Comings and goings - and an enforced stop in Istanbul - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

A Yorkshire Aviator's Autobiography
Tony Cunnane
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Comings and goings - and an enforced stop in Istanbul

I was back at Gaydon before most of my friends had even noticed that I was missing so I didn't have to explain to anyone where I had been. HQ Bomber Command must surely have known what security clearance was required for the medium bomber detachment in Singapore so why had no-one checked on my clearance in advance? I did, of course tell Squadron Leader Sheriston what had happened, but he already knew: obviously signals about me had been flashing backwards and forwards between HQ FEAF and HQ Bomber Command. The Boss told me that the necessary upgrade to my security clearance was already underway. He added that changes usually took at least three months to come through. Someone at a high level must have put pressure on the vetting organisation because my upgrade took barely four weeks. I had no input into the procedure: I was not interviewed by anyone, nor was I asked for the usual character references. Am I being cynical in suggesting that someone just rubber-stamped my clearance in retrospect?

Because there was a long-standing rule that individuals were not supposed to know the level of their own security clearance level, no-one told me that I had been upgraded to something then called PVRS (positive vetting red seal); I was merely informed of my revised travel arrangements. In early December, I was booked onto a chartered Britannia flight. All the passengers congregated at the Knightsbridge Air Terminal in central London at 8pm; because it was a civilian flight all the adults, including me, wore civilian clothes. The majority of the passengers were RAF wives and children travelling to Singapore to spend Christmas with husbands and fathers already serving on the Island. There were also a few unaccompanied males in smart civilian suits listed only as 'Mr'; they could have been anyone. I was the only RAF officer listed on the passenger manifest and so I was detailed as Officer i/c Passengers, a post I had never come across before.

"The Officer i/c's job is usually a sinecure," said the RAF Movements Officer who briefed me. "You'll be the link between the passengers and the civilian flight crew from now until you arrive in Singapore. It's very unlikely that you'll be asked to do anything but here's a briefcase containing all your orders. Your authority is this armband which you should wear from now until you reach Singapore so that you can be recognised easily. Here’s the passenger manifest – make sure you don’t lose anyone before you get to Singapore. You also have various other forms you'll need and a diary to fill in if anything goes wrong – misbehaviour, sickness, unscheduled landings, that sort of thing."

We were taken by coaches to Heathrow Airport and departed on flight EGS660 at 2215 hrs on 7 December - I think the airline might have been Britannia Airways (which later became part of the Thomson organisation) but I am not now absolutely sure of that. First stop was for refuelling at Istanbul in mid-morning local time. We passengers deplaned and settled down for refreshments on the upper floor of the airport transit lounge from where we could watch our aircraft, parked right outside the lounge windows, being refuelled. I had the first inkling that all was not well when I saw that one of the four engine cowlings was being removed and several technicians appeared to be poking around inside.

I watched, with growing misgivings, as the aircraft captain and co-pilot came out of the aircraft to see what was going on. A few minutes later they went back inside the aircraft and then the engine that had been examined started up and was run at high power for several minutes. Eventually the engine was shut down and a little later I answered a Tannoy message requesting the Officer i/c RAF passengers to report to Reception. I was told by an RAF Movements SNCO that there would be a considerable delay because spare parts for the engine would have to be flown out from UK. He added that coaches were being laid on to take us to a hotel in central Istanbul where individual bedrooms were being booked for us so that we could relax properly. It was my job to brief the passengers, allocate them to suitable rooms, and then remain available in the hotel to take messages and generally liaise with the Turkish authorities. I was told firmly that none of us would be permitted to leave the hotel because we did not have a Turkish visa in our passports.

When we arrived at the hotel, I quickly discovered how frustrating the job of Officer i/c Passengers can be when things are not going well and young children begin to get fractious. There were no facilities for passengers to telephone out of the country, but I assured them all, with my fingers tightly crossed, that those awaiting us in Singapore would be kept up to date with our revised arrival time - when it was known. Most of the passengers eventually went to their rooms to rest. The hours dragged by.

At sunset I went up onto the hotel's roof garden and was able to take in the fabulous view. My knowledge of the geography of Turkey was limited but I did know that the crowded waterway I was looking at was the Bosphorus and the land on the other side was in Asia but still part of Turkey. The only way to cross the water in 1964 was by ferry; the first road bridge was not opened until 1973. I had known since my early school days that Istanbul was once called Constantinople because there used to be a silly, childish, Q and A routine that went something like this: "Constantinople is a very long name. How do you spell it?" The other child would make a gallant attempt to spell Constantinople, whereupon the questioner would break in, with peals of laughter. "Wrong. It's I T."

I was called in the middle of the night and asked to congregate all the passengers in the hotel lobby because our aircraft was ready to resume its flight to Singapore. By that time most of the passengers were definitely grumpy, especially the parents with young children and, as usually seems to be the case on these occasions it was I, the messenger, who had to field the complaints. I made notes in the official diary and dutifully signed the bills for food, drink and accommodation presented to me by the hotel manager. Before we trooped out, I just remembered to do a head count to make sure that all the passengers were present and correct. For a couple of minutes I thought I had lost one - and then realised I had not counted myself.

The remainder of the flight was uneventful. We made one more refuelling stop, at Bombay where the midday heat and humidity in the non-air-conditioned terminal was almost unbearable. We arrived at Paya Leber, then Singapore's civil airport, 21 hours after our scheduled time. Dick Waddell, was already waiting at the airport very relieved to see me: he was leaving for UK on the charter aircraft I had travelled out in. His whispered handover briefing, mainly recapping what he'd told me six weeks earlier, lasted about 20 minutes in a secluded corner of the transit lounge at Paya Leber. Not a very secure location for a Top Secret briefing! Dick was about to tell me about the repercussions following my earlier visit when his flight was called, and he set off towards the departure lounge at a trot.

"How do I get to Changi?" I called after him.

"Take a taxi - and charge it," he shouted, and was gone.

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