Editor’s Note : To protect the Innocent, none of the names has been changed because no one is innocent.
As members of NATO we are required to NATE. This means not only to foster professional working relationships, but also to socialise when the chance might appear.
Such an opportunity arose in the spring of 1983 . HERMES had been exercising with our Allies off Northern Norway and the next run ashore was Hamburg. I was CO 814 Squadron at the time and apart from the professional task, spent a fair part of my time as the interface between a lively bunch of Aircrew and The Commander, who was of course President of the Wardroom Mess.
The Commander was straight down the line. As a Gunnery Specialist he preferred the wearing of shiny black gaiters at action stations and regarded most Aircrew with a degree of quizzical suspicion. Nonetheless, I approached him with a proposal for some NATING ; what better moment could there be to invite our fellow TIGER Squadrons to a TIGERMEET onboard while alongside in Hamburg?
For those who are unfamiliar with this, if you are a NATO Air Squadron with a TIGER in your Squadron badge you are eligible to join the TIGERMEET gatherings, These are thinly disguised as ” Air Warfare Talks”. Although only having a Snow Leopard in our Badge, 814 had slipped under the net and was in the Club .. However, research indicated that 814 had never hosted a TIGERMEET so there was a compelling need to show our presence and style.
I cleared the plan with the ship and our new Social Secretary ( Codename GZ ) was put to the test. The TIGER Flag, a 10ft by 5 foot flag kindly donated by the ESSO Oil company and emblazoned with a massive TIGER was also dusted off in anticipation.
We eased smoothly up the Elbe at Procedure Alpha. The first good sign of our plan working was when a pair of German F4s flew past Flyco upside down. Our Wings, the highly supportive Robin Shercliff, was delighted . . . . . what could possibly go wrong ?
On our first day alongside, the Squadron team finalised plans and most unusually behaved impeccably at the Official Cocktail Party on the first night. We were in good shape to host our fellow Tigers on day 2.
At 1030, our guests arrived and represented a wide cross section of Aircrew from Germany, Holland Belgium . Denmark and the RAF. We gathered in Wardroom 2, that superb Annex, and after a short ship tour and briefings got onto the serious part of the NATING process.
It was not long before the game of “stop the fan” was initiated. In the deckhead of the Annex whirred large 4 bladed cooling fans and if 2 people grabbed someone under each shoulder, you could lift them up vertically into the fan and stop it. A bit like a modern rugby lineout but without the headroom. Our guests responded with vigour; no one was hurt and then it was time for formal drinks in the Wardroom at noon , followed by lunch. Things really were going like clockwork, the Germans were singing a Squadron song from their better days in 1940, the only interruption being a short pipe from HQ1 ” Fire ! Fire! Fire ! Fire on the after mast !! Attack party close up on 04 Deck Juliet section, Support party close up on the flight deck aft of the Island. !! ”
We explained to our guests what was happening and that it was not our problem, The Fire was soon extinguished and the Fire and Emergency party stood down. A few moments later, the Wardroom door burst open with a crash and in rushed a very excited Commander. He looked at the scene of jovial social excess and roared ” CO 814 Report to me !! ”
I rose hastily from my seat and approached the Commander. His jaw alarmingly dropped twice as he spluttered angrily ” Who said you could hoist the Tiger Flag up the after Mast ? ” I replied truthfully, ” The Captain Sir “. This response initiated a gasp of astonishment with what I can only describe as a “triple jaw failure ” ” And who hoisted it ?” Sub Lieutenants Davison and Wilkinson I replied to which he robustly opined that Aircrew should never be let near seamanship evolutions.. He foamed that they had left the lazy part of the halyard slack on the hoist, it had then snagged round the aft 1006 Radar aerial. The rotating aerial then wound more halyard round the shaft, stopping the motor which then burst into flames.
It was at this moment that my judgement was in error. I knew that the Commander’s previous appointment had been as Training Commander at BRNC Dartmouth. Therefore to explain to him that the Dartmouth training in Seamanship for short Service Aircrew was less than adequate was not a good move.
Following a quadruple jaw failure, the Commander ordered “. Get you, your Squadron and your guests off this ship by 1400 or there will be big trouble” I acknowledged the order, and returned to the table where the team had been amused watching the Boss getting a right rollicking.
Despite our rousing form. every Tiger made the bus on the Uber Zee Brucker at the end of the brow. At 1400, as smoothly as a HERMES Flypro , we launched for downtown Hamburg.
On disembarking from the bus we deployed to our seats in a distinguished Gentlemens’ Theatre. The music started, the curtains drew back, and on to the stage from either side leapt teams of scantily dressed ladies,,,,,…..,,,,,all dressed in skimpy Tiger suits !! Their performance was of an exceptional standard hugely impressing our NATO Allies. This was NATING at its finest. !! What they did not know was that we had recced the place on the previous day and arranged the costumes with the Manager.
After the show, we all moved next door to the Zillertal , a legendary Beerkeller, for a couple of Steins. The day deteriorated from there on, but our TIGERMEET had been a cracker.
The next day at stand easy, I approached the Commander in the Wardroom .. I thanked him for the great support from the ship, apologised to him for the 1006 Fire and explained that disciplinary proceedings were being taken at Squadron level. Furthermore, I thought it would be a good idea if the 2 Sub Lieutenants who had caused the problem should go up the after mast with the WE Department and help to change the 1006 aerial.motor. After all, it was their error in the first place and also the radar which got us safely home to HERMES in fog, bad weather or at night. The Commander thought this was a great idea so peace was restored.
As we departed Hamburg down the Elbe 2 days later, we once again received attention from low flying jets.
All ended happily but as ever, the old Flight Safety lessons keep turning up. I should not have assumed that the chaps could hoist that large flag correctly. I should have checked before authorising that they were fit for the task. If you look at the photo below, you will see just how bad we were at flag hoisting!!
Nearly 40 years later, I would like to add a postscript. Following his valuable 814 training experience and improved awareness, the Social Sec rose swiftly through the ranks to become First Sea Lord. Sub Lieutenant Ed Wilkinson’s real name was John, but because of his misdemeanours he had collected more than his fair share of Extra Duties from Splot; hence Ed for short. Ed became a very successful Airline Captain with Thomas Cook and is now retired. Al Davison spent 16 years in the FAA, where in addition to helicopters, he also flew some of the Historic Flight aircraft. He then went on to fly with the Royal Saudi Air Force and finally retired in 2019 having reached the position of General Manager of Riyadh Air Base and Central Area of Saudi Arabia.
I had had another lucky escape and was most fortunate to drive a Frigate 3 years later. Who was my Captain (F) ? Yes you have guessed correctly, my former Commander in HERMES!!
Captain Rob (Wedge) Turner CBE