Tuesday, 2 June 2009

RAF Hospital Wegberg, Germany, 1954

To say this was a wonderful place would be an under-statement. I could not believe how lucky I was to arrive here. It was, of course, virtually brand new, having been opened a few months earlier. Everything about it was clean and bright. No dowdy colours, no stale smell permeating the air - nothing dreary or depressing about the place at all.

I was told that a National Service airman had designed the hospital and that German builders and tradesmen had built the place in something like 3 months, from start to finish! What an achievement and what a superb building it was.

Another bonus was that much of the day-to-day work was done by German personnel, such as groundsmen, cleaners and other tasks. The medical staff were all RAF personnel of course, and excellent they were too. Good surgeons, doctors, nurses and ancillary staff and I was privileged to be working amongst such dedicated men and women.

I found my quarters to be the best ever. Shared with seven other RAF bods, it was nicely furnished and spick and span. Adjoining bathrooms were similarly a vast improvement on my earlier experiences. But perhaps best of all we had all our cleaning done by German Service Orderlies, or GSO as they were termed. These people were dressed in dull green uniforms, complete with early versions of baseball caps in the same colour. The "forman" was a Herr Puhl whom I later became very friendly with. He was a corporal in the SS during the war and he retained much of the firm protocol that existed then. For example, he insisted that all his staff "salute" all RAF personnel when in uniform! He stood no nonsense from any of his crew.

My main occupation was to keep and update patient records, typing up doctors' notes and various other admin tasks. Another of my responsibilities was to issue cigarette ration cards to those who smoked! All military personnel were treated at this hospital, and some civilians too. Any military patients were entitled to a ciggy card if they said they were smokers and wanted one. The thing is, cigarettes could be bought in the NAAFI for one shilling (5p) for 20 Players! I did not smoke, having packed it in just after I joined up, but I still took my card each week. This card allowed you one packet of twenty fags a day. If any new entrant to the hospital said they didn't smoke then I would "issue" a card - but to myself! There was method in my apparent madness.

After a few weeks I would have a nice stack of cigarette cards stashed away. I came to an arrangement with a nice young German girl who worked in the NAAFI. She would let me have sealed packs of 500 in packs 20 of cigarettes in exchange for the cards and the appropriate amount of cash, at 5p a throw! I gave her a couple of packets of 20 cigarettes for her issuing me with far more than was strictly permitted.

I then had another "arrangement" with Herr Puhl, the GSO commandant. He would pay me 1 Deutsche mark for each packet of cigarettes, and as 1 Mark was equal to almost 1/9 (one shilling and ninepence) I was making a full 75% profit on each packet. Herr Puhl took all the risks by taking the cigarettes out of the hospital gates. Anybody who was found to be taking more than one packet out of camp would be fined 5 Marks for every excess pack! This was to stop any "black market" trading, which was rife in post-war Germany. Tea, coffee and cigarettes were the most valuable black market commodities and Herr Puhl was quite an entrepreneur in this field. I used to leave a few of these bulk 500 packs in my locked bathroom; he would personally remove the fags and leave me the cash and re-lock the bathroom with his pass keys. He used to then sell the cigarettes in a Munchen Gladbach brothel for 2 marks a pack! I made 75%, he made 100% - but as he was taking all the risks of the transaction I did not begrudge him his extra markup! Because of my little trade in ciggies I only drew 10/- (50p) on each fortnightly pay parade, having the rest of my pay deposited in the post office savings account I'd set up.

Yes, I got on very well with Herr Puhl; even went to meet his wife and family one evening for a meal - bratwurst sausages and kartoffel salad of course!

Another delight of RAF Wegberg was working for Warrant Officer Robinson, my immediate boss in the hospital. He was offical tennis coach for the RAF team and he was also a fitness freak. He was out running every single day, plus tennis practice and training and other exercises. It was W.O. Robinson who encouraged me to join the hospital athletic team and I did so. I took part in cross-country races and track races, up to 1 mile. We had an excellent sports ground and facilities here. Not only that, he arranged for me to take a fortnight's "continental leave" at a place called Scharfoldendorf, near Hameln, the town from which the Pied Piper of Hamilin was said to have come! This fortnight's leave was ostensibly for hill training; there were plenty of hills in Scharfoldendorf! There was a superb hotel(owned by the RAF) in this place which was all free to me and my colleague who was also here for the same "training" purposes. Other staff were sometimes sent here for convalescence after accident or illness and it was all compliments of the RAF.

But best of all there was a glider station here, and after an hour or so running up a hill and down again we'd have a shower, some lunch and then go gliding over the hills, soaring on the thermals and enjoying the thrill of engine-less flying. The silence of the flight, apart from the creaking of the wings and the rush of the wind as we landed, was absolutely unbeatable. Sheer bliss. The gliders were two-seater jobs and all the navigation and flying was done by the pilot of course, but if I had my way I'd love to have the chance to go solo. It may still happen one day, but then again ... 'tis getting rather more expensive as each day rushes by.

Another much-loved time for all military chaps and chapesses serving overseas was the Sunday midday programme on the radio "Two-way Family Favourites". This was a favourite with countless millions of listeners and a lucky few had their names and family messages read out, followed by their favourite song request. This often had some listeners in tears as they heard messages from their loved ones back home and the sentimental songs could sometimes have the same effect on even those who had not had a personal message from home!

I wrote regularly to Joan in Hereford and managed to book a phone call to her one evening. Apart from two weeks "continental leave" we were allowed two weeks UK leave each year. I'd saved up a nice little bundle in the post office savings book after six months at Wegberg and applied for a week's UK leave in June 1954. The route back was exactly the same as when we first came to Germany, but in reverse of course. Train from Wegberg to Munchen Gladbach then across the Dutch/German border to the Hook of Holland and the troopship to Harwich, with the final leg by train back home. However, I'd no intention of spending more than a few hours in the parental home as I'd arranged to see Joan in Hereford and spend the rest of the week with her.


AstroTasmania said...

Hi Croydon Boy,

Does your story bring back sweet memories. If I could go back to 1956 I would be back in RAF Hospital Wegberg, in a heartbeat-(to use a modern term)

Everything you have said, I echo, so I will add a few snippets from my time there.

Apart from the cigarette coupons were the petrol coupons we were issued with, if we had a vehicle, which I did, a motorbike to start with, a James two stroke with a 197cc Villiers engine. I had far more petrol coupons than ever the bike would use, so these had a similar exchange rate as the cigarette coupons - and trade was brisk, used to pay for most of my trips dowm the Rhine & Mosel rivers.

Also had several trips to Heildelberg, The Student Prince film was on the screens back then and Heidelberg lived up to its romantic & picturesque settings.Looks like I will have to find more slides & prints to scan.

I used to spend Xmas at home in the UK then the rest of my time travelling the continent.

I also did some gliding at the local airfield, a shilling a launch back then and 30 shillings to join the gliding club.

As I recall, a bottle of spirits was 10 shillings, and 200 Senior Service fags was also 10 shillings, real cheap to become an alcoholic and develop lung cancer!!

At the time I had no UK female attachments, so was able to enjoy the companionship of the female nursing staff - now had I known then what I know now, well we better not go there!

Being theatre staff, we were highly trained paramedics unlike any civillian equivalent. Promotion was by examination and each exam I sat I had to be flown back to the UK to RAF Hospital Aylesbury, and part of the exam was an oral one with an Air Commodore surgeon. There were only 47 theatre staff in the entire RAF.

We worked long hours, a 7.30 am start in theatre to prepare for the days lists, we would work until finished then had to clean and put everything away before closing down each day, often it was 7pm before getting to the mess to eat.

We were each on-call three nights a week and sometimes I have worked 36 hours straight when we have had night time emergencies, caesarian section births, had three in succession one time, just got back to bed the called out for the next one. One had to be on duty during the day as well, regardless of how long we had worked since the previous evening.

Various road/aircraft'whatever accidents injuries requiring surgery, kept us pretty busy apart from all the routine stuff

To be continued...
Shevill Mathers
Tasmania, Australia. 9-1-09

PhilipH said...

Thanks for your Wegberg memories Shevill, and for all the superb photographs you've shared on the web. Sadly, RAF(H) Wegberg has been returned to the German authorities and the last time I saw some photos it was looking very sad and down at heel.

Nothing lasts forever of course. We have to be grateful for having been part of this place back in the Fifties; a huge privilege.