Into The Heat
Recruiting ordinary Omanis into the ranks of private soldiers was an informal, traditional affair. At some point early in his adult life a young Omani man(1) would reckon it was time to serve his Sultan, and would wander down to a nearby army camp to enlist. After a few years, he would decide he’d done his bit, and would unilaterally take his leave and wander off back home.
To the average westerner there is a flaw in this set-up … what if there was an active campaign underway and Private Mah’mud could ill be spared? Don’t be daft: if the Sultan still needed his service, why of course then Mah’mud wouldn’t leave! Other than these honourable self-imposed feudal disciplines there was only one significant formal rule applied to local recruiting: if a former soldier fancied another spell of all-found accommodation in the ranks, he would have to go through basic training all over again.
As I said in the original post, these loyal soldiers were pleasant and (I guessed) hardy and brave enough: but they didn’t come across as sufficiently ruthless for the 1980s border troubles we were there to assist with. Border fighting in the mountains is a matter of maintaining small, hidden observation posts - and taking out the OPs of the other side; which all places a premium on operating silently and invisibly. Now your average friendly Omani expects to get up in the morning and warmly greet everyone he meets – a blessing and a hearty handshake for even your closest friend. Apparently these charming courtesies would be observed even in the field. Even in an OP … And, clean-living Moslem fellows that they were, they certainly wouldn’t dream of carrying out their bodily functions in the confines of the slit-trench as is required in these circumstances.
This is where the Baluchi battalions came in. Somehow, the Islamic customs of Baluchistan comfortably embraced the disciplines necessary to conduct silent throat-slitting operations in the mountains.
|Officers quarters. My baiyt was second on the right.|
|Perimeter stand-to position (not used while I was there)|
The senior staff officer was a Pakistani, a full colonel in the Sultan’s pay. He operated from an office with a wooden verandah, straight out of the North West Frontier. Clerks with manual typewriters pounded out the orders of the day (in English). Though this colonel’s duties were strictly administrative, I figured he would be a useful person to have onside; so I made a point of seeking him out, presenting my compliments and inviting him to visit the unit I was advising. He showed little emotion (then, or indeed ever), but I could tell he was dead chuffed to be treated with due respect - by a Brit! - and he took up my invitation; out of reciprocal politeness, probably, since he showed little real interest in what we were doing.
I am guessing he got less deference from the Garrison RSM, a robust Brit on secondment who seemed to me remarkably lacking in the kind of live-and-let-live tolerance I associate with the best of colonial behaviours. He ruled the roost uncompromisingly in a Brit-dominated Sergeants Mess. Maintaining standards is one thing, but apparent disregard for the locals is another.
Daily routine was oriented around the accommodations necessary for dealing with the oppressive temperature, naturally enough. The call to prayer was broadcast noisily through a loudspeaker, and most of the Omanis rolled their eyes upwards when it interrupted what they were doing. By no means all of them responded to the call. Work started at 06:00 – with the usual hearty handshake for everyone. Breakfast was at 09:00, a substantial affair with much minced lamb involved. More work between 10 and 13:00, then back to the mess for lunch. Lots of juicy, energy-giving local dates always on offer at lunch, which were pressed upon me enthusiastically: you eat dates, Captain Nick, then you go to your woman!
|Pool - without which, a punishment posting indeed|
(1) I note that these days the Sultan's armed forces contain some rather dashing ladies as well. Lots of medals on some of those chests ...
Photos © Nick Drew 2016