Tuesday, 9 June 2009

Freedom of the Town of Echt, Holland

The pipes and drums of RAF Bruggen entertaining the citizens of Echt in Holland, August 1955. I took a couple of photos using an elderly camera; black and white were the only colours available then!

Why did the Mayor of Echt offer the "freedom of the town" to all the lads at RAF Bruggen, across the border in Germany? Well, according to the Mayor it was a sort of "Thank you" for not causing any damage to the town during WW2. Whether this was by luck or otherwise, he said that not one brick had been damaged by any of our bombing raids and for that everybody was eternally grateful.

We were given a very friendly reception by the townsfolk plus a free drink and other small gestures. It was a beautifully sunny day and it ended all too quickly.

Many of the Dutch people put the UK people to shame in that so many of them can speak English so well. I was so surprised that it was seldom necessary to use a phrase book when speaking to somebody in Holland. If they didn't speak English there was always somebody nearby or with them who spoke it perfectly, often with better diction and grammar than many Englishmen. They were always so polite too! A generally nice bunch of people, and no mistake.

Back at camp I was ordered to learn to drive! This happened almost as soon as I arrived at Bruggen and apparently it was required that all personnel should be able to drive. We were technically "on active service", even though the war had been over for some 10 years. The "cold war" with Russia was still a major factor and Berlin was carved in half, with the Russians ruling one side of the wall separating east and west Berlin.

I was introduced to my L-driver vehicle: a 3-ton German "Magirus" lorry. I thought I would be learning in a car! But no, a lorry was to be my initiation to the skills of driving.

Fortunately there was plenty of space on camp roads to learn with little danger of causing any damage to any other road user. The airfield perimeter was also available too, and this was where you could put your foot down and get up some speed.

These lorries were not equipped with syncromesh gears in those days. It was necessary to "double de-clutch" when changing gear - meaning one had to depress the clutch to get out of a gear, release the clutch and then depress it again to get into the next required gear. During the first hour of my driving lesson there was quite a bit of grinding and swearing as I struggled with the long gear lever and clutch operation. It could be called the "gear crunch", similar to our current credit crunch.

Owing to the relaxed atmosphere on the open airfield roads I took only about four or five hours of lessons before I could reverse the lorry into a hangar, charge around the perimeter at some speed and generally manoeuvre this beast of a lorry without crashing it. I had "passed" my driving test and was issued with a RAF driving licence. Great stuff.

My next surprise was that I would now act as a driving instructor to the next airman who hadn't got a licence! From trainee to instructor in about 6 hours. I quite enjoyed doing this little job and my "pupil" learned as quickly and easily as I'd done.

What would you say your most enjoyable, tasty and memorable meal has been? Mine was when I had to take part in a convoy through part of Germany one Sunday. I don't know what the purpose of this convoy was other than it was a necessary training exercise. Anyway, the convoy comprised some twenty or so Magirus lorries, each manned by a driver and co-driver. We set off after breakfast and just drove off in one long column of lorries. We stopped after a couple of hours for a brew, a welcome half-pint mug of hot, strong tea dispensed from a large tea-urn in one of the lorries. Lovely jubbly.

After another two hours of driving through the countryside we all halted again, for lunch. And this is where I had my best meal ever: Irish stew, sploshed out of a large "oil drum" like vessel from the "cookhouse lorry" straight into my mess-tin!
It was really delicious; hot, meaty with the usual vegetables mixed in, plus a hunk of bread to mop up any remaining gravy. It probably tasted so nice because I was pretty hungry by then. A good appetite is the best sauce of all, and whoever created this superb meal deserved a medal.

I was now a substantive corporal but in September 1955 I was promoted to acting-sergeant. I had only a few months left of my three-year engagement and I've no idea how I managed to climb the ranks in so short a time. The RAF proved to be a great choice and I was so glad to have signed on for the extra year instead of just doing the National Service 2-year stint. One of the best choices of my young life.


Jo said...

You have had an interesting life. And yes, I am always amazed at the number of people who can speak English as a second language, and speak it well. It does put me to shame.

Phil said...

Thanks for your comment Jo. Much appreciated. Phil