Why there had initially been confusion about my appointment - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

A Yorkshire Aviator's Autobiography
Tony Cunnane
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Why there had initially been confusion about my appointment

At the start of my second week, when my predecessor had left, I was able to examine the contents of the secure safe in my office. On the top shelf, I found a pile of Top Secret files. That worried me quite a bit because they had not been formally handed over to me by my predecessor. I had no idea whether all the files that should be there, were there, nor whether all the pages that should have been within, were in fact within. In Service jargon, there had been no formal muster of those highly classified files. I immediately called in the Unit’s security officer. He told me that he didn’t even know that those files were in that cupboard and therefore he assumed that, on the ‘need-to-know’ basis, he did not need-to-know about them. An interesting decision!  "What did you do with them?" I hear you cry. I am not going to tell you because I cannot remember!

I found that I had three titles at 26SU: I was Second in Command, Senior Intelligence Officer (SIO), and one of two senior subordinate commanders who between us were responsible for all matters concerning the discipline and careers of the junior officers, warrant officers, senior NCOs and airmen at 26SU.

Above: This was an image I took from outside the Reichstag, very close to the Brandenburg Gate. The radio tower was in East Berlin.
The post of second in command was not one that the RAF generally used - not by that title anyway. For protocol reasons every independent unit in West Berlin, and there were dozens of them, was required to nominate a 2 i/c, presumably so that if the CO got bumped off suddenly, everyone would know who would immediately take his or her place! The British Military Government (BMG ), which had its HQ in what remained of the 1936 Berlin Olympic Stadium, maintained the official list of all commanders and their deputies. Being 2 i/c of an independent military unit in West Berlin had both advantages and drawbacks, as I was to discover early in my tour of duty.

There were two GCHQ civilians working at 26SU, one in No 4 Hangar on the airfield at Gatow and a more senior one at Teufelsberg. They were known officially as Technical Advisors and, unofficially by the airmen at 26SU, as 'the GCHQ spies'. The Technical Advisors were there to keep an eye on what the RAF staff were doing and to advise me, as SIO, on reporting procedures. The Senior Technical Advisor (STA) could, and did, communicate on a daily basis with his masters at GCHQ using a communication method to which I had no access. It was undoubtedly the STA's report to GCHQ of my visit to BRIXMIS that had resulted in my summons to Rheindahlen - all in the space of well under 24 hours.

Throughout my active service in the RAF there was no Intelligence Branch and, therefore, no dedicated intelligence officers; the reason for that dates back to the earliest years of the RAF's existence. One of Sir Hugh Trenchard’s first decisions, when he was serving as the very first Chief of the Air Staff in 1918/19, had been that all RAF officers, with the exception of a few specialists like doctors, dentists and padres, were to be pilots. Officers would be commissioned into what Trenchard called the General Duties Branch and would, in Trenchard’s own words, "be responsible for carrying out the conduct and supervision of all aspects of flying and engineering, including armament, wireless and photography, and all staff and administrative duties". The GD Branch would also "be responsible for providing the commanders of all operational units", which implied, of course, that only those officers would be eligible for promotion to the highest ranks of the new Service.

Above: An old Berlin road sign with the Berlin Wall alongsíde. Although Gartenstrasse houses 33-22 were so close, just on the other side of the wall, there was no way anyone could cross at this point.
When I had been in Berlin for several months I learned, from two independent and impeccable sources, that there had been a battle between the RAF and GCHQ about my original posting notice which had given my appointment at 26SU as 'commanding officer'. As my informant at Marham had told me when that posting notice arrived, RAF Signals Units were usually commanded by Engineering Branch officers. At the time, that had seemed to me not unreasonable since, by and large, aircrew officers didn't know very much about signals engineering. However, for a few weeks that posting notice was correct.

My posting to the Russian Course in 1976 and onwards to 26SU had come at a time when the mandarins at GCHQ were quite independently, and for their own 'in-house' reasons, trying to bring the RAF signals units under the command of GD officers rather than engineers. Perhaps I had been selected because I was available, had 'volunteered' to learn Russian, and had already served one operational intelligence appointment in Singapore in 1965/6 during the Confrontation between Malaysia and Indonesia. However, the upper echelons of the RAF Engineering Branch had no wish to lose any command appointments to the GD branch, so GCHQ lost that little battle and the RAF Engineering Branch won. My posting notice had been amended accordingly.

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