The author is indebted to Group Captain Nigel Walpole for allowing him to use extracts from his excellent book ‘Best of Breed’ in this website. Should you wish to purchase a copy, the Bibliography page contains details of the publisher and ordering particulars.
Following on from tours flying Hunters and Swifts in Germany and an exchange posting to South Carolina where he flew the Voodoo, Nigel had an ideal background for a tour in Aden. In October 1963 he was appointed to the air offensive staff in HQ MEC, where the famous WW2 ace AVM ‘Johnnie’ Johnson had just taken over as AOC.
“I would work in my office from 07:00 to 13:00 hours, normally the end of the working day, and then go to Khormaksar to talk to, or fly with, any of the four Hunter units, thereby acquainting myself with their operations and operating area. I recall only too well a flurry of activity in the HQ when a Russian-built ‘Crate’ transport aircraft infringed WAP airspace and the pair of Hunters on patrol for just such an exigency requested authority to fire warning shots in an attempt to persuade the pilot to land. Unfortunately, the only officers able to give this permission were not immediately available before the intruder retreated across the border, followed by the Hunters - and an international incident was only narrowly averted. In a similar incident on 2 December 1963, a Crate landed on the Allied airstrip at Lawdar, perhaps in error, and was prevented from taking off again by a British officer who, with great presence of mind, parked his Landrover immediately in front of the taxiing aircraft. The errant Crate was quickly flown back to Khormaksar by an RAF crew, escorted by 1417 Flight FR.10s.
Matters took a nasty turn on 10 December when a grenade was thrown at the High Commissioner as he and his entourage were walking across the pan on the civilian part of Khormaksar. His aide, George Henderson, promptly flung himself on to the grenade to take the full force of its detonation, an heroic act rewarded by a posthumous George Cross. This prompted increased vigilance and security measures; wire guards appeared on the windows of buses, military lorries and vulnerable buildings, the huge airbase thereafter patrolled by three RAF Regiment squadrons. The Officers’ Mess was among the attractive targets, and indeed in the final years a bomb was hidden below the floorboards of the dining room, set to detonate at breakfast time; fortunately it exploded without causing injury during the night. With such threats, one officer slept with a sidearm under his pillow, firing it at a nocturnal intruder before recognising him as an RAF policeman searching for a villain. This excessive prudence earned him a court martial.
The tranquil days of relative calm in Aden may now have been over but after acclimatising to the unfamiliar environment life was still good. With heat hovering consistently between 90-100º F and humidity at 80% by day and night for much of the summer season, air conditioning was highly desirable (but rarely provided) in working and living accommodation (I had only a fan in my bedroom). Much of the married accommodation was new, particularly the flats on the Ma’ala Strip, and officers’ wives had the help of Ayahs, often young Somali girls, who were given basic living quarters nearby. They would look after the domestic chores and any young children, allowing the British to take every advantage of the excellent sporting and social facilities in Aden. Many of the British servicemen (but not all) worked only in the mornings, spending the rest of the day on one of the beaches set aside for them, with every refreshment available and served at their whim. My log book shows that I flew on Christmas Day 1963 as No. 2 on the standby pair, with 43 Squadron flight commander Anthony Mumford in the lead. It was an uneventful trip but Anthony made sure that his wingman was properly debriefed on shortcomings in his performance before they joined the festivities -Aden fashion.
Then it began in earnest. A briefing on New Year’s Day 1964, heralded a major offensive in the Radfan area, some 35 nm north of Aden, an inhospitable, mountainous region, with peaks and plateaus towering to 7,000 ft traversed by deep wadis. It was home to a multitude of hostile tribes and ideal terrain for their hit and run tactics, the rebels hiding in numerous caves by day and striking by night over ground well known to them.
For some time Yemeni propaganda had been fermenting unrest among the local tribes and tension mounted when Egyptian-backed Yemeni intruders infiltrated across the nearby border. A counter-offensive was launched by the British-led but untried Federal Regular Army (FRA), the local Arab force which had replaced the Aden Protectorate Levies, but it had very limited success. The road from Aden to Dhala, close to the Yemen, then became all but unusable through mining and ambushes and at this point it was decided to commit British forces. I went to the O Group to ensure that the potential of Aden’s Hunter force in this context was fully understood, and that it would be employed productively. Events were to prove its contribution invaluable, a commitment shared between 8, 208 and 43 Squadrons and 1417 Flight, until 208 Squadron moved to Bahrain permanently, to bring to an end the turbulence of rotational detachments to the Gulf.
A brigade headquarters was set up at Thumier on the south-western edge of the Radfan to run Radforce (a combined FRA and British force), tasked with reopening the Dhala Road and securing the Radfan (much easier said than done); a small BASOC was included in the HQ to coordinate all offensive and air transport support. The strike force consisted of the FGA.9s and FR.10s (which also fulfilled all their recce responsibilities), and Shackletons which maintained a continuous presence with flares to illuminate targets during the hours of darkness. HQ MEC issued pre-planned tasks but the BASOC could call for immediate assistance, moving their FACs forward to direct fire and safeguard their own troops from the air strikes. The FACs were trained by British Army GLOs attached to Tactical Wing, and practised with the Hunter pilots they would control in earnest.
It was no surprise when Johnnie Johnson declared that he wanted to see action in the Radfan first hand. I went too, sitting in the doorway of a Belvedere helicopter with an automatic rifle on my lap to witness the effect of the Hunter’s 3-inch rockets and cannon against rebel positions and supply dumps discovered by FR.10s in well-concealed caves. As soon as the smoke had cleared, the FR.10s were there again to take post-strike photography. It was an awesome demonstration of the Hunters capabilities and only the braver dissidents risked giving away their precise positions by retaliating with largely ineffective small arms fire. That said, one bullet did find its mark in the backside of one of the helicopter pilots - without doing much harm.
Three particular actions in the Radfan illustrated the effectiveness of these joint operations involving the FR.10s. When an SAS patrol was ambushed and surrounded on 30 April 1964, Hunters carried out continuous recce and repeated attacks with rockets and cannon until nightfall, when the patrol was able to break out, albeit with the sad loss of two men. The Hunters were similarly helpful when a combined force of Royal Marine Commandos and Paras was tasked to seize ‘Cap Peak’, a high point which dominated the Wadi Taym and Danaba Basin. During the action some of the Paras became separated but with immediate assistance from the Hunters they regrouped and the objective was taken. In a third emergency, soldiers sent to assist the crew of an Army Air Corps (AAC) helicopter which had been shot down on the slopes of the Bakri Ridge, came under heavy fire and the Hunters again saved the day.
As in most of such actions in the region, operations were carried out in searing heat, immense convective clouds developing to cover high ground and blinding sand storms sometimes reducing visibility to almost nothing. Aircraft canopies became sand-blasted, seriously affecting the pilot’s vision and sand found its way into the Hunters systems. All this made flying very difficult, added to the groundcrews problems and made life on the ground generally most uncomfortable for all.
Coincidentally, trouble was brewing in East Africa. It was in the quiet hours of the New Year stand-down that the duty staff officer received a signal which he could not leave until morning, to the effect that British residents were being pulled from their houses in Nairobi and shot. This turned out to be a gross exaggeration, although one man did suffer a bullet wound in his foot. However, the signal was quite enough to galvanise the Paras in Aden, who were always spoiling for a fight; they were ready, willing and able to go to Kenya post-haste by Argosy and Beverley to deal with the problem, whatever it was, in their own inimitable way. As the confusion subsided and the situation was found to be less urgent they were stood down, but HMS Centaur embarked troops and Belvedere helicopters of No .26 Squadron and sailed for Dar Es Salaam on 20 January 1964. As back up, five FGA.9s and two FR.10s were brought to a high state of readiness to fly to Eastleigh in Kenya if required; they were not deployed but the crews were kept incommunicado on the airfield, much to the irritation of their wives.
With maps of the Radfan area so poor, 1417 Flight was often called on to find a target specified by soldiers in the field by name but without a precise grid reference, and then to produce nose oblique photographs of the attack direction to be used by the FGA.9 pilots. FR.10s were also on standby to update enemy movements and to give immediate support to ground forces in difficulty; this generated increasing confidence among Allied ground troops in the service provided by the flight and thus the number of demands made on it. Some of their requests were theoretically or practically beyond the FR.10’s capability. Peter Lewis remembers that the army called on him for complete cover, with all three cameras, of a nine nm Wadi at 200 ft, which would have required more than the total film carried by the Hunters and involve some risky flying. Undaunted, Peter calculated that much of the cover could be obtained from the alternative of a very fast run using the nose facing camera with its 12-inch lens. He flew the sortie between 13:00-14:00 hours to keep the shadows to a minimum, coping with the severe turbulence along the valley bottom with its steep sides towering 1,000 ft above, his thoroughbred Hunter surviving the high ‘G’ forces and a rifle shot through its fin. There were limits to what 1417 Flight could do, but they always did their utmost to satisfy.
On another exciting trip the fire warning light came on in Peter’s Hunter after he had returned fire with all four guns at a group of tribesmen, leaving him with an agonising choice of ejecting over hostile territory or hoping that the warning was spurious. With no other signs of fire he chose the latter, only to find that the aircraft’s desert survival pack had come loose and triggered the fire warning light test switch. It had indeed been a false alarm!
The Hunters were often involved in clandestine surveillance operations mounted by the SAS, and were once called to verify the position of a camel train thought to be resting on the border with the Yemen. Although certain that he was in the right place, Peter Lewis could not see his quarry, but then he heard an unannounced voice on a pre-arranged frequency say ‘They’re there’, and a closer look revealed tell-tale signs in the sand which led to the camels. These poor beasts of burden, with their cargos of what turned out to be explosives, were then dispatched to their maker with a two-second burst from the FR.10’s cannon. Years later, in a most unexpected sequel to this story Peter was recognised by the local postman in The Sailor’s Safety public house, West Wales, who told him that he was the man on the ground who had passed that curt message, ‘They’re there’.”
Nigel returned to the UK in February 1964 to take command of a squadron on the OCU at Chivenor, now better able to understand the requirements of the Hunter FGA and FR units in the Middle East.