Thursday, 18 October 2018

Montgomery, Rolexes and Mystery Cages

The next installment of my uncle Dick's RAF memoirs.

Autumn / Winter 1949

And so the inevitable that was bound to happen did happen, a few months later. A Dakota went down with an engine change at Gatow and within a few hours a replacement- another KN 111 was in position at Gatow. The Schedule went through.

The amusing incident which happened a week or so later was that when the 'unserviceable' aircraft was returning to Northholt on Tuesday, at the same time as the schedule UWD (no definition found) was leaving for Gatow and both aircraft were using the same call sign. Air Traffic was confused by 2 aircraft in the circuit with the same call sign, one asking for clearance and the other for landing instructions.

It was soon afterwards that we began to see Dakota KJ 628 appear on the tarmac. (No results for this exact aircraft on Google) This was Field Marshal Montgomery's aircraft, a VIP Dakota, given to him by General Eisenhower following the defeat of Germany. It used to arrive at weekends for desnagging and disappeared again on Monday to Boscombe Down to pick up the Field Marshall and ferry him wherever. The pilot was Flight Lt. Houghton, an ex Halton apprentice.

One day in the crew room, whilst waiting for his aircraft, in conversation he told us how he became an airman sergeant pilot. As a fitter he was working on a Hurricane and he left a screwdriver in the cockpit, which either the pilot found naturally, or hit him on the head when doing acrobatics. As a result he did 28 days 'over the wall.' He decided that he would go for Airman Pilot, and here he was, Monty's personal pilot.

The Squadron then moved to Abingdon still operating Dakotas. Shortly, another VIP Dakota appeared: KJ994, belonging to Admiral Brind, NATO, based in Norway. The 2 extra Dakotas caused us a lot of extra work at weekends, even to the extent of polishing the aircraft with about 20 chaps. We also never got on very well with the AQM based in Norway who every time on returning to the UK always gave us the Form 700 with an entry Leak in the Kitchen Water System. Frozen burst pipes hidden under soundproofing. He didn't seem to remember that one could drain the system. We had told him enough times.

One day when we were expecting Field Marshal Montgomery's aircraft we were told that on its arrival nobody would be allowed to touch it. Keep away. It taxied into the lane by the Control Tower and was checked and locked. The following morning it was towed into the hangar and we were then told to thoroughly search the aircraft. Every panel off, cowlings off, bare arms even in the fuel tanks, suspected soundproofing removed. But no electrics were to be touched or operated on. We were told that there was a possibility of a frequency bomb or explosives having been planted in the aircraft.

The story is that following Monty's success after the war, he had become quite political and was not too bothered about what he said concerning the state of Europe and which politicians he annoyed. Whilst visiting Prague for a conference, the aircrew, on arrival at the aircraft in the morning, found that the padlock had been forced on the entrance door and there was evidence of entry into the aircraft.

The aircraft was flown home after a brief local search with complete radio silence in case some explosive device or frequency bomb had been planted. Therefore the reason for the thorough search.

The following day the aircraft was towed across to the other side of the 'drome to a secluded pan, a trolley accumulator plugged in and following the Sqdn. Cdr, Wing Co Flying and Sigs Officer tossing the coin, one of them went aboard and operated everything he could. Peace and quiet still reigned.

Normally our aircraft used to get Customs at Lyneham before returning from the Continent but now and again Customs travelled to us and cleared the aircraft at Abingdon. In such cases we were not allowed near the aircraft until the passengers had deplaned and escorted into the Air Traffic building for clearance. We had to be given the 'go ahead' by the Air Movements Officer.

One particular day we were waiting with the tractor and towing arm about every 10 yards from the aircraft ready to drag it away to prepare it for the following day when the passengers started to disembark.

A Flt Sgt appeared at the top of the aircraft steps and shouted across to me, “Hello, Bill, I didn't know you were here.” He descended the steps, shook hands with me and said out of the corner of his mouth, with the Customs Officer and Air Movements Officer watching, “Get rid of that,” and loudly, “See you in a minute, Bill.” He then disappeared into the building.

My name, incidentally, is not Bill.

When they had gone, I looked down into my hand and there was the most beautiful Rolex Oyster you had ever seen. Panicking, I drove back to the hanger and climbed up the hangar doors and stuck it behind a girder. The aircraft was later cleared of Customs and we towed it away. The Flt. Sgt. Soon appeared to claim his watch. It's not often a Sgt can rollock a Flt Sgt and get away with it, but this time he didn't seem to mind.

Whilst at Abingdon we gradually got equipped with Valettas CMK1s. The VIP Dakotas still came to us for weekend servicing. We were also allotted 3 VIP Valettas MK2, VX 576, VX 577, WJ504. More polishing. We managed to get a few extra tradesmen on strength to cater for all this extra work.

Then one day a number of civilians walked through the hangar accompanied by some officers from Command. We were told to supply them with an aircraft with a trolley accumulator plugged in and don't interfere. A couple of hours later they disappeared.

A few weeks later a lorry arrived with a large cage in sections, its walls 2” steel wire mesh. It was assembled in the rear of the aircraft, after the main spar, on the starboard side. It had a normal entrance door with lock. Nobody on the ground side could find any reason for it. Nor were we told anything.

Then we were allotted VW190, an extra aircraft for the cage. Every week, early in the morning about 6am it would leave us, fly to Boscombe Down, Pick up a professor and fly him up to Stornaway, together with his packages. There he left the island by Royal Naval pinnace and was taken to a ship anchored off Stornaway. Very hush hush.

Many years later we were told that the professor was working on germ warfare, his packages contained guinea pigs and the cage in the aircraft was a secondary precaution during transit to prevent any livestock escaping.

Wednesday, 17 October 2018

Jim'll Fix It, Contractors'll Demolish It

I filed for Baker Tilly, and through them, for Jimmy Saville, through an agency in 2007. Details here. I understand the accountancy now has offices in Spinningfields. The M.E.N says the whole street is being refurbished.

Monday, 15 October 2018

Who's doing the Santa Dash?

Remember, I just got back from Amsterdam.
-Vincent Vega (John Travolta), Pulp Fiction

More on my weekend to the Dutch capital later. First, I wanted to point out that, a month ago, I planned to detox by cooking and eating clean until I could beat a PB at the gym. I have a few more cooking posts in the pipeline, but obviously, having just been to 'Dam I've broken that vow. I managed to get under 80kg before flying, but only just. Bench press, horizontal dumbbell fly and running at 14km/ph were steadily improving, but not to PB level. So: the purpose of this blog post it to say I'm having a break from clean eating and will try this project again soon.

I also said I wouldn't shave until this point.

In late December I'll be taking part in the annual Saddleworth Santa Dash, a 5k run through Oldham's countryside dressed, along with 500 others, as Father Christmas. Although not a serious race, I'd still like to be half-decent at running, and as it stands, I'm far from it. So as well as beating some old gym records, I've got a local route that's currently taking me about 45 mins to complete, about the same length of time I expect the Santa Dash to take. It's equally hilly, too, so should set me in good stead if I make it a regular thing. I'm running with family but I've managed to convice a few others from various meetup groups to take part.

No meetups in the pipeline at the moment. It's Halloween the weekend after, though, so keep your eyes peeled.

Monday, 8 October 2018

Manahatta Launch

New Deansgate bar Manahatta opened to the public on Saturday. I managed to bring together people from a few different groups to try out the New York-themed venue just off Peter Street. Members of Manchester Cool Bars, Talk About it Mate, Andy's Man Club's Oldham branch and Manchester Depression, Anxiety and Bipolar Meetup met, drank, danced and celeb-spotted.

Here's Kelvin Fletcher, Andy Sugden in Emmerdale. A decent guy. 

Good atmos. I'd tell the Ashton Kutcher-lookalike DJ that I would have liked the music to be a bit more varied, though.

Sunday, 7 October 2018

Meeting Tim Peake

European Space Agency's Tim Peake dropped into Waterstones Deansgate on Friday. The West-Sussex-born astronaut was signing copies of his new book, The Astronaut Selection Test Book.

Cool guy.

Saturday, 6 October 2018

Hoisin Chicken Lettuce Cups

Cooking is something that requires a little more effort than I'm usually willing to put in: an hour spent preparing something that I'm going to eat in 10 minutes flat seems a pretty unfair trade. But when you're bored of the same food, it's a necessity.

On the 20th I tried out Hoisin Chicken Lettuce Cups from Jamie Oliver's 5 Ingredients book. The principle of this book is that you can create a full, tasty, healthy meal with only 5 ingredients. Nice and simple, how I like it. Only I still managed to do it wrong, and cut the chicken before I'd marinated it. FFS.

I found the most difficult part of cooking it was making myself go into the kitchen and laying out the ingredients: the thought of cooking it was more painful than the process itself. I always expect things to be more difficult than they actually are. Overthinking is a problem that transcends many areas of my life: even my kitchen, it seems. For example, including the spices, there were definitely more than 5 ingredients, and this irritates me more than the process of cooking. It makes me wonder if I'm doing it right.

The hoisin and mango sauce was delicious. Everything else was a bit bland and separated, though.

Thursday, 4 October 2018

Cold War... Hot Coffee

Warsaw, 1949

The next installment of my Uncle Dick's RAF Memoirs.

Now onto 1949, when the Squadron in July, following the end of the Berlin Airlift, returned and reformed at RAF Oakington. Under the command of Squadron Leader R. Reece. This time I was posted to the Squadron, in 1st Line, the start of my 6 years actually with the Squadron during which time I saw 6 commanding officers come and go.

The Squadron resumed normal operations to Europe and the Near East. One of the weekly schedules undertaken was the UWD, the United Kingdom, Warsaw, Dakota. Each week, without fail, an aircraft left us at 11am Monday morning to position at RAF Northholt. On Tuesday it left with the Queen's Messenger, night stopping again at Gatow, returning to Northholt on the Thursday and arriving back at base on Friday. This schedule went on week in, week out, month by month and it was imperative that it went regularly, without fail. Remember that the aircraft was flying down 2 corridors, 1 to Berlin and 1 to Warsaw. In fact it was only the military aircraft at the time allowed behind the Iron Curtain. Obviously the crews were briefed on their return. It had to go, it was still 1949, and the Cold War at its height. Crews often reported that they had been buzzed by Russian Aircraft.

If an aircraft suffered an unserviceability en route, which could not be immediately rectified, a reserve aircraft was on its way within a few hours. The crews names had also to be notified in advance to the Russian / Polish authorities. They did all they could to ensure the schedule did not go. It was said that once it failed to go then the Queen's messenger an Diplomatic Mail could go weekly by civilian aircraft. The Spying aspect of the aircraft would have been lost.

A rather humorous incident occurred on one of the schedules to Warsaw. The moment the aircraft landed it was placed under armed guard. The Crew were marched to the Control Tower and locked in a room. A little later they were thoroughly searched; even the loose change in their pockets was examined. Their packed lunches were manhandled and then the sadistic Customs officer rolled up his sleeve and thrust his hand into the bottom of the gallon lukewarm coffee flask. Of course, the coffee was ruined.

They accused the crew of crossing the border at the wrong place, outside of the corridor. The crew denied it vehemently. Maps were brought out. The Polish Customs brought out their map, stating that 1 of their agents on the border had phoned though with a map reference which, after a long argument, realised was incorrect, that his 0s were in the wrong place.

The map the Customs were using was so old that in the bottom corner it had Neptune and his Trident in full flow coming out of the sea.

Finally, hours later, they were released and took off for Berlin.

M'Sig Jock Hodginson, who told me the story, got his own back a few weeks later by instructing the cook house at Gatow to absolutely ensure that the coffee was boiling hot, even to the extent of heating the whole vacuum flask in the oven before being filled. He protected it from the cold by keeping it warm in the aircraft with blankets during the flight to Warsaw.

The same Customs Officer tried it again later, but only the once.

With the Squadron commitments it always seemed to happen that 5 or 6 aircraft returned to base on a Friday afternoon and had to be 'desnagged,' wheel changes, recrystallisations, role changes and prepared again for Monday morning. The Squadron ground crew had to be split into 2 and 1 shift work right through the weekend. If we worked hard we could perhaps manage to get the Sunday afternoon off.

And then it happened. One Sunday afternoon at RAF Oakington. We were all ready for the Monday programme and I was relaxing on my bed with the Sunday papers, about 2 in the afternoon, when there was a knock at the door.

I said, “Come in.”

The door opened and in came the Squadron Commander, Squadron leader R Reece. I jumped up, to which he told me to relax and sat on the other bed. I would add that though he was my Squadron commander, I was a lot closer to him, though only a Sergeant Airframe Fitter, than perhaps one would expect 2 such people to be. I admired him as a CO, and above all he was a hockey player, as myself.

Flight Sergeant Jack Pearson and myself, both played or Transport Command and ran RAF Oakington's hockey. Squadron Leader Reece, when not picked for the Station first 11, would be there on the line, even in pouring rain, cheering us on. We thought a lot of him, and even after he had long retired, both of us, with our wives, journeyed up to North Wales to spend a few hours with him and his wife Toni.

Now the real reason for his visit: he informed me that the Poles were now insisting that we notify them, not only of the crew's names on the UWD but now also the serial number of the aircraft that would be undertaking the schedule. Anyone knows that any aircraft can suffer major unserviceability, i.e. metal in filter, engine change, taxiing accident...

The Squadron Leader's next remarks amazed me. He suddenly said, “How long will it take you to paint 3 Dakotas with the same number? Pick the easiest number you like.”

I nearly fell out of bed. What a task for a small half shift of First Line various tasks to undertake.

After collecting my thoughts, we then both decided that the best number would be treble 1 (KN111) the easiest and quickest. And it had to be done right away. He told me to get the shift out of the barrack block and I gave him a list.

As many 2” brushes as you can get
Aluminium dope rolls of 2”
Mashing tape (masking tape?)

He moved off to raise the Duty Equipment Officer from the Mess.

On the way to the barrack block I was worried how many of the chaps would still be around. Cambridge was only about 8 miles away. There were only 8 or so still in the block and whilst explaining what had to be done, other airmen who had gathered around such SHQ accounts, storeman, etc. offered to help. About 15 of us moved off to the Squadron.

So we set to, masking out the rather large numbers, such as 656, on the undersurfaces of the mainplanes and by about 7pm the job was done. 3 Dakotas, KN111.

The small numbers on the rear fuselage were covered by a removable tear-off fabric patch doped over them, also with KN 111 stencilled on it. This had to be done so that on return to base with the patch torn off we knew which aircraft we were working on.

A week later I was asked by Squadron Leader Reece to contact all the airmen of Admin Wing who had volunteered that Sunday afternoon to assist in the 'paint job' to come to the Squadron and they were treated to an hour's flight in a Dakota around the Cambridge area. An experience that quite a number had never had before and really enjoyed.

Once again we had thwarted the Poles and the Russians.