Fighter pilot, Royal Navy 1945, Hydrographer Iraq 1947-52 India 1952-53, Canadian Hydrographic Arctic explorer 1953-1960, Writer-producer Canadian National Film Board 1961-72, Freelance journalist, audio-visual producer 1972-2009, National Press Club of Canada 1961 - 2006

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Sticking my Nose into Iran’s Muddy Shoreline

Sixty years ago I became an Iraqi civil servant. At that time the wide silt-laden waters of the Shatt-al Arab ran smoothly enough. The Iraqis under the young King Faisal, and the Iranians under their Shah, cooperated smoothly enough in getting Persian oil pumped into the tankers that constantly berthed alongside at Abadan, the Iranian oil terminal, thirty miles upriver.

The Persians filled up the tankers and left the task of getting them safely away to deep water to the directors of the Port of Basra, another thirty miles upstream on the Iraqi side of the river.

The Port of Basra also supplied the harbour masters who manouvered the large tankers alongside when empty and who took them off when full. The pilots, who took them down river until they were in the blue waters at the head of the Persian Gulf, were also all Iraqis. And the port maintained five large ocean-going suction dredgers that worked day and night keeping the shipping channels open.

The port authority also employed me. I was in charge of a small Iraqi hydrographic survey vessel, and its 20-man Iraqi crew. The El Ghar, was 110 tons, 98-feet-long, and was built in Bombay in 1916.

My job, between the years 1947-1952 was the constant daily checking of the depths, tidal currents and other concerns affecting the outer reaches of the Shatt-al-Arab estuary and its shifting mud banks and shipping channels. This included constantly poking the nose of my vessel right into the eastern banks of the river and the broad estuary silt deposits on the Iranian side to complete my charting operations. No bother then. At that time it was seemingly and unofficially agreed that Iraq’s responsibility extended right across the river to the eastern Iranian shoreline, as far as the high water mark of the highest spring tides. Thus just about taking in the whole waterway in fact. Officially, the international dividing line was the Thalweg, the German name first bestowed on the line traditional dividing the River Danube. It is the line connecting the points along the river bed that are the fastest flowing or deepest.

But in practice, to produce accurate shipping charts, I needed to run my lines of sounding right up and onto the Iranian shoreline.

This arrangement went along fairly smoothly.

Until May 1951 when Muhammad Mossadegh, became the Iranian Prime Minister.

For years there had been political rumblings in Iran by nationalist-communist groups who for some reason figured that Iranian oil profits should go to Iranians rather than international oil companies. This philosophy was not fully compatible with the usually passive, and profitable, British role as world peacekeepers which had been successfully operating for so many years.

Mr Mossadegh, began his prime ministership by giving the Shah such a hard time that he eventually fled for his life to Switzerland.

Then Mossedegh nationalized Iran’s oil industry and its exporting facilities. So, internationally, things became a little tense. Looking across the river from the little mud village and compound of Fao (now called Faw) on the Iraqi side, we few officers of the Port of Basra could see the night-time camp fires of Iranian army units gathered together over on the Persian side of the river. We often suspected them of not having our best interests at heart.

This sense of viewing the sharp end of a scimitar at uncomfortably close proximity was magnified for my small crew aboard El Ghar by the fact that a Persian gunboat had stationed itself at the entrance to the Shatt al Arab just a couple of cables off the shipping channel. As we steamed by twice a day taking our navigational soundings they made a great show of following our passage with their machine guns and oerlikcon cannon. Pointing them at us, rudely and on purpose. This even though we were very particular in dipping our Iraqi ensign to them in accordance with international etiquette. My personal equanimity was not helped by my serang, Ashoor Ahmed, shaking his head each time we passed and mournfully allowing that one day, sahib, they drop big droppings on us.

As the tension built up and ricocheted back and forth across the river the Iranians in the oil city of Abadan, 30 miles upriver, turned off all the oil supply lines to Iraq, which caused much inconvenience to the operations of the Port of Basra, another thirty miles up river. However in so doing there was one small-diameter secondary pipeline the Persians somehow overlooked and which continued pumping a minor but valuable supply of the black stuff up to Basra. Realizing that the good news would eventually get back to the Abadan bad guys about this oversight the authorities in Basra were feverishly filling any sort of container they could find that would hold some of the precious liquid. I imagine even Keep Hot teapots and sporting trophy cups were being filled with oil as well as any Iraq army goblets awarded for bravery on the march across the northern desert to ingloriously miss out on the futile war against Israel in 1948.

One day, shortly after the El Ghar had steamed past the Iranian gunboat, my serang, looking ahead through his binoculars said in a subdued voice that another gunboat was coming our way and now we would really be in trouble. I took up my own binoculars and saw just the top hamper of a hull-down vessel appearing over the glassy horizon. And behind it another mast just appearing. And then even another. Wow, I thought, they were coming up very fast as was evident by the distinct, high-speed and clean-cut ‘bone-in-the-teeth’ of the first vessel which was now fully visible.

At once I told the serang to go 180 degrees about at full speed. The serang said, it’s no good sahib, El Ghar too slow to run away. I replied, don’t worry, Ashoor, those ships have tripod masts, they’re British destroyers. Three of them. I just want to turn around to see what our friendly Persian gunboat is going to do when they see them.

The serang with a big smile turned us about and we plodded along at our full emergency eleven knots, a couple of hundred feet west of the deep Inner Bar channel. Within a few minutes the three CH-class destroyers zipped past us. I could read their names as we dipped our ensign to them: Chieftain, Chevron and another I forget.

Through my glasses I watched the Iranian gunboat. Men ran out to their gun positions. Wow! There was going to be a battle. But no. They were hastily pulling tarpaulin covers over their guns. Then their crew lined up on deck and their ensign dipped in respect and, as the destroyers flashed past, their officers saluted.

As we in the old El Ghar slowly came up past them they even dipped their ensign in reply to ours. And just to test them I told the serang to go about and pass by again. And then twice more before we set course offshore to the areas I was charting that day.

The destroyers would have arrived off Abadan within a couple of hours to the great relief of the several tanker crews of varied nationality who had been stranded alongside there for some time. Some very nasty incidents had occurred—notably a report that one young Scandinavian apprentice caught by the mob had suffered severed hands.

Also I should imagine the sudden appearance of those RN ships would have eased the worries of the group of Harbour Masters and their families who lived directly opposite Abadan at Harmaq.

At that time, in 1951, the whole situation was very unpredictable. Some people even thought the Persian army might come across the Shatt al Arab and invade Iraq.

A major result of all the confusion was that a large fleet of multinational tankers became anchored 30 miles offshore in the international waters of pilot station. Fifty or so empty tankers which had been heading for Abadan to load oil before the crisis worsened. They were now stuck in enforced and undecided idleness. Some stayed swinging around their anchors for days, then weeks. Some received orders from their owners and disappeared, headed for other destinations. Some went off for a day or two and then returned as the news and rumours changed from very negative to more positive. But most just swung around at anchor, awaiting international developments.

A lot of money was being lost.

My daily routine was completely upset. The captain of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary Arndale , a tanker, signalled me that he was in need of some medical attention so I went alongside his ship and picked him up for passage up to Fao and our Iraqi physician. The next day, after he had spent an evening in our little club, I took him back to his ship. A pleasant task when I was invited to go down to the ship’s storeroom and pick out a few bottles. That storeroom was akin to a large liquor store. It was a wonder they had any capacity left to carry their cargo of oil.

A few days later when I was close to the pilot station I saw that our massive collection of inactive tankers had been joined by a very businesslike-looking warship, the light cruiser HMS Euryalus. She was several miles away but signalled me, asking if I could come alongside. I did not want to go all the way out there because due to the crisis I was running short of fuel and wanted to save some oil for the following day’s charting work. However, the cruiser repeated its request so I told the serang to comply. One of the cruiser’s officers came down a ladder to speak with me. Upon learning that I was British he said the Commodore would like to speak with me so I went aboard and was offered refreshment. The commodore showed me a blue canvas bag which he said he would like to have delivered to the RAF station at Shu’aiba. He asked if I could take it up to Basra. I said going all the way up to Basra would take all night and use up most of my fuel supply. But I would gladly take it to Fao, I said, so why not radio the RAF to send a vehicle down to Fao across the desert and pick it up from me? The eminence thought that a good idea. Then I said that recently I had been harassed by an Iranian speed boat with machine guns that kept circling around El Ghar as I ran my lines of soundings along the channels. What if I was boarded? Was there anything sensitive in the bag? Could they be enclosed in a waterproof container? He pondered this for a while. I said such a bag alone could not be jettisoned over the side as it would float for quite some time. Unless of course it was weighted down with a chunk of scrap metal inside. The commodore agreed to that. Then he asked me if I would come out to the cruiser again the next day if everything went all right as he would have a sack of ship’s mail they wanted sent back to UK via the RAF. I told him I was very short of fuel and there was no more at Fao. He called one of his ship’s engineering officers who asked me what sort of fuel I needed. They used the same gas-oil for the cruiser’s motor boats and launches. They put a hose across to El Ghar and filled our tanks. I mentioned that my crew would enjoy a few presents of bottles of sherbet and other goodies and that was graciously done, too. After another gin and some lunch we let go from Euryalus and headed up the dredged channels for Fao

I placed the navy’s official blue bag at the very stern of the El Ghar and alongside it some ship’s ordinary garbage. Then I stationed a man there with instructions to chuck them over the side only upon an order from me. As we went up the Rooka , the main shipping channel, our friendly neighbourhood armed Iranian speed boat came out to circle us and threaten us with their machine guns. The serang shook his head and said, Sahib, they know we have been with the big navy ship out there and are angry with us. I sat by the radio ready to call Fao if they started anything, not that anyone could have helped us if they did. Thankfully, after a dozen circles they headed off northeast to their base.

The next day we went out to pilot station and steered through the fifty anchored tankers, but Euryalus looked strangely changed in appearance. No wonder. During the night she had departed and another, larger cruiser, HMS Mauritius, was lying there.

She also signalled me to come alongside where I met another eminence, this time an admiral. I was again wined and dined and given a heavy mailbag to take back to Fao to be picked up by the RAF.

One of the cruisers actually went up through the channels to Abadan for a brief show of strength. Though the massive warship was very long for the sharp bends in our channels they had so much engine power that I think they could have safely churned their way without damage through a couple of feet or more of the soft silt bottom with little loss of control or speed.

Then abruptly everything became less critical. International dickerings and manoeuvrings calmed things down. The naval vessels disappeared, the idle tankers upanchored and went up river to Abadan to load and the oil taps going to Basra were turned back on.

For myself, I had done pretty well out of it all. I had gained a goodly array of bottled spirits, cans of Danish bacon, Dutch butter and much other stuff very xscarce at that time.

And I could go back to fearlessly poking my nose, well, the El-Ghar’s bows, into the Iranian shoreline just as often as I thought necessary.

And ignoring the Thalweg.

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