Celtic Illumination, part 162, Diet and exercise
Wildenrath was the first unit I had been on where they held exercises. I had never been ‘on exercise’ before. An exercise is where the unit’s capabilities are tested and not many people like them. At the lowest level, the station executive would plan exercises to ensure the unit would reach and maintain a certain level of defence. Twice a year Command would send in a small inspection group on an official exercise known as Maxeval, Maximum Evaluation. This is where we adopted a war footing and lived in gas masks and nuclear and biological suits for a couple of days.
The ultimate exercise, which happened only once a year, if you made the mark, was Taceval, a Tactical Evaluation. Here senior NATO commanders would come onto the unit, for up to a week, and evaluate our capabilities. It was a total pain sitting there in your NBC kit, having to shout at everybody, for it was the only way to communicate through a gas mask, while someone in a nice cool comfortable uniform sat watching you. As you may imagine, there were a lot of ‘Falcon two six nine’ calls made. Regiment guys are going crazy now, for like the armourers and their guns, gas masks should be referred to as respirators. We lived in cramped and stuffy conditions but the typical military humour carried on.
We lived on compo rations, composite rations, which did not have such a good reputation; for example, one stew was so delicious it was known as eating ‘baby’s heads’. There were tins of cheese possessed, condensed milk in a tube, tinned sausages and a fruit pudding that could have been used as vehicle armour. I gave up after my first exercise. I was still wondering why we were going through such role playing when whatever we did wouldn’t have much effect against a nuclear warhead. Part of my duties was to maintain and operate the air filtration system. It was a complicated bit of kit, well; that’s what I told everybody, and could only be accessed through a small metal, air tight, hatch. It was a decent sized room, accessible through the briefing room and could be secured from the inside.
I do remember on my very first exercise I left the squadron and drove home. I should have gone to the main domestic site and found some accommodation but I was so tired I carried on as normal. It was only when I arrived home at Erkelenz and I noticed the rifle, lying on the back seat of my car, that I thought there’s something not quite right here. Luckily the next day I was able to get back on to camp without the weapon being discovered. The regiment guys would have gone crazy had they known I had taken my gun home.
For my second exercise I found myself exhausted and looking for a bed. To find that I had the middle bunk, in a tier of three, next to another tier of three, certainly cheered me up, but to operate under a hot bed system, where you stood at the door waiting for someone to leave a bed, which you would now fall into, didn’t exactly appeal to me. I made my own arrangements. For most low level exercises I would sleep in the air filtration room. It meant that I didn’t have to go through all the searching and guarding and horseshit going on outside.
But rules were made to be broken. Quite often we would come under attack, not from aircraft but marauding groups of enemy. Out little dispersal was guarded by the ground crew in Sangers. A Sanger is one of those guard huts, constructed from sand bags, you might have seen now and again. The squadron warrant officer, known as Slim, would coordinate our defences. Sometimes the Rock Apes would attack us and, despite the fact we were all on the same side, squadron honour came into it, on both sides, and quite often blood would be drawn.
During one exercise I was in with the ground crew when we were alerted that a guard post was under attack. Slim immediately ordered every man in the room to attend the incident. As we began to file out of the engineers control room we were handed weapons. I was given a light machine gun. “I’m not trained to use this,” I said. Not that I was afraid of the thing, but knowing how the forces operated I suspected that I wouldn’t be allowed to shoot anybody if I hadn’t been trained on the weapon. Slim then trained me up. “The bullets go in here,” he said, pointing at the magazine. “Pull that thing there,” he said, pointing at the trigger. “And the bullets come out that end, so keep it pointed at the enemy.” There was no need for him to point at the barrel I had sort of got the jist, however how I wished that Slim could carry out any further weapon training I might have to attend.
Sure enough the Rock Apes were trying to get through our defences. It was almost like a rugby match, where this great sweep of men came out of the squadron buildings and raced toward the melee. At the flashpoint fists were being exchanged, which I understand is one of the only ways to effectively communicate with a Rock Ape. I then copied what the others, with light machine guns, were doing, for I assumed they had received more training than I had, and that was to set the weapon down, opening the tripod legs first of course, and then find the nearest stone, or brick, and throw that at a Rock Ape.
It was a great release for the frustration that everybody felt, having been cooped up, eating baby’s heads, for a couple of days. With the encounter over the Rock Apes would withdraw and move on to challenge our sister squadron down the road, The Cod Squad. There were three squadron dispersals at Wildenrath. We operated from the northern dispersal, Delta dispersal, the next dispersal was empty and used for visiting squadrons. In a real war situation a reinforcement squadron from the UK would take up residence while the southern dispersal was inhabited by The Cod Squad.
One year a visiting German squadron was housed in the middle dispersal. The hooter went, putting us on exercise, and we all donned our NBC suits and gas masks. We began operating and the Rock Apes began prowling around the perimeter looking for an easy target. Rock Apes are not known for their intellect, so tiny little errors like reading a map incorrectly, or walking without your knuckles dragging along the ground, were common. Thinking the German squadron, in the middle dispersal; were either us, or the Cod Squad, a detachment of Rock Apes decided to attack their main guard post.
One Rock Ape decided to use a bit of psychology, which as you know cannot be picked up off the floor and used to clobber someone around the head. The Rock Ape broke cover and began to approach the German guard. “Oi! Mate!” he calls, looking left and right repeatedly, as if he didn’t want to be spotted. His weapon was slung down and in his right hand he held a cigarette. “Have you got a light mate?” calls the Rock Ape, who now begins to walk across the road toward the guard post. “Halt!” screams the German guard. “No mate,” says the Rock Ape, patting the air with his hand, indicating that voices should remain low.
The other Rock Apes were beginning to break cover which alerted the German guard, who brought his weapon into the firing position. “Halt or I shall fire!” screamed the guard, in perfect English. The Rock Ape still moves forward holding out the cigarette. “No mate, look, I only want a light.” Bang! About two minutes after the bullet went through the Rock Apes thigh, the exercise was called off, and we all realised that perhaps this was something we should try in the future.