Celtic Illumination, part 179, Entente cordiale.
Despite the fact that on the squadron most things were planned out, well in advance, occasionally something would happen that broke the routine, which is not to say that our routine was in any way routine, if you get my drift. We had an aircraft develop an emergency one day and it had to land at the closest military airfield which was Reims in French France. I do remember that it was Thursday because on the following day, the Friday evening, there was a very important function being held in the officer’s mess and the two aircrew, now with the diverted aircraft, had to attend. The pilot was, ‘The Bear’ Squadron Leader Keith Mac Robb, the navigator was Keith Mac Burney.
The Bear was the Qualified Weapons Instructor (QFI) for the squadron. He was the guy who was the expert on the weapons systems for the aircraft and apart from being very experienced with the weapons was regarded as a fine pilot and to top off his list of accomplishments was also the officer in charge of the rugby club. Keith Mac Burney was the senior navigator on the squadron so the pair of them made quite a formidable crew. J R was standing in front of the ops desk wondering what to do. The SENGO had joined in.
The function was the official dining out of the SENGO. He had asked me to work out how many flying hours the squadron jets had undertaken while he had been SENGO. We then converted that into gallons and converted that figure into petrol coupons that he would have had to have been issued with which I believe he was going to make into a joke for his farewell speech. You might think that the four or five hours it took for me to compile the information which would result in a ten second joke was bit overboard. But with mathematics, as I veered towards borderline geek, I was quite happy with the task and actually enjoyed it.
A small team of experienced engineers had been dispatched to Reims. The plan was for them to fix the jet and fly it back the following day. But what if they couldn’t fix the problem overnight? Added to the mix was the fact that Reims was on exercise so freedom of movement was somewhat restricted for the guys. Yes, we now had a broken phantom aircraft at Reims in France which we would have to get back but the most important issue was to get the two stranded aircrew back for a party. The aircraft could wait. I mean who in their right mind would even consider stealing a two ton lump of metal?
J R decided that we would send a minibus down, so that if the jet wasn’t fixed the aircrew could return in the minibus and we could guarantee their attendance at the function. It was about two hundred and fifty miles away and involved a drive across Holland and Belgium and then into French France. It would be too much trouble to get MT to find a driver, in such a short space of time, so as we already had the aircrew minibus all we needed was a driver. I could tell from the way J R was smiling at me that I was expected to volunteer, so I did. Great says J R, the SENGO now asks who I would like to accompany me. I asked for Robbo and the matter was settled.
I was told that we were to leave as soon as possible so I was to go and plot my route on some maps while the engineers would sort out some scran, fuel and the minibus for us. Twenty minutes later I was ready and believe it our not so was Robbo and the minibus. Because Reims was on exercise we had to take our NBC kits and gas masks but we also had to take some personal weapons. I was quite concerned as I felt that driving about with half a dozen pistols, rifles and machine guns in the back of a minibus was not exactly within the rules. I was sure that the weapons should have been in some sort of secure metal container. But knowing the sort of in-depth weapons training Slim had given me on the light machine gun I decided not to question it and hoped that if we were stopped the overcoat covering the weapons would be accepted as being operationally secure.
Everything was going swimmingly until we got to the French border. We were stopped by customs and I think we might have been waved through except Robbo, who spoke with a thick Geordie accent, decided to ask the French customs officer “Vous is the bog ya bastard?” With the pair of us now inside the customs office explaining every detail on our paperwork, and Robbo still asking for the facilities, one customs officer has decided to look in the back of the minibus. I think their security state went up quite a few notches, as did everyone’s heartbeat, as in their eyes they now had an Irishman, possibly two in their eyes, in an unmarked vehicle and a load of weapons. The language barrier made it very easy for two plus two to equal sixteen. I by now was getting quite used to having foreign policemen point pistols at me.
Eventually we were allowed to pass through and Robbo had managed to relieve himself. We went in to Reims town where Robbo needed to get some money from a hole in the wall and then we made our way to the airfield. It was dark and it was raining, quite heavily, when we got there. The guys at the guard post asked for our paperwork. They refused our passport, even our RAF ID cards. I was flicking through my wallet trying to see if there was anything else that might suffice. The French guard began pointing at and shouting at my wallet. He had recognised the card that indicated I was Special Forces. Robbo had one too, so the Special Forces guys were allowed to enter the French airbase.
Seems that our squadron guys who were already there and who were at that time not expecting anyone else to come down had told the French authorities that our rugby club membership cards were actually British Special Forces ID cards. Something that the French authorities happily accepted. God only knows what they thought of the false name badges. Quite a giggle really, unless you were Keith Mac Burney, for he was the only one who didn’t have a rugby club card. The Bear, as the officer in charge of the rugby club, naturally had a membership card, thankfully as the pair of them were together The bear managed to convince the French guards that Keith really was a member of the Special Forces and therefore allowed back onto the base.
I had pulled up outside the guard room and the guard commander came out and one of the strangest things ever, occurred. It was raining quite heavily and we were sitting in a nice warm and dry minibus. The guard commander called out a conscript and ordered him to run into the car park and find a vacant slot for us. Which he did, and then called us to it by waving his torch. I felt awful as the poor fellow would have been soaked to the skin. As well as the weapons the engineers had put in half a dozen bottles of whisky, in case any inter-squadron socialising had to be undertaken. Reims was in the centre of a huge champagne producing region and that evening we drank whisky and champagne shandies. As you can imagine the following morning our heads were still swimming. We arrived at the French squadron which unlike us did not separate the aircrew and ground crew.
They all shared the same facilities and each person that came in went around and shook hands with all there wishing them a good day, no matter what rank they were. Breakfast was provided and the fresh bread, cheese, cold meats and strong coffee was both needed and welcomed. The jet was declared serviceable and was launched. We all climbed in to the minibus and headed back to Germany. Somewhere around the French Belgium border we found a tank at the side of the road and so had to stop and have a look. It was an old relic from the Second World War, a two ton lump of metal just sitting at the side of a road. As we crawled all over it, the guys were quite seriously considering what equipment they would need to get the tank back to the squadron as a gizzit.