A Courier flight to Borneo - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

A Yorkshire Aviator's Autobiography
Tony Cunnane
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A Courier flight to Borneo

One of the failings of our office security plan was that it was perfectly feasible for one of us to be inside our little empire all on his own. Indeed, at the start of the working day we rarely travelled from the Officers Mess as a group of four. The door to our office was protected by a security lock to which only the four Operation Spherical officers had the key. Whoever got there first, let himself into the office and then opened the large safe to get at the coffee makings. Because we were all security cleared and were trusted, there was no reason to suspect that one of us would do something clandestine to jeopardise the Nation’s security. However, that trust did not negate what is known these days as The Law of Unforeseen Consequences. On one occasion, I went to the Headquarters Far East Command Intelligence Centre (CIC) in another building a short distance away to collect some new intelligence data. Normally one of the navigators did this but when the telephone call came through to our office saying that there was "some new material" ready for collection, my three colleagues were all out so I took it upon myself to go instead. I put the classified documents I had been working on safely into the big safe, locked it, then left the office ensuring that the entrance door was secure.

I had never been inside the CIC building and I was curious to find out what went on in there. The policeman on the piquet post at the entrance let me in with a smile and a salute but without any check on who I was. I was then left alone in an office while the occupant, a flight lieutenant whom I had never met before, went somewhere else to get the data I had gone to collect. While he was out of the office the Command Intelligence Officer, a group captain, came in and saw me looking at a large wall map of Indonesia which showed the current location of all the Indonesian aircraft squadrons and anti-aircraft radar units. The group captain asked who I was, so I told him. He then asked what my security clearance level was, but I couldn’t give him the answer he wanted because I didn’t know the code word he was expecting. The group captain was exceedingly angry, not with me but with the flight lieutenant when he returned to his office. He tore into him with some most impressive abuse; one of the politer phrases he used was, “He’s not one of us”. That seemed to me, at the time, a very odd phrase to use. I left - but without the data I had gone for because I was not 'one of them'.

I heard that phrase, about not being 'one of us', used about me again a few months later just before a Victor overnight secret transit from Tengah to Darwin when I was sent, by ordinary civilian taxi, to collect some miniature tape recorders from a UK signals unit at a remote location in another part of Singapore Island. I was not allowed to go into the building but, because I was expected, and after producing my ID documents at the security gate, I was handed the equipment I had been sent to collect and I returned to HQ FEAF in the same taxi. Putting one and one together to make two, I guessed on that occasion what the phrase 'one of us' might mean, but it wasn’t until some years later, when I was stationed at a signals intelligence unit in Berlin, that I had confirmation. By then, I was 'one of them'.

Clearly, security in Command Headquarters left a lot to be desired. Because of security lapses, I had at least twice become privy to highly sensitive stuff I was not supposed to be aware of. Classified matters, but not the V Bomber sort, was openly discussed in bars, messes and other insecure places. I learned a lot about what other operations were on-going simply by keeping my ears pinned. Some British officers seemed to assume that the local Chinese and Malay staff, who worked in all the Messes and many of the HQ FEAF offices, were either deaf or did not understand much English. Both assumptions, of course, were almost certainly wrong.

Meanwhile, back in UK, all the RAF’s Valiant bombers had been permanently grounded in January 1965 after one of the Gaydon aircraft, WP217, sustained a main spar fracture whilst airborne. Several hundred Valiant aircrew and ground crew, including me, were suddenly out of a job and would have to be re-trained for other duties. When the news filtered through to Singapore, I let it be known that I was quite happy to stay on and in due course, it was agreed I could stay put in Singapore for the time being.

In February 1965, for a break in my routine, I volunteered to carry out a courier flight between Singapore and a number of airfields in what was then called British North Borneo. I flew in Argosy XP455, sitting up front alongside the pilot. There were no other passengers or crew.

The island of Borneo is the third largest island in the world and in the 21st Century is shared between Malaysia, Indonesia and the Kingdom of Brunei. Later in my RAF career I would visit all three of those countries on duty. The first half of the 4-hour flight from Changi eastwards over the South China Sea to Labuan, a tiny island off the Borneo coast, was boring because it was entirely over the sea as far as Kuching in Sarawak, a name I remembered from my train spotting days during World War 2. Sarawak had been a named LMS locomotive, No 5625 (see image below) which often passed my bedroom window in Wakefield en route between Manchester and Leeds. In those far off days many locomotives had what seemed to me and my train-spotting pals to be obscure names; we may not have known what some of the names represented but we could certainly spell them correctly.

Above: 'Sarawak' ín British Railways livery in the late 1940s may be found on Simon Robinson's amazingly detailed website here (opens in a new window). Image: Simon Robinson © and reproduced here with his permission.
We didn’t need to land at RAF Kuching in Sarawak on this occasion because there was nothing to drop off or pick up so, after one low level circuit of the airfield, we continued at low level along the coast to Labuan, providing us with splendid views out to starboard – but better was to come. The scenery on the flight between Labuan and Tawau, at the south-eastern extremity of Sabah, was without a doubt the most spectacular I have ever seen, There were beautiful views of Mount Kinabalu, summit 4,096 metres, as we flew low through magnificent, green valleys in virtually unlimited visibility.

RAF Tawau airfield in 1965 was very primitive with large areas of PSP (pierced steel planking) for taxiways and the aircraft parking area. It was apparently known by the resident RAF Regiment detachment as ‘The End of the World’. One of the RAF airmen guarding our aircraft pointed out to me a group of armed Indonesian soldiers watching us from a position on the Indonesian side of the border barely a mile away on the far side of the runway. He said, “We watch the Indons watching us and they watch us watching them.” Confrontation between the UK and Indonesia was very much alive at that godforsaken place. (These days Tawau is the third largest town in Sabah and centre of a thriving tourist industry.) We did stop at Labuan on the way back but only to refuel.

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