Cambrai. Memories of the detachment by Kevin Hutchinson.
Kevin Hutchinson was an armourer on 92 Squadron at Middleton St George from April 1961. He moved with 92 to Leconfield then to Geilenkirchen and then to Gütersloh, so was involved with Hunters and Lightnings up to leaving 92 in May 1968. Kevin wrote the following article.
I was already on my third Beck’s one night in the Sergeants’ Mess bar at Geilenkirchen when I was summoned to the foyer. There I was surprised to see Squadron Leader Kent, the 92 Squadron engineering officer. He told me that I had just been selected to join the detachment to Cambrai, starting the next day. I was to present myself at the hangar at 5 o’clock in the morning to set off on the journey.
Luckily, I had sufficient clean clothing to last the trip. But why the short notice? Sqn Ldr Kent informed me that the man who had been booked for the trip had had a sudden personal crisis that very evening, and therefore had to be excused.
My trip to Cambrai was to be as passenger in a Magirus three-tonner, containing maintenance equipment, that was to be driven by a chief tech. I’m ashamed to admit that I cannot remember his name because he was a personal friend. Forgive me, put my forgetfulness down to old age.
The journey was full of incident. First of all we were witnesses to at least two road accidents which happened very close to us but fortunately did not involve us. Secondly, we were victims of the sort of behaviour that, in hindsight, must have prompted the formation of the European Union and (particularly) the Schengen agreement. It was at the German/French border. We arrived there just before lunchtime.
We were surprised to find masses of stationary lorries and cars, with most of the drivers just standing around looking bored. It was evident that they were used to this sort of situation, so we joined them.
After half an hour or so, the scenery had not changed one iota, so I set out to find the reason why. The reason was that the French border staff were having their lunch. They had closed the serving hatch and were to be seen sat at their desks leisurely scoffing their bread rolls and slurping their wine. This would have been OK, but close by was a woman with a small child. The child was screaming its head off and the woman was close to tears. The officer nearest the slot seemed to be totally unconcerned. After a little while I started to become outraged at this state of affairs. Being in uniform, I thought my intervention might have an effect: I hammered on the glass partition to attract the attention of the officer, and when he looked up I began to remonstrate with him for his disgraceful behaviour. At that time I could speak French quite well, having got an O level at school, polished by several holidays with family friends in Brussels. I like to think it had an effect, because the official pushed his plate aside, wiped his mouth with his sleeve, opened the hatch, and started work. The lady thanked me.
But the thing that stands out most in my mind was the many times we caused anguish at road junctions. Caused solely, I believe, by my colleague’s ignorance of the French rule of priorité à droite. However, he was a chief technician and I was only a sergeant. Moreover, he had a licence for a Maggie and I had not (I’d lost mine after a crash). So I kept my mouth shut.
Perhaps I shouldn’t have done. There were many instances where French drivers coming from our right drove full tilt towards a junction in the full confidence that we would give way, only to realise at the last instant we weren’t going to; that their priorité à droite was trumped by our avoirdupois. Usually the encounter was terminated by much bad language and waving of fists, with my colleague’s rejoinder of “You bloody idiot” accompanied by a two-fingered salute.
I was somewhat disappointed when we eventually arrived at the airfield at Cambrai-Epinoy.
After meeting the rest of the groundcrew, who had arrived by air, we prepared to receive the Lightnings. I took the opportunity of looking in on the French armourers, and gave them a couple of bottles as presents to these fellow members of The International Plumbers’ Union. They made me welcome, and made a point of showing me a DEFA cannon, as used on their Super Mystère B2s. Like our ADEN cannon, the French DEFA was derived from the wartime German MK213, and they had many similarities. The functioning was the same and each could use the other’s ammunition. Differences were that the French used almost all steel in the construction whereas we had a large amount of aluminium and bronze. We had pneumatic cocking whereas they used manual means. The DEFA could be converted from right to left-hand feed or vice-versa without the need for extra parts. The French gun also had a cocking device for use in flight if a gun stoppage occurred. This device was powered by a single, small, electrically initiated cartridge. This was a very dodgy device to have, in my opinion. And they had a counter to tell the pilot how many rounds had been expended. Which was a great idea.
I think all of us Brits were surprised to find that in the hangar, in a basement, was a fully-equipped bar, open during working hours. We did not avail ourselves of the booze that was available, but it explained one thing to us: the person we called a Line Chief was known to the French as a Chef de Piste.
The toilets were a problem. It seemed that all those on the base were of the Afro variety: two footprints and a hole in the floor. I never quite got used to them. I never asked, but I wondered whether (and how) anyone could read a newspaper comfortably while using one.
Our Lightnings’ arrival was not as full of verve as we expected, and for good reason: the air-traffic controllers, like many in the UK it has to be said, were taken by surprise at the approach speed and lack of reserve fuel of the Lightnings. Wing Commander Gilbert looked shocked, and glad that he still had all of his aeroplanes.
I think it was the following day that an urgent request was made to the Medical Centre at Geilenkirchen to send down several bottles of “cement”. This was a jollop comprising mainly (so I was told) morphine and plaster of Paris. A serious affliction had struck the gastric system of most of the men. Rumour had it that one of the pilots had had a very close call while in flight.
The 1-12 Escadrille armourers were obviously impressed by the Lightnings – P1’s they called them – so they asked me if I would show them round one of them. As we were walking across the pan towards our aircraft, I had to ask them to extinguish their cigarettes, which I must say they did without hesitation. When I had shown them over one of the aircraft and answered all their questions they asked me if I wanted to see one of their Super Mystères. I did, so we walked along the pan towards their line, and I was amused to see most of the airmen lighting-up again. “Why are you laughing?” said one of them with just a hint of menace in his expression. “Oh,” said I, “It’s just that in the RAF we are forbidden to smoke on the pan.” “It’s the same with us,” said the erque, “But you have stronger discipline than we have!”
I have to say that I was impressed with the construction of the Super Mystère. The rivetting of the panels was superb, as was the fit of the parts. They showed me the gun and ammunition tank installation. The ease of access and the mechanical aids showed that the designers were well attuned to the needs of the mechanics. In hindsight, it seems that the French were using ergonomics decades before the term became known in Britain. The DEFA gun, I think, was a good example of this.
Hangared within a high wire-mesh barrier was housed their Force de Frappe detachment of obviously nuclear-armed aircraft. From time to time one of them would emerge for a practice sortie and taxy down the front of our flight-line. For me that was a very pleasurable experience as their aircraft were Mirage IVs, one of the most beautiful aircraft designs ever.
French cuisine has long been a subject of speculation by the British. At the air-base at Cambrai we were to see a nuance we didn’t expect. The dining hall was a cross between a barn and a church. It had a high, pitched ceiling and the paint was peeling off the walls. The tables were long, stretching from the side-walls to a central walkway, and the seats were likewise. There was no servery that the diners were able to use. Instead, plates were stacked at the ends of the tables, and waiters brought food to the tables in large tureens. Diners were not permitted freedom in where to sit, but had to go where directed so as to fill one table completely before the next, and so on.
At the first lunch, a very large lady brought out a very large bowl of soup, consisting mainly of onions and cheese. The cheese, what one could see of it, floated in large lumps near the surface of the mixture, and was melting in the heat of the liquid, into forms reminiscent of jellyfish. The lady started ladling out the soup into the plates on the first table, but unfortunately the cheese rapidly coalesced onto the cold spoon, rapidly rendering it unusable. Totally unabashed, the lady thrust the business end of the spoon under her left armpit, brought her left arm down on it, and, with a curving movement of her right forearm, skilfully wiped the ladle clean. Then she continued doling out the soup. For some reason, one of our number fainted and was taken out of the dining hall by two of his companions.
My moment came with the main course. I was sat at the near end of my table and, having (at that stage of my career) some pretentions towards being a gentleman, stupidly passed the tureens down the table for my colleagues to help themselves, before taking mine on their return. Of course the obvious happened: on return of the tureens there were no potatoes left. Summoning the waiter, I asked him if I could have more potatoes, and thus initiated a most bizarre conversation.
I had made my request in French. The waiter answered in German, and made it plain that he would not be supplying any more potatoes to my table. I asked him why, and why he was speaking in German instead of French. At the time, I could understand German fairly well, and could speak it not fairly well. Nevertheless, we understood each other perfectly.
He explained that he was a conscript from the south of France and was most unhappy that he was now in the north of France serving food to Englishmen. He was speaking German for two reasons: the first was that in Civvy Street he was a schoolteacher who taught German. The second reason was that we, members of 92 Squadron, were based in Germany, and that therefore we should be able to speak German. The fact that I could (to some extent) must have disappointed him.
But his clincher was that he, after all, was a conscript and that therefore his present life was being lived under duress, whereas we in the RAF were all volunteers so therefore whatever ill-fortune descended upon us (e.g. no potatoes) we had volunteered for that, too! I had to admire his logic.
However, this was not getting me any potatoes, and if there’s anything I hate, it’s no potatoes. So I tried other approaches: pleading, compliments (that was hard) and threats to report him to his NCO; it was all to no avail. To the latter end of the conversation I suddenly realised that I had a pounding in my ears, I was losing peripheral vision and that my face was swelling. I was losing my rag!
Fortunately, the waiter’s colleague, who had been standing a few paces away, amused by the spectacle, decided that to avoid another war he would bring out some more spuds. By this time I was shaking. Not from anger, I think, but from the realisation of what would have happened. Imagine: an RAF sergeant striking a French national-serviceman! Questions would have been asked in The House! I think that after that incident there was some form of unspoken truce in the hall.
The first evening saw most of us in the Sergeants’ Mess bar. We certainly outnumbered the natives but there was still plenty of room. The one national-service barman did a very good job, but he was obviously not conversant with RAF customs, for when one of us got a round in and then told the barman to have one himself, he asked for forgiveness and said that he was forbidden to drink. When it was explained to him that he was meant to take the money now and have the drink later, he joined in the spirit of things and the evening stretched well into the night. On the second night he’d co-opted one of his mates to help with the workload and brought two camp beds. We were getting to like the place. But on the third night we found that the Station Commander had given orders that henceforth the bar was to be closed at ten o’clock prompt. Hospitality? You’d better believe it.
So for the remaining evenings there was nothing for it but to go down town in the Maggie, driven of course by the excellent chief tech. After a couple of false starts we found a wonderful café, the Café Aux Arcades, in the Rue Maréchal de Lattre de-Tassigny (Try getting that on one line on an envelope!). The café was owned by a very attractive young widow. She made us welcome. Unlike the Station Commander she had no strict rules about opening times. Moreover, she had made a very shrewd investment: a proper toilet. Most of us saved up to use it. To my recollection we never used the Sergeants’ Club again.
The French had kindly assigned a sergeant to look after us. He was certainly older than any of us – he had about two-and-a-half rows of medal ribbons up - and he was a marvellous chap. Contrary to the vast majority of his colleagues, he went out of his way to help us. He usually came with us to the café in the evening and we wouldn’t let him pay for anything. On one occasion when I had obviously consumed more booze than was prudent, I told him that he was certainly the most helpful Frenchman we had encountered at Cambrai. He told me that that was easily explained: he was Polish! He had escaped from Poland at the beginning of WWII and joined the French Air Force. Then he had escaped from there and joined the Free French Air Force, and then moved back to France again when the war was over.
Upon being asked, he explained his chestful of medals and we were humbled. As well as his experiences in the Second World War, he was also in the Korean War, in the French Indo-China set-to, in the Algerian Uprising and a few others besides. It must be said also that in a fair proportion of these he was on the losing side.
Apart from the Sergeants’ Club on the base, there was one other club that we used briefly on one occasion. Our French colleagues had organised a party one evening in some sort of club-house. They would supply the food, they said, and we were to supply the booze. Fortunately, we had brought with us a good supply of spirits, and we thought that we would buy beer in the club. But it didn’t work out like that. There was no beer to be had and the food was peanuts and potato crisps.
Our hosts had set out a series of long tables in a big “C”, with chairs either side. The idea was for each RAF guy to be sitting opposite a Frenchman with one either side of him.
The party started. We poured out some booze and were immediately impressed with the Frenchmen. While we sipped the spirits, the French gulped theirs. I struck up a conversation with the fellow opposite. He confessed that he had been taught English at school but had forgotten it all. Within a few minutes he was trying to speak English; within ten he was speaking it fluently and within fifteen he had slid off his chair onto the floor. I looked around to attract someone’s attention, and was amazed to see that most of his fellow countrymen were in a similar state. We Brits decided to go down town. The Chief went to get the Maggie while we tried to make the club tidy.
I was climbing into the back of the Maggie when those already inside started laughing and shouting, and pointing behind me. I asked what was the matter, to be told that a certain Scottish sergeant had just flattened my favourite waiter with a single punch. I have to confess that that was the best part of my detachment.
We had been told that on the Friday evening, a coach would be waiting at the guardroom to take us to Paris for the weekend. What we did or where we stayed was up to us, and we had to make our own way back. So a number of us turned up at the appointed hour, ready to go – and found the coach stuffed full of French airmen. There was absolutely no way they were going to give up those places, and the guardroom staff just gave a gallic shrug. We made our own way to Paris, too. A well-organised outing, that.
I was glad to get away from that place – in a Nord Noratlas, as it happened, with the aircrew smoking like chimneys.