Naval Aviation; Blogs and Think Tanks

Brimstone Tornado

Best put the kettle on, twice.

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. No doubt I have made a number of errors and if anyone wants to point them out in the comments section I would be happy to make corrections.

In the build-up to the SDSR, a number of websites 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. Some were personal blogs, others portrayed themselves as think tanks and campaigning organisations.

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, articles increasingly turned to denigrate the RAF, its achievements and personnel and calling for its disbandment.

I do not know what links exist between these sites and it doesn’t really matter, the tone and subject matter remains largely the same and figures and quotations in the content seem to be common as well, no matter the degree of separation between them.

Some of the comments left on the articles were personal attacks, wholly inappropriate to the debate. I will not engage in ad hominem attacks but try and address the content of the various articles.

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 verges in some parts on impugning the memory of service personnel killed on operations, even though that is clearly not the intention. Any uniformed service relies on cohesion and loyalty so even if the attacks are not meant to be personal this is how they will be perceived.

I also hope people take this article in the manner in which it is intended, it is not an attack but an attempt to provide some background and context to some of the arguments put forward so people can make their own minds up, apologies, again, in advance, if this upsets anyone.

Cherry Picking

To set the scene for this post I have decided to selectively cherry-pick a number of quotations from these websites.

The RAF claims are extraordinary because, in comparison to the Royal Navy, since VE day the RAF has only recently achieved a little live operational experience and that of a very limited nature.  Since VE day, all the enemy aircraft that have been shot down by the British were either by carrier-borne aircraft or RN ships and Army missiles.  Apart from the air defence of the UK, almost all the RAF’s flying has been in support of the Army and occasionally the Royal Navy, then coming correctly under naval operational command.

a handful of ground attack Harrier GR3 aircraft were deployed in HMS Hermes for the latter stages of the conflict and acquitted themselves usually adequately against ground targets.

The fact that the Royal Air Force have frequently refused to carry out dangerous missions in support of combat operations in the past (Borneo, Falklands, Afghanistan, etc)

[on Nimrod] This land-based aircraft has been significant by its absence from the effective support of Operation Corporate in the Falklands, 1982 and from all other conflicts engaged in since that time

The Royal Air Force should be abolished, and its aircraft divided between the Navy and the Army

Self-preservation appears more important to our Air Marshals than supporting our soldiers

in more recent operations the RAF have lived comfortably in 5 star accommodation miles away and totally divorced from the scene of action.  Life is different for them in Afghanistan because there are no five-star hotels available

Air warfare expertise comes from combat experience and the RAF has had relatively little of this since World War II

In spite of this abysmal display of operational competence in a war zone, the RAF later claimed to have won the air war over the Falklands. That is the sort of ‘spin’ we have been subjected to for decades and it is time our politicians stopped listening to it and trusted the real air warfare experts, the Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm

When aircraft are moved around in the hangar at Cottesmore for the regular maintenance that keeps them in flying condition, the tractor driver is prone to regular lapses in concentration leading to “little bumps” or collisions between aircraft – indeed one of my ‘little birds’ suggested that one or two of the Harriers had actually been toppled off their “pins” during this process. This wouldn’t be too bad if it was just an everyday, internal marijuana problem but there seems to be more to it than just that.

It is very obvious that the Royal Air Force wants to get the Harrier out of the system as quickly as possible – before the serious shortfalls in performance, reliability and cost of the Tornado are fully appreciated by our masters.“Rats in a barrel” springs to mind.

As a result and in stark contrast to their worth as military combatants, they are able to provide an entirely biased influence with ministers/government that is strictly partisan and that does not even start to satisfy the broader defence needs of our nation.

Pretty strong stuff I am sure you will agree and whilst I stand guilty of cherry-picking these are representative and set the ‘mood’

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 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 is the history of naval aviation, particularly British naval 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 would seem to be that naval aviation is far superior and belittles the contribution of the RAF at every stage, citing numerous examples of where the RAF was found wanting and the FAA and/or naval aviation were superior.

This view is then extrapolated forward to an assertion that the RAF should be disbanded.

The source of this historical perspective seems 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 is made for naval aviation at the expense of land-based aviation. In this post on Sharkeys World, it is cited as an annexe titled; The Projection of British Air Power Predominantly by Aircraft Carrier and is repeated here

Firstly a brief outline of 17 events, crises, conflicts and deterrence, in which fixed-wing aircraft carriers were deployed in support of UK Government policy since 1945. They show that the availability of sea-based tactical aviation adds immensely to the nation’s overall deterrent capability and, in several, no other form of intervention was initially possible. More significant is the inability of potential aggressors to deter the deployment of aircraft carriers into areas supposedly dominated by land-based aircraft. The myth of vulnerability is belied by experience.

Actually, there is nothing to disagree with in the above but British AirPower is about so much more than just combat aircraft so in the next section, I am going to have a trip down Google lane and see how aviation of all flavours has been used to further UK Government Policy since 1945 and compare that to the list and quotes variously used by the websites.

An additional set of conflicts are 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.

Although the RAF would have politicians believe that it is a mobile force, there are a number of examples where it could not have deployed aircraft, aircrew and maintainers into conflict zones without the Royal Navy’s aircraft carriers. Once deployed, the RAF then relied on sea-borne bulk supplies of fuel and ammunition which, in turn, needed the RN to maintain control of the sea supply routes with its aircraft carriers playing a prominent role.

I am no professional researcher but I wanted to examine the evidence presented by 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.

To re-emphasise, this is merely to provide some context and is done with the greatest of respect for the authors of the articles and websites.

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.

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.

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.

1948, Palestine

The quote from the list

Naval aircraft from HMS Ocean covered the final evacuation of British forces from Palestine in May 1948. RAF aircraft had already been evacuated and only carrier-borne naval aircraft were capable of providing the protection required.

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.

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, Tempests 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 the 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 was 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 the Naval Aviation Branch. The patrol continued its work right up until the end of the mandate.

HMS Ocean(the ship that conducted the first-ever landing of a jet aircraft on an aircraft carrier and first-ever embarkation of the 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 here and 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.

Some great British Pathe newsreels on the evacuation here, here, here and here

So it would seem that the quote is largely correct in its highly selective construction but it fails to note the 3 years of 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 sometime 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 that 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 essential, 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 was engaged on a sporadic basis through this period with Mosquito’s, Brigands, Tempests and Lincolns.

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.

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.

1949, the Berlin Airlift

147 RAF aircraft completed 65,857 sorties, transporting 394,509 tonnes of supplies.

1950 – 1953, Korea

The quote from the list

HMS Triumph joined the USS Valley Forge to strike at North Korean targets shortly after N Korea attacked the South in June 1950. The British aircraft carriers Triumph, Theseus, Glory and Ocean provided all the UK’s tactical strike and fighter operations throughout the 3 years of the war. RAF involvement limited to transport flights into safe airfields and some flying-boat MPA patrols in the open ocean off Japan. RN carrier aircraft flew thousands of effective sorties.

Although the RAF did not operate combat aircraft in the Korean War, it did supply Meteor fighters to 77 Squadron of the RAAF which did operate. They were ferried to Iwakuni in Japan in British aircraft carriers including HMS Unicorn. Without her, the RAAF could not have supported the Squadron in action.

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 list.

At the outbreak of the Korean War HMS Triumph, who was 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 comment from the campaign casually dismisses 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 was 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 action off 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 flew with 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 quote 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.

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.

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.

1954 to 1968, Aden and Radfan

The quote from the list

British forces were evacuated from Aden in November 1967 covered by an RN task force off shore. RAF aircraft were among the forces evacuated and therefore relied on RN carrier-borne aircraft for their defence while they did so.

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 posts. 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 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 force was reinforced further, including Wessex helicopters from 815 NAS. The operation was ultimately a success and order were 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 base 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.

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.

1955, Sudan

The RAF deployed 3 squadrons of Tempests to support the run-up to independence and attack dissidents in the south of the country.

1956, Suez

The quote from the list

A combined assault on Egypt by British and French carrier-borne and land-based aircraft. In the British operations the RN deployed 3 fixed-wing carriers, Eagle, Albion and Bulwark plus 2 helicopter carriers, Ocean and Theseus. Because of their ability to gain better position the strike carriers reacted more quickly to calls for action than RAF aircraft in distant Cyprus and Malta. Despite only having one-third of the total British strike fighters embarked, RN strike fighters flew two-thirds of the strike sorties and their aircraft spent longer over the target area. RAF aircraft had long transits from their bases, carried less weapons and could spend little time on task, most of that 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 were 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 was dropped onto the El Gamil airfield by RAF Valettas and Hastings, the drop zone is 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 airdropping. 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 the capacity of the RAF’s transport fleet. This was an area that had seen a rapid decline since the war and with the resource-intensive effort to get the V Bomber force operational the airlift 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 quote from the list

US/UK assistance sought to protect Lebanon and (land-locked) Jordan against Iraqi aggression. Eagle provided support for airborne and amphibious forces deployed into theatre. RAF transport aircraft flying British troops into Jordan were protected by carrier-borne fighters since RAF fighter bases were too 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 preserving 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.

1961, Kuwait

The quote from the list

British forces deployed to Kuwait to defend it against threatened Iraqi aggression. HMS Bulwark arrived with 42 RM Commando within 24 hours since good intelligence had put her in the right place and used its helicopters to deploy and support them. British troops flown into Kuwait by RAF transport with only what they stood up in – had to requisition vehicles and wait for RN amphibious shipping to bring in more. Strike carrier Victorious took several days to arrive with her battle group from the South China Sea but brought the ‘complete package of power’ that subsequently dominated the area. A single RAF Hunter squadron had deployed to Kuwait from Bahrain but lacked fuel, ammunition, spares and most of all GCI radar coverage other than that provided by Bulwark. RAF transport being used to fly in troops so none available to support the Hunters which left once Victorious arrived. The need for the RN to support RAF aircraft led to the second commando-carrier, Albion, being fitted with better surveillance radar (Type 965).

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 the 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 of 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 companies 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 was 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

The quote from the list

During the Indonesian Confrontation against Malaysia, the RAF relied on RN commando-carriers to ferry helicopters to Borneo. They lacked the range to fly there.

British and Commonwealth supported the Malaysian Government against Indonesian aggression and deployed forces from all 3 Services. The Far East Fleet provided a considerable deterrent against Indonesian escalation and the presence of its strike carriers posed a threat that Indonesia could not counter. Carrier and air group transits of high-visibility international waters such as the Sunda Strait added to their value. RAF could not provide such a visible deterrent.

The then-president of Borneo encourage a local group to revolt, seeking 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 an 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

The quote from the list

Following a mutiny by Tanganyika Army units in January 1964 Britain was asked to provide assistance. HMS Centaur was at Aden and embarked 45 RN Commando; 16/5 Lancers with their vehicles and 2 RAF Helicopters in addition to her normal air group. Subsequent assault a model of how flexible carriers are and how quickly they can act. Another example of RAF being taken into action by an RN carrier. Centaur was capable of launching her normal air group although at times it would have been a ‘squeeze’.

2 RAF Belvedere helicopters were embarked in HMS Centaur; they had no other means of reaching the scene of 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 Belvederes from 26 Squadron RAF. The Belvederes 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 quote from the list

Defence of Zambia 1965-66

Following the Rhodesian UDI in November 1965 the Zambian Government asked Britain to provide air defence against possible attack by the Rhodesians. Deploying an RAF fighter unit and the ground environment to support it took many months and the gap was filled effectively by HMS Eagle which provided fighters, AEW and an effective air defence environment quickly.

Beira Patrol 1965-66

Followed on from above. Britain undertook to enforce UN sanctions preventing tankers from entering Beira with oil for Rhodesia. Only carriers could search the vast areas of sea involved in the months it took the RAF to build up an MPA base and deploy aircraft to it. Eagle and Ark Royal both involved for considerable periods at sea.

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 to 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 quote from the list

A show of strength by Buccaneers from Ark Royal prevented a threatened invasion of British Honduras (Belize) by Guatemala. RAF too far away and could do nothing.

In January 1972 a small force of Guatemalan troops was sighted on the border and HMS Ark Royal, who was in the area conducting a training mission with the USS Bacchante 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 Belfast’s.

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.

1982, Falkland Islands

The quote from the list

RAF Harriers and Chinook helicopters had no means of reaching the conflict other than Atlantic Conveyor and the decks of Hermes and Invincible. They relied on the RN radar/air defence environment and RN supplies of fuel and weapons to be effective, neither of which would have been there without the carriers.

Carrier-borne strike-fighters and helicopters fundamental to the campaign which would not have been possible without them. Significantly the RAF needed carriers/Atlantic Conveyor to get them into action.

Given the obvious special interest in this conflict, there are many more quotes to digest, these being posted across a number of articles outside of the list.

[on RAF Harriers] In total, they conducted many more ground attack missions than did the RAF Harrier

The Naval Task Force had 20 Sea Harrier fighter aircraft, later supplemented by a further eight Sea Harrier aircraft and six RAF Harrier ground attack aircraft. The runway at Port Stanley could not support the operation of Argentine fast jet aircraft but did allow the operation of transport and light ground attack aircraft

[on the Black Buck raids] What was achieved?

Just one of the 63 HEMC 1000 lb bombs delivered in the three bombing missions hit the edge of the runway at Port Stanley. This did not prevent usage of the runway by Hercules or close air support aircraft. The other 62 bombs were off target – 21 were not even armed properly when they left the aircraft and fell harmlessly to the west of the runway.

Only one of the anti-radar missiles achieved any damage and that was against a four barrelled, radar laid, 20 mm anti-aircraft gun on the outskirts of Port Stanley town.

Aborted missions. These missions were aborted for several reasons, one of which was that the pilot left a cockpit window open and as a result declared a cockpit pressurisation failure. These missions were aborted after the tankers were all airborne in advance of the launch of the single Vulcan aircraft. The tanker fuel loads had to be jettisoned in order to allow the tanker aircraft to land safely.

Was this the cost-effective use of resources? Our Sea Harriers on board our carriers delivered many more bombs and hit their target every time. So we spent over £10 million on knocking out one small surface to air machine gun. At the same time, the RAF insisted that the naval task force could not fire against any target whilst the Vulcan bomber was near the target area – placing our warships at risk unnecessarily.

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 untenable. The anti-aircraft systems onboard 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 with 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 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 were a number of strategic objectives of Black Buck; the first was to deny the airport to Argentine Mirage and Skyhawks and the second 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 the 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.

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.

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 is 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 planner’s 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 Mirages.

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 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.

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 to 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 was 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 32nd 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.

RAF Crewing

Roughly one in four aircrews on the Sea Harrier force was RAF and they accounted for about a quarter of the kills.

Harrier GR3

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 as 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

Bravo November

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.

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.

1983 Lebanon

In 1983 a small British peacekeeping force 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 a 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.

1990 to 1991, The Gulf War

The quote from the list

USN carriers played a big part in the coercive all-arms forces that drove Iraqi forces out of Kuwait; Ark Royal 5 operated in the Eastern Mediterranean in a containment role that was not, in the event, used.

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.

Also, I would hardly characterise the offensive combat operations carried out in Kuwait and Iraq as coercive in nature but this is also where Sharkey’s World gets specific in denigrating the performance of the RAF so let’s add that to the mix.

[on the Tornado] In Iraq, eight aircraft were lost but informed sources tell us that only one of these was due to enemy action. The remainder of the losses reportedly resulted from unfamiliarity with the JP 233 delivery profile (three aircraft) as well as ‘finger trouble’ and a basic lack of air warfare munitions expertise. That is not to say that the GR aircrew did not display remarkable courage during the attacks that they carried out.

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 overruled 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 nighttime 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 have 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, rapid deployment and during the operation, despite its age, the Buccaneer had one of the best available 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 the 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 a 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 an explosion during a nighttime medium-altitude attack against an airfield. The 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. The pilot initiated an ejection and was captured but the 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 (the 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 aircraft. 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 quote from the list and other articles

RN and USN carriers operated in support of UN and NATO operations in the former Yugoslavia. Carriers were able to position clear of weather which sometimes limited RAF and coalition operations from land bases. The UK Government ordered one carrier to be available constantly in case it proved necessary to withdraw British forces under fire since land-based aircraft could not guarantee to do so and did not have the valuable mix of fighters and helicopters close to the scene of action.

[on the Tornado]  Over Kosovo, it was engaged in ground support operations but when prevented from taking off from its Italian base through bad weather, these operations were successfully conducted by the Sea Harrier FA2 operating from our carrier

In Bosnia, the Sea Harrier FA2 was instrumental in establishing and maintaining the No-Fly Zone.

When the land-based aircraft (RAF Harriers and other alliance aircraft) were prevented from flying from Italian bases by bad weather, the carrier-based Sea Harrier conducted the air to ground operations successfully in their place until the weather permitted land-based aircraft to fly once more

Lt Cdr Nick Richardson was shot down in his Sea Harrier over Bosnia by a SAM when he was diverted from his air exclusion zone duties to carry out close air support of ground forces.

Whilst the Sea Harrier was embarked in the carrier, Harrier GR7 aircraft were continuously deployed to Gioia del Colle. Hundreds of Harrier close air support missions were flown – and indeed, the Harrier Qualified Weapons Instructor course was also deployed and managed to destroy a factory that other coalition aircraft had not been able to target successfully.

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 an 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, in 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.

Despite this, the GR7’s, with their integrated GPS/INS was 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

2000, Sierra Leone

The quote from the list

Illustrious provided air support for British forces that rescued UN forces in Sierra Leone providing a secure base that could not be located or attacked by the terrorists ashore. A floating base and national command centre.

InSierra Leone, a Sea Harrier Squadron and a Harrier GR7 Squadron were embarked for operations in support of United Nations ground forces. The Harrier GR7 aircraft were intended to carry out armed reconnaissance missions but the RAF aircrew involved were concerned that they could not find their way back to the ship and so the Sea Harrier aircraft conducted all the missions that had been planned for the Harrier GR7 aircraft.

The engagement in Sierra Leone comes in two parts, Operation Palliser, Basilica and Operation Barras.


A 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) which 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 losing control of the situation. Initially, France, the UK and the 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. The 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 building on the security gains made during Palliser.


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 to 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 quote from the list

RAF Chinooks embarked in HMS Ark Royal 5 took part in the amphibious assault by 99 Royal Marines on the Al Faw peninsula. Again, they lacked the range to operate from a land-base and needed the aircraft carrier to take them to the fight.

Ark Royal 5 operated in her alternative LPH role with Sea Kings and RAF Chinooks embarked to land RM commandoes on the Al Faw Peninsula. Latter difficult to operate because they could not be struck down into the hangar and blades could not be folded – had to be removed.

Operation Telic commenced and RAF aircraft provided about 6% of coalition sorties and released over 900 weapons, of which 85% are 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 than 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.

More information here and here

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.

Rewinding to the beginning of the list this extract from the RAF Museum website might be interesting;

1949, April

The Amethyst incident: Short Sunderlands of No.88 Squadron Royal Air Force, captained by Flight Lieutenant Ken Letford, make a series of relief flights under fire to the Royal Navy Frigate HMS Amethyst. On 20 April 1949, the Amethyst, then acting as the Royal Navy guardship to the diplomatic community at Nanking, had been shelled by Chinese Communist artillery batteries on the River Yangtse between Shanghai and Chinkiang. She had been forced aground with extensive damage, and suffered numerous casualties, including the Captain and First Officer; moreover, the ship’s medical officer had been killed. Although heavy fire prevented rescue attempts by the Royal Navy, Flight Lieutenant Letford and his crew succeeded in flying in vital supplies, including an RAF medical officer, Flight Lieutenant M.E. Fearnley, a Royal Navy chaplain and crewmembers’ replacements.

For their gallantry under fire, Flight Lieutenant Letford was awarded a Bar to his Distinguished Flying Cross and his crew were awarded the Naval General Service Medal. The Amethyst subsequently succeeded in breaking out and rejoining the Far East Fleet on the night of 30/31 July 1949.

Skipping forward to Afghanistan, the quote about Nimrod struck me as pretty shocking

[on Nimrod] This land-based aircraft has been significant by its absence from the effective support of Operation Corporate in the Falklands, 1982 and from all other conflicts engaged in since that time

I am sure that will come as a surprise to the relatives of the 14 service personnel who died on Nimrod MR2 XV230 that crashed over Afghanistan in September 2006.

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 is complementary but the ‘list’ has overinflated the value of aircraft carriers, made extensive use of selective arguments and in some cases uses what is simply puerile and 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, 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 the arguments put forward 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 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 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 massive historical achievements of the Royal Navy and Fleet Air Arm, it is one thing to highlight the flexibility of naval aviation but it is quite another to denigrate another service with little or no basis in fact.

If one of their central arguments sits on such shaky foundations one has to question the validity of their other arguments.

Despite this and previous criticism, I am an enthusiastic supporter of them, defence needs more advocates not less but I would urge them to turn down the rhetoric, exercise greater care in editing/fact-checking and realise that the real ‘enemy’ is not another service but successive governments, vested interests within the MoD and a defence industry that has contrived to reduce the funding for a properly constituted defence force whilst increasing the demands placed on it.


Click to access Journal%2035A%20-%20Seminar%20-%20the%20RAF%20Harrier%20Story.pdf

Click to access Journal%2030%20-%20Seminar%20-%20The%20Falklands%20Campaign.pdf

Click to access C0054AE0_1143_EC82_2EE9013F84C9F82E.pdf

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

Disjointed War

Conflict in the Balkans

Britain’s Air Arms in Action 1945-1990

and many more, which is why posting has been a light recently!

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