With a little help from our friends

In the summer of 1983, 45 Security Section at Rheindahlen had an interest in a building that was part of part of an old railway station. It had become a centre for CND and other similar- type activities in the area. Besides several British installations in the area, such as the POL depot, there was also a German Pershing SSM battalion which was nuclear capable; and RAF Wildenrath which was an air defence station had previously had a nuclear capability. Both of these could become targets of CND demonstrations, especially if there records were not up to date – not an unusual event for such people.

45 Section wanted all-round photography of the building. Covert photography of the rear of the building was fairly simple because that side faced the old railway yard, which was open country, and there were woods that bordered the yard. The front (roadside)  aspect presented a number of problems: it was north facing and across the road was a very steep, wooded ridge. This precluded the use of ground-based cameras because the photographer would have to get very close to the target to get a good view of the front, and this risked compromising any such operation. It was also assumed that those inside would be on the alert.

The security section concluded that the best solution would be to photograph the front from the air but this presented a number of problems. The RAF tactical reconnaissance aircraft available in Germany were ruled out because they were fast jets and would be “about as covert as a bright orange truck in the Falls Road”, and were likely to alert those inside despite the closeness of RAF Wildenrath that hosted fast jet aircraft. The building was also very close to the Dutch–German border and this increased the risk of an inadvertent border crossing, and this would not endear us to our masters. The last thing we needed were the “grown-ups” taking too much interest in the operation and then placing so many constraints on it that it became impossible. No risk = careers saved all round.

The best solution was to use an AAC Gazelle helicopter and a hand-held camera. RAF Wildenrath hosted the Gazelles of 669 Sqn AAC so they were a common sight in the area. They could also fly slow enough and were very manoeuvrable so reducing the risk of a border incursion. The section was going to use its issue 35mm cameras but these were optimised for ground photography and the relatively short focal length lenses issued with them meant that they would have to fly close to the target. Still, beggars can’t be choosers.

One Friday evening I happened to be having a wee jar in the 45 Section bar, a well-known Rheindahlen watering hole, where this problem was being discussed. I had just returned from a tour with the Reconnaissance Intelligence Centre in Northern Ireland, where we had developed several techniques to photograph buildings without disturbing those inside.

I asked to see their proposed plan and immediately saw a number of flaws. For such a mission to be successful careful planning, optimum sensor selection and flight planning to disguise the flight’s true intentions were prerequisites. I asked for a couple of days to look over their plan and come up with any revisions.

669 Squadron were definitely up for it. Their normal work was ferrying VIPs all over BAOR and RAFG so something that took them away from being “Generals’ taxis” was good news. I was also helped by the fact that the OC 669 had recently been in Northern Ireland flying for the RIC so the idea behind the task and its objectives were well understood.

The 35mm camera was really unsuitable for the task because it meant that the helicopter would have to fly too close to the target to get meaningful results. Also the 35mm format was not capable of high degrees of enlargement. Fortunately I was able to borrow a hand-held Agiflite camera with a 12” lens from RAF sources. This would allow us to stand off further than with a 35mm camera, and it imaged on to 70mm square negatives that would give better quality images capable of high degrees of enlargement.

The flight plan needed close liaison with 669 Squadron to produce a flight plan that would produce high-quality imagery and also disguise the real purpose of the flight even if  multiple passes were needed. The objective was to produce oblique images with a scale of about 1:5000 of the target. This meant flying at 1,500 feet so that we could look at the target without the hill obstructing the view. To find out how far we needed to stand off to achieve  the desired scale was simple Pythagoras. Come on, you remember: the square on the hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the squares on the two adjacent sides. This gave is a stand-off distance of 0.9 miles. The date was then transferred to the map and the flight plan produced. OC 669 had given the task to his senior WO2 pilot who also had a lot of Northern Ireland experience. The flight plan was to make two passes along the front of the house and the passes were to be made at 15–20 minute intervals so that it made the flight look like routine training or liaison missions.

The plan was presented to 45 Section who were duly impressed. On the due day I went to Wildenrath and for the next 45 minutes did a lot of hard work involving good crew co- operation to take pictures of the building of the “great unwashed”. But the proof of the pudding is in the eating. I had managed to get images of the front of the building that  showed every detail clearly. 45 Section were delighted and the masters were blissfully unaware. Job done.

The big lesson from this little tale is that sometimes in the Corps we become too compartmentalised and tend to try and do something from our own resources with a little knowledge, which as we all know, is a dangerous thing. Talking to the experts who probably know a good solution and the best way to achieve it, always helps. Also time spent in the section bar is not necessarily time wasted.

PJ, December 2013