An Informal Description of the Environment of 122 Wing During the Cold War
by Al Pollock
1:1,000,000 scale 1957 flying map from Al's logbook
1:1,000,000 scale 1957 flying map from Al's logbook
RAF Jever in the north and Ahlhorn in the south have been ringed. The airfield at Oldenburg can be seen under halfway between these bases. The distinctive spade-shaped Jade Basin and Wilhelmshaven to the east, with the Friesian Islands off the north coast of Western Germany, were clear guides to one’s position on those rare days of partially clear weather.
July 1957 to June 1958: 2nd TAF’s thinning skies
My brief but enjoyable 11 months’ transfer to and time on No. IV )AC) Squadron in 122 Wing at Jever lay between two split tour periods on 26(AC) Squadron, from just before 26’s disbandment to rejoining when 26 was reformed at Ahlhorn. That era’s background context was partly caused by the post-Suez political and financial crisis of 1956 – this helped to trigger the sickening thud into 2nd TAF of the Sandys Defence Review Axe in April 1957. Most of us in Germany felt 2nd TAF was the sharp forward end of air defence, even though we usually lagged behind UK and Fighter Command on Hunter modifications and most other priorities.
This profound blow, on what later became RAF Germany on 1st January 1959, fell quickly between April and September 1957, reducing 2nd TAF’s operational capability by subtracting all six of our Venom fighter bomber squadrons and nine of the thirteen Hunter Squadrons: 67, 71, 112 & 130 disbanded within weeks at Brűggen, 3 & 234 Sqns within three months at Geilenkirchen, 98 and 118 at Jever by July and August, and 26 Squadron on 10th September from Oldenburg, before first 20 Sqn and then 14 Sqn moved to Ahlhorn later that month. This is mentioned as these cuts firstly meant a drastic decline in the number of upper air formations of fours, sixes and eights to tangle with, which had been such a key and attractive element in our fighter squadron training. Secondly there was a temporary swelling of the two remaining Hunter Wings, each now with only two squadrons, 4 and 93 at Jever matching 14 and 20 at Ahlhorn. The two Venom Wings, Celle’s FB1 16, 94 and 145 Sqns and the FB4 5, 11 and 266 Sqns at Wunstorf, would have disappeared by mid October and mid November respectively. By the end of 1958, Wahn, Celle, Bückeburg, Oldenburg, Wunstorf and Ahlhorn had all been handed back to the Luftwaffe.
Overall, RAF Germany’s squadron strength would thus fall from three dozen in 1956 to only one dozen in 1961. By September 1961, No.14, the last air defence Hunter squadron would have been disbanded to become, by the re-numbering of 88 Sqn, a Canberra B(I)8 Squadron at Wildenrath.
Before the close of 1958, Wahn, Celle, Bückeburg, Oldenburg, Wunstorf and Ahlhorn were all returned to the Luftwaffe. 2nd TAF’s squadron strength also had fallen from three dozen RAF squadrons in 1956 to just one dozen in 1961. By September 1961, No.14, the last air defence Hunter squadron would have been disbanded to become 88’s re-numbered 14 Sqn as a Canberra B(I)8 Squadron at Wildenrath.
No. IV (AC) Squadron’s Hunter F Mk4 aircraft replaced its Sabre F 4s in July / August 1955 and then operated its Hunter F Mk 6s from February, 1957to December, 1960. After Four’s disbandment at Jever , there was a same day reformation at Gűtersloh, replacing 79 Squadron’s number plate on 30th December, 1960 followed with its re-equipping with Hunter FR 10s (and Swift FR 5s for nearly three months) until once again its disbandment on 30th May, 1970 and reformation, this time with Harrier GR1s at Wildenrath before returning once more to Gűtersloh. Counting in its UK Echelon’s few months at West Raynham with F/GA 9s paving the way, No. IV in this parallel sense was the only squadron to be equipped with all ‘Four’ mainstay Hunters, the F Mks 4 & 6, the FR 10 and F/GA 9 and served longest with the Hunter.
The early Hunter’s role was as a fighter, like that predominantly on my mere eleven months on Shiny Four in 1957/58 and 26 (AC) Squadron on its reformation at Ahlhorn and on to Gűtersloh. This was an instant transition from the Mk 4, with its occasional surge problems, often at high angles of attack as on breaks towards one at high altitude, not invariably with too rapid throttle movements, to the much more powerful Mk 6. The Hunter Mk 6’s performance was quickly negated somewhat by our usually always flying with our inboard 100 gallon tanks fitted unless we were up at Sylt for our much prized Armament Practice Camps, firing competitively at 10,000ft and 20,000ft and, less certainly, for our quarter attacks against towed flags at an occasional 25,000ft. The formidable punch from our four 30mm Aden guns had evolved, once teething problems, mainly at altitude, were cured – about 1958 we went over from low velocity to high velocity ammunition which helped scores but using well adjusted radar ranging took much longer. When VIPs or overseas visitors arrived on a Hunter station from the introduction of the Mk 1 to early Mk 6 usage in both UK and overseas Commands, a formal demonstration would regularly take place on the squadron pans, sometimes as a race between two or more squadron teams. This would display well the aircraft’s unique and supremely fast operational turnround, ably assisted by its quickly replaceable gun packs – a system so impressively faster than its competitors. Once the 100 gallon and later the F/GA Mk9’s 230 gallon inboard tanks were in regular use, dramatically extending the average sortie’s flight time on the Squadrons, these formal demonstrations became quite rare. The most height I clawed my way up to in a Hunter F Mk6 was 54,000ft and that was with empty inboards, although, for flight safety and decompression purposes, we were advised to stay at or below 48,000ft – in practice sections were able to fly defensively safer and faster at .9M lower than 45,000ft.
Scramble times and 'Trade', normal and clandestine
On 7 April 1958 at Jever, with No.4 (AC) Squadron. I have one Battle Flight scramble time noted, paired with Dickie Barraclough, when we recorded 2 minutes and 33 seconds - this independently timed actual scramble was from the upstairs crewroom to one's aircraft cockpit, already personally prepared and checked, with one’s parachute and security harnesses adjusted and laid waiting and alert groundcrews - a good time for Jever’s long parallel taxy track to airborne. We were at '5 minutes readiness' - a respectable three minutes or so was normal from squawk box notification in Shiny Four's first floor crewroom to 'wheels up'. Once the first pair had scrambled on Battle Flight duty, the second pair at 30 minutes came on and up to a 5 minutes readiness and a further pair 30 minutes.
Among interesting if frustrating Battle Flight scramble sorties were those when we would see a glint about 30 or 40 miles away, just before a new and most authoritative voice would suddenly break in and turn us most firmly and promptly away from these ‘clandestine inbounds', which we never discussed too much but obviously knew exactly what was going on, with a ‘rather them than us’ feeling. Decades later we would discover that some of the pilots might well have been among our earlier posted 2nd TAF colleagues.
For a justifiably successful claim of killing film, one needed a well-ranged and tracking pipper steady on the target aircraft for a full two seconds - it was bad form to claim incorrectly, even more so of other Hunters on desperate fly through shots etc in dogfights. The normal 2TAF 1957-59 ciné interception diet would be any mix of Meteor NF 11s and Javelin FAW 1s and 5s, Vampires and Venoms, F-86 Sabres mostly RCAF 6’s and then some of their 75 Sabre 5’s transferred to and flown by the embryo Luftwaffe, USAF F-100 Super Sabres (their un-reheated cruise was noticeably slower than our normal operating speeds), Fairchild C-119 Flying Boxcars both USAF and sometimes Belgian AF, the odd French Ouragan or even Mystère, plenty of Canadian and a few Belgian Canuck CF-100's, USAF T-33s, F-84 Thunderjets and increasingly, as the German Air Force expanded, many RF-84Fs, and on routine ‘Amled’ Exercises and others, we would attack Canberras galore - we would see and film unmolested quite a few USAF Douglas RB-66 Destroyers or the USN equivalent, A3D Sky Warriors, and once I claimed a Martin USAF B-57, plus later the very first 2ATAF claim on 6 April, 1959 of a Convair F-102 Delta Dagger within days of their arrival, although his aircraft in my 500yd gunsight picture rapidly selected afterburners to accelerate beyond firing range.
Apart from the still low east-west airway to the north of the German coast, any aircraft above or even often just leaving the ground was considered fair game to attack in those days - 4 & 93 Sqn pairs taking off at Jever would often be seen with our outwards turning into wide battle formation as the undercarriages were retracting. There was an inevitable reduction in the number of both planned and impromptu high level engagements between sizeable formations of battle eights and sixes in middle to late 1957 with the reduction of so many other RAF squadrons. Gradually to supplement combat and tailchasing, we would transfer from the earlier conventional ciné quarter attacks at 25,000 ft to 40,000 ft ciné gun tracking exercises on a standardised 1 v 1 evasive descending banking and climbing reversal pattern of ‘Chinese’ quarters, easier to assess accurately for pilot proficiency and more operationally realistic at higher Mach numbers.
All 2nd TAF fighter and night fighter Squadrons would go up to RAF Sylt for our twice yearly Armament Practice Camp at the holiday island of Sylt, right up close to the Danish border with our firing competitively at 10,000 and 20,000ft against flag targets towed by Meteor TT20s - firing at 25,000ft was iffy but possible and it would be mostly 1959 before 2nd TAF Hunters were using our radar ranging to better effect. After the delights of air firing at Sylt in August, we flew by flights up to Schleswigland in mid September for Exercise Brownjug, which would be thought, for many years and pre-Harrier, as the final tented detachment, with memories of our having to taxy well apart to avoid engine damage there and this being the final hurrah of Venoms also detached there with us. Brownjug was split between high level sweeps and low level strikes, the latter carefully planned to avoid the many Danish mink farms, where aircraft noise, we were briefed, would have caused expensive claims as mink, if startled, would swallow their young.
The launching of ‘Sputnik’ in October 1957 was quite a wake-up call about advancing Soviet technology in aerospace. Practice interceptions (PIs), as much if not more for the benefit of the radar controllers were another staple fare besides Battle Flight duties and by the year end we were beginning to concentrate more regularly on air to ground firing at the Meppen range.
The figure Four in the fourth month, April 1958, certainly figured strongly on Shiny Four’s detachment to No. 4 Canadian Wing at Baden Soellingen in 4th ATAF with 444 RCAF Squadron, rather spoiled by Four’s less than ideal Hunter serviceability but highly useful to see at first hand and in good numbers, the 7,275 lb thrust, Orenda-engined Canadair Sabre Mk.6 in operation with good altitude performance and with its impressive wing leading edge slats, which any sensible Hunter pilot would only see the once at altitude to learn the lesson not to tangle, stay and play or a Hunter would be dead meat, given the Sabre 6’s excellent low-speed turning characteristics. To nail Sabres with their canopies’ better rear vision and flown by our Canadian friends, we would have to use our Avon’s power advantage, better speed and diving acceleration to keep our Mach number up. Our near inviolate, developed engagement norms for taking on Sabre formations would be: (a) fast in, fast out (b) you only have sixty degrees or so of azimuth to safely track and kill in following their break before one’s needing to rapidly dive out below and re-position by climbing up-sun (c) never stay and play – bewitchingly slatted in turns or not, the Sabre, like the Venom at high altitude, was a helpful dissimilar combat teacher.
V-Bomber Interceptions, particularly if we were using our anti- jamming Green Salad equipment, were always great fun, as noted when we were majoring on easier Valiants in 'Exercise Fullplay' in June 1958, using successive mission numbers. The beauty of the V-Bombers, particularly the Victor and Vulcan, in a late evening or early morning sky could only be described as truly ethereal. The Victor’s tailplane conveniently was an identical 34 foot span, the same as our Hunter’s wingspan so one had a choice of tracking opportunities. From necessity we experimented and this far more with Vulcans than Victors at high level with unorthodox overtaking type attacks from well ahead. This was to speed up the time and catch- up ranges taken to complete some sort of attack – diving down would bring one overtaking on track but at the cost of losing height. From below and ahead we would then pull up, craning our heads backwards and above, in the hope for a raking fly-through firing burst opportunity . . . . not the safest of attacks. These manoeuvres, often after shortening too lengthy a chase, and with usage of flap during the last seconds of pull up, must have caused raised eyebrows, if they had ever been seen.
Even more instructive so was a rather sheepish learning experience I had from a seemingly good idea to firstly sucker-bait a compliant Brockzetel radar controller by sycophantically obeying and applauding his first three singleton practice interceptions with the standard offset head on procedures. Immediately after these, I demanded, as authoritatively as I could, a head on attack for my next interception. Without knowing anything of what my unsuspecting quarry would be but subsequently glad there were no witnesses, I was being positioned with extra height. Thus I was set up to try this bunting head on attack in my Hunter at .92 to .95M against what turned out to be one of Strategic Air Command General Curtis LeMay’s RB-52s. I would certainly never forget that explosive expansion of this target, twixt my windscreen and the quite impossible gun sighting problem at our combined closing speed of 1.65M, with that lightning glimpse of the Stratofortress’s cabin area flash below – perhaps I should have been attacking at minimum speed but at least I had rapid control for collision avoidance.
The Hunter’s 10 minute Operational Turnround
The speed and usefulness of the ‘just possible' 10 minutes, to land, refuel and re-arm on ‘Operational Turnround’ from touchdown to taxy out, take-off and airborne wheels up on the next sortie, was one of the Hunter's finest attributes. Marshalled into dispersal and facing an Armament Practice Camp sand revetment or safe area over the airfield, the pilot shuts down his Hunter, and is rapidly double chocked amid a blur of eager armourers and technicians. The procedural maze of orders, grunts and shouts of the tumround team coalesce into the race of refuellers, riggers, engine mechs, instrument bashers and electricians, all in one converging swarm of activity around, below, level and above one's gaze. The ladder is up and ejection pins are in, as that other last symphonic engine whine and gradual wind-down reaches one's ears in the open cockpit, with the combined throttle and High Pressure Cock already off as that haunting and distinctively de-syncopated Avon music clatters into its finale swirl of ever looser compressor blades and the cooling hot metal jet pipe - noisier lower revolutions drop back to a quietened nought.
One's arms are already up and out, clearly in view of the canopy coaming, as one shouts “Guns - all switches safe”- the wheel well arming circuit safety break plug and flag hanging down are made safe as the front panel drops as fuses are held up. The down prop must quickly be fixed into and under the rear fuselage to allow the unbalancing gunpack’s weight to be dropped out. The empty forked hydraulic lift trolley comes in, with the Sabrina panels now down, grounding with that soft aluminium scraping and the rattling of those black gunmetal ammunition links being spilled and emptied. The massive 30mm cartridge cases had been ejected and spewed out down their chutes when the guns were fired in the air and were affectionately called “brass rain” by our own forward Army units upcountry in Aden.
The fuselage attachment drop point spindles, port and starboard, are fixed in to be able to hold the lowering and lifting winches now hooked on. All four Aden gun barrels have already been unlocked and drawn forward. The removable gun pack, winched up on both sides is crack-released and wire-wound down, initially with that slightly drunken sway, one way or the other, after the first few inches of ratchet drop takes its weight, eventually nestling onto the quick-kick-adjusted low semicircular cradle, for it to settle, barely a second before it is drag-wheeled out to the side.
A new replacement fully loaded and part fuselage gunpack comes back in and under that gaping incomplete fuselage, with the trolley repositioned underneath in seconds. That deadly pack of four Aden guns and an appropriate total of 480 or so practice ball ammo, High Explosive or Armour Piercing 30mm tray-positioned interlinked rounds within seconds is heard once more to be moving those few feet upwards, as that distinctive ratchet whir and winching noise again signals the heavy pack lifting slowly upwards under control from its cradle into position. The pack comes flush with the rest of the fuselage surfaces and its locating spigots, as the notes change with a brief two or three second hesitation before those final crisp whip-cracks announce positively that the torque limiters have just been exceeded, so the pack is locked safely up - the barrels are already being twist-locked into place.
More scurrying and watching for the bowser’s refuelling hose to be removed, oxygen replenished and trolley gone, starter cartridges (or later, AVPIN) topped up, rear fuselage prop gone and with the engine checks and turnround completed, and one’s own pre-starting checks run through as a last look around. A Form 700 to sign is thrust into the cockpit with a smile and a biro beneath one's nose, as you click in your new spare gunsight ciné magazine. With one’s helmet on and the pigtail lead connected, the ejection seat pins are removed, shown and stowed, before the airman descends and removes the steps from its fuselage top trap.
Ready to start and the thumbs up interrogation signal is acknowledged, and all under eight minutes or so - can't be bad. Press the tit and the cartridge fires (or that acrid, pungent hiss in the case of the F.6's Avpin), and we're cooking again with Avtur, after the airman’s safety check for fire and the starter vent panel’s dzus fasteners are locked once more. We’re ready to be on our way. The after-start checks in seconds, radio taxy call, brakes off and check curtsy, and off we go. We'll make 10 minutes from touchdown to take off this time - fancy actually being paid to do this as one's routine day job!