Back to UK and home to my surprised parents - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

A Yorkshire Aviator's Autobiography
Tony Cunnane
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Back to UK and home to my surprised parents

The Hastings passenger transport landed at Lyneham at 2.30pm on 15 February 1956. I had a rearward-facing window seat all the way and it was so nice to see green fields and small villages glide past as we made our final approach for landing. In the NAAFI at Lyneham I bumped into Philip Holt, a lad who had been in my form at Salford Grammar School. Philip and I had only a few minutes to compare notes before I had to board an RAF coach, along with other airmen returning at the end of their overseas tours. We were taken to No 5 Personnel Disposal Unit (PDU) at RAF Innsworth for the inevitable documentation.

There had been no opportunity before leaving Sri Lanka to go to the Cable and Wireless station in Colombo to send a cable to tell Mum and Dad that I would be coming home 15 months early. Because it had been evening when I arrived at Innsworth, I had decided that it was too late to send a telegram telling them to expect me the following day; there was no telephone at home and the sudden arrival of a telegram boy very late in the day would have so alarmed my Mum and Dad that there was no telling how they might have reacted. After a frustrating night in the Transit Block, the following morning all the necessary documentation at 5PDU was very quickly completed. I was told by an officer, not an airman, that I would receive a letter at home in the next few days giving me instructions where and when to go next.

By mid-morning I was ready to set off on 14 days disembarkation leave. First, having decided that a telegram delivered to my parents during daylight hours would be OK, I sent one from the Post Office right outside Gloucester railway station. I remember the exact wording of that telegram: 'SURPRISE STOP ARRIVING LEEDS ON DEVONIAN TODAY STOP PLEASE MEET TONY'. The helpful man in the Telegraph Office said I had one word remaining of the 12 free ones that were included in the fee so I could include my time of arrival if I wished. I thanked him but said there was no need because our family was familiar with the exact times of the Devonian express. Instead of wasting the word that had been paid for, I compromised and added an extra SURPRISE to the end of my message.

The telegram boy had arrived at home with barely time for Mum and Dad to get on the bus to Leeds to meet me; fortunately Dad was on a day off from work. My parents were in a bit of a state when we met on the concourse of Leeds Midland Station because they had no idea why I was home 15 months early. In fact Dad was so anxious to know why I was back in UK that he insisted we went straight into the station's refreshment room for a snack so that I could explain. The room was crowded but we found a table. I noted that folk were looking at me curiously: young, fit, deeply tanned, smartly dressed in RAF best blue uniform, and with my kit bag still showing the large sign 'Ceylon' that I had stencilled on it that day at Innsworth 15 months earlier.

A letter from the BBC's Senior Superintendent Engineer (whose name, sadly, I did not record in my diary) was waiting for me at home inviting me to visit Bush House when I was next in London. I went on 27 February 1956 and it was a fascinating day. I spent time in the Control Room where I was able to see how the studios were connected via land lines to the appropriate transmitters in many dispersed locations around England. I met a young chap sitting in front of a patch panel in what was little more than a corridor. He had the important job of ensuring the Greenwich Time Signal (the 'pips') was sent to the transmitters on schedule - the BBC transmitted the pips every 15 minutes, night and day on at least one transmitter. As far as I could tell all he had to do was to wind up a volume control at the appropriate time and wind it down again 6 seconds later. I watched, through a sound-proof window, the 1100 GMT news bulletin being read - that was the one bulletin that most British ex-expats throughout the world always tuned in to, because it covered breakfast time in the western hemisphere and either afternoon or evening in the eastern hemisphere. It was also a bulletin that was re-broadcast by dozens of foreign stations. The news reader was truly "speaking to the world".

Before I left, I was taken aside by one of the senior engineers who asked if I was interested in applying for a place at the BBC Engineering School. I had to say that I could not do that because I was still committed to another 3 years in the RAF. Nevertheless, he gave me a pamphlet and an application form to take away in case I had second thoughts. He looked rather disappointed that I had turned down the BBC offer rather quickly; I have often wondered since if the offer was really genuine and not merely a last thank you to me for my services to the BBC in Ceylon.

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