We were well looked after - but the French were sceptical about our motives - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

A Yorkshire Aviator's Autobiography
Tony Cunnane
Go to content

We were well looked after - but the French were sceptical about our motives

In 1961 France was not part of NATO for defence purposes and that clearly complicated matters. Since I had not heard an acknowledgement to my final distress message, it was my duty to make absolutely sure, by any possible means, that the RAF knew that we had landed safely and not ditched into the Mediterranean. The Captain was concerned to get in touch with UK to tell Bomber Command HQ exactly what had happened so that there would not be a diplomatic incident. A French senior officer assured us, with upturned palms and a shrug of his shoulders such as only a Frenchman can do, that there was no way to contact anyone in UK - he said the French equivalent of the old WW2 excuse for anything that was lacking that I heard often as a child in Wakefield: "There is a war on, you know."

The flight engineer needed to get back to the aircraft to find out what was wrong with the two engines that had failed. I said that I needed to get back to the aircraft so that I could use the Hasting's HF equipment to try to contact one of the RAF guard stations on HF. That would be an improper use of air-to-ground frequencies but, when needs must, rules have to be bent. There ensued a private conversation to which I was not privy between the engineer and the two pilots. From what little I could hear, it seems that the failure of the first engine had been deliberately 'engineered' so that the aircraft could depart from its flight plan to do I knew not what. The real failure of the second engine had taken them completely by surprise and now they had to manufacture a plausible story.

Eventually the two pilots, the flight engineer and me, but not the staff and student navigators, were allowed back to the aircraft accompanied by several French officers including one who spoke reasonable English. Then we discovered that the French Air Force ground electrical supplies could not be connected to our aircraft because the NATO standard plugs and sockets fitted to the Hastings were not compatible with French equipment. Our engineer, therefore, started one of the two serviceable engines using the aircraft's own batteries and then put the engine-driven generator on line so I had electrical power to operate the HF transmitter.

A French officer stood behind me with a headset on listening to, and writing down, what I was transmitting in Morse. I vaguely wondered why he needed to do that? Did the French really not trust me? Was there really something about our emergency that I wasn't aware of? I cannot remember which station answered my radio call on 5695.5kHz but it was answered almost immediately. It was barely an hour since our landing but there must have been a shift change because the distant operator seemed not to believe he was communicating with a Hastings from RAF Lindholme sitting on the ground in North Africa, but eventually I was able to convince him. In the meantime the engineer had decided that the two engines had failed because of blocked oil filters and I was told to add that piece of gen to my message. It seems the Hastings had a history of oil filter trouble at that time and our flight engineer thought he could clear the problems himself without help from the UK.

By that time it was getting dark. The French officers were now friendly and insisted on taking us to the Officers' Mess where we had an excellent late lunch and made full use of the bottles of French wine already on our table - one full bottle red and one white for each person. We exercised our schoolboy French and they their schoolboy English. I cannot now remember what we did in the rest of the evening but, of course, we would not have been allowed to leave the base even had we wanted to.

The following morning a senior French officer we had not met before joined us at breakfast and told us that he had laid on a minibus to take some of us to downtown Oran where the British Consul was expecting to meet us. Our engineer remained at the airfield with some of the staff and students navigators to work on the aircraft and protect the specialist navigation equipment from prying eyes, while the rest of us went for the sight-seeing ride to see the British Consul. Since we were in a war zone, we thought it appropriate to wear our flying suits, not civilian clothes.

The local, predominantly Arab, population had obviously not only learned of our unscheduled arrival in their city but they also seemed to know that we were on our way to the British Consulate. The local grapevine must have been very efficient. Astonishingly, Algerians actually lined the last half-mile or so of the route. Some were looking on curiously but quite a few were cheering and waving in a very friendly manner. Several locals shouted "Welcome Breetish" and one chap actually pushed his head through an open window in our minibus when we were stationary in a traffic jam and said "I met Meester Churchill. Very good man". And all this was 16 years after the end of World War 2!

The British Consul took our Captain off to go and use his secure communications facilities to talk to RAF Bomber Command. Another consular official handed out a wad of French Francs. He said we could sign a chit for landing fees and any fuel we uplifted at the airfield but added we would have to pay cash for our food and accommodation in the French Officers' Mess. None of us signed for the money and, as far as I know, we were never asked to account for it when we got back to UK. The French officers would not let us pay for anything in their Mess.

Meanwhile, in our absence, the Flight Engineer had ground tested all four engines to his satisfaction. There was still sufficient fuel on board to fly direct back to Gibraltar and we had an uneventful flight the next day. We then stayed another night in Gibraltar while further engineering checks were carried out on the Hastings. My flying log book (see scan below) records that the flight from Gibraltar to Oran had lasted 2 hrs 30 minutes but the flight from Oran to Gibraltar took only 1hr 25 minutes.

When we landed back at Lindholme on 28 September, after a short stop at RAF Waddington for Customs clearance, I went straight to my car and drove myself back the few miles home to Finningley. No-one ever asked me where I had been and I never spoke about the trip to anyone apart from my own squadron commander who said I should be very discreet about what had happened. He advised me to keep quiet about the French Francs that I had been given. Apparently, handing it in to the Accounts Section at Finningley might have caused awkward questions to be asked about where I had obtained it. For many years they remained in a box amongst my personal possessions where I kept notes and coins left over from my many overseas trips. (Eventually I put it all in a charity box somewhere.)

Ten years after these events, by which time I had trained to be a pilot and was an aircraft captain myself on Victor Tankers at RAF Marham, I went one day on a visit to Uxbridge to see the RAF Search and Rescue HQ in operation. At one point in the radio room I happened to mention my Algerian incident to the civilian radio operators. A chap in the corner took off his headset and said, "I was the HF operator at St Mawgan when you made your distress calls. I thought your procedures were excellent. Well done! It was the only HF emergency call I had to deal with in my entire career."

Afterthought from 2017. I have always been convinced that there was something 'fishy' about our double engine failure. Why had the Boss of the BCBS asked OC 18 Squadron to provide a commissioned AEO for the trip to Gibraltar when he had plenty of highly experienced Senior NCO signallers of his own? How come the two failed engines miraculously became serviceable at Oran La Senia without the need for any spare parts or servicing other than starting the engines on the ground to see if they worked? How come one of the staff navigators knew there was a suitable military airfield at Oran conveniently just within reach when the second engine 'failed'? Were the French in on the act? The staff aircrew at BCBS had regular opportunities for trips to Gibraltar so there seemed no need for this crew to fake a double-engine failure just so they could return to Gibraltar for another day or two. Perhaps the clutch of student navigators, as well as me, were just part of the cover story to make the entire incident more convincing?  But what was the cover story covering up? Presumably I didn't need to know, so I was not told: that was the 'need-to-know' principle in action. Things like that happened during the Cold War, as became apparent to me when, just a few years later, I was sent out to the Far East to compile real-life war planning tasks for Victor bombers for which I was not qualified - nor even initially security cleared!

/continued here or click here to go back to the top of this page

Back to content