Never volunteer for anything! - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

A Yorkshire Aviator's Autobiography
Tony Cunnane
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Never volunteer for anything!

Every week during our recruit training there was an invitation promulgated in Station Routine Orders (SROs) that I am very glad I didn’t accept. Volunteers were required at the Common Cold Centre at Porton Down, near Salisbury. They would spend a week there and receive a few shillings a day additional pay. Only minor discomfort, like that associated with a winter cold, would be experienced, explained the invitation. Our Drill Instructors told us that if we volunteered we would be re-coursed and that would inevitably delay our graduation by several weeks. Tempting though the money offer was, I don’t think anyone from our flight volunteered.

Years later it became clear that the Common Cold Centre had been the cover name for highly controversial experiments into nerve gases. In fact, only three months earlier, in May 1953, a young recruit volunteer from Bridgnorth, Aircraftman Ronald Maddison, had died in agony minutes after being given a dose of an experimental nerve agent. Of course, that information was not public knowledge at the time. I have often wondered since whether our corporals were protecting us from something they knew but could not officially pass on to us. I like to think they were.

In 2018 I came across several sources on the Internet carrying this paragraph, or a paraphrase of it:

“In the early 1950s, tests were carried out on servicemen to determine the effects of nerve agents on human subjects, with one recorded death due to a nerve gas experiment. There have been persistent allegations of unethical human experimentation at Porton Down, such as those relating to the death of Leading Aircraftman Ronald Maddison, aged 20, in 1953. Maddison was taking part in sarin nerve agent toxicity tests; sarin was dripped onto his arm and he died shortly afterwards.”

One day we were shown a film about venereal diseases which had some very explicit scenes showing real sufferers of the 'unmentionable diseases' the MOD at Cardington had told us about. One lad got up half way through the film and stumbled towards the door. "Where d'you think you're going, airman?" barked the corporal at the door but then, seeing the recruit's ashen face, got out of the way just in time to avoid a stream of vomit. That film was followed immediately by a film about blood donors.

On the weekend of my 18th birthday, my 31st day in the RAF, we had our first 48 hour pass and most of us went home. Weekend passes were for exactly 36, 48 or 72 hours but why such precision was necessary was never explained. There was a fleet of private hire buses contracted for all 48 and 72 hour passes and they were routed to take in the major cities. My return ticket to Leeds cost 25 shillings which used up almost all my available money.
The bus took a very circuitous route, through the town centres of Wellington, Chester, Birkenhead, Liverpool, Manchester, Huddersfield and Bradford, dropping lads off at regular intervals. My journey from Bridgnorth to Leeds on that Friday afternoon took seven hours - no motorways or city bypasses of course - and that did not include the local bus ride from Leeds to Wakefield.

The return journey on Sunday evening, leaving Leeds City Centre at 6pm, took even longer because the driver couldn't remember where he had to pick up the Manchester contingent! Eventually, as our bus cruised slowly along Deansgate at midnight, they found us, rather than the other way round.
On 24 September I made a comment in my diary that late evening several of us in the barrack block exercised our arms by lifting and then holding our rifles by the muzzle, with a single arm, horizontally in front of us at arm’s length and seeing who could hold the position the longest without ‘wilting’. It turned out that I could hold the position longer than any of the others using my left arm - I am naturally left-handed. I can still, at the age of 80, do a similar thing with a dining-room chair except that I now have to use both arms. There’s obviously a knack to this trick but I believe my teenage years playing the violin helped me to develop my arm muscles.

On the 14th October we had a mammoth Wing Parade. The entire wing of four squadrons, each comprising four flights, were all on parade at the same time with the RAF Regional Band. According to my diary: "I was on the very front row. Wing Commander Ostle was the chap who took the salute - he must be at least 6ft 6in tall. He inspected everybody - but not very thoroughly."

The parade seemed to go very well and most members of my flight appeared to have enjoyed it. There was something very satisfying about producing a good parade and marching to a decent band, especially without continual interruptions from the drill instructors. When there are so many men on parade carrying out intricate manoeuvres there is no scope for individual instructors to bawl "As you were!"

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