5 APRIL 1963, Page 13

Armour in Iraq

By ERIC JACOBS I was ordered by Middle Eastern Command to MY connection with the Iraqi Army began mysteriously in the summer of 1955, when remove myself from the grey comforts of garri- son life in the Suez Canal Zone, take an aircraft to Aqaba in south Jordan, return a week later to Egypt, and finally fly with all my kit to Hab- baniya, 50 miles from Baghdad.

At Aqaba part of the mystery was resolved. The Queen's Bays stationed there had sent four of their tanks to Baghdad in the charge of three REME sergeants and a second-lieutenant. The second-lieutenant was being discharged, his National Service done, and I was to replace him. I spent a pleasant week with the hospitable Bays, Which was only a little overcast by the cloud of worry as to how I might handle the job of sole tank instructor to the Iraqi Army, since I had Spent only about half an hour of my life in a real Centurion, and that had been almost a year before.

As it turned out I needn't have worried rhoch. The genial subaltern I was to relieve Waved aside my misgivings : 'The Army's more (,)r less on holiday at the moment,' he told me. They always stop work for three months in the hottest part of the summer, especially around Baghdad. Nothing will happen until September. W hat you want to worry about is your social life.' He introduced me casually at the armoured school where I was to work, then spent the last Week of his tour introducing me more fully ronad town. He was quite right; the social life Was more important than the working—or at least it took up more time. . T. he routine of work was simple. Up at seven, !nye ten miles out of town to the school, chat to Itte officers, enjoy a ruminative second break- St at ten, do a little desultory work—perhaps filling in forms—and make for home at noon. At first I was fully determined louse the three months' grace provided by the heat to learn all I could from my three expert sergeants; but the enthusiasm soon waned under the sun, as will that of any but the most resilient European. Besides, it did not take long to see that one's ignorance could be concealed.

The Iraqi officers at the school had seemed to be particularly well qualified. They had all spent up to a year at the British armoured school in Dorset, or at Aldershot or Catterick, and it seemed to me certain it would only be a day or two before I was caught in some terrible howler. But I had forgotten the idleness endemic among soldiers. Most of them had learnt little in England but the language; a generous allowance from their government had let them live rather too well, perhaps. One lieutenant told me he had not spent a single night of his year at the depot in Aldershot where he was being trained. He used to commute from his flat in London in time for first parade.

So I quickly developed a curious, conspira- torial relationship with the officers, in which it was tacitly understood that neither I nor they would acknowledge we were aware of the other's ignorance. I remember a day when on one Cen- turion the auxiliary generator (a small, subsidiary motor used to charge batteries) would not work. Perhaps there was no petrol for it. one officer suggested. But I had seen someone pouring petrol in a hole at the back that morning. Could it be that there was a separate petrol supply for the auxiliary generator? The officer and I exchanged lcoks, realised that neither of us knew, and talked about something else. There were many such moments.

The school itself was pretty grotesque. ft was modelled on the Armoured Corps school in Eng- land—modelled, that is to say, as to superstruc- ture, complete with wireless wings, gunnery wings, driving and maintenance wings, and all the rest. It may even have exceeded the English school in proliferation of colonels and majors. The sub- structure, however, compared badly with the design. There were only two lieutenants and 100 or so ill-nourished other ranks, mostly with no training. The equipment, before our four Cen- turions arrived, consisted of two elderly Churchill tanks, a number of lorries, two tiny Italian tanks from the Western Desert that looked together like a pair of roller skates, and some armoured cars the like of which I had never come across elsewhere until I saw the film of Lawrence of Arabia.

The officers I knew were gay, charming and friendly, indolent and given to wild tempers.

Sometimes, if one of their men annoyed them, they would discipline him with a hail of stones, but anger didn't last. I enjoyed my seven months in Iraq, but it was bound to end. One day the English brigadier who advised the Iraqi Chief of Staff called at the school, and asked me : 'Jacobs, what exactly do you do here?' I mumbled something, but he had caught me out and decided that if I was to leave the army a qualified tank officer fit for the reserve I should have to spend some time with a British tank unit.

So I was sent to Barce (chaos seems to be dogging my seven-year-old footsteps) where an indifferent colonel set me to work out my time teaching long division to his troopers.

I should have realised that the condition of the Iraqi Army was partly the fault of the British, who had assumed patronage of it. Apart from myself, absolutely unqualified, the only other instructors at the level of the soldiers who might actually use weapons were an Irish Guards subaltern and two sergeants, who came to teach the rifle for three months. But a lot of more senior officers were employed to organise departments in the Ministry of Defence in a shape as near as possible to their British counterparts, thus satisfying the Middle Eastern passion for appear- ances without providing any substantial reality to back it up.

For, of course, there was a reason for the presence of the tanks and myself in Baghdad. It was hoped to persuade the Iraqi Army of the quality of our Centurions and so secure an order for them, to be paid for in much-needed dollars.

In this, at least, we succeeded, and as I left the country sixty tanks were on their way up the Euphrates, disembarked from England at Basra, worth, it was rumoured, 1131 million in all.

Would the Chancellor of the Exchequer, incidentally, care to forward 10 per cent. sales- man's commission?