Celtic Illumination, part 200, Chocks away.
It seemed a bit daft that I would drive to Liverpool and five days later return to Germany so that I could prepare myself to fly back to the UK. But I suppose the moment you declare yourself to be an international criminal these things happen. Or as they often say, ‘You shouldn’t have joined up if you can’t take a joke.’ With the family back in Germany I began my final preparations for Biggen Hill. There wasn’t much more I could do apart from keep the physical training up as most people, like myself, believed the old adage about a fit body producing a fit mind. I had allowed the air force to arrange my trip to Biggen which I regretted. It was nice to be looked after and to be ferried from one point to another. It was just that there were so many bloody points.
I think I flew in to Luton, and then was driven to Hendon in London. That was on the Friday. On the Saturday I escaped and went over to Brixton and relaxed with Mervyn and Willie. It was good to catch up with the guys and we did enjoy a couple of beers although Mervyn wanted me to try out his new favourite cocktail which was a mixture of crème de menthe and vodka. There was an unwritten rule in the air force that the night before an exam you would not study but get completely legless. I for one was not going to break with tradition, although I wasn’t really starting until the Monday. On the Sunday I dragged myself back across London from Brixton to Hendon, collected my kit and made my way to Biggen Hill, which involved a succession of buses, trains, tubes and taxis.
I was shown to a six man room and settled in. There was a briefing pack so I quickly familiarised myself with the important places such as the bar and the mess. By early evening the room was fully occupied, in fact the whole block was fully occupied. A small number of us were already serving in the forces but most were civilians. Despite the fact that I had already been through the selection process before, and successfully I may add, I was still quite nervous. I suppose when you are seventeen you don’t have the weight of the world on your shoulders. That evening I went for a wander knowing that this was the actual heart of the air force. From the spitfire guys and the battle of Britain even to 92 squadron itself, Biggen Hill was certainly an iconic place.
I later learned that there are a couple of books about the selection process that describe the process in detail and suggest certain approaches that may encourage success. I just kept my mind open and presented myself first thing on the Monday morning along with perhaps one hundred other hopefuls. First of all we were registered and then poured in to various classrooms. I do remember that they fed us exam after exam. They were all multi choice tests but what they would do is say there are fifty questions and you have seven minutes to complete them. So before you open the paper you are calculating just how long you have for each question. Well; I was.
So, you think right, I’ve got eight point four seconds per question. There is a huge clock on the front wall on which they have stuck a large dayglo orange pointer. They adjust the pointer and then tell you to start. When the minute hand and the pointer line up with each other your time is up. Of course half your time is now spent watching the clock and thinking, okay I’ve completed ten questions, in seventy seconds, so I’ve got three hundred and fifty seconds left for forty questions which gives me eight point seven five seconds per question. By the next calculation you attempt to make you begin to confuse yourself. I know that we were expecting test papers on mathematics, physics and English but one on languages came and one on geography. The guys in charge told us to complete them anyway.
Lunch time was upon us in the blink of an eye and most of us were quite silent as we tried to drag our minds back across the papers we had completed and wonder how we had got on. After lunch we again were in classrooms and I found one of these tests quite funny. Three was a screen at the front of the room. On it was four columns, displaying icons like a fruit machine. Across the centre was a thick black line. Each column moved from top to bottom. At the top were four boxes, one above each column and each box displayed an icon, which changed. We each had a large metal box, connected to a computer they told us, with four switches in a line. These were heavy industrial switches.
When an icon passed through the thick black line, that matched the icon in the box above the column, you pressed the corresponding key on your box. So try to imagine fifty guys sitting watching this huge fruit machine display, all waiting for a matching pair to appear, when somebody clicks their switch. Forty nine guys now wonder what they have missed. Someone else clicks and complete mayhem then erupts as you sit there wondering what on earth is going on. It was funny to think about it later on but at the time it was seriously frustrating.
After lunch most of us would have gone back to our room and we may have noticed that one of the beds was empty. On the Monday evening it was quite obvious that more beds were unoccupied. Whether or not this was another method of putting us under pressure I’m not sure, but if it was it certainly worked, for you were more than aware that at any moment you could fail and be sent back to your unit. We didn’t actually see people leaving, just the spaces they left behind. On the Monday evening my head was a complete mess and I just collapsed on my bed. The following day was the interview and I don’t think anyone was looking forward to those.
We all gathered in the large foyer and some began to go for medicals while others were being interviewed. Two people would interview you, a Wing Commander and a Squadron Leader. A Squadron Leader came into the reception area and called my name. I went over to him and we left the area. He stopped outside an office and pointed at a podium, telling me to place my educational certificates before him. If they were not in order I would be on my way. Thankfully he accepted my certificates and we went in to the interview room. I learned later that even the way they had set the room out was planned. They had plenty of room but I was sort of jammed in, again, psychologically putting me under pressure.
They introduced themselves and explained that one would ask a question while the other would take notes and they would take alternate turns. Off we went. At one point I heard myself answer a question and was actually wondering where the answer had come from. It really was strange. They had asked me to imagine that I was flying along and saw a submarine pulling away from a dock. I had fired a missile at the submarine and I had destroyed it. Two hundred people had died as a result, how did I feel? I said that I would probably feel positive, although was really thinking of the line from Alice’s Restaurant, where he sings, “I wanna see blood, guts and gore with veins in my teeth, I wanna kill!”
The next fellow then says, “Right, their air defence has managed to hit you with a missile. You’ve banged out and are floating down on your parachute. You can see three or four hundred people coming towards your landing zone armed with pick axes and shovels, the relatives of the sailor’s you have just killed. From the other side, the local militia are racing toward your landing zone armed to the teeth and they are not happy because you have just killed two hundred of their friends. You have one pistol and twenty rounds of ammunition. What are you going to do?”
That’s when I heard myself say. “I would hope that the training I would have received for such a situation would see me through.” I know I spent the next few moments wondering where that answer had come from. Then one of them asked, ‘Do you know what NATO is?’ ‘Of course,” I laughed, adding. “I’m in it.” “So what do the letters NATO stand for?” Next to the question asking what your name was, this had to be the easiest question ever. That’s when my brain froze.