Building Saddam’s Bunkers

Of all the places in all the World that I have ever been, the one which evokes the most interest is Baghdad. There are several reasons for this, the town still evokes images of the Arabian Nights and Sinbad the sailor, it has that exotic tinge reserved for those far away destinations most people never see except in their dreams, but when people talk to me of the land of the two rivers they have something else in mind other than Turkish delight and dancing girls. I was the man who built Saddam’s bunkers and spent two and a half years in Baghdad supervising their construction, and the subject still fascinates they who meet me for the first time.

The story starts in prosaic enough fashion with an advertisement in the Daily Telegraph, on behalf of some outfit looking for a body who knew a mite more about concrete than how to spell it. I adjudged that I more or less fitted the bill. Having answered the advert, I was summoned to an interview in a rather elegant house in Berkley Square. Like the nightingale of fable I sang beautifully, so beautifully did I warble that I got the job and fetched up in Baghdad.
This was the period of the Iran Iraq war, and Iraq together with it’s capital city was chaotic and very dangerous, with bombs going off occasionally, and not all of those were of foreign origin, Saddam was not popular with his people, and now and again their hatred overcame their fear of the tyrant. In the south of the country the war was known as Saddam’s war.

The Iraqi Government had commissioned thirty four bomb shelters, plus one control centre. These were not any old shelters. The bunkers were designed to take a direct nuclear strike, as Iran was suspected of being close to developing a nuclear capability and the Iraqi authorities wanted some protection for the populace. Not that I am here referring to the hoi poloi, far from it, these structures were to be built for the protection of the hierarchy of the al Bath party, the poor bloody infantry could fry in the event of an attack.

These structures were the most technically challenging of my career, in terms of concrete, I had to re-invent physics in order to make the production feasible. First there was the excavation. Baghdad is situated between two of the World’s greatest rivers, this means that you only have to stick a shovel in the ground to hit the water table, this meant that pumps had to be installed to remove the ground water during the construction process, Each shelter contained ten thousand cubic metres of dense impermeable concrete, that is four thousand metric tons of cement, you could build a lot of patios with amount of the grey powder.

After the hole had been excavated, the soil had to be compacted to make a base capable of supporting the structure. Once that had been done, a layer of base course was put down. Base course is compacted lumps of large stone, in this case it was a metre thick. After the base course came the blinding, this serves no structural purpose, it is simply there to provide an even surface for the following construction. After the base course, the nitty gritty actually starts.

First the base of the shelter is laid down, this is a slab of reinforced concrete one metre thick, dense and impermeable, i.e., the ground water will not seep into the shelter. Onto the base are added the outer walls, again a metre thick. Naturally there was a roof, we gave our structures all the mod cons.

While all this intense activity was going on, and make no mistake, we were working twelve hours a day six days a week, and, in the heat of the summer all through the night as well, life in Baghdad continued at it’s frenetic pace. Things were tight in the town, food was scarce, onions had not been seen on the streets of Baghdad for six months and if you saw a queue of people snaking around the block it was Lombard Street to a China orange that some one had eggs to sell. That was life for the average Joe in this town, but for we of the elite, life was very different. Our food was trucked in from abroad, we had access to special shops from which the locals were banned, in those emporia they accepted any currency under the sun except the Iraqi Dinar. And then there were the night clubs, pulsating with the rhythms of the belly dancers and choked with folk who could afford to spend £75 on a bottle of whiskey, and remember, this was back in 1982. I could not help wondering if this was like Berlin had been in the dark days of the war, a people terrified of what was to come and trying frantically to blot such images from their minds.

Back on site things were moving at frenetic pace, we had three years to complete the project, believe me brand launch in Iran , that took some doing. The shelters were divided into two distinct sections. There was the part of the structure which was below ground, this was where the people would congregate in the event of an attack. Each shelter was designed so that fifteen hundred souls could live there for thirty days independent of the outside world. What if you were unfortunate enough to pop your clogs while in residence? No problem, each shelter was equipped with its own crematorium.

The second part of the bunkers were above ground, this section was for use as libraries, leisure centres etc. In the event of an attack the designated tenants would be herded down into the lower section, and the bomb proof doors would be sealed. This is where people ask “How come part of the shelter was above ground?” Easy. A nuclear device is not triggered by percussion, the detonation is effected by barometric pressure, when the device reaches a certain level above ground, it is detonated by the air pressure, it destroys by blast. It was blast the bunkers had to withstand, not the vibration of impact. It was one of these shelters which was attacked during the first gulf war, a homing device was attached to the ventilation shaft, the smart bomb went down the shaft and the results went round the World courtesy of the media.

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