16 March 2023
In 1966 Alex Harley, Ian Fowler and three fellow paratroopers drove a Series IIA 109in from Kuwait to England. To finance the trip they donated blood along the way. Now over 50 years later, Alex chats to LRM’s former Editor about this epic adventure of a lifetime
After serving with 1 Para Bn Group in Bahrain and Aden in 1965 and 1966, Alex Harley and four of his fellow paratroopers were granted a month’s leave for some adventure training. What did they decide to do? Drive back to the UK in a Land Rover, of course.
What was the deployment life like for a young officer during the sixties?
In those days Bahrain was nothing but sand and rocks with a little poverty-stricken capital town and a sheik. We would also go down to Aden from time to time to fight, as there was a communist subversion going on. It was a one-year posting.
Parachute landings could be tough on army Land Rovers
The 109in being inspected after a heavy landing…
How did you come to acquire the Land Rover?
The communist influence spilled over into Oman with some of the insurgents camped in the mountainous centre of the country. We used to have to patrol the area, so we would fly in and parachute down, then patrol for a few days before walking to a desert airstrip where a plane would take us back to Bahrain.
The first people who come out of the aircraft on a jump carry equipment but they are not with the vehicles. Once they are all there and they have secured the drop zone, then another bunch of aircraft comes in with all the artillery, guns, heavy equipment and Land Rovers. They are on a big metal platform with everything tied down. Each platform has about six parachutes, as well as air bags underneath that would burst upon impact. Losing or damaging kit was all part of it.
On one occasion when dropping a Land Rover out of the plane there was an issue with the parachute and the chassis got badly busted up. So it was condemned by the army. What normally happens then is that it is flogged cheaply via auction. We went to the auction in the now UAE and purchased said Series IIA 109in. It had served as 105mm Howitzer gun tower.
Did you know by then you wanted to drive back to the UK?
We brought it back to Bahrain with the intention of having some sort of expedition in it, under the auspices of Adventure Training. It needed a lot of work so we formed a little team.
I put out word to the battery that we were looking for three regular soldiers, one of whom had to be a vehicle mechanic. Soon our team of two (it was only Ian Fowler and myself to start with) became five: we added Chris Tomson, Mick Savage (both gun tow drivers) and Harry Raybould (vehicle mechanic). They were very experienced – we had loads of volunteers but we had to pick the right men for the job.
On the road, from left to right: Harley, Tomson, Raybould and Fowler. Photo: Mick Savage
How did you prepare it for the trip?
First the chassis had to be cut, straightened and welded. Remember the tolerance of military Land Rovers is much higher than civilian ones. In those days, because we were in an operational situation the husbandry of stores and spares was not as tight as during peacetime. We managed to get all sorts of new spares from the Quartermaster’s stores. Everybody was excited about the expedition. It almost had a new engine by the time we left.
The Navy boys gave us some grey paint for the wheels and blue paint for the chassis, while the canopy was painted in khaki. The name of every country that we visited was painted onto the side.
Raybould had a great big box of spares that he took along, and we built a luggage rack for the top and sorted out the front so that three people could sit there. A lot of work went into it, at least three months. We had to do what we could when we had time, because we still had our deployment duties.
Tell us a bit more about this Adventure Training that was the catalyst for the trip.
The British Army has this thing called Adventure Training – you think up a scheme and the army will give you time off and possibly funds to do it. This trip was Adventure Training for us, although they did not give us money but they did give us a month off, plus a free flight from Bahrain to Kuwait in the back of a Blackburn Beverley aircraft, courtesy of the RAF. Some RAF wag wrote 'LR British Antarctic Expedition 1966 off route’ on our Series IIA.
Kuwaiti plates were very hard to get hold of
The expedition almost ended before it began, right?
The aircraft landed on a discrete part of the airfield and we were met by Col Washington from the British Embassy. It seemed as if registering the IIA as a Kuwaiti vehicle was going to be a problem. We had to do it, as going into Iran on Bahrain plates was a no-go.
At the customs shed we needed to get 13 signatures to get the number plate we needed. By noon (when officials there stopped working) we were £8 worse off and had only one signature.
The next day was a Friday and no-one there worked on a Friday. Saturday started well and we managed to get to eight signatures, but then we came up against a lady who would not budge as our IIA had not been registered upon entry. We then called on everyone we knew – Kuwait MOD and our embassy. It was an exasperating and desperate time.
How did you fix the problem?
The IIA was in a badly guarded compound so while two of us kept the guards busy, the rest of us smuggled it out through a hole which we obviously had to enlarge. At least now we would be saving ourselves taxi fees. We were able to obtain authorising letters from the British Embassy and Kuwait military. We smuggled our IIA back into the compound, went to the same customs woman and finally obtained the five extra signatures we needed. We could now legally leave the compound.
Then began the problem of insurance in Kuwait. It began with purchasing an international carnet, international driving licences and new number plates plus authority to leave Kuwait. All of this took the best part of two days but as it all had to be in Arabic, at one stage we almost packed it in. Fortunately, we met an Indian official at the Kuwait Automobile Club who was most helpful. We had used more days than we would have liked but eventually we were all good to go after the police signed our clearance to leave the country.
When did you donate blood for the first time?
There was one more thing to do in Kuwait. An appointment was made to donate blood. Fortunately they wanted all of our blood groups and for our efforts we were given a grand total of £50. That was a lot of money back in 1966. According to Ian this would be enough to pay for 5000 miles of fuel. Imagine that, 5000 miles on five pints of blood! I would take that any day of the week. Incredibly, petrol was cheaper than water back then.
Royal Navy supplied the paint for the Series IIA
Talk us through the mother of all road trips:
From Kuwait we headed to the southern part of Iraq but not before showing the border officials all of our impressive paperwork. We crossed the Tigris and Euphrates on an old ferry and in the company of goats, sheep and piles of fruit and vegetables. We then had to wake up the frontier staff and customs. Then followed 25 miles along a very bad, low-lying, muddy and potholed track to the Iran border. They were very friendly.
From there we took the road to Khorramshahr, passing the massive industrial oil works. A Persian oil worker took us on a tour of Abadan. Here the five of us squeezed into a small hotel room and I paid the watchkeeper to look after our IIA; sadly the radio which was fixed to it, was stolen. We suspect it was the watchkeeper.
The next morning it was on towards Tehran via Ahwaz, a good road that took us through the mountainous area to the north of Dezful. That night we stopped north of Malavi and slept around the Land Rover. There were lots of sheep about.
56 years ago the world was a very different place
Before telling us more about the incredible trip, I have to ask about road conditions and sleeping arrangements:
Sleeping followed a specific routine. The two officers were on the ground in the blow-up igloo, while the driver for the next day slept across the three seats in the front. The remaining two slept in the rear of the Series IIA.
Sometimes the roads were not too bad, but for the most part pretty bloody awful. This was winter, remember, and Iran is very mountainous. We had to cross a mountain range to get to the centre of Iran and Tehran, then cross another one to get to the Caspian Sea. Our Primus stove struggled to work at 8000ft above sea level and so, too, did the Land Rover. We arrived in Tehran early evening – it was best described as a crowded scrum of people, dogs, children, cycles, broken-down cars and lorries.
The following day we made contact with the British Embassy and the attaché was extremely helpful. This was followed by some more admin and the purchase of essentials such as anti-freeze. It was also a good day to wash our clothes. The afternoon was spent sightseeing at the bazaars and Shah’s Palace and, after supper at the Red Rose, we went to a nightclub.
Into the mountains – the desert heat a distant memory
We set off early the next morning to take on the mountains to the north and soon found ourselves well above the snowline. Despite the improvements after working on the tappets, the IIA struggled again with the altitude. Eventually we reached the Caspian side of the mountains and the countryside changed: it was greener and warmer.
Once we reached Chalus we headed west along the coast. After stopping at Rasht the struggle across the mountains continued. About ten miles from Ghazvia we pitched up for the cold night, and everyone slept in the igloo for warmth.
Another early start beckoned as the push for the Persian-Turkish border continued. After fuelling up in Ghazvia and then heading west, the road became terrible with corrugations. Once in Miyaneh the rain started to pour: soon we were once again at 8000ft on a bad road as we headed for Tabriz.
Imagine this: first gear, high-range, the canopy is leaking and the engine spluttering. We thought that maybe the water had found its way to the plugs. We tried a shortcut but got bogged down, but soon we were moving again, eventually reaching Tabriz. That was a tough day, so we found a cheap hotel.
We allowed ourselves some time to service and clean up the IIA and it was late morning once we departed. Once again it was a freezing cold day and the closer we got to Bazargan and the Turkish border, the narrower the road.
Ian bravely tries a run at 8000ft
Did you have any problems at the Turkish border?
A Turkish doctor did not like the look of the Persian stamps in our passport and so he declared that we needed four days of incubation at the border post before being allowed to proceed. This was a hammer blow as we had already lost so much time in Kuwait.
The border post was a bit like the wild west and we were wary of security, so we booked a room and unloaded all of the contents of the IIA, plus ourselves, into it. We spent our days servicing the Land Rover, washing kit, climbing a nearby 10,000ft peak, playing cards and watching the changing of the guards with great amusement.
Eventually the doctor who would not let us proceed was replaced with a colleague and he immediately let us proceed, after a five-day wait. First we had to move all our kit from our upstairs accommodation back into the Land Rover. We used bungies and ropes to lower it down from the windows, much to the amusement of the small crowd that had gathered.
You were now on the home straight:
The first road we took into Turkey was just awful. The weather wasn’t great either – in fact, it was freezing. For two and a half days we pushed towards Ankara. The Black Sea seemed to be a much nicer coast than the Caspian shoreline.
Ankara was large, clean and full of soldiers. We reported in at the British Embassy where we submitted a complaint about the doctor at the border. We also sent telegrams, wrote postcards and cashed traveller’s cheques before pushing on to Istanbul along our first good road. We treated ourselves by taking two rooms at the Ipek Hotel in the capital city.
The next day we had cholera checks and donated blood at the hospital – we received about £4 per donation. After doing some tourist shopping we headed to a great fish restaurant under Galata Bridge.
Because of delays and a lack of funds, we left Istanbul the next day for Greece along a potholed tarmac road. We filled up with fuel in Turkey and only took 15 minutes to get through the border.
Our first night in Greece was spent on a hilltop overlooking Thessaloniki. We decided not to drive north through Europe, as we would then run out of leave. In Thessaloniki we luckily managed to book a ferry from Piraeus to Brindisi in Italy for only £47. This included five people and our Land Rover, although it was more of a cargo boat!
We headed straight into Athens to collect our boat tickets and donate some more blood. The blood bank told us to come back the next morning. Athens felt very European and we visited the Acropolis: it was all very impressive.
The following day the blood bank told us to come back the following week… However, they were willing to take some of Harry’s universal donor O-negative blood in exchange for £3. He was worth more than that to us, so we pushed on to Peraeus without donating.
The boat owners said their crane could only handle a maximum of 2000kg and so we told them the Landy weighed 1500kg. It’s fair to say we were very nervous watching the IIA hanging from frayed ropes as it was moved over the water and onto the boat.
The boat was grubby with filthy toilets and no washroom facilities or canteen. We played cards with some Canadians and an American. The ship siren woke us early as we arrived at Corfu, it was windy and miserable. We pushed on along the Albanian coast where the concrete towns looked very communist, but finally turned towards Italy as the sea conditions worsened.
Door ‘graffiti’ highlights the scale of the trip
Did the SIIA behave most of the way?
Unloading the IIA in Brindisi was much easier than loading, while the passport and customs clearance was also a breeze. We collected NATO fuel coupons and filled up. There were new cars everywhere.
Our Landy started to develop a leaking cylinder head, so we tightened it. Harry also wanted to change the spark plugs and snapped one off in the block. We had to drive back 20 miles to a garage who helped us extract it. Two hours later we pushed on to Naples but in the early evening we ran out of fuel so camped in a roadside field. It had not been a great day. Harry and I set off to walk and hitch-hike to get some fuel before we could continue.
We took the beautiful coastal road to Rome and saw the Vatican and Colosseum. At Ariola we put the IIA on the train to get to the Swiss side of the Alps. We stopped at a lively hotel in Lucerne where we slept like dogs after some drinks, food and a bit of dancing by some of the team.
We entered Germany via the Swiss town of Schaffhausen, then went through the Black Forest to Stuttgart where we found Carl Vuona and his wife Pat on a US Army base. I have stayed in touch with Carl and he later went on to become the head of the US Army. Carl arranged for all of us to stay in a US Army hotel. We spent a great evening with Carl and Pat: six weeks later he headed off to Vietnam.
We somehow managed to get some more NATO fuel coupons before setting off to Duisburg to visit Ian’s former regiment, the 36th. From here we headed for Calais via Leige and Ostend, but decided instead to take the 2.25am ferry from Dunkirk.
While waiting for the ferry we painted the itinerary on the side of the Landy. When we left Bahrain, the odometer read 8333 miles, now at Dunkirk it had soared to 14,535 miles.
But if you add the distance of the flight from Bahrain to Kuwait, plus the boat journey from Piraeus to Brindisi, then we had done about 10,000 miles on just ten pints of blood and a few NATO coupons.
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