IN THE MIDDLE EAST AND IRAN – OF RUSSIA AND THE RUSSIANS
(1910 - 1983 ) is a renown Australian journalist
and historian-writer. In particular, he wrote the now classic book “Gallipoli”.
During the WWII he was a war correspondent, mainly, - in the
THE MIDDLE EAST - SUMMER 1941
In this self-contained and
intensely unpolitical world the entrance of
For the average soldier in
the British ranks no such mental upheaval was necessary. The conditions of
But the soldier’s approach
to the new political line-up was slow and cautious. He was starved of information.
Where his officers lagged so far behind him politically he could not make
much progress. All this may not have been important, but for the fact that
still there came no pronouncement from
Yet as each day went by, the
seeds of admiration for the reds began to take root through the camps and
barracks of the
…We had been passing groups of Indian soldiers encamped beside the road, and now on the third morning we came on their farthest outpost, a company of Gurkhas.
Their officer told us the great meeting between the British and Red forces had taken place the previous day, and now the Russians had withdrawn to Kasvin, some seventy kilometers farter on. Well, that was another story we had missed. We were too weary to care much about it anyway. I was beginning to loathe the whole adventure. We went on doggedly and presently someone said, ‘Good God, what’s that?’
It was a truckload of troops
who seemed at first to be Nazis. They sat four abreast in gabardine tunics
and jackboots. They had German helmets on their heads, and each man, sitting
bold upright, clasped a rifle with a fixed bayonet. Where had I seen this
before? A newsreel showing the Nazi entrance into
They never turned to look at us. They looked straight ahead, sitting there stiffly on the hard wooden seats of their truck, and the truck was running on caterpillars. I looked keenly at the nearest boy and his pleasant, peasant’s eyes were blank and rigid, and his great countryman’s hand was corded tightly round the barrel of his rifle. He was as erect as a birch tree. He wore a red hammer and sickle badge.
At that moment the great Red
bluff was exploded for me forever. What about the poor anemic Russian infantryman
who had no boots in
It had been a fine bluff and it had been working steadily for more than two decades. Now at last the Soviets had been forced to show their cards.
And their cards were these young men, athletes all of them, with their iron discipline, their brand new modern weapons, their wonderful shining health. They had that strange thing you see occasionally in young men’s faces. It is a mixture of adolescent strength and spiritual resolve, and something else – pride, maybe. I had never seen troops like this before.
As we drove on into Kasvin, we came on one remarkable thing after another. Their were multiple pom-poms mounted on tractors that were designed to meet low-flying aircraft. These traveled with the convoys lorried infantry and filled the role a destroyer takes at sea. They had field guns too far off for me to see clearly, but obviously of a recent design. They had armored cars with a two-pounder gun and two-inch armor on the turret. These cars had eight wheels, two of which in the front could be jacked up clear of the road and used as spares or lowered to help the car across bad ground. They had steel field kitchens and wireless vans. They had streamlined aircraft, faster than our latest Spitfire (though these we did not see until later). They had many tracked vehicles and small scout tanks. All these weapons were in a spotless condition.
The men were in grey-green uniforms and light half-length black knee boots. Woven badges on their arms showed who was an electrician, who a wireless expert, who a tank mechanic and so on. The officers’ ranks were marked by little red enameled badges attached to their tunic lapels – four badges to a general. They all had heavy steel helmets.
Sentries twice sprang from ditches with hand grenades and stopped us. They carried Russian tommy-guns.
We came in the early afternoon to the hotel at Kasvin, the Russian army headquarters. There were red sentries and armored cars at the door, and the Persian servants, obviously frightened, were setting out a late luncheon on the dining-room table. One after another the Russian staff officers and commissars came in.
There must have been about
twenty of them. They were rough, leathery, sweaty and cheerful. The senior
political commissar, a round porcine little man, looked at me narrowly and
said, ‘We met in
‘Ask them to lunch,’ said the general; ‘we will discuss it later.’ The lunch continued until six in the evening. There was the stage where we ate cold chicken and chatted politely through the interpreter. The stage where we toasted Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill. The stage where we denounced the Germans and filmed one another with my miniature movie camera. The stage where we exchanged badges and sang folk-sings together. And, last scene of all, the stage where I drew off to my bedroom with a spitting head to type my dispatch.
Through all this toasting in fierce Persian vodka, the general was charming but adamant. Teheran, he said, was not yet occupied by the Allied troops. He, for his part, would be delighted to let us go through, but he had just made an agreement with the British general that no one should pass along the road. Let us produce a pass from the British general and he would countersign it at once an off we should go.
There was nothing for it but to drive back to British headquarters. Mundy and Patrick Crosse of Reuters, who had joined our party, volunteered to make the journey while the rest of us slept. They drove all night, were twice arrested by red sentries, and in the early morning got back with the pass. By we were on the road again.
Governing everything was one dominating fear – fear, not of the British, but the Russians. In the last war the Russians had come into this country, they had seized Kasvin, the very town they now held again, and they had been ruthlessly severe. Every Persian I spoke to seemed mortally afraid of the Russians. The people of Teheran were spreading the most hair-raising stories of red rape, pillage and violence.
The German and Italian nationals
also were petitioning that they should be handed over, not to the Russians,
but to us. It was interesting to see that even after the bombing of
When we were waiting in Teheran
for the departure of the Axis nationals and the dethronement of the Shah
in favor of his son, we decided to visit the
Sam remembered a few Russian phrases and Clifford seems to be able to speak any language he likes after about ten minutes. Between them they made the introductions. Cluttered up with his tommy-gun and his hand-grenades, the Russian corporal bowed from the hips, an astonishing gesture, and told us to report to his officer a few kilometers east along the coast.
Now we were really enjoying ourselves. The Caspian was grey and limitless, a wonderful vision after the desert. From the green forests little mountain streams raced across the road into the black sand beaches. Two Russian destroyers lay at anchor, and again one felt that sudden uplift of excitement about the Red forces. From a distance these ships looked exactly like our latest destroyers, only a little more rakish and modern in outline. If fresh grey paint goes for anything, they were beautifully maintained. Two more sentries, tommy-guns braced evenly in their hands ready for action, blocked the way to the wharves. Strange uniforms only meant enemy to them, and we went forward keeping our hands elaborately away from our sides. Then the lieutenant came along in blue gabardine with a blue cap and an anchor badge on the band. He was absurdly handsome and his teeth were like an American toothpaste advertisement.
As soon as we approached, the two sentries saluted and jumped to attention; and at attention they stayed throughout the whole interview. When the officer called a marine along the beach the marine ran toward him, saluted, stood to attention while he got his orders, saluted again, and then ran back to his post.
These men were keyed to a discipline. I have yet to see in our army, or any other army. It may be that they are all comrades together, but the Red officer on the job gets the sort of skilled and immediate obedience we don’t often see off the parade ground. At Kasvin a sentry had been posted outside my bedroom door. It had been almost unnerving the way he had swept up to attention and a full salute when I merely appeared in the distance. Here on the Caspian this was no rehearsed parade for the benefit of foreigners. We had arrived unexpectedly, their first visitors, and probably, apart from Persians, the first foreigners these men had ever seen.
The lieutenant wrote us out a safe conduct at once. He grinned and seemed to take the whole thing in his stride and I would much like to have talked at length to him. All the rest of the afternoon we drove along the southern littoral of the Caspian to Ramsar…
The head policeman of Ramsar, bulbous, sweating and surmounted by a Prussian helmet, had met us on the steps. It seemed that the Russians had not called here yet, and in a long lyrical speech he offered us the surrender of the town. We took him inside and sat with him far into the night eating caviar and drinking vodka and lemonade. We were asked to go pig-sticking in the forest on the morrow, but declined. Each time the policeman spoke, he clipped his heels, bowed and raised his glass in a toast. He was very hot and very thirsty.
It soon turned out that all the stories of red atrocities were untrue. True, the Cossacks had frightened the people badly by riding through the town at a gallop. True, they had seized certain stocks of sugar and other provisions they needed. True, their aircraft had bombed Pahlevi, the town along the coast.
But their fleet had not opened fire. What had happened at Pahlevi was that at the last moment the Persians had attempted to camouflage their warships by decorating them with branches of trees and shrubs, which they had brought down from the hills. But then a Russian cruiser appeared and the crews took to their heels. The Belgian consul had saved the day by rowing out to one of the Persian ships and hoisting the white flag before the Russians attacked.
A word here about the Russian
commissars. They wore the same uniforms
as the soldiers and held similar ranks. They were responsible directly to
Clearly the suspicions of the
Russians were boundless. They trusted no foreigner unless they had to. Yet
before I left
The casualties were trifling – perhaps a few hundred in all. For the Persian themselves only good could flow from the occupation, for their new Shah, who was crowned in Persia in September, broke the royal monopolies, opened the political prisons, paid the army, reduced the taxes and took advice. Food was quickly brought in to feed his famished subjects. It began to appear that there was some reasonable future ahead of the country despite the war.
Alan Moorhead. African Trilogy. 1944
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