Swimming Lessons - Tony Cunnane's Afterthoughts

Tony Cunnane's Afterthoughts
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Swimming Lessons

This piece from my personal archives was written many years ago.

In my early years, just before WW2 started and then throughout the war, there was no opportunity for swimming lessons because there were no functioning public swimming pools in Wakefield. That didn’t seem to matter much: no-one went to the seaside resorts because most beaches were out of bounds for security reasons. Between 1947 and 1952, at each of my three grammar schools, no-one offered to teach me to swim.

Not until I had completed my Air Signaller training at RAF Swanton Morley in early 1957 did the subject of swimming proficiency crop up. At the end of the course I was looking forward not only to promotion to sergeant with a considerable increase in pay, but also to starting a complete change to my RAF career flying in Coastal Command Shackletons.  On the very day I was leaving Swanton Morley, with my signaller’s flying brevet and sergeant stripes already sewn onto my No 1 Home Dress uniform, the course instructor called me in for a final debriefing during which he asked me how far I could swim.

“I can’t swim at all,” I confessed.

“Didn’t you have lessons at school?”

“During the war there was no opportunity for swimming lessons because there were no public swimming pools. Then, at each of my three grammar schools, swimming was considered a recreation – a break from normal lessons. No-one ever offered to teach me to swim so I never had any swimming lessons."

“Everyone going to Coastal Command must be able to swim at least 25 yards,” said the Instructor (The RAF was pre-metric in the 1950s.) “Just imagine what could happen if you had to bale out of your Shackleton halfway across the Atlantic or in the middle of the Mediterranean.”

“I doubt if being able to swim 25 yards would make much difference,” I said.

“Don’t be impertinent,” snapped the Instructor. “As a matter of fact, I’ve already arranged for you to go to RAF Cranwell before you go on leave – they have an excellent swimming pool there and plenty of instructors. They will be expecting you tomorrow. You will stay there until you can swim a minimum of 25 yards. The longer you take, the shorter your leave will be. It’s up you to co-operate with the instructors.”

With that, I was dismissed. The RAF College at Cranwell was roughly halfway between Swanton Morley and my home in Wakefield. I am not sure who was more embarrassed when I checked in at the RAF Cranwell swimming pool: me, a brand-new sergeant, or my instructors, all of them youthful corporal physical training instructors (PTI), presumably wondering if I had been sent to test their system.

Over the next three or four days I had a different PTI instructing me each day; clearly they all wanted a piece of the action!! Fortunately, there were no Cranwell cadets using the pool during my lessons - that would have been embarrassing. On the 4th day, I confidently swam the full length of the pool, and back, wearing a well-worn flying suit over my swimming costume and old boots on my feet – and only then did they tell me that the pool was 50 yards long. A telephone call to Swanton Morley and I was free to go on leave.

Soon after I arrived in Malta to join No 38 Shackleton Squadron at RAF Luqa, I went with a group of friends to take my first dip in the Mediterranean at one of the many excellent rocky beaches. I might have enjoyed it except there was a lot of floating detritus and countless jellyfish swimming about close in. A few days later I had to report sick with an irritating ear infection. After several visits to various ear specialists, during which I was not allowed to fly, the infection appeared to clear but left me with tinnitus in my left ear.

I never went swimming again apart from the annual dinghy drills all aircrew had to do – usually in a swimming pool but occasionally in the sea followed by a helicopter lift. To this day tinnitus returns every few months in my left ear, never in my right ear. I have got so accustomed to the high-pitched whine that I often don’t realise it has gone away – but as soon as I do realise, it starts up again.

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