RAF Digby - an unhappy period in my career - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

A Yorkshire Aviator's Autobiography
Tony Cunnane
Go to content

RAF Digby - an unhappy period in my career

At the end of December 1982, I left JSIW and moved to Lincolnshire, to No 399 Signals Unit, RAF Digby. My work there was similar in many ways to the job I had done in Berlin but without the glamour and night life! I will not record what I did operationally at Digby because these days you can Google "399 SU RAF Digby" and find out almost all you could wish to know - and by following hot links on those pages you can discover a whole lot more.

Suffice it to say that early in 1984 I had become so disillusioned with my job, and the whole raison d'être of the Signals Unit, that I submitted a PVR - an application to the RAF for Premature Voluntary Retirement. I still had five years to serve before normal retirement age, but it had become obvious that my final years of service would be in the Intelligence world, either at the MoD, or just as bad, at HQ Strike Command.

My request for PVR really put the cat amongst the pigeons because one of the only two other squadron leaders at Digby also submitted his PVR request at the same time, quite independently, and it turned out that we had both been offered appointments with what was then called The Sultan of Oman's Air Force (SOAF). In spite of what many thought, there was absolutely no collusion between us.

 Someone took this pic of me when I was standing in for the Station Commander at a sports event
In my final weeks at Digby, I was the Acting Station Commander in the CO's absence and I had three major problems to deal with. First, there was the intense national media interest in six courts-martial of airmen serving at RAF Digby who had been charged with drugs offences. In the interests of justice, any forthcoming court-martial had to be notified to the media several weeks in advance and, because of the mystique that always surrounded Digby, it was inevitable that large numbers of media would wish to be present. They were, and I found myself having to act as my own PRO.

The second problem was when someone who should have known better called me in when he had just returned from a visit to GCHQ. "There's something I really must tell you," he said to me in some excitement. "I've just had a briefing about a project called Zircon. It's classified VRK - very restricted knowledge. I had to sign a special access list."

"Then you shouldn't be telling me, should you?"

"No, but I think you'll be interested."

I have not revealed any secrets in relating that exchange. You can Google the project word and read all about it - including the fact that Project Zircon was later abandoned.

The third problem arose when a junior officer officially informed me of a serious breach of operational security that had been reported to him independently by several airmen on his flight just a couple of hours earlier. Because the security breach was so serious and involved an officer senior in rank to me, I had no option but to report the matter to higher authority immediately. I believed I could not, in those circumstances, trust telephone calls or signals so I drove to our Command HQ and made my report in person.

Above: This is part of what was one of my final issues of Station Routine Orders at Digby. Someone, I think I know who, made sure I would have to inspect the Sewage Compression House (see penultimate line in scan above). It was an interesting experience but I was very pleased that only 10 minutes were allowed for it before I had to be in the Officers Mess.
On my final day, when I was still Acting-Station Commander RAF Digby, there was no-one with the required security clearance and seniority to whom I could formally hand-over the station. As a consequence, no-one checked the petty cash or the station accounts; and, more importantly, no-one carried out a full muster of the many classified documents. The only officer I spoke to on that last day was the Security Officer who, mid-afternoon, had to perform the duty of "removing my brain" - the expression used to de-indoctrinate personnel of their special clearances required for access to places like Digby, 26 SU in Berlin, and GCHQ.

Once my brain had been removed and the Security Officer had taken my pass and escorted me to the front door, I no longer had right of access to the 399 Signals Unit part of 'my' station. I drove the Station Commander's car across the airfield to Station HQ and left it there in his parking slot with the keys in the ignition. It was not the way I would have wished to end my active service in the Royal Air Force and although I was genuinely sad about that, to be brutally honest I couldn't wait to get away from Digby.

Finally, I called in to say goodbye to the Station HQ admin staff and to give my final order to the Station Warrant Officer, that when the RAF Ensign outside Station HQ was lowered as normal at the end of the working day, the squadron leader’s command pennant should also be taken down. Theoretically, the lack of a pennant right at the very top of the mast indicated that the station was inactive and non-operational, but that was a little-known fact even within the RAF and I don’t suppose anyone noticed.

On the evening of that final day at RAF Digby, my diary bluntly recorded "CO away - I'm still Station Commander!" (I won't scan and reproduce that page because, most unusually for me, I included a couple of expletives.)

I should never have learned what the outcome of the serious security breach was but someone who should have known better, committed yet another security breach by volunteering the details about 18 months later while I was in UK on leave from Oman!

Back to content