London to Baghdad by car

The Green Goddess was a well-known motorcar around Kirkuk in the late fifties. Having arrived in Iraq in the Spring of 1955 we were soon to go on leave but delayed until later in the year. We now had a daughter as well as the first son and we wished to enjoy the spring and early summer in England. However as was often the case, my leave was delayed and my wife and children went home some months earlier. We had decided to buy a new car in the U.K. using the Company facilities and discounts and, as all the details had been processed it was easy for my wife to take delivery of the car when she arrived in London. We had ordered a saloon model painted green which was distinctive in so far as I had thought it a pale shade of blue. It must have been a trick of the desert sunlight because everyone insisted it was green. That is why it stuck with the name “Green Goddess” after much ribbing in the bar one evening. It cost just under five hundred pounds taxed and delivered in London.

The Green Goddess

The Green Goddess

When I arrived home my wife had mastered the art of driving in England but seemed very pleased for me to take the wheel for which I was grateful. It was a great feeling to possess a brand new car, well nearly brand new as it had almost a thousand miles on the clock when I first handled it. The pleasant smell of newness pervaded the vehicle and I was pleased and proud even when I learnt that the car had been in an accident. It seems that within minutes of taking delivery my good lady wife unused to driving in metropolitan traffic tried to squeeze between two cars parked in one of the narrow sides streets in the West End. The passenger door and wing suffered to the extent that new ones had to be fitted. No problem. The car looked and was as good as new.

Vauxhall Motors Ltd. receipt

Vauxhall Motors Ltd. receipt

The car was to be tested on a long drive. We decided to drive overland from London to Baghdad with the help of a sea voyage of course. The preparations were comparatively simple. We would drive down to Dover cross the Channel, drive through France and Italy to Genoa, trans-ship to Beirut calling at Alexandria and then drive through Lebanon and Syria and across the desert through Jordan and Iraq until we came to Kirkuk. No problem. Well, maybe a few. In those days we were young and hardened cases. I had spent fourteen years overseas with the Army and the Oil Company and my wife, born in China of English parents then working in Tientsin was used to overseas travel and the journey held no terrors for her.

I ordered a roof rack and had a strong heavy-duty tarpaulin made with so many eyelets that it took ages to thread the rope and bind round the rack accommodating four suitcases with all our extras. They were well protected throughout the journey. The well of the car between the front and backseats was built up with linen and blankets to form a large padded playpen for the three year’ old rambunctious boy during the long journey to follow. The baby girl spent almost all the time in the front of the car generally climbing over her mother whilst I attended to the driving.

The first night we spent at the White Cliffs Hotel in Dover where the Vauxhall competed for parking space with a large Rolls which offloaded a divine mama and two “fraitfully” divine teenagers. The only luggage papa had to take from the car was a very slim, very elegant and very heavy brief case. I had the crazy notion it was full of gold bars.

Travelling through France we had midday picnics and spent the nights in a small hotel in Paris and in a pleasant hotel at Juin Le Pins. Sunny weather made the drive along the coast road most enjoyable. Monte Carlo and the Corniche passed all too quickly and we were soon entering Italy. The grand Christofer Columbus hotel at Genoa was memorable for its wide corridors and spacious lifts. Driving amongst the noontime traffic, a necessary evil to reach the ship on time, negotiating the oft-raised tramlines set in busy cobbled roads; trying to find the relevant way into the docks was a tedious experience I well remember. At last we were on the Esperia the then flagship of the Italian company running between Genoa, Beirut, Genoa. Not a large ship but comfortable. At Naples we went ashore. A quick trip in a horse drawn garry gave us a rough idea of the area near the docks. Back on board and in no time at all we seemed to be pulling into Syracuse. An organised trip ashore with two tiny children can soon become tedious and the quiet of the ship seemed heaven. Alexandria looked very much the same as it did when I was there in nineteen forty-one. We were not to know at that time that within a few weeks all hell would be let loose in the Suez debacle.

Seven days after leaving Genoa we reached Beirut. Offloading the car then loading all the suitcases on the roof rack, taking them off at customs, re-loading and re-lacing the rack-tarpaulin took ages. We seemed to be the last people to leave the customs area. The Company allowed us to use one of the flats in Beirut and we spent several days unwinding and re-living a little the pleasant times we had spent in the Lebanese capital during our honeymoon. I spent a day at the Beirut Office working out a route and itinerary for the journey. One of the Lebanese staff who had worked on the pipeline through Jordan gave me advice on the best route and where to stay overnights. The first day we travelled to Damascus passing through Syrian customs soon after reaching Masnaa. They couldn’t have been more charming and easy. I was told later it must have been the presence of the tiny tots because they had thoroughly searched other staff travelling through from Lebanon. The most lingering impression I have of the Hotel Damascus was the heavy art decor and the constant smell of the oriental equivalent of brown soup. The second day was a marathon run of three hundred and fifty kilometres or thereabouts. From Damascus to Durra, crossing the Jordanian frontier near Rimta. I can’t recall they even bothered to look inside the car, they were so polite and enquiring of the journey and so beguiled by the children such mundane duties were forgotten.

I had no map to refer to. At Beirut I had made a list of the places we were to pass through, the distances in round figures, and had written in the few bits of information deemed sufficient by the old pipeline hand in Beirut. I was happy. It was working so far. We stopped for lunch at the I. P. C. mess In Mafrak, loaded up and signed for petrol and followed the pipeline to H.5. At H.4 we pulled up at the customs post but as there seemed to be no one there we drove through and came to the gates of H.4 the I. P. C. Camp. All the staff were lined up to welcome us. I remember the Beirut office said we had no need to worry, the stations on the pipeline would be warned we were travelling through and to be on the look out for us. This seemed quite a welcome party. Nowadays with the pipeline at a standstill the staff at each station were pleased to see company visitors. The meal was first class, the service impeccable. I felt like the General Manager.

Beirut to Kirkuk map

Beirut to Kirkuk map

Driving across Europe the Vauxhall behaved well. No trouble. Just observing the old Service code “POW” had been sufficient. But now we were in the desert. Petrol, oil and water were a must as also was the need to ensure a properly maintained battery. We had travelled four hundred and fifty kilometres since leaving Beirut. We had another seven hundred and fifty kilometres ahead almost all of it across desert that was little used now that the old pipeline was “mothballed.”

After a good nights sleep and hearty breakfast I checked the roadworthiness of the car and we set off following the numerous old tracks along the pipeline. Grinding along, driving carefully to avoid creating a dust cloud that in a capricious breeze would envelope the car in a suffocating fog of fine dust. We arrived at H.3 station hot, dusty, weary and thankful to step out at the Iraqi Customs Post and gratefully drink their tea. The customs guards were almost at a loss how to treat the papers for the car. They kept insisting I must report straight to Baghdad and get it registered. The more I talked about registering it in Kirkuk the more insistent were they that I went directly to Baghdad. I foresaw an impasse if I persisted, so I agreed to drive to Baghdad and register the car. I didn’t say when I would drive there, but my statement that I would made them happy. They were not interested in our baggage, not that we had anything to hide, they had worn themselves out scrutinising the documents relating to the car.

The piece of paper I was using as a map highlighted the fact we should “turn off to desert road” when coming upon a sign bearing the legend “Kubala H.2”. As most drivers are aware, when told to look for a sign or a building they begin looking miles before they need to. One is inclined to do this even more so in a desert. It can be wearing following tracks in the sand that sometimes leave the sanctuary of the pipeline. When this happens one is inclined to leave the tracks and ruts and try to get back in the direction of the pipeline. It is then, if you are lucky and awake that you quickly realise other drivers have skirted the soft patch of sand and made a wide detour on firmer ground. God help you if you get stuck too deep. My Western Desert experience paid off, I recognised the problem in quick time and followed the longer but safer routes.

Looking for the sign and avoiding soft stretches of sand made a short journey tiring. We found the sign and arrived at H.2 Station, ate in the I. P. C. mess where they seemed surprised at our presence, perhaps no one had sent them a signal/telegram? Filling up with petrol, obeying my motto, always to travel on a full tank, we turned out of the Camp gates and turned left and east following the injunction on the paper ‘map’ to. Follow the pipeline and keep telephone line on one’s left.

The desert was now hard and firm beneath the wheels. The tyres sang happily crunching over small pebbles set in a crust of firm sand. The telegraph poles were there on the left and all was right in the World. And suddenly they were gone. No sign of a pole or a piece of wire. I had been following a faint track, so I thought, for the ground was too hard to show tracks in any detail and suddenly it was there; gone! Draw to a slow stop. Don’t panic, no reason to panic.

I opened the door and stood on the floor of the car to give myself height. Nothing.

“Are we lost?” asked patient wife.

“Lost! Course not.” said I with little conviction. “We can’t be lost, K.2 is just back there. We have just come a bit too far south, that’s all. If we turn north we are bound to come upon the pipeline.”

We drove on and on. I must admit I was worried until I saw a cloud of dust in the distance and in no time at all an oil company car drove into view and drew alongside. In the car was the senior communications engineer from Syria and one of his staff.

Their advice was. If In doubt keep straight on gradually bearing to the left for this would inevitably lead to the telegraph line following the route of the pipeline. After about five kilometres the telegraph line appeared as if by magic and H.1 station hove on the horizon.

The “map” read H.1. After 50 kilometres sign on barrel(s) T.1. H.1 – K.3 – follow arrow to K.3. . We pushed on to K.3 for here was a good company mess and soft beds for all of us.

At AI Hadithah, “K.3” we crossed the Euphrates river by ferry. Not an easy operation and no Sunday afternoon picnic across so wide and oft times violent river but a good prelude for what was to follow.

Crossing the river Tigris near K.2 was to be remembered. There was no bridge built in that area in those days. The Company had crossed the Tigris by building a ‘Blondin’ ferry. A French Company built this strange contraption in the early days of construction of the pipeline to carry materials transport and personnel across one of the fastest flowing rivers in the world. As I recall after a period of thirty years, the cable on which the ‘ Blondin’ ran was supported by two towers or ‘rigs’ one on each bank. Two huge four-inch diameter cables were suspended from these towers to carry the ferry -a large platform big enough to carry a lorry or the heavy steel pipes to build the oil pipeline. This platform was suspended on hawsers attached to an overhead set of flanged wheels running on the cables. Such was the distance across the river that the cables sagged in centre stream, so that the platform after being loaded at the riverbank was winched up to within a few feet of the trolley with the flanged wheels fixed on the cables and then it was winched across the river swinging dizzily and dipping down giving the impression of almost touching the swift flowing water before rising up the cables to the tower the other side. The reverse process then began by winching the platform down to the landing position on that side. A swinging, dizzy, nerve wracking experience not recommended when accompanied by one’s wife and two tiny tots, not to mention an almost new car stacked with much personal gear.

By the time we arrived in Kirkuk we had accomplished thirteen hundred kilometres since leaving Beirut and we were pleased to be back. There was a sequel about two weeks after our return. I was called to the General Manager’s office. He had in front of him a single sheet of paper. As Angus and I were on first name terms I was a 1ittle shaken when he rapped out. “What the hell do you mean by this?”, tapping the paper, one hundred and sixty dinars. In overtime!!! Who authorised you to open up a pipeline station. I’ve a damn good mind to charge it to your personal account. “Hold on” said I “may I know what all this is about?” It transpired that Beirut office in arranging the itinerary had overlooked the fact that H.4 was closed down with most of the staff paid to stay at home. No wonder they all lined up to bid us welcome, they were claiming overtime to greet and care for us. We parted on good terms but he was none too pleased.

The pipeline Rolls: The Silver Ghost MK.1

The Silver Ghost, built around 1933, had originally been a diplomatic car in Lebanon and had been owned by many other chaps on the pipeline from whence it got it’s name. I had my eye on it for some time, and I bought it when the young engineer who owned it at that point in time, was posted to another station. In it’s time it must have been a magnificent machine. A truly regal carriage.

The chassis and the huge wheels weighed almost a ton. The radiator was an integral part of the classical silver plated masterpiece. The Silver Lady mascot was almost at shoulder level. Two ten inch diameter lamps mounted on sturdy posts fixed to a cross member of the chassis filled the gaps between the radiator and the sleek mudguards over the front wheels. The steel bonnet covering the engine hinged at the sides and fastened to the chassis with six-inch metal clips. The engine, a huge arrangement of eight cylinders was governed by twin ignition systems. The great battery was housed in a box let into the wide running board. Spare wheels, fitted with all enveloping, once silver plated discs were carried in metal troughs let into the running boards on either side of the engine. The car had originally been built as a “sedanca de ville”, a town car for formal occasions. The driver’s section had fixed seating looking out through two long narrow windscreens hinged one on the other. The steering wheel encompassed with control levers was set high and required one’s arms to be held at an uncomfortable angle. The gear lever impeded the driver’s entrance being housed in a gate-box on his right hand side; whilst the brake lever was so large it could have doubled as a shunting lever in a signal box. The Rolls Royce had once been elegant and magnificent, but when I took it over it had become faded and tawdry. The upholstery was much tattered even though neatly repaired. The fawn and pastel blue paintwork bleached by time and worn by sand showed a few blisters and frayed edges. Yet the car still had the style and elegance associated with a carriage of such great character.

Perhaps it was an embarrassment. The Iraqi revolution in which Faisal, his uncle Abdullah and the Prime Minister, Nuri Pasha, were murdered was a year old. Such an enormous car was not the type one could drive very far without attracting attention. I had to drive it to town to the police station, which was also the local jail, to register it in my name. One had to walk past the cells to reach the traffic office. The cells, large brick pens with barred fronts were built on three side of a courtyard. Prisoners of all ages where packed tightly at the bars of each cell banging and calling out to passers by. My presence created an uproar, both going in and coming out. I couldn’t get into the car quick enough. Maybe from that point I began to dislike owning the Rolls. I used it not a lot. For one thing the radiator began to develop a leak. Repairs were not easy because everyone was looking over his shoulder since the revolution had taken hold. A trip to the K.1 Club and back, a distance of eight miles was possible without undergoing the indignity of filling up the radiator provided one didn’t dally too long in the bar. When a member of the resident audit staff begged to buy it I did not take too long being persuaded.

Sailor Beware programme cover

Sailor Beware programme cover

Sailor Beware programme inside

Sailor Beware programme inside

Sailor Beware programme back cover

Sailor Beware programme back cover

Driving in Lebanon >>>

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