The Persian Gulf

Copyright: G J Wright 2018


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, but 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.

One day, a letter appeared addressed to Captain Les Crocker. Somehow, the letter came under the eye of Peter Stickley who asked Les about the rank of captain.  Unabashed, Les said “Yes Peter I was in the army when they were needing them, not just feeding them”. Les had joined the army before World War II as a boy soldier, serve through the war, and retired as a captain.

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.

HMS Puncheston. Note the Gulf insignia on the funnel – a Dhow.

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.


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 arms or 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’.

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 stay sails 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.


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 Minesweeper – 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 crossed 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.  He commanded the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal in the Adriatic during the Bosniam War in 1992.

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 “Gentlemen, 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.

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 Lieutenant 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 “Dhau 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 adviser 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!

One consequence of the Blue Book project was a couple of patrols in RAF Shackleton Maritime Reconnaissance aircraft.  The aircraft, drawn from 43 Squadron stationed at Khormaksar in Aden, were detached to Muharraq, Bahrain, for local patrols.  My first flight was a circuit of the Gulf related to the Blue Book to quantify just what could be deduced from overflights of local boats.  I concluded that the answer was “not much”.

Avro Shackleton

We typically flew at under 1000 feet which meant that the interior of the aircraft was hot and sweaty and whilst I was wearing just a white shirt and shorts, the aircrew were obliged to wear regulation flying suits.  As the flight progressed, so the odour increased.  A few miles from Kuwait we over flew the British India ship “Dumra” as it approached the port.

It had long been suspected that the fishing village at Hauf which was just inside the Aden Protectorate served as a transit point for arms and explosives destined for the rebels in the Dhofar Province of Oman.  It was decided to take a look at Hauf for signs of any such activity.  I joined the aircraft at Muharraq and we flew south through the straits of Hormuz, along the Oman coast, overflying Masira Island and along the Dhofar coast to Hauf.  At one point, flying at a customary 800 feet, the aircraft was flying below the crest of the cliffs along the coast.  Hauf proved to be a typical coastal fishing village with not much evidence of anything, just a few local craft lodged on the beach.  Indeed, it would have been pure luck had we arrived overhead during any suspicious landing operations.

At this point, I was told that a technical problem on one of the engines necessitated an immediate return to Aden.  But, to make things easier for me, I would be dropped off at Masira.  I found that Masira had changed quite a lot since I spent six months there in 1952\53.  The compacted gypsum had now gone, and the runways and apron were sealed.  The makeshift wartime buildings had been replaced by modern air-conditioned units.

I reported to station headquarters to find that there was nothing scheduled for Bahrain for at least a week.  I was conducted to the mess and left to my own devices.  I visited the wharf and found that the old concrete freshwater tanks had been replaced by something resembling an Olympic swimming pool.  The wharf remained, looking the worse for wear, but my shed had disappeared.  I took a walk along the east beach and found that the memorial to the men of the ship, Baron Inverdale, remained intact but there was no sign of the crashed aircraft.

Back at the mess, I was visited by the dhobi wallah to check on whether I had any laundry.  He took a step back, gave me a quizzical look and said, “You were the boat sahib”.  I gave him full marks for memory for it had been sixteen years since I was last at Masira and there must have been hundreds, if not thousands, of visitors since then.

On the fourth day a Pembroke aircraft from RAF Salalah landed, and a check revealed that the aircraft was headed for Muscat carrying two wounded men, and would fly on to Muharraq.  The casualties, both with gunshot wounds, were on stretchers and there was otherwise plenty of room.  The flight, a little over 200 miles, took us across the Wahiba Sands and the Jebel Al Akhdar.  I spent the night in the SAF mess and the next day flew on to Bahrain.

Maureen and I decided to take our honeymoon locally because midyear I was due to return to the UK for a series of courses.  In June, she left for the UK in an RAF Britannia aircraft, flying via Cyprus.  I followed a few days later in a VC 10 aircraft and we flew via Malta.  Taking off from Malta, the captain announced on the PA that he was Major Smith of the United States Air Force.  This caused an uproar, with other ranks yelling, “let me get off!”

All went well, we were intercepted off the west coast of Italy by Italian fighters who used the VC10 as a training exercise, briefly formatting on us.  Crossing the English Channel, the captain announced on the PA that RAF Lyneham was closed because of heavy fog.  Groans.  He added that the aircraft would do a dogleg down the English Channel, then return to see if there was any chance of a landing.  Otherwise, he said, the aircraft would be diverted to Renfrew.  More groans.

After visiting the south coast of Wales, which was clear, we again flew up the English Channel.  The captain announced that he had permission to try an approach for Lyneham.  We immediately descended into the thick fog and saw nothing until the runway lights emerged and we touched down.  The ORs conceded that Major Smith knew how to fly anyway.

After a few days with respective to families, I reported to the Ministry of Defence (Navy) in London where I was to attend a one-day course in clandestine photography.  I was directed to a basement office in King Charles Street, off Whitehall.  There I was briefly interviewed and then sent out with a camera and a list of tasks covering targets where photography was prohibited, all in the vicinity of Big Ben and Parliament.  I returned to the office where we descended to a basement darkroom and processed the film.  Success.

The following day at MoD(N) I was conducted to an office beneath the main building where I was initiated into the mysteries of the Enigma Machine.  This device was invented by the Germans between the wars, originally for commercial use, several were captured by the Polish and a couple were handed to the UK and France.  Along with Alan Turing’s computer at Bletchley it was this machine that enabled the cracking of the German military codes.

As far as I can remember the machine was fitted with a series of random cogs which were changed daily and activated by a typewriter keyboard and a series of lights, thus enabling messages to be coded.  At HMS Jufair, Bahrain, we had a codebook which listed the cogs and the order in which they were to be installed every day.  The codebook was kept in a secure safe to which only three or four people had access.  I do not remember using it.

Nowadays, messages are typed into a computer program, converted into a virtually uncrackable cipher and transmitted over a secure network.  The daily passwords are held by authorised personnel in codebook like those used with the Enigma machine.

When I emerged into daylight at the end of the day with the Enigma, I was greeted by news placards announcing the outbreak of yet another war between Israel and the Arabs.

After a weekend break, I reported to an HM Customs rummage crew in the Port of London where I was to spend a week observing their systems and as appropriate take part in searches.  I was immediately struck by the difference in searching a cargo ship and an Arab country craft.  There was, or is, no resemblance.  However, it was interesting and having had trouble with VHF handheld radios whilst with British India, I was intrigued to see the customs crews using radios anywhere in a ship.  It transpired that the secret was to use UHF.  In the BI ships it was necessary to extend the whip aerial outside of the ship, from a porthole or gangway, in order to contact the bridge.

At the end of the week I was taken on a visit to the Customs Museum at Southend where all manner of tricks and ploys used by smugglers were exhibited.  I mentioned the 4-gallon kerosene tin ploy used by gold smugglers when they were intercepted by customs off the Indian or Ceylon coast.  We frequently intercepted gold smugglers leaving Dubai in fast launches and often found the crew extracting ten tola (about 4 ounce) gold bars and inserting them into pockets on waistcoats and securing them with a stitch.  The waistcoats were then inserted into a series of jute bags which were roped in lengths and secured to the kerosene tin.  The kerosene tin was divided into two compartments, the top airtight and the bottom filled with rock salt.  If chased by customs, the bags and the tin were carefully deployed over the side and sank.  After about twenty-four hours the salt in the bottom of the tin dissolved and the tin rose to the surface when the string of bags containing the gold could be recovered.  This was new to HM Customs.

Because the launches leaving Dubai were in international waters, they were not of interest to us.  But we did have an understanding with the World Drug Organisation, which was based in Hong Kong, that we would check the launches on their way back to Dubai.  Considering the number of possible hiding placers on these launches, it is not surprising that no drugs were found.   Interestingly, the gold on the launches was in fibre boxes and originated from Johnson Matthey, bullion dealers in the City of London, or from la Compagnie de Mieux Preciouse, Paris.

After another short break with family, Maureen and I secured accommodation in Ashford, Kent, and I reported to Templer Barracks.  The barracks housed the School of Military Intelligence where I was to start the six-week course in interrogation.  There were seven others on the course, including one from Nigeria, another from the Irish army, one from Jordan and the remainder were UK Intelligence Corps officers.

The course consisted of lectures, practical role-playing and films.  I recall one of the films featured RAF aircrew who were dropped off in the countryside on an evasion exercise. Any who were captured, most of them, were taken to a similar interrogation facility in Plymouth.  The interrogation centre at Plymouth was manned by White Russians and all the interrogators and guards were in Russian military uniforms.  No holds were barred, and the experience resembled what aircrew might expect to face if captured in Russia or Eastern Europe.  Not surprisingly, at the end of the exercise, several captives had become convinced that they were in Russian hands.

At Ashford, the interrogation centre was set up underground and consisted of offices, interrogation rooms and cells.  The latter were set up with lighting, recording devices and equipment, including white noise, calculated to induce captives when under interrogation to go beyond the Geneva Convention requirement to reveal only name, number, and rank.  No torture, just heavy psychological pressure – which might in itself amount to a form of torture.

One trick, was to have an interrogator ask a preset list of questions to which the answer was predictable and seemingly harmless.  The tape of the interview was then doctored, using the answers to these questions and when played back it would appear that the subject had divulged all that had been asked of him.  This would then be played back to a fellow prisoner who, it was hoped, would decide that further resistance was useless and answer all questions.

The role-playing usually ended in a fiasco.  One student acted as a prisoner, another the interrogator, often aided by an interpreter.  The prisoner spoke only his native language, which in this case was gobbledygook which was rendered into English by the interpreter.  I was never comfortable with role-playing, even back in my Kenya days at the police training school. No acting talent, I guess.

I concluded that whoever had nominated me for this successive series of courses had no idea of the work that we were engaged in in the Persian Gulf. The courses added nothing.  But Maureen and I enjoyed six weeks in a pleasant corner of England and we saw Canterbury, Hythe, Dover and other points of interest.

Shortly after arriving back in Bahrain I resumed the routine of ten-day patrols in either a minesweeper or a frigate.  It was at about this time that I visited Sharjah with a team from HMS Chawton, where we were to shoot against a a team from Trucial Oman Scouts. There was at that time no road between Sharjah and Dubai and one just picked a route across the open desert.  At one point I noticed a Land Rover driving parallel to us when suddenly the driver waved. We stopped, and I met Roger Horrell who had been a cadet District Officer at Kilifi in Kenya back in 1960.  Roger told me that he was now working for the Trucial States Development Council and that he lived in Dubai. I transferred to his Land Rover and we drove to his quarters in Dubai where we had coffee and a catch up.

Some weeks later, in Bahrain, I attended a meeting of the Joint Intelligence Staff and was surprised to find Roger Horrell among those in attendance. Roger had made a rapid and mysterious transfer to MI6! I must say that I was taken in by his story when we met in Dubai. He apologised and we had laugh about this.

I think that it was probably on the same trip to Dubai when several of us from the ship were invited to fly out to a BP offshore drilling platform in the Gulf. At the airport, we boarded a Wessex helicopter with some BP employees and flew out across the Gulf and landed on the platform. We found that the rig had just broken into an oil strata and the foreman explained that they were busy pumping clay into the well to become a hydrostatic balance. Otherwise, he added, that in the absence of the weight of the clay, the well could catastrophically blow out.

Each year, the Commodore, Tom Fanshawe, (SNOPG) held a review at sea of those RN ships stationed at Bahrain. One morning in mid 1968 I joined the frigate HMS Ashanti as we put to sea flying the Commodore’s pennant, we were accompanied by the other frigate HMS Mohawk and four Ton class minesweepers. We left Mina Salman in line astern and proceeded to open waters. I noted a group of Arab boys from the Bahrain State Technical College along for the ride.

HMS Eskimo

The ships performed a number of evolutions before the two frigates formatted side-by-side at a distance of about 50 metres on a common course. About this time a rating appeared and said that the Commodore requested my presence on the wash deck. On duly reporting, he asked me if I would transfer to HMS Mohawk with him. I agreed, picturing a quick hop in the ship’s helicopter. At this time I noticed the appearance of gear on deck and was soon disillusioned about the chopper, when a rating fired a line across to Mohawk. A Jack stay transfer!

At about 15 knots, a main cable was strung between the two ships and was kept taught by very careful steering. The Commodore transferred first, strung beneath the cable, suspended from a block which was hauled across by hands in the other ship. I followed, and was soon suspended over the water rushing past below. The fact that the cable remained taught throughout says much about the skill of the helmsman in both ships.

009 Sultan's Brother - Muscat 1967
With the Sultan’s brother

On a patrol in HMS Leander (F109) about the Straits of Hormuz it was decided to take a look at the mass of inlets and islands at the very tip of Ras Masandam which offered some secluded anchorages and transit points for possible arms smugglers.

HMS Leander

In 1968, unlike today, there was no tourism and the area was extremely remote and the home to the reclusive and pagan Shihu tribe. Their strange language, unlike any other in Arabia, may indicate a possible surviving strain of the original, pre-Semitic people of Arabia.

Elphinstone 001
Telegraph Island

Taking off from Leander, we flew up the Elphinstone Inlet flying over Telegraph Island which briefly housed a Cable relay station in the 1860s. It is said that two men stationed there lasted only two years before succumbing to the heat and isolation.

Fishing Village
Elphinstone 003

At the head of the inlet was a fishing village where the few buildings, of the same colour as the surrounding landscape, would have been hard to detect but for some craft anchored offshore or pulled up the beach. There were no signs of life. Gaining altitude, we flew over the ridge to the rear of the village and were surprised to find a small village cradled in a depression with signs of cultivation.

Shihu Gardens
Water catchment – a Shihu settlement

Flying over to the west side of Masandam we checked the convoluted series of inlets facing the North Arabian Sea and then, crossing back to the east side we came to Jazirat Umm al Ghanam, or Goat Island, which evidenced the crumbling remains of a World War II naval signal station.

Th Island is now home to Oman Air Force and an air defence system.

HMS Hormoz
WWII Signal Station. The landing pad centre right!

As we approached the old signal station the pilot lined up to touch down on the large, flat concrete roof of one of the buildings. I told him that I had walked around those buildings and that the one he was aiming for was unsafe. Nonetheless he continued the descent and place the skids on the roof, but I noticed that he kept the rotors turning at flying speed and did not actually settle onto the roof – much to my relief.

Leander 002

We flew down the sound between the island and Masandam, re-entered the Gulf and flew back to the ship.

The helicopter had evidently lost it’s way, I don’t remember the Aurora in the Gulf during my time.

In the 1960s, the ownership of a group of islands on the eastern side of the Gulf was disputed with claims by Iran and from the Trucial States. These were Abu Musa, Tunb and Sirri. On one patrol we received a report that a fisherman having landed on Abu Musa had picked up a device, probably a grenade, had lost his hand when it exploded. The visit to the island revealed no trace of the fisherman or any unexploded ordnance.

It seems that now, the islands are firmly under the control of Iran who have built an airfield and an oil platform at Sirri.

On one patrol in HMS Leander I was invited to dine with the captain, Captain Bazelgette, in his accommodation below the bridge. Over dinner, among other things, we discussed the types of boats that were to be encountered in the Persian Gulf and those entering from elsewhere. Sometime after midnight I was summoned to the bridge to find the ship stationary with a searchlight on a launch hundred metres away. “Well what is that one” asked the captain. It was quite clearly a gold smuggler from Dubai en route to India. The captain decided that the identification notwithstanding we would board the craft.

The RIB was launched and I took a party away, consisting of a midshipman and six Marines. On board, as I expected, the Pakistani crew were engaged in removing 10 tola (about 4 ounces) gold bars from shipping boxes to waistcoats and into jute bags ready for putting together an emergency buoy system.  The jute sacks were roped together in a string terminating with a 4 gallon kerosene tin. The tin had been halved internally with the top containing only air and the bottom half, perforated, was packed with rock salt. The idea being, that if chased by Indian customs the string of sacks would be deployed overboard. It was calculated that it would take about twenty-four hours for the rocksalt to dissolve, when the buoy would rise to the surface and could be collected.

I reported what we had found, at which the captain asked how much gold and what value. I delegated these calculations to the midshipman whilst we counted an approximation of the number of gold bars on board. We arrived at a total of 1 1/2 million pounds sterling. At that time the price of gold was about $800 an ounce.

This would have been typical of the smuggling to India and Ceylon in those days. Some were caught by Indian customs and I recall seeing several of the launches in Bombay in use by the customs service. The launches, about 50 feet in length, and powered by Volvo or Mercedes diesel engines were beautifully built in Karachi and capable of 10 to 12 knots. They customarily carried additional fuel for a voyage in 44 gallon drums lashed on deck.

Gold Smuggler
A Gold Smuggler out of Dubai.

It seems that in the 1960s there was a global shortage of silver caused by its use in photographic emulsions. In India and Ceylon, a families’s worth was calculated on the quantity of jewelry that they owned. Much of the jewelry was in silver and it was this that was being sold and exported at premium prices. Ironically the silver was being replaced by gold. Hence the lucrative smuggling industry.

At one point, I wrote a report detailing the difficulty of conducting proper searches on local craft. Cargo being stowed in the main hold, each piece on top of another, and not conducive to appraisal much below the top layer. Eventually my report came into the hands of the Commodore who immediately instructed that in the southern Gulf Arab craft should be taken into the stone jetty at the old signal station on Goat Island at the tip of Ras Masandam. The craft were to be completely unloaded and the cargo thoroughly searched. This was tried a few times and typically took several days much to the ire of the Arabs.

I pointed out that although this was an efficient way of conducting a search, there was a distinct risk of alienating the Arab seafarers. Since British naval activity in the Gulf had been going on forever, the Arabs tended to regard the stops and searches as no more of an annoyance than the weather. Stalemate, and the idea was dropped.

One well worn naval custom was the “Banyan”. Whilst on patrol, warships would anchor off a remote, uninhabited, beach and allow off duty personnel to go ashore for a picnic and to stretch their legs. These beaches were almost always devoid of vegetation and so a fire was difficult or impossible. I recall on one occasion this when, using a signalling lamp, a ship spoke with a Strick Line cargo vessel and ask if they had any spare dunnage. Dunnage being timber which were used to pack and stabilise cargo in the hold. This was before the days of containers. After a short period, the ship dumped a bundle of dunnage over the side which we picked up and subsequently used for a bonfire.

Warships anchoring in the sound between Goat Island and Ras Masandam could not leave without leaving their trademark on the slopes above the beach on the island. One frigate, I believe that it was Ashanti, was host to an Australian naval officer, one Eric Mentz who was on an exchange posting. Eric took a party of midshipman and ratings ashore to inscribe the ships mark on the hillside alongside the names of many other ships.

The landing crew picked up many rocks which were laid in a pattern to simulate the name of the ship. In order to do this the officer in charge remained near the beach where he could direct the accurate placing of the rocks which were then whitewashed. The working party could not see what they were writing. Those on the ship however could read the message clearly: “HMAS Ashanti”. A party of marines landed, grabbed Eric Mentz and dumped him in the sea. The error was corrected.

It was interesting, that during this patrol, I learned that Eric had married Brenda Kempton, scion of a boatbuilding family in Mombasa. Brenda was one of the first female officers in the Kenya Police and was stationed in Mombasa during my time there in 1960. It is a small world.

[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