RAF China Bay and my introduction to CRAFT - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

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RAF China Bay and my introduction to CRAFT

At the end of January 1955 I was again detailed to go to RAF China Bay for annual ground defence training (GDT) in the far north-east of Sri Lanka close to the vast Royal Navy base at Trincomalee. There had been a small British-built airfield at China Bay since the 1920s but the RAF station proper did not come into existence until 1942 when, initially, Hurricane, Spitfire and Catalina aircraft were based there. Since 1976 China Bay has been the home of the Sri Lanka Air Force Academy.

GDT consisted of a series of classroom lectures and practical weapons training; all RAF personnel, whether serving at home or overseas, had do it once a year. All those airmen going on my course assembled on the airfield at Negombo at about 7.30am for a flight in a twin-engine Valetta lasting about 45 minutes. As we deplaned we were greeted by Sgt Ashworth of the RAF Regiment. The previous course members were there waiting for us because they were leaving on the aircraft we'd arrived on.

A large boil had been making its presence known on my left wrist even before I had left Gangodawila. (Looking back from 2017, it suddenly occurred to me, for the very first time, that the cause of that boil might have had something to do with the large electric shock I had sustained on New Year’s Day following the monsoon storm.) When I woke after my first night in China Bay my whole arm had become very painful and my wrist was grotesquely swollen and stiff so I went to the RAF hospital, which I discovered was now an almost empty building run solely by one senior aircraftman medical orderly. He seemed delighted to have something unusual to deal with. He gave me a penicillin injection and put my arm in a sling. I like to think that the orderly sought advice from the nearest RAF doctor - who was in Negombo.

In spite of twice-daily doses of penicillin my boil grew to enormous proportions and eventually became, according to the young medical orderly, a carbuncle with several clearly defined 'heads'. It was the source of much interest to everyone around me - they were hoping to see it explode. The orderly was thoroughly enjoying himself - it was probably the most excitement he'd had for months. By Saturday the carbuncle had reduced in size and pain - without exploding. I removed my medical sling and went on the firing range with the rest of the course and fired both the rifle and Bren gun and got my 'wound' liberally splattered with damp sand. I gained first class qualifications on each weapon.

Above: A clip from my diary
We arrived in Colombo exactly on time. Another chap and I walked from the railway station to RAF Colpetty which is where he was stationed. I invited myself to breakfast in his Mess, had my much-reduced boil cleaned and dressed by a real doctor, and then hung around waiting for Mr DeLile to pick me up and take me back to Gangodawila.

In 1955 the RAF still had its own far-flung empire which relied heavily on short wave radio for passing operation orders, aircraft flight plans and all kinds of admin bumph to and from the Air Ministry in London. The Signals Control Centre (SCC) at Negombo and our receiving station at RAF Gangodawila was a major link in what was called the Common­wealth Royal Air Forces Telecommunications Network (CRAFT).At Gangodawila we maintained the radio receivers and the associated telegraph equipment for three multi-channel, single side band (SSB) circuits that terminated in our operations room: CAF2 from London, CAF5 from Melbourne and CAF6 from Singapore. Although it was no direct concern of ours at Gangodawila, I mention for the sake of completeness that there were high-powered transmitters at RAF Ekala which provided the return paths of CAF2, CAF5 and CAF6. Ekala was somewhere between Negombo and Colombo but I never went there.

Above: Two of my colleagues: John Keeble and Phil Jewell at work in the operations room

There were six separate data channels on each of CAF2, CAF5 and CAF6. Channel 1 on each circuit was the engineering channel and was always in the clear, ie not encrypted. The remaining five channels were normally encrypted and so we couldn't read the traffic on them even if we had wanted to. There were two teleprinters on the control room desk which could be connected by patch cords to any channel we wished. One was usually kept permanently connected to the SCC at Negombo because it was much faster and more reliable than the landline telephone for operational chit-chat. The second teleprinter (the one in the photograph above) was used to monitor the quality of signals coming in on any channel of any circuit. My two colleagues were only looking so casual and cheerful for the benefit of my photograph. I was soon to learn that Channel 4 on CAF2 was always reserved for a mysterious 'entity' known simply as Anderson; we sent encrypted data on that channel only to Anderson by a dedicated landline from Gangodawila, bypassing SCC Negombo altogether. (More about Anderson in a later page.)

There was also CAF40, a single channel teleprinter circuit from RAF Eastleigh near Nairobi, Kenya. CAF40 was brought into use as an intermediate relay station only when direct communications between UK and Sri Lanka became temporarily unreliable for any reason. As it happens, CAF40 had to be used extensively during my time at Gangodawila.

In the 1950s, years before the satellite age, long distance communications were much less reliable than they are now; short wave long range radio reception was still a bit of a mystery to amateurs and professionals alike. I started seriously studying the subject a few weeks after my arrival in Sri Lanka with the help of some very friendly BBC engineers in Bush House, London; they answered my frequent air-mailed questions with lengthy letters and a variety of technical pamphlets.

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