General Antoshkin's gift for HM Queen Elizabeth, The Queen Mother - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

A Yorkshire Aviator's Autobiography
Tony Cunnane
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General Antoshkin's gift for HM Queen Elizabeth, The Queen Mother

No sooner had the Russian Aerobatic Team settled in at Scampton than General Antoshkin asked the Commandant of the RAF Central Flying School how he could deliver a personal gift to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother, Honorary Commandant-in-Chief of the RAF Central Flying School. He had had a replica of a traditional highly ornate Russian samovar specially made to give to her. The General wished to deliver the gift himself but advisers at Buckingham Palace decided that it would be inappropriate for the Queen Mother to meet in person a very senior Russian, until a few days earlier Soviet, General. It was decided, however, that it would be acceptable for the Queen Mother to receive the gift itself.

Time was short if the gift was to be delivered during the Russian Knights visit to the UK because the Queen Mother was currently holidaying at one of her favourite residences, Birkhall House in the Balmoral Estate, in the far north east of Scotland. I was detailed to drive up to Balmoral overnight and deliver the gift to Sir Alistair Aird, the Comptroller of the Queen Mother's household. The arrangements were quickly made.

To share the long drive, I took with me Pilot Officer Russ Fraser, one of my holding officers working for me temporarily while waiting for the next phase of his flying training. I had first met Russ in 1987 while I was working for the North and West Region of the Air Training Corps and Russ was a cadet with the No 1855 Royton Air Training Corps Squadron. I told Russ that we would travel in comfortable civilian clothes but take our formal uniform with us so that we could change before entering the Balmoral Estate. There was a possibility that we might meet someone important - perhaps even the Queen Mother.

Soon after leaving the beautiful town of Ballater, only a few miles from Birkhall House, we turned into the narrow approach road and started looking for a suitably secluded place amongst the trees where we could change into uniform. We thought we had found the ideal place but, just as we were pulling into the side of the road, I noticed someone I took to be a British Telecom linesman working at the top of a telegraph pole. He waved cheerily at us and we drove on without stopping. A few hundred metres further on, out of sight of the telephone man, we pulled into a sizeable clearing on the side of the road. There was no-one in sight this time and so we got out of the car and quickly changed into uniform. We were expected at 1030am and we had about ten minutes to spare as we continued the drive along a winding, tree-lined avenue towards the house. Suddenly, after going round a sharp bend, we were brought to a halt facing someone we took to be a game-keeper. He was standing in the middle of the road and had a shot gun cradled in his arms. He came up to the car as I wound the window down.

"You must be Squadron Leader Cunnane and Pilot Officer Fraser," he said, as he peered in. "We watched you getting changed!" There was no-one else in sight, so I have no idea who the 'we' were. Somewhat abashed, and wondering where the hidden cameras were, we showed him our identity cards.

"That man up the telegraph pole must have been one of the security guards, I suppose?" I asked weakly, hoping fervently that he would be very discreet with any negatives or video footage. It did not bear thinking about what the Red Arrows would do if they got their hands on pictures of Russ and me without our trousers in a forest clearing!

"He might have been," grinned the 'game-keeper'. "Keep right on for another hundred yards. You'll come to a car park near the stables behind the house. Park there and Sir Alistair will meet you."

We found a parking space and looked around. Sir Alistair Aird came out of the house almost immediately and introduced himself. We showed him the large box in the boot containing the highly ornate samovar.

"Ah, it's electric," he said thoughtfully, peering inside the container.

"Yes sir," I replied. "The outside is a replica of a traditional Russian samovar, but this is a modern electric version. You will see that General Antoshkin has had the emblems of the Russian Knights and the Red Arrows engraved on it as well as the Royal Cipher. Our engineers recommend that no-one plugs it into the mains – it doesn’t meet UK electrical standards."

"I will certainly make sure that is passed on to the Housekeeper," said Sir Alistair gravely. "I think the best thing to do is place the samovar on a lace cloth on a small table out on the front lawn and then you can formally present it to Queen Elizabeth before the flypast. Would that be all right do you think?"

I replied that it certainly would be all right. We were taken inside the house and given a cup of tea, poured by a servant from a silver tea pot on a silver salver. We then asked to go to a bathroom so that we could make ourselves look tidy. When we had combed our hair, I having decided that we would not wear our service hats, we joined Sir Alistair on the lawn where he was carefully placing the samovar on the lace-covered table.

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