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Tank Commander Series
By Stuart Crawford - Part 31
Backwards Airways and BMW on my double blue

THERE I WAS, sitting at my desk in RHQ 4RTR in Imphal Barracks, Osnabruck, Germany, doing some bit of administration or other, when my phone rang. On the other end was Eyre Maunsell, a 4RTR officer seconded to the army’s personnel branch in the UK, and he had a very simple question for me; would I like to attend the US Army’s Staff College in the USA? It took me all of three seconds to say yes.

Now, having already graduated from the British Staff College at Camberley some years previously it was unusual, but not unique, to be offered the chance of attending an overseas staff college as well. But joining the small band of “Double Blues”, as it were, was an attractive proposition. The Regimental hierarchy thought otherwise for it interfered with their planning, and after I heard nothing for a couple of weeks I phoned Eyre back and asked him what the score was. I was somewhat taken aback to learn that he had been told that I had changed my mind and no longer wanted to go.

This was not the first time that my aspirations within the army had been thwarted by sleight of hand and I wasn’t going to let it happen again. So, after a bit of to-ing and fro-ing I got my wish and my posting to the USA was confirmed. It was, on mature reflection, a bit of a “jolly” as I had no need of the additional qualification for career purposes, nor was I persuaded that I had been specially selected in any way. It was simply that there was a posting to be filled and I fitted the bill. But no complaints from me!

As you can imagine there was quite a bit of admin involved, not least of which was packing up the house and sending off all our belongings by ship to the USA. Thankfully there was a well practised system in place for doing so and it was pretty seamless, but it meant roughly 6 weeks without possessions. I then went on leave, back to Scotland to see my folks and family.

There was one slight problem; I had recently bought a brand new BMW 325i Cabriolet under the tax free arrangements in place at the time, and now I was posted out of Germany I hadn’t kept the car out of the UK for long enough to satisfy the tax free regulations. I had planned to leave the car with my Dad for him to drive for the year I would be away. So he and I toddled down to our local HMRC office and were completely honest about our dilemma, with the potential tax bill coming to several thousand pounds. I was very pleased that we were able to come to a mutually agreeable arrangement and I got off fairly lightly!

I flew from RAF Brize Norton in Oxfordshire, if I remember correctly, to Washington DC in an RAF VC-10. For once the RAF was on the ball and there were no delays or hitches, probably because the pilots had remembered to set their alarm clocks at the nearest 5 star hotel this time. An interesting aspect of the time was that all the seats in the aircraft faced towards the back, I presume for safety reasons, from where came the description “Backwards Airways”. The same epithet could easily be applied for other reasons too, of course. As it was, the flight was uneventful and we were met at the scrum in arrivals at Dulles airport by an official from the British Embassy and escorted to the hotel where I was to stay for a couple of days for briefings before onward transit.

I can’t actually remember what the briefings were all about except I wasn’t to lose sight of the fact I was representing the UK whilst in the US. Allowances that I was entitled to certainly formed part of the package, of which more later. I did have some spare time to look around Washington DC though, which I had visited previously. I always liked the atmosphere of the city, especially Georgetown, and it struck me in ambience, if not in architecture, as a rather warmer Edinburgh. After a few days it was back to the airport and on my way.

The United States Army Command & General Staff School which I was to attend is located in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. The state of Kansas, as many will be aware, is about the size of France but at that time only had a population of circa 2.5 million, so “sparsely populated” doesn’t really cover it. The flight time non-stop is just under three hours which gives you some idea of the scale of the USA – it did for me anyway. On arrival I was met by my “sponsors” for the time of my stay.

A word on sponsors. Each overseas student (for that is what we were called) was allocated three sets of sponsor families; two civilian and one military. Their purpose was to help those who came to Fort Leavenworth from outwith the US feel welcome, introduce us to their local communities, and generally help us to settle down. My civilian sponsors were utterly charming and kind and I will speak of them later.

My military sponsors I already knew well, because by one of those strange quirks of fate they turned out to be none other than Colonel Tom Brown, US Army, and his lovely wife Barbara. Now Tom had commanded C Squadron 4RTR in Tidworth in 1983-84, on attachment from the US Army, and I was one of the welcoming party when he arrived in the UK for that posting. In classic 4RTR Officers’ Mess fashion I had driven up to Heathrow to meet him and his family, and of course his flight landed at Gatwick. But that minor difficulty was soon overcome and he and Barbara spent, I hope, a very happy couple of years with us.

Now the roles were reversed, and I’m happy to report that Tom managed to get to the right airport! As the British representative I was provided with an allowance to stay for a fortnight in a local hotel whilst I arranged to rent a house, buy a car, and so on. But Tom and Barbara wouldn’t hear of it and insisted that I stay with them instead, which of course was infinitely more enjoyable. However, it did leave me in the position where I had been given a considerable sum of money by the British Embassy to pay for something I did not require.

This smacked of fraud to me, so I phoned the Embassy and told them I would have to hand the money back to them. The senior warrant officer I spoke to in the pay team was taken aback; nobody, he told me, had ever tried to pay back any allowances they had been given. Indeed, he went on, there was no mechanism for doing so. There then ensued an increasingly surreal conversation in which he tried to justify why it would be all right for me to keep the money. Eventually he asked whether I had taken my hosts out for a meal, or had even bought them a bottle of wine as a present. When I replied that I had, he then triumphantly concluded that clearly this relatively modest expenditure justified the considerably larger amount of allowance, and that everything was accordingly in order. So that was all OK then!

Shortly thereafter I found a house to rent and moved in to await the arrival of our possessions from Germany. I also bought my predecessor-in-post’s car, which was almost inevitably a mistake as it broke down (expensively) shortly after his departure. Some things you never learn. I had a couple of weeks’ leave before the start of the course and I drove west across Kansas, a seemingly endless journey across the prairie where, I can assure you, the corn is indeed as high as an elephant’s eye just like they say.

My new car gave up the ghost just short of the Colorado border, and I would have been stranded there had it not been for the kindness of a total stranger who lent me his second car so I could continue my journey whilst my car was being fixed. Once again I was struck by the incredible kindness shown to me by the American people, and only hoped that we were as kind to them when they came to the UK. Colorado is very picturesque and lovely, and I was only unnerved by the almost total lack of traffic on the roads through the mountains. It did at times feel like the edge of the world.

Refreshed after my all too brief holiday, I returned to Leavenworth and got myself sorted out for the start of the course. And that’s what I’ll be writing about in the next episode.

To come in Part 32; living and working (and playing) in Kansas.

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