Tuesday, 13 June 2017

Long Ago And Far Away....

Me and the lads at RAF Luqa, August 1977. Behind us is a Nimrod MR2 of 203 Squadron.

The MR2 was state of the art in its day, and I remember being impressed when a crew member told us that its computer was so sophisticated that you could actually play chess against it!

There were also photo recce Canberras - which I was later to work close to on  Armament Practice Camps in Cyprus just a few years later - as well as Vulcans that had been converted for a maritime radar reconnaissance role.

The same cameras I saw for the first time on the Canberra flight line I was to be training on myself just 15 months later.

Officer's Mess, Hal Far
It was a very busy base, but we were billeted in the old officer's mess at RAF Hal Far, a WW2 fighter base, and home to 'Faith', 'Hope', and 'Charity', three ageing Gladiator biplanes that held the Italian air force back in 1940. Being at Hal Far was liking stepping back in time to a colonial past, and I loved every single second of it.

We also discovered the existence of 1151 Marine Craft Unit (MCU)  - hadn't even known that the RAF possessed such things - and enjoyed a run at sea clinging to the deck of an  unbelievably fast launch.

The Cold War had its downsides, but it did mean we got some great toys to play with!

This was one of two Air Training Corps summer camps I enjoyed that year, spending the following week with 617 Squadron - The Dambusters - with their wonderful Vulcan 'V' bombers. The RAF guys looked after us cadets brilliantly.

The Nimrods and Vulcans and the MCUs are long gone now.

203 Squadron disbanded in December 1977 as we pulled out of Malta, and a disastrous decision by the Conservative government means we have no ariel anti-submarine capability at all. Russian submarines are currently able to lurk off the coast by Faslane with impunity, monitoring our missile subs as they go out on patrol.

617 is in the process of reforming, and is due to 'stand-up' in January 2018 when it will be the first to operate the new f-35 Lightning.

Tuesday, 6 June 2017

June 6th - "The Longest Day"

Today, June 6th, marks the 73rd anniversary of the allied invasion, and subsequent liberation, of occupied Europe - D Day.

It was a Tuesday, like today, and the weather was miserable, just as it is in south-eastern England again today. 

England was on lock-down in the weeks leading up to the invasion - the largest seaborne assault in history, but everybody knew something was coming. People who lived through those days witnessed American and Canadian troops camped out everywhere, with tanks and other armoured vehicles streaming towards the coastal towns and harbours. Even by the standards of austere war-time Britain food became harder than ever to obtain, and train stations were often out of bounds to all but essential personnel. 

I well remember my grandmother telling me about the morning. Her memories of the war years were most profound; my father was nursed in an air raid shelter, with the sound of anti-aircraft fire a backdrop to everyday life.

In the early hours of June 6th, as she recalled, there were no air raid sirens, but the deafening noise of heavy aircraft overhead. As dawn broke the sky was black with aircraft heading east, and especially she remembered the strange sight of hundreds of gliders being towed by bombers (she was probably looking at Dakotas, not bombers).

The noise of aircraft did not let up until nightfall, and even then was punctuated by the familiar sound of the bombers on their way to wreak havoc on the enemy.

The landings began shortly after midnight. Official figures state that 75,216 British and Canadian troops, and 57,000 Americans landed by sea
HMS Belfast: The guns behind George fired the very first shots on D-Day.
that day, with 7,900 British and 15,500 Americans arriving from the air. Eventually, over one million troops were to be landed.

Casualties were horrendous; some 4,400 troops died in the initial onslaught, but by the end of the day the beachhead had been established, and the armies were moving inland.

French civilian casualties - and this is rarely discussed - were very high. As the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force pounded the coastal defences, entire villages were obliterated. 

The French city of Caen was bombed on the day, with the loss of at least 2,000 civilians.

But to warn the French would have been to betray the entire operation. De Gaulle et al had proven that they could not be trusted, and so the French were kept in the dark until the last minute - there was some time to mobilise the small number of resistance fighters in the area, but tragically no time to evacuate the civil population. 

The German forces were under strength, with very low morale. Many were low quality 'volunteers' from conquered territories, mainly from Russia, and, somewhat bizarrely, Mongolia.

The Battle of Normandy raged on until mid-July: Over 425,000 from both sides were to be killed, wounded, or went missing. 

And we moan about how we may have had a hard day.....  

HMS Belfast can be visited in the Pool of London, she is moored between London Bridge and Tower Bridge, on the south bank of the Thames. http://www.iwm.org.uk/visits/hms-belfast