HRH and Libya
More than five decades ago I ventured to North Africa to seek my fortune. I was all set for a career at a prestigious British company, English Electric, (E.E.Co) having done one of their "thick sandwich" Apprenticeships. A dark cloud , however, was looming in the shape of Arnold Wienstock as he was beginning to decimate the UK electrical and electronics industry and E.E.Co was in the firing line. The final straw came as I was negotiating a salary for my employment. E.E.Co was mean in the extreme and offered little more than the pittance students were paid on their Apprenticeship scheme.
"Engineers/ Scientists needed in Libya" was an advert that caught my eye - "needs to be single, have a degree in engineering, geology or physics and has to present themselves for a medical". "Well, that must be worth a try" were my thoughts.
About a month later, early in October 1962, I found myself been driven in darkness down a twisting road from Idris airport into Tripoli by Pop, the person in charge of personnel at Robert H. Ray Inc, RHR, my new employer. There were few exchanges between Pop and myself during the journey only to say I was booked into a hotel for the night
The hotel was more luxurious then I would have believed. Polished marble in the entire hallway and pictures, depicting views around Tripoli, hanging from the walls. Centrally placed above the reception area was a large portrait of King Idris, the ruler of the land. The most striking feature, I guess to me and possibly all foreigners arriving for the first time, was that there was not a woman to be seen; all staff were male and, within the limitations of gestures rather than language, were helpful and courteous. A palaceial bedroom was now my goal and --- sleep, sleep, sleep...Rather earlier than I had wished I was woken by soundings from the mineretes as the call to prayer started at 5:00 am. Yes, this was definitely a foreign land but the view from Hotel al Waddan, the finest hotel in Tripoli, was exquisite.
It transpired that Pop was the Personnel Department; there was an accountant, Tom, and Mr Ray, CEO of the company, had two secretaries to deal with clients from the oil companies. RHR, lovingly known by the Brits as HRH, was a geophysical prospecting company which did seismic surveys for the likes of Shell, BP, Occidental. Oil had been discovered in the desert areas of North Africa and the gold rush (black gold) to Libya had begun. Pop explained that I was to work in town. Most of the new recruits were sent into the desert regions and their work was to collect seismic data Purely by chance, an operative was required in Tripoli at the time I arrived and the town work involved deciphering the seismic data and writing reports for the clients; well, hardly as exciting as a life in the sand dunes but it was certainly going to be different from working on Canberra and Lightening aircraft as I had been planning to do at E.E.Co.
I found that the financial benefits of working closely with the oil industry were considerable. The living allowance from HRH was more than the salary I had been offered by E.E.Co and the "proper" salary was deposited in a bank of one's choosing. The accommodation presented a slight problem. New recruits were allowed to stay in the hotel for a week to get themselves "bedded down" but then the options were a little limited. Either one stayed in a hotel (something lesser than the Waddan) or shared a house/ apartment with fellow workers. A third way that only I considered was to stay at the Staff House. This consisted of two adjoined apartments in the middle of an Arab residential quarter. It was used by field staff as a stop-over on their way to Malta. Their pattern of working was three weeks in the desert and a one week break which was taken by all in Malta rather than Tripoli. Staff House had the merit of providing very cheap lodgings and, though very Spartan compared to the Waddan , it was adequate for my needs.
The administrative/ technical staff at HRH were mostly American but there was Twassell from Pakistan and Pat from Ireland. The supporting staff were a mixture of Arabs and Italians and they made sure that the field equipment was in good working order. Pop, our beloved Pop, seemed to keep the whole show running in a harmonious manner. No one ever got close to Pop. There was every likelihood that Pop was ex-army and had fought in the desert campaigns of WWII. He had a fair knowledge of the Arabic and Italian languages and was admired by the whole company but Pop, the person, was an enigma. The population of Tripoli was three quarters Arabic and one quarter Italian with the latter being the remnants of a colonial past when Italy ruled Libya. UK forces, Army and Air force, were present around Tripoli and the USA had a huge base, Wheelus air base, east of the city.
Three months into my two-year contract and the work was expanding at an alarming rate. The office was open now from 7:00 am to 11:00 pm and two shifts were being envisaged to keep Clients happy. More oil companies were buying "concessions" (marked regions in the desert) in southern Libya and each of these was requiring seismic surveys. In January of the New Year, 1963, another chap (Colin) arrived from the UK to help out. Colin settled in very quickly and, thankfully, there was, at last, someone with whom to share accommodation. I shed few tears at leaving Staff House but I must admit it was interesting meeting the field crews who suffered quite some hardships in the desert.
Colin, ten years my senior, had worked in the communications industry and had "money in his pocket". Immediately he bought an old VW car and we moved to Georgio Populi, a suburb of Tripoli where other oil workers lived. A gaffir went with the property. He lived at the bottom of the garden and was supposed to guard the house and attend to other odd jobs. Ashamedly, we gave him a very small amount of money each week but it was said to be the going rate. Mohamed did produce vegetables in the garden but these were spirited away and we felt that he deserved the produce. Our furniture was delivered by donkey and cart so, thankfully, we hadn't ordered a grand piano! Six months of hectic work followed as oil was gushing from the deserts. Life was not unlike that in the western world ---- work -- shop, cook and attend to household duties -- sleep. There was a small supermarket in Georgio Populi and a larger one in town, both run by Italians. The Arab shops were well stocked with fruit and vegetables but the sight of half a carcass of a camel hung up in an Arabic butchers did put me off meat for some time. A radio station was operated by the UK forces and the US forces, at Wheelus airbase, offered a TV service.
Life was very much taking shape when Colin suddenly announced that he was going home!! I never found out what the reason was but I was happy to buy the old VW from him and give him a contribution for his share of the furniture.
Almost immediately an American , Oscar Lee Huss junior, replaced Colin and work continued apace with Lee taking over Colin's duties. Lee agreed to move into the villa but in this respect there was a conflict in the making. Lee was keen to offer his services to the spare women in Tripoli so we were often three rather than two in the villa. An unexpected opportunity presented itself before I had to choose between a threesome or twosome. The leader of our group, an American, Peter, had got a kidney infection and had to be repatriated to US for one month. He offered his villa to me to "house-sit" for this period so I gladly accepted and therefore could vacate Lee's love nest before any hard words needed to be spoken. Lee did , however, introduce me to the vast metropolis of Wheelus airbase. As an American he could go and enjoy home-from-home comforts at the airbase and take guests along. I went a few times but enjoyed the company of personnel at the UK services, NAAFI, (Navy, Army and Air Force Institutes) rather more than the Americans.
Thus, year I of my time in Libya had passed very rapidly; the work had been frenetic but I was enjoying the seismic deciphering, I had a car and I had all the comforts of Peter's house with a TV !! Even though leisure time was limited I enjoyed swimming and snorkelling on the beaches and rocky coast near Tripoli. The NAAFI had build a restaurant and café on a lovely stretch of sand just to the west of Tripoli and that was my favourite place to relax. The ancient Roman ruins of Sabratha (20 km west) and Leptis Magna (170 km east) were very interesting sites to visit and they showed that the whole of North Africa had been an important part of the Roman Empire.
Year II was a different year. The full flush of the gold rush was waning and the oil companies were consolidating their finds and setting up oil terminals along the Gulf of Sirte. I had to move out of Peter's house but there was a vacancy in a villa further out of town. It was called "the eight kilometre" and it was at a bend in the coastal road at exactly 8 km from Tripoli. One of the highlights of the second year was joining the Tripoli sailing club. I had sailed Fireflies in the UK but the fleet of GP14's were a delight. Racing in Tripoli harbour took place at the weekends and the social life of the club was warm and friendly. Sheila, a secretary from Shell, was a very able crew and a delightful companion during the rest of my stay.
We also had some fascinating adventures into the desert with Les and his camels. Squadron Leader, Les, from the RAF, was the nearest I shall ever come to Lawrence of Arabia. Les was given a wide brief for his intelligence work with the RAF and this did involve manoeuvres deep into the desert regions. He had taken a course in Arabic at Durham University and could converse fluently with the Libyan population. In his spare time he would take parties to settlements many kilometres south of the coastal strip and he got to know and be accepted by the local country folk.
On November 22, 1963 President Kennedy was assassinated and it caste a great sadness over the American personal at HRH. It seemed to sap the confidence of the company and, unfortunately, came at a time when less seismic surveying was needed. Lee left his love nest and went to Saudi Arabia and, on the grape vine it was heard that Colin had joined the company again and was now involved with seismic surveys in the North Sea. I was happy to continue in Libya but one was sensing a change in the mood of the local people. Perhaps the rhetoric of King Idris was becoming more strident. Vast revenues were now coming into the country and the population at large were becoming rather too self assured. From being a "safe" place to live, Tripoli was beginning to become hostile, stones were often thrown at foreign cars the word "imshe" ( go home ) was shouted by gangs in the streets. A particularly frightening event occurred when Sheila and I were finishing our swim at the 8 km point. Two armed police on horseback confronted us, firing in the air. No dialogue was possible and so we quickly jumped into the car and hastily drove away leaving most of our belongings behind. Care was, indeed, the watchword to be used.
An inevitable routine did descend on life in Libya after a year had elapsed but the New Year of 1964 did hold a few surprises.
Sheila's father had purchased a kit to build a GP14 sailing boat and, with a gentle push from Sheila, I did offer to help her Dad when the kit arrived in early February. Building a boat from scratch is a very creative activity but it was to take about six month's of dedicated work to move from drawing board to boat .
Owing to a sickness of one of the field workers I did my turn of three weeks in the desert in January 1964 at a recording station. A commercial flight was used to ferry me from Tripoli to Benghazi and then a DC3 aircraft took me to the camp.
For seismic surveys one normally employs explosives to create vibrational waves in the earth but this did not work well in a sandy terrain. A falling weight gave superior results and therefore a truck was engineered to traverse the desert dropping a massive steel block onto the ground at regular intervals; previously, geophones (vibration sensors) had been laid out in areas marked by a surveyor. Intense vibrations from the impact of the block on the ground were transmitted down onto rock strata and then the reflected wave was dependent on the topography of these strata. The geophones picked up these vibrations and an electrical signal was recorded on magnetic tapes.
These tapes were then sent to the office in Tripoli to be analysed.
It was very instructive to complete these field measurements as I was later to analyse this data when I returned to Tripoli. The strata under the sand dunes where I had walked was magically revealed. A typical seismic survey is illustrated below:
With added geological data one could infer if oil or gas was trapped in the strata folds and then experimental drilling would commence.
As the pressure of work had reduced considerably by Easter I convinced Pop that I needed a short three day break in Malta. What a delightful island and so European compared to Libya. I stayed with some of the friends I'd known in Staff House and they showed me around and made my visit so enjoyable.
I left in September 1964 with mixed feeling. Yes, it had been an experience to work in Libya but somehow the mood had changed over the two year period. In the first few months of my stay I had felt completely safe living in the Arab quarter of Tripoli but now I was hesitant about walking in this same area. The Libyans had always resented the Italians since they were the colonisers but now they were beginning to resent all foreigners. Perhaps it was the right time to leave.
For more information see BBC timeline
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