The author is indebted to Chris Bain for allowing him to use extracts from his excellent book ‘Cold War, Hot Wings’ in this website. Should you wish to purchase a copy, the Bibliography page contains details of the publisher and ordering particulars.
Fg Off Chris Bain became an experienced fighter and recce pilot but was only 20 years old when his operational career began, flying Hunters with 8 Squadron at Khormaksar in 1964. His extended tour in Aden lasted until the summer of 1967 when he left the colony, flying one of three redundant Hunters to Amman for presentation to the Royal Jordanian Air Force.
My first squadron, 8 Squadron, was famous throughout the Middle East, having often been the ONLY squadron in theatre. Known as ‘Aden’s Own’, the squadron finally left the colony in 1967 after forty years of continuous service there, but not before it had left its mark on the place. Formed in 1915 at Brooklands as part of the RFC, 8 Sqn saw service in France where one pilot won a VC. During WW2, it played a valuable part in the East African campaign, flying over 800 sorties. During 1943-44, it also sank two German submarines. Italian planes bombed Aden and Perim Island at the mouth of the Red Sea, during WW2, but otherwise it was an oasis of peace, remote from the main battle areas, continuing its prime role as a refueling and re-supply port. However, up-country the usual inter-tribal rivalries continued. It took part in the ill-fated Suez campaign in 1956, and participated in the operations against the Mau-Mau in Kenya. It was one of the two Hunter squadrons that had gone into Kuwait with 42 and 45 Commando during the first crisis in 1961 and stopped the problem dead in its tracks; if we’d been there in 1991 and 2003, we’d have stopped two more wars, and the Middle East would be a better place today. So much for pulling out of ‘East-of-Suez’.
During the emergency operations from 1964 to 1967, we fought two distinct and separate campaigns: security operations against terrorism in the Aden State, and guerrilla warfare in the mountains of the Federation. As we were based in the Aden State, the former affected our daily lives, but it was the latter to which we, the RAF fighter force there, were intimately involved. Air surveillance with its threat of punitive bombing, the flying gunboats of the overlapping colonial and air ages, was a swift, easy answer to control of the up-country tribes.
Squadron operational reports from the 1940s all said much the same thing and the modus operandi had not changed by the mid-’60s: “The Quatari tribe of the village of Al-Qradi owed HMG £200.14s.9d. in unpaid taxes. They had been warned twice to no avail. Therefore on (date), leaflets will be dropped warning them that their village is going to be bombed on (the following day)”. The report would then go on to dictate a full bombing operation, the rules of engagement, and the results including a political officer's report.
On the following day when, surprise, surprise, the tax had remained unpaid, the Squadron would simply bomb the village while the villagers looked on from the hillsides around. They would then rebuild their village and carry on life as if nothing had happened - but I don’t think it endeared us to them. Any blood spilt instantly produced a blood feud. Hence, we were often cleared to fire but told not to hit! Typically British - fighting with one hand tied! Nevertheless, the South Arabian Arabs only took note of excessive power; it was the only thing they really understood. We never did succeed in subduing the Radfani hill-tribes, and we finally pulled out in 1967 with our tails between our legs.
RAF Khormaksar’s Strike Wing was not only tasked with army support work, but was responsible for the air defence of the whole region. It also had the best working shift system ever devised, and all because we had so many aircraft and personnel available by today’s standards.
Despite two large fighter squadrons, 8 and 43, both needed their rest periods, and one Sqn alone was usually adequate to maintain the operational task and complete our necessary training flying. Hence, uniquely to my knowledge in the RAF up to that time, all the wing aircraft had both Squadron markings on them and were shared by both Squadrons. On the forward side of the fuselage roundel were the three yellow, red and blue horizontal stripes of 8 Squadron, while at the back were the black and white chequers of 43. It was oft quoted that the three 8 Sqn colours were those of Aden: yellow for the sand, blue for the sky and red for blood! Well the Squadron had been on almost continuous operations there for some four decades, so there’s probably some truth in it. To complete the picture, besides our two Hunter Squadrons, a separate Flight of FR.10 Fighter Recce and T.7 Hunters called 1417 Flight was also part of the wing. This was the Flight I was to command later in my career.
The Squadrons were organised very simply: twenty-four aircrew; one Sqn Ldr Boss, four Flt Lts, two of which were flight commanders plus a Sqn QFI and a Sqn Pilot Attack Instructor (PAI). The other nineteen were first tour flying officer bachelors, average age 22, and I was the youngest. What a recipe for some high jinks! Never a moment went by when somebody wasn’t up to something, and I’m glad I wasn’t the Boss during this period. I was still only 20 when I started here on my first operational tour, and my 21st was a few drinks in the mess bar soon after I arrived. Well, a few more than a few!
In operational terms, every pilot had a rating that decided how many aircraft in combat you were qualified to lead. You started as a non-operational pilot usually taking six months training to arrive at full operational status, allowing you to man the standby pair as the wingman and fly on operations up country. You then progressed to Op2 (leader of a pair), Op4 (leader of four aircraft) and so on. Everyone made Op2 on his first tour, and the good ones made Op4. Only the Flt Cdrs could lead eight, and notionally the Boss had all sixteen, if there was ever that number serviceable! But the standard battle routine was pairs, and four-ships, and that’s how we trained.
We only had one Squadron on duty at any one time and we worked a 24hrs on/24hrs off shift, from lunchtime to lunchtime, handing over to the oncoming Squadron at midday. A pair of aircraft and pilots were always kept on fifteen minutes stand-by; sometimes this became four if the alert state increased. This system continued seven days per week, though with minimum manning at weekends. This meant that every 24hrs you finished work at lunchtime, went down to the beach for the afternoon, got pissed in the evening, slept it off the following morning and at lunchtime stumbled back to work again! And they paid you to do it!
We were equipped only with WW2, 6 inch calibre, HE anti-tank rockets, and the four internal 30mm ADEN cannons, no napalm or bombs, (traditionally, the four-engined Lincoln aircraft had done the bombing role, subsequently taken over by the Shackletons), our usual fit being twelve x 601b rockets under the outer wings, and 120 rounds of 30mm HE ammo in each gun. So armed, the stand-by pair, on fifteen minutes readiness dawn till dusk, was manned by two pilots, the leader of whom had to be a qualified Op4, with an Op2/Op as a wingman. This quick reaction alert was not only for army support up country, but also for air defence if required. Our main task was army support, but few and far between as they were, we used to enjoy the air defence scrambles.
There were two reasons for this taste, the first being that with both ends of the runway ending in the sea, whichever way you took off, and as soon as the wheels were up, it was standard operating procedure to jettison everything under the wings into the ocean on air defence scrambles. This was thought crucial to lighten the aircraft load for the fastest possible climb to height. It didn’t happen often! But two full 230-gallon fuel tanks and twelve rockets going off together into the sea was a sight worth watching. The second was that an air defence mission usually meant climbing to high level which, in turn, meant you found the only cool part of South Arabia for once. As 90% of our flying was low level army support and ground attack, we spent most of our flying drenched in sweat, since it was desperately hot in the cockpit at low level throughout the year.
The task, both then and today, of bringing fugitives, dissidents or terrorists to justice, was complicated by a daunting combination of factors from the country’s complicated social and tribal composition, to the sheer in-hospitability of the geography of the place, which is both huge and unforgiving. The inhabitants are some of the poorest in the world, with no natural resources and little water. Three-quarters of a million of them in a country the size of France. Of course, it didn’t help matters that, with the exception of the tarmac Aden-Dhala Road being built by our Royal Engineers, there wasn’t a single metalled road in the whole of South Arabia outside the Aden Colony. From the 7,000foot sheer escarpments of black granite rising above the Lawdar Plain, to the unending vastness of the Empty Quarter, with only a few sand-graded airstrips able to accept a Dakota size of aircraft, it’s an impossible world for all but the toughest.
It is hard to conceive in the modern world of the communications problems prevalent throughout the Arabian Peninsula; lack of landlines between RAF bases, no satellites, inefficient short-range, radio-telephones and dependence upon time consuming teleprinters, morse code and tardy air-mail. Communications throughout the Arabian Peninsula were totally inadequate and would have been severely tested if ever any major operation had had to be carried out. We fell foul of this problem during a fighter transit of Turkey on the way home in late 1967.
The variety of airfields and landing grounds that had to be used by the force was almost unlimited, though only the international standard of Khormaksar could take fighters. For the rest, every conceivable kind of surface, length and gradient could be found, down to rough, short and precipitous landing grounds like Dhala in the Western Aden Protectorate. Hard, natural surfaces were usually stony with a great danger to tail-planes, main-planes and undercarriages from large flying stones. The wear and tear on tyres and on nose and tail wheels from these conditions was excessive, and a significant number of unservicabilities could always be attributed to the landing and take off conditions to which all aircraft were subjected. We were constantly being asked to operate from airfields which had been adequate for the old Vampires and Venoms but which were no more than marginal for Hunters such as Beihan, Riyan and Salalah. It is understandable that our overall accident rate tended to be higher than the RAF average, not because of any lack of skill, but because of the greater hazards up-country with which pilots had to contend.
Occasionally while flying low level, we had to contend with the massive, black four-foot wingspan Kites, or ‘Shitehawks’ as colloquially called them, which being the largest birds in the region and the fore queen of the local skies, didn’t give way to anything. The usual strikes the leading edges of our main-planes and engine intake areas usually me; the loss of the aircraft for many months for major repairs, though, thank goodness, the Avon engine withstood enormous damage without coughing and aircraft were rarely lost for this reason. The Hunter was so sturdy that even after ingesting a Kite with enormous intake damage, it generally flew, sometimes long distances, home safely.
In 1966 we had a remarkable Hunter incident which totally vindicated our problems with corrosion in the eyes of the powers back home. Dick Wharmby was trying to land his Hunter one day after experiencing a hydraulic failure. The Hunter’s back up system was a compressed air accumulator used to blow the undercarriage down after any loss of hydraulic pressure. A simple mechanical pull lever in the cockpit controlled the accumulator and, having lost his hydraulics, Dick pulled the lever. It just came off in his hand, the heavy steel cable attached to the lever having corroded right through since its replacement less than three months earlier. Dick finally landed the aircraft wheels up on its empty under-wing 230 gallon drop tanks and, keeping the runway clear for other aircraft, skidded down the taxiway in a shower of sparks, damaging nothing but the drop tanks. A measure of how robust an aircraft was the Hunter is also proven in this incident, in that the aircraft was jacked up - drop tanks changed, a hydraulic valve substituted, the handle replaced - and was flying again the following day!
Operating continuously in this environment posed us many problems which, at times, demanded the highest standards of airmanship. Not least of the problems was that of combating intense heat, glare and sandblasting. The perspex cockpit canopy tended to focus the rays of the sun onto the head of the pilot, and prolonged exposure to this concentration could induce headaches and sunstroke. In this type of aircraft, however, we normally wore protective helmets, or ‘bone-domes’ for safety in ejection, but astonishing as it may seem today, just ordinary desert shoes on our feet! Cockpit windscreens suffered most. Constant sand-blasting etched a six month life into a screen which lasted years in a European environment, and progressively aggravated the sun’s glare. Squinting into the small quarter light on each side, the only recourse, did little to facilitate landing on a runway ill-defined in full sun.
Spending over fifteen minutes on the ground in the cockpit where temperatures often exceeded 150ºF was precluded by an air-conditioning system unusable prior to engine start, and certainly not designed with Aden in mind; it couldn’t cope with normal low-level flying which were always hot, sweaty affairs. The inviolable 15-minute rule then was to cancel the mission to avoid heat exhaustion; the subsequent recovery seated in air-conditioning include much ‘jungle juice’ (powdered orange-juice) consumption provided by the ground crew. Only in Aden were two plates of pills kept permanently on all mess dining tables: one of vitamins and, by far the most important, one of salt pills which we all took religiously to avoid the vertiginous effects of sodium deficiency. Although a tubular-framed, mobile canopy reduced cockpit ground temperatures, it was insufficient to prevent spending the ensuing hour or so at high level, strapped into a refrigerated cockpit, soaked to the skin in our own sweat. Notwithstanding some acclimatization, avoiding pneumonia was miraculous!
Back on the ground, if the technical problems were trying, the conditions under which our airmen had to solve them were even more demanding. Conditions for servicing aircraft could hardly be worse than they were at Khormaksar. Salt and sand posed alarming problems for the maintenance of metal-skinned aircraft, engines, vehicles, equipment and buildings, often necessitating complicated and difficult repairs. Almost all work had to be carried out in the open and exposed to incessant heat, sand and dust. It was oft said that the humid, dust filled, salt-laden atmosphere of Aden produced the finest grinding compound in the world, with immense patience needed to reassemble components with bearing surfaces free from these harmful agents. In Fighter Command our ADEN gun packs were serviced and stored in special air conditioned armouries. Not so in the Middle East. If a suitable building was available, it was fortuitous. Often a square patch of sand denoted the armoury, and ADEN guns were destined to swallow their allotted portion of sand like everything and everybody else.
The extraordinary thing was that, though the rate of wear was fairly high, the guns worked extremely well with stoppages happening but rarely. This caused many an eyebrow to be raised at the luxurious accommodation being provided in the UK, but at Khormaksar the choice between stifling heat but reasonably clean conditions inside a hangar, and salt-laden, blowing sand but cooler air in the open was often a difficult one to make. After an incident occurred in which an NCO died of heat exhaustion while working behind one of the engines inside the main wing of a Beverley, some change to working practices had to be made. He collapsed and was not found in time to revive him, which immediately caused a standing order stating that they had to work in pairs, causing some bemusement in new arrivals.
As pilots we each had to do our stint as part of the standby pair on the fifteen minutes readiness. This meant all the pre-flight checks had been completed on the aircraft, which included two x 230-gallon underwing tanks inboard, the twelve rockets and the four integral cannons in the nose, with one’s cockpit set up to personal requirements when taking over the duty. As usual we then lolled around the crewroom in air-conditioning, hoping that something might happen, having been ready either half an hour before dawn for duty until lunchtime, or lunchtime until half an hour after dusk.
Khormaksar was the largest and busiest RAF station anywhere, housing not less than three wings of nine squadrons. Security was a constant cause of concern as Aden was at that time being subjected to a mounting wave of terrorist attacks, some 286 in 1965 and almost double that number a year later. Although most fighter patrols were flown at low level to ensure the dissidents on the ground heard us and knew we were there, occasionally, high level patrols were flown in the fond hope that their air force would know were around and make them think twice about coming across the border. In any case there were many transit flights to and from the Gulf, and ferry flights to and from UK, all of course flown at high level. It is difficult to describe sensations during high-level, long distance transit flights or border patrols in that part of the world. As the patrol pair, we were usually up at 36,000ft in wide battle formation, some two miles line abreast, flying slowly at 0.75Mach along the border for endurance. The cloudless sky was so vast and limpid with patches of dissolving fleeciness and usually no horizon. One felt stunned by this cavernous airspace we, alone, inhabited, while below, the ground was barely discernible, hidden by the dreaded ‘Goldfish Bowl’ conditions. This yellow haze made orientation difficult, made possible only by frequent recourse to instrumentation!
You knew that the hostile, granite South Arabian mountains were somewhere below and, despite the minus 40ºC of cold outside the canopy, you could still feel the sun’s rays burning through, blinding your vision, and impairing even further your capacity to make visual sweeps of the sky. Instead of breathing the usual air/oxygen mix, the system was often turned to pure oxygen, especially if you’d had a few pints too many the night before! Breathing pure oxygen always gave you a lift and put you on a ‘high’. It increased the curious but satisfying sensation of being isolated and totally detached from reality. You couldn’t hear any engine noise at that height, just a slight swish of the airflow across the outer skin, and the constant minor static from the radio. There is little relative movement to show speed, only what’s on the dial. Time appears to go so slowly that everything seems unreal and remote. The cockpit environment gradually becomes a sort of low, noisy growl in your earphones, blocking out everything else and forming a neutral background that ends up by merging into a profound, vague, and dreamy silence, threatening to break the ingrained discipline of constant scanning.
At the other extreme of our ops were the many frantic, frenzied scrambles that found you airborne within minutes, still trying to strap into the ejection seat whilst already half-way to the target area. On occasion the target area came into view before my seat safety pins came out! Such was the hurry to help the army guys, especially the 10 Field Sqn Royal Engineers who were being sniped at on the Dahla Road. It was a matter of pride and professionalism that you got airborne as fast as possible; after all, ‘health and safety’ hadn’t been invented in those days, thank goodness. If it helped to save lives up-country, you risked leaving the strapping in and safety checks until you were on the way at full throttle, and the hell with the consequences if something went wrong on take-off!
The Yemenis were always encroaching upon the border in the Beihan area, which was round the corner of an S-bend in the border some 150 miles NE of Aden. It was right on the edge of the Rub-al-Khali (the Empty Quarter) - probably the most far-flung, desolate outpost of any British forces. We had traditionally provided exorbitantly expensive, standing airborne patrols in the area three times per day. Beihan stood some 2,500ft above sea level in a natural, narrow rock and sand wadi running NE-SW, and surrounded by escarpments along its 40 miles length. A main natural surface road ran along the centre of the wadi and through Beihan town. About half a mile southwest of the town, that road had been turned into a short concrete airstrip, but with a large hill at the south-western end. Back in 1957, a mixed force of 500 Yemeni irregulars and their regular army had crossed the Beihan border and ambushed a dawn patrol of RAF armoured cars, forcing them to fight the first pitched battle of the frontier troubles. Indeed, an attack by two Mig fighters in June 1965 on the village of Najd Marqad and a nearby Frontier Guard post near Beihan caused the death of two Arab women and injury to three other villagers. This incident necessitated the re-introduction of our Beihan Air Defence Patrol, a wasteful and time consuming commitment. By 1966, the problems in the area had become insurmountable without air support, but Beihan runway, only 1,440yds in length, was too short for Hunters. Consequently, after one Yemeni incursion in July, in which Mig 17s shot up the nearby village of Nuqub, it was decided to lengthen the runway to 1,800yds for Hunters, much to the delight of the Sharif of Beihan, the local Marib Sheik.
Having to transit each way round the corner to and from Beihan created a 360 mile round trip, instead of the direct line across Yemeni territory of only 300 miles, which further decreased the short time we could stay on patrol there. Maintaining diversion fuel for Djibouti on the African coast, a further 135 miles in the opposite direction from Khormaksar, didn’t help. As a result, many were the occasions we ran short of fuel and had to return across Yemeni territory as the crow flies. Fortuitously, the artificial, vaguely-defined and un-patrolled borders on the edge of the Empty Quarter were pretty meaningless.
To land on the newly lengthened Beihan runway, a very tight left turn had to be flown around a tall, narrow spit of rock jutting vertically upwards to a pointed-top that was positioned almost in the middle of the desired approach to the runway. This circular Jebel called J.ash Sha’bah was a phallic symbol shape on short base leg, requiring a tight S-bend to be flown on short finals. If your speed was exactly right, a landing attempt could then be made north-eastwards towards the village. Of course, in order to stop safely on such a short, ‘hot and high’ runway, you had to have no more than the exact minimum fuel state with empty drop tanks on board with which to fly back home to base. There, at 2,000 feet amsl, you were committed to stay until the temperature reduced sufficiently around dusk for a safe take-off, otherwise you’d have still been on the ground rolling down the main village street. Committed for take-off, the aircraft was launched in the same direction regardless of wind conditions, and an operation ‘hairy’ to say the least. I was reminded of this commitment by a saying of General Schwarzkopf after the first Gulf War. On being interviewed by a UK reporter about his troops’ involvement and commitment, he answered by saying, “It’s like your Limey breakfasts ... you know, your eggs and bacon!” He went on, “The chicken’s involved but the pig’s committed!” At Beihan, we were the pigs!
The more senior pilots flew a pair into Beihan at dawn each day and maintained a ground standby until dusk when they took off, did a very short patrol, and returned to Khormaksar for the night. With the new part of Beihan runway being at the southern end, the further down the take-off run, the bumpier was the ride, until at about 20 knots below flying speed, a particularly bad bump could throw you into the air. The next few seconds were spent, nose high in the air, half stalled and desperately clambering for speed and height, mushing down the main street of the village. Happily, the wadi and the road were dead straight, although I wouldn’t like to have been walking down the main street minding my own business at the time!
It is long enough ago to now admit it! Although I wasn’t one of those chosen to land at Beihan, I certainly used to do ‘touch and go approaches’ there, just to relieve the boredom of desert patrols, and I know I wasn’t the only one! The wing flew an enormous number of these Beihan missions: 186 in August, 98 in September, and 151 in October 66. I alone flew seven Beihan patrols in the month of August ’66, having flown none in the previous 18 months, but this patrol level was not to last. Beihan was too difficult logistically and, in any case, how were we going to obtain an alert to get airborne anyway, even if the heat had allowed it? It appeared to be nothing more than a show of force to keep up the locals’ confidence.
We were kept busy operationally during 1967 and ACM Sir David Lee is quoted as writing, “The accuracy of 8 Squadron’s rocket attacks proved excellent, and the Squadron became one of the most accurate and experienced rocket firing squadrons in the RAF, with average errors measured in feet where others were measured in yards!” I was always proud of my rocket average, which for the whole three years was less than 20 feet, and during one four month period, came down to less than 14 feet. This may not sound too accurate to the uninitiated, until it is realised that this was accomplished with very inaccurate, WW2 rockets developed for Typhoons. But 9601bs of explosive in a full load of sixteen rockets detonating five or six yards away was more than enough to make you blink!
On the other hand, our use of this rocket was one of many weapon-to-target mismatches, for which the Air Force is infamous. The shaped charge warhead was designed to put a small-diameter hole into WW2 armour-plate; single rocket use against soft targets such as Radfan mud forts, at low attack angles, produced a small hole in the side of the fort, another small hole on the other side of the fort as it exited, little change in between, and the rocket disappearing stage right! A full salvo solved that problem, but by far the most effective were the four 30mm cannons.
Each gun fired 1200 rounds per minute of 30mm high explosive shells, putting down 4800 rounds/min, an enormous amount of firepower with all four guns firing, and as good as any Gatling gun. Indeed, at the time it was the heaviest gun-armed fighter in the world. When practising on the range, short half-second bursts from a single gun opening at 500yds down to 350yards, were the best for greater accuracy producing less time of bullet flight and a small bullet spread. However, operationally it was usual to fire one to two-second bursts using two or all four guns, thus putting between 80 and 160 rounds on target on every attack pass. For the uninitiated, a low angle, 10º attack dive at 420 knots meant you moved 1400 feet (466yds) across the ground during a two second burst. Having to pull out of the dive at 350 yards to clear the target safely meant opening fire at about 800 to 900 yards. At that range the bullet spread was too large for accuracy, so a 1 to 1.5-second burst was about all that was operationally possible as a reasonable compromise.
Despite the heavy armament, the use of all four guns together, which only ever occurred on operations, produced some dramatic consequences, and not just for the enemy. The first time I used all four, it felt as if the aircraft had hit a brick wall - the recoil was so great. The vibration set up throughout the airframe usually popped numerous circuit breakers, and the radio would go off line as would most of the electrical services. Not a nice position to be in, pulling out of a dive 100 feet above a target who’s firing back at you!
Surprisingly, one aspect of the ADEN cannon was used as currency. The two under-fuselage SABRINAS were a late addition to collect the ammo belt-links which otherwise would have damaged the fuselage’s underside on ejection. However, the 30mm brass cartridge-cases were ejected. The locals whom we used on our air firing range as a maintenance party were not paid except they were allowed to pick up the spent cases which fetched a premium downtown! Moreover, 41 Commando personnel told me that after firing in their support up-country in the Dhala region, the guns’ brass cases were so valuable that the dissidents would down arms and break cover to collect them. Once collected, they then recommenced firing at the marines! Indeed, it is thought that they only fired on our troops to get us called in to provide them with brass currency! In effect we were paying them to fight us!
However, Heath-Robinson had nothing on our drainpipe rockets. They were propelled by long sticks of cordite, some of which would inevitably be ejected unburnt out of the rear-end during the rocket’s flight, producing peculiar flight patterns and most uncertain impact points. Indeed, when acting as Range Safety Officer on our training range at Khormaksar Beach, we would walk the range and pick up the cordite strips after a mission had finished. When ignited together in a pile, these would boil a billycan of water for our tea exceptionally rapidly!
Together with the lack of a proper rocket sight in the aircraft, the subsequent inaccuracy of the rockets, sometimes with twirling flight paths, could only be overcome by considerable skill! It is said that a fighter pilot is an infinitely adaptable machine that can make allowances for the most impossible equipment designs to make them work regardless, but there is a limit! By and large, when we did hit the target, all the errors had likely cancelled each other out! Even so, when we came back from missions with empty rocket rails and soot round the gun ports, both armourers and our ground crew were happy; they knew then that their efforts had been rewarded.
In order that our operations can be better understood, and the way we trained for them and bearing in mind that there were forty-odd operational Hunter pilots on the Wing, if you take my 66 as an average, and multiply by the number of pilots, there were somewhere around 2,600-2,700 operational Hunter missions flown during the last two years of occupation, at a rate of roughly four per day. Compared with the 642 missions flown during the two month Radfan campaign in 1964, our 2,600 were flown at a more leisurely pace, but they were sustained over a longer period with the enemy becoming stronger throughout.
To take just one of my missions, the strike in the Radfan area of Wadi Tiban on Wed 4 May 66, the Boss (Sqn Ldr Des Melaniphy) and I were scrambled from standby after a party of approximately twenty armed dissidents had infiltrated from Yemen into the Federation. On the Tuesday night, 3 May 1966, using explosive bullets, they attacked a British Army patrol operating in the area twenty miles west of Habilayn (45 miles north of Aden and five miles from the Yemen border), under the command of the FRA. At first light, the Boss and I did an armed recce flagwave over the area, but that didn’t deter them. So later that morning we were scrambled with full firing permission. I say that because we needed GOC or AOC’s express permission before being allowed to fire, and many was the time we were overhead obvious fire-fights, and couldn’t find either of them because they were otherwise engaged with matters clearly more important than the up-country lives, and no delegation of responsibility was ever given.
This was to be my first live firing mission, and I was initially very nervous. I was curious and anxious at the same time to know how I would react, not to the danger, because I never once doubted our invincibility, but to firing weapons at live human targets for the first time. On this occasion, with full firing permission, we went on to direct all our rockets and ammunition at the dissidents, whom we found patrolling down the boulder-strewn, palm tree-lined wadi Tiban. On my first, steep, rocket attack I caught glimpses of the dissidents running away down the wadi through the trees and boulders, but despite repeated attacks thereafter, there were no further sightings. We were told later that thirteen of them had been killed, and five wounded, out of a party of twenty, whilst no British soldiers or locals had been injured at all. We considered that one of the few successes after all the flagwaves and armed recces we’d flown while not being allowed to fire.
On the ground afterwards, we were quietly excited, not quite grasping what we had done. I had completed my first real mission, not made a hash of it, and a great weight had fallen from me after years of training. It was the first time I’d experienced that strange exultation that often accompanies hard fighting, and I had come of age that day. This was the first time I had knowingly killed anyone, and I have to say that whereas it has preyed on my mind over many years since, I have no conscience about it. I was doing my job, the job I had been trained for, without which it would have been British soldiers’ lives, and I’d certainly do it again in the same circumstances. That’s all there is to it.