The Chief of Defence Staff visits - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

A Yorkshire Aviator's Autobiography
Tony Cunnane
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The Chief of Defence Staff visits

A few days after my arrival in Singapore I had been made aware of a single, well-thumbed copy of an operation order secreted right at the back of our large office safe under a pile of other innocuous stuff. (Actually, the innocuous stuff included our tea and coffee making material that I mentioned earlier.) I was told to study the operation order, called Operation Icing, not ask any questions, and then forget about it. Its contents were worrying – they worried me anyway. That order, classified Top Secret UK Eyes Only, had not been signed and so it could not be implemented. Judging by its tatty physical condition, I guessed that the document had been written well before my arrival, but never issued – possibly because no senior officer was prepared to put his name to it. On the other hand, it had not been destroyed, nor was there any indication whether copies had been made or existed. I used to worry about that document every time I went to the office safe to get the coffee making stuff although I never mentioned that to any of my colleagues. I assumed that it was the need-to-know principle at work again.

One day in the early summer of 1965, Admiral of the Fleet Lord Mountbatten, Chief of the Defence Staff (CDS) since 1959, came on a farewell visit to Headquarters FEAF. Obviously, he was allowed inside our sanctum, but his ADC and several other hangers-on had to wait outside, to their great chagrin. Lord Mountbatten was wearing magnificent, full dress, tropical white Royal Navy uniform with gold rank rings halfway up each arm and many rows of medal ribbons. He seemed weary and ill-at-ease (he was 65 years of age) but nevertheless found time to shake hands and have a friendly chat with each of the four of us individually – as friendly as protocol allowed between junior officers and a five-star Admiral. People of my vintage know that Lord Mountbatten had had a very long and distinguished military and political career. Younger people, if they know anything at all about him, possibly remember him as the 44th, and last, Governor-General of India, or the fact that he was assassinated by the IRA in August 1979.

The Air Commander briefed Lord Mountbatten on Operation Spherical and then told our new Boss, very recently arrived from UK, to brief CDS on the still unsigned Operation Icing order. A few days earlier, in anticipation of CAS wanting to read it, I had been ordered to retype the complete operation order without making any changes to it. Mountbatten listened intently to the Icing briefing, then sat down and studied the document for quite a long time in silence. Eventually, Lord Mountbatten quietly asked, of no-one in particular it seemed to me: “Why did I not know about this operation?” I had wondered, frequently, who had conceived the plan and ordered it to be written and now I wondered why the CDS had no knowledge of it, even after five years in the most senior job in the British armed forces. To this day, I can still see Lord Mountbatten's piercing gaze at it slowly rested on each of us in turn, but none of us had an answer. He stood up and slowly left the room, without a word and closely followed by the other senior officers.
Lord Mountbatten relinquished the post of CDS in July 1965. By convention, 5-star ranking officers never retire but, when their time on the Active List is up, they cease to have appointments within the military. He was assassinated by the IRA in August 1979.

In 2007, purely out of curiosity but certain that the mysterious Operation Icing order that CAS had not been aware of must have been declassified or destroyed after 40 years, I made a FOI (Freedom of Information) enquiry to the Ministry of Defence in London requesting information about it for a book I said I was writing. I explained that I had been involved in typing the operation order in 1965. After about three months, I received a reply which started with an apology for the long delay and stated that despite extensive searches they had been unable to find any reference to that particular Operation Order, adding that all records must have been deleted at some time.

In November 2013, I accidentally came across the following on Wikipedia: “According to British MoD documents declassified in 2000, up to 48 Red Beard nuclear weapons were secretly stowed in a highly-secured weapons storage facility at Tengah, Singapore, between 1962 and 1970, for possible use by the V bomber force detachment and for Britain’s military commitment to the South East Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO)”.

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