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Memory Lane: Mrs Thatcher’s duel with Helmut Kohl. By Peter Duffell

Blog | Apr 16, 2024

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On 17th September 1986, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Chancellor Helmut Kohl were to visit British Forces Germany. I was the responsible Chief of Staff.

My Corps Commander briefed me: ‘We’ll send the Prime Minister and Chancellor down the range in main battle tanks ... make sure she hits the target!’

I headed for Bergen- Hohne ranges on historic Lüneburg Heath to set things up. The Royal Hussars would man the British

Challenger; 24th Panzers, the German Leopard.

‘Make sure she hits the target,’ said I crisply, as practice began.

On the day, RAF helicopters flew in the VIPs. Eighty reporters were clustered near the PM’s spin master, Bernard Ingham:

‘Areyouincharge,Brigadier?’

‘I am if this goes wrong!’ I responded.

‘Make sure she hits the target,’ he barked.

Tank Commanders Hauptmann Spier and Sergeant Steve Penkethman, with Leopard and Challenger crews, stood ready. The PM stole the fashion show: with dashing, biscuit-beige coat, white silk scarf tossed over head and shoulders, plus

that essential accessory matching goggles, Thatcher was dressed to kill.

‘A cross between Lawrence of Arabia and Isadora Duncan,’ reported the Telegraph.

On the firing point, the national leaders locked tank guns onto their targets, the main armaments exploded with a flash of smoke and laser beams sent 120mm shells unerringly to their objective, 1,500 metres away. Then they were off, surging down the battle run with a rumble of iron-clad horsepower and billowing dust, returning to nervous applause from anxious generals.

‘I loved it!’ exclaimed Mrs Thatcher. ‘I was so relieved we hit the target.’

‘First-time hit!’ Sergeant Penkethman told a breathless press corps. ‘I’ll give her a job when she finishes!’

Chancellor Kohl smiled. Bernard Ingham chuckled.

‘Bullseye, Maggie,’ headlined the Express.

‘Maggie shells Russia,’ shouted the Mirror.

Four years after the Falklands war, iconic tank photographs on the front pages, restored Thatcher’s fading ‘Iron Lady’ image. She continued in office; I still have my signed programme.


By Peter Duffell, Salisbury, Wiltshire, who receIves £50

Readers are invited to send in their own 400-word submissions about the past