I am posted to the Joint Services Interrogation Wing at Ashford, Kent - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

A Yorkshire Aviator's Autobiography
Tony Cunnane
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I am posted to the Joint Services Interrogation Wing at Ashford, Kent

Following my Berlin Tour, I was posted in June 1980 to the Joint Services Interrogation Wing (JSIW) at Templer Barracks, Ashford, Kent. Clearly this was another example of the RAF's long memory: someone had noticed that I was a qualified Combat Survival and Rescue Officer (CSRO) as well as a Russian linguist and so I neatly fitted the job specification which had both listed as essential qualifications. My new post was one of three senior instructors: the others were a Royal Navy lieutenant commander and an Army major. The CO was a lieutenant colonel of the Intelligence Corps. Of those, I was the only one who was a Russian linguist and the only one who had undergone real conditioning and interrogation during an exercise on a formal course of instruction (see this page).

JSIW had several different peacetime roles. Each of the three senior instructors was responsible for training selected personnel of his own service so that they could run Conduct after Capture and Resistance to Enemy Interrogation courses at their own squadrons and units. As a group we were also responsible for training selected officers of all three services (four services if you count the Royal Marines as a separate service - as they themselves always did) in prisoner handling techniques, tactical questioning, and detailed interrogation of captured enemy forces in times of war. The Army section of JSIW, much larger than either the RN or RAF sections, had additional tasks concerned with the situation in Northern Ireland at the time.

The CO plus the three senior instructors were the only four individuals who could be authorised to run Interrogation Centres on exercises. In addition to San Benito, the generic name for RAF-sponsored exercises held in an old fort overlooking Plymouth harbour, JSIW supervised other interrogation centres in UK and Germany which were used for the training of UK Special Forces from all three Services; some were inside permanent military bases, and some were set up in temporary locations for particular exercises.

On my first day at Templer Barracks when my predecessor was introducing me to the staff of JSIW, I immediately recognised one of the civilians from 12 years earlier when I had been a student myself on the CSRO Course at Mount Batten. He was the interrogator I thought at the time had spoken with a fake Russian accent during my interrogation. He is the one with the silver hair on my right in the pic below and was, in fact, a real Russian émigré! He didn't appear to remember me when he and I met at Ashford for the first time in 12 years and that, at least, emphasised one of the important resistance to interrogation training points for prisoners of war to bear in mind: be the 'grey man'. The grey man does not attract attention to himself; he is the one who gets lost in the crowd; he is the one who is less likely to be interrogated in depth. More of that anon.

Above: One day HM The Queen paid a visit to JSIW. There wasn't a lot to laugh about at the Joint Services Interrogation Wing. OC JSIW, with his back to the camera and his hands and fingers tightly crossed, was not sure whether we should all be laughing in Her Majesty's presence. My RN colleague can't be mistaken because of his 'full set'. I'm enjoying the joke, as is the real Russian interrogator with the silver hair on my right.
I was sent down to Plymouth at the end of my very first week at Ashford to supervise, under instruction, the interrogation phase of the latest San Benito exercise for RAF aircrew. The running of the CSRO courses at nearby RAF Mount Batten was nothing to do with the staff of JSIW, but running San Benito was everything to do with us. In my first few days at Ashford I learned that I would also be the Officer Commanding No 7630 Flight of the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve (RAFVR), a unit I had never heard of. My Royal Navy and Army colleagues were COs of their own services' equivalent reserve units. The HQ of 7630 Flight was, notionally, my office in JSIW but the 40 or so reserve officers in the flight hardly ever came to Ashford, apart from occasional classroom training sessions and for the Annual Formal Dinner. In fact, I quickly learned that they visited individually most frequently when they had questions for me to sort out about their own pay and allowances.

There were two different streams of reserve officers in 7630 Flight: those who spoke Russian and those who did not. The Russian speakers, some of whom were also fluent in other European languages, were retained because in the 1980s the Cold War between the West and the Soviet Union was still at the top of the defence agenda. It was assumed any real prisoners-or-war coming our way would, as likely as not, be Russian speakers. (The Falklands war was still in the future.)

The non-linguists on 7630 Flight included several, perhaps all of them for all I knew, who were either full-time or recently retired intelligence officers from one or other of the UK security services. Even though I was their CO, I never learned for certain the real employment of most of them. I probably did not even know their real names either because MI5 and SIS officers often worked under assumed names as part of their cover. The famous "need-to-know" principle was applied much more rigorously than it ever had been in the RAF. I found that comforting after some of the fiascos during my time working on war plans during Confrontation between Malaysia and Indonesia in the mid-1970s! (Click here - opens in  a new window)

The JSIW 'bible', our book of rules, was a large document called the Conduct After Capture Training Directive. To misuse a Star Trek concept, CACTD was our 'Prime Directive' and was never to be disobeyed. It was still based on the Firth Report that had been issued in 1955 by Major General CEA Firth, Chairman of what was known as "The Advisory Panel to report on POW Conduct after Capture". The CACTD required the entire process of conditioning and interrogation of real prisoners-of-war to be carried out strictly in accordance with the Geneva Conventions. The current edition of CACTD was actually signed by the then Home Secretary and on the very first page was a list of the four JSIW officers who were authorised to supervise exercise interrogations - and who were solely responsible if anything went wrong! My name was added to the list, and my predecessor's name removed from it, at the start of my second week at JSIW. I always carried the document with me whenever I was a Centre Controller so I could refer to it if and when necessary.

I should point out here and now that the exact definition of 'prisoner-of-war' became a hot topic for public and media debate during the Northern Ireland 'troubles' in the 1970s and 80s. The Geneva Conventions had been ratified by most of the world's nations at that time and countries usually formally declared war on each other before beginning hostilities and so it was easy to define who was, and who was not, a prisoner-of-war. Everyone, young and old, knows of British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain's announcement on the wireless at 11.15am on 3 September 1939: "This country is now at war with Germany." You couldn't get more formal and public than that! Today, countries seem not to bother about declaring war: they just get on with it.

It was frequently asserted, in the media and elsewhere, that since the Provisional IRA had not declared war on the British, or vice versa, they should not expect their members, when brought in 'for screening', to be treated in accordance with the Geneva Conventions. It seemed to me to be a very dubious argument to use and, if the Geneva Conventions did not apply, how were IRA 'prisoners' to be treated? However, no-one ever asked me for my opinion, and I was never involved in any screening operations.

During my time at JSIW, CCTV was gradually introduced at most of the permanent Interrogation Centres we used so that the Centre Controller, the medical officer and the independent referee, could keep close watch on the activity. There was no CCTV at San Benito but there were concealed microphones in all the cells and holding areas. However, there were spy-holes in the door of each cell and each interrogation room at San Benito so that the Centre Controller could walk around and observe, unseen, what was going on inside. On JSIW-controlled exercises, no prisoner was allowed to be held in an interrogation centre for more than 24 hours from his arrival until his final release and it was not permitted to interrogate any prisoner for more than eight hours in total during that 24 hour period. There were different rules and procedures for UK Special Forces on JSIW-controlled exercises, but I cannot go into those.

The Centre Controller on JSIW exercises was required to keep a detailed log of every event, including the start and finish time of each interrogation and the name of the interrogator(s). He was required to arrange for each prisoner to be subjected to several of the different interrogation methods that might be employed by a real enemy, as well as the different forms of authorised stress positions and conditioning techniques that could be used between interrogations. However, no details were recorded of how individual servicemen coped with their experiences. No reports, good or bad, were made to individual's squadron or unit commanders; their own Course Controller was required to make that clear to them in advance. Every 'prisoner' was personally debriefed in private, usually by the Centre Controller, before his final release.

The guard forces comprised either Army reservists or regular soldiers transported in especially for each exercise. It was essential that they, the guards, were closely monitored to ensure that none of them got carried away with enthusiasm for their role. Only once in the 20 or more full-scale exercises where I was in charge did I have to report anyone for improper behaviour towards a 'prisoner'. The person in question was a young Army reserve officer and I heard later that he was disciplined by his own Commanding Officer.

The exercise for each prisoner ended either when the time limits were reached, or if the Centre Controller considered that the prisoner would not learn anything further from his experience, or whenever a prisoner requested it. All participants were told as part of their pre-briefing during an earlier part of their Escape and Evasion Course that they could request to be withdrawn at any time without the need to give a reason. In my times as Centre Controller, I can remember only one who did. A prisoner could also, at any time, ask to consult the referee, who was usually their own Course Controller. Any such consultation was private and no member of the JSIW staff was allowed to listen in.

We were not allowed to operate an interrogation centre unless a qualified Medical Officer was present in the centre throughout. He, it was always a male doctor during my time at JSIW, could intervene at any time if he considered the health or well-being of the prisoner was in jeopardy and the doctor had the authority to withdraw any prisoner from the exercise at his sole discretion.

Afterthought. There is an ‘afterthought’ I have called 'Know your enemy' about an interesting exercise I was invited to attend as an observer here (opens in a new window).

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