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.


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.


The Final Flight of Hampden TB.I AD729

This article was researched and written by request of Gareth Evans whose great uncle was Pilot Officer William Rees.

In the closing hours of January 11th 1943, a formation of bombers grumbled their way towards the Scottish coast. They were twelve Handley Page Hampdens of the Royal Australian Air Force’s No.455 Squadron attached to RAF Costal Command and based at RAF Leuchars, Fife. The aircraft were returning from a late afternoon anti-shipping operation off the Norwegian coast using the early darkness of winter to cover their escape back to Britain. No.455 Squadron was a veteran unit having a wealth of experience on the Hampden that ranged from minelaying to attacks on the German battleships Scharnhorst and Gneisenau. The previous year the squadron had also deployed to Russia to support the arctic convoys before training Russian crews on how to operate the aircraft.


No.455 Squadron Hampden (ADF-Signals)

By this stage in the war the Hampden was becoming increasingly obsolete. During the early operations, like much of Bomber Command’s aircraft it suffered horrendous losses at the hands of German fighters forcing them to switch almost exclusively to night operations. The exceptionally narrow fuselage and slab sided cabin earned it the affectionate nickname “The Flying Suitcase”. As more powerful and capable designs flooded Bomber Command’s ranks the Hampden saw increasing use by other services such as Coastal Command for maritime operations where the fighter threat was not perceived to be as great as over mainland Europe. Maritime duties had their own dangers however such as severe weather and the difficulty of navigating over large areas of sometimes featureless ocean.

Although an Australian squadron, like most British Commonwealth units there were a number of nationalities that made up the ranks of No.455 Squadron and this was typified by the crew of Hampden TB.I AD792/UB-P that wintry night. The only two actual Australians were wireless operator Sergeant Reginald Smithers and gunner Sergeant R.K. Spohn. At the controls was 22-year-old Flying Officer Phillip J. Hill from Gloucestershire who had joined the reserves before being called to active duty when war broke out and then posted to No.455 Squadron.

The navigator/bombardier was Pilot Officer William Rees who hailed from Abercarn in South Wales. Having attained a degree in Latin and Greek from Cardiff University, Rees had begun teaching shortly before the war broke out and decided to enlist in the RAF. He was soon made Sergeant (Aircrew) and having gained operational experience with Bomber Command was granted a commission and sent to Canada to train as a navigator as part of the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan (please take time to visit Pierre Lagacé’s blog about this program by clicking here). Upon completion of his training he was posted to No.455 Squadron which was fresh from its Russian endeavour. The night of January 11th 1943 was to be his first mission with the squadron.

At 2213hrs, the aircraft was instructed to turn on to a QDM (magnetic bearing) of 218 degrees to start the next leg of the return flight to Leuchars. Ground radio stations heard a brief response by Sergeant Smithers but it ended abruptly. After waiting for the aircraft to signal again they tried to re-establish contact but nothing came back. During the course of Smithers’ transmission, Hampden TB.I AD792 crashed in to a blackened Scottish hillside in Kincardeshire. Poor weather had obscured the view from the aircraft until it was too late and responding to the course change the aircraft came upon the sloping hillside which struck the Hampden under the nose.

Being in the forward section of the aircraft, Hill and Rees were both killed on impact. The two Australians survived the crash but while Spohn was able to clamber out of the wreckage, Smithers was in a bad way and couldn’t be moved.  Spohn was left with the agonising decision of either remaining with his comrade and hope they were found soon or leaving him there and trying to find help. He chose the latter and set off in to the night walking for several hours before he was finally able to contact Leuchars and get help for Smithers. Smithers was rescued in the early hours of the morning and rushed to hospital but sadly his injuries were too severe and exactly a week later he succumb to them and died.

Flying Officer Phillip Hill was buried in Fettercairn cemetery while Sergeant Reginald Smithers was buried at Leuchars. Pilot Officer William Rees’ body was returned to Abercarn in Wales and Spohn travelled down to attend his funeral and meet his family. Spohn himself returned to flight operations and survived the war, returning home to Australia where he lived out his life until he passed away in 1995.

In To The Hands Of The Enemy

In 1915, the entente powers opened up a new front against Germany and her allies of Austro-Hungary and Bulgaria intended to relieve the pressure on Serbia. The Allies used Greece as their base to strike north through the Balkans but it would prove too little, too late for Serbia which fell in December 1915. The new front was now aimed at liberating Serbia and also to relieve some of the pressure on the Western and Eastern Fronts. The British contingent, known as the British Salonika Army being named after the second largest city in Greek Macedonia, comprised of two full Army Corps (XII and XVI) as well as a contingent of staff officers and support from the Royal Flying Corps’ 16th Wing.

armstrong whitworth F.K.3.jpg

Armstrong-Whitworth F.K.3 (Aviastar.org)

Within the ranks of the RFC in Greek Macedonia was No.47 Squadron equipped with, among others, the Armstrong-Whitworth FK.3 general-purpose biplane. The FK.3 was designed in response to the perceived obsolescence of the Royal Aircraft Factory’s BE.2 biplane which operated in the artillery spotting role. Early FK.3s offered little improvement however and plans for it to replace the already established BE.2 were shelved with it instead becoming little more than a training tool based in Britain. Perhaps by some oversight, No.47 Squadron took its FK.3s to Greek Macedonia in 1916 to support the British Salonika Army and in doing so become the only squadron to field the aircraft abroad.

Among the new pilots to join the squadron’s ranks at this time was 20-year old 2nd Lieutenant Arthur Cecil Stopher. Born in Woolwich, London he joined the Army in 1915 gaining a commission in the Royal Welsh Fusiliers before requesting a transfer to the Royal Flying Corps. Completing his training in November 1916 he arrived in Salonika shortly after and was assigned to fly the squadron’s FK.3s on spotter and reconnaissance duties.

armstrong whitworth F.K.3 6219

Stopher’s aircraft (theauxiliaries.com)

A little over three months after joining No.47 Squadron, on February 12th 1917 the now 21-year old 2nd Lieutenant Stopher took off in FK.3 Nr.6219 from a neighbouring French aerodrome to rejoin his squadron at their forward base. There was heavy air activity that day with No.47 Squadron reporting sporadic encounters with German aircraft and so when Stopher was reported overdue it was assumed he had been shot down enroute. However, a few days later the British intercepted a German wireless communication stating that Stopher had in fact gotten lost and mistook the Bulgarian airfield at Demi Hissar in southern Macedonia for his own. Having landed safely he was taken prisoner and his intact aircraft was seized.

Stopher would join over 5,000 British, Serbian and French PoWs at the Bulgarian prison camp at Philippopolis (despite the Greek name the city is actually located in Bulgaria and is known today as Plovdiv). The camp was built on the grounds of a former cholera hospital and prisoners were forced in to labour details helping build canals, bridges and roads in the Bulgarian countryside. Stopher would not be repatriated to Britain until January 1919.

armstrong whitworth F.K.3 6219 Bulgarian markings

6219 in Bulgarian markings (Theauxillaries.com)

As for his aircraft, Nr.6219 was pressed in to Bulgarian service serving with the 1st Aeroplanno Otdelenie Division. Perhaps reflecting on their own machines, Bulgarian pilots were impressed with the aircraft even if the RFC pilots were less so. Having become accustomed to the aircraft the Bulgarians repainted the aircraft with black crosses but retained the 6219 serial number and turned the aircraft on its former owners. In the period between Autumn 1917 and Spring 1918 the aircraft flew a number of offensive operations against the Allies. Official records show 42 missions credited to the aircraft in total that ranged from reconnaissance to strafing and night-bombing.

Then on the night of May 23rd-24th 1918, the aircraft took off with Lieutenant Usunoff at the controls and with Lieutenant P. Atasanoff as observer for a night attack mission. Using small 12.5kg (27lb) bombs and their machine gun they harassed British forces between Gümüsdere and Lake Takhino. During an attack on a British position at Gorasanli the aircraft was hit by anti-aircraft fire forcing the Bulgarians to turn for home however a short while later one of the engine’s cylinders began misfiring before stopping completely. Usunoff managed to glide the aircraft down near Struma, landing it in a boggy field where it began to sink. The two Bulgarians left the aircraft semi-submerged in the bog and began walking back to their lines. The FK.3 was beyond salvageable and never flew again.

January 17th 1991 – First strikes of Gulf War cost RAF two Tornado aircraft

Tornado GR.1 Desert Storm

The Royal Air Force’s Panavia Tornado GR.1 was one of the most versatile combat aircraft available to the Coalition forces poised to remove Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi Army from Kuwait. A total force of sixty Tornado GR.1s participated in Operation: Granby, the British contribution to Desert Storm, flying from Tabuk and Dhahran in Saudi Arabia as well as Muharraq in Bahrain. The aircraft were instrumental in helping keep the Iraqi Air Force on the ground and flew most of its missions at very low level under the cover of darkness.

Naturally, with such a dangerous mission there would be casualties and two aircraft were lost on the first night when Iraqi defences were at their heaviest. ZD791/BG flown by Flight Lieutenants Peters and Nichol was shot down attacking Ruma airfield. Both crew were captured. The other aircraft was ZA392/EK flown by Wing Commander Elsdon and Flight Lieutenant Collier. Their aircraft was lost attacking Shaibah air base and both crew were killed.

For more information read

The Last RAF Air-to-Air Loss

Please Note: There have been repeated claims that during the 1991 Gulf War an Iraqi MiG-29 shot down an RAF Tornado GR.1. These claims have never been fully substantiated and as such have been largely dismissed. For more information please read RAF Tornado Losses During Desert Storm

Canberra PR.7

English Electric Canberra PR.7 (airrecce.co.uk)

In the general mindset of the British population in the 21st century the 1956 Suez War has largely disappeared in to the abyss of ignorance save for those who have an interest in political and military history. In fact it was one of the most fundamental conflicts in British history because it coldly affirmed Britain’s new position in the post-World War II era and beyond as a second-rate power to the United States. The Empire was already beginning to fracture in to a series of newly-born republics or self-governed territories under the banner of the Commonwealth and the British people themselves were still reeling from the hardship of economic recovery. Given this backdrop it is therefore somewhat symbolic that it would be in this conflict that the Royal Air Force would lose its last aircraft to date in air-to-air combat.

The euphoria of victory against Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan still lingered in the British consciousness even ten years after the cessation of the war. The old British sense of superiority in all endeavours seemed reinforced by the country’s thriving air industry that were churning out incredible aircraft that distracted the public from the still rather sorry state of many of the country’s bombed out cities and towns. While fighters still thrilled crowds at the Farnborough air shows the early 1950s actually saw a renaissance for the ‘bomber boys’ whose new mounts seemed light years ahead of the relatively slow and lumbering wartime Avro Lancasters and Handley-Page Halifaxes. These aircraft included the Vickers Valiant, the first V-Bomber designed to give Britain a nuclear knock-out punch, and the earlier English Electric Canberra medium bomber whose grace and performance particularly at altitude seemed to make it almost otherworldly. As crowds watched both the Canberra and the Valiant perform stunning displays at the 1956 air show few could have realized that both these aircraft would be in action by the end of the year.

On July 26th 1956 the Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser announced his intention to nationalise the Suez Canal in response to the ongoing Arab conflict with Israel and western attempts to manipulate him in to Gamel Nassermaking peace with Jerusalem and effectively side with the West in the Cold War. His speech served as a codeword for the Egyptian armed forces to seize the canal and put it under Egyptian rule. This threatened British interests in the region and Britain along with France and Israel concocted a secret plan to retake the canal and oust Nasser from power. Under Operation Musketeer the three nations stunned the world with their assault beginning with the Israelis on October 29th 1956. The Anglo-French force arrived a few days later claiming to be acting in protection of the canal zone amid the fighting and began a massive air assault in preparation for the landings on November 6th. The Egyptians had been virtually routed but it was at this point that the fatal political hammer blow would come down on the operation and it came from Washington.

The British and French governments had made a catastrophic error in assuming they would get American support once the operation began but President Dwight D. Eisenhower was furious at being hoodwinked by his allies. World condemnation for the operation was swift and Eisenhower was not about to put America in to the political firing line having not even been consulted first. The Royal Navy had also used an exercise with American forces in the Mediterranean as cover for the build-up of British warships prior to the conflict which didn’t help matters.

Most seriously, as far as Eisenhower was concerned, was the fear that the operation would only push Egypt closer to the Soviet Union in the Cold War (which it largely did) and that it distracted from the more pressing situation in Hungary. The Hungarian Uprising, a nationwide revolt against the government of the Hungarian People’s Republic and its Soviet-imposed policies, broke out just days before the Israeli assault and threatened to destabilise Eastern Europe. The President therefore put his political foot down and demanded the British and French withdraw threatening to cut off financial aid if they didn’t which would have had disastrous consequences for both countries. The conflict officially ended on November 7th 1956 with the British and French withdrawing rather embarrassingly and with Nasser still in power.

Until the order to cease hostilities was given however the British armed forces committed to the fight continued on unabated. One such unit was the Royal Air Force’s No.13 Squadron operating the English Electric Canberra PR.7 out of RAF Akrotiri in Cyprus. The Canberra PR.7 was the high altitude photographic reconnaissance variant of the Canberra being equipped with cameras and additional fuel in place of offensive weapons. No.13 Squadron and its resident sister Canberra unit, No.58 Squadron, had been heavily involved in the Suez Crisis from the beginning providing the vital intelligence needed by the Anglo-French forces to suppress the Egyptian Air Force and support the invasion force. With the troops now committed, their intelligence gathering efforts were needed more than ever to guarantee that the landings didn’t fall foul to an Egyptian counterattack.

Subsequently the Akrotiri Canberra squadrons conducted six sorties on November 6th including a long range mission that covered Syrian, Iraqi and Lebanese territory to investigate the amount of military support the Soviet Union was putting in to the region. Syria was a target for the Canberras because on October 25th 1956, days before the start of hostilities, Egypt signed a tripartite agreement with Syria and Jordan placing Nasser in effective command of all three armies. This reinforced his status as the world’s leading anti-Zionist leader but ultimately did little to benefit his forces on the battlefield who remained outclassed. The flight was nothing new to the Akrotiri Canberra squadrons and had become almost routine being referred to as a “milk run” by the crews. The flight path involved photographing Syrian bases at Lattakia, Alepo, Homs and Beirut as well as bases in northern Iraq. The flight path would take the aircraft to within five miles of Damascus which had been heavily fortified.

The designated Canberra left Akrotiri in the morning flying at medium altitudes using cloud to hide the aircraft. The Canberra flew its first leg over Iraq but upon crossing the border in to Syria near the city of Abu Kamal on the Euphrates River a security post spotted the aircraft and telephoned its position back to the Syrian Air Force. The air base at al-Mezze, south of Damascus, scrambled to get its squadron of Gloster Meteor F.8s in to the air to intercept the aircraft. Among the pilots who launched that day was Lieutenant Hafiz al-Asad, the future President of Syria and father of the current controversial Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Gloster Meteor Syria

Syrian Air Force Gloster Meteor F.8 (Wings Pallette) 

The RAF Canberra continued onwards but found that the cloud cover that had afforded them much of their protection was now obscuring their targets. To fly under the cloud would have been to court death and when the silhouettes of the British-built Meteors appeared the crew elected to cut their losses and turn back for Cyprus. The Syrian Meteors pursued the aircraft firing a burst of gunfire at the Canberra at extreme range but failed to find their mark. The Canberra returned to Cyprus with news that the mission was incomplete much to the frustration of the RAF commanders. It is likely that any information regarding the build-up of Soviet-supplied equipment was to be used in trying desperately to sway the Americans back on side because a second Canberra was almost immediately ordered in to the air to essentially repeat the mission.

The aircraft selected was Canberra PR.7 WH799 and the crew that were to fly it consisted of Flight Lieutenant Bernie Hunter as pilot and Flying Officer Roy Erquhart-Pullen as navigator. While reconnaissance Canberras generally flew with a crew of two a third crewmen joined them on this flight namely Flight Lieutenant Sam Small whose purpose was to get operational experience having only just arrived in Cyprus as part of a reinforcement contingent and perhaps more importantly provide an extra set of eyes in the cockpit.

The aircraft launched from RAF Akrotiri at around 1230hrs and proceeded on to the first leg of its mission. Like the previous mission the aircraft went in at around 12,000ft using clouds to mask its approach since even with ground radar stations guiding them the Syrian fighters and anti-aircraft gunners still needed to locate the aircraft visually since they lacked their own radars. Despite this however the aircraft was spotted by Syrian forces positioned around the port city of Lattakia and again the base at al-Mezze scrambled its Meteor F.8s in to the air to try and intercept.

The Canberra made its run over Aleppo but as the it approached Homs the Syrians were directed to climb above the Canberra which unfortunately had now lost its protection by a sudden break in the clouds. In the bulbous cockpit of the Canberra Flt Lt Small stood up alongside Hunter at the controls peering out in to an almost clear sky while Erquhart-Pullen was in the aircraft’s nose in the prone position. Small suddenly spied the unmistakable silhouettes of a pair of twin engined Meteors coming down on to them at a shallow angle.

In order to increase the closing speed and thus limit the time the defenceless Canberra was in the firing line, Hunter turned his aircraft in to the direction of the attacking Syrian fighters. The Syrian pilots squeezed off a few rounds in a desperate bid to hit the British aircraft but got nothing for their effort and passed by at high speed. Their only chance was to try and escape in to Lebanon using the cloud bank above them and so Hunter put the aircraft in to a climb but as he did, Small spotted a second pair of Meteors beginning their attack. Knowing that if he continued climbing then the Meteors would be presented with a clear shot Hunter turned in on the second pair. The second pair of Syrian Meteors opened up on the Canberra with their 20mm cannons as they passed but this time the Canberra’s starboard engine was hit.

The aircraft had been mortally wounded and was now becoming increasingly uncontrollable. Hunter knew the aircraft was doomed and ordered Erquhart-Pullen to return to the main cockpit and abandon the aircraft. Small strapped himself in to the navigator’s ejection seat and was soon launched out of the aircraft. Just why Erquhart-Pullen didn’t respond to Hunter’s instructions is unclear but he never returned to the rear cockpit. Hunter later said that he assumed Erquhart-Pullen had tried to bail out from the front because of a thudding noise he took to be him escaping. With the aircraft no longer flying, Hunter ejected from the aircraft leaving it to begin its final descent to the Earth below landing approximately one mile from the border with Lebanon.

Hunter, somewhat miraculously, landed on the Lebanese side of the border suffering a broken ankle. Small came down a short distance away from him and their two parachutes had attracted a lot of attention from locals who took them to be Israelis. Given the tension between the Arab world and Israel at the time the villagers became intent on venting their anger upon them until an English speaking teacher heard their pleas and managed to calm the crowd down. However, they were still marched by the crowd to a nearby Syrian border post where they were handed over. After a few days of questioning they were met by British officials who arranged to have them taken back to Cyprus by boat.

Flying Officer Roy Erquhart-Pullen’s body was found in the wreckage of the aircraft. It’s possible a stray shell from the attacking Meteors had killed or incapacitated him during the attack. The RAF were criticised by politicians and observers over the incident. The biggest criticism was that an undefended Canberra was instructed to repeat a previous mission that had ended with an interception and had therefore left the Syrians on high alert ready for a follow-up aircraft.

The shooting down of Canberra WH799 was the last time (thus far) that an RAF aircraft was shot down by a hostile fighter in combat. The day after the incident the ceasefire was declared and shortly after that the British and French began their withdrawal amid a new air of Anglo-US hostility that would only be repaired by the need to face an increasingly hostile Soviet Union.


The Jaguar that got “foxed” by a Phantom

RAF Phantom FGR.2 (projectoceanvision.com)

RAF Phantom FGR.2 (projectoceanvision.com)

It’s hard to imagine now but in the 1980s the airspace over West Germany was alive with British warplanes. The Cold War was entering its final and perhaps most tense phase with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 putting the West on the defensive. Royal Air Force Germany (RAFG) was on the frontline of the Cold War in Europe maintaining constant readiness for a Soviet thrust across the Rhine and that meant constant training.

Sadly, the very nature of the military means that often this training puts service personnel at almost as much risk as if they were in a war. This was dramatically highlighted in an incident that occurred on May 25th 1982. At that time much of the British public’s focus had shifted from the nuclear armed showdown with Moscow to the unfolding situation in the South Atlantic as British forces fought the wholly unexpected Falklands War. On that same day the Royal Navy lost HMS Coventry in an Argentinian air strike.

SEPECAT Jaguar GR.1 XX963

SEPECAT Jaguar GR.1 XX963 (geas-web.nl)

For the RAF forces in Germany it was business as usual however and May 25th was just another day of intense training to hone skills in preparation for World War III. During the course of the day two SEPECAT Jaguar GR.1s belonging to No.14 Squadron based at RAF Bruggen were returning to their base after another training flight over the German countryside. The number two aircraft was Jaguar GR.1 XX963 flown by Steve Griggs who spotted a dot on the horizon ahead of them that he quickly identified as belonging to an RAF Phantom; it was not unusual to spot other RAF aircraft in the dense airspace of Cold War Germany.

Griggs reported his sighting to the lead Jaguar as the Phantom appeared to be coming head-on. The Phantom broke away and passed by them without incident. The two Jaguar pilots then spotted the aircraft in their rear hemisphere as the Phantom pilot turned back on to the same course as them. Again this was nothing unusual as Phantom crews often practiced interception on their colleagues flying Buccaneers and Jaguars.

Suddenly, there was an immense explosion behind Griggs sat up in the Jaguar’s cockpit and he found that the aircraft was no longer responding to his control inputs as it began to buck and twist. His radio crackled to life in his helmet with his flight leader’s voice instructing him to abandon the Jaguar which was flaming from the rear fuselage and very obviously no longer able to fly. Griggs ejected from the aircraft which went tumbling down on to farmland approximately 35 miles North-East of RAF Bruggen. He landed nearby suffering the usual minor injuries from an ejection and was later picked up by an RAF helicopter; shaken but very much alive.

A short while later a horrified Phantom crew landed at RAF Wildenrath to face the consequences of having shot down the Jaguar with an AIM-9 Sidewinder missile. An investigation was immediately launched and the Phantom crew would eventually stand before a court martial.

So how did the Phantom crew inadvertently shoot down Griggs’ Jaguar?

RAF Phantom armed with AIM-9L Sidewinder missiles (massoss.com)

RAF Phantom armed with AIM-9L Sidewinder missiles (massoss.com)

The Phantom was engaged in training that called for the aircraft at RAF Wildenrath to be operated under simulated war time conditions. This required the aircraft to be armed with live weapons to both familiarise ground crews with handling such weapons and to allow the aircraft to carry out a real interception should the Soviet or East German air forces stray across the border during the exercise. A number of safety procedures were in place to prevent a live firing of a missile during the exercise and the investigation looked in to why this was not enough to prevent loss of Jaguar XX963.

The investigation found that shortly after the Phantom crew took off from Wildenrath they went through their pre-attack checks that would effectively ready the aircraft for combat including arming the weapons. Normally, both Phantom crew would be aware of the fact that weapons had become live but in this instance the navigator in the rear seat had become preoccupied in his own duties to realise that the pilot had armed the weapons. Had the navigator been aware of the situation then later safety precautions that failed may have saved the Jaguar.

Later in the flight the Phantom spotted the Jaguars and under the operating principles of the exercise which dictated that other RAF aircraft in the region could be considered “hostile” the Phantom crew began an attack unaware that their weapons were armed. The Phantom crew declared their intention to attack the Jaguars to the Sector Operations Centre (SOC) at Wildenrath. At that time, as part of the exercise, Wildenrath was seemingly in chaos as a simulated emergency was being carried out. As a result of this the operator communicating with the Phantom was either not told that the Phantom was armed or had forgotten in the confusion of the exercise. Had the operator been aware of the real situation that was unfolding in the sky then the operator would have given the order “check switches safe” to the Phantom. This would have made the crew realise their weapons were live but this did not happen. The result was the shooting down of Griggs’ Jaguar.

The investigation did not lay the blame entirely at the feet of the crew (and to a lesser extent the operator at SOC) although the investigators couldn’t fathom how an experienced Phantom crew could have failed to identify the real situation they were in. Further investigation revealed that ground crews did not put a safety tape across the master arm switch before the flight which would have prevented the live arming of the weapons during the exercise (the tape could be removed if the aircraft was called in to a real situation with a hostile aircraft). Perhaps even more worryingly was the discovery that a circuit breaker in the rear of the aircraft that was intended to render the arming system inert was defective and could make the weapons live even if the switch was in the off position.

The incident highlighted how a number of factors had a part to play in the shootdown and it is extremely fortunate that Griggs was not killed. Safety procedures governing armed aircraft during training exercises were reviewed and rewritten after the investigation was published in 1984 but it was clear that the crew not fully realising the condition of their weapons on their aircraft was ultimately to blame for the incident.

In the spirit of the RAF’s macabre sense of humour the Phantom involved, Phantom FGR.2 XV422, received nose art depicting a Jaguar GR.1 silhouette with the title “Jag Killer” underneath which the aircraft wore until it was scrapped in 1998.

Jag Killer (Todd Pormealeau via sepecat.info)

Jag Killer (Todd Pormealeau via sepecat.info)