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)

30 Minutes Over Berlin With Guy Gibson

During the interwar years there was much discussion about the psychology of war and how the morale of the people could affect a conflict’s outcome regardless of the tactical situation on the battlefield. The Great War had shown this to good effect with the Russian Empire collapsing under the weight of a disheartened people coupled with the strains of war. The revolutions of 1917, while already being seeded long before the outbreak of war in 1914, was fuelled by the Russian’s inability to defeat German and Austro-Hungarian forces thus creating a useful distraction for the Marxists. The chaos in Russia itself saw the Russian Army retreating from the war and the Germans achieving what was effectively victory in the east.

This fact was not lost on British planners during the interwar years, particularly those who tried to envision the role of air power in the next global conflict. Much was written about how the damaging of a nation’s morale through the systematic destruction of large population centres could both crush the will to resist further and inspire dissent against the hostile nation’s government. This would destroy the enemy’s social infrastructure as well as his technical infrastructure and thus the country would be unable to function.

By the same token, it was important to keep one’s own people informed of what their armed forces were doing to destroy the enemy and win the war. The spirit of getting behind the boys at the front and not wanting to let them down at home was a vital resource to be tapped to keep up war production and the gelling of the nation towards the common goal of survival.

This was where the war correspondent came in.

For the majority of the nation the war correspondent was the only view of how the fight was progressing as they reported from the frontlines. Historically, war correspondents had often been serving officers or government officials who were assigned the role of spin doctor to put a positive twist on the truth at the front in order to keep up the morale of the people even if that meant lying. The Great War would see the pinnacle of this form of propaganda with stories of glorious actions written by respected authors such as Rudyard Kipling overshadowing the true tales of horror that returning soldiers from the front told at the local pub. The demilitarization of war correspondents and the increasing number of genuine journalists at the front did much to alleviate the growing cynicism towards the earlier let’s-go-get’em style of reporting which itself was proving counterproductive.

Richard DimblebyOne of the most influential of these new breed of war correspondents was Richard Dimbleby of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). Born Frederick Richard Dimbleby in 1913, he was himself the son of a journalist and when his education was complete he went to work in the family owned Richmond and Twickenham Times before joining the BBC in 1936 as a radio broadcaster. In 1939 he was selected to join the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) as they crossed to France and in doing so earned himself the accolade of being the BBC’s first war correspondent and he would more than live up to it.

Over the next six years, Dimbleby’s words would be broadcast in to every home in Britain and beyond that had a radio, narrating some of the most pivotal and often the darkest moments in the country’s history. From the first days of fighting on the western front when Hitler’s troops bypassed the Maginot Line to the evacuation of the BEF from the Normandy beaches to the battle of El Alamein, Dimbleby’s voice told the story of the fight against Nazi Germany’s lust for conquest but one feeling prevailed throughout the world during these broadcasts; Britain was on the defensive. The Army was fighting to stop Rommel’s Afrika Korps in Egypt while the Royal Navy was waging a bitter war against Dönitz’s U-boats in the North Atlantic that were close to starving Britain in to submission.

Only one force seemed to be waging a truly offensive war against Nazi Germany; RAF Bomber Command.

The fleets of aircraft and their international crews sourced from all over the Commonwealth that made up RAF Bomber Command had the potential to strike at the very heart of Germany and directly affect the country’s ability to wage war. Knowing that the RAF’s bombers were pounding Germany night after night inspired the British people in to the belief that not only was Hitler getting a bloody nose but that victory was still possible despite the sometimes dire situation the country found itself in during the early years. As long as the bombers kept going over to Europe with their deadly loads then Britain and indeed the free world itself was still in the fight.

And the grand prize of them all was Berlin.

British bombers first visited Berlin on August 25th 1940 in retaliation for Luftwaffe bombers engaged in the Battle of Britain accidentally bombing London. The target was Tempelhoff aerodrome but while the damage was light the psychological effect on Germany and Hitler was immense. The Nazis had promised that no bomb would ever fall on the capital city and now that promise was in tatters. After more visits by RAF bombers, Hitler pushed back and directed his bomber fleets away from RAF bases to retaliate against London. In doing so, the RAF was spared destruction in the Battle of Britain and as a result it became impractical for Germany to attempt an invasion.

LMF Hampden

Through 1941, Bomber Command visited Berlin time and time again but while they did wonders for the morale of the British people the raids themselves achieved little in strategic terms. Bomber Command’s aircraft such as the Vickers Wellington, Armstrong-Whitworth Whitley and the Handley-Page Hampden (Above) barely had the range to reach Berlin and carried warloads too light to seriously damage the city enough to produce the desired results. If that wasn’t bad enough, navigation was a major obstacle in the early years since there were few accurate ways to navigate at night over such long distances. This, of course, was to say nothing of German defences comprising of anti-aircraft fire and radar-directed nightfighters.

As 1941 dragged on the men of RAF Bomber Command were suffering badly while trying to deliver the expected knock-out blow against the Nazi capital. Anti-aircraft fire was so dense in some places that the concentration of exploding shells created shockwaves that literally shook aircraft to pieces. Coming under increasing pressure from Whitehall, the head of RAF Bomber Command, Air Marshall Richard Peirse, ordered one of the largest raids against Berlin on the night of November 7th/8th 1941 involving 160 aircraft. By this time the crews of Bomber Command, bloodied and tired, felt an overwhelming sense of dread and despair over the news that they would be returning to Berlin. It was felt to such a degree that there were a handful of cases where crews refused to fly the mission regardless of the consequences. Nevertheless, the mission went ahead and once again Bomber Command would pay a high price. Over 12% of the total force was lost to anti-aircraft fire and nightfighters. These losses coupled with poor results saw Peirse relieved of his position and replaced by the man most associated with Bomber Command, Sir Arthur Harris – “Bomber Harris”.

Harris believed wholeheartedly that air power alone could smash the German infrastructure and above all the will to fight. The poor results thus far shown by Bomber Command, he attributed to inadequate equipment and the chaining of his force to attacking targets to support the Army and Royal Navy. After the disaster in November 1941, Bomber Command stopped hitting Berlin and found itself primarily trying to knock FM213 Lady Orchid, Avro Lancaster KB895 WL-O VR-A Quinte Trentonout U-Boat production and supporting facilities to ease the pressure on the Atlantic convoys. While important work, Harris wanted his men to return to the German capital and to take with them their latest four engined heavies – Short Stirling, Handley-Page Halifax and of course the superlative Avro Lancaster (Right). The change of direction for Bomber Command in 1942 did at least offer Harris the chance to sufficiently build up his forces ready to hit Berlin again and with greater devastation than ever before. In January 1943, Harris was finally granted permission to send his bomber fleets back to Berlin. It would be the first mission to the capital since the disaster of November 1941 and was intended to show the Germans (and indeed the people at home) that the tide had truly turned against the Nazis.

Eager to exploit the morale value of the operation it was decided that a journalist should go along as an observer to report on the operation and the ideal man for the job was Richard Dimbleby who by now had experienced as much if not more combat than most frontline servicemen. It shouldn’t be underestimated how dangerous an assignment like this was for a journalist. In the air they were at as much risk as the airmen themselves since flak and nightfighters didn’t discriminate. If proof of this were needed, then it can be found on the night of December 2nd/3rd 1943 when two journalists were killed flying in separate aircraft on the same mission over Europe.

Guy Gibson Wing Commander DambustersDimbleby was assigned to join No.106 Squadron of Bomber Command based at RAF Syerston in Nottinghamshire and equipped with the handsome-looking Avro Lancaster. While some commanding officers may have bawked at the idea of having to take a journalist along with them on an operational sortie, Dimbleby found 106’s commander to be quite enthusiastic about it hoping it would show what life was really like for the bomber crews. He was Wing Commander Guy Gibson who will forever be associated with the great Dambusters raid that would take place four months later in May 1943.

Even before he became a household name, Gibson had developed a fine reputation in the RAF as a competent leader and experienced combat pilot. In January 1943 he was serving out his third tour of operational flying having previously conducted a tour with No.83 Squadron flying Handley-Page Hampdens at the start of the war and then flying another tour with Fighter Command flying Bristol Blenheim and Beaufighter nightfighters scoring three confirmed kills on Luftwaffe bombers and a number of probables or damaged. Dimbleby was therefore in quite capable hands.

Briefings and pre-flight checks complete, Dimbleby settled in to the cramped cabin of the Avro Lancaster (although no doubt some of the older crewmembers would have pointed Lancaster_wireless_operator_WWII_IWM_CH_8790out how “luxurious” the Lanc’ was compared to the earlier aircraft) with the rest of the crew as Gibson taxied the Lancaster out. Dimbleby records that the Lancaster’s wheels left the tarmac at 1630hrs on January 16th 1943 and set off for the dark, wintery skies of occupied Europe. Dimbleby must have felt somewhat out of place amongst the well trained and experienced six-man crew who went about their duties in an almost robotic fashion but he would forever afterwards comment on their professionalism and declare that he was proud to have flown with them. The journey out proved almost mundane with very little activity but knowing that Berlin was the target ahead hung in the thoughts of all onboard especially Dimbleby for whom it was his first mission.

As they neared Berlin, the capital’s defences began to spring to life. From here on, Dimbleby took to recording the events as they happened ready for broadcast the next day. He also took a small video camera with him to record the events. In his own words Dimbleby described what he saw;

There was a complete ring of powerful searchlights, waving and crossing. Though it seemed to me that when many of our bombers were over the city, many of our lights were doused.   

Dimbleby is referring to the use of target indicator flares being used by the RAF to mark the target. Pathfinders flew ahead of the main force deploying these flares for the follow-up bomber force. Many of the bravest citizens of Berlin would rush out to try and put out the burning markers in an effort to save their city from destruction.

It was then that Dimbleby experienced what it was like to fly through anti-aircraft fire.

There was also intense flak. At first they didn’t seem to be aiming at us. It was bursting away to starboard and port in thick yellow clusters and dark smoky puffs. As we turned in for our first run across the city it closed right around us. For a moment it seemed impossible that we could miss it. And one burst lifted us in the air as if a giant hand had pushed up the belly of the machine.

Over Berlin, each bomber searched for their markers and began to unleash their loads. According to a declassified dispatch sent to Stalin by Churchill the next day regarding the raid, the RAF dropped 142 tons of high explosive bombs and 218 tons of incendiaries on the Nazi capital. Dimbleby, in Wing Commander Guy Gibson’s Lancaster had a front row seat to the devastating spectacle.

Just then another Lancaster dropped a load of incendiaries. And where before there had been a dark patch of the city, a dazzling silver pattern spread itself. A rectangle of brilliant lights, hundreds, thousands of them, winking and gleaming and lighting the outlines of the city…Score after score of these firebombs went down and all over the dark face of the German capital these great incandescent flowerbeds spread themselves. It was a fascinating sight…At last our bomb-aimer sighted his objective below and for one unpleasant minute we flew steady and straight. Then he pressed a button and the biggest bomb of the evening, our three-and-a-half tonner, fell away and down. I didn’t see it burst but I know what a giant bomb does.

Known as a “cookie” bomb to the crews, the weapon Dimbleby is referring to was one of a RAF Lancaster Avro Cookie bombs bombernumber of large conventional bombs carried by RAF bombers. Weighing 8,000lbs, the Lancaster was one of the only aircraft capable of carrying such a heavy weapon without major modifications and it was often carried in conjunction with the much smaller incendiary devices (left). Together, this weapon configuration gave a single Lancaster the capability to destroy a typically sized Berlin street. To give an idea of just how far Bomber Command had come in just three years, the 8,000lb “cookie” alone weighed twice the maximum bombload of the Handley-Page Hampden twin-engine bomber that was one of the types that took the service to war.

I couldn’t help wondering whether anywhere in [the “cookie’s”] area of devastation such a man as Hitler, Goering or Himmler or Goebbels might be cowering in a shelter. It was engrossing to realise that the Nazi leadership and their ministries were only a few feet from us. And that this shimmering mass of flares and bombs and gun flashes was their stronghold.

The last words of his narration must have reaffirmed the British people’s belief in the need to strike hard at the German capital and the other cities of Germany. Harris frequently spoke on newsreels and the radio about the necessity to wipe out the cities and in doing so crush the enemy’s ability, and of course the will, to continue the fight. There was also a certain feeling of satisfaction in British cities that had suffered under German bombardment that now it was their turn.

Dresden destroyed.jpgThose opinions would change dramatically near the end of the conflict when the true horror of Bomber Command’s war became apparent to the world. Newsreel footage of the almost annihilated German cities of Dresden, Cologne and Berlin showed that allied bombing had inflicted atrocious devastation and casualties which resulted in public opinion swinging far against Harris and his men. Bomber Command enjoyed enormous prestige and respect in the darkest days of 1940 to 1944 only to end the war as something of an ugly, almost scandalous, truth that many in British politics wanted to sweep under the carpet as quickly as possible.

Regardless of the leadership decisions in the RAF and Whitehall that sent them there, Dimbleby’s description of Gibson’s crew and by association the crews of Bomber Command as a whole during the mission reflects their bravery and dedication to their duty.

I understand their hardship now. And I am proud to have seen the stars with them.

Both Dimbleby and Gibson would find their place in the history books albeit for different reasons. Dimbleby would fly another nineteen missions with Bomber Command before the war’s end. After the war he became a famed and almost revolutionary broadcaster helping to perfect the art of live broadcasts after the war often in unusual conditions including one notable time when he recorded a program for the BBC in a deep sea diving suit! Dimbleby would also be one of the presenters to launch the long running BBC current affairs television program, Panorama. He passed away in 1965 from cancer but left an enormous legacy in British journalism.

Guy Gibson would of course become almost inseparable from his leadership of No.617 Squadron during the Dambusters operation which overshadows his already excellent career. Sadly, on September 19th 1944 he would be lost in De Havilland Mosquito B.XX KB267 over the Netherlands. The exact circumstances surrounding his death remain the source of some debate but his loss was felt deeply by the British people including Prime Minister Winston Churchill.

Both Dimbleby and Gibson excelled in their respective fields and used their talents when their country needed them most. While many know of them individually, few realise that for one night in the war the two of them flew together on a mission over one of the most heavily defended targets in the world and the very heart of the Nazi machine.

Important Source: the transcript for Dimbleby’s broadcast can be found in Patrick Bishop’s excellent book “Bomber Boys: Fighting Back 1940-45”