Trip to Gibraltar - and we almost flew into the Rock! - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

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Trip to Gibraltar - and we almost flew into the Rock!

Wing Commander Joe Saunders was OC 38 Squadron throughout my time on the squadron and Flight Lieutenant 'Happy' Hanmore was my regular captain. However, the 50-plus signallers on the squadron regularly flew with other crews simply to fill gaps left by courses, training, leave, sickness, etc. On Monday 18 January 1960 our regular crew set out from Malta on a straightforward transit flight to Gibraltar in Shackleton Mk 2 WL744. Little did I know that it would be the start of my final overseas exercise with 38 Squadron, my last few flights as an Air Signaller, and one of my last days as a sergeant. The trip took 7 hours 30 minutes and was interesting only because the navigators could not find the Rock.

To be fair, it was a very murky day, but there was real cause for concern: the top of the Rock of Gibraltar is 1,398 feet above sea level. We had been flying over the Mediterranean Sea for several hours at 500 feet above the waves and, in aircrew parlance, the Rock has a greater rate of climb than a Shackleton. The signaller operating the HF radio had been in routine Morse code contact with the RAF Flight Watch service every half hour for several hours but that was of no use for navigation purposes. The pilots in the meantime were trying and failing, for what later turned out to be a complete power outage on the airfield, to contact Gibraltar Tower on the VHF radio. Eventually the Captain instructed all crew members to man the portholes down each side of the aircraft and the visual bombing position down the nose compartment, exhorting everyone to keep a sharp lookout.

I left the galley, where I had just finished disposing of the remnants of our in-flight meals and packing all the utensils securely away for landing, and moved to my assigned port beam position and peered anxiously into the thick haze. Suddenly, through the gloom, I saw low-lying land on the port side. "Port Beam here, captain," I called on the intercom. "What's our heading?"

"270 degrees," replied the captain. "Why do you ask?"

"There's low-lying land on the port beam; I estimate the range about two nautical miles," I replied and added, "It must be the north African coastline."

"Nonsense," broke in the navigator from his darkened operating position near the front of the aircraft. He sounded outraged that a mere signaller should make such a suggestion. "It can't possibly be North Africa."

"Well it's definitely land," I persisted. "If we're heading due west, this land off the port beam can't be anywhere but North Africa, can it? Gibraltar must be either dead ahead or even out to starboard."

There was a stunned silence on the intercom. Then, after a few seconds but it seemed a lot longer to me, the captain called urgently for climb power and we zoomed to about 3,000 feet. An almost empty Mk 2 Shackleton had quite a respectable rate of climb. There was a much clearer view from up there and very soon the signaller on the starboard beam reported that he could see the familiar outline of the Rock of Gibraltar off our starboard side and slightly behind us. We had flown at 500 feet above the sea, through the gap 15 kilometres at the narrowest point between Tarifa near Algeciras on the southern coast of Spain, and Tangier and Mount Sidi Moussa in Ceuta on the African coast. I didn't know then, nor would I have cared very much if I had known, that Mount Sidi Moussa is one of the two peaked rocks called by the Ancient Greeks 'The Pillars of Hercules'. The other is the Rock of Gibraltar. If we had been right on track for Gibraltar we would have found it - the hard way. We flew a left hand turn, the long way round, back towards Gibraltar and landed some short time later. The curious thing is that no-one ever mentioned the incident, either then or later. No-one said "Thank you Tony" or even "Thank you sergeant". I felt rather hurt about that.

That evening our officers did whatever officers do on detachment duty and we five signallers plus the flight engineer went off, on foot, to a night club in La Linea, just across the border into Spain. I remember we enjoyed some Flamenco dancing, some belly dancing, lots of wine, and . . . perhaps fortunately, I forget the rest. We must have got back by midnight because the border foot crossing closed exactly at midnight every night and late revellers were forced to stay overnight in Spain - which was expensive for a variety of reasons.

Above: The fortunate aircrew on 38 Squadron were always expected to do some shopping for the less fortunate ground crew who rarely had an opportunity to leave Malta for the whole of their 30-month tour of duty. My list was fairly typical but I can’t, after all this time, remember whether or not I had time to collect all the money owing to me!
As usual alcohol featured large on the list as did 6,000 Senior Service cigarettes (they were certainly not for me because I’ve never been a smoker). It must have been a legal duty free trade because we were always met on return to Malta from Gibraltar by Maltese Customs officials. I’ve no idea who two sets of castanets costing a total of 5 shillings (25p) were for, nor the 10 pairs of Perlon nylon stockings. I had no idea what Perlon was until I looked it up on the Internet just now. According to a site I found, “from 1952 there was enough high-quality Perlon available so that the quantity of Perlon stockings and that of artificial silk stockings produced was about equal. The better fit and transparency of Perlon stockings eventually led to discontinuing the production of hosiery made from artificial silk.”

Day two was free for doing touristy things, such as recovering from a late night and a hangover and visiting the top of the Rock and the caves inside the rock. On day three my flying logbook shows that we flew a 10 hour navigation exercise but I can remember nothing about it. Day four was for shopping. On day five, Friday, we flew back to Malta. The flight took just over 6 hrs so it must have been a direct transit with no diversions along the way. As we taxied into our squadron dispersal at RAF Luqa, the captain told us on the intercom that the Squadron Commander, Wing Commander Joe Saunders, was waiting.

"I wonder what he wants?" we all thought. I am sure that at the back of our minds, or at least at the back of the minds of the captain and navigators, the suspicion was that the Boss had somehow heard about our non-standard arrival at Gibraltar. However, when we climbed down from the aircraft the Boss came straight over to me.

"Welcome back, Cunnane," he said cheerfully, holding out his hand to be shaken. "You'd better go straight to the Sergeants' Mess and start packing. You're posted to Jurby for Officer Training. You fly out on Sunday. Congratulations."

There was not even time for me to arrange farewell drinks for my squadron pals, nor for them to arrange a farewell party for me! So it was that barely 36 hours later, at 0620 hrs on Sunday 24 January 1960, I flew out of Luqa as a passenger to Lyneham on Hastings TG530, Flight Lieutenant Kell in command. When I got to Lyneham there was just sufficient space in a corner of the page in my pocket diary where I had kept my duty free shopping list for friends' requirements from Gibraltar to scribble down the train times from Wakefield to Liverpool for the ferry to the Isle of Man.

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