Celtic Illumination, part 161, Left hand down a bit.
As it was my first time driving from Zeebrugge to Germany I wasn’t aware of the game that was played by most of the troops returning to their bases. Any member of the armed forces stationed in Germany would have a special number plate on their vehicle which certainly did make them stand out from anyone else. I’m not sure how the Germans felt about it but for myself it was a bonus to pull in somewhere and see that other members of the forces were there.
On leaving the ferry at Zeebrugge we followed mainly, what was then, the E3 motorway which led us across Belgium for about one hundred and twenty five miles. We would then nip across the southern corner of Holland for about ten miles which then had us crossing the border into Germany. The only rule that we were aware off was that there were no speed limits on the German motorways, or autobahn. As for the Belgian or Dutch rules, who knows if they even existed? We suspected that there were some speed restrictions in Holland as there would be a light show, as cars triggered the speed cameras, like paparazzi on a drunken starlet, as we crossed from Belgium into Holland. The good ol boys from back home would have loved it.
I think the occasional speeding ticket would find its way through the system but these were generally ignored. I had to apply for an international driving license which involved going to the local police station in Erkelenz. I do remember the very strange situation of standing in a German police station unable to speak hardly any words of German. I don’t think the ability to order a beer counted toward linguistic ability. I was so new to it all I even entered my address incorrectly on my license.
All the vehicles used by the air force, in Germany, were left hand drive and as you may expect they made the most out of the changeover. Before you would be allowed to drive a left hand drive military vehicle you would have to report to the Mechanical Transport Flight, MT, read a huge book of orders, then sign as having read and understood them. Now you could take a driving test with a MT Corporal who if he, or she, deemed you up to standard you would be issued with a military license allowing you to drive left hand drive vehicles. It didn’t matter that you might already be driving a left hand drive vehicle and even hold an international license you still had to drive a little green mini around camp and satisfy the corporal. You can imagine how someone who was driving a phantom aircraft might feel about having to undergo such an advanced test.
In fact even if we went to Cyprus we would have to read and sign driving orders which was a complete pain for all concerned. I do remember one trip to Cyprus where I was with the advance party. I went to the mechanical transport flight and asked if I could borrow a set of their orders and a signature sheet. I wanted to take them to the squadron and allow the aircrew to read them and fill out the signature form rather than have them all traipse up and down to MT Flight. It was a plausible excuse and became standard for the ops guy on the advance party. Now of course I would sit outside the mess with a nice beer, an empty signature sheet, and forge all the aircrew signatures.
My ruse was only ever noticed once. It was as I was handing in the completed signature sheets to the Corporal at MT when he looked out the window to see our phantoms arrive. “I take it these are for that lot?” he asked and I nodded wondering if he was referring to the squadron in general or the guys driving them. They were all approved and nothing was ever said. This approach was used for many procedures; all it took was a little bit of bottle and a big bit of organisation.
But the forces were experts at organising stuff. Take for example the flight simulators. We at Wildenrath had phantoms and therefore part of the support system included a phantom flight simulator. Most fast jets had simulators. About ten or twelve miles up the road at Bruggen were Jaguar squadrons and even they had a flight simulator. The only problem was that the phantom simulator was at Bruggen and the Jaguar simulator was at Wildenrath. Not much of a problem really, unless you were a newly arrived member of aircrew who needed to use the simulator and hadn’t yet been issued with your military left hand drive license.
I didn’t mind, for new members of aircrew who had to use the simulator would have me drive them up to Bruggen and rather than leave me sitting around twiddling my thumbs more than often I would be put in the back seat and encouraged to operate the radar and weapons system for them. There was no real need for me to do this as the simulator technicians could have filled in or operated the system from their control panels. I think the first fellow was Roy Lawrence who got me to sit in the back seat and fire up the radar. It was great fun, rather like a video game and a fun morning at work.
I was quite impressed with the simulators as when training at Locking, for my electronic career, we went to Brize Norton for the day and actually had a good snoop around their flight simulator which was for the Hercules aircraft, or was it VC10, I’m not sure. In the building where it was situated one wall was covered with a scale model of the local area, with a camera that tracked all over it, so only the approach to Brize Norton could be replicated for visual mode. Everything else was a grey mist and the crews would have to fly using instruments only. Had I continued with my electronic training there was a possibility I would have ended up working on working on similar systems.
One pilot needed to get his left hand drive license. Tony Couch. Tony was a young fellow and had recently been promoted to Squadron Leader. He really did fit the fighter pilot persona. He was a jocular chap who spoke with Received Pronunciation, or as some people might say, he spoke with a dead posh accent. Tony was a dandy. Sometimes his accent would be a little over the top but there was always a sparkle in his eye and you knew he was putting on a show. Tony wanted to drive himself over to MT and get his license but wasn’t allowed; I had to take him over. We went in to the MT control office and an old, hairy arsed, Corporal sat there ignoring us with deep contempt.
Tony presented himself before the aged Corporal and explained that he needed a driving license that would allow him to drive left hand drive vehicles. Without looking at him the Corporal slid a thick copy of orders across the desk and said. “Read these, and when you have, sign this to show that you have read and understood them. Then I will give you a test in that mini you came in.” Tony turned to me, the accent was in overdrive. “Keys,” he asked, while holding out his hand. I threw him the keys for the mini we had arrived in. “Right!” said Tony, tapping the desk with the keys so that the Corporal would have eye contact with him.
Tony turned and threw the orders at me. “My man will read these for me and tell me anything I might need to know; you will come outside now and give me a test in our little mini.” Tony strode away. The Corporal didn’t know what to do. I wanted to burst out laughing. Tony sat himself in the mini, started it up and revved the engine waiting for the Corporal, who in a sort of daze, went outside and gave him his test. When they returned Tony was still in top gear and came to me asking if there was anything he should know about. I shook my head. “Good,” he said. “Now where is this signature sheet Corporal.” He signed the sheet took his new license and we left. People like Tony certainly made 92 Squadron a great place to work.