Royal Naval Aircraft Artificers - Classes of '49






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THE BEIRA PATROL (As I saw it)                                                                                                       Bill Daysh 14.01.02

When Jack Martin and I left HMS THUNDERER (Manadon College) as brand new Subs in 1965, we both put our names down for front line squadrons and ended up in EAGLE together. While Jack went to 800 Sqdn. (Buccaneer 1s), I was lucky to be posted as the AEO of 800B Flight, an experimental Scimitar tanker unit of four aircraft, three pilots, myself and 57 chiefs and ratings, on a mission to �work up� single-seater flight refuelling for the FAA. Previously, on the first leg of EAGLE's 1964 cruise, 800B had apparently not cut the mustard as a tanker unit, due to technical problems.
     I always enjoyed a bit of a challenge, so I jumped at this one.
     Initially, EAGLE's squadrons �worked up� at Lossiemouth for the second leg of her 1965/66 Far East cruise, with a new complement of ratings and me as the AEO. While there, our FR hoses developed the nasty habit of falling off in flight and frightening the cows grazing in Scotland�s green fields, and we lost one aircraft when it stalled on finals and the pilot was lucky to bang out safely.
     With just a week left before embarking in EAGLE for twelve months in the Far East, we were a couple of hoses short and in serious operational trouble.
     But being the keen, pushy, young officer I was at the time, I cornered the pilot of the Flag Officer�s barge (the proverbial royal blue Hunter trainer) at dinner one night and coerced him into flying me down to Flight Refuelling Ltd., in Dorset. To me, the most important feature of the admiral�s barge was that it had enough space under its nose cowling for a coiled hose. The following morning we flew down and brought the precious new hose back, and I received a rollicking from the base Commander A/E (Cdr. Hood) for abusing the stores system, the Admiral�s barge, and the co-operation of FR Ltd. � but he was smiling all the time he was doing it. (He wrote to me a couple of times afterwards to ask how 800B was doing afloat.)
      Once in EAGLE we were OK, even if we were viewed more as a mascot outfit by 899 Sqdn (Vixens) and 800 Sqdn (Bucc1s), to be tolerated in the corner of their hangar. The ship worked her way around the usual haunts (Gib, Malta, the Suez, Aden, Mombassa, Hong Kong, etc.), and we got better all the time. No prangs and no hoses in the drink. Finally, we fetched up in Singapore in 1966, on a scheduled disembarkation at Changi while the ship was being torn to bits in the Dockyard.
      Then one night a signal arrived, ordering us to re-embark in EAGLE the following morning, and set sail immediately. It seemed like a joke at first. It had taken several days to truck all the equipment to Changi, but this was no joke. At 0600 in the morning the ship had a full head of steam and the last handful of ratings and officers (including myself) had to climb aboard on scrambling nets with the ship under way. But we made it, and the aircraft all landed on safely later that day. The ship then steamed in a straight line for several days and nights, flat out at 28 knots (obviously, there was no flying), and all repeat compasses throughout the ship were unshipped and locked away together with every chart of the ship�s course. We were shrouded in absolute secrecy and confusion as to why we had sailed so suddenly. Only the most senior officers knew (we hope!) where we were heading, and why. Rumours were rife and the morale of the crew began to flag. As always, when �lads� don�t get the truth they invent their own. "There has been a nuclear missile explosion somewhere and we�re heading right for it," was heard. "We�re already at war but we don�t know it" � etc., etc.
      Eventually, we hove to in blue waters and bright sunlight, but out of sight of land. We immediately knew where we were. If you have been anywhere near Africa you always know when you are back there, even if you can�t see it. It is to do with the nature of the swell and a distinctive sweet, zoo-like smell that travels for miles over the sea.
      Our Skipper, Captain (now Sir John) Roxburgh, finally sent a signal expressing his frustration to �Their Lordships�, noting his concern at the "ire and despondency" amongst his crew, as a result of not being able to reveal our whereabouts and mission, and he was subsequently able to tell us the truth.
      At this time, Prime Minister Harold Wilson was bent on blockading the port of Beira, as a crucial element of the UK�s strategy for dealing with Rhodesia (as it was then known). This was UDI. Rhodesia had declared herself independent and Harold was not pleased. Our task was to seek and board all oil tankers that might be heading for Beira (Rhodesia�s main oil supply port), and turn them away. The ship and its air group were placed on a war footing, whereby 100% efficiency was expected as we operated �in secret�, out of sight of land, and with no diversion airfields and no port.
      However, on our first morning in the Mozambique Channel we apparently received a signal from Ian Smith (the UDI Prime Minister of Rhodesia) welcoming us to Rhodesian waters. So much for secrecy!
      So the ship�s mission was to watch for tankers on radar at night (as far away as the Suez), fly at sea level at the crack of dawn, �eyeball� them then despatch a cutter with an officer brandishing a cutlass and a pistol to dissuade them from putting into Beira. Most of the tanker skippers complied, but we had several requests for appendectomies and other medical requirements along the way.
      Meanwhile, Ian Smith was threatening to use the Rhodesian Air Force to attack and blow up the Kariba Dam (the main source of power for Zambia�s very important copper mining industry) and took to launching aircraft threateningly at the dam every morning. We launched ours (some of which had Rhodesian aircrews on exchange commissions) to tackle them. The Rhodesian Air Force had Buccaneer 2s at the time. 800 Sqdn had 1s.
      The operation rolled on and no tanker got through. Until one night, one came down the coast of Africa behaving badly. It was obviously intent on breaking the blockade (for reasons, one assumes, related to the final line of this diatribe). She doubled back on her course in the night, and nipped in and out of international waters as she edged ever closer to Beira. We learnt later that her skipper was a German, commissioned by a European consortium to break the blockade and humiliate the UK Government.
      The tanker eventually made it into Beira, whereupon the captain swiftly paid off and flew home to Germany.
      Back in the UK, the Government had been placed in a position of embarrassment by UDI so far from the UK, having just published a White Paper outlining its plans to slash the armed forces (the FAA in particular), accompanied by statements to the effect that �Anything the FAA can do the Royal Air Force can do better.� Then, with UDI, the Government tried to bring the RAF into the situation and was met with blank RAF stares and a flat refusal by several countries to grant the all-important right to �over fly� them. The RAF were therefore faced with the prospect of dismantling the aircraft of their 29 Sqdn. (Javelins based in Cyprus) and shipping them to a specially-extended airstrip in Zambia, where they would be reassembled and made ready for war. In the end, this became unnecessary. Weeks later, diplomatic clearance was negotiated.
      Meanwhile, EAGLE, having relieved ARK ROYAL, was already there and had 47 aircraft of various shapes and sizes in Ian Smith�s back yard.
      In the middle of this crisis, the existence of 800B Flight became all-important to the ship�s mission. As fixed-wing jets are extremely fuel-inefficient at sea level (which was to be the group�s main operating altitude), without in-flight refuelling the ship�s area of effectiveness would have been severely reduced, leaving a nasty gap between what could be seen on radar at night and by eyeball in the morning (through which a large tanker could easily slip). With no diversion airfields, EAGLE�s two main squadrons (899 & 800) were operating close to their fuel limits, and 800B�s Scimitar tankers were required to launch with every main squadron, plus maintain a serviceable tanker on the catapult at all times, in readiness for returning aircraft low on fuel.
      The Beira Patrol, as it became known, had suddenly become a showcase for in-flight refuelling and 800B responded to a man by working seven days a week, around the clock, for 71 consecutive days. This proved the FAA�s in-flight refuelling capability without doubt, and 800B (which had been a bit of an experiment at outset) was given the Operational Efficiency Award for the year.
      To keep the aircraft flying during this time, some �bush� maintenance was inevitable � as Richard Van Kempen obviously knows from his time as the AEO of 845 Sqdn in Borneo. �Stores� were not always forthcoming with spares, and Scimitars (bless �em) had fairly complex fuel systems that were often by �sticky� gremlins in their inline fuel flow valves (manufactured by Flight Refuelling Ltd.) These units, buried deeply in the most inaccessible parts of a Scimitar (mainly in wings), had to be changed by feel. Oftentimes, the ground crews and the AEO stayed up all night, up to their armpits in wing, struggling to remove unserviceable flow valves � only to find that the very act of removing them �unstuck� them back into serviceability.
      However, I got wise to this, and quickly took to carrying a �Pusser�s� hide-faced mallet around with me. Then, when flow valves misbehaved on the flight deck (often with the aircraft stropped and tensioned on the catapult, with engines running at full bore) I would get a leg up onto the relevant wing, count along the ribs and stringers, and give an almighty thump with my mallet where valves carefully diagnosed as �stuck� resided. Launch slot salvaged!
      What never occurred to me that all the while I was thus �at it� on the flight deck I was also under the watchful eyes of FLYCO and the Skipper until, one day, as I passed the Skipper in a walkway, he asked, with a smile, if I had my hammer with me.
      But for truly U/S components for which no spares could be found (flap jacks and the like), I would quietly strip the offending articles and make them better in the workshop overnight, then sign the aircraft fit for flight in the morning. Fortunately for me, the CO, Nigel Grier-Rees, �Paddy� Waring and Mac McMannus (the three 880B Flight pilots) were as keen to have aircraft to fly as I was, and they trusted their seemingly �eccentric� AEO implicitly. With this risky, but very necessary behaviour, we kept on going and many a fuel-starved Buccaneer or Vixen was saved from the sea (plus our own), and the miniscule 800B was thus transformed from tolerated mascot to necessary friend to all.
      This was my most enjoyable and fulfilling time in the Service, but it was also the darkest. After the White Paper was published, I took it badly that the service I was putting everything into was soon to be hacked to shreds as never before. All I could see ahead in my career were positions as third or fourth AEO of large squadrons, but never the AEO slot.
      When I received a genuine offer from East African Airways (through a friend in Nairobi) to train as a VC10 Flight Engineer, �Their Lordships� declined my request to resign my commission. Admittedly, I didn�t know at the time that I was being nominated for an MBE. But by the time I was released some five years later, the opportunity had long gone.
      Had it not, I may have ended up as one of Nev Boulton�s colleagues at the panel of a 747 (and much richer to boot!).
      I consoled myself with the knowledge that, however phoney a war it had been, we had all been serving our �Queen and Country�, and had made a difference.
Some twenty years later, when hitherto secret government papers were finally released, I discovered that we had probably made no difference at all. Throughout the blockade, Rhodesia had been receiving all the oil she needed by means of a clandestine, back-to-back arrangement with another European country.