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RAF flew me home to watch the cup final

By Black Country Bugle  |  Posted: June 28, 2014

  • Ian today, at RAF Cosford

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THE COLD WAR, that great threat that thankfully never exploded into the full-scale conflict the whole world feared, is for that very reason overlooked by many these days.

Many a parent and child were kept awake at night from the late forties until the early nineties with thoughts of 'what if ... ?', and while the button was never pressed, there was nevertheless a huge amount of activity going on around the world as each side flexed its military muscle.

The RAF Museum at Cosford might just be the best place in the world to visit if you want to see the huge and fascinating advances that air power underwent in the post-war period – and it's also the place local schools turn to when they want to learn about it first-hand from someone who lived and worked in the thick of it.

Ian Mayne is one of two Cold War veterans (along with Brian Conway who we met in last week's edition) who give regular talks to school classes, delivered in the imposing concrete 'bunker', a specially-built classroom at the heart of Cosford's Cold War hangar.

The subject is these days part of the school curriculum, and there's no better way to bring an historic subject to life than sharing a room with someone who was there, offering his memories and answering your questions. We caught up with Ian at Cosford recently, and got our very own Cold War history lesson.

Originally from Lichfield, Ian was an apprentice with a diesel engineering firm in Stafford in the early 1950s, and was allowed to defer his National Service until the age of 21. He therefore joined the RAF with five years' experience in 1955, and as an Aircraft Mechanic specialising in engines, was despatched to one of our bleaker outposts. RAF Sylt was on a small island in the North Sea, part of Germany but just off the Danish coast.

"There was no such thing as the Cold War at the time," Ian told us. "It was just Us and Them, the Commies as we called them.

"It was very cold though. The worst thing about Sylt was the weather. At its worst, the sea would freeze solid enough for us to walk on.

"Sylt was an armament factory station, and all the RAF fighter pilots in Germany at that time would come up to us for training sessions. I worked on Vampires, two-seater jets, which allowed one pilot to train the other. We'd have visiting squadrons come and stay for a month to do their training."

The methods were a far cry from today's computerised simulators. A Gloster Meteor jet would be sent up with a cloth target, known as a drogue, trailing behind it, and the trainee pilot would have to approach it and pepper it with live ammunition.

"There was a circle in the centre of the drogue," Ian explained, "and every trainee that went up had sticky paint on his bullets. Typical RAF, to save money each pilot had a different colour paint: red, green, blue, so that when the drogue came back down you could see whose bullets had hit the target, and how many times. And the really good pilots were allowed to have a shot at a wooden glider."

As a safeguard against the instability of European currency, the men were paid in BAFs – British Armed Forces money.

"I was on £1 and 8 shillings a week when I started," recalled Ian, "and I saved the 8 shillings. If we were going into town, we had to exchange our BAFs for German money at the NAAFI.

"But we also got a ration of 200 cigarettes a week – either Capstan or Players. As I didn't smoke I sold mine, so that gave me a bit extra! I'd throw my container into the bowser, and the driver paid me for them. They would have ended up on the German black market."

Being in such a far-flung outpost, Ian didn't have much contact with the Russians, though he did have the occasional experience of a visit to the Iron Curtain, where he had Soviet guns pointed at him.

He also visited the former Belsen concentration camp in 1957, and found it every bit as haunting as he had heard, devoid of any birdsong, as has become widely reported.

But there were sometimes opportunities for adventure. When on leave, Ian and his colleagues would sometimes travel into the Scandinavian countries, where they would be treated as heroes by a population with Nazi occupation so fresh in their memories.

Ian's favourite trip however was an unexpected dash back home.

"My squadron commander knew I was a Villa fan," Ian smiled. "And when they made the FA Cup final with Manchester United in 1957, he arranged for me to be flown to England so I could watch it on the television. It wasn't shown out there of course.

"I was dropped off at Marham in Norfolk, and had to hitch-hike to the Midlands. But I went up to Manchester to see my girlfriend, and watched the match up there – with a load of United fans. We won 2-1."

While Ian Mayne and Brian Conway are doing a fantastic job of bringing the Cold War to life for the current generation of schoolchildren, the museum at Cosford is eager to add more veterans to the ranks. The plan is that they will be able to gather enough vets to hold monthly sessions, and this is where they hope Bugle readers will be able to help. Did you serve in the armed forces in that lengthy Cold War period, and do you have experience you think would be of interest?

If you do, contact Philip Clayton, education officer at RAF Museum Cosford, on 01902 376241.

And don't forget, the Bugle is always keen to hear your stories too. Give us a call on 01384 567678, pay us a visit, or email gjones@blackcountry bugle.co.uk.

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