Lt Richard Grevatte-Ball

Commissioned into the army from Sandhurst in 1962, Richard learnt to fly with the Army Air Corps (AAC) in 1965 at Middle Wallop and was posted to 15 Flight AAC in Aden in early 1966 as a Lieutenant. He served there as a DH-C 2 Beaver pilot until the withdrawal of the AAC in October 1967, when he flew a Beaver up to Sharjah as part of 13 Flight AAC; here the Army took over the ‘STOL’ role from RAF Twin Pioneers. A further three years Beaver flying in the UK, Ethiopia, Singapore, West Malaysia, Nepal and Laos concluded when the UK forces withdrew from the Far East and Richard piloted one of the six AAC Beavers from Singapore to the UK.

The murder of an AAC helicopter crew

“The Operational Record for 1417 Flt (RAF FR Hunters) refers to their being tasked between 4 and 7 September to look for a missing AAC Scout AH.1 helicopter, XT641, which disappeared on a flight from Ataq to Mayfa’ah on the 3rd, and that on their last sortie they found scorch marks on the ground near the latter which were interpreted to be an aircraft destruction site.

I too was involved in this sad operation, where, together with one other AAC Beaver, I piloted a Beaver from Khormaksar up to Ataq on 4 September, 1967. Both aircraft then conducted a low level search down the usual flying route from Ataq to Mayfa’ah. As we neared Mayfa’ah we were soon suspicious as we could see groups of Arabs seemingly firing at us from the ground with their rifles. This was confirmed when a bullet hit the other Beaver, entering through the door window panel, narrowly missing a middle-seat observer (who luckily had just turned towards the centre of the passenger area to ‘relax his neck) and passing out through the cockpit roof just behind the co-pilots seat - all without serious damage to anything!

Soon after reporting this, both Beaver aircraft were recalled to Ataq (as were the Hunter ‘top cover aircraft) as it was by then believed that the Scout helicopter had at least been captured, if not destroyed. I returned to Aden that night, with a total flight time of some 7½ flying hours (1¾ at night) - and the Beaver has no ‘automatic pilot!”

An account in the 37 Squadron F540 states that, ‘a sabre and a night search were carried out on the 3rd by one of its Shackletons but without success. The search resumed early on the 4th when a 37 Squadron Shackleton joined AAC Beavers and Scout helicopters with top cover being provided by Hunters from 43 Squadron. As ground fire became heavier, the Shackleton was withdrawn from the search and later that day, it was reported that the helicopter had reached Meifa but had been attacked on the ground. The crew had been shot and the Ruler of Wahidi State taken as a hostage.’

“Subsequently it was learnt that the Scout had been destroyed while on the ground at Mayfa’ah in a wadi bed used to collect building sand, the crew murdered and the whole covered by sand, using a bulldozer, in an area where there were many such sand piles. This explanation seems to agree exactly with the Hunter units photographic interpretation. One actual piece of the Scout was, some weeks later, ‘handed over to the ‘authorities in Aden as proof of all of this, but, alas, it was so near to the British withdrawal from Aden (plus the talks going on in Switzerland that were trying to cobble together a peaceful solution to this withdrawal that no attempt, to my knowledge, was ever made to recover the pilot’s (Staff. Sgt Baulcomb) and passenger’s (F.O. Intelligence Officer) bodies. Shameful, though, realistically, with that whole area having changed sides to the NLF, it would have required a major punitive expedition and there were no longer adequate UK forces in Theatre (or enough time remaining) to undertake this.

AAC award of a DFC

The F540 for 8 Sqn for 4 May, 1967, records a ‘large group of dissidents attacking an army road repair party on the road to Habilayn and a helicopter-borne FAC co-coordinating a successful FGA.9 RP attack on a cave mouth. The AAC Scout, armed with one fixed firing General Purpose Machine Gun (GMPG) on each skid, operated by the pilot, plus a side door mounted co-ax GPMG operated by a crewman, was flown that day by Lt. David Ralls attached to the AAC and he was subsequently awarded a DFC for the co­ordination of the Hunters and the aggressive attack using his Scouts guns on the Arab dissidents. It was one of the few times when such a ‘skirmish had a clear ‘win for British Forces. The Scouts crew spotted the Arabs, chased them into the cave and kept the dissidents cowering there until the Hunters arrived. Then an accurate ‘target ID by the Scout, now in the FAC role, ensured that they were literally entombed therein by the Hunter RP attack.

Withdrawal of British officers from up-country outposts

In the last few months of 1967 it became clear that the locally enlisted Arab Forces, especially those to be found in ‘Area East’, would change their allegiance to ‘Flossy or the NFL before the final withdrawal date of UK forces. These Arab units were led by British Army officers on secondment (normally a CO, a Second in command and a Quartermaster) and the Aden Staff arranged that an AAC Beaver would be on ‘standby to fly to the relevant up country camp airstrip, usually some 250 miles away, to extract these officers when the mutiny/changeover became imminent for each Battalion. For a Beaver it was some three hours flying, but for a Hunter it was much quicker! The Aden Staff always tasked a Hunter or two to be ‘overhead the area whenever the Beaver was due to land, just in case there was any shooting on the ground. The Beaver pilot carried a hand-held SARBE UHF radio so that he could still communicate with the Hunter pilot whilst on the ground and away from his aircraft. On one of these ‘extractions I was talking to the Hunter pilot over the radio and asked him what his ‘battle plan was. ‘Not much fuel - just enough for one pass and Ill fire at wherever I perceive the trouble to be coming from. Oh yes - if you are in the way, sorry, but if I dont get you the Arabs probably will!’, he said. He was quite right - but luckily there never was any trouble, though Im certain that the sight of a Hunter high in the sky was what ensured my and the British Arab unit officers safety. I well remember that on one such occasion the British officers were close to tears. They had been living with ‘their Arab battalion for three years and just could not understand how Arabs, whom they believed to be close comrades, could so suddenly ‘turn their backs on the British. In retrospect it is obvious; we were neither of their faith, nor would we be paying them any more!

Hunter specific sorties relating to this situation are not identified in the Operation Records section of the website, but as nothing untoward actually happened (thank goodness) I guess they were merely listed as ‘general operational sorties.

Observing firepower demonstrations by MEAF Hunters

The Operational Records for both 8 and 43 Sqns have many examples of ‘flag wave and ‘fire power demonstrations. For example, on 24 September, 1967, in the Wadi Hadramaut area, I flew some Arab dignitaries from Riyan Airfield to an airstrip in the Wadi Hadramaut. Because of the extreme range, the 43 Sqn Hunters decided that they would fire off all their RPs in one pass. The air was still with expectancy and indeed, some of the Arabs were getting a little restless as time was getting on. A large white circle had been painted on a rock face as the intended target. Suddenly there was a terrible ‘screaming of a jet engine and the whole rock face disappeared in a cloud of smoke, followed shortly after by the sound of the explosions. As the air started to clear there was no longer a painted rock face, but a small silver dart climbing rapidly away at height. Most of the Arabs had been so terrified at the Hunters engine noise, having no idea where it was coming from, that they had fallen flat on ground to take cover! It was a simply marvellous demonstration of the might of British airpower and much more dramatic (though we knew why - a lack of ‘loitering over target time) than a series of separate diving attacks. Luckily the pilot was spot on with his aim, but I expected that from RAF Hunter pilots in Aden, they certainly knew their job!”

A selection of Richard’s images from his time in Aden are contained in the gallery below:

Beaver AL.1, XP819, parked on the pan at Khormaksar in the summer of 1967 (Richard Grevatte-Ball)

The same aircraft at low-level over Little Aden (Richard Grevatte-Ball)

A pair of 653 Sqn aircraft over Little Aden this time, DH Beaver AL.1, XP824, in formation with Westland Scout AH.1, XR628 (Richard Grevatte-Ball)

Although very little rain fell on Aden, it could be torrential when it did, forcing this 653 Sqn Beaver .....

..... to 'water ski' across the flooded Khormaksar pan (both, Richard Grevatte-Ball)

Local Arab Soldiers of the Federal Regular Army (FRA) guard Richard's aircraft on a remote airstrip in Area East (Richard Grevatte-Ball)

Scout, XR634, on its side after spinning twice while while trying to land. Luckily only one of the three crew were injured (Richard Grevatte-Ball)

The damaged Scout is air-lifted back to base for repairs by an RAF Wessex, XS675 (Richard Grevatte-Ball)

Once in position the gun was soon in action. Note the discarded shell casing zipping passed the soldier's ear on the right (Richard Grevatte-Ball)

An usual visitor to Falaise Camp, 78 Sqn Twin Pioneer, XM286, taxies out for take-off back to Ksar (Richard Grevatte-Ball)

The loss of a Britannia was a rare occurrence but XL638-Sirius was written off after overshooting the Khormaksar runway ........

..... and into the sea after its reverse thrust failed to engage, 12-10-67 (both, Richard Grevatte-Ball)

For flight safety reasons, the fin was removed but the remainder of the hulk was left to its fate.

653 Sqn departed from Aden in October 1967 and headed for Sharjah where this photo of Richard was taken alongside XP819 (Richard Grevatte-Ball)

Fully armed with two machine guns and 3" rockets, Omani Air Force Provost WV501's engine is run-up at Salalah in 1966 (Richard Grevatte-Ball)

It was about to undertake an attack on Communist infiltrators crossing from Saudi over the Oman border with the ‘Empty Quarter’.

A Beaver being repatriated back to the UK in an RAF Hercules in 1967 (Richard Grevatte-Ball)

Note that the undercarriage legs had to be chained together and drawn in to enable the aircraft to be squeezed into the hold.

Beaver 'bomber'

In the last few months leading up to the 1967 withdrawal from Aden, large areas of ‘up-country’ were declared by the British Forces as ‘no go’ zones and any armed Arab could be ‘attacked’, even before he had started firing first! I think that the powers-that-be had little idea exactly how these last few months would pan out especially the level of fighting that could be expected in the hinterland surrounding Aden town and port, plus the few remaining up-country forts still manned by us. Part of this worry was the fact that the RAF strike elements were also being severely reduced as part of the drawdown process.

The upshot was that someone realised that the AAC Beavers were all fitted with under wing Light Series Bomb Carriers (an RAF issue item), which we used to carry parachute stores (5 jerry cans plus a parachute - two of these under each wing. Plus every Beaver delivered to the AAC had nose and tail bomb arming circuits! Always made me laugh! These parachute stores (or bombs) were launched by arming the electrical circuit and then pressing a button on the control yoke.

So these bomb carriers could be fitted with 25lb practice or fragmentation bombs. We trained, under RAF supervision and my log book shows that I was signed-off as qualified to drop either type. Only snag - we had no bombsight - so it was trial and error; chinagraph plus on the Perspex window!

The sequence below was taken by Richard at Falaise Airfield (Little Aden) and depict the preparation and execution of a training sortie in XP819.

653 Squadron Armourers attached the first bomb-round to the underwing rack.

When the pilots are ready to go, a third Armourer connects the electrics.

Bombed-up, revved-up and ready to go, XP819 is about to depart for a sortie on the (Khormaksar?) range.

Excellent timing as the photographer catches the stick of 25-pounders at the point of their release.

Falaise provide HQ and aircraft servicing facilities for the AAC and was the HQ of 24 Brigade, an armoured car regiment and an infantry battalion.

Luckily we were NEVER called upon to attack in anger and to my certain knowledge AAC Beavers never adopted this role anywhere else throughout the Beaver’s time with the British Army. So I am one of just seven army pilots with this qualification in my logbook!! The photos depict practice bombs being ‘hooked up’ and dropped on the range.

The Beavers withdrawal from Aden

The Aden campaign was in its closing stages; all British troops had been withdrawn from the interior to the supposedly secure base surrounding the town of Aden and its port. The Army Air Corps element was rapidly dwindling, 8 Flight with their Scout helicopters had returned to England, leaving the remaining Scouts of 13 Flight to prepare for a move to Sharjah in the Arabian Gulf. No. 15 Flight were endeavouring to coax four of their Beaver aircraft into Belfast transports of the RAF for the move back to the UK whilst the final three were the only remaining aircraft, together with Beverleys of the RAF, to continue flying up country, in support of the rapidly mutinying South Arabian Army. Each trip was full of doubt, which side would the Arab troops stationed in the particular part to be visited be on; the Adenese Government, the National Liberation Front, or the Front for the Liberation of Occupied South Yemen.

At last, on 13 October 1967, the day arrived when the Beavers were finally to leave Aden. Loyalties had been exchanged from 15 Flight with their ‘witch on a broomstick’ to 13 Flight and their ‘black cats’. Of 13 Flight’s six Scouts only one was able to fly a farewell salute, and this aircraft was cleared for only the flights on to and off HMS Fearless, having a suspect main rotor gearbox. The three Beavers, all fully serviceable, were fitted with long range ferry tanks, the last aircraft completed its final up country detail on the evening before departure, and with a somewhat bloated take off, full of ‘free’ gifts from the RAF quarters at Khormaksar—were away, to Sharjah.

The trip was planned to take three days, following the Arabian Peninsular coast line via the RAF staging airfields of Salalah, Masirah and the Sultan of Muscat and Oman’s airfield at Bait. Climbing to 8,000 feet, Salalah was six and a half hours flying away, with a ferry tank range of nine hours, and all went well till about four hours out, one of the aircraft, flown by Lt Nigel Ironside, AAC, developed a total propeller oil seal failure. The results of this are always alarm­ing, little engine control is left and the wind­screen gets coated with oil; so too did the pilot on this occasion, as his side window was open! It was impossible to fly to Salalah, or return to Aden, so a precautionary landing was made at the only known airstrip in the area, Riyan. This had once belonged to the RAF, but was now known to be in the hand of local Arab Forces.

The third Beaver, flown by Sgt J. Cant, REME, remained circling overhead whilst the other two aircraft landed, to be greeted by a motley selection of Arabs dressed in assorted uniforms with red stars on peaked baseball caps, and Russian-style Chinese manufactured automatic weapons. Not being locked up straight away, it was decided to change the propeller seal and endeavour to bluff our way through. Sgt Cants aircraft therefore touched down well out of harms way at the edge of the airfield to land our chief mechanic, Sgt Jupp, REME. Quickly airborne he left Staff some considerable distance to walk to our location, and when finally a very hot mechanic arrived, this last aircraft was well on its way to Aden for assistance. 

Whilst working on the engine we were guarded by a group of Arabs, although this did not stop another group from shooting in our direction on two occasions! We were interested to see a hi-jacked Air Djibouti DC.3 parked on the pan, which the only English-speaking Arab said was being used for gun running. This aircraft had been captured whilst on a routine charter flight from French Somaliland; and when after a successful ground run our English-speaking Arab asked us to remain till ‘someone comes from the local town to speak with you’, we had visions of our being in the gun running business also! 

By now, if not allowed to depart soon, we would not be able to make Salalah before nightfall, and the position seemed to be stalemate. However, a check call on the UHF radio produced the, oh, so welcome voice of an RAF Hunter pilot, “overhead at 35,000 feet and dont want to come down as it will use up my fuel and anyway might precipitate some adverse action.” Alas this incident not specifically mentioned in the RAF Operational Records - but it was very close to everyone’s departure from Aden.

However, the Arabs had seen us talking by radio—obviously we had help at hand, and this seemed to do the trick. A complete reversal of attitude ensued, “we are your friends,” they said, “you can go.” Without so much as an engine check, not even a doing up of straps, we were off, showering them in as much sand as possible, and we reached RAF Salalah just after dark. 

Our troubles were not yet over, however, is a somewhat belated after flight inspection the next morning on the two aircraft revealed that the one flown by Nigel Ironside had in fact been hit, we presumed whilst on the ground at Riyan. A bullet had gone through the port tail plane and elevator torque tube and the aircraft was judged to be unsafe for further flying, so a week’s wait in the very pleasant atmosphere of Salalah was required whilst spares were flown out by the RAF. Even so the two Beavers still made RAF Sharjah, our new home, before the helicopters in HMS Fearless. We flew over the ship whilst it was at anchor off the Muscat coast, with no sign of life on board, everybody recovering below from the party of the night before! 

And the third Beaver, we had hoped would have been able to fly once again from Aden to re-join us at Salalah, but the Staff thought otherwise. It was de-winged and flown up to Sharjah in the belly of a Hercules, and so put off by this flight that it was eight weeks before it would fly again with the various faults that it acquired. 

And the final note, we were accused by the Staff in Aden of jeopardizing the Anglo-South Arabian talks, then going on in Switzerland, by trying to start a war at Riyan.