Group Captain Nigel Walpole describes his colourful first experiences in a front line squadron in Germany during the Cold War.
From 50,000ft on that beautiful, clear morning just before Christmas 1955, North Germany looked so peaceful, but to the east across an invisible border and far below me, Russian MiG fighters were wheeling and soaring as in some ritualistic aerial war dance. This was the Cold War; they were my adversaries and I, in my brand-new Hawker Hunter F.4, had just joined the business of ‘deterrence’.
It all started for me back in 1952, when I began pilot training on the DHC Chipmunk, North American Harvard and Boulton Paul Balliol, followed by jet conversion and operational training on the Gloster Meteor, DH Vampire and Hunter F.1. The RAF was playing ‘catch-up’, and the new Hunters promised to compare more than favourably with the USAF F-86 Sabre and the MiG jets that had fought it out over Korea. I was among the many hundreds of young men in at the start, fortunate to be posted to the front line in Germany.
Some 12 of us had met at ‘Dirty Dicks’, opposite London’s Liverpool Street Station, on a cold wet winter’s evening in November, to fortify ourselves there for a gloomy train ride to Harwich and an equally dreary night, four in each tiny cabin, on the troopship, SS Empire Parkeston. We were bound for the Hook of Holland, where we boarded one of the several colour-coded trains each destined for a different part of Germany occupied by our soldiers and airmen.
On the front line
I was posted to 26 Squadron, 124 Wing at RAF Oldenburg, also home to Nos 14 and 20 Interceptor Day Fighter (IDF) squadrons. Ultimately, the Hunter would take over from all the Sabre (IDF), Venom Fighter/Ground-Attack (F/GA) and Swift Fighter Reconnaissance (FR) squadrons in North Germany, within the RAF’s Second Tactical Air Force. I arrived at Oldenburg from the Operational Conversion Unit (OCU) at Chivenor, with 16 hours on the Hunter F.1.
The 2TAF Hunter squadrons were established for 16 aircraft and 24 pilots, most of whom were ‘first tourists’. Experienced squadron executives and flight supervisors with operational or at least fast-jet experience were in short supply, but one of our flight commanders, Geoff Wilkinson, had flown Sabres with the USAF in Korea, while two others, Tony Carver from the Day Fighter Combat School (DFCS) and John Crowley, a test pilot, had both flown the Hunter. Other mentors included Peter Perry, a Pilot Attack Instructor (PAI), David House, a Qualified Flying Instructor (QFI) and Mike Haggerty, who I believe was also an Instrument Rating Examiner (IRE). Their job was to turn the many newcomers into operational pilots, ready to take their turn at immediate readiness on ‘Battle Flight’, and thereafter continue to train them to lead pairs of aircraft – and later perhaps ‘four-ships’. This was to be a steep learning curve, but with the uprisings in Poland and Hungary, and the Suez crisis in 1956, there was no time to lose.
So there I was at 50,000ft, learning to fly battle formation in that rarefied air because that is where the relatively lightweight Hunter F.4 could take us, above any friend or foe to give us that all-important height advantage. True, we had to handle the throttle very carefully at height, where the Rolls-Royce Avon 115 engines were prone to surge, stall and flame out, and we were not cleared to fire the guns because the engine didn’t like that either, particularly when the links between the rounds were ejected and found their way into the intakes. Of course, if necessary we would have had to take our chances, and in any event both faults were soon rectified with almost surge-free Avon 121 engines, ‘fuel dipping’ when the guns were fired and ‘Sabrina’ containers blistered on below the guns to catch the links.
For the rest of this fascinating story, see the October issue of Britain at War.