Memories of Mike Brett

This 'Then and Now'article has been prepared in response to a request for such articles by the Secretary of the 60's 16er's Association. It was intended that such articles should not only be of interest to ex-colleagues, but should find a wider readership to help promote the aims of the Association. To this end Articles showing how experience gained in 16 Signal Regiment had influenced latter careers, would be particularly welcome.
The author has good reason to be thankful for his experience gained with Radio Relay Troop, 16 Signal Regiment, in the 1960's. Today he is Owner/Director of a company known across the world for its development of new special tools, and its expert skills in the provision of Microwave Radio Relay Field Survey Services; all built on the back of experienced first gained in 16 Signal Regiment.
I can still remember my disappointment at being posted to some obscure Signal Regiment in Germany at the end of my Boy's Service at Harrogate: My mates got places like Hong Kong, Borneo, Aden, and even the Para's! It was even worse when I got there and found I was "out on detachment" looking after some static radio relay equipment, still in use after capture from the Germans at the end of World War 2.
This was the summer of 1962. In the April of that year 40 of us passed out from the Army Apprentice College Harrogate as Technicians. 38 were L/Cpls. All technicians got automatic promotion. Unless they had been naughty. I was one of the other two; for reasons I prefer not to go into. And for my sins, here was I, keen to learn to become a good technician, and get my promotion, seemingly stuck in the back of beyond, and operating ancient non-military equipment, well past its scrapping date.
It would be several decades before I discovered the experience I was to gain in 16 Signal Regiment would to stand me in good stead for much of the rest of my life. That experience would take me to far more exotic and remote places than my mates were posted to, would give me the confidence to risk everything to go into business for myself, and would one day see me trying to explain to the KGB why, as a lone Englishman, I had been arrested on an operational missile site, and in possession of spy equipment!
I arrived at the barracks in Krefeld just after my 18th birthday, some time in July 1962. Straight out of Boy's Service, Radio Relay Technician Class 3, and with a Radio Tech Class 2 qualification gained at Catterick after Pass Out; but with no L/Cpl's stripe, here was potential trouble. In retrospect I think I was fortunate that Radio Relay Troop only had an office in the barracks!
At that time we were part of HQ Sqn, and provided "overflow" telephone circuits by radio between the Exchanges at HQ BAOR at Rheindahlen, and HQ 1 (BR) Corps in Bielefeld. There were some "drop-off" circuits to HQ 1st Artillery Brigade at Dortmund, and we had a relay site at Wuppertal. We had people on detachment at all these sites, started work at 0730Hrs by switching on the equipment in sufficient time for it to warm-up to patch the circuits through to the exchange at 0900Hrs. We had to switch-off overnight (to save the valves from un-necessary wear). We worked ad-hoc shift systems for meals, and to cover for leave and so on. In the period 0900-1700Hrs there was nothing to do but to keep fit, read the papers, or perhaps study.
I was sent down to Rheindahlen on transport from the MT along with L/Cpl Jock Kelman, an experienced Radio Relay Operator, posted in from Cyprus the same day as I arrived in Krefeld. The radio relay station was on the old radio farm at the back of Rheindahlen, where the Fire Station is today. There were numerous unused free-standing 30m lattice steel radio towers, with no ladders and no platforms. And a Pig Farm, which produced the most glorious 'wild' tomatoes you could go and pick yourself. I soon got to think of it as the worst job in the world. We grew flowers in the compound to ease the boredom, from seeds pinched from the married pads' gardens. Sunflowers Hollyhocks and Stocks. And the biggest clump of Pansies I have ever seen. Some soldiering this was.
One day we decided to clear the fire-break between the compound and the trees. Geoff Grainger was Trp OC at the time. He had an inspection coming up, I think it was a visit by the CO. We were getting nowhere fast with our one spade, so we decided to burn-off the undergrowth and grass. Somebody called "Tea-Up" and we all went in for a cuppa. Mr Buckley, one of the civvies, came running across. "Do you realise your fire is running all over the place?" It was too! I grabbed a fire extinguisher, only for it to go off as I ran out to the fire. Pete Luscombe, who had joined up with me in Exeter in 1959, caught the full force of the foam, and was covered head to foot. We had rusty fire-beaters in the compound. They all broke. The Fire Brigade arrived only to find no water pressure. It is ironic the place is now a fire station with trees right up to the compound fence.
The radio relay equipment was interesting enough. Manufactured by Siemens in the early 1930's as transportable radio relay to cover for breaks in the main Trunk Cable circuits between Exchanges. It used a combination of Analogue and Digital techniques in its operation, and was probably the first radio relay equipment ever built. My trouble was that it was so old and out-of-date. I didn't know then that I could be so wrong.
Late November 1962 and it snowed. I was on night security duty at the Bielefeld Station. The station is on the Teutoberger Ridge; you can see the tower from the Autobahn where it goes through the cutting just before you get to Bielefeld. The Swiss Chalet style building is still there today, although there is a new and bigger tower, and other buildings. I couldn't open the door that morning. There were many other doors similarly blocked by snow by that morning. Right across Europe. This was the start of one of the worst winters on record, and I got the short straw. I was the one on-site at the start, and would remain there until near the end.
There was a 10 man compo ration pack on-site for emergencies. It carried the date 1947. The sweets had gone, so had some of the main meal tins. It lasted me 3 weeks, until I was re-supplied by helicopter. I was to be on my own until the early spring.
There used to be a huge fire-break in the trees behind the site. The locals used it for skiing. I was OK for company, and bars of chocolate. I made some new friends and consequently quite enjoyed my time stuck in the snow. The circuits were put through each day. I had my mates to talk with over the radio. The station was well heated. I had a pin-up of Juliet Prowse sitting on the station clock. I got to grow my hair over my greatcoat collar; and I lost a lot of weight!
As soon as the snow cleared enough for me to get out, I got called back to Krefeld. I caught the train, and a taxi to the gate of camp. The first person I met was the RSM, standing outside the guardroom talking to the RP Sgt. Even the Beatles, who had yet to arrive on the pop scene, did not have hair as long as mine until 10 years later. The RSM ordered the Sgt to march me over to the hairdressers. Whoever was in the chair got his hair finished very quickly. A very quick haircut, which I did not have to pay for, then I was then marched along to the RSM's office. I have never been so scared in my life, particularly when the RSM stood-up to shake my hand. I thought he was being sarcastic, but no, apparently I had "done a good job up there on my own". It hadn't been as difficult as perhaps I had made out. I felt even more guilty.
It would be many years before I would experience such snows again. Working in some remote, and previously closed, part of Latvia, in an area where I was the first Englishman to visit since before the war, with waist-deep snow everywhere, I was horrified to be warned to look out for suicidal old people on the road, who might step into the path of my Landrover in the hopes that they might spend some time being fed in the warmth of a hospital. Apparently the risk of being killed is considered worthwhile, given the difficulties of life, and their poor pensions, following the break-up of the Russian Federation.
I went back to the Bielfeld Radio Station a few years ago, when we were doing some surveys for the Mannesman 'D2 Privat' mobile phone network. There is now a paved track to the site, popular with walkers The old viewing-tower, built last century, has been renovated. The trees have grown a lot taller. The log steps down into what was a WW2 bunker, just along from the radio station, is still there. The brambles had been cleared, but there were no signs of any flowers the "Old Frau" regularly used to put there. I never did ask her why she did that. I didn't like to ask. Not in Battledress. My uniform was a barrier. I always left her to her grief.
I managed to avoid the relay station at Wuppertal, but I did my time at Dortmund, Bielefeld and Rheindahlen stations before the new C41 and 1+4's arrived. I moved back to Krefeld to help with the installations into 1 tonners. Cpl Beau Joclecar was in charge of the installations. He came from India and had been a body builder in his day. I remember arm-wrestling with him. Three of us together. We lost together. I last saw Beau in Catterick as a Sgt in the early 1970's, after I got my F of S. I would like to make contact with him again, as indeed I would some of my RR Op mates from that time, and in particular Alan "Scouse" Robinson. I was to become Godparent to Alan's son, but failed miserably in that responsibility; as so many others have.
With our new equipment, we took on a mobile role, providing telephone circuits between HQ BAOR and HQ 1 (BR) Corps mobilised in the field. We had four crews, to man two terminals and two relay stations. Each crew had a technician, two operators and a driver. Newly issued to the British Army, and developed specialy for a mobile military role, this was more like the leading edge of technology. I very nearly bought one on Military disposals, recently. Thought it would look good as a decoration in the front room. All those valves......!
We had to find out what our new radios could do before we could use them properly in their role. You can't just go anywhere and put up your mast, point your antenna in the general direction of the other end, and hope it would work. You have to find a suitable hilltop, somewhere near the mobile HQ if you were at a terminal, where you can see the other end, in direct line-of-sight. The relay stations had to be able to see out on both sides. The radios had to have Line-of-Sight to each other.
Line-of-Sight is simple. If you have got line-of-sight (los) between two places some distance apart, the radio signal acts in a very predictable way, and it is easy to maximise the distance over which you can communicate. You can predict whether a particular link is likely to have los by map study. You draw a graph, called a path profile, which shows the ground height from contour lines between the sites. Add in some earth curvature, a few trees, and a bit more to be on the safe side where the radio wave crosses over any potential obstruction, draw a line between the antenna positions and, if this line is un-obstructed, you have a clear los and a good radio path.
This method worked fine for Radio Relay Troop. The radios operated in the VHF Band, and unlike microwave frequencies, the signal will bend around obstructions to some extent. You could make mistakes and get away with it. Eventually we got the knack of looking at a map and making guestimates, instead of drawing path profiles by hand. We spent a lot of time on Exercise, finding out how good our guestimates were, and how well our kit worked. We even went out in the winter when the rest of 2 Sqn stayed at home.
We got pretty good at getting good comms over long distances. The secret of successful communications was the team members, more than any other single factor. It needed a certain type of person to fit in with the team. Discipline was seldom a problem. Most of the time it was just good fun. All that hard work and open-air living with a group of good friends. We thought of ourselves as radio relay circuit providers. We didn't know it then, but we, technicians, operators and drivers alike, had become the most experienced los surveyors in the western world, and beyond .
Our OC, the staid, predictable, well-liked, ex-SSM technician, Capt Geoff Grainger, moved on to be replaced by Lt Peter Crane, straight out of training and green as grass.
By this time I had got two stripes up. I remember Peter introducing himself to us Cpls, saying he was in the Army for a good time, and he would leave running the troop to the more experienced Sgt George Johnson and ourselves. He didn't mean it of course, but it worked. We never saw him as green. Peter turned out to be one of the best Officers I ever came across. Last I heard he had gone off to be a mercenary somewhere in Africa. I am not sure it was true: But it fits.
Around this time, Escape and Evasion exercises came into vogue. I loved it. Got really stuck into it. Still got a scar across my nose where an operator from Medium Radio Troop sat me back into my seat in the back of a 3 tonner using the heel of his rifle. We had had a run-in on Guard duty a month earlier. He apologised after a couple of weeks. I replied "that will teach me to be such a .......(keen Cpl)". He simply said "Yes". I was lost for words, and then the moment was gone.
I left 16 Signal Regiment in 1967 on posting to 8 Signal Regiment as a Sgt Instructor. Two years later my Foreman of Signals course, and then back to Catterick. Altogether I was in front of the chalk boards for four years. One morning in 1973 I found myself "teaching" operate/release charts for telephone exchanges, with a daily newspaper over the chart I was supposed to be teaching from. I suddenly realised what I was doing. This was definitely not what I joined the Army for. I remembered all those places my mates had been posted to from Harrogate; and my early dissapointment with Germany. So I went to the Notice Board and applied for the first volunteer posting on the list. Three weeks later I was with 3 Commando Brigade Royal Marines.
I was with 3 Commando for 3 years, and then did 18 months with 241 Signal Squadron before leaving for civvy street in May 1977. In civvy street, I set out to change jobs every year to gain experience. You could do that in those days. I worked both in and out of the technical field. I managed to climb the ladder.
In 1983 the Home Office decided to allow digital Radio Relay equipment to be used in the UK for the first time. This was done to enable the then new Mercury Communications to use digital equipments, popular on the continent. I was then in a senior position at Ferranti Communications Systems group, where we manufactured analogue radio relay systems. I was the only person there with any digital experience: The old Siemens equipment we had in 16 Signal Regiment.
I became 'Product Manager' for GTE with whom we had a joint venture agreement for the supply of digital radios and multiplex. I had use of the Ferranti private jet, and flew from Edinburgh to Milan several time a week.( It is only a day trip, there and back.) Transport may have improved from the days of khaki coloured Volkswagon Beetles, but the radio equipment techniques were not far removed from those I had learnt 20 years before.
In 1988, I resigned as a Director of an Electronics company in Scotland to go into business for myself as a consultant. On the 9th December 1989, the DTI announced the issue of licences to build 3 new UK mobile phone networks. It was expected other countries would follow suit. It was obvious to me there was not enough copper cable around to connect all the base stations that would be required, and microwave radio relay would be the only answer.
When I worked for Radio Relay companies in civvy street, I often bemoaned the fact I couldn't buy the quality of los surveys we had in 16 Signal Regiment. And, whereas the UK telecomms industry then manufactured 10's of radio links per year, there would shortly be a demand for thousands of microwave radio relay links per week. More to the point, every one of those thousands of radio relay links would need someone to go out and physically check a los existed between the planned sites. Microwave is less forgiving than our lod VHF. Time to put money where mouth is!
and HFL Telecomms has undertaken many thousands of line-of-sight surveys. Our success is partly due to our development of a special-to-task infra red cctv camera you can carry with you up a radio tower; but with a lens more powerful that any stills camera. It is powerful enough to recognise one radio tower from another, over distances in excess of 50Km.
There is another, more important, reason why we have been successful. I learnt in 16 Signal regiment that it takes a certain type of character to do the necessary when it comes to los surveys. The people we have are rather like the people in our Radio Relay Troop of the 1960's. They may not be the first choice of the Personnel Dept of a major company, but they can survive where the facilities are poor, carry on when the weather is against them, and still get the job done when it all goes wrong.
HFL Telecomms has worked for most of the major telecomms companies, including those with their own los survey teams. We get to do their difficult surveys. We are known around the world for our expertise, as The Independent Team of los surveyors, for the new techniques and methodology we have brought to the task, and for our ability to undertake any los survey, whatever the circumstances. We are often "first-in" to unfriendly territory. You get used to civvy's carrying guns.
I can still remember my disappointment at being posted to 16 Signal Regiment at the end of Boy's Service. My envy of my mates postings. The old radio kit on its last legs. I can laugh now. It turned out to the best possible posting I could have had.
16 Signal Regiment not only provided me with happy memories of good mates and good times, but also a wealth of experience that I would use in later life, after the Army. Without my time in Radio Relay Troop, and the people I knew there, my life today would be very different indeed.
What was that at the beginning about being questioned by the KGB for spying?
Just recently I was somewhere in the Caucus mountains between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea, north of Georgia, looking for a potential radio relay site. I had with me a GPS, Camera, powerful telephoto lens, telescope, etc. And, yes, I was on an operational missile site. Uninvited. I got arrested by a young Russian Army Officer and his Sgt, and was detained in their barracks.
But this was 1997, not 1967. I was there for the same reason as they were; it was a good comms site. There was no threat of violence
, or guns. It was all quite gentlemanly; unlike the times we have been detained in the UK for the same thing. The SWAT Police Squads in London, jump you, point guns, then arrest, then question. But this is all part of the job for both of us, and I for one would prefer it was like that, rather than have the IRA running wild.
I will admit to thinking of the Escape and Evasion training though, trying to working out an escape plan. How far was it to where the UN were operating in Georgia?
"Could I have my GPS back please?"

Chris Bartlett (1964-67)
Mike Brett (1962-67)
Jim Brooks (1964-66)
Teri Crow (1966-69)
John Dixon (1964-67)
Pete Drage (1964-67)
Alan Lafferty (1965-70)
Alex Leitch (1966-69)
Jean Parker (1964) 
Roger Sparks (1964)
Chris Hayles(1964-68)