“It Was A Cold, Cold, War…”
Back in the day…when we were all very much in the Cold War…I was in my first posting in the RAF. It’d be 1989 or 1990 and working as a Junior Technician Air Radar Techie, fixing the radars on the Tornado F3’s.
All this was in the days when the way the military was to fight a war was very different to today. The threat that the UK faced was all to do with the Russians who were going to invade the west and turn us all into good communists or else turn us all into ashes by nuking us. As a squadron that flew Tornado interceptors we were to be on the very front line of that war – and my job was going to be two-fold. Firstly get the aircraft in the sky; refuel them, help re-arm them, service them – the so called “OTR” – Operational Turn Round, where the jet arrives back from a mission and then is “turned round” (not literally!) so that it can fly another mission as quickly as possible. Secondly I was to fix the radars and the communications equipment that would oh so easily break on the F3 at the time.
It made for a potentially busy time should the “balloon go up” and the Cold War turn “Hot”. And so to make sure we were ready for it, we used to have short practice wars. Invariably they would start on a Monday morning and finish on a Thursday afternoon. The Third World War was obviously going to be “nasty, brutish and short” and would always follow the same timetable.
Day one – well, the war wouldn’t actually start, so we’d be launching aircraft to defend against the odd threat, but mostly we’d be operating the aircraft on Combat Air Patrols where not a lot would happen. This would escalate and by Day Two the shooting war would have started and the Russi…sorry, we were never actually fighting the Russians – that would have been to inflammatory to actually name them as the enemy– the sides were named by colours…the Red Forces would be sending their Red Airforce across the North Sea to attack the Blue Lands. By Day Three the Red Forces would have decided that they were getting no where and so would decide to use nuclear weapons against us. This would allow us to practice operating in a Nuclear environment.
It’s funny thinking back – the enemy would have these nukes but they were always bloody rubbish at aiming them and everything because we would never be the actual TARGET of a nuke strike, but instead it’s hit a few miles away and we’d have to operate in an environment contaminated by radiation and fall out and such. But I digress…
By Day Four, the organisers would be pretty much bored with things and would decide that the Red Forces had got better with their aim with nukes and announce that one was heading right for us and that we’d have to scramble ALL our serviceable aircraft as quickly as possible to get them to safety – or to stop the bombers one last time – before the base was hit by a nuke. Actually it was quite depressing, come to think of it…but well, it was the way of the world back then and no one actually thought any one was ever actually going to really do the whole World War Three thing anyway. Both sides had too much to lose…and in the end they didn’t. The world turned and another enemy turned up for us to turn our attention to…
As for living through these exercises – which all had names that no one really cared about – we were “locked in”. By this we were living in Hardened Personnel Shelters (HPS’s) that were basically a large concrete bunkhouse. The building was mostly given over to a convoluted system for getting out of contaminated clothing from the outside and into clean clothing inside – meaning that we could sleep without having to wear our “noddy suits” or respirators…by going through several stages of undressing and airlocks. Inside the very heart of the building was a teabar where we were served a hot (microwaved) meal and then there were two dormitories for us to sleep in. These were designed for some 40 – 60 people to sleep in at one time, with the only privacy being a curtain around the bed – think what being on a ship might be like and then halve the space and add an extra bunk so we were three high. The beds were 6′ long so tall people were always crunched up and there was very little privacy. For a whole shift of some 100 people or so going to work – who all had to get washed, shaved and showered there were about 6 sinks and showers. This made it…unpleasant at best. I would like to say I remember those exercises with fondness but I have to be honest and say, nope. Not at all. I hated them. Every minute of being in the HPS’s. I am not at all claustrophobic, but I would imagine it would have been their worst nightmare. Loads of people, no space, no privacy, no fresh air, no windows…
That is not to say that the exercises themselves weren’t fun and didn’t ever have funny moments – like the time the door buzzer of the Hardened Aircraft Shelter (HAS) we were working in went off and I was sent to see who it was. I looked through the spyglass that was fitted to the door only to see black, which was odd as it was about 3pm in the afternoon one summer. The buzzer went off again so I tried to open the door, only for the door to move about 6 inches and then hit something metallic with aloud CLAAAANG. I heard a shout and saw a face – “OI!” he said. “Watch the tank!” It was one of the teams of the EOD people (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) who dealt with unexploded bombs. “Can we park our tank in your HAS annex whilst we have a cuppa?” How could I refuse!
But the story I really want to tell is of one poor lad who was (a) even younger than I was and (b) had even less squadron experience than I did. It was his first exercise and he was only very recently out of training. He’d been attached to our team which was a bonus for me as I was no longer the newby and so HE became the one who got all the gash jobs.
The way of things for shifts was that we’d work a 12 hour shift, being sent out of the HPS at 7am and returning at about 7pm-ish once we’d been relieved by the other shift. We would be sent out with a ‘butty-box’ supplied by the Mess that would consist of some bland sandwiches, a packet of Tudor crisps, a three pack of some sort of biscuits, a chocy bar (ALWAYS a Kit-Kat). If you were lucky you’d get either a pasty or a sausage roll (which you could heat up on the exhaust manifold of the Hoochin power set that provided electricity to the aircraft.
Also in the pack-up were some sachets of coffee, a couple of tea bags and a little ‘comfort’ bag containing a packet of tissues, a plastic knife and fork – the sort of pack you might get onboard a plane when you were eating airline food. And in that pack would also be a little sachet, about 2inches by 1inch, with a picture of a lemon on it and one word – “Refreshing” written below it. Clearly a wet-wipe. Clearly.
But our hero was tasked with making all of us in the HAS a cup of tea. All the members of the OTR team (seven) if I recall and two aircrew got our cup out and the young lad was sent to the tap in the plant room to get water for the kettle. He put it on and set about making the teas. Into a couple he poured coffee, into a few more he popped a tea bag, and into the last one – his cup – he opened the wet-wipe and dropped it into the cup.
This obviously caught someones attention and eventually we were all watching as he poured the water on the drinks. We sat aghast as he put water into his own and stirred it around. He lifted it to his lips…and took a sniff. Hmmm, lemon…he blew across the cup to cool it – still not paying attention to the rest of us who were now all staring at him. He lifted it and took a good drink of it and then coughed and spat the rancid hot water across the cabin – much to our hilarity.
“That the….why did you do that?” the Chief in charge of the OTR team asked. “You bloody idiot…what the…did you try and make a drink out of a WET-WIPE?”
“Wet-Wipe” coughed the young LAC, “I thought it was a lemon tea…”