18th/19th September 1944 – Liberators vs. U-867

Commissioned in to the German Kriegsmarine on December 12th 1943, U-867 was a Type IXC u-boat built by the Aktien-Gesellschaft, Weser company at their yard in Bremen. The new u-boat implemented many of the lessons that had been learned since the early days of the war such as the fitting of a snorkel that allowed the diesel engines to run TYPE IXC U-BOAT GERMAN KRIEGSMARINEunderwater to limit the chances of detection. It also followed the growing trend of having the deck gun deleted since there were now fewer opportunities to use it given the strength of defences around allied convoys.

After working up to operational status through 1944, the u-boat began its first wartime patrol on September 1st 1944 out of Kiel under the command of 39-year old Kpt. Arved von Mühlendahl. Despite his relatively advanced age compared to most other u-boat commanders, U-867 was von Mühlendahl’s first u-boat command. After nearly two weeks at sea, morale aboard the u-boat was increasingly becoming drained by a mix of foul weather battering the sub whenever they surfaced and a lack of any kind of success against the allies.

On September 17th 1944, the u-boat’s diesel engines became disabled in heavy weather forcing von Mühlendahl to order the u-boat to head for the Norwegian coast and the protection of the Luftwaffe. The u-boat made slow progress having to run economically enough on the surface so as to not drain the batteries of the electric engines that were normally reserved to power the u-boat underwater before they met up with one of three other u-boats that had been dispatched to render assistance.

RAF CIt was tense time for von Mühlendahl and his men. They were travelling slowly through waters that were swarming with allied aircraft patrolling overhead. Through the next day, the u-boat crew’s luck held out but then, just after 2100hrs on September 18th they found themselves attracting the attention of a Leigh Light equipped Liberator of RAF Coastal Command’s No.224 Squadron based at RAF Miltown. As the Liberator attacked, the anti-aircraft gunners on U-867 and the nose gunner in the Liberator exchanged fire until the gunners on the u-boat were silenced just as the RAF plane began to drop depth charges. Six depth charges were dropped by the Liberator which landed in a line on the starboard side of the u-boat causing additional damage to the already disabled diesel engines which saw them start leaking oil.

After the depth charge attack, the anti-aircraft gunners were able to return to their positions and start firing on the British aircraft again which was now circling overhead. The British and the Germans briefly exchanged gunfire before von Mühlendahl was forced to resort to the only option left open to him which was to dive the u-boat even though this would probably use up the last of the power in his batteries. Having slipped below the dark waves of the North Sea, the RAF plane lost sight of the u-boat but at the cost of the last of U-867’s battery power.

Three other u-boats had been dispatched to render assistance to the disabled U-867 namely U-218, U-858 and U-1228. In the waning hours of September 18th, U-1228 was illuminated on the surface by another Coastal Command Liberator from No.224 Squadron using its powerful Leigh Light. The Liberator attacked with a stick of depth charges as the u-boat attempted to dive to the safety of the depths below but one of the six depth charges the Liberator released inflicted damaged on the u-boat’s snorkel. Thus when U-1228 attempted to use its snorkel the u-boat quickly filled with choking carbon monoxide from the engines that eventually caused the death of one crew member and left the rest gasping for air until they could surface again and open the hatches. U-1228 was forced to give up on attempting to reach U-867 and so it turned around and headed for port.

The next day, on September 19th 1944, von Mühlendahl and his men began inflating dinghies and lashing them alongside the crippled U-867 as it bobbed up and down on the inhospitable North Sea. The oil leak from the attack the day before now glistened in a RAF Coastal Command Liberatorlarge pool on the surface surrounding the u-boat and the dinghies. Then at 1737hrs, their worst fears were realised when they heard the sound of yet another No.224 Squadron Liberator growling towards them flown by Flight Lieutenant H.J. Rayner. Rayner carried out another attack with depth charges but all six of them overshot their target leaving the Liberator to orbit overhead and report the u-boat’s position so another aircraft could attack.

This was the final straw for Kapt. von Mühlendahl. Watched by the RAF Liberator crew, he and his men climbed in to the dinghies after appearing to deliberately flood the u-boat and cut themselves free before U-867 slipped beneath the waves for the last time. The Liberator crew reported that there were at least 50 men in the dinghies indicating that the entire crew escaped the doomed submarine.

The crews of U-218 and U-858 were close enough to the area to hear the detonations of the depth charges. Fearing for their comrades, they raced to the scene but at 2010hrs, U-858 found itself attracting the attention of yet another RAF Liberator only this time from No.206 Squadron. The Liberator attacked but U-858 managed to escape any serious damage by first making an aggressive turn to port as the depth charges landed in the water and then crash diving.

With U-867 no longer a threat, the RAF Liberators left von Mühlendahl and his men in their dinghies to continue hunting for other u-boats in the area. Another Liberator overflew a group of dinghies whilst on its patrol and it was long presumed they were from a different u-boat that had been attacked while U-867 was limping home. It is now generally agreed that these dinghies were from U-867. 

Despite being so close to where the final attack on U-867 occurred, the heavy RAF presence in the area coupled with bad weather meant neither U-218 or U-858 was able to locate von Mühlendahl or any of his men. On September 22nd, the Germans called off their search thus confining them to the pages of history.


Group Captain Leonard Cheshire interview

In the third of the RAF Centre for Air Power Studies rarely-seen before historic ‘leadership’ themed videos, inspirational wartime leader and world-renowned humanitarian, Group Captain Leonard Cheshire, Baron Cheshire VC OM DSO** DFC is interviewed by Group Captain (later Air Vice-Marshal) Tony Mason CB CBE DL at the RAF Staff College, Bracknell, February 1978. During the interview Group Captain Cheshire discusses his now legendary record of achievements throughout his service during WWII.

Group Captain Cheshire received a commission as a pilot officer in the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve on November 16th 1937. Although he demonstrated considerable prowess in training as a single seat pilot, by a vagary of the system he was destined to be posted to Bomber Command. During the War his command appointments included 76 Squadron, 617 Squadron, and RAF Marston Moor and he was, at one time, the youngest group captain in the RAF. By July 1944 he had completed a total of 102 missions, for which he was awarded the Victoria Cross. His citation simply states: ‘Cheshire displayed the courage and determination of an exceptional leader’.

After the war, Cheshire founded the charity Leonard Cheshire Disability and devoted the remainder of his life to pursuing humanitarian ideals. His obituary in the Independent (1992) declares that ‘LEONARD CHESHIRE was one of the most remarkable men of his generation, perhaps the most remarkable’.

Crashed in Iran: Final flight of Vulcan XJ781

In 1955, the UK entered in to an alliance that with the benefit of hindsight seemed doomed to failure. It was known under a few names, it initially being referred to as the Baghdad Pact or the Middle East Treaty Organisation (METO) but was most commonly referred to as the Central Treaty Organisation (CENTO). The origins of the alliance can be traced back to a year prior when Turkey and Pakistan signed a treaty of mutual cooperation on defence matters. Encouraged by the United States in 1955, a new agreement was penned that added Iraq, Iran and perhaps most significantly the United Kingdom however the US itself was held back from formal involvement until 1958.

In a nutshell, CENTO’s role was modelled along the lines of NATO in Western Europe with the goal being to establish a series of militarily powerful countries on the Soviet Union’s southern flank and to counter any communist revolutionary forces emerging in the Middle East. It was headquartered in Baghdad, Iraq until 1958 when Brigadier General Abd al-Karim Qasim of the Iraqi Army overthrew and killed the last King of Iraq, King Faisal II. Iraq then withdrew from CENTO and the headquarters was moved to Ankara in Turkey.

The 1960s were a tough time for the organisation. It’s existence was heavily criticised for its lack of action to help curb the first Indo-Pakistan War, the Six Day War, tensions between Turkey and Greece over Cyprus and it’s seeming lack of ability to prevent Communist revolutionary forces rising up across the Middle East. Even the UK and US, who should have been its biggest supporters, often bypassed it when dealing with specific issues and countries in the region. The US had to especially tread carefully when dealing with CENTO because of the strong pro-Israel lobby in Washington which viewed the alliance with suspicion.

For the UK, its military bases on Cyprus were of high importance for the alliance with the RAF’s Near East Air Force providing a nuclear strike capability with Avro Vulcan B.2s from early 1969. The aircraft were operated by Nos.9 and 35 Squadrons out of RAF Akrotiri which was by then the only RAF station left on the island after RAF Nicosia was forced to close in 1966 to become Cyprus International Airport.

One of the advantages of being a member of CENTO was that British military units could undertake deployments to member states which for RAF crews allowed them to gain invaluable experience operating over the Middle East. It was not uncommon for the long range Vulcans to fly to Iran or Turkey on goodwill flights or to train with their respective air forces and one place they would regularly visit was Shiraz Air Base in south-west Iran.

Avro Vulcan XJ781 B.2On May 23rd 1973, one such visitor to Shiraz was Avro Vulcan B.2 XJ781 operating with No.9 Squadron which, having completed a routine training mission turned towards the Iranian base for landing. In this instance, the usual crew of five were joined by a sixth man, an officer from the Imperial Iranian Air Force who was aboard acting as an observer. This was not uncommon but often proved problematic for the British crews as the observers almost never spoke any English leading to safety briefings being conducted with pointing at things hoping he understood. The observers also liked to smoke during the flight.

All had gone well until it came time to lower the undercarriage ready for landing. While the nose and starboard undercarriage legs lowered successfully, the port leg refused to budge despite the efforts of the crew. Low on fuel, the crew had no choice but to attempt an emergency landing at Shiraz. The ground personnel at Shiraz immediately went in to action and began spraying down foam across one of the two runways at the base in an attempt to cushion the port wing when it inevitably made contact with the ground and reduce the chance of fire. With the runway sufficiently doused down, the aircraft made its landing attempt.

The Vulcan touched down on its starboard undercarriage with pilot Flight Lieutenant John Derrick fighting to keep the wings level before the nosewheels made contact with the ground. The aircraft ran on just the starboard and nose wheels for a short while before the port wing was lowered as carefully as possible on to the ground. With the wing scraping along the foam-soaked runway it began pulling the aircraft to the left, sending it veering off the runway and across an adjacent gully that was not marked on any maps of the airfield. The nosewheel fell in to the gully and was sheered off followed quickly by the starboard undercarriage leaving the Vulcan to slam down on to its belly before finally sliding to a halt. As the aircraft slid across the ground, the bomb aimer’s window in the blister under the nose shattered sending clouds of dust in to the lower deck of the cockpit while the navigator’s table collapsed temporarily trapping the two navigator’s by their knees. Aside from the bruised knees, the five crew and the Iranian observer were all unhurt and with the crew hatch stuck against the ground they left the aircraft through the canopy which had been ejected after the undercarriage collapsed.

Avro Vulcan XJ781 Iran Shiraz crash

Flight Lieutenant John Derrick in front of the crashed XJ781 at Shiraz (Courtesy James Rich)

A maintenance team from Akrotiri was flown out aboard a Hercules cargo plane and immediately declared the crash as a Category 5(C) meaning it was beyond repair or salvage. The Iranians agreed to accept the airframe as scrap but insisted that British engineers familiar with the aircraft remove key military components. Thus, after twelve years of service XJ781 ended its days being broken up on a dusty Iranian airfield.

In many ways the crash of such a symbol of British military power as a V-Bomber symbolised the ailing position Britain found itself in when dealing with CENTO. A year after the crash, Turkey invaded Cyprus in defence of Turkish Cypriots following a military coup organised by the Greek Junta. This forced Britain to withdraw all military support for Turkey and consequently CENTO itself which from then on existed only on paper. In 1979, whatever remained of CENTO was dissolved in the wake of the Iranian Revolution.

Thanks to James Rich, Flight Lieutenant John Derrick’s nephew.


Update on the restoration of Meteor NF.14 WS788

Graham Buckle provides an update of the project to restore Meteor NF.14 WS788. If you missed the interview back in April where Graham gives more of an introduction to the project you can view it here.

All photos courtesy of Graham Buckle. For more images of the aircraft as the project has unfolded you can visit the project’s Facebook page.

It’s been a busy year for us on the Meteor team. Since our last update we have been on one spares recovery mission, and done a massive amount of work to return 788 to her former glory. The team now numbers 4, with the addition of Andy Abbott. We have also become a little more ambitious regarding how far we are going to restore the jet, and have discovered that as we work through her and learn her systems the project to bring her back to life is less daunting than it originally seemed…

Firstly, the bigger jobs. Earlier this year we refitted the nose cone. This returned the jet back to her unmistakable profile! Then, after recruiting extra hands, we spent a day refitting the wings to the jet, and while we were at it we persuaded the belly tank off finally.


So we now had a jet that was the correct shape. But she was still a dead, empty shell, missing many parts vital to us if we are ever going to return her to life. And it’s not like you can just pop to Halfords to get NF.14 bits off the shelf…

Word came to us via the editor of Flypast Magazine, Chris Gilson, that a Meteor F.8 was still extant on the army firing range at Sennybridge, Powys. I will be honest, we were sceptical that such an old aircraft would still be there, and in anything like usable condition. There was also the small matter of would we be allowed access to a live firing range…? I set Rich on with the task of making contact with Sennybridge, firstly to ascertain if the aircraft was still there, and secondly to see if it was worthwhile us paying it a visit.

The army could not have been more helpful, the range commander even going to the trouble of sending a man out to photograph the aircraft so we could see if there was anything on the jet worth having prior to making the long trek to South Wales from Yorkshire. And indeed there was! Despite it having been on a Welsh hillside since 1966, and shot at repeatedly by squaddies, there was a trove of parts on that jet. So on a wet, windy day, there we were on a Welsh hillside questioning our sanity in horizontal rain retrieving parts from the remains of Meteor F.8 VZ568! I should say at this point, some of you will be wondering why we were interested in F.8 parts when our jet is an NF.14? Well the 2 jets share the same centre section, rear fuselage, tail, and many systems and cockpit parts. Only the outer wings and nose are really different in terms of the airframe.

After a day’s pillaging we came away with a Transit van full of invaluable parts. We still owe a massive thank you to the staff at Sennybridge for all their help! Sadly the jet’s fuel tank was beyond saving; we would really have loved to retrieve that but someone had blasted a great hole in the top of it which could only be seen once you climbed up on the wing of the jet. We did gather the elevator layshaft, upper airbrake assemblies, much of the aileron control system, and myriad smaller parts though. Even the last gauge left in 568’s cockpit, the flap indicator, was salvaged. It is now restored, working, and fitted in 788’s cockpit replacing the U/S scruffy item that was fitted.

armstrong-whitworth-gloster-meteor-nf-14-ws788-yorkshire-night-fighter-2Once the jet was back in one piece, we could start working through her systematically to see what we had and what we still required. For a jet retired in 1966, she is in many ways surprisingly complete. Let me take you through the jet as she stands… The front cockpit is all there, even our gunsight which was feared lost has been rediscovered, restored, and is now ready to reunite with the aircraft. The rear cockpit presents somewhat of a challenge. We are restoring the jet to NF(T).14 spec, as this is what she spent most of her service life as. Unfortunately details on the rear cockpit fit of the nav trainer NF’s is sketchy to say the least. But we are working on that! Working back down the fuselage, the main fuel tank is missing, and here in the fuel tank bay we encounter the first major problem. All the aircraft’s wiring loom is routed through this bay, and to save time when she has been dismantled to move by road the RAF ‘Crash and Smash’ teams have simply chopped through the wiring. So we have all the loom at the front of the bay, and again at the back of the bay into the rear fuselage, to rejoin. This will be a long, painstaking job. Any damaged wiring found during this process will of course be replaced.

The same applies to the loom where it leaves the fuselage at the wing roots. In addition, all the hydraulic jointing pipes in this section will need replacing too, as they are all missing.

Back to the fuselage, the main electrical distribution board on the back wall of the radio bay is surprisingly intact. Even the jet’s 3 main 60A fuses are still present!

In the radio bay itself, all the racking for the radio gear is present. All the wiring is too, and the plugs are all still wrapped in the protective coverings applied to them by some diligent Liney after the jet flew into Kemble for long term storage in 1966. These have done their job brilliantly; thank you, diligent Liney!

The controls are a different matter. For some reason the aileron control rods in the wing leading edges have been removed, however between a stash of new rod and the fixtures and fittings obtained off the Sennybridge Meteor, we have nearly all the components we need to replace these.

Elevator control rods have also disappeared for some reason, as had 788’s layshaft. Back to the radio bay the elevators are controlled by rods. In the radio bay the layshaft converts the rod input to cables, which then run to the tail then up to the elevators. We now have the rods, the layshaft, and just need the cables and we are there.

The rudder controls are cable all the way from the pedals to the tail. Again, ‘Crash and Smash’ elected to cut these, so the rudder system will need a lot of attention to get it functional again.

armstrong-whitworth-gloster-meteor-nf-14-ws788-yorkshire-night-fighter-3So electrically we know what work there is to do, as indeed we do hydraulically. We are on top of things as regards returning the controls to working order too. Work this year has mainly focused on the airframe itself. The biggest enemy of an aircraft living outdoors is of course corrosion. Ours has had her fair share but we are working through correcting this. We have so far only found one panel which is too badly corroded to be saved, a fillet panel in the port undercarriage bay. One of the main undercarriage doors was in a sad way too, but we have replaced this with a brand new unissued item which we were very kindly donated. Much of the corrosion under the centre section has been dealt with too, the majority of this by Ali. I have been working through the myriad access hatches and panels on the jet, removing screws and fastenings which have not been undone for 50 years or so. As I am sure you can imagine, they frequently aren’t all that keen to undo, so the drill is often the weapon of choice.

One curve ball the jet has thrown at us which has only come to light over the last couple of weeks is the fact that 788’s outer wings aren’t actually hers! They are in fact off an NF.12, the only big difference being that the 14 has a second set of flaps between the engine nacelle and the aileron which the 12 does not. Where these wings came from, and why, is currently a mystery, but I hope to find a serial number pencilled inside one of the access panels which will hopefully shed some light on the mystery. The wings are very much a hotch-potch; while the centre section is 788’s, the outer wings and one leading edge section are NF.12, another leading edge section is NF.11, and one wingtip light is off NF.14 WS809! So we have a Meteor NF(Mongrel).14…

One thing I was never good at when I was at school was doing my homework. But homework is a thing I enjoy on the jet! We all like to take a bit of the aircraft home to work on when we have an idle few minutes; so far I have restored the elevator layshaft, instrument panel, gunsight, cockpit access step, downward ident light, Gee rack and loads of other small bits at home. Rich has the GGS tray at home he is working on, but the most important job he is working on away from the jet is manufacturing the new wooden intake rings. These are coming on wonderfully; he brought one a few weeks ago to test fit, and the difference they make to the jet is amazing.

So, 788 is in a lot better position than she was this time last year. If the 3 substantial parts donations we have been offered come to pass, this time next year could see 788 sporting fully functional flight control, electrical and hydraulic systems, a fuel tank, a shiny new 1ANS paint scheme… and a pair of engines.

Watch this space…


Raid on Udbina

RAF Jaguar GR1 Bosnia

For four decades the multinational forces of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) stared down the Iron Curtain drawn across the middle of Europe at their adversaries in the Warsaw Pact led by the Soviet Union. As an entity in itself, NATO throughout the Cold War was one of the most sophisticated and diverse military organizations in history and yet its primary purpose was to prevent war rather than fight one by providing a credible counter to Soviet aggression.

When the Cold War ended with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the break-up of the Soviet Union it wasn’t unreasonable for many to think that NATO had served its purpose and like the Warsaw Pact would soon break up and become a thing of the past. However, this would prove far from the case as a need for multinational military action in Europe, something NATO had avoided for so long, actually arose in the aftermath of the fall of communism.

The story of ethnic conflict in the Balkans could fill an encyclopaedia but the situation in the 1990s can be traced back to the end of World War II when Yugoslavia was created out of the federal amalgamation of Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro and Macedonia. Additionally, there were two autonomous states that were part of Yugoslavia namely Kosovo and   Vojvodina.

Under the leadership of Josip Broz Tito, Yugoslavia flourished within the communist world existing with a degree of autonomy regarding Moscow not enjoyed by other states in Europe which were forced to bow to their Soviet masters. Tito held power from January 1953 until his death on May 4th 1980 during which time he ruled sternly enough to keep ethnic and religious factions in line. His death left a major void that the political rivals in Yugoslavia rushed to try to fill and many of whom had nationalist ambitions for their respective states. Yugoslavia’s cohesion in the 1980s was rocked by separatist movements that gained momentum amid a new sense of nationalism which was especially worrying for those whose heritage could be traced back to outside their present state such as the Bosnian-Serbs.

Yugoslavia People's Army tanks

Yugoslav People’s Army (YouTube)

By 1991 the push for independence had gathered so much momentum that it had become unstoppable and Yugoslavia began to break up but the question over Serbian ethnic minorities in the new countries remained unresolved. Many of them felt vilified by the nationalist rhetoric of the new republics and so took up arms to protect themselves. At the same time the Yugolsav People’s Army fought for a restoration of Yugoslavia but as their ties with Serbia grew its ranks diminished as non-Serbians left and the force became a Serb army fighting to protect ethnic Serbs outside of the homeland with the goal of eventually building a Greater Serbia encompassing Serbian-occupied territory in neighbouring states.

The decade of conflict that followed was extraordinarily brutal with atrocities being carried out the likes of which hadn’t been seen in Europe since World War II. With the bloodbath taking place on their very doorstep, western Europe’s leaders were forced to act. Efforts by the European Community (European Union) failed to resolve the deteriorating situation but paved the way for the United Nations to launch a peacekeeping mission. UN safe zones were established to protect civilian populations from the fighting but their security was tentative at best despite the deployment of a UN protection force (UNPROFOR) and it was clear that direct NATO support was needed to carry out the mission in Yugoslavia. This was especially true when it came to getting humanitarian aid in to the broken country and enforcing a no-fly zone (Operation Deny Flight) to protect civilian populations from air attack.

From 1992, British forces fresh from the war in the Gulf became involved in supporting the UN’s operations. In order to get food and medical supplies to besieged towns and cities in Bosnia such as the capital of Sarajevo, an ongoing airlift was organized the British contingent of which was carried out under the banner of Operation Cheshire. Flying from Italy the RAF’s fleet of Hercules cargo aircraft would eventually carry out 1,977 sorties to bring in food and aid between 1992 and 1996. Despite promises not to attack the aircraft, Bosnian-Serb forces did fire on the transports either with or without authorisation from their commanders (see video below) viewing them as aiding their enemy. Additionally, the aircraft were constantly in danger of getting caught up in exchanges of mortar and artillery fire between opposing sides as they made their approach to Sarajevo.

One such UN safe zone was the town of Bihać in north-western Bosnia which was “protected” under the banner of the UN from May 6th 1993. Bihać had been under siege from Bosnian-Serbs since 1992 after the proclamation of two breakaway ethnic Serb republics, the Republic of Serbian Krajina to the west in modern day Croatia and the Republika Srpska in the east, left them surrounded. The people of the town soon found themselves caught between two ethnic Serb armies working together to destroy the town’s defenders and effectively “cleanse” it of its people.

The declaration of the safe zone within the town was intended to protect the 170,000 Bosnians it contained many of which were refugees who had already fled their homes in the new breakaway republics. However, the reality was that the UN had little effect on the situation through 1993 and in to 1994 other than to make Bihać a magnet for even more refugees to flood in. This worried Bosnian leaders who feared that the UN had unintentionally set the scene for a massacre. As the siege went on the town began to lack even the most basic of supplies and hunger begin to kill as many people as the shelling did. Communication with the town was at times impossible due to Bosnian-Serb interference and even the deployment of UN troops failed to get food and medical help in to the town.

While the UN and NATO bickered about just how to address the situation at large, the Bosnian government launched an initially successful offensive in to north-western Bosnia in 1994 looking to relieve Bihać but they were slowly beaten back through the summer by the Bosnian-Serb forces from the Republika Srpska. Operation Deny Flight in the meantime was meeting with mixed success. While it had largely stopped fast jet operations over Bosnia by aircraft of the Republika Srpska, its own operational limitations had prevented the same from being achieved regarding aircraft of the Republic of Serbian Krajina whose main base was the former Yugoslavian air base at Udbina located in what was recognised as Croatian territory. Deny Flight was restricted by the UN to Bosnian airspace only and given Udbina’s proximity to Bihać its aircraft could make raids across the lines in support of the Bosnian-Serbs and retreat back across in to Croatia before NATO could respond. It was an infuriating position for NATO who pushed for a greater scope in their operations but were repeatedly rebuffed by a muddling UN.

In Italy and the Adriatic, British forces continued to be built up to support NATO and the UN in the clearly deteriorating situation. Between 1993 and 1995 the British Invincible-class aircraft carriers, HMS Ark Royal and HMS Invincible, rotated duties in the Adriatic flying combat patrols with their Sea Harrier FRS.1s (and eventually F/A.2s) fighter-bombers and supporting humanitarian missions with their helicopters. The Sea Harrier pilots were especially at risk and this was dramatically highlighted on April 16th 1994. A Sea Harrier from Ark Royal was directed to destroy a Bosnian-Serb tank but found itself locked up by a shoulder-launched surface-to-air missile and was shot down. The pilot ejected and was rescued shortly after but it was a major victory for Bosnian-Serb forces as NATO restricted their air operations further as a result.

At Gioia del Colle air base in south-east Italy the Royal Air Force presence was continuing to increase. As well as the aforementioned Hercules transports of Operation Cheshire, when Deny Flight began six Panavia Tornado F.3s were deployed to the base for air patrol taskings. To give NATO forces more of a punch if the need arose, the RAF had deployed twelve SEPECAT Jaguar GR.1 strike/attack aircraft in July 1993. These aircraft and their crews had not long finished a deployment to Turkey as part of Operation Provide Comfort over Iraq and as such were still configured for operations over the Persian Gulf region which included overwing AIM-9L Sidewinders for self-defence. Despite being something of a Cinderella type during the 1980s the British Jaguars had excelled themselves during the 1991 Gulf War and were highly regarded for their accuracy in delivering unguided munitions. Over a year later on September 22nd 1994, Squadron Leader Steve Shutt of No.41 Squadron flying a Jaguar GR.1 became the first RAF pilot to drop a bomb in anger on mainland Europe since 1945 when he was vectored in to attack a T-55 tank approximately 10km from Sarajevo.

Royal Air Force SEPECAT Jaguar GR.1 AIM-9L Sidewinder Bosnia

RAF Jaguar banks away from the tanker (Aviation Archive)

Joining the Tornado F.3s, Jaguars, Hercules and Royal Navy Sea Harriers were a number of supporting aircraft. From the Italian base at Aviano, at least one RAF Boeing Sentry AEW.1 provided airborne warning and control duties for NATO aircraft. These were joined by Nimrod MR.2s that provided maritime patrol duties over the Adriatic while the venerable Canberra PR.9s of No.39 Squadron carried out photographic reconnaissance missions over the former Yugoslavia. The entire contingent relied heavily on the RAF’s tanker force and at least two of these important aircraft were based in Italy at any one time refuelling RAF and NATO aircraft.

Despite the increasing NATO presence in the region the political establishment within the west were sending mixed signals to all sides regarding how to tackle the situation. There were deep divisions between the US and Europe with even the UK opposing an initiative Washington put forward in early 1994. This seemed to instil confidence in the ethnic Serb position which in turn caused the Muslim-Croat Federation to launch an offensive against the forces of the Republic of Serbian Krajina in and around the Bihac area in November 1994 with the goal of returning the territory to Croatian control.

Soko J-22 Orao

SOKO J-22 Orao (YouTube)

To complement their defence, the Krajina-Serbs used their handful of aircraft based at Udbina. The most potent strike aircraft available to the Krajina-Serbs was the SOKO J-22 Orao, a light attack aircraft which resembled the RAF’s Jaguar that was developed by Yugoslavia before the country broke up. The Krajina Serbs initially claimed that they had no Oraos but NATO intelligence efforts and later video evidence of them in use proved that the potent aircraft was flying from Udbina. Other combat aircraft included SOKO G-2 Galeb and G-4 Super Galeb armed jet trainers that were broadly equivalent to the Italian Aermacchi MB-326 and British Aerospace Hawk respectively. The airfield was also being used by helicopters and was a major command and control facility for repelling the Croatians.

At the same time as the Croat offensive, Bosnian government forces were still pushing back towards Bihać forcing Oraos from Udbina to be directed over the lines in to Bosnian territory. On November 18th 1994, two Oraos from Udbina flew in to Bosnia and bombed the Bosnian Army’s 5th Corp headquarters violating the UN safe zone around Bihać in the process which at this point was only “safe” on paper; in fact, at this point the Krajina-Serbs controlled about a third of the zone. The next day, on November 19th another strike was carried out in to Bosnia this time directed at an ammunition factory in Cazin some ten miles north of Bihać. Flying at very low altitude, one of the two Oraos involved in the attack clipped a chimney and went barrelling in to an apartment block killing its pilot who hailed from Serbia itself.

Faced with this dramatic surge in violence the UN finally agreed to expand NATO’s area of operations to include recognised Croatian airspace thus denying the Krajina-Serbs’ aircraft the protection they had once been afforded under the Deny Flight rules of engagement. On the same day that the Serbian pilot crashed his Orao in Cazin, the UN voted unanimously in favour of Security Council Resolution 959 which condemned ethnic Serb atrocities and demanded all sides comply with UN peacekeeping forces as well as reaffirm diplomatic efforts to end the fighting. The Krajina-Serbs were not listening and this in turn finally forced NATO’s hand.

Having been at the centre of a coordinated intelligence campaign, NATO elected to launch an air strike on Udbina with the goal of denying the Krajina-Serbs the use of their air power. It was to be a truly multinational affair with participating aircraft belonging to the air forces of Britain, France, Holland and the United States flying from Italy or carriers in the Adriatic. There were 39 combat aircraft committed to the operation which would be supported by NATO E-3 Sentry AWACS and a variety of tankers. The British contribution included four Jaguar GR.1s with crews coming from No.54 Squadron under the command of Wing Commander Tim Kerrs. Two of the Jaguars would provide post-attack reconnaissance duties for the strike using LOROP reconnaissance pods while the other two aircraft would both be armed with 1,000lb general purpose bombs and attack the runway. The British also supplied a TriStar K.1 tanker to refuel the NATO aircraft while Sea Harriers from HMS Invincible provided air defence duties should the Krajina-Serbs make a frankly bold attempt to retaliate in the air.

There was no doubt that NATO had the firepower and the technological edge but they once again found themselves being reeled back in by the UN. NATO planners had wanted to essentially remove Udbina’s aircraft from the equation altogether by first knocking out the runway thus preventing them from taking off and then destroying them on the ground using precision guided munitions dropped from the protection of medium altitude in much the same way that the far more powerful Iraqi air force had been annihilated over three years earlier. At the same time, in order to protect the strike aircraft a number of electronic warfare planes would jam the air defence radars while AGM-88 HARM-equipped US F/A-18s would destroy them. The missiles and anti-aircraft artillery emplacements themselves would then be targeted with precision guided weapons.

British Army UNPROFOR Bosnia

British troops of UNPROFOR (UN Media)

When NATO presented the plan to the UN they were appalled citing that it would result in a huge loss of life and incur retaliations against UNPROFOR troops. This was not an unreasonable assessment since a close air support mission around Gorazde earlier in the year by NATO aircraft saw a number of UNPROFOR troops taken hostage and only released after a lengthy negotiation process. Instead, the UN demanded that NATO only bomb the runway and jam the defensive radars. This was intolerable for NATO who felt that their hands were being tied and not destroying the anti-aircraft defences was unnecessarily endangering their pilots. The UN eventually conceded and relaxed their restrictions for the operation, permitting NATO to attack the surface-to-air missile and anti-aircraft artillery sites in order to protect the strike aircraft but sternly refused to allow NATO to attack the aircraft on the ground for fear of killing pilots and ground crew. The UN and NATO it seemed had reluctantly met in the middle regarding the debate and the operation was given the go-ahead for November 20th but poor weather saw this delayed by 24 hours.

On November 21st at 1030hrs GMT, the strike group set off from their bases in Italy. The mission was under the overall command of the Dutch contingent who along with the British were primarily tasked with attacking the runway. Curiously, despite the intensity of NATO operations in the following decade it would not be until 2014 that a Dutch commander would lead a strike again. The strike force was well protected by US and French fighters while USAF EF-111A Ravens provided electronic jamming of the Krajina Serb radars. Having formed up over the Adriatic the force was then directed to their operational areas under the guidance of a Sentry AWAC. United States Marine Corps F/A-18s fired AGM-88 HARM anti-radar missiles at the radar dishes, shutting them down permanently and allowing USAF F-15E Strike Eagles and F-16C Falcons to bomb the actual surface-to-air missile batteries and gun emplacements using laser guided bombs.

The British Jaguars and the Dutch F-16s then made their attacks on the runway using unguided conventional bombs. The British adopted an attack profile not too dissimilar to those used against the Iraqis three years earlier with the aircraft diving in on to the target effectively hurling their bombs at the target. Wing Commander Kerrs led the pair of Jaguars attacking the runway, the two of them each putting a 1,000lb bomb in to the tarmac. Flight Lieutenant Chris Carder then led the pair of LOROP Jaguars photographing the results of the attack which were to be compared with pre-attack photographs of the airfield taken by reconnaissance aircraft in the days leading up to the attack in order to assess the raid’s effectiveness. The LOROP Jaguars flew at 15,000ft and were able to photograph the airfield from around five miles away.

After nearly two hours, the raid on Udbina was over and all the aircraft involved had either already returned to Italy or were enroute over the Adriatic. Despite UN hopes, two Krajina-Serbs were killed in the raid and around half a dozen more injured prompting a promise of retaliation by Krajina- and Bosnian-Serb leaders.

As promised, the Serbs retaliated swiftly. The very next day, two Sea Harriers from HMS Invincible were fired upon by a surface-to-air missile just 15 miles from Bihać. Fortunately, the missile was successfully decoyed away. Just as the UN feared, the attack on Udbina and a number of additional air strikes against anti-aircraft sites in north-western Bosnia in the weeks afterward to further protect NATO aircraft saw UN hostages taken including two Czech Army officers who were kidnapped in Sarajevo. Most significantly however, in May 1995 over 400 UNPROFOR soldiers were taken hostage and used as human shields. This and the failure of previous efforts finally saw a sustained NATO bombing campaign against the Bosnian-Serbs under Operation Deliberate Force.

Udbina air base air strike 1994

Udbina after the strike (Forgotten Airfields)

In judging the success of the Udbina raid it could be argued that within the narrow confines of its own parameters agreed to by the UN and NATO the strike was a success. The runway was rendered unusable with a minimum of casualties on the ground and without any NATO losses. However, in the wider scope of events the raid achieved very little. With the aircraft left intact the Krajina-Serbs began an effort to fill in the craters left by the bombs and within two weeks they were flying from there again despite NATO air activity now over Croatia as well as Bosnia. Udbina remained a major part of the military operations carried out by the Krajina-Serbs in Croatia and Bihać for the remainder of the conflict.

In hindsight, the raid did little to directly affect the fighting in and around Bihać but it did prove that NATO was capable of mounting a large scale and complex air operation. The raid on Udbina effectively provided the blueprint for the more sustained campaign of Deliberate Force in which the RAF’s Jaguars were joined by Harrier GR.7s.

Boeing gearing up to start construction of RAF Poseidons

Boeing P-8I Poseidon

Representatives of the U.S. Naval Air Systems Command based at Patuxent River Naval Air Station announced last week that a $68.4 million order has been placed with Boeing for the initial parts needed to start construction of the first four P-8A Poseidon aircraft destined for the RAF. The RAF has nine Poseidons on order which will restore the service’s independent maritime patrol and anti-submarine capability which it has lacked since the retirement of the Nimrod MR.2 and the cancellation of the Nimrod MRA.4 in 2010.

The P-8 is a militarised version of the Boeing 737 airliner and is optimised for the maritime patrol role featuring a stronger structure and the ability to carry weapons. At the heart of the mission system is the APS-137D(V)5 radar which provides Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) capabilities for imaging stationary vessels as well as conducting coastal and overland surveillance. It also has high-resolution Imaging Synthetic Aperture Radar (ISAR) for imaging surfaced submarines and fast surface vessels operating in coastal waters where surface clutter is high.

The withdrawal of the Nimrod has forced the RAF to rely on the Royal Navy’s vessels and their helicopters for the maritime reconnaissance and anti-submarine roles. However this was proven to be woefully inefficient and left the UK’s coastlines extremely vulnerable causing the MoD to embarrassingly have to ask for help from NATO allies on a number of occasions.



RAF Griffin helicopter destroyed on Snowdonia hillside

Griffin HT.1 Royal Air Force helicopter AB412

Griffin HT.1 (RAF)

An RAF Griffin HT.1 helicopter has burst into flames after being forced to land on a Snowdonia peak with technical problems. The aircraft was operating out of RAF Valley and was carrying five crewmembers none of whom were hurt in the incident.

The emergency services were alerted to the scene by walkers who had spotted the smoke and flames sending firefighters, police and mountain rescue teams from Llanberis, Ogwen Valley and Aberglaslyn to the scene. An air ambulance and HM Coast Guard helicopter were dispatched to the scene as a precautionary measure while the air space above the scene was restricted to other aircraft.

The Ministry of Defence confirmed that the aircraft was involved in a search and rescue training exercise at the time of the incident. The Griffin HT.1s based at Valley are part of the Search and Rescue Training Unit (SARTU).


The aircraft on fire in Snowdonia (BBC)