Sennelager SA Site Inspection – April or May 1965

In 1965 I joined 14 Det of 5 (CI) Coy as part of the trial organisation of Int & Sy Gp (BAOR). We were accommodated in Elles Barracks in Detmold together with 20 OFP. The det offices were on the second floor of the main accommodation block behind a security grille. We  were next to the courts martial centre and whilst we were waiting for our office furniture to arrive we ‘borrowed’ furniture from the centre. This worked well until the day when there was a court martial in progress, and we had a surprise visit from the Gp CO. When he queried why we were sat on empty beer crates we explained that although we had contacted barrack stores they said they could not issue furniture because they had not heard of Int & Sy Gp. A short but succinct telephone call between the CO and the barrack stores ensued, during which their past, present and definite future was explained if our furniture was not forthcoming. That afternoon a 10-tonner arrived with not only our office stores but also several buckshee items and the necessary labour to put them where we wanted. Such were those early heady days of the group.

The det’s patch was a large one and included several major and sensitive units. One of the latter was a Royal Artillery Missile Regiment who seemed to think that the recently issued BAOR Security Instructions were advisory, as had been the previous MSIs. BAOR SIs were not: they were mandatory and carried the authority of the Brigadier GS (Int & Sy) at HQ BAOR. After a week of non-cooperation by the said missile regiment we made a tactical withdrawal and reported the problem up the chain. Two weeks later we were instructed to restart the survey. On arrival at the regiment we found that the entire regimental and battery management structures had been replaced and sent to career development postings such as ‘IC Blanket Stacking, Outer Hebrides’. Needless to say, nothing was too much trouble and the survey proceeded without let or hindrance. As the word got round we now found that the Corps was a power in the land.

One of the missile regiment’s responsibilities was to provide the guard at the Sennelager Special Ammunition Site. These sites held the tactical nuclear warheads that were to be used by the RA missile regiments, although we (the British) never knew whether there were warheads in residence. A site consisted of a compound surrounded by a double fence. Inside the inner fence were the buildings that held the warheads, and because they were under US control, this was US-only territory with security being their responsibility. Security between the fences and outside the outer fence was a British responsibility. What we did not know was that there were surprise joint inspections of these facilities.

One bright morning at 14 Det I received a phone call from Coy HQ at Hannover telling me that two NCOs, one a SNCO, were to proceed with utmost despatch (or words to that effect) to participate in a joint inspection of the Sennelager SA Site that would start at 1030. It was then 0900 and Sennelager was about half an hour’s drive from Detmold so time was of the essence. The first reaction was on the lines of: “Wassa SA Site?” Once we had discovered that, we now needed to know what the inspection would consist of. The necessary paper was found in one of the det files and a swift copy was made so that we had something to refer to en route and at the site. The security parameters as far as the British were concerned were that the site guard provided the first reaction force. If reinforcements were needed a Quick Reaction Force (QRF) of platoon strength would be called and they had one hour in which to get to the site. A further force of company strength could be called and they had up to four hours to get to the site. The QRF was always provided by one of the major units using the Sennelager training area, so arrival in one hour should not pose a problem. The third force was drawn from any of the major units in the divisional area so we could be in for a long wait if they were called out.

Myself and a colleague headed for the site in one of the det’s trusty Volkswagens. For those who do not remember them, they were part of the WWII reparations and were the pre-war model with such features as a crash gearbox, cable brakes, a split rear window that had a field of view similar to a letter box, and narrow tyres that would not have been out of place on a bicycle. To say they were exciting to drive was an understatement and one of their endearing qualities was the ability to go from oversteer to understeer with no prior warning. However we arrived at the site in one piece and made ourselves known to the guard.

Shortly after our arrival a large American car drew up and out stepped the inspection team of three people who were not in military uniform, but were in a sort of uniform. They looked like G-Men in a 1940s–1950s B-movie: long, off-white trench coat, fedora hat pulled down over the eyes and sunglasses. They introduced themselves but no ranks were given.

The inspection started with testing the sentries in the watchtowers. I, accompanied by one of Americans, approached one of the towers. “Halt – who goes there?” rang out. The American continued forward. “Halt – who goes there?” The American ignored the challenge and continued forward. “Halt – or I fire!” was now the challenge accompanied by the unmistakeable sound of an SLR being cocked. This now called for some British diplomacy because to me the combination of a bored gunner, live ammunition and some idiot not responding to the guard’s challenge was a potential disaster looking for somewhere to happen. I told the American that I was not taking another step forward but if he chose to do so it was at his own risk and that he was liable to suffer from a case of 7.62mm rash. He wisely heeded my council and responded to the guard. We were then told we could approach the tower and we went into it to ask the guard some questions about his duties. Once done, the American made notes on his clipboard and we returned to the guardroom.

The inspection team now called out the QRF and they duly arrived within the specified time. They were dressed in combat kit with webbing and weapons. Because they were on a 24- hour duty their CO insisted that they should be dressed ready to go. A few questions from the Americans and a swift deployment to cover the scene of the exercise incident and all were well.

Now to wait for the third force to arrive. It was a sunny day so we all waited outside the guardroom drinking a brew supplied by the guard and waited for the cavalry. Unbeknown to all of us the cavalry was what it was – literally, because the duty regiment for that week was the 17th/21st Lancers whose barracks were in sight of the site. Less than an hour later we saw three groups of men come out of the gates dressed in about every variation of dress available to the British Army at the time. As they doubled up the road they were overtaken by a Ferret scout car. The Ferret came to a halt and its commander dismounted. He was the stereotypical cavalry subaltern with hair longer than the RSM would have really liked, blue eyes and that insouciant manner that comes from being part of a family that owns a couple of counties. He was dressed in shirtsleeve order and on his head was a SD hat that was the model for “the 50-mission hat.” He came over to the group of us, approached the senior American – how did he know because they were in civvies? – and saluted. The next was pure theatre:

“Hello Sir, I understand you have a spot of bother and me and my chaps wondered if we could help?”

To this day I wished that I had had a camera. The Americans collective expressions were worth a million dollars that said “Is this guy for real?”

Better was yet to come. The sound of heavy vehicle engines was heard and we all looked down the road to see four Centurion tanks advancing up the road towards us.

The subaltern spoke: “Oh yes, the squadron leader thought we ought to give the enemy a jolly good biffing so he ordered some heavy metal to help us.” We could barely contain our laughter. As for the Americans, it all went down the channel marked “Fails to compute.”

The cavalry were duly deployed and joined the QRF to beat off the supposed enemy and then they all went back to their respective homes. We joined the Americans for a quick verbal debrief and they were happy that the British had met their target times. We were told that our HQ would get a copy of their report. However, we never saw a copy.

As we returned to the det we agreed that it was “Game, Set and Match” to us and we would have loved to be a fly on the wall at the Americans’ formal debrief but some things are not to be.

Peter Jefferies – 23 January 2014