ask about the rig for the day. He was rather taken aback and I said that at the bride’s request it would be lounge suits, no uniforms.
Mary Johnson acted as maid of honour, and the RAF dentist, Mike Tyne as best man and John Slater, my colleague, as Usher. In the interim as our neighbours in Qudabiya, Mike and his wife Ann and their two daughters had become our firm friends. The RAF laid on a car and a driver. The fully iced, two-tiered wedding cake was also a gift from the RAF, courtesy the catering officer, Alan Mears.
The reception was held at the Malcolm Club and at a suitable time Maureen and I left in our Moke which had been adorned with several items including a lavatory pan which was balanced on the bonnet. A ciné film taken at the time shows the pan departing overboard at the first corner.
Two days after the wedding, Lt Commander and Mrs Wright boarded the British India passenger ship MS Dumra, Captain Duncan Rain, and set sail for Kuwait. Knowing that I would be attending a series of courses in the UK midyear we had decided to honeymoon locally.
Duncan Rain had been captain of the Dumra when I first joined her in Bahrain in 1964, so predictably we had a seat at the Captain’s table. Not the benefit that one might expect, because Duncan had a habit of sitting long after dinner and coffee, consuming liqueurs! I knew the ship’s Security Officer, Baxendale, to whom I had to explain that I was on my honeymoon and not available for alcoholic afternoons!
Between Bahrain and Kuwait we explored the ship and in the tween decks visited the array of shop keepers who had boarded at Dubai. They would disembark at Kuwait and await the return of the ship from Basra.
The ship carried up to 1000 deck passengers, men, women and children who set up camp in the tween decks, on the hatches and about the main deck. The deck passengers were separated from the cabin accommodation by steel barred doors.
At Kuwait we had just enough time to visit the shopping area in the central city before departing for Khoramshar in the Shatt al Arab, where we anchored for a few hours but were unable to go ashore. Instead, we watched the activities around the ship and talked with an elderly American couple who were travelling around the Middle East.
The River, lined by a forest of date palms on both shores was a hive of activity, launches and barges attending the several vessels anchored in the fairway. I half expected my friends from Savak to appear for customary refreshment. The centreline of the river almost as far as Basra served as the international boundary between Iraq and Iran, about 80 miles.
At Basra, the Dumra berthed alongside and we were free to go ashore. The next day we walked along the Bund into the centre of the city, stopping at a bookshop to check the postcards. There were those with pictures of the Bund showing the line of impressive date palms, but there was something curious about the pictures. It took a moment to sink in but the area around the palms was decorated with colourful tulips and daffodils, the stems of which had been inserted straight into the ground, no leaves.
I managed to persuade a reluctant taxi driver to run us out to the old RAF Station at Shaiba which had the appearance of being terminally rundown. There were still signs of the RAF presence, air works buildings and a few dilapidated signs in English. It was clearly still an operational airfield with parked Migs and Antanovs on the apron. The taxi driver was edgy and keen to return to Basra.
That evening, I asked Maureen not to update her diary until we had exited the River and were on the way back to Kuwait. She was not very happy about this, but I told her that I would explain back at sea. I knew from previous experience that Iraqi officials had a habit of boarding merchant ships, conducting searches and blowing trivialities out of all proportion. A diary would have been of great interest and could lead to problems.
We again stretched our legs in Kuwait and was soon back at Mina Salman where John Slater met us with the Moke.
It came to our ears that certain ladies perceived the wedding as what they would have described as “a rush job” and drew their own conclusions. However, they were sunk when our firstborn, Matthew Edward, was born almost a year to the day of the wedding.
Matthew was born at the RAF hospital at Muharraq tended by another member of the PMs who had midwifery qualifications. Unfortunately, whilst Maureen was in labour the midwife alternated between attending Maureen and attending a party in the mess. I was present with Maureen in the ward and finally had to put my foot down and insist that the midwife attended and remained with her patient. Matthew duly appeared and was crying lustfully.
At this point the whole business took on a different tone and the midwife appeared to go into panic mode. I was ejected from the room and only readmitted sometime later when things seem to have settled down. I was not offered an explanation but later learned that the cause of the midwife’s concern was a retained placenta.
All went well for several days until on the fifth morning I arrived to find that Matthew had been conveyed to the Bahrain public hospital where they had a paediatric facility. On arrival I found Maureen in a separate ward from the baby and was greeted by a Pakistani doctor who assured me repeatedly that “God is great”. It was evident that Matthew was very sick but none seem to be certain of the cause. When I returned the following day his condition had deteriorated and whilst I sat with Maureen the doctor arrived to tell us that Matthew had died.
At my request John Cowan, the senior RAF medical officer, attended the autopsy where it was determined that Matthew had died of galloping septicaemia. He told me that it was likely that Matthew’s condition resulted from the negligence of the midwife and asked if I wanted to file a complaint. On reflection we concluded that from our point of view little would be achieved. The midwife was returned to the UK with a black mark.
I was reluctant to see Matthew buried in Bahrain, particularly since it was becoming apparent that Britain’s hegemony in the Persian Gulf was on the wane, I decided that he should be buried at sea. I sought permission from the Commodore to use a Naval Stores Tender. The Commodore instructed that a minesweeper, HMS Puncheston, would be sailed and the deed was done. The captain gave me a chart with the burial position marked.