Shropshire RAF man Mike's Italian adventure amid freeze of Cold War

As Mike Clegg dined at his local Italian restaurant in advance of his next posting, his awful plight almost moved the staff to tears.

Wing Commander – later Group Captain – Mike Clegg, who served in the RAF and in Italy with Nato.
Wing Commander – later Group Captain – Mike Clegg, who served in the RAF and in Italy with Nato.

RAF man Mike had been assigned to Nato, based in Naples. The staff, from Milan, implored him not to venture south of Rome.

“Is not good. Full of mafiosi and criminals and drivers are cretini,” they warned him.

And yet what was to follow was an enormously rewarding three years in Italy in which he was able to mix his professional duties during the freeze of the Cold War with being able to indulge his passion for ancient history and visit many sites hidden from public gaze – and even uncover a lost Roman villa.

And now Mike, who served in the RAF for 39 years and lives at Tern Hill with wife Monica, has written a book about his 1980s Italian adventure, called Never At The Office, the title taken from the wry quip from friends about what Nato – North Atlantic Treaty Organisation – actually stands for.

His old Italian haunts, with Mount Vesuvius looming menacingly.

His book tells of his life in Italy, the military and political dynamics of that Cold War era, and also tells of little known occasions when Nato exercises in the 1980s took the world closer to nuclear war than it had been for a generation.

His return to Naples was at least more smooth than his initial visit, in 1969, when the old quote “see Naples and die” took on an almost literal meaning.

He was the pilot of an Avro Shackleton maritime patrol aircraft of 203 Squadron based in Malta when, during an exercise, a serious component failure led to an engine overspeed which endangered the plane. He was able to make a safe landing at Naples.

It was in 1984 that Wing Commander – later Group Captain – Clegg returned to Italy on a Nato assignment, where his job was to plan the involvement of maritime patrol aircraft in Nato exercises.

Mike says: “I started to write the book in 2015 following a remark made by an American friend when we were both serving in Italy. He said that our experiences in Italy were unusual and that, as I was a good storyteller, I should write about them. Eventually I did, but publication of Never At The Office was delayed by my writing and publishing two children’s books.”

"Me and my friend Mattia Buondonno, left, who was, and still is, my guide to many sites off the beaten track and places in Pompeii not generally open to the public."

As an amateur archaeologist he took great delight in taking advantage of the opportunities his Italian posting offered. During his time there he uncovered the remains of a Roman villa but was disappointed that when he reported it to the local archaeological authorities they dismissed it as “just another villa”.

“I developed an interest in ancient history as a kid,” says Mike. “In particular I always enjoyed visiting castles, cathedrals and ancient ruins. When I was about 10 I was even chased out of Pevensey Castle where a friend and I had gone with a couple of spades and trowels to see what we could dig up.

“Later when I was at the RAF College I was a member of the team that carried out an underwater survey of the Roman harbour at Sabratha in Libya. We spent three weeks there living in tents on the beach.

“After training I was posted to 203 Squadron, initially at Ballykelly in Northern Ireland then Luqa, Malta. From Ballykelly we flew to both Turkey and Malta for anti submarine warfare exercises. When based in Malta, from 1969 to 1971, we spent a lot of time in Greece, Turkey and Cyprus and each of these detachments gave me ample opportunity to visit many of the archaeological sites in these countries.

Mike has had a long association with Italy.

"The more I saw the more interested I became but it was not until I was posted to Italy that I was able to become more involved in the archaeology of the area, exploring, lecturing, excavating and taking groups around some of the sites.”

Mike also tells how while the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 is the best-known incident which could have precipitated a nuclear war, unbeknown to most people there were others. The year before he was posted to Naples he attended a Nato Nuclear Weapon Release Procedures course and afterwards he took part in Exercise Able Archer 83.

The exercise scenario was of escalating tensions between Nato and Warsaw Pact forces culminating in a co-ordinated nuclear release.

Mike tells how while those in Nato taking part considered it to be a routine and somewhat tedious procedural war game, the Soviet leadership became spooked, and began to fear it was not an exercise, but a disguise for a real nuclear first strike.

Taking the salute at a graduation parade.

“Accordingly, Soviet aircraft in East Germany and Poland were fitted with nuclear weapons, nuclear missiles were placed on heightened alert, and ballistic missile submarines were deployed under the Arctic ice.

“These measures indicated that the Soviet Union was preparing for a Nato pre-emptive strike and its finger was on a hair trigger.”

A similar exercise the following year saw a virtual repeat.

“We in Naples were largely unaware of the effect our Nato exercise was having on our potential enemy. There was none of the tension that accompanied the Cuban missile crisis, which was played out in the spotlight of the world’s media.

Never At The Office

“Nevertheless, recent analysis has concluded that we came closer to mutually assured destruction as a result of Exercises Able Archer 83 and 84 than at any time since 1962. As one American journalist has put it: ‘The entire Cold War was really one bad day away from the end of civilisation as we know it’.”

He adds: “In 1983 and 1984 we perhaps came close to that bad day – and I was there!”

Never At The Office has been published by Mike in conjunction with Writersworld. It is available to order from most bookshops, and also from internet retailers. A second book is to follow.

He says: “Book two will be about my second tour in Naples. Whereas the first was set against the backdrop of the Cold War, by the time I returned to Italy in 1993 the Cold War was over, Nato was involved in the Bosnia-Herzegovina War and I became political adviser to Commander Allied Air Forces Southern Italy, something of a departure from my maritime flying experience.”

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