A recreational, but frustrating, weekend in Berlin - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

A Yorkshire Aviator's Autobiography
Tony Cunnane
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A recreational, but frustrating, weekend in Berlin

Some weeks after I attended the Russian aptitude test, the Station Commander, Group Captain David Parry-Evans, handed me my posting notice, without comment, before he took his usual place on the front row for the morning briefing in Operations Wing HQ. The posting notice stated that after successfully completing the long Russian Course I would be posted to West Berlin as Officer Commanding Number 26 Signals Unit. I had never heard of 26 SU and had no idea what its role was but the prospect of a posting to Berlin was enticing. The posting notice was, however, wrong in one crucial respect.

The news of my new job in Berlin quickly spread around Marham but there was a mystery about it from the moment the posting notice was handed to me. It's true to say that, like me, most of my colleagues had never heard of 26 Signals Unit, but one senior engineering officer at Marham knew exactly what the unit's role was. He said that he was not allowed to tell me anything about the job for security reasons, but he did offer one snippet of gen: he said that the posting order was undoubtedly wrong and would soon be amended. That was because, so he asserted, the appointment of OC 26 Signals Unit was for a wing commander engineer not a squadron leader pilot. It turned out that he was correct. Some weeks later, my posting notice was amended to show my new appointment at 26SU as Senior Intelligence Officer.

In the weeks that followed, while I was marking time awaiting the start of the Russian course, I was employed on a variety of non-flying administrative duties. Earlier in my commissioned career I had carried out a range of legal duties, as did many junior officers. I had been a member of several Boards of Inquiry and attended a number of Courts-Martial in various capacities. I had also, as a squadron leader, summarily dealt with quite a few airmen who had been charged with minor offences, but I had never done what was called a Summary of Evidence. A Station Commander could order a Summary of Evidence to be taken in a complicated case when he was considering asking higher authority to convene a court martial to deal with it.

For my first two Summaries of Evidence I was mentored by a qualified lawyer from the RAF Directorate of Legal Services; those summaries concerned alleged sexual misdemeanours, and both resulted in courts-martial being convened. After that I was deemed competent 'to go solo' and before long one came along at an RAF station in Cambridgeshire. This was a case of an airman who was accused of indecent exposure and indecent conduct; the witnesses were two airwomen. After two whole days in which I laboriously wrote down the two airwomen's contradictory evidence, given on oath, and the accused's statement also given on oath, it was beginning to look as though I might have to order an identity parade so that the airwomen could identify the airman's . . . . I had better stop there! The airwomen were obviously not willing to give evidence against the accused and so I closed my Summary and sent my findings off to higher authority. The case was dropped!

After my brief foray into the legal world, I moved out of Marham in August 1976 and settled myself in at RAF North Luffenham, still several weeks before the Russian course was due to start. It was the summer of the Great Drought in England and also the time that large areas of the County of Rutland, just down the road from the RAF station, were being dammed and deliberately flooded to create what eventually became known, by public demand, as Rutland Water. Imagine trying to create a vast new inland lake in the middle of the longest drought for decades. What unfortunate timing, but what a magnificent location Rutland Water and its environs have become over the last 40-odd years.

In September I managed to arrange for myself, with a bit of help from friends in the right places, a weekend flying trip to Berlin. I had never been there before and I thought it would be interesting to learn a bit about my new job before I arrived - and even before I started the Russian Course. The security people were obviously on the ball, or so I thought, because before the trip I was summoned to the Ministry of Defence for a briefing by someone known as DDSy4(RAF) in the Old War Office Building, off Whitehall.

A car with driver was arranged to take me to London and back - extravagant really when there was a perfectly adequate train service to the capital. When I had shown my ID to the policeman on the outer door of the Old War Office Building, I booked in at Reception. The lady behind the window laboriously wrote out a Visitor's Pass and directed me along several corridors to DDSy4(RAF)'s office on the ground floor. I knocked. There was a muffled shout of "Wait!" followed a few seconds later, by "Come in" and in I went. It was a large, very gloomy office with one dirty window that looked out directly onto the wall of another part of the building. The occupant, dressed in civilian clothes, was sitting well back in a large chair behind a huge desk; he was reading, or pretending to read, a copy of The Times.

"So, you're off to Berlin for the weekend, are you?" He slowly folded the newspaper and inspected me before inviting me to sit down.

There followed a curious speech that told me nothing whatsoever about my future job at 26 SU. I was warned that West Berlin was a hot bed of spies and that I must always be on my guard against loose talk and loose women - especially the latter. Well how about that? I would never have thought it! It was all over in less than ten minutes. I handed in my pass, located my driver, who was very surprised to see me so quickly, and was driven back to North Luffenham.

A couple of days after my interview in London, I drove up the A1 from North Luffenham to RAF Scampton and then flew out, on my birthday as it happens, on Hastings TG503 to Tempelhof (the captain was Wing Commander Rick Crowder). The airfield had, so it was claimed, the longest aircraft hangar in the world. It was an entertaining weekend socially, but no loose women and a complete waste of time professionally. If I had known then what I learned later, I would have gone on one of the official East Berlin tours but, being ignorant of the rules that would apply when I started my new job, I thought there were better things to do in the short time at my disposal. I met all the right senior officers, including the ones I would eventually work for, but they would tell me nothing about my future job. I realised, although no-one actually said it, that once again I was "not one of them" - a problem that I had first encountered in Singapore in 1965 when I was war planning for the V Force!

(c) Ralf Manteufel. Only recently (May 2015) I found this picture of Hastings TG503, as it was about to land at Tempelhof in West Berlin on 17 September 1976, on Ralf Manteufel's splendid Internet gallery and he gave me permission to reproduce it here. It's special as far as I'm concerned because, when Ralf took it, I was in that Hastings - and it was also my birthday!

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