How war shaped my life

My mother and her family lived overlooking Cardiff Docks prior to WW2.  My grandfather came from Brixham, a small fishing town in the south of England; my home.  He drove a daily train from Devon to Cardiff.  One can only imagine what it must have been like during the Blitz, driving his train towards Cardiff, and seeing the plumes of smoke rising from the dock area; and the family home, being unable to phone to see if the family was safe.

My mother recalls how my grandfather used to like watching the Luftwaffe bombing the docks as the family sheltered in the cellar. One day, she recalled, the bombs started moving towards the family home as my grandfather watched; hurtling indoors at the last moment, before one exploded close by, hurling him down the stairs into the cellar.  The family moved to the other end of the track, in seaside Devon shortly afterwards. This was 1941.  The family stayed in Devon after the war, and thus is was that I am English, and not Welsh.

During Operation Bolero, Britain became a base for the U.S. troops, building up for the Normandy D-Day operation; my home area being one of the staging areas for the U.S. 4th Inv Division ( destined for Utah Beach).  The UK Battle Training Area lay a few miles south of me; the beaches I played on as a child bore witness to the Exercise Tiger disaster.  In 1944 my mother saw her first black man, “He was ever so nice.  He gave me sweets”, my mother, who was 14 at the time remembers.  Her sister, who was older had other ‘experiences of war’; enjoying the company of the Canadian airmen convalescing at the local pre-war holiday camp.  She eventually married an RAF serviceman billeted with them, her Canadian/English baby being brought up as theirs.  My cousin, this baby, searches for his real father still.

Lying on the south coast, Devon was subject to the Luftwaffe’s ‘Tip and Run’ fighter-bomber raids, my mother experiencing one in 1944.  The harbour by now was packed with American vessels, building up for ‘Normandy’.  My mother remembers a plane flying low over the adjacent beach, with British markings suddenly machine-gunning her and her dog.  I suggested that the pilot probably hadn`t flown from France just to attack her, and was probably attacking the American vessels; but I wasn`t there.  I didn`t come along until a couple of decades later.  Maybe one day I will try to research what actually happened.

As a child, the stories told by Veterans and the amount of movies and war toys of the late sixties decided for me that I was going to join the Armed Forces once I left school.  The war movie extract that played on the TV every evening did nothing to dissuade me,  I was too young to realize that this was the Vietnam War on the news, as I replayed the scenes with my Action Man.  Eventually this, and a love of things mechanical led to my becoming an Aircraft Engineer in the Royal Air Force.

I served during two wars; and played my bit in three.

One wet night I walked into the Squadron tea-bar, dripping wet and doused in hydraulic fluid, as was the norm after servicing an aircraft.  A war film appeared to be playing on the TV, the night vision display on the screen showing tracer fire rising above the palm trees of an Arabic looking city. Not a word was being spoken.

I asked the guy next to me, “Are we at war?”  The answer was in the affirmative.

That evening I volunteered to deploy to what became known as Gulf War One, but was told that I had been in the RAF too short a time.  This was a shame, as our guys were in the Muscat Intercontinental Hotel on £40 a day ‘rates’ (local overseas allowance), and that was good money back then.  One of the guys who deployed came back afterwards and bought a brand new 1000cc motorbike.  Together with this and his experience of war I was well jealous.   As such I spent GW1 working 12 hour shifts ensuring the aircraft were ready if more needed to deploy, whilst the Squadron watched the Straits of Gibraltar for ships smuggling weapons to Saddam. I got to go out on an operational sortie, and had a very nice overnight stay in Gib.  The less said about that the better.  Think drunk RAF servicemen on tour.  Those who deployed did this from Oman, flying up the Gulf. 

By GW2 I was on a Tornado GR1 Squadron; the only one armed with ALARM anti radar missiles, so guaranteed to be the first to ‘go in’.  I`m not sure how, but again I ended up on the reserve party in Germany, ensuring that the aircraft were serviceable back at base, so they could be rotated with those deployed as and when needed.  Here the main issue was calming my mother down as the sensationalist newspapers back home said all sorts of rubbish about ‘the Tornado Squadrons’.  It took a lot of international phone calls to persuade her that I was safe in Germany.

By the Balkan War I had left the RAF, and was working on Tornado aircraft as a civilian.  Due to the ‘no fly zone’ we had to do some urgent operational modifications, which as a civilian working on RAF aircraft meant unlimited overtime.  It felt rather like profiting from war, but someone is always going to make money, so I figured it may as well be me; and I creamed in as many hours as possible throughout.

There is a joke that asks a serviceman in the three forces what they would do if they found a scorpion in their tent. 

The Soldier says that they would take their bayonet and kill it.  The Sailor says that he would get a bucket and scoop it up, and throw it away.  The Airman says that he would phone room service and ask why there was a tent in his room. 

I was an airman, and as such these were ‘my’ wars; somewhat different to a soldier in Afghanistan or Iraq.  But these were ‘my’ wars.