A MONTHS HOLIDAY IN THE SUN
1976 was the summer of
the great drought. At the end of the summer we took the children
with our caravan to West Wales for a holiday between Milford
Haven and Dale. It poured with rain for 10 days. So disgruntled
were we with the weather that we packed up early and drove home
late on the Friday, arriving back in Stubbington in the early
hours of Saturday morning. The children were tired and
miserable, Anne was tired and miserable and I was tired and
miserable. As usual when we arrived home after being away for
any length of time there was a mountain of mail on the doorstep
which I gathered up and took into the dining room and dumped on
the table. I then put the kettle on for a cup of tea while Anne
put the children to bed.
While we were having tea, we sorted through
the mail and I was intrigued to see a letter from the Director
of Naval Surgery. It was from JR and read,
“I am writing to ask if you would be prepared
to spend a month’s holiday in Salalah…”
Anne was not amused,
“I suppose that’s in the sun !” she muttered.
And so it was.
The first question on my mind was, of course,
what am I supposed to be doing there, and in this respect JR
( Surgeon Commander John Richardson FRCS - Director of Naval
Surgery) was unhelpful but he did suggest that I went up
to London to see Surgeon Commander Alan McEwen, who was then the
officers’ appointer. (He was also known as “The Colonel” for
reasons that became all too obvious.) He would be able to give
me the information I required. And so I made an appointment to
see him and fell in to his office in Empress State Building in
Earls Court. I knocked on his door,
“Who are you and what do you want?” I told him
and added, “I have an appointment.”
“Now you’re going where?” he asked. I thought
as the appointer he should know.
“Salalah.” I said. “I want to know why I
am going and what am I supposed to do when I get there.”
“Bear with me, “ He said, “I’ll ring a chum.”
With that he put his feet up on the desk and took hold of the
phone. There was a rather flamboyant conversation with his chum.
“Hello, it’s Alan here. I’ve got a fellow with
me who has been seconded out to Salalah. What can you tell me
There were lots of “Yes”, “No”, “Really” and
“Good heavens” and he finished the conversation,
“…well thanks for all that. Must meet for a
gin some time. Chin, chin.”
He replaced the phone and turned to me.
“Well,” he said, “I can’t tell you anything
about what’s expected of you, but I can tell you that its f***ing
hot out there.” And that was the end of the interview.
I think that my fear of flying started with
the flight to Oman. I went by Gulf Airlines from Heathrow to
Oman via Bahrain and Abu Dhabi. It was an horrific flight,
punctuated by hours of clear air turbulence, sitting on the
ground in Abu Dhabi for hours with no air conditioning and
finally landing in Muscat with, as we came in to land, a wing
commander sitting next to me grabbing hold of the seat in front
of him and shouting,
“What the hell is he doing?” If he was
upset and he knew about flying how should I feel?
At Muscat, I was taken away by an elderly
major, who gave me a beer. It was his job to get me to Salalah
and I had a choice. There was an Iranian Hercules going almost
immediately or if I preferred, in a couple of hours there would
be a Sultan of Oman’s Air Force BAC111 also going. I opted for
the BAC111. It was an uneventful flight over thousands of square
miles of uninhabited desert on which the only landmarks were the
oil wells. There were also only seven of us on an aeroplane
capable of taking two hundred
SOAF BAC 111 at the new Runway in Salalah
Salalah was a small town about 50Km from the
border with the South Yemen. RAF Salalah was in the Dhofar
province of Oman. The base was run by the RAF but housed the HQ
Dhofar Brigade of the Sultan’s Armed Forces and the HQ of the
Sultan of Oman’s Air force. In 1976, there was an Army Field
Surgical Team, (FST) operating from the base, and the incumbent
surgeon, Colonel Bob Scott, had to fly home and since neither
the Army nor the RAF had anyone with the required experience
available, I had been summoned to deputised for him – the first
Royal Navy surgeon to be appointed to this front line post.
As usual I had a comprehensive briefing and
handover. When I climbed out of the aeroplane at Salalah there
was a figure at the bottom of the ladder already holding a
“Hello” He said, “I’m Bob Scott. It’s all
And with that he climbed the ladder and
(Bob Scott was found dead in the sea off his
yacht at sea off Dartmouth two years later )
There had been a protracted war in Oman for
some years. In 1970, the present Sultan, Quaboos bin Said took
over from his Father in a bloodless coup. On the accession of
the new ruler, there were many social and political changes in
the country, including the abolition of slavery and the use of
money accrued from the sale of oil for the encouragement of
industry and the provision of modern medical and educational
services. Not everybody agreed with the changes and the
antiroyalists were Marxist forces, trained in the Communist Bloc
and infiltrated into the country from the Peoples Republic of
the South Yemen. The terrorists were known locally as the Adoo.
By 1976 the Adoo had effectively been defeated but they were
still active and their legacy remained with occasional terrorist
incursions into the Djebel Mountains and the presence of
thousands of square miles of minefields, to a large extent
uncharted. Indeed, they were still being laid by the Adoo.
The FST was there to look after battle
casualties incurred as a result of isolated skirmishes between
the Sultan’s Forces and the Yemenis and antipersonnel mine
injuries and to cater for the medical requirements of the RAF
Base personnel and to act as a private medical facility for UK
contract civilians and any Omani civilians, who preferred to
attend the FST rather than go to their own doctors. So far as
the Sultan’s Armed Forces were concerned, they were for the most
part led by contract officers, retired British Army officers.
They insisted on the provision of modern medical facilities if
they were shot or injured and hence the FST. The Sultan knew
that if he dispensed with the FST then most of his contract
officers would walk off the hill.
55 FST Salalah - A Soldier’s
welcome for a Sailor!
The FST was made up of a small complex of
buildings within the base. Next to the FST was a helicopter
where casualties could be landed. The mortuary was a
refrigerated container which was usually used for keeping the
beer cool. The team itself was made up of myself as the surgeon,
a physician who was also the anaesthetist called Colonel Don
Hutton, and a dental officer, Squadron Leader David Clements who
doubled as the second anaesthetist. There were additionally, 13
other ranks from the Army and RAF who made up the nurses and
The equipment was the standard equipment used
by all Service mobile surgical teams although because the FST
had been established for some years the equipment had been
augmented to make life more comfortable from the clinical
The only commodity not freely available was
blood. This was “On the hoof”. If blood was required for a major
casualty, the requirement was broadcast on Radio 219, the local
British radio station which was operated from within the base.
All the ex-patriot British listened to the station and our
experience was that within 10 minutes of broadcasting a need for
a particular blood group there would be a queue of donors
outside the FST.
From the morning after my arrival, helicopters
arrived regularly with casualties of one sort or another. We
always knew when casualties were inbound because on the wall of
the compound in which we lived there was a huge alarm bell. When
this bell sounded helicopters were about 5 minutes away – just
time enough to run over to the FST to meet them. We all
developed a Pavlovian reaction to bells and my conditioning did
not wear off for months after I got back.
The first patients to arrive within minutes of
starting work were from a road traffic accident (RTA). One was
dead, one had a serious head injury and the third appeared
uninjured but decided that having been brought down from the
mountains he might as well go into town to do some shopping and
meet his pals! This phenomenon was very common and meant that
any Omani casualty, brought down from the Djebel was usually
accompanied by his whole family.
RTAs were extremely common because Omanis were
the worst drivers in the World. Most common among the accidents
were those caused by cornering too fast, usually with a trailer
on the back of a lorry. In one incident, however, a land rover
driving down a dead straight road collided with a petrol tanker
coming in the opposite direction in a remote part of the desert
about 350 Km north of Salalah. They were the only two vehicles
on the road at the time. We got the petrol tanker driver about 6
hours after the accident and he was suffering from 90% burns.
Unfortunately and not surprisingly, he died.
The Iranians were in Oman in great numbers and
their main base was at Thumrait, in the mountains. They
regularly exercised with the Omani Army and their Hercules
aircraft regularly landed at Salalah. Landed is probably
something of a euphemism for what actually occurred because the
stories of the exploits of Iranian pilots at take off, landing
and indeed in the air became legion. But as they say in the
Fleet Air Arm,
“If you walk away from it, it counts as a
Thank goodness I was not persuaded to fly down
to Salalah in one of their aeroplanes the first time I arrived
in Oman. They had apparently written off at least half of their
fleet of aircraft during their time in Oman.
They were also less than disciplined with
their military hardware. We had a constant stream of Iranian
casualties through the FST, ranging from a couple of squaddies
suffering from burns, who had been smoking in an oxygen store,
to gun shot wounds. One of the most serious incidents involved a
sergeant and his corporal. The corporal had had a negligent
discharge from his weapon, had shot himself through the thumb,
but more importantly had shot his sergeant through the right
forearm. This resulted in the first of many amputations that I
had to carry out during this trip, and resulted in some very
unpleasant interviews with senior Iranian Army officers, who
always wanted to hold an inquest into the patient’s treatment,
usually by the patient’s bedside.
The Arab population appeared to be ambivalent
to life and death, so much so that we had to be careful that it
did not rub off on to us. Just outside the FST was a patio,
covered by a parachute. It was here that we would relax in the
shade. On the patio was a loofah tree and in the tree lived a
chameleon called Henry who was very tame and would eat tit-bits
out of our hands. One day casualties were due by helicopter, and
as was customary the base fire engines arrived to stand by the
pad whilst the helicopters were landing and taking off. Henry
was crossing the road and was run over. He was picked up by our
“Matron”, a short fair haired cockney Army nurse. He rushed over
to me and said,
“Look at Henry, Boss.”
I examined the beast who had had his tail and
back legs crushed. There was nothing I could do for him so I
said to Matron,
“Go and put him out of his misery.”
A few minutes later he came back.
“I’ve put Henry to sleep, Boss.” “What did you
use, ether or chloroform?” “Neither, I took him round the back
and beat his brains out with a brick.”
A dangerous attitude ambivalence!
My duties were not confined to the FST. I
discovered that I was also the visiting “consultant” to the Um
al Guarif Military Hospital in Salalah, to which I was taken by
chauffeur driven Limousine once a week to conduct a ward round.
I actually enjoyed these excursions because I did enjoy teaching
and the SHOs running the hospital were certainly keen to learn.
I struck up a very good working relationship with Col Mehdi, the
CO of the hospital which resulted in being invited round to his
house, shortly before we left for a curry supper cooked by his
wife – probably the best curry meal I have ever had either
before or since.
We also went, about once a fortnight into
downtown Salalah where we conducted an outpatient clinic at a
local dispensary. This enabled the local British contingent to
obtain British medical advice rather than having to rely on the
local civilian doctors, most of whom were either Indian or
Pakistani. Fortunately most of the Brits were healthy and if
anything did crop up that needed treatment we normally insisted
that they go back to the UK for treatment. I did, however,
reluctantly carry out some vasectomies – at a price.
Salalah was not exactly the social capital of
the Middle East and many of the population working there were
ex-patriots, many from the UK, but others from Greece, India and
Pakistan. So we made our own evening entertainment. For us it
was easy, if nothing was happening we simply went to the mess
and for very little money, had wonderful food and ice cold beer.
We were however often invited out and we spent many very
enjoyable evenings with the folk at Taylor Woodrow having
barbeques, with the Greek engineers who were building the new
Salalah Airport eating unspeakable Greek food, washed down with
neat whisky, gin or vodka, and often we were invited to the
homes of local notables in the medical profession. The most
hair-raising night was when I was asked to be the guest at
Trafalgar Night at Airworks Mess.
Airworks was a British company on contract to
service all the SOAF aircraft. It was made up for the most part
by ex Fleet Air Arm Engineer Senior Ratings and when they
celebrated, they did so in style. I got dressed up in full mess
undress and went over to their mess. They too had dressed for
the occasion, many in their old RN uniforms. The first event of
the evening was, “Up Spirits”. A coffin was ceremonially brought
into the mess and placed in front of the President. He opened it
and produced a case of Navy rum. This was mixed 1:1 with water
and then everybody had a tot. I had to have the first, and one
in the middle and the last – and I hate the stuff. Everybody
kept drinking the rum until it was gone. Then we had a meal.
( The "Tot" had been abolished 1970/71 and
many old sailors to this day mourn its passing)
Now I have only vague memories of the
remainder of the evening. I do remember standing in one of the
quadrangles outside the mess, hanging on to a pillar because it
was the only thing I could find that was not rotating! At some
stage later in the evening I decided I had had enough and wanted
to go home and somebody offered to take me back to my basha
which was right across the other side of the airfield, in a land
rover. Half way over the airfield I decided I wanted a pee so I
got out of the land rover, at about 40 mph. I was
extraordinarily lucky in that I only twisted my ankle but it
could have been considerably worse. I felt very sorry for myself
for several days.
Many of the civilian patients who arrived at
the FST had been sent down from the mountains by the British
Army Training Team (BATT) who spent most of their time in the
Djebel carrying out hearts and minds duties in return for
intelligence on active terrorists. Part of their humanitarian
task was to obtain medical aid for the tribesmen. I was
approached one day and asked if I would go up to the Djebel and
see some patients that they wanted advice about. The first
problem was to get properly equipped so I was issued with a
proper set of combat clothing, a pair of Dhofar boots, which are
green suede combat boots, (Which I still have to this day), an
M16 Armalight rifle, 100 rounds of ammunition and three spare
“Hang on,” I thought.
I was taken up to the Djebel in a Defender.
These were Brittan Norman Islander propeller driven aircraft,
built in the Isle of Wight which were perfect to use as air
taxis because they were small, light, could carry up to 6
passengers at a time and could land on short grass air strips.
The pilots were all retired RAF pilots and in spite of the
official end to the hostilities, they were still attacked by
surface to air missiles and small arms fire from time to time
and were therefore very watchful when flying into the mountains.
Their standard procedure was to fly at about 8000 feet until
they were over the location where they were to land, they would
then stand on one wing and spiral down, flattening out to land.
Nobody told me about this manoeuvre until we were airborne, and
for somebody who hates flying at the best of times I found this
terrifying. Particularly so when on landing there was a crashed
aircraft at the end of the grass strip, and, as I later
discovered, the mountain tribesmen were using the body of
another crashed aircraft as a home. They must have been used to
passengers throwing up on landing because nobody turned a hair.
At least I got out of the aircraft first.
The Djebel was very beautiful because it was
shortly after the Harif, or monsoon, and everywhere was very
lush and green. In many ways it resembled the Lake District,
although I was assured that this would not last long, and the
hillsides would soon be scorched brown by the intense heat of
the sun. My primary job was to assist the BATT on their rounds,
see patients and advise on their treatment.
A standard day would involve leaving our camp,
visiting outlying villages, where the BATT would help the
villagers in any way they could, transporting water supplies,
treating the sick and wounded, and acting as taxis. They had
quite a comprehensive medical kit, and on one occasion I
actually pulled a tooth, which was more difficult than I
expected but very satisfying for the patient once the pus from
his dental abscess had been released. Wherever we went we were
greeted warmly, invited to drink very sweet herbal tea or thick
sweet coffee. As soon as they heard there was a doctor in the
village, the queue formed stretching over the horizon. Once seen
we were always sent on our way with fresh fruit and vegetables,
including fresh sweet corn, and cucumbers that looked like
A Well Dressed Surgeon on the
It was in these villages that I came across
another demonstration of the ambivalence towards life and death.
Children with diarrhoea and vomiting were very common and we saw
countless children, dehydrated, comatose and clearly near death.
I saw about 4 or 5 baby girls in this state and although the
parents were quite young, they refused all our attempts to treat
the babies citing, “Insh’allah” or “It is God’s will” whether
they lived or died. They were, however, very insistent that we
treat all the boys in the same state even if that meant, as it
usually did, flying them down to the civilian hospital in
I returned to Salalah after a week in the
mountains to find that it had been very quiet at the FST but
that all changed within 24 hours.
On the Sunday we were invited to Sunday Lunch
at the HQ of the Frontier Force at Raysut by their Medical
Officer Captain Dipu Ganguli. The Officers’ Mess was in a
wonderful position high on a cliff overlooking the sea. From the
patio outside the bar, you could look over the wall straight
down into the sea and see turtles swimming at the base of the
cliff in the crystal clear, light blue water. We had a curry
lunch and a few beers with the Second in Command, (We will call
him Peter) and his officers and then left to allow them to get
some sleep because they were going on an operation near the
border that night. We said our farewells and returned to Salalah.
At 2300 that night, the bell rang and a
helicopter arrived with a staff sergeant from the Frontier Force
who had stepped on an anti-personnel mine. When he arrived he
was deeply shocked and had clearly lost an enormous amount of
blood. He was still bleeding profusely from several sites and we
decided to break all the rules of resuscitation by
anaesthetising him so we could stem the haemorrhage. This we
did. I then set about the task of debriding his wounds and
tidying up his left leg from which his foot had disappeared. We
finished operating at 0400 and went to bed.
At 0630 the bell rang again, and I arrived at
the FST at the same time as the helicopter. Dipu Ganguli was
holding a drip for a patient on a stretcher. I met him at the
edge of the helipad,
“Hello John,” He said, “It’s Peter and I think
Peter had led a rescue the night before to
recover the staff sergeant and in investigating the mine site at
dawn, had himself trodden on an anti-personnel mine about 20
metres from where his staff sergeant had been blown up.
He had a shattered right leg and forearm. His
face had been sandblasted and he appeared to have shrapnel in
his left eye.His left hand had penetrating wounds and the back
of his left leg had been sandblasted with considerable skin loss
behind the left knee.He also had other injuries.
This officer was in serious trouble
The first thing we needed was blood and so we
rang Radio 219. The bad news was that his blood group was ‘O’
Negative. Remarkably within 10 minutes we were bleeding donors.
Try as we might we could not get his blood pressure up and we
were clearly losing the battle. For the second time in 24 hours
we had to dispense with conventional wisdom and anaesthetise him
in order to resuscitate him. Under anaesthetic I removed what
remained of his right leg, applied pressure bandages to his
other limbs, then went off for a cup of coffee while my
anaesthetic colleagues, Don Hutton and David Clements continued
the resuscitation. I realistically thought that I would not be
required any further. I was wrong.
After about half an hour, Don Hutton came into
the coffee room and said,
“He’s as good as we can get him, now it’s up
I don’t think I have ever felt such
responsibility before, or indeed since. I began a seven hour
operation which was remarkable for all the wrong reasons. Not
the least was the necessity not to allow this opportunity to
pass without taking photographs. I operated with a camera always
to hand and those photographs were, and still are very valuable.
I was carrying out surgery that I had only ever read about in
books and there was nobody there to offer advice, tutelage or
criticism. We held the life of a British Army officer in our
hands in a Nissen hut in the middle of the desert.
Even then the black humour of the medical and
nursing professions came to the fore and in some way kept us all
sane. To relieve the tension, I asked for some music in the
background while we were operating and one of the nursing staff
scurried away to get their ghetto blaster. Most of the time we
had easy listening pops and classics, until somebody asked,
“Any requests ?”
As if we had all been telepathically linked
the answer came back,
“How about Andy Fairweather Lowe – Wide Eyed
From that moment we all knew that our patient
was going to survive.
The operation itself was relatively simple.
All his wounds were debrided, cleaned and packed with antiseptic
swabs. The haemorrhage was arrested. Although he clearly had
penetrating injuries to both his eyes, I had no experience of
ophthalmic surgery and no operating microscope so I put
antibiotics into both eyes and padded them.
All foreign bodies were excised and removed.
This was especially important in his left leg. When we turned
him over and began to work on his left leg, he had two large
wounds in his buttock. I inserted my finger into one of the
wounds and felt a foreign body which, when I removed it turned
out to be the heel from his combat boot.
In all we operated on Peter for 7 hours. He
received 17 pints of blood beside other intravenous fluids and
at the end of the operation was in remarkably good shape
considering his injuries. He was sent back to the ward for
We were clearly not going to be able to look
after this patient for any length of time and he needed the
expertise of a major injuries unit. We got hold of the Base
Operations Officer and told him that this man and his staff
sergeant needed urgent airlift to the UK and 24 hours later he
was on his way back to the Queen Mary Hospital at Roehampton,
where he made a full recovery.
There is a sequel to this story. In 1978 I was
the surgeon at the Royal Naval Hospital in Gibraltar and I met a
Royal Marine Officer who had also served in Oman. We talked, as
you do, about old times and he mentioned a friend of his, Peter,
who had been seriously injured in Oman. It was the same Peter.
My Royal Marine friend suggested that when we got back from
Gibraltar, he would have a party and invite Peter and myself, so
that we could meet. I actually forgot about this conversation
until late in 1979, an invitation arrived in the post from the
Royal Marine, to go to a party at his house near Chichester.
Anne and I drove over to Chichester on the
appointed night, but having arrived outside the house, I
suddenly had cold feet about going inside and meeting Peter
again. Anne was adamant,
“We’ve come this far, there’s no going back.”
So in we went. We were met at the door by
Penny, who was evidently Peter’s wife. She ushered us into a
room where there was a group of people talking, including a man
with a false leg and a patch over one eye. As the conversation
progressed somebody asked,
“What do you do for a living, John ?” “I’m a
surgeon in the Navy.” I replied.
At this, our friend turned to me and said,
“You’re a surgeon in the Navy. Do you know
somebody called John Soul ?”
“That’s me.” I said.
“My God,” he said, “We’ve met before.”
“Yes for an hour or two a few years ago.”
He grabbed me by the arm.
“My Dear Chap,” He said quietly, “I think I
owe you a beer.”
We then spent a large part of the evening
reminiscing – as you do.
There was a further sequel to this story. I
was at a Livery Dinner at the Society of Apothecaries in London
some months later and sat opposite a pathologist who happened to
work at Roehampton. The conversation inevitably led to
discussing the casualties who came back from Oman and he knew
all about Peter.
“What a pity you didn’t get any photos.” He
said. “We would have been interested to see them.” Of course I
did, and so did they.
I was invited to Roehampton later in the year
to give an account of our exploits in Oman and when I arrived at
the hospital lecture theatre it was packed to the doors. I was
introduced and stood up and delivered my lecture for about forty
minutes. The latter part of the lecture involved the pictures of
Peter on admission and during the course of his surgery and I
described in great detail how we had resuscitated him and all
the surgery we had carried out. At the conclusion of the lecture
there was muted applause and I was asked if I would take any
questions. A distinguished figure in the front row got up and
addressed the audience,
“I was the duty consultant the night that
Peter was brought in to us,” he began, “And when I examined him,
I could not believe the barbarity of the surgery that had been
performed on this unfortunate patient.” He then turned to me and
“Having seen the pictures you took when he was
admitted to you and during the course of the surgery I can only
say how wrong I was to have misjudged completely both the extent
of his initial injuries and the lengths to which you went to
save this man’s life. How you ever got him back to us alive I
will never know.”
The answer was, of course, that was our job.
We were a team and a good one at that and in that team we all
played our part. On this occasion we all got it right.
At the end of October we were relieved in
Salalah by a surgical team from the RAF. We had the usual round
of “Ma’Salaam” or farewell parties and eventually climbed on
board an RAF VC10 bound for Brize Norton in Oxfordshire where we
were reunited with our families. At the time it was
extraordinary, that on the basis of a months experience in the
desert, and having operated on about 6 major casualties, I was
the most up to date and experienced surgeon in the Royal Navy on
the treatment of high velocity missile wounds and anti-personnel
mine injuries. It seemed to me then, and the opinion is still
valid that unless we give our surgeons and anaesthetists this
sort of experience at every available opportunity, the service
we provide to our customers in the operational role we support
will always be second best and that is not good enough.
( Since 1976 the Royal Naval Medical Service has
conspicuously been involved in the Falklands, Iraq and
Afghanistan. My concerns no longer apply )