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.


  1. We regularly used to exchange expletives with the Radio Operators of Soviet vessels (or more likely - spy trawlers) in the Channel, who would cut into our land-lines late at night when we were entrenched, up on 'The Plain'!

    But a more amusing story better in keeping with yours concerns the Guards at Checkpoint Alpha, up near the Braunschweig/Helmstedt inner-German boarder (IGB)...

    All convoys had to book-out of CP Bravo (Spandau) and book-in to Alpha when going 'down the zone' and vis-versa on their return. Usually this was a perfunctory couple of minutes, but if there was a problem, either with the convoy (make-up, booking error, speed between the CP's etc.), or on a more international level (increased 'heat' in the cold war or something); it could be very problematical, the Russians would take the paperwork and disappear behind their whitewashed 'post-mistresses' window for hours (rumours were that sometimes in the mid-60's it had been days!) and all you could do was wait until they returned with all your documentation.

    I went through a dozen or more times over two-and-a-half years, and we always played it by the book and the longest delay we ever suffered was some 40 minutes while Pt. Popov tried to find Lt. Ivan to sign-off the head-count or something.

    Well....when I say "we always played it...", there was one exception.

    Toward the end of December '87, we (about 15 of us) had been dicked to play enemy for - I think? - the RHF. They had gone down separately in large packeted convoys with the main troop movement via the British Military Train (BMT). We toddled after them in time to do our task without all the tactical BS of the first day or two as it wasn't 'our' exercise.

    A fun few days ensued running around the Sauerland in a stripped-down lannie wearing green 'denims' and old 1950's parkas, with our deputy-dog hats turned inside-out and furnished with 'red stars' cut from orange fertiliser sacks.

    When it was time to drive back, we decided that we would return in our 'soviet' get-up, although the Land-Rover had to be returned to GS configuration - it had had a fetching low-cover made from several DPM ground-sheets attached to the cab and some broom-handles with bungees!

    When we got to Alpha, the Russian private came out and went around the Land-Rover counting the bods, he then came back to the 4-bunner, counted the two in the cab and walked up to the rear to count the reprobates getting drizzled-on in the back; where he encountered a half-a-dozen or so chaps scowling at him in green fur-hats with floppy orange-stars!

    He tried to ignore us and finish his head count but the sight had clearly put him off - as he frowned, checked his clipboard and started counting anew. Getting back to the lannie (a couple of us were by now following his every move through the slits between the canvass tilt panels) he started to look quite worried (if they F**ked-up they didn't get a few Staff Parades, they got Siberia or Afghanistan), and began a count for the third time.

    Getting back to us for his second visit, he again looked at his clipboard as he finished his count, and angrily muttered something at us in the lingo of the 'enemy' while gesticulating in a more international lingua-franka - he seemed to be asking if there was another member of our party?

    We humoured him for a few minutes counting ourselves and waving a hand as we checked each other off, but we were loosing our composure at what we were finding to be a highly amusing scene.

    (character count break - sorry John - hijacking your blog to reminisce!)

  2. [Now before I finish this I should point out that A) the Glosters - for it was we - were due to leave Berlin in the New Year and ours was probably one of the last transport movements listed until our Battalion move after Christmas, something the Russian guards would have understood; we only had 'days to do', along with the attitudes that go with that state of mind; and B) we had our tired-but-happy 'End-ex' heads on, with a long weekend in the city, hot showers and a Burger King in Clay Alley to look forward to...]

    By this point 'Lt. Ivan' (undoubtedly a political type) who would have been keeping an eye on 'Popov' had realised something was wrong and came out to talk to our lieutenant and speak to his man. They - all-three - then came to the back of the Bedford and another count ensued with our Plt.Commander taking part and asking us if we were all there? The commissar-type looking disgusted at our appearance!

    The two officers then wandered back to the hut - with the clipboard, doing the rhubarb-rhubarb thing under their breaths, while the poor unfortunate private remained standing in the drizzle near the vehicles filling his slung AKM with rain-water .

    Now, someone (I don't know who) made a mooing noise, like a cow? 'Popov' looked daggers for a moment then just looked even more gloomily at his feet, after a bit of subdued giggling from the back of the 4-tonner a chicken-noise followed the moo!

    Two more chicken squawks, another moo and a neigh then emanated from under the Bedford's canvas and were carried away on the breeze. The Russian officer and our PC heard them and both looked concerned, first at the 4-bunner then at each other...there was now clearly more than one voice contributing to this zoological symphony.

    Thrusting the papers at our Lieutenant, the Russian waved us away with his other hand, and the PC as good as ran to the lannie and we lurched-off into the dark. Realising we had 'won', we disappeared down the duel-carriageway making every farm-animal noise we could think of continuously, at the top of our voices until we were stopped by our own tearful laughter!

    End-note - about halfway to Berlin, one of our number (the cook) whom we'd all forgotten about, woke and rose from behind all the stores piled at the cab-end where he had been asleep on the tentage all along!

    I would like to apologise now, on behalf of the nameless the cook and all present that night from 7 platoon, C Company, 1 Glosters, to both those Russians - You were right! There was one missing!

  3. An amusing tale of British military hummour, thanks for sharing it.

  4. And that, kids, was how WWIII started...

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