I move to RAF Gaydon; John Profumo resigns; President Kennedy is assassinated - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

A Yorkshire Aviator's Autobiography
Tony Cunnane
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I move to RAF Gaydon; John Profumo resigns; President Kennedy is assassinated

No 18 Squadron disbanded on 31 March 1963. I was posted from Finningley back to 232 Operational Conversion Unit at RAF Gaydon as an instructor on the Valiant ground school where I had been a student myself less than three eventful years earlier. I was one of half a dozen AEO instructors: three of us specialising on Valiants occupied one office; three Victor specialists had the office next door to ours. Our Boss, Squadron Leader John Sheriston, always known simply as Sheri, had an office across the corridor.

In spite of its name, the OCU did not teach the operational aspects of flying the Valiant in its war role: that was always done on the squadrons. The OCU was there to teach new aircrew how to fly the aircraft. The three Valiant AEOs were required to teach not only new AEOs the complexities of the so-called 'electric bomber', but also the new pilots and navigators the basics of the electrical system and how it affected their tasks. From time to time I had flying trips in the Valiant in order to keep current, but those sorties were few and far between. It was clear that the Valiant was nearing the end of its useful flying life and I was disappointed once again that I had not been posted to one of the main force squadrons.

Above: This page from my logbook shows that flights for ground school instructors were few and far between. On the four sorties where I was the Screen AEO, I flew in the 6th Seat to check out the named student AEO.
Not long after arriving at Gaydon I was given two secondary duties: the first was the job of editing the monthly station magazine. The Gaydon Gazette was handsomely printed on glossy paper by a small firm located in the nearby village of Kineton. I learned everything I now know about the printing process - proof-reading, galleys, gutters, typefaces and leading, and how to pronounce leading properly - from the enthusiastic and ever patient people who worked at the Kineton Press. That knowledge stood me in good stead in the following years. After my experiences at Finningley as the station's PRO, it was a relief to find that at Gaydon there was a new openness in the official attitude towards what we nowadays call "The Media". Of course, because Gaydon was a V Bomber training unit not a front-line bomber station, security was rather less of an issue than it was at Finningley.

Kineton village itself achieved unwanted notoriety when the local pub, The Swan, a truly delightful 'olde-worlde' English country pub much frequented by aircrew from Gaydon, was reported to be the regular weekend hideaway of John Profumo MP and Miss Christine Keeler. Mr Profumo was the Secretary of State for War (an old title that disappeared in 1964 when the Ministry of Defence was created from the three single service ministries). By virtue of his position since 1950 as Member of Parliament for nearby Stratford-upon-Avon, Mr Profumo was an Honorary Member of the Officers' Mess at Gaydon, which meant that he would regularly be invited to various social occasions including official cocktail parties, annual Formal Balls, and Dining-In Nights.

There were only about a dozen honorary members in total and their names and titles were etched in gold leaf letters on a prominent notice board just inside the main entrance to the Officers' Mess. Shortly after I arrived at Gaydon one Honorary Member, a local District Councillor, apparently berated the Station Commander because his title had not been amended to reflect his recent upgrade from Councillor to Alderman. The Station Commander apologised and instructed the Mess President to appoint someone to ensure that nothing like that ever occurred again. As the junior member of the Mess Committee, I was promptly given that onerous task by the Mess President.

When I arrived for breakfast in the Officers Mess one morning in June 1963, I was perturbed to notice that Mr Profumo’s name had been rather crudely erased from the list of Honorary Members with some kind of sharp instrument. Thinking it might have been an act of vandalism, I brought this to the attention of the Mess President straight away; he told me that Mr Profumo was no longer an Honorary Member. There being no instant radio or TV news broadcasts in those days, it was only later in the day that the news of Mr Profumo’s resignation from the Cabinet because of his affair with 19-year-old Christine Keeler, who was alleged to be also having an affair with Captain Yevgeny Ivanov, a Soviet naval attaché, began to percolate around Gaydon – and the world.

Amongst the junior officers at Gaydon there was general sadness: after all, Miss Keeler was a very beautiful young woman. I am sure we were all dismayed, even disgusted, to learn that the then proprietor of the village pub allegedly started charging the many curious visitors and customers from outside the local area a fee for viewing a small item of Miss Keeler’s underwear which he, according to village gossip, is supposed to have kept for that purpose on a high shelf behind the bar and which he claimed had been left behind one night. The pub lost most of its RAF customers almost immediately after that story went the rounds, but soon had new owners and has been a highly-respected hotel now for many years.

Needless to report, Mr Profumo's fall from grace did not feature in any of the articles I wrote for the Gaydon Gazette or in any of my regular Press Releases to local newspapers. I do recall, however, reading a defensive statement in the national press by another Government Minister which said, "As far as I can recall, I have never met Miss Keeler." A good PRO, I thought at the time, would have advised that Minister to word his statement rather more felicitously. Of course, there were no spin doctors or special advisers in those days. (See the footnote at the bottom of this page.)

It all made an interesting diversion from another of my other secondary duties: supervision of the Officers Mess bedding inventory. The civilian Mess Manager had reported that blankets, good quality and very desirable, seemed to disappear at the rate of up to a dozen a month. Unless I could show that I had carried out regular inventory checks diligently, supplemented by an occasional surprise check, I was told I would have to pay for replacing the missing blankets from my own resources! Apart from the stock of blankets in the bedding store, which were safe because I had the only key, the remainder of the blankets were in use in the Officers Mess single accommodation – usually five blankets per room and, of course, usually on the bed. There were about 100 rooms, in long prefabricated huts, so it was a long, tedious, and very distasteful task checking all the beds. The losses mysteriously ceased when the Mess President let it be known at a Mess Meeting that I would be carrying out regular surprise checks in the officers single quarters and that anyone ‘losing’ blankets from their room would be court-martialled.

22 November 1963 is another date I remember vividly. I had watched the very first episode of Dr Who earlier that evening in the communal television room. By 7pm I was in my room in the Officers Mess at Gaydon getting dressed for a formal Dining-in Night, so I missed Juke Box Jury and Dixon of Dock Green. As usual I had the wireless on in the background. Suddenly the programme was interrupted for a news flash, as they were called in those days, to say that President Kennedy had been shot at in Dallas. I remember being only mildly interested in that first news flash. 1963 was long before the era of instant news and that first brief report did not elaborate on the incident and had not indicated that it might be serious. I continued dressing, struggling as always to tie the single-ended bow tie properly, but further news flashes during the next few minutes caused me to take a greater interest in the event. The official time for arriving in the Mess and formally greeting the President of the Mess was 7.30pm and arriving late was a sin. Just before I left my room to walk the short distance to the Mess, the BBC was reporting that some US radio stations were already confirming that President Kennedy was dead and then I felt a mixture of emotions: sorrow, anger, and apprehension. I realised something momentous, something that could have world-wide repercussions, had occurred in far-off Dallas.

As the 100-plus officers gathered for the pre-dinner drinks all the talk was about the assassination and whether or not the dinner should go ahead or be cancelled out of respect. In the end, and apparently after telephone calls to Bomber Command HQ for advice, it was decided by the senior officers that the dinner would go ahead, ". . . because all the food was already prepared", but that we should ". . . tone down the usual post-dinner high jinks."

Whispered conversations during dinner concentrated on the possibility that the V Force alert state could be advanced, as it had been just a year earlier in the 1962 Cuban Crisis, because the Soviets might decide to launch a nuclear strike while the Americans were preoccupied. Others opined that the Soviets had probably carried out the assassination with just that objective in mind. There was a certain amount of black humour on the lines of, "Let’s get drunk now while we can so that we’re not fit to fly."

In the event, the alert sirens did not sound during dinner, or later, but most officers retired to their homes, more or less sober, within minutes of the dinner ending at about 11pm. By that time Vice-President Johnson had already been President for three hours. There was no late night television in those days so I tuned into the BBC World Service on my short wave radio to listen to the latest news, but I must have fallen asleep almost as soon as my head touched the pillow.
Above: My three flights 'guesting' with the Air Electronics School at Topcliffe; one passenger trip on British United VC10 GASIW that called in to Gaydon for circuit practice (!!); and my final Valiant flights. Internet records show that GASIW had made its inaugural flight on 30 July 1964.
Apropos of nothing at all, I noticed recently something I had forgotten: that twice in July 1964 I flew in Valiant WP217. That was the Valiant that broke its main spar in flight in December 1964, an incident which led to all Valiants being permanently grounded and taken out of service.

Added on 06 December 2017. The death was announced yesterday of Christine Keeler at the age of 75 and the entire British media is today revelling in the opportunity to re-run everything they know about the 'Profumo Affair'. Men of my vintage will remember Christine Keeler with fond and wistful memories when she was a very beautiful teenager. Following the so-called Profumo scandal, Christine had spent most of the rest of her life out of the public eye. (John Profumo had died in 2006 at the age of 96.)

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