Confrontation between Malaysia and Indonesia - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

A Yorkshire Aviator's Autobiography
Tony Cunnane
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Confrontation between Malaysia and Indonesia

I realised after my first few months in the job as a ground instructor at Gaydon that my three colleagues in the Victor office not only trained new Victor crews, but they were taking it in turns to go on detachment to RAF Changi in Singapore. They went out for two months at a time which meant, taking into account transit and handover times, their turn came around about three times a year. For those three AEOs, the novelty of regular detachments to the Far East had definitely worn off: they were well stocked up with duty-frees and they were always looking for excuses for not going out east again. I, on the other hand, was looking for any excuse to return to that fascinating island city. From time to time I asked Squadron Leader Sheriston, my immediate Boss, if I could take a turn at the detachment in Changi but the answer every time was that I was not qualified: the need-to-know principle was at work again. Eventually my perseverance paid off. Looking back, I imagine Sheri must have persuaded Bomber Command to let me go but I soon found out that I was most definitely not qualified.

The first thing Squadron Leader Sheriston told me, when he personally gave me an initial briefing, was that the detachment at Changi was known as Medium Bomber Operations and was a secret element of Headquarters Far East Air Force (FEAF - always spoken as fee-aff). He explained that before I could go out East I would need to learn about the Victor's electronic counter-measures (ECM) equipment; it was the same equipment that would have been used to help the Victors reach their targets in the event of nuclear war against the Soviet Union. After confirming to the Boss that I was definitely still interested, I did a potted two day course to learn the basic facts, then I was sent out to Changi where Flight Lieutenant Dick Waddell would complete my on-the-job training in time for him to return home for Christmas. It all seemed very straightforward.

I flew out from Lyneham on Thursday 28 October 1964 on RAF Comet Flight 2820 which departed at 10.15am. We staged through El Adem (Libya), Khormaksar (Aden) and Gan (The Maldives) and arrived at Changi at 5.20pm local time the following day - a total of 19 hours 15 minutes flying time. I was met on arrival by Dick Waddell and moved into the HQ FEAF Fairy Point Officers' Mess, which got its name from the slight hill on which the truly magnificent colonial style edifice stood overlooking Changi Beach.

For those interested in minutiae: the timings of the eight Comet flights recorded in my official logbook above are Z times - that is to say Greenwich Mean Time (UTC). The four Argosy timings are in Singapore local time, GH. The G stood for 7 hours ahead of GMT and H 8 hours ahead of GMT; Singapore local time was, therefore, GMT plus 7hrs 30 mins. (These days, 2017, Singapore uses UTC plus 8.)
According to a Google Street Map I looked at recently, roads around Fairy Point still reflect the former-RAF years and include: Cranwell Rd, Halton Rd, Hendon Rd, Biggin Hill Rd and Leuchars Rd. The other RAF Officers' Mess at Changi in 1964 was Temple Hill Mess, much closer to where Changi Village and Changi Jail used to be and which was home for the Station's officers. That Mess overlooked the airfield and still has roads such as Martlesham, Digby, Farnborough, Hawkinge, Northolt and Tangmere. Obviously, the once glory years of the Royal Air Force are still remembered. While I'm on memories of past years, I note that in 1964 there were more RAF aircraft and personnel based on the Island of Singapore than there are in the entire Royal Air Force in 2017. I'm not making a political point - I just mention it.

The UK, Australia and New Zealand each had a permanent military presence in Malaysia. From 1963 the UK contribution was re-named Far East Command, and was, when I arrived on the scene, under the overall command of Admiral Sir Varyl Begg RN. The RAF's Far East Air Force then became officially known as Air Headquarters Far East, commanded by Air Marshal Sir Peter Wykeham RAF, although the more familiar old title, FEAF. continued to be used in speech. To avoid confusion, I will refer to it as FEAF in the rest of this story.

Since all the RAF in Singapore had knocked off for the weekend when I arrived, Dick Waddell told me to go off and enjoy myself - so I did. There were then two more free days because of a religious festival, and it was not until the Wednesday morning that Dick collected me and took me to the office on the top floor of the FEAF HQ building and introduced me to the rest of Medium Bomber Ops personnel - all three of them. The Boss at that time was a squadron leader Victor bomber captain, and there were two navigators, a plotter and a bomb-aimer, also on attachment from main force Victor bomber squadrons. Thus, lacking only a co-pilot, we made up a complete V Bomber crew and everyone except me had served time on operational Victor bomber squadrons. I was both amazed and downright alarmed to learn that I was about to become FEAF's expert in electronic warfare and air-to-ground communications and I would be required to help compile the Victors' target routes and war plans in conjunction with the two navigators.

I did my best to conceal my amazement and alarm because I was really looking forward to two months of the high life in Singapore. With the benefit of hindsight, I should not have been surprised that my three new colleagues failed to question my right to be there. The fact that I had been sent out by Headquarters Bomber Command was sufficient authority: my presence was covered by the need-to-know rules and my fellows did not need to know why I had been selected, only that I had. All of a sudden, the very short introduction to ECM that my Boss had given me at Gaydon seemed totally inadequate - but worse was to come.

My colleagues explained that the on-going military stand-off between Indonesia and Malaysia was known as ‘Confrontation’. Should the situation deteriorate, up to 16 Victor bombers could be rapidly dispatched from UK to Singapore and reinforce the many Canberra bombers and other air assets already in theatre. I was told that elements of the Victor bomber force in UK had already been on standby for several years to fly out to reinforce the Far East at short notice: that reinforcement was known as Operation Spherical. This was the first I had heard of any plans to use the Victors in a conventional, rather than a nuclear, role.

I knew from my general service knowledge that the Victor could, if necessary, carry thirty five 1,000 pound conventional bombs in its capacious bomb bay. Indeed, there was a large photograph on the Victor office wall back at Gaydon showing an early Victor bomber doing precisely that on a demonstration flight. All 35 bombs were visible in the photograph as they fell, almost simultaneously, from the bomb bay.

2017 Comment. Some former V-Force officers with better intelligence than mine, maintain that the now well-known photo of 35 bombs falling from the Victor was faked – today we would say it had been ‘Photoshopped’.

The briefing session on my first morning was a complete revelation to me and I began to wonder whether I should confess that I had learned only the basic nuts and bolts of the Victor ECM equipment and knew absolutely nothing about the tactical uses of it. Operation Spherical required that the Victors should arrive in the Far East within 48 hours' notice of the deployment order being initiated. A contentious element of Operation Spherical was that once the bombers reached the longitude of Gan Island, roughly 73 degrees East, operational command and control of the Victors automatically passed from Commander-in-Chief Bomber Command to his opposite number in HQ FEAF. I imagine C-in-C Bomber Command did not relish losing control of even a relatively small chunk of the UK nuclear strike force simply to exercise for a small, and probably unlikely, conventional war in the Far East (especially since the 1962 Cuba crisis was still fresh in everyone's minds). Nevertheless, from time to time small numbers of Victors did fly out from the UK to RAF Tengah, a large air base at the western end of Singapore island very close to the Johor Strait, to exercise the plan and so that the crews could familiarise themselves with the theatre war plans.

I was still pondering all that at the start of my second day when the resident HQ FEAF group captain, who was in overall charge of Operation Spherical, came into the office just as one of the navigators was briefing me with the aid of a Top Secret wall chart. The group captain had no idea who I was and was driven almost to apoplexy when he discovered that I had already been given top secret operational briefings for which, as far as he was concerned, I did not have the necessary security clearance. I have forgotten his name, if I ever knew it, but it is to his credit that he was the first person in Singapore to bother to check on my security clearance. It was also the first occasion on which I became aware of security clearances higher than the standard one that all V Bomber aircrew required. That was the end my attachment to HQ FEAF: I was promptly sent back to UK on the next available aircraft.

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