Lincolnshire Echo's SOS Camp‌aign - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

A Yorkshire Aviator's Autobiography
Tony Cunnane
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Lincolnshire Echo's SOS Camp‌aign

The Lincolnshire Echo's SOS campaign quickly gained a lot of support from local councils and institutions. This poster/sticker (left) appeared all around the county and even in shop windows in Lincoln. Quite early on I advised Julie Wetton at the Echo 'off the record', that it would be a mistake to base their campaign exclusively on nostalgia about the Dam Busters. I reminded her that dozens of historic RAF airfields had been abandoned in recent years. I told her that if the SOS campaign to keep Scampton open were to have any hope of success, it would have to be based on economic, not sentimental, grounds.

This SOS poster is in a window inside the Red Arrows hangar at RAF Scampton. I found it, still in place in 2001, when the Red Arrows finally moved back to Cranwell!

It's worth making the point here that, with few exceptions, RAF personnel have no particular attachment to an RAF station, so most of the Service personnel at Scampton watched the campaign with little more than passing interest. The closure was of far more importance to the many civilian staff who worked at Scampton and who would probably be out of a job when the station closed.

In October 1994, Air Vice-Marshal James Edgar 'Johnnie' Johnson, CB, CBE, three DSOs and two DFCs, the World War 2 fighter ace and a childhood hero of mine, joined the fray in a letter personally addressed to me by name. I thought he might have written specifically to me, rather than to the Station Commander, because he had read some of my many news releases and listened to some of my radio broadcasts on the subject of Scampton's closure. Or perhaps he remembered me from an incident at RAF Finningley way back in 1961 when I was only recently commissioned. I was the Orderly Officer one Saturday afternoon and I was on my way to the TV room to watch the weekly sports programme when a stranger came in through the Officers' Mess front door.

"May I help you?" I asked. The stranger told me he wanted to see Buster Skinner, an old friend of his from when they had served together at RAF Cottesmore. Buster was a flight lieutenant Vulcan pilot and I knew he was upstairs in his room because I had seen him only a short while earlier. I took the visitor to Buster's room, knocked and went in.

"Buster, there's some chap here to see you - he says he's an old friend of yours from Cottesmore." Buster had been asleep, partly clothed, on his bed but, when he saw who was following me, he leapt to his feet and said: "Sir, excuse my dress, please come in."

Later that afternoon Buster came to my room. "Didn't you recognise who that was? It was Johnny Johnson, the fighter ace! He's getting promoted to air vice-marshal and going out to Aden to be AOC Middle East. He wants me to be his ADC."

"He never said who he was," I muttered, aghast at my gaffe. "I've got his book 'Wing Leader' in my bookcase right now but I didn't recognise him."

"Relax, Tony," said Buster with a laugh. "He said it's a long time since he was last introduced by a pilot officer to a flight lieutenant as 'some chap'. He was my station commander at Cottesmore a couple of years ago. He would have signed your copy of his book if you'd recognised him and asked."

In his 1994 personal letter to me criticising the proposed closure of Scampton, Air Marshal Johnson wrote: "I think the mandarins in Whitehall, and by that I mean the Treasury and not the Royal Air Force, take no notice of history or of the feelings of people. Scampton should be saved! The base has a long and illustrious history. I would have thought that if they wanted to reduce the number of operational bases there are many which are far less worthy than Scampton."

It was nice to have his support and, in a memorable telephone conversation I made after reading his letter, I first apologised for once, a long time ago, referring to him as ‘some chap’ before thanking him for his support! He told me that he remembered ‘that young pilot officer who had addressed him as ‘some chap’ – he added that he had dined out on the story several times. That was his reason for addressing his letter to me and not, as protocol would normally have required, to the Station Commander.  I forwarded his letter to the Station Commander for further action as he saw fit.

The Lincolnshire Echo next came up with an alarming story with the headline, "Pollution Scare at threatened base", claiming that the land at Scampton "could be contaminated with chemicals". The report claimed that MoD had already confirmed that Scampton was formerly home "to the nuclear missiles carried by the Vulcan aircraft" and that large amounts of fuel and chemicals were still stored at Scampton. According to the Echo, the MoD spokesman had apparently added, rather unwisely in my opinion, "There is no truth in allegations that widespread radioactivity contamination exists at RAF Scampton". That statement issued by an MoD spokesman surely implied "some radioactivity contamination exists at RAF Scampton". Oh, how careful PROs have to be with off-the-cuff remarks!

Any radioactive contamination is, of course, a cause for concern and the campaigners quickly latched onto that MoD lapse. The SOS campaigners got hold of an environmental expert who reckoned that it would cost between £2 million and £3 million to clean up 220 cubic feet of contaminated land and went on to point out that Scampton airfield covered 889 acres, but they left it to their readers to work out how many cubic feet there are to an acre! The Gainsborough and Horncastle MP, Edward Leigh, said he would demand answers from the then Armed Forces Minister, Nicholas Soames. "If the MoD offloads Scampton and it does need decontaminating, it makes closing the base totally uneconomic. We are not talking tens of thousands but rather tens of millions." Then, mixing his metaphors he added, "It would be outrageous if the MoD washed its hands of Scampton once it was closed." We knew what he meant.

In fact it was quite widely believed at Scampton, especially by those who had lived in the area for many decades, that the contamination story was not entirely wrong. There was, allegedly, some poison gas contamination, dating from the Royal Flying Corps time at Scampton and surrounding airfields in World War One, buried deep under a field some miles away. I never did get to the bottom of that.

Soon the Lincolnshire Echo raised the stakes and introduced the transatlantic factor. Details of Whitehall's proposals to close Scampton were faxed to American defence experts in Washington prior to a meeting between them and the Chief Executive of the Lincolnshire Training and Enterprise Council. The Chief Executive was quoted as saying that he had learned at a meeting of American veterans, that 20% of them had signed the Echo's SOS petition - they were the ones who remembered Scampton and the Dam Busters and knew of the Red Arrows being based there. The SOS campaign was brilliantly run but really it had been doomed to failure from the outset: the MoD had apparently made its mind up that Scampton would close.  

Above: Another of my own photographs. I was always on the lookout for the unusual rather than the formal. When Nicholas Soames, Minister of State for the Armed Forces, visited the Red Arrows he made sure everyone noticed his red socks which he said he was wearing especially for the visit and he encouraged me to take this pic. The rest of the audience looked pretty bored. I sent the Minister, but not the media, several prints of this image.

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