The 1962 Cuba Crisis - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

A Yorkshire Aviator's Autobiography
Tony Cunnane
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The 1962 Cuba Crisis

While I was updating this website in November 2015 I watched a couple of films and documentaries on TV about the 1962 Cuba Crisis - a head to head between the USA and the USSR that almost led to the outbreak of World War 3. Had it actually led toWW3 then everything that has happened since 1962 would have been quite different - if the world had survived at all. Anyone younger than about 50 who has not studied the 1962 Cuba Crisis will probably think that statement to be a gross exaggeration. It isn't! I'm not going to quote masses of data from the Internet because this is my story not a history but you can find everything you want on the subject by asking your favourite search engine to look for "UK involvement 1962 Cuba crisis". I've just done it and found loads of stuff I had never known.

Many times on this website I use the phrase 'need-to-know principle' meaning that we in the V Force, and in later years when I was employed on intelligence duties, were only told what classified information we needed to know to carry out our duty - not everybody's duty, just our own. When I was on 18 Squadron, which did not have a nuclear role because we didn't carry nuclear weapons, I and my squadron colleagues knew virtually nothing about the looming nuclear crisis developing in Cuba apart from the small amount of vetted news that the TV and radio stations carried. I might also mention that the UK news organisations were very strictly controlled. Not only were they told only what the government wanted them to know, but they were prohibited from commenting or speculating on security and defence matters unless they had been specifically briefed otherwise. How times change!

Chapman Pincher was one such favoured defence correspondent (for the Daily Express) and I met him once at RAF Finningley during my time as the Press Liaison Officer. At an aircrew briefing in advance of the visit, we were told that Pincher was preparing a book and we could tell him anything up to Secret level - but only if he asked the right questions! We were not to offer unsolicited classified information. As I recall it, he didn't ask me for any quotes, probably because I was very junior and I was only a press officer taking him around the station and not someone likely to know any secrets. It's fascinating to read about Chapman Pincher on the Internet (he died aged 100 in 2014) and you can draw your own conclusions about whether he was a Secret Service agent, or a KGB spy, or neither, or both at the same time.

From about the first week in October 1962, we on 18 Squadron knew that something 'big' was afoot because the Vulcan bombers based at Finningley were brought to a high state of readiness - and we were told that it was not another of Bomber Command's frequent practices: it was for real! We knew also that the entire station was ordered to Readiness 60 (RS60), which meant that all aircrew had to be ready to take off within an hour. As to where we on 18 Squadron were supposed to go after taking off - well that was something that we weren't told. The front line bomber squadrons had pre-arranged dispersal airfields around the UK to which they would be dispatched in the event of a nuclear strike looking likely but we on 18 Squadron didn't have any such plans.

As the days went by and the news got progressively worse, RAF Finningley was virtually shut off from the outside world and we had to watch TV and listen to the wireless for clues. 18 Squadron had ceased flying but all aircrew lived in our flying clothing, night and day, and moved around as complete crews. We were all confined to base. The RAF police were armed. Everyone, and I do mean everyone, moved around with an air of intense worry on their faces. It really did look as though WW3 could, or would, start at any moment.

On 15 October my crew was suddenly ordered to fly out from Finningley to RAF El Adem in the Libyan Sahara about 15 miles south of Tobruk. I don't know how many any other 18 Squadron aircraft and crews were flown out of Finningley for the duration of the Cuba crisis nor do I know whether there was any ulterior motive for getting rid of us during the crisis. It could have been simply a matter of conserving Finningley's fuel supply for the main force bombers. We then remained at El Adem, exercising with RAF fighters based on Malta and Cyprus, until 27 October by which time the world crisis had been averted and sanity returned.

My logbook page above shows that there were at least three of our squadron's aircraft at El Adem (WP216, WZ372 and WZ365). The flypast preceding our transit flight back to UK on 27 October was simply us waving goodbye to our hosts.

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