Middle East Command

The Middle East Command, which also controls all the British Forces in the Arabian Peninsula and RAF units in East Africa, is a vital part of the defence and security system in the Middle East sphere of influence, an enormously large area extending from Libya to India, from the Caspian Sea to Madagascar. It has assumed even greater importance in post-war years owing, with the march of political events, to the closing to British military aircraft of such places as the Canal Zone – until 1954 the HQ of the Middle East Air Force – Egypt and Israel.

One of the main tasks of the Aden Command is the preservation of internal security in the Protectorate and its protection against outside aggression, and its area of responsibility in the peninsula includes the Persian Gulf oil lands, which yield one-fifth of the world’s oil.

The policing of the Aden Protectorate by aeroplane goes back to the years of the First World War, when the Henry Farman flight, using biplanes, was formed in 1917 for reconnaissance to help ground forces to repel the Turks advancing into the Protectorate and towards the Colony from the Yemen.

Flying Doctors

The authorities were quick to recognise the importance of the aeroplane for administrative and security purposes in a country where surface transport was exceedingly slow and, at times, impossible. So, in 1928, the Aden Flight was replaced by No. 8 Squadron, which had seen much experience in Iraq. Two airfields were initially maintained in the Protectorate – at Riyan, east of Mukalla, now a full RAF station with refuelling facilities, and on the island of Socotra, this being given up at the end of the Second World War. By 1934 the Government of Aden was relying more and more upon the RAF and there were thirty-odd landing strips throughout the Protectorates.

The RAF soon found itself acting as a “Flying Doctor” service, bringing medical assistance to remote areas and flying to hospital in Aden Colony sick or wounded people whose condition was too complicated to be within the scope of the Health Assistants – indeed, for many years the only medical help available to the people of the Protectorates was from the RAF Medical Officers, who never refused any call for help.

During the Second World War, a separate Aden Protectorate Support Flight was formed to take on responsibility for the interior, since the same types of planes could not be used for both duties concerned with the Protectorate commitments and the offensive techniques of modern warfare. By 1953 this separate flight was fully equipped with Austers and Ansons, the Ansons later to be replaced by Pembrokes, which were found to be more suitable for the loose gravel surface of some of the landing-strips as well as being able to carry far heavier loads. Many of the air-strips in use during the war were later abandoned, being unsuitable for modern aircraft. In the first part of the war, a Communications Flight was established at Khormaksar to maintain the route between Aden and the Persian Gulf. By 1949 its obsolete Wellingtons were replaced by Dakotas. The increasing importance of Aden as a strategic air centre led to the Communications Flight being changed, in 1950, to a squadron. This used Valettas, and in the succeeding years scheduled flights were established to Khartoum, Fayid, and Nairobi.

There is a small RAF garrison on Masirah Island, the staging post which terminates the south Arabian coastal route, nearly a thousand miles from Aden. It is a very lonely spot, to which bulk stores are brought once a year by sea and where fresh water is obtained with a distilling plant.

Support for ground forces

Scheduled flights fulfil only part of the communications squadron’s duties of providing air transport and maintaining communications for the Aden formation. These include, when required, support for operations in the hinterland, and constant aggression from the Yemen in post-war years has meant a great deal of work in supporting the Aden Protectorate Levies, Federal Guards and other ground forces. In fact, this is the means by which the Government and Middle East Command are able to fulfil their obligations to the various rulers in the East and West Protectorates – helping them to maintain security and freedom from aggression.

With the laying down of new and permanent landing strips, the supplying and victualling of the security ground forces is now done entirely by air in the hinterland, with considerable saving in time, money and manpower. This state of affairs was brought about initially by the sultans and rulers applying to the Government for help to put down outlaw activity in their lands and on the caravan routes. The RAF appointed the Communications Squadron and Aden Protectorate Levies jointly to carry out the task. The plan was to set up police posts in the areas affected, to be run for a time by the Levies and later handed over to the local tribal guards. Airstrips were to be established within easy reach of a group of posts, so that planes could land supplies direct from Aden.

Useless maps

The Senior Intelligence Officer from the HQ at Aden was assigned to selecting suitable strips, and found there were two great problems to overcome – the mountainous country which made all flying extremely hazardous, and the inaccuracy of the maps available for these remote areas, sometimes as much as 60 miles out on a so-called “pin-point”. However, crews drew their own maps in the course of the early trips, and gradually the existing charts were amended.

The final mapping by air of the Aden area, Colony and Protectorates, about 112,000 sq. miles, was completed by the beginning of 1958, Valiants and Canberras of RAF Bomber Command co-operating with Canberras of the Middle East Air Force in the aerial photography work. No ground aids were available, photography began from the coast, proceeding inland on parallel courses. Existing maps were used as basic references to further parallel course in the unmapped interior. Extremely accurate flying was required to make certain that no gaps existed between the parallel lines of photographs. The completion of this mapping brought up to date previous maps dating as far back as the end of the nineteenth century.

In 1958 the Royal Rhodesian Air Force sent a Vampire fighter and ground attack squadron to train at Aden with the units of the Arabian Peninsular Command, the squadron, No. 1 of the RRAF, coming temporarily under the Command. This inaugurated a scheme for the annual training of Rhodesian air units with Aden forces as a contribution to Commonwealth defence.

In the previous year, 1957, tribesmen of the Protectorates had been astonished and awed by the sight of Blackburn Beverley four-engined freighters, of the RAF Transport Command, flying over the peninsula. Two Beverleys were sent out to the Aden Command, and proved very useful having no difficulty in using the small landing grounds at Dhala and Beihan, and being able to carry heavy equipment and stores, including such things as field guns, scout cars, a helicopter, air-sea rescue launch, a bulldozer, and drilling equipment for well boring, to the garrisons. They are now familiar throughout the Command, a squadron being based at Aden.

Growing importance

In October, 1957, Air Vice-Marshal M.L. Heath came to Aden as Air Officer Commanding, later becoming Commander, British Forces, Arabian Peninsula, when the Aden formation, formerly subordinate to HQ Middle East Air Force, was granted autonomy, in April 1958. In 1959 a unified command of the Arabian theatre, embracing all three services, was made and Air Chief Marshal Sir Hubert Patch, who succeeded Heath, was the first Commander-in-Chief of the British Forces Arabian Peninsula. Early this year the title of the command was changed to Middle East (Aden) Command. It is unique in that it is the first peace-time unified command, with all three services controlled operationally, and to a certain extent administratively, by an inter-service Headquarters.

The present Commander-in-Chief is an RAF officer – Air Marshal S.C. Elworthy, CB, CBE, DSO, MVO, DFC, AFC, MA.