Home from the war zone - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

A Yorkshire Aviator's Autobiography
Tony Cunnane
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Home from the war zone

Early the following morning, after a really excellent hotel breakfast, a coach turned up to take us back to the airport - once again there was a Uruguayan police escort, flashing lights, sirens and all. The DA personally delivered our briefcases to us at the VC10. The Royal Marine Commandos we had gone to collect quietly arrived from somewhere, I know not where, and hurriedly boarded the aircraft. There was no opportunity to question the marines before our departure. Even had we been able to question them immediately, it would have pointless because there were no longer any secure communications out of the British Embassy. The DA merely wanted to be rid of all of us as quickly as possible - and who can blame him for that?

En route to Ascension Island each of we three JSIW officers debriefed Marines individually in the vast VC10 passenger cabin. We had all regularly exercised and trained with all elements of the UK Special Forces and I even recognised a couple of the Marines. We were not surprised when the Marines would not even speak to us, beyond giving us the Big Four and ICATQ ("I cannot answer that question"), until their own young officer assured them that we were OK and could be trusted. We garnered as much military intelligence as they could give us, together with details about civilian matters on the Falklands such as morale, and food, fuel and electricity supplies still available for the Islanders.

One of the four Marines I debriefed was the only one who had been injured on South Georgia. He still had one arm in a sling because he had been shot by an Argentine marine shortly before the whole group had surrendered on the beach at South Georgia. He had later been put on a charge by his own corporal for getting himself shot on active duty while not wearing his green beret! He told me he had put his beret into his pocket because it made him too conspicuous if he wore it. Seemed a perfectly reasonable thing to do, I thought, but I knew the Royal Marines had their own code of conduct.

Between those individual debriefings the Major, Staff Sergeant and I gathered at the rear of the VC10 to compare notes as far as we had gone. I happened to look out of a window on the port side and saw the magnificent, and unmistakeable, Rio de Janeiro harbour and the Christ the Redeemer statue on the top of the hill. I was surprised how close we were flying to the coast of Brazil. I then collected all the debriefing notes and collated them into a handwritten signal ready to be transmitted to UK from Ascension. I was also able to purchase from the representative of the Falklands Postmaster, two First Day Covers (signed on the rear):

When we landed at Ascension Island again to refuel, the Air Commander wanted to fill our aircraft up with a large group of passengers who, for various reasons, needed urgent transport to UK. They were waiting out on the apron, fully documented, with their luggage waiting to board. I idly wondered if they were the same ones that we had displaced at Dakar on the way south. Anyway, our Major unilaterally refused to allow them on board and by name-dropping more admirals and generals than the Air Commander could name-drop air marshals, our Major was able to over-rule the Air Commander. Talk about inter-Service co-operation!

As all that was going on, I went to the Base Operations Room to send the signal to MoD that I had prepared during the last hour of the flight from Montevideo. The signal, which I had marked 'Immediate', meaning that it was to be sent ahead of all messages with a lower precedence marking, ran to a dozen handwritten pages and summarised what the three of us considered the most timely and important intelligence that we had gained. The content required it to be classified Top Secret. When I handed my signal to the harassed OC Operations Room, he told me that because of the limited amount of cipher and communications equipment available to him, he could not transmit any highly classified signals let alone lengthy high precedence ones. He showed me a long backlog of classified 'Immediate' precedence signals that he said would take many hours to clear. Seeing that it would be pointless to argue and realising that we would be back in UK long before my signal could work its way through the communications system, I put it back in my brief case and returned to the VC10. Our major could not think of any way to get around that!

The Royal Marines remained on board the VC10, out of sight, the whole time we were on the ground at Ascension and no-one else was permitted to enter the aircraft. We departed for UK less than an hour after our arrival, realising that our entire mission had, in effect, been wasted. Group Captain Jerry Price, the Air Commander, was someone else who was no doubt glad to see the back of us. As we approached Brize Norton, the captain of the VC10 informed us that someone, probably a PRO at MoD I suppose, had let the cat out of the bag to the media that the gallant, deported, Royal Marines were on board. There would be a bevy of very senior officers, plus the returning Marines' immediate families, together with a huge media presence, all waiting to greet the gallant Marines. The VC10 captain said that he had been instructed by his Headquarters to let the Marines off the aircraft first, which seemed eminently sensible to me. However, once the aircraft stopped on chocks directly in front of the flood-lit terminal building, the JSIW Major had one more trick up his sleeve. He insisted that we should get off first because, "We have vital intelligence to get to Joint HQ Northwood".

Thus, at 4.30am on Tuesday 20 April, the world's TV cameras showed three men in dark suits, carrying suspicious looking brief cases, coming down the VC10's steps first, blinking in the airport floodlights and the media's television lights. It was just 76 hrs 40 mins since we had taken off from Brize Norton for the south-bound journey. It is absolutely amazing how many people, family, friends and service acquaintances, told me afterwards that they had recognised me on TV news broadcasts, and their frequent repeats, coming down those VC10 steps at Brize Norton. No-one, not even my closest family, knew that I had even been out of the country.

While our Major went off somewhere to arrange for transport to the Task Force Joint HQ at Northwood so that we could deliver our intelligence in person, the Staff Sergeant and I watched as the Royal Marine's own one-star Brigade Commander at the other end of the room greeted and congratulated each and every one of his Marines personally by their first name. I was most impressed by that. Only after that were the rest of the top brass and the Marines' anxious families allowed though into the lounge to greet the heroes.

We never did get to JHQ Northwood. Our Major returned after about an hour, looking very frustrated. The staff sergeant and I had, by then, started to wonder if he had gone off without us. He told us that we had been ordered back to our base at Templer Barracks because the Marines were now being debriefed by their own people. Transport arrived from Ashford for us about three hours later by which time we were all tired out and really past caring. Before I handed in my black briefcase to the Quartermaster at JSIW, I shredded my carefully composed Top Secret Immediate signal.

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