From Missiles to Medicals

John Langdon 60C

It was reading Ted Stanfords excellent article on the Corporal Missile system that made me aware that I had never seen an article on the other system that was in use at this time namely SAGWA or Thunderbird (with no real connections to the one of TV fame, although some of the exploits may have been very similar???)

Anyway to start at the beginning – My army life started in the September of 1960 with the well worn path through the famous gates of AAS Arborfield to be issued with the well fitting and very smart denim suit. We were then allocated our home for the next term. I think it was in 1960 that the `New block’ at the top of the square had been completed, but for me and the rest of B squad it was a no go zone, we were housed in one of the old spiders, 16 to a room, but like all things in life there was also the good the bad and the ugly.

Great comradeship that A C and D squads didn’t seem to get in that first term being housed in that modern palace at the top of the square. But we certainly got a lot of practice with the bumper up and down the centre deck.

Our first term was spent learning the left from the right and making sure that the correct one started the movement in the right direction. Most of us got it – but some never did???? An introduction to Trade and Education was also started at this time – Filing and Fitting- Building Eifel towers or some such form from tinned copper wire with nicely formed and flowed solder joints – Maths and English at the desk again (I thought I’d left all that at school) Time passed – we did learn – sport was great and comradeship second to none.

Arborfield 60C (1961) Basic Electronics

Back Row

?? Sid Smith Ted Stanford ? Johnson

Middle Row

Rod Collins Dad Brown Jim Hall Percy Thrower  ??

Front Row

Spud Leighton Chris Ambler  Roger Glossop  ??

Arborfield 60C (1963) ECE’s

Back Row: Roger Slater Tom Buck John Langdon Rod Collins
Front Row: Stan Blatchford Dick Shorthose Gerry Lawman Ted Stanford Roger Glossop Jim McIntyre

Arborfield 60C (1963) Radar
Back Row: ?? ? Thomson ?? ?? Sid Smith ??
Front Row: Spud Leighton Percy Thrower Dad Brown John McConville ?? Chris Ambler ??

At the end of 3 years we passed out, I remember that it was the Minister of Defence that was supposed to be the main dignitary at the passing out parade, but for some reason John Perfumo didn’t make it (I am sure that being of that age we would have rather had Christine instead???).

So Stan Blatchford, Roger Glossop and I moved on to the SEE just up the road and started learning all about the `Thunderbird’ we covered the LCP and launchers in fact all of the parts that the batteries of the RA regiments used. It was interesting and we felt we were doing our bit. One incident that I remember is swotting for one of the exams in my room from the EMERS that covered the system. Swotting was taking place in our barrack rooms and that evening there was a pre CO’s inspection by the duty sergeant? The problem was that the EMERS that we were using were Red so we an invitation to the CO’s table not just for inspection but also to explain how and why we had taken secret Red EMERS from the compound????

We all passed the course and received postings to our various units, Stan and I to 36 Heavy Air Defence regiment RA in Duisburg and Roger to Ty-Creos on Anglesey. We flew out to Dusseldorf and were introduced to the Regiment. Stan was then attached to a battery and I to the workshop – where they needed (you’ve guessed it) not someone who had been trained on the launch and battery side of the system but one who knew the missile and testing side? So the learning stared again. I remember working with two sergeants Chris Bright and `Dinger’ Bell. I was just a poor Lance Jack but I was accepted into the team and enjoyed myself, even when I found that in Germany the mains earth was red and when connected to the live in the plug I had to rewire, your arm trembled on touching the metal case!!

Many adventures were had with the Regiment, Missiles falling off trailers on the German autobahn! A whole battery getting stuck in the mud on exercise! A missile at the annual firing camp at TyCroes in Anglesey deciding that it liked the look of Snowdon rather than the Meteor drone that it was supposed to be heading for. (It was destroyed before it reached the tourists on the mountain!!). The days of inactivity when we couldn’t power up the equipment because the frequencies may have been `seen’ by the Russian trawlers in the area. Coming back to camp in Duisburg after a night out to find that

One day an order came through that we had change all of the vehicles from the nice shiny olive green to a matt sand colour – were we off to somewhere sunny? – No we weren’t but the whole of the system had been sold to Saudi Arabia. After painting and servicing the next job was to drive the whole shooting match up to Rotterdam for shipping. The journey was uneventful, but owing to the length of the convoy it was time consuming and slow. I drove the test vehicle (a converted Bedford 3 tonner) to Rotterdam but then had to return in the Scamel recovery vehicle, I remember a Belgium Policeman drawing up alongside on his BMW motorbike on the autobahn, and shouting to us `Can’t this go faster?’ We shook our heads and continuing at out top speed of 40 miles and hour back to Duisburg.

It was at this time that I decided that I didn’t wish to transfer to the new missile system with the Regiment. They were going onto SAGWA II or Thunderbird II (which was the prelude to Rapier I believe) but would like to get involved with the Electro Medical side of things. I applied for the course at Arborfield but the Army being the Army decided in their wisdom that I should do a stint with a Tank regiment first!! So for six months I was posted to Tidworth to join the `Lilywhites’ or 13/18 Hussars Queen Mary’s Own as they were correctly known. Although my time with the regiment was relatively short, it was still adventuresome and the comradeship and companionship of mates was second to none.
I remember having to go out in the ARV and help replace a track that one of the centurions had thrown when braking suddenly having discovered that he had come though a hedge onto the main A303. There was also a story of one of the `Tankies’ washing out the turret with petrol just prior to an inspection???? (And we all smoked???)

At last the time came in 1968-69 when I returned to the haven of all REME technicians –Arborfield. I found that I was the only army technician on the first combined service course for Electro-Med technicians the remainder was made up of RAF personal (One Senior Tech Sgt and if I remember rightly 4 JT’s) and two civilians. In many ways the make up of the course was an asset to me, as the Army was not quite sure how to deal with these Blue Jobs’ at the time and I managed to get away from many of the military style duties and parades that normal course technicians’ had to partake in. I can remember taking them round the Tank hanger and one of the points that surprised them was that there was no provision for cooking within the turrets???

At the end of the course I managed to get a posting back to Germany to BMH Iserlohn and if my memory serves me correctly I was the only technician looking after the whole hospital. This could not last and I was later joined by John Lockey who had also just been through the Arborfield loop.

BMH Iserlohn was at that time half manned by members of the Canadian army who were I believe mainly there to look after all the Canadian troops in the area, we all mucked in together and although there was rivalry between the regiments, the hospital was definitely a joint effort. There were of course differences but they were mainly in the form of transport that we possessed. The Canadians had large American style trucks and private cars, while ours were the VW’s and 3 cylinder Audi’s that we had picked up from the German market. I remember that there were also slight differences in the taste of drink and cigarettes in the Sgt’s mess – Bourbon and Lucky Strike for the Canadians and Teacher and Rothmans for us.

From an engineering point of view all of the medical equipment was British and so posed no real problems, the only downside was trying to get spares as there were virtually none held at the hospital so it was either a question of `make your own’ or wait while the base workshop at Rhinedahlen looked to see what they had, and if nothing (which was the normal situation) wait until spares were obtained from the manufacturer. It was often quicker and less hassle to write the equipment off as BER and replace with new (not always the most cost effective answer) but at least medical treatment could be continued.

My deployment at Iserlohn provided me with a stepping stone to the rest of my working life.

In 1972 I received a new posting, this time to the BMH in Northern Ireland and it was now that I was also due to take my option. I don’t know if it was the pacifist soldier in me or the call of a position with a German company in South Germany that finally decided me to call it a day and move into the unknown of civi-street. I left the comparative safety of the services and moved to take up a position with an X-Ray manufacturer. The job was different, the work interesting with travel in the UK and Benelux countries to sort out installation and technical problems in `Aussendienst’ if required. My German improved and I lived in a small rural community and took part in local situations (I was even a member of the local volunteer fire brigade).

Looking back over those years of my life, they gave me a great deal. I never reached high rank, but my time at Arborfield certainly gave me a good start in the very practical engineering disciplines that some of the current academic training of today seems to miss. I see that industry is now starting to bring back the apprenticeships but I still believe that the service training that we had was second to none and that ex REME and service personnel stand out in a crowd.

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