The RAF Overseas


Two Vulcan B.1s of 83 Squadron on an Operation Profiteer detachment to RAAF Butterworth, Penang, Malaya, during the Malayan Emergency, c. June 1958. Every three months between October 1957 and June 1960, two V-bombers and six crews were detached to the region for a period of two weeks. Initially undertaken by 214 Squadron’s Valiants at RAF Changi, from June 1958, Vulcans were detached to RAAF Butterworth, the first being from 83 Squadron. Neither the Valiant nor the Vulcan were used operationally during the Emergency but were considered a visible reinforcement of local units and were made available to SEATO. The Victor would later maintain a similar deployment during the Indonesian Confrontation. XA905, on the left, was the first Vulcan to be delivered to squadron service. It arrived at 83 Squadron at RAF Waddington on 11 July 1957. (RAF-T 764)


Despatchers of the Royal Army Service Corps load a Land Rover of the Ist Guards Brigade into a Beverley heavy-load transport during Exercise Starlight, near RAF El Adem, Libya, March 1960. El Adem, situated near Tobruk, was a hub for Transport Command exercises. In March 1960, Exercise Starlight, tested the RAF’s ability to supply an advancing army solely by air. During the exercise twelve Beverleys of 47 and 53 Squadrons from RAF Abingdon undertook 194 sorties transporting 3,329 Guardsmen and 272 RAF personnel, 370 vehicles, 272 trailers, 40 guns and 1,546,5591b of freight from El Adem to an airhead at Tmimi. Pioneers and Whirlwinds then provided the troops with landed supplies, followed by the Beverleys undertaking air drops. RAF El Adem was also a major staging post for aircraft heading to the Middle East and Far East. It closed when the RAF left Libya in 1969 following a revolution in the country. (RAF-T 1716)

Recruitment brochures promoted a career in the RAF as a route to foreign travel, and until the late 1960s, opportunity was certainly plentiful and varied. A large amount of manpower was needed to service the strategic stations in the Middle East and Far East, along with the more isolated stations elsewhere. For many personnel, an overseas tour was a highlight of their career, yet by 1971 a posting of significant length was rare. Decolonization and budgetary pressures led Britain (and the RAF) to rapidly withdraw from its responsibilities overseas, first in the Middle East, then the Far East. This withdrawal was often complicated by the many small-scale yet intensive conflicts that occurred during the period.

There were few times between 1950 and 1970 when the RAF was not actively involved in a conflict somewhere in the world.

Operations during the twelve-year Malayan Emergency were largely shaped by the need to cooperate with ground units operating in inaccessible jungle. From 1948, troops on patrol were supported by low-flying ground attack aircraft such as the Brigand and later the Hornet, Vampire and Venom, targeting enemy camps and supply lines. In the early part of the Emergency, under Operations Musgrave and Bold, Lincoln bombers from six UK-based squadrons were deployed in rotation to RAF Tengah in Singapore to boost the RAF’s offensive power. In February 1955, the Lincolns were replaced in the Far East by Canberras. Deep jungle patrols were aided with air resupply by Douglas Dakotas, Vickers Valettas and Handley Page Hastings of 48 Squadron, and later by Scottish Aviation Pioneer and Auster light aircraft of 267 and 209 Squadrons. Support was also provided by Dragonfly and Sycamore helicopters of 194 Squadron, joined later by Westland Whirlwinds of 110 and 155 Squadrons. Over an eighteen-month period during 1954-55, 194 Squadron alone flew 6,000 sorties, transporting 84,000lb of supplies and evacuating 675 casualties from remote jungle locations.

During the summer of 1956, while the RAF was busy in South East Asia, Colonel Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal. The RAF reinforced its Middle East Air Force squadrons and assembled a formidable force in Cyprus and Malta, including 115 Valiant and Canberra bombers, forty-eight Venom fighter-bombers and twenty-four Hunters. For the Anglo-French Suez operation, the RAF was tasked with destroying Egypt’s Air Force of Il-28 bombers, MiG-15s, Vampires and Meteors, which posed a threat to the invasion force assembled in Cyprus. Four squadrons of Valiants, along with squadrons of Canberras, undertook high and low-altitude bombing of Egyptian airfields and military installations, accompanied by rocket and cannon-armed Venoms from 6, 8 and 249 Squadrons. Providing transport for the airborne invasion, Valetta and Hastings flew 3rd Battalion Parachute Regiment from Cyprus escorted by Hunters of 1 and 34 Squadrons, deployed from RAF Tangmere. Adding to the complexity of the operation, local air forces in Cyprus were combating the four-year EOKA insurgency.

From 1963, the RAF used the experience it had gained during the Malayan Emergency in an undeclared jungle war with Indonesia on the Island of Borneo. Ground forces operating from forward bases in remote parts of the island relied entirely on air power for reinforcement and resupply. Two Blackburn Beverleys from 34 Squadron and two Armstrong Whitworth Argosys from 215 Squadron from Singapore were detached to Labuan and Kuching to resupply troops via drop zones in the jungle. Pioneers and Twin Pioneers of 209 Squadron provided a light supply, troop lifts and casualty evacuation capability from forward airstrips, aided by Bristol Belvederes of 26 Squadron and by Whirlwinds of 103, 110, 225 and 230 Squadrons, which most notably inserted troops over the Indonesian border on secretive Claret operations. Between November 1964 and October 1965, the monthly average weight of stores delivered to front-line bases was nearly 3,000,000lb. In addition Javelins of 60 and 64 Squadrons and Hunters of 20 Squadron from Tengah, Labuan and Kuching undertook air defence patrols following an increasing number of incursions by the Indonesian Air Force. Canberras from Bomber Command and the Akrotiri Strike Wing deployed to the region on rotation, reinforced by Victors and Vulcans.

By early 1964, having been strengthened to combat two successive rebellions in the Radfan region of South Arabia, RAF Khormaksar’s Tactical Wing was a formidable force, with a combined forty-eight Hunter FGA.9s from 8, 43 and 208 Squadrons and four Hunter FR.10s from 1417 Flight. During the campaigns, the RAF provided tactical support to British troops engaging rebel tribesmen in the mountainous terrain. Rocket-carrying Hunters carried out air strikes against targets identified from photographs provided by 1417 Flight. Shackleton MR.2s of 37 Squadron flew night-time bombing raids, dropping 25lb fragmentation bombs and illumination flares. Twin Pioneers of 78 Squadron and Beverleys of 84 Squadron moved men and materiel to upcountry airstrips at Thumeir and Dhala, where Belvederes of 26 Squadron ferried them further forward.

Following the end of British Government in Aden in 1967, Air Support Command mounted a three-month airlift of 6,600 civilians to RAF Muharraq in Bahrain, followed by the last 3,700 servicemen using Short Belfasts, Bristol Britannias and the new Lockheed Hercules.

The RAF’s operational role in all these conflicts was providing flexible tactical air support for troops fighting over inhospitable terrain. This differed from the traditional role of air superiority and heavy bombing that had been its dominant contribution during the Second World War. Instead, it returned to a role it had been founded to undertake in 1918. The RAF was also employed on numerous humanitarian missions during the British Honduras hurricane in 1961, famine in East Africa in 1962 and floods in Brunei in 1963.

The RAF’s Cold War responsibilities did not exist solely within Europe. A member of NATO since 1948, Britain was also a signatory of the 1954 South East Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO) and the 1955 Baghdad Pact, later called the Central Treaty Organization (CENTO). Though no military assets were permanently assigned to SEATO, squadrons and airfields of the Far East Air Force and the regular V-bombers detached to the region could be requested by SEATO, and regularly participated in frequent exercises with other regional powers. In 1957, a Near East Strike Wing of Canberra bombers from 6, 32, 73 and 249 Squadrons was formed at RAF Akrotiri in Cyprus. This wing was assigned to CENTO, whose member states Turkey, Pakistan, Iran, and originally Iraq, extended NATO’s reach east along the southern border of the USSR yet lacked a bombing capability of their own. In 1969, Canberras were replaced in the strike wing by two squadrons of Vulcans from RAF Cottesmore with two further squadrons held in reserve in the UK. By the late 1960s, active support of these alliances diminished when long-distance transports and in-flight refuelling capabilities allowed UK-based units to deploy rapidly, reaching Cyprus within a few hours and Singapore within a couple of days.

The large number of stations and units based overseas ensured that, for the majority of personnel in the 1950s and 1960s, at least one tour could be expected. The RAF’s commitments from the late 1940s combined with the demobilization of a large number of regular personnel ensured that fulfilling all overseas obligations, one in two, though later decreased to less than one in four, of RAF National Servicemen were out of the UK for most of their two-year service.

As the RAF withdrew from its worldwide commitments, overseas service became increasingly rare. The movement towards decolonization in the early to mid-1950s saw the, often forced, withdrawal from a large number of RAF stations. Rising Arab nationalism in the mid-late 1950s saw the RAF leave the Middle East. Between 1956 and 1959 the RAF handed over its last stations in the Suez Canal Zone, Jordan and Iraq, all key staging posts on the route east to Singapore. The remnants of the Middle East Air Force stationed at these locations were withdrawn and relocated to RAF Nicosia in Cyprus. Already considerably smaller in 1950 than it had been in 1945, the Far East Air Force shrunk further in the late 1950s, when further staging posts RAF Mauripur in Pakistan closed in 1957 and RAF Negombo in Ceylon in 1959. During its Emergency, Malaya had been given its independence in 1957, and the last RAF units were withdrawn to Singapore in 1960, which became the centre for British forces in the Far East.

The economic conditions of the mid-1960s, combined with further nationalist unrest, saw the end to further historic stations. RAF Nicosia in Cyprus, once the principal air base in the Near East, was closed in 1966 in favour of the newer RAF Akrotiri. After the hurried evacuation of Aden in 1967, RAF Muharraq in Bahrain was the last remaining station in the Persian Gulf. The Libyan revolution in 1969 saw the RAF forced to leave RAF El Adem, its last station in North Africa. The 1968 Defence Review announced that all RAF stations ‘East of Suez’ with the exception of Hong Kong were to close by 1971. In that year, the Far East Air Force was disbanded and its principal stations of Changi, Tengah, and Seletar were handed to Singapore. With forces still based in Cyprus, Malta and Hong Kong, opportunities for overseas service still existed, but the accompanied postings to Singapore, Cyprus or Aden, which had for fifty years often been the highlight of an RAF career, were no longer available.

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