Iraq 2004 – Top Secret Fax Machines and Umm Qasr

To be perfectly honest I can’t remember landing in Basrah. I can remember Shaibah Log Base before we went into the APOD to live and work. I think it was late September 2004 and we were all herded in to a large Army tent, you know the types, the ones that turn instantly into a fucking greenhouse when the sun gets up. We had the flaps open and people were milling around watching DVDs on their laptops and playing cards. I had a load of video nasties and put them on, the likes of Cannibal Holocaust and Zombie Flesh Eaters had a load of lads transfixed.

The first weeks. Tensions were high.

+++++There were guys who were leaving and we heard horror stories of them being shot at, RPG’d at and they’d had a pretty rough time over the summer. That was the uprising and its eventual quelling by us and some airstrikes. Things had eased down and we would enjoy a relative calm in these winter months. I’d travel into the City on top cover in snatch vehicles when months before people were being grabbed, shot and the vehicles were being burnt out.
+++++Whilst at Shaibah we were tasked with getting some vehicles from Um Qasr which was a docking area to the southwest of Sinbad’s fabled city. We were loaded on to Chinook helicopters and flown out. I had an SA80, but no ammo, body armour or helmet. I later heard about these risks being taken and didn’t really notice the danger that was posed to us. The trucks were on a large container ship, they were all land rovers and we got into them and drove off in a long snakey convoy. Smoke rose into the air like the trail of a burning fuse. Two hours later we arrived back into Shaibah Logistics Base and had supper. The sun lay low on the horizon, its reddish glow emblazoned in the sky. It embellished the ground before it in a salmon hue that I knew England couldn’t replicate.

I went back to Shaibah 4 months later for a Dentist’s appointment I made. I took the daily Chinook ride there in the morning, had my 10 minute inspection and quick fix and waited 10 hours for the return flight.

Back in the Intelligence Cell we had a motley crew of enchanted soldiers. Captain Barnaby was the amiable Captain, whom I shared the birthplace of Ely with and even the same hospital. She was nice. There was WO2 Kennedy; hardworking, funny and a sarcastic fucker, but great to have in the office. There was a Staff Sergeant, a Sergeant, a number of Corporals and Lance Corporals: in the Intelligence Corps there were no Privates. All these had their varying characters that rubbed off on each other and made the office a great place to work. On a few occasions we’d get a pair of Americans pop in with all their black US webbing and M4 carbines, there’d even be a guy of about 45 who’d pop in. He was English, didn’t show any rank insignia and said just to call him Bob, which I did one evening when he gave me a lift back to the lines. A lot of Top Secret stuff went on and on a number of occasions I was ushered out of the office with a Danish Officer and a Norwegian when an operation was being discussed. I was only cleared to Secret on that Tour, but I did get to use the Fax Machine.

It was in the corner of the Office collecting dust. I didn’t know what it was for the first 4 months of the tour – it just collected dust and did fuck all. This big lump of plastic and metal that took up the corner of the room under the window.
+++++“Dougy. SO1 needs you,” Greg said from across the desk. He handed me the receiver. I put it to my ear.
+++++“Bombardier Douglas? Oh hi there. We’ve got a task for you. It’s just… ah… the Americans… need you to … ah…” get on with it… “send a message to their Basra Embassy.”
+++++I was about to ask ‘Do they have an Embassy in Basra? Surely that would be in Baghdad?’
+++++“Okay. How do I get this message to them?”
+++++“There’s a fax machi…”
+++++“OH THAT’S WHAT IT IS!!! For FUCK’s SAKE!!” I shouted.
+++++“Yeah… well… ahem… I need you to send them some information. Pop in to the office.”
+++++I nudged Del and pointed to the machine in the corner. “Fax machine.”
+++++He looked up, “Yeah. I know.” What the fuck!?
+++++“See you in about a minute?” A voice called from the receiver.
+++++“Yes, sir. See you in 55 seconds.” I threw the receiver to Greg who deftly caught it between forefinger and thumb. “You should be in the circus, with those talents.” I scraped the chair back and nearly tripped over the Lance Corporal Alba who was giving me a funny look.
+++++“You okay?” She asked.

Weaponless, but I had a Camelbak. Shat-Al-Arab Hotel.

+++++“Yeah. I’m on top of the world,” I said to her, then point to the corner and whisper. “Fax machine.”
+++++“Yeah. About as much use as Tits on a Frog that thing,” she said. It didn’t look right coming from her, she was beautiful and some things don’t look right when coming out of some people. A bit like accents. I later saw her in Hohne in 2010 with a family – she’d left the Corps, got married to her boyfriend and had kids.
+++++I got this sheet of paper which had a load of statistics and numbers on it. I didn’t want to read it in case I’d get shot or something. The SO1 told me to go straight back to the office, do not stop off at the Kitchen for a brew, do not talk to a choagee, do not collect £200, it was sensitive information.
+++++The office was only 2 metres from the SO1’s office. His office was full of maps and drawings and there was a big table where they’d do Target Packs for raids and stuff. Stuff I wasn’t privy to and to be perfectly honest, that suited me fine.
+++++There was a small book near the Fax Machine. I picked it up and blew the dust from it. I opened it and began to follow the instructions. On the left hand side of the machine were two big bold letters in red. TS. What the fuck was that? Someone’s initials? Tom Selleck? I dialled the number from the book.
+++++I heard a crackle, a beep and several clicks like a big metal ball was clunking down an arcade machine. I guess it was attaching a signal to a Satellite and encoding it perhaps? Basrah City centre was only 3 miles to the east so not sure why it needed that level of traffic security.
+++++“Hello. This is Basrah Ops. Confirm you’re identity, Over.” A voice with a distinct American accent sounded, it was methodical and mechanical.
+++++“Urrrr… This is Bombardier Douglas. 4 Brigade Headquarters. Over.”
+++++“Hello Bombardier Douglas. Authenticate Four-Niner-Brava-“ what the fuck was Brava!? “Kilo-Echo-. Over.”
+++++“Urrrmmm… I dunno. Ask me one on Geography. I’m good at Geography. Nah. Sorry – I don’t have anything to authenticate that, over.”
+++++“Roger…”, I swear I thought I heard a sigh, “Confirm serial number on the machine, over.”
+++++“Roger, wait one,” I looked down at the machine. Pulled it from the wall – it was heavy. “Anyone know where the fucking serial number is for this bad boy?”
+++++“Yeah – they’re normally on the back,” Somebody shouted, I think it was Kennedy.
+++++“Hold on a minute, muckah,” I said into the mouthpiece of the receiver and pulled the Fax machine further out. I took the number down which was barely readable, after wiping away the muck. “You ready for this, it’s a long un.”
+++++“Roger. Basra Ops awaiting serial number. Take your time, operator.” He replied. Probably taking the piss.
+++++I read out the number and awaited the response. “Roger,” he said, “That appears to be correct. You have the information we require? Respond, over.”
+++++“It’s in my hand. Where do I put it?”
+++++“Look at the top and lift the flap.” He said. I lifted the flap and it was like a photocopier , there was a slot I could put the A4 sheet in.
+++++“Okay.”
+++++“Slide the sheet in and dial the following number.”
+++++I slid the A4 sheet into the top and dialled a number from the Archaic round, barrel like telephone dial system. I was then told to press the Green button and await an audible beep and a confirmation sheet would then be printed out. This needed to be attached to the original and handed back to my Officer-In-Charge.
+++++This was completed and the cheeky fucker at the other end said, “Well done, Bombardier Douglas. We’ll make a soldier out of you yet. Out.”
+++++“CHEEKY FUCKER!” I shouted and laughed.
+++++After I’d handed back the documents in to the SO1, I asked everyone in the office. “What does TS stand for?”
+++++“Probably TOP SECRET,” Gibbo said to me. “If you follow the TS around the side of the Fax Machine. Go on have a look.”
+++++I did and found the words US EYES ONLY.
+++++“Am I going to get shredded now? And burned at the runway?”
+++++“There’s an industrial sized Shredding machine in the Divisional HQ. We can arrange for this to happen. We can even sell tickets to people so they can watch,” WO2 Kennedy said with a smile.