In 1959 I was at Jever on 93 FGA Squadron and I remembered an exciting incident when,
for the first time, I really thought I was going to war. Recently, I was checking up with
Pete Jennings who was on 4 Squadron at the time, to see if he could remember any details. To my delight he told me that he was the leader of the Battle Flight pair and he remembered the occasion very well. His number two was John Farley, who later became famous as the test pilot that developed the Harrier. The rest of the story is as Pete told it to me.
When it was RAF Jever's turn for Battle Flight duty, it was practice to mount two armed
Hunters, (at that time), on the
Pete Jennings flight
line in front of the hanger. The ejection seats were prepared for rapid strapping in and all the checks were done so that all the pilot had to do was to press the start button once he was cleared by the ground crew. Then he finished
strapping in, obtained take-off clearance and taxied out to the duty runway for a rolling take off. While on duty the two pilots were allowed to wait in the Squadron Operations room in the
hanger, and the scramble came through on the squawk box. They were allowed 5 minutes to
At the end of the duty period, the Battle Flight pair was often scrambled as a training exercise. This was just as they handed over to the night fighters and it meant that the two pilots did get some flying for that day. However this was never John Farley done in poor weather.
Sunday 6th December 1959 was a miserable day, bad fog and no forecast of improvement.
It was 4 Squadron's turn for Battle Flight duty and the first pair on were Pete and John. The rest of the single pilots were lounging around in the mess either trying to get over the night before or still asleep in bed. The married aircrew were at home doing whatever married aircrew do on a Sunday morning - washing the car and the children.
Pete checked in with the Duty Flight Authorising Officer Mike Tyrrell, and made it clear that he didn't expect Brockzetal, our Sector Control Radar Station just down the road, to try any silly antics like test scrambling Battle Flight. Jever, along with every other airfield in Germany, was "Red", i.e. the weather was too bad for flying. A scramble would probably end in an ejection over the North Sea and, at best, a ride home in the RAF Air Sea Rescue Launch.
About an hour into their duty period the Squawk Box announced a scramble. Pete and John were not impressed but duly got airborne. John rolled in formation with Pete, who was flying XJ637, and stayed with him until they were on top of the fog. The alternative was to wait until Pete was airborne and join up on top, usually a messy business. They were given a south-east vector and climbed to 30,000 ft.
We in the mess were not aware of the full meteorological picture but were still surprised to hear the two Hunters scrambled in that visibility. We slumped back in to reading the newspapers or sleeping and the next pair raced round the airfield to take over on stand-by. The next 4 Squadron pair lined up were Whisky Walker, later to become a very senior RAF
Officer, and Flt Lt Andy Anderson.
After a while the second pair scrambled. The Mess exploded - no one scrambled two Battle Flight pairs unless it was very serious, particularly in view of the weather. I remember I was reasonably dressed and drove straight to
Whisky Walker 93 Squadron. I was in the next pair up on the line with Joe Parker my Flight Commander leading. I really thought my moment had come.
The rest of the station went in to top gear, as if it was a war alert. The RAF fire engines
were sent down to Jever town to alert all the aircrew and personnel who lived in quarters there. As aircrew arrived on the line, dressed in anything they could put on, (some very fetching pyjamas led to some leg pulling later on), they were briefed, paired up with anyone as and when they arrived, regardless of which squadron they were from, and went on the line.
Standardisation was pretty good even in those days and we all used well understood SOPs. The ground crews were crash arming the Hunters as fast as they could load the ammunition panniers.
Even 2 Squadron pilots, who normally flew Swifts, were being strapped into Hunters as they arrived. Not as crazy as it sounds, (and I shall deny having said this), they were the fighter world's most experienced pilots and all had many hours on the Hunter before being selected to join 2 Squadron. The Swift low level reconnaissance role was particularly demanding.
In the meantime, Pete and John were told to descend to about 5,000 ft still flying south east. They were told that there were five or six targets, first they were to the left and then immediately to the pair's right. Pete was viewing this quite seriously and remembers breaking the sealing wire on the drop down 30 mm Aden gun trigger on the top of his Hunter's control column.
After a while of searching at low level, in and out of the cloud and finding nothing, they were
instructed to turn west and climb back up to 20,000 ft. At this point they realised that they were near Erfurt, about 30 nautical miles over the border and inside East Germany. Pete remembers that he was quite rude to John Farley about John's observations on the "collective farms" he could see down below. Pete was rather hoping John was covering his arse and not sight seeing.
Radar vectored them back up through the most southerly of the three airway corridors that ran from West Germany in to Berlin. To Pete's surprise he was passed very close to a Polish airliner minding its own business in the airway. He elected to fly behind the airliner rather than cause an international incident by flying across its bows.
He was directed back towards RAF Gutersloh, which to their relief, was the only airfield in West Germany to be expediently re-graded to Yellow 3, the lowest meteorological rating that would allow an approach attempt. After a 50 minute flight the pair landed uneventfully at Gutersloh.
As Pete taxied in and unstrapped he was surprised to see that they were being met by a very friendly civilian in a Land Rover. This turned out to be Group Captain Ronnie Knott, Station Commander RAF Gutersloh, who proceeded to take them to the bar for a memorable and rare occasion when the Jever and Gutersloh Hunter crews were able to meet socially.
Shortly after landing at Gutersloh, they were joined by Whisky Walker's second Battle Flight pair. Andy Anderson's Hunter refused to retract its undercarriage after take-off and so they had to divert to Gutersloh. Thankfully, the panic subsided and Joe and I were not required in the third Battle Flight pair and Jever stood down and went back for a liquid Sunday lunch in the Mess.
During the wash up it transpired that the southern radars were often bothered by spurious ghost paints suggesting that Warsaw Pact aircraft were flying towards the border and were about to penetrate NATO airspace. The Russians had a habit of doing this, particularly in bad weather, just to test how well our Battle Flight reflexes operated.
On one such occasion, when the weather was equally poor, they flew about 18 helicopters in pairs, across the West German border. Of course, by the time the Battle Flight aircraft arrived they had retreated back across the border. However, Pete told me that it turned out that this was not the cause of his incident. It was finally decided that the returns were from East German trains, moving faster than the MTI (Moving Target Indicator) setting on the West's radar and showing up as flashes as the train presented different facades to the NATO's radars.
, 4 Sqn
adds the following notes after a recent visit to the old East Germany in 2007:
"We have just got back from 5 weeks in Germany, most of it in the former east. Mick
will be interested to know that we saw many Magdeburg trains which, during our time at Jever, regularly produced spurious radar returns at Brockzetal and resulted in so many battle flight scrambles! Remember the cry "its the Magdeburg train again!"
[Click here to see the report of this incident in the F540 Monthly Operations Record for
December 1959 for No 93 Squadron.] [And click here to read the same for 4 Squadron's F540.]