I find myself writing real war plans without having the necessary technical knowledge - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

A Yorkshire Aviator's Autobiography
Tony Cunnane
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I find myself writing real war plans without having the necessary technical knowledge

All the three officers I was to work with had changed since I was last there a few weeks earlier, but I never discovered whether that had been part of the normal roulement or was in some way the result of the illegal briefing I had been given by their predecessors. The squadron leader pilot and the two flight lieutenant navigators were friendly but wary of me; that was one of the weaknesses of the need-to-know principle in action. When dealing with war planning, or indeed almost anything to do with the V Force, it was not done to ask about each other's background; the 'need to know' principle was supposedly strictly followed.

Trying to look as though I knew what I was doing, I sat down at one side of the very large, square, planning table in the middle of the room and set about studying the ECM and communications plans for each of several dozen target routes that were already current. It was clear that the main element of my job would be to devise war plans detailing which ECM equipment was to be operated at various points along the route and it was up to me to decide where those points should be to achieve best tactical advantage over the Indonesians. The targets we were given were changed regularly, I never found out by whom, to take account of what was known about the Indonesian High Command's frequent deployment of their fighter aircraft and their tactical, mobile ground radars and ground-to-air missile units.

The navigators told me that when we were allocated new targets, they would need an input from me before they could start planning the routes in detail. I was surprised to find that not all the Victor routes started from, or ended at, airfields on Singapore Island. It was just as well I had gained some clues about the art of electronic warfare from my time on 18 Squadron at Finningley. Planning and briefing ground-to-air secure communications also came within my remit, but that was already second nature to me.

The completed war plans were kept in signal format, classified Top Secret UK Eyes Only, and would not be issued to aircrews until they were actually in theatre (that is anywhere east of Gan Island in the Maldives), so they had to be accurate, clear and unambiguous, to avoid the need for last-minute confusion or alterations. Until my arrival the signals had always been handwritten, a really tedious job, necessary because none of the locally-employed typists had the necessary security clearances. It turned out to be my job to write out all those tasking signals (signals equals communications equals AEOs!). However, when the Boss discovered I was a fairly proficient typist he decided that it would be easier to have me type them out - and that would stop the Signals Centre telegraphists complaining about poor handwriting. I was reasonably happy with that arrangement, but I insisted that at least one of the others should proof-read everything I typed to ensure I had not made any typing errors. "What a funny way to prepare to fight a war," I thought to myself several times a day.

All our classified material was stored in one very large, free-standing, safe in a corner of our office. We also kept our supplies of biscuits, powdered milk, sugar and coffee in that safe. Only we four Victor officers knew the combination to the safe and we changed that first thing every Monday morning without fail. The combination was a lengthy sequence of numbers, so every week we chose a place on the huge map of south-east Asia that occupied most of one wall and based the new combination on the latitude and longitude of that place. All we had to do then was remember which location we had used because we could not mark the map for obvious reasons.

It required two of us at a time to change the safe combination - not only for security reasons but also in case we made a mess of the procedure. One Monday morning, the two navigators managed to lock the safe closed partway through the combination changing procedure and it then could not be opened again. The RAF Police safe-breaking experts were summoned and, by the looks on their faces when they arrived, I could tell that it was not the first time they had been called to this particular safe. It took them over three hours to get into the safe and reset the mechanism. We had to remain in the room to keep all our working documents hidden while they were working their magic. Of course, once they had left, we had to change the combination again. By then it was time to shut up shop and get down to the swimming pool. Another day gone and no actual work done. (Routine working hours were from 0700 to 1300 hrs, five days a week.)

A truly fascinating thing about the job was a circulation file which contained copies of all the most important signals that had reached the HQ in the previous 24 hours. There were copies of highly classified operational signals as well as some more mundane but usually interesting ones. Surprisingly, often there were copies of personal messages between the RAF commanders in UK and the Far East and the daily, very entertaining and usually very long signals from the British Air Attaché in Vietnam telling how the war there was progressing. One day, when a large number of RAF Transport Command aircraft were unserviceable on the ground at Tengah, Seletar and Changi awaiting spares, we were all highly amused by a personal message from the Commander-in-Chief Transport Command, the fearsome Air Chief Marshal Sir Kenneth Cross (a former CINC Bomber Command), to Air Commander Far East which stated simply: "You have more of my aircraft than I do. Please send some back." I never saw the reply! The circulation file was, in my opinion, another example of how the need to know principle was flouted in FEAF - but I still enjoyed reading the signals when the distribution file reached me.

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