Riots, Rebellions, Gunboats and Peacekeepers Logo

By Vic Smith
The article was original published
in Issues 2 and 3 of MV Magazine 1996


This is the story about a military operation in Iraq just after World War two that very few people have heard about, but to me, really, it all began in Rotherham where I was born and where before military service I got some experience that would prove invaluable. I started to work in 1940 as an apprentice filter at the highways vehicle depot.  But the job was more than that, it was an apprentice filter, cum everything and that it was called good experience.  At that time they hadn't even got an electrical drill, that's how basic it was.  Hammer, chisel, hand drill, and if you wanted something you went next door to the blacksmith's shop.  We did get an electric drill in the end, and we had it a bit better after but we had no new vehicles so we had to make do with what we had.  If you didn't have any spares, and there weren't any replacements, then you had to repair. 

Dynamos, starters, big  ends, crown wheel and pinions, worm and worm wheels, and I'm talking about heavy stuff.  You had to do the best you could do with it all. So when I was ready to be called up at 18 I had a lot of experience at making do.  I didn't realize it at the time, but that was to stand me in good stead in Iraq.  After basic training at Fort George, Inverness we arrived in London. They marched us to Catford where we were billeted at what used to be a blind school.  We were put into the REME ( Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers), and that's where we did our trade tests.


So they sent me on a vehicle course at Cordon and the place is still there apparently.  The main difference between the vehicles I was working on then and the vehicles I'd known before was that they were much more modern.  At the depot in Rotherham I'd had nothing to do with Befords and vehicles like that.  The most up-to-date vehicles had been new in 1939, apart from some of the cars that came in for conversion.  I got posted to Team Valley Trading Estate in Gateshead, where we were billeted in St. Chads  Chapel, where the trams used to fall off the rails from time-to-time.  Following that, I was sent on a course at Bovington, which was a holding place for tanks. There were Churchill, Cromwell and Comet tanks, AEC, Daimler, and Humber scout cars, and that was about it. 

Pin-ups on my wall 
in my billet
Pin-ups on my wall in my billet

But there was the American Staghound armored car as well, which of course was General Motors.  It was  automatic and it had a gyro-stabilizer on the turret gun. We had to be sworn to secrecy on that, because it was top secret. All it did, if I remember rightly, was keep the target in it's sights up and down, not sideways, but it must of been the fore-runner of the equipment on the later tanks. That was very interesting. The Cromwell tank had what was called to the Merritt-Brown gear box.  They always said that the two men Merritt and Brown, went balmy after they made it, and it wouldn't surprise me, because it was very intricate unit.  It was very large, a box about 4 ft. across about 2 ft. deep.  Without realizing, they built it into what was called a Neutral Turn at it was quite dangerous.


Avro York
Avro York
3 images

If you pulled the left hand stick when it was ticking over in neutral it would turn to the right.  If you pulled the right stick, it would turn to the left.  Now as you can imagine it would be dangerous, especially if you'd adjusted the clutches and wanted to test it, and we were warned about it quite a lot. It was enjoyable as set up in Gateshead and we had a good time.  At one time they had a big push and  wanted some tanks in a hurry, so they fetched us all out, and we had a very busy time repairing them and sending them off to Europe.

It was 1945 when I finally got my papers to go overseas.  The war finished while I was in Gateshead, and my papers arrived in October.  I went to India on a boat and I was seasick the whole trip.  I was terrible sailor.  We finally arrived at Bombay and on the docks it said, "Welcome to India, but mum's the word."  They shoved us all in a train and sent us all to Kalyan, which was a big transit camp. It was August 1946 when India got its independence and they used to send us down to Bombay to look are after the essential services like power stations, water works, gas works, transport, etcetera. Then I got posted to Kirkee, which was just outside Poona.  This was the largest vehicle repair place in India.  I was transferred to the Indian Army and made up to sergeant.  By this time I was a first-class vehicle fitter and I was put in charge of the complete overhaul of Daimler  armored cars, all four-wheel drive.  They were in a mess and it was a right job.  They were getting nowhere and I knew it needed sorting out. The W01 (Warrant Officer First Class) was not to bothered because he was going home.  He said
"Do what the bloody hell you like", he said.
I a had word with the major, and he said,
 "You do what you think is right."
I was allocated to the water works.  We used to go down for a couple of days, about once a fortnight, to learn and all that it.  They used to put us up in a place called Chinoy Mansions, which was a beautiful place, all tiles and it was a wonderful place.  But we soon learned that if you went there then you got dysentery.  No ifs, ands, or buts, you got dysentery and two blokes died it was that bad.  I was lucky and only got a couple of 24-hour sessions.  They couldn't do anything about it.  They said it was our job to be there to make sure the essential services were working  if there were riots.  And there were riots in Bombay, believe me.  It wasn't an easy thing.

I soon realized that the Indians were specialists.  They couldn't do everything, but some of them knew how to do specific jobs.  There was a bloke, for instance, who knew how to make turret doors fit properly and that was a hell of a job.  "That's your job" I said "don't do anything else that's your job" and did the same with other men who proved skilled at particular jobs. So what we did was to get the engine out, put it on one side, and three blokes repaired the engine.  We took the tractor  units out, because they were individual four-wheel drive.  Laughable today, but that's the way they were.  Anyway, bit by bit they stripped it down in a day and a half, not to complete disassembly, but they'd stripped the unit down.  Well, the rest of them couldn't believe the way the unit was working so the major sent for me.
"What have you done?" he said.
So I told him.
"You're joking" he said
"No I'm not" I said
"Well I'd like someone to recognize this" he said, and a full colonel came down to thank these four blokes who I'd got stripping down those armored cars.  Well, it was like a miracle.  Right down the line, everybody was promoted.  So I  supposed in a way  I brought  production line repairs to India.

Obviously, once the vehicles were rebuilt they needed road testing, always a popular job.  One particular day we took out three of the Daimlers on a test.  Rather than following the test route we decide to try a quieter road.  A race seemed to be a good idea at the time.  Unfortunately, a local Indian policeman caught us and gave us all a speeding ticket. I had my day in court and a black mark on my otherwise clean service record. The same workshop also dealt with armored tracked vehicles, that on another test drive I had an accident while driving a Sherman tank.  Being only 5 ft. 4 I  found great difficulty with the Sherman.  It was fine when I was going with my head out of the driver's hatch, but to change gear I had to duck down inside, change gear and pop out again.  Unfortunately on this trip I ducked down to change gear, and by the time I poked my head out again I'd run over someone's bullock cart. Fortunately there were no injuries.


Christmas card from Iraq 1946
Christmas card from Iraq 1946

One interesting job, from a technical standpoint, was conducting experiments to find out how tank engines performed at altitude.  Our base was several thousand feet above sea level and I had to take a Sherman on a Scammel transporter and take it all the way to Bombay, stopping at regular intervals to check the maximum, RPM and put it on a graph.  It was quite interesting to see how much of a difference that altitude made. Then this posting to Iraq came and I was asked for specially by name, which they didn't normally do.  But they obviously wanted people who knew what they were about But a posting to Poona Station meant I didn't get that job after all.

So off I went to this most secret job, down at Poona Station,  just down the road from where we were.  "
"Oh yes, you're this Force 401 are you? You're on that plain out there."
There, was a great expanse of 500 acres of flat plane but there was nobody else there, as we're the first to come.

Gradually all the other units started arriving from northern India.  Three infantry brigades, artillery, and all the auxiliary units for a brigade group.  We eventually mobbed  up and you could see it was a very big corporation.  We'd no vehicles at the time, but some high ranking officers arrived with orders.  We were told to go to an army vehicle depot to fetch vehicles.  We got the shock of our lives as they were all brand new vehicles apart from a couple of Ford stores vehicles.; The war in the Pacific ended very quickly because of the two atomic bombs. They'd been anticipating perhaps another 12 months, and I can only assume that these vehicles were going to Burma and places like that to push the Japanese out. We picked up all sorts of gear such as ammunition, rifles, and Bren guns that were all brand new, which helped us a lot because we had no gear. Gradually we mobbed up, but it was monsoon time.  We just got the vehicles and then it turned to rain.  The vehicles would sink on their own and it was a right mess but at least it was warm. We gradually got some sort of order established and then we started seeing one or two people we'd not seen before, full colonels, lieutenant colonels and majors and bit by bit we got it right. Every time we went to an ordnance depot for something on their order it said, "OPERATION, SPOILED. TOP SECRET.  MOST IMMEDIATE!"

We would walk in there for vehicles to start with, and they would dash about for your spares, ammunition, guns, what ever you wanted. They had been told that this was a priority and you got everything.  So we knew that what we were going to do was very, very important.

Persia and Iraq command

This organization comprised 10th Army and its bases and geographically  covered the areas described in its title.  It was involved in operations in Iraq in 1941 during an uprising and in the security of the region throughout the war.  It's badge  was a red elephant's head on a blue background although  the red elephant had been beached pink in the sun, hence 'Pink Elephant's on the Basra  Road' and was said to of been chosen by its first commander, General Sir Henry Maitland Wilson also known as 'Jumbo'.  Following the war this badge continued to be worn by British forces serving in the region including the 19th Indian Infantry Brigade Group with which I served.

We had no idea where we were going, as it was supposed to be very hush hush operation.  We thought Sarawak or somewhere like that, somewhere where there had been a disturbance.  We were issued with olive greens, bush hats and all the tropical kit.  We got on to these vehicles and went about 100  miles down to Bombay, until we reached the docks.  I had the impression that we had over 3,000 vehicles, most of them four-wheel-drive, the 3-ton Dodge bonnet type.  All of them were Canadian vehicles, with some personnel carriers, Fords and Chevvies, which were great vehicles. 

A view  of the Zigarac

A view of the Zigarac

SS Varella

SS Varella

When we got on the docks all the coolies were saying, "You're off to Iraq."  So much for secrecy.  There were three boats, all coal-fired.  We got on the 400-ton SS Varella, and I thought, "Jesus what's this?".  Being sergeants we were in bunks, and the Indian troops were down below.  We were told it would only take 24 hours to Karachi. It took 36 hours and we were up and down like yo-yos.  We used to tie ourselves into the bunks. We got to Karachi and discovered why we had such a bad time.  There haven't been enough coal on the ships to make them stable so we filled up with coal at Karachi. 

The coal was brought onto the ship by women, with baskets on their heads, nose-to-tail up one gangplank and down the other, each carrying about half a hundred weight of coal on their heads.  So we filled up with coal, and went on the Shatt al Arab waterway to Basra, where we arrived on the 19th of August. They said, "You can't go out. You're not experienced enough and the humidity is about 93%".  Where we'd been near Bombay had been the hill station, and temperatures went to about 103 degrees, but we used to that, and the humidity was comparatively low.  Anyway, next day it came down, and they took us off; it was my mother's birthday, the 20th of August 1946.


We waited for the vehicles and then we were based at the back of the company's office of the 19th Brigade.  There were people stationed in Iraq right through the war, so there were camps that had been left, and they put us in one of these.  There were two units, a recovery unit and an L.A.D. and we had little shacks to put the vehicles under so we were OK.  We had loads of work to do as the vehicles came in and we had to do a lot of work in the daytime in the heat. 

The Royal Palace of IRAQ

The Royal Palace of Iraq

It's the same old story of course.  If anything is going to break down, it doesn't wait till it's cool, and you have to go and fetch it.  You're talking about 132F in the shade.  And there wasn't any shade.  But we got used to it, and in the end all I wore was a bush hat, gaiters and a pair of shorts.  Gradually we formed an idea of why we were there and how important an operation it was.


Transport Company

Transport Company

There was one bloke, Johnny Fossello from Cyprus, who was a CSM with Field Security.  Now we'd never dreamed of doing like this, but he said, "Vic, I'll tell you what we've done.  We've invoiced for 12-dozen bottles of rum" and they came! Anyway we organized ourselves, got a proper schedule of units to bring their vehicles in for maintenance and that sort of thing, and got the system working all right.

One incident I remember vividly happened as we were returning to camp after a patrol.  I was bringing up the rear with my L.A.D. unit as usual.  We stopped briefly on the outskirts of Basra for a beer.  The bar was in a really nice tree-lined road, with beautiful walled gardens opposite.  We parked and went inside.  On leaving the bar, I decided to drive the Ford wrecker.  I don't know why, since I always drove my Dodge, however, I set off, not realizing that the regular Indian driver hadn't secured the jibs with the locking pin.  So, unknown to me one of the jibs went out and demolished the wall and some trees and I had driven some distance before I noticed it.  The jib was quickly secured and we were away but that was one place we didn't go drinking again.


We went on schemes and we had a few problems basically with the people who were sympathetic to the Russians. We didn't have any great problem, but one or two of the infantry units did. These schemes took us forty or fifty miles into the desert. We were based at Shaiba, about thirty miles inland from Basra. They always told us that we were in twenty-four hour contact with Whitehall, because of this problem. We realized there was a problem when we were out on one of these schemes. We'd set up and were in one of these wagons having a beer when one of the officers dashed up, "Come Smith Out! Hurry up we're in trouble!"

Me looking clean for a change

Me looking clean for a change

One of the jeep engines on the generator for one of the two big QL extended chassis radio vans had stopped, and something had gone wrong with the other generator. We got it working in about twenty minutes, but it proved to me that somebody was monitoring in Whitehall after all.


After the victory parade in London, in 
1946, we did our own victory parade in Iraq
After the victory parade in London, in 1946, we did our own victory parade in Iraq
8 images

We had about twenty thousand troops in Iraq. There were two other units like that modding up in India, although how the hell they would have got them there quickly if they'd had to I don't know. We'd all got these brand new vehicles, all people who'd had experience during the war, all brand new equipment, a ten-thousand ton cruiser HMS Glasgow in the harbor, with a frigate by the side of it, and at least one squadron of rocket-firing Tempests based in Egypt at a moment's notice. They used to go out with us on the schemes and pretend to attack us. Were they pretending to anybody else as well?

We didn't know of course. We had at least one squadron of Dakotas, and we had a mock Dakota body at RAF Sharba. We used to train to put Jeeps up the ramp and into the body. One of these officers said he'd show us how to do it. He went up the ramp and straight through the fuselage to the other side. We had airborne training, jumping off a moving Jeep and that sort of thing. So when you think about all this, you're talking about a very big force. There was artillery, but no armour, and no tanks at all. 


HMS Glasgow

Dakoda aircraft on

Shaiba airfield

Dakoda aircraft on Shaiba airfield

The only thing I can put it down to is that they wouldn't have been very good at going into towns in the oil fields. Also the show of tanks with us might have been too much of a show of force, but we didn't know. We were never told  officially that there was a Russian force facing us.

Tempest fighter

Tempest fighters

The Russians were short of oil and we reckon that they backed off because we were there, plus the threat that the Americans would have got involved if anything had happened. I suppose really it was a cold war, although we did have problems. I remember one night they'd had a go at coming into company headquarters compound. Our SP guards were Ghurkhas, and one of them, with no hesitation, just shot one of those intruders.

The ABADAN oil refinery

The Abadan oil refinery

Another night I was fast asleep, and this was after things had calmed down and I was with the Transport Company. I was dreaming, and all of a sudden it was like someone was firing a revolver. I woke up and it was somebody actually firing. I kept a revolver under my pillow, and I jumped out of bed, gun in hand. I wasn't the only one up. One of the Captains said, "Here you are Smith, grab hold of that," and he gave me a Bren gun. They had been firing at us. All around the perimeter we had sentries high up in watchtowers, and one of them had seen something and started firing, and they had fired back. I was scared, no question.


A group photo in
front of the Scammall

A group photo in front of the Scammall

But the worst fright I had was one night when a bunch of us went into Basra.  What we used to do was get a taxi at the YMCA, which was in bounds, and lie down in the bottom of the taxi to go into areas of the town that were out of bounds.  This particular night the driver dropped us off at the wrong place.  "This isn't right," I said.  The town had its own sort of police, who carried these long muzzle-loading muskets.  We tried to find out where we were, when suddenly one of them appeared.  We got in a corner and tried to cover the white stripes on our arms.  This bloke came straight up to us, pointed his musket and we heard the double click as he pulled the hammer back.  We dropped our arms, showing a sergeant's stripes, and he went away.

But I was really scared. Fortunately we found a woman who knew us and she sent one of the lads to fetch a taxi. We got in, but about 50 yards away from the YMCA the MPs pulled the taxi over with us crouching in the back of it.  Well that was it.  I was reported and sent in front of the major.  "Smith" he said, "bloody surprised at you. Fancy you getting caught."  I was reprimanded.


But back to the vehicles.  The conditions were bad, but funnily enough the vehicles stood it.  The big problem was the federal, which had a Cummins engine with a rotary  diesel pump, and they were a problem, but apart from that we never had any serious sand problems.  The vehicles must of been kitted out for the conditions in Burma where they were intended for heat and humidity, but they didn't seem to have any special equipment for dealing with the desert.  There were good filters and things like that of course but we had to be careful with spares, because once you used them, then that's all you had . 

Convoy stop

Convoy stop

Diamond T Recovery truck

Diamond T Recovery truck

Servicing was always done at a certain time, as the vehicles all had their log sheets and were serviced at the proper time.  We very rarely had a problem, and I'm talking about sandstorms where you could scarcely see at all. The military situation calmed down, and we had a great big party down at the camp.  Everyone was there. The major general got up and thanked us all for what we had done and that was it.  All the main units started going back to India. 

The problem was that they didn't take all their vehicles back to India. I've no idea why, but perhaps there weren't enough ships.  They had to leave a lot of vehicles behind.  All the workshops went back, and my unit went back as well, and I was transferred to the transport unit where we had the attack.

The Convoy

Views of the convoy in the desert
Views of the convoy in the desert
3 images

There was a REME Captain, and I who were getting ready to go back to India, and I got the job of convoying all those vehicles.  We started sorting it out and I picked seven Indian troops to stay behind with me, with four vehicles.  We had the Dodge 4x4 weapon carrier, a Canadian Ford with the Holmes Wrecker on, a Scammel 6x4, and the Dodge Bonnet heatstroke vehicle.  What we used to do was take the Dodge Bonnet to the ice house in the morning before we set off and stack it with ice on either side and in the middle, and put stretchers inside.

The idea was that if anybody got heat stroke, we would put them inside to bring their temperature down.  I think we only ever had one bloke in , but it was there when we needed it.  We were short of drivers, so we had people who'd be in an office for months-and-months going out and driving in the desert.  We had to teach some of them how to drive.  In actual fact it worked quite well, as I taught them to drive and set up the convoy system.  Each one would be up 250 vehicles long.  There would be a convoy commander up front who knew his way, and I'd let them go, and then set off with my little unit 4 hours later.  I picked up any stray vehicles and towed them into Baghdad, where any that could not be repaired were be sold to an Iraqi agent.

My recovery unit
My recovery unit
2 images

The first convoy we did was an absolute cow.  Everything went wrong and I was absolutely shattered.  I had to stop every so often and get water and throw it in my eyes to keep awake and I finally arrived at three or four in the morning as the road was more than 1,200 miles!


Daimler scout car fitted 
with railway wheels

Daimler scout car fitted with railway wheels

It took us into Baghdad, and then along the Seven Sisters Road, which went from 5,000 feet down to about sea level, and then we arrived at Mafraq in Trans Jordan where there was a camp. After that there was a reasonable run from there to Haifa.  From Haifa we made two stops going through Palestine, and on to Cassasin, the other side of the Suez canal.  Then I came back again on my own.  This was 1947 of course and then the people who are now in charge in Israel were the terrorists.  I took a picture at Haifa Railway Station of the Daimler scout car that was put on the tracks.  It used to drive in front of the trains so if there was any trouble the scout car would get blown up but not the train and these cars were driven by British troops. A lot of troops got  killed in Palestine at that time.

That included moving hundreds of German POWs.  They were all ex-Afrika Korps, great big blokes about 6 feet tall.  Looking at them we kept on saying to each other how the bloody hell did we win?  We decided we'd have to have one convoy for the POWs, because we didn't want them spread about it.  There were still a fair number of MPs about, so they covered the convoy of the POWs but we still had a shortage of drivers, so a lot of the trucks were driven by the Germans. 

German POW's

German POWs

2 pints of beer

2 pints of beer

I was following behind, as usual, when I noticed a bonneted  Dodge three-tonner on the horizon, stopped beside the road.  It must of broken down, but as we got closer this proved not to be the case.  It shot off at high speed into the desert, and that was the last we saw it. It must of gone into Baghdad with a nearly  new truck loaded with brand new ties, worth a lot of money at the time.  Rumor was that  a thriving business existed in Baghdad for recently demilitarized trucks, but the emergency was over, and we all wanted to go home so no one worried too much about the loss.

Back at camp we still had huge amounts of spares, and they were a problem.  We couldn't take them with us, as there were simply too many.  So the commanding officer said, "Just dump them." I was horrified.  "This is all brand new gear" I said." "I can't do anything about it" he said, "We'll have to dump them" so we did. We went to one of the ordnance depots in Iraq, which was being run by the Iraqis now the British troops had left and we literally  shoveled the spares out.  For all I know they're still there today.

Winding road that the convoys used

Winding road that the convoys used

On one particular convoy and I set off as usual four hours behind.  We found one broken down vehicle, and hooked it on behind, then another, another and another.  I'd even got one towing behind the Dodge, which I didn't like.  I said to another sergeant with me, "Denise, if there's another one on the horizon, we've had it."  Sure enough, we found another vehicle, which was the welfare vehicle, and it was full of beer. So of course we stopped for the night and got quite reasonably pissed.  We got up in the morning, repaired a few of the vehicles, and were able to get off again.

Lake Tiberius

Lake Tiberius

Desert Bus
Desert Bus
2 images

Orders came one day for someone to go up country to recover a vehicle.  It didn't seem a good idea to take a truck up with me, so the CO sent me on the Nairn Bother's bus.  This was quite a vehicle, a Mach 1 I think.  It used to drive everywhere flat out at about 60 miles an hour, and was always disappearing in a cloud of smoke.  I suppose before the war it would have been quite a plush, but when I traveled on it conditions were pretty spartan, just wooden slatted seats, but at least it got there quickly.

As we  got used to the convoy work we became very skilled at keeping ourselves well fed.  We had what was called a 40-man set, which was basically a huge blowlamp on its side, with a chappati plate and Dixie oval at the end.  So while we were driving along the cook was in the back of the truck making the chappati mix, pairing the rice and that sort of thing. As soon as we stopped for the night and formed vehicles up, somebody would be out of the back of the vehicle, dig a trench for this 40-man set, and before the last vehicle had stopped moving, it was lit and the food was on.  So inside 20 minutes we had a meal and a cup of tea, which was great.  We slept under the stars.

Me and my magic Dodge 4x4

Me and my magic Dodge 4x4

I'm in charge!

I had a good life in the army, and I really came into my own on this job.  As a sergeant, I'd never been my own boss of course, but here I was, and it worked because I was the only REME man there and everyone believed that Vic Smith could do the job.  I'll give you an example.  On one of the convoys we had  about 15 vehicles behind the big convoy.  There were about 5 or 6 officers with them because if you were with a vehicle you had to stop with it.  I said we'd have to stop, we're delayed and it's no good going through the night.  I turned to them and said, "Right gentleman.  Everybody, I'm afraid, goes on guard." This major turn around and said, "I'm going on first and everyone else will follow me.  I'm not bothered by what rank you are.  You're in charge of this, not me, as I'm just a driver in this convoy, and you're in charge." That's how it was and it worked.  Mind you a couple of second lieutenants didn't like it, but that's how it was.




There was a night when we were running out of food.  All we had were tins of peaches, tins of potatoes, etc.  So we opened the a lot chucked them all in the Dixie and ate it. We might have run short of food, but I made sure we never ran short of water and on the front of my Dodge were two water chuggles. A chuggle is a canvas bag, about 10 inches wide at the bottom, which comes to a neck.  It's about 18 inches high, and ties at the top.  You get them brand new, and soak them in  water for 48 hours.  Then you fill them with water and tie them to the front of the wagon.  The bag is porous so the water seeps out very slowly, and because of the  evaporation, the water inside is kept cool.  I always had two of them on the front of the wagon.

I think the last convoy I was involved with would have been September or October 1947.  Then of course I had no vehicle and no job so they sent me to Port Said transit camp, which consisted of troops coming in from England, and troops waiting to go home to be demobbed.  There were thousands there.  It was my first taste of proper military life for months and I had to do a guard duty and get used to spit and polish again.  I had a piece of luck there because I found a couple of my mates in the company's office, and they wangled it so I could go home in time for Christmas.  I asked to be demobbed in York, so of course they sent me to Aldershot.  The troopship SS Staffordshire took me to Liverpool, so I had to go all the way from Liverpool to Aldershot to get demobbed, and then back up to Rotherham and back to civilian life.

Me sat on the
front of my Dodge

Me sat on the front of my Dodge

Vic Smith

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