© IWM CT 62
Memories of the RAF Germany Harrier Force in the 1970s
In the early-1970s the RAF Germany Harrier Force formed at RAF Wildenrath with three squadrons, one of which, IV (AC) Squadron (Sqn), had the primary role of tactical air reconnaissance. Initially equipped with the Harrier GR 1 that carried a pod fitted with five day-only cameras, a typical reconnaissance mission included 45 minutes from the engine switch off time for the film to be processed, interpreted and the dispatch of the report (RECCEXREP) to the demander. It was the epitome of wartime – 90% preparing and waiting, followed by 10% of frantic action.
The Reconnaissance Intelligence Centre (RIC) consisted of a number of Air Transportable Reconnaissance Exploitation Laboratories (ATREL), mounted on 4-tonne flat-bed trucks. These contained all the equipment needed to process and interpret film. The ATRELS were joined together by railway corridor-like connectors. This was fine on a hard standing or firm ground. However, it became challenging when on wet or uneven ground as the vehicles would sink and distort the connections. To disconnect them required a considerable application of force, usually by a sledgehammer. Mobile generators provided electrical power.
Static base, Reconnaissance Intelligence Centre - MARELs and ATRELs. Image © Peter Jefferies.
Dusk stand-to came and went. As night fell, it sounded like wounded rhinos were moving up the hill. This was duly challenged by our sentry. When his challenge was not responded to after three times, the sentry came out with the immortal line in a broad Glaswegian accent: "Halt stand up and be recognised or I’ll fill you up with coloured leets." This was followed by the sound of rhinos departing at a fast pace.
The Geseke site was owned by a German aristocrat who kept wild boar. He let it be known that he would be delighted if some brave RAF officers would come hunting with him – the queue of “volunteers” was not long. One evening there was an alarmed call of “There’s a boar loose” followed by that well known military action, the abandonment in disorder. When the alarm was cancelled, people were found in the most amazing places - for example, three people in a closed Harrier cockpit designed for one!
Besides the Corps, there were also Royal Engineers whose main duty was to maintain the strip in operational conditions. One day the RAF were digging field latrines in very hot sun. They were making little progress because the ground was very rocky. Enter stage right, a mobile trench digger with a Sergeant and Sapper. Asked by an RAF officer if they could help dig the latrines, they responded by deploying the digger and digging the latrine trench in quick time. When asked by the RAF why they hadn’t used the digger before, the Sappers came up with the old Army reply: “Because you never asked us – Sir” with sufficient gap between “us” and “Sir” to convey the level of respect felt by them.
Deployed Harrier field site. Image © Peter Jefferies.
Target Category 12 - bridges. Image © Peter Jefferies.
I joined my first Harrier field deployment in September 1971, when I, and another Army PI, joined the IV Sqn site “somewhere in Germany” as reinforcements. We caused consternation among the RAF by arriving in our own Land Rover with camouflage nets. We were dressed in the then new Disruptive Pattern Material (DPM) combat kit, 58 pattern webbing and had sleeping bags. We felt sorry for the RAF, who had not lived in the field since 1944. They were in the RAF blue battledress with shoes – not all of them had boots - and the greatest variety of steel helmet patterns ever seen. They only had blankets for sleeping in the field. My colleague said that he had not seen a German Pickelhaube, but he was confident that we would see one soon.
We became the butt of RAF humour when we produced issue mess tins during the evening meal at the field kitchen. Afterwards, we were briefed on the next day’s site move. This would be carried out in slow time and in daylight because it was the first time that this evolution had been practised. Vehicles were to be packed and ready to move by 12:00 hours – so no rush then. Then came the crunch. The field kitchen would close immediately and would not re-open until breakfast the day after the move. We were all issued with a 24-hour Compo pack and a Hexamine burner.
For the move, vehicles were formed into packets. As our packet was about to depart, our officer in charge reached for the short-range Storno radio to inform site HQ that we were moving. He was strongly dissuaded from this action by a Senior Non-Commissioned Officer (SNCO) who explained that “if it radiates, it can be detected.” Well it was slightly shorter and more direct than that. Said officer then walked over to Site HQ to book us out. When we arrived at the site, after a supposedly secret move, we were greeted by a German “bratty wagon” doing a roaring trade in the car park opposite the airstrip.
Notwithstanding this, we set up and made ready for operations, including site defences. The Army was duly lumbered with the latter. The exercise “enemy” were the aircrew who were tasked with giving the RIC a hard time. One of our sentries “volunteered” to be point sentry to give us early warning of intruders. He was given a Very pistol and cartridges with orders that his last action before he was overwhelmed was to fire a cartridge heavenwards.
Target Category 6 - military activity. Image © Peter Jefferies.
© IWM CT 440 - A British Aerospace Harrier GR3 of No 3 Squadron in a "hide" under camouflage netting, probably at RAF Gütersloh in Germany during the 1980s.