Friday, 28 January 2011

Nimrod no more

So it looks as if the last rescue bid has failed and what remains of the once-powerful fleet of mighty Nimrods, the RAF maritime reconnaissance and anti-submarine warfare aircraft, is consigned to the breaker's yard.

The Nimrod was once my bread and butter, in a sense. The ever-shrinking RAF Coastal Command lost Ballykelly in Northern Ireland, St Mawgan in Cornwall, not to mention overseas bases, and finally concentrated in RAF Kinloss in Morayshire, due for closure soon.

Many of the children of RAF Kinloss personnel came to my school. We lived close by, and I have lively memories of this once-great aircraft. Sometimes the landing lights of a Nimrod, returning from some reconnaissance mission maybe far to the north of Iceland would show as a distant gleam on the eastern horizon, bright as the setting Venus, closing and intensifying as the aircraft prepared to land. Sometimes woods and fields round us would stink of the paraffin they used - I believe - to pre-heat the engines. Sometimes, when the wind was in the west, there would be the shattering roar of the four Rolls-Royce Spey engines as a Nimrod took to the air. Classes sat in stunned silence for a moment or two, rounders games froze, telephone conversations were suspended until the noise had passed. Sometimes the locals were entertained by the drama of this great plane rising vertically, a monstrous, leviathan noise, but this practice was frowned on by the RAF authorities and was eventually stopped.

I was lucky enough once to fly in a Nimrod. In the days when some of the fleet was based at St Mawgan, there was a frequent movement of kids between my school and the school in nearby Trevisker in Cornwall. It seemed sensible for the two schools to compare notes, maybe formulate some common policies, whatever might be possible to smooth out the schooling problems of children subject to frequent postings. So I flew by RAF Airlines to St Mawgan for a 24-hour visit. It didn't turn out to be all that useful, because St Mawgan closed down soon after, but I had a lovely time. I seem to remember signing a piece of paper saying I wouldn't divulge anything I'd seen on board, but at this remove I can't see much harm in mentioning what I saw outside. Chiefly memorable was the magnificent view of the Isle of Man and the Mountains of Mourne in Northern Ireland silhouetted against the setting sun on the return leg.

When RAF Kinloss celebrated its 50th birthday in 1989 we made them an immense birthday card in the shape of a Nimrod, and filled the bomb-bay (actually the cellophane and paper roundel on the fuselage) with individual cards from every one of the 250 or so kids in the school. (Press cutting above from The Northern Scot, a fine local paper.) Even at that time it seemed to me unlikely that the role of RAF Kinloss would survive for another 50 years. The Cold War was over, the Russian nuclear submarines they tracked so unsparingly were more dangerous to their own crews than anyone else. To me, a mere civilian looking out of my office window at RAF Kinloss kids running about in the playground, it appeared that the Nimrod's anti-submarine role in defending the realm was fast becoming a bit part, while orbiting satellites were beginning to take star billing in maritime reconnaissance. Like other sections of the armed services, maybe it was easier to look back than into the future.

As a tiny unwitting echo of this, sometimes the kids used to sing on bus journeys He took a Flying Fortress up to 40,000 feet to the tune of John Brown's Body. Some teachers banned it, I think more because of the indelicacy of expressions like They scraped him off the tarmac like a dollop of strawberry jam and the chorus Glory, glory, what a helluva way to die than because of folk-memory evocations of World War 2 Battle of the Atlantic glory that never really left them.

More extraordinary, and instantly banned, was There were ten German bombers in the sky, sung to the tune of She'll be coming round the mountain when she comes. It was a reducing song, like Ten Green Bottles. The refrain went Till RAF Kinloss shot one down, whereupon There were nine German bombers in the sky. And so it went on. No other local schools sang it. I don't dare guess what service ethos these songs hinted at. What with archaisms like Flying Fortresses and German bombers, they more properly belonged to the immediate post-war generation. Logically it should have been me singing them.

But the RAF were first rate neighbours, invariably supportive and anxious to help and contribute, and for my part it was extraordinarily reassuring to know there was a fully equipped hospital, fire service and - at the height of the 80s IRA menace - an armed response unit just round the corner. Not many schools could claim that.


Dave said...

Did you manage to finish the cake, or is there some left still, securely sealed in containers in your cellar?

Christopher said...

Very glad to see you back, Dave, I hope refreshed in body and spirit. That cake didn't go far among 250 kids. No, there's none left. Just as well: with the build-up of decomposition gases the sealed containers might have done duty as depth charges.

Rog said...

It's an Enigma.

I liked the Vulcan Bombers as well but they're all gone now.

Sarah said...

hmm boys stuff

Christopher said...

It was all Spitfires and Hurricanes when I was a lad, and models powered with little engines powered with lighter fuel that never started however often you spun the propeller, until someone turned up with something called Jetex. We imagined this was a cordite wad which when ignited spouted gases out of a tiny hole so fast that your model Gloster Meteor or twin-boom Vickers Vampire shot forward for all of 4 ft and smashed against a tree or whatever.

Sah: More boys' stuff above. Sorry. But it's good of you to come into the boys' dorm.

Hector said...

"until someone turned up with something called Jetex. We imagined this was a cordite wad which when ignited spouted gases out of a tiny hole so fast that your model Gloster Meteor or twin-boom Vickers Vampire shot forward for all of 4 ft and smashed against a tree or whatever."

Many a year ago I can proudly remember carrying my freshly constructed little balsa wood jet, complete with Jetex engine, to the local park for its maiden, and as it happened, last flight (somewhat like the Titanic). Fuse lit and engine producing full thrust off it shot into the blue to be followed at about 40 feet of altitude by a huge ball of dope-fuelled flame - I had forgotten to fit the flame-proof shield behind the engine!! All that remained was a blackened skeleton of balsa stringers. But quite a spectacular flight all the same.

Hector said...

"I seem to remember signing a piece of paper saying I wouldn't divulge anything I'd seen on board."

Chris, we do seem to have similar experiences. I, too, have had a Nimrod flight - a 9-hour fisheries tapestry, when every floating object in the North Sea from Stonehaven to Iceland was examined - pieces of old rope, fish boxes - you name it we looked at it from wave-skimming height.

I too was sworn to secrecy, but it won't matter now to recount the tale. North of Shetland the crew reported that we were being followed closely, in fact right up our tail, by an unknown aircraft. It turned out, however, to be merely a radar shadow.

Not as exciting as when the aircraft was brought to "action stations" (hooters going, bomb bays opened) on spotting on radar what appeared to be the periscope of a submarine. On emerging from a fog bank into the clear blue there it was, a tall spike with a wake behind it! Exciting while it lasted but just a seismic drogue being towed by a ship a couple of miles ahead! It could have been a Russian submarine emerging from the Skagerrak to begin its patrol in the Atlantic - that would have been something to keep very quiet about!

Rosie said...

What an interesting story. My grandfather was Wing Commander there many years ago. Somewhere, I have a "top seceret" ariel photo of the base.

Christopher said...

Hector: You clearly had more success with Jetex than I was ever witness to. (I never had it myself, but remember standing about watching friends at school tinkering with it.) There was always going to be a problem retrieving the model, and no one apparently ever thought of a Jetex-powered boomerang. It was essentially the same process that powered the Nimrod, of course.

Rosie: But this is very interesting - I wonder where your grandfather lived when he was a Wing Commander at Kinloss? Did you ever go and see him? I imagine they were flying Shackletons then. If you have an aerial photo of the RAF station, it probably just includes the house we used to live in, just south of the eastern end of the main runway.

Rosie said...

I'll look for the photo. By the way do you live near Carcassonne?

Christopher said...

Please do, Rosie, and no, we're not really near Carcassonne - about 90 minutes further east, in the hills north of Béziers.

Rosie said...

Got it all wrong. He was wing commander at Digby fighter station in 1938 and station commander at Dalcross 44/47
We are off to Carcassonne in a few days. I wondered if you knew of wonderous things off the tourist track?

Christopher said...

Well, I did wonder...because even allowing for eternal youth the ages didn't quite seem to add up. Dalcross is now Inverness airport, which we use whenever we fly in for family visits in that part of the world.

Unless you're into Rennes le Château and all that stuff you might find the curious book village of Montolieu (NW of Carcassonne) interesting and well off the tourist track, maybe taking in the perched village of Aragon on the way. Ruined 'Cathar' castle at Lastours (N) is semi-interesting, but Abbaye de Fontfroide (45mins E), no monks, owned privately, is very fine and well worth a visit. Minerve (45 mins NE) is worth a visit too, and its off-season deadness is animated by a splendid restaurant (I believe you can stay the night there too) called Chantauvent. Happy travels!