Dave Richards was a J/T Armourer who served a tour at Masirah November 1966/December 1967. Masirah was remote from any real action but was a useful staging post for the regionally based Hunters.
“When placed on PWR for a tour at Masirah my first thoughts were why me and where the hell is Masirah? Anyhow, I got to work hunting around for information about the place, general stuff mostly, climate and ambience, working routines and conditions, recreational facilities and hopefully, other peoples first hand experiences; just so I may glean at least a rough idea of what lay ahead. With (of course) no internet in those days and people who had been stationed there or even just passed through, few and far between to say the least, there was scant information to prepare me for the time ahead. Additionally, being married, the prospect of an unaccompanied tour (at that time thirteen months with a UK leave in the middle, though in reality not too bad, hardly filled me with enthusiasm either; but in those days one could expect such a tour sooner or later and with a recent spell at Akrotiri beneath my belt I accepted the inevitable with a shrug along with not a little curiosity as to what laid ahead.
Sometime in November 1966, all kitted out direct at my last station (no more PDU Innsworth), I boarded a British United Airways VC10 to Aden, the first leg of my journey to Masirah. Despite arriving in the relative cool of mid-evening I immediately became aware of the heat, nothing close to anything I had previously experienced, but something I was to become quite used to in a surprisingly short time. After brief arrival formalities we were directed to a line of Bedford buses, mine being one destined for the Red Sea Hotel. All buses were minus the usual glass windows, these having been removed and replaced with metal screening, it was rather like sitting in a cage and we were told this was a precaution against unfriendly individuals trying to throw grenades into the bus! Being on a bus destined to leave the base we had a no-nonsense looking British army soldier armed with a sub-machine gun stationed by front doorway and the bus itself was escorted by an armoured car, these arrangements, while giving rise to a level of comfort on one hand also generated some feelings of trepidation on the other.
After leaving the base the journey seemed quite short soon arriving at the Red Sea Hotel, a rather grand name for what was essentially a somewhat well worn all ranks transit hostel, a little basic and frayed around the edges, but reasonable enough I suppose and being an off-base military establishment, boasted a secure looking sandbagged entrance and was well guarded. During the day the ambience and general aroma was greatly enhanced by a nearby goat market, but that was not really noticed on an evening arrival; it was a treat to be enjoyed more during daylight hours. A couple of cold beers in bar soon put me in the mood to hit the sack ready for the next day.
The following morning, adorned in rather comical service issue KD, we were taken to Khormaksar where those of us travelling onward to other destinations were segregated, although we all first attended a well prepared lecture on awareness of the local security situation followed by a short visit to the SWO who, as it happened, had been my flight NCO when I was a Boy Entrant; I believe he was later decorated for his service in Aden. We were finished with formalities before lunch and returned to the Red Sea Hotel to await information about onward travel. In the afternoon I took advantage of venturing out of the hotel during the designated time for shopping (when I believe armed guards and extra patrols were out along the main road) and was pleasantly surprised to find that I was not only able to purchase decent KD and extra Desert Boots off a street vendor peddling his wares from a handcart at the side of the road, but amazingly, I was able to pay with a UK cheque; it was actually much easier to use my cheque book with a roadside vendor in Aden than with the majority of shops on the average UK high street. I was now well kitted out for my time in Masirah and had one more uneventful night in Aden presenting myself at Khormaksar Air Movements early the following morning for the onward journey.
It was a small rather mixed bunch of perhaps half-a-dozen that were listed to travel on a 105 Squadron Argosy leaving from Khormaksar and, while waiting to climbing aboard, I was able to enjoy the sight and sound of a pair of Hunters roar off on an early morning sortie. Immediately after boarding things started to become pleasantly informal and we were free to choose our seats and make ourselves as comfortable as one could in the Para seats running down each side of the aircraft. There was some bulk loaded cargo secured in the middle, not too much really, so there was a lot of space to spread out and move around. The loadmaster was a very laid-back guy and with the total pax count low he showed us all how to get at the orange drink or fix ourselves a coffee should we need one anytime and told us to generally make ourselves at home. Take off was nice and steady and we rose up easily soon settling into a comfortable cruise to our first destination, Riyan. The flight I was travelling on was a regular thrice-weekly schedule operating from Khormaksar to Riyan, Salalah and Masirah, hence known to all as the RSM. The schedule allowed for a night stop at Masirah returning to Khormaksar the next day by reverse routing. There was plenty to see from the windows along the way and in no time at all we commenced our descent to Riyan.
Riyan was a sand strip, only a small hardstanding being a proper hard surface and I believe that quite frequently aircraft on the RSM run did not even stop all engines but simply shut down two to allow the small supply of incoming fresh rations along with the all-important mail to be quickly off-loaded through the rear side door after which the aircraft was immediately on its way again, restarting the two engines while taxiing out. On this day there was rather more freight to be off-loaded so the aircraft shut-down all four and we pax directed to what seemed to be a small sort of NAAFI type place (there was a small but sadly unmanned bar inside), mostly to keep us out of the way I suspect. The guys at Riyan certainly knew their stuff and were super efficient, after maybe only twenty minutes or so we were told to get back on board and in no time at all were on our way again headed for Salalah. The brief visit through Riyan was certainly interesting and the novelty of arriving and departing from sand strip something quite new. Once in cruise the Loadmaster dished out a cold meal (standard RAF in-flight type food of the era) while we settled down to once more take in the scenery along our route; it seemed no time at all before the aircraft was gradually easing into a long slow decent to Salalah, another airfield with just a sand strip.
Salalah proved to be an interesting stop and while waiting at the Air Movements section for freight to be off-loaded and the aircraft turned around, I watched a SOAF (Sultan of Oman’s Air Force) Piston Provost scramble out followed shortly by a Beaver. There was also a Mk. 2 Shackleton from Khormaksar on the ground along with a bunch of guys working hard to fix a snag so it could get airborne before dark; apparently night-stops were to be avoided if at all possible as a number of rather troublesome locals had the habit of taking pot-shots at any aircraft out in the open overnight, when they could get close enough under cover of darkness to take a bead. In quite a short time everything was completed and I, then the sole remaining pax, boarded for the final leg to Masirah, unaware at the time I would be paying quite a few return visits to Salalah during my spell in the area. Coffee and a sandwich along with a chat with the loadmaster made the time to Masirah to quickly pass and the skies were darkening as we began our descent to Masirah.
On a long slow after dusk run-in to Masirah there was really nothing to be seen until reaching the airfield and into the downwind leg, when more or less all of the base could be seen in no time at all, there was not all that much of it anyhow. Masirah had two runways then, one concrete and a smaller cross runway that was officially termed as “Rolled Sand on Coral”. Under normal circumstances the hard runway was used as was the case the day I arrived and after turning finals the aircraft was quickly set-down and rolled out to turn around, back-track a little, then marshalled onto the ramp, the rear clamshell doors opening as engines were shutting down. The base establishment in those days was around 120 or so personnel (around four times that of Riyan) plus some locally resident civilian staff. The aircraft was met by the ASF team, Air Movements, the Royal Engineers postal clerk (a very important man) and assorted others, some of whom just dropped by out of curiosity being at a loose end that particular evening. While still on the aircraft I was approached by an RAF Sergeant who, after establishing my identity, introduced himself as Dave Callow, NCO i/c the Armament Section; rather a nice welcome, first and last time I was ever met personally on arrival at a new station. Formalities were at an absolute minimum, baggage identified and dumped into the back of the ASF Land Rover to be dropped off at the billet once the aircraft was put to bed while Dave Callow and I walked over to the accommodation area; Dave pushing a bicycle that I was later to learn was the section transport. While walking to the billet, Dave briefed me on armament the set-up which was quite simple, a Sergeant i/c, a Corporal and me, a lowly J/T. Once shown my bed Dave went off for the night saying he would call by in the morning and show me around while I introduced myself to my new roommates (all ASF Guys) and after quickly stowing my kit we went off to the NAAFI to get to know one another over a couple of cold one’s.
The following morning I was quickly escorted around the very minimal arrival formalities and introduced around, I was very taken by the laid-back friendly atmosphere. The station itself was well appointed having undergone a major upgrade a year or so back that resulted in the majority of buildings being new or nicely renovated. Living accommodation was simple but clean, functional and comfortable enough even without air-conditioning. The Armament Section was standard pattern Hunter Gun Pack building and one of only three air-conditioned buildings on the station, although we only ran the aircon very occasionally, just to keep it ticking over. The station small arms store occupied one of the offices and there was a traversed arming/fusing point nearby. The Explosives Storage Area (Bomb Dump for old hands) was a little distance away requiring us to borrow the Technical Officer/ASF Land Rover to get there, the few buildings in the area being older ones supplemented by some open storage. In addition to .303 and 9 m/m small arms ammo and the usual Very Pistol cartridges, there was a small supply of 30 mm Aden Gun Ammo and some 3 inch Rocket Motors and HE Heads, not much else really other than a few bits and pieces and a small quantity of 20lb Fragmentation Bombs that nobody was sure of the reason they were there. The Armament Section had two local ‘helpers’, a father and son act called Himed and Hamed, who were highly skilled at wielding a brush and brewing tea, that being more or less the limit of their talents.
The routine on aircraft arrivals was rather quaint. The station was equipped with a WW2 style air raid siren that was sounded when an inbound aircraft was about 30-45 minutes out, giving duty staff time to wander into work if they were elsewhere. It was also the signal for the duty RAF Policeman to hop into his Land Rover and round-up any stray donkeys from the airfield. Any strays were herded into a purpose built ‘Coral’ where they would happily feed on old cardboard boxes until claimed by one of the locals. It was this task that lead to the Sergeant i/c police being known as the Sheriff. While there were times it seemed as though the only aircraft to visit Masirah were those that came to re-supply us, we did get some other visitors. During my tour at Akrotiri I’d spent almost two years on the Station Instrument Training Flight which operated four Canberra T.4 aircraft and in addition, the unit was the Visiting/Transit Aircraft Handling Unit. During this period I worked on the duty crew shift roster which was an ‘all hands to the wheel’ type job and as a result I was quite familiar with turning around most of the transport aircraft in the RAF inventory. Being familiar with the aircraft most frequently transiting and as I was accommodated with the ASF guys anyhow, I just gravitated into a similar pattern as when at Akrotiri and could generally be found on the ramp during arrivals and departures, irrespective of whether or not the aircraft required the services of an armourer. By default I became the armament line man, but I was also an expert at topping up Beverley 100U Oil, refuelling anything that came along, waving bats and occasional towing, whatever needed in fact.
Of the few aircraft transiting that actually needed an armament tradesman at all, the Aden/Bahrain-based Hunters were the most frequent non-supply run visitors; a type I always had great pleasure working on. If we had a pair (or more) transiting during the day we had a routine worked out where I quickly checked the seat(s) and tidied up the straps then topped-up the Avpin and generally lent a hand while others got the rest of the work done, usually we had the aircraft turned around well before the pilots returned from a quick visit to the mess, suitably refreshed and taken time for the all important last minute leak before strapping in for their onward journey. Night stops were more interesting and gave us a little extra time working with the aircraft. We really LOOKED FOR WORK in those days. If my memory serves me correctly, sometime in 1967 four hunters from Bahrain transited en-route to Khormaksar, one of the pilots being the Muharraq Station Commander. We were given to understand the mission was of the utmost importance and it was purely by the remotest coincidence their formation was timed to arrive in Aden the same day a mid-summer event in the Khormaksar Officers’ Mess was being held that very evening (most likely depleting mess funds in advance of the withdrawal). The same four aircraft and pilots transited again on their way home the following day, all looking a little frayed around the edges and I noticed the good Group Captain had not stood very close to a razor that morning. We did have one arriving Hunter provide a little excitement when the pilot called for and engaged the barrier one day; it looked rather dramatic when it occurred but once we got the aircraft untangled and back to the ramp were able to clear it back to Khormaksar with only very minor a little superficial damage to the spine, more cosmetic than anything. Hunters apart we did get the occasional Canberra coming through that required an armourer; otherwise there was little armament work to be done on the aircraft servicing side. Of the occasional interesting other visitors, one was a Pakistan International Boeing 720 bringing a load of contract construction workers from Karachi and another was a Swiss registered Pilatus Porter on a ferry flight that had been modified so the crop spray chemical hopper was an auxiliary/ferry fuel tank. I also remember a couple of Britannias and a Vulcan passing through that made life a little more interesting (Vulcan Crew Chief did everything himself anyhow, not even letting anybody on the aircraft) but in the main it was the Argosys and Beverleys busy keeping us supplied that kept us busy most of the time.
Not long after I arrived we were into December with Christmas rapidly approaching. It was rather difficult to get into the Christmas spirit, principally due to the general ‘Desert Island’ ambience, but certainly Christmas day was looked forward to by all. Of course, the highlight of Christmas day was lunch in the Airmen’s Mess and what a spread it turned out to be. The mess staff had gone to unbelievable lengths to deliver a very special meal and succeeded several times over; despite the difficult lines of supply and the temperatures in the kitchens they worked under, what was placed in front of us was an absolutely exceptional traditional Christmas lunch with all the trimmings. To accompany the food was beer-a-plenty (Masirah boasted a very wealthy PSI, more about that later) and a generous cigarette issue was to be found on each table courtesy of confiscations by HM Customs. The Station Commander, Officers (only four in total anyhow) and SNCOs all turned out to serve the meal and not only served it but also partook of a couple of cold ones and joining in with the general festive spirit. Merriment continued at various locations through the afternoon and evening. Interestingly, while most of us certainly imbibed throughout the day it was steadily paced, nobody seemed to get totally wasted, just pleasantly mellow. The best Christmas I ever spent on base during my RAF service. I should add that the general standard of catering in the Airmen’s Mess throughout my time there was way above what would be the norm ANYWHERE and this despite the challenges of the location and supply difficulties.
Shortly after Christmas I was introduced to one of the pleasant little breaks enjoyed by the Masirah armament staff. Salalah did not have an armament tradesman on establishment, the small arms store and safekeeping of ammunition being a secondary duty of a corporal airframe fitter. There was an arrangement whereby one of the Masirah armourers would make a monthly ‘Parenting Visit’ just to see how things were plodding along and also look after any technical issues on the small arms. Great fun just to have a change of scene and Salalah, with plenty of operations by SOAF, was really quite active with the Provosts on armed ops most days and the Beaver busy on Casevac missions. I was intrigued to discover all the standard wooden lockers in the accommodation were fitted with a small tube heater which was plugged in to a conveniently placed socket to stop ones clothes becoming mildewed during the rather muggy damp season. High jinks in the Airmen’s Club were frequent often ending in a fan-stopping contest; they had some experts there! Thereafter I took every opportunity I could to visit Salalah; I guess that I managed it five or six times during my tour. On one occasion I got to travel on a Beverley that went all the way from Masirah to Salalah low-level hugging the coast, I’m sure we were never more than 500 feet AGL throughout and as I’d been invited to perch on a jumps seat up on the flight deck most of the way had a superb view.
Quite early on in my stay the station was hit by some very heavy rain one evening, continuing on into the following day. Rainwear was quickly improvised, generally out of large plastic bags, and we simply continued on doing whatever was required of us until it ceased. It certainly delivered more than would generally be expected (which was none anyhow) though the buildings stood it quite well and surface water seemed to drain away quite quickly. A few days after the sun came out and we had dried off it seemed like the sand was turning green as dormant seeds germinated and sprouted, a sight rarely encountered.
A little earlier I made reference to the fact that Masirah had a very healthy PSI fund. This was mostly due to the bountiful seas around the island that produced a seemingly endless supply of Crayfish Tails and Barracuda Steaks. The Crayfish were in especially big demand by all messes from Khormaksar to Muharraq with empty igloo boxes arriving on the majority of inbound Argosy and Beverley flights that were filled and chilled for return the next day. Sometimes a load went even further and the Vulcan I mentioned had huge load of Crayfish in the bomb bay pannier on departure. There were a couple of locals full-time on the PSI payroll who worked in the Airmen’s Mess doing nothing else but preparing Crayfish Tails and carving Barracuda Steaks, though it was the Crayfish that were the principle attraction. The mark-up for our PSI was an outrageous 100% but the orders just kept rolling in.
In what seemed no time at all I was due my mid-tour UK leave and shipped out of Masirah on a Beverley routing to Muharraq through the old Muscat airport, Bait-el-Falaj. This was another sand strip, the sides clearly marked with white painted 3” metal rocket boxes (real high-tech stuff) and there was a concrete ‘Thump-Down Pad’ at each end. Approach was a gentle let-down over the sea the aircraft being guided in towards the airfield by a couple of white crosses painted on the cliffs (so I was told) indicating the point at which to enter a slightly curving Wadi flying below the level of the high ground at each side (seemingly pretty close at that), before thumping down firmly onto the concrete pad and immediately engaging reverse, rumbling down the runway in a cloud of dust and sand then trundling onto the small ramp to drop off and collect some pax and a little cargo, then soon on our way again. Muharraq to UK was on an RAF Britannia as was the return a few weeks later and from Muharraq the pleasure of another Beverley ride back to Masirah (direct this time).
My tour was already now past the halfway mark and while I was certainly looking forward to my return home, there was little doubt I had adjusted well to Masirah and like most found the experience rewarding in many ways; we were always occupied with something or another and the esprit de corps first rate. Many of us also found ourselves faced with situations that required judgment and action that normally would be the prerogative of higher ranking personnel. Masirah provided many with the opportunity to ‘grow’ and gain experience that would not normally be afforded to lower ranks.
The remainder of my time seemed to pass in no time at all. I was able to earn a little extra pocket money a few afternoons a week on the site where the Diplomatic Wireless Service was setting up a replacement installation for the one on Perim Island at the mouth of the Red Sea. Like almost everybody, I found afternoon ‘bashes’ on foot to various beaches another enjoyable escapade and short cuts across the runway were OK (in the absence of a siren simply look right and left before crossing) also not forgetting an occasional afternoon at the sailing club (they had a bar!) with a transport schedule to and from the domestic site. Of course, no tour at Masirah would have been complete without at least one evening ‘Turtle Watching’ expedition and most made several excursions to watch the phenomenon of those great lumbering creatures making their way up the beach, digging a nest and laying a huge clutch of eggs before covering them up and returning to the water. I had a few more trips to Salalah and also things were ramping up for the final withdrawal from Aden, all additional interest and a little more activity on the aircraft movements side. In between I found sufficient time to ‘gen-up’ for and take my next promotion exam.
There were other changes to be witnessed firsthand, one being the withdrawal of the Beverley from service, with Andovers, along with C-130s gradually being introduced on support flights into Masirah, it was the end of an era! I always considered the Beverley to be such a solid reliable machine however slow and was told that when withdrawn there were 98 items of army equipment that were no longer considered ‘air transportable’ (Siege Towers and the like?), this I was lead to believe was largely due to the C-130 having a mere 9” less in cabin height. Furthermore, the Beverleys simply amazing field performance and ability to operate into the most rudimentary of landing strips was legend. I was both distressed and more than a little angry when quite some years later I learnt the sad fate of the one example entrusted to the RAF museum at Hendon, a miserable disgrace if ever there was one.
Tour-ex was soon upon me and I headed home during December 1967 in time for Christmas. My journey home this time was by an 84 Squadron Andover to Muharraq via Salalah and thence to UK in a Transglobe Airways Britannia. My tour passed in simply no time at all, was interesting, unforgettable and great fun; never a dull moment!
This website is essentially dedicated to a simply outstanding aircraft, the Hawker Hunter, and in particular those engaged in the Radfan theatre. In reality I was only on the very periphery of all this and the Hunters I handled during my time at Masirah were simple transit stops and placed little demand on the armament staff. This aircraft was however an aircraft with one of the most innovative weapons installations ever, the Hunter Gun Pack. The design concept was nothing short of brilliant and with capable teams turnaround times including rearming with four 30mm Aden Cannons could be reduced to absolute minimum. The Aden gun itself was a solid design that was capable of operating with extremely low stoppage rates. As an aircraft it has proved itself time after time and it’s interesting to note that only recently (2008 I believe) the Lebanese Air Force recovered some of its stored aircraft and returned them to service. It is a tribute to the designers and manufacturers that even today airworthy examples of the type remain and frequently take to the air. Reading some of the anecdotes by pilots leads one to an additional conclusion, that being the circumstances of the time certainly placed high demand on the talents of pilots who were often operating in circumstances and out of landing strips that would simply be totally out of the question in this day and age. The whole mood of the day was ‘There is a job to be done – Let’s DO IT)’. Those were the days!”