RAF Finningley and my second faux pas - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

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RAF Finningley and my second faux pas

After completing No 59 Valiant Conversion Course in November 1960, I was posted to 18 Squadron at Finningley near Doncaster, the only Valiant squadron in 1 Group. (These days former-RAF Finningley is Robin Hood Airport Doncaster Sheffield, code DSA.) I was very disappointed when I discovered that my new squadron's role was purely training and that it was not part of the main nuclear bomber force. All the original bombing and nuclear-associated equipment had been removed from our Valiants and replaced by masses of ex-USAF electronic counter-measures (ECM) equipment which may once have been state-of-the-art but certainly was not in 1960. It turned out that the Americans had either sold it, or donated it, to the Royal Canadian Air Force and they had, in due course, passed it on to 18 Squadron. Our squadron even had a RCAF specialist electronics engineering officer to supervise the operation and maintenance of the equipment.

We had been taught at Jurby that all officers needed to provide themselves with Calling Cards. The cards had to be of a standard size with copperplate script engraved on a genuine copper plate. Officers below the rank of flight lieutenant were plain Mister and were not permitted to put their rank on their calling cards. Officers who were members of certain approved gentlemen's clubs could add the club's name under their own name. On arrival at each new station, officers of all ranks were required to deposit two cards on a silver platter that they would always find on a table standing centrally in the entrance hall of the Officers' Mess. Protocol required that one card was addressed, by hand, "To the President of the Mess Committee and Officers" and the other to the wife of the Station Commander by name. Having done that the officer was deemed to have formally arrived.

There was one further gentlemanly duty that had to be carried out as soon as possible. Single officers were required to 'call' personally on the Station Commander's wife within a week of their arrival. (There were different arrangements for married officers.) The Station Adjutant advised newly-arrived single officers of the days of the week when Mrs Station Commander was available for calls and her preferred time of day, and added that we would not be invited to any social functions until that duty had been performed. I duly presented myself on my first Thursday at exactly 4pm at the door of the Station Commander's residence and knocked.

I was smartly turned out dressed, as protocol required, in dark lounge suit complete with hat which I removed as the door opened. Calling on Mrs Station Commander in civilian dress indicated a social call; had I arrived in uniform it would have implied that it was a service call to the man of the house. I had been briefed by the Station Adjutant that the door would be opened by a servant who would know why I was there. I was not surprised therefore when, after a short delay, the front door opened to reveal a dishevelled and flustered-looking woman who was clutching some sort of cleaning rag in one hand and a piece of silver in the other.

"Come in, come in", she enthused, before I could say anything. "Please forgive my appearance."

Obediently I entered the hallway, hung my cap on a nearby peg and handed my calling card to the servant who looked at it briefly before depositing it on a salver on a table. The servant closed the front door and led me through into the lounge where I expected to greet Mrs Heward.

"Please sit down," said the woman with the cleaning rag, waving to an armchair. She sat herself down on a settee facing me and it suddenly dawned on me that she was in fact Group Captain Heward's wife and not a servant. "Mary's off today. I was just getting on with cleaning the silver and completely forgot that it was visiting time."

Mrs Heward poured me the first of what turned out to be several glasses of sherry from a decanter on the table in front of her. We chatted amiably about my RAF career to date, what it had been like in Ceylon, how long I had been commissioned, and whether I had a current girlfriend. "Quite a few", I blurted out in answer to the last question, without thinking about how it might be construed; social mores in 1960 were quite different from those of the 21st Century. As I nervously kept emptying my sherry glass, Mrs Heward kept refilling it. I should have kept a discreet eye on the time. I had been told that 'calling' should last no longer than about 20 minutes and it was the visiting officer who was expected to make the first move to leave, but I was enjoying myself and lost all track of time.

Suddenly the lounge door opened and the Station Commander walked in, dressed in his flying suit. He had a quick double take when he saw me sharing a joke with his wife. I hastily scrambled to my feet in a not entirely military manner.

"I see you've met my wife, Mr Cunnane," he said, looking pointedly at his watch. I glanced at my wristwatch: it was almost five-o-clock." I hope you have been well looked after."

"Indeed I have, sir," I said, "very well looked after indeed."

I could perhaps have worded that remark rather more tactfully but, as my friends know, I have never been one to let tact get in the way of the truth. Thus, on my initial meetings with my first two station commanders, I had managed to ensure that they would both remember me.

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