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. , 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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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?"