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Wednesday, 7 November 2012

How I started World War 3

I had no intention of starting a war. Well who does? I was just developing a strong interest in girls. Armaggedon would be a major obstacle.

We had to join the CCF, the Combined Cadet Force. There was no alternative between 13 and 17 years old. That’s what my All Boy public school, where I went after passing the 11+ and on a county scholarship, insisted and that’s what you did. The only choice was the Army or the RAF. Actually memory fails me. There was another choice. If you insisted on growing your hair long (and long in those days meant it was just touching your shirt collar and falling over the tips of your ears), could be tucked behind your ears (if you really tried), blew your hand off trying to make an IED in your Dad’s shed and had also been interviewed by the Police for smoking weed on school premises then you were excused parade and could go and do extracurricular studies. Extracurricular studies meant keeping out of the way of the Head Teacher by staying in a dank basement on Friday afternoons when the rest of us pretended to be soldiers. The Head, who took great pride in the CCF, took no pride at all in this particular person. And that’s all it was, a male who he despised with all his soul. This male represented all that was abhorrent about pupils that came to his school on a scholarship. By not paying the outrageous fees and coming in on the public purse they were fundamentally some way below the salt. If they had been Right Honourables there might have been some pleading based on mitigating circumstances, e.g. they were possibly bonkers due to in inbreeding,  but as it were they were, well, just common. Meritocracy was not a philosophy the Head naturally endorsed.

I joined the RAF. I wanted to fly and it seemed likely that I could do exactly that in the RAF. There were rumours that you would fly in helicopters in the Army but I wanted the real stuff. With wings, jets and fighter pilots. I also desperately wanted to fire big guns, especially machine guns, but was less sure that the RAF would allow that. It was all high level stuff with the fly boys, fire and forget from 30,000 feet, not up close and personal with the army. Admittedly the Army guys started firing SLR rifles almost from day one. And learnt how to fix bayonets.  Amazingly we had our own armoury at the school. It was stocked with a fair amount of ammunition, .303s allegedly from the 1st WW, Martini action rifles, several Sten guns and Bren guns which we used to carry around the streets. Oh those public school boys – automatic weapons perfectly safe in their hands and allowed to carry bladed articles attached to rifles at 14. It took a year before I fired the bigger gun. But what a gun that was.

I was good at the military thing. I couldn’t catch a rugby ball to save my life, cricket was a mystery and misery but when it came to the armed forces, well it was a whole new world. I could shine my hobnail boots up a treat, blanco and webbing, Brasso and belts were no problem. Marching? I could march. The manager of the school Tuck Shop was ex-military and also ex right leg. He, as Sergeant Major, would drill us on the school parade ground whilst pivoting on his one leg and I became so adept at marching I became the Right Marker for years. The Right Marker is the lynch pin in the whole marching in straight lines bit. The others might be falling over, turning the wrong way, swinging both arms in the same direction at the same time but there I was keeping it all together. Often by myself.

But back to WW3.

Each year we were all required to go on an annual camp with the military arm we were with. This particular year we were to go to Germany, to an RAF forward base. A base, we were briefed, that was on the front line with the Commies. So close to the Commies would we be that we would see the whites of their Commie eyes when not perpetually drunk on Vodka distilled from turnips, peer into their empty shops and empty lives and see their ugly women who all, allegedly, had beards and false teeth yet who would try and have their way with us. This description wasn't viewed by us a deterrent to ‘having their way’. At 15 we weren't picky, just desperate. We weren't told exactly what the Commies did, except they were inherently evil, did not have public schools, probably cheated at rugger, and did not play cricket. This proved to be a little of a misrepresentation of the truth as we ended up at RAF Laarbruch on the Dutch/German border. This represented quite a challenge as we were also told, in confidence, that it was an RAF nuclear base. Now we know that nuclear meant a biggish bang should the wheels come off if the political processes failed and the tanks started rolling. Certainly bigger than the flash grenades we used in training to simulate incoming shell fire. But probably not big enough to stop us coming home after the 10 days on the camp as we were actually some way from the front line and didn't they know that, even at 15, we were bred with the stiff upper lips of the officer class? We knew nothing of the defcom status. We’d not been told about the Cuban crisis. We knew nothing of Vulcan bombers and B52s sitting on runways, engines idling, waiting to go and never come back. We just knew that we were to have 10 days in Germany on an RAF base staying in normal dormitories instead of under canvas as in previous years. We also knew the food was great and no one cared how old we were in the camp bars. What could go wrong?

We arrived and were shown to the dormitories. It went wrong immediately. As we unpacked a squaddie came into the room and started swearing at us. He was spectacularly drunk but also exceptionally well versed in expletive depletives. He wanted to fight us collectively or individually it didn’t matter to him. We, as a group, turned as one to look at Ian. Ian was built like a Challenger tank. Ian was growing a full beard at 11. Ian was the Incredible Hulk though a lot less green. Ian hit the squaddie once and floored him. After that we had no more trouble with any of the squaddies. But we stayed very close to Ian for the 10 days, he being our personal deterrent against aggression from our own side – sort of school boy friendly fire. The time away gave me an opportunity to try my German. Let loose in the local town one night we, of course, went drinking. We needed the toilets urgently between venues. In my best German I asked a passer-by for the location of the nearest toilet and he indicated a building nearby. It indeed had a toilet. It was also the local brothel and that provided a frisson of excitement for several minutes – but we all left after being allowed to use the loos. At least I think we all left at the same time. I can’t say I counted everyone out.

The camp was great. No marching, more food than we could eat and, as hungry teenagers we could eat for Queen and country, no restriction on drinking, plenty of sightseeing and we got to fire machine guns. Well to be precise light machine guns on a firing range at silhouettes of men that looked suspiciously like the cartoon drawings of the perfidious Hun in our ‘Victor’ and ‘Hurricane’ comics. Even then, in what wasn't actually deepest Germany, it struck me as somewhat ironic. However in just a few days we’d got drunk several times, been out and about on trips around the base, been to a brothel and fired guns. This seemed to be many Christmas’s all at once.

The base hosted many Bloodhound missiles or so it seemed. These enabled the RAF to engage enemy aircraft at some considerable range and destroy them. The Bloodhounds were held in secure compounds within the main base and just sat on their launchers, sort of brooding. They, as I recall, all seemed to point in the same way towards East Germany like giant thick index fingers presenting the military equivalent of giving the bird to the enemy.

As a climax to the 10 days we were to be given a tour of the Bloodhound site. We were sworn to secrecy by the officer giving the briefing. We would be followed and every conversation bugged. If we divulged what we saw we would disappear, for ever, to a remote, inhospitable location where no one ever went for the rest of our pathetic lives. I think it was Aberystwyth. We were told about the range, accuracy and need for the missiles. How they were manned night and day and when they would be fired and by whom. It was a double key decision as I recall – you needed two to fire the missiles. Or could one person fire two missiles?  I can’t remember. It was all very exciting. Possibly more exciting than the brothel, though as that was our first brothel that had been quite exciting and permitted serious bragging rights. All we wanted to do was see the Control room. All the political stuff went over our heads. We wanted bangs and rockets, a giant fireworks night, light the blue touch paper and stand well back. From Russia.

Outside the large radar dishes revolved unceasingly. An officer directed us through substantial metal doors, down a ramp into the control room set underground not far from the missile nest. Dark, lit only by the large, circular green screens of the radar panels and red lights on the walls, the room hummed with the sound of electrical components. The radars looked like very large dinner plates with a white line sweeping around the diameter of the screen every few seconds. White blobs appeared on the screen with letters and numbers assigned to them. The blobs moved slowly across the screen like small luminous woodlice as the radar sweep continued.  The officer with us directed me to sit at a radar screen. I gleefully obliged and turned to look at the screen. This radar, the officer explained, scanned the horizon for unidentified aircraft. All friendly aircraft had an ident number, the number we could see on the screen next to the white woodlice. This included civilian and military aircraft. Anything that wasn't a friendly would not have an ident number next to it. It would be an evil woodlouse. So far so good. Arranged around the screen were toggle switches, dials, knobs (and not just the cadets) and other flashing lights. You know the sort you see in the background in early James Bond films or, possibly, Stingray. Well, stuff whirred, flashed and generally made all sorts of satisfactory noises. And there, on the console, were a number of BIG RED switches with covers and the words ‘FIRE CONTROL’ on them. And I knew that didn't mean they controlled a log fire in a nearby grate. The officer went on to tell us about the deterrent effect of the Bloodhounds, their range, explosive capacity, homing ability and the fact that they all had ‘Take that you Commie Bastard’ painted on the side of them. This was clearly pre ‘Gotcha’ days, when invective was an early developmental stage. The officer got me to demonstrate how you could alter the range of the radar, from say 200 miles out, to 100 miles out, to 50 miles out to 'might as well go outside and look up at the sky as there it is. Was. Bang.'

I toggled and turned knobs as told and then…
…he suddenly stiffened, looked at the screen and said ‘What’s that?’

I looked and, at the very extremity of the screen, was a woodlouse with no name. Therefore it was evil.

‘Lock on to that, that shouldn't be there.’

I pressed the ‘lock on’ button and the radar indicated a possible bogey. Not that sort of bogey, though we were still school boys so who knows (nose). Some sniggering prevailed.

The bogey was heading towards the centre of the radar and moving quite a bit faster than the other aircraft with ident numbers.

‘Change the radar scale’ he commanded.

I did so, the bogey was still coming in our direction like the school bully who had identified the nerdiest person in the room.

‘This is not good, arm the missiles.’

‘What? I mean WHAT Sir?'
‘Do it, arm the missiles.’

I flicked the ‘Arm’ missile switches. A sea of indicator buttons turned red, gauges flickered. Everyone was very quiet. Very, very quiet now.

‘Change the radar scale again.’

The white blob was considerably closer now. I didn’t like the look of this. Things weren't going well.

‘We need to fire the missiles, unlock the fire buttons.’ I must have hesitated. ‘Well do it son.’

And I did so. I’d armed a number of Bloodhound missiles, unlocked the big red ‘FIRE’ button and didn't think to ask shouldn't someone somewhere need to ask permission before we shot down an enemy? Especially as I was only 15, clearly should have spent more time in the brothel if this was all the time left to me and wasn't this going to mess up my A levels?

‘No time left. Fire 1 and 2.’

And I did, I pressed the BIG RED fire buttons for missiles 1 and 2. Surprisingly easy to launch several tons of high explosive at an enemy at over Mach 1 with the express intention of killing them.

The room shook with the detonation and roar of the rockets firing and lifting off and then, on the radar screen two traces made their way very quickly from the centre of the screen towards the incoming aircraft and then converged. All three disappeared off the radar.

I was speechless in horror. I’d just shot down a Russian aircraft. At this moment NATO has just gone to status ‘Good grief what was that, that’s ruined our golf game this afternoon, best crack on then, make some tea will you.’

I looked around at the rest of the group. They looked at me with a ‘He did it Sir, it was him, he started the nuclear conflagration’ sort of look. No schoolboy honour here, I was well and truly grassed up.

The officer remained silent for a few moments. He looked around at the group his face grave and troubled.

Then he said ‘Best bloody simulator in the RAF this. Time for lunch I think.’

And that is how I started WW3.