Desert Mapped From Camel-Back

The following is an excerpt from page 13 of “ The Dhow” - Combined Forces Newspaper,
Aden dated 29th November 1963 (price 50 cents)!

Soldiers mounted on camels doing a job? Peculiar perhaps, but this is one of the unusual tasks 19 Topo Sqn RE have carried out in their time in the Middle East.

As the name implies they are a map making squadron and have been in existence, in one form or another, since 1850. A long serving member of the squadron, S/Sgt. Des Davey, recalls that his father was surveying in Ireland with the Sqn. in 1900! During the 2nd World War as 19 section, part of 512 Coy., Topo retreated from Dunkirk and then moved to their present theatre, the Middle East in '41.

In '48 the Sqn was reformed as 19 Topo, part of 42 Svy Regiment and carried on its work mapping the Middle East. Surveyors were working in such places as Jordan, with the Arab Legion, and Egypt. The present SSM, John Bickers was in Jordan at the time and tells of a rather amusing incident when some surveyors crossed the border into Saudi Arabia and were promptly jailed by the locals.!! After some hectic diplomatic manoeuvring they were released, presumably with a very accurate map of where the border was !
'51 saw the surveyors scattered as far apart as Kuwait, Cyprus and Libya.

The main party were working in Iraq and due to the ticklish situation wore civilian clothes. This did not prevent them from having to evacuate rather quickly during the Iraq revolution. In '58 most of the equipment was left behind but one enterprising officer sold an army 3 tonner for fifty pounds before he departed. That is initiative !!

After this the Sqn returned to their parent unit in Cyprus united for the first time since their formation. Within six months Topo was off again, a troop being based in Aden and detachments in Trucial and Muscat Oman, Kenya, Kuwait and Somaliland.

The beginning of the sixties, the Technological era, brought the much disbelieved camel incident. It was absolutely necessary to map the desolate and rocky wastes of the Trucial States, yet Landrovers could not penetrate into the area. Nothing daunted, surveyors climbed aboard their camels or donkeys and disappeared for weeks at a time into such arid areas as Leewa, a colossal sand sea in Muscat Oman. Other parties worked with the Trucial Oman Scouts, travelling in such mundane transport as Landrovers and three tonners.

During this time the remainder of the Sqn moved to Muscat and finished off the areas to be mapped. Even then the unit wasn't together, as HQ was located in Bahrain. When the map sheets were completed the squadron moved en bloc back to Aden.

Here they are producing a much needed map of the WAP. Detail for the map will be filled in from air photographs, which are annotated on the ground by surveyors visiting every point of detail. Control for the maps is produced by radar methods or the more conventional system of Triangulation, aided by Astronomical Observations.

At the beginning of next year Topo will be returning to UK, and hope to leave behind a memento in the form of a dependable map. Something everybody will be grateful for!

The name of the writer of the article is not given

Comment from Des Davey

I have just read the article re mapping the desert from camel back, and must say I was very surprised to see my name mentioned. Although I was a S/Sgt at the time in Aden I cannot recall ever having given an interview to any reporter of "The Dhow", nor indeed ever having seen this article before. I would certainly have remembered it because I would have corrected it immediately. As to the remark - a long serving member of 19 Sqn, I certainly served with them in Transjordan (as it was known then) from May 1948 to Sep.1950 and again in Aden from March 1963 until they were replaced by 13 Sqn. but it makes me sound as if I was the only one to have spent any time in the Sqn. As to the reference about my Father, he certainly was in Ireland in 1900,but he was still only a Boy (Bugler) aged 17 and I doubt very much if he was in 19 Sqn even if it was there at that time.
As for the long serving bit, when I eventually got back to the Regt. in Egypt in Sep.1950,I was told I was only supposed to stay in T/J for 6 months and not two and a half years. I'm glad they forgot me, I reckon it was my best posting of all.!

As to John Bickers account of the Sgt. who went missing in Saudi Arabia for about a week, we also later had some members of 1 Tp. who were arrested after crossing the border into Syria to get to a Trig. Point, they finished up in Damascus for a couple of days.
Incidentally the border with Saudi Arabia was only claimed to be shown by a track marked on a 1:750,000 black and white map in English and Arabic which only showed tracks and a few names and major wadis, which was our only map, and I believe a lot of the area which we ran our trig control and mapping through has now in fact been ceded to Saudi Arabia.

Des Davey

With thanks to  John Bickers via Andy Anderson and Des Davey for this contribution.