I quickly arranged for a test in Peterborough and, despite the fact I had been driving for a few years, I failed. I arranged another one and failed again. I then decided that I should try to take the test in my hometown of Newport and also undertake some driving lessons. The driving instructor quickly identified my problem, saying it was a combination of not knowing the town and that my driving was in fact too good to pass the test. Within a few lessons, I managed to change my driving habits to those expected by examiners and finally passed the test with a week or two to spare before I was posted.
On the 29th March 1973, exactly 2 years to the day I joined the RAF, I arrived at RAF Wildenrath, in Germany, to join No 20 Squadron (Sqn), who were one of 3 Harrier Squadrons at the base. Jackie, Mark and Emma joined me about 4 weeks later to live in a flat near RAF Geilenkirchen, which was about 15 miles from Wildenrath and close to the border with the Netherlands. We lived for a year in the flat before moving to a bigger house on the Geilenkirchen base.
20 Sqn was one of the oldest and amongst the most decorated of RAF Squadrons. It had been based at RAF Tengah, Singapore until the RAF withdrew from the Far East in 1970. It moved to Germany, that same year, where it operated Harriers. The Sqn is currently (2013) disbanded.
I spent 3 years at Wildenrath and during that time, was deployed to various locations within Germany and also went to Denmark once and 3 times to Decimomannu air base in Sardinia. It was on one of the trips to Sardinia that I managed to get a trip in the back seat of a Harrier. Being a clerk or ‘shiny as they called us, on the Sqn, one of my tasks was to co-ordinate those people who had been allocated a flight in the back seat of the 2-seat training aircraft. At Decimomannu the flight would almost certainly be a sortie on the nearby bombing range.
One day I had someone drop out of their designated flight, so despite me being terrified of heights and having a fear of flying, I volunteered to go instead. After receiving a safety briefing, I donned flying overalls, including an anti-g suit, helmet and oxygen mask, walked out to the flight line and climbed into the back seat of XW272, which was a 2 seat training version of the Harrier.
For someone who was not aircrew, I found it quite frightening sitting on a live ejector seat, waiting to take off. We were the last of 4 aircraft that had a particular slot on the bombing range, so we flew around a bit before doing our designated passes of bombs, rockets and guns. Dropping bombs and shooting rockets was not as spectacular as I anticipated it would be, however, when we fired Aden 30 mm guns, I was really surprised to feel the whole aircraft vibrate. After the last pass, we joined up with the other 3 to make our way back to base. Flying through the dramatic mountain ranges, I could see shepherds with their sheep that appeared to be above the height we were. We were so close I could see all the oil stains on the belly of the aircraft above and in front of us.
On the last pass, I thought to myself that it was good that I hadn’t been airsick. As soon as the word sick entered my mind, I was of course sick. Luckily I had brought a large polythene bag with me and managed to get the oxygen mask off before stuff poured out of my mouth. One of the ground crew had warned me that in no way was I to foul the mask, as it was an awful job to clean and very expensive to replace if cleaning was useless.
Coming in to land at Decimomannu, it seemed to me that we were approaching the runway at an alarming rate. I could also feel something tugging on my left leg, but I assumed it was the anti-g suit. The pilot asked me if I was messing with anything and I said no. As we got nearer to the runway, he asked me again, quite forcibly, if I was messing with anything. This time I noticed my left leg restraint had got caught over the lever that operated the nozzles and it was this that was tugging on my leg. I removed the restraint from the lever and told the pilot, just as we landed quite heavily on the runway. He had been trying to do a short landing by swiveling the nozzles using his lever, which I assume was mechanically connected to my lever. The leg restraint was preventing him doing this.
As we taxied back to the flight line, I proudly held up the polythene bag, full of its grisly contents, to the awaiting ground crew. When we stopped the aircraft and got out, the pilot asked me who had strapped me in and went storming off to see the see the poor junior pilot who had checked all was correct when I had got into the cockpit before the flight. It wasn’t his entire fault though as shortly after the RAF made a modification to the length of the leg restraints.
XW272 was eventually upgraded from a T2 to T4a and switched to 4 Sqn, when 20 Sqn switched to Jaguar aircraft. On 29th June 1982, the aircraft took off with the flaps retracted from a grass strip on the Bergen Hohne Range, West Germany. It climbed no more than 30 feet and continued forward in a nose down attitude until it crashed into trees. The pilot, Wing Commander Keith Graham Holland AFC, did not eject and was unfortunately killed.
Another time I flew in a 2-seat aircraft was when the Sqn spent a couple of weeks with the Danish Air Force at Karup, in Denmark. Again, I was helping to co-ordinate flights in aircraft. At Karup most of the flights were either Danish pilots wanting to fly in a Harrier or RAF pilots wanting a trip in a Draaken. When the offer of a trip in a Chipmunk came from the Danish Air Force, none of our pilots wanted to bother. To save embarrassment I offered to go in the Chipmunk. The Danish pilot had to courier some documents to another base; I think it was Skrydstrup, which was about 90 miles south of Karup.
The pilot gave me a parachute, which I donned over my RAF uniform and then walked, bent over from the weight of the parachute, to the small aircraft. When I got into the back seat of the cockpit, the pilot gave me a safety brief that essentially consisted of telling me that if we got into trouble, he would slide the canopy back and I had to climb onto a wing and jump. When he saw a rather worried expression on my face, he laughed and said that he would just turn the aircraft upside down, after he had slid the canopy back, so I could fall out.
The trip itself was amazing, flying through beautiful scenery at what appeared to be just a few hundred feet. At one stage, the pilot started to circle a house and I could see a woman waving to him. He told me that he did this trip at the same time every day and it was his wife doing the waving, from their house. When we landed at Skrydstrup, he hardly stopped the aircraft and just handed the bag of documents to a Danish airman who was running alongside the Chipmunk. Documents handed over; he started taxying to the runway and took off for the trip back to Karup. On the return leg, he took me a slightly different route flying along a river valley. Luckily I did not have to climb out onto the wings.
Other memories of my time in Germany were of the field deployments. Being part of the ground crew, I was expected to sleep in one of the 12-man tents, along with 11 others. I did this once and then decided I would kit out the back of the 4-ton truck that was used to transport the tents and radios for Engineering Control. I was the designated driver of the truck, so before the next deployment I managed to scrounge a couple of bunk beds, lots of wood, hessian and a few large rolls of polythene. I lined the tarpaulin with polythene to keep the rain out and then put a lining of hessian over the polythene to try and make it a bit warmer. I built a counter out of the wood, so the ground crew could sign the various aircraft documentation and could also store the radio equipment underneath. The bunk beds just about managed to fit across the truck, behind the cab. I also put a little hessian curtain in front of the beds for privacy.
None of the modifications were permanent, so if the truck needed to be used in between deployments, I would remove them and store at the Sqn hangar. Luckily my truck, registration 24-AJ-76, was hardly used other than by me, during my 3 years. Before long, my modified truck was the envy of those who had to sleep in tents. Those in the other Squadrons also copied the idea.
It was whilst I was in Germany, I took up playing guitar again, for a short time, albeit just in a made up Sqn band. We had 2-3 other guitarists that could sing and a drummer but no bass guitar. We mainly took our instruments on deployments and, along with a band made up from the aircrew, used to put on shows to ‘entertain’ if that’s the right word, the rest of the Sqn.
The shows proved to be so popular that the wives wanted to see what we did, so I organised a one-off show that was held in November 1975. A made-up ground crew band of Bernie Harris on tambourine, Geoff Munson on guitar, Barry Hadley on guitar and vocals, Arthur Russell on drums, Ken Evans on vocals and I on guitar, entertained 300 people in the Harrier Club in Wildenrath. The aircrew band also performed, but obviously we out-played them.
Left to Right: Barry Hadley, John ‘Ducksy’ Reardon, Bernie Harris & Geoff Munson
Performing the Supremes song ‘Dirty Old Man’. Lovely legs we all had.
I wrote a short article for Zulu, the RAF Wildenrath magazine and it was published in the March 1976 issue. I concluded the article with the words ‘I hope I will be remembered as the best guitarist Eng. Control has ever had’. I was certainly the only one.
One of the wives had written an article for the same magazine, the month before. She recalled of the night, that the various ‘talents’ of the Sqn were to show the ladies what they did in the way of amusement whilst on deployments and detachments. She had no doubt that the show was toned down for the ladies, but they were there to be entertained and entertained they were.
We took the shows to Sardinia and Denmark, as well as various locations around Paderborn in Germany. Our amplifiers and other equipment were packed away in the flight cases; we called lacons, along with aircraft spares. I am not sure whether they were ever checked by Customs, but if they were, they must have wondered what sort of fighting force we were supposed to be.
Some random pics from the shows, courtesy of Steve Hurle
20 Sqn Wildenrath 1973-1976