Per Ardua Ad Astra: Part Two
In Part Two of our special feature which looks at the history of the RAF we see how things changed after World War II, the impact of jet powered flight, the challenges of the Cold War right through to the present day.
D-Day and beyond
On the night of 5/6 June 1944, the Allies landed on the beaches of Normandy prior to the advance into Germany. The RAF played a major part on that momentous day.
Before the invasion, photo-reconnaissance aircraft had comprehensively charted the beaches, and heavy bombers and fighter-bombers had attacked the French road and rail systems, coastal batteries and storage areas. On the night of the invasion, Transport Command aircraft carried the men of the 6th Airborne Division and then kept the ground forces re-supplied.
For six weeks, Bomber Command continued to attack enemy positions and hawker Typhoons and Mosquitos harried the German forces, and their reinforcement routes, to devastating effect. Once the Allied armies advanced towards Germany, the squadrons of the Second Tactical Air Force flew thousands of sorties in support of army formations.
Before the end of the war, the transport aircraft and their gliders were called on twice more, to mount airborne operations at Arnhem in September 1944 and the crossing of the Rhine in March 1945. As air superiority was gained in the latter stages of the war, it became possible for Bomber Command to mount large-scale daylight attacks against the remaining strategic and industrial targets, including the raid on Hitler's 'Eagle's Nest' retreat at Berchtesgaden in Bavaria on 25 April 1945, almost the last bombing operation of the war.
Mediterranean and North Africa
When Italy entered the war on 10 June 1940, there were few modern RAF aircraft in the theatre and these were spread over a very wide area that encompassed Egypt, the Mediterranean, Aden, east Africa, Iraq and the Persian Gulf. Early advances in the Western Desert were lost once the Germans entered the region and the loss of Greece in April 1941 was a serious reversal.
The gallant island of Malta withstood a massive aerial bombardment where hurricane and Spitfire reinforcements, flown off aircraft carriers, eventually overcame overpowering forces. The security of Malta was vital as it provided the only base in the Central Mediterranean from where offensive operations could be mounted, particularly against the convoys supplying the Axis forces in North Africa.
Maritime aircraft, based initially in Egypt and then in Libya, also attacked the re-supply convoys in the Mediterranean and the Aegean Seas. The co-ordinated operations had a major impact on the ground war as crucial supplies were denied to the enemy.
The Desert Air Force, under Air Marshal Sir Arthur Tedder, was built up to become a powerful component in the air/land battle and played a crucial role in support of the eighth Army as it advanced towards Tunis. Following Operation torch, the Allied landings in north-west Africa, a second front was opened and RAF fighters and bombers provided essential assistance to the British First Army as it advanced eastwards to join up with the eighth Army in Tunis.
With North Africa clear of Axis forces, the Allies landed in Sicily in July 1943 and over the next two years steadily advanced up Italy, often fighting the weather as much as the enemy. The procedures perfected in the desert allowed the Allied Air Forces to gain air superiority, giving the bomber and fighter-bomber forces the freedom to attack German road and rail supply lines and give close support to the advancing armies.
The RAF also ranged into the Balkans dropping supplies and providing back-up to the partisan forces in Greece and Yugoslavia. One of the most gallant episodes was the support given in August 1944 to the uprising by the Polish underground movement in Warsaw when RAF, Polish and SAAF bombers flew missions to drop supplies, sustaining very heavy casualties.
The ill-equipped RAF squadrons based in Singapore fought a valiant rearguard action after the Japanese invaded Malaya on 7 December 1941. Singapore capitulated 71 days later and the remnants of the squadrons retreated to Sumatra and Java to continue the fight but were soon overwhelmed.
Defending India was a puny fighter force and by April 1942 the initial Battle of Burma had ended with most of the country in Japanese hands. By the end of the year reinforcements had arrived and limited offensive operations were commenced against the road and river lines of communication. A crucial role was played by the RAF Douglas Dakotas which flew constantly throughout the campaign for the next three years, flying airborne re-supply sorties to the 14th Army and to Chindit patrols deep behind enemy lines.
The arrival of more modern aircraft such as the Spitfire, Beaufighter and Consolidated Liberator bomber gave a much-needed boost to the RAF's capabilities. In February 1944, the Japanese launched a fresh offensive to capture India when the Dakotas gave prodigious service dropping supplies to the army and RAF units as they held out at Imphal and Kohima before General Slim's army was able to break out and begin the advance on Rangoon.
Hurricanes, Vultee Vengeance dive-bombers and Republic Thunderbolts provided close support, sometimes just a few hundred yards ahead of their own troops. Dakota crews flew day and night, often landing on forward strips under Japanese fire allowing Rangoon to be captured on 2 May 1945 before the main monsoon broke.
Liberators operating from Calcutta and airfields in Ceylon flew the RAF's longest bombing operations of the war. Some of these into Siam and Malaya were in excess of 24 hours and they included the mining of Singapore harbour. At the end of the successful Burma campaign, the RAF prepared to support the recapture of Malaya, but once the USAAF dropped the two atomic bombs on Japan, the operation was abandoned.
One of the most significant advances in aviation was the introduction of the jet engine. Pioneered by a former halton apprentice and Cranwell cadet, Air Commodore Sir Frank Whittle, the jet revolutionised flying.
By the later stages of the war, the RAF had received its first jet aircraft when the Gloster Meteor entered service with 616 (South Yorkshire) Squadron in July 1944. Used in the campaign against the V-1 flying-bombs and on ground attack sorties in Germany, it was the only Allied jet squadron to fly operations during World War Two.
In the post-war years the development of the jet was rapid and by the 1950s some of the most classic British aircraft of all time began to appear. Amongst the bombers was the English Electric Canberra, which went on to serve for an unprecedented 54 years, and this was soon followed by the trio of V-bombers, which became the mainstay of Britain's strategic nuclear deterrent and later as the RAF's air-to-air refuelling force.
The elegant Hawker Hunter became the standard RAF fighter and was later replaced by the powerful English Electric Lightning. The British pioneered the technology of vertical take-off and landing and the outstanding Harrier remains one of the most capable combat aircraft in the world. As the complexity and expense of aircraft increased, the RAF relied more heavily on aircraft produced in collaboration with partners and the SePeCAT Jaguar, Westland Puma, Panavia Tornado and Eurofighter Typhoon have been outstanding successes.
The end of the war also saw a deterioration in East-West relations, which came to dominate the RAF's principal activities over the next four decades, in what became known as the 'Cold War'. RAF forces were built up in Germany and fighters and bombers mounted Quick Reaction Alert to counter any surprise Soviet attack.
An early test of the resolve of the West came in July 1948 and led to the Berlin Airlift when RAF and USAF transport aircraft kept the city supplied. The air corridors to Berlin remained open, despite occasional threats and incidents, until the collapse of the Warsaw Pact in 1989.
Under the umbrella of NATO, British defence policy was dominated by the threat posed by the Soviet Union in europe and the North Atlantic and the size and shape of the RAF reflected this, which included a large tactical air force maintained in Germany. Guided missiles took on an increasingly important role both as a ground-based air defence system and as the standard air defence missile carried by fighters.
For a period in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the Thor Intermediate Range Ballistic Missile provided part of the RAF's nuclear deterrent operating alongside the V-bomber force. During the 'Cold War', squadrons based in the UK and the Mediterranean came into regular contact with the forces of the Warsaw Pact with air defence fighters intercepting long-range Soviet bomber and reconnaissance aircraft and the RAF's maritime squadrons constantly monitoring the surface and sub-surface forces of the powerful Soviet Navy.
Out of Area Operations
Throughout much of the 'Cold War', the RAF continued to maintain a considerable presence overseas becoming involved in what were described as 'out of area operations'. World War Two had barely finished when RAF squadrons were drawn into two bloody campaigns, one in South East Asia against Indonesian nationalist forces and another in Palestine where Jewish guerrilla forces attacked British forces.
The RAF played a major role in the suppression of communism during the Malayan emergency, when the helicopter proved its immense worth in support of ground forces. Short Sunderland flying boats flew operations throughout the Korean War and operations against dissident tribesmen in Aden continued until 1968. In a campaign much like the Malayan emergency, the RAF was heavily involved during the Indonesian Confrontation from 1962 to 1966 when ground forces were kept supplied by transport aircraft and helicopters.
Gradually, through the 1960s and 1970s, the British withdrawal from overseas gathered momentum and the RAF's role became focussed on its NATO commitments. One noteworthy exception was the RAF's contribution to the many years of support during the troubles in Northern Ireland where the helicopter force and the RAF Regiment played such a major role and where they gained valuable experience that became the foundation of many later operations.
With a force structured for the NATO role, it came as a shock when Argentine forces seized the Falkland Islands in April 1982. The RAF commitment was comparatively modest, but highly significant. The raid on Port Stanley by an Avro Vulcan was the longest bombing sortie ever mounted by the RAF; its success dependant on the massive effort of the handley Page Victor tanker force operating from Ascension Island.
The availability of the Victors enabled the HS Nimrod and Lockheed Hercules forces to operate over a huge area in support of the Task Force. It also allowed some of the harrier GR 3s of 1 Squadron to deploy to HMS Hermes in the South Atlantic in order to fly ground-attack missions in support of the ground forces on the islands.
No sooner had the RAF started to readjust to the collapse of the USSR and the reunification of Germany, than it was called on to deploy to the Middle east in response to the invasion of Kuwait by Iraqi forces in August 1990. Coalition forces built up rapidly in the area and five months later, Tornados, Jaguars and HS Buccaneers, supported by much of the RAF's transport, helicopter, air-to-air refuelling and RAF Regiment forces, commenced an intensive offensive air campaign. This lasted for 38 days and laid the foundations for the ground forces to mount a 100-hour campaign to defeat the Iraqi forces.
Following the first Gulf War, the RAF deployed squadrons to Turkey and maintained a continuous presence in the Gulf Region in support of numerous United Nations resolutions. On many occasions, RAF squadrons were called into action to support humanitarian aid sorties and to attack targets in Iraq.
The RAF contributed to the Balkan campaigns in the 1990s when transport aircraft maintained a crucial link with Sarajevo, the Bosnian capital. Combat operations by harriers, Jaguars and Tornados in support of United Nations resolutions eventually paved the way to a peaceful settlement in Bosnia and Kosovo.
The Iraq War in 2003 saw the RAF supporting one of the biggest ground offensives since the Korean War. every capability possessed by the RAF was involved and the service continues to maintain a significant presence in the Gulf region and in Iraq.
More recently, operations have intensified in Afghanistan where the Hercules transports and Boeing Chinook helicopters have been vital in providing in-theatre transport, and Harriers have been on constant call to provide support to the army in operations reminiscent of those mounted many years ago over the same territory. In addition to these operational activities, the RAF has developed a reputation second-to-none for its support of humanitarian aid operations and the continuous watch around our coastline by the ever-present air-sea rescue forces.
Throughout this period, the service has been subjected to reductions in its strength, falling to 42,000, yet the commitments overseas have continued. As technology has advanced, so the RAF has increased its capabilities in airborne early warning, surveillance and intelligence gathering where the Nimrod and Boeing Sentry AeW 1 have made a huge contribution to recent conflicts and changed the pattern of airground operations.
As the RAF prepares to celebrate its centenary, the introduction of the Eurofighter Typhoon and Raytheon Sentinel R 1, together with other advanced weapons and equipment, will give it even greater capabilities in the face of increasing and unpredictable threats.
This article first appeared in the Official Souvenir Issue of the Royal Air Force celebrating 90 years - the story of the RAF as never told before.
Editor: Air Commodore Graham Pitchfork.
Image 1: ( Larger size) A Meteor F 3 of 616 Squadron at Lubeck, Germany, in May 1945. Photograph: Official Souvenir Issue of the Royal Air Force celebrating 90 years.
Image 2: ( Larger size) Paratroops bound for riot-torn Cyprus board an RAF Blackburn Beverley C 1 at Abingdon during the mid-1950s. Photograph: Associated Press.
Image 3: ( Larger size) Lightning F 6 XR726 of the Lightning Training Flight on a sortie out of Binbrook, Lincolnshire, during late 1987. Photograph: Key-Duncan Cubitt.