Fahrkarten bitte?

A huge Field Training Exercise was taking place in Germany during the early 1980s. It was of course somewhere in the ‘Minden Gap’ where the following mostly took place, although the reader will be taken back to Barker Barracks in Paderborn briefly! John ‘Digger’ Graves was A Squadron Leader and  Phil Conran was Squadron 2IC. The third SHQ tank, C/S 1C was commanded by SHQ Troop Sergeant Mac Brown, and me…..I was his Radio operator.

C/S 1C just prior to moving into wood
 
Mac Brown

C/S 1C just prior to moving into wood

 

Mac Brown

We had very nearly completed a rather long road move as part of a Brigade re-deployment to a wooded feature, well that’s what we used to call it, but of course in English it was simply an ‘effin wood! Once there, we were to remain in a hide for the weekend in order to allow the Claims Commission to catch up with the total destruction that a British Brigade normally managed to bestow on the lovely German countryside during these huge exercises! It also allowed the Germans a 'window' to drive on their roads in relative safety for a short period of time. The road move had of course seen the normal devastation, kerb stones ripped up, miles of 'cats eye' posts knocked over, a couple of houses struck by gun barrels and the obligatory loose track pad through the windscreen of a Mercedes Benz car following a Chieftain tank far too closely!

Eventually after passing umpteen broken down vehicles we moved through what looked a lovely village. It had a Bäckerei, a couple of pubs and a brothel. Leaving the main road we headed up a track, with orders to pass through a rolling replen organised by the SQMS. 1 and 2 Troops had already passed through this vitally important supply operation but as we were all taking on fuel, water and rations it was a slow process. The MT Troop blokes manning the Stalwarts and Bedford lorries, which had been tucked in on the side of the track using the wood behind them as cover seemed shell shocked and mighty hacked off. It was pretty obvious that the term “DEAD TWATS” and “BRING OUT YOUR DEAD” had quite rightly been used more than once by the first tanks to go through, and I kept up the barrage of abuse as I stowed boxes of compo!

 
The Rolling Replen
 

'The Rolling Replen' - Thanks to Malcolm Cleverly for a copy of this picture which is available to purchase here

As the tank Radio Operator, I had also ensured that we had a hot meal in the Boiling Vessel ready to consume as soon as we had entered the hide area. Well that is not strictly true, as we had other duties to perform before eating, well that also is not strictly true as me and Steve Couzens the driver had duties to do before eating. Mac chilled in the turret, doing something that we could never make out, but it did ensure that he never got dirty, whilst Gunner, Brian ‘Woody’ Woodcraft was normally too pissed! He had, as normal consumed a large amount of Herforder Pils whilst sat in his seat. He had also perfected the art of peeing into a frangible container, normally used to house HESH bag charges, which when ¾ full was passed to Driver Steve Couzens to empty over the glacis plate!! Our immediate hide routine included:

With all of this to look forward to we were in a fairly happy mood as we finished with the replen and with a final cry of "DEAD TWATS" we motored further on up the hill to the wood that the Squadron had been told to hide in. Squadron Sgt Major, Colin Hepburn had identified troop areas and the harbour party were ready to guide us in. Looking rearwards, I noted that there was a fair bit of white smoke beginning to come through the engine louvers. It did not look good and over the IC system I made Mac Brown aware of it. Woody managed to get in a rather slurred comment that Steve Couzens was a knob and that he had probably forgot to do up the fuel cap or something. This looked slightly more serious it has to be said and looked as though it could be of those automotive problems that Chieftain were prone to......everything!

We continued to move up the track, ever mindful that the white smoke now billowing out of the back decks was creating a rather effective smoke screen. We could not stop on the track as it would have meant that the remainder of the Squadron who were following would have to remain line ahead behind us as the trees now either side of the track prevented them from passing. Eventually, we pulled off the track into a small clearing with the tank on a slight incline and we managed to get the gun rear, breaking a few branches on the way. The remainder of the Squadron were now able to pass us with inches to spare. Opening up the rear decks, Steve Couzens noticed that the steering discs on the left hand side of the gear box were red hot, and the smell of burning was over powering. I threw him a fire extinguisher, which he expertly caught and flipped it over smashing the nozzle on the hull in a single movement. He quickly directed the nozzle at the steering disc and began spraying the fire extinguisher contents (Bromochlorodifluoromethane!) at the disc, disappearing in a cloud of steam as he did so. Woody Woodcraft who had eventually managed to get out of the Gunner’s seat, rather unsteadily stood on top of the turret and immediately offered to pour the contents of a recently filled frangible over the disc as well if necessary; Mac told him to “SHUT THE FCUK UP!”

Once the disc had cooled down and the steam had disappeared, Steve pulled the remains of a main engine fan belt out of the engine compartment. It seemed that the fan belt had snapped and had caused some damage to the fan housing as well. Steve thought that the REME ought to have a quick look. Mac noting that the track was a little muddy decided to send a rather unsteady Woody Woodcraft across to the REME to report our fault. This was actually a bad mistake as Woody simply joined them around the back of the Tiffy’s 432 and nicked one of their beers!

Alf WinnardEventually, top fitter, the mighty Alf Winnard, a dour Yorkshire man from Barnsley came across and got up onto the back decks of our tank. “Ey uppppp I can see thee problem..yah bugger..., thee have lost tha’ fan belt and its twatted of t’fuel tap”. With a sigh of resignation he announced “Thee will need a pack lift alreeet”. Mightily pissed off, we started to prepare for the pack lift, well me and Steve did. Woody had fallen asleep and it was far to dirty a job for Mac to do. He watched and threw in the odd comment as it transpired he had once been a REME fitter but transferred in order not to have to get so dirty!

Crawling underneath the rear of the tank, Steve removed one of the belly plate bolts which allowed a fair bit of diesel fuel which had been dripping out of the broken fuel tap to escape from the tank hull onto the floor, some of it also went up his sleeve!  He then decided that actually it was not a wise move to be lying in the fuel so with a shovel he created a small channel for the dripping fuel to be diverted from where he was lying in order to undo the Twiflex coupling which connected the Main Engine to the Gearbox.

Once the Twiflex was undone, we removed the other items such as quick release couplings and of course the hopper was dragged out using the traditional method of plastic belts! Marriage panel connections were also undone and we simply had to wait for the REME to come along and do the final preparation and then lift the pack. Time was unfortunately moving on and the lovely autumn Friday evening was drawing to an end. A decision was made to leave the pack lift until the morning as there was a delay in locating the spare part that was needed. Rumour had it that Bob 'Maggot' Holloway was going to have to go back to Paderborn to fetch it!

It was at this stage that Steve and I put the cam net up as best we could and placed the Bivouac alongside the tank. Just as we finished, Woody woke up announcing that he had a dreadful hangover and Mac Brown appeared from nowhere looking as if he had had a shower! Our normal sleeping arrangements on 1C at that time was a purpose made ‘Penthouse’ which we had managed to get made by the canvas man over at 57 Station Workshops. We could not use this as the pack was prepared to be removed, hence the Bivoac. The Penthouse was a fantastic idea and was put up over a frame on the back decks. It afforded us with the ability to stand up unlike the tank sheet over the gun barrel option. To get the canvas made did take a bit of sweet talking over at the workshops, and a bottle of Whiskey but it was not an insurmountable problem and I had a perfect excuse to go over there to chat up one of the office girls...Martine!

 
A Squadron Tank Park with 57 Station Workshops in the distance
 
 

A Squadron Tank Park with 57 Station Workshops in the distance

 

Martine was a good looking girl who had previously caught my attention most days just after lunch time when the Toc H van would appear at the 57 Station Workshops end of A Squadron tank park. She would leave her office and often in very inappropriate shoes walk across the slippery cobbled stones to purchase a newspaper and a bag of sweets. I always managed to get behind her in the queue and always attempted to engage her in conversation.

She talked in a manner and dialect that I had heard before, and it seemed familiar. She started most sentences with a neeeehhhhh sound, and oddly never wore a coat even though it was often very chilly there in Paderborn. Her Yorkshire nasal tones seemed rather sexy in a funny sort of way but she did seem to be a tough nut to crack. The odd thing was that every time that she went to the Toc H van, from the other end of the tank park could be heard in a very strong Plymouth accent “SHOW US YOUR GRINNNNNNNNER!”, it was Andy ‘Albert’ Copp!

Now this always struck me as very amusing!! Eventually after what seemed like hours of talking and spending a fortune on sweets at the Toc H van, I realised that the delightful Martine was actually the daughter of Colin Hepburn. This was all too tricky, so I did not pursue it. The rather amusing shouts of “SHOW US YOUR GRINNNNNNNNER!”, albeit very funny took on a whole new meaning and I knew that as they continued for quite a few weeks it was pretty obvious that it would have only one outcome! Martine must have mentioned it to her dad and he decided to do something about it.

One day, just after lunch I noted him lurking around the back of the NAFFI. He seemed rather agitated and I thought about going to see what he was doing but was interrupted by the sound of the Toc H van horn blowing. I suddenly thought about warning Albert because I could see him preparing to jump out of the hangars at the appropriate time and greet Martine with the now very familiar “SHOW US YOUR GRINNNNNNNNER!” I waved frantically at Albert, but sadly it was all too late as Martine, now walking across the tank park was already being verbally abused!

Throwing his Parka coat to the ground, Colin Hepburn started to run across the tank park towards 1 Troop shouting “NEEEEHHHHHHH  COPPPPPPPPP….YOU (Insert Nasty word)……I AM GOING TO HAVE YOUUUUUU...YOU (Insert lots of nasty words!) ”. Albert turned and fled up the road towards B Squadron hangars followed closely by the SSM who was trying to hit him with his stick. It always struck me as a very amusing sight. Eventually Albert stopped running and apologised, Colin just hit him hard with his stick and called him a very nasty word!

Anyway, back to the wood, after a couple of beers we got into our sleeping bags to get some much needed sleep. This was only disturbed when it was time to go on radio watch, which only really affected me as Woody was too drunk still and there was no way in a month of Sundays Mac Brown was going to walk anywhere in the dark in case he stood in mud! As we lay there and chatted, Mac questioned why it smelt so much of diesel, although I could only smell beer fumes from Woody. Mac thought the overpowering diesel smell was mine and Steve's discarded coveralls and then unbelievably he asked us "How do you get so dirty?". Meanwhile in the back decks of the tank, the small piece of wood that we had jammed into the broken fuel tap had unknowingly fallen out. The recently fully filled fuel tanks were now slowly emptying into the hull which was now dripping constantly through the drain holes in the hull onto the ground. There was a heavy smell of diesel in the air but this was normal(ish!). Overnight the diesel made its way through the ground into a small drainage ditch running alongside the track we were sat on and onwards down the hill!

In the morning, we got up at first light immediately noting that there was a strong smell of diesel in the air, "Not to worry" I thought to myself and proceeded to get washed and shaved. There was no news of Maggot returning with the spare part so we busied ourselves by cleaning guns and servicing the running gear, paying no attention to the small puddle of diesel on the ground under the tank. The REME came over mid morning with the 434 and lifted the main engine out of the hull and placed it onto the ground. Around midday news came that the spare was being sent from some depot in Dulmen or somewhere. It would be at Paderborn late that afternoon and Maggot would have it at A2 Echelon first thing in the morning. So with luck, the new fuel tap would be fitted and the pack back in the tank by midday Sunday and we would be ready to move out of the wood some time in the early hours of Monday morning with the rest of the Squadron. Meanwhile, unknowingly fuel from the now half full fuel tanks still continued to drip out of the hull onto the ground!

 
A lovely view!
 
 

A lovely view!

 

So with nothing really to do while waiting for the spare to arrive I decided to explore the local area. Following the track downhill from the tank, I strolled along but still very much aware of a strong smell of diesel fuel. I assumed that it was the smell from my now week old overalls! The countryside was lovely and from the side of the small hill I could see for miles on the bright autumnal day. At the foot of the hill was the small village that we had passed through the day before and I decided that I would visit and go to the local Bäckerei and get some Apfel-Strüdel or something. In the wood, unknowingly fuel still continued to drip out of the hull onto the ground and I could still smell diesel fuel some 1000 metres from it!

Abandon Ship!On the periphery of the village, (that’s the outside!) I noted a couple of small lakes with little wooden jetties. There appeared to be small groups of fishermen stood around the lakes scratching there heads and talking rather excitably. Perhaps a mighty Carp had been caught or something so I stuck my head through the small fence. Strong smell of diesel I noted as I overheard one of them say  “Soetwas wie Das hier habe ich schon länge nicht mehr gerochen, seit meine U-boot Zeit in die Atlantik als wir den 'Tommy Tanker' gesunken haben”. Now even with my limited knowledge of German I understood enough to know that he had said “I have not smelt anything like this since I was on a Submarine and we sank a British Tanker in the Atlantic"

Torrey Canyon oil spillage disaster off the Cornish Coast in 1967I thought about what he had said and then to my horror I saw that the top of the lake was coated in a fantastic colour scheme with yellows, purples, greens and reds which was looking magnificent in the strong morning sunshine………”.JESUS H CHRIST" I thought to myself, it looked like the Torrey Canyon oil spillage disaster off the Cornish Coast in 1967........The pfennig soon dropped!!!!!!

Pretty Colours
 

 

Over the weekend diesel fuel from the back of our tank had followed a natural water course from  the top of the hill into what I now knew was a Carp farm! All thoughts of Apfel-Strüdel had disappeared as I ran as fast as I could back up the hill to the Squadron hide. Quickly finding Mac Brown, I told him my fears, Woody who was having a beer called Steve a knob and asked me if there was an Off Licence in the village; Mac told him to “SHUT THE FCUK UP!”. Carefully ensuring that he placed his beret on his head with the back of his hands in order to keep his hands clean…(how he never got dirty is beyond me!) Mac accompanied me down the hill to see for himself the problem, carefully picking his way to avoid getting his boots dirty.

Meanwhile, the last few drops of fuel dripped out of the hull onto the ground!

A quick look through the fence and watching one of the German Fishermen now holding up a rather large dead Carp, our fears were confirmed and we rather hastily returned up the hill. Locating the Squadron Leader, who was in the process of singing “Happy Birthday” to William ‘Jack’ Lawrence, one of the Troop Leaders along with all of the other Squadron grown ups. He waved us away as he watched Jack blow all of the candles out on the recently purchased cake, presumably from the Village Bäckerei. I watched with interest as the Squadron Leader was taken to one side by Mac and with a mighty gulp he put a huge chunk of rather nice looking cake into his mouth. It never stayed inside the mouth long, as Mac obviously had told him of the problem in the village. He spat the cake out, and shouted for the 2IC to get onto the radio to inform Battlegroup Headquarters of the problem.

Having set the wheels in motion, it was not long before a couple of aged fire engines came up the hill towards the Squadron hide with their blue lights flashing and siren going. The firemen, who were all dressed in very heavy orange suits and coal scuttle style helmet with Fuerwher written on them set about rather excitably throwing some kind of blue crystals down everywhere to soak the spillage up. It seemed hot work, and it was not long before helmets came off followed by heavy suits. Discarded helmets that look like German WW2 helmets were always going to be too much od a temptation for some. Pete Sheldrake, who was in 3 Troop had one away pretty quickly. He replaced it at the base of the tree where it had been left with a tin of Apple Pudding from the Compo rations and it was some very angry German firemen who went back down the hill without their helmets, although I am sure they were looking forward to trying the Apple Pudding!!

A fireman
 
A fire Tender

The following morning, later than planned due to an unexpected move by the OPFOR we left the wood. What had been a lovely wooded feature, where many villagers probably spent many an enjoyable hour walking now looked and smelt like an Oil Terminal! Moving down the track and following a line of blue spilsorb crystals we drove into the village at the bottom of the hill, it's inhabitants looking at us with a mixture of anger and suspicion in their eyes! The Fuerwher who were parading outside of the small Fire Station were in a strange mixture of headress, and they also looked non too pleased!

SHQ were following 3 Troop and with horror witnessed A Squadron Tank Commander, Terry 'Terrydactyle' Ackrell, in his tank C/S 31 somehow manage to hit a school bus in right front of the Village School. It was carnage; the main armament gun barrel went right through the windscreen and straight up the centre aisle as far as row 6. The tank gunner then elevated and put it through the skylight in the bus ceiling showering everybody with glass, and lifting the front wheels off the ground. The screaming school kids were horrified and it did not help matters when Terry Ackrell announced very loudly "Fahrkarten bitte" (Tickets Please!!!). The bus escort was now trying to get all of the children to sit down and be quiet as being good Germans they had all immediately produced their Fahrkarten and held them proudly in the hands which had been thrown up in a sort of Nazi salute! The school bus driver, who I just hope was called Helmüt was staring at the tank driver with a look of utter fear on his face. The driver of the tank was none other than Pete Sheldrake who was wearing on his head …..a German Fireman’s Helmet, albeit now painted black!!!!

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