Normanby transmitting station and Hornchurch revisited - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

A Yorkshire Aviator's Autobiography
Tony Cunnane
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Normanby transmitting station and Hornchurch revisited

On 7 April I was detached from Hemswell to a small out-station at Normanby just off the A15 Fosse Way Roman road, halfway between Caenby Corner and RAF Scampton, to cover for a chap who was being sent off on his fitters course. On arrival, I found that I was now ostensibly in sole charge of ten high-powered short wave transmitters that I had never even heard of, and a motley group of a dozen airmen which included three or four RAF policemen, a storeman and a cook. It turned out that the transmitters now in my care were similar to those at RAF Ekala in Ceylon that I had never had the opportunity to see. We all lived together in a barrack hut at Normanby. It’s just as well the wireless mechanics knew what they were doing because this was yet another occasion when I was sent to do a job for which I did not have the appropriate technical qualifications.

I discovered, long after I had left Normanby, that the reason I had been sent to look after those transmitters was because my trade designation, as listed on my official RAF Service Record, was “Ground Wireless Fitter (CTRL)”. The letters denoted: Control equipments, Transmitters, Radios and Line teleprinter equipment and usually all four were awarded only to former aircraft apprentices who had successfully completed the three-year training course. Someone, sometime, had erroneously added the T qualification to my record of service.

I was at Normanby for about three weeks and fortunately nothing happened that needed my attention, nor did anyone come out from Hemswell to see how I was coping. The wireless mechanics showed me what they had to do each day and were quite friendly towards me - in a guarded sort of way. No-one had told them why I was there: a corporal who was not familiar with any of the equipment, standing in for a senior aircraftman who must have been well-qualified because he had just left for his advanced training course. They must have assumed I was there for some sinister or disciplinary function but when I told them I was just back from an operational tour in Ceylon and was merely holding until I got a date for the Aircrew Selection Centre at Hornchurch, they relaxed and we then got on well enough. On a couple of off-duty occasions I went down the A15 to Lincoln with a group of them and passed through the extensive road works connected with the lengthening of the main runway at Scampton for the arrival of the new Vulcan Bombers.

I did much better at Hornchurch the second time around mainly because I knew what to expect and how to play the system. I was even able to introduce a description of my Lincoln flight into the conversation at the main interview board. I noticed the raised eyebrows and the meaningful looks exchanged between the board members, who were all pilots, when I deliberately mentioned the lack of interest the crew had taken in me, the lack of a safety briefing, and the fact that no-one had provided me with either a parachute or an oxygen mask for a 5-hour flight at 16,000 feet.

A few days after arriving back at Hemswell I was summoned to an interview with an administrative squadron leader. He sat me down in his office and showed me a letter that had just arrived from Hornchurch. They were offering me training as an air signaller which carried with it promotion to sergeant on graduation. I was hugely disappointed.

"You have to sign at the bottom to say you accept this offer," said the squadron leader, proffering a pen. As I reached across the desk for the pen, I suddenly paused. I was remembering something Flight Lieutenant Gibbs had said at Gangodawila when he had told me I had been recommended by the Commissioning Board in Singapore. "Always stick out for what you really want and don't accept the first offer that comes your way."

"No sir," I said, sitting back in my seat without accepting the pen. "It's not what I want. I want a commission and I want to be a pilot."

The squadron leader made a note on his file then asked me to re-consider. He said that the new V Bomber Force was starting to expand rapidly and there would be lots of vacancies for Air Signallers. "Airmen with your qualifications should find the air signallers course very easy. It will mean promotion to sergeant with a big jump in pay when you complete the course and there'll still be opportunities to try again for pilot training later."

With great reluctance I accepted what I knew to be second best and signed the form. I remember stopping suddenly as I was walking, deep in thought, from the Admin Wing HQ back to the Ground Radio Flight. I was on the verge of turning about to tell the squadron leader that I had changed my mind when a young, fresh-faced officer passed me. "Wake up, corporal," he snapped. "Don't you salute officers?" Hastily I apologised and saluted. That decided me: no more looking back and no more second thoughts.

When I was working at RAF Scampton with the Red Arrows in the 1990s, I had sneaky access to the confidential reports that had been written following both my visits to Hornchurch, in 1953 and 1956, and learned from the second report that the Board had once again noted my Yorkshire accent and, therefore, concurred with the first report that I was unsuitable for a commission because of my Northern accent, but quite suitable for service as a senior NCO. Horses for courses?

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