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Author Topic: White Rabbits and Seagulls.  (Read 55475 times)

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Offline JohnWalker

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Re: White Rabbits and Seagulls.
« Reply #15 on: January 19, 2014, 10:41:32 »
John 38 - thanks for this fascinating account.  It's one thing reading it in fiction but this is the real thing - brilliant!


Offline Sentinel S4

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Re: White Rabbits and Seagulls.
« Reply #14 on: January 19, 2014, 10:07:37 »
John 38 this is really great stuff. As a child of the cold war and weaned on Len Deighton's master works around Berlin, this is awesome to read about the real stuff on the front line. Like many here I thought that you were always on the look out for Harry Lime and his ilk trying to get flown in or out of the red zone, or worse as glorified border patrols. This is great as I can understand every word.


p.s. Please don't stop yet, I got another five weeks stuck here yet....... I need something to keep me going.
A day without learning something is a day lost and my brain is hungry. Feed me please.


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Re: White Rabbits and Seagulls.
« Reply #13 on: January 18, 2014, 22:12:50 »
I’ll make this the last piece as it probably a little too boring for the majority.

Most peoples’ impressions of modern fighter pilots are influenced by the highly entertaining Tom Cruise film, “Top Gun,” and similar modern war films. The truth is far away from such Hollywood scripts that were responsible for adding, amongst other things, the silly word “that” as in “Roger that.”  No self-respecting fighter crew would waste a word when transmitting; that adds nothing to what was always intended to be the simple and clear ‘Roger’ (I understand). All communication is very short, sharp and to the point. Manners, with please and thank you, are reserved for civilian flying.

Similarly, the use of individual call signs, such as “Iceman” and “Goose” (used in “Top Gun”) were never used in RAF Air Defence aircraft, and here’s why: On the tote (the glass wall in the Combat Operations Centre) each aircraft had its own horizontal line of information, the line identified by the aircraft’s unique call-sign: all prefixed ML (Mike Lima) and then a unique number for example ML52, ML53 or ML77. So when I spoke to the aircraft it would be to the aircraft call-sign (ML52) not to an “Ice Man.” All that the enemy could gain from my radio messages was that I was speaking to an RAF Wildenrath Phantom. If I had called the pilot by the call sign “Ice Man” then the enemy would know who he was, and that – as I shall explain – in itself carries a lot of information.

On the tote, I would know who the Pilot and Navigator were, as the people behind the tote inserted the crew details when the crew climbed on board. From their names I could tell the crew status: Master Green = highly experienced, Green = Experienced or White = inexperienced. I could also tell if they were ‘Combat Ready’ of ‘Not Combat Ready’ (a Newbie). Therefore, by naming a Pilot on the radio exposes all that information to the enemy.

On a live flying exercise (at least 5 a month) both 19 and 92 Squadron crews would be sitting in their crew rooms and all aircraft safe in their individual Hardened Aircraft Shelters (HAS). On my tote the HAS location was marked on the aircraft line.

As the ‘war’ got warmed up, Sector Operations Centre (SOC) would keep us updated and I would move crews around by warning the Squadrons firstly by telephone and a little later calling them to a readiness state on the radio. Typically,
     “Mike Lima Five Two, Seagull, come to Readiness 10” – 10 minutes,
       or “Readiness State 5”, or “Cockpit Readiness” or “Battle Stations.”
All this information was updated on the tote.

When things were in full flow I could have 18+ aircraft at different readiness states and others airborne. If you had a crew at Cockpit Readiness and then scrambled a crew from “Readiness 5” you became very unpopular. Yet in the thick of hostilities it was possible to overlook an aircraft, and keep a crew ‘hanging in the straps’ with adrenaline pumping until one of the ops team prompted you, or an irate Flight Commander phoned you up! One had to rely on the tote and the speed and accuracy of the people keeping it updated (mostly brilliant WRAF).

SOC would get Radar intelligence of the areas that attacks were being mounted from, and thus they knew approximately what routes the enemy would be taking to attack us. My job was to send pairs of aircraft to defend a prearranged piece of sky through which the enemy would fly, a CAP (Combat Air Patrol). A CAP was shaped like a racecourse: two straights connected at each end by a semi circle. The aircraft would fly around and around the CAP, as one was heading up the home straight the other would be flying down the back straight. If the one going up the home straight acquired the enemy on his radar, then the other aircraft took the ‘steer’ from the first and fired its missiles as it entered the home straight.

As you can see most of the firing was done from over the horizon by radar and not visual. The problem for the Seagull, is that fighters run out of fuel quickly, and have to be replaced on several CAPs. This isn't straight forward when you see one crew is ‘Not Combat Ready’ and you are looking around for a second to make a pair.

Other complications to keeping the CAPs manned:

An aircraft you were about to launch becomes unserviceable.
One is shot down (diverted out of the exercise by the examiners).
An air raid puts the runway out of action for a while or the Orange aircraft attacking photographs one of our aircraft not in a HAS and thus destroys it.
We are all in NBC suits and respirators during an air raid – sweating and making radio work difficult.
The COC is under attack from Orange Paratroopers.
The COC is destroyed and the Standby COC takes over.

The ultimate game of chess then, and I have only just given you the flavour of it. My three years underground was probably the most challenging time of my careers (you may have noted that I’ve had a few!). I would have loved to have gone on, but they considered it too stressful.

 For reasons I don’t understand, I took to the job like a fish to water, which amazes people who know me as a person that avoids the telephone and refuses a mobile! I put it down to my watch (a team of professional Air Traffickers’) who felt sorry for the position the RAF had put me in and closed ranks to support me whilst I learnt the ropes.

I’m proud to say that my watch introduced training, for the first time ever, and in the last six months of my tour, we became the watch that trained all the other watches.

PS Yes it was a Phantom under my control that shot the RAF Jaguar out of the sky by accident ....ooops!


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Re: White Rabbits and Seagulls.
« Reply #12 on: January 16, 2014, 20:42:09 »
I think that last piece may have been a bit too technical for general consumption. Also, on reading through, I do seem to come across as being big-headed. Sorry for that, but I can do it rather a lot, it’s just that all these things happened so long ago that I feel I am writing about someone else rather than of myself.

The strangest thing about working in an underground centre was the effects it had on one – not all of them bad. For example, people with streaming hay-fever soon lost all the symptoms in the multi filtered air.
   Working in an environment where the light, heat and general conditions were perfect could, however, be very disorientating when it came time to leave the Combat Operation Centre. To walk out through the outer airlock door could be to a shock to the system when faced with either a bright and hot day or a snowy blizzard. 
    The strangest thing of all was the complete insulation from the sounds of the outside world. The runway was less than 100 yards (circa 100 metres) away, with jet-fighters screaming along it, but no sound penetrated into the centre.
   This insulation from the outside sound was quite paradoxical when you consider that our actions often generated most of the noise out there. Take for example, ‘Tactical Evaluation’ (Taceval), which was a major, NATO exercise lasting 3 – 4 days. Here the NATO Evaluation Examiners (drawn from all the NATO nations) would arrive without warning in the early hours of the morning. The purpose was to test the Air Defence capability of our station, RAF Wildenrath, under war conditions.
   This was as near as we went to declaring war in peacetime. The chief examiner (normally American) would arrive on the Bridge and pass a sealed envelope to the ‘Seagull’ who would take from it an encrypted message, which he deciphered, and which instructed him to start Taveval. The first thing Seagull would do was launch Battle Flight, and then work his way through checklists which included ... pressing the button that set the air raid warnings howling in the outside world (I’d wondered what it was like to set them off as a kid growing up in WW2).
    Inside the COC it was fairly quiet, but outside it was pandemonium as the whole station came to life, including our lodger units, 21 Signal Regiment, 12 Flight Army Air Corps, the RAF Regiment Rapier missiles. Within an hour the station was on a war footing.
    Inside the COC the Seagull was replaced by two Seagulls: one as airborne controller and the other, ground controller. Inside the Standby COC: a smaller and more primitive affair (similar to ones you can see on many other threads in KHF) the manning was the same as in the main COC. If the main COC was destroyed the Standby would take over seamlessly.
   The Seagull who had set the madness in progress then went home to bed for 12 hours, although he would be stopped every few minutes as he was in ordinary uniform and everyone else was dressed for war!

Taceval was a massive affair and most of the Allied Forces in Europe played their part – unfortunately they were Orange Forces (the enemy) whilst little us were Blue Forces (the Goodies!). Every minute of the 3 – 4 days was scripted for Orange Forces they knew exactly what to do, we had no view of the script, but had defend our Sector come what may.
   On paper, it was the Russian Forces attacking us, and it all began low key and gradually gained momentum until we were destroyed and the attack would have moved on to the UK. For our task in life, in those Cold War years, was basically to hold the enemy at bay, to buy 3 days for the powers in the UK to reach agreement with the enemy. Taceval Examiners were determined that we wouldn’t last three days

 It was the ultimate war game and when I was on duty I could sit with 2 Squadrons (19 & 92 Squadrons) with which I and my team were supposed to defend our base. Blood Pressure Time!

 I will tell you how the game was played if you are not too bored

To be continued


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Re: White Rabbits and Seagulls.
« Reply #11 on: January 15, 2014, 20:10:31 »
Thanks for the link, mmitch, a really nice link. I have just spent an hour on the site  :) Hope to drop in sometime!

Offline mmitch

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Re: White Rabbits and Seagulls.
« Reply #10 on: January 15, 2014, 11:20:01 »
Excellent John38.
 A visit to the RAF Radar Museum at Neatishead would colour in your word picture.


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Re: White Rabbits and Seagulls.
« Reply #9 on: January 14, 2014, 20:44:01 »
The Job
The scope of the job was enormous, and would fill a book. But I will try to give the essence of it, remembering in the Official Secrets Acts are always a restriction. Enough to say that restrictions were placed on us (there were 6 Combat Operations Officers in total):

 1 I had to live on the Station.
 2 I had to travel by Sleeper if on a train.
 3 I was not allowed to visit a whole list of places, such as Berlin.

I worked two days and 2 nights and then had four days off. Such was the pressure of the job that every 6 weeks we had two weeks off.

The NATO Defence System utilized the Military Airfields of foreign Air Forces, Britain, America, Germany, etc who all carried out similar duties to us, in various Sectors of Western Germany. Each Sector controlled from a NATO Sector Control that was informed by early warning systems. 

If the Russians or East Germans sent an aircraft across the border, as they did a couple of times a week, Sector would receive the alert and contact the appropriate Air Defence Airfield. If it was us, they did this via the Seagull: a green light lit up on my mini-comms control panel – everything stopped, this was top priority. I would flip the green switch and I was through to Sector. They would pass me the necessary information, and an authentication code, which I had to verify to ensure it wasn’t a ‘Gingerbread’ (the enemy had taken over our comms).
   Having verified, I hit a large red button ahead of me. This caused two alarms to sound and open the doors of the two Battle Flight Hardened Aircraft Shelters (HAS). The Battle Flight aircrew, who lived and slept fully kitted up, would be in the cockpit in no time at all and checking in on Tele-brief (here’s the typical scenario)

First Aircraft:  ‘Mike Lima Three Two at Cockpit Readiness’
Me: Three Two, Seagull, come to Battle Stations.
Second Aircaft: Mike Lima Seven Six at Cockpit Readiness.’
Me: Seven Six, Seagull, come to Battle Stations.

First Aircraft:  ‘Mike Lima Three Two Battle Stations’
Second Aircraft:  ‘Mike Lima Seven Six Battle Stations’
Me: Three Two, Seven Six, Standby.

Me: Mike Lima Three Two, Mike Lima Seven Six, you are for RCAP Alpha. TAD 321, Back up TAD 455; Angels two five; Buster; Scramble, Scramble now – acknowledge.’
   ‘Seagull, Three Two, acknowledged.’
   ‘Seagull, Seven Six, acknowledged.’

   Despite the roar from ‘Buster’ (their afterburners), no trace of the sound penetrated the COC.

From the Green light coming on, to the two aircraft getting airborne had to be within three minutes, but we practised a lot, and were usually nearer two minutes than three.

to be continued.....


  • Guest
Re: White Rabbits and Seagulls.
« Reply #8 on: January 14, 2014, 19:37:17 »
Seagull was the call sign allocated to the position! Whereas 19 Squadron was Dolphin, although Barracuda  would have been more appropriate.


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Re: White Rabbits and Seagulls.
« Reply #7 on: January 14, 2014, 19:33:03 »
Crikey, John38, that was absolutely fascinating; do keep it up.

Offline peterchall

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Re: White Rabbits and Seagulls.
« Reply #6 on: January 14, 2014, 19:30:31 »
Very interested :)
A Eagle or a Condor I can understand, even an Owl - but why a Seagull?
It's no use getting old if you don't get artful


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Re: White Rabbits and Seagulls.
« Reply #5 on: January 14, 2014, 18:48:50 »
Very interesting.  :)


  • Guest
Re: White Rabbits and Seagulls.
« Reply #4 on: January 14, 2014, 18:05:22 »
Go for it john38 but no big words.  :) :) :)

Offline afsrochester

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Re: White Rabbits and Seagulls.
« Reply #3 on: January 14, 2014, 17:40:00 »
Great read John38, please do carry on.

Offline DaveTheTrain

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Re: White Rabbits and Seagulls.
« Reply #2 on: January 14, 2014, 17:36:34 »
Yes please.


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White Rabbits and Seagulls.
« Reply #1 on: January 14, 2014, 17:17:15 »
Having spent a lot of enjoyable time reading my way through our,  “KHF >> Kent Defences >> Command Centres,” and all the other pieces hereabouts explaining how many of you good-folk are clearing underground establishments on Work Days, led me to wonder if any of you have worked in any of them in real time. If not I thought, if you had considered what it must have been like to have done so?

Judging from the many thousands of visits to the threads, there seems to be considerable interest in these ‘underground’ threads. This prompts me to venture writing of my own time spent working underground in a Combat Operations Centre, on a war-footing, in the 1970s. I’m sure you will skip this if you find it boring, but if it amuses one or two, so much the better.

The Background.
Strange to relate, after  20+ years of flying on four jet transport aircraft I finally got a ground tour... on a fighter station. The odd thing was that I was Master Aircrew – a Warrant Officer aircrew, and on fighter stations, such creatures didn’t exist.  My posting to RAF Wildenrath in Germany was to be, I later found out, an experiment. My Lords and Masters at Strike Command were for the idea, but unfortunately my new Lords and Masters at RAF Germany were against it! Piggy in the Middle time!

I assumed that I would be working in transport ops, with a couple of freighters and a couple of trooping flights each week. I thought I was in for a bit of a sinecure and time, maybe, to take up golf. In truth I was entering the most exciting time of my life.

Wing Commander Operations explained to me that I was to work in a Combat Operations Centre (COC). Then, in answer to me asking, “In a where?” he explained what that was.

The first problem was, he also explained, was that Combat Operations Officers were always commissioned, and I was not. The second, that Combat Operations Officers were Fighter Pilots or Navigators on a ground tour and understood the fighter operation.
“Surely after training, I’d be OK? “  Alas there was NO training it had to be learnt on the job.

White Rabbit Time.

WingCo Ops took me to the COC, or rather to a blast wall in a green grassy hill. He spoke into a intercom, and with a swish a hole appeared in the grassy bank, and like Alice’s White Rabbit, I scurried after the WingCo, into the airlock. The door clanged behind us and we were trapped in an all metal sealed room. A grill in the wall opened, and after close scrutiny, two passes emerged. To my surprise mine had my photograph and all sorts of [secret] info on it.

The inner door of the air lock opened, and we stepped into a brightly lit and luxuriously carpeted corridor. The first thing that hit one was the sound of an electronic metronome ticking away through every speaker in the building, enforcing the White Rabbit analogy. This it transpired was the confidence tone of the ‘Telebrief’: the communication link with Battle-Flight: two fully armed Phantom F4 fighters which were on 3 minute standby, 24/7. It was after all, the Cold War, and this was a frontline NATO air defence station. If the Telebrief metronome stopped, all hell broke loose and Battle Flight launched and was airborne in about 2.5 minutes.

It was all very modern and luxurious; we passed by modern offices, kitchens and bathrooms, before climbing a staircase along a corridor lined with Communications Centres and the chatter of tele-printers churning out meteorological reports from all over Europe.

We then arrived in a large conference room, the walls of which were lined with maps. The air was filtered as the place was gas-proof, the light was bright but comfortable. Here the WingCo briefed me about all sort of things – most of which I didn’t understand – this was a new and alien world to me. “Right,” he concluded, “time to take you onto the Bridge.”

The Day I Became A Seagull

Imagine if you can, that all this had been like a visit to the theatre. The airlock being the ticket kiosk, liken the luxury of the place with the theatre foyer and finally climbing the stairs in the warm comfort of the theatre. Now we were to enter the Grand Circle ... “The Bridge” ... Star Trek Territory!
    We stepped onto the Bridge, seats descended in rows to the front of the balcony, at the top rear row sat the station commander, Force Commander, printed in white on the back of his seat. Each tier was similarly occupied by, Senior Operations Officers, Intelligence Officers, Missile Defence Officers, Meteorological Officers, Ground Defence Officers, and so on. The ‘theatre stalls’ below the balcony, engineering ops teams carried out diverse and mysterious tasks.  Even the ‘orchestra pit’ was full of skilled technicians, whose sole task was to keep the centre operating.
   The front row of the balcony, however, seemed to be what the whole organisation was geared to support: The Combat Operations Team. A team, that never seemed to rest for one moment. Ranged along the row, each team member sat behind a computer screen, to their right hand were banks of flashing lights. Each team member was talking nonstop into the boom-mike of their headsets, as their right hand flicked the buttons of the mini telephone exchanges that each controlled.
   The Combat Operations team, in turn, seemed geared to supporting one person who sat at the centre of the front row, in a seat raised higher than the others. On the back of the seat was written the words, Combat Operations Officer (The Seagull), who wore a headset with only one earpiece, the other ear was kept clear for the telephone which was almost permanently clamped to the ear. On one occasion he was speaking to two airborne aircraft over the boom mike, whilst a telephone call was ‘on hold’ at his ear.
   Looking over the edge of the ‘balcony’ at the wall ahead – the theatre stage in our analogy – was the tote, which was more of a giant cinema screen than a wall. Similar screens, you may have seen on NASA missions: they had shown the path of the space shuttle on its orbit of the world.  Yet this screen was transparent, two stories high, and I could make out the shapes of people behind it, two floors of people: each person seemed to take responsibility for an area of the screen and was constantly amending information in their area.
    The screen, the tote, was divided into horizontal lines, each line represented a F4 Phantom Jet Fighter – this was Battle of Britain stuff, modern day.

 Slowly it sank in. I began to realise that I was to be ... A Seagull... ouch!

To be continued if you are interested............


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