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  • Writer's picture Kester Eddy

More Army Life - A Cocktail of Missile Sites, Indolent Libyan Officers & Chillingly Cold Barracks

Tales of a Teenage Spy, Chapter 46 - The Life and Times of Gábor Rimner

Photo: A long-range, Soviet-manufactured "Vega" SA-5B Surface-to-Air (SAM) missile at the Hungarian base of Mezöfalva, a few kilometres west of Dunaújváros. Gábor Rimner, of course, only saw such bases on a map.

With a speed of Mach 4 (4,900 km/h) an SA-5B would take some 2 minutes 30 seconds to fly the 190 km from Mezőfalva towards its target crossing the border.

Assuming a NATO strike aircraft was flying into Hungary at Mach 1 (1,234 km/hr), it would fly only 37 kilometres or even less before being shot down. At least, that was the plan. Photo courtesy of Tibor Oravecz.

Tales of a Teenage Spy, Chapter 46 - The Life and Times of Gábor Rimner

Some time after joining Major Oláh's command, it may have been after my sojourn in Nagykanizsa, so probably in 1979, myself and four or five other guys was delegated to Ministry of Defence offices in Hüvösvölgy, in leafy Buda, where we were under the command of General Dezső Horváth.

Here, I had two jobs: to help at the military installations archives, which took up most of my time, and to act as an interpreter for Libyan army officers who were being sent to Hungary to learn how to use and maintain Soviet SAM anti-aircraft missiles - which Moscow supplied to Colonel Gadhaffi.

General Horváth was a member of the National High Command, a construction engineer by profession, who had enlisted purely or the salary, which was more than double what he could have earned in the civilian sphere. He totally neglected all military formalities and acted as if we were equal colleagues, calling us by our first names.

It was like working at an architectural bureau. We got the "very serious and important" job of trimming the edges of huge architectural blueprints of military buildings and installations. These were massive, 2 x 3 metre sheets, and we had to trim and then fold them into A4 size.

(I think it was the idea of the KISZ secretary that we should be employed on "office work" instead of pouring concrete into ditches in Nagykanizsa. It certainly helped keep my fingers in better shape for playing the guitar than hauling bags of cement on a building site.)

Yet, incredibly, I was working where they kept the plans of garrisons, barracks, missile and radar sites that had been built or rebuilt over the previous 30 years across Hungary. It was frustrating that there was no chance I could take a camera in there, but in any case my US controller had told me that during my time in the army I was to cut all contact, both for security and my own safety.

So I tried to remember as much as I could. I learned a lot of names and places, because the blueprints had all the data on the lower left edge, and the folders on the front cover. Quite a few of the bases had been built by Hungarians and later occupied by Soviet forces.

It was all very exciting. Anti-aircraft missile bases in a circle around the capital, tank units in the Bakony, the Pilis and Bükk hills, in north-west Hungary and on the Great Plains. I admit, though, that it was made vastly more complicated was the fact that we had code names for these geographical areas with the Americans which were 'mixed up', by arrangement before I left Khartoum.

So, for example, in our communications the Bükk was called the Vértes, and the Bakony was the Bükk and so on. The purpose of all this was to confuse counter-intelligence should any messages be discovered - all fine in theory, but in practice it was me that got confused.

The Libyan officers were high ranking young bastards, some of them even boasting that they were part of Ghadaffi's large family. One claimed that Muammar was his cousin.

They came in groups of five or six at at time, staying for a couple of weeks. They were supposed to be studying the operation and maintenance of the aircraft locators that the Soviets had sold them. They came to Hungary to avoid sending Soviet army experts to Libya. Hungary was considered a safe and neutral location for both parties. As the Russians sent in their own Arabic interpreters, I was mostly ordered to 'chaperone' them in their free-time activities.

I did sit through a couple of their technical lessons. 'Maintenance' consisted of extremely sophisticated operations like pulling out a panel that had a failure and replacing it with a new one. They wrote Russian words in Arabic letters in white paint on spare parts because Arabic just didn't have the vocabulary. It was miserably boring.

They really didn't show any interest in the lectures either. They didn't want to learn anything, they were here just to drink and screw around. The training was just an excuse to get away from home.

When they wanted only to drink, I invited them into my home - they kind of expected it, but were grateful. They bought the drinks in the Consumex shop with their passports, but they had no place to drink it together. Of course we didn't advertise these very human outings to their embassy or the ministry. This was our little secret. My wife, Andrea, wasn't happy about it though. They expected her to serve them like a waitress, as if they were back home. And they made a right mess in the toilet, so we had to clean it up afterwards.

Sometimes they wanted to hit the town though, and I had to escort them around the city, on ministry expenses, making sure they don't get in trouble or talk to foreigners. If they wanted girls, I suggested a night club just beside Blaha Lujza ter - I can't remember its name, but there were only two in those days and the other one was Moulin Rouge.

In my home they only drank, mostly whisky or vodka, and beer. They were very noisy, boasting about Libya and cursing the American-Israeli imperialists who would soon be eliminated - by themselves of course!

Yet they spoke with respect for not only the Soviets, but also for the French for some reason. I found that strange, and never really fathomed it.

When I told them that I used to write out passport details in Arabic for Hungarians travelling to Libya on official business, they felt very proud. To think that we Hungarians considered it right that a Libiyan border guard did not have to speak foreign languages or read the Latin alphabet. Only the script of the Holy Quran!

Of course, we didn't think it right - just Colonel Gadhaffi ordered it and nobody would have got in if we hadn't complied - but I didn't tell them that.

Only now I was nearing the end of my army service, and for some reason, I was ordered back to the Dobó garrison in Ujpest under Major Olah.

It was December, 1979, and I was confined to barracks in sub-zero temperatures for the month. There were 24 of us in a room that had no insulation because it had been a stable for the horses of huszárs during the Horthy era. There was mould on the walls inside, and by the window frames one could stick out a finger through the gaps in the wall.

In the mornings, there would be icicles hanging from the windows.

When I left the army, I fell ill, and was found to have contracted tuberculosis. It could have been a disaster, and yet, as I shall relate, it turned out later this may have, perversely, saved my life.

(To be continued)

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