On Saturday 17 April 1982, at 2350hrs, I departed from RAF Brize Norton in an RAF VC10 bound for Montevideo. There were just eight persons on board: four aircraft operating crew, three JSIW passengers, and one anonymous senior Royal Marine officer who kept himself to himself. The JSIW party consisted of an Intelligence Corps Major, who was in command of the mission, an Intelligence Corps staff sergeant, and me. We three were equipped with identical black attaché cases each of which contained a small reel-to-reel tape recorder, a miniature microphone and a 35mm camera. All the technical equipment was state of the art in 1982. For obvious military reasons, I did not take my own camera with me so there are no images to illustrate this story.
Because our final destination was in a neutral country (Uruguay), and we would pass over or through other neutral countries en route, we had been ordered to dress in dark lounge suits and leave behind all items of military uniform, including our military ID passes. This was, I think, the only period in my entire 47 years in RAF uniform when I did not have my F1250, RAF ID card, with me. I felt quite vulnerable! We were ordered to carry civilian passports which stated our profession was Government Servant. (All my passports since I joined No 38 squadron in Malta in 1958 had described me as a government servant and not as a member of HM Forces.) If ever three men looked like spies, we three from JSIW did, but in fact our intentions were entirely honourable and legal.
On the first leg south towards Ascension Island there was a failure of one of the VC10's engines and we had to divert to Dakar, the capital of Senegal and the westernmost city on the African mainland. We landed at 04.35hrs GMT. Because of time constraints we could not afford to wait for the engine to be repaired so our Major bravely commandeered another RAF VC10 that just happened to be standing on the apron at Dakar. That one was actually already fully laden with passengers and was about to taxi out and take off for Brize Norton. We had no idea who the passengers were and did not ask, but they and all their hold baggage had to be off-loaded. They were not best pleased. Of course, they had no idea what our mission was, and we were not about to tell them.
As we were waiting in the Airport Transit Lounge at Dakar for the VC10 to be reconfigured, the Major and I asked a Senegalese Immigration Officer, who appeared to be hanging around merely to keep an eye on us, if we could have entry and exit stamps in the visa pages of our passports - not for any official reason but simply because we wanted a rare country visit to be recorded. He agreed, but our Staff Sergeant declined to follow suit; we were to find out later why he was so reluctant. The immigration officer escorted the Major and me through the deserted terminals to his office where he duly stamped our passports.
The replacement VC10, having been prepared for the flight to UK, already had sufficient fuel on board to fly direct to Montevideo. However, because of the all-important diplomatic flight clearances, our crew had to keep as far as possible to the original flight planned route. Thus, we had to fly via Ascension Island where we arrived at 10.40hrs GMT on the Sunday morning. The first thing I noticed as we taxied in was the sight of what looked like the RAF's entire tanker and transport forces. Group Captain Jerry Price was absolutely amazed when he, now as Air Commander, came to out to the VC10 to greet us and saw me. There was no time for conversation; we simply smiled a knowing smile at each other! I am not sure even he knew what we were there for.
We had to have a crew change at Ascension because the VC10 crew that had flown us from UK was now out of duty time. We were on the ground for about an hour while our aircraft was topped up with more fuel. On arrival at Montevideo Airport the customs and immigration folk not unreasonably, bearing in mind the sensitivity of Uruguay's neutral status, wanted to inspect our luggage, the briefcases and our passports. Sadly, and astonishingly, our staff sergeant then revealed, sheepishly, that he had forgotten to carry his passport from the UK! That certainly did not help international relations! We refused to allow our briefcases to be inspected because the Major, rather boldly I thought, claimed diplomatic immunity for which we had no corroborating documentation. In effect, we were all arrested by the Uruguayan Security Police and the VC10 was impounded and quickly surrounded by armoured vehicles!
Our Man in Montevideo, otherwise known as Her Britannic Majesty's Defence Attaché (DA), was summoned. He, a harassed Colonel GS resplendent in full regalia, arrived in a staff car flying the Union Flag on its bonnet (because he was representing the British Ambassador). It is an understatement to say that he was very angry. After lengthy diplomatic negotiations, the DA was given permission by the Uruguayans to escort we three JSIW staff to the British Embassy. The four-man VC10 crew, very commendably in my opinion, refused to leave their impounded aircraft. I understand they had actually locked themselves inside and refused to come out. Fortunately, the aircraft was still well stocked with the in-flight rations that had been intended for the 100-plus passengers we had displaced at Dakar.
At the British Embassy there was organised chaos. The few members of staff still there were expecting to be instructed to leave Uruguay at any time as personae non gratae. Classified documents were being shredded and everything else was being packed up. We were an embarrassment they could well have done without. In the end the DA sorted things out and the three of us were given a police escort to a large downtown hotel overlooking the Rio de la Plata (River Plate) and with an excellent view of Argentina just across the water. It was only once we were on our way to the hotel that I realised the anonymous Royal Marine officer who had been with us from Brize Norton had disappeared.
We left our locked brief cases, the contents of which were considered by the DA to be in breach of Uruguay's neutral status, in the Embassy safe overnight and we took only our overnight personal kit with us to the hotel. We were forbidden to leave our rooms and armed guards were posted in the corridor to ensure we obeyed. Halfway through the night I urgently needed a toilet but there were no en-suite facilities. A guard escorted me to the nearest toilet and actually watched as I performed!