‘At 3,000 feet, the drunken general removed the grenade pin’
For Paul Strugnell, work meant flying helicopters in dangerous places like Northern Ireland and cold-war Berlin. Today – the 30th anniversary of Paul qualifying as a military flying instructor – Steven Russell discovers what life was like as an Army pilot
One night, helicopter pilot Paul helps investigate an incident near Crossmaglen. Five gunmen have been spotted near a derelict house. He illuminates the area for patrols on the ground. They find the gunmen, who start shooting. The troops return fire. The pilot might be high above, but he’s not out of danger. “I was somewhat alarmed to see that the rounds were ricocheting off the sloping slate roof of a cellar entrance and coming straight up at me.
“There were a series of sharp cracks as the rounds went past, and through, the rotor disc and it didn’t take long for me to scream a few choice comments at the ground patrol to cease firing. I shudder to think what a tracer round in a half-empty fuel tank, containing 145-octane Avgas, could have done, but I expect they would have seen the resultant fireball in Belfast.”
It’s one of the anecdotes in Paul’s self-published 120-page memoir Hawkeye – The Story of an Army Pilot, which covers the period from 1970 to 1984. It chronicles the places he went to, the missions he was involved in, the pranks, the triumphs and near misses.
Speaking of which, his first real drama came after about 1,100 hours of flying experience. He was on exercise in the River Weser area in Germany, searching for a point where Royal Engineers could cross. Paul’s attention was focused on the banks . . . and he was about 60 feet away when he noticed a steel cable across the river. He managed to climb just in time.
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Then there was a Friday the 13th, of all days. In gathering dusk, and with mist closing in, he got lost. Running out of fuel in his Sioux, he desperately landed on a floodlit football pitch where players had been standing seconds earlier. Moments later the engine cut out.
“Later, when my nerves had calmed down a bit, I checked the carburettor drain valve and got about a teacup-full of Avgas, which was all that remained in the fuel system,” he remembers.
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With flying itself potentially risky, not to mention enemies keen to down you, it’s surprising anyone wants to take to the skies for the military. But, as a schoolboy, Paul yearned for a career in aviation.
The early spring of 1970 found him in Worcestershire as a corporal telegraph operator with 14th (Special) Signal Regiment, Royal Corps of Signals. He’d just had seven years in the Special Forces – a period he won’t be drawn on “as that part of my life will always remain a closed book”.
He dreamed of joining the Army Air Corps. With the support of wife Janet – they had 18-month-old daughter Claire at that stage – Paul went to the selection centre at Biggin Hill. He was among the seven successful candidates. Eight failed.
In April, 1971, he was off to Middle Wallop in Hampshire for almost a year of intensive study, and flying in a Chipmunk T10 trainer. “I thoroughly enjoyed it, though I was really under pressure. I was 26 and the oldest on my course, competing with 20- and 21-year-olds. I worked hard and burned a lot of midnight oil, studying.” He also learned to fly helicopters.
Paul got his “wings” early in 1972, and the blue beret, and was posted to West Germany. He flew Sioux helicopters.
In the autumn of 1973 came his first tour in Northern Ireland. It took in Christmas and the new year period, while Janet and Claire remained in Munster.
“It was to last four months but, in truth, seemed like a year. We were based inside the outer perimeter of Long Kesh prison and were mostly concerned with supporting the troops operating in South Armagh.
“It was, for me and for many others, an exciting if at times frightening environment. These were the halcyon days for the provisional IRA, who seemed to be having a lot of successes; far more than we would certainly have wished for.”
One of the terrorists’ favourite weapons was the culvert bomb: as much as 1,000lb of home-made and commercial explosive, usually packed into a milk churn or empty beer keg, buried under a road, inside a drainage culvert, and with a command wire leading to a safe area.
“They were very brave, these forms of low-life who masqueraded as freedom fighters,” he reflects with heavy sarcasm. “They didn’t care who they killed or maimed . . . I have no truck with a small group of people (I refuse to refer to them as men) who do not even have the courage to face up to their opponents like men, but who instead hide in ditches with a battery and two wires in front of them and a short 50-yard dash to the safety of the Republic of Ireland behind them.”
Paul did enjoy night-flying exercises, using the Nitesun searchlight that produced light equivalent to 3,750,000 candles and could illuminate an area the size of a football pitch from 1,500 feet up. “It was so powerful that, if you were to ignite it whilst still on the ground, it would melt the Tarmac of a dispersal area.”
If the weather closed in, which it often would, life could get a bit tedious. The ops room at Long Kesh once made a crazy golf course “that would have done justice to any seaside resort promenade”.
It was a moment of levity amid the tension.
“The scars of a tour of duty in Northern Ireland take time to heal and it was Janet’s care and love which kept me going through that most difficult of periods,” he admits.
“It is hard to try to explain the mental torment that one goes through after a period of living on one’s nerves for days and weeks on end and not knowing what lies round the corner of each and every sortie.
“For four months I had been virtually as much a prisoner in Long Kesh as the inmates on the inside of the gaol. The same sights each morning. The same sounds of the guard dogs barking at the prisoners who baited them each night. The lack of darkness when trying to sleep, due to the thousands of arc lights which illuminated the Kesh when the sun went down.”
In the summer of 1976 he was posted to cold war West Berlin. RAF Gatow was up against the Berlin Wall. “Our work, mostly classified, was aimed at the gathering and updating of intelligence information about the build-up, movement and constitution of East German and Soviet units based in East Berlin.”
Militarily, these were still tense times. If they spotted anyone trying to escape over the wall, helicopter pilots were ordered to distract the East German guards. Paul remembers once doing so – when a father and son successfully fled along the edge of Spandau forest.
Of all his postings, he reflects, “I think that the challenge of flying in West Berlin offered me the most satisfaction. It is very hard to describe the degree of skill and concentration that is required when constantly flying over an enormous built-up area.”
Paul readily admits to shedding tears years later when he saw pictures of the wall coming down. It had been “such an ugly example of oppression”.
He had just over a year in Berlin before being posted to North Yorkshire for three. During that time Gazelles became the helicopter of choice – “the difference between a Ford Cortina and a Ferrari”. On New Year’s Eve, 1979, he was called to Rhodesia to support the Commonwealth Monitoring Force during a ceasefire between the Rhodesian state and organisations such as the Zimbabwe National Liberation Army and Zimbabwe People’s Revolutionary Army.
Paul’s one real scare was when flying a Patriotic Front leader to a political rally. The “general” drank rather a lot of whisky there and, on the way back to Salisbury, tried to convert Paul to his own Marxist principles.
“I was fairly busy at the time . . . and I found his political tirade rather tiring, so I turned down the volume on his intercom. He took exception to this . . .
“He, in a fit of pique, reached over to his aide, who was sat in the back seat, and removed a hand grenade from the, now trembling, aide’s webbing. He then pulled the pin and held on to the lever very tightly. He had, I think, at that moment realised just what he had done.
“In as calm a voice as I could muster, I told him that if he let go of the lever he would be dead just a split second before me. He thought about this for a couple of seconds and then spent an agonising two or three minutes trying to replace the pin. Fortunately, he succeeded.
“Needless to say, I refused to ever carry this chap again. It didn’t seem to do him any harm as he went on to be a minister in the new government . . .”
Back in Britain, in 1980 Paul decided to become a helicopter instructor. There were times he thought he’d never get through the 13-week course – being in the initial stages of a divorce didn’t help – but he managed it and qualified 30 years ago this very day.
Now he was responsible for future generations of Army pilots. It was a daunting prospect, but he loved mentoring young fliers.
It didn’t mean an end of those Northern Ireland postings, however, and in 1982 he found himself flying VIPs – up to and including the Secretary of State – to the province. His logbook, he quips, was like a copy of Who’s Who.
Paul finally left the corps in December, 1984. He set up in business as a wood turner and furniture restorer. “My stock in trade was ‘bespoke spinning-wheel maker’, one of only four registered with the Guild of Master Craftsmen in Great Britain.”
He later had other jobs, including working as an offshore sailing instructor in Ipswich and then Shotley, and a control room operator with Suffolk police at Martlesham – a post he held until retirement last December.
He notes how things have moved on. Much has changed in Northern Ireland, for instance. “I don’t think I could say, hand on heart, that peace has fully occurred in the province but it is certainly getting there.”
Zimbabwe, Rhodesia that was, has altered out of all recognition. “What had been the garden of Africa has now been raped and impoverished into a sad reflection of its former self.” Paul laments: “We all knew when President Mugabe took office that that was the end of democracy in the country.”
The Army Air Corps, once dubbed Teeny Weeny Airways, is now “one of the most potent forces to be reckoned with by the Taliban in Afghanistan, in the form of the Apache attack helicopter”.
Paul himself has flown only once since leaving the corps – in a friend’s light aircraft. “I would now be very rusty in my flying skills,” he concedes. “That is not to say that given the opportunity I would not feel comfortable trying to fly again, but I feel that my age would now go against me.”
n Hawkeye – The Story Of An Army Pilot is �9.99. www.onefinedayreading.co.uk. Copies might also be available at Browsers bookshop in Woodbridge, Magpie Books in Felixstowe and the Grange Farm Shop in Hasketon.
My father’s big secret
PAUL Strugnell comes from a strong military background. Brothers served in Korea and the RAF, and his father was part of the Special Operations Executive, whose mission was to encourage espionage and sabotage behind enemy lines. “My father was working in Poland during the war. I didn’t find that out until I was serving in Berlin, when I spoke to someone who was connected with him there.
“When I spoke to my father, I got a very shocked reaction, was told to wind my neck in, that that was our secret and not to tell anybody until he died. I respected that wish. I didn’t tell my mother until he died, and then a lot of pieces of the jigsaw fell into place. She realised why she used to have houses full of Poles – because, of course, most of them were the Polish government in exile! He got the Polish Gold Cross of Merit, first class, which is their VC.”
When Paul’s father retired in the mid-1960s he settled in Leiston, having grown to love Suffolk because of many family holidays in the county. When Paul himself left the Army, he too chose Suffolk, moving to Friston.
Today, he lives near Woodbridge. He and wife Bunny have just celebrated their 13th wedding anniversary and between them have six children – and 15 grandchildren, aged from about 12 months to 22 years old.