A strange story about a radiation sniffing sortie over Algeria - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

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A strange story about a radiation sniffing sortie over Algeria

At the time I joined 18 Squadron, the entire V Bomber force of Valiants, Victors and Vulcans was painted white all over. The premise was that, because combat operations would be flown well above 40,000ft, it would be well-nigh impossible for enemy observers on the ground to see white aircraft against a very bright blue sky. (Think how, these days, you don't see passenger aircraft flying at about 30,000ft unless they are leaving a contrail to attract your attention.) The V Force was irreverently known, mostly by its detractors, as the 'Great White Detergent' after a contemporary television advertisement for a soap powder. Less dedicated aircrew, however, were often heard to refer to Britain's finest as the 'V Farce' which was both disloyal and reprehensible.

The V Force was kept on permanent states of readiness requiring crews to get airborne in times ranging from a fairly relaxed four hours, known variously as 'normal readiness' or 'peacetime preparedness', down to a frenetic four minutes when the aircrews were usually held at cockpit readiness. It all depended on the politicians' perception of the threat at any given time. For the benefit of my younger readers, the significance of four minutes was that was thought likely to be the maximum warning that the UK air defence system would have of a pre-emptive Soviet nuclear strike on the British Isles. Hopefully, given four minutes warning, a significant number of the RAF's bombers would get off the ground before Soviet nukes rained down. There used to be a joke that the best time for the Soviets to spring a surprise attack would be either on Christmas Day, when there was hardly anyone left on RAF stations apart from the standby crews, or any Friday evening from about 5pm when most aircrew would be at Happy Hour in the various Officers' and Sergeants' Mess bars leaving probably only one duty crew per squadron on standby to guard the Nation.

Operational knowledge was imparted on a strict need-to-know basis: if you didn't need to know something to carry out your job, then you had no right to know. When I arrived at Finningley, 18 Squadron had no war role. There was actually very little flying for us to do and most of it involved coming in at high level (usually above 40,000 feet) from the Continent towards the UK's east coast, which is what, presumably, the planners of the day thought the Soviet Air Force would do in the event of a nuclear strike. At various points we would switch on our jamming equipment with the object of 'blinding' the UK air defence radars and rendering their voice frequencies useless. The strike planners at High Wycombe presumably used our results when formulating tactics for the UK's air defence squadrons. I think it's true to say that the majority of both air and ground crew on our squadron thought that 18 Squadron's peacetime training role was rather specious - and certainly boring.

Because of the squadron's non-nuclear role there were changes to the standard Valiant crew composition and the aircraft configuration. The navigator/bomb aimer was replaced by a second AEO, usually a senior non-commissioned signaller. He occupied what would have been the bomb-aimer's seat alongside the starboard window in the rear cabin and he operated most of the ECM equipment. The real AEO, seated alongside the entrance door on the port side of the aircraft had, in addition to his usual duties, control of a lot of extra electrical equipment because the ECM kit used a huge amount of electrical power. Another change to the aircraft was that the bomb doors could not be opened in flight, and only one could be opened on the ground, because some of the many ECM antennae were mounted on one of the bomb doors.

Above: This scan shows the sum total of my flying during my first month on 18 Squadron, RAF Finningley - and two of those five flights were for a day trip to Acklington and back in the Station's elderly Anson aircraft. CFE exercises were fighter affiliation exercises with aircraft mainly based at West Raynham in Norfolk. An Astro X-Country flight was a straighforward night navigation exercise where the navigator had to guide the aircraft around the county at high level using the astro-compass poking out through a hole in the aircraft's roof as their main, if not only, aid. Very boring for the other three crew members.

There was certainly a mystique about 18 Squadron's capabilities which we on the squadron were keen to perpetuate but, by the time I arrived on the squadron, most of the ECM equipment we had would have been of little use in a real war. Without a nuclear war role, we on 18 Squadron were always the poor relations when compared with 101 (Vulcan) Squadron in the next hangar, but at least we could relax in the knowledge that we did not have to react to the frequent Bomber Command practice call-outs and alert exercises that plagued their lives.

One day in my first week on 18 Squadron when I was in the crew room getting to know my new captain, Flight Lieutenant FSJ 'Sid' Aldridge, he told me of an incident he'd been involved in a few months earlier on his previous Valiant bomber squadron. He and his crew had been detached at very short notice from their UK base, I think it was Marham, to RAF Luqa in Malta to await further orders. Those orders came very early one morning shortly before dawn when the crew were called from their beds for an operational briefing. They were told that their Valiant had been modified to collect 'air samples'. They were ordered to fly to a particular location over French-controlled Algeria where they would see a mushroom cloud, the result of a nuclear weapon test explosion. Sid's crew were instructed not to file a flight plan and to maintain radio silence from take-off until they approached Luqa on their return.

The Briefing Officer had reminded them that on crossing the north coast of Africa they would be flying in French-controlled airspace but there was no need for concern as there were no radar stations capable of tracking their flight. Their orders were to fly at 40,000 feet around the nuclear cloud, as close as they could get to it without actually going inside the cloud mass, so that radiation samples could be collected. Sid must have noticed that I instinctively crossed my legs at that point in his story. He grinned and said that they had been assured no radiation could penetrate the pressurised cabin of the Valiant so there was no danger to health.

The skies over the Sahara Desert were cloudless and, as they reached about 100 miles from the location to which they had been ordered to go, they saw what was undoubtedly a nuclear 'mushroom' cloud. They decided to fly anti-clockwise around it so that the captain, in the left hand seat, would be better able to judge distance from the cloud. About halfway round, the co-pilot called out that another aircraft had just appeared, at a similar height, flying round the cloud in the opposite direction. Immediately they assumed that it must be a French Air Force aircraft coming to see what they were up to.

Flying almost head on to the other aircraft at a combined closing speed of approaching 1,000 mph there was no time to take any sort of evasive action. Within seconds of the first sighting, the two pilots in the Valiant realised that the other aircraft was a USAF B-47 bomber - presumably on a similar clandestine mission. The two aircraft waggled their wings conspiratorially as they passed close by each other. Their mission complete, the Valiant crew returned to Malta where their aircraft was placed in quarantine in a remote part of the airfield and the flight crew were flown back to UK on a scheduled transport aircraft.

I never did find out whether my former captain’s story was absolutely accurate in all respects; I cannot now ask him because he died in October 2015. It does have a ring of truth about it though. I mention that anecdote here because when I had been on 18 Squadron only a few months I found myself in Algeria - not just over Algeria, but on the ground in Algeria, arrested by the French during a war.

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