If you can remember from a few weeks ago and my communications with those fine gentlemen from the Phoenix Think Tank there was a particular post they objected to in which I eviscerated their outrageous claims about the RAF and their over inflated claims about the Fleet Air Arm.
In that post, called Naval Aviation, Blogs and Think Tanks, I took selected quotes from the PTT and offered a rebuttal and exposing their nonsense. Because they objected to me quoting from their posts I agreed to remove the original but I thought an update, without them, would still be useful.
So, here it is, the post they tried to kill
This is not intended to be authoritative and I would strongly urge readers to research the facts and points of view (which aren’t facts) for themselves.
In the build up to the SDSR a number of web sites popped up that had a single theme, the promotion of the Royal Navy and Fleet Air Arm. There is absolutely nothing wrong in that, if you look at the broad aim of Think Defence it is to promote debate on the nature and role of UK defence capabilities, so when it comes down to chit chat, I think more is always the merrier.
As the SDSR timeline progressed and in its aftermath, it became obvious that the content and tone had changed in some of them from advocacy of a maritime strategy to the advocacy of a maritime strategy at the expense of the RAF. Instead of highlighting the unique contribution of naval aviation, where it compliments land based aviation and how it can be integrated into a joint force, articles increasingly turned to denigrating the RAF, its achievements and personnel, and often, calling for its disbandment.
The authors and contributors maintain that criticisms are not directed at individuals in the RAF but at it as a corporate body or its senior leadership, but it is hard to reconcile that with some of the content and its tone which verged in some parts on impugning the memory of service personnel killed on recent operations.
This is inter service rivalry at its worst, it is desperately depressing that in an environment of decreasing funding and increasing costs that clearly bitter relations continue to harm UK defence capability especially when that energy could be devoted to more productive matters.
It is obvious that they are passionate about the defence of the UK and that passion has been directed to the production of numerous articles and opinions which have achieved some traction in the mainstream media.
Perhaps they are right, perhaps not; there are always two sides to any argument and although I do not entirely agree with a maritime centric strategy it is an entirely valid thing to argue for, that doesn’t make me ‘anti Navy’ it just means I have a different opinion.
One of the pillars on which it bases its argument on, is the history of naval aviation, particularly British naval aviation and comparing it unfavourably to land based aviation.
One has to be careful about citing history as some justification for the future composition of UK combat air power because it is very easy to simply learn the wrong lessons, forgetting that yesterday was very different to today, and today will be very different to tomorrow. We also have a tendency to look back with rose coloured spectacles; it is human nature to be loyal to one’s own ‘tribe’
Being objective is very difficult.
Their position seemed to be that naval aviation is far superior and belittled the contribution of the RAF at every stage, citing numerous examples of where the RAF were found wanting and the FAA and/or naval aviation were superior, saving the day.
This view was then extrapolated forward to an assertion that the RAF should be disbanded.
The source of this historical perspective seemed to be an article on the Fleet Air Arm Officers Association website from David Hobbs (a former RN Commander and author of excellent books) in which the case was made for naval aviation at the expense of land based aviation. An additional set of conflicts were also used to highlight how the RAF, lacking strategic mobility, needed the Royal Navy and its carriers to get to the fight, as it were.
This article has since been removed but I thought it was highly selective, presented a completely one sided and narrow perspective on what air power is and only discussed operations where naval airpower was used, not naval and land air power.
The Fleet Air Arm Officers Association website is a brilliant site, with bags of interesting information, so I would urge readers to pop over and have a look;
So the original article then propogated across multiple sites and was often cited by associated articles, blogs and other published papers.
I am no professional researcher but I wanted to examine the evidence presented by the these websites, surely if the RAF are as bad as they indicate, successive governments, civil servants and chiefs of the defence staff have been hoodwinked for a protracted period by RAF propaganda and it should be exposed!
You might to Google for yourself to see if the article in question, and others that quote it, are still around. I seem to remember extracts from it were used in submissions to the House of Commons defence select committee as well.
So this is a quick run through of post war operations where air power, of any flavour, has been used, and this might allow a spot of comparing and contrasting.
Instead of quoting directly, I have paraphrased or described the claims made.
- 1944 to 1949, Greek Civil War
- 1945 to 1946, Indochina and Siam
- 1945 to 1946, Netherlands East Indies
- 1948, Palestine
- 1945 to 1950, Southern Arabia
- 1948 to 1952, Eritrea and Somaliland
- 1948 to 1960, Malaya
- 1949, the Berlin Airlift
- 1950 – 1953, Korea
- 1951 to 1956, Egypt
- 1952 to 1956, Kenya
- 1952 to 1959, Oman
- 1954 to 1968, Aden and Radfan
- 1955 to 1959, Cyprus
- 1955, Sudan
- 1956, Suez
- 1958, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq
- 1958, British Honduras
- 1961, Kuwait
- 1962 to 1966, Borneo
- 1964, East African Mutinies
- 1965 to 1980, Rhodesia and Zambia
- 1972, British Honduras
- 1975 to 1994, Belize
- 1982, Falkland Islands
- 1983 Lebanon
- 1990 to 1991, The Gulf War
- 1992 to 1996, The Balkans
- Democratic Republic of Congo, 1997
- 2000, Sierra Leone
- 2003 to 2009, Iraq
1944 to 1949, Greek Civil War
In a 5 year operation the RAF deployed approximately 15 squadrons/detachments and Hurricanes, Spitfires, Beaufighters, Wellingtons, Boston’s, Mosquito’s, Dakotas and Walrus.
The FAA deployed a detachment of Sea Otters.
No mention of this in the article.
1945 to 1946, Indochina and Siam
Although it was a relatively small operation from a UK perspective, both the RAF and FAA were involved. 2 squadrons of Spitfires and 811 and 825 NAS with Sea Fury’s and Fireflies from HMS Warrior were deployed.
No mention of this in the article.
1945 to 1946, Netherlands East Indies
The RAF deployed Spitfires, Beaufighters and Mosquito’s in addition to Sunderland’s, Dakota’s and Auster’s from 14 squadrons/flights.
No mention of this in the article.
The article claimed that during the withdrawal phase, only naval aircraft from HMS Ocean could be used because the RAF aircraft had already been evacuated.
The first counter to that is the highly selective date, 1948. British forces had been in Palestine for many many years prior to this and in the pre war period the RAF and Army had perfected close air support tactics to such a degree that reaction times for airborne close air support were as low as 15 minutes, an interesting comparison with today.
In 1946 the infamous King David Hotel bombing prompted a reinforcement of Palestine in support of the British Mandate. Wikipedia has a good overview of the history of the conflict but without delving too deep into the wider conflict as one might reasonably imagine there was a sizeable RAF presence throughout, 12 squadrons in fact, No 6, No 13, No 18, No 32, No 37, No 38, No 178, No 208, No 214, No 621, No 651 and No 680. Between them, they operated Spitfires, Mosquito’s, Lancaster’s, Liberator’s, Tempest’s and Austers of various marks.
The main operation location was RAF Aqir but others were used including Ein Shemer, Qastina, Ramat David and Peta Tiqva.
By the end of 1947 the British announced their intention to withdraw and in the tense operational and political climate that followed all UK forces were gradually drawn down. The announcement came after the UN Resolution on Planned Partition which required the UK to withdraw by May 14, 1948 and the port of Haifa open for immigration by February. However, the British authorities deemed the opening of Haifa to be extremely unwise.
In April 1948 Tempests from 249 Squadron and Spitfires from 208 Squadron made a number of operational attack sorties in support of ground forces and the Lancaster’s of 38 and 37 Squadrons were relocated to Malta. The Union Jack was lowered on 14th of May and the state of Israel was declared the day after although British forces would not leave for some weeks after.
Within hours of the declaration Egyptian Spitfires had attacked Tel Aviv and Sde Nov airfields and on the 22nd of May also attacked Ramat David Airport in two sorties where the RAF were still tasked with covering the withdrawal. A number of RAF Spitfires and one Dakota were destroyed and 4 RAF personnel killed for the loss of 5 Egyptian Spitfires, 4 in the air and one with ground fires from the RAF Regiment. The Egyptians later apologised, they mistakenly thought the RAF had left and the forces on the ground were Israeli. The aircrew at the stations in question were reportedly recovering from a Dining In night in the mess in which they had decided to destroy the mess before handing over to the Israelis, hardly a model of military preparedness.
In 1946 the Royal Navy Palestine Patrol was established to prevent illegal immigration into the area and the Fleet Air Arm was renamed to the Naval Aviation Branch. The patrol continued its work right up until the end of the mandate.
HMS Ocean(theship that conducted the first ever landing of a jet aircraft on an aircraft carrier and first ever embarkation of female crew) arrived off Haifa on the 7th May 1948 and was later joined by HMS Triumph.
On the 15th of May the High Commissioner left Palestine aboard onboard HMS Euryalas, escorted by the aircraft carrier HMS Ocean, HMS Chevron, HMS Childers, HMS Volage, HMS Pelican and HMS Widemouth Bay.
British forces then withdrew to the Haifa enclave, a simple collapsing perimeter.
Towards the end of June the rear party preparing to leave Haifa after recovering a great deal of heavy equipment, with Royal Marines, Royal Engineers, Coldstream Guards, Grenadier Guards, Dragoon Guards and other units carrying out these final moves. Providing air cover was HMS Triumph with 4 Seafires held at 30 minutes notice. RAF aircraft were also involved with a search for a missing 4/7 Dragoon Guards tank and the Seafires conducted a number of armed reconnaissance patrols, no doubt providing a highly visible coercive deterrent. There is some disagreement on exactly who and when the last British forces left Palestine but the overall picture is largely one of an ordered withdrawal.
On the 30th of June, with most British forces now out of Haifa, HMS Triumph’s Seafires conducted a flypast.
The remaining Royal Marines and Army units gradually shrunk the perimeter until the last of the equipment and personnel were embarked on the LST HMS Striker and the force sailed. A destroyer was left in international waters for a few days, just in case.
For a complete breakdown of UK forces that served in Palestine between 1945 and 1948 the ever brilliant Britain’s Small Wars has a comprehensive breakdown hereand for further details of the Royal Navy Palestine Patrol, including the final few days, click here
In the book linked above there is no mention of HMS Ocean in the final days but other sources state she stayed with HMS Triumph.
So it would seem that the quote is largely correct in its highly selective construction but it fails to note the 3 years constant service in theatre by the RAF, the fact that RAF bases can’t be evacuated onto LST’s through a collapsing perimeter and would therefore have to have left long before, the actual nature of the protection and the continued operations in the area by the RAF some time after.
I would also question the assertion that only naval aircraft were capable of providing the protection required, Haifa is less than 200 miles from Cyprus and some of the longer range Mosquito’s had a range in excess of 2000 miles, the reason naval aviation was used was simply because it made more sense to do so, the aircraft could conduct limited sorties that suited the nature of the operation but would be available at short notice to cover any contingencies in what was essentially, an amphibious operation in reverse.
After the withdrawal, flying from Kabrit in the Canal Zone RAF PR Mosquito’s made daily sorties over the area and one was shot down by an Israeli Air Force P51 Mustang piloted by an American volunteer on November 20th 1948. Two similar incidents followed but in the very sensitive political environment at the time retaliation against the embryonic IAF would have certainly destroyed them and left the door wide open for Arab air forces to attack.
These incidents in 1949 were a lesson to the RAF about complacency, details in the Flight International archive here.
1945 to 1950, Southern Arabia
The RAF were engaged on a sporadic basis through this period with Mosquito’s, Brigands, Tempests and Lincolns.
No mention of this in the article.
1948 to 1952, Eritrea and Somaliland
RAF Hawker Tempest F6 aircraft of 6 Squadron deployed from Fayid to Mogadishu to fly a series of demonstration sorties. No.6 Squadron’s efforts were subsequently augmented by a detachment of Tempest F6s belonging to 8 Squadron, which operated from Hargeisa during March 1948.
In April, a detachment of Hawker Fury F6 fighter bombers from 39 Squadron was despatched from Khartoum in Sudan to Asmara in Eritrea to help counter guerrilla attacks mounted by Shifta bandits. The primary task of the detachment was to fly armed reconnaissance sorties in support of ground forces but they also conducted rocket attacks against rebel bases.
In August, unrest within Somaliland, triggered by the announcement that the disputed Ogaden territory was to be transferred to Ethiopia, leading to the despatch of No.213 Squadron (Hawker Tempest F6) from Deversoir to Mogadishu in order to ‘fly the flag’ and assist in restoring order. Following the withdrawal of the last British troops from the Odagen region of Somaliland on 23 September, No.213 Squadron left Mogadishu and returned to Deversoir.
Aircraft deployed included Mosquito’s, Tempests, Brigands and Lancasters.
Detachments remained until 1951 and operations from other locations until 1952.
No mention of this in the article.
1948 to 1960, Malaya
Following serious rioting and social unrest in early 1948, Sir Edward Gent, the High Commissioner for the Federation of Malaya, declared a state of emergency. The Malayan Communist Party was subsequently banned on 23 July. This marked the beginning of the Malayan Emergency (Operation Firedog). Operation Firedog represented a major commitment for the Royal Air Force (RAF).
A total of fifteen RAF squadrons served in Malaya at some stage of the emergency and many more United Kingdom-based units took part in temporary detachments to Malaya.
At the beginning of the operation the RAF presence was limited but during the emergency it escalated significantly. During the operation Fleet Air Arm aircraft would contribute when RN carriers were in the area. The full gamut of RAF and FAA aircraft were employed and a number of innovations progressed, including helicopter operations in a combined wing and psychological warfare. 848 NAS carried out its first airlift in 1953 when three S55’s lifted 12 members of the Worcestershire Regiment into the jungle in search of an insurgent commander and the naval rotary aviation component played a major role until the RAF could catch up and meet the requirements.
It would be fair to say that many of the jungle strike sorties were ineffectual and the most significant contribution to the overall campaign was provided by the fixed and rotary supply aircraft.
No mention of this in the article.
1949, the Berlin Airlift
147 RAF aircraft completed 65,857 sorties, transporting 394,509 tonnes of supplies.
No mention of this in the article.
1950 – 1953, Korea
The articles in question stated that the RAF’s involvement was limited to transport and some flying boat MPA patrols and the RN flew thousands of effective patrols. It also mentioned that the RAF supplied Meteor fighters to the RAAF but these had to be transported to theatre on RN aircraft carriers, the point being made that the RAF needed the RN even for that limited operation.
Aircraft carriers did indeed provide all the UK’s tactical strike and fighter capability during the Korea War. On their way to, and way back from Korea, Firefly’s from 827, 821 and 825 Squadrons from HMS Triumph HMS Ocean also conducted a number of sorties in Malaya but these were from land bases. Although to me this demonstrates the flexibility of naval aviation they weren’t actually flown from the decks and thus for some reason, left out of the article(s).
At the outbreak of the Korean War HMS Triumph, sailing to Hong Kong from Japan, joined the USN Valley Forge and the first sortie comprising 12 Seafires and 9 fireflies was launched against Haeju Airfield on the 3rd of July 1950.
The articles casually dismissed the role of the Sunderland yet fails to mention that there were there at the request of the Royal Navy, initially providing an anti submarine capability. Hong Kong was a vital staging post and naval base for the carriers, without Hong Kong it is unlikely the carriers would have been able to sustain their deployment and it was given the appropriate degree of protection. From mid 1949 in Hong Kong, 2 squadrons were maintained as a protective force, first with Spitfires and later with Hornets and Vampires. Photo recce Spitfires were also based in Hong Kong and regularly flew sorties over China. The RAF deployment in Hong Kong lasted from 1948 to 1997 and the FAA were also involved over a sustained period.
HMS Triumph was duly replaced by HMS Theseus in October and in April 1952 by HMS Glory. HMS Glory was replaced in May 1952 by HMS Ocean when she was replaced by HMS Glory in October. HMS Ocean carried out the final shift until the ceasefire was declared in July 1953 and during her deployment carried out a record breaking 123 sorties in one day.
This was a superb display of sustained deployment, a Sea Fury from HMS Ocean was also responsible for the first kill of a jet aircraft from a piston engine aircraft (interesting account here) and the first use of rocket assisted takeoffs from a carrier was also carried out by HMS Ocean in this period.
Video from British Pathe of HMS Glory in actionoff Korea
The carriers generally spent 18 days on station followed by a 6 day trip to Japan for replenishment where they would be in port for about a week before returning to the ops area.
Despite the superb contribution of naval aviation to operations in Korea it would be wrong to dismiss the contribution of the RAF. RAF Sunderland Flying Boats from 88, 205 and 209 squadrons were tasked throughout, 2 were lost. The Sunderland detachment came under the operational control of the United States Navy’s Fleet Air Wing (FAW) 6 and their duties included anti submarine, maritime patrol, weather reconnaissance and transport. The last detachment concluded operations on 31 July 1953.
Auster’s from 1903 Independent Air Observation Post Flight and 1913 Light Liaison Flight were deployed from 1951 until the ceasefire, 2 were lost to ground fire and over 3,000 sorties were completed. Both these flights were mixed RAF and Army, with the pilots usually being ex Royal Artillery.
RAF pilots also flew with other nations; the Royal Australian Air Force 77 Squadron and 6 pilots were killed or taken prisoner. At the ceasefire, 77 Squadron had flown over 18,000 sorties. RAF pilots also flewwith the USAF, 51st Fighter Interceptor Wing at Suwon the 4th Fighter Interceptor Wing at Kimpo.
Given that a number of RAF personnel were killed in action I would say that the article is rather disrespectful to their memory and it is also worth considering why the RAF was largely in the backseat in Korea.
The simple reason is that they were heavily tasked in Malaya and not forgetting the early fifties was a period where air defence of the UK, the strategic deterrent and other locations were core roles.
1951 to 1956, Egypt
After the war the Egyptians naturally wanted to assert their independence and effect a British withdrawal. A number of RAF bases in the Canal Zone protected the canal and provided a buffer against Soviet expansion in the area. There was a simmering and escalating security situation with 40 service personnel killed and the RAF had Vampires, Meteors, Mosquitos, Meteors, Valettas, Dakotas, Proctors, Ansons, Lincolns and Austers in theatre.
No mention of this in the article.
1952 to 1956, Kenya
After the War, the Kenyan African Union was formed and from that came the extremist Kenyan Land Freedom Party, otherwise known as the Mau Mau. In 1952 the murder of a prominent local prompted the declaration of emergency. By the end of the emergency the RAF had dropped nearly 22,00 bombs and deployed Lincolns, Austers, Harvards, Meteors, Lancasters, Dakotas, Ansons, Proctors, Pembrokes and a number of Sycamore helicopters.
No mention of this in the article.
1952 to 1959, Oman
There had been a long series of close links with Oman that continues to this day and in this period British forces provided combat support, the RAF deploying Vampires, Meteors, Valettas, Lancasters, Lincolns, Shackletons, Canberra’s and Ansons.
Sea Hawks, Sea Venoms and Skyraiders from HMS Ocean HMS Bulwark were also deployed for a short period.
No mention of this in the article.
1954 to 1968, Aden and Radfan
The artice described how the withdrawing British forces were covered by an RN task force, this task force providing cover the RAF as it too withdrew from theatre.
Although British forces had been involved in various smaller operations in the region for many years things got serious in 1954 when the RAF airlifted troops to counter an attack against Fort Rabat. Supporting the troops were a small number of Vampires and air command post. The Vampires also marked targets for Lincoln bombers and operations continued for some time, in this phase up to 1957 when Shackeltons were also deployed. In 1960 Hunters saw service in the area and in 1960 and 1963 Sea Venoms and Sea Vixens from HMS Centaur and HMS Hermes were involved.
In October 1962 there was a revolution in Yemen and the situation escalated, with Egypt being drawn in. British forces then had dissident tribes, incursions from the Yemen and terrorist actions in Aden itself to deal with.
Combined arms operations continued through 1964 including Operation Nutcracker which involved Army, local forces, RAF and Wessex helicopters from HMS Centaur. After Nutcracker another operation was executed that included 45 Commando, a company of 3 Para, other Army units, local forces and a range of RAF aircraft. Hunters provided close air support and in May this forces was reinforced further, including Wessex helicopters from 815 NAS. The operation was ultimately a success and order was maintained after these combat operations using the well tried air control tactics.
A quote from Tim Toyne Sewell in the book ‘The British Retreat from Aden’
Spectator sport was watching the RAF Hunter (successor to the Venom) pilots attacking rebel positions deep in the valleys between the mountains. They flew at the limits, heading down the between the rock walls until it seemed that they must crash into the mountainside, firing into forts or sangars with long bursts of fire, before hauling back the stick and going vertically up over the mountain lip. It was real Biggles stuff and the RAF won plenty of plaudits from the Jocks, who knew that they would be well served if they needed help in an emergency
The Wessex helicopters were essential to the success of the operation and during the May to June period, RAF Hunters flew over 600 sorties, expending over 180,000 cannon rounds and firing 2,500 rockets. During the same period RAF also Belvederes flew over 1,000 sorties.
In 1964 it was announced the area would be granted independence but with a British military bases retained. This didn’t go down well with the locals and fighting continued in and around Aden for some years, in 1966 the intention to retain a base was reversed.
Plans were now made for a full scale evacuation involving the largest airlift since Berlin and many thousands of personnel and huge quantities of stores were airlifted by Hercules, Britannia’s and Belfast’s. In an echo of Palestine the final withdrawal was 42 Commando by Wessex helicopters from 848 NAS and 78 Squadron. These were covered by Buccaneers Sea Vixens from HMS Eagle. Although there were of course contingency plans if things get a bit sporty, in the end, the withdrawal proceeded without incident.
The article was again guilty of being highly selective in its dates.
1955 to 1959, Cyprus
When the Cyprus Emergency was declared in 1955 after the murder of a policeman there was already a significant British force on the island following the withdrawal from Egypt in 1954. The RAF and FAA contribution was relatively small but there was a contribution nevertheless.
No mention of this in the article.
The RAF deployed 3 squadrons of Tempests to support the run up to independence and attack dissidents in the south of the country.
No mention of this in the article.
The article described a combined assault by UK and French carrier borne and land based aircraft, making the point that because of their position, the carriers reacted more quickly to calls for action than RAF aircraft from Cyprus and Malta. Despite, it said, only having a third of the British strike fighters the RN strike fighters flew two thirds of the strike sorties. RAF aircraft were said to carry fewer weapons and could spend little time on task and when on task most time was spent at high level to conserve fuel.
In October 1955 fighting broke out around the British bases in the Suez Canal Zone and 16 Independent Parachute Brigade was flown from Cyprus aboard the Vickers Vikings of Nos. 70, 78, 114, 204 and 216 Squadrons RAF to support the units stationed in the Canal Zone.
In August 1956 after the nationalisation of the Suez Canal by Egypt on 26 July Canberra bombers were deployed to Cyprus as part of an escalation strategy. In October following the Egyptian Government’s rejection of the ultimatum presented by Britain and France and its closure of the Suez Canal, British and French forces commenced operations against Egypt, called Operation Musketeer.
Twelve Egyptian airfields in the Canal Zone and the Nile Delta were attacked by Canberra and Valiant bombers. In an echo of recent operations this initial phase, called Operation Fairlove, was designed to neutralise the opposing air forces. The bomber force consisted of 17 RAF squadrons supported by 7 squadrons of Venoms, Hunters and Meteors operating from Malta and Cyprus. In addition to the RAF, the Fleet Air Arm fielded 11 squadrons, Sea Hawks, Sea Venoms and Wyverns.
Operations commenced on the 31st of October, with reconnaissance being carried out by RAF Canberra’s closely followed by Canberra and Valiant bombers. The night after both the RAF and FAA were engaged in bombing operations. The destruction of the Egyptian Air Force was swift and other targets were engaged although subsequent research has shown that some of the Egyptian Air Force was relocated South prior to the operation.
Subsequent analysis showed that the high level bombing was not as effective as first thought but as the threat of the Egyptian Air Force was reduced, medium level attacks were much more accurate and rules of engagement meant that civilian casualties were to be avoided at all costs.
Whilst the Canberras carried out many effective strike sorties the Hunters, with most of their drop tanks having been damaged by previous gunnery practice, were indeed limited to only 10 minutes over the target area.
Prior to the amphibious attack phase there was a shortage of viable targets for aircraft so strikes reduced.
Carrier borne aircraft, in addition to strike sorties, also carried out anti submarine and AEW tasks.
On the 5th of November 3 Para were dropped onto the El Gamil airfield by RAF Valettas and Hastings, the drop zone being marked with flares dropped by Canberra’s. The airborne force also included 7 jeeps armed with recoilless rifles, these, incredibly being carried under the wings of the Hastings. Although the WWII vintage jeeps had been out of service for some time they were the only vehicles available that were light enough for air dropping. FAA aircraft flew cab rank style close air support missions and by the end of the day in excess of 400 sorties had been flown. The size of the airdrop was largely dictated by the available space at the Cyprus airfields and capacity of the RAF’s transport fleet. This was an area that had seen rapid decline since the war and with the resource intensive effort to get the V Bomber force operational the air lift capacity was simply too small. In comparison with the French parachute force, British parachute forces were much less well trained and equipped.
On the 6th of November the amphibious assault commenced with 40 and 42 Commando, supported by Centurion tanks from the Royal Tank Regiment. The reserve, 45 Commando, was committed to and in a world first, carried out a ship to shore helicopter assault using Whirlwinds from 845 NAS and HMS Theseus and Whirlwinds and Sycamores from the Joint Helicopter Unit and HMS Ocean.
After helicopters had demonstrated their potential in Korea, Joint Helicopter Experimental Unit (JHEU) was formed at RAF Middle Wallop on April Fools Day, 1955, with both the RAF and Army in equal numbers. After many landings on an aircraft carrier sized runway at Middle Wallop, helicopters from the JHEU deployed to HMS Theseus in 1955 to develop the concept further.
Just before Suez, JHEU ceased to be an experimental unit and was renamed to the Joint Helicopter Unit, during Operation Musketeer they were extremely busy. JHU was a truly joint unit, Army and RAF pilots ferrying Royal Marines into battle.
RAF and FAA aircraft continued to provide support to the land operation although given their close proximity the FAA aircraft could remain on station longer. Close Air Support to the amphibious landing was provided by the FAA, 8 Sea Hawks armed with rockets and coordinated by an Air Control Team that consisted of 2 pilots (RAF and French Armeé de’l Air), 2 forward air controllers and an Army Ground Liaison Officer.
The FAA was involved with a friendly fire incident when a Wyvern mistakenly attacked the HQ of 45 Commando.
The same day a ceasefire was announced.
Suez, like every single combat operation, was a mixture of success and failure, many lessons were learned but what strikes me is the interconnected nature of the operation, all the services combining for maximum effect in what was a stunning tactical victory, strategy of course, was another matter.
1958, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq
The article described how HMS Eagle provided support for airborne and amphibious forces and that carrier borne fighters were used to protect RAF transport aircraft because RAF fighter bases were to far away for their aircraft to be effective.
As part of a coordinated US/UK response to growing unrest in the area the UK flew elements of 2 Para to Amman from Cyprus in RAF Hastings. By the 18th, over 2,000 British troops were in Amman. The RAF transports were escorted by fighters from the powerful US Sixth Fleet and on the 20th a detachment of Hunters from Cyprus were stationed there.
1958, British Honduras
In April, Operation Quick Flight commenced, in light of the worsening relationship between the United Kingdom and Guatemala with regard to the status of British Honduras, a Royal Visit was conducted by Princess Margaret to demonstrate the United Kingdom’s commitment to preserve the integrity of the Crown Colony. The Vickers Viscount carrying Princess Margaret was escorted by two armed Canberra interdictors of No.59 Squadron, with two Canberra PR9s of No.58 Squadron acting as navigation leaders.
No mention of this in the article.
The article decsribed how HMS Bulwark and 42 Cdo RM arrived in the area within 24 hours because of timely intelligence and used helicopters to provide rapid deployment. It stated that British troops arriving in RAF transport aircraft had only what they stood up in and had to both requisition vehicles and wait for RN amphibious shipping to bring in more. HMS Victoria arrived some time later but arrived with a complete package of power that subsequently dominated the area. It said that a single RAF Hunter squadron was deployed to Kuwait from Bahrain but lacked the logistics and radar cover to be effective, this being provided by HMS Bulwark. Because no RAF transport aircraft were available, as they were all being used for troop transport, the Hunters left as soon as HMS Victorious arrived.
In response to Iraq making a claim against Kuwait and moving troops south, British forces in the area were placed on 4 days notice to move. HMS Bulwark and 42 Commando were off Karachi and she joined the three frigates in area, moving into the Gulf. Plan Vantage was a prepared Reinforced Theatre Plan which envisaged supplementing local forces with those flown in from the UK.
On the 29th June HMS Bulwark started her voyage from Karachi and on the 30th the 2 Hunter squadrons moved to Bahrein from their respective regional locations and were operational the same day. A pair of Shackletons also moved to the same location and Canberra’s went to Sharjah (now part of the UAE) HQ 24 Brigade was moved into the Gulf from Kenya using a combination of RAF and civilian transport aircraft.
When the formal request for assistance came on the 29th British forces were poised ready. The first units to enter Kuwait were elements of 42 Commando flown off HMS Bulwark by Whirlwinds of 848NAS. The RAF Hunters arrived the same morning at Kuwait New Airfield and Britannias flew in 45 Commando and the 11th Hussars from Aden. A small contingent of the 3rd Dragoon Guards was put ashore from HMS Striker (the same HMS Striker mentioned above in the Palestine section)
The build up continued with Comets, Britannias and Beverleys bringing in 2 Para, 1st Battalion Royal Inniskillings and 2 company’s of Coldstream Guards complete with their equipment.
On the 4th the planned build up was complete and the composite force took up positions along the Mutla Ridge. The RAF aircrew were rotated onto Bulwark and Bulwark also provided the only air defence radar capability.
On the 9th of July HMS Victoria arrived with Sea Vixen fighters, AEW Gannets and much improved radar which extended coverage out to 150 miles. On the 18th, the RAF also established a second air defence radar site although it was not as capable as that of HMS Victorious. No moves were made on Kuwait and by the 20th plans for a stand down were in place. HMS Centaur relieved HMS Victorious on the 31st of July and by late September all units were at their normal locations.
No invasion came and one might reasonably chalk this one up to the effectiveness of an all arms deployment that rapidly built up ground forces that were supported by a range of airborne capabilities from both land and sea.
1962 to 1966, Borneo
This is where the article seemed to descend into siliness, clutching at straws to to score points, making a point that the RAF had to rely on the RN commando carriers to get into theatre because they lacked the range to self deploy which seems rather obvious. It then described how carriers and their air groups provided a deterrent against Indonesian intervention by a show pf presence in international waters, the RAF being unable to provide anything similar.
The then president of Borneo encourage a local group to revolt, seeking a unification of Malaysia, the Philippines and Indonesia and a number of attacks were carried out and a pre prepared plan, Operation Borneo, was commenced. RAF Beverleys and New Zealand and Australian aircraft flew a battalion of Gurkhas into a number of locations to reinforce and restore order. Hunters and Canberras were detached to provide close air support and Beavers and Austers continued to provide localised support. 42 Commando joined the action and HMS Albion was on the scene with Whirlwind and Wessex helicopters a short time later.
As mopping up operations continued HMS Hermes arrived to provide additional air cover
Things de escalated but by 1963 trouble was increasing with sporadic cross border attacks by Indonesian forces although both sides were at pains to keep the political rhetoric low key.
By late September Indonesia has started overflying the area with their B25’s and P51 Mustangs. In response the RAF detached Hunters and Javelins, this was reinforced in early 1963 with more Javelins and an air defence intercept zone was established.
Prior to the state of emergency being declared on the 2nd of September Indonesia paratroopers had conducted and airborne assault in West Malaysia. 14 Hunter sorties saw most of the ground force destroyed and the remnants were cleared by ground forces.
The Malaysian aircraft had penetrated via a radar gap and HMS Kent was subsequently positioned to fill it. Gannet AEW aircraft played a vital role until ground based radar coverage could be improved. RAF, RNZAF and RAAF aircraft continued to reinforce the air defence arrangements in the area.
In Borneo, ground operations continued and were supported by an increasing number of RAF, AAC and FAA helicopters and transport aircraft.
To provide an overt and visible deterrent to Indonesia detachments of the V Bomber force were routinely deployed to Singapore.
1964, East African Mutinies
Again, the article seemed to make great play of how RAF helicopters had to rely oy on the RN to get into the action.
A number of former East African British colonies achieved independence in the run up to this period and British forces were involved in minor roles, supporting evacuations for example.
On the 20th of January men from the 1 Battalion Tanganyika Rifles mutinied, detaining British officers, NCO’s and the High Commissioner. HMS Centaur sailed from Aden with 45 Commando, elements of the 16/5th Lancers and RAF helicopters. Although the captives were released the mutiny spread and the president of Tanganyika formally requested assistance. On the 25th 45 Commando conducted a heliborne assault into Colito on the coast supported by Wessex from 815 NAS and Belverderes from 26 Squadron RAF. The Belverderes were used to transport Ferret armoured scout cars of the Lancers. After restoring order the next objective was Tabora, some 400 miles inland.
An RAF Argosy flew in an RAF Regiment force to secure the airbase who were met by elements of 45 Commando flown in by the 2 Belvederes. Sea Vixens were planned to strike that day but the mutineers had surrendered and the attack was cancelled.
A number of other mutinies were effectively dealt with and the RAF, Army, RN, FAA and Royal Marines all playing various roles.
1965 to 1980, Rhodesia and Zambia
The article describes how during the Defence of Zambia (1965-66), the RAF took many months to deploy and in this period was covered by aircraft from HMS Eagle. Then for the Beira Patrol (1965-66) claimed that only aircraft from aircraft carriers could cover the area before the RAF arrived.
Following Rhodesia’s declaration of independence sanctions were imposed but these would also impact Zambia so it was decided to mount an air supply operation supplement their oil stocks. In mid November 1965 HMS Eagle arrived off Mozambique to provide air cover in case the air force of Rhodesia decided to attack the transports flying into Zambia. The plan called for the aircraft from HMS Eagle to mount defensive patrols until they were relieved by RAF Javelins. On the 1st of December the Javelins flew direct to Nairobi from Cyprus using long range tanks. Air defence radars were also flown in.
On the 19th of December the oil supply flights commenced and by the end of October 1966 when the airlift ceased, over 3 million gallons had been transported, although it was said much of this was for the Vixens!
HMS Eagle left the area in December and in January was replaced by HMS Ark Royal who took up station off the Mozambique port of Beira. HMS Eagle came back in early March to relieve HMS Ark Royal and commenced the blockade; this was called the Beira Patrol. Until Shackletons took over in August the FAA and RN carried out the task.
The Beira Patrol was a futile exercise, most of the oil was transported overland from South Africa and many saw it as a complete waste of time and resources better deployed elsewhere, Borneo for example.
1972, British Honduras
The article describes how a show of force by Buccaneers from Ark Royal prevented a threatened invasion of British Honduras (Belize) by Guatemala and that the RAF was too far away to do anything.
In January 1972 a small force of Guatemalan troops were sighted on the border and HMS Ark Royal, who was in the area conducting a training mission with the USS Bachante was detached to the area, Buccaneers from 891 NAS conducted a number of shows of strength on the border.
In February HMS Ark Royal returned to the area with the 2nd Battalion Grenadier Guards who reinforced the garrison.
The country was renamed Belize in 1973
1975 to 1994, Belize
After negotiations between the UK and Guatemala broke down Guatemalan troops began massing on the border. From the 11th of October RAF Pumas were flown into the area by Belfast transports and the garrison increased to over a thousand personnel. Six RAF Harrier GR1A aircraft were flown to Belize, using in flight refuelling and stops at Goose Bay and Nassau.
By 1976, with things calming down, the Harriers returned to the UK, transported in Belfasts.
The situation escalated yet again and six Harriers were flown out to reinforce the garrison, yet again.
Although the expected invasion did not happen, as could be expected, a force of 4 Harrier GR3 was established and maintained throughout this period. The last Harriers departed in 1993 and the Pumas in 1994.
No mention of this in the article.
1982, Falkland Islands
Given the recentness and how obvious personalities have been vocal on this it should come of no surprise that the article was partiularly strident about the RAF’s contribution to the Falklands conflict.
First it made the point that RAF Harriers and Chinooks had no means of reaching the conflict other than the Atlantic Conveyor, HMS Hermes and HMS Invicible, how they had to rely on RN supplied radar, air defence, weapons and fuel to be effective, neither of which would have been there without the carriers. It then went on to describe how carrier borne strike fighters and helicopters were fundamental to the success of the operation, neither of which would have been there without the carriers. It again made the point, using the word ‘significantly, that the RAF ‘needed’ the carriers and ACO to ‘get them into action’
Not in the main article but claims made around the same time on the same collection of sites included statements that RAF Harriers flew many fewer ground attack missions than did Sea Harriers and on Black Buck it claimed that one bomb hit the edge of the runway, how this did not prevent its use by Hercules or Close Air Support aircraft and 62 bombs were off target, 21 of them not even being armed properly. One mission was reportedly aborted because a pilot left the cabin window open and declared a cockpit pressurisation failure. Comparisons were also made about comparative fuel use, how Sea Harriers delivered many bombs and hit their targets every time, that £10m of fuel was spent on knocking out one small surface to air machine gun and that the RAF placed ships in danger by insisting that the naval task force could not fire at any targets whilst the Vulcans were near the target.
Much has been written about the Falkland Islands conflict in 1982 and inevitably there are differences of opinion and perceptions, to research these differences would be a huge task, made even more difficult by the official history differing in some aspects from subsequent publications.
The first and obvious thing to say is that without the Sea Harriers the operation would have simply been extremely unlikely to have been successful. The anti aircraft systems on board the Royal Navy vessels and when ashore, ground based air defence systems, proved less capable than thought and no land based fighter cover was available. Even though British forces demonstrably failed to achieve complete control of the air what control was achieved was enough to provide the land and sea component the ability to retake the islands.
Operation Corporate was predominantly a naval and ground operation, the RAF were to play a series of supporting roles but these were vital to overall success. The final decisive operation was very much a land one but denigrating the RAF’s role is wrong.
Rather than going through the entire operation I am going to look at a few different air aspects of the campaign;
Black Buck – Anti Runway
They were and still are hugely controversial.
The famous Vulcan raids on Port Stanley, like much of Op Corporate, have been endlessly analysed with the obvious divergence of opinion. Some claim that it was nothing but showboating so the RAF could say they were involved and a complete waste of valuable fuel. To understand Black Buck one has to at least try and balance the certainty of post operation research with the degree of uncertainty that would have been experienced at the time.
The fact that several components for the Vulcan’s were recovered from museums and scrap yards makes this extraordinary feat of airmanship even more remarkable but what about its material impact on the operation?
It is obvious that the given our relative disadvantages, attacking well defended islands with a numerically inferior force at the end of an 8,000 mile logistic train the use of Port Stanley for fast jet operations was a major factor in planning. If Argentine forces could operate their Skyhawks and Mirage fighters from Port Stanley instead of at the limit of their range the balance of power in the air war would have massively changed and without some semblance of air control, no land operation could be countenanced. It was therefore imperative that Port Stanley was denied to Argentine forces, especially their Mirage and Skyhawk fighters.
This was a maximum effort operation, as far as practically possible all British defence forces were engaged and it is entirely understandable that all services wanted to get stuck in. There are a number of accounts of service personnel just turning up at the troop ships hoping (and I think there might have been a few successes) to get a ride south.
There were a number of strategic objectives of Black Buck; the first was to deny the airport to Argentine Mirage and Skyhawks and the second, arguably the most important, was to send a very clear message to the Junta that the UK could reach out and touch them. In both these strategic objectives, they were a success, it was also hoped that such a demonstration would force the diversion of Argentine aircraft to defence of the mainland, opinions on this seem to differ but most accounts confirm that some repositioning took place which would have meant less aircraft available for operations around the islands with obvious results. The degree of this repositioning was arguably not hugely significant but opinions and accounts do differ.
Critics point to the fact that only one bomb hit the runway on the first attack but this was calculated, conventional bombing doctrine against runways dictates that the attack line is at an angle to the runway, the angle being calculated using a number of factors. This is to maximise the possibility of a single or multiple hits, it should also be recognised that in order to maximise damage the bomb needs to land as near as vertical as possible and at high speed which dictated a medium level approach. The bombs penetrated the runway and surrounding areas creating a heave effect that rendered the surface unusable to fast jets with high pressure tyres. It has been noted that the Argentine combat engineers repaired the craters and this allowed Hercules, Pucara’s and even light jets to operate right up until the end of the operation. This is true but it was designed to stop fast Mirage and Skyhawk’s, not transports. The material difference that continual Hercules operations had on the outcome was immaterial, the same could not be said if Argentina had operated their Mirage and Skyhawk aircraft from the islands.
Launched from mainland Argentina, the Skyhawks, Mirages and Daggers were at the edge of their endurance, time over the islands was measured in minutes, they (Mirage and Dagger) were unable to use to maximise their speed advantage over the Harriers and usually concentrated on attacks against the land and sea forces without defensive weaponry. If Stanley could be used, this would change dramatically even if only the Skyhawks could be deployed (runway length issues), sortie rates would be much higher and who knows what the result might have been.
It came as a surprise that the Argentine forces did not make more of an effort to use Port Stanley, they might have thought it was too short, too vulnerable to attack or without the support facilities necessary but it could have been used as a divert location, refuelling stop or other use that fell short of full operations. They could have extended the runway and had the capability and materials to do so not only was the runway a target in the initial mission, the surrounding areas were also targeted. According to Wikipedia (which backs the claim up with Argentine document links) in early April arrestor gear was installed to enable S2 tracker and A4 Skyhawk landings with a small number deployed until just before the British forces arrived. There are pictures on a number of online forums that would seem to confirm this.
Sea Harriers conducted a follow up attack after the first Black Buck with cluster and conventional bombs but the degree of damage was uncertain. The claim that they could have dropped 1,300 bombs for the fuel of a single Black Buck is fair enough, but the task force didn’t have 1,300 thousand pounders and it would have needed 650 Harrier sorties to deliver them.
It has been claimed that Sea Harriers would have been more effective but with the munitions and delivery mechanisms available, the fact that Vulcan’s were available and the finite supply of Sea Harriers, which in a cold analysis, were too few in numbers, meant that the task force commanders rightly decided to marshal the Sea Harrier and use them for what they excelled at, namely air defence. If Port Stanley was without air defences then a lower level attack by Sea Harriers probably would have been able to completely deny the runway to all aircraft but this was not the case, Port Stanley was protected by a number of extremely effective anti aircraft systems and to prosecute such an attack, to get the necessary runway penetration, would have meant flying directly into the optimal engagement zone of these systems, it was simply too risky. The Vulcan could deliver this strike on one go, using its powerful ECM and large bomb load, whereas to use Sea Harriers would have diverted them from the valuable role of air defence and without ECM would have exposed them to great risk.
I can see the argument for greater use of Sea Harriers in the ground attack role in the early stages but I think the decision taken was the correct one, on balance.
It would also have been in the planners mind that post conflict there would be a need to defend the islands against any retaliatory attacks and denying the runway rather than completely destroying it might have been thought of as a sensible option.
When it became apparent that the Argentine forces were not repairing Stanley it dropped down the things to do list although they continued to try and deceive the task force into thinking otherwise, arranging the MB339’s with angled runway repair planking to simulate a Super Etendard for example. Some have claimed that the runway was repaired the following day but this is also to fundamentally misunderstand the nature of runway repair, what they did was fill the holes so the runway could be used for Hercules and light aircraft, this is not the same as effecting a proper repair and extension that would have been required for the Skyhawks and Mirage’s and their high pressure tyres.
This from the Telegraph in 2007
Immediately after the Argentine surrender, I and a Falkland Islander drove the length and breadth of the Stanley runway looking for signs of damage and repair. There were none and the concrete was in as good condition as when I had been responsible for its security in 1978 and 1979.
My friend and I marvelled, not for the first time, at the inventiveness of the Argentine engineers. Certainly the RAF’s bombing operations against Stanley airport were strategically useful but of little tactical value to us actually in the Falklands.
Lt Col Ewen Southby-Tailyour, Ermington, Devon
In response, I think this from someone qualified in airfield bomb damage repair is relevant.
Sir – Ewen Southby-Tailyour (Letters, May 5) is wrong in his description of the damage to the Stanley runway. As Commander, Royal Engineers, I was responsible for its repair immediately after the surrender. There was one large crater caused by a 1,000lb bomb from the RAF Vulcan raid, and four smaller craters resulting from earlier Harrier attacks. (The Argentines had also created dummy craters to confuse our aerial reconnaissance.) Repairing the large crater and the large area of runway took about two weeks and 1,000 square metres of captured Argentine runway matting. Lt Col Southby-Tailyour is, however, correct in stating that Argentine aircraft were able to continue to use the runway, despite the bombing raids, by temporarily backfilling the craters. This, perhaps, is why his “recce” did not spot the true extent of the damage
Black Buck 7 used proximity fused bombs against facilities and positions and Black Buck 2 bombs failed to go off. It is Black Buck 2 that comes, rightly, in for criticism. Depending on which account you read they were either incorrectly fused or incorrectly armed, such is conflict, mistakes can be made and many were made by all three services.
Back to the overall goal, accepting that we did not know whether Argentine forces were going to use Stanley for fast jets (Mirage, Skyhawk, Dagger etc) or not, the goal was to deny them the ability to do so and by a combination of Sea Harrier, Black Buck and naval gunfire this goal was achieved.
Were the Black Buck raids an unqualified success, no, of course they were not and there is no disputing the cost in tanker capacity and fuel (it might be worth comparing the fuel to that used by the task force as a whole) or the inter service rivalry that would have been in the back of people’s minds but the final word should go to Admiral Woodwood at a seminar held at the RAF Staff College in 2002
My dark blue aviators said “Oh, it’s the air force just trying to get in on the act”, but I said, hang on a minute, there will be two things. If they do hit the runway, that can’t be bad, they can disrupt it… but also it will have exactly that effect of causing them [the junta] to think they could come at us on the mainland. It is showing reach and therefore it is deterrent. And I suspect it made them hold back some of their Mirages, which could have acted as top cover for their A-4 raids. So I signed up for it and told my aviators to shut up.’
Black Buck – Anti Radar
The other Black Buck missions, 3 to 6, were designed to destroy Argentine radar installations in and around Port Stanley, a modern Westinghouse AN/TPS-43F and supporting AN/TPS-44. These posed a significant threat because they could be used to support inbound strike sorties by Argentine aircraft, locating the approximate area of the carriers by plotting the Sea Harriers flight path for example.
The Grupo de Artillería Antiaérea 601 posed a serious threat and was reinforced with a detachment of Grupo 1 de Artillería Antiaérea that manned some of the radar equipment. In addition the radar sets mentioned above the occupying forces also had Roland 2 launchers, Skyguard fire control radar, radar controlled 35mm twin Oerlikon-Contraves cannons, twin 20mm cannons and Super Fledermaus fire control radars.
On paper, a formidable array
After Black Buck 1 and the first Sea Harrier sortie, during which the air defences were ineffective, the second wave of Sea Harriers was met with intense fire, although, again, ineffective. Subsequent operations against Goose Green resulted in the loss of a Sea Harrier to radar directed 35mm weapon and it was reported that after this, subsequent air to ground missions were carried out at an altitude outside of the engagement envelope of the 35mm weapons until low level strikes were resumed by the RAF GR3’s later in the operation, again, not sure if this is true but it would make sense, the Sea Harriers were a precious and finite commodity.
Black Buck 4 was the first mission armed with the AGM-45A Shrike anti radiation missile but was cancelled when one of the tankers had a refuelling equipment failure. Black Buck 5 was flown on the 32st of May and the principal target was the TPS43 radar, it shot and missed, plain and simple, the missile striking about 10 meters from the radar.
Black Buck 5 this time had 4 Shrike’s, a pair each tuned into the TPS43 and Skyguard radars. The TPS43 crews wisely switched off their transmitters but not so the Skyguard crew and a successful strike took place, killing 4 and destroying the equipment. This was the mission that had to divert to Brazil due to low fuel and was unable to jettison the remaining Shrike, this fell into Brazilian hands and was never seen again (I think it might be in a museum in Brazil somewhere)
A small number of Shrikes were parachute dropped into the sea next to HMS Hermes by Hercules transport aircraft, these were recovered and assembled but by the time the weapons were ready the Argentine forces had surrendered.
After the conflict, the remaining 35mm cannons and fire control systems were recovered to the UK and pressed into service.
Roughly one in four aircrew on the Sea Harrier force were RAF and they accounted for about a quarter of the kills.
After the initial warning order was received modifications of the GR3 to enable naval operations commenced including drilling holes to allow water to escape, fitting lashing points, fitting transponder equipment to allow recovery to the carriers and a very hasty Sidewinder fit. Without radar the GR3 would be much inferior to the Sea Harrier in the AD role but in the absence of anything else, they would have to make do.
The GR3’s and additional Sea Harriers were flown to Ascension Island for embarkation on the Atlantic Conveyor. One Sea Harrier was kept onboard at alert state to counter any Argentine 707’s and in the first few days after leaving the island some tanker support was available should it be needed.
After transferring to the Hermes on the 18th of May, the first operational sortie was completed on the 20th
Because in the period between the initial operations and when the reinforcements arrived there had been no Sea Harrier losses so the GR3’s could be used for their primary role, close air support, combat reconnaissance and interdiction using cluster bombs, thousand pounders, rockets and the twin 30mm Aden cannon pods. The GR3’s were also capable of using the newly obtained laser guided bombs but these were not used effectively until the closing stages of the operation due to unfamiliarity. When they were used, they were devastating, destroying a Company HQ and 105mm artillery piece. Although the writing was clearly on the wall for the occupying forces by this time, the precision strikes must have contributed to the desire to surrender. It was a fearsome capability.
Ground based air defences included the automatic weapons and missile systems mentioned above and Blowpipe and SA-7 MANPADS. Two GR3 losses were both attributed to ground based air defences, another to small arms fire and the fourth to an accident.
A little known element of Harrier operations in the Falkland Islands is the port San Carlos Forward Operating Base (FOB)
The Atlantic Conveyor was carrying Harrier spares and a full FOB, the Royal Engineers managed to improvise with the small stocks of matting they had. It wasn’t perfect, the AM2 matting that went down would have been far more suitable but it did provide limited capacity. A pair of GR3’s were usually located there as a quick reaction alert for ground forces and Sea Harriers used it is a refuelling point. It might be an interesting ‘what if’ to ask what impact on subsequent air, land and sea operations if a fully functioning Harrier FOB was established early after the initial landings.
An interesting quote from Major General Julian Thompson as recorded at a Falklands Seminar in 2003.
I was the commander of the 3rd Commando Brigade in the Falklands. In his presentations, CAS* said that his squadron helped to turn the tide at Goose Green. I can tell him that it did turn the tide. 2 PARA were stuck on a forward slope, in daylight, being engaged by 35mm AAA at 2,000 metres range, something to which they had absolutely no answer. Suddenly like cavalry to the rescue out of the sky came three Harriers which promptly took out those guns and turned the tide of the battle. There is a tale behind that too. We had previously been supported by CAS’s squadron on exercise in Norway and we had a very high opinion of what they could do. While we were on our way south, I turned to my primary FAC, who was an RAF Phantom back seater on a ground tour, and I told him that I needed No 1 Squadron. He said that I would never get them. I asked why and he replied they simply couldn’t get there. Thank God you did Peter, because you really did pull the fat out of the fire for us, for which I would like to say thank you, very much indeed.
* Chief of the Air Staff (CAS) at the time of the seminar, Sir Peter Squire
There have been other claims that the guns were knocked out by mortars but it is still an interesting quote, here, on page 155
The single RAF Chinook survivor of the Atlantic Conveyor moved 1,350 troops and 1,600 tonnes of supplies during the short time from when it was operational to the surrender. On one occasion it was used to move 81 fully tooled up paras to Fitzroy. It was supplemented by 4 more when the Contender Bezant arrived, a day after the surrender.
There is no doubt it was decisive, especially in moving the 105mm light guns and ammunition into position. There is an enduring myth that Argentine forces were poorly trained conscripts who gave up after the first shot but this is simply not true, their positions around Stanley were well constructed and fighting was fierce, often close quarters with bayonets and small arms. Without the artillery support provided by the 105mm Light Guns casualties would have been much higher, the limiting factor was ammunition supply and the Chinook was instrumental in providing the ammunition to these guns.
VC10’S and Hercules were engaged in a more or less constant airlift effort between the UK and Ascension Island throughout the conflict and beyond.
Without the huge logistical effort from the RAF the task force would have been unable to transfer all the Harriers south and unable to obtain spares and time critical stores. Hercules also carried out a number of parachute supply drops sorties to the fleet in excess of 24 hours and in total amassed some 14,000 hours.
One might reasonably argue that these incredibly long Hercules sorties that provided vital supplies to the RN were as important as any other.
These continued after the cessation of hostilities.
A little known element of the operation was the contribution of Nimrods, flying from Ascension they carried out various roles throughout, some very close to the Argentine mainland.
RAF Regiment personnel were also deployed.
In 1983 a small British peacekeeping forces was deployed to Lebanon. In addition to operating Chinook helicopters the RAF also mounted Op Pulsator which detached a flight of 6 Buccaneers to Cyprus. A number of show of force flights were mounted over the British area of responsibility and in one incident, the alert state was raised because a tank round entered the area but was quickly lowered when the Druze Militia Commander immediately apologised to British forces for a stray round.
No mention of this in the article.
1990 to 1991, The Gulf War
Confusing carrier aviation with British carrier aviation the article highlights the role played by USN carriers and states that HMS Ark Royal operated in the Eastern Mediterranean in a ‘containment role’ that was not, in the event, used.
Although not in the original article, associated pieces published at the same time claim that ‘informed sources’ confirm that of the eight RAF aircraft lost, only one was due to enemy action. The others were, it claimed, due to unfamiliarity with the JP233 delivery profile, ‘finger trouble’, whatever that is, and a so called basic lack of air warfare munitions experience. I think it is at this point that things started to get heated and objectivity thrown clearly out of the window.
Hold on, I thought this was about British Combat Airpower not American. So that would be the largest deployment of the land and aviation forces since the colonial operations of the fifties and RN aviation was limited to a containment role that wasn’t used, surely some mistake.
The Gulf War is another intensively studied conflict.
The RAF flew 5,417 sorties using Buccaneers, Tornado GR1, Tornado F3, C130, Victor, VC10, Jaguar, Nimrod and Tristar aircraft. 1,126 guided bombs were dropped, incidentally, more than the US Navy and US Marine Corps put together.
RAF tankers provided a significant proportion of aerial refuelling support to the USN
JP233 was developed to destroy the runways of relatively compact European airfields and prevent repair. The Iraqi airfields were huge in comparison and given the ability to strike the hardened aircraft shelters with precision weapons and the general lack of Iraqi air force resistance there was some debate whether they should be used at all. The RAF and USAF in theatre did not think they were needed but it was reported that this was over ruled by the MoD. In the event, over 100 JP233 missions were used but only one JP233 mission resulted in a lost aircraft and this was several minutes after release. We also have to put this into some context, the RAF had extensively trained for ultra low level attacks using Tornado, it was thought, possibly correctly, this was the only way to penetrate Warsaw Pact airspace and it was this low level penetration anti runway mission that they were extensively prepared for and were tasked for as part of NATO plans for Europe.
Intelligence failures led to the underestimation of the density of AAA and because there was little scope for realistic training, only trials crews had conducted live firings, the effect of a night time deployment of the weapon, which created a series of flash photography like illuminations, made the aircraft vulnerable.
A change of tactics on was announced January 23rd, medium altitude bombing to move out of the AAA danger zone was now the preferred option. Accuracy suffered but gradually improved and with the introduction of the Buccaneer in the laser designator role the move to guided weapons was commenced. The initial decision not to deploy Buccaneer was based on logistics, avoiding introducing another type into theatre was desirable but when the low level and JP233 missions were compromised the problem with medium altitude dumb bombing was that the Tornado force was not trained to do so and the aircraft systems were not optimised. The concerns about ramp space and logistics were valid, but they were misplaced. Buccaneer arrived in late January, a rapid deployment and during the operation, despite its age, the Buccaneer had one of the best availability records of all aircraft.
Once the precision issues were resolved by the deployment of Buccaneer and TIALD, the Tornado make an effective contribution and it is telling that for the first time in 30 years the RAF published a new doctrine soon after.
In early February the first Tornado mission with the TIALD pod was launched.
Because of the relatively poor performance of the Tornado F3 it was decided that it would play only a limited role, providing combat air patrols in the rear areas, just in case. The Jaguar contribution, relatively speaking, was also not significant.
A total of 6 Tornado’s were lost on combat operations and one 1 from mechanical failure
17th January 1991; hit by numerous AAA fire and after successful release of JP233 was seen to hit the ground, aircrew killed
17th January 1991; hit by a surface to air missile after releasing weapons and unable to control aircraft, crew ejected. Mission, using 1,000 pound bombs against an Iraqi airfield, aircrew captured
19th January 1991; hit by surface to air missile whilst on a ‘run in’ for a loft attack. Mission, night attack against Iraq airfield using 1000 pound bombs, aircrew captured after navigator initiated ejection.
20th January 1991; suffered a technical failure and was unable to land, aircraft went to a safe area and the aircrew ejected
22nd January 1991; after successfully releasing their 1,000 pound bombs in an attack against an air defence site the aircraft was lost. The likely cause was AAA fire
24th January 1991; subject to explosion during a night time medium altitude attack against an airfield. Investigation concluded the explosion was caused by premature detonation of bombs, aircrew captured.
14th February 1991; subject to attack by two surface to air missiles whilst engaged in a medium altitude daylight mission in conjunction with Buccaneer. Pilot initiated an ejection and was captured but navigator killed.
I haven’t seen the Board of Inquiry documents and the information above is from an RAF website but I would not presume to know any better. Not sure what ‘finger trouble’ is and ‘informed sources’ should publish their revelations so they can be verified.
After ground operations ceased and with the majority of forces withdrawn the RAF continued to contribute, as did the other services, to operations in the north.
The Iraqi no-fly-zones were established in April 1991 (north) and August 1992 (south) as a coalition (US, UK and France) initiative in support of UNSCR 688 demanding an immediate end to Saddam’s brutal repression of Kurds in north and Shias in south. Operation Haven was mounted in support of the US Operation Provide Comfort in the north and this involved the Royal Marines and various RAF aicraft. This was then followed up with Operation Warden and in 1997 Operation Northern Watch commenced. The Southern Watch operation was called Jural.
On 16-19 December 1998, the US and UK took military action against Iraq under Operation Desert Fox on the basis of Iraq’s non-compliance with UNSCOM and the growing concern that Iraq was continuing to develop its chemical and biological weapons capability. In 1999, Tornado GR1’s carried out a number of strike sorties against Iraqi facilities
A good summary of the no fly zones and Desert Fox was published as part of the Iraq Enquiry, here
Suffice it to say, this was a sustained deployment for the RAF.
1992 to 1996, The Balkans
The main article and similar posts made the point that carrier aircraft were able to reposition and thus be effective when RAF aircraft were hampered by poor weather at land bases. A carrier was ordered to be available to cover a possible withdrawal under fire as only carrier based aviation could guarantee cover. They made the claim that Tornado operations, when grounded due to bad weather, were successfully conducted by the Sea Harrier FA2 operating from the carrier and that the Sea Harrier was instrumental in establishing and maintaining the no fly zone.
Operations in the Balkans took place over a number of separate phases, operations and years.
In 1993 in support of Operation Deny Flight the RAF deployed Tornado F3s, Boeing Sentry AEW1s, SEPECAT Jaguars and Tristar tankers.
During 1993 and 1994 the Sea Harrier was deployed on three separate non contiguous tours in support of Deny Flight and on the 16th of April 1994 a Sea Harrier was shot down by a SA-7 whilst carrying out a close air support mission.
In 1994 8 Harrier GR7’s were deployed to Gioia del Colle in Italy on July 28th to relieve the Jaguar force and undertake ground attack and reconnaissance tasks as part of Operation Deny Flight. These were reinforced with more GR7’s later. In total, the GR7 flew just over 175 sorties and remained deployed until 1999 as part of the NATO Rapid Reaction Force.
Kosovo and Serbia
With the collapse of diplomatic talks to settle the conflict in Kosovo Operation Allied Force commenced. Tornados, Harrier GR7’s and Sea Harrier FA2’s took part, plus the usual array of support aircraft; it was also the first operational outing for Royal Navy Tomahawk cruise missiles.
The operation was from March 24 1999 to June 10, 1999
HMS Invincible arrived from the Gulf on April 17th and flew their first combat air patrol (of 102 flown) soon after. On the 27th of May, HMS Invincible arrived back in the UK on May 27th, 1999.
GR7’s flew 870 sorties and released 894 weapons, ending at 16 aircraft in theatre.
On April 4th Group Captain Travers Smith, an RAF spokesman, commented
This is yet another form of frustration. Now that the weather has cleared they have taken off, but there is nothing for them to hit. This was the first of the daytime operations for the GR7’s that have managed to get airborne (without weather problems). Their prime purpose today would have been to hit mobile targets that would have been identified by other means. During the period that GR7’s were airborne, no such opportunities presented themselves, so the Harriers returned with their bombs
The weather was to play a significant role, of the 78 day campaign, only 25 days had good weather. This coupled with highly restrictive rules of engagement, the lack of all weather precision munitions and an extremely capable and wily opponent meant that considerable challenges were placed in the path of the air forces and as usual, many lessons were identified, particularly the need for all weather precision munitions and improved communications/coordination with NATO allies.
The weather over the target played a more significant part in hampering the air operation than the weather over the launch area so no amount of repositioning would have helped.
Despite this the GR7’s, with their integrated GPS/INS were approved to release weapons through the clouds against pre approved targets where the risk of collateral damage was relatively low. Tangential, but relevant to the list, USMC Harrier II’s were also employed from naval vessels but of the 58 sorties planned, many were cancelled, about a third, due to bad weather.
The air campaign was followed by the ground component which saw the use of 8 RAF Chinooks and 6 Pumas.
A good overview of this phase is here
Democratic Republic of Congo, 1997
In Operation Determinant 4 Pumas were deployed to Libreville and Brazzaville in the Congo, with support troops, as a precaution against the possibility that British citizens might need to be evacuated from the Zairian capital, Kinshasa
No mention of this in the article.
2000, Sierra Leone
The article talked up the benefits of having a floating base and national command centre. It also claimed that RAF pilots embarked on the the carrier were so concerned about finding their way back to the ship the Sea Harriers had to do their missions for them
The engagement in Sierra Leone comes in three parts, Operation Palliser, Basilica and Operation Barras.
Civil war started in Sierra Leone in 1991 and before it ended in 2002 over a million people had been displaced and the widespread and indiscriminate violence, sexual violence, mutilation and use of child soldiers was to leave a lasting legacy. Into this complex mix had been thrown private military companies, diamond mining and interventions from neighbouring countries. UN Security Resolution 1270 established the United Nations Mission in Sierra Leone (UNAMSIL) that was a 6,000 strong ground force (rising to 11,000), including 15 British personnel as observers.
Operation Palliser was mounted to evacuate non combatants (NGO’s, UK/EU citizens et) from the country when increased fighting threatened the capital, Freetown and 208 Zambian UN soldiers were ambushed and captured by the Revolutionary United Front (RUF)
In early may 2002, the UN requested to support the ineffective UNAMSIL which was rapidly loosing control of the situation. Initially, France, the UK and USA declined, getting involved in an African civil war had little attraction but given the historic ties the UK had with Sierra Leone it was viewed by Robin Cook and Geoff Hoon as our back garden.
On the 5th of May Brigadier David Richards (yes, that one) the Joint Task Force Headquarters (JTFHQ) commander was ordered to deploy.
On the 6th of May, lead elements, the Operational Liaison and Reconnaissance Team (OLRT), arrived at Lunghi Airport in Freetown to prepare for the rest of the force.
On the evening of the 7th of May, RAF Hercules and Chinook, staging out of Senegal, had transported 1 Para and supporting elements to Lunghi Airport.
Also on the 7th of May the Amphibious Ready Group, elements of which were on exercise in the Med were also ordered to deploy. The ARG comprised HMS Ocean, HMS Chatham (type 22) and two RFA vessels. It was to be joined by HMS Illustrious, more RFA vessels and HMS Argyle (Type 23). Also aboard were 42 Commando RM, 4 Sea King, 2 Lynx, 2 Gazelle, 2 Chinook, 7 Sea Harriers and 7 GR7’s.
The troops at Lunghi set up as a consolidation point for evacuees and on the 8th were reinforced and secured Aberdeen Peninsula and the road between the airport and Freetown. Evacuation commenced almost immediately with nearly 300 individuals flown out.
On May 11th the ARG arrived offshore and conducted a number of shows of force using embarked RM and Harriers. 47 GR7 sorties were flown, the first on the 17th and 85 Sea Harrier sorties.
Even without carrying drop tanks the bring back performance, in the temperatures encountered, was one 504 pound bomb, the Mk107 engine was later to improve this enormously but was not fitted to Sea Harrier because of the cost and relatively small fleet.
On the 17th of May the pathfinder platoon was involved in a firefight with the RUF at Lunghi Loi Village.
With the situation stabilising and the evacuation complete 1 Para were relieved by 42 Commando on May 26th
Palliser ended on 15th June but a number of personnel were committed to build on the security gains made during Palliser.
So it seems to me that the RAF effected theatre entry, again, surely this is some mistake!
Operation Basilica established a small advisory team and in July a battalion of Royal Irish Regiment set up a jungle training camp just outside Freetown. A little known operation was also mounted during this period, called Operation Kukhri, to assist the UN forces rescue 220 Indian soldiers that had been surrounded by the RUF. C130 and Chinook were involved
It is also worth noting that op Silkman, an amphibious show of force’ conducted in November (after Barras) was hugely effective in supporting the UN forces and ongoing peace process
On August 25th a small party of RIR travelling in 3 Land Rovers were captured by the West Side Boys, a rebel group. After a series of protracted negotiations a rescue operation was mounted including SBS/SAS, 1 Para, 3 Lynx and 3 Chinook helicopters.
2003 to 2009, Iraq
The article highlights how a lack of range meant that carriers had to ‘take them to the fight’ and how they caused difficulties on HMS Ark Royal because of a lack of blade fold.
Operation Telic commenced and RAF aircraft provided about 6% of coalition sorties and released over 900 weapons, of which 85% were precision-guided.
The air tanker fleet dispersed 19 million pounds of fuel, over 40% of which is given to United States Navy and Marine Corps aircraft.
Aircraft involved included Tornado, Harrier, Tornado f3, Nimrod MR2, Tristar, VC10, E3 Sentry, Hercules, Nimrod R1, BAe125, Hercules, Canberra, Puma, Merlin and Chinook.
The operation lasted from 19th March 2003 to 30th April 2009.
The initial UK operation was to secure Umm Qasr, especially oil installation on the Al Faw peninsula and this was carried out in conjunction with the USMC and Polish personnel.
The Iraq – Lesson learned document from the MoD provides a good overview of the assault on Al Faw, here
The joint plan was for special forces to secure helicopter landing sites and other key areas then 42 and 40 Commando would clear the remaining area and secure them over the assault phase. The majority of heliborne assaults were launched from Tactical Assembly Area Viking, in Kuwait. A, B and C Co of 40 Commando lifted from Kuwait and D Co from HMS Ocean. The landings were supported with a variety of land and ship based weapons and aircraft.
Al Faw is often used to highlight the effectiveness of aircraft carriers but in all the pieces I have read from the usual suspects, none of them make any mention whatsoever of the role of TAA Viking or the Army units that took part and it is this kind of selective view of history, deliberately excluding the role of others that really niggles me.
So there we are; a rambling trip through the last several decades of UK military aviation. I have left off operations in Afghanistan and Libya deliberately and might look at these separately and as I mentioned above, will be looking at Black Buck in some detail soon.
The list above also excludes air defence of the United Kingdom, development and maintenance of the strategic deterrent until Polaris, supporting the Polaris and Trident deterrent submarines, supporting the BAOR, transport, various humanitarian deployments and search and rescue.
If you have got this far then I congratulate you on a feat of unparalleled endurance!
Clearly, both the RAF and FAA have contributed significantly to operations since the end of the war, no one can doubt this.
The historical evidence leads to me the conclusion that land based and naval aviation are entirely complimentary but the campaign by some has over inflated the value of aircraft carriers, made extensive use of selective arguments and in some cases used juvenile language to try and argue that one is somehow ‘much betterer’ than the other, it’s like saying my dad is bigger than yours.
The definition of ‘British Combat Airpower’ is also rather selective for it assumes that combat power is derived purely from strike fighter aircraft, this is complete nonsense of course, logistics and intelligence are equally as important, if not more so.
There is no doubt in my mind of the value of naval fixed wing aviation but instead of putting forward a balanced view those made by some of its over enthisiastic supporters are highly partisan, make a selection of cheap shots and have little or no reflection in the reality of history, without any operational or political context and with language that more or less tries to belittle the contribution of the RAF and its personnel, it is really not the way to make a compelling case.
I think it also actually fails to properly highlight the huge contribution made to British operations and the art of combat flying by the Fleet Air Arm and its predecessors and thus scores a spectacular own goal.
There is some of underlying truth in what the campaign says, naval aviation in the Suez campaign for example was much more responsive, of course it was, it was only a few minutes flying time away from Port Said, but that fundamentally misses the point that Suez was a brilliant all arms operation that made maximum use of the capabilities of all three services.
It is one thing making a case for your service, it is one thing to highlight the significant historical achievements of the Royal Navy and Fleet Air Arm, it is one thing to highlight the undoubted flexibility of naval aviation but it is quite another to denigrate another service with little or no basis in fact, make a collection of childish arguments that say more about them than the service they seem to be spending so much energy on denigrating and see naval aviation in the wider context.
I find it rather amusing that the collection of anti RAF ranters are doing a much better job of promoting the RAF than even the RAF would ever hope to do.
Carry on fellas, your doing a grand job.
I wonder if the articles in question have been removed, you know what, I can’t even be arsed to check.
The Falklands conflict twenty years on: lessons for the future
Osprey – Essential Histories 049 – The Suez Crisis 1956
Suez 1956: Operation Musketeer
Certain Death in Sierra Leone, The SAS and Operation Barras 2000
The Royal Navy in the Falklands Conflict and Gulf War: Culture and Strategy
Air War in the Falklands
Argentine Air Forces in the Falklands Conflict
The Official History of the Falklands Campaign Vol. 2
Britain, NATO and the Lessons of the Balkans Conflicts
Kosovo: Lessons from the Crisis, MoD
The Lessons of Bosnia
European Contributions to Operation Allied Force
Conflict in the Balkans
Britain’s Air Arms in Action 1945-1990