Here's a tale of lost Nazi gold, mysterious boxes, ancient Greek treasure and desert sands that should whet the appetite of any adventurous diver. Robin Leigh has his golden memories - now he dreams of returning to Libya
IT WAS 1962. I was 22, serving with the British Army at RAF Tobruk in Libya. Our job was to protect the air base and harbour installations from terrorist attack, though in those days the feelings between the British and Libyans were of mutual goodwill, so there were no terrorists.
We would breakfast at 6, parade at 7 for work and training, and dismiss at noon for lunch. Then we had to engage in a sport of our choosing - running, swimming, sailing, tennis or whatever. Be caught on your bed in the afternoon and the duty sergeant would introduce you to the colourful world of painting - and I don't mean watercolours.
The coastal waters of eastern Libya are mostly clear and warm. The Mediterranean washes against low sandstone cliffs and into the mouths of many wadis - dry streams or canyons - to form eye-hurting white beaches against the orange desert.
I chose the sub-aqua club, and within a month was a fanatical diver and snorkeller.
After a couple of months I became a hero for a day when I free-dived to 9m to recover a friend's speargun. By the end of the year I had logged 100 hours of scuba time.
We never had a boat, but were often allowed to use a 1 ton truck for long weekend camping trips, carrying water, spare petrol, spearguns, army rations, cylinders and British beer.
We would head off towards Egypt, or west in the direction of Benghazi, eventually turning off the road across the simmering desert to bounce towards the sea.
On the final mile, one of us would run ahead, searching for a way down into the chosen wadi and onto the beach. The camp was put together, and two people stayed to prepare supper while the gang strapped on belts and fins, masks and knives.
At the water's edge, loaders were placed onto spear-tips and steel shafts pulled down to click into place against powerful springs. The water was comfortable after the torrid heat of the desert. Out we would swim in formation, into a wonderland of silver bubbles and darting fish. At 15m we broke into pairs to explore in different directions.
Sunbeams played across fairy grottoes formed of limestone arches. Short, coloured seaweed cropped by parrotfish waved, and we soared like supermen from surface to seabed until sunset and hunger drove us back to land.
The Libyan sun plunges vertically into the horizon with no thought of twilight. We used the tents for storage only - our beds were shallow trenches scooped in warm beach sand, with canvas mattress covers.
It was afternoon on the last day of one such camp when Mick, Paddy and I decided to explore a wadi with the last of our scuba air. The others would explore the left side of the bay, and I would work the right side out to the headland before rejoining them. I left my aqualung behind and snorkelled.
In two years I had seen many things beneath the Libyan waters - Roman wine jars, an Italian field gun and several aircraft, including a Junkers 87 so deep that even with scuba it was out of reach, yet visible from the surface. I had swum through a Greek temple in the sunken city of Appollonia, and avoided many large chain mines on the seabed. But that day I saw something that still puzzles me today.
Near the headland, the water shelved away quickly to turn blue-black with distance. That was when I found myself looking straight down at some large square objects set in an apparently logical pattern.
I lay face down, letting my heartbeat slow, then took half a dozen great gasps of air. Then I was on my way down, propelled by blue Spanish fins and peering through a US Divers Max-Vu mask, helped by the weight of an Italian spring gun with extra ballast.
I dropped like a stone. At 24m I was standing on top of a steel box with sloping sides, big enough for me to get into but with no opening except an inch-wide slit.
Next to it was another, and then several more set in pairs to form an underwater avenue leading out to sea.
I had to breathe! I went up as fast as my fins would take me until I was gratefully sucking in hot desert air.
Four times I went down, but I was rapidly tiring. My aqualung was a quarter of a mile away, so off I went. I found it floating upside-down, as flat as a dead balloon. There was hardly a gurgle from the mouthpiece when I opened the valve.
Mick and Paddy were playing under the cliff ledges, trying to find the little green Mediterranean lobsters that live upside-down in the caves.
I told them what I had seen and proposed that we all swim over there, but Mick pointed out that the sun was already angled to the west.
We had to break camp, load up and drive over miles of tyre-cutting rock to reach the Benghazi road. To one side was an old minefield, so it was best to be at the road before dark. We could always come back next weekend with full tanks.
But that return trip never happened, because the following week I was suddenly transferred to Aden.
A few months later, I was at a Royal Engineer camp high in the mountains of South Yemen, reading a much-thumbed American magazine called something like Wild Adventure.
One report gripped me immediately: "The Lost Nazi Gold of Libya"! According to the writer, after the battle of El Alamein the Germans had decided to ship gold from the Italian-Libyan banks out of Tobruk to prevent it falling into British hands.
But with growing Allied strength in the air and at sea, it never reached Italy. Last seen in armoured cars, it seems to have disappeared into the desert.
What fired me up was the photo of two Germans of around 40 standing by an ex-RAF Land Rover somewhere in the Libyan desert. The author claimed that their lives were dedicated to searching for the gold.
I knew them! They were ex-Afrika Korps men who became prisoners of war and then worked for the RAF as maintenance men. Several times they had stumbled across our remote weekend camps, claiming that they were just searching the old battlefields for ammunition for their Luger pistol. I had even given them a box of British Army 9mm so that they could pop away at snakes!
So what were the steel boxes I had seen? Turrets from smashed armoured cars filled with gold and welded shut, then placed on the sea floor to await the end of the war? Mooring blocks for ships? Surely not - no rings or chains, and close to a headland. Ammo boxes fallen from a ship and landed neatly in order on the seabed?
I wrote to Tobruk: "Dear Mick, whatever you do in this life, you must go back to that wadi." Mick was no letter-writer, so it was many months before I received a reply - and it came not from Tobruk but from RAF St Mawgen in Cornwall. His time in Libya had ended, but he said that he had something important to tell me.
In 1966 I drove my Ford Anglia down to Cornwall. In the boot was my diving gear. Beside me was a contestant from the Miss Hampshire beauty pageant, and in my wallet five months' back pay. I had everything I needed for a three-month good-service leave.
Mick and I met outside the air base and I wanted to hug him, but being British we never did things like that - certainly not in front of an RAF policeman. That evening in a bar, he told me what happened after my old regiment withdrew from Libya to Gibraltar, about a month after my departure.
Mick and Paddy were the only divers left. "When I got your letter I put together what I could for an expedition - four sets of scuba, an old oil-drum and some good RAF rescue ropes. Some civilian workers drove us out in their Land Rovers.
"We snorkelled out across the centre of the wadi to locate the boxes, but we never got there. I noticed something sticking out of the sand, at about 50ft, so I went down and scraped it with my knife. It shone like gold.
"Paddy and I tied the oil-drum to it and started filling it with air, but as it lifted out of the sand, the bottom blew out of the drum. The guys on the beach thought my tank had blown up. We ended up tying the object to a Land Rover wheel and dragging it along the bottom."
They had used up their air and continued on snorkels till their find was beached. What was it? "Well, not Rommel's gold. It was a 3000-year-old bronze ram from the front of a Greek warship, and it's worth a lot of money. Right now it's in a museum in Edinburgh for safekeeping."
The next day back at camp, Mick had received notice of his posting to Cornwall, and Paddy had been sent to Bomber Command in East Anglia.
"So you never did see the boxes?" I asked.
"No, but don't worry. This North Sea oil drilling is just starting up, and I met a really good contact who's trying to hire divers. In less than two years Paddy, you and I get out of the service, so we're going to earn big money. Then we'll drive down to the Med with our gear and buy a good boat. We'll go back to the Libyan coast and spend as long as we can doing what we love and do best. We'll lift those boxes!"
It was wonderful to be 26 and with my best friend. It was exotic to spend nights with an English beauty in a little caravan on a clifftop while the winds whispered outside. Weeks of wreck-diving lay ahead in the clear Cornish waters, and we had a mighty plan to fulfill.
One night in a dance-hall I heard Mary Hopkins sing:
"Those were the days, my friend, we thought they'd never end.
We'd sing and dance forever and a day.
We'd live the life we choose, we'd fight and never lose,
For we were young and sure to have our way."
A week later, we heard that Paddy's body had been found in a drainage ditch. The green-eyed boy from the Irish Republic, who had spent hundreds of hours under the Med, had drowned in a metre of muddy water, trapped upside-down in the wreckage of his drunken little car. It was so unfair.
Then came the day when I said good-bye to nine years of army life. A week later I was on a North Sea oil rig. The work was deep, dark and dangerous, as I had expected, but I had not been prepared for the way the taxman plundered my pay cheque. I wanted to be rich. I wanted to count slabs of fascist gold and live on a diet of speared fish, compressed air and Scotch aboard a converted fishing boat with sun-blistered paintwork.
By the end of the year, drilling had ceased and I was unemployed. I flew to Canada to visit a lady, and a few months later received a telegram from Mick. He had been hired as top diver on a Norwegian rig, beyond the grasp of the British taxman. He hired me.
Days later, my plane landed at Heathrow, but at my father's house I was handed another telegram - this time from Mick's mother.
Later that week, on my 30th birthday, I stood in a dismal Scottish graveyard while a piper played the last lament. My greatest friend had been killed by a stream of nearly pure oxygen at a depth of 67m, sent down by someone he had hired but who had lied about his gas-mixing experience.
When Mick realised what had happened he could have saved himself, but went back down to bring up another diver who was unconscious. What else could we expect from a fearless RAF fire-fighter, featherweight boxing champion and diver extraordinary?
I love diving, but I never did it again for a living. Australia, Belize, Fiji, Hawaii, been there, done that. There was only one place I wanted to dive.
The Libyan coast is about 1200 miles long, and in 1964 there were exactly five sets of scuba in the first 300 miles from the Egyptian border, and they were RAF. There were never more than 12 people in the sub-aqua club, and when Mick returned to England there were no divers left east of Benghazi. In the late '60s, when the pro-British head of state was overthrown, all British forces withdrew, and Libya became off limits to everyone outside Islam.
In 1971 I married and moved to Canada. I never saw the ram but I would like to think that Mick's mother returned it to the Libyan government for a finder's fee.
Of the hundreds of wadis along the coast, could I remember which one held the boxes? Yes! Did I research into the gold shipments? No, but if the boxes have a less dramatic explanation, it would still be worth returning to the site. Under the sand, in 15m of water, there must be the remains of a 3000-year-old Greek ship, and the tideless waters don't allow much change to the seabed. How many bronze helmets, swords and other artefacts were lost with this ship?
In the mirror I see the face of a man approaching 60, and probably the only living person who knows of these things. Would I ever divulge the location? Gladly, but only on three conditions.
Whoever I tell would have to be able to mount a proper expedition, permission from the Libyan government would be a must - and, most importantly, they would have to take me along!