WHEN THE WING WENT TO GILZE-RIJEN
The news that I was to fly as number two to the wing leader came as somewhat of a shock. Those who, like me, prefer a quiet life try to avoid such conspicuous positions and opt for somewhere where they are less likely to be noticed - number four to a deputy flight commander would have been much more to my choice. However there was nothing to be done and pausing briefly to wonder why I had been selected I began to ready myself for the flight. I came to the conclusion that the unfortunate incident recently when, in a spirited but misguided attempt to catch up with my formation after a late start on a wet day I built up so much speed taxiing that I had skidded past the rest of the formation in a splendid three wheel drift and embedded my Vampire
up to the equivalent of it's armpits in a heap of sand, might have had something to do with my selection; up at the front I would be less likely to do any damage.
The scene was Gilze-Rijen in June 1952 where 121 Wing which I had recently joined had deployed. As part of the vast expansion program which the Korean War had set off I had completed my training and as winter came to an end had joined 98 Squadron
in Germany at RAF Fassberg. The next couple of months had been spent in squadron training and now I was taking part along with the other new pilots on the Wing in our first major exercise "June Primer".
For the exercise we had deployed from our home base to Gilze-Rijen in Holland; this seemed a realistic start to the exercise as Fassberg, although it had many charms was situated about 12 miles from the E. German border, well in front of any Army units and did not seem a very promising wartime base. So we had flown to Gilze-Rijen, sorted out dispersals and prepared for ourselves for battle. Everyone on the squadron had a familiarisation flight to accustom themselves to the local area and to try out the revolutionary D/F
system which the Dutch had installed; this was a cathode ray D/F
system and it seemed to work miraculously. Our own D/F
system lived in a truck on the airfield and relied totally on the skills of two airmen detecting whether the sound increased or decreased as they twisted an aerial. I had never actually been to see them at work - as we relied on it completely in bad weather I was not convinced that a visit would increase my confidence.
We had also had time for a visit into Breda and a chance to accustom ourselves to the mess food which was adequate but rather basic and consisted almost entirely of bread and assorted cheeses. However before the exercise could actually begin we were assembled in the briefing room for a curious ceremony - a reading of the Exercise Standing Instructions. Up to this time I had assumed that the object of the exercise was to engage the other side (we were Blue they were Red) in fierce and uncompromising combat and the old hands on the squadron
had regaled the new boys with tales of massive dogfights down in the American sector and other such stirring activities. It soon became apparent that the author of the Exercise Standing Instructions did not subscribe to this view; in fact unless some extremely unlikely conditions had been met (like having had a common briefing and radio channel) no air combat was to take place at all. But more was to come as the Instructions then went on to contemplate with horror the possibility of meeting an aircraft from Strategic Air Command - at this point they changed gear and a note of craven hysteria crept in; as far as I can recall the general tenor of the instructions were that in this case we should hurry frantically in the opposite direction. It goes without saying that not a great deal of notice was taken of these instructions but it is also fair to point out that when in a subsequent major exercise due to an administrative oversight they were not issued before the exercise, four mid-air collisions took place.
The exercise started quietly and not a great deal happened on the first day. Some F84s made a desultory attack on the other side of the airfield and we fumed indignantly as we weren't allowed to scramble to chase them.
However the next day things began to happen and the Wing got tasked for a massive strike on our own airfield Fassberg; it is easy to criticise, as we did, the staff at Group Headquarters for not giving us something to do but until you have actually sat in an exercise situation trying to devise a mission which is both realistic and unlikely to provoke World War 3 it is hard to appreciate their problems. Having said that I am bound to say that the scheme which they finally hatched which was to send 40+ aircraft low-level to within about 10 miles of the East German border was not one which in retrospect met all these criteria.
Although there was no suggestion that my position of Number Two in the formation carried any responsibility I did accompany the wing leader and squadron commanders while the strike was planned; this was rather simpler than I had anticipated - everyone agreed that we should go there at low-level, some skilful work with a piece of string revealed that we couldn't do that without our drop tanks so the order went out to fit tanks. It further transpired that we couldn't get there and back at low-level so we would go out low and come back at 20000 feet; the route was selected and I was interested to note that we would go straight to Steinhuder Lake (close to RAF Wunstorf) from there we would aim to strike the railway line just North of Celle (and close to RAF Celle) which would take us up to Unterluss where our firing range was when we would pull up to attack Fassberg. As our route passed close to almost all the "hostile" airfields in our sector it did seem that there was a good chance of encountering some enemy. At this point it also emerged that the Wing Commander's No. 4 had gone u/s
so his flight would now be a threesome - I would fly close as No. 2 and No. 3 would be further out, it was actually quite an effective battle formation
The mission was to be flown under radio-silence until contact with enemy or our target so 40 odd Vampires
started up on a Very light and taxied out to take off. A mass formation takeoff in Vampires
posed some problems and I braced myself to try not to make a mess of things. Anyway we all taxied out and lined up in pairs on the runway - I imagine because I couldn't actually see that only about the first ten pairs got on to the runway the rest waited on the taxi track and filtered on as space became available. Once in position the Wingco ran up his engine nodded and he and I as the first pair set off at the brisk trundle that a heavily loaded Vampire
achieved. Ten seconds after we set off the next pair would go and ten seconds after that the next pair and so on... The later pairs had the problem of the jetwash of the leading aircraft to contend with and the technique for minimising this was to go high-low-high or on this occasion low-high-low.
With two 100 gallon drop tanks on the Vampire
did not sparkle but it would usually take off on a 2,000 yard runway without difficulty; the problems began immediately after take-off and were appreciably greater for the Number Twos in each pair who had to try and maintain formation while performing the various tasks needed to clean up the aircraft after take off.
The first action was, once clear of the runway, to apply the brakes as otherwise when the undercarriage was retracted an ominous rumbling and juddering took place - it was true that this didn't apparently do any lasting harm as all of us forgot on occasions but it didn't sound good. Then the undercarriage itself had to be retracted which was, when carrying drop tanks, less straightforward than usual; the position of the droptanks produced a suction effect between the outer undercarriage door and the drop tank which could prevent the undercarriage locking up leaving one with a red u/c
light showing. At this point the only thing to do was to slow down and recycle the undercarriage which meant that one lost one's place in the formation and it would then be very difficult to get back into position - in fact with a stream of 40 aircraft it would have been almost impossible. However there were techniques to help with the problem - firstly as the suction effect increased with speed, one raised the undercarriage as soon as possible and secondly one gave the Vampire's
hydraulic system a little help by pumping vigorously on the emergency hydraulic hand pump. So as the aircraft broke ground the left hand had to leave the throttle to look after itself and concentrate on raising the undercarriage while wallowing around at a low airspeed. A further complication had been built in by the makers who had cunningly positioned the hydraulic hand pump lever next to the droptank jettison lever which could and indeed did result in a certain amount of merriment when the odd pair of tanks were inadvertently jettisoned. (I think a pair had been jettisoned on the flight to Gilze-Rijen).
However having surmounted the undercarriage hurdle all that was left to do was to raise the flaps, change radio channels and then one could relax for a moment. As someone said "it wasn't really difficult, you just needed three hands".
On this occasion all went well with me and sparing a thought for the less fortunate ones behind who had to cope with these problems while wallowing in the jetwash of forty or so aircraft in front, I cleaned up my aircraft and once we were on course slid out into low level battle formation
There followed a most enjoyable period of low flying as while low flying is always fun it was normally to some extent spoilt by the need to do some work - specifically to keep track of one's position and simultaneously avoid being bounced. However on this occasion I could relax and enjoy the scenery as it flashed by at a comfortable 240 knots; the Wingco was doing the navigating and with a trail of at least 9 flghts behind me noone was going to creep up on me without being noticed.
So we flew past the Ruhr at about 1,000 feet or so and then leaving it's haze behind went down to deck level for the run into "enemy" territory. After sometime I became aware that Steinhuder Lake was approaching well on our port and realised that we were a bit South of our desired track; I might have gone on to deduce that this meant that we were very close to Wunstorf but at that moment I saw a group of airmen burst out of a tent which I probably wouldn't have seen but for it's heavy camouflage and scurry towards a Bofors gun in a pit. I broke radio silence to give the warning "Guns ahead" and then concentrated on trying to get my gunsight on the Bofors gun. I succeeded sufficiently well to justify to myself the claim of one gun destroyed which I proposed to make when we debriefed; I thought this might counteract the inevitable counterclaims that the gun would be making.
After this excitement our stream headed on until Celle hove in view - we were still a bit South of track and the hangars of RAF Celle were visible as also were the outer gun defences of that airfield - this time there was no scurrying from tents - they were ready for us.
Then on to the railway line and along it until really familiar territory was in sight - at this point we began to put on speed to get up to our attack speed as we reached Unterluss and our firing range. Here the Wingoco left the protection of the deck and we pulled up to get into position for the actual attack on Fassberg. It was never a manoeuvre I was very happy about it as it tended to leave you hanging at a low airspeed just over the airfield defences but neither I nor anyone else seemed to have any better ideas.
At the top of our climb at about 2,500 feet, we winged over and streamed down towards Fassberg which was spread out in front of us. As I set off down in my attack an F-84 scrambled down the runway in front of me so letting fly an imaginary salvo of rockets in roughly the general direction of our own hangar I set off in hot pursuit.
Republic Aircraft have always had a reputation for building aircraft of solid worth but indifferent performance and the 84 was no exception being widely regarded as the ideal opponent to face. There has never been much truth in this canard as I came to realise when despite my height and speed advantage over the scrambling 84 I was quite unable to close on him and had to watch him accelerate away into the distance where I assumed he would eventually climb up and bounce our rearguard.
So I rejoined the Wingco who was breaking away onto our return course and our little flight climbed up through some patchy cloud to 20,000 feet where we set off for home; by this time I was well set in battle formation
to cover him and I was expecting to see the rest of the formation appear as little dots against the cloud and join up - this they never did and I never saw another of our gaggle until we landed. I think the reason for this, although at the time it was a mystery to me, was that two squadrons of USAF
F84s had deployed to our home base. Most of the flight leaders were married and a little concerned at this situation so the main weight of our attack went in over the married quarters area so they could keep an eye on things.
Be that as it may, our little flight of three aircraft headed steadily along in a clear blue sky and I had time to look at my fuel state which was I hoped about right. I then saw aircraft approaching at 12 o'clock. I called the wingleader but he didn't acknowledge and I had to watch sadly as 16 F84s in impeccable battle formation
passed underneath us. My plan had, of course, been that we should fall on them and trounce them; however apart from the fact that we were not very flush with fuel, we were also fitted with droptanks that hampered a Vampire
considerably and we were outnumbered 5 to 1. So while I would have received straight 6s for fighting spirit I would have got minimum marks for good sense.
A little while later the wing leader rocked his wings which meant I was to close up; I did so and he pantomimed to me that his radio was u/s
and that I should get a steer to base and then lead our flight home. Radio failure was quite common and a well-developed repetoire of signs was available so that once in visual contact it was usually quite clear what message was being passed.
Anyway this cleared up the mystery of why we had ignored the F84s which I was still brooding over and No. 3 and I switched channels to approach frequency and invoked the magic all-electric D/F
system. All however was not well on approach and my innocent request for a steer provoked several replies all most unhelpful; however one of 118 Squadron
flight commanders gave me a succinct explanation of the problem. Apparently one of the Wing's aircraft was still fitted with a four channel VHF
set (most of us had ten channel sets); the four channel set had a facility for providing a continuos tone or carrier wave which had doubtless been of great use in 1944 in emergencies. It was now entering a new role as a VHF D/F
jammer of some efficiency as some pilot had switched it on in error; he would have been under the impression that his radio had failed and there was no way of getting through to him to tell him to turn it off.
I switched back to our natter channel so that if necessary I could discuss things with No.3 and signalled the Wingco that the D/F
facility was u/s
. To my immense relief as I had no idea where we were at this time and didn't actually want to admit it, he resumed the lead. At this point I had a thought - one pilot had apparent radio failure and was causing the problem - the wing leader had radio failure! My mind ran through a quick scenario where I signalled the Wingco to switch off his radio, all would then be well and I would return if not exactly the hero of the hour nevertheless one who had done well. However this scenario was followed by another less satisfactory one.
An apocryphal (I think) story was going the rounds at that time about a Vampire
pilot who had succeeded in bouncing another Vampire
and then pulled up alongside making appropriate gestures of derision. Now among the well-established repertoire of hand signals was one which had a specific and peremptory meaning for all Vampire
pilots; it was a throat-cutting gesture and freely translated it meant "You have a fire in your radio bay or thereabouts. Any moment now either your main fuel tank will catch fire and explode or the control cables will burn through." As both these conditions are terminal you should leave your aircraft immediately, if not sooner". The pilot of the bounced Vampire
misinterpreted the gestures of derision and promptly baled out which left the bouncer with little choice but to report that he had indeed seen a fire in the other aircraft.
So I hesitated before endeavouring to persuade the Wingco to switch off his radio. Then a further thought struck me - while the avionics of the Vampire 5
were primitive there were some of the latest ones usually referred to as "all-electric" which had both a G4
compass and a Pacitor fuel gauge which added up the contents of the five fuel tanks; I was pretty sure the Wingco had one of these (if not he ought to have had one) and so was most unlikely to have the primitive four channel radio. I abandoned any thoughts of getting him to switch off and concentrated on getting home.
My own Vampire
had five fuel gauges and an exercise in mental arithmetic was required to get an accurate total fuel state; however it was quite obvious from inspection that my fuel was low so I was pleased to see the Wingco letting down steadily with the confident look of one who knew where he was and base.
I did however switch quickly back to approach to see if things had improved; they hadn't. A large part of the formation was obviously, if not lost, uncertain of it's position, and were commenting adversely upon the visibility. Fuel was obviously becoming a cause of increasing concern and I could hear No.4s reporting their fuel states without being asked; this was usually regarded by a no. 4 as a tactful way of suggesting that it was time to go home. Superimposed on all this chatter was a powerful monologue contributed by the Station Commander which was detailing the inevitable legal process from Board of Enquiry, through Summary of Evidence to Court Martial which would consign the errant pilot responsible for this chaos to some draconian punishment.
I returned to our natter channel and then found that we were obviously running-in to Gilze-Rijen; the Wingco signalled me to call the tower which I did and then we were into echelon starboard for the break and landing. We taxied back to our dispersals and I hurried out of my aircraft to alert the Wing Commander to what was going on; the news did not cheer him and he hurried over to Ops. to get the latest picture. The only bright spot was that I confirmed that he did have a ten-channel set.
As we went to Ops. two more flights ran in and broke; one of them I was not surprised to see from my own squadron
as it was unheard of for my squadron commander
to get lost. The Station Commander also arrived breathing fire and then one more flight arrived and that was it. It was quite clear that whatever had happened but the missing aircraft could no longer be in the air.
However to our intense relief the word suddenly came through from the tower that the remainder had indeed landed; they had found a 1,200 yard strip somewhere near Brussels and had all piled on to it. As there was no way off the end it had begun to get exciting as the runway filled up. I never actually got an accurate breakdown of the total debacle and I was never quite sure in the confusion if anyone did but this was approximately what had happened:-
39 took off.
1 landed at Buckeberg (some failure)
1 " Wunstorf (some other failure )
1 " Twenthe (oxygen trouble)
17 " Gilze-Rijen
19 " near Brussels
It was obvious that this contretemps was not going to do the wing image much good and frantic efforts were put in hand to restore the situation and organise fuel to the civil airstrip where most of our force were now stranded. Meanwhile the war must go on and preparations were now put in hand for further strikes with what we had left.
now had five aircraft on hand and was tasked to attack Jever; a sixth aircraft was expected soon and if it was ready in time I could fly it on the mission. It did in fact arrive shortly and once its oxygen problem had been fixed it was turned round just in time for me to go; I signed the 700
hurriedly (too hurriedly as it transpired) and started up in time to join up with my squadron
This mission was a much simpler one - we were to attack Jever - out at low-level, back at low-level - and we were to be led by our squadron commander
who was never lost. It all looked good and I had even time to draw some lines on my map as I didn't intend to be lost again.
The flight out was uneventful except for the awkward fact that I was unexpectedly short of fuel by about 100 gallons; I reported this and was told not to worry and that I would be dropped off at another airfield on the way back.
We hit Jever on the nose pulled up and went in roughly pairs line abreast, broke away low did a quick turn and came back in again. For the benefit of tactical purists we were well aware that this second attack was unsound even suicidal but as our CO
explained it gave the RAF Regiment on their guns a lot of useful practice so why not.
Our formation then motored back across the North german plain and into Holland and I must confess that I had forgotten about my diversion. The CO
hadn't, however, and he called up "Twenthe is at two o'clock five miles. Good luck".
I broke away from the formation pulled up and gazed out at two o'clock hopefully - there was nothing to be seen. What was more, unlike the featureless terrain of the Eastern end of West Germany with the odd distinctive landmark I was used to, the landscape was a seething mass of navigational features, roads, railways, rivers and canals. Muttering "don't panic" to myself I began to plan a square search when a good thought struck me - I had broken hard right to leave the formation. Sure enough slightly to port in front of me was a large airfield with Meteors on it - Twenthe. I established contact with the tower, landed and taxied up to the visiting aircraft section.
It soon became apparent that I was not very welcome, in fact my reception was distinclty frosty and once someone with a command of English explained the situation to me I could quite see why. It may be recalled that my aircraft was one which had landed earlier elsewhere with oxygen trouble - it had in fact landed at Twenthe, been hospitably received and sent on it's way. Unfortunately the runway at Twenthe was made from bricks which apparently was fine for Meteors; however the Vampire
sits much lower on the ground and when it rotated prior to takeoff it had blown a 200 yards hole in the runway and stopped flying completely. The Dutch equivalent of Works and Bricks had sprung frantically into action and had just restored the damage when what should appear but another Vampire
and not only a Vampire
but the very same Vampire
that had done all the damage.
It was made quite clear to me that I would stay at Twenthe until flying stopped for the day when I would be allowed to take off and would I then please not blast the runway again. I did at least have plenty of time to plan my technique for not doing this and my aircraft was refuelled.
At last Meteor flying stopped and I was allowed to try. I did my best. I did a rolling start along the runway, lowered 40 degrees of flap and rose into the air with the nosewheel last to leave the ground. In retrospect I did quite well as I even remembered to fly along slowly for a while to allow the nosewheel to stop rotating before I retracted the undercarriage. Twenthe tower thought that it had been all right so with a happy heart I set off for home.
This was easy. I had had a lot of time to plan my route and the magic electric D/F
was now working again. So I flew back through the gathering dusk and soon was back at Gilze-Rijen discussing the day's excitements with the other pilots some of whom were beginning to come in from their sojourn near Brussels. It had apparently been quite fraught and they were very glad to get down anywhere.
The reason why I had been short of fuel was also explained. Apparently the bowser refuelling my aircraft had run out so in the interests of speed the ground crew had put 50 gallons in each drop tank and marked the 700
to that effect - it goes without saying that in the rush I hadn't noticed. However so much else had gone wrong that noone fussed over this lapse.
Finally what happened to the pilot who caused the trouble; as far as I know absolutely nothing and I never even heard who he was although I believe he was from 118 Squadron