RAF Lyneham to RAF Idris, Tripoli, Libya - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

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RAF Lyneham to RAF Idris, Tripoli, Libya

It was just a little disappointing to be told that three of us, Mick Harley, David Gaunt and me, would be flying out from UK to Ceylon (Sri Lanka) before Christmas. We left Locking for the final time on 1 December 1954 and moved first to 5PDU (Personnel Dispersal Unit) at RAF Innsworth.

In those days all officers and airmen going to, and returning from, overseas bases were processed through 5PDU. In our case being dispersed meant being issued with overseas tropical kit and having it tailored to fit. We were also given our overseas inoculations which, unlike these days, were always painful. I remember particularly the Yellow Fever jab because it caused really acute pain for about 20 seconds. This was, so we were told, because the fluid had to be ice cold when it was injected. In spite of all the careful preparations, the medics forgot to give the three of us bound for Sri Lanka our essential cholera jabs but we didn't find that out until later. Along with several others bound for stations in the Middle East, we were at Innsworth for nine days. I have always suspected that this was a deliberate ploy so that the Station Warrant Officer at Innsworth would have a constant supply of airmen for fatigues around the station.

Above:There we were, all kitted up for the tropics yet shivering in the cold on a bleak RAF Locking road waiting for the coach to take us to Innsworth. The contents of our kitbag (mostly our new khaki dress uniforms and accoutrements) and small items contained in our webbing were all that we were allowed to take on what was supposed to be a 30-month tour in the Middle and Far East. There were no facilities for leaving the heavy greatcoat behind in UK!
On the day before our flight David, Mick and me were transported by road from Innsworth to RAF Clyffe Pypard, a tiny transit unit in a splendid location at the top of a hill. The RAF had an airfield there from 1941 to 1961 but I have been unable to find out what aircraft or squadrons used it. The village of Clyffe Pypard had a population of 885 in 1831 and that had reduced to just 519 in 1951. I remember my short visit to RAF Clyffe Pypard well. It was a beautiful, frosty afternoon when we arrived and we could see the airfield at Lyneham shimmering in the distance down on the plain. There was little to do in the way of recreation at Clyffe Pypard. In my case I decided to use an airmail writing pad I'd bought from the NAAFI at Innsworth to write a narrative account of my thoughts and observations while actually en route to Ceylon. Once a writer - always a writer. I still have that airmail pad.

What follows on this and subsequent pages are unedited transcripts from my contemporaneous account written on that flimsy airmail pad. Any additions or corrections I've made since are in italics.

Saturday 11 December 1954. No 43 Hut at Clyffe Pypard is longer than the standard RAF wooden hut: it has 30 beds in it rather than 22 but only about 15 of them are occupied. I suppose there must at some time have been at least another 42 huts somewhere on the site but it was too cold to go exploring and, in any case, the winter day rapidly became a winter night. For some reason we are confined to camp - perhaps to ensure no-one suddenly decides to go absent without leave, or perhaps to ensure that we don't contaminate any of the local population with yellow fever. A very grumpy sergeant put one of our group on a charge for being improperly dressed - he'd had the temerity to go past the Guardroom to have a better look at the view over the plain without putting his service cap on. (In fact the F252 Charge Report caught up with this airman in Sri Lanka about three months later and the flight commander tore it up in the airman's presence. Good decision.)
 
It was a long evening at Clyffe Pypard. We lit both the stoves in an effort to keep warm but most of us retired to bed early. I shaved before going to bed to save a bit of time in the morning. When we woke, the fire at the far end of the hut was still burning strongly so someone must have got out of bed during the night to feed it. The fire at our end was quite cold. It was only necessary to have a rinse this morning but, as there was plenty of hot water, that caused little discomfort.

Just before 0900 hrs we assembled at Reception and boarded a waiting coach for the short journey to RAF Lyneham. As soon as we arrived a medical orderly was waiting for Mick Harley, David 'Tombstone' Gaunt and me. (David's nickname was Tombstone because of his stature and his natural gloomy expression - which fitted his surname.) We had to go to Sick Quarters for the cholera injection that someone at Innsworth had forgotten to give us. In the Departure Lounge at Lyneham we met up with the rest of the passengers on our flight. In addition to our small bunch of wireless technicians there were 12 officers, half a dozen NCO aircrew and one solitary WRAF airwoman. (The Women's Royal Air Force was formally merged with the RAF on 1 April 1994.) Coffee was served to us, actually served to us, while we waited. It was very good coffee but spoilt rather by the taste of the cardboard cups we drank it out of. At 0945 hrs we were called forward, only 45 minutes after leaving Clyffe Pypard, so full marks to the Movements staff.

(On 03 June 2017 I discovered an excellent and very detailed history of Clyffe Pypard, by Duncan Curtis, a dedicated local historian, on this website - including several of my paragraphs.)

Our plane was the ubiquitous Hastings, a large four-engine transport often known as the Queen of the Skies. Before leaving the lounge the Duty Air Movements Officer explained that the aircraft had been reassigned at the last moment and was still fitted out as half passenger and half freight. He said that was why there were only about 25 passengers in total and he apologised because half the luggage racks were missing and most of the cabin lights were unserviceable - and that would make it difficult to read.

The officers got on first and bagged all the window seats, the SNCO aircrew followed them and we airmen were last to board. I found myself seated next to a squadron leader pilot adjacent to the port wing. It turned out to be one of the best positions on the aircraft because in turbulence seats in line with the aircraft wings are supposed to be the most stable. The aircraft captain, a flight lieutenant, came back from the cockpit to give us an emergency briefing about the way to don and operate our Mae West lifesaving jackets. He stressed that our individual jacket was stowed under the seat in front of us and that we should not go for the one under our own seat. I was sure there was a reason for that but I wasn't about to ask the question.

The captain went on to explain how to operate the aircraft doors in the case of emergency. Finally he described our flight route to our first stop, RAF Idris in Libya. I noticed that the squadron leader in the seat next to me continued reading a book all the way through the emergency briefing. I felt secure in the knowledge that he would help me if something dreadful happened during the flight.

We took off at 1020 GMT and climbed sedately to 9,500 feet. The weather was good with little cloud and excellent visibility. I tried tentatively leaning across the squadron leader to try and recognise somewhere on the ground, but I could recognise nothing. He ignored me and continued to read his book. We crossed the south coast of England at 1050 and the south coast of France at 1425. For about 90 minutes over the southern part of the Mediterranean the going became rather rough - the pilot described it as "slight turbulence". I was not airsick, which was a relief to me, but my arm had already gone stiff and painful as a result of the cholera injection. I had also developed a headache which could have been due to the cholera jab, or the incessant noise, or a combination of both.
 
I was surprised when the Air Quartermaster (AQM), a sergeant, served us with hot tea and coffee several times during the flight. I was surprised on two counts: firstly that we got any refreshments at all, and secondly that a sergeant served junior technicians. That was certainly a first for me. There was a further surprise when the AQM told us that there was a cardboard box containing food under our own seat - not the seat in front. I looked around and saw that most of my fellow junior technicians were already tucking into the contents of their box so I retrieved mine and looked in. There was a cardboard tray holding a piece of corned beef, a few baked beans, some peas and a couple of pieces of tomato. There was also a tiny cardboard salt cellar, a bread roll, a piece of butter and a small piece of spreading cheese. An apple and a packet of biscuits completed the selection which I thought was excellent.

Shortly after eating I was forced to leave my seat to visit the toilet right at the back of the aircraft. There was a short queue of my fellow airmen - it seems the officers and NCO aircrew have no such needs. I was rather alarmed to find that it was difficult to stand upright in the toilet, not just because of its small size, but because that end of the aircraft appeared to be rotating in small circles. The noise level was considerably greater in there and howling winds entered through various gaps in the airframe. For some reason I had expected the aircraft to be airtight. Soon it became dark outside and what with the headache, the sore arm, and my excitement at the coming landing in a foreign country, I was not sorry when the AQM told us to fasten our safety belts because we were starting our descent for the landing at RAF Idris.

It was quite dark when we made an extremely bumpy landing at Idris. When we stopped at the terminal an officer came into the plane and announced that it was 1935 local time, 1835 GMT. We were invited to disembark, officers and NCOs first of course, and were taken by coach the short distance to the Transit Hotel. When the officers and senior NCOs had been led away, the rest of us were issued with chits for a meal. We discovered that we were to be served by natives and they even supplied knives, forks and spoons. (Of course, I wouldn't use the word natives in that context these days, but the word was still in current use in 1954.) The meal consisted of potato soup, followed by fried egg, potatoes and tomatoes. After eating, we drifted back into the main hall and while waiting for someone to show us to our accommodation we gathered bits of information about the place. I learned that Tripoli, the nearest town of any importance, was about 50 miles to the north on the Mediterranean coast. Cigarettes were about 1s 3d for twenty compared with about 3s 7d in UK. Beer and spirits were also much cheaper. The bar in the Transit Hotel would accept English money but the NAAFI only took local currency.

We were then taken to the empty Isolation Ward in Sick Quarters which was to serve as our transit accommodation for the night stop. The beds were ready made up for us and were very comfortable. After relieving ourselves of our kit Mick, Tombstone and I set about finding the NAAFI. A corporal who directed us offered to change a UK 10 shilling note for us and in exchange we got 50 piastres - half a Libyan pound. After losing our way once, we arrived in the NAAFI only to find ourselves in the Corporals' Club. As it was empty we stopped there and the NAAFI staff, who were local civilians, either didn't notice or didn't care. I bought some Cadbury's chocolate which cost just about the same as in the UK.

NB There is more information about RAF Idris on this page (opens in a new window)

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