RAF Khormaksar

Please note that AC-M Sir David Lee’s book Flight from the Middle East’ and Nigel Walpole’s ‘Best of Breed were used as references when compiling this page (see Bibliography).

Throughout 1967, HMG caused much confusion by not announcing a date for the final withdrawal of forces and the closure of RAF Khormaksar. Originally proposed for early 1968 it was brought forward to December and subsequently various dates in November 1967 were mooted. Right up until June, the British Government maintained that closure of the base would take place shortly after independence at the beginning of 1968. During that month, however, the C-in-C was informed that he should plan on 20 November as the final day, that that day would be referred to as ‘W’ Day and 28 days notice would be required if it needed to be changed. On 2 November, the date was changed to 30 November and again on the 14th of that month, when it was brought forward by twenty-four hours to 29 November.

The final days

A massive airlift

The operational requirement remained one of keeping the peace in the territory until the moment of departure and then to leave in good order. However, every contingency had to be taken into consideration including a fighting withdrawal in the face of terrorist opposition. The latter contingency was a real possibility, particularly if UN talks taking place in Geneva broke down at the last moment. It was essential, therefore, to maintain a strong and effective force until the end so that Khormaksar, which was the key to a successful withdrawal, could be securely held until the last man had flown out. For this purpose, two battalion groups were regarded as the minimum force needed. This force would hold a close ring around the airfield on W Day and be lifted out well before dark with air cover provided from a large Naval Task Force located out at sea, This would allow the last RAF Hunters to leave from a still secure airfield.

As the Suez Canal had remained closed since the six-days war in June, and as Aden port was virtually at a standstill through strikes and terrorist activity, any question of evacuating personnel by sea had been discarded earlier in the year. Everyone, with the exception of Royal Marine Commandos and some naval personnel would depart by air. An air lift, second in size only to the Berlin airlift of twenty years earlier, was therefore planned, starting at a leisurely pace and accelerating as W Day approached, with plenty of scope to speed it up if the situation deteriorated. RAF Muharraq was designed as the ‘hinge’ around which the main lift from Khormaksar to the United Kingdom would pivot, the leg from Khormaksar to Muharraq being flown by the medium range aircraft of Air Support Command augmented as necessary by the AFME force. That from Muharraq to the UK would be flown by the strategic transports of Air Support Command assisted by a few civil charter aircraft. Even though Nasser had given permission for aircraft carrying evacuees to overfly Egypt on the direct route from Aden to the UK and a few such flights were made, there was too much uncertainty about this route to depend upon it.

The main lift was concentrated into the seven days before W Day. An Air Support Command force comprising VC10s, Belfasts, Hercules and Britannias assembled at Muharraq, with three VC10s from British United Airways, a few days prior to ‘W’-7, and the small Movements Section at Muharraq was reinforced with Air Support Command staff to handle the onward flow to the UK. At this late stage, there were still approximately 3,700 people to be brought out of Aden and, with the transport force available, this left a good margin of capacity to accelerate the withdrawal. One rule which was introduced for the last few days was that all aircraft flying out of Khormaksar should have a good three engined ferry performance, including the ability to take off with one engine out of action, but without a load. This was to avoid having to leave an aircraft at Khormaksar which needed merely an engine change. For the Hercules, which had been in operational service for only a few weeks, this was the first significant task and its performance was watched with great interest. From the pilot’s point of view this was excellent, but much abuse was levelled at it by the passengers who found it noisy, uncomfortable and cold. This was no real criticism of the Hercules which was intended as an operational transport aircraft in the fullest sense, and was never intended to provide luxury transport for passengers who had perhaps become somewhat spoiled by the comforts of the VC10, Comet and Britannia. Although the number of flights per day out of Aden varied, it was generally of the order of four Britannias arriving from Muharraq, spending about forty minutes on the ground and each leaving with 110 passengers; seven Hercules flights followed the same pattern but carried both freight and passengers, and two Belfast flights carried freight only.

The passengers were grouped into ‘chalks’ comprising twenty-five men in each, normally drawn from the same regiment or unit. Each ‘chalk’ was fully documented before leaving Khormaksar and remained together right through Muharraq to Lyneham, which was the UK destination. The average stay at Muharraq was about three hours, during which the ‘chalk’ remained together, had a meal, bought last minute gifts and then continued by VC10 or Britannia. Each aircraft carried a specified number of' ‘chalks’, e.g., four per Britannia, and the whole procedure was as quick and efficient as it was possible to be. An example will help to illustrate this efficiency: a ‘chalk’ from the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders was on duty in Crater until 23:30 one night, when they were pulled back into Khormaksar after handing over to the South Arabian Army (SAA). After documentation they were flown to Muharraq in the early hours of the morning by Britannia where, after a three-hour pause, they continued on by VC10 to reach Lyneham a bare twenty-four hours after coming off duty in Crater. Not a detail was overlooked even to the extent of a British Rail timetable of the trains from Swindon being included in their final briefing.

The lift proceeded smoothly. Very little unserviceability was experienced and, as the weather over the whole of the Arabian Peninsula was generally good, there were no diversions to interrupt the plan. The final two days were the tactical phase of the withdrawal and potentially the most dangerous as the thinning out of defences had by now reached an advanced stage. On ‘W’-1, 1,000 servicemen with about 350 civilians were moved out using some twenty aircraft. This left 875 to be flown out on ‘W’ Day itself with nearly as many more Royal Marines to be ferried out by naval helicopters to the waiting ships of the Task Force. Turn around times at Khormaksar were reduced to thirty minutes, each aircraft keeping one engine running throughout to provide the electrical services and arrivals at Muharraq were speeded up to one every half hour to ensure that darkness on ‘W’ Day did not catch anybody still on the ground at Khormaksar. Two reserve Hercules circled the airfield during the final phase in case unforeseen unserviceability necessitated a quick rescue operation. None of these elaborate precautions was needed and the lift was completed as planned, using in addition to AFME’s own transport force, three RAF VC10s, three BUA VC10s, fourteen Britannias, fifteen Hercules and two Belfasts of Air Support Command.

Last days in Aden

As the airlift rapidly reduced the forces remaining in Aden from mid-November, a number of operational commitments were either handed over or discontinued. Air defence patrols along the Yemen border were maintained by 43 Squadron until 7 November by which date HMS Eagle had joined the Task Force assembling for the final phase of departure. Sea Vixen FAW.2s and Buccaneer S.2s from Eagle took over the protective task from the Hunters and the ship’s radar provided the necessary early warning cover, allowing 303 Signals Unit to dismantle and ship its radar out to Bahrain. At the request of the SAA the last Hunter ground attack sorties were flown on 9 November against dissidents in the Kirsah area bringing an end four years of operational service by 43 Squadron at Khormaksar. It had come from Cyprus to help out 8 and 208 Squadrons in an emergency and had never returned.

No. 43 Squadron disbanded officially at Khormaksar on 14 October, 1967, but some of its FGA.9s and their pilots remained in situ with two 8 Squadron FR.10s until the final evacuation in November. With tensions remaining high throughout the area, there were many tasks to keep the Hunters, and naval aircraft flying from carriers offshore, heavily committed. Flt Lts Derek Whitman and David Bagshaw attended the formal disbandment celebrations and festivities which followed, as did Sqn Ldr Fred Trowern and his A Flight Commander Flt Lt Mike Webb, who had flown down from the Gulf in an FGA.9 and an FR.10 to see how things were going. Typical missions now comprised an FR.10 and two Buccaneers. The Buccaneer had the advantage of two pairs of eyes, the pilot to concentrate on the flying while the observer in the back looked after the visual sightings and reporting. Occasionally the trio would land at Khormaksar, but living conditions were becoming increasingly difficult there and the RAF pilots welcomed invitations to go aboard HMS Eagle (by liberty boat) to sample some of the Navy’s legendary hospitality. The two FR.10s flew 84 hours during their last month in Aden, keeping an eye on the movements of friend and foe in the Kirsah, Mukeiras, Beihan, Ataq and Dhala areas, while providing air defence cover for the final withdrawal of British forces.

The only ‘ceremonial’ connected with independence took place on 28 November (‘W’-1). Sir Humphrey Trevelyan, who had vacated Government House and spent the previous night aboard HMS Eagle, flew in from the ship during the morning and, accompanied by the Commander-in-Chief, Admiral Sir Michael Le Fanu, inspected a Joint Services Guard of Honour, in which the Royal Air Force was represented by the RAF Regiment. A solitary verse of the National Anthem coincided with a fly-by of eight FGA.9s and the two FR.10s in their farewell salute as they left for Muharraq – forty-eight years after the RAF first came to the colony. These aircraft were then to fly on to their new homes, with any left unserviceable pushed into the sea. As Sir Humphrey stood on the steps of the RAF Britannia assigned to take him to England, the Royal Marine Band from Eagle struck up - not Auld Lang Syne but Fings Ain’t Wot They Used To Be. It was hardly traditional but its appropriateness was not lost on those who heard it. As the High Commissioner departed, the Joint Headquarters on the airfield closed down, bringing to an end Middle East Command which had existed first in the Mediterranean and then in Aden, for as long as most servicemen could remember. Derek Whitman and Dave Bagshaw escorted Sir Humphrey’s Britannia out of the area, before flying their FR.10s on to join 8 Squadron on APC at Sharjah.

At the same time 45 Commando was flown out by helicopter to the waiting Task Force after no less than seven years continuous service in Aden. In fact this unit had spent twenty-one of the previous twenty-six years overseas, most of them in the Middle East. Its departure left only 42 Commando, commanded by Lt-Col ‘Dai’ Morgan, in control of airfield security assisted by armed Wessex helicopters patrolling overhead. Four senior officers, including Air Cdre Sowrey, took their leave of a few officers of the South Arabian Army, headed by their Commander, who had come to see them off, and boarded the last transport aircraft to leave for the UK.

The final scene took place on what had been the 12th green of the Khormaksar Golf Club when, at 14:50 hours, the last 120 men of 42 Commando were withdrawn from seven defensive positions and flown by helicopter to HMS Albion. Maj-Gen Tower, the GOC, then followed and the last to leave Aden was Lt-Col Morgan who formally handed over command to Rear Admiral Ashmore in the Naval Task Force. The ships remained in territorial waters for a further nine hours, until midnight, when South Arabia became officially independent. Perhaps the RAF had the last word: two large ships’ buoys, painted with red, white and blue roundels were left high up on the barren rocks as a farewell helicopter-borne memento.

A moment of reflection

The 29 November 1967, brought to an end 128 years of British rule in Aden and for the Royal Air Force, forty-eight years of occupation of Khormaksar and Steamer Point. The final departure from most overseas stations, which became a fairly frequent occurrence for British servicemen between 1950 and 1970, was usually accompanied by many regrets and a certain nostalgia. It is doubtful whether any soldier or airman regretted leaving Aden. An uncomfortable and exhausting place at the best of times, the last few years had been grim, dangerous, frustrating and almost intolerably restricted. Having said that, however, it is impossible to ignore the sense of satisfaction which many, indeed most servicemen obtained from having carried out a tour of duty there. It was the satisfaction which comes from completing a hard and challenging task, something to be talked about, an experience to be recounted, often with much exaggeration and boring detail. There is no doubt that service in Aden gave immense experience and a certain maturity to the men and women of the Royal Air Force. The conditions under which they had to work tested their skill and initiative, and often called for considerable feats of improvisation. Aircraft and equipment of all kinds were subjected to the most rigorous stresses and strains which quickly found weaknesses and flaws in design and construction. The loss of Aden was, therefore, the loss to the RAF of a unique testing ground for both men and materials and, to that extent, it was a cause for regret.

However regrettable the grim story of the last years in Aden may be, the one redeeming feature which will always stand out, was the steadfast courage, efficiency and remarkable restraint of the British serviceman whether sailor, soldier or airman. He was abused and provoked, ambushed and sniped at by a ruthless and often unseen enemy. He was not above criticism from his own countrymen who had no conception of the conditions under which he had to live, work and fight. The final withdrawal without a shot fired or a life lost must rank as one of the best planned and executed operations in British military history.