More than 40 years have passed since Britain fought a secret war in Oman. Former Major Nicholas Ofield has returned for the first time since the conflict to retread his battlegrounds with his son, filmmaker Tristan Ofield. This blog contains excerpts from the production diary Tristan kept during filming.


Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Looking For Nick

Who IS Nick Downie? More to the point WHERE is Nick Downie? I never thought I would make a very good private dectetive. When we have to find someone we never normally have to look beyond the hozizon of Facebook or Twitter.


Nick Downie, former SAS trooper turned war cameraman. Some of the nastiest fighting was documented by this chap throughout the 70's, 80's and 90's. His training allowed him to get closer than most would dare.


During the Dhofar War there were only two ways into the country. Both were tightly controlled.
If a journalist got off a plane they were simply put back on and sent home. Therefore, pictures and footage are prised! For the whole conflict (approx 1964-76) there is only 1 news article, to my knowledge in existence. A Sunday supplement in the Telegraph. 








Now if anyone reading this knows any better - then please point me in the right direction.


Mr Downie, supposedly smuggled an 8mm camera into the country with him. There is other 8mm footage from the Oman conflict, but very little of it is frontline stuff, and that's what I'm hoping for. Nick has made a few documentaries on the conflict in Rhodesia, the northern part of later became Zambia, where I lived in for several years as a boy. There are many accounts of him over the web but, for now, his whereabouts remain a mystery.  


With the help of Twitter a chap by the name of Nick Long, a Producer at Turtle Canyon Media has joined in the search, and I'd like to thank him publicly for all his help so far.

27 comments:

  1. Um ... I came across this post by chance while looking for something else. I am Nick Downie.

    I didn’t ‘smuggle’ my camera into Oman (it was a 16mm clockwork Pathé, not 8mm, by the way) I took it in openly. I got about 40 mins of footage of the SAS in Oman (film was expensive to buy and process, particularly on SAS trooper’s wages which were not good in those days) and I still have it, somewhere - in London I think.

    I’m afraid I didn’t get any frontline footage, apart from a bit of 81mm mortar firing. The one time I took the camera on an op, I was also the signaller (carrying a heavy A41 radio) and the medic, with a medic bag. All that, plus my ammo and water, food, etc, plus a 250-round belt of GPMG ammo, meant I was carrying 80-90 lb. This nearly got me killed in the opening seconds of the first ‘contact’ when I was caught on a forward slope by a machine gun. I hit the deck hard and then found, with all this weight on my back, that I couldn’t get up, with bullets lashing into the ground all round me. Finally, naked terror forced me to my feet and I joined my mates behind a happily impervious rock on the ridge-line.

    Having recovered my composure, I got out the camera. As I was doing this, we were joined by a GPMG crew which started firing in the general direction of the enemy, and I focused the camera on them, BUT, just as I was about to press the start button, one of the crew rolled away from the gun, clearly having been hit. I paused, to find everyone looking at me - I was the medic, you see. What was worse was that the GPMG crew was 20 yards away, in the open, and the intervening space was being swept by the same machine-gun that had nearly done for me a few minutes earlier.

    You get medals for rescuing wounded comrades under fire. Much more importantly, you often get killed or wounded yourself in the process. As I’ve never been allthat keen to win a medal, I was none too pleased by this turn of events but as I said, everyone was looking at me. So, muttering something very rude under my breath, I grabbed my medic pack, scrambled to my feet, sprinted through a veritable hail of fire, and flung myself down next to the wounded man.

    “Are you okay?” I gasped.

    “Hello Nick,” he said. “Yeah, I’m fine. It’s only me finger.” He held up a bloody digit for my inspection.

    I gave him a dirty look, and then ran the gauntlet of fire once more. After that, I was engaged, as the signaller, in bringing down mortar fire, then artillery, then air strikes, in an attempt to silence the enemy weapon, which opened up every time one of us twitched a muscle. I started totting up the cost of what we dropped on this very determined fellow, and I decided it would have been far more sensible to have waved a flag of truce, written out a very large cheque, walked across no-man’s land, and given it to him, on the condition that he sod off and never bother us again.

    In the end, we sent for a Jebali, gave him binos and asked him to find the bugger. It took him ten minutes to pinpoint his position, and a long burst from our GPMG settled the matter, which I was sad about because he was a very, very brave man.

    I made one other attempt to film action, not in Oman but in South Yemen. By that time I was a contract officer in SAF, charged with fomenting insurrection among the tribes of S Yemen. I commanded a unit of Yemeni exiles (bedouin) and we lived on the edge of the Empty Quarter. On one raid, we captured a substantial fort, 80 miles across the border. After the garrison surrendered, I filmed a bit of the action, before blowing it up with 1,100 lb of gelignite. This was three times more than was necessary. The fort literally vanished.

    Sadly, I sent the roll of film to a lab in London. It got lost, never to be seen again.

    Anyway, if I can be of help, let me know. As to my whereabouts, until recently I lived for three years in a tent, with my mules, on a mountainside in Andalucia (I was broke - couldn’t afford a solid roof), but for now I’m in South Africa, looking after my extremely stroppy 99-year-old mother.

    Nick.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Nick,
      I'm working on a series called Remembrance Week which will be broadcast in early November before Remembrance Day. For the series, we have interviewed an SAS veteran who served in the Battle of Mirbat in 1972. We are trying to find footage from the time to help illustrate his story and he helpfully lent us a DVD entitled '22 SAS Regiment - Nick Downie material'. It contains some great footage which I assume you filmed during your time out in Oman. Would you be able to let me know if we could we could possibly use the material in our programme? Thank you very much for all your help!
      Kind regards,
      Georgie Nicholson
      (Researcher, Chocolate Media, georgina.nicholson@chocolatemedia.tv)

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    2. Hi Nick , You do not know me , but I did some work way back when for your mother & father..Nick [senior] & Thea. I hope Im correct. I was in my thirties then , they lived in Sidlesham & then Chichester in the Hornet. I know this missive is 4 years old now so your mum Thea may have passed away....I just wanted you to know I have very fond memories of them & that always talked of you very proudly.Your mum was wonderfully full of life. Hope this reaches you wherever you may be.....regards Eric Knight , Portsmouth , England.

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  2. P.S: Having sent my first comment, I read the rest of your blog. Very interesting. One small point. Major Paul (Tiger) Wright was killed south of a base called Manston. I knew him well - we were on the same SAS selection course together, which is where he got the name Tiger (we were taking the piss). I was overhead in a chopper at the time, looking for the mortar that was firing on Tiger’s company. He was in Muscat Regiment. Manston was my rear base. I had given up raiding into South Yemen (got the sack - sort of - for leading my chaps across the border personally when I had explicit written instructions not to do so. Long story) and was then operating along the border between Simba and Habarut with a firqa composed of Mahra bedouin, plus camels. We used to go on patrol for four or five weeks at a time - did that for 20 months. Then resigned and went off to fight with the Kurdish Peshmerga guerrillas against a nasty piece of work by the name of Saddam Hussein. (We were betrayed by Kissinger - 50,000 men were blackmailed into surrender - and I was so disgusted that I gave up soldiering and tramped off to another seven wars with a camera.)

    Your dad’s name is very familiar. There was an officer in MR also called Nick. We had the same birthday - 27 May 1946. Richard John, MR 2i/c, was also 27 May, but different year. The odds against three out of about nine officers all having the same birthday, with two having the same first name, must be enormous. Anyway, good luck with the project.

    All the best, Nick.

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    Replies
    1. Apologies. I’m getting senile. It was Jebel Regiment (or JR), not Muscat Regiment, operating out of Manston. And Tiger got the Omani equivalent of the VC.

      Nick.

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    2. Hi Nick,

      I think it's funny that you found me in the end. It's been tough trying to track you down through the web! A couple of times I came close but to no avail. In the end I thought if I put up a flag you might find it.

      A chap mentioned you at a SAF dinner earlier in the year. To begin with I was looking for you to ask if you still had the footage you shot in Oman. But as I found out more, I became interested in your story. Haven't been able to find your doc on Rhodesia anywhere on the web. I think the BFI has a copy somewhere.

      If you are ever in the UK I would very much like to interview you for my doc - find out what you were doing as part of the BATT and how the SAS fitted into what was going on in Oman.

      Yes Major Paul Wright was leading 1 Company JR on an operation called Dragon when he was killed by a mortar round. They were intending to take a large arms store at the Sherrishitty caves. I've interviewed Mike Austin who was 2ic 1Coy JR that day and was on the ground when Paul was killed. I've also interviewed my old boy who was in command of 2 Coy (while Mike Ball was on leave) who came in to help them make a tactical withdraw. There is a lot of time in my doc allocated to Op Dragon.

      Where we're you travelling to when you heard Paul had been killed?

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  3. Hi Tristan,

    Glad I’ve ended your search (it was odd seeing myself referred to like that, but you’re not the first). Not quite sure when next I’ll be in London - maybe June, maybe not - but if and when, I’ll be happy to be interviewed (bearing in mind that I was a very, very small cog in the SAS operation and am therefore not in a position to give you an overview). Also, you are welcome to use my footage of the SAS - its only virtue is that it’s unique - which has been transferred from 16mm on to Beta, which makes life a bit easier.

    So, that out of the way, I am fascinated by your account of ‘OP Dragon’, if only because it demonstrates how old men’s memories can be defective. This is my recollection of it; see how it compares with what you know.

    It took place in February 1973, a day or so’s march south of Manston, into an area known as Janook. As far as I’m aware, this was nowhere near Sherishitti and its caves. (They became the object of a series of battles much later on, the final one ending the war - I think. I’d left Oman by that time.) However, I was only loosely attached to JR, my TAOR being to the west, an area the size of Nottinghamshire which I was supposed to sort out with a force - then - of just 12 bedouin! (We succeeded eventually but that’s another story.) So, I knew nothing of JR’s plans until after Tiger’s company had come under bombardment, during which I happened to wander into the ops tent at Manston. I was then asked to go up in a chopper to find the position of the enemy mortar which was causing the trouble. I didn’t find it, and when I landed I was told that Tiger had been killed. I then suggested that maybe Mike Austin would like a fellow Brit to come and give him a hand - the only way in was by chopper, and the LZ was under fire. The ops officer, Simon, got on the radio, and asked Mike if he’d like ‘Sunray Nomads’ - my call-sign - to join him. Mike, in the understandable heat of the moment, thought Simon was referring to my Bedouin 2i/c, and said no. My only other contribution was when, after dark, it was decided to extract the entire company by chopper, leaving behind a large pile of 81mm mortar bombs, which they wanted to blow up. As no one in JR knew anything about explosives, I was given the job of assembling the kit that Mike needed. To this day (although I was subsequently involved in many, much worse battles in other wars) I regret not insisting that I be allowed to go help Mike, who was a very good friend in deep trouble. (Oddly enough, as old men do, I still think about it, often.)

    What I do not remember is 2 Coy coming into this, but you may well be right. Also, the other Nick I remember in JR - the one with the same birthday as me - was a company 2i/c, so was this your dad?? There definitely weren’t three Nicks in Manston. (The Nick I knew used to wear a German WW2 helmet into combat, which the rest of us regarded as mildly eccentric. Ring any bells?)

    Anyway, if you’re in contact with Mike Austin, do pleeease give him my regards. He was a damn good bloke and a bloody fine soldier.

    Yours aye,

    Nick.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Nick,

      I’m the Nick from JR (birthday 27 May 46), and although I clearly remember “Sunray Nomads”, I can’t recall your name (if that is your actual name) or put a face to it. It would be very good to solve this little mystery. Do you have a pic from 1973 that you can send to me (or Tristan)?

      I only used to put on my helmet when the shit started – and by the standards of the time and the characters in both SAF and BATT I wouldn’t say I was in the least ‘eccentric’ !!!!!!

      I stopped wearing the helmet after a near miss caught the inside of the helmet about half an inch below my right ear and the impact/jerk of the helmet nearly screwed my head off! Had I not been wearing the helmet I would never have known just how close the round was – and I felt more comfortable not knowing.

      Anyway, I hope that we are able to get in touch – it is always good to meet with someone else who was connected with the op. I'm in touch with Mike Austin, but unfortunately Ian Rycroft (OC Red Coy DR) and Chris Bentall-Warner (OC HQ Coy JR) have since died.

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    2. Nick, my name is Ian Gordon. I was MR 72-77. We met a few times and a mutual friend, Mick L, ex gunner and on same selection as you, has been trying to get in touch for some time. My email is ian.gordon@mac.com
      It would please Mick greatly to get in touch. BTW before he died Wilfred Thesiger told me of meeting you in the Hindu Kush. He watched your approach in trepidation as he wished to travel without western company and feared you would want to join him. You just asked about the situation on the route he'd travelled. Thanked him for the intel and reciprocated with intel on your route and bade him farewell. "What an impressive man" said Thesiger. Clearly he viewed you as a man after his own heart. High praise indeed. Yours aye. Ian

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    3. Hello Ian, my old man has asked me to say hi. He's not sure if you will
      remember him but he took over your position at Sarfait for a couple of months after you got shot in the head.

      Regards
      Tristan Ofield

      PS Dad says rumour has it Roger Brown is with you? If so, Dad sends his Salaams.

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    4. Hello Tristan, I remember your Pa very well. We also served in SAFTR together for a few months, with Roger Brown. Your sources are very good. Roger does now work with me in our Dubai office. I'll pass on regards from your Pa.
      Unfortunately I don't remember him taking over from me at Sarfait after I was shot - I was flat on my back being flown around to FSTs and pretty hospitals in Cyprus and UK. Pass him my best regards and hope to meet up at a reunion. Ian

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    5. Hello Nick, I wondered where you had got to. Two years have now passed since this post, give or take. Hope you now have a roof over your head.

      I thought you should know the effect you had on my life for, having seen the unedited version of the documentary you and Richard put together, which you screened at the DoY I somewhat rashly allowed Alf Colyer, the PSAO, to convince me to go the Rhodesia (for a jolly).

      Although I returned intact I suspect I strongly suspect that wasn't the same shy and impressionable young soldier I had been when I left. Thanks.

      Your input was much appreciated!

      Mac

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  4. Ha yep that's my old man and he still has the German shell helmet! He also recounts trying to light the fuse of those explosives with a cigarette while the chopper hovered a few feet off the deck. Nick this is all great stuff. I would love to interview you if / when you're back in the UK please contact me via the blog so we can arrange something.

    Best wishes
    Tristan

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  5. I really would appreciate some more information about Paul Wright (from SASMule or Tristan - or anyone else). My wife is Paul's cousin and we have conflicting accounts of where he is buried - in Cheshire or in Oman - and of the date of his death - 6 or 7 February 1973. Any information would be most welcome.

    Thanks in advance.

    Gerald Grainge
    (GeraldGrainge@gmail.com)

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    Replies
    1. Gerald, Paul Wright was killed on 06 Feb 73. His medals and other documents were given to the Royal Engineers museum and the late Knobby Reid was instrumental in arranging that. When I spoke to Knobby before he died he said that there had been a lack of acknowledgement by the RE about Paul and he was glad he'd been able to rectify that. So, your best source of information would be the RE Museum. I will check with the SAF Association for information about where he was buried.

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    2. Ian, thank you for this. In fact since my first post I was able to follow up lots of leads for all of which I am very grateful. I was able to meet Tristan's father for a very enjoyable and informative evening and learnt a great deal about Paul's last action. I also found Paul's medals in the RE Museum and spent and afternoon compiling an inventory of Paul's effects which are also in the RE Museum. Among his papers I found the following poem by the American poet Hamlin Garland:

      "Do you fear the force of the wind, the slash of the rain?
      Go face them and fight them, be savage again.
      Go hungry and cold like the wolf, go wade like the crane:
      The palms of your hands will thicken, the skin of your cheek will tan,
      You’ll grow ragged and weary and swarthy, but you’ll walk like a man!"

      It says a lot about Paul

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  6. I know of one or two of these old boys, some of whom stayed on to work in ORD.
    Please feel free to get back to me. Henry

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  7. Hello Tristan,

    Actually, Luxemburgish (video-)journalist Gordian Troeller and his french colleague Claude Deffarge reported in the late 1960ies from the conflict zone in the Dhofari region. However, they entered from South Yemen with the Adoo, as they have been reporting about the Yemen for many years. According to his autobiography [1], the Sultan's forces tried hard to kill them so to prevent news reports getting out.

    However, the German news magazine Stern published their report in 1969 [2]. And also in 1969, the German TV station NDR had broadcast their film "The Revolt of the Slaves (Oman-Dhofar)" [3, 4]. Apparently, the BBC had purchased a copy of that film, but was neither published, nor returned from "analysis".

    I was fortunate to live and work for two years in Oman recently. Only after stumbling across the small graveyard at the PDO compound in Muscat, and later speaking to a farmer who fought in a Firqat unit while camping in the Dhofari mountains, I started to research about the recent history in Arabia Felix from where the Omani Renaissance has started off. Yesterday, I discovered your blog.

    Regards from Switzerland,
    Rolf Sommerhalder

    [1] http://www.gordian-troeller.de/index.php?qid=76
    [2] http://www.gordian-troeller.de/index.php?qid=5&&reportagenid=11
    [3] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xeju3E8BJr8
    [4] http://www.gordian-troeller.de/index.php?filmid=89

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  8. Gerald, PS - Sultan Qaboos personally presented the Gallantry Medal to Paul's mother. It was of a new design of which I believe only three were ever awarded so it is an extremely rare and valuable medal. Best wishes, Ian

    ReplyDelete
  9. Hello
    This is a message for Nick Downie. I'm trying to get in touch re some archive footage taken in Western Sahara. Would you mind emailing me and I can give more details about the project. Thanks very much, Louise. louiseorton2010@gmail.com

    ReplyDelete
  10. The best account of the action (including maps) in which Paul (Tiger) Wright died is in the Journal of the Institution of Royal Engineers, by the late Robert (Knobby) Reid. As mentioned by Ian Gordon, the full set of Tiger Wright's medals (including the Omani "VC") are held in the Royal Engineers Museum in Chatham. (Do not misinterpret the quotation marks, had he been wearing British Army uniform it would have been the British VC)

    ReplyDelete
  11. Hi,

    I can see it's nearly a year since there was a comment on this thread, but I was wondering if Georgina Nicholson could provide a link to her documentary? I'm a bit of a SF nerd and thought I'd seen all of the footage in the public domain on the Omain campaign.

    Nick - Are you the guy in the "Real SAS" doc that was on channel 4 about 6 years ago that had footage of B Squadron walking through grass that was on fire after being set alight by tracer?

    Best.

    Darren

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  12. Nick! A lady called Fiona Warton is trying to get in touch with you for some work she's been doing with SAS vets from the Dhofar days. If you could get in touch with her fionawarton5@gmail.com

    ReplyDelete
  13. I have just been contacted by an old friend Bill Bailey, as he is giving a talk organised by Fiona Warton of his part in the War. We were both helicopter pilots with SOAF at the same time before he went off and organised the Police Flight. The advantage I have now over the Army Officers are that I have my log books so all the dates are in there. I was the longest serving active service pilot in Oman from 1970 to 1977, so nearly all the names coming up were old friends or fellow officers. As I took part in every Operation from W to E and N to S I am happy to help out with any info that I can pass on, one of the sad bits is that I bought back Paul's body on the 6th. I was also involved in the Battle of Mirbat as I went in with Neville Baker at first light the next morning with the Strikies taking in the replacement SAS(BATT) Troop who had just arrived to replace Mike's men. Sadly I also had to bring out the body of Lab, and Toby Tobin who later died of his wounds. Of course SAS were not officially there, and there have been many of us who tried to get the medals they deserved including the VC for Lab. Any other conflict and there would have been two or more given out.
    Unfortunately the names of my old friends are now getting less, I am now a 75 year old Disabled War Pensioner the result of dodging the Sherishitti kid at Mainbrace and ending up a smoking heap on the runway, and later an encounter with one of the early SAM 7's.

    Tis good to see some of my old friends names coming up again, Mike, Keith Ryde, Rob Tomlinson(Popo, RIP), Roger King, Ran Fiennes, Ian Gordon, Ian Gardiner, Jonny Braddell-Smith(RIP), Smash Pigott(RIP), Donal Douglas, Chris B-W, Clive Ward, Johny Animal Gorman, and many others over the seven years.

    All the best to those of you still reading,

    Flt Lt David Duncan 3 Sqn SOAF


    "In February, a fierce battle took place near Janook, from where fighting patrols were led deep into enemy country by Major Paul Wright, a seconded officer who had previously served with the SAS. Surprise was lost when a soldier trod on a mine, and enemy reaction was sudden and violent. Under heavy fire, the patrols fought their way back to the patrol bases. Major Wright conducted a six ­hour battle mainly without seeking personal shelter. He was finally killed by a mortar bomb, and was posthumously awarded the Sultan’s Gallantry Medal (Omani equivalent of the Victoria Cross), the first seconded British officer to be so decorated. Staff Sergeant Salim Khalfan, whose platoon covered the withdrawal of the fighting patrols, was also awarded the Gallantry Medal"


    http://www.timesofoman.com/article/41868/Oman/Operation-Oman:-Soldier-narrates-Dhofar-war-saga

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  14. Dave,

    Can you let me have your email address to contact you?

    Regards Nick Ofield email to Suphanne@hotmail.com

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