The Adventures of an Itinerant Linguist – or the memoirs of a Military Interpreter

by John Forster

Overview on back cover

This little booklet, inspired by and dedicated to my two grandchildren, consists of a series of anecdotes in which I recall events and personalities during my 25 years of military service and thereafter, with the odd white-knuckle episode, making the most of the dying embers of the British Empire.  I am now in my 87th year, ostensibly fit and well, but kept alive by a handful of pills and a pacemaker and writing this seemed a daunting task, but it kept me sane through the desolation of a recent double bereavement compounded by the pandemic lockdown.  Commissioned into the Royal Artillery, I studied languages, in particular Arabic and spent my army career in a number of postings, some of them hair-raising, some idyllic and some hilarious, mainly in the Middle East.  After retiring as a major in 1978 I joined British industry as a salesman and continued my sojourns into the Middle East, before finally becoming a freelance translator, a job I pursue to this day.

Please note that proceeds from the book will be donated to the Army Benevolent Fund.

Chapter from the book

Arabian Adventure

I then took up my new appointment in Oman thus beginning my Arabian Adventure – another highlight of my life in the army.  Sheila meanwhile was single-handedly running the school in Cyprus and thrived on the experience.  Shortly afterwards in 1974, under extreme provocation from the President, Archbishop Makarios who, with the support of the Greek junta in Athens, had appointed Nicos Sampson, an EOKA terrorist and convicted murderer as PM, the Turks invaded Cyprus and quickly overran the north east of the island including Famagusta and Dherynia, ending my hopes for a future in Cyprus.

Luckily for us, Sheila and the family were on holiday with me in Muscat at the time – I remember sitting round the radio listening to the BBC World Service as the news of the occupation came in and our anxiety grew as we realised that our home in Cyprus was no longer accessible.  Luckily for me, my 3 Squadron men managed to rescue most of our belongings including my car and put them into storage in the SBA (Sovereign Base Area) which the Turks kept clear of. 

Oman at the time was under the British-inspired rule of Sultan Qabus bin Said Al Said who had been brought up in UK, attended Sandhurst and had been seconded to a battalion of the Cameronians as a junior officer.  He was propelled into power on the overthrow of his tyrannical father Said bin Taimur and having no political experience he got a friend in the battalion, Tim Landon, to sell his commission and join him as personal adviser - he relied heavily on the British for military support.  Under Qabus Oman was a stable country and progressed rapidly, on the strength of oil revenues, from its totally primitive status.  It was however under constant threat from Marxist insurgents in Dhofar and over the border in South Yemen, who made frequent incursions and maintained a low-intensity insurgency for a number of years, countered by the British-led Sultan’s forces.  To thwart the attempts at subversion and the present danger of an armed coup, security units, dotted throughout the Sultanate, each headed by a British DIO (Desert Intelligence Officer), of which I was one, were appointed to keep tabs on the local political situation and give early warning of possible threats arising. 

On arrival in Oman I was appointed Head of Intelligence (or ‘Research’ as it was coyly called) of the Capital Area of Muscat and the surrounding villages out to Quriyat in the south and Seeb village in the north.  At the time there were stories about a spectacularly successful – and lucky – operation which occurred the year before I arrived and which foiled a well-organised attempted coup, which if successful would have overthrown the sultan’s regime with the attendant assassination of all senior members of the government, in particular the officers of the Intelligence Service.

At this point it needs to be stated that this story is based on hearsay and its accuracy is at the mercy of my memory, pressed into service many years after the event.

What I was told was this. Capt. John Antcliffe, another seconded Int. Corps officer and the second-in-command to the Head of Intelligence at the time, was walking through Muscat suq (bazaar) one day in the company of a turncoat communist commander called Musallim.  Musallim had been captured in the Dhofar mountains, where there was a full-scale communist-led insurrection taking place and had wisely decided to throw in his lot with the Sultan (since the alternative held little in the way of future prospects).  As they were walking through the crowds the ex-communist suddenly pulled John to one side and told him that he had just spotted a VIP in the communist hierarchy from Dhofar who was a political commissar.  John briefed his companion to tail the man and find out where he lived.  He did so and a snatch squad picked him up the next day.  He was duly interrogated, turned Sultan’s evidence and the tale he had to tell came as a real bombshell!  Communist agents were in place in all the major towns, with chapter and verse as to names and addresses.  They were well supplied with arms and explosives.  In two weeks’ time they were to trigger the coup to topple the regime.

At the time the Head of Intelligence was on leave so John Antcliffe was in charge.  The first thing he did was to call in all the British DIOs from the outstations to brief them on the situation.  Since the loyalty of some Arab staff to the Sultan was suspect at the time, the DIOs were told to keep the matter entirely to themselves until the last moment.  They were given the addresses of the gang members in their areas and told to verify them as discreetly as possible.  They were then to mount a 3 a.m. snatch operation code-named Op. Jason.

On receipt of the codeword pre-prepared teams swung into action and the whole bunch, with huge quantities of hardware and explosives, were duly picked up in what by any standards amounted to a spectacularly successful operation.  They were immediately given a fair trial and executed.  Thus the Sultan and his regime had been saved in the nick of time from near certain overthrow.  Our jubilation was however tempered by the sobering thought that the opposition had succeeded in laying on an elaborate, well-supported and well-organised plan without a whiff of it reaching our ears.

There were a few more attempts on similar lines but having learnt our lesson we nipped them in the bud within days of their arrival on the scene.

To read the full chapter and story, you can find the short book on Amazon (Google) in paperback (£4.99) or Kindle (£1.99).