The funeral service for long standing Probus Club member, Jim Wragg, took place at Basingstoke Crematorium on Wednesday 5th May. Bearing in mind the current limit on the number of persons attending such services it was pleasing to receive an invitation from Jim’s son, David, for a representative of the Probus Club of Basingstoke to attend.
Geoff Twine was honoured to represent the membership.
For those unable to watch the live transmission of the funeral service it was recorded and available to view from 12th May until 14th June.
Here are the results of our April publicity efforts in the local magazines. Although the Link (Oakley and environs) returned to a printed edition they did not feature our report and neither did the Loddon Valley Link. You will see that the Chineham Chat displayed our report in their “Blog” and that we also appeared in the CommunityAd Spring magazine for Bramley & Sherfield. (The actual magazine is A5 size). However, we did not feature in the Spring version for Old Basing & Lychpit. It appears that the size of these quarterly publications changes from A5 to A4 dependent on the amount of information to hand before they have to go to print to meet their advertiser’s expectations.
Things are improving, at least in Britain, with encouraging statistics showing vaccinations against Covid-19 exceeding thirty million, there are daily reductions in hospitalisations and down to double digit deaths although these are a tragedy for the families involved. The road map out of the restrictions suffered for over a year now indicate we shall shortly enjoy freedom of movement. Foreign travel is eagerly awaited by many and weekends away to European cities will become an attraction.
Cities like Prague, capital of what is today known as the Czech Republic, have become tourist destinations. And no wonder, as the city did not suffer damage in WW2 and has many historical features to be enjoyed by today’s tourists. The Castle overlooks the Vltava river with its eighteen bridges including the famous Charles bridge with its complement of statues. One of the benefits from the Soviet occupation was the construction of a metro system making it easy to travel around the city. When I was there it was pristinely clean and a credit to its design.
There are many orthodox churches with glorious interiors making fascinating viewing and, of course, there is Wenceslas Square which, in reality, is a large rectangle with traffic on both sides. It gently rises, where at the top, is the statue of this saint, recalled in the Christmas carol, with a steady supply of foreigners taking photographs.
But it was not like this forty years ago when I became a regular visitor over the following twelve years. Very few western tourists were seen, as at that time Czechoslovakia was part of the Eastern Bloc controlled by the Soviet Union. The move to reduce the influence of Moscow had been started in 1968 and known as the Prague Spring, it was led by Alexander Dubcek, and had attempted some reforms. Following his friendly discussions in Moscow the country was quickly overrun by invading Russian troops with a token presence of contingents from other Soviet controlled countries, Poland, Bulgaria and Romania, under the banner of the Warsaw Pact. The spurious reason given was to provide a bulwark for Czechoslovakia against an imaginary invasion of the Sudetenland by West German and NATO troops. This was history repeating itself as similarly false reasons had been behind the 1956 Soviet invasion of Hungary.
The Russian military presence was everywhere as they held the country under its yoke with armed soldiers on the streets and driving around menacingly in their Moscovic and Lada cars. Life was confusing for the small number of westerners that found it difficult to distinguish the local police from the Russian soldiers. The police also wore khaki uniforms and carried automatic weapons but drove Skoda Estelles
At that time, on entry to the country, passports had to record how much Sterling had to be changed into Czech Crowns. There were, confusingly, four levels of exchange rates; the official rate, a lower commercial rate, an even lower tourist rate and the black-market seeking western hard currencies of Deutschmarks, US Dollars and from any Brits, Pounds Sterling. The black-market rate was around four times better than the tourist rate which tempted low-cost purchases. I, and any travelling companions, walking around the city in the evenings would be approached in the street and even if we were not talking to give away that we were English would be asked covertly if we would like to “change money.” I guess it must be the way we were dressed that easily identified us as carriers of hard currency.
With citizens not normally allowed to leave the country, except to Bulgaria or Romania, black market exchanges was a way of obtaining hard currency needed for overseas purchases by the government and those commercial enterprises allowed to trade internationally. The government had a way of mopping up black-market exchanges with special shops having tempting western goods that could only be bought with hard currency – with no questions asked.
It was necessary to carry your passport constantly. Hotels required that you to hand over your passport every night as the police came during the early hours to check them and the identity cards of their citizens staying there. When visiting business premises of any sort, passports had to be left with the reception.
On leaving the country, Prague airport had four departure security checks that had to be negotiated before gaining access to airside. Receipts were checked to ensure that the total spent did not exceed the money noted in the passport. If greater it proved that money had been exchanged on the black-market and goods were seized. Czech currency could not be exported, so any remaining Crowns were confiscated. The relief, before take-off, sitting in the British Airways plane, was palpable.
Usually, I stayed in a hotel near the top of Wenceslas Square which although not new had a reasonably designed restaurant with comfortable upholstered armchairs. In those days, the menu offerings consisted of several pork alternatives and there was always the possibility that the head waiter would place another diner at my table if there was a spare seat. The bar was well patronised by local ladies freelancing in the evenings looking for hard currency payments for services about to be rendered.
My meetings in Prague were with a trading house, whose role was to find export partners for Czechoslovak products and to import goods needed by their economy. My company was their UK venture partner for selling and servicing Czechoslovak made printing presses. Their people were well educated, urbane, multi-lingual and some were well travelled. The trading house placed personnel in the commercial sections of their embassies around the world so that they could interact with local partners.
I suppose, like many such placements, the security services of democratic host countries kept an eye on these communist visitors. This was the case in London. A small brown envelope was received in the post at my home from the Ministry of Defence which invited me for discussions to take place with a choice of being at my home, office in Brentford or MI5 headquarters. I chose to have such a discussion at my office. The female security officer wanted to know about my dealings in Czechoslovakia and about the London based representative of the trading house. They knew he had been to Scotland on holiday with his wife and two children and that he had visited the nuclear submarine base at Faslane. Only earlier this year has a Sunday newspaper revealed that around this time the Labour MP for Coventry East, and ex managing director of Jaguar cars, Geoffery Robinson, was under investigation for his links to communist connections in Czechoslovakia.
Not long after this interview I noticed that every time I picked up my phone at home that there was a click. I was convinced my phone was tapped. An upcoming general election saw the sitting Conservative MP knock on my door canvassing support. I told him about my experience with the security service and the fear I had about my phone being tapped. Within a week the clicking ceased, never to return.
Many visits were made to the factory near to Brno, in the south of the country which provided the opportunity of seeing much agricultural activity. Most of the land was a high plateau with many vineyards and small motorway service centres having shops selling Bohemian crystal ware. There were reminders of the Soviet occupation with army tanks set on plinths and in villages, with no street lighting, there were masts equipped with loudspeakers. European dealer conferences were held there most years and to entertain their guests, visits were made to glass engravers and vineyards that produced some excellent wines and champagne style products.
On one occasion three of us were picked up from Prague airport and were squashed on the back seat of a Skoda Estelle for the three hours to get to the factory. The next time, and determined not to repeat this scenario, instead we flew into Vienna and collected a rental car and drove to Brno. One day driving around the city we were stopped by a Russian soldier standing in the middle of the road pointing a machine gun. Fortunately, in our car we had with us a lady from the trading house who spoke Russian, but I wondered what might have happened to us if we had been on our own.
The factory personnel were not supposed to fraternise with westerners but, surprisingly, one invited several to his home that was very enlightening. Houses were mainly single storey with window coverings of heavily designed lace curtains. Everyone kept a pig in their back garden which they would butcher for pork and to make sausages. Smoking was commonplace and locally produced slivovic was readily to hand.
Factory representatives and managers from the trading house visited the UK annually. They were not allowed to bring their wives and were debriefed by Czech security agents on their return home about the meetings including any agreements made. Despite them being forbidden to be entertained, and because some were not fluent in the English language, over the years we took them to all the West End musicals. I am not sure what they thought about the production of Cats and I wondered what they thought about the roller-skating Russian train in Starlight Express. We always dined well after each show.
The real move towards democracy started in late 1989 with the Velvet Revolution, led by playwright Vaclav Havel. 73,000 guest Russian troops had to return home.
With the gradual democratisation, following this mainly weapon free revolution, there was the ability to purchase higher quality components which made the products of domestic production more reliable, which in turn made them more acceptable to western markets. Substantial investment was made by western companies in Czechoslovak businesses with possibly the most well-known being the takeover of Skoda by Volkswagen. The old joke about how to double the value of a Skoda was to fill it with petrol no longer applies as the present Skoda range performs very well in our marketplace. Being the owner of two Skoda cars over the last six years I can certify their performance, reliability and quality.
Here are the results of our press coverage in the local magazines for their March issues. You will see the CommunityAd (A5) for Oakley & Overton. The Bramley, Link and Loddon carried the short version while the others ran with the larger version which have been reduced to fit on the A4 images for this web site. We did not appear in Popley Matters and the quarterlies for Brighton Bell and Winklebury Way decided not to publish. The Chineham Chat has announced they will not be publishing for the remainder of this year due mainly to lack of advertising which is needed to pay the printing costs
In the years leading up to retirement, Bramley resident and Probus Club member Dr Jeff Grover and his partner, Mary, had travelled the four corners of the globe and post retirement had intended to continue their adventures.
By 23 March 2020 they had planned to jet off to Las Vegas to hit the tables, ride in a helicopter over the Grand Canyon and horse ride on a nearby ranch before moving across to LA for a relaxing Mexican cruise.
Then the ‘big C’ put an abrupt stop to these ambitions – no, not cancer, but Covid -19. Lockdowns, isolation, on-line shopping, bubbles and Zoom all entered our vocabulary but underpinning all this was ‘Where can we go on holiday?’
Jeff explains that they had often thought about buying a motorhome but now this had become a genuine option and bought a thirteen year old 2-berth motorhome which fulfilled all our requirements. For the petrolheads it was an Elddis body on a Peugeot 2 litre diesel with a manual gear box but one of the attractions was that despite its age it had only travelled 16,000 miles. We had several test runs to the New Forest and south coast each time improving our experiences with this new way of holidaying.
This was all in preparation for the BIG ONE. Two weeks in Scotland negotiating the North Coast 500 during September 2020. This is 500 miles, driving, in our case, anticlockwise from Inverness up the east coast to John O’Groats, turning left towards Durness and then down the spectacular setting of the west coast before returning to Inverness.
The other important difference from our southerly sojourns was the introduction of wild camping which is legal in Scotland. Simply put, this involved finding a suitable parking place, lay-by, or car park where we stayed for the night free gratis. Once darkness descends all traffic ceases and a good night’s sleep is guaranteed.
We motored northwards up the east coast until we finally arrived at John O’Groats where we parked up for the night. We had arrived! This motor-homing lark was becoming a doddle. However, there was a gale coming off the North Sea but our four wheels clung tenaciously to the tarmac. The following morning, we headed off to Dunnet Head – actually, the most northerly part of mainland UK before staying in a campsite by the beach in the metropolis of Thurso.
Continuing eastwards along the top of Scotland we negotiated the single-track roads with their often, hair-raising passing spaces along the way. We wild camped at every stop over, most memorably one overlooking a small bay, where when opening the bedroom curtains in the morning we were met with a mesmerising sea of tranquil beauty.
The scenery was stunning. Particularly surprising were the expansive but empty sandy beaches located in every bay. If it wasn’t for the weather the Scottish west coast could easily rival any Spanish Costa. The dramatic, moody, mountains (or munros), sheltered valleys coated in bracken and thistle with lochs surrounded by water sodden peat – all with virtually no sign of habitation, were magnificent.
Another highpoint (pun intended) was the route towards Applecross, which has the steepest ascent of any road climb in the UK, rising from sea level at Applecross to 2,054 ft, and is the third highest road in Scotland. This put the motorhome and its driver (me) through their paces negotiating the hairpin bends and testing the efficiency of the brakes and strength of nerve of both occupants.
Walks, whisky tasting (of course), beaches and magnificent scenery were all highpoints of our motorhome adventure. We finished our Scottish adventure at Gretna Green where we spurned the anvil but enjoyed a delicious Scottish breakfast before crossing the border to go home. In total we travelled in excess of 2000 miles in 14 days without incident or trouble.
The secrets of motor homing are patience and tolerance. It takes a while to get used to living in such a confined space, whilst sharing the minutia of everyday life and leaving all inhibitions behind you.
Was the purchase of our motor home a good decision? The answer is yes, definitely! Trips to France and Spain have already been mooted, although we could take off at any time to any part of the UK once Covid restrictions are lifted.
Having said this however, we have booked a flight to Argentina in December 2021!!!!
Attached are the results of the publicity achieved in the local magazines during February, This month sees the return of all the magazines although The Link is only in a digital form and the Chineham Chat is in abeyance although I did previously send you the piece in their “Blog” section of their web site which showed our report about Operation Prince in 1985. The Popley Matters magazine is also only in a digital form although we did not appear in their February edition. The reminder, in a printed form, included this same report and, apart from the Link, all used the longer version of the report and gave us a full page (which have been reduced to fit on an A4 image for ease of scanning for our web site).
Here are the results of our publicity activities that appeared in our local magazines in January 2021. As you are aware half of the magazines do not publish in January (and August) so there is the usual reduction but there are various activities happening in the back ground that impacted on this late posting to our web site.
There is some confusion at the Basinga where the small piece about Probus refers readers to their Basinga Extra to read the full report by Alex Marianos about his time in Libya but it cannot be seen, instead the December report about Dave Kitson’s windmill has been repeated.
I guess, as aircrew on an RAF Odiham Puma helicopter squadron, we were used to being caught on the hop during those uncertain days of the 1980s! It was a Friday evening on the 15 November 1985, 35 years ago, and a number of us were enjoying a convivial supper evening hosted by “The Boss” in his married quarter. The fare for the evening was delicious and copious glasses of alcohol most certainly adding to the cordiality. I remember the Wing Commander receiving a lengthy phone call, looking very serious indeed and enquiring if anyone knew who might be on the next squadron detachment out to Belize. At that time 33 Squadron at Odiham provided crews for a permanent helicopter detachment based in the Central American country. It so transpired that there were four of us present that were due to go, but not for another month. Well, that was all about to change then and there.
If one remembers in the days before computer driven, live media coverage, reporting of events came via telex and the BBC World Service. In this case the British Government had been requested to provide search and rescue plus humanitarian aid in the wake of a volcanic eruption in Columbia. RAF helicopter support would be provided from a permanent Puma helicopter flight in Belize, augmented with extra crews from the UK. The information was sketchy indeed: we were to get all of our flying kit together that evening, have various inoculations and be prepared to fly out to Bogota via Miami from Heathrow the next morning of 16 November!
Driven by disgruntled wives and girlfriends our evening’s enjoyment came to an early close as we were transported around the station finally ending up at the Station Medical Centre. The standby doctor, a civilian GP had been called in to administer a whole host of jabs against a range of ‘horrible afflictions’. This he did, at one go and very reluctantly I might add, especially as we all had ‘imbibed’ a fair modicum of alcohol during the evening!
At Heathrow Terminal 4 early the next morning we teamed up with a multitude of civilian emergency SAR and medical specialists and were able to elicit a much fuller picture of the unravelling situation on the other side of the world. An 18,000ft high volcano, the Navado del Riuz, had erupted three nights previously, melting the ice cap and sending down a tidal wave of mud, water and boulders to engulf the town of Armero. Roads and bridges had been destroyed making rescue efforts impossible. With limited internal resources, the Columbian government had urgently requested aid to tackle the situation.
After an 18 hour flight via Miami to Bogota we arrived very late at night. The only hitch was almost losing all of our flying equipment and personal baggage whilst changing flights at Miami. Assured by BA Heathrow that our kit would automatically be transferred, we were very surprised to see everything forlornly ‘circulating’ around a baggage carousel in the arrival hall. As the aircrew adage goes – “never assume always check”!
Arriving in the ‘menacing atmosphere’ of a crowded, darkened terminal building, we were met by the British Army Defence Attache for an overnight stay. During the previous week an attack had been made by the M19 guerilla movement on the city’s Palace of Justice. As a consequence, rigid military control had been enforced and there was evidence of tanks and armed patrols on the streets. It was quite reminiscent of being back in Northern Ireland!
The next day saw us back at the main airport to meet an RAF Hercules crew who would transport us forward to our operating base at Palenquero, a Columbian Air Force jet fighter airfield. Part of Bogota airport was to function as the focal hub for incoming humanitarian supplies and we spent most of that day helping with the development of a ‘safe and cohesive system of aircraft loading’. A Spanish speaking British Army Warrant Officer flown down from Belize was left in charge to minimise damage.
In the heat of the evening dusk, clouds of mosquitoes and piles of freight unloaded from the departing Hercules we were abandoned on the edge of the aircraft pan. Eventually, a liaison officer arrived with jeeps to take us to our accommodation again with our own 24 hour armed guard positioned close by.
Unbeknown to us, our Puma helicopters travelling 1500 miles down from Belize had encountered problems involving the Nicaraguan Sandinista regime and had been refused diplomatic clearance to stop for refuel or even overfly. An unscheduled overnight stop, grounded in Honduras whilst authorisation was eventually granted, meant that arrival at Palenquero did not occur until Monday afternoon. That said, within two hours of arrival we had the aircraft made ready with freight aboard for the first sorties with our crews from Odiham.
We were absolutely stunned with what we saw on that first trip. A town the size of Hook with its two storied buildings had all but disappeared under a covering of mud. 23,000 people had been killed or were missing, swept away in the mud flow along a flat open plain. There were bodies both of humans and livestock everywhere and smaller helicopters were darting about with rescue parties collecting live casualties, moving them to designated first aid posts on higher ground.
It was into one of these that we made our first approach for offload. I assumed that the smoke from a burning mound was a signal giving the wind direction. However, on opening the door on finals to land, the stench from the burning flesh, I don’t think, I will ever forget. With daytime temperatures in the mid upper 30s, typhoid fever had broken out and before the area could be effectively fumigated, the initial action by the Columbian Army was to burn the corpses using petrol. Besides staple foodstuffs, huge amounts of fresh bottled water supplies were desperately needed in the area both for the medical centres and villages. On one particular trip I also transported 10 chainsaws into the Armero area. This had been in response for a request from medical teams trying to free survivors still trapped in buildings by arms or legs in the most appalling conditions.
The town of Armero before and after the mud slide that killed 23,000 people
Other operating conditions included the ever present dust and layers of volcanic ash that covered everything and made approaches to the confined, ad hoc landing sites in mountain villages extremely hazardous with reduced visibility at crucial moments. We always carried one of the Columbian Air Force fighter pilots in the cockpit for navigation and radio assistance with the Spanish language. ‘Down the back’, I made sure that I had ‘ample muscle’ to aid me move the supplies out of the doors and prevent ‘unwanted passengers’ climbing on board to escape the area.
On one particular heavily loaded sortie, I enlisted a man from the BBC, cameraman/reporter Bernard Hesketh to give me a hand. With camera and mike capturing both picture and sound, he unwittingly captured an ‘interesting arrival’ at the 7500 ft Villahermosa football pitch in temperatures of nearly 40 deg. This went on air, with ‘no bleeps’ back home a few days later.
During the ten days of operations shuttling supplies and personnel into the area from Palenquero we most certainly extended the capabilities of our helicopters. We were part of an international relief operation that included Blackhawk and Chinook helicopters from the United States Air Force in Panama, French Puma and Columbian UH1 ‘Huey” machines. In the 10 days working from dawn to dusk 76,000lbs of supplies were transported by our two aircraft in Columbia. Needless to say, when making our way back to Belize we too were held up by the Sandanista regime in Nicaragua. We were placed under armed guard by the side of our helicopters, all day and without relief until eventual diplomatic intervention by the embassies through the military.
From my flying logbook I can see that the date of arrival back at Belize Airport Camp was 26th November 1985. We had covered some 1500 miles from Palenquero, Columbia with a total flight time of 11 hours and 15 minutes. With our aircraft and crews back at base and part of 1563 Flight, business carried on as normal throughout December and into January supporting the British Army and Belize Defence Force in its deterrent role against possible invasion from Guatemala. It’s extremely useful to still have the possession of one’s ‘logbook/diaries’ as, after 35 years, they help trigger fast fading memories of places, people and incidents. I see a note at the end of an entry for the 23rd December that, once again, I’m crewed with Flt Lt Doug Finlay Maxwell on a re-supply sortie to an army post on the Guatemala border. In a bracketed entry, it would appear that we had clandestinely paused on our return to source Christmas trees for both the Officers’ and Sergeants’ Messes and help the festivities along! Operating over the jungles and pine covered ridges of Belize in all weathers was an incredible experience and the subject, maybe, of further record before permanently forgotten.
Here are the results of our publicity in the local magazines that appeared in December. A good month for coverage with most taking the Dave Kitson Windmill story. He was probably pleased that his local magazine for Sherborne St John, the Villager, used a complete page for this report. The page was reduced for the sake of scanning it on to our site.
Because the production of the quarterly Brighton Bell was running late it proved possible for them to also include the Windmill story.
However, you will notice that there is a new publication this month which titles itself as the Old Basing & Lychpit Parish Council Community Newsletter. Both the cover and the full text page showing David Rawden’s hill climbing adventures are shown here. Their copy date was such that this was our latest report at that time but as it was not time critical it still makes for an interesting read. As this is another freebie publication, I expect that they have a loose timing for when going to print which is dependent on selling sufficient advertising space. This magazine is published by the same people responsible for the Sherfield & Bramley and the Overton & Oakley CommunityAd magazines which have previously been included in our results.
I first went to Libya in 1968 as a young civil engineer to work for a construction company. I was stationed first in Beida working on maintenance and minor works contracts and then was transferred to Benghazi to be in charge of a number of building construction projects dotted around the city. The workshops and accommodation camp was in in Gwarishah some 15 km west of Benghazi.
Libya at that time was a peaceful place. Benghazi was an important business city with first class hotels, banks, restaurants and good shops. Libya was liberated from the Italians in 1951 when King Idris declared it a Kingdom. However the Italian influence was everywhere and an abundance of fashion outlets were doing good business. If Beirut was the Paris of the Middle East then Benghazi was Milano. All religious places of worship were permitted and a good number of European Schools were serving the expat community.
On the morning of 1st September 1969, I went to the staff mess for breakfast thinking about the recent landing on the moon by the Americans. A directive on the radio instructed us all to stay indoors and wait for an important announcement. The workforce had already left for work and arrangements needed to bring them back to the camp. A lot of road blocks were set up but we managed to get the men back through country tracks.
By mid-day a radio announcement declared a military coup headed by Colonel Gaddafi had ousted King Idris. It was a textbook swift bloodless coup.
Our office in Benghazi downtown was opened for a few hours for next day and business soon returned to normal but there was an atmosphere of tension especially as there was a curfew from sunset to sunrise for quite a while. A number of military checkpoints would wave foreigners through while checks and car searches were carried out on Libyan citizens.
A couple of days later I had a phone call from the wife of the (ex) Chief of Staff. I had met him a few months earlier when he turned up unexpectedly with King Idris at a garrison I was building near Beida. They were happy with the progress and the quality of work and had a pleasant banter with the King and Senousi, his Army chief, about furniture and kitchen equipment. The wife was under house arrest. She had run out of food for herself and four children. I went to their home with some groceries but the guard would not allow me access. The captain in charge came and I explained that understandably the husband was perhaps detained but a woman and four children just needed something to feed themselves with. As mentioned, the country was very civilised and for several days I delivered provisions until the family was moved on.
The great majority of the country is desert and the shores are fertile with beautiful beaches. They are typical Mediterranean without the crowds!
Under Gaddafi, Libya developed the oil reserves and the wealth brought stability in the country for many years. He proceeded with the peaceful departure of the RAF base in El-Adem and the USAF base in Wheelus. The conservative Arab society was maintained under Gaddafi with the added restriction on alcohol but strict religious customs were not enforced. Women were treated with respect, wore western clothes, drove cars and worked in mixed gender environments. In line with all Arab countries dissidents were not tolerated. There was law and order backed by the military regime. Gaddafi for all his faults had integrity and patriotism and all his antics were attention seeking rather than mischief.
I really liked Libya for its climate, its beaches, its important Greek and Roman archaeological sites and particularly its people. In total I spent well over five years in Libya.