MacPhail tells of time as Cold War warrior

Armed service: David MacPhail with a model of a Lance nuclear missile. He manned Lance nuclear missiles in West Germany during the Cold War. Picture: Amy Paton

Armed service: David MacPhail with a model of a Lance nuclear missile. He manned Lance nuclear missiles in West Germany during the Cold War. Picture: Amy Paton

NOT many people can claim to have had their finger on the nuclear button but Warrnambool man David MacPhail came close.

Mr MacPhail, now a Warrnambool policeman, was in that unenviable position when he served as a British army gunner in a nuclear missile battery in West Germany in the 1970s during the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States and its allies.

Mr MacPhail said he only fired missiles that had dummy warheads but gunners were never told whether their operations were genuine combat or an exercise when they pushed the buttons on their missiles.

They were aware that if it was genuine combat, they were likely to die because they would be unable to escape beyond the 50 kilometre radius in which a retaliatory missile would impact.

They expected they would be unable to get across the 50 kilometre radius in the 10-20 minutes they had before a retaliatory missile struck.

The missiles were launched at varying locations from trucks or vehicles on tank treads so the gunners did not have access to strong underground shelters – only trenches in the ground and nuclear biological protection suits that had a gas mask that offered little protection.

Mr MacPhail served for three years on the border between West Germany and the Russian-controlled East Germany, working with Honest John and the more destructive Lance nuclear missiles.

He believes the Cold War, which ended in 1991 with the break-up of the Soviet Union, served its purpose of deterring conventional wars between the Soviet Union and the United States and its allies. 

“It took over where the people who fought the Second World War left off,” Mr MacPhail said.

The Cold War escalated to the point where the United States and its allies and the Soviet Union had enough nuclear weapons to wipe out the world before disarmament efforts reduced their proliferation.

Mr MacPhail went on to serve 15 years with the Scottish fire service before emigrating to Australia. He has been a Warrnambool policeman for 14 years and is standing for election to Warrnambool City Council. 

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