Celtic Illumination, part 163, Halt, who goes there?
Hopefully, and as you may have expected from me, you will know I never follow the crowd. To me the squadron was one big family. The more observant among you will have noticed that I didn’t say ‘happy’ family, because there was always this ‘friction’ between the ground crew and the aircrew. I have to say that it mainly came from the ground crew, towards the aircrew. The aircrew didn’t really care. I of course was stuck in the middle. On the ops desk I was working alongside mainly Squadron Leaders, occasionally the Wing Commander and once a week the Station Commander, a Group Captain.
Take for example Squadron Leader Derek Aldous. Derek was a navigator; in fact he was quite a senior navigator and was OC B Flight, on the squadron. We would often sit and chat during the long quiet evenings. He would tell me stories about his life, as did all the aircrew. I remember Derek telling me that after he had applied, and been accepted, to join the air force he had to wait for five or six months for a course so went off and became a roustabout with a travelling fun fair. It allowed me to experience the human, more personal, side of the aircrew.
Another chap was Squadron Leader Nick Spiller, a pilot who told such fantastic stories. I’ll never forget him telling me about his childhood when his father was in the cavalry. His father was a Corporal of horse and Nick would be taken along to see the regiment practise cavalry charges on Epson Downs. Nick said that upwards of two hundred horses would form up in a line and, on the word of command, charge. His eyes sort of glassed over with the romanticism of the moment as he recounted the uniforms and the thunderous noise. He said that as they began to move forward all the horses came together so that the rider’s legs were wedged between the horses on either side.
It’s hard to imagine such a sight, or the sensation, as such a body would rumble past. At the end of the charge Nick said all the horses separated, but that each rider stood up in the stirrups and slapped his horse twice on the neck giving a command, which because of the excitement of the charge, had the horse urinate. Strange at the things you remember. So sharing such memories with the aircrew found me settling in very well with them. The ground crew were a different story. The other ops guy was being court martialled so unfortunately I was placed in the same category as he. I did try, mainly through the rugby club, to break down those barriers.
It would normally be during a quiet evening that I would become aware of a pair of eyes peering around one of the entrance doors. If I was alone the owner of the eyes would come in. If anyone was with me, the eyes and the head would disappear. One of my duties was to be in charge of the squadron map store. I would have to have enough copies of current maps for every member of aircrew. The most sought after map was the BFG road map. This wasn’t the Roald Dahl version of the BFG, but British Forces Germany. This was a special edition road map just for British forces, however because it was a map, it was generally assumed that it was for aircrew only.
After one or two ground crew had approached me and asked for a road map, which they informed me were ‘gold dust’ I realised that I had an opportunity to ingratiate myself with the troops. I ordered fifty road maps and when they came, brought them through to the engineers control room and slapped them on the desk. The guy in charge was Chief Technician Peter White, Chalky to his friends. Chalky was a lovely Scot and a fine rugby player. “What are these for?” he asked. “For the guys,” I said, adding as nonchalantly as I could. “If you need any more, give me a shout.” I didn’t hang around too long, but I was pleased to see that the maps were disappearing at a good rate of knots.
The squadron was often referred to as one big family and it was. You might not socialise with your uncle, but when you were in trouble you knew he would stick up for you, no matter what. During holidays, especially Christmas, married guys would drive to the single accommodation and fill their car with single guys and take them home to celebrate and enjoy Christmas. It was no big surprise for me to have half a dozen guys knocking at my front door one Sunday afternoon. I wasn’t expecting anyone so was pleasantly surprised to find Dave Magee, a huge Belfast man, who had just arrived on the squadron, standing holding a crate of beer.
Dave, set the beer down, reached in and grabbed me. He pulled me out and made me sit on the staircase that serviced the four flats above us. He then told the five or six guys behind him, all loaded with beer and spirits, to enter my flat, which they did. He then says that as it was the twelfth of July he wasn’t going to leave a good Protestant woman, Irene, on her own with a Catholic. He opened a bottle of beer gave it to me and allowed me to sit on the stairs as they all had a party in my flat. I was allowed in after twenty minutes or so. And so began my friendship with Dave Magee.
Dave was famous in the phantom world. He was an engine technician, and the sort of fellow who created legends. I have already explained to you the practice of ‘zapping’ things. Another tradition was ‘Gizzits’. Gizzit, is short for ‘give me it’ and was the word used to identify something that was to be stolen and returned to either the rugby club or squadron crew room as a trophy. One day we had gone off to another station to play rugby. Dave was approaching the end of his rugby playing days but was still a committed rugby club member. After the match and subsequent revelries we had all climbed back on board the coach and were about to leave when Dave realised that we hadn’t liberated any gizzits. Etiquette had to be maintained.
This wasn’t cricket, I know, it was rugby, but you get my drift. Dave then had an idea, a most dangerous state of affairs. The coach passed through the main gates and Dave asked the driver to stop. He did and Dave nominated four individuals on the coach, one of whom was lucky enough to be myself. We got off the coach and waited for Dave who was searching about for a couple of sheets of paper. He then came off and told us to follow him. We walked back to the main gate which had one of those sentry boxes you may have seen outside Buckingham palace.
Dave approached the guard. “I’m a civil contractor,” explains Dave, looking at the sheets of paper he held in his hand and then the guard post. “We’ve gotta take this guard post away and have it repainted.” The guard didn’t argue, but stepped out and stood aside. What else could you do when faced with a man with some bits of paper? With a sweep of his hand Dave instructed the four of us to hoist the guard post on our shoulders, coffin style, and wander away with it, while he distracted the guard with some chit chat. Why the guard never questioned what a fellow with a Belfast accent was doing painting guard posts in Germany, I’ll never know.
We must have been ten yards away from the coach when the guys inside the coach came off and opened the voluminous luggage hold where we were to stow the guard hut. Suddenly a cry split the air. “Stand still that man there!!” The station warrant officer had seen his guard hut disappearing down the road and probably wanted to know why it was about to be stuffed into the belly of a coach. Dave may have been nearing the end of his playing days but for a big fellow, with dicky knees, he couldn’t half sprint, thankfully much better than the station warrant officer could. Unfortunately we were to become very good friends and this was only the beginning of some of the maniacal adventures he led me in to.