SAC Ray Deacon

After passing out as a Boy Entrant ‘Brat’ from Cosford, SAC Ray Deacon’s first 2½ years in the mans’ service was spent working on Vampire T.11s with the Central Flying School at RAF Little Rissington. In January 1962, the fast jet squadrons at CFS, Vampire, Meteor and Canberra, moved on a six-month detachment to nearby RAF Kemble while heavy maintenance work was carried out on the Rissington main runway. Shortly after the move and while watching a pair of CFS Hunters take off, Ray was called into the ‘Chiefy’s’ office and, having been on PWRs for some months, had an inkling of what was coming.

Chiefy informed me that my overseas posting had come through and, yes, it was the dreaded ADEN! My heart sank. Having listened to countless horror stories from airmen who had experienced the place, the prospect of two-years on a desert posting filled me with dread. Being a red-head who could not spend more than fifteen minutes under a British summer sun without burning to a frazzle, how on earth would I survive in that heat. No point in dwelling on it I thought, just make the most of my final few months at Rissy”.

To Aden by HM ‘cruise ship’

To add insult to injury I would not be flying out as most people did, but I was to join an ‘elite’ group of thirty or so other airmen on HM Troopship Nevasa on her last round-trip to the Far East. On around 10 April 1962, we slipped away from Southampton Docks to began our cruise through the Med. and Suez Canal, and on to Aden. Routing via Malta and Port Said, the voyage took ten days and as this tally was deducted from the 730-day tour duration, going by sea did have one blessing. Having bypassed Gibraltar we docked in Valetta around mid-afternoon and were given an eight-hour pass with which to savour the delights of the island’s capitol. Needless to say, most of the time after dark was spent in The Gut! All too soon it seemed, we were on our way and heading for the next stop, Port Said. Security issues prevented us leaving the ship here but the locals, never to miss an opportunity, came alongside in an armada of bum-boats selling their merchandise on bits of rope thrown up to occupants leaning out of the ship’s portholes. Their technique was to use a doubled piece of rope with a bag at the top end and the goods at the bottom; once a some of money was agreed and had been placed in the bag at the top, the goods were attached to the bottom - as the money came down the goods went up.

The following morning found us and several merchant vessels scattered at anchor around the still waters of the Bitter Lakes, part way down the Suez Canal, awaiting the passing of a northbound convey. Egyptian Air Force Mig fighters occasionally buzzed us, flying low and at high speed across the mirror-like surface. Some seventeen hours passed before the engines were restarted, the anchor raised, and we resumed our crawl down the narrow waterway. Over on the east bank, Arab labourers working on widening of the canal, shouted and waved their arms gestures of an obscene nature. In response, a concerted deluge of foul language blasted back across the water and the exchange continued for some time until a number of Arabs decided to lift their clothing, exposing themselves to everyone aligning the side of the ship. Throughout the voyage we were entertained by a constant stream of indecipherable messages and instructions bellowed from the ship’s tannoy in true regimental fashion, by an army Ser’nt Major. On seeing what was going on, he blasted out the command ‘all officers, their wives and families move to the starboard side of the ship immediately and remain there until further notice’, leaving the lower ranks to continue their exchange with the locals. Apart from the accompaniment of a shoal of porpoises leading us down through a clear blue Red Sea and passing Nevasa’s sister-ship, HMT Oxfordshire, heading in the opposite direction, the rest of the journey was uneventful.

Built in 1953, HMT Nevasa seen here at rest in Aden Harbour seven years later (Roy Hollow)

Crowded bum-boats in Port Said harbour ply their goods with passengers and crews of passing ships (author)

The Pilot boat rounds HMT Nevasa as it prepares to lead our convey through the Suez Canal (author)

Slow ahead down the Canal with members of HM forces firing abuse at arab construction workers on the east bank (author)

Some of the ships accompanying the Nevasa at anchor in the hazy calm of the Bitter Lakes (author)

Out ... at last! The customs post located at the southerly exit from the Suez Canal (author)

Sister-ship HMT Oxfordshire as seen from the Nevasa as they pass in opposite directions in the Red Sea (author)

Sun, sand, heat and flies!!!

On disembarkation at Steamer Point, those destined for Khormaksar were taken by RAF transport to the airfield and assigned transit accommodation to await unit allocations. Assigned to No. 8 Squadron, I moved into the aptly named Hunter block, one of three newly constructed and comprising four-man, air-conditioned rooms. With hindsight I need not have worried about the sun or the heat as, after an initial month or so of discomfort and gradual loss of my ‘moonie’ image, I got used to it. ‘Don’t forget to take your salt tablets’, was the regular advice but having discarded my lunch over the sand outside the mess after the first couple of pills, I gave them up as a bad job. Perhaps the most difficult aspects of getting used to life in South Arabia were the flies and being in a constant sweat, continually mopping one’s face, arms and hands with the ever present sweat-towel.

My whole tour in Aden was spent on 8 Squadron, a Hunter ground attack unit based at RAF Khormaksar. Located at the eastern extremity of the airfield right next to the civilian airport, the squadron operated fourteen Mark 9 Hunters for fighter/ground attack, four Mark 10s for fighter/photo-reconnaissance and a couple of two-seat Mark 7 trainers. The other end of the pan was allocated to second Hunter squadron, number 208, equipped with twelve Mark 9s and a solitary trainer. Tasked with supporting the multifarious British and Arab Army units policing, not only in the Aden Protectorate, but the whole Middle East Command area, from Kenya 1,000 miles to the south to Bahrain Island, some 1,300 miles to the north, a heavy responsibility was shared by the two Hunter units.

Gulf crisis

Tranquillity in the region was a rare phenomenon! At the time of my arrival in April 1962, there was relative calm in the Command area, much of the flying activity being devoted to training and familiarisation of new pilots in the operational arena. Back in the previous July, however, things could hardly have been different. As General Kassim of Iraq aligned his forces along the borders of Kuwait in readiness for invasion and capture of the lucrative oilfields, the British Government ordered 8 Squadron to fly up to Kuwait and prepare to defend the tiny kingdom from Iraqi attack. Number 208 Squadron, which was stationed at RAF Eastleigh in Kenya at the time, was ordered up to Bahrain, some 250 miles from Kuwait, to support 8 Squadron should an attack occur. A number of Canberra units were dispatched to bases on Cyprus and RAF Sharjah from European bases and a third Hunter squadron, number 43, moved from Leuchars to Cyprus, leaving the errant General in no doubt as to the British intent should he dare cross the border. In addition, troop numbers in the Gulf area were rapidly increased with deployments from Europe and other Middle East bases. In the event, the General backed down and the situation soon returned to normal – well as normal as normal is for the area. 

Concerned that a total withdrawal of British forces from the Gulf might tempt Iraq into making a quick strike, the decision was taken to maintain a squadron of Hunters at Bahrain on permanent standby together with a pair of 13 Squadron photo reconnaissance Canberra PR.9s from Cyprus. The former was achieved by rotating a detachment of 8 and 208 Squadron aircraft from Khormaksar to Bahrain on a two-monthly basis and this was standard routine by the time I arrived. Every other month Hunters from one of the squadrons would depart Khormaksar, the ground crews flying up in a Beverley, Argosy, or even a Britannia if one happened to be passing through, for its two-month stint at Bahrain, passing the returning squadron on the way up. Although blessed with permanent sunny skies, the climate in the Gulf was quite different to that in Aden, being much hotter and humid in the summer yet cool enough to warrant a change into standard working blue (uniform) in winter. During these eight-week detachments, the opportunity was taken for the squadrons to spend two weeks down at Sharjah on the air-to-ground range at Jeb-a-Jib.

Life on the line

When I arrived, because of the intense heat of the afternoon, the normal working day at Khormaksar was from 07:00 to 13:00 followed by lunch and a two-hour siesta. This routine could change at any moment, and often did so when Hunter support was called for from up-country Army units. Assigned to the aircraft line as one of a handful of Air Wireless Mechanics, my job was to ensure that the radio equipment on each Hunter was in good working order before, between and after each sortie. Inspecting the aerials required a challenging technique in order to clamber onto the wing and it did not take a newcomer long to master if blistering of the knees on a hot drop tank was to be avoided. The knack was to stand back some ten paces from the front of the wing then run at it and in an instant, bounce one knee on the drop tank while hauling oneself up and onto the wing using one hand on the saw-tooth leading edge. Everyone developed their own technique and a mistimed leap made for good spectator sport as the body ended up in a crumpled, painful heap. In a Bahraini summer, the metal surfaces were so hot that it was possible to fry an egg on a Hunter wing; one intrepid pilot taking twenty minutes to prove the point.

One of the hardest jobs as a radio mechanic was working out on the pan in the cramped space of the radio bay in which temperatures could reach 140 ºF. It was so small that you could not turn or twist your body once inside. Changing one of the two 30 lb VHF sets was not so much of a problem as they could be lowered on your shoulder as you lowered yourself down and out of the bay, but it was a different story after these were superseded with a single, much larger, 56 lb Collins ARC52 UHF unit. Changing one of those was a real struggle, the sweat literally pouring down but it no doubt contributed to our general fitness.

The radio/radar guys may have had it somewhat easier than some trades; the armourers, engines and airframes guys in particular, as their jobs demanded spending much longer in physical contact with the aircraft than us. The energy and enthusiasm of the armourers in particular deserves a special mention, for it was their job to change gunpacks and load rockets with great gusto when under operational conditions and when on air-to-ground range practice. Working in teams, each would try to beat the ‘record’ for changing a gunpack which, if I recall correctly, was a little over eight minutes. I thought I would try and help once and found lowering the empty pack onto the trolley quite easy but winching a fully armed pack back up to the locking points was a different ball game. Nearing the top, arms aching, I ran out of energy and received a volume of verbal stick for stopping, forcing the armourers to await my recovery.

Flight safety

From the first day of training, the importance of flight safety is drummed into every airman. On front line squadrons where aircraft were regularly armed with live weapons, additional precautions were necessary. The start-up procedure on a Hunter was straightforward enough but an alert mind and an awareness of what was going on around you was essential. One airman was assigned to each Hunter and he would check the area round his aircraft for clearance of ground equipment and that a ladder was attached to the aircraft as the pilot proceeded with his external pre-flight checks. With the pilot seated in the cockpit, the airman aligned the parachute and ejector seat straps over the pilot’s shoulders and, when requested, handed him his helmet and bone-dome, before plugging the radio connector in to its socket. Finally, and again upon request, the ejector seat safety pin was removed, shown to the pilot, and stowed it in a pocket in the side of the seat. On climbing down, the ladder was removed and positioned in a safe place on the pan. A short wait then ensued as the pilot carried out his internal pre-flight checks.

Once ready to start, the pilot gave a quick twirl of his forefinger and, having checked that everything was clear behind, the airman reciprocated. On the press of the start button the automated engine start sequence began. The highly volatile AVPIN fuel used to start the FGA.9 and FR.10 habitually ignited the acrid exhaust gases as they exited from a duct under the fuselage and, as this had been the cause of several starter bay fires, the door was left open until the starting cycle finished. An asbestos glove was used by the airman to pat out any flames issuing from the duct. The door was then closed and the airman stood ready to remove the nosewheel chock before walking to a suitable point to marshal the aircraft out.

A ‘phantom’ on the trigger!

Sometime during the early period of Hunter operations in Aden, the canon on an armed Hunter parked on the pan fired off several rounds across the Khormaksar runway, hitting the wall of the FRA barracks on the opposite side of the airfield. Fortunately, there were no aircraft taking off or landing at the time and no one was hurt in the barracks, but the outcome could have had more serious implications. Reality soon dawned that no one was working on or near the aircraft at the time. A hasty investigation discovered that the excessive temperatures had caused a short in the gun firing circuit. A microswitch, located in the port undercarriage bay, broke the circuit between the invertors supplying power to the gun firing circuit when the undercarriage was down so the guns should not have been able to fire. As double insurance, a modification was introduced whereby a safety plug was inserted into the same gun firing circuit; it was known as the Master Armament Safety Break (MASB). Access to the plug was via a small panel under the port wing directly behind the engine air intake. It became the responsibility of an assigned armourer to stand by the peri-track and disconnect MASBs on aircraft as they taxied in and connect them, again on the peri-track, as they taxied out. An order was also issued that armed Hunters must be identified by the placing of a red-painted ammunition box in front of the nose, attached via a rope to the top of the nosewheel door, and personnel were prohibited from walking in front of armed aircraft.

Despite all the precautions, accidents still occurred and on one occasion a Sergeant armourer, who was walking behind the line of Hunters deep in thought, stepped directly into the jet blast of an aircraft about to taxi out. The force flung him across the pan, which in itself did not cause injury, but the side of his face quickly reddened and blistered. He was rushed to sick quarters for treatment and on return to work a few days later, the ‘toasted’ half of his face was jet black, earning him the nickname of ‘black and white’ minstrel, after the popular TV of the time.

Time to relax …..

After an afternoon’s kip and with the heat of the day relenting, it was off to Steamer Point to haggle with shopkeepers in The Crescent, take a dip in the pool or one of the shark-net protected beaches, or a game of tennis, football or rugby for the more energetic, before winding down with a can or more of ‘Slops’ (Allsops lager) in the Camel Club.

….. but not for long

All that changed in September 1962 when, following repeated strafing attacks on villages close to the Yemen border by Yemeni Air Force Mig-15s, the decision was taken for the Hunter squadrons to fly dawn to dusk patrols along the border as a deterrent. With the quieter times confined to history and with one of the two Hunter squadrons up in Bahrain, it was left to the squadron at Khormaksar to maintain the border vigil. Pilots and ground crews were split into shifts, one shift starting at 06:00 and finishing at 13:00 with the second overlapping from 12:00 to 19:00. With the new routine two Hunters took off at dawn and flew north-east up the coast towards the Yemen then turn west to begin their lengthy patrol along the mountainous, indistinct border before returning to Khormaksar from the north-west. Further pairs would take off at hourly intervals, thus ensuring that there was at least one pair in the vicinity of the border at all times. Fully armed and equipped with long-range, 250-gallon underwing fuel tanks, a round trip would take approximately 1½ hours. Additional Hunters were maintained on armed standby, ready for dispatch at a moments notice to support Army units operating up country. Needless to say, there was no time to get bored!

Pressure on both air and ground crews during this period was intense, the high workload taking its toll on both man and machine. Aircraft unserviceability became critical for a while and with only half the number of pilots and airmen on site at any one time, relief appeared with the detachment of eight Hunters from the UK, number 1 squadron arriving at Khormaksar in late October 1962. A new work pattern evolved whereby 8 Squadron started work at midday, continuing through to dusk on day 1, and from 06:00 the following morning until 13:00 on day 2. Number 1 Squadron started work at midday on day 2 and became the operational squadron for the next 24 hours. And thus it continued, alternating day by day. The system worked very well but after a month in the desert and its crews’ tans suitably honed, 1 Squadron departed for home leaving 8 Squadron to revert to the split shift system. In January 1963, 54 Squadron brought its Hunters out to Aden for a month’s detachment, bringing short term relief for 208 Squadron, number 8 having moved up to Bahrain on its two-month detachment. It was not until March that a solution evolved – the permanent transfer of 43 Squadron’s Hunters from Nicosia, Cyprus, to Khormaksar. Once the squadron had settled in, bi-monthly detachments to Bahrain occurred every four months instead of two.

Head for heights

Up in Bahrain, the NAAFI was the hub of an airman’s social life and many an evening was spent sipping (canned) Tiger beer. On one particular detachment in December 1963, the Khormaksar (8 Sqn) and Cyprus (13 Sqn) contingents held a joint Xmas Eve party by the end of which everyone was two-sheets-to-the-wind. Having decided to awaken the sleepy camp we staggered round the billeted area giving our rendition of raunchy songs and carols and on reaching the station’s 50-foot high water tower one bright spark suggested we climb it to continue our serenade from the top. So off we went one by one up the ladder. Within a few minutes a couple of snoops (military policemen) appeared below demanding we come down or face the consequences. A few choice words had the desired effect and they soon disappeared out of site. On walking by the tower a day or so later, it dawned on us how lucky we were that no one had fallen off the three-foot wide ledge encircling it – there were no safety rails.

A quick dash around the Protectorate

On 14 February 1964, I achieved my dream of flying in a Hunter T.7. With two months of my two-year tour remaining and not a single airman having experienced a flight in a T.7 during my time in Aden, SAC ‘Taff’ John and I took advantage of a unit bash to ask our Squadron Commander, Sqn Ldr Tam Syme, if it would be possible for airmen to experience a trip in a T.7. He said he saw no reason why not and that he would bear it in mind. Not long after, a policy of offering airmen a flight in the right-hand seat, two months before tourex, was implemented - thank you Tam, we very much appreciated it.

In January 1964, ‘Taff’ became the first 8 Squadron airman to savour the delights of a trip in a Hunter and my turn came early the following month. With Fg Off Sid Bottom at the controls and me in the right seat, XL613-Z took to the clear blue skies in the late afternoon of 4 February. Wheels up and keeping low, we flew north-east along the sandy coast for a while, passing a customs post and village on the way, before climbing to 10,000 ft or so for some aerobatics. Sid showed me how to loop and barrel roll before letting me loose. I'd been taught how to do both on Vampire T.11s by instructors while based with CFS, so I had some idea of what was required. My efforts were not as successful as those in the T.11 but nevertheless, it was fun and I enjoyed having a go.

Sid then suggested we do some ‘Wadi-bashing’ which sounded exciting and so off we headed for the mountainous region towards the north of the Protectorate. Some of the peaks here rise more than 7,000 ft. a fact that I found surprising. My driver clearly knew the region like the back of his hand and we hugged the sandy valley floors, flying at around 500 knots, the steeply sloping escarpments rising high above on either side. The roar of the Avon must have echoed long after we had gone. I had been quietly hoping for a more sedate ride so as to take photographs and on enquiring as to why we were flying so fast, exciting as it was, Sid calmly elucidated that it was to avoid being shot at. A plausible riposte and I settled back to watch in awe as we weaved in and out of the high-sided wadis. One startling sight that sticks in my mind comprised a narrow, u-shaped rock formation jutting out from the walled sides as it appeared through the windscreen, narrowing the gap through which we had to fly. Once through, the valley floor dropped away a thousand feet or more. Down we went to continue our thrilling high-speed ride through the mountains. Suddenly, we were out in the open, flying low and fast over a flat landscape endowed with a generous covering of green vegetation, as we headed south and home to Khormaksar. On nearing Khormaksar I asked Sid if we could climb up and fly ‘round the volcano’ in order to take some shots of Aden and Shamsan and he kindly obliged. And so, after one of the most exhilarating experiences of my life, we touched down and I flopped forward in my harness as the brake parachute deployed and the wheel brakes were applied. Thank you Sid!

Ray gives XL613 a friendly pat on the nose before strapping in for his exhilarating buzz around the Aden Protectorate, 14-02-64 (author)

Ray's mount, XL613-Z, seen at Bahrain in 1963 (author)

The Hunter pan viewed from the T.7's cockpit on take-off (author)

Flying low by a small village located along the north east coast soon after taking off from Khormaksar (author)

A little further up the coast was this customs post. With no roads in the area, vehicular traffic made use of the beach (author)

A small pickup truck can just be seen about to enter the post from the beach

Climbing up for the aerobatic session (author)

Heading inland now, over the low hills leading to the high mountains in the distance (author)

Zipping across the flat and fertile plains from the mountains back towards Khormaksar (author)

Of interest is the little fort in the bottom right corner

Birds-eye view of RAF Khormaksar (author)

Flying round the 'island' with the town of Crater and Shamsan mountain in the background (author)

Looking down on the Maalla district with the Crescent shopping area top left (author)

The view on circling the volcanic mound that makes up the Penninsular and onto the Khormaksar approach (author)

Aden Harbour, Maalla and Shamsan on the approach to Khormaksar runway (author)

The main Khormaksar runway lies dead ahead as XL613 cruises gently down the glidepath (author)

The attack on Fort Harib - my small part

Shortly before the end of my tour, Yemeni Migs flew a number of raids across the border and in one of them, a frontier guard post and a village near Beihan were attacked with rockets and bombs by an armed helicopter and two Migs. Immediate retaliation was ordered and at 03:30 on the morning of the 28 March 1964, we were rudely awoken by the dulcet tones of the duty Sergeant, ordering us to report to Squadron HQ immediately: no shaving, no washing, just get dressed and board the transport waiting outside. Fortunately, the rare sobriety of the previous evening meant that hangovers were few and apart from lack of sleep, most of us had clear heads. As we were driven away, the realisation soon dawned in that we had never been called out in the middle of the night before, so something special was happening.

On arrival at the pan, several pilots could be seen talking to each other as they moved between the various offices. No explanation was given to us however, until ‘Chiefy’ called us together and told us to prepare seven FGA.9s, two in reserve, and two 1417 Flight FR.10s, one in reserve, for an important operation. Number 43 Squadron personnel had also been called in to prepare five FGA.9s (one as reserve) for a joint operation. With pre-flight checks completed, those of us that were free assisted the Riggers and Armourers with the removal of the outer drop tank pylons and fitting of additional rocket rails, a lengthy and fiddly task on the poorly lit pan. An hour or so later, the rocket trolleys were towed along the back of the line and, while some helped with the mounting and connection of these high-explosive projectiles, others stuffed warning leaflets in the wing-flaps of the mark 10s and two mark 9s.

At this stage, an outline of the tactics employed on the more concentrated air-to-ground strikes by the Aden Hunters maybe useful. Two Hunters would depart some 15 minutes ahead of the main force and, while flying fast and low over the target, lower their flaps to release warning leaflets onto the target. The lead aircraft of the pair, usually an FGA.9, would be closely pursued by an FR.10 taking photographs of the leaflets being released as evidence of a warning. By the time the inhabitants below had read the instructions, they would have 13 or so minutes to vacate the area or face certain oblivion. The main force, usually comprising four to eight FGA.9s, would then carry out the attack with 30mm HE cannon and rocket fire, while the leaflet-carrying aircraft maintained top cover. Once the attack was over, the FR.10 would make a final sweep to photograph the damage inflicted on the target.

As dawn broke, the first two pilots walked out to the line hut and signed the F700s for their particular aircraft, Flt Lt Peter Lewis in an FR.10 and Fg Off Sid Bottom in an FGA.9, both fitted with HE gunpacks but no rockets. Once strapped-in, they started-up and taxied out for take-off. I was assigned to start one of the eight main force FGA.9s, this particular aircraft being flown by a young looking Flt Lt Martin Johnson. He was very excited and eager to complete his pre-flight checks, almost running up the ladder and jumping into the cockpit. I handed him his parachute and seat straps, waited until he was safely belted in, removed the ejection seat safety pin and stowed it away before removing the ladder. At a given signal from Wg Cdr John Jennings in the lead aircraft, eight pilots hit their starting tits and seven Avpin starters burst into life, their Avons lighting up within a few seconds. Why only seven? Sods law; if something can go wrong it will and it did; the starter on my aircraft failed. Having applied a couple of hefty thumps on the starter panel relay boxes with the handle of my screwdriver in the vane hope it might fire at the second attempt, I gave the signal to try once more, but again the starter failed.

In an instant, the straps were flying over Martin’s shoulders and he was standing on the seat ready for the ladder to be re-attached. He climbed out and sped to a spare aircraft, with me in hot pursuit. As he clambered in, the other Hunters began to taxi out and between the two of us, he was belted-up in record time. Safety pin out, ladder away, a twirl of the forefinger and a welcoming blast from the Avpin starter, closely followed by the healthy roar of the Avon. It could hardly have reached idling speed before he throttled-up and raced out onto the taxiway. By this time the others were accelerating down the runway on their take-off runs, while he must have reached a similar speed on his way to the threshold. Round the corner an on to the runway with Avon seemingly at full power throughout, then off he went in pursuit of the rest who were disappearing into the distant haze.

Did he catch them? Of course he did, and the attack was executed precisely as planned. Photographs taken by the FR.10 before and after the raid revealed that the stone-built fort was virtually destroyed, as were an anti-aircraft gun and a number of vehicles. So good were the photographs that the warning leaflets could be clearly seen lying in and around the fort. And the attack had the desired effect, incursions by Yemeni aircraft ceased thereafter – at least for the time being.


All-in-all, with ten months in Bahrain, three weeks in Kenya to cover a rebellion by the country’s army and a month home on leave, my two-year tour flew by and come April 1964 my time was up. The camaraderie and family spirit on squadron had made it a much more bearable experience than anticipated and, having survived the sun, heat, sand and flies, I could now look forward to the sanity of life in the UK. So I thought! After two years in a faraway land where the locals spoke foreign, the beer was tolerable and the climate unbearable, my posting came through – RAF Valley on Anglesey – where the locals spoke foreign, there was no beer on Sundays and the climate was iffy. What had I done wrong!”