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Archive for the category “RAF History”

Music Matters (Even More)…

I have waxed lyrical on here many, many times about the power of music. About how it has stirred me, soothed me, made me nostalgic…and on Friday night I had another of those moments.

Last week was a big week for the history of the RAF. The unveiling of the Bomber Command memorial in London brought together the RAF from today with the RAF of yesterday. Airmen and Airwomen coming together across time, sharing with their families, and with the families of those who fought but did not enjoy the peace. It was a moving, emotional day for those veterans.

But for me, it didn’t really stir me as much as I thought. I was concentrating on trying to get the story of the day, and whilst I met and talked to people all day, I didn’t really feel the emotion of it. I was a step away from it. I understood the sacrifices, I knew the suffering, I was aware of the hardships…it was a step away from me. I had no direct link with the Bomber Boys you see. I could feel the power of what was happening amongst those people directly affected by it…I still felt a little…adjacent, but not involved in it.

That was until the following night. When I went to the RAF Museum at Hendon, where a local Brass and Wind Band were to play an evening concert in the shadow of the Lancaster – an original Bomber Command aircraft that flew 137 missions with 83, 463 and 467 Sqns.

Now, brass and wind bands aren’t really my thing. But I thought that it’d be a nice evening out, and the chance to have a wander around the Museum with very few people there would be lovely.

And it was. I’d enjoyed good company, enjoyed a nice Spitfire Ale beer sat BESIDE a Spitfire, had a nice chat and taken some cool photos. All was good, but still no real emotional connection.

And then the band played a song called ‘Evening Hymn and Sunset’.

And the gentle strains of the wood wind instruments moved quietly through the museum. It built slowly, getting louder, not with an urgency, but with a gentle insistence. It rose, it built and just as you expected a shout from it there was a change of key and the same air was repeated and the loops of wind and brass instruments rolled around again. It truly was like evening and sunset.

It was the musical equivalent of the sun setting and the sky fading. I looked up and was under the wing of a Lancaster. The power and the glory of this aircraft. I closed my eyes and imagined the aircraft flying into the evening, the sun setting and the camera in my minds eye saw the Lanc heading off into the distance, powering off and away and below me. Then with a tip of the wing, a slow bank away to the right, the four Merlins running at an easy pace, no where near the full power it had available…cruising away…and then…and then the music changed. A gentle drum roll and two cornets took over the theme. It changed from a gentle hymn into the striding tune that was instantly recognisable as the Last Post. Achingly beautiful. Poignant. Evocative.

The band took the music to it’s crescendo. I opened my eyes and looked up again at the wing of the aircraft above me, the two visible engines, the open bomb bay. But then my focus was shifted to the cockpit, the forward turret, the mid-upper, the rear guns. Where the people were.

This is where men flew. That Lancaster in my minds eye, flying through into the night, was flown by men. It was here that the emotion in me was pricked. The connections were made. 125,000 men flying. 55,573 who didn’t return. This music, this machine, both together came to represent more than the sum of their parts.

And as the Last Post theme faded away and the music came to a stop I finally felt connected to the whole thing. The power, the glory, the sadness. The sheer and utter pointless waste of it all.

Because war is pointless. You can argue that it was good against evil and that it was where fine and noble and brave things happened; where freedom was fought for, where good battled evil. But it was also where young men with such potential were cut down. They gave their lives for us, and for our freedom and for our future, for good to win over evil ideas, but war, in itself is totally absolutely and bloody pointless.

It shows us as a species of contrasts. The most evil and stupid of things, but the most beautiful and bravest of things. In war we reach the lowest lows of morality, and yet the highest highs of ideals. People give their everything for others…they give their lives. But if we as a species could be just that little bit cleverer when all that waste wouldn’t even be necessary. We are too stupid to see that war is so stupid. That is why we continue to peruse it. And we always will, because we as a species are too stupid to see any other way.

It’s a romantic image that I painted of the Lancaster rolling off into the setting sun, the engine noise roaring, the colours of the sky, the strains of a band playing beautiful music…but the romance should be tempered with the fact that this is all about war. About death. About killing. About the crazy dichotomy that is the human race. It can produce something so absolutely bloody beautiful as a Lancaster, but do it for the reason of something so absolutely bloody hideous as the purpose of war.

And that piece of music connected me to that. It reminded me of that. We should honour and remember those who took part in that battle, whatever nationality they were. Whether they were in the air or on the ground. Whether they were loading the bombs, dropping them having the explosives dropped on them. War is stupid. Death is stupid. No matter what the reason for war, it is ultimately stupid and pointless; just or not, it brings out the worst and the best in us. And the memorials to those who fought and died in wars are not just about those people who did the fighting and dying, they are about us as a species.

They are about how clever we are in building and designing something that stirs the emotions and evokes thoughts and feelings in us, but also about how stupid we are to keep going to war. The grandness and pomp and sombreness of a memorial is not just a monument to those people named therein, they are monuments to our stupidity for the actions that led us, as a species, to get involved in a war in the first place.

If we were wise we’d remember both of these things when we look at a monument or a statue or an aircraft or any other memorabilia in a museum and remember…we are bloody stupid to go to war in the first place. War brings out the very worst in some people, but even if it brings the very best in others…war is bloody, bloody stupid. If the dead of Bomber Command, and the dead of their actions, can teach us but one thing, they would shout to us today, louder than the loudest music that we should put as much effort into finding a different and better way than war of solving our problems.

As beautiful and clever as the human race is, we are too stupid to be able to do things differently. We will keep on fighting and killing. We will keep on hoping and praying. We will keep on creating horror and beauty. Whether it is in the skies over Germany, or in the fields of Afghanistan, or wherever the next war and conflict will be…in the Middle East, in Africa…wherever…sadly for all the memorials we build, we will keep on fighting and killing.

War and death. Honour and sacrifice. Two sides of the same coin.

And the beauty of friends fighting for friends, heroic deeds, of the aesthetic image of a lone aircraft flying away into the setting sun is a testament to that. That aircraft, flying into the darkness can represent us as a species; beautiful, stupid. And it represents everyone who has fought in a war before them, with them, after them. Their loss is a testament. A message of hope that for as long as there is stupidity and hate and evil, there are good and great and beautiful men and women who will give their all for the rest of us.

And we owe it to them to keep on trying to find a better way so they don’t have to.

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Closure…

I’ve been a lucky sod.

No I have. I’ve had a fairly charmed life and certainly a charmed career.

Lucky in the places I’ve been to, people I’ve worked with, things I’ve done, things I’ve seen.

But to be in Green Park today, to be part of the Bomber Command Memorial Opening Ceremony, to just be able to wander around and take pictures and talk to people and chat and listen. That is the luckiest thing ever. No pressure, no stress, just doing my own thing, going places and chatting to these amazing people, being around them…it’s the highest honour. The very best thing I have done as being part of the RAF.

I spoke to an Ex-Aircraftman II, who fixed Fairy Battles in the Battle of France and was evacuated from Brest instead of Dunkirk, and who was quickly commissioned after and spent the rest of the war as a staff officer.

I listened to an old pilot who talked me through a picture of a Lancaster, telling me that it was a picture that had been taken just after take-off, that the pilot had 10 degrees of flap selected, and why the Flight Engineer was facing the way he was and why the gun turrets were facing that way… I spoke to the son and grandson of a Flying Officer who was too infirm to make it to the ceremony, and that the grandson will be taking Granddads medals to show and tell at school tomorrow.

I chatted to an Air Gunner who suddenly said, do you want to meet my Navigator…and we trotted across to the chairs where we talked about flying and fighting and the weather and the crowd.

I listened to the daughter of an Air Gunner as she talked about her father and how much she missed him even though she could never remember meeting him (she was too young to remember him).

And I talked and talked to a Canadian couple who had spent the last month in Europe researching the gentleman’s uncle who had flown just three missions before he was shot down and killed. I learnt that they’d visited the town where the aircraft had crashed and had been shown to the exact spot where their uncle had hit the ground – by a local German who had seen the Halifax crash.

And I realised one thing. In each of the conversations the theme was closure. In their own way there was some closure here. That finally the monument and the memorial to each and everyone of their fathers, relatives, friends, was finally built and was finally open. It may be 67 years late, but it is here now.

And what a structure! What a memorial! The words ‘fitting tribute’ have been used so many times that they are cliched, but I have nothing left…the statue shows a crew of seven. One shading his eyes from the sun, others in contemplation, one deep in thought, another eyes closed, his mind clearly elsewhere. This whole monument is beautiful, thought provoking, magnificent.

And now it is here, it will stay there. It will be maintained by the Royal Air Force Benevolent Fund as a permanent reminder to everyone who visits or passes of the sacrifice the honour and the glory of what those 55,573 men gave their lives for.

For us.

So whilst this memorial is about the Bomber Command, it’s not just FOR them. It’s for all of us. It gives the surviving Aircrew closure, the knowledge that at last their efforts are recognised and appreciated. For those who lost their fathers, uncles, brothers, it gives a place of pilgrimage. And for the rest of us…it gives us a reminder of the duty and sacrifice that that generation gave for us today. Truly, they gave their tomorrow’s for our today and finally that has been recognised. Magnificently.

Family…

A father and his son. Standing to the rear of the crowd. Slightly apart from everyone else. A fatherly hand on the son’s shoulder. Pride, emotion, learning.

Young Jamie and his dad, Glen stand and think of F/O Michael Carroll, DFC. A Flight Engineer on Lancasters and Halifaxes, who flew 36 missions into Germany. Indeed the very Halifax he flew in is immortalised in the Airfix model of the Halifax.

But This family is not just here to remember though. Michael is one of many of the veterans of Bomber Command who are still alive, but who are unable, for many reasons, to make it here today. They are not here to remember. They are here to represent.

Jamie proudly wears the medals of his Grandfather. And stands to the attention as the last post is played. He looks to the sky as the Lancaster flies over and he peers to see the 1,000,000 poppies that fall from the bomb bay. He stares to the sky and thinks of home and his grandfather watching it all on the TV. He listens to his father as the proceedings are explained.

It is a shame that Michael can’t be here to be a part of all this today, but Michael’s medals are and are being worn with just as much pride by his grandson Jamie, as they would be by Michael himself.

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Memorial…

Today is the day. 28th June 2012. The day, after 67 years, that the men of Bomber Command are finally given a fitting memorial.

It may be 67 years late, but we can’t do anything about the past, other than of course learn from it. This permanent memorial, built in Green Park in London, that Her Majesty The Queen will unveil at about 12 noon, is now here. It is and will be a fitting tribute to not only the 55,573 who died, but also to the ones who survived the war, who grew old, who passed away, who are still here.

And here we are today. In Green Park. Through modern tech, I can blog live from the Opening Ceremony. I am here, standing in the presence of greatness. All around me are old men, occasionally unsteady, some in wheel chairs, others still sprightly. All wear jackets with a badge or emblem on their breast pocket a Squadron badge, the Bomber Command Association badge…and above that are rows of medals.

A few have three or four medals 39-45 Star, Defence Medal, France/Germany Star, Victory Medal. a few more have a longer row. Some have blue and red striped DFC or AFC. Others wear commemorative medals given by the occupied nations – Operation Manna for instance.

All, irrespective of how many and what they have on the outside of their chest all today have something worth even more valuable than that. They have something inside their chests instead.

It’s pride.

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There’ll be more later during the day!

About time…Interview with an Air Gunner…

It’s noisy. It’s cold. It’s pitched black. Outside the clouds whoosh past. Occasionally the moon and the stars shine through the higher cloud. You are flying in a Lancaster, heading for Germany. And at least you have a view, albeit an uncomfortable one. You are stuck in your gun turret. Scanning the sky.

Total concentration. For four and a half hours. Then manic activity. Frantic. Praying for the words you are desperate to hear from the Bomb Aimer – ‘Bombs Away’. Then the aircraft dives back into the cloud. Homeward bound. But still unable to relax. Another four and a half hours until you see the runway lights of home.

If you are lucky, then the most you will have had thrown against you was some ineffective anti-aircraft fire – flak. If unluckier then maybe a searchlight will have scanned over you. If really unlucky then two or more lights from the ground will have found you and the pilot will have had to have corkscrewed the massive aircraft down and round.

Worse would be three or more lights on you…difficult to shake…even worse the flak stopping and the streaking flashes of light of the tracer rounds from a German night-fighter swooping in at you. As gunner, the aircraft pilot will be looking to you to guide him. ‘Skipper, Mid-Upper. Bandit 10 o’clock. 500 yards.’ The pilot will take evasive action as you engage the enemy. The Lanc will climb or dive and turn to try and shake the enemy as you fire your .303 machine guns. Your tracer rounds (1 in every 5 of the 10,000 rounds or so you have) slashing through the night sky towards the JU-88, aiming off and in front of the enemy flier, like a giant version of clay-pigeon shooting, but one where BOTH of you are moving…

Maybe though the German will have been clever. Maybe he’ll wait. Maybe he’ll just shadow you home. Wait just off your tail. You knowing someone or something is out there, but unable to identify it or shoot at it. Waiting – waiting for you to be at your most vulnerable – as you descend to land. Your pilot concentrating on the approach and the fog-bound runway suddenly lit by the FIDO lights. You still scanning the sky, starting to relax, and then the pounce. The German strafing across the top of you…you shouting the bandits position and intention again, you returning fire…Praying all the while that between yourself and the other gunner in the tail you fend him off so the pilot can climb again and head for the safety of cloud.

But hopefully, you’ll have had a quiet easy run. Landing just after midnight so you don’t have to fly again tomorrow night. Looking forward to a quick de-briefing and then off to bed – you and the other Non-commissioned in one direction, the officers in another.  Maybe to get to go for a beer.

Time to relax. Time to write up your log book. Time to sleep. Time to think about how you were lucky and didn’t go down in flames. How you didn’t have to jump into the darkness. How you didn’t get blinded, shot or injured by the flak or the night fighters.

Before it all starts again.

We’ll thankfully never experience this for real and reading things like this are just the memories of someone else. Vivid, sharp. Like the faces of the six other members of your crew – your band of brothers – people who will become closer than your brothers. But still memories. Shared by chatting in the beer garden of a pub in the Surrey countryside, enjoying a nice lunch and a couple of beers. Answering the odd and daft questions posed by the modern generation.

And I was the lucky lad asking the questions. And Mr Ron Thorpe, a remarkably sprightly man in his very late 80’s, and former Lancaster Air Gunner, was the man answering them. To meet him, one of ‘The Many’ according to RAF history and called ‘Bomber Boys’ at the time…it’s almost impossible to say how much of an honour it is to be there. How lucky I am to be able to asking him the questions. Just to be in his company. I am slightly in awe of him. At 18 I was sitting in a classroom dreaming of the day I might be a Radar Technician…at 18 he was in the turret of a Lancaster. All volunteers. Every one of them volunteered to be in the air, often chosing to go up there because it would bring them into the fight sooner. The choice was often wait for your call up, or else volunteer for the fight in the air now.

And the three or so hours we had for a chat that lunchtime went by so fast. One moment we were ordering a plate of scampi, the next the pub was closing and we were forced to leave. On here, writing here I can’t do it justice.

I was told so much. Unlike popular media portrayals of flying on a bomber mission the crew didn’t chat, or have time to tell a joke or to read poetry…they were on constant watch. Total concentration for 10 and a half hours at the worst. Jammed into an aircraft that would conspire at one moment to be their saviour – power, manoeuvrability and ability to take a lot of damage – and one moment to be their end – cramped, cold, difficult to move about in. They would be totally focussed on the job they had to do. Thinking about the task in hand was all they had time to think about. Flying to the target, working out their position, watching for the enemy, this is what they spent their time whilst airborne doing.

They even had little time to think about the target. The idea was to concentrate on the factory, the train yards. Not the people. Maybe one of the reasons that it has taken so long for the Bomber Boys to be properly honoured by a monument and memorial is due to the nature of their task. Bombing the enemy. Taking the war to the German heartland. And in an age of area bombing and all that ‘area’ means that is difficult ground. Nowadays we discuss collateral damage and we try to minimise the chance of injuring ‘innocent’ civilians. But back then in the mid 1940’s..in an age of ‘Total War’ it could be argued that everything is part of the war-effort. And in an age when your own cities and town had been levelled by bombing trying to weaken the will to fight the urge for revenge must have been incredible. After all it was an age of ‘sowing the wind and reaping the whirlwind’. Time, sensibilities, dogmas were all different. It’s difficult to criticise what young men did then with the morals of today.

Somethings, of course are hard to justify. The bombing of Dresden is hard to countenance. And this itself had an effect not only on the civilians on the ground but also those involved in the event from the air. To find out what you have done can be difficult for someone to come to terms with…and to see the effects of the whole thing; everything that you and your peers are involved in; to face those dangers time and time and time again, that must be almost unimaginable to face. And for those who couldn’t take it any longer, who just couldn’t handle it all, and to go mad as a result and then be tarred with the brush of having a ‘Lack of Moral Fibre’…cruel. The whole thing is cruel.

But war is cruel. Evil things are done in war. They always have been. They always will be. That is the whole point of war, to destroy and kill. And the people who are involved in fighting wars have to be a special kind of people. No matter what stigma they were given, not one of them; not one man who had to fly in those aircraft and face those dangers and fight and fight and fight have a lack of anything.

They are all heroes to me. They are all greats. If they won a gallantry medal, or if they just did their job mission after mission after mission. They did what they had to do, and they all, particularly the 55,573 who died doing it, deserve to be honoured by a memorial. They deserve to be remembered and we deserve to hear their stories. We MUST hear their stories before they are all lost to time.

Even if that monument is overdue…a permanent memorial to the 55,573 who died has finally been built and it’ll be unveiled next week.

It’s about time.

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You can hear a snatch of audio from my chat with Ron by clicking on this link…You can stream the audio or you can download it and listen again and again. It’s worth the download.

Names on a wall…

20,456.

Just a number.

A fairly big number.

It’s slightly more than the price of a new Ford Mondeo (£18,100). It’s not quite as big as the number of miles around the circumference of the Earth (24,901 miles).

But it’s still a big number. But what is it significant for? Why so important?

It’s the number of names carved onto the walls of the Air Forces Memorial at Runnymede, in Surrey. Each of those names is a member of a Commonwealth Air Force who flew or fought in Northern Europe, and who has no know grave. They are the Missing of the Royal Air Forces that took the war to Germany, between 1939 and 1945.

It’s hard to imagine that number of people. It’s the population of a small town. It’s more than the average attendance of a Championship football match. Just imagine. If you went to watch Forest play Birmingham, you’d have been in a crowd of 20,556. All of them gone. Missing. No grave. No tomb. No where to be laid at rest.

It’s staggering. It’s sobering.

Built in the 1950’s it lists 20,456 names. Each name an airman or airwoman. Each name a person without a grave. Each name a person with a story, a life, and a death.

These sorts of numbers are staggering. Hard to get your head around. Difficult to comprehend. And when you visit, and you SHOULD visit, you’ll find a beautiful and calm memorial near to Egham in Surrey, built onto the side of a hill over looking London, just near to the flight path of Heathrow.

And despite the noise of the aircraft taking off and landing at the countries busiest airport, there you’ll find an oasis of calm in a mad and rushed world; a sense of timelessness.  Built like a monastic cloister, with a central tower – reminiscent of an Air Traffic Control tower – there stands panel after panel after panel. Each listed with names. Name after name after name.  I am not going to pick out a name, or a story.  Each is as important as the other, no one stands out. No one should stand out.  Irrespective of rank, gender, role or organisation each should be remembered as one who gave his or her life in the ultimate human folly – war.

And below each panel is a small stone seat.  But often the seat has a picture, or a small posy of flowers, or a candle.  These maybe the names of the missing, but they are not the names of the forgotten.  This is a living memorial.  It is where the people – men and women – flyers and ground crew – of the Commonwealth Air Forces who have no grave are remembered by their families, often by generations who never knew or met them.

It is quite simply a beautiful place and it is a fitting memorial to the Missing.  A journey to pay homage to the men and women listed here is essential for all of us.  We should visit.  We should honour them, and as ever we should all remember them. All 20,456 of them.

Each name a story, each story a life, a death.

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The next blog in this series, coming soon, will be the first hand account of a Bomber Command Veteran Air Gunner. Keep checking back, or even better, subscribe to this blog to get new posts delivered to your email inbox.

Remember them…

70 years ago, Europe was in flames. Total war.

It’s hard to imagine a concept like Total War now. We are used to a different type of warfare, different combattants, different tactics. Assymetric Warfare. Counter Insurgency. Remote, limited conflicts far from our homes.

Then, however, the war was every where.  It was all encompassing.  And everyone was focussed on the goal of winning the struggle – a struggle described as a battle for survival; of good against evil.

It is easy to buy into this, because the regime of the enemy was clearly evil. Based upon a dogma of hate. Terrible acts were perpetrated by some in the name of their ‘Reich’. But it was more than just that. Some of the enemy were not evil. Some were just young men conscripted to fight, who may not have believed in the ideals of the command.

And sometimes the ‘good’ did bad things. Maybe not evil, but certainly questionable things. But are those things only questionable in the light of 20:20 vision of history?

Take the air dimension for instance. In this, thousands…hundreds of thousands…of casualties occurred. And with today’s view, this is un-imaginable. It’s simply almost impossible to comprehend that many casulaties. 65,000 British civilains, 67,000 French, 400,000 Germans – 25,000 in Dresden alone.

We can look at event like Dresden and say that it was wrong, that it was a crime. But that is unfair. It was a different time, and it’s difficult to put yourself in the place of someone who was there at the time. The British had seen London, and other cities like Liverpool and Plymouth, pounded, and of course had seen the center of Coventry destroyed by German bombing raids. If you had been there, would you not have stood up and agreed with Arthur Harris who told the nation that the enemy had ‘sown the wind’ and will now ‘reap the whirlwind’?

Different times, different values.

One thing is certain though. ALL deserve to be remembered. Because by remembering, we see the pointlessness and the waste of war. The deeds done by those who fought were great, even if ideals behind them were not always perfectly noble. But in a time of Total War, everyone fought. And everyone deserves to be remembered and commemorated.

Those on the ground in Dresden are commemorated, likewise in Coventry. But there exists no memorial to the 55,573 members of Bomber Command crews who died, and they deserve to be remembered.

And finally a memorial to those crews is being built in Green Park, in London, and this opens very soon.

It is overdue. Whatever the politics and the ethics of what went on, the fact is that the participants need to be remembered. It is right and fitting that the memorial has been built.

And it is right and fitting that, at last, the crews of Bomber Command who conributed so much to the war effort – and argueably bringing the war to a swifter close – are to be honoured.

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This is the first of a series of Posts scheduled to coincide with the opening of the new Bomber Command memorial. Keep checking back for updates, or better still, sign up as an email subscriber by clicking in the box over on the sidebar on the left of the homepage.

Crosswinds…

The weather recently has been truly terrible for some. Down here in the south of England it’s not been too bad, but in the north of Britain I understand that the storms have been really bad, with very high winds – so high that even a wind turbine exploded because of it and there is a fabulous picture showing an aircraft making a landing where each wheel touched the ground one after another; left wheel, right wheel and then nose wheels…rather than the more standard main gear and then nose gear. It certainly makes for a bumpy landing, AND it certainly takes a lot of skill on the pilots behalf to do.

I saw this sort of landing for myself once, but done by a much smaller aircraft – the Tornado F3 jet. It was back in my days working on 29(F) Squadron and we were undertaking a ‘trail’ back home from a deployment out in America. I was lucky enough to be selected to be on the ‘Trail’ rather than on the main body of transport home.

The trail is the route that the aircraft take to come home, particularly if it is a long journey. It normally consists of an ‘Advance Party’ sent on a Herc C-130 or C-17, the ‘Main’ consisting of the majority of the squadron being deployed and the aircraft themselves, and then a ‘Rear’ or ‘Sweeper’ party following along. Generally the Main Party of ground crew fly straight home in one go and the Advance and Sweeper look after the aircraft on route.

I was on the Advance and we’d flown ahead of the F3’s to arrive and set up a servicing team for when they arrived at each stage of the route home. We’d been in Vegas for 6 weeks (OH! the hardship!) and the trail back was a mission. Vegas to Little Rock in Arkansas for a refuelling stop, Little Rock to Bermuda for an overnighter (It’s a tough life!) and then Bermuda to Larges in the Azores for another overnighter, with the final hop being the Azores back to the UK and the base at Coningsby.

We arrived at Larges airport and found it to be…well…the best way to describe it was as just a massive flat expanse of tarmac. The ‘pan’ was just about the biggest concrete area I had ever seen, with pretty much nothing for what seemed like miles in every direction. It was a bit…desolate. The C-130 had parked itself where it had been directed and we waited for the jets.

It was already breezy.

As the afternoon wore on and we made the preparations for the aircraft to arrive (unloading a few boxes from the pallet on the Herc containing earthing leads for the aircraft, chocks and a few tool kits) the wind slowly picked up. We then received news that not all the aircraft had taken off from Bermuda. One had gone unserviceable there due to an engine fault and was being worked on by the rear party. That would follow along with the Rear Party aircraft (which luckily was capable of air-to-air refuelling (AAR) it as it went along). The rest – 5 aircraft were inbound along with the VC-10 tanker that had done their AAR.

Well, actually given a twist of fate, the VC-10 is actually FASTER than the F3’s were. The VC-10 has a ‘Super-cruise’ that means it can fly faster and higher than an F3 when cruising long distances. It basically meant that it had done it’s job of re-fuelling the smaller jets in flight, and then had left them behind and flown on to the Azores. It landed a good hour before the F3’s were due.

But this itself, had created a problem. The wind that I had talked about had also picked up out in the Atlantic and it was a head wind. It meant that the jets were fighting against the wind and were using more fuel to make progress against it. A LOT of fuel. And it transpired that they were using more fuel than they had thought and that the only place they could make it to with the fuel load they had left was the Azores. They couldn’t divert. Which was now a real problem, as the wind on the ground at Larges airport was now dangerously strong.

And it was a cross wind. The one runway at Larges was roughly at 90 degrees to the direction of the now very strong – almost gale force winds. The storm clouds were gathering, and looking really nasty and menacing, like they were planning to do some serious storming about. We, on the ground, decided to hide inside the Herc. Whilst it wasn’t raining yet, it was clear that within a very short time it was going to rain. A LOT.

People anxiously looked at the sky. And then at their watches. They looked out towards the west to see if there was any sign of the gaggle of jets. Nothing. Then the rain began. A short sharp shower. Thankfully we stayed dry on the ‘Fat Albert’ as it pelted down, and it was just a short shower. A precursor of what was to come.

And then a vehicle turned up. It was the ‘Follow Me’ van that would direct the jets to he parking slots next to us. I asked if I could sit in (I was only a young Junior Technician back in those days) and was told I could have a ride along to bring the jets back. I could also be on hand should there be any problems with the jets between landing and taxiing their parking slot.

With the Portuguese driver and a liaison officer we drove to the end of the runway and awaited the jets. He turned to me and said that the jets had a serious problem. The air traffic control were going to shut the runway! It was considered to be too dangerous for aircraft to land given the stormy conditions and the cross wind.

The only problem was that there was no-where else for the jets still airborne to go to. They were now on the vapours of their fuel tanks and given the Azores location in, pretty much the middle of no-where in the Atlantic, they had no fuel to go anywhere else. ATC couldn’t shut the airfield. The F3’s would simply HAVE to land there. Wind or no wind.

And then there they were. Five small dots on the horizon. Getting slowly larger. They wouldn’t even have enough fuel to fly over the airport and get an idea of the conditions. They would just have to come in and land. Or try to. From my viewpoint at the end of the runway I could see how they were being buffeted by the wind and how the gusts were blowing them off their landing course.

And how the pilots were having to correct for this by flying as much into the wind as they could.

Take a look up from the screen you are reading on for a second. Imagine a straight line along the floor stretching out in front of you. That’s your 12 o’clock. That’s the runway. Stick your hand out and imagine that it’s an aircraft about to land there. Normally the aircraft glides down in the straight line on top of the runway – called a glide-path – and lands on it. An imaginary line coming out of the front of you hand (itself an imaginary aircraft) lines up with the OTHER imaginary line that is the runway.

But the wind was blowing from the side, meaning that the aircraft was being blown by the wind to the side, so the lines no longer match up. To over come this the aircraft flies into the wind to correct for being blown sideways. Still with your hand out in front of you (don’t worry people around WON’T think you are mad in the slightest) imagine that the wind is blowing from your left.

So like the aircraft did, fly your hand into the wind and turn it to the left. Now imagine that the wind is really strong…really, really strong, and you’ll have to turn your hand quite a lot to the left to overcome it.

This is what the aircraft were doing. As well as being blown sideways they were now also descending, AND being hit by gusts of wind and turbulence that also pushed them up and down.

Like on a rollercoaster they flew in and down…crabbing their way through the sky at, from my view point, what looked like about 30-45 degrees to the runway. This was now really dangerous…because this angle was too much for the runway. If they touched the ground at this angle then they runway simply wasn’t wide enough for the aircraft to be able to touch it’s main gear down and then drop the nose and then steer to the right to get back in line with the runway…they’d simply shoot off the side of the narrow strip of tarmac…and crash!

A really. bad. thing.

So as they came down, one at a time, I saw quite simply the very best bit of flying I have ever seen (well, ok second best – that belonged to a Flt Lt Lee Fox who beat up the pan at Cyprus once), but was repeated five times by five different pilots.

Each one came in like the first, crabbing through the air, buffeted and blown and battered by the wind. At what looked to be terrible angle to the runway…but just at the very last minute…hell, last second…the pilot, just as the mail wheels were about to hit the floor slung the aircraft around into line with the runway.

Quickly the nose wheel came down and the aircraft decelerated down the runway to where we were waiting.

Each jet came in and did the same, each one making the best landing possible given the atrocious conditions. I marvelled at them. It must have been a hell of a ride…but not one I would particularly like to have taken. And by the faces of the pilots who, to a man, looked completely wiped out from the experience, not one they wanted to repeat.

You can keep your Red Arrows. Flying into an airport on reserve fuel, into a crosswind, after flying for hours across the Atlantic…and landing into the beginnings of a storm. Those guys were the real deal. For once, as we carried out the servicings of the aircraft as the crews were driven off to find a beer somewhere, I didn’t begrudge them that beer whilst I was still working. They’d bloody deserved it.

Remember…

It’s an odd world we live in.  Events often unfold around us and we find ourselves in situations that are banal, interesting, exciting…sometimes even noteworthy…perhaps momentous.  The stock that we, and indeed our society puts on these events is down to the interest and importance we place in them.  What might be momentous to one…is banal to another.

I have found myself part of the Imperial War Museum’s War Story Exhibit.  When I was on my R&R I was asked by the IWM and the RAF to take part and to be interviewed on camera.  I was at first a bit shocked that I had been asked, and then a bit proud to have been…and then…

…and then I went along to the opening of the exhibition.  Well actually I went along to have a look at the exhibit before the grand opening, to check it out on the quiet, but then that evening I went to the opening event where the great and the good – and me – spoke great words, and I wandered about in pretty much the same bemused way that I did that afternoon.

There I was. Me. In the exhibit.  Me on camera.  People can go up and choose to listen to the words I spoke about things that happened to me in Afghanistan this year.  About what happened when the lad got blown up in the IED blast.  About what it was like to go outside the wire for the first time.  About what I did when I arrived home for my R&R. And they can watch me and listen to me chatter away about these things.

But here’s the thing.  I am there in the Grand Hall of the Imperial War Museum.  Alongside a First World War Tank.  Under a Spitfire.  Next to a Polaris Missile.  There’s a picture of me on the wall there.  On the same wall as a picture of a group of airmen from the 1940’s – dressed in Mae Wests and flying suits, clearly airmen from the Battle of Britain or similar.  There are other pictures and exhibits around the hall.  All things and people that are greater than what I.  Even the other people in the exhibition are greater and better and did more than I did.  They speak of the firefights they were in.  Of the friends they lost.  Of the fear of combat.  I just went to Afghanistan and did some stuff was NEAR to someone getting IED’d, was shot at from a long way away and with ineffective fire – most of projects and work I did didn’t even get finished by the time I left.  And then I had the balls to blather on about it to anyone who would listen.

I am truly humbled to be part of that exhibition.  I am also a bit embarrassed by it too.  Why do I deserve to be there? I don’t.  It’s just because I can’t keep my bloody mouth shut that I am.  Others should be there.  Someone better, someone who did more.  Someone who saved someone else’s life, or found a thousand IEDs, or built something that actually worked out there should be in it. Not a gobby chancer like me.

And then the time of year it is struck me too.  I was lucky to go out there and come home unhurt. I won’t say unscathed by it, because one of the reasons that I haven’t blogged for a while is that I have had a huge writers blog brought on by the fact that I feel guilty about not having done more out there.  I went there and did my best, but, I can’t help feeling that my best wasn’t good enough.  I could have done more.  I went there saying it was a test for me…and I can’t help feeling like I failed that test.  At least I didn’t live up to my  own expectations.

You see others out there – that I knew personally – who were better than me didn’t come home.  I met Dooner and JJ From 1 Rifles out there and instantly was amazed about how brilliant soldiers they were. But they didn’t come home to meet their families again.  Several other guys – including one other, Danny – all brilliant, brilliant soldiers got themselves hurt with life shattering injuries, and me, a daft Raffy who struggled with the heat and the kit and the gear and the going made it through unharmed.

And I am the one in the Exhibition Hall of the Imperial War Museum.  It’s more than bizarre. It’s more than wrong.

My record will be there for a year, their record will be in their families lives forever.  Theirs SHOULD be in the countries lives forever.  They did amazing, brave, heroic and self-sacrificing things.  I did not.

Remember them, and remember every other British and Commonwealth soldier, sailor, airman and marine who has given everything they can for this country.  And remember that for every one of those who died, there are many, many more who are still suffering, either physically scarred by battle, mentally battered by war, or just now aged and infirm and unable to help themselves anymore.

Please remember everyone of them this November 11th (and again on Sunday November 13th). It’s only a few minutes of your time, and if you can maybe a couple of quid into the Royal British Legion’s Poppy Appeal too.  I certainly will be thinking about them and their families this year…and not thinking about much else.

Rankism…

It was an interesting day in work today. I was doing my usual day job, which is pretty dull on the face of it, but does allow me to work with a wide range of people from across the station.  In today’s case I was doing work with the Station Operations Personnel, looking at how they do their Flight Operations stuff. It’s interesting in a way as it is far, far away from my trade of Avionics Technician – but it’s been so long since I actually DID any Avionics Techie-ing I consider my trade title to be Avionics (Retired).

But I digress.  The team I am working with has a wide range of people in it, from Senior Aircraftman (SAC) – which ironically even though it has the word ‘Senior’ in the title is actually quite a lowly rank – all the way through and up to a Squadron Leader.  Indeed at the very start of the ‘event’ we had the direction for the activity set by a Wing Commander, but he left after about 30 minutes of briefings.  The wide range also stretched to having both males and females in the room and a wide age range from the SAC’s in their twenties up to the Sqn Ldr who – and I am guessing was in his early 50’s.

And the way they all worked got me to thinking about rank, and how it works…and how sometimes it doesn’t. About how although rank is necessary and important – hey it’s expected, we are a military force, sometimes it can be a barrier to the way it operates and how it can demotivate personnel.  I know I’ve blogged about this before when it came to calling my old boss by his first name…but this time it was a topic of conversation that took my thoughts in a different direction.

Firstly the Sqn Ldr was very ‘Old School’.  He had a really easy-going manner, but a clinical sharp edge to him. He had a way of standing that was very…well…very much like how a Sqn Ldr should.  He actually reminded me of the way that Richard Attenborough played Roger Bushell in The Great Escape – although the character in the film was named Bartlett. (Watch it, for two reasons; one you can get an idea of how this Sqn Ldr today stood and two it’s a bloody ace film…) I just got a feeling that this Sqn Ldr would be like Bushell. No nonsense, clear, fair, down the line. He was clearly good at his job and was quick to make a decision, but he took prompts from the team and listened to what they had to say first.  He just came across as a ‘good egg’.  The sort of person you’d like to have as a boss.

Unlike the person who was the topic of conversation just a few minutes later.  Clearly there are all sorts in the RAF. Good eggs, indifferent eggs, and bad eggs.  Good leaders, average ones and not so good ones that do somehow seem to have made the grade but then failed to live  up to their potential.  And this one seemed like one that was a person who would NOT be so great to work for.

And it’s odd, because the story I am going to tell is almost exactly the same thing as happened to me about 12 years ago, as happened to one of the SAC’s who was in the room today.

She told us that she was the only SAC in the her particular office – in fact other than her boss, a Flight Lieutenant – she was the only person in the workplace.  And one day the phone rang. She answered it in the usual way we do in the Forces, by saying the name of where she worked, and then gave her rank and name.

Down the other end of the line there was a slight silence…and then an “Oh…” Followed by more silence.

“Can I help you?” said the SAC.

“Well, actually, can I speak to someone senior? Are any of your Grown Ups there?”

And this, quite rightly offended the SAC a bit. You see, it’s just a little bit rude.  It sort of discounts you as a person, as an individual, as a professional at your job.  It basically says – I am far more important that you. I have something very important to say and I want to speak to someone there who is as important as me, and quite frankly I don’t think you are important enough to help me.  You can take it a bit further and say that the person at the other end of the line assumes you are pretty useless just because of your rank. The thing that makes it worse is when the person calling doesn’t ask for a named person. Just a rank. Can I speak to someone else is, at the end of the day, just rude. I know that people can be busy, and that they might have important and urgent things to discuss, but as the saying goes “it’s nice to be important, but it’s just as important to be nice”.  Even in the military…these things are important.  For instance what if one day that SAC finds herself working for that other person…will there be any respect there? Does the senior person deserve any respect? Maybe the RANK deserves respect…but does the person.  By negating an individual just because of his or her rank…well that negates pretty much everything that they do.

And pretty much the same thing happened to me. In fact I have two instances. I was a Junior Technician (ironically a higher rank than an SAC, even though it has Junior in the title!) and there was a vacancy on the Tea Bar committee on the squadron I worked on to be the Treasurer of the Fund.  Not a difficult job, but fairly high-profile, and I was keen to help out, and I was keen to get on by taking on extra “Secondary” duties. I told my boss, who thought it was a good idea, but was then told that “because Jnr Tech Airman is not a Corporal he can’t be a treasurer of a fund.  The rules state that he can’t handle that amount of cash. To do so he needs to be at least a Cpl.” This really hurt me as the sort of cash limits they were talking about was a fund of about £500-£1000 or so, not a great deal, particularly as I had just taken a mortgage out on my house for £50,000. So I could have a mortgage but not run a fund of £1000 just because of WHAT I was not who I was. My bank thought I was a safe bet, but the organisation I worked for didn’t…

The second instance of this Rankism was an almost carbon copy of what happened to the SAC from earlier.  I worked on a Trials and Development team when I was still a Junior Technician and the only other person in work was my newly posted in Sergeant. He had made a quiet entrance into the Bay, but our first impression of him was that he was a fairly good egg. We were right, he was a fantastic chap, and a great leader too. He’d been on the team for about a week and was still pretty much clueless about the equipment simply because he didn’t know the system. And the phone rang. I answered it and got a similar thing said to me as the SAC. “Can I speak to someone senior?” Disgruntled and slightly annoyed I handed the phone to the Sarge who listened to the person speak for a while and then did something that made me love him forever…

“Sir,” he said down the phone, “Can I just stop you there, as I haven’t a clue what you are talking about as I’ve only been here a week. I think you should have a chat to Junior Technician Airman here, he’s been here for two years. He knows the kit better than me” and without listening for a reply he passed the phone over to me…

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