The Valiant course and my first faux pas - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

A Yorkshire Aviator's Autobiography
Tony Cunnane
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The Valiant course and my first faux pas

We were given our postings just two days before we graduated from Jurby as commissioned officers. I was posted to the Valiant Bomber OCU at RAF Gaydon, near Leamington Spa, and I was quite excited about that because the young V Bomber Force was the pride and joy of the RAF and its operations were very secret. We had to be positively vetted by the RAF Security Service before we could be given nuclear information to make sure that we were reliable and British through and through. Individuals were never supposed to know their own security clearance, but it was a bit of giveaway when we started being given access to classified information.

The Valiant had been the first of the three V bombers to enter RAF service - at Gaydon in January 1955. The Vulcan entered service at No 230 OCU at RAF Finningley in May 1957, and the Victor arrived at Gaydon in November that same year. The Vulcan squadrons were allocated to RAF No 1 Group with Headquarters located in a delightful old country house in the village of Bawtry, south of Doncaster. The Victor and Valiant squadrons were, with one exception, part of No 3 Group with Headquarters at RAF Mildenhall in Suffolk which was also the home of the USAF's 7513 Air Base Group and known by the Americans as 'The Gateway to the United Kingdom'. A certain air marshal was said to refer to 1 and 3 Groups as the 1st Division North and the 3rd Division South - an allusion to two of the football league divisions in those pre-Premier League days.

Above: A scan of my flying logbook showing my first few flights in Valiant bombers plus a few odd sorties for enjoyment in Chipmunks and Ansons - where I did the radio duties! The apparently random exercise numbers refer to the pilots' training; the AEO had an initial sortie where he was checked out by a staff AEO flying in the 6th seat and, providing all was well, that was the end of the AEO's in-flight training! Where two pilots were named, the first was the QFI/instructor and the other was the student.

There was a mystique about operating the so-called 'Big jets'. RAF Bomber Command had decided from the outset that only the very best aircrew would be employed in the V Force. In particular both the captain and co-pilot of a V Bomber had to have spent a considerable number of years flying Canberra light bombers. By 1960 most of the RAF's most experienced pilots, those who had stayed on after the end of the war, were reaching the end of their flying careers and so the RAF had to find new sources to provide captains for the V Bombers.

Gradually, first-tourist pilots straight out of flying training were posted in with the aim of qualifying them to take over as captains after a full tour as co-pilot in the right hand seat. Since the bombers could, if necessary, be flown by the 1st Pilot from the left hand seat with little or no contribution from the co-pilot, it was no surprise to hear that most co-pilots were not happy about being posted to the V Force. The rest of the crew, known as the 'rear crew' because they worked in the rear cabin, attended long courses fitting them for their jobs. There were two navigators, one was the routine navigator and the other the radar bomb aimer. The latter spent a full year learning about their equipment at the Bomber Command Bombing School at RAF Lindholme. The AEO was still a new aircrew category and I was one of the newest.

Before I even started my Valiant training course, I committed my first faux pas as an officer. After lunch on my second or third day at Gaydon, I went into the crowded anteroom and poured myself a cup of coffee. The only vacant chair I could see was facing the corridor at a table near the entrance; I sat down there and started reading a newspaper. Then I saw, over the top of the Daily Telegraph, the Station Commander coming along the long corridor from the Dining Room. I didn't know then that he had only that week taken over command of the station. I half got to my feet as he entered but, noticing that none of the other officers had made a move other than to cast down their eyes or hide behind their newspapers, I then sank back in my seat. I watched, furtively and guiltily, as the Station Commander walked slowly past me to the far end of the room. There he idly flicked through the pages of a magazine, before turning and walking back purposefully towards the door. As he reached me, he caught my eye and beckoned me to follow him into the lobby.

"What's your name?" he asked quietly.
"Pilot Officer Cunnane, sir."
"Tell me, Mr Cunnane, how long have you been commissioned?"
"One week, sir."
"What did they teach you at Jurby to do when your Station Commander comes into a room?"
I hesitated, and then made matters worse. "They said, sir, some station commanders wanted officers to stand when they come into a room, while others did not. They told us to follow the lead of the more senior officers, sir."

That, of course, though honest was quite the wrong thing to say. Remaining seated was one thing, but half rising and then sitting back down again could be construed as disrespectful - which was certainly how Group Captain Hugh Everitt, CBE DSO DFC, construed it. "Well Mr Cunnane, you may tell your fellow junior officers that I expect all my officers to stand up when I come into a room." With that he swept out of the Mess. I returned to my seat in the anteroom and sat down, probably red-faced and no longer interested in the Daily Telegraph.

No-one asked me what had been said but they were all looking in my direction without making eye contact; I'm sure everyone had seen what had happened. The following day when, as part of the standard arrival procedure, I signed Officers Confidential Orders in the Adjutant's Office for the very first time in my career, I could not fail to notice the most recent order, added that very day, which spelled out the Station Commander's requirements about standing up when he entered a room.

Above: The last of my 'training' flights on 232 OCU at RAF Gaydon. Note that the station commander, Group Captain Everitt, was captain on two of those flights so he had, presumably, forgiven me for my faux pas on our first meeting - at least he was willing to trust me to operate the complicated electrical systems of the Valiant!

In 2009, I was put in touch with Group Captain Everitt by a third party who occasionally played golf with him and who had read this anecdote on my website. The third party told me that Hugh Everitt was not on the Internet but would be interested in my stories, so I sent the group captain, via that third party, paper copies of my stories about his and my time at RAF Gaydon. In the covering letter I asked him, belatedly, if he had any objection to the stories being there. A few days later, to my great surprise, the group captain telephoned me at my home and told me how much he had enjoyed reading my stories and that he had no objection to them staying on my website. He said he remembered most of the incidents as I had recorded them and added a few more about other mutual acquaintances from that period. Politely, he said he had no recollection of telling me off for not standing up when he had entered the anteroom nearly 50 years earlier - or, to be precise, he asked: "Did I really do that?" I think he did remember.

Group Captain Everitt, a true gentleman, died on 31 July 2012 at the age of 94.

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