37 Squadron operational support

Although the Khormaksar-based Shackleton squadron was charged with performing a considerable variety of tasks throughout MEC, a selection of operations that included the bombing and strafing of up-country targets in co-operation with the Hunter squadrons, in the main, are recounted on this page.

Members of one of 37 Squadron’s Shackleton MR.2 crews pose with their aircraft and a display of armaments at Khormaksar

in August 1967, only weeks before the squadron disbanded (Alan Taylor).

The situation in Aden had deteriorated by early 1960, after dissident leaders succeeded in persuading Egypt that the time had come to initiate an uprising by the ‘National Liberation Army’, assuming adequate arms could be supplied through the Yemen. A border and coastal blockade was mounted under the code name Canister, which did manage to limit the supplies and with the aircraft carrier HMS Centaur entering the Red Sea area in March, the decision was taken teach the rebels a lesson. A bombardment of their mountain stronghold near Jebel Hanak was maintained for 48 hours non-stop. Waves of Sea Hawks, Sea Venoms and Gannets pounded the stronghold during the daylight hours, while 37 Squadron Shackletons dropped sticks of 1,000 lb bombs at night.

Tactical Wing maintained operations along the border with the Yemen throughout April and into early May with Aden Protectorate Levies deploying into the area, close air support being provided by 8 Squadron Hunters and 37 Squadron Shackletons. By now, the latter were carrying maximum loads of 15 x 1,000 lb bombs, and using their 20 mm cannon to strafe suspected hideouts. These operations came to an abrupt end 23 May after the Bubakr tribesmen fled into the Yemen and an uneasy peace once again descended on the area.

Iraqi claims of sovereignty over Kuwait at the end of June 1961, brought an intensifying of tensions within the Gulf area. General Kassim’s intention had been known about for some time and plans were well advanced for the mobilisation of virtually the whole of the Middle East Air Force. As 8 Squadron flew its Hunters into Kuwait on 30 June, two Shackletons from 37 Squadron were moved up to Bahrain to provide recce and SAR facilities and, if necessary, a bombing capability for the rapidly increasing British forces in the area. Back in the UK, 42 Squadron’s Shackletons were put on 24-hour standby for a move to the Persian Gulf and other Shackleton squadrons were placed on standby for troop carrying commitments. Nos. 203 and 204 Squadrons were subsequently utilised on moving V-Bomber equipment to Malta, while 205 Squadron Shackletons carried out ‘support operations’ in the Far East in case they were needed. Twelve days later, the Iraqis backed down and while the UK standbys were cancelled, one 37 Squadron Shackleton remained on detachment in Bahrain in case Kassim changed his mind.

Back down in the EAP, a party of Hadrami Bedouin was ambushed near Riyan on 19 July, suffering 50 casualties, 16 of whom were killed. Major unrest ensued, but as soon as the attackers had been identified, operations were mounted in the area of Al Qara and Sara. In a co-ordinated attack, 8 Squadron Hunters and 37 Squadron Shackletons bombed and strafed both villages.

During 1961 the British Government had finally persuaded leaders of Aden Colony to join the Protectorate, the whole country was renamed the Federation of South Arabia. This proved to be very unpopular among the more nationalistic tribesmen resulting in a steady increase in the level of unrest. In an attempt to stem the disorder and bring the most rebellious areas, Yahari and Sa’adi, back under control, operations were renewed in January 1962 against a particularly dissident leader, Musi Hammud. Leaflet drops were carried out but when these were ignored, Hunters and Shackletons attacked both villages and crops. The 37 Squadron aircraft dropped 115 x 1,000 lb bombs and 1,146 fragmentation bombs during an offensive that lasted several days. Towards the end of the month there were signs that the Sa’idi resistance may have cracked, and air action against them stopped in order to allow them to submit to demands. The attacks had the desired effect for a week or so, but more trouble erupted and the raids had to be repeated in February before the tribe finally capitulated. As there were no signification changes or deployment of Iraqi forces to southern Iraq, 37 Squadron was informed that the detachment of one aircraft at Bahrain would cease and it returned to Khormaksar on 26 January. No doubt the returning aircraft was most welcome back in Aden as the majority of Squadron flying for January had been concentrated on dissident tribesmen in the Lower Yafa. Operations continued against the Yaharis and the target area was extended southwards to allow 1,000 lb MC bombs to be dropped on Qat and spring wheat plantations.

The photographs contained in the gallery below were contributed by 233 Squadron Valetta pilot, Keith Webster.

Striking evening sunset taken on the Shackleton pan at Khormaksar in 1961 with MR.2 WL738-D silhouetted against a rapidly darkening sky

A year later and this dawn picture was taken by Keith from the cockpit of a 233 Sqn Valetta during take-off. Looking across the Shackleton pan, it captures MR.2 WR959-F awaiting its next duty

A selection of records from the 37 Squadron ORB for the first part of January, 1962, are replicated below: 

The first sortie of the year was flown by Fg Off D. Burden and crew who dropped leaflets on targets in the Al Qara area. Flt Lt Watson and crew Two continued the operational sorties on the following day, dropping 52 x 20 lb fragmentation bombs on suitable targets. Similar sorties were flown by Flt Lt Castle and Fg Off Burden on the successive two days and Flt Lt Castle and Fg Off Wilkie were fortunate to escape injury when a rifle bullet passed through the nose section of their aircraft.

On 7 January, Wg Cdr Neville, commanding officer Tactical Wing, flew with Flt Lt Castle and tried his hand as a bomb-aimer with very satisfactory results. The tempo of operations increased when, on the 8th, two sorties were flown against the dissidents. Fg Off Burden and Crew One were airborne in the morning and Flt Lt Frith continued the operation with another sortie in the afternoon. Both aircraft carried 52 x 20 lb. fragmentation bombs. On the next day, Sqn Ldr Kingshott dropped 52 x 20 lb. fragmentation bombs with Crew Five and on the 10th Crew One completed a similar sortie.

Two sorties were flown on the 11th when Wg Cdr Neville flew with Flt Lt Frith and Crew three. On this sortie the weapons load was 15 x 1,000 lb MC bombs with which crops of Qat and wheat were razed in the Wadi Beinan. Flt Lt Castle reverted to 52 x 20 lb. bombs for the afternoon sortie. The next few days comprised single sorties dropping 52 x 20 lb. fragmentation bombs. Crew One, captained by Fg Off Burden, attacked targets on the 12th and 15th, Sqn Ldr Kingshott flew with Crew Three on the 11th and Flt Lt Castle  with Crew Five on the 14th.

On the morning of 16 January, Flt Lt Frith and Crew Three dropped 15 x 1,000 lb. MC bombs on cultivation and in the afternoon, Sqn Ldr Kingshott with some of Crew Four and the Station Commander, Gp Captain Davis, as co-pilot, dropped a load of 52 x 20 lb. fragmentation bombs.

In addition to their normal sortie on the morning of the 17th, when they dropped 52 x 20 lbs fragmentation bombs, Fg Off Burden and Crew One carried out a photographic overlap of Wadi Sarar. The results were satisfactory and it was hoped that a trace and map could be made from the photographs as, in time, it was hoped to build a road along the Wadi bed to Yafa.

Flt Lt Frith and Crew Three dropped a further 52 x 20 lb. fragmentation bombs on 18 January and on the following day, Sqn Ldr Kingshott with Crew Four dropped 15 x 1,000 lb. MC bombs on cultivation.

No. 37 Squadron provided an aircraft for a recce of possible landing grounds in the Upper Yafa territory of the Aden Federation by the commanding officer of No. 5004 (Airfield Construction) Squadron. Some time was spent flying over a likely-looking site at Hilyan. On return to Khormaksar, however, one of the wheel bays was found to be punctured by a bullet hole; a ‘lucky’ hit in more ways than one as it missed anything vital!

During June 1962 a detachment of two Shackleton MR.2s flew out to Khormaksar from 210 Squadron, Ballykelly, for Internal Security Training, the new terminology for describing Colonial Policing.

Further east of the Upper Yafa, a 37 Squadron Shackleton was called upon to search for a Beaver of the Desert Locust Survey Organization which was missing on a flight into the Protectorate. The crashed aircraft was finally spotted by Fg Off Burden’s crew with an apparently dead body lying on the ground about 50 yds away. A CLE was dropped alongside the Beaver and a ground rescue team in the area guided to the scene. It was soon confirmed that the body was that of the pilot, shot after surviving the crash, yet another harsh reminder of treatment that could be expected if taken prisoner by tribesmen of the interior, who neither expected nor gave any quarter.

Internal Security Training, which was by now becoming a regular feature for the UK Shackleton squadrons, continued in November 1962 when 42 Squadron sent two aircraft out to Aden for the three-week duration. Most of the course comprised medium-level bombing and air-to-ground firing exercises, but towards the end of the detachment the Squadron also undertook some of border patrols to relieve 37 Squadron.

By June 1963, 37 Squadron had completed six years service in Aden, during which its aircraft had flown an estimated three million miles on operations in conditions far removed from those envisaged when the Shackleton entered service. Although occasional maritime patrols were flown, the crews were expected to maintain a full maritime competence category. A detachment of two Shackleton MR.2s from Gibraltar-based 224 Squadron spent much of the month supporting 37 at Khormaksar and these were replaced by two aircraft of 42 Squadron, St Mawgan, at the end of July. Soon after their arrival one of the latter was despatched to search for a USAF SA-16 Albatross amphibian aircraft which had ditched in the Red Sea to the north of Port Sudan. The survivors were quickly located and although it was dark the crew successfully dropped two sets of Lindholme gear for them.

Operation Nutcracker

Following the attempted assassination of the retiring High Commissioner as he was about to board an aircraft at Khormaksar on 10 December, 1963, and a State of Emergency declared, the Yemen border was closed and the decision taken to teach the rebels a lesson. Operation Nutcracker was, therefore, launched against dissident tribesmen in the Radfan area, with the two-fold objective of driving the leaders out and building a road into the hinterland. With Sheikh Saif Muqbil and some 200 Qatabis tribesmen the main target, the newly formed Federal Regular Army, an Arab force with British officers, reinforced the garrison at Thumier, 50 miles north of Aden. They were then flown by 26 Squadron Belvedere and 815 Squadron (RN) Wessex helicopters to commanding heights in the Radfan, top cover being provided by Shackletons of 37 Squadron and Hunters from Tactical Wing. On 4 January, 1964, the first attacks were launched to flush out rebels in the Wadis Rabwa and Dhubsan, by 8 and 43 Squadron Hunters during the day and 37 Squadron Shackletons by night, the latter dropping flares to assist the ground forces and the occasional bomb to harass the rebels and keep them awake.

Towards the end of May, 1964, 224 Squadron sent two MR.2s to Aden to assist with operations in the Radfan where Egyptian-trained and armed tribesmen had infiltrated from the Yemen in large numbers and were proving very troublesome, being far better led and organised than in the past. The decision was taken to clear them out and push them back to the border, and a large force of Brigade size was assembled by the Army to undertake the task. Air support was provided by the Tactical Wing Hunter FGA.9s of 8 and 43 Squadrons, plus the FR.10s of 1417 Flight, and the Shackleton MR.2s of 37 and 224 Squadrons. Several engagements were fought by the SAS and paratroops in the area of the Bakari Ridge and the Shackletons called in to drop flares and 1,000 lb bombs, providing round-the-clock harassment in the proscribed areas. Supported by waves of Hunters, the troops finally took Shaab Sharah village on 8 June and it was expected that the rebels would retreat to the 5,500 ft peak of Jebel Huriyah, which dominated the whole of the Radfan and had never been scaled by a European. The assault took place on the night of 10/11 June when the troops moved forward, all the time climbing over rough and difficult terrain. Their task was made a little easier by a continuous curtain of flares dropped by the Shackletons to the south of the Jebel. Surprisingly there was no opposition, the capture of Shaab Sharah having knocked the fight out of the rebels; they simply melted away. In the first three months of the Radfan campaign, the Shackleton squadrons flew 85 sorties, fired 18,195 rounds of 20mm ammunition, dropped 14 x 1,000 lb bombs, 3,504 x 20 lb anti-personnel bombs and 445 x 4.5 in. flares.

The Egyptian rebels still in the Federation were gradually defeated as the summer progressed, but several tribes still refused to co-operate with the authorities. As the daytime air control by Hunters was so successful, that the dissidents took to harvesting their crops at night, the Shackletons were used to drop flares and bomb at irregular intervals at night, giving them no respite. This was a ploy that worked well and one by one, the tribes came in to talk peace. By October 1964 only one small area inhabited by the Ibdahi tribe remained defiant, but they finally capitulated on 18 November following a spectacular rocket attack by Hunters.

Withdrawal from Aden

At the end of 1966 the British Government made the mistake of announcing that Britain would withdraw from Aden by the end of 1967. The result was inevitable; fierce fighting broke out between rival nationalist groups jockeying for power, while at the same time the local police and army units felt betrayed. Attacks on British servicemen and their families escalated sharply and the excellent security that had prevailed on Khormaksar airfield since December 1963 broke down. In June 1967 the South Arabian Police mutinied and a number of British troops killed. In August terrorists managed to evade security patrols and fire mortar bombs onto the aircraft aprons where improvised revetments, comprising oil drums filled with water, absorbed most of the blast. Two Shackletons were damaged by splinters and flying debris and were quickly repaired.

These views, contributed by Les Simpson, were taken during a flight around the area to the north of Khormaksar in 1966.

The dull growl of four Rolls-Royce Griffons echoes through the aircraft as it flies low over the Arabian coast .....

..... looking back at the coast through tailplane and fin .....

..... while the pilot keeps tight grip on the control column

More trouble in the Persian Gulf resulted in the formation of a Sharjah Maritime Detachment of Shackleton MR.3s under the control of RAF Kinloss, a mixed contingent from 42 and 206 Squadrons forming the first four-month detachment sent out in August, 1967. In practice aircraft and crews from all three UK Shackleton bases participated. The route taken was another new one, the Shackletons flying via Gibraltar, the Canaries and across central Africa. From Sharjah, the task of the detachment was to provide surveillance of the Gulf region in yet another attempt to stop or reduce, gun running, which was reaching alarming proportions.

Less than a month after the arrival of the first Sharjah detachment aircraft, and to the surprise of many, 37 Squadron was disbanded on 5 September. The last sortie by the Squadron was an SAR scramble on the 3rd of the month and one of the aircraft’s Griffon engines was damaged by a bullet! It had been tasked to find a ‘captured’ AAC Scout but by the time the crew located it, the pilot and passenger had been murdered and the helicopter destroyed.

The Squadron had been in the front line throughout the unit’s ten years in Aden, but it was left to the Sharjah MR.3 detachment to cover the intervening period and final withdrawal on 29 November.

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