The literary life of EDWARD JAMES, author,reviewer, occasional poet and former pension adviser to the government of Kyrgyzstan
Most National Servicemen counted the days until they were demobbed and when the day came gleefully left camp and never put on their uniforms again – except perhaps to do the gardening or service the car. Most of them, however, were officially reservists and among their demob papers there was a little noticed instruction to keep their uniforms in good order so that they could report for duty in uniform should they ever be recalled to the colours. There was no time limit on this obligation. I must admit that nothing now remains of my uniform except for a few brass buttons in my souvenir draw, but in my younger days I took more care of it, or rather my mother did, while I was away at university.
I was lucky she did, for shortly after I took my degree – three years after leaving the RAF – I had a letter telling me to report in uniform at the naval base at Devonport to take part in the annual NATO Exercise. When I lined up at Devonport with the other reservists I was surprised to see most of them in civvies.
‘To tell the truth’, said the man next to me, ‘I used my RAF trousers for the garden. I didn’t dare turn up in them. I expect they’ll put me on a charge.’
But nobody was put on a charge. Instead a clerk came among the ranks, taking down clothing sizes and handing out chits for items at the Quartermaster’s Stores. My friend was exultant.
‘They’ve given me a completely new uniform’, he crowed. ‘Just what I need for the garage.’
When we left Devonport we had a pay parade. I was one of the few people to get any money. Most of the others had bills, to cover the difference between their meagre pay and their overpriced new uniforms.
I spent two days at Devonport on an induction programme, Besides dressing up we had mass lectures on the size and importance of our Exercise. I remember a gold-braided Admiral telling us that the Exercise was being conducted simultaneously in every NATO member state – ‘so if you are sitting in some cove near Brixham staring out to sea and fed up to the back teeth, just think there is a Turk somewhere staring at the Black Sea and just as fed up as you are.’
Thus inspired we dispersed to our bases. I was told to go to RAF Mountbatten. This has a picturesque location on a little peninsula jutting out into Plymouth Sound, directly opposite the famous Plymouth Hoe. One could imagine Drake’s ships gathered there while they waited for their commander to finish his game of bowls. I went to the Control Tower and presented myself to the SATCO (Senior Air Traffic Control Officer).
‘SAC James reporting for duty, Sir.’
‘Who the hell are you?’
‘SAC James, Sir.’
‘You’ve just told me that. Who are you? What are you doing here?’
‘I had orders to report to you, Sir, at eight o’clock.’ I handed him my instructions.
He looked at them as though they were in code. ‘I don’t know why you’re here. Take a 24 hour pass and come back to-morrow.’
The sun shone, it was my first visit to Plymouth, I had just been paid and I had free board and lodging, so I had a pleasant day. The next morning I presented myself once again at the Control Tower.
‘Oh, you again! I don’t know why you’re here. Take a 24 hour pass.’
How long would this go on? I was getting tired of wandering around on my own. Perhaps I should find a girl friend.
On the third day the SATCO opened the conversation. ‘Hurry man. You’re supposed to be in St Mawgan by ten o’clock. Take a railway warrant.’
There was no direct rail link between Plymouth and St Mawgan (now NewquayAirport) so I didn’t get there in two hours, but I did my best.
‘There you are’, said the SATCO. ‘Don’t worry, the war hasn’t started yet, although we’re on Red Alert.’
We were rehearsing a nuclear war. There were no real aircraft, ships or ground forces in the Exercise. It was entirely a communications exercise and I had been called up because I was communications staff with a high security rating. Our unit was in charge of a fleet of imaginary long range aircraft which patrolled the Western Approaches hunting imaginary Russian submarines. There were, of course, real aircraft on the base which really patrolled the Western Approaches hunting, and sometimes finding, real Russian submarines, although unlike the imaginary planes they did not attack with lethal intent. They were nothing to do with us.
My job was to help organise the patrols, seeing that the aircrew were properly rested between missions and that the aircraft were properly refuelled and serviced. I also kept note of our imaginary stocks of fuel and weapons and reported them periodically to Exercise Control.
Exercise Control told of our contacts with the enemy and our losses in men and machines. I had to take these into account and juggle resources between units to keep the patrols going. Exercise Control complicated matters from time to time by bombing our fuel depots and on one occasion they told us that all our officers had been killed and we airmen had to carry on alone. Our officers watched us and sipped tea until the end of the shift, when Exercise Control resurrected them.
Early in the war we were dispersed among three airfields. I was posted to South Wales, but this time did not need a railway warrant. I simply moved my desk to the other end of the Control Room and telephoned to say I had arrived. After that I communicated with them only by telephone.
All this was rather dull. The general progress of the war was more interesting.
The SATCO was a keen young officer who was eager to explain the war to his men and seemingly oblivious to the grotesque absurdity of this weird game.
‘It began with an incident in Berlin’, he explained. ‘The Soviets massed their armour on the Elbe and we realised that we could not hold them on the North German plain, so we decided on a nuclear strike on their rear communications areas. Here’. He dabbed his finger on the map.
‘Where’s that, Sir?’
‘Katowice in Poland, near Cracow. By taking it out we have inhibited their build-up in Germany.’
The Soviets responded with a nuclear strike on Belfast. Why Belfast? I can only imagine it was a graduated response, intended to dissuade NATO from further nuclear escalation. If so, they were wrong. NATO struck at Moscow and the Soviets struck at London.
News of the horrific casualties reached the air bases in Wales and the West Country. Men began asking for leave to search for their families. What, asked Exercise Control, were we going to do?
‘They can’t go to London’, I told the SATCO, ‘it’s radio-active’.
‘Brilliant!’ said the SATCO, ‘of course they can’t go. London is radio-active. Tell Exercise Control and tell them that our CO will make a ‘Churchillian speech’ to the men, urging them to keep calm and do their duty.
The speech didn’t seem to work. Exercise Control told us that a group of men had seized an RAF truck and tried to drive to London. They came off the road in South Wales and were in the hands of the police. What would we do?
I told the SATCO to bring them back to base and return them to duty. Nobody was court-martialled.
We worked eight hour shifts, eight hours on and sixteen hours off, so I finished duty before the end of the war.
‘Can I go home now, Sir?’
‘Of course, but don’t you want to stay to the end of the war. We’re winning.’
‘No thank you, Sir. I’ve a lot to do at home.’
I was leaving for Poland the next week. I was on organiser for the Oxford branch of the United Nations Students Association and we had arranged a student exchange with our counterparts in Warsaw. Travel between Poland and the West was still very restricted in the late ‘fifties and this was the first student exchange since the war, made possible by the brief thaw in relations with the West under President Gomulka.
I was leading a group of twelve students around Poland. We were carefully vetted by the Polish Embassy in London. They were vetting me even as I waged imaginary war on Poland from my base in Cornwall.
We travelled by train across Europe, stopping at Berlin and Poznan before reaching Cracow, where we stayed at a student hostel. On my first morning there I came downstairs to find the hall milling with young women in dark green overalls.
I drew the prettiest girl aside, in the hope she spoke English, and asked her what was happening.
‘Oh’, she replied, her eyes glowing with excitement, ‘this is the annual Warsaw Pact exercise. It’s a simulated nuclear war.’
‘Tell me more.’
‘Well, we are Civil Defence workers and we’ve taken over this hostel and sent away all the guests – except for your party, because we didn’t know about you. We’re using it as a casualty clearing station. NATO has opened the war with a nuclear strike and we are on the edge of the lethal zone.’
‘Where did NATO strike?’
‘Katowice. You know it?’