A Naval Interlude

Copyright: G J Wright 2018

 

1966 BACK TO BAHRAIN

I had arrived in the UK in plenty of time to for the interview at the Ministry of Defence (Navy) on 20 April. Arriving at 7 Crown Close, St Ives, I found a pile of mail and among it a letter from Sultan’s Armed Forces Headquarters in Muscat notifying me of my appointment with the local rank of Captain, a list of clothing and equipment to be presented to Gieves in London, and an air ticket.

Now I had a choice of future employment, but had to make a quick decision on which it was to be.  On one hand, I had a job and could start right away, and on the other I had yet to have an interview with no guarantee that I would get an appointment.  The job with the Sultan’s Armed Forces was attractive and it was there for the taking, but the thought of serving under the white ensign also had its attractions.  I can’t now remember on what I based my decision, but decided to hedge my bets.

I knew that even if was successful with my application to MOD(N) it would be several months before I could take up the appointment because it would take at least three months to complete the requisite Positive Vetting.  I wrote to SAF thanking them for the appointment but saying that because of personal affairs which would need my attention in the UK, I could not take up the appointment until the autumn.  They replied, without comment, asking me to return the air ticket.

I reported to Mod(N) in Whitehall on 20 April 1966 where I was interviewed by a Captain RN on behalf of the Director of Naval Intelligence.  I recall thinking that the interview was rather informal, it was certainly polite and friendly.  He asked me about my knowledge of Arabic, to which I said that if I were running a police station in the Gulf, I was confident my Arabic would be adequate. This seem to satisfy him. I had expected some form of test.  To my surprise he told me that I would be offered the appointment and that if I accepted I would have to undergo a Positive Vetting check which may take several months.

Positive Vetting had been introduced in Britain for jobs that needed a security clearance following the Philby, Burgess and McClean debacle in 1951.  Until the disappearance of those three and their and subsequent re-emergence in Moscow in 1956, recruitment to the British security services was much a part of the old boy network and often centred upon Cambridge University with certain dons acting as recruiters.

In June whilst I was doing a gliding course at the London Gliding Club at Dunstable a gentleman from the Ministry of Civil Aviation[1] made an appointment to see me.  We talked in the club house and he turned out to have been an Assistant Commissioner in the Tanganyika Police and was working on my Positive Vetting.  I had been asked to name referees, some of whom were still in Kenya.  To my surprise he said that he would be flying out to Kenya to talk with some of those I had named.  He also volunteered that the PV process would cost more than £20,000.[2]

Things took their course and in the meantime I bought a Morris Mini car.  I spent some time at Brancaster on the Norfolk coast where Alan Scotney kept a caravan and old lifeboat for which he had plans for a cruiser conversion.  He, I and a local fisherman brought the boat around from Yarmouth and moored it in the inlet.  Roger Everdell, another St Ivian, had acquired an old lug rigged cutter which he didn’t know how to sail. I took him and his family out a time or two. The “Jolly Sailor Inn” was the social centre for both residents and visitors and they did a very good steak.  I also met a girl, Prue Martin, who was working in Brancaster as a nanny and with whom I spent some time.

Time passed and in August I heard from MoD(N) that I had been cleared for the appointment as a Civilian Intelligence Officer, with the honorary rank of Lieutenant RNR, and attached to the Base Intelligence Office at HMS Jufair in Bahrain. I flew to Bahrain in mid-September and was met at Muharraq airport by my opposite number, John Slater, and the clerical officer, Les Crocker, who took me to Jufair and a cabin in the bachelor officers’ accommodation that had been assigned to me.

The wardroom was in a two storey colonial era building with wide all round verandas on both floors. The first floor housed an anteroom, dining area and bar, where formality was the rule at all times.  On the ground floor was a small club where informality ruled and which was much frequented by junior offers of the United States Navy whose ships were all ‘dry’.  I recall that the US officers made a nuisance of themselves when under the influence by devising a game which entailed hitting the blades of a revolving ceiling fan with an empty beer can, causing the resultant missiles to fly unpredictably.

Between the wardroom and the bachelor accommodation stood an elegant white painted bungalow, the home of the Senior Naval Officer Persian Gulf (SNOPG), at that time Commodore Tom Fanshawe.  On either side of the main entrance were two, highly polished, brass two pounder guns on wheels which were often the target of trophy raids by officers from RAF Muharraq.  On mess nights the guns were often pressed into service in competitions to see who could land a thunder flash propelled tennis ball in the swimming Pool to the rear of the British Resident’s home and office several hundred yards away.

The Base Intelligence office was in the centre of an old building of similar construction to the wardroom which served as Naval Headquarters.  British Forces Joint Headquarters was elsewhere, on the road into the base.  The office had no separate access from the outside of the building and entry was through a security system.  It consisted of an ‘L’ shaped room ruled over by Les Crocker with a desk each for John Slater and myself. There was a small separate office for the Base Intelligence Officer, Major Peter Stickley, Royal Marines.

A briefing revealed that the CIOs would be expected to spend ten to 14 days a month on patrol in Ton Class Minesweepers of 9 Mine Countermeasure Squadron based at Mina Salman, and occasionally in frigates of the Indian Ocean Squadron.  The task was to intercept local craft at sea, detain, and search for arms, Ammunition, or explosives which might be consigned to rebels in the Dhofar Province of Oman.  Intelligence suggested that such consignments were getting through to Dhofar after originating in Iraq.

At the request of the WHO’s Hong Kong office, craft returning from the Ceylon and the Indian Sub-Continent were also occasionally stopped and searched from signs of drugs.

An interesting feature of the patrols carried out by the Royal Navy in the Gulf was that the interception and boarding of local craft was carried out under the terms of the treaties entered into by the British Crown and the various sheikhdoms in the 18th Century, all designed to suppress the slave trade.  Under the treaties, any slave who could reach and touch the flagpole at the British Residency in Abhu Dabi was automatically manumitted, or freed. These Arabian littoral sheikhdoms became known as the Trucial States. The use of these treaties for other purposes in the mid-20th century had become legally tenuous, but were regarded by local seafarers as very much in the same way as weather — a nuisance and something that just happened!

My first patrol started the following week in a minesweeper, HMS Chawton, which headed for the Straits of Hormuz, the narrow stretch of water between Ras Masandam in Oman and the Quesham Island on the Persian side. At this point the straits are just 30 miles wide and all traffic, in and out of the Gulf passes through this narrow neck of water.  We also checked the several disputed islands, Little Tunb. Big Tunb and Sirri. These barren islands which had potential for oil exploration and production were claimed by Persia and several of the Trucial States.

Boom

Figure 7 A Kuwaiti Boom

Some local craft were stopped and boarded.  Typically, these were called alongside at the port gangway and lines were passed to the ship. Two seamen were posted on deck armed with 9mm Lanchester SMGs.[3]  The Nakhoda (Captain) was interviewed along with crew members and passengers, a cursory search was conducted among the items visible on the deck and in hold.  Among the passengers were often figures completely shrouded in black, who were purportedly women — these were not touched and were vouched for by male passengers.  They could, of course have been anyone and sitting on boxes of contraband ams and explosives!

It was soon clear that it was almost impossible to search these craft at sea because they consisted mainly of one large hold and carried a very mixed cargo; dates, dried fish, carpets, drums of fuel, firewood and much else, often topped by a vehicle or two.

We found a variety of local craft ranging from large 500 ton Kuwaiti booms, through sleek Shuai, to small Jalibuts[4].  These were all lumped under the generic title of ‘Dhows’, a name unknown to the Arabs, but commonly used by Europeans. This was to become an issue the following year when the US Navy enlisted our help in attempting to create a ‘Dhow Blue Book’.

Khotia

Figure 8 Indian Khotia from Bombay

Sometimes we encountered large, immaculate Indian country craft, Khotia, bound for Basra or Khoramshar.  These were uniformly painted warship grey and carried staysails and top sails not seen on Arab boats.

When we returned to Bahrain after the first patrol, Peter Stickley called me to his office and asked my age. He laughed and said that evidently someone at MOD(N) in London had made a mistake for it seemed that they had thought that I was 27 and had consequently given me the rank of Lieutenant.  I told him that I took that as a compliment, because in fact I was then 34.  With that he handed me a letter from the Admiral commanding reserves which confirmed my appointment to list fifteen and promotion to Lieutenant Commander RNR.

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Ton[5] Class Minesweepers were twin screw, diesel[6] powered vessels of 440 tons, constructed of wood and other non-ferromagnetic materials, they were capable of 15 knots.  Primary armament was one Bofors 40 mm gun for’ard, some ships also had an Oerlikon 20 mm cannon aft of the funnel, and of course, mine sweeping gear. Some had enclosed air-conditioned bridges and others a less congenial open bridge. The ships were designed to go to sea for short spells on mine sweeping tasks and then return to base where the ships company lived ashore.

In the Persian Gulf however, patrols might last from seven to ten days which, with a complement of 33, this made for tight living conditions. Fortunately, the accommodation was air-conditioned.  The wardroom flat was on the main deck with the officers’ cabins, and the ratings were accommodated on the lower deck.  There was a constant flow of traffic past the officers’ dining area from the lower deck companionway to the open deck aft.

The length of a patrol was constrained by the ship’s fresh water storage capacity which was limited to 5 tons.  Sometimes the fresh water was topped up from a passing frigate and occasionally by putting in to Bandar Abbas in Persia where water was brought off to the ship in a barge.  This was a sight to behold because the water barge seemed to be barely afloat with sea water washing over the deck. Water from a frigate was described as a RAS, or re-supply at sea. A frigate not only had a greater water storage capacity, but could make fresh water and so had a better endurance.

Ton Class MS

Figure 9 A Ton Class Mine Sweeper – HMS Upton

Just before Christmas 1966, 5 Mine Countermeasure Squadron was invited by an oil company to send representatives to a festive function at Um Said in Qatar.  I was in one of the minesweepers having just returned from a patrol in the Southern Gulf.  We joined HMS Beachhampton, commanded by Lieutenant Commander Bill Sedgwick, in the approaches to Um Said.

Beachhampton berthed and secured alongside ahead of us.  As we approached her port side and passed a bow line the captain of our minesweeper collapsed to the deck.  I cannot now remember his name, but he was a seaman officer, a lieutenant, who had spent most of his career in physical education.  The First Lieutenant, Jeremy Blackham, coolly step forward and in professional fashion completed the berthing manoeuvre and only then joined the hands about the collapsed captain.  It transpired that he had had a heart attack and was returned to Bahrain by air.  Jeremy Blackham took command.

As we cross the deck of Beachhampton we were met at the gangway by Bill Sedgwick who suggested that in the circumstances it might be as well for me to swap epaulettes with Jeremy Blackham.  This would have afforded Jeremy instant promotion for the occasion, but he refused to entertain this idea.  He was a thoroughly nice young man with a long family tradition in the Royal Navy. He retired as Vice Admiral Sir Jeremy Joe Blackham KCB.

On another occasion, visiting Muscat in a Sweeper the wardroom were invited to dine with the British Resident. Disembarking from a RIB at a jetty on the waterfront we were each presented with a small hurricane lamp, this to conform to the Sultan’s rules. All firearms were to be deposited at the town gate and no-one was to be abroad after sunset unless carrying a lighted hurricane lamp. On reaching the Residency we were greeted at the door by the Resident who said “Welcome to Muscat, rushing headlong into the 13th century”.

Bahrain, meaning ‘Two Seas’ in Arabic and refers to the surrounding salt water and the fresh water springs which appear on the sea bed around the island.  The island which measures about 30 by 10 miles has been ruled over by the Al Khalifa family since the 18th century.  In 1966, the ruler was Sheikh Issa Bin Salman Al Khalifa.  A treaty of protection with Great Britain in 1862 ensured the Al Khalifa rule and Bahrain became a centre of trade and a pearl fishing industry.  Oil was discovered on the island in 1932 and a refinery was established at Awali, this led to rapid modernisation.

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 pain, 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.

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Sister Maureen Kirkham conducts the AOC

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.

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The Bridal Group

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.

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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.

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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.

shopkeeper
One of a dozen shopkeepers

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.

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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.

John Cowan, the senior RAF medical officer, attended the autopsy at my request 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.

Mention of the NST reminds me that between patrols in the frigates and Minesweepers, Base Intelligence was also tasked with keeping tabs on activities at sea in the Bahrain territorial waters.  The shallow draft of the 40 foot NST lent itself to day patrols in the shallow waters around the Archipelago.  The craft was crewed by a petty officer coxswain, two deckhands and an Army signaller and myself.

Visiting the RAF Marine Craft section in Bahrain I found that my old Aden colleague, Liam Batt, who had been bowman on the AOC’s launch, was present and now a flight sergeant first class coxswain. We decided to have a dinner party and invited him and the two NST petty officers and their wives. The naval contingent arrived on time but no Paddy Batt. Maureen had put a lot of effort into preparing the meal and so we decided to wait. About an hour later Paddy arrived by taxi somewhat the worse for wear. He had just heard that his wife, back in the UK, had won £500 on the football pools and he had been celebrating the win!

At the Marine Craft unit I also found that I had missed by a few weeks meeting up with Ginger Hartshorn from my Bridlington days in the RAF and with whom I had spent an enjoyable couple of weeks working in the butts at Bisley in 1951. He too was now a flight sergeant first class coxswain and had only recently returned to the UK.

In 1966.  I was assigned to liaise with a representative of the United States Navy, one Lioeutenant Commander Boyd, and a colleague from the Advance Research Projects Agency (ARPA), Curtis Knudsen, on the possibility of compiling a Dhow Blue Book.  It transpired that in Vietnam the US Navy had compiled such a book, the Junk Blue Book as an aid to identifying local coastal craft.  On the coast of Vietnam local craft could be identified on their port of origin by subtle differences in ornamentation and colour, making it easier to identify coastal craft out of their normal range.

I explained that the term “Dhow” was unknown among Arab seafarers and was thought to be of European origin.  It is possible that the expression “Dhow” may have entered the lexicon when a 19th century governor of Aden had a local sailing craft converted to his use as a personal yacht and which he named “Dau al Bahra” or “Light of the Sea”.  Though some craft could be identified by size, shape and decoration as to their port of origin, but many smaller craft were universal and could be seen throughout the Gulf.  Nonetheless, the U.S. Navy were determined to push ahead with this project and sighting questionnaires were issued to all R.N. ships operating in the Gulf and to Maritime Reconnaissance Shackleton aircraft based in Aden.

The response over a couple of months was bitty and almost every craft sighted was predictably termed a “Dhow”.  Observers also logged course, speed, visible deck cargo and crew numbers and any other relevant detail.  After again meeting with the US representatives it was decided that I should prepare an illustrated folder naming the types of craft likely to be seen in the Gulf.  Some photographs I collected at sea and others, I took of craft around Bahrain using an RN Wasp helicopter.  These folders were issued to participating ships and aircraft.  Although there was some improvement in response, it became clear that the observers were not taking this project seriously.

 

In 1968 I attended a conference at the US Embassy in Beirut where the project was discussed.  I suggested that my folder could be used as a basis for a Blue Book.  It was noted that some of the craft illustrated and named in the folder were not based in the Persian Gulf.  I explained that nonetheless these craft were often to be seen in the Gulf and originated in the Red Sea, the east coast of Africa and from India and Ceylon.  Each was of a type and had distinctive names.  I added that if the proposed Blue Book was to be of any value then coverage should be extended to the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea.

Shortly after I returned to Bahrain from the conference, the BIO, Major Hamilton- Meikle, told me that the Dhow Blue Book project had been cancelled on instructions from the British Resident, Mr Balfour-Paul.  It had been revealed that the proceeds of this US project would be shared with Iran where the Shah still enjoyed a tenuous hold.  Thus, the scheme had assumed a political and religious dimension because Iran held an historic claim to the Bahrain Archipelago.  Whilst the ruling family of Bahrain, the Al Khalifa, were Sunni Muslims, the population were Shia, the national Islamic sect of Iran.

Sometime later, I received a letter from a branch of the US government offering me a position as an intelligence advisor based at the US Embassy in London on a salary of US$1500 a month plus all found.  I replied, stating that I was unable to accept the offer because I was already in the employ of Her Majesty’s Government!

 

 

To be continued…

[1] A cover.

[2] A considerable sum in 1966.

[3] A direct copy of the German MP28 by the Sterling Arms Company and manufactured between 1941 and 1945.

[4] The name is said to derive from RN Jollyboats.

[5] The ships were named after English towns which ended with “Ton”. Ie: Chawton, Yarnton, Puncheston.

[6] Mirlees engines, as used in BR locomotives.

 

 

Copyright: G J Wright 2018