Tom Benson Creative Writer and Artist
Tom Benson           Creative Writer                                      and Artist

1 - Litres, Metres, and Layouts

Tuesday 20th July 1971

Dortmund

West Germany

 

Having experienced a few hours in the truck with him on the way to the British coast, I knew a conversation with my designated driver was going to feel more like an interview.

“How often have you driven over here, Tony?” I asked. It felt strange sitting in the left seat of the vehicle and any cars overtaking were whizzing past me – not my driver.

“This is only my second time,” he said. “I came over last year to take part in a big ‘comms’ exercise, but most of the time I was the passenger.”

“Do you find it peculiar driving on the right in a right-hand-drive vehicle?”

“Yes, and, I find it strange enough driving a Land Rover.”

I laughed and, technician or not, I could see where he was coming from. I was also happy enough to go along with the idea all operators hated ‘techs’, but it was a standing joke rather than fact.

“I would have thought in your trade you’d have a driver,” I said. “The truck you work in when on exercise is a 4-tonner. Isn’t it?”

“We have a driver when we’re on exercises, because due to our trade, we’re not expected to have an HGV licence.”

I knew all of this, but I wanted to engage the guy in conversation, and it was hard work. We’d barely broken breath to each other since recommencing our road journey after crossing the water from England.

*

Before leaving the UK, we’d been given a series of briefings about Germany and, Dortmund in particular. We learned, for example, Dortmund our new host town had eight breweries.

Another interesting fact was the distance from our new base to the Belgian coast – approximately 215 miles, or 340 kilometres. Why was this important? Zeebrugge and Oostende would be the nearest ferry ports when heading home to the UK by car or train.

Following the trip from Harwich, we arrived at the Hook of Holland seaport. At various points across the country, we were escorted for short periods by local police outriders. We travelled across the Netherlands, a small portion of Belgium and, onward to West Germany.

I was happy to keep an eye on my map, route card, and watch the countryside go by. For me, it didn’t feel right sitting in the truck and, not having a chat.

At the Venlo border crossing point, the Germans were as efficient as we’d been led to believe. A handful of officers and Senior NCO’s were providing a liaison to assist the German officials. The small teams were available to collect and collate the travel documents for each packet of vehicles as they came through.

As one group of vehicles was being cleared to continue the journey, the next was getting parked in the massive holding area. Our vehicles squeezed into the lanes between the lines of long-distance trucks.

It was one thing seeing the European traffic slides showing the autobahn and the main routes, but it was an eye-opener for some of us when these things became a reality. The larger Audi, Mercedes-Benz, BMW and Opel models were passing us at incredible speed.

For me, it accentuated how much more efficient the Germans were with two lanes than the British were with three lanes. Too much choice in the UK, I thought.

After a long, slow journey of a few hours, we arrived on the outskirts of Dortmund. Small black direction signs were posted for us from the appropriate autobahn exit. These ensured we arrived into the Do-Brackel district, where our barracks were situated and, the signs continued right to the camp gates.

Outside the red and white barrier was a large white sign with black print; NAPIER BARRACKS.

*

As we entered the barracks the guardroom was on the left, immediately followed by the Regimental Headquarters. Mounted outside the entrance to RHQ was a pair of green Thunderbird missiles, set up so they pointed at a slight angle, forming an archway. Looking ahead beyond the RHQ, I could see a line of trees screening a large open field.

“It looks like there’ll be plenty to investigate,” I said.

“There will be,” Tony said. “I think the camp takes up something like 2km by 2km – if you include the golf course.”

We didn’t quite reach the trees or large field I’d noticed, because 50 metres into camp, the main road turned right. This route stretched for 1.5 km through the camp with minor roads leading off to left and right. The first main group of buildings was the Officers’ Mess on the right.

“That’s impressive,” I said. “It would have to be the Officers’ Mess.” The building was situated well back from the main road and, a large lawn filled the area between the mess and the road. Close to the road was an enormous pair of lions mounted on equally large plinths.

The buildings along the two sides of the lawn were the living quarters for some of the officers. My first impression was, the main building had been maintained to look as good as the day it had been completed. Once the Officers' Mess had been seen, the remainder of the place was sure to pale by comparison.

 “Like the Officers’ Mess,” Tony said. “The sub-units are all allocated a set of buildings which form three sides of a square. In each case, the open aspect of the square adjoins this main road we’re using now.”

We were travelling slowly, due to two things. The speed limit in camp was 30kph, and, we were in a long line of vehicles. The convoy had slowed and bunched up since entering the barracks. I tried to take in as much as possible as we passed through.

The HQ offices of a sub-unit were housed in the middle building. The buildings which made the two sides of the square were accommodation blocks. The square space occupying the area within the three buildings and the main road was a small parade ground.

Every sub-unit had three flagpoles. They flew the Union flag in the centre and on either side of it, the regimental colours.

The first buildings after the Officers’ Mess were 111 (Dragon) Battery, followed by 10 (Assaye) Battery. The set-up was the same, except the emblem of one Battery was a dragon, and the other, a white elephant.

After the two sets of Artillery accommodation was one of the largest individual buildings in camp; the cookhouse. It consisted of two floors, was white with a black tiled roof and 75 metres long. French doors were situated along the whole of the front, facing onto a large flagstone patio.

“There’s our new home,” I said with a chuckle as we drove past the next group of buildings. It was 260 Squadron’s open-sided square. Two minutes later we passed the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers (REME) buildings.

Along the length of the main road on the left was a variety of buildings, used by the Quartermaster for offices and stores. These buildings, like the open fields, earlier were screened by a line of trees.

Trees were spaced along the entire length of the road on both sides, from the RHQ near the main gate, all the way to the other end of the barracks. I thought the trees and, vast areas of grass made the place more pleasing to the eye.

*

I felt like a child on a road trip with a parent. Tony didn’t seem to know how to initiate a conversation and, for my part I was keen to learn about everything around me. It made me feel better to know we’d reached our destination and, would soon part company.

Having passed all the accommodation we followed the road, turning sharp left, then after 20 metres, right. Along 100 metres on the right was the NAAFI building. Again, Tony was in the know, telling me the place included a bar and shop downstairs and, a bar and cafeteria upstairs.

Across the road from the NAAFI was The Globe Cinema, which was run by the Services Kinema Corporation. It may not have been as modern as its civilian counterpart, but it would be another place to go.

After the cinema, we pulled left off the main road to join the queue of vehicles at the petrol point. I noticed the mesh fence on the right, and a couple of long, low white buildings inside.

“What’s in there, Tony?”

“That’s our compound,” he said. “As we move forward you’ll see the sign inside the gates.”

To our front was a massive open grass field. The edge of the field followed the perimeter of the compound and, I could see small buildings in the distance. It was the same area I’d spotted when we first arrived in camp.

“Where is this golf course then?” I asked.

“Right behind our compound,” Tony said. “I think the first thing you arrive at is the small firing range and, then the golf course is 100 metres further along.”

We got the fuel tanks filled and, we were directed to the compound to park in line abreast with our mates. Once parked, we took our hand luggage and made our way to the accommodation, which was a five-minute walk.

*

If this was to be the regiment’s home for the foreseeable future, nobody was going to argue about it being large enough. Within the perimeter fence, we had a camp which had a nine-hole golf course, three hockey pitches, four rugby pitches, four football pitches and, an athletics track complete with field area and seating for a couple of hundred spectators.

As was the case with barracks occupied by the British across West Germany, this place had been a German camp during the Second World War. Whether by some international agreement or some obscure reason, the buildings still had their original purposes painted clearly on the front corner of the walls.

When the word on the accommodation blocks was translated, it meant aircrew accommodation. Well, I thought, if it was good enough for the Luftwaffe ....

*

Although Tony and I were not mates in a social sense, we wandered over to the accommodation together. In the entrance to the two-storey block, a basic floor plan was posted on the notice board.

We discovered we’d both be living on the upper floor. Tony was in a room at the far end of the corridor with a fellow technician. I was delighted to find I’d be sharing Room 106 with Alan Smart and Bobby (Geordie) Staines. Neither Alan nor Geordie were in the room, so I dropped my gear on the bed by the window and went off to check out the ablutions.

I’d known Alan for a while, having first met him when I arrived in Scarborough in 1970. He was a dark-haired guy and, probably the nicest Scouser I’d met so far. He was my height, with a toned physique, thanks to being a big fan of working out in the gym. He took more than average pride in his appearance which made him appear cocky.

Bobby Staines was new to the troop and had joined us in June. He was from North Shields, so wasn’t a real Geordie, like those coming from Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Unfortunately, the more he complained he wasn’t a ‘Geordie,' the more the nickname was used. He learned to live with it.

He was a tall lad and, 19 years old. His ginger hair was a mass of curls and usually clamped to his head, because he used hair cream. He hated his curls. The smell of the stuff he used stunk and, reminded me of my early childhood when a well-known white cream was used by most men.

Geordie had a habit of running his hands through his hair and then wiping his hands on his clothes. He was a decent guy, but the aroma from the hair cream was a bit heavy duty.

I was sitting on my bed when my two roommates turned up. Both were carrying the same amount of personal baggage I’d brought, but both produced cans of beer.

“Hi lads,” I said.

“Hi Jim,” the pair said in unison.

 “Nice to see how we’ve been set up,” Alan said. “I wonder how they decided who was going into which rooms?”

“Probably random,” I suggested.

“Yeah,” Alan said. “I reckon you’re right. I checked the plan downstairs, and it’s a mixture of two-man and three-man rooms.”

“Where did you manage to get the beers?”

“We had them packed in the truck before we left,” Geordie said. “We reckoned on not finding a bar open when we got here.” He’d dropped his gear on a bed, and was slugging from his can.

“Welcome to Germany,” Alan said, and the pair tapped their cans together.

“Well, I don’t know about you guys,” I said. “I’m nipping down to the cookhouse for a bite and a brew and, then it’s dreamland.”

They finished their beers quickly and, the three of us went to the cookhouse.

Following the journey which had taken us all day and half the night, it was a tired bunch finally getting to bed. Thankfully, one of the tasks the advance party had taken care of was to allocate bedding to every bed-space. On the downside, the beds, lockers, and other furniture were the same Admiralty Grey metal we’d been accustomed to in the UK.

*

Friday 23rd July 1971

 

Except for a small rear party, the regiment was in place. Over the period of the move, there were a total of three traffic accidents which resulted in minor damage to one Land Rover and, two crewmen sustaining fractures to their arms. It was a good move when the logistics were considered.

For our first week, we concentrated on the simple things. The garages were left empty and cleaned from one end to the other before white lines were painted to designate parking spaces. Due to the size and shape of the garages, they were immediately set up with a one-way system. On the compound end was the entrance, and at the other end close to the perimeter fence, we had the exit, with a right-turn-only.

Inside the garages, the parking spaces were laid out diagonally, allowing a wide space down the centre. Land Rovers were parked on the right and, trailers on the left, opposite to the appropriate detachment.

We were briefed on the routine by Sgt Ferry, the Radio Relay Sergeant.

“Each working day after the first parade, I want to see every Land Rover with a trailer hitched, lined up in the compound. I don’t mind if you’re out of sequence. You’ll see a narrow guttering which runs the length of the compound. Use it as your guide for parking. Park the vehicles with front bumpers over the guttering.”

“What about lunch-time Sarge?” Cpl Marshall asked.

“We’ll leave everything parked over lunch breaks. I don’t expect to see any of the detachments being parked indoors again until at least 17:00 unless you have a good reason and permission.”

We knew from the layout of the compound it meant our general working area would be overlooked by the troop offices. The X Troop offices were in the building to the left, and parallel to our garages.

An extensive list of tasks had to be completed before we could consider ourselves settled in properly. We were told for the first two weeks at least, the few married men who didn’t already have a house allocated would be notified about their quarters. At short notice, they’d take over their accommodation and, organise travel for the family to join the unit.

Some men had brought their cars to Germany. A few had sold cars in the UK intending to buy a new tax-free model and, yet more would delay buying a car until they were settled.

All drivers had to pass a multi-choice questionnaire on European Highway Code so they could be issued with a BFG licence to drive cars. We also needed an MOD Permit, to allow us to drive military vehicles.

I was one of a number who’d already completed and passed my test, but many like me who’d never driven in Germany were told we’d go out accompanied by one of the experienced guys to do a couple of hours ‘conversion’ driving. I was looking forward to getting out.

I was paired off again with my detachment commander, Cpl Dave Coleman.

“I’ll get our works ticket signed,” Dave said. “We’ll go for a drive around camp first and, then go out for a couple of hours.”

“How well do you know the local area?”

“Not as well as we’re both gonna know it by the end of your conversion training.”

I hoped to prove my driving was as good as my map-reading.

Dave got us cleared to go out for an hour and, then in the afternoon we took the detachment out onto the large grassed area so I could get more accustomed to the radio equipment.

“It’s a simple enough piece of kit,” Dave said, not for the first time. “What you have to remember is, out on the playing fields is flat and a perfect platform.”

“How hard can it be on exercise?” I was genuinely interested.

“Once you’ve been in a couple of locations, I think you’ll see it might be an old radio, but it’s versatile.” He tapped the back of the truck. “I want you to know your way around this thing as well in the dark as you do in daylight, including all the equipment we carry in the truck or the trailer.”

I was still looking forward to it, and I thought, probably more.

***

          Updates

Tuesday 6th June 2017

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