Saturday, 17 August 2013
Tales from the Cold War
As result of the History of Wargaming Project, I sometimes hear some oral history. I thought I would share this one. If people like it, I have another couple to share.
Teignmouth is a small tourist seaside resort in south Devon with an active commercial harbour. It has a long association with piracy, for example that led to the French burning down part of the town in 1690. The smuggling tradition was equally strong and continued, apparently, in Cold War.
In 1974, the Russian submarine surfaced just off Teignmouth beach of and armed short parties started to disembark into small boats. Despite being early in the season, a few hardy tourists saw this' invasion' and called the local police (in those days dialling 999 reached the local police station). The police gave the cryptic response, 'The're not Russians, the're Poles' , as if that changed the fact boats with armed foreign sailors were heading towards the shore.
One of the boats went to the docks and unloaded a large number of crates... of Polish vodka. In exchange they received foreign currency and various bottles of spirits. (In those days, ships captains often gave gifts to the Dockers. These were not bribes, but a way of saying thank you for getting their ship unloaded or rapidly loaded. They went into the Dockers Christmas party stock...) Other boat crews ran around the town buying up fresh supplies, 2nd hand camera equipment, pasties and fresh cream cakes (it was someone's birthday). It must have been a surprising sight for tourists to see Polish naval ratings pushing to the front of shopping queues in their haste. The locals were used to it.
While this was going on, one army officer, with more inspiration than common sense, decided to take a boat load of army cadets from St Brendan's College CCF out to the Warsaw Pact (enemy) submarine off shore. One imagines a boat load of British soldiers heading towards the partially manned submarine in British waters could have caused a major Cold War incident. However, the crew were Poles, not Russians, and they recognised the soldiers were just children and did they obvious; they invited them on board. The cadets has a short look around the submarine control room. Then the cadets returned to shore as the submarine crew came back from their smuggling operation. The submarine then submerged and sailed back into international waters.
If the Polish navy wanted to shop and to drink a pub dry on the occasional evening, no-one in Teignmouth minded. Many of the older people had served with Poles in WWII or knew someone who had. In the days before Twitter, YouTube and Facebook even a small town could keep secrets.
Some of the Cold War was grim, but some of it was just funny.