The RAF’s Best Fighters Are On the Ground
Interview with Frank Brien, Royal Air Force Association (ROI)
Published: Winter 2017 edition
Seeking adventure Frank Brien served with the Royal Air Force (RAF) from 1963-1968. Within a very short time, he found himself in Cyprus, Aden and Bahrain with the RAF Regiment. Finishing school in Donnycarney in June 1963, I was looking for adventure. The RAF had a romanticism about it, becoming a pilot is what everyone dreamed of. So, I signed up thinking I was going to have a holiday to Butlins. Boy was I in for a shock. That September I was sent to the School or Recruit Training at RAF Innsworth in Gloucestershire. My God, basic training was tough and life changing. You were transformed from civilian to service person within a matter of weeks.
Following basic training I was posted to the RAF Regiment. Let me explain what the RAF Regiment is. The RAF Regiment was formed for the sole purpose of providing close defence of RAF airfields. The Battle of France during 1940, demonstrated the vulnerability of airfields, which had been long considered safe, to modern fast mobile warfare. In January 1942, the Regiment was formed after King George VI signed a Royal Warrant for ‘a Corps formed as an integral part of the RAF’. The regiment’s first home was in Filey with instructors seconded from the Brigade of Guards and the Royal Marines. The Depot has since moved three times, firstly to Belton Park, then to RAF Catterick in 1946. Essentially it was a defence force within the RAF, so it could look after and defend its own bases. We have a very proud tradition and proud that we can defend the RAF.
Within the regiment, companies are known as ‘squadrons’ and platoons are referred to as ‘flights’. During World War II, the regiment developed two distinct types of squadrons: The light anti-aircraft units were equipped with Bofors L40/60 guns; and the rifle or field squadrons, which deployed and were equipped as an army infantry company. Throughout the North African Campaign, five field squadrons and five anti-aircraft flights earned reputations as robust hard-hitting units. Following D-Day the RAF Regiment expanded to its peak strength of 85,000 officers and men organised into 240 squadrons. It was in Burma that the RAF Regiment fought for ten long days to defend the airstrip of Meiktila deep behind enemy lines during March 1945.
After the war RAF Regiment units found themselves in ‘Bush Fire’ wars and on peacekeeping operations around the world such as the Malayan Emergency and was also attached to Hong Kong for internal security duties. Essentially, we looked and dressed very similar to the rest of the RAF, however, we wore web belts and short leather gaiters. Initially we trained on the Rifle No. 4 .303” and later moved onto the L1A1 Self-Loading Rifle (SLR). We always prided ourselves on our ability to do drill and the smartness of our turnout. To this day whenever the RAF is on parade at national ceremonies it is represented by the Queen’s Colour Squadron. We always had a motto in the regiment, ‘The RAF’s best fighters are on the ground’.
It was then off to the Regimental Training Depot at RAF Catterick in Yorkshire. Here you learned your soldiering skills. Tough, but not like basic. As our role was airfield defence, we were all also trained on the Light Anti-Aircraft (LAA) role. At this time the regiment was equipped with the Bofors L/70. This was a 40mm anti-aircraft gun using the 40 × 364R round firing a slightly lighter 870 g shell with a 1,030 m/s (3,379 fps) muzzle velocity. The rate of fire was over 300 rounds per minute. The carriage was power laid. Following that I was then sent to the Driving School just outside Blackpool. A wonderful posting. Every weekend we were allowed into Blackpool.
It was then off to RAF Akrotiri on the island of Cyprus in the Mediterranean. I was posted to No. 34 LAA Squadron. This was a large base. Hostilities on the island had erupted on 21 December 1963, between the Turkish and Greek Cypriots. I arrived in April just before the main United Nations (UN) peacekeeping force. They had started to arrive the end of March. Our job was to provide stability for the local communities.
By the end of May the UN had taken over all these peacekeeping duties and we were back in base and a routine of training set in. The Irish Defence Forces deployed to the island around the same time and we used to meet them up at Nicosia on a Sunday at mass. A funny story was that in the British forces a rank with crossed swords indicates a general. When our guys would see the Irish Defence Forces guys they’d say ‘heh Paddy how come you have so many generals?’ Of course, they were getting mixed up with the Irish rank of Commandant. As we were an anti-aircraft unit, we undertook some range practice. The L/70 was an amazing piece of equipment. It could be radar operated but we used electrical sites. Twice a year we’d head to the range. Six guns on the firing line. A plane would fly over pulling a drogue. You could imagine six guns firing four rounds a second. Another crisis loomed on the horizon. This time at the bottom of the Arabian Peninsula. We were deployed to Aden.
Hostilities started on 10 December 1963,
when the NLF launched a grenade attack
against the British High Commissioner
of Aden, Sir Kennedy Trevaskis
Aden today is part of Yemen. Britain established a territory there in 1839, to provide a base for ships heading to India. In 1931 Aden was made a Crown Colony. By the 1960’s, the region had been plagued by years of unrest. In order to stabilise the region, Britain sought to create a federation between Aden and the surrounding protectorates. In 1962, the British government announced that Aden would be maintained as a permanent British garrison east of Suez.
On 4 April 1962, the Federation of South Arabia was formed from the fifteen British protected states of the Federation of Arab Emirates of the South (today South Yemen). The Colony of Aden joined the Federation on 18 January 1963. The day after Aden joined the Federation, Muhammad al-Badr of the Yemenese monarchy was overthrown and civil war ensued between forces backed by Egypt and monarchist forces backed by the British. The conflict soon spread throughout the region. The Federation formed the Federal Regular Army (FRA) and Federal National Guard (FNG). The Egyptians backed the National Liberation Front (NLF) who quickly infiltrated the Federal forces. The NLF were a radical movement formed in 1962, aimed at expelling Britain from what they called South Yemen. The NLF were also supported by tribes in the Radfan area of the country, as well as Yemeni tribesmen. Hostilities started on 10 December 1963, when the NLF launched a grenade attack against the British High Commissioner of Aden, Sir Kennedy Trevaskis, as he arrived at Khormaksar Airport to catch a London-bound flight. A woman was killed, and fifty other people injured. A State of Emergency was declared the same day.
In 1964, a second nationalist group, the Front for the Liberation of Occupied South Yemen (FLOSY), also began terrorist activities against the security forces and the NLF. The violent insurgency campaign in Aden was marked by a series of bombings, shootings and grenade attacks. To support the Federation forces, the British deployed the 24th Infantry Brigade in 1964. By 1965, nine squadrons were stationed at RAF Khormaksar. These included transport units, helicopters and a number of Hawker Hunter fighter bombers. The RAF Regiment deployed No. 34 LAA Squadron in 1965, and No. 27 LAA Squadron 1965/66. This was a very tough posting for six months. It was known as an Active Service deployment, which meant you were on duty 24/7. Very rarely did you ever get some time off, if you did you were confined to barracks. If you were ever off base you always had to have an armed escort. For example, I used to go to mass every Sunday. The bus would come to pick us up and there would be two armed guards on it. It was a very hostile environment.
On such deployments, the squadrons dropped their LAA role and became field squadrons with three flights; identical to an infantry company. The base there was big with a large married quarters area and it was our job to defend it. We were deployed outside the RAF base alongside the regular Army units. It was very interesting as at that time the Irish Guards, the Welsh Guards, and the Parachute Regiment were there, and we did a lot of work together. For several operations we would form part of a battalion with the Army units and deploy with them. Area and cordon searches were very common. We’d set up a check point and would then be required to search any vehicle coming through for arms. This was very difficult work. We didn’t speak Arabic, so we needed interpreters, and the culture was alien to us. On one occasion a car was pulled over. There looked like there was somebody hiding and lying in the back. One of our guys was ordering him to get out of the car. As it turned out it was a corpse and the driver were simply transporting it. Really tough six months. It was then back to Cyprus and a normal routine. A few months later I was posted to No. 27 LAA Squadron on their return from Aden and rotated back to the UK.
Back in the U.K. and the Royal Tournament
By 1967, the Federal government began to collapse, and Britain announced a withdrawal. In September negotiations were sought with the nationalist groups over Britain’s withdrawal. After months of fierce street fighting, the last British troops left Aden in November 1967. I was now stationed at RAF Leeming in North Yorkshire when I got word that I was part of the unit that would represent the RAF at the Royal Tournament. The tournament was an annual military tattoo and pageant, held by the British Armed Forces. This was a wonderful experience. We spent two months in London mixing with loads of regiments from around the Army, the Royal Marines and Navy. By the time I was finished here my unit had redeployed to Cyprus, so I was sent to RAF Bicester where I spent a year. This was another nice posting as we were not far from Oxford. In 1966, No.1 LAA Squadron had returned from RAAF Butterworth, Malaysia, along with No.26 LAA Squadron, from RAF Changi, Singapore, to whom which I was assigned. While here I was sent for six months to Bahrain in the Persian Gulf.
Bahrain is an island country, situated between the Qatar peninsula and the north-eastern coast of Saudi Arabia. The Royal Air Force established RAF Bahrain on 22 May 1943, as part of RAF Iraq Command, part of 83 Expeditionary Air Group in the Middle East. It was later renamed RAF Muharraq in 1963. There was not much there when we arrived. There were no married quarters and no aircraft. The county was not hostile, and the job was very much routine guarding the base. An amazing experience nonetheless and I was able to take a few photographs while I was there.
Royal Air Force Association (RAFA)
I left the RAF in 1968 as a Senior Aircraftman or Corporal in army terms. I came home, settled down and got married and pretty much forgot all about it. I was always in the RAFA. One day I was reading their newsletter and read that the RAF Regiment was forming their own association. I was then invited to a reunion at RAF Catterick. This would have been in the 80’s. The Troubles was still on at that time and I had to write and get special permission to travel over with my wife and children in the car. At the reunion I met another Irishman who’d served in the Regiment, he hadn’t come home though. He said ‘Frank, you are the only member we have in the Rep. of Ireland’. We had such a lovely time my wife said to me ‘when we go back, we’re getting in touch with the RAF branch in Ireland and getting involved’. I’ve been involved ever since and am the RAFA Rep. of Ireland Branch Standard Bearer.