Finally, after 4 years of being in Germany, my posting orders came through. I had got a dream job; secondment to the Sultan of Oman’s armed forces in the Middle East. Before I could go, however, I had to attend a three month intensive Arabic language course at the Army Language School in Beaconsfield. I arrived there several days later, the only Corporal on the course which meant that I was billeted separately from everybody else. I wasn’t having that, so made a couple of calls back to Ashford and within a day had a temporary promotion to Sergeant.
I found the language easy. Indeed the only other Intelligence Corps attendee, Dave Anley, and I breezed through the course and scored very high in the final exams. Every night while the other students pored over vocabulary books and studied grammar, Dave and I were out on the town partying all hours of the night. After two weeks, it was extremely obvious to the teaching staff that we were way ahead of everybody else and they gave us a private tutor; we still never spent an hour studying after classes had finished each day!
Graduation day came and a week later I was on a Gulf Air flight to Muscat, the capital of Oman. I remember getting off the plane and almost falling over from the wave of heat that enveloped me. I was picked up and taken to the base for an overnight stay before being transferred to Thamrait, a desert air base in the south of the country about thirty miles from Salalah where I was to be stationed for the next twelve months.
Thamrait does not hold very good memories for me. My boss there was an Englishman called Gordon Dawson and he made my life hell for six months. The only time he was nice to me was when he wanted some boxes shipped back to the UK. As a seconded officer, I was able to send anything home at no cost through the regular military channels. His story was that it would be too expensive for him to ship back. and he would greatly appreciate the favor. I agreed, foolishly, as it turned out and duly sent back about 6 large boxes. A month or so later, the British Army commanding officer called me into his office and quizzed me about the shipment. I told him who it had been for, and was severely admonished. Although I do not know what was in those boxes, the, very clear, inference was that they contained valuable items that had been stolen.
I do remember playing one classic prank on April Fools Day. Two days before, I had filched a copy of the base’s official letterhead and sent out a notice to all the units in the area that on Monday there was to be a special social event; a Camel Ploughing Race. There would be teams of four ploughers per camel (camels being supplied) and the idea was to plough the straightest line. Every five yards each member of each team would have to drink a can of beer. Prizes would be awarded for the best fancy dress costume, the best dressed up camel and the straightest line. All parties wishing to compete should be outside their base offices in fancy dress at 2pm ready for pick up by the unit buses.
At 1.45 we did a drive around. There were approximately 200 people standing around in 100 degree + heat in fancy dress. (I think we barricaded ourselves behind barbed wire for about a week fearing severe retaliation).
Thamrait was an airforce base. It’s main claim to fame was having a runaway that was 7 miles long; to put this into perspective a fully loaded Jumbo Jet needs about 6000 yards to land and stop so in theory you could have 6 of them landing simultaneously without any risk of one hitting the other. Of course, any air traffic controller in the world will tell you that my suggestion is the height of idiocy.
We had a squadron of Jaguar fighter planes along with the rest of the normal aeroplanes, C130’s, etc. Most of them were the single seater version but we had one twin seater which was primarily used for training. I got to fly in it once to deliver an important document to Muscat. On the way up the pilot took a slight detour to launch a rocket attack on a suspected rebel position, but even with that delay we still made the trip (600 miles by road) in about 25 minutes. I got out of the plane with my balance completely gone haywire and feeling as sick as I have ever been. I took the commercial flight back.
The Jaguar pilots were a hard drinking bunch and you could often see them, first thing in the morning, staggering out to their $30 million toys. They would stumble up the ladder into the cockpit and then take a long hit of pure oxygen which would sober them up instantly and off they went, flying combat missions and practise runs at the speed of sound.
In the evenings we played cards, there being little else to do. Mostly we played Three Card Brag or Poker. I won a lot of money primarily because most of the others there had little or no card sense and just wanted to gamble; I wanted to win and did. At a guess I would say that I supplemented my salary by about £4000 a month.
One day we were playing and there was a loud bang and a bullet shot through the door and embedded itself in the wall above my head. “Sorry,” cried a voice from outside. “It’s okay, Bill,” I called out. “You missed, as usual!” This comment was greeted with much derisive laughter.
Another game was temporarily disrupted when one of the unit’s eccentrics (we had a few!) stuck his head through the door and asked “Anybody seen my pet scorpion?” As quick as a flash we were all standing on our chairs looking around the floor where it was duly spotted and killed when one of the players size 11 boot landed on it, inadvertently, I might add.
Some of our regular players never seemed to win, but would continue to play in the hope that they would get it all back. One of those guys was an ex-tank regiment grunt, known to one and all as Wimpey, and he was possibly the worst player in the world. One day we were playing Three Card Brag in which the best hand is three Threes which I happened to have been dealt. Wimpey had three Aces. After he had wagered all of his money, and another £1000 that he had borrowed (I think I might have lent it to him, come to think of it!), he complained for the next few months that it was a stupid rule and whoever heard of a 3 being higher than an Ace! It didn’t cure him of playing however, and I am sure that when he finally went ‘home’ to England, he went with no more money than he had come with.
One afternoon we had been at the pool for several hours and had got all of our belongings together to walk back to our quarters. Bill Richards, the Armorer, had a book in one hand, a towel in the other and a lit pipe in his mouth. As he was walking along the edge of the pool somebody (me) pushed him in. He seemed to slide sideways and then drop vertically into the water. We watched in hysterics as he then walked underwater all the way up to the shallow end and walked out; book, pipe and towel in exactly the same position as before he had gone in. The only difference was that the pipe had, not surprisingly, gone out.
I went out on a two day patrol with the SAS guys once. There were about 4 of them, 2 of us and a group of about 30 Omani soldiers who were mostly Baluch. We had called an afternoon break and ordered tea which was served with condensed milk from cans. While the water was boiling, one of the soldiers tried to open the can of milk but he didn’t have a can opener. Instead of punching a hole in the lid with a knife, he took out a 7.62mm rifle shell, positioned the bullet point on the lid and hit the back of the bullet with his pistol. There was a tremendous bang as the percussion cap fired; the can disintegrated and the soldier looked rather stupidly down at his hand where two fingers were now missing. It was another case of ‘Spot the brain cell”. We probably shouldn’t have laughed.
Eventually I managed to get transferred down to Salalah where I worked in the Oman Intelligence Service (OIS) offices under Bob B. Bob was a fluent Arabic speaker who had been in Oman for many years and was the non-Arab head of the OIS. He basically had a free hand to do whatever he felt necessary.
One day I was over at his house and he was poring over a boating magazine in which there was an article about the latest hi-tech gadget, jet engined speedboats. “I gotta have one of those,” he said “but I don’t think they’ll let me get away with it. They’ll figure it’s for me personally!”
“Order two,” I said flippantly. He looked at me quizzically.
“Nah,” he replied “that won’t work, but I could order six” which is what he did. They duly arrived, and were immediately fitted with co-ax machine guns on the bow with the idea they would be used as high speed patrol boats. They saw a lot of useful service as – water ski boats. To my knowledge, not one of them ever aw active service but they sure were a lot of fun.
I got a special assignment one day; take the commercial flight from Salalah to Muscat, hand-deliver some documents to the office there and fly back. Bill Richards was going up there for a few days vacation, so we were flying together. We arrived at the plane where we had to go through security before being allowed on the plane; I was wearing a .38 Smith & Wesson in a shoulder holster and had a 9mm Browning on my belt, but because I had Intelligence Service ID, they didn’t have any authority to take them away from me, and I wasn’t going to hand them in. Bill was carrying a fishing rod – it was confiscated. I immediately requisitioned it and spent most of the flight trying to sell it back to Bill. I think we settled for a beer.
In Salalah we were accommodated in a large house which had a central living area with 8 small self contained wings where we had our own individual room and shower. Because we were on ‘active service’ our staff had strict instructions that they were never to enter any room without knocking first and getting permission to come in. My personal servant was a Baluch called ‘Peilei’. He was very tall and skinny and had an extremely nervous disposition.
One morning he forgot the standing instructions and walked straight into my room with the morning tea, and found himself staring down the barrel of a 9mm Browning automatic. Before I could lower the gun, Peilei had dropped the tea tray and run for cover – he didn’t show his face for 3 days. Another morning he brought my toast and marmalade into the breakfast room. I immediately spotted that he had forgotten the butter and told him so. He looked at the plate of toast in his left hand and then at the tray of marmalade in his right and then back again at the toast; promptly dropped them both on the floor and ran to get the butter.
All of our domestic staff were Baluch; none of them spoke much Arabic or English so communication was often difficult. This led to some amusing incidents; one day we had requested Apple Pie and Custard for dessert; the pie arrived but there was no sign of custard. When the cook was called in to explain, he indignantly informed us that the custard was in the pie. It wasn’t very good.
It was very difficult to get a good cup of tea and we could never understand why until one day I saw it being made. The houseboy put the water onto boil, waited until it had just started to bubble and then poured it into a cup, dropped the teabag in; gave it a couple of stirs with his finger, added Condensed Milk and then handed it over.
Immediately after this incident, I called a meeting of all the catering staff and demonstrated the proper way to make tea. They were also informed that failure to make the tea properly would be grounds for instant deportation back to Baluchistan – we, English, take our tea making seriously.
In the evenings, we would often go to the beach nearest the house. Although there was ocean there, it wasn’t a safe or good swimming area and was also infested with huge sand crabs. They went up and down holes in the sand at incredible speed and it was extremely good combat shooting practice to try and hit them. It certainly gave us hours of amusement!
Friday was our day off and we used to go the beach. We had a choice of two, the most spectacular of which, named Beer Can Bay for obvious reasons, was only accessible by walking down a very narrow and steep path from the top of the cliffs or by boat. Most days we would go in by boat and one Friday we took a picnic basket. The next Friday, a rival unit came in with a picnic basket and six beach chairs. The following Friday we added a picnic table to the kitty. This went on and on until we finally ended the one-upmanship by having a helicopter bring in a 14’ oak dining table with chairs; silver candelabras and white linen and waiters to serve the food.
One day I was standing on top of the cliff looking out to sea when I spotted a large sheet of cardboard being pushed inland. Every time a wave hit it, the cardboard went vertical and, for a second or two, looked remarkably like a large fin. There were about a hundred people in the water so I waited for the inevitable to happen! When the cardboard got within about 50 yards of the beach, it flipped up; somebody saw it, yelled “Shark” and panic erupted with everybody rushing to get to safety. As if that wasn’t enough, one of the guys on the beach reached into his beach bag, pulled out a Kalashnikov AK-47 and started shooting. He was obviously a pretty bad shot as the cardboard escaped unscathed.
Shooting was one of our favourite pastimes. Unlike in the British Army where you are only allowed half a dozen rounds a week (a slight exaggeration), in Oman we had absolutely unlimited supplies of ammunition and could take any number of weapons from the store and fire them. We had a huge supply of AK-47’s that had been confiscated and we loved to fire those; the sound is unique and really fabulous. I also used to love firing a Bren gun from a fully prone position – the cyclic rate of fire was incredible. At night, we would use tracer rounds and fire thousands of them down the range. It was better than fireworks.
There was one, embarrassing incident which involved the disappearance of about 500 AK-47s and some other weapons. Most of the time there was no auditing of equipment but a new and over-zealous officer was brought in and he discovered the discrepancy.
Shortly thereafter one of our lot was on his way back to England. It turned out that he had been selling the weapons on the black market back to the rebels that we had been confiscating them from. I believe that his name was not reported to the Sultan’s office until he was well out of the country – who knows how many body parts might have been removed!
One Friday during the monsoon, 3 of the guys from the base went out fishing in a rubber dinghy. They were happily drinking beer and catching nothing when their boat started rocking uncontrollably and they almost went over. A moment later a humpback whale surfaced near. Instead of marveling at this wonderful site, they decided that they should track it down and kill it and quickly headed back to shore where they raided the stores and took out a 30’ aluminum landing craft, mounted two 500 HP Mercury engines on the back and, for good measure, a Browning anti-tank gun on the bow. Stocking up with a fresh supply of beer, they set off in search of the whale.
Several hours passed with no sign of any whale; the beer had all been drunk and boredom was setting in. Finally they decided to give it up and turned for home. ‘Wimpey’ decided that since he had mounted the gun, he was going to fire it and duly pulled the trigger three times in quick succession sending 30mm anti-tank shells into the wide blue horizon.
It was a very bad mistake! The recoil from the gun was so strong that the boat reared vertically and then sank like a stone leaving three very drunk people to swim a mile back to shore through shark-infested waters.
The sequel to this incident came two days later when the Quartermaster sent out a memo detailing some missing equipment, namely a 30’ aluminum landing craft, two 500 HP Mercury engines and a Browning anti-tank gun. Needless to say nobody owned up to taking them!
The same three guys were out fishing on another occasion when one of their lines got caught. They pulled and pulled to try and get it free and were just about to give up and cut the line when the object the line had caught on decided to surface. It was a giant manta ray with a wingspan of about seven feet and came up directly under the dinghy so that about 2’ of wing protruded on both sides. They paddled furiously to get away, with some good reason. Not only could the manta have jumped about 5’ out of the water but its wings are like coarse sandpaper and could tear skin to pieces. (I heard one story about a diver in a wet suit who got enfolded in the wings of a ray and came out of it with very small strips of rubber festooned around him but no injury to his skin).
During monsoon season, we were always plagued by camel spiders. For those who have never seen one, a typical camel spider has a body about 8 – 10” long and legs that are about 14”. They also have a pair of very sharp teeth and are a particularly vile creature. We used to walk out in the morning, with a squash racket in our hands and see how many we could launch into oblivion. We had a scoring system organized; 5 points per spider with a bonus of 5 points if you managed to smash it against the wall and 10 points extra if you got it over the wall into the next compound. Since I hate spiders, I always scored exceptionally well.
About as commonplace and just about as unpleasant as the camel spiders were scorpions. I remember a very interesting betting session when a camel spider and a scorpion were both dropped into a box to fight it out. The big money was on the scorpion which was completely devoured in about ten seconds; the spider died about ten minutes later.
I managed to embarrass myself one day. Part of my job was to go through the intelligence reports that came in, look up any names in our card index system and add notes where a match was found. The name ‘Said Bin Taymour’ came up; we had nothing in the card index so I noted ‘No match found. Suggest file opened” alongside it. The next day, I was ‘politely’ advised that Said Bin Taymour was the Sultan’s father and that it would not be a good move to open a dissident file on him. Oh, well!
One of the other expatriate officers was an ex-SAS (Special Air Service) officer by the name of Trevor and we became quite friendly, often going shooting together. One day I expressed an interest in learning how to use explosives and he duly took me out for a lesson. I should probably take responsibility for blowing up a cliff face and permanently barricading a path that had been used for hundreds of years.
Some days when I was particularly bored, I would go off into the desert and look for something to climb. It wasn’t very difficult as there were lots of cliffs left even after I had finished blowing up one or two! One afternoon I very nearly met my maker by falling off. At the time I was about 30’ up. As I fell, I managed to catch the hammer of the 9mm Browning automatic that was in my back pocket. The weapon discharged, the bullet gouged a net furrow down the outside edge of my big toe. It was extremely painful but not half as painful as the rest of my body hitting the desert floor below. Fortunately I didn’t do myself any permanent injury but I did limp around for a couple of weeks. I haven’t climbed since!
Every so often we would take reconnaissance trip to the border between Oman and the People Democratic Republic of Yemen, generally referred to as P-Dry. The only way to get there was in a Skybus, a very strange looking plane that could take off on a very short runaway and go almost vertical. We found out why this was necessary when we landed on a very short runaway with cliffs all around. The take-off was absolutely terrifying.
Once we had landed, we hiked up to the top of one of the cliffs and set up an observation post with very powerful binoculars and telescopes. From there, we would scan the valley below looking for groups of insurgents heading our way. We’d know they were insurgents because they would be heavily armed. As soon as they crossed the border, we would call in an airstrike, pack up and head home.
I was called into Bob’s office one Friday morning. He had a job for me. One of the Sultan’s nephews was coming down for the weekend, and I was to pick him up and be his driver/bodyguard for the weekend. Bob told me to go to the Royal Garage and pick up a car to drive him around in.
In all my life, I have never seen anything like the Royal Garage. It wasn’t a garage in any sense of the word. What it was was a series of connected aircraft hangers that contained literally thousands of cars. There were 600 black Mercedes 600’s; monstrous cars and colossally expensive. I found out later than when the Sultan called his Ministers down for the weekend, they would each be picked up in one of these cars. There were 600 Ministers hence 600 Mercedes. That was just one hanger. All in all, every exotic car in the world was in one of those hangers, ant not only every exotic car but in every color that each came in. As a car enthusiast I was in hog heaven and spent hours wandering the aisles oohing and aahing. Eventually I settled on a Lamborghini Countach, my dream car from my adolescent years, and drove it home. I don’t remember much about the weekend other than the Sultan’s nephew was a lot of fun. After I dropped him at the airport on Monday, I was supposed to return the car. I did, four weeks later.
My personal vehicle was a black, tricked out Range Rover. When I say tricked out, it had a sliding roof that had been modified to swing up and over. To the underside of it, was mounted a Bren gun. The idea was that if we came under fire, the roof would be swung up and slid forward so that somebody in the car could stand and shoot at whatever was shooting at us. I wish I had it now!
Anyway, one afternoon I had to drive up to Thamrait for some reason. I’d invited Bill to go up with me as he had friends stationed up there. We were driving up the mountain road when we came across a road block by the local police. This was nothing unusual, and I would usually just show my ID card and we waved straight through. This time, I felt like having some fun and asked Bill if he wanted a laugh. Of course he said Yes.
We got to the checkpoint and the policeman told us that he wanted to search the back of the vehicle. I said “Sure, go ahead.” He went to the back, opened the tailgate and went white. In the back, there were two RPG7 rocket launchers, 20 or so AK47’s, thousands of rounds of ammunition and two boxes of hand grenades. I put my arm out of the window, holding my ID card, instantly recognizable to one and all with its gold lettering on highly polished black. He gave me the finger and cursed me out. Bill couldn’t stop laughing for the rest of the journey.
I sincerely hope you’ve enjoyed reading or listening to this chapter as much as I’ve enjoyed writing and recording it.
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