In 1958 I was posted to a light aircraft squadron in Germany. I arrived at Detmold as an anxious teenager but was soon taken under the wing of Leading Aircraftsman ‘Butch’ Robinson. His nick-name was used in the ironic way that tall men are known as ‘Tiny’ or bald men are called ‘Curly’. He wasn’t butch at all but he was a born mimic and, like me, he was a Goon Show fan so any question was likely to be answered by Bluebottle or Eccles or Hercules Gritpipe-Thynne. He claimed he could speak German, he had a German girlfriend and he was certainly confident when speaking to the local civilians. However, I suspected he was often mimicking them as he once told me, “You don’t have to know all the words, as long as it sounds German.”
He had inherited a 1940 600cc two-stroke Panther motor cycle – or rather – he had inherited the locker that contained the bits of a 1940 Panther and had been told in uncompromising military terms to get rid of it. Butch naturally saw this is a challenge and enlisted my help to rebuild the machine over the winter. The frame and sidecar of the machine had been abandoned in a bicycle shed and were in poor condition but, with the surreptitious use of RAF tools and parts, the old Panther was brought back to life. In fact, it contained so many RAF bits that our Chief Technician said it should salute when passing an officer! With this eccentric set of wheels we were unleashed and free to explore the region. The Panther had no rear suspension, the seat itself was sprung like an old tractor seat and while I reclined in the sidecar, Butch sat up there bouncing in the breeze in his leather flying helmet like a cross between Biggles and Toad of Toad Hall. We attended dances in Herford, concerts at the Landestheatre and traditional schiessenfests out in the country. We invariably stayed out after curfew and could have been in big trouble with the Military Police but the ebullient Butch was never worried. While a menacing MP waited at the boom gate, Butch would ride up and call out in his best Gritpipe-Thynne accent: “I say, you there! Do fasten up your tunic, there’s a good chappie, you’ll catch a chill.” And then we would duck low to pass under the boom gate, leaving the MP to salute our exhaust.
The big test for the Panther came when we visited the Nurburgring for the classic 1,000 kilometre sportscar race. The first part of the journey, along the autobahn to Cologne, was no problem but then came the climb up into the Eiffel Mountains, to the famous circuit around the castle. It was well worth the effort as the race has gone into the history books as one of Stirling Moss’ greatest victories. We were still excited when we stopped at a gasthaus on the way home. Butch ordered “Zwei pilsener” and proceeded to give the locals a graphic description of the race, complete with sound effects. I don’t know if they understood his German but they certainly seemed entertained.
It was dark by the time we left and the headlight on the old Panther was little better than a candle on a windy night. Navigating the dark narrow lanes was a problem but eventually we came across a signpost declaring ‘Cologne 32 km: Cologne nach Fahre 17 km’.
“What’s the difference?” I asked.
“One is obviously a better road,” Butch said, “We’ll take the short cut through Fahre.”
We rode on until we came to another signpost: ‘Cologne 21 km: Cologne nach Fahre 6 km.’ We could now see the lights of Cologne but somewhere between the city and us was the mighty River Rhine. I held my map under the feeble headlamp but couldn’t see any place named Fahre.
“It’s probably some tiny dorp next to the bridge,” Butch assured me and confidently rode on into the darkness.
It was shortly after this that the road disappeared altogether. There was a sudden jolt, an angry hiss of steam and then a freezing wave of water, up to our necks. We abandoned ship and frantically dragged the machine back up the bank. From the direction of Cologne, through the velvety darkness I could see two lights slowly approaching – one red, the other green. Butch saw them too. Wet and shivering, all confidence gone he sheepishly admitted, “I remember now, Fahre means ferry…”