Sunday, 27 March 2011

Black Boxes

This is a true story recounted by a friend who was doing his French military service at a base in Germany. His name has been suppressed for obvious reasons, let’s call him Monsieur X.

When De Gaulle pulled out of Nato in 1966 the French military bases in Germany were equipped with American missiles. Even in those days the missiles contained IFF (Identification Friend or Foe) ”black boxes” whose role was to transmit and receive a code enabling friendly aircraft and installations to identify themselves. Needless to say these “black boxes” were highly secret and it was essential not to let them fall into enemy hands.

Very soon after De Gaulle’s announcement a convoy of American lorries, with motorcycle outriders, turned up at the base to collect their missiles, but the black boxes were considered too sensitive, from a security point of view, to be transported this way and they were removed before the missiles were loaded.

The technicians had to decide where to put the “black boxes” and looked for the nearest suitable storage location, which happened to be a caravan occupied by an officer who was away at the time. When he returned he was not impressed with having his caravan full of “black boxes” and ordered a low ranking soldier to move them. The soldier used his initiative, found a wheelbarrow and spent several hours going backwards and forwards, moving them to another location, which happened to be the base library.

After a few days the tidy minded librarian also wanted these foreign objects removed so that the organisation of the library could be restored to normal. Once more the soldier with the wheelbarrow was called and left to decide what to do. By now he had learnt that he needed to find a location where nobody would be bothered by these unwanted and troublesome objects and he happened to know of a disused toilet, which he thought would be ideal for the job. So once again he spent some time shuttling backwards and forwards with his wheelbarrow, moving them from the library to the disused toilet.

A few days later an American lorry, with an armed escort, arrived to collect the “black boxes”. Needless to say, nobody knew where they were and they took some time to find!  The seriousness with which the situation was viewed by the Americans was matched only by the embarassment and panic among the French officers!

Even though storing the Black Boxes in the secret location of the disused toilet probably represented a very effective form of security, the unfortunate French Base Commander, who knew nothing about it all, left within a day and was not seen again.

The new Base Commander was now in charge of a base with nothing to do. This was a problem because he had a budget to spend, and he didn’t want to risk losing it for the following year, so he called Monsieur X into his office, explained the situation and suggested that he should organise some cultural excursions for “Les Bons Soldats”.

Monsieur X couldn’t believe his luck but he was very resourceful. Until the budget ran out, he organised visits to Berlin, Vienna and other European cities for a coach-load of soldiers who stayed in good hotels and eat in good restaurants. He even booked tickets for the entertainment, although in Vienna there was some disagreement about whether to go to the State Opera or "Holiday on Ice"!


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