Tuesday 12 March 2013

No 1 Squadron, Royal Rhodesian Air Force Detachments to Aden

January and July 1958
A Personal Record — John Mussell
Photography has been an interest of mine for many years.  During most of my uniformed service it was not disallowed even on and around air bases.  The same applied in Aden in 1958.  While there, I snapped away and now enjoy the scanned transparencies that scroll away on my screensaver.
Spurred on by a 2013 New Year resolve, I began by selecting pictures taken on two of the No. 1 Squadron detachments to Aden.  These detachments were part of Rhodesia’s commitment to Commonwealth defence as recorded in the book, “Pride of Eagles”.
The Squadron was led both times by Charles Paxton.  Sandy Mutch was “A” Flight Commander on the first, and Colin Graves occupied that post on the second.  The aircraft involved were: a squadron of Vampire FB9s, a two-seater T11, and a logistical Dakota.  The positioning flights (7,500 km the round trip) were pleasingly incident-free, which surprised Royal Air Force planners in the UK who saw the Vampire as nothing more than a stay-at-home, short-range fighter equipped with minimal navigational aids.  As for the duties carried out in Aden during both detachments, a daily serviceability rate of 100%was achieved.  That puzzled them further.  We showed them a thing or two!
The Route to Aden
The outbound route via East Africa required refuelling stops at Chileka (Blantyre), Dar es Salaam, Nairobi, Mogadiscio, Khormaksar (Aden).  Although the Vampires were each fitted with two 100-gallon under-wing tanks, the legs between Chileka, “Dar” and “Mog” stretched their range capability.  Good flight and destination conditions were essential as there were few suitable diversionary airfields.  After reaching the point-of-no-return about three quarters along each of these legs, it was a pleasure to hear the comforting tones of ‘Mac’ Geeringh who had been leap-frogged to the destination control tower ready to talk us down.  The longest leg undertaken was when, on the return flight of the first detachment, Nairobi was bypassed as the forecast weather and other considerations were considered safe enough for a direct leg between Mogadiscio and Dar-es-Salaam (1,200km / 650nm.

FB9s, letting down at Chileka

Chileka, our first port of call, was a tranquil spot in good weather, as long as the infamous mists of the “Chiperoni” did not swoop in unannounced.  To my knowledge, in central African flying lore, only one aviator was able to thumb his nose at the Chiperoni.  That was Ted Cunnison who, both as an air force and civil aviator, would find “Cunnison’s hole” somewhere on the lower reaches of the Shire River and then follow the river at low level to successfully deliver his passengers to Blantyre.  One would think that having been shot down three times in the desert in WWII; been pulled out of the sea once; and returned to duty on a camel another time, he would had enough adrenalin rushes to last the rest of his flying days. 

Preparations at Chileka for the leg to Dar es Salaam.  
Taff Dowell, Charles Paxton and Colin Graves can be picked out

From “Dar” to Nairobi – passing Mount Kilimanjaro

Mogadiscio — Eddie Wilkinson

The view from Aden’s Sham-Sham peak reveals Khormaksar airfield
 (in the sunlight between the harbour and the cloud shadow).
According to local tradition—whoever climbs Sham-Sham never returns to Aden.

The town, still under Italian influence, looked a bit more pristine than nowadays.
See below

The camera I used was a Kodak Retina Reflex 35 mm with 3D attachment bought from “Smiley’s” store, the forces’ Aladdin’s cave.  With Aden being a duty-free port, the prices were very affordable.  Smiley’s place was where we learnt to bargain Arab-style.  If we were short of cash, no problem; a cheque on a bank located somewhere in central Africa was perfectly acceptable.  It took up to eighteen months for cheques, all tatty and scribbled on, to be returned to our banks and our accounts debited.  There were benefits all round.  The cheques had been used as legal tender in Arabian trading circles while we enjoyed long term free credit facilities.  Extended harangues at Smiley’s, consuming many hours of off-duty time, would end with handshakes as we happily kitted ourselves up with the latest cameras, binoculars, and transistor radios for a fraction of the cost back home.  When a passenger ship docked, however, Smiley would politely ask us to scram.  This would allow him to exercise his business acumen on unsuspecting tourists who would be charged through the nose, while believing themselves to have found bargains.

We were called to Aden to watch the Yemeni border and to assist the UK administration in keeping a lid on the age-old Arabian tradition of intertribal raiding.  The clan that called the tune in the rural areas was the one that controlled the local fort.

Forts were well sited against ground invasion.  However, having been built long before the nuisance of air power, their vulnerability from that source had not been an issue.

In consequence, the unfortunates who suffered harassment by their cousins from the next wadi would make for Aden by camel to plead for support.  If they argued their case convincingly the provincial administration would arrange for a Shackleton to carpet the aggressors’ home area with leaflets advising them to desist or have their fort demolished.  At the appointed deadline, if reconnaissance revealed disregard of the warning, flights armed with three inch explosive rockets would head for the contemptuous sheik’s beloved fort.  Aircrew queued up for these sorties.  They were certainly more popular than practicing on the local firing range with concrete-headed rockets.
The risk of damage to aircraft was not high.  The locals were not renowned for sharp-shooting.  In particular, gunmen were not versed in “laying-off” for moving targets.  They preferred expending rifle magazines into the air hoping that a lot of noise would frighten the aircraft away as it was when intimidating camels and people.  The main disadvantage from the air force point of view was possible damage to the squadron reputation if too many rockets went wide of the mark.
As an aside, regarding the squadron reputation, it wasn’t too bad in the eyes of our RAF hosts.  For example, on the firing range, with one cannon armed with 100 rounds of 20 mm ball against a 15 foot canvas target, Range Control radioed one pilot his score of 85 strikes.  Back in the crewroom, however, an armourer informed him that there had been a stoppage, leaving 8 rounds not fired.  That produced a percentage of 92, a record that probably remained unbroken.
Low level observation flights near the Yemen border occasionally met with better directed rifle fire.  One tactic exploited by the Korean-trained Yemeni rifle companies was to task three platoons to sight the target differently, one aiming at the aircraft, the second platoon laying ahead by one aircraft’s length and the third, two lengths.  Using this tactic they scored a hit on an FB9 when one round passed through the leading edge of its elevator.  The detachment technical officer, Jimmy Pringle, determined to have every aircraft on the line every morning, sent fitters that evening to the salvage dump where they cut from a wreck a piece of aluminium of roughly the required profile.  Working through the night, a perfectly trimmed and shaped replacement was riveted into place.  Finished with a smart spray job, the site of the repair could not be seen other than by a trained eye.  It was the turn of the RAF technical staff to be astonished.  If it had been one of their aircraft it would have been grounded for three months or so while awaiting the arrival by sea of a whole new tail section.

In Arabia, during inter-tribal scraps, it is considered to be unfortunate if anyone gets hurt.  Normally a noisy show of strength will send cousin Abdul gapping it out of the wadi leaving his camels, goats, donkeys and wives to the mercy of the aggressor, a sight I witnessed on one occasion.

Although habitation tends to occupy the wadis, near the water source, they are sometimes avoided as places to live, high perches being safer as the photo shows.  But who fetches the water from the well below?

The operational area

The Yemen border area, on the other hand, was a different matter.  Troubles occurring there had an electrifying effect on the Administration in Aden.  After all, Whitehall might ask awkward questions if Yemeni incursions were not resisted.  The military response involved companies of local levies under British army regulars and coordinated air support requiring air and ground personnel to activate observation posts (OPs).  We took turns on Air Liaison (ALO) where we would join the “brown jobs” whenever strike aircraft were involved.  We joked that some browns in control of operations needed to dispel their quaint view that aircraft, like tanks, could turn on a sixpence, or, for instance, throw ordinance at a target at the foot of a mountain at the end of a sheer-sided wadi.

My stint as ALO was a bit out of the ordinary.  To start with I had an unexpected fifteen kilometre walk over a mountain pass to the OP.  Insurgent activity had rendered Aim airfield, the usual drop-off point, temporarily unavailable.  So our Dakota delivered me to a less troubled spot in the next valley.

The drop-off point

'No problem,” I was assured, “your guides know the way over the mountain.  But, don’t worry, Aim airfield should be secured before you return.  You will have a shorter walk back.”
I was met by a section of uniformed local levies.  Friendly and business-like, they carried without murmur large bundles of supplies including, on this occasion, a hefty ground-to-air radio.  The good news was that the mountain pass was served by a pathway of even stone steps.  Reputedly they were laid for the Queen of Sheba’s caravans that delivered Far Eastern spices from Aden to the Arabian hinterland

On we climb, interrupted only by the need for a swig or a photograph.

The time-delay records our arrival at the summit.

A short rest in the dry wadi bed.
Only an hour more to the OP.

The OP, 400 feet above the valley, topped with a perch with sheer sides of about 20 metres
—a welcome feature once we got up there

The descent and walk to the base of the small “jebel” that the OP had occupied took until dusk.  Earlier on, I had wondered why the soldiers had been anxious to reach the OP before dark.  When I saw it, I understood.  Considering its proximity to the border, its safety aspects were obvious.  The sheer sides of the pimple atop the hill were clearly an advantage to those occupying the OP.

The first stage of the climb was manageable until, coinciding with full darkness, we reached the vertical bit.  I was urged on, however, by my colleagues who knew every foot and handhold and helped me find them.  Just when I felt my nerve wanting to leave me, a voice from above called out in Brit Army “plumy” tones.  It was the welcoming voice of Captain Pete Harding who, at the summit, lying flat, reached down, grabbed my hand and pulled me up the last few feet.  After introductions and a preliminary briefing, Pete directed us to the water container.  We then indulged in a couple of luxuries from our rat-packs and settled down to a cool Arabian night.

Early next morning, awoken by the cold, I secretly snapped Pete bundled up and awaiting sunrise.

During the day I gradually got to know him and the rest of my colleagues, about twelve in number, some of them uniformed and others local tribesmen.

The first day was quiet.  I spent time drawing a small scale map as an aid to ground-to-air coms. 

The platoon sergeant cautioned me about one tough-looking customer.  “Keep clear of him.  Don’t look at him directly.”  I noticed the others respecting his space.  He seemed, however, to fancy himself as a “main munnah”, and found it within his limits of dignity to pose for a picture.

One of the tribesmen was envied by the locals for the exotic mixture his “hubbly-bubbly” contained.  When invited to try it out, neither Pete nor I shared their enthusiasm.

The following day things hotted up a bit.  As dawn broke, we were alerted by cries of alarm from below.  Popping sounds and whistling noises announced that someone was having a go at us.  Pete began shouting to his troop to hold fire.  It was just like the movies!  A dozen angry men had awoken to see a group of their donkeys, goats and ladies being herded by armed Yemenis.  They had whips and were driving their captives towards the ill-defined border a few hundred yards ahead.  These thieves were buying time by directing random fire at us.  Peering over the protective parapet, we watched one lady escape with Olympic agility until caught and forced to rejoin the group.  

 Our companions were going berserk Pete had to use parade-ground tones in an effort to persuade them not to shoot.  He knew that the raiders were not near enough to be picked off accurately, and that their captives would be at risk of being shot by their own kin.  Besides which, our colleagues did not have the reputation of being crack shots.  So, helplessly, we watched the raiders get away.  Some of the men were inconsolable, their emotion understandable considering that a sister, wife or daughter might never be seen again.  The men’s pleas to go in pursuit were rejected.  As the day progressed the muttering continued.  Finally, figuring that a treat might help break their mood, Pete and the Sergeant decided to arrange a feast.  A goat was ordered for four pounds ten shillings which, I was informed later, was the same price as a wife.

A pair of soldiers having been despatched to the village, weren’t long in returning with a live goat on a leash.  Within minutes its executioners, having sensitively led it out of view, faced it East in accordance with tradition, and made it ready for the pot.  The tasty treats were then stewed to perfection and shared around.  The mood improved.

The Yemini town, Harib, was near enough for us to watch through binocs the activities of the town.  Each morning processions were seen emerging from the main gate.  We were watching the funerals of victims a smallpox epidemic.  By Arabian tradition, the dead were being thrown into a communal courtyard beyond the town’s walls to be cleaned up by ravens and vultures.

The next morning the radio began to crackle.  We heard that action was imminent.  Raiders had been reported near the top of the ridge on the Aden side of the river bordering the two countries.

A photographic Meteor of the RAF had been tasked to collect the evidence and buzzed us on its way back to base.

I caught him on film and discovered, on return to Aden, that he had snapped us at the same moment

On the nearby ridge, smoke was seen drifting away from the location of the air strike.

Marked on the Google map are the OP, the Yemeni town Harib, and the target. Not seen from our vantage point, but shown on the present-day Google Earth map is an image of a columned building in the vicinity of the targeted ridge which may be either a survivor of that event or perhaps a rebuild.

The return journey at the end of the week was uneventful.  With apologies from base, we were advised to take the long way home via the Queen of Sheba’s steps.  The local tribesmen posed for a photo and wished us well

During the descent my companions informed me that I had become the first foreigner in memory to have walked over the pass both ways. 

The Wadi Hadhramaut

Back in Aden the Administration fancied a flag-wave in the region of the Wadi Hadhramaut and, as it was during a period of operational inactivity, an invitation was extended to us.  There was no shortage of volunteers.  So, off we went in our Dak on a two-day goodwill mission. 

After flying into the hinterland over inhospitable desert, nothing could have surprised us more than the sudden transition from vast sandiness to the huge steep-sided Wadi Hadhramaut, green with crops and dotted with towns—the agricultural pearl of the Arabian sub-continent.  (National Geographic image).

As agriculturalists the Hadhramis exploit prolific sweet water springs, harvest large crops of wheat and millet, tend date palms and coconut groves, and grow coffee.  In addition to their agricultural achievements, they have a high reputation in Arabia and Asia for their business capabilities.  They cover the whole region with their skills.

Left to right - Chris Hudson, unknown, Ian Harvey, Norman Walsh, self, 

Ted Stevenson, guard, British Representative, and Roy Simmonds.

Our host put us up at his luxurious residence.  I have two clear memories of our stay in this sumptuous home.

The first concerns the marble-tiled communal bathroom.  The bath was almost big enough to swim in.  We were not allowed to dive in before soaping ourselves down and rinsing off from the bucket of warm water supplied.  Near the bath, in an alcove against the outer wall, was a squat loo.  Its drain was a straight piece of pipe through which one could see the street below.  We felt disinclined to use it except in extreme need.

The second was the “fuddle”, the name given to the formal meal during which we were to meet some of the town’s dignitaries.  After the ceremonial hand-wash we entered the dining room plush with drapes and Persian rugs.  No cutlery was in evidence.  It was a hands-on affair—left hand only, the right being for other purposes.  We had been briefed to dip fingers into the communal food dishes and use the thumb to push the food into the mouth.  Semi-reclining on cushions, we took our allocated places around the room between local citizens of various shapes and ages.  Some in were in traditional garb, others in western-style suits.  It was here that we became aware of the sophistication of these people.  Next to me was the Minister of Education.  I recall him saying that he was in the middle of game of chess against a Master in the UK, each move being relayed by post, the round trip taking six weeks by camel and ship.  As we conversed, we began to appreciate how it was that such a small isolated group of Arabian people had been able to export their brainpower, culture and produce to countries far and wide.

Eating in this unfamiliar way was not easy.  At the end of the meal, we noticed that the fingers of our hosts were fairly clean even without need for sucking at them or wiping them during the meal.  We, on the other hand, had to deal with the humiliation of having bits of rice and gravy over our hands and up to our wrists.  Thankfully the establishment was prepared for our ham-handedness and had basins, soap and towels at the ready.

 The Sultan’s Palace in Seiyun

 Shibam – Credit: lonelyplanet.com
The ship of the desert—the main cargo carrier to the coast

HMS Bulwark

During a lull of a few days we heard, via the grape vine, that the carrier, HMS Bulwark, having been in dock for a while, needed to exercise its capabilities.  Several lucky volunteers boarded the Bulwark.  Once at sea and driving at full power into wind, the Carrier was ready to let the Fleet Air Arm go through its paces.  Wide-eyed land-lubbers watched catapult take-offs and arrester-wire landings.  We were full of admiration for the Navy boys who seemed at home on the diminutive deck.  “We’ll stick to our two-kilometre runways, thank you,” was the common view.  Meanwhile a floating splash target towed about 500 metres astern was engaged with cannon and practice rockets.

Then it happened in clear view of all on deck.  The second aircraft to take off, a Sea Hawk, successfully catapulted and had risen about fifty feet when it lost its canopy.  With a sparkle of disintegrating perspex, it dipped and wobbled, wings roughly level, into the water.  With engine still at full thrust it created the most spectacular splash and disintegrated.  The Carrier, having been slicing its way through the water at “full-ahead”, rumbled and shook to a stop in about two hundred metres.  Sombrely, we watched the debris float by.  There was no sign of a bobbing head or an orange Mae West.  The rescue chopper took station over floating items from the wreckage.  A crewman was lowered.  The pilot had been found.  But once he had been buckled to the winch cable the helicopter failed to pull him out of the water.  Suspecting trouble with the winch the rescuers returned to the Carrier.  The deck elevator opened and a second helicopter was raised to the main deck.  The rescue process was repeated and, disappointingly, its winch also proved troublesome. Or was that a coincidence?  This rescue team, however, twigged the cause: the parachute, still attached to the hapless pilot, had deployed below him and had filled with a vast amount of water.  The straps of the offending parachute were released and this time the pilot was seen to be lifted out of the water without difficulty.  They rushed him to the sick bay where it was found that his injuries were not as extensive as expected.  He had suffered only a small scratch on his forehead!  Meanwhile, the floating debris had disappeared below the surface on its way to the sea bed—a nice haven for the creatures there.  The fault?  We weren’t party to the conclusions of the enquiry, but our interpretation was, “Oops—crew error!”  The ejection seat safety latch had not been in place allowing the seat to succumb to the forces of acceleration and slide up its rails.  It only needs a 4 inch movement to fire the charge, out of normal sequence, straight through the canopy, followed by the deployment of the small drogue ‘chute that drags the occupant clear of the aircraft.

All on board had been treated to a costly and dramatic demonstration of the value of pre-flight checks. It was a salutary reminder of the old rhyme, “For the want of a nail, the kingdom was lost”. 

Ode to the Vampire
Through these reminiscences runs a thread that brings out the high regard in which we held the Vampire FB9.  Here was an aircraft without quirks.  Unlike other aircraft we had trained on, there were no engine or airframe restrictions to worry about.  It was simple to fly, principally with just a throttle and a joystick, both of which could be moved rapidly and hard in any direction without protest from engine or airframe.  When playtime was over, it was a worthy weapons platform.  In addition, in jousts above twenty thousand feet, its jet engine enabled it to outperform the Mark 22 Spitfire.

For the brief period the RAF used the Vampire before the Venom took over.  They nicknamed the Vampire the “Kiddy Car”.  Not to be taken too seriously, the RAF instructors who ran our Vampire conversion courses would, with a chuckle, trot out their version of the preflight check, “Kick the tyre, light the fire, and take off.”
The de Havilland Vampire was a credit to its designer and manufacturer.  I feel confident that all of us who were involved with this delightful machine will agree with me when I say, “Vampire, we salute you”.

Footnote:  Better scores were achieved on the Aden gunnery range, than at home mainly due mainly to different atmospheric conditions.  Aspects such as a 30 degree angle of dive, and breakaway from the target not closer than 300 metres, were standard at both locations; any fudging by creeping up on the target did not get past the eagle eye of the Range Safety Officer.  The ranges back home were over 4,000 feet above sea level where the less dense air and turbulence associated with the highveld, made it difficult to hold a steady bead on the target while discharging a dozen or so 20mm rounds.  At Aden conditions were different.  The denser air held the aircraft tighter in its grip.  The dawn sortie was popular and fought for.  It was a dream to be up there before the Sun had a chance to stir up will-o'-the-wisps.  On such occasions the air was so still that the sight could be fixed on the target long enough to ensure a good “grouping”of stikes.  Amazingly, in such still air, the vortices created by the rounds on their way to the target were visible.  So also was the fluttering of the fifteen foot square of hessian as the rounds passed through it.  If the strikes were seen to hit the target on the first dive, the game was on.  Provided that subsequent dives mimicked the first in angle, speed and distance, a good score could be predicted.  Only one more finesse was needed—a mild crosswind over the range so that, within the two minutes taken for an aircraft to begin its next approach, the disturbed air left behind from the previous dive would be drifted clear of the range.


Thanks to John  for sharing his article with ORAFs,

Comments are always welcome, please mail them to Eddy Norris at orafs11@gmail.com

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At 12 March 2013 at 20:06 , Blogger Rhodesia Remembered said...

Mitch Stirling (Air Rhodesia) Writes:-

'A Personal Record' by John Mussell is absolutely brilliant. A wonderful record, so generously shared with 'Our Rhodesian Heritage'.
Thank you Eddy Norris for compiling and distributing.

At 12 March 2013 at 21:50 , Blogger Unknown said...

What a fascinating record of RRAF activities in North Africa. Thank you very much John and as always, Eddie. Please give us more!


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