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Latter days at Wildenrath. Early days at Gutersoh – View from the RIC

by Geoff Quick

Before reading this little essay I do recommend that you read Al Holman’s account from the Pilots’ perspective. We were contemporaries on IV ( AC) over the move up from Wildenrath and the first couple of years at “Gut”, that is from 1976 until the latter part of 1978. I ask for forgiveness from those of a similar vintage for which this is all “boring old hat”, but respectfully submit that all of us have now retired and indeed some of us are passing on.

We have a generation carrying the IV Squadron banner today to whom all this will probably appear to have been a laughingly archaic, blatantly inefficient and logistically insane circus. As ever, we tried to do our best with what was available, some of which was actually quite good for its day. None of what we demonstrably achieved could have been possible without an all-round effort to repeatedly throw the Squadron in to obtain and extract that which was demanded to meet the tasking.

And that basic requirement hasn’t changed.

As a very Junior Officer Photographic Interpreter I arrived at Wildenrath in April ’76, to an introductory surprise bollocking at the RIC for allegedly being a week late ( but who was it who booked the seat on the trooper? ) I then settled down to adapting to Harrier Force ways. Fortunately I had done my first tour on 41(F) Sqn. ( Phantom) RIC : this had also included two roulements in Northern Ireland, during which time I had gained some practical junior command experience. Nevertheless, I had a great deal to learn.

To kick off, It might be helpful if I explain a few of the Photo. Int. acronyms of the time. The term “RIC” itself originally referred to a Reconnaissance Interpretation Centre. Tactical ( or First Phase) Photographic Interpreters were initially prohibited from making any personal assessments beyond counting ,measuring and identifying. Indeed, the RIC predecessors were the “MFPU”s or Mobile Field Processing Units –often called “Muffpussies” with unofficial cat emblems. Fortunately, because some RICs were multi-sensor in operation, we were spared being dubbed “Photographic” RICS, with what would have been the inevitable attendant acronyms. By the time of the IV Squadron move away from Wildenrath however, the word “Intelligence” had, rightly or wrongly, been accepted for incorporation into “RIC”.

We lived on base in a large, linked and split level, portacabin type structure –the Mobile Air Reconnaissance Exploitation Laboratory or MAREL,to which were docked Bedford 4 ton trucks, on to which were mounted boxes a.k.a. Air Transportable Reconnaissance Exploitation Laboratories – “ATRELS”. These, to my mind somewhat pretentious, titles came out of the project being originated by the then Air Photographic Branch.

At the time of my arrival there were three Harrier Squadrons at Wildenrath , Numbers 3, IV and 20 ,commanded by Wg. Cdrs. Dick Johns, Des Melaniphy and Tony Chaplin respectively. When we deployed in to the field sites the RIC had elements on 4 Site ( “Prime”) and 5 Site (“Sub”) supporting IV Squadron.

As with the rest of the Force, it was a pretty steep learning curve for a Junior P.I. First off I got my RAFG truck driver qualification, although peculiarly it was not recognized at that time as being an HGV 3. The light table operation , tasking and reporting bit was fairly familiar, but I was put under the tutelage of experienced NCO P.I.s for evaluation the first times around ( “How many sugars is that Ron? “) before then being allowed to work unaccompanied by a responsible adult.

We worked to “MisRep” ( Mission Report) standards which typically required three targets , one of which could be a line search, all to be written out in a standard signal format and be sent for transmission within 30 minutes of engine shut down. This process encapsulated the five film magazines being downloaded from the pod cameras, delivered to the RIC ( by motorbike),processed, films delivered to the light table, pilots debriefed, imagery interpreted –reports written up and countersigned and sent out the door. It also has to be remembered ( and not always appreciated by planning desks) that Recce missions usually came back in waves, so up to three (occasionally four) missions could require to be being handled simultaneously.

So how was it achieved? The original idea was for the whole group of vehicle mounted cabins to dock up in one clutch. A deployed RIC site had three P.I.( light table) and one Int. cabin ( with a smaller light table), Two “Control” cabins (each with two doors a side and one on the back), Two Processor cabins (each with two film processors) and a Print cabin. Nine vehicles which could all theoretically dock together in one complex. We also had a “Water Wagon”( A special – owned by our “Mob” or Mobility Section), a Land Rover and a couple of motorbikes, plus four 25KVA single-axle Houchin gennies. Now all this would be fine on an airfield pan but, by its very nature, a Harrier site rarely had such open space available. So only the P.I. vehicles usually clutched up, with the four P.I./Int cabins docked two each side on to the Control cabin with entrance steps via that cabin’s fifth door.

The two film processing cabins were parked up away from the main complex with their entrance doors facing the main clutch, similarly with the “Printer”. The Photo control cabin was parked so that, by sitting at the entrance, the Photo controller could survey the entire scene whilst also having his tote board maintained inside. So how did the drama unfold? Often we could hear the jet wind down in its hide. As it did the Air Camera Fitters (ACFs) ducked under the wings and transferred the numbered film magazines (with up to 200 ft. each of film) plus the paperwork from the pilot, out of the Centre line Recce pod into bins on the motor bike, which then sped off poste haste. On arrival in the RIC compound these mags went straight in to the processing cabins, were transferred to the processor mags and pulled at 120 feet per minute through the machines’ develop, fix and dry ( sprayed with meths) tanks before the take up spools were dropped in to labelled film tins. (fastest in NATO!) The developed films, in their respective tins, were delivered to the P.I. clutch by a simple expedient. Yes, they were physically thrown, to be caught by an SAC plotter who then handed then in to a bench man to load on to the appropriate light table for interpretation.

Well, that was the delivery system. The obvious faults of course did happen. One lad came off the motor bike trying to jump it over a tree root, necessitating a trip to hospital. On his return he had to ride around for the rest of the deployment with a neatly stenciled personal title on the side of the fuel tank. “S.A.C. Steve McQueen”.

Less often than expected , film tins did occasionally land on the wrong light table and the contents spooled on. Damage was usually made good quickly . For the 30 minute MisRep (and we did call the timings) typical stages were around 6-7 minutes from engine off to developing start. 4- 5 minutes or so for developing and delivery to table This typically gave around 5 minutes for each target reporting and then 4-5 minutes for check and countersignature to total report dispatch.

The R.A.F. having met these standards Nationally , NATO then dropped them c. end 1976. It introduced the Reconnaissance Exploitation Report or “RecceEXRep” with the same objectives but with the timescale stretched to 45 minutes. Naturally we blamed this on certain other parties’ standards failing to match those of our own!

On standards I insisted that the P.I’s worked to a level that reference material on a debrief was only to be consulted as a last resort in order clear up any uncertainty. I felt we owed it to our pilots, doing a “VISREP” flying from a cluttered cockpit in a fast moving environment, deserved to see a pretty instantaneous follow-up assessment on the light table. I felt that this basic standard was also a requirement for high morale and therefore should apply to the officers as well. This did cause some internal battles in the RIC (including “uphill”) since sadly the same individuals who eschewed the P.I. training tests also tended to be those avoiding going for the HGV driving qualification. I’ll say no more.

The move to “Gut” over late 76 ,early 77 was good experience as I was i.c the RIC advance party . I had taken convoys away before, memorably straight out of the field up to Fassberg on “Live Oak”, which was joint French, Brit, USA exercise to simulate reinforcing the Berlln corridors. The late Al Mathie was the U.K. exchange pilot on the French Jags and following a request by him, we got to give them a chance at recce using our film, processing and P.I. capability. The U.S.A. had a bicentennial marked up F-4 participating, of which their detachment commander stood up at an “O” group and demanded that it was “forbidden ” to be zapped. A joint late night Frog/Brit visit to it by the lads soon established the fallacy of that assertion.

Initially the RIC was in temporary accommodation as we built up. This didn’t have much to do with recce and was generally, for me, the usual Ground Officer tasking for settling in a growing number of guys and bits of equipment. The highlight, if you can call it that , was watching our esteemed Exec. Hoppy Granville -White, demonstrating how to get out of a two-seat Lightning-a couple of thousand feet over the main runway centre line. Fortunately he and his mate, who had offered him the trip, arrived down O.K. , although the dead Lightning (with a partial u/c failure) entered the ground a bit close to the married patch.

Then came the bittersweet day that the three squadrons’ aircraft came to be two. 20 came in with alternate aircraft taxyiing to their new homes with 3 and IV. Somebody had got hold of a recording which was playing quietly in the background R.T. “I scream, you scream, .everybody says Ice Cream”…… Their Harrier era closed in style.

It was time for the new order to be established. Most significantly from the R.I.C. aspect was the generation of a new site “Six Site RIC.” Most significantly for me: It was going to be mine!

Our first deployment gave us a chance for an individual identity to be created. Highly competitive with the 4 and 5 site RICs we also tested out some ideas not tried. For example we experimented with rapidly deployable “mini RICS” of a couple of vehicles which could provide some sort of service to another site if their RIC went down. Steve Jennings was the (superb) Site Commander, who had the interesting experience of visiting his new R.I.C. with visitors, only to see his RIC boss rolling in the dust wrestling his resident Rock Ape and cheered on by the guys. It was all to do with joking about territoriality and Chris Abbott and I were hamming it up.

As well as deployments. I also had the privilege of taking the IV ground party convoy up to Karup (Denmark) for a squadron exchange. For this trip all of our RIC vehicles had our squadron badge on their bumpers.

“Like it!” grunted Boss Chaplin.

Then, as in all things, events move on. I was immensely proud of the fact that “Quick’s RIC ” i.e. Six site RIC was specifically praised in my last Taceval in ’78. One’s all round of course-but that was Harrier Force. One last story and I hope the Pilots will let me off this one.

Occasionally a Harrier would go back to Wittering to do a quick recce trip (usually just using the nose PFO) before dropping back in to there to refuel. During this interlude the camera would be downloaded and the film canned for processing back at our RIC.

Well on one trip our guys were baffled. “The film is fogged –we cannot believe Wittering f*cked this up”.

I asked the, very affable, pilot of my vintage in and sought to track the history of the film tin.

Eventually it was obvious that he was the critical factor.

“So, it wasn’t opened in your possession?” I asked.

“No Geoff, apart from to quickly check that they had put the film in of course.”

A fellow university graduate!