The Times newspaper joins in the campaign - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

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The Times newspaper joins in the campaign

From time to time the national media picked up on elements of the Scampton closure story. For example, Harvey Elliot, the Times' excellent and well-informed Air Correspondent had a report on 31 July 1995 under the headline "Homeless Red Arrows may be grounded". The story (reproduced by permission) stated:

"The future of the Red Arrows, the RAF's world renowned aerobatic display team, has been thrown into doubt because defence cuts have left them homeless. Their base at RAF Scampton in Lincolnshire is to close in September and the Ministry of Defence has been unable to find them a new home. One proposal, that the team's British Aerospace Hawks should move to Marham in Norfolk, has been dropped - because nuclear weapons are stored beneath the runway and experts have said that it would be unsafe for the team to perform overhead. Under-used RAF stations in Germany were also suggested as a temporary home. This too was turned down partly because it was considered inappropriate that a British institution should be based abroad. Now senior officers are suggesting that the squadron's 12 aircraft are mothballed in Cyprus when they return from a planned tour of South Africa in October and that all 80 members of the squadron are sent on extended leave."

I am not aware that there ever was a suggestion that the Team should move to Germany but I am certain that would have been politically unacceptable to the German Government which did not, since the disastrous Ramstein accident of 1988, permit any formation aerobatics over their territory. I never heard, either, the suggestion that the Team should be mothballed and the pilots and ground crew sent on extended leave. However, Mr Elliot's story did cause a flutter of alarm in the MoD because the RAF had a policy of never making any comment about its nuclear dispositions. Harvey had telephoned me, the day before his story was published, to ask if I could confirm the reason why the Red Arrows were no longer going to move to Marham.

"I'm sorry," I said. "You'll have to call the Defence Press Office."

"I've done that," he replied, "and I've also called the Press Office at your HQ in Gloucester. It's a waste of time - they never tell anyone anything. The business about the nuclear weapons at Marham is in the public domain you know - I got it from an American open source."

"Thanks for that," I said patiently. "I learn something new every day in this job."

He rang off but as soon as I put my phone down, it rang again. It was my colleague in the Defence Press Office to tell me, too late, to expect a call from Harvey Elliot at the Times! Harvey was a good professional. He had checked his story with three official sources hoping that one of us would have said something different that he could use to enhance his next story. The following day Harvey Elliot had another story under the headline "The Red Arrows remain in Limbo":

"The Ministry of Defence said last night that it had no idea where the Red Arrows would be based when their home closes at the end of September. The dithering over the future home of the team has caused confusion and distress among families of the 80-strong squadron. Marham in Norfolk remains favourite as the eventual base for the team, but not before 1998 when the RAF gives up its nuclear role and WE177 free fall bombs stored beneath the base are dismantled."

Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother, Commandant-in-Chief of the Central Flying School contacted the Commandant after reading the story in the Times, to express her sorrow that the Red Arrows were soon to be made homeless and asking how she might help. The Commandant would not tell me what he had advised the Commandant-in-Chief to do.

The Eastern Daily Press then proudly proclaimed the news that the Red Arrows were moving to RAF Marham near Kings Lynn. An editorial (reproduced by permission of the Editor) commented:

"Confirmation that the Red Arrows are to move to Marham will be welcomed with anticipation and pride in Norfolk, a county whose links with the Royal Air Force are unusually strong. Although its famous home at Scampton is shortly to fall victim to defence cuts, the future of the world's premier aerobatics team was guaranteed in last year's Defence Costs Study. Marham, the RAF's biggest base, and Norfolk, with uncluttered airspace and a relatively sparse population, are obvious long-term homes for the Red Arrows."

That announcement in the Eastern Daily Press, and later in other newspapers, was to cost a Lincolnshire man a lot of money: the Team's self-proclaimed number one fan, promptly moved home from Lincoln to Kings Lynn. "People may think I'm mad chasing them about but I'm their number one fan," he told the Lincolnshire Echo. "Wherever they go, I go, and I'll follow them to the four corners of the earth if I have to."

Sadly for No 1 Fan, no sooner had he moved into his new home in Kings Lynn than the MoD announced that the move to Marham would be delayed at least two years, "for operational reasons", and that in the meantime the Team would be moving to Cranwell.

"As soon as I heard the news I got back on the next train to Lincoln," said the unfortunate fan. "If they're staying in the County, then I'm staying in the County."

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