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Robert Fisk

Robert Fisk: The remnants of war in the desert sands

Don Sheridan rang me a few days before his death. I was walking on the Beirut Corniche when my mobile purred and there was my 78-year-old Irish friend, calling, as he often did when life was dangerous in the Middle East, anxious to know that his friend Robert was still safe and well.

Don was not well. He sounded fragile. Last time I saw him, he was recovering from his second heart attack in 10 years and looked thinner, more drawn than usual. But his temper was as strong as steel. "Bloody Bush," he called the US President – and you have to put the full emphasis on the word "bloody" to capture the power of Don's expression. "Bloody Blair," he'd say, condemning Blair's part in the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Don knew the Middle East – he'd worked there for decades as a geologist and oil explorer – and understood long before 2003 that the Anglo-American adventure would end in disaster. But I was troubled by his voice on the phone.

But how are you, Don? I asked. "Oh, you know, up and down," he replied. He said that twice, and I sensed that he was a little frightened. Not of death. I think that Don, like me, regarded the institution of death as pretty mundane. But he was fearful of leaving his lovely wife Catherine and their four children and their glorious Georgian home above Sorrento Bay south of Dublin.

A few days later, I drove past the house and the lights were out and, next morning Catherine called to say that Don had gone into hospital and died the previous night. I looked at the house a few hours later and just could not believe this was true. "I won't drink the BLOODY stuff!" Don said in denunciation of his medicine a few days earlier – this, according to his daughter Juliette – and I did realise then that it must have reminded him of Dr Blair's very own elixir of WMD and 45 minute warnings.

He was the eighth son of emigrant Irish parents from Co Cavan, born in South Yorkshire, educated at Stonyhurst, serving in the post-war British Parachute Regiment – an episode in his curriculum vitae gently passed over at his Irish funeral, I noted, although Don was proud of his service. He could be as caustic about Ireland's supposedly Republican Fianna Fail party as he could about New Labour or the Tories in Britain.

He and Catherine travelled to South Africa, returned to the Middle East and often visited Italy and France; Catherine would buy rose bushes there to bring back to their garden above the bay south of Dublin. Like me, I rather think they saw themselves as European rather than British or Irish.

But Don's family suffered from England's wars. His brother was killed in Crete in 1941 when General Kurt Student dropped his paratroopers on to the Greek island. The Sheridan family thus participated, fatally, in the last of Britain's Aegean disasters, a catastrophe which did produce one of Evelyn Waugh's best lines. Asked by an Australian for his views on the German paratroop landings, he replied: "Like everything German, it's very impressive – but it goes on far too long!" They might have been Don's words.

Eight years ago, he wrote and published his own memoirs of exploring the deserts of Oman and Yemen and south-eastern Libya for oil, a book he entitled Fahud after the Leopard Mountain in Oman which promised, through its rock configuration, to lie above oil fields. It was a powerful story of heat and frustration and courage – nothing can compete with Don's nausea when he discovers that the local bedu flavoured his sour milk with camel's piss – and the text is frank about the author's fury when encountering dishonesty among Arabs. Visiting Don and Catherine after reading Fahud, I commented that I thought Don could be a very angry man. And Catherine, standing behind Don's chair, nodded in agreement.

But the book ended on a far more poignant note as Don, in the fastness of the Libyan desert, came across the near complete wrecks of Allied and Luftwaffe aircraft which had crashed – or crash-landed – in the wasteland of the Sahara during the war. His photographs are remarkable. One colour shot shows a still serviceable RAF Blenheim standing on its wheels in the desert in 1959, another a shot-down Heinkel, its swastika still gleaming black on the tail.

The saddest tale was that of an American B-24 bomber – whose crew named her "Lady Be Good" – which became lost on its way back from a bombing raid on Naples in 1943. Within the wreckage, Don found the plane's navigation charts in perfect condition and "liberated" the tommy guns on board. There was even a silk "escape map" with a map of Italy printed on it. The crew had bailed out earlier and "Lady Be Good" flew on into the desert until it crashed and broke its back.

A diary found later recorded how the crew – Hatton, Toner, Hays, Woravka, Ripslinger, LaMotte, Shelley, Moore and Adams were their names – came down in the immense southern desert at two in the morning. Woravka was killed immediately because his parachute failed to open. The diary told of their fate as they walked and walked and walked. "Everyone getting very weak, can't get very far, prayers all the time... Can't sleep... All want to die..." They all did.

Don, however, had a glorious, almost Middle Eastern funeral in the little Catholic Church of the Assumption in Dalkey village outside Dublin. Father John McDonagh, the parish priest, spoke of Don's work in the Middle East, "a place closed to most of us", and at one memorable moment (the first time in an Irish Catholic church?) uttered the Arabic word Inshallah – if God wills – and I was reminded how similar the Catholic mass is to a Muslim service. The constant "God be praised" – so absent from our dank Anglican communions – was an indirect translation of the Islamic "God is great".

But then Father McDonagh read, at Catherine's request, a long passage from the Lebanese poet Kahlil Gibran, who asked, "What it is to die but to stand naked in the wind and to melt into the sun?... Only when you drink from the river of silence shall you indeed sing./And when you have reached the mountain top, then you shall begin to climb./And when the earth shall claim your limbs, then shall you truly dance."

Don's coffin was carried from the church to a sung version of Sibelius's symphonic poem Finlandia. Don must have enjoyed his funeral, I told Catherine. He was buried beside his parents in Co Cavan, far from the desert where "Lady Be Good" still lies in the sand but not that far, I suspect, from the Middle East which consumed so much of his life, where you begin to climb only when you have reached the mountain top.