I am interrogated and then escape - but only for a short period - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

A Yorkshire Aviator's Autobiography
Tony Cunnane
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I am interrogated and then escape - but only for a short period

My fellow traveller and I were caught about 0300hrs when we were approaching what was supposed to be a safe haven. On arríval at San Benito, my interrogation started with a strip search - including the body orifices. It was actually quite a relief to divest myself of the filthy, mud-soaked, smelly clothes I had been wearing for over a week and don a relatively clean pair of denims. However there was no underwear, no showers, no opportunity to wash - and no food or drink. After that initial search there was what my 'friendly' interrogator assured me was a routine fact-finding exchange. All he got from me was the Big Four.

I was then led, blindfolded, from the interrogation room by silent guards so I never saw who they were. At subsequent interrogations my blindfold was removed by the interrogator once the guards had left the interrogation room. They, the interrogators, were dressed in nondescript quasi-military uniforms. I met the proverbial 'nice guys' and 'nasty guys' and sometimes one of each at the same time. I had no idea, at that time, who the interrogators were in real life. One of my interrogators spoke with a thick, pseudo-Russian accent and he threatened me with all kind of nasty things if I didn't co-operate. I thought it was a bit melodramatic and OTT to pretend to be a Russian. I was to meet him again 14 years later when I discovered that he really was a Russian émigré. (See this page if you cannot wait - opens in a new window.)

The interrogators' aim was quite simple - to get their prisoners to say anything other than the Big Four. Even though I was weary, hungry and fed up, there was no way I believed that this was anything other than an exercise, so I had no difficulty in sticking to the Big Four, but some of my fellows apparently did. I knew that I would not be harmed, whatever indignities or punishments the interrogators might threaten. I thought the entire scenario was unrealistic but, to be fair, it was intended as a learning experience and, of course, it would have been quite a different matter had it been a real war situation.

When I was not being interrogated, I was kept blindfolded, moved around various locations, and forced to remain motionless for long periods in 'stress positions', including being spread-eagled against a wall at an uncomfortable distance from the wall with my feet wide apart. The guards were not averse to kicking my ankles or hitting my wrists whenever I tried to ease my position. Tempting though it was to retaliate, I knew that was what they were trying to provoke me to do. After several hours of that I was well and truly hacked off - and I also realised why many of the cells and holding areas smelled of urine. Very loud 'white noise' was played over loudspeakers all the time we were in the stress positions. The idea of that was to hide any other noise in the area that might have given comfort or information to the prisoner. Long before the 24 hours in the interrogation centre had expired, I was thoroughly bored and could not see the point of it all.

At one stage I was escorted, blindfolded, by two guards to what turned out to be the way into an underground cellar. One of the guards said to the other: "Open the trap door." I heard the trapdoor being opened with a great bang and clatter and then I was led forwards to the edge of a hole in the floor. "Surely they aren't going to subject me to a simulated hanging," I thought. They turned me through 180 degrees, positioned my feet carefully on the top rungs of a ladder, moved my hands to the top of the ladder and instructed me to climb down. (Health and Safety these days would have a fit.) As soon as I stepped off the bottom step, I heard the ladder being withdrawn and then the trapdoor banged shut.

I stood motionless for quite a while, fully expecting something to happen. I could hear the white noise in the area where I had recently been held and from time to time I could hear the bawling noise of interrogators and mysterious bangs and clatters. After quite a long time I whispered, "Is there anyone here?", but answer there was none. Of course, I knew that did not necessarily mean there was no-one within earshot. After another few minutes, I took my blindfold off and then realised that the cellar was in darkness. I started gingerly feeling my way around the four walls. The cell was quite large but, as far as I could tell, it was empty. I sat with my back against a wall for another lengthy period until I realised that I desperately needed to urinate. I stood up and peed against the wall and felt much relieved.

While I was on my feet I looked upwards and saw a faint outline of light. I guessed that was the hatch where the ladder had been. I stretched up on tiptoe to my full six foot height and found I could just get my fingers into the cracks. The hatch was loose and moved to one side slightly. So, it was not hinged to anything, I thought. I rested and then did it again. This time I was able to push the hatch well off to one side, but I then lost my grip and fell to the floor. I possibly let out an expletive or two, but there were still no sounds from within my cellar or from the room above. If anyone was in the upper chamber watching my gymnastics, they were not letting on.

After another short rest I reached up again and this time, to my complete amazement, I was able to pull myself up to chin height, rather like real athletes do up to a horizontal bar in a gymnasium - but they use their complete hands not just fingertips. I peered around the upper chamber. It was night time outside but bright light from some external lights was getting in through a small, very dirty window. I saw that the room was empty. Then the pain in my fingertips became too great and I had to release my grip. I dropped to the floor of the cellar again and fell over heavily. A few minutes later I decided to try again and this time I got the fingers of both hands over the edge and pulled upwards. I got first one elbow and then the other over the edge. With a supreme effort I hauled and somehow I found myself lying flat on the floor of the upper room. To this day I don't know how I managed it.

When I got my breath back, I peered through the small dirty window and saw that I was looking into a large courtyard which was lit by several 'street' lamps. There was a group of soldiers being briefed by a sergeant and I guessed it was probably a new watch taking over guard duties. That would account for why I had been left alone for quite a long time. Time for a bit of fun, I thought. I crept back to the hole in the floor and quietly replaced the hatch. Sometime later there were voices right outside the room.

"We've got to get this one out - it's his turn for another dose of interrogation - poor sod!"

The door opened and two guards came in, one carrying a torch, the other carrying a ladder. They failed to see me in a corner, pressed against the wall near the window. One of the guards pulled the hatch out and then lowered the ladder down into the cellar. He shone the torch down and shouted, "You can come up now."

I remained silent. The guard shouted again, "You've got to come up now."

The other guard then said, "He might be hurt - you'd better go and have a look."

The first guard descended into the cellar and after few seconds called out, "There's no-one here. He must have escaped."

"He can't have bloody escaped. He didn't have the ladder."

I heard other voices approaching from the courtyard and realised I could not remain free for more than a few seconds. I said in a very quiet, calm voice, "Are you looking for me?"

The torchlight swung round towards me and momentarily blinded me. I felt hands grabbing me and pinioning my arms behind my back. Then a hood was thrust over my head. One of the guards said threateningly, "How the bloody Hell did you get out of there, mate?"

"I cannot answer that question," I replied smugly.

We all passed the course and I returned to Cranwell where, when I was not teaching the cadets to fly the Jet Provost, I was now qualified to teach them dinghy drills in the College's large swimming pool. It also meant, that I would never have to go Mount Batten again - or so I thought. It never occurred to me that one day I would find myself there conducting interrogations on UK Special Forces. (RAF Mount Batten closed in 1992.)

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