Another Wartime Journey
The desert campaign was over and I was at the Abbassia Garrison, halfway between Cairo and Heliopolis. One day I together with five others were told to gather our small kit, bedrolls and our sidearms, which were only pistols for tank crews and report to the squadron office for an escort duty.
We were then conveyed to a courtyard behind a bank in Cairo where we found an Indian Army white Chevrolet 30 cwt truck complete with an Indian driver and food for a journey. The truck was then loaded with ten metal ammunition boxes with the clasps welded shut. We were told that these each contained 70 lbs of gold bullion, the value of which today I could not begin to estimate. We were to escort this to a bank in Baghdad, which explained the truck and the driver who had come from the Indian Lancer Camp at Baghdad for the journey. We were told to keep a low profile which was why we carried no heavy armament, also the boxes covered with a small tarpaulin simply became a seat.
We set off travelling north into and across Palestine and down into the valley now known as the West Bank. We crossed the Jordan and up to Iraq and joined the tarmac road which ran all the way to Baghdad. There was a petrol dump where we stopped overnight and re-fuelled, yet this was only guarded by Iraqi tribesmen, all equipped with British short Lee Enfield rifles. The only interest in us was bartering for cigarettes and chocolate. We made a couple of small transactions in order to maintain the entente cordialle. An uneventful night and we set off in the morning.
I had previously heard that if the wind was in the north/east one could smell Baghdad long before it was sighted. This proved to be correct. After a while when we were near Baghdad the road had a sharp right hand bend which our driver attempted to negotiate at over 60mph. The truck overturned and the body separated from the chassis and I saw the front axle and wheels bouncing across the sand. By some miracle no one was hurt, only shaken up with a few bumps and bruises. We set about gathering up our belongings and the boxes. This happened close to Lancer Camp and was observed and shortly another truck came out to take us to our destination. Once our cargo was delivered we had a couple of nights in Baghdad awaiting transport. This was the most squalid town I had seen in the middle east, even by Egyptian standards and most of it was out of bounds to British troops except for a small area around River Street, there was however the Noah’s Ark NAAFI to relax in.
As we had no transport of our own, it was decided to return us by public transport. The first leg of the journey was across the desert into Syria by coach run by four Australian brothers known as Nairns Coaches. These were large articulated vehicles with a tractor unit towing the passenger coach which were quite comfortable travelling considering there were no roads. We did not pass through any towns or villages but in the middle of the night saw a blaze of lights in the distance which we were told was the RAF base of Habbania, (I don’t know if I’ve spelled that correctly). We eventually arrived in Damascas and went to a small transit camp just ouside the city. It was a scorching hot day and we saw a nice little swimming pool. We soon stripped off and dived in but were unprepared for the fact that it was freezing cold as it was fed from the mountain streams.
The journey from Damascas was out of this world, on a wonderful rack and pinion railway with open sided coaches across the mountain lined with walnut trees and thence down into Beirut. The Beirut of those days was magnificient with white stone buildings and boulevards with french style pavement cafes, most of which were later destroyed during the civil war. Here we spent the night in a tented camp by a lake in the centre of the city, but sleep was impossible due the non stop croaking of the bull frogs.
We left Beirut on a railway which no longer exists and ran the whole lenghth of the coast down through Palestine and what is now known as the Gaza Strip and into Egypt. A journey I will never forget.
I still wonder to whom the gold belonged, to whom it was sent and why. One thing is certain, there are very few who have travelled on such an expensive seat.