Off to Singapore for a commissioning board - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

A Yorkshire Aviator's Autobiography
Tony Cunnane
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Off to Singapore for a commissioning board

Barely halfway through my scheduled 30-month tour of duty in Sri Lanka, the Signals Officer, Flight Lieutenant Gibb, who had mentored me ever since my arrival at Gangodawila, persuaded me to apply once again for a commission. I never knew why he did this but he may have been prompted by the Hornchurch system whereby after a decent interval the RAF would invite some candidates who had previously failed to be selected for aircrew to go through the system again. I told the Signals Officer that I was willing to be sent back to UK to visit Hornchurch again. A few weeks later I was summoned to Negombo for an interview with the Air Officer Commanding Ceylon, I think it was Air Vice-Marshal Cox. I can't remember a single thing about that interview, but the Air Marshal recommended that I should appear before a commissioning board in Singapore at Headquarters Far East Air Force just as soon as it could be arranged. I was quite excited by the prospect because this would be my first visit to Singapore.

The journey did not start in an auspicious way. I had been instructed to wait at a well-known pick up point close to the Airmen's Mess at Negombo at 7.30am from where I would be picked up by the Air Movements bus. To make sure that I wasn't late I travelled from Gangodawila to Negombo the night before, driven as always by the faithful Mr DeLile in the gharry. It was a long night. I no longer knew anyone at Negombo and there was no film on at the Station cinema that evening. The following morning, after an early breakfast, I went to the pickup point, in uniform of course, with my small kit bag. I arrived in good time, but the transport failed to turn up. By 7.45am I was getting very worried and so I went into the Airmen's Mess and telephoned Air Movements.

"You're too late for the flight," snapped an unfriendly sergeant. For some reason Air Movements staff in those days seemed to find passengers, certainly airmen passengers, a nuisance. "Why weren't you at the pick-up point on time?"

I explained that I had been on time and that the Airmen's Mess sergeant would back me up. That made a difference. The one thing that Duty Air Movements Officers hated more than anything else was any suggestion that a passenger failed to travel on duty due to an Air Movements delay or failure. That had to be reported to higher authority and it inevitably reflected badly on the DAMO. A car arrived for me a few minutes later and I was driven straight out onto the airfield to a Valetta, possible the same one I had flown on to China Bay earlier in the year. I was unceremoniously hustled onto the aircraft without any checks on me or my baggage.

The aircrew and all the other passengers were already on board. As soon as I had been pushed unceremoniously through the rear entrance door, the door was slammed shut and the aircraft's engines started. There was only one vacant seat so I sat on it and strapped myself in. It turned out that most of the other passengers were officers and wives who were off to Singapore for a spot of leave. They were what were known as 'indulgence passengers': they could have free passage as long as they didn't displace a duty passenger.

Because the Valetta didn't have the range to reach Singapore without refuelling, we made a stop at Car Nicobar island, hundreds of miles from anywhere in the Indian Ocean. I'd never even heard of the place, but it had a short grass runway, was very green, very warm and very humid. We were on the ground for about an hour and those who wished were allowed to get out and stretch their legs. I did. I watched fuel being poured into the aircraft tanks from large drums lifted manually onto the top of the wings, which was why the refuelling process took so long. (Car Nicobar nowadays is an Indian Air Force station with a concrete runway 9,000ft in length and was in the news in 2014 when some of the conspiracy theory merchants suggested that the disappeared Malaysian airliner MH370 might be on the ground there - of course, it wasn't.)

I found it quite daunting arriving at RAF Changi all on my own. It was by far the largest RAF station I had ever been to. The airfield itself was enormous and there were literally dozens of aircraft on the ground. The Air Movements staff were expecting me and one of them directed me to the Transit Block. I was given a chitty which instructed me where and when my interview would take place. It was a relief to know that I was expected.

I had a day to spare before my Commissioning Board, so I took myself on a visit to Air Traffic Control to have a look round. I chatted to a pilot in the Tower who, when he learned why I was in Singapore, offered to take me on a low level trip around Singapore Island in a De Havilland Devon, a small, twin-engine transport aircraft similar to the civilian DH104 Dove. That was great fun and it provided me with plenty of material to bring up in conversation with the Board should the opportunity arise.

My interview took place in a large room in the Headquarters at Changi. The Board consisted of a wing commander, a squadron leader and a flight lieutenant. I thought it was rather pointless since the two star air vice-marshal in Ceylon had already recommended me for a commission, but it seemed to be the way things were done. I can't remember anything at all about the interview and for once my diary was of no help. I must have convinced the Board that I was a good prospect because a few days after getting back to Gangodawila, Flight Lieutenant Gibbs came on one of his visits for Pay Parade.

"Congratulations, Cunnane", he said. "You're going back to the UK immediately to await an early visit to the Aircrew Selection Centre at Hornchurch. Good luck to you."

That was the last time I ever saw Flight Lieutenant Gibbs because events thereafter moved very swiftly. Just before leaving Gangodawila two days later, I found time to write and post a quick airmail letter to the BBC at Bush House telling them that I was returning home and thanking them for all the help they had given me during my tour and adding how much I had enjoyed sending them regular reception reports. I included my home address.

There was no-one around, apart from the duty watch keepers, when I departed. That was normal practice: it wasn't usual to hang around to say a final farewell to those leaving for UK because such goodbyes would not only be depressing but would tend to emphasise how long it was to your own tour-expiry date. As usual there was no sign of Flight Sergeant Owen. I thought he, at least, might have taken the trouble to come out and see me off. I did say goodbye to Sandy, the young lad who looked after the hut, our laundry and any other services we required, and I paid him for the last time - and added most of my now surplus rupees as a parting gift to share with the other local staff.

I remember deliberately turning to look back briefly once more into the billet that had been my home for 15 months. Half a dozen of my friends who had just come off night watch or were simply late-risers, were fast asleep. I posed for one final photograph (left) outside the block - taken for me by Mr DeLile - then I got into the gharry and was driven off by him to Negombo.

Although I had thoroughly enjoyed my 15 months as a wireless fitter in Sri Lanka between December 1954 and February 1956, there was no doubt that I was homesick for England and family and I was keen to have another go at furthering my RAF career. The four-day flight in a Hastings back to UK started the following morning and was uneventful: Negombo - Mauripur (Pakistan) - Habbaniya (Iraq) - Idris (Libya) - Lyneham. I got some satisfaction at Habbaniya when I saw, in the distance, the irate Irish sergeant I had met on the way east. He was still serving at that awful place and yet I was on my way home. That quite made my day.

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