The reviewing officer at the graduation parade of my entry was Air Chief Marshal Sir Walter Dawson, K.C.B, C.B.E, D.S.O. who, at the speechifying and prize giving ceremony later that afternoon, told us ‘we would be welcomed with open arms’ when reporting to our new stations.
I think the Air Chief Marshal may have had one too many postprandial brandies in the Officers Mess at lunchtime and was exaggerating slightly; in fact a damn sight more than slightly as my welcome was not exactly wide armed.
On arriving at RAF Geilenkirchen I duly reported to the Central Armoury, to be told ‘Flight Lieutenant Pugh is too busy to see you now as he is doing the pig farm accounts’.
This information let me know where I stood in order of importance -- out the back with the empties, and well behind Pinky and Porky.
I could not suppress a guffaw on hearing the name of the officer in-charge of the pigs, and as Flt.Lt. Pugh and I never got on too well during our time at Geilenkirchen perhaps he had heard my outburst of mirth.
Keeping pigs on RAF camps was introduced during the war. Any stale, mouldy or generally unfit for human consumption food was fed to the porkers. When of sufficient size they were butchered and the meat sold, to be added to the meagre meat ration of the UK population. Due to the obnoxious stench pig farms needed to be sited well away from habitation, so it was a no brainer to set the farms alongside station bomb dumps, which were far away on the airfield periphery, and staffed with personnel regarded as possessing IQs and standards of personal hygiene commensurate with pigs, i.e., armourers. The bomb dump personnel kept an eye on the porkers, and the porkers an eye on the plumbers.
RAF Halton was not Alcatraz, Devil’s Island, or even Dartmoor, but once released former inmates tended to run a bit wild. From a regime of no alcohol, no females, no civilian clothes, no cars or motorbikes, and cigarettes costing 3s/6d for twenty (that’s 17½ p in today’s mickey mouse money) those of us who landed up in Germany were tempted by unlimited booze, fast cars, cheap, duty –free, ciggies at a shilling for twenty, (which is 2½p in today’s mickey mouse money), and cheap, fast, women.
Alas, I succumbed, although I did scorn the fast cars.
It was usual practice to spend an evening in the NAAFI canteen drinking beer, aka Naafi sludge, then on closure at 10pm slope off to the local village of Teveren to visit Annalise’s Bar. Here we drank the very cheap whiskey, brandy, and gin on offer until passing out under the tables, at which point Annalise called time, or else Annalise fell asleep at the bar and her one legged father called time.
When I tell you the name of the local brand of whiskey was ‘Rock and Roll’ you can probably guess at the quality – which was immaterial as it was quantity that ruled.
However, after a few months of soaking my liver and brain in the local brandy, probably distilled in a zinc bath out back of Annalise’s, I began to suffer blackouts. I would often wake up in strange places; sometimes in the drainage ditch which ran alongside the road leading back to camp, occasionally in a strange bed, with an equally strange woman, and once on the second storey of a half built house -- and that was very scary. Fortunately I saw the error of my ways and gave up the bathtub brandy, but not strange women.
Her Majesty ‘s Government had sent me to Europe for a purpose other than drinking myself into insensibility. I was there, along with such stalwarts as Lieutenant Prince Edward, Duke of Kent, and Sergeant Elvis Presley, King of Rock and Roll, to Save Western Europe for Democracy by preventing the Red Hordes from sweeping across the North German Plain, and through the Fulda Gap. As the Soviet Union never managed the task I reckon Eddie, me, and Elvis did a good job.
My part in the prevention was keeping the Hispano Suiza 20 mm Cannons functioning and firing in the Meteor Mk 11 Night Fighters of No. 256 Squadron. The ‘NF 11 Meatbox’ was an aircraft obsolete even before Pontus was a Pilate; nevertheless, together with a couple of other squadrons equipped with these museum pieces, they comprised the air defences of Western Europe during the hours of darkness – which, in retrospect, was also very scary.
In order for the squadrons to hone their air firing skills sufficient to knock down the zillion Bison and Bear bombers the Soviets would deploy when ‘the ‘balloon went up’ (I reckon 256 could have at least shot down the balloon) there was an Air Firing Practice School (AFPS) situated at RAF Sylt, on an island of the same name.
In February of 1959 I was detached, along with 256 Squadron, for six weeks air-to-air firing practice at AFPS Sylt.
For those not familiar with the geography of Northern Germany the island of Sylt is located at 54°54’N 8° 20’E, and is shaped like the letter T tilted on its side, with the shank of the T pointing towards the mainland of Europe, to which it is connected by the Hindenburgdamm, an 11km causeway with a railway line on top. The rail link brings vehicles across to the island on flat wagons to the main town of Westerland. In the winter the shallow water between Sylt and the mainland often freezes, and vehicles are able to drive across the ice. At least that is the story, probably an urban myth.
Sylt is the only place where I experienced the phenomena of freezing fog coexisting with a keen, biting wind. The island is little more than an overgrown sandbank, with no trees to shelter from the ‘wind like a whetted knife’ which sweeps in off the North Sea.
The day after our arrival my mate Billy Whiz and I decided to walk to Westerland town and check out the bars and the birds. We almost succumbed to hypothermia before reaching the first bar. Our eyelashes froze to our cheeks with watering and wind chill, and our lips were so numb we had difficulty ordering our drinks. After three or four, or maybe more, schnapps we came back to life. We took a taxi back to camp, and the only birds we spotted were frozen sea gulls.
Whoever sent the squadron to Sylt in the middle of winter for air to air firing must have had a sense of humour, or no sense whatever. The freezing fog was a permanent weather feature for the first two weeks of our stay. With the aircraft unable to fly due to poor visibility we had time on our hands. Visits to Westerland were undertaken, always by taxi, but the island was in deep freeze until spring, and only a few bars, and no birds, were open for business. An educational trip to Hamburg was planned, but unfortunately for me by the time of the visit I was skint – borassic – broke.
A few days before the Hamburg visit I had foolishly sat in during a game of pontoon and was taken to the cleaners. I would have probably fared equally badly even if playing Happy Families. I was plucked by a bunch of cardsharps and prestidigitators who conjured up the cards they wanted seemingly at will, whereas mine – bust.
My family regarded a deck of cards as The Devil’s Picture Book, and the only card games played at home were Snap, Patience, and Strip Jack Naked, which is not what you might think, or hope. I had studiously avoided the illegal card games which took place at Halton, and had only been tempted into this game by the prospect of earning extra spending cash for Hamburg.
A Sylt based airman advised me that once in Hamburg to make a beeline for something called the Reeperbahn, where the architecture and ambience was not to be missed -- I was very interested in architecture in those days.
It was probably just as well I didn’t make the trip to Hamburg as I was assured by Billy Whiz, who had returned from the visit looking rather exhausted, the Reeperbahn would have been too great a shock for someone having my sheltered and cosseted upbringing. He did not elaborate on his statement so I assumed Hamburg architecture must be rather avant-garde, whereas I am something of a traditionalist.
The freezing fog had persisted for two weeks, but after seeing the film ‘The Vikings’ on the camp stack --that is the station cinema -- the boys on 256 squadron decided to follow the example of those fearsome Norsemen and call on Odin for better weather. Each morning the chant would go up from the 40 or so members of 256’s ground crew.
‘Odin. Send the wind to turn the tide, and blow this effing fog away!’
Eventually the fog did clear, which shows the power of prayer, although the station padre was not best pleased.
When air firing commenced we then had to work from dawn to dusk to make up for lost flying time.
The targets for air firing practice were canvas drogues. These target drogues were towed by aircraft (Meteor MK 8’s I believe) of the Belgian Air Force. There was a rumour, probably without foundation, that Belgian pilots were such awful shots no other air force would tow the drogues when the Belgian Air Force arrived for air firing, and the Belgiques were co-opted to tow for their own squadrons. Subsequently they were nominated for target towing for all visiting squadrons. Of course, it could be Belgian pilots were the only ones brave enough to be shot at as they towed the targets.
Each target was ‘attacked’ by four aircraft in turn; the four aircraft had their ammunition ‘tipped’ in different colour paint so that hits could be recorded against each individual aircraft/squadron when the drogue was released. There was a prestigious award – The 2nd Allied Tactical Air Force Duncan Cup for Air-to-Air Gunnery – presented to the squadron with the highest percentage of hits, so you can see how vitally important it was the person given the awesome task of painting the tips of the rounds was up to the job.
.... There is more of this story ...