Life on 38 Squadron - and shopping trips to Tripoli - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

A Yorkshire Aviator's Autobiography
Tony Cunnane
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Life on 38 Squadron - and shopping trips to Tripoli

I took this pic, and the one below, on my own camera from the starboard beam position of WL759 with the window open. We were running in towards Valletta Habour for a flypast at a NATO event on 08 April 1959.

Our squadron, equipped with Shackleton MR2s, was the only resident RAF squadron for most of my tour. (37 Squadron equipped with Shackletons had moved out to Aden a few weeks before I arrived; 39 Squadron equipped with Canberras moved out in June 1958). Virtually all of our operational flying was done over the Mediterranean Sea or the Libyan Sahara Desert. We mostly flew at 300 feet or less by day and at 1,000 feet by night. Our Maritime Reconnaissance role was supposedly anti-submarine warfare in conjunction with the Royal Navy. We carried out frequent exercises by day and night aiming to detect submarine periscopes either visually or by using our ASV13 (air-to-surface vessel) radar; we dropped practice sonobuoys and real flares and then bombed the flares; and we launched simulated homing torpedoes and, on one occasion, we dropped a time-expired real homing torpedo - presumably to get rid of it. It was probably all very exciting for the pilots with the aircraft wingtips at times seeming to be skimming the tops of the waves as the aircraft carried out steep turns at very low level, but I must confess I found it all rather boring. It was often very turbulent flying at low level and I was regularly airsick - but it, the airsickness, usually didn't last long and it never affected my work in the air.

The most senior of the 5 signallers on the crew was designated Senior Signaller and his role was to allocate airborne duties to the other 4 (and himself) and rotate them roughly every hour so that all signallers gained experience in all roles. One 'siggie' was always required to operate the HF radio, one to operate the ASV radar, and one to be cook and bottle washer in the galley. Depending on the activity at any given time two or more siggies might be employed on visual lookout duties, one on the starboard beam adjacent to the entrance door and one on the port beam opposite the door. Sometimes a siggie would be deployed into the bomb-aimer's position in the nose; that position was also a favourite sleeping zone because the position was fitted with a long, very comfortable 'mattress'.
Above: This was a case of me watching him in the nose compartment watching me, taken on the same sortie as the pic at the top of this page
The signallers were also trained to take air-to-air and air-to-ground photographs from several positions in the aircraft. The best positions, photographically speaking, were the port and starboard beam positions because we could open the windows and take photographs using the large format cameras we carried without the scratchy windows intervening.

Occasionally we signallers were allowed to fire the twin 20mm cannon mounted in the nose of the aircraft. The target was usually a floating buoy being towed by one of the RAF air-sea rescue launches. I was given only about five minutes instruction by my senior signaller on how to use the guns before I was let loose for the very first time with live ammunition on a towed target. After my initial burst the captain of the launch asked sarcastically on the radio: "Does your gunner know which is the target and which is the launch?" Of course, I did. It was just a bit more difficult making the guns do what I wanted them to do than I had expected.
Above: Someone took this pic of me operating the Shackleton ASV13 radar
I don't think many, if any, of the crews thought that we would ever be engaged in a war where it would be necessary to search and kill enemy submarines: that was WW2 stuff and the war had been over for more than a decade. A much more important role for 38 Squadron was search and rescue (SAR). Our squadron permanently maintained one Shackleton aircraft and crew on 60 minutes readiness to get airborne for SAR. The duty lasted 24 hours for each crew and all 10 crew members had to stay together to ensure that they could get airborne within 60 minutes from any scramble order. Shackletons on real SAR missions always used the radio callsign Playmate followed by a number, starting at 10 for the first aircraft; aircraft using Playmate callsigns were given precedence by Air Traffic Control Centres over all other aircraft.

Occasionally we were programmed to make the short flight across the Mediterranean to RAF Idris in Libya. I had passed through Idris before, in transit to and from Ceylon (Sri Lanka). The airfield was used originally by the Italian Air Force during WW2 but when the British captured it they called it RAF Castel Benito. In 1952 it was renamed to RAF Idris in honour of the then King Idris of Libya. The RAF used Idris mainly as a staging post for flights between UK and the Middle and Far East. It was also used for military aircraft operating on the nearby bombing ranges and also for duty-free shopping trips from Malta. The RAF withdrew in the 1960s after Libya became a Republic and the site was later extensively redeveloped and eventually became Tripoli International Airport.

Because there was little scheduled flying activity at Idris, 38 Squadron pilots were able to go there to get on with their necessary circuit and landing practices and instrument rating renewals without the inevitable air traffic delays at Luqa. Another reason for using Idris was because members of the crew who were not needed for circuit flying could get off the aircraft and do some local duty free shopping for the whole crew, and friends back at base, while the two pilots and flight engineer slaved away. In fact on 20 April 1958, my second sortie with my new squadron was just that - a shopping trip to Idris; the sortie lasted 2½ hrs - including the shopping. There was no time to go into Tripoli, on the coast about 15 miles north, on that occasion but there was quite a lot you could buy, free of duty, on base at Idris that was not available at the same price, or any price, in Malta.

The Americans also had a presence in Libya. Wheelus Air Force Base was located several miles east of Tripoli on another former Italian AF airfield, built in 1923 and originally called Mellaha. The Base Exchange at Wheelus was a truly excellent duty-free shopping centre, even better than the shops in Tripoli. We Brits could avail ourselves of the BX facilities but only if we were accompanied by an American - that was something to do with US Customs regulations. After the USAF left Wheelus in 1970, it became a Libyan People's Air Force installation and was renamed Okba Ben Nafi Air Base, which name does not trip off the tongue quite so easily. When I last checked, the former Wheelus AFB was known as Mitiga International Airport.

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