Solo trumpeting - and an enigma - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

A Yorkshire Aviator's Autobiography
Tony Cunnane
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Solo trumpeting - and an enigma

One evening in the NAAFI club I heard Chris Barber's Jazz Band for the very first time and was absolutely captivated. Of course, it wasn't a live performance, it was one of the airmen playing Chris Barber records over the loudspeaker system in the main NAAFI room. Up until that time almost all my musical interest had been in classical music but I discovered Traditional Jazz that night. I couldn't afford to buy any records then, and in any case I had nothing to play them on, but over the subsequent years I bought many traditional jazz records. Today I still have most of Chris Barber's early recordings on CDs and listen to them frequently; unlike me, the music is as fresh as it was 64 years ago. At the time of writing this in January 2018, Chris Barber's personal website is still going strong - here (opens in a new widow).

At the same time as I started the fitters  course I was 'invited' to take over the solo trumpeting from an airman who had finished his course and moved on. This duty involved going to the Colour Hoisting and Colour Lowering ceremonies every day when there was no formal parade. On those occasions, 8am and 5pm every day including weekends, there were usually only three duty people present on the parade ground: the Orderly Officer, to do the saluting as the RAF Ensign was hoisted or lowered; the Orderly Corporal who did the hoisting and lowering; and me. I stood alongside the Orderly Corporal facing the officer who stood about 20 yards away facing the flag. There were four trumpet 'calls' to be made on the orders of the Orderly Officer.

The first order was "Trumpeter, sound the Alert." As I sounded off, any servicemen of any rank, all marching columns, and all civilians, were required to halt and face the ensign; anyone on bicycles, service or civilian, was to dismount and face the ensign; vehicles, if any, were required to come to a halt. The second order which followed immediately was "Trumpeter sound the Still", which seemed not to have any precise meaning in this context.

The third call, quite long and much more difficult for the trumpeter to play, especially on icy cold occasions, because it involved a lot of triple-tonguing was simply "General Salute." As I played this the Orderly Corporal would slowly hoist the ensign, aiming to get it to the top as I ended the trumpet call, and the officer would salute throughout. In the evenings the trumpet call for General Salute was replaced by the Retreat and the ensign was lowered. The final order, morning and evening, was "Trumpeter sound the Carry On.", the signal that the ceremony was over and normal activities could be resumed.

Most, but not all, of the young officers carrying out the duties of Orderly Officer had no idea of this procedure - they had probably been commissioned in the RAF for less time than I had been an airman. I briefed them, tactfully, that if they couldn't remember the orders when they were in position in front of the flag, they should simply nod at me and I would play four trumpet calls, one after the other, with about five seconds of silence between. They should come to the salute as soon as I started the third call, to coincide with the flag going either up or down, and cease saluting when I started the final call. They seemed grateful for this briefing and usually managed to remember what I had told them. Only very rarely did I come across an Orderly Officer who knew the procedure and was able to give the necessary orders to me - and in the correct order.

The RAF, theoretically, paid me tuppence (two pennies) for each time I played the trumpet on these solo occasions but it was very tedious filling in the claim forms every month so, after a while, I didn't bother any more. More important than the money was the fact that I was excused most barrack room and kit inspections.

(For once, my diary did not tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth because I was fearful that someone in authority might read it and find out what really happened with 'The Third Man'. For the real story, read on...)
On 22 October 1954 the Wing Adjutant asked me and Mick Moore, another trainee on my course and who sometimes stood alongside me at the morning and evening parades, if we were willing to play The Last Post and Reveille at the funeral of an Australian pilot who had crashed his jet aircraft into the Bristol Channel. Apparently the professional RAF band at Locking could not spare a trumpeter for this task. Of course we said we were willing because it would mean a whole day away from Locking.

The RAF trumpet which we used in the voluntary band and which I used for colour hoisting and lowering parades, was a temperamental instrument. The ones we used were old and battered, literally with many dents, which meant that they were not all in tune with each other. Moreover, battered trumpets often give out ‘cracked’ notes which sound awful. That didn't matter too much when we were out in force on parades with the corps of drums because wrong notes often passed unnoticed. However, for the funeral there would just be two of us playing. I decided, and my fellow trumpeter agreed, that we would use instead standard B flat trumpets with valves. There was no need to use the valves to play either The Last Post or Reveille but the ‘open’ notes come out much cleaner and more reliably on the B flat trumpet than on the valveless variety. (In a different key as well, since the valveless trumpets were tuned to E flat - but only a professional would notice that.)

On the appointed day, 22 October 1954 Ron Newman, who was a drummer not a trumpeter, decided at the last minute he wanted to come with us because he wanted a day out and to see what a military funeral was like. We could not dissuade him. Because he couldn’t play any type of trumpet and because there is no place for a drum in either the Last Post or Reveille, he said he would stand alongside us with a trumpet and mime. A Warrant Officer, who was not privy to the third man plot, drove us from RAF Locking to RAF Filton where we had lunch and made sure our uniform buttons and trumpets were sparkling and our white belts and gloves immaculate. The WO then drove us to Bristol crematorium.

We had to stand to attention alongside the RAF Guard of Honour and the firing party for 25 minutes while the outdoor service progressed before it was time for our part in the proceedings. 25 minutes is a long time to stand to attention, especially when you are nervously waiting to give your very first solo performance. Our third man stood in the middle between Mick and me and, like most mime artists, tended to overact - I could see his bulging eyes and puffed cheeks from the corner of my eyes as Mick and I played. In spite of the strict instructions I had given him, he pumped the trumpet’s three valves as though he were playing The Flight of the Bumble Bee. Anyone watching us from close quarters must have realised he did not utter a single note and they probably wondered why he was there. Mick and I played impeccably. No-one spoke to us at any time before, during or after the ceremony. It was all very sad. I cannot even remember the name of the deceased but I seem to recall that he was an Australian on secondment to the RAF. Mick and I fervently hoped that no-one at the funeral would put in a complaint; if they did, we never heard about it.

For the final week of the course we were taken to a highly secure hangar that we had never visited before and there we were introduced to RAF Typex cipher machines. Many years later I discovered that Typex machines had been used by the RAF since 1937. The machines had five adjustable cog wheels and were obviously similar to the German Enigma machines of World War 2, but in 1954 none of us had heard of Enigma either because it was still highly secret and on the need-to-know list.

We learned how to set up the Typex machines and how to service the mechanism, but that was all. We made notes in new exercise books stamped front and rear CONFIDENTIAL but we had to hand these in at the end of each working day and at the end of the final day of the course. Someone asked why we had been told to make notes when we were not allowed to take them away with us. Our instructor said, "If you're posted to a station where you're employed on Typex duties you may ask your Signals Officer to request that your notebooks are forwarded to you." I never was so perhaps my notes are still gathering dust somewhere.

At the end of my fitters  course I was one of the lucky ones posted overseas. In the early 1950s there were not enough Hastings passenger aircraft available to transport everyone who needed to get to faraway overseas locations. Naturally, the RAF got preference over the RN and Army, although I imagine RN personnel would have chosen to travel by sea anyway. Three of us, David Gaunt, Mick Harley and me, were destined for Ceylon (now, of course, known as Sri Lanka) and we were selected to fly to our destinations instead of having to travel for several very uncomfortable weeks on a troop ship.

Above: Clip from my diary for 25 November 1954.
I went home from Locking on 14 days embarkation leave. On 25 November 1954, towards the end of my leave I wrote the following in my diary: "A Government White Paper has been issued, according to the news on the wireless today, about the desperate shortage of skilled tradesmen in the RAF, especially in the wireless trades. They are looking for ways of encouraging more long term regulars. I don't think they will have much of a job to encourage me to stay in - I'm enjoying myself too much."Our course finally came to an end on 15 November 1954. Several of our course were re-coursed for failing the final examinations. All those who passed were immediately promoted to the rank of Junior Technician and we went straightaway to the Station Tailors to have the chevrons stitched on.

The rank of junior technician was new: it was the first rung on the Technician Ladder which, under the much-vaunted New Trade Structure, had promotion prospects all the way up to Master Technician - the equivalent of Warrant Officer. Technicians wore the rank chevrons on their sleeves upside down to differentiate them from NCOs on the ordinary ladder. Junior Technicians wore a single upside down chevron and ranked just below corporals, but we considered ourselves much better than ordinary corporals because we had all passed the long fitters course.

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