Persia 1940-42

(From the memoirs of Horace Drake)

He casually pushed the handle of the fire door with his shovel, which
looked a very flimsy thing in his hands. The fire was thin, but the colour
was right; namely a dazzling white. Its own heat, added to the heat of
the day, meant that I couldn’t breathe as I stood exposed to it


From “The Baghdad Railway Club” by Andrew Martin

At last we were now under orders to move on to Baghdad with a convoy of lorries to carry men and equipment. One of my early memories of Baghdad was the large red letter ‘S’ above a shop – standing for Singer sewing machines. Another memory was seeing the 1939 film ‘Gone With The Wind’ outdoors sitting on the sand; there was no roof to blow off, but sitting for four hours on the ground was rather uncomfortable. Of course, real life is more interesting than any fiction, and had I known it, a few miles away in a Bedouin tent, a five year-old Saddam Hussain was already being moulded for a life of extremism by a tyrannical stepfather.

 

Pleasures over, it was time to start work. All the railway engines were oil-burning, very different to what we had been used to. We had never seen them so we had no idea what to expect and thus we returned to school to learn how they worked from an Indian driver. An oil burner was a piece of steel about a foot long, four inches wide, and two inches in depth. Two pipes would be attached to one end, one for steam and one for oil. They were every bit as effective as coalfired engines. This small piece of machinery was fitted at the front of the fire box and the fireman could sit down and control the fire with two small wheels: one for oil and one for steam. It seemed almost impossible that such a small piece of equipment could be so effective in producing enough steam to haul loads of four to five hundred tonnes. How many tonnes of coal would be required to perform the same load? The fireman’s role now felt more like a desk job, in that he could dispose of his shovel and say goodbye to his cooked breakfast (which was normally cooked on the shovel). I remember one morning before I was called up in 1940, I had washed the shovel ready for action, I asked my driver for his bacon and egg. He opened his box and he had forgotten to put it in: all he had was bread. I put mine on to fry and enjoyed it; he had a dip in the fat but recoiled in disgust.

My engine number was 1196, shared between four of us, as the distance between Baghdad and Mosul was about 250 miles, and the limit was 40 mph. The track was standard gauge (4ft 8 ½ in), with no fencing or anything else to keep anyone or anything off the track. Two of us would work from Baghdad to Baquba, about half way, and two others would work from Baquba to Mosul. I had one trip from Baghdad to Mosul to learn the route which was highly inadequate for such a long distance but in wartime such things were inevitable. After this brief introduction, my first task was to drive a passenger train. I left Baghdad and was making good progress when I noticed that some natives were waving at me from a mud hut with a flag. I was impressed by their friendly gesture, and so waved back to them. At the next stop the guard came up to me and enquired why I did not stop at the halt? I replied I was not aware of the fact that it was a halt. The guard was suitably named Mr Happi, which belied the expression on his face when he reported the offence for which I was reprimanded.

On another journey we were approaching Mosul travelling at top speed when I suddenly spotted a 15 CWT truck on the track three hundred yards ahead: one pair of wheels was off the track and the other two on the inside; there were three or four Indians trying to push them over the rail. I slammed on the brakes and was now almost upon them and it was clear I wouldn’t be able to stop in time; but with one last desperate almighty heave the wheels reached the top of the rail and bounced clear. It was so close that I am sure the Indians must have changed colour with horror. It was not very happy for me either but at least I had strong and heavy protection. It was a bit like a Mack Sennett silent movie, except that I was a reluctant Buster Keaton and the Indians were screaming their heads off in parochial Hindi rather than broken English.

 

Another near miss looms even larger in my memory. On this particular day a large earth removal vehicle was stalled on a level crossing. The driver was on the ground waving his arms at me in an attempt to stop me. There was no chance, because with a train not fully braked and loose coupled you only have the engine brake. He could now see that I was not stopping so he got back on and desperately made one last gasp attempted to start his machine. Amazingly, the engine roared to life and averted what would have been a serious accident for both his machine and my engine.

A new Commander-in-Chief for Transport had been appointed for the Middle East. He was the Canadian Brigadier Sir Godfrey Rhodes CB, CBE & DSO. I had orders to clean my engine up as Sir Godfrey was going to accompany me on our next trip. I was to be the first to start the journey with a long loosely coupled train which started from Baghdad rather early in the morning. Later on we made a stop and Sir Godfrey climbed aboard. He sat behind my seat and I carried on my duties; we were proceeding at a normal speed bearing in mind that we had a loose coupled train, and therefore only the engine brake was available. We were doing fine when out of the blue a train of camels decided to cross the line. I shut off my power, sounded the whistle, frantically pulled the lever to apply the engine brake, and still they were slowly crossing ahead. I can still feel the fear coming from the brave soldier behind my seat (who was mentioned in despatches three times and also won France’s highest honour The Legion D’Honneur). As a last resort I decided to open a steam valve which allowed steam to escape from the boiler at about 200lbs P.S.I. through a 3 in. pipe to the ground. The noise was terrific and Sir Godfrey jolted out of his seat ashen-faced, but told me that he was fine. I did notice however that the recipient of Greece’s Order of the Redeemer got out at the next stop, said ”Thank you driver” and retired to his personal van at the end of the train ashen-faced with his hip flash close to his chest! I guess not everyone is cut out for the excitement that came with being a train driver!

Sir Godfrey anxiously awaiting the encounter with a train of camels

Many of the above incidents would not have happened on British railways as they are protected by boundary walls and thousands of miles of fencing. At home the main risk was from trespassers who would very often come to a sad end. It did happen to me one day in Cardiff years after the War. A group of children were playing on the railway; they all ran away when they saw me coming except one who was about four years old, I could not do anything to save him.

Locusts were another hazard we faced from time to time. Just as it is written in the Bible, the sky would be literally black with locusts. We would pass lovely fields of grain on our way to Mosul and on the way back the next day the fields would be bare. If you stopped to take on water for the engine you would be walking on inches of locusts; they would be

everywhere, in fact one day Sergeant Walker was working a passenger train and had stopped to take on water. When he was ready to proceed his wheels were spinning; the locusts were so thick on the rails that the wheels had no grip. If you were passing at night time then you would have them flying in and out of the cab, however, they would not sting you or affect you in any way.

Surrounded by a plague of locusts

On night duty it was a little bit more normal, despite the locusts: no camels, no heavy vehicles to encounter. One night we were making good progress towards Mosul when we were stopped just short of our destination. A train was coming towards us heading for Baghdad. We had to stop to let him pass as it was only a single track. We could only wait so we both started to nod off. It was very early in the morning and we were both enjoying our rest when I was aware of a gentle tap on the shoulder. As I opened my eyes I was greeted by the sight of an Arab Sheik standing over me with a dagger in his belt. Not something I had been used to on an average day when working out of Tondu. “Don’t be alarmed” he said, “would you kindly give me a lift to my harem?” “Certainly” I said “but would you like to give me that dagger?” “Oh no, you cannot have that,” which was a shame as it was a really nice one. I wonder, had I refused to give him a lift would he have used it! He chatted all the way and it turned out that his father was a good friend of Lawrence of Arabia. I met him the next day and he put his arms around me, “I love you English boys”.

There was a saying, ‘Join the Navy and see the World’; I had not done so bad myself, already having encountered Africa, India and now that my time in Iraq was coming to an end I was soon to see Persia (modern-day Iran). We arrived at our headquarters – a village called Andimeshk, almost midway between Baghdad in the West and Isfahan in the East. This was a very important base on the Iranian railway to Tehran and onwards to Russia; our main job was to transport aid to Russia to support the forces fighting Hitler on his eastern flank. There was a plant nearby for assembling lorries; Russian troops would come down by train, pick up the lorries, fill them at the railhead and drive them back to Russia. The route went over the Zagros mountains, a very hazardous journey especially in the winter. Our rail route was under these mountains, to a place called Dorud, which was as I recall, one hundred and thirty two miles away. From Dorud the Russians would take over for the rest of the journey. Tunnels were built under the Zagros mountains in the 1930s. I should mention here that Dorud was a tribal area and not very safe for foreigners. We were under orders to remove the rifle bolt and sleep with our rifle unloaded. If they stole your rifle, it would be of no use to then without the bolt. If you lost your rifle and bolt you would be liable to a court marshal. One of the boys did have his rifle stolen but he had kept his bolt hidden. They knew instinctively when you were asleep and when to attack.

Our route started at just above sea level and ended about 7,000ft higher, after having passed through 132 tunnels! These tunnels had 71 The Memoirs of Horace Drake a square mouth at one end and an oval one at the other; the first time you noticed it you would think that you were running into the back of a train. Further up the line at Sefid Dasht you encountered another amazing piece of engineering – a tunnel shaped like a horseshoe, which from a distance you could see both the entrance and the exit.

A typical Stanier Black 8

Our stay in Persia was during one of the hottest periods ever recorded; it went to as high as 143 degrees Fahrenheit in the shade! The amazing thing was you could always have a cool drink of water. At the engine shed, outside the office, was a very large Ali Baba pot full of lovely cool water. It didn’t matter how hot it was, the secret was the drip. If the drip was not right it would not work. We were issued with a leather water bag of goatskin called a chagul. It would hold about half a gallon, but the same rule applied, if it did not drip properly it was not working. If you were unfortunate enough to go into hospital it would supply salt water in the same way. I would hitch a lift when I could and smuggle in a chagul of cold water for the boys to have a drink.

A typical Baldwin steam locomotive

We had British engines designed by Mr Stanier, I think they called them Black Eights. There were fitted with two roofs of the cab to try and minimise the heat. Later on we had American Baldwins and two Ferristal German engines because of the steep gradients we had to encounter. As before we had one trip over the route and then we were on our own. The first section of line from Andimeshk to Daku was level and had no tunnel. After that it was like the London underground. On leaving Andimeshk you would be dressed in shorts and topee and as you progressed through the mountains you would be adding more layers of clothing to keep you warm. When you finally arrived at Dorud you would have put on all your winter clothing. On the way back the reverse would apply. It was extremely cold there compared to Andimeshk. On one occasion when I was there we had ducks literally falling out of the sky around us and we hurriedly got them into the cook house; they had got caught in an electric storm. So the old saying “it’s raining cats and dogs became “it’s raining ducks and Drakes”.

With my railway colleagues in Persia

One of the most hair-raising jobs I ever had to do was to take a train load of tanks on its way to Russia – for which they had urgent need. All train journeys on this route were risky but this one was on a different scale because I was not on the footplate of an engine and because it was the first train of tanks that we had handled. My training in Tehran would now be put to the test. The day arrived: one brake van was attached in front of the two engines and in case of an engine slip my job was to apply sand to the rails. This was not an easy ride; I shared the van with two other Sergeants and it was our job to make sure that we handed over this first tank train to the Russians at Tehran. It had been a rather bumpy ride but our mission had been accomplished without incident.

 

Another complex job was the transportation of a section of water cable. They would be on low loader wagons in a figure of eight formation. A train load consisted of one cable only. The first section of track was the only one without a tunnel and it was very level and once you made it to Balaroud you could proceed onwards without much fear. Outside some of these tunnels mirrors were fitted to allow some sunlight in. Most of the local staff were ‘low maintenance’ and easy to work with. We had one driver named Garcia in his mid-twenties, who would come any time day or night, always ready to help. One day however Sergeant Wilson had an argument with him; he was from the Liverpool area and thought he knew it all. Motivation of staff was vital in an environment where people were suffering from the extreme heat and Wilson had no clue. Garcia told him he would work the train but not return and that was the last we saw of him. The point is that nothing could have prepared men – often still in their teens, for the conditions they encountered in Persia. In Britain there are very few tunnels, almost level ground, very few steep gradients, double track almost everywhere, fast and slow tracks and in addition you don’t have to deal with the extreme heat and cold. Imagine if you can, going from Bridgend to Reading, carrying all your winter clothing with you to change en route. You get off at Reading and you think you are in a different country!

On a locomotive in Persia

In sun helmet with colleagues

In Persia we had endured extreme heat and the self satisfaction of helping to maintain the flow of urgent supplies of equipment so badly needed by Russia. By the end of 1945, five million tonnes of aid had passed through Andimeshk on its way to Russia. I am proud to report that the 192 railway operating company had played its part in this achievement. Our next move would eventually take us to another war zone. We made our way down to a location near Ahwas where we have to cross the river by barge. Our time was limited because there was a narrow time window in which the tide allowed you to cross. We worked furiously to get all our equipment on board, we did it but it was touch and go. Our boss, Mr Suddaby said, “I knew I had a good railway operating company but you were also good Stevedores.” After crossing the river Jordan, we were on our way to Baghdad again, en route to Palestine. This involved crossing the Great Salt Desert to Mafraq. We had a fleet of lorries driven by Indians; a Sergeant had to travel with the driver to make sure he did not fall asleep. This was a most hazardous journey, very hot and far from any source of food or water so you had to be careful not to waste any. The road leading down to the River Jordan was particularly steep and dangerous. After that it was not too far on to Mafraq. The end of a most hair-raising experience, having to travel over that vast desert on a cupful of water.