Londonderry to Malta - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

A Yorkshire Aviator's Autobiography
Tony Cunnane
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Londonderry to Malta

When off duty it was pleasant to go into downtown Londonderry and enjoy the sights, bars and restaurants. The city was all very friendly, at least it seemed so to us in the late-1950s but sadly that wasn't to last much longer. Royal Navy officers could leave the shore establishment at any time they wished without getting their feet wet. We sergeants had to queue up at a barrier outside the Guard Room until a Petty Officer announced: "All those going ashore, board the Liberty Boat now." We then had to duck down and pass underneath the barrier - the PO didn't raise it - and wait at the bus stop just outside 'the boat' for the bus into Londonderry. We didn't take kindly to this palaver and we gave the PO a really hard time each time we went 'ashore'. He, or someone else, reported the matter and our crew captain received a ticking off from a Senior Naval Person who in turn told us to behave ourselves and not annoy the Navy. I am all for tradition and there is much I like and respect about the Royal Navy, but that did seem a very petty and pointless restriction.

Above: No 11 MOTU Course Photograph
After completing the MOTU course I was posted to 38 Squadron based in Malta at RAF Luqa. The airfield was also used as the civilian airport for the island. Shackletons routinely flew very long sorties - the longest I flew in my time with the Squadron (1958-59) was almost 20 hours without landing or refuelling. There was, therefore, a need for some kind of toilet. For this purpose, an Elsan chemical toilet was mounted, sometimes not very securely, near the aircraft's rear entrance door, as far away from the galley as possible for obvious reasons. There was a plastic curtain that could be drawn around the Elsan to provide a degree of modesty but in my experience most users didn't bother with it - the plastic curtain, that is!

I should mention, en passant, that in those far-off days the officers on the crew only spoke to 'other ranks' when they had to - and then only either by aircraft position (eg "Captain to Port Beam") or rank and surname (eg "Co-pilot to Sgt Cunnane, where's my coffee?"), never by first name. I can't recall ever having a proper pre-flight briefing with the entire crew. The senior signaller was briefed by the captain and the rest of us did as we were told.

I quickly discovered that the off-duty activities on the Island were really excellent but Malta was not the major tourist centre it now is. In fact, there was only one major hotel on the island: the Phoenicia near the centre of Valletta. There were dozens of excellent small bars and restaurants scattered around the island; alcohol was surprisingly cheap and bar food and restaurants were, on the whole, really excellent. Taxis were cheap and the local buses were even cheaper. Then there were the fabulous safe beaches: sandy beaches, rocky beaches, secluded beaches, most of them empty for most of the time.

In the very centre of Valletta was the famous and ancient Strait Street. When I first heard about it, I thought it must be in some way connected to “The street called Straight” that I had learned about in Bible lessons as a child (Acts 9:11), but I was wrong! Later, on one of my rare visits to The Gut, but only to show a visitor to our squadron where it was, I remember seeing ‘ladies of the night’ on their doorsteps drawing the attention of passers-by to handwritten cards in the windows making offers such as: “10 shillings an hour”, and “One pound for all night including breakfast”. I understand there were discounts for those who arrived after midnight. In 2010 an article in the highly respected Times of Malta included this paragraph:
“Strait Street in Valletta, popularly known as Strada Stretta, is a street which sticks like a fossilized icon in the collective memory of most members of the British forces and other navies who spent time at ‘The Gut’ as they called it. Alas the street is now deserted."

Commander-in-Chief Mediterranean flew his flag on HMS St Angelo, a superb fort on a headland in Valletta's Grand Harbour and RN ships regularly called into port for R and R. It was wise to keep clear of Valletta and nearby Sliema when the Royal Navy was in town.

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