Posted to Wildenrath 1960
Memories of a Junior Technician
I was stationed at RAF Topcliffe in Yorkshire and one day I got a surprise when my CO announced I was “For the boat”. Thoroughly bewildered, my Sergeant explained that meant I was to be posted abroad. There was no hint where and I wondered “Why me?”
I had to go to the army hospital at Catterick for a medical and a chest x-ray and in a few weeks was given three weeks leave and told to report to Liverpool Street station in London on a certain date. On arrival there I sought out the RTO office that all main stations had and reported to the NCO’s there. The first thing they did was to make me stand to attention and scrutinised me up and down, from about 12 inches distance. There followed some criticism about my ‘scruffiness’ and a few shouted threats, then they checked my written orders and gave me instructions to be at a certain platform at a certain time.
Eventually after a gathering mass of us was moved from platform to platform several times, we were allowed on a long train already very crowded with service families, and we set off on a slow journey to Harwich. It was only at the RTO office that we discovered we were headed for Germany, but we still did not know exactly where.
At Harwich we disembarked into a dockside shed and were fed a terrible lukewarm meal on aluminium trays with bowls shaped in them. If you didn’t hold your tray the right way to a server, you were in danger of getting semolina mixed in with your meat and potatoes. I did. It was horrible.
The troopship HMT Empire Wansbeck was unbelievable. It was tiny and they crammed the whole trainload on it. We men were in the holds which had bunks about 6 or more high, with insufficient room to sit up in them. We were ordered into them and only allowed out in controlled groups at a time. It was a rough night and at dawn I crawled out of my bunk and made my way past kit bags everywhere and metal dustbins full to the top with seasick. I managed to have a shave and a refreshing face wash and found a small NAAFI stall at the stern of the ship where I bought the above postcard and a mug of tea.
On arrival at the Hook of Holland we disembarked to a lot of shouting and got on to two very smart and clean electric trains. We set off through Holland and were so impressed with the cleanliness and smartness, especially of the modern railway stations.
We were called in groups, up to two dining cars where we enjoyed a magnificent English breakfast, and later returned for an equally good lunch. We couldn’t believe our change in fortunes.
At Roermond our train split and we started a very slow journey pulled by a diesel loco through forest and heath (it turned out to be the no-mans land between Holland and Germany). At a clearing in the woods the train stopped and we all disembarked and clambered into some waiting trucks. There was nothing else there. A little while later we were disgorged, about a hundred of us, into an isolated hut in the woods. Here our names were shouted out and we were given our postings and instructions of where to report and when. Most involved catching a public train across Germany the next day in some direction or other. My name was amongst the last three to be called and to my relief I was told I was “staying here”. Here was RAF Wildenrath, a busy airfield and the nearest to Joint NATO headquarters at Rheindalen.
It was a hutted camp but spread over a wide area in pinewoods and not a bad place to be. Trained as radar technician I was based in the Control Tower. It was a very busy airfield and never closed. Our shifts covered a 24-hour pattern. I used to drive a VW combi minibus around to all the sections at shift change-over time. Including the airfield radar and the transmitter site, it amounted to 17 miles each shift change. I was once returning to the Control Tower and their Land Rover backed out and rammed me in the side. I was all day in the MT section filling out forms and there followed a very formal enquiry at which I got a warning and the Corporal who was driving the Land Rover had it entered on his records as a reprimand.
In my first week I enrolled for German lessons at the Education Section and a week later was horrified when we had an Open Day and air display, to find my name on a list of “Interpreters”. I made sure I was busy in the Control Tower.
One of the star turns at the air display was a Wing Commander who made his landing approach in a Canberra upside-down and flipped over at the last moment and touched down – an extremely dangerous but spectacular bit of flying.
The Station Commander gave us some aerobatics in a Chipmunk which was on the station for ‘training’. An air traffic controller told me that one day the CO was in a hurry and in a bad mood and was airborne in the Chipmunk by the time he emerged from the hangar. You can imagine their surprise and horror.
I remember that first week feeling very trapped in. I hadn’t had time to make any friends and was much too scared to venture off camp because it was a foreign country. I latched on to a Scot by the name of Donald when he announced he was off to Munchen Gladbach by bus. That was the start of a long friendship and the beginning of many outings and journeys we had together. We remained in contact for many years after leaving the RAF.
Donald was from Kintyre and we joined a Scottish Country Dancing class held in the station school on Married Quarters. It was here we met a German family when they were invited with their “German Youth of the East” to come and share an evening of Folk Dancing with us. Donald and I were the only two young single men in the class and were invited to join their group the next week when they were dancing at a wedding. So we went along and danced with them on several occasions, including at an international Dance Festival in Aachen. There we entertained the crowds to “The Dashing White Sergeant” as our finale!
Whilst at Wildenrath, I bought an Opel Rekord, quite a wreck, and I remember the struggle to get it through the MT Section Road Test which we had to do. We were issued with petrol coupons which obtained us tax free petrol at the filling stations.
I once took the car home to Norfolk on leave. The Harwich ferry was not a drive-on one and the cars were hoisted by crane into the car decks. The car broke down near home and I couldn’t get the spares for it. I went straight back by train and bought the required cam belt in the local garage at Wildenrath and returned home the following weekend to get it fixed.
It was very easy to get home. One could catch a boat train at 6.30pm at Monchen Gladbach for the Hook of Holland and get a train from Harwich early the next morning heading for Liverpool via Ely, and at Ely there were regular connections to Norfolk where my family lived. It was possible to complete the journey by 9am.
I was nearly 18 months in Germany and during that time was promoted to Corporal. On duty one night I learnt an important lesson which I have always remembered. The communications bunker phoned for help because one of their important teleprinter links had stopped. This area was normally manned by an Army signals unit and I had never been down there because it was a restricted area. I phoned my CO at home to report the problem to him. He patiently led me down into the bunker and dismantled the teleprinter in front of me, which just had a paper jam, and said “See, that was easy wasn’t it!” The lesson I learnt was always to look first before acting. In my defence it was an army area and out of bounds!
One day my CO said there were a couple of Special Branch officers wanting to interview me. It turned out to be a most worrying and unpleasant day. I had no idea what it was all about. They showed me a picture of a group of people in front of Ely Cathedral and asked me if I recognised any of them. I had gone to school in Ely and I wasn’t sure about one of the people in the photograph and they then grilled me all day and I couldn’t convince them that I wasn’t involved in the group at all, or knew that person after all. They got extremely angry with me and at the end of the day threatened me and my family if I spoke a word to anyone about the day’s questioning. I fretted quite a lot about it as I had been absent from work all day and I also felt it would help me to talk to somebody about the threats that had been made. My CO didn’t ask any questions except was that my first brush with Special Branch. The padre of the church I was attending noticed I wasn’t myself and asked if I had got a girl into trouble! He could get me posted back to Britain. But I never talked about it to anyone till long after I was out of the RAF. I still have no idea what it was all about. Those times were at the height of the Cold War and I guess there were a lot of odd things going on.
One perk at Wildenrath, I remember, was that it was the base of a Communications Flight to service all the comings and goings of the JHQ at Rheindahlen. If you were lucky you could bid for a spare seat on the daily flights to Northolt and if successful could nip home on a 48hr pass. I managed that a couple of times.
National Service was coming to an end and less and less people being taken on. Manning levels suffered and we ended up on a punishing shift pattern where we never actually had a day when we weren’t on shift, coming off early morning or going on night shift. It was very tiring and with the constant noise of flying day and night. When I came off night shift I finally took refuge at my German friends’ home several miles away. They used to give me a blanket to sleep on the sofa. So I came to regard their house as home during the daytime.
One last memory of Wildenrath. The whole station, about 2000 of us, was summoned to one of the largest hangars one day. An armed convoy drove slowly into our midst, the middle of which was a fat 15ft bomb on a trailer. “That is what we are all here for, the nuclear deterrent, the Hydrogen Bomb!” the Station Commander told us, and proceeded to give us a pep talk that was supposed to make us all feel good, and full of purpose, proud in our work. The year was 1961.
To complete the story I need to record the de-mob process. By now the troop ships were de-commissioned and troop movements were by charter flights between Wildenrath and Manston. One had to go to a camp at Gloucester to get lectures on civilian life and finding a job, then hand in one’s kit and have a ‘medical’. The medical consisted of being marched smartly in front of an MO, standing to attention, saluting and barking (as ordered) “I am fit, Sir!”. He then signed you off and you were given a railway warrant and sent home.
Today, 2009, Wildenrath is a railway train test and development track owned by Siemens, see below. NATO maintains a Fast Response Group in Germany but the Cold War is long since over.
For more detail type Wildenrath in the search box of http://maps.google.co.uk
Junior Technician “Robbie” Taylor