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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.
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
I always enjoyed a bit of a challenge, so I jumped at
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
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
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
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.