Chapter 5

Chapter 5


The Sudan

Finally, after a year or so, Mr Gibson, the man who was head of the firm building the Gebel Aulia Dam in the Sudan sent for me and told me that they were now ready to employ more assistant engineers, and offered me a job. This Mr Gibson had been Agent in Charge of the construction of the Nag Hamadi Dam on the Nile in Egypt and when that was completed had formed a consortium with a very well known Contracting Firm called Pauling & tender for the Gebel Aulia Dam to be built on the White Nile some miles south of Khartoum in the Sudan. The Consortium had obtained the contract and preliminary work had started the previous year, and all was now ready to start on the construction. I was offered a job as an assistant engineer at a salary of £420 a year with free living quarters, a free return passage, and an interesting job, so of course I immediately accepted.


After a week or so buying clothes etc. I flew from Northolt in an Imperial Airways Hengist or Horsa plane to Paris and then on to Brindisi where we were to change to a flying boat for the flight to Alexandria, and on to Khartoum. However the weather was too bad, and the sea too rough for the latter to take off, and we were stuck in Brindisi for a few days, in a small hotel, which was very frustrating for me, as I was anxious to get on. At last the weather improved, and we boarded a very small flying boat called City of Khartoum, which could carry only twelve passengers with the pilot and co-pilot outside the cabin in front in an open cockpit. The plane could not carry enough fuel to make Alexandria in one hop, and so we came down in Corfu to refuel, and while this was being carried out we were taken by bus to see the ex Kaiser’s Palace on the island and I think that we remained on Corfu for the night. Next day we took off early and made Alexandria by early evening. On the flight after ours City of Khartoum ran out of fuel when in sight of Alexandria, crashed into the sea, and all the passengers were drowned, the pilots being in an open cockpit were thrown out and rescued unharmed. Ashore we were put up in the Hotel Cecil for the night, and told that we were to fly off in a larger flying boat to Khartoum at 6.30 am. I can remember that I did not go to bed that night but went out to a night club with one or two other passengers, and got back to the hotel just in time to shave,wash, and collect my case before the bus for the flight departed. Our new plane took off from the harbour, and the pilot flew low down the river southwards to Khartoum. I do remember that I had a hangover, and that it completely disappeared when we were airborne, a miracle that I have never experienced since. Aircraft were not pressurised in those days, and it may be that we were given oxygen, but I cannot remember. Flights were very informal then, and the pilot continued his low flying all the way to Khartoum, so that we had very good views of Egypt, its many Temples, and of the Nile cataracts.


We eventually came down on the river in Khartoum, and as I had to stay the night there before going on to Gebel Aulia, I stayed with Dick in the Mess as his Battalion of the Royal Berkshires was stationed there. All I can remember of that night was dinner in the open air with the Officers Mess, when both people on either side of me fell soundly asleep.


Next morning the Company , Gibson & Pauling, sent a car to fetch me and I was taken to meet the Chief Engineer, and introduced to other staff, and shown where I would live. This was the engineers’ mess and there were 6 other ” engineers” living there, a Captain in the Royal Engineers on attachment from the Army, a middle aged Hungarian architect, a nephew of Lord Cowdray with no discernible qualifications in civil engineering, a colleague from Cambridge the son of the M.D. of Pauling & Co, and a man called Robinson who was an unqualified mechanical engineer and finally a more senior and experienced engineer called Cleghorn. As far as I could see I was certainly not alone in having obtained the job by virtue of having had the advantage of meeting the right people!


Gebel Aulia, the place where the dam was to be built, was about 50 miles south of Khartoum, in a windswept shallow valley of a semi desert nature, on the White Nile.The two rivers Nile, the Blue and the White meet at Khartoum, and flow as one river to Egypt, and the Mediterranean, and Egypt and the Sudan depend absolutely on them to provide all the water they require as it seldom rains very much in either country. In fact when I once passed through Wadi Halfa in the North of the Sudan, I was told that it had not rained there for twenty years. Both rivers flood enormously during the rainy season in Ethiopa, and Central Africa, and a lot of this water ran to waste,as the White Nile was not dammed at all. The purpose of the Gebel Aulia dam was to hold back most of this flood water, and release it as required for irrigation and other purposes It was also proposed to bring a vast area of land below the dam into cultivation, partly to support the tribes who would be dispossessed of their grazing lands by the creation of the enormous lake upstream of the dam, and partly to enable the country to put much larger areas under cotton, one of Egypt’s and the Sudan’s major exports. Egypt was to pay the bulk of the cost of the work, as it was deemed to get most of the benefit by the evening out of the flow of water.


The dam itself was about a mile in length, with a granite masonry part in the normal river path, with 50 sluice gates, a fish ladder, and a lock for river traffic as well as a tarmac road on top with a rolling lift bridge over the lock. On the western side of the river there was an earthen dam, faced with sandstone, and with a deep concrete core down to bedrock, this being about 1/3 of a mile long.


At first I was employed on the masonry part, setting out, levelling,and generally supervising the gangs of Egyptian labourers, who had their own village headmen as foremen, each assistant engineer being responsible for a specific length of dam, or some particular part, and weekly we had to measure up the work done, and submit these measurements to the office,so that the subcontractors could be paid. The work was hard, and exhausting, 6 full days a week, and Friday the Muslim rest day would be taken up planning the next weeks work. What made it particularly exhausting was the climate, a very hot sun all day, with a continuous strong dry wind, so that one got completely dehydrated, and had to drink continuously lime squash with liberal amounts of salt in it. Work started at 6am and continued until 2pm, with a break for breakfast at 9am, then lunch,and a rest until 4pm, when we would return to the site to do the setting out for the morrows work while the site was clear of workmen. Friday was the rest day but as mentioned before this was taken up with office work, and in any case most of us were usually too tired to want to do anything, not that there really was anything to do.


I was unlucky in my first year, as I fell ill with acute sinus trouble, which was wrongly diagnosed by our local doctor, and so after a week or two in the sick bay, when my temperature soared, I was shipped to Khartoum General Hospital where the Surgeon immediately saw what was wrong, washed out my sinuses several times, and I thereupon recovered quickly. However I had missed at least a month of work, so that when the time came for work to stop because of the annual flood, I was asked to stay on during the flood season instead of going home on leave. I did not greatly mind as the work during this period was not arduous, being mostly of a maintenance nature.


As time went on and parts of the work were completed, Mr Gibson decided that there were too many engineers for the balance of work,and so that when my years contract was up, it was not renewed on the grounds that my health had not been very good, and the Doctor had advised him that the dry dusty environment might make the trouble re-occur.


On my return to England, I consulted a Specialist about my sinus trouble, and was advised to have what he described as a sub mucus resection on my nose, which was obstructed in the left nostril, probably due to boxing at Cambridge, and he warned me that returning to a dusty climate like the Sudan might well bring on the sinus trouble again if I did not have this done. Harold Jaques, my brother-in- law got me admitted to the private wing of the Middlesex Hospital, where I had the operation performed,and stayed a week or so, before returning to the outside world to resume my leave and look for another job.


After a few months of idleness,and having a good time, in between looking around for another contract abroad, I got a message that Gibson wanted to see me, and when I went to see him he asked me to return to Gebel Aulia, and work there until the dam was more or less completed. I naturally agreed, and after a very few days flew out once again to Khartoum On this tour at Gebel Aulia, I took charge of the west bank earthen dam,which while much less interesting technically, was easier work, and I shared a house on the west bank with Robinson, previously mentioned as one of the engineers in the Mess. It was a more congenial existence, as Robinson, although a bit of a rough diamond, was more or less my age, and I had got to know him well during the last year when we had messed together. Every evening we would take our guns, and go sand grouse shooting for the pot which would have been impossible on the East bank, crowded as it was with Offices, Houses, Workshops, etc and quite often on Friday afternoons we would go to Khartoum to see what it had to offer in the way of entertainment which was not much.



Eventually the dam was completed, and all staff started to go home at the end of their contracts. In the week or two before everyone left, a notice appeared on the Board to the effect that the Irrigation Department was looking for two qualified engineers to carry out work on the construction of major and minor canals and all ancillary work at a place called Abdel Magid some distance upstream of Gebel Aulia on the White Nile. This work was intended to provide several hundred square miles of irrigated land for the support of the people dispossessed by the Gebel Aulia reservoir. Each family was to have 18 feddans of land on which to grow cotton, maize,and beans, the idea being that the cotton would provide the cash, and the beans, and maize the food for themselves, and livestock. All was to be supervised by the Agriculture department, as a lot of the people were not farmers, but wandering tribes. In addition each family would be provided with a Tukl or thatched hut for Living accommodation. The Irrigation Dept was to be responsible for the construction of the whole scheme.


I and Robinson had no other work in view, so we thought there was no harm in seeing what sort of jobs were on offer, and arranged to meet the Deputy Director of the Dept . at Khartoum Railway station, before he boarded the train to go home on leave. At this meeting he told us that the contract would be for two years, twenty months in the Sudan, and four months leave at the end. When it came to the subject of pay, he said that as Robinson was two years older than me he would be offered £600 and I £550. I immediately said that I could not accept less than Robinson, especially as I was better qualified with a Cambridge Degree, and he then said “very well I will offer you both £650″ We were secretly delighted and accepted with a show of reluctance, and shortly went off on three months leave our ourselves, secure in the knowledge that we had two years paid work ahead of us; not too usual a circumstance for contracting Civil Engineers in those days.


On my way home this time, I took the river boat from Khartoum to Wadi Halfa, and from there the train to Cairo,whence after a night at a hotel I flew to Sarafand in Palestine where Dick was now stationed with his Regiment. I stayed a week there seeing a bit of Palestine, living in the Mess, and getting to know Dick’s brother officers, and in general having a very good time. After this I flew back to Cairo, and from there to London, where Mother was living. I again had a wonderful 3 months leave spending all my hard earned money in modestly riotous living.


This leave went all too quickly,and in no time it was necessary to start preparing for my third visit to the Sudan and this time it meant buying all equipment then thought necessary for a camping life in a semi desert, such as canvas bath,petromax lamp, rifle, mosquito net, sleeping bag etc, as I had been warned that to begin with I would not have permanent quarters provided for me, but that I would get a field allowance of about £1 a day as well as an allowance for a horse, and syce or groom.


And so I set sail once more for the Sudan, this time on an ancient Bibby Line ship, the S.S.Yorkshire which had one cigarette like funnel. Robinson also took this passage from Liverpool , the Sudan goverment being too parsimonious to pay for an air passage, for which we were duly grateful as our contracts started from the day of sailing, and we were therefore getting a three week cruising holiday before starting work. After calling in at Port Said, we eventually docked at Port Sudan, and took the train to Khartoum where we were met by an Irrigation Dept. official, and taken by car to Wad Medani on the Blue Nile, where the Headquarters were situated. We stayed there a few days, being introduced to various people, and being briefed on the whole scheme that we were to work on.


When all this was completed we were taken to Abdul Magid in the area of land between the two river Niles, which was to be our headquarters, and where we met the engineer who was responsible for carrying out the whole project, a most unimpressive fat individual called Fursdon, who had spent his career in the Irrigation Dept, mostly controlling the flow of water in the canals, with seemingly no experience whatever in construction work. This was largely the case with all the Dept. engineers, their main motivation being to hold on to a secure job until pension time came along. We were both quite glad at this as it meant largely that we would not be interfered with much, but allowed to get on with work we knew and were accustomed to.


I spent only a few days here, familiarising myself with the drawings, collecting quite a considerable staff of clerks, an assistant engineer ,chainmen,a cook bearer, and a camelman who would collect mail etc twice a week. During this time a double mud hut was being built for me out in the cotton soil desert, one hut to sleep in and the other to eat in, both joined together by a thatched roof. The cook or sufragi had his own hut nearby in which he slept and cooked. In practice in fact we slept ,ate, and cooked in the open air in the dry season.


I was provided with a Chevrolet pick-up truck, which was necessary for the longish distances we had to cover in a day’s work with all the instruments needed for setting out, and also for the fortnightly visits I was expected to make to headquarters at Abdel Magid, which was about 50 miles away.


I had already bought a pony, a real slug and a bad buy from the local vet, a British old timer who obviously saw me coming. A pony was quite unnecessary for work, but was very welcome in the late afternoons, or early mornings for a pleasant ride. I soon got fed up with my useless animal, but luckily my assistant engineer a very fat Egyptian- Sudanese had an excellent animal which he could not ride, and kept only for the prestige, and horse allowance,and he allowed me to treat it as my own, but always refused to sell it to me. As time went on and we all got more settled in to the living conditions, I was able to arrange scratch games of polo with my staff which were great fun, if rather lacking in skill.


To begin with my living conditions were very primitive, there was of course no electricity or gas, and I depended for lighting on the petromax lamp using paraffin, the lamp having the great disadvantage of not only radiating great heat, but also acting as a tremendous attraction to every moth and insect for miles around, which reduced it’s lighting effectiveness considerably. Very early bed was the general rule as we got up at about 5am in order to start work while it was fairly cool, worked until 2pm with a break for breakfast, and then took the rest of the day off. It was not too hard a life after the work at Gebel Aulia, the main disadvantage being that I had no one to talk to in my own language for a week or two at a time so that I was glad every fortnight or so to go to Abdel Magid and stay with the Doctor there an older man called”Lousy” Brown, a South African, with whom I had made friends. Water was drawn from a local well and was extremely brackish, and may have been the cause of my attack of jaundice. I had been feeling unwell for some time, and was subsisting on a diet of potted meat (now called paté) and whisky as I could not face anything else, and finally I decided that I must go and see Lousy and see what was wrong. When I arrived he burst into laughter and said “You look like a bloody Chinaman” and said that I had jaundice and must stay in hospital. So I did for a few days until I had recovered when I was sent on convalescence to the Sennar Dam on the Blue Nile, and had a very enjoyable stay in the comfortable Rest house there shooting both with gun and rifle, and fishing for the gigantic Nile perch just down stream of the dam which itself was situated in thick African jungle, a change from the desert like surroundings to which I was accustomed .


One of my first jobs was to start the building of a bungalow for the water control engineer who would eventually run, and maintain the Scheme, and in which I would live in until the work was complete and he would arrive. There was also to be a bungalow some distance away, where the Agricultural Adviser would live. The drawings for the bungalows had all been prepared beforehand, and the contractors appointed so that I had little to do on this work except to supervise the Greek contractor and see that he did not skimp too much.


The main work was the digging of canals, the construction of regulators to control the rate of flow of the water, and the extension of the major canals, which were minor rivers in size, to many minor canals branching off, leading to still smaller canals which in their turn fed ditches, which irrigated the individual plots. There were also the villages to be sited, and built in areas which would not interfere with the irrigated areas, but would be sufficiently near to them so that the cultivators did not have to walk too far to their plots. The building of the individual tukls or huts was left to the villagers who would occupy them, but it was my responsibility to see that they got the necessary materials,and stuck to the Government standard plan. This involved arranging for mud bricks to be made, and sufficient grass to be cut to thatch the hundreds of huts, a job that could only be done after the rains, when the grass had grown some miles away near the river.


The major, and minor canals were dug by dragline, and the ditches by gangs of labourers, generally West Africans, who were paid on piecework; thus the larger ditch was called “Abu Eshreen’ and the smaller ‘Abu Sittar’ meaning father of twenty, and of six respectively as that was the amount in piastres that they were paid per chain length.


My main work was setting out all construction of the the various works and trying to keep ahead of the construction of them and generally supervising the numerous and scattered labour force which occasionally meant acting as a kind of unofficial District Commissioner in minor quarrels and disturbances as the District Commissioner had a vast area to govern and could only manage to visit about twice a year. The nearest Police post was at Abdel Magid, as the village Headmen acted as the local law keepers. The work was not wildly exciting but neither was it very demanding in ability, and so I had time in the late afternoons to ride, play polo, shoot sand grouse or cranes or fish in the canals with a seine net which I got quite expert in casting, although the fish I caught, usually Nile perch were not very nice to eat. As mentioned before it was a lonely life, relieved by my visits to stay with Lousy Brown. My office work was pretty minimal, as I had a Sudanese clerk and an engineer who looked after this side of things, and I simply had to check and sign.


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