RAF Butzweilerhof in 1959
Written by Colin Noad
I arrived at RAF Butzweilerhof in August 1958. I was a newly qualified MT Mechanic and I was posted to the station’s MT Servicing Section. This was situated just off the main square, opposite Station Headquarters.
I did not then realise that the SHQ / Malcolm Club building was what had once been Cologne Airport’s main Terminal Building. This building has miraculously survived the war, despite the fact that “the Brits knew where it was” – we should have, since Imperial Airways were operating from there, prior to the war. Incidentally, this building has been restored and it is one of the few remaining buildings on the site now, in 2008. At the time of my arrival, I had never been abroad before and did not even possess a passport – not that this was unusual in the fifties. The first shock to the system came when we were being taken to Butz. Nearly all of the vehicles had their headlights on, despite the fact that it was not dark but just raining. Those were the days before we adopted a similar system. At that time we didn’t tend to switch our lights on in the UK until it was actually dark
The second shock to the system was, upon arriving at Butz, seeing the fifty or so Command Reserve vehicles parked on the square; these were our bread and butter, in MTSS, as we had to service them and run them up regularly, just in case the balloon ever went up. I was never quite sure how this motley collection of Magirus lorries would help us win the war, against the Eastern bloc’s tanks, but mine not to reason why… The batteries were invariably flat when we went out to give them their monthly engine runs - we just had to hope that the Russians would give us sufficient notice of any attack for us to get them all running beforehand! On camp you could have been at virtually any RAF station. However, at the time of my arrival, most of our RAF vehicles were of German manufacture. We were paid in BAF’s but we could pre-order Deutschmarks, for spending out of camp. Later, after the transition from 2 TAF to RAFG, we were paid entirely in DMs and had to request any sterling that we might need for returning to the UK on leave, etc. The Bundesbahn maintained a railway spur line into the Station and they used their locos and rolling stock to bring supplies in and out for us. BAOR knew our terminus as Köln 9 Depot – a rather grand description for what amounted to just an unloading platform and an engine shed
One could happily stay in camp and never venture out but I decided to learn German, helped by the fact that we had German engineers working in MTSS. Needless to say, I learned to swear fluently in German fairly quickly! Cologne was on our doorstep and so I had many opportunities to take myself off and talk to the natives. The WVS (as it then was, before becoming “Royal”) used to organise coach trips out and about, which enabled those of us without personal transport to see some of the sites. The ladies manning the WVS club (I remember one of them was called Audrey) were charming, friendly and helpful. The Malcolm Club introduced me to those heavenly amber liquids contained in the brown bottles of Der Rhein and green bottles of Die Mosel. Before arriving in Germany, I had never drunk wine (again, not so unusual in those days).
All of the other ranks of the MT section and of MTSS, lived in Portal block, close to the Astra Cinema and opposite the butcher’s and the PSI shop. At work, the RAF staff’s days consisted, mostly, of maintaining the Command Reserve and other lorries (such as the wide spectrum of RVT, specialised radio vehicles). By contrast, the German civilian workers usually took care of cars and vans – mostly VW Beetles and Kombi’s. We also had a paint shop and there I found my own niche. I was a pretty average Mechanic – if a thread could be stripped, it was usually me who did it. However, when it came to spraying and brush painting, I was the man. I found it both creative and enjoyable. Most of the vehicles were painted a rather boring overall green. However, for the canvas tilts that covered the rear of our lorries, we used a foul-smelling greeny-brown bituminous gloop that resembled liquid pooh to smear over those. Not such an enjoyable job!
My very favourite vehicles to paint were those of the Butz-based 6209 Bomb Disposal Flight. On the BD vehicles, we were actually allowed to paint vast areas (such as the wheel arches) in a bright, vivid, red! On top of that, there were large areas of white including the wording “Bomben Räum Kommando” that appeared in very large lettering, for obvious reasons. We used to collect our stores from the other side of the site. We had a funny little Lister, three-wheeled open backed runabout to do this. We called it “Thunderbird”. Driving this was more like fun than work. However, we did have to fire it up with a starting handle, as it had no electrics, apart from the ignition itself.
Occasionally we would get a chance to go off-site to repair or collect broken-down or crashed vehicles. I well remember one such ‘adventure’ where three of us went (in a large Ford Köln coach), all the way to Ingolstadt, down in Bavaria. We stayed in a hotel there – another first for me – my, how times have changed. I then had to earn my crust by replacing an exhaust pipe on a lorry, in freezing cold temperatures, out in the elements, working under an open sided ramp. We left the coach there for the use of the detachment, whilst we returned to Butz in the lorry. Another trip that I took was in a VW Beetle, to Borgentreich (near Kassel); this wasn’t quite so much fun as I crashed it on the way back. The weather was really cold and when I rounded a corner onto a straight stretch of road, I saw two civilians flagging me down. I braked and the car span several times before backing gently into a tree! They had been trying to warn me of black ice. The only problem was that they were at one end of it and I was at the other.
I volunteered for the Station Guard of Honour. Most of our duties involved parading for the AOC’s visits and, sadly, quite a few funeral ceremonies. However, I did once get to travel to southern Germany, to take part in the NATO 10th Anniversary parade, held on 4th April 1959, in Mainz. Butzweilerhof supplied the 36-man RAF contingent and we stayed at a US Army camp located in Wiesbaden, whilst we were there. We all thought that we had died and gone to heaven! I learned to drive whilst at Butzweilerhof and so I sometimes covered MT runs, such as the regular shuttle service to the RAF Hospital at Wegburg and the frequent trips to the Astra cinema at Volkspark, where the main Married Quarters were situated. It wasn’t all very serious and cold-war like. For instance, the most important part of preparing for the AOC’s inspections, for us, was loading all of our ‘gash’ gear and bits that we had mossed away “in case they came in useful”, into a Magirus 3-tonner. Come the day of the inspection, that lorry found itself on special duties, off the Station. Once the inspection was over, the vehicle returned, was off-loaded, and we had all of our treasures back once more. At this time, the Belgian Army occupied the airfield on the flying side of Butzweilerhof. Approaching the camp on Butzweilerstrasse, from Ossendorf, there was a level crossing, without barriers, right on a sharp bend. The road there was cobbled and got extremely slippery in rainy weather. We christened this “Belgique corner” as it was not at all unusual to see their private cars, or even military lorries, in the field, where they ended up after missing the bend! Happily there didn’t ever seem to be any injuries. Belgians did not have to pass any driving tests at that time.
There came a time when two Corporals from MTSS had to go into Cologne to locally-purchase something or other. They decided to stay for lunch (of the liquid variety, I fear). Their big mistake was to ring up and speak to the Warrant Officer, telling him that they were ‘having a good time and won’t be coming back in the near future’. Other junior NCO’s didn’t have to worry about doing Duty Corporal for quite a long time! There was a very funny incident at the main gate during one dark rainy night. It would appear that one of our favourite ‘Snowdrops’ had been having a little personal game of trying to get the barrier down as soon as possible after vehicles came in. Unfortunately, with all of our vehicles being painted dark green, he managed to drop the barrier between a lorry and the trailer that it was towing! The trailer was damaged slightly but the barrier came off much, much, worse! We were so sorry to hear about it next day but the tears were of laughter. It served him right!
Virtually all diesel vehicles in Germany at this time used an identical and very simple ignition key – it was simply a flanged shaft with a shaped top and a ball end. If stuck, a nail could be used as a substitute, however, not at night as the key flange was what operated the lights, when it was turned in the ignition – no key, no lights... Imagine my surprise, when on a Rhine trip, to see that their hulking great Schiff also used exactly the same key!
I managed to visit Cologne at the end of 2007. Prior to that, I found a couple of web-sites specialising in things Butzweilerhof. One of the contacts I made, offered to take us out to the old place and the other contact arranged for us to be shown around the restored Terminal Building (aka our old SHQ, Malcolm Club, Astra Cinema block). The restoration is indeed impressive. We were there only days before the bulldozers moved in to flatten pretty well everything else on site. My contact informed me that I was the last RAF person to see the place before the final decimation. We returned to the city on the good old Number 5 tram, from Ossendorf.