The RAF's Combat Survival and Rescue course - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

A Yorkshire Aviator's Autobiography
Tony Cunnane
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The RAF's Combat Survival and Rescue course

In June 1968, when I had been a flying instructor at Cranwell for only a few weeks, I was sent on a two-week course at RAF Mount Batten on the Plymouth waterfront. Mount Batten itself was on a small peninsula named in honour of Sir William Batten MP and one-time Surveyor of the Navy in the 17th Century. RAF Mount Batten was commonly, but erroneously, written ‘Mountbatten’, especially by those who believed the name was in honour of the late Admiral of the Fleet Lord Mountbatten. The site had been a flying boat station during WW2, but when I was there it was the HQ of the RAF Marine Craft Training School and the RAF Survival School. In the 1930s Aircraftman T E Shaw (RAF Service number 338171) who, in an earlier incarnation was better known as Lawrence of Arabia, and who died exactly three months before I was born – was stationed at RAF Mount Batten.

For several years earlier in my career I had successfully managed to avoid the Mount Batten course, but I was finally trapped when my flight commander at Cranwell 'volunteered' me for it while I was on leave. Most aircrew tried to avoid the course, especially in the winter months, because it culminated in several days roughing it on Dartmoor. At the end of the survival phase, when the students were all suffering from sleep deprivation and hunger and were disgustingly dirty and dispirited, there was a long escape and evasion exercise. Successful completion of the two-week course would qualify me for yet another 'secondary duty' - as a Combat Survival and Rescue Officer (CSRO) and that would require me to train flight cadets in the basics of survival, on land or water, in addition to teaching them how to fly.

When you were captured, and everyone was by fair means or foul, you were transported to an old fort called, by the RAF, San Benito. (The name San Benito, by the way, was derived from sambenito, a penitential garment worn by condemned heretics in the days of the Spanish Inquisition.) The fort was situated on a headland overlooking Plymouth Harbour and upon arrival, ‘prisoners’ were first mentally 'conditioned' and then interrogated for up to eight hours spread over the next 24-hour period. Stories about what happened during the interrogation phase were legendary amongst aircrew, which is why all but the most masochistic tried to avoid the course.

The students on my course (see image above with me, standing, at the left hand edge) were a motley collection of 11 aircrew officers from various RAF squadrons plus one Danish Air Force pilot (second from left, on the front row in the image above). I actually enjoyed the first week when we learned, or refreshed, techniques for surviving in hostile conditions on land or at sea. Early in the first week we were taken beyond the harbour breakwater in one of the latest high speed RAF launches. We were dressed in flying suit, flying boots and a parachute harness from which dangled a dinghy pack complete with a survival pack of goodies - the sort of stuff we might have if we had just abandoned a single-seat aircraft.

When the Plymouth skyline had disappeared below the horizon, we had to jump into the sea off the back end of the launch, which was still moving at a fair rate of knots through the water. "That's the nearest we can simulate to a parachute landing in water", said one of the instructors with an evil grin. We were then left for half an hour or so while we each inflated and boarded our rubber dinghies and experimented with the survival aids contained in the emergency pack. From time to time the launch came past at high speed swamping us just as we had finished baling most of the water from our dinghies. Before long the natural motion of the sea caused our dinghies to drift far apart in spite of the rudimentary sea anchors we had deployed. I for one started to feel rather lonely and neglected - and sea sick.

In due course an RAF Search and Rescue helicopter appeared and one by one we had to slip back into the sea so that we could be winched up. The helicopter winch man would not, or could not, winch straight from the dinghy. The crewman lowered the strop and we had to grab it and put it around our shoulders, making sure that we got it the correct way around to avoid slipping out or, even worse being strangled, during the lift. When we were ready, we gave the thumbs up for the lift to start. We all ended up back on the deck of the launch and we returned to dry land - after all the empty dinghies had been retrieved. The following day we repeated the drills using multi-seat dinghies similar to those found on transport aircraft or Shackletons. They were designed to accommodate 10 persons together with their personal survival gear, but they were surprisingly unstable unless everyone remained fairly still.

The second week of the course was devoted almost entirely to the survival exercise on Dartmoor. My parents at that time lived in Princetown, very close to Dartmoor Prison where my Dad was serving as a Prison Officer. I used to enjoy telling folk that Dad was "in Dartmoor" and it was always entertaining to watch their faces as they wondered whether they should ask me what he was in for. Having spent several holidays in Princetown, I knew much of Dartmoor almost like the proverbial back of my hand - but I did not let the course Directing Staff know that in advance. I knew all the major landmarks on the Moor and their relationship to each other. The 200 metre television mast standing proud atop North Hessary Tor, a 517 metre peak just behind Princetown village was a dead giveaway on clear days but also on clear nights because of the bright red obstruction lights at intervals on the mast structure. I knew the rivers and streams, the roads and tracks, the farms, and most of the dangerous marshes. I was confident that I was not likely to get seriously lost on the Moor even in the dark or fog.

For three days and four nights we survived in pairs as best we could whilst making sure that we kept out of sight of any strangers - quite tricky during the tourist season. Each day we were dropped off in pairs at various widely dispersed points on the Moor. For safety reasons, we were told to stay in pairs, but we did have real distress flares and a whistle should anything serious happen to any of us. If, for any reason, we didn’t make it to our daily destination, we were on our own. For food we had to make do with an individual aircrew survival pack supplemented with anything we could scavenge; for shelter we had to build tents from parachute material. I remember that one day we were provided with a plump live rabbit; when the staff officer who provided the gift had gone, by mutual agreement my fellow escaper and I let the rabbit go.

The weather was kind for most of the week; what we had not catered for was the duplicity of the staff at the end of the survival phase. About midnight on the final night of the survival phase of the course, each pair was given the co-ordinates of several ‘safe havens’ we could head for. If we reached one of those safe havens, that would be the end of our exercise and we would be taken back to RAF Mount Batten and excused the interrogation phase. However, if we were caught by the ‘enemy’, we would be taken away for interrogation. What the staff did not tell us was that the enemy had been provided with exact details of where all the safe havens were located. It was, therefore, inevitable that we would all, sooner or later, be ambushed. (It later turned out that the ‘enemy’ were soldiers from a nearby Territorial Army regiment.)

We had been briefed in advance that the only person we could trust during the interrogation phase was our own course instructor. He would be the only one who would tell us when the exercise was over; he would come to each of us individually, remove our blindfold and arrange for us to be driven the few miles to the RAF Mount Batten Officers Mess for a shower and a good meal.

In those days the only 'real enemy' the RAF had to worry about was the Soviet Union. It seemed to me and most of my aircrew colleagues that the likelihood of surviving a V Bomber crash or a missile strike somewhere over the vast expanses of the Soviet Union or the Arctic Ocean was pretty small. Furthermore, we had little confidence in the 'Conduct After Capture' training we were given which was based on a lengthy report that had been issued in 1955 by Major General C E A Firth, Chairman of what was known as "The Advisory Panel to report on POW Conduct after Capture". It came to be known, unsurprisingly, as the Firth Report. Apparently, the advisory panel had taken so long to prepare their report that it was based almost entirely on what had happened to Allied prisoners-of-war during World War 2. It could be summed up in a single sentence: "When questioned, give only your number, rank, name and date of birth". That was known, colloquially, as The Big Four. In answer to any other questions the prisoner was advised to say, calmly and politely, "I cannot answer that question."

We had been shown a melodramatic black and white training film called "I Cannot Answer That Question" which was supposed to be shown to all RAF aircrew as a guide to what might happen to a POW captured by a ruthless enemy and what the interrogators might do to you to elicit more information. The film was classified Confidential and was known throughout the RAF simply as ICATQ. All of us on the Mount Batten course, including the Danish officer, had seen the film several times already but we sat through it once again - this time with added interest.

The concept of the Big 4 and ICATQ had not worked in the second world war, in Europe or Japan, although many brave prisoners of war had died trying to stick to it, and it certainly didn't work for those captured during the Korean War when the interrogation techniques had become psychologically much more sophisticated, instead of being only brutal. I can only assume General Firth was not aware of the brain-washing techniques developed by the North Koreans in the early 1950s or, if he did, those techniques were deemed far too secret and frightening to tell UK servicemen. At the time I was on this course in 1968 we didn't know of the appalling treatment even then being meted out to captured American aircrew in Vietnam. (Incidentally, the Americans preferred to abbreviate Prisoner of War to PW.)

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