Royal Engineer mapmakers, Iraq, circa 1945. Paul Bentley is the on right.Paul Bentley
Paul Bentley plane tabling (filling in map detail), Middle East, circa 1944.Paul Bentley
Royal Engineers laying down control points (Triangulation), the Middle East, circa 1945.Paul Bentley
"And I can still remember one old gentleman, coming along the sidewalk, waving this map above his head and saying, here Johnny, here Johnny, here’s your top secret map."
I think I can tell you three little stories. The first one takes place in a little town called Shaftesbury in Southern England - I think it was in Dorset - just before D-Day. There were three of us, three sappers, men who know things, three sappers. And we took over the town hall of Shaftesbury. Large building, high roof and every day, trucks drew up at the entrance and we took out from these trucks large bundles of maps, maps of landing areas in France. And we carried piles of these things into the town hall with the front door wide open and piled them onto piles right up to the roof, like a big forest of tall piles of maps it was. And it used to rain and the wind used to blow. And also, outside the main door that we were using, there was a bus stop for passengers. And the people were very interested in what we were doing. They used to stare at us carrying in these maps of D-Day landing grounds. And the wind used to blow and the rain used to come and the maps used to blow away. And I can still remember one old gentleman, coming along the sidewalk, waving this map above his head and saying, here Johnny, here Johnny, here’s your top secret map. And across the top of the map, in great big red letters, two or three inches high, TOP SECRET. They were blowing all over the place. That’s the first little story I have.
Second one takes place in Rafah in Palestine. This is hard to believe but it actually happened. One day a notice appeared in DRO’s -daily routine orders - typed and posted on the notice board: “Volunteers required to land on the shores of Japan”. That was after Germany had collapsed by the way. And I volunteered and I expect one or two others did, although I never knew of it, must have been kept secret. I was called into the office of the man in charge and he said, don’t be a bloody fool. What they want is small boats to land on the shores of Japan and you’ve had experience of small boats, you say, and you’d like to land on the shores of Japan. And I said, yes. And he said, don’t be a bloody fool, you’ll get yourself killed. And a couple of days afterwards, the [atomic] bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. So it was all a blind to fool the Japanese, that we weren’t planning to do anything. And that’s the second story.
The third story took place in Habbaniya, in Iraq. Now, neither Rafah, the place where the last story took place, nor Iraq, were in the war at the time. But our job was to get into areas where the British army expected trouble, make maps and get out. And these were two of the places we got into. So now we’re in Habbaniya in Iraq, it’s next door to Iran. And at that time, they weren’t connected with the war at all. But on the maps of Iran, which was next to Iraq, in one place a huge mountain rose out of the desert, out of desert sand. All detailed in six colours, green for woods, blue for water, brown for contours, things like that - this huge mountain. And we were sent to Habbaniya, I and one officer to arrange with the Royal Air Force in Habbaniya - Habbaniya was a Royal Air Force detachment, to fly over Iran and take pictures. And the aircraft had cameras in both wings and cameras in the fuselage, so as they flew, they were taking three pictures at a time. We gave them the area where they were to photograph, where this big mountain was supposed to be and they were to fly strip photographs so that we could take the photographs and lay them down on the floor and see a picture of what was there.
So the RAF flew these photographs and came back and they were developed and printed and I and this officer took them to the private room we’d been given and laid them down on the floor, one after the other, side by side, so we could see the whole picture of the district as though we were flying over it. There was no mountain. There was just sand and gullies and nothing else.
So the officer, he took his courage in both hands and he went to the RAF and said, look, you went to the wrong place, there’s no mountain, would you fly it again please. Of course, they didn’t like this much but they flew it again and got the photographs developed and printed and laid them out on the floor, acres and acres of them and no mountain. Just desert and creeks and so on. Not creeks, wadis, wadis - dry gullies.
So again, he took his courage in more than two hands that time and went back and asked them and they flew out again and did the same thing. There was no mountain. That mountain did not exist. So as I was coming away from Habbaniya, when we had thought we’d done our job, another crew of people arrived, over half a dozen people. And they were air surveyors, their job was to make maps from air photographs and they were, got to go over it all over again. And those are my three stories that I thought you might find very interesting.