Visit May 2008 - Article in "The Idle Toad" - Summer 2008 Page 21.
Tom Sharratt goes in search of days gone by
NEVER, they say, never go back. I went back, after fifty years, just a few weeks ago. I'm glad I did.
The place I went to was, as I remembered it, a bleak military airfield at Jever in North Germany where I spent almost two years' National Service with the Royal Air Force. That was where we lived, No. 101 Signals Unit, in a grim barracks called Block 40.
That wasn't where we worked. Our job was to keep watch across the Iron Curtain, which at that time divided Europe. Where we worked was nowhere near where we lived.
Work was at an underground radar station several miles away. I described it in the Idle Toad two years ago, with its guardroom craftily disguised as a farmhouse and several large radar aerials in the back yard.
The return visit was arranged at short notice when about half-a-dozen of the lads who had been there got together via the internet. Off we went.
Jever is a small country town a bit like Clitheroe, but flat. I remembered it as drab and grey, but it is bright, neat, cheerful -- no litter, no holes in the road. And wind turbines wherever we looked.
The German Air Force, which now operates the airfield, showed us the utmost kindness. We were received as honoured Guests and allowed to see whatever we wished - more, in fact, than we ever saw when we were there in the 1950s.
Block 40 brought back a lot of memories, though it has been extensively refurbished and now looks more like a hotel than a barracks. And the cookhouse, we noted with envy, has been replaced by a very smart restaurant.
A 30-minute drive next morning took us to the radar station. Once a very prominent site on open moorland, it is now hidden by half a century's trees. Gone are the radar aerials, but you still enter down long metal stairways leading to endless corridors.
We were shown into the operations room and I found myself standing at the very spot where I had worked all those years ago. It was immediately familiar: I felt at home. I could have sat down and picked up the job without the slightest hesitation.
Young German airmen sat at radar screens, watching just as we did -- but with far better equipment.
One of our group described the primitive radar screens we used. "Yes," said one of the young Germans, "I have seen it in a museum." We all had a chuckle at that, the old men. Unwittingly, he had reminded us that we were museum pieces too.
As we departed our guide pointed to a quotation placed above the entrance before the RAF left. It was from hamlet: "Some must watch while some must sleep."
I used to think that National Service was a waste of time. I've changed my mind. I'm glad I spent two years in the RAF and I think we did a good job, me and my mates, watching. I'm proud of it too.
And I found it comforting, reassuring, that young airmen are still there, watching just as we did. It makes me feel safe.
Warmest thanks to Lieutenant-Colonel Joachim Linke, of the German Air Force, and Wing Commander Mick Ryan, of the RAF, whose kind efforts made the visit possible.
(Thanks to Tom Sharratt.)