I get the job but there is much confusion about my Terms of Reference - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

A Yorkshire Aviator's Autobiography
Tony Cunnane
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I get the job but there is much confusion about my Terms of Reference

I reported for duty at Scampton at 0800hrs on 4 September 1989. I knew where to report because, a few days earlier in the absence of any other information, I had called in to see Wing Commander Mike Hall, the senior staff officer working for the CFS Commandant, Air Commodore Bruce Latton. To be strictly accurate, the air commodore’s full title was Air Officer Commanding and Commandant Royal Air Force Central Flying School. The CFS Headquarters occupied the single-story, prefabricated building that had been built originally as the Operations Centre in V Bomber days, when it had been one of the most secret places on the station. The exterior of the building had been allowed to run down and had become an eyesore; the interior was not a lot better.

On that first morning, as I made my way through the maze of tatty corridors, I noticed that I was first in, apart from a key orderly who was busily occupied switching on the water heaters in various offices so that the staff could have their early morning fix of caffeine as soon as they arrived. I surveyed my office in dismay. It turned out that it was just across the corridor from Mike Hall’s office, in one corner of the building. I later learned that this office had, until just before my arrival, been a storeroom. That probably explained why, when I had visited Wing Commander Hall a few days earlier, he had not introduced me to my new office! But why, I wondered glumly, was my office in CFS Headquarters and not in the Red Arrows HQ which was at the far end of the station?

My office was a tiny affair just large enough to hold a metal cupboard, an upright chair, a desk on which stood a telephone and two empty document trays, and two faded easy chairs. That was, in fact, all the office did contain. There was a small wooden plaque on the door bearing my name: at least I was expected. I made a note of my telephone number and gazed out of the window over the deserted airfield. The cobwebby office window was protected by a very grimy, mesh security screen, one of many hangovers at Scampton from the Vulcan days. That screen prevented me from opening the window and poking my head out. Instead I went through the fire door in the corridor immediately outside my office, so that I could survey the scene.

My gaze roamed anti-clockwise past the four aircraft hangars that had been built in the late 1930s: No 1 Hangar was the nearest and the Red Arrows Hangar, No 4, was at the far end. I could see, in front of 4 Hangar, the huge expanse of concrete constructed especially for the Team at great expense when they had moved to Scampton in 1983. The distinctive red British Aerospace Hawk aircraft were being towed out, one by one, from the hangar onto the line ready for the day’s activities. Next to the Red Arrows line, facing the other three hangars, was another much larger aircraft parking area known as Echo Dispersal, allegedly haunted by Guy Gibson’s black Labrador dog – or a close relative of his depending upon which story I listened to. Jet Provost aircraft were being readied on Echo Dispersal for the day’s flying programme. On the far side of the airfield, straight ahead beyond Echo, but invisible from ground level, was the escarpment known as the Lincoln Cliff. Directly in front of me was what remained of the grass areas from which the bombers of 617 Squadron had taken off on that fateful night of 16 May 1943.

I was wakened rudely from my reverie outside my office by the noise of the first aircraft of the day taking off, a Jet Provost. As I turned to go back inside, I noticed a rusty and badly battered metal filing cabinet that had, presumably, been left outside the building by the fire exit ready to be taken to the rubbish tip. I guessed that it had been removed from the store room when that had been cleared out to make an office for me. The three cabinet drawers were damaged and the hinges broken but, being a curious person, I looked inside. I found a collection of loose and decidedly grotty papers right at the bottom. I gathered all those papers together and took them into my office to see what treasure I might have found.

The cabinet and contents were probably leftovers from when the Vulcans had departed from Scampton at the start of 1982 and the station had temporarily gone into Care and Maintenance (aka operationally closed, pending disposal). The most interesting item I salvaged from that cabinet was a complete, badly-faded and unsigned copy of HQ No 5 Group Operation Order B.976 – the Top Secret Operation Order for the Dam Busters’ Raid of 1943.

I read through all the pages of that Op Order trying to work out its provenance. It appeared to be an early version handed personally to Wing Commander Guy Gibson by his AOC (Air Officer Commanding) at Group HQ. If the Dam Busters film is to be believed, Gibson was handed the ‘draft’ of the Op Order to take back to Scampton so that he, with the help of his Bombing and Navigation Leaders, could start initial detailed planning of routes and tactics. The first page of the document had MOST SECRET typed at the top right-hand corner, but each page was over-stamped TOP SECRET. There was no copy number at the top right-hand corner and the order was not signed on the final page so this was definitely not an action copy of the Op Order – but historically interesting all the same.

About 1943, the RAF had discontinued the classification ‘Most Secret’, which had been used only by the UK, and replaced it with ‘Top Secret’, which the Americans understood. As far as I know, the USAF were not involved in the planning for Operation CHASTISE, the name HQ Bomber Command gave to what is usually known these days as the Dam Busters raid, but their most senior USAF generals at the time had probably been given sight of the plans, if only to avoid any conflictions.

Amongst the other papers I had salvaged was a handwritten note – this time the original, not a copy – signed by Flight Sergeant ‘Chiefy’ Powell, who had been Guy Gibson’s Adjutant throughout the few weeks that 617 Squadron was stationed at Scampton in 1943. Chiefy Powell had drawn a sketch map of the grass area in front of No 2 Hangar and added a large cross immediately beneath the window of what had been Gibson’s office on the upper floor. The caption read: “I collected the dog’s body from the guard room and buried it here at about midnight while the squadron was airborne on the raid.” As far as I am concerned, that put paid to the rumours one hears from time to time suggesting that the dog was not buried outside Guy Gibson’s hangar but elsewhere.

I had intended to save Chiefy Powell’s letter for posterity when Scampton closed in 1995 but, sadly, when I remembered and went to collect the file from the central registry, I was too late. It, along with many other Scampton files and memorabilia, had by then been destroyed as part of the closing down procedures.

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