Fred Jones on being a Canberra pilot on No 44 (Rhodesia) Squadron during Operation Musketeer (Suez crisis)
Fred, a former member of the Glider Pilot Regiment, joined the RAF in 1951. Following completion of the Bassingbourn Canberra pilot OCU course he was posted to No 139 ‘Jamaica’ Squadron at RAF Hemswell. In January 1956 he was posted to No 44 ‘Rhodesia’ Sqn at RAF Honington. Unfortunately Fred passed away in April 2019 aged 92 years, only 12 weeks after the death of his wife Joan, aged 95yrs. The following is an extract from his personal diary covering his Army and RA service, courtesy of his son, Howard Jones.
The disturbing situation in the Middle East became a regular news item, particularly once President Nasser of Egypt nationalised the Suez Canal Company and, by such an act, controlled the traffic through the canal system. Britain and France objected strongly and we became involved in reinforcing our bases in the Mediterranean. This was called Exercise Accumulate. The effort by Bomber Command was considerable and between 2-11 August, 44 Squadron alone made a total of 29 trips with each aircraft carrying 6 x 1,000lb bombs. For two weeks during August all the Honington squadrons were involved in daily return flights to Malta. We carried full loads of 6 x 1,000 lbs bombs with the safety pins ‘in’ and on arrival at RAF Luqa in Malta, they would be offloaded and then we would return home. In the rear hatches we also carried large nets full of cabbages which the Service messes utilised for fresh vegetables, which were a treat for all personnel.
When completed we resumed our normal squadron flying. It was again time to renew my Instrument Rating, which I completed with John Sands, the Station Instrument Rating Examiner. Earlier in the year there had been rumours about the possibility of being sent to Malta for a three week exercise that was to be held late in the year, but no definite dates had been agreed. We were later advised that this had been brought forward to the end of October, which we all felt was ideal when taking into account the Christmas period.
As usual before any major squadron exercise, and before departing for Malta, the whole squadron attended a briefing. We were surprised to hear that whilst transiting to Malta only some of the aircraft in each flight, rather than each and every aircraft, would be in contact with the Air Traffic Control Centres. The plan was for one half of the detachment to fly out on the morning of the 23 October and our section would follow on the same evening. On the 23rd October 1956 we reported with our kit ready to pack it aboard our aircraft but were told to go home as there was a 24 hour delay for our section but no reason was given. The first party had left on time in the early morning and had presumably arrived successfully. We were subsequently told that some of the earlier party had spoken quite freely to people outside the Service and had compromised the exercise which was why the delay had been instituted.
We eventually got airborne and, as briefed, the appropriate calls were made to the appropriate air traffic centres and we arrived at Luqa (now known as Malta International Airport). By coincidence, I bumped into an old 139 Squadron friend, pilot Norman North, who had flown in from Cyprus and was about to return. Just one of those quick natters to each other but very revealing. He left me rather puzzled when he told me that I would find out what was going on when I got there! “Where?” was my immediate query. “Cyprus.” came his reply! When I reported to Ops there was a signal with an itinerary, authorisation and route for us to fly to Nicosia in Cyprus. Perish the thought ...... that’s where the terrorists were blowing up British troops under the guise of EOKA and Colonel George Grivas, in order to gain their independence from the UK. We all did as instructed, took off and flew to Nicosia.
I had expected to find it a bit different but the place was buzzing and we were met by Dicky Stubbs, one of the squadron navigators and he explained that we were going to be living in tents near the Officers’ Mess. Another surprise was the amount of activity taking place around the aircraft that had previously landed at the airfield. Large white bands, similar to those painted on Allied aircraft on D Day during the war, had been daubed on all the aircraft and numerous bomb trolleys loaded with clusters of bombs were trailing along behind tractors. Of course the question on everyone’s lips was “What’s it all in aid of?”…… and always the same answer, “You’ll never guess!” We had been issued with, of all things, a .38 Smith & Wesson pistol, which we carried in holsters and our flying kit was bulging with two large tins of survival rations. One was stored in each leg pocket, which made us all look a bit like ‘stiff-legged cowboys’ and made it difficult to walk around properly. We were tired following our early departure from UK and found our bell tents, which were to be shared by four people and hence were very cramped with all our kit and the camp beds. Dust was everywhere and it was quite warm but thankfully dry. There was to be a briefing for all air crews and we assembled inside a large marquee, expectantly waiting to hear the latest news - of which we had no idea!
The briefing lasted a good couple of hours and the first person to speak was Group Captain Keys DFC, an ex-Honington Wing Commander Operations. In a very clear and steady voice he announced that an ultimatum had been given to the Egyptian authorities. Under the heading of Operation Musketeer, military action would take place unless Egypt withdrew its recent steps to take over control of the Suez Canal and that they should immediately allow continued free and unrestricted access to the canal. He continued that we were now going to war and there would be three phases. The First Phase would be the neutralisation of the Egyptian Air Force with air attacks on airfields and other military bases. The Second Phase would include air attacks against other selected key points. The Third Phase would be a joint Anglo-French sea and airborne landing at Port Said. The overall objective was to regain control once more of the Suez Canal. Individual telegrams were read out from the Prime Minister, Anthony Eden, the Chief of the Air Staff, and from the Air Ministry. The usual theme of ‘trusting we will do duty’ etc. There was no mention of any agreement or assistance from the USA. At the time the whole thing looked preposterous, particularly when you also took into account that elsewhere, the Hungarian government was in the grip of a crushing takeover by the Russians.
This was followed by specialist briefings including intelligence updates on Egypt’s defences, weapons and targets. We were informed of the actions required in the event of being shot down and told the locations of safe areas where assistance would be forthcoming should it be necessary. Items of survival kit were issued such as silk maps of the area, button compasses and flying suit buckles with a magnetic influence to indicate magnetic north for orientation. Extra survival rations were provided and we were told that when going on operations we would each be issued with a bag of gold sovereigns. These were to be used as bribes but they would need to be signed for and returned safely after each successful flight.
It all seemed so improbable that I really couldn’t believe what was happening. Following the briefing we had a ‘ginormous’ thrash in the mess which was crowded with aircrews wearing flying suits and we all carried our holsters and pistols! There were competitions to build tall structures of empty beer cans and some reached the ceiling before being toppled over to a loud roar of happy voices and yells. Loud singing of the bawdiest of songs .....the bawdier the better, followed by more crashes of empty beer cans as they cascaded on to the floor yet again with loud cheers. Eventually we all disappeared and had a good night’s sleep. Food was always available in the dining rooms, of which two were in operation to cope with the numbers.
We had only been there a few days when an incident occurred. A flight of Hawker Hunter fighter aircraft were also based on the airfield and they were often airborne during the day. One morning whilst we were down at the squadron tent, a pair of Hunters took off and they disappeared out of sight behind the tent. We could hear an odd roaring noise from the direction of their flight path and suddenly one of them reappeared from the opposite direction. It was flying with its gear up and just skimming the surface and then it went skidding down the runway on its belly with sparks flying out the back. Eventually it came to rest on the runway down the far end. Whilst this was taking place, one uttered a silent prayer that a disaster would be averted and the pilot would survive. Luckily the aircraft came to rest in a cloud of whirling sand and dust without the tell-tale pall of smoke, which invariably accompanies an aircraft crash. We all rushed to a vantage point to see the aircraft at rest and were soon all cheering when a head bobbed up from the cockpit and the pilot emerged and jumped down. Following such an incident and to end with a happy result, with the pilot safe... great news! We had a brief discussion amongst ourselves and then we all went back to whatever we were doing.
On 31st October we heard that 18 Squadron were heading for a briefing and yet I still couldn’t believe that we were going ahead. This soon proved to be the case because after about two hours they returned to the site without taking off. I could only repeat “I told you so…..”. At 15:00 hours local on the same day the message came around that, together with 10 Squadron and others, we were to report for a briefing. The overall objective was again repeated by Group Captain Keys, followed by specialist briefings indicating our target and the route to fly and this was shown on the briefing board. Our target was to be Cairo West Airport and we were to disable the runways but not damage civilian property or buildings. Ray Parrot was my Plotter navigator and Dick Angier was my Radar/bomb-aimer navigator. Ray was a steady chap, quiet, experienced and to date we had all jelled well together as a crew. We were wished ‘the best of luck’ as we trouped out and drew our issue of Gold Sovereigns.
Dusk was falling as we climbed aboard the transport to take us to our aircraft and it was dark when the time came to start our engines. Just as we were about to taxi to the runway, a Nicosia Combined Call came over the radio instructing us all to hold position. Soon the door to the aircraft opened and two Navs stuck their heads in and called Dick to the door shouting “Don’t bomb Cairo West, your target has been changed to Almaza Barracks” and they proceeded to give him new coordinates. We discovered later that the target change from Cairo West airfield to Almaza Barracks was because the Americans had informed the British and French authorities that they were using Cairo West to evacuate some of their citizens and they were on the road between Cairo and the airfield. A red-hot signal had been sent to the Supreme Allied Commander but not to the Air Task Force who received it much later. Having read back the coordinates we acknowledged our call sign over the radio and then taxied and took-off.
It all seemed perfectly natural and just like any other trip at night. We climbed away into the darkness and as we coasted out we switched off our navigation lights. I was suddenly surprised to see on my port side an aircraft’s nav lights blinking away and then it turned away and left our area. We settled down at 25,000 feet and carried along in the silence of the night alone, so we thought, and flew for some time in a south-westerly direction. As we progressed I could see a faint glow over to the left which did not show up very clearly until we flew for a while longer. Gradually the glow took the form of fireworks or something similar to sky rockets climbing up into the sky and disappearing. I deduced it to be an air raid somewhere over in that direction but it didn’t worry me as our general direction was still looking nice and dark.
Ray was quiet in the back and then said “We’ll be turning shortly to the left on 140°….. I didn’t like the sound of that! Even so I felt that the area would still be in darkness. It was all quiet on the radio yet lights ahead indicated the coastline and what made the event so unreal was that there didn’t appear to be any black-out at any of the ports. We had previously heard on the Mess radio when listening to the BBC World Service that Egypt had been warned that civilians near airfields and military installations were at risk of possible air attacks. As we approached the coast Ray called for the turn to 140° and as we came around on to the heading the glow from the earlier activity that had been of special interest lined up directly under our nose.
Simultaneously the familiar voice of the ‘Master Bomber’ John Slater, still on 139 Squadron, came over the R/T loud and clear calling “Tally Ho” as he dived down to mark our target. Dick Angier was now up in the nose position looking down through the bomb aimer’s window and watched John’s Red ‘TI’ (Target Indicators) go down. After a while John called out on the R/T.. “Bomb the Red TI, Bomb the Red TI”. Shortly an aircraft ahead of us let go of its bombs and they exploded on the ground. “Bloody Hell” remarked Dick, “Jesus Christ”... get on with it Dick I thought to myself! Ray passed Dick the latest wind speed and direction and after a little cross checking between them Dick called for the bomb doors to be opened which I selected. We felt the rumble as they opened fully. Dick was now calling out “I’ve got the target, dead ahead. Left, left. Steady, steady, steady. Left, left. Ste-ady, ste-ady, ste-ady, ste-ady. Bombs Gone”. He then counted five of the bombs leaving the aircraft. “We’ve got a hang up!” he shouted. I told him to hang on and with all the strength that I could muster shook the aircraft around as much as I could by pushing and pulling the control column as rapidly as possible and rolling the aircraft from side to side. “It’s gone” he yelled, “close the doors”. I immediately turned steeply to the right and headed northwards climbing all the time. That was it, we had dropped our bombs without giving any thought about the damage that the bombing had caused. We had bombed the TIs and it was just like completing an exercise. The night was black with only the faint glow from the luminosity coming from the cockpit instruments. Dick was by now back in his seat alongside Ray and some additional light came from the back through the black-out curtain hanging in front of Dick’s position. We settled into a quiet routine only punctuated now and then with the statutory fuel and electrics checks and the ‘huff puff’ oxygen check, “connected and flowing”, contents, etc. We were flying back at around 30,000 feet when a light on the fuel panel came on indicating that the port fuel pump in number 3 tank had failed. Fuel was gravity fed and the engines kept going and we continued on our way home.
Once we were within radio range of Nicosia you could hear various aircraft checking in on the approach channel and each received an overhead time to commence their approach to let down. Soon it was our turn to report in and check our position. We flew to the overhead and turned due west maintaining our briefed height. We flew outbound for the appropriate time in the ‘Trombone’, as it was termed, and now that we were in the pattern it seemed a relatively long time. We then turned and let down to 20,000 feet into the overhead. We were cleared for descent to 12,000 feet at 250 knots, airbrakes out and began to turn back on the required heading towards Nicosia. In this way all the aircraft letting down should be separated by at least 3 minutes for the final approach to land. There was no cloud and we had been able to see Cyprus as a whole from a good fifty miles away. It took 30 minutes to fly the Trombone, get on the approach heading and complete finals for landing. I taxied the aircraft back to our dispersal and shut down.
Transport was available to pick up crews and took us all back to the Ops Centre for a debrief and the first thing the Ops Personnel did was to recover the bag of Sovereigns from each of us. Urns of tea stood by for us to collect a cuppa whilst we waited for a vacant chair in order to provide our debrief. First we gave details of our times etc. and whether we had been successful from our point of view. The debrief was done via a questionnaire between the crew and the Ops Officer. We all felt very tired and somewhat strained now that the first sortie was over. There was no point going to bed, as all we wanted to know was what was going on and what had been the outside world’s reaction to the news of our raids. Our only source was the BBC World Service but there was no mention of anything! The main items on the News related to the Russian troops moving into Hungary and the threats from Russia against Britain regarding our military actions, if any, against Egypt.
Nicosia airfield was crowded with aircraft and, whilst the active runway was clear, all the hard standings and minor runways were lined with aircraft. All the extra personnel slept in tents which were pitched in and around the domestic site. Having landed after the first raid and recovered from the trauma and excitement of such an event we eventually succumbed to fatigue and went to bed, albeit in daylight. There was one scare in the early morning as we attempted to sleep and that was the wail of the air raid warning siren making us all get out of bed. Our shelter was supposed to be the Officers’ Mess building but we just stuck out heads out of the tent and waited. It remained very quiet and hardly a sound could be heard over the entire camp. Out of the blue there came a whistling sound which sounded just like the familiar sound of a bomb falling and then after a silent pause came the loud clatter of a stone rattling on the tin roof from a nearby hut. A pregnant pause and then the typical service cheer ‘hoorah’ sounded out around the area and we returned to our beds. I woke up around 0630 or thereabouts, a good time to hit the shower whilst it was empty and then have breakfast before the masses arrived.
Having managed to achieve this successfully. I was able to make it to the anteroom to read the newly-arrived newspapers, albeit they were dated the day before. There was of course no news of our air attacks but tension caused by the Russian interference in Hungary were the main headlines. It was very worrying sitting out in Cyprus with the knowledge that most of the Canberra squadrons of Bomber Command were out here and fully involved. Various rumours spread that the air raid warning that we heard earlier in the morning had in fact been a real one. It had occurred as a result of an unidentified blip coming down from the north on the radar warning systems and was suspected to have been a Russian reconnaissance aircraft. It was believed to have circled overhead and then returned from whence it came.
The camp was full of life and we made our way to the flight line where we had a squadron tent which acted as our headquarters. Boss Barling asked me to see if I could get hold of some fire extinguishers for the flight line because there were none about. Given a 3-tonner and a driver, I drove to the stores, where I had difficulty in getting help. I was asked by the Stores people to write out a demand for six mobile type extinguishers and a member of the staff indicated that as this was a weekend they would then be issued on Monday. This caused more than a frown from me because I thought they were joking, but in fact they were quite adamant. I asked if the extinguishers were inside the double doors and if so I’d drive the lorry through the locked gates to get to them and I really meant it.... “Had they not heard of a war going on and that the extinguishers were absolutely necessary?”. It must have jarred a nerve or two because the gates were unlocked and we were allowed to collect six extinguishers, still loaded inside their crates. The crates were made of plywood and I thought these would be very useful for the squadron. I had them put on an inventory, of which I was the temporary holder, but despite the circumstances we had successfully achieved our objective.
There was another buzz going round that we were on another ‘Op’ that night, with a briefing around 16:30. We trundled back to our tents and lay on top of our beds trying to relax as much as possible. In for lunch again and this time a salad with lots of tinned pilchards, one of my favourites. Then came the time for us to don our flying kit, which by now had become dusty brown due to the sandy dust that was everywhere. The survival rations were still in the leg pockets and they felt most uncomfortable when I was fully dressed. My Bone Dome and helmet had been left inside our aircraft. We made our way to the briefing tent once more and this time there weren’t so many of us. The route was already on the large map and the flight plans for the navigators were also available to save them time as they prepared their charts.
The briefing was not that long because the previous preamble was dispensed with and this was to be the third night sortie overall, so a routine had become established. We were going to be the first sortie of the second night since the attacks had begun and nothing had changed regarding the intelligence side. We could still expect defensive anti-aircraft fire from the radar controlled Russian-type guns which so far nobody had witnessed. There was always the possibility of being intercepted by fighter aircraft, although nothing in the air had been sighted so far. Our target was the original target chosen for the previous night but changed at the last minute, Cairo West airfield. Our load was to be six one thousand pound HE (high explosive) with delayed action fuses to be dropped from 25,000 feet. “Synchronise your watches” then the countdown and check for the correct time. It was dusk when we emerged from the briefing tent.
By the time we reached our aircraft it was again dark and we climbed aboard and settled into the cockpit, strapping in and adjusting this and that as the take-off time approached. Cartridges were firing from nearby aircraft when it was time for them to taxi. Our turn came to taxi and we started our engines so that we would fit into the stream when it came to our turn to move out. The airfield and taxi lights, plus all the aircraft navigation lights, were all that was visible. The jet effluxes caused the dusty sand to swirl around the dispersal areas and there was a continual din from the screaming Avon engines as the aircraft moved along behind each other.
There was no radio chat between the aircraft and the Tower, and we all listened out on the briefed frequencies, as periodically the surface wind speed and direction was passed out in the clear as a test broadcast. Our turn came to line up at the end of the runway and we stopped with a jerk as I applied the brakes ready to run up to full power. We were soon off down the runway slowly at first because of the extra weight of the six 1,000 pounders and then we gathered speed faster and faster until it came time to lift off. She was much heavier as we edged into the fairly warm evening air. It was all dark below as the last of the lights of the flare path fell away beneath us and we felt the last ‘clump’ as the retracting undercarriage was locked in position. I established her into a climb and selected the fuel switch to transfer fuel from our under wing tip tanks and set course for the coast and headed south.
We were back to the normal routine just as we had always done on any night training flight. Fuel, instrument and oxygen checks came at the various routine intervals and then, when at the top of the climb, navigation lights were switched off and the cockpit lights dimmed. With the absence of an automatic pilot the Canberra had to be trimmed and manually flown all the time. This meant that the pilot must continually scan the instruments and I was always looking out in to the darkness. Even on the darkest of nights the heavens are flowing with stars which gradually fade away into the distant horizon and the blackness beneath. It is possible when manoeuvring under such conditions to suffer an attack of the ‘leans’, a physiological effect that occurs when turning the aircraft without any external visual references. These physical effects are caused by illusions and need to be over-ridden by the pilot. It is when you sense these effects that the pilot must ignore his own senses and instead strictly follow the guidance of the aircraft instruments, which don’t lie. This effect occurs mostly on moonless nights.
Ray worked quietly away in the back, as did Dick sitting back there with him. After a while Dick came forward and sat on the rumble seat and plugged into the ‘wander/flexible’ oxygen lead. It is an odd feeling sitting up there in the dark and seeing the strange silhouette of Dick, unrecognisable under his ‘bone dome’ and with his face half hidden behind his oxygen mask. No friendly expressions are visible, a wink is barely discernible.
The route tonight was almost the same as the previous night, south westerly then, once near the coast, take a left turn on to a south easterly heading and head for the target. Dick by then was in the prone position, looking through the bomb aimer’s window at the front and observing what was happening. He mentioned that he could see some flashes ahead and the low level cone of light ack-ack and then we settled down for the bombing run proper. Bomb doors OPEN…. The rumble and the slight movement as we settled down. “Left, left. Ste-ady, Ste-ady, Ste-ady, Ste-ady. Bombs Gone!”. Then Dick counts the bombs leaving the bomb bay and watches them on their way down. “Bomb Doors Close” Ray calls out the new course and we turn to the north and climbed to 30,000 feet. The long monotonous flight back and into the ‘Trombone’ and approach pattern, which lengthens the trip by a good 20 minutes. Then we can see the lights of the runway well ahead of us, the flare path, clearance to land comes up to the R/T and we squeak a landing and run the full length of the 9,000 feet of runway to clear at the end and taxi back to dispersal. The debrief didn’t take all that long and we were told to get to bed ASAP as we were required for a morning daylight sortie. We went to the Mess, had a meal and then back to the tents and sleep.
It was by then a week since we had left home and it appeared that there was no end in sight. How much longer would the operation continue? I’d not written to Joan and was a little concerned that she would not be fully in the picture. Although we were now making the media headlines with photographs of returning crews and the newspaper front pages contained stories of our epic air raids. John Slater’s picture (139) was on some of the front pages as the ‘Master Bomber’ and our tactics were being compared with the wartime bomber raids. In reality it was the same technique anyway! We had only travelled to Cyprus with a minimum of personal kit, no KD, just battle dress plus a civvy shirt and pair of slacks. The battle dress was already getting quite ‘high’ because I had flown in it beneath my flying overalls.
Early the following day and whilst still dark we were called to a briefing and told that the target for this sortie would be further to the south and it needed to bombed at the break of dawn. Our target was the airfield near the ancient city of Luxor. This was one of Egypt’s southernmost airfields, to which the Egyptians had flown their Ilyushin IL-28 bombers for safety. We took off in the usual stream and climbed to 30,000 feet in the dark. However, by the time we reached the Egyptian coast it was dawn and we felt quite vulnerable sitting up there without any defensive armament and hoped that no fighter aircraft would be able to reach us. Thank God we were not pushing out vapour trails or .... at least, we hoped we weren’t. The aircraft in front was not in any case and we assumed that applied to ourselves. The aircraft had an installation called ‘Orange Putter’ (TWR-Tail Warning Radar), which was a backward facing radar system. This was supposed to pick up anything to our rear and show on a tiny round disc and would make a warning noise or something. As far as we knew it had been working ok but we did not place too much reliance on it. As dawn broke, the earth below was hidden in the early mist and very little could be seen beneath us. Our route took us over desert and to the east of the River Nile so there were no features to identify our exact position. Naturally my eyes were always scanning round the sky looking for any tell-tale movement of anything, be it one of ours or possibly the enemy. However, we just seemed to hang there with no conceivable movement of the aircraft across the ground. The run in to the target would be of sufficient length to have a good look forward after turning 90° to the left.
The turn would place us in a position to be coming in from the east and crossing the Nile, thereby helping to identify the exact position of the airfield. Dick was now forward lying down in the prone position and Ray was calling out various changes of our course. Eventually we reached the turning point for the run in to the target. The Nile stood out a like winding black snake in the desert and nearby there was a shady area which must be the city of Luxor. It was lost to view from where I sat and it was now up to Dick to take over for the line-up and the bombing run. As I looked around I noticed on the port side a small cloud about 3-400 yards away at about the same height as ourselves and slowly dissipating. I thought nothing of it and got back to Dick’s instructions of ‘Left, left, etc, etc.’ Our briefed height was to bomb from 25,000 feet and it is the final part of the run that is important before releasing your bombs. Having established the correct line to the target and providing the wings are level and assuming everything is OK, then the bomb release point will determine whether the strike will either undershoot or overshoot. When the “Steady, Steady, Steady” calls come from Dick then a steady platform is essential to ensure that the trip to the target is not a waste of time. “Bombs gone.” - followed by a pause as he counts the number of bombs away before closing the bomb doors. We wait for Dick to watch the strike on the ground before turning away and climbing up to return home.
I glanced over to the left, which was an automatic action when turning in that direction, and curiously enough I noticed another small cloud appear at roughly the same distance from our aircraft as before. The same height too..... yet another cloud……, blimey, it’s flak……, the first I’ve seen and an intrusion into our lonely world. A few more appeared with the small ball of cloud looking brown in colour and it seemed to hover for a moment before slowly disappearing. Dick got back into his ejection seat and I mention the flak and I looked to gain more height as quickly as possible. The route back this time was at 40,000 feet and I wished we were up there. There was no sound associated with the puffs which made it all the more uncanny and almost unbelievable because the puffs are not there long enough to bear witness. We flew over hostile territory for 45 minutes before crossing the coast and heading towards Cyprus, with the bright sun on our port side. We flew over the Suez Canal and Dick was able to identify Kasfareet airfield, below which had once been an old RAF airfield when the boys were stationed in Egypt, prior to their move from the Canal Zone.
We gave a sigh of relief as we turned onto the last leg to get into the overhead stream once more and relaxed as we entered the Trombone for the final approach and a daylight landing. The sun was by now quite bright on the run in and once again we landed on the long runway, with the speed falling away to a walking pace as I turned off at the end of the runway. The tiredness was rapidly catching up and my eyes felt as if they had grit in them and rubbing them with the back of my hands provided some relief. As it was daylight there was no fumbling or need to rush out of the aircraft. It was much warmer outside than in the cool cockpit, which some twenty minutes previously had been covered in ice. It was always a relief to remove the Bone Dome together with the helmet and liner that contained the earphones. One’s ears got very sore after an hour or so with the helmet in place and there is no way to relieve that feeling upstairs unless you take off the helmet - not an easy job when airborne.
The transport arrived to take us to our debrief and in the meantime the dear old ground crew would badger me about the serviceability of the aircraft. Since our first flight we had been carrying a u/s low pressure pump in number 3 Fuel Tank which had been regarded as acceptable by the Tech Staff. In present day terms it was called a ‘War Go-er’. There was still lots of activity going on around the airfield with the arrival of even more transport aircraft. I recall that at the first briefing when the balloon had been about to go up the plan had been for air superiority to be achieved by keeping the Egyptian aircraft on the ground by bombing the airfields. The next phase was to invade Egypt with sea and airborne landings followed by a land battle to regain control of the Canal. We presumed that we would continue the battering from the air since we had not heard of any air attacks coming from the enemy. Presumably we were getting close to the next phase, particularly with the presence of the huge air transport force. We were told to go back to our tents and rest as much as possible and to be ready for more operations that were being planned. It was rather difficult to retire to one’s bed and relax not knowing when or where things would happen. At least the early evening had now passed and that meant no night sortie.
On the 3 November, around 0830, we were called to a briefing and the old routine went into action. Butterflies in the tummy, the nervous nip to the toilet, yet everything seemed to be going well. We sat through the briefing and were told that the target this time was Almaza Barracks and we were to bomb from the higher altitude of 28,000 feet. This may well have had something to do with the previous reports of anti-aircraft (fire) bursting at around 25,000 feet and this higher altitude would provide more protection. Supposition only, not fact, but it just makes the reason more plausible.
As before, we got airborne with number 3 Fuel pump still u/s but we still feel comfortable in the same old aircraft Number 993, the same one that we had flown out from Honington. It is strange how often sentiment and luck go together when under such circumstances. I gave up being superstitious a long time ago because if you allowed such a thing to affect one’s pattern of life, particularly when flying, then life can become tricky and confused. When flying you do not want to spend time thinking that something could go wrong because you had either not done something or you were not carrying a lucky token. It is not a good idea to be worried but the question must be asked though, “Why does it feel better flying the same aircraft?”
Flying in daylight at high altitude over the desert, it can be very difficult to see ground objects from the pilot’s canopy because it looks misty below. However Dick seemed to be reasonably happy when he looked down and spied the target and directed our bombing run right up to a successful release. With the potential of hang-ups occurring in the bomb bay, it is important for the safety of the aircraft that you release all your bombs. In fact, this can be more important to your safety than the chances of being hit by anti-aircraft fire. As soon as Dick had confirmed that all were away, we closed the bomb doors and set course for home. Our return route this time meant that we flew the length of the Suez Canal which was clearly visible even from my cockpit position and with the sun reflecting on the perspex canopy.
We landed and after the debrief, repaired to our beds to relax, as we had been told that we would be free for the rest of the day and night. We were pleased to have a night off and most of the squadron, together with the boss, rendezvoused with some crates of beer and chatted away the time in the cool of the evening. We talked well into the night until it was decided to call it a night and we repaired to our beds feeling comfortably tired and relaxed.
We were aware that, in addition to ourselves and France, Israel was also involved, but at that point no contact had been made with the Israeli forces. We were told that the Israeli Air Force had been in action during daylight hours. Ground attacks were also taking place from RAF Venom squadrons and the French Air Force, both flying from RAF Akrotiri in Cyprus. The fact that we were operating during the day was an indication of the steady progress being made in the war but the World News on the BBC was not very happy from our point of view. The Americans persisted in their refusal to support and approve the joint action taken by the British and French. Instead they insisted that all attacks should cease to allow negotiations to take place at the United Nations. Prime Minster Anthony Eden continued to speak in favour of the joint action and the “rightness of the cause” in Parliament. He condemned Colonel Nasser and insisted that the Colonel was the aggressor.
I woke up the next morning to find that I was to be duty Ops’ Officer in the Squadron tent. This meant being on the end of the telephone and generally keeping up to date with the latest ‘gen’ and passing it around. The duty became more important during the night hours as I would be the link between the Squadron Commander, Flight Commanders and the squadron. I was on duty in the early morning when the air transport lift with the Airborne Forces was mounted. It was about 0430 in the morning and I was lying on a camp bed with a blanket over me but near the telephone when I heard a Hastings aircraft start its engines. As it was dark I did not think it necessary to get up and look around and so continued to snuggle up and just lie snug in bed. I did not envy the Hastings crews having to get up so early for their flight. It was a lovely feeling to feel normal just lying there with my eyes closed, listening to the engines. The engine’s noise soon grew to a crescendo and could be heard all round the tent. I got up to see what was going on as there must be something. I stood up, opened the tent flaps and strode out into the now dim light and all that could be seen was a thick fog of sand hanging in the air. The sand was being whipped up by the engine propellers from a large number of aircraft. They had been taxiing around the perimeter track and moving into position one after the other and then taking off at about 3 minute intervals. The whole process seemed to take a long time before the last one disappeared down the runway and climbed slowly away into the dawn that was just beginning to appear. It was now past 0500 and very soon it was broad daylight with the sun shining. Everywhere was covered in a coat of sand which had settled over the entire airfield.
I managed to get some breakfast, hand over my duty to the next crew, get a shower and tidy myself up. At breakfast there was a lot of discussion about the early morning lift and we waited for their return so we that could see for ourselves the size of the force that had left. It was not until mid-morning when the first of the Hastings came back to the airfield and soon there was a stream of them landing and taxiing back to their starting points. Information regarding the success or otherwise of the operation was not available on the base, so as usual we sought it on the World News. The operation was described as a complete success and they also reported that a Task Force had been steadily steaming in the Mediterranean and had simultaneously landed troops, a combined airborne and sea landing as planned!
There was by now considerable debate taking place in the UN and pressure was increasing by the hour for the British, French and Israel governments to cease operations. Rumours were rife that more operations were being planned for us in the bomber force but these rumours gradually dissipated. More and more information came from the radio via the World News because nothing was forthcoming from our local
It was now three days since the last operation over Egypt and there was much speculation on what we were going to do. In one of the earlier sorties, a Canberra from 139 Squadron operating in the low level marker role, had sustained a hit from a bullet or some similar object. There was a tell-tale hole in one of its wings and it was to be ferried back to the UK to be repaired. We watched what we understood to be this Canberra take off and fly a downwind circuit and thought nothing more of it. Whilst we were looking elsewhere and completely unaware, it had seemingly started an approach to land. We were chatting away when a dull thud was felt and we looked away to the approach end of the airfield and saw a black pall of smoke rapidly rising. “A Canberra has gone in” soon flashed around from someone who had been watching. Later it was revealed that the aircraft had been about to overshoot an approach and only one engine had opened up. The resulting asymmetric situation was not resolved and the aircraft immediately rotated over and crashed upside down in a quarry at the end of the runway. The crew were killed as there was no chance of escape when such an incident occurs so close to the ground. As aircrew we were always aware of the potential of a fatal incident and there was a feeling of despondency at this tragic loss of life.
On the evening of 6 November, we were told to get our kit packed in readiness for an imminent move early the following morning. Our destination was to be Malta and that we would be flying under the same conditions as during air operations over Egypt - ie ‘Radio Silence’. Ray, Dick and I got to bed at a reasonable hour yet found it hard to sleep particularly when our destination was only going to be Malta. Hungary was still in the headlines and everyone was worried as Russia appeared to be the transgressor. The press showed Russian tanks in the streets and crowds milling around them. There was always the uncomfortable feeling that the West could become embroiled and that we in the Air Force would be the first to encounter some sort of action.
It was very early when we received our call and we carried our kit to the waiting transport. It was still dark and comparatively quiet and the briefing tent was not unduly crowded. As usual we went quietly about getting the bits and pieces we needed and nudging people here and there for information. The formal part came at the end when the Intelligence Officer gave us the meat of the brief. “No communications with the ground en-route.” But carrying no bomb load was of course the biggest clue that we were in transit.
We took off in the dark and headed West which meant that we would continue to fly in darkness all the way to Malta. We climbed to a higher altitude and soon the frost settled and formed around the inside of the canopy on the bare metal. We were all very quiet in the aircraft and occasionally we spoke to one another just to check if each other was still there! We seemed to be flying an awfully long time before eventually changing course northwards towards Malta. There was a Eureka beacon (navigational system) at Luqa airfield and we had expected to pick it up very soon after the north turn but, alas, heard nothing. We continued to fly north for an interminably long time. We had not even heard the aircraft ahead of us requesting descent into Luqa. Normally what should have been a two and a half hour trip was stretching towards three hours. After three hours we eventually heard someone ahead calling for descent so felt somewhat relieved and we now started to receive Eureka ranges and at last had a positive fix. It appears that the winds had been vastly different from that given at the Met briefing. There had been a strong jet stream that had affected us all and meant that we had all been miles south of the required track and the northward turn had actually taken place over the coast of North Africa! I know that up front I was too tired to care and my eyes seemed as though they were full of dust, such was my fatigue. Dawn was breaking as we settled into our descent yet down below it was still a dark mass. Approach control picked us up and we set up for a Radar Approach and landing. At this time of the day the flight conditions were very smooth and being so early we felt as though we were the only people flying. It wasn’t very long before we picked up the approach lights and the Tower cleared me to land. We taxied into a parking position on the concrete in front of the control tower and shut down.
One of the ground crew stuck his head into the open hatch and asked what time we were leaving. I asked him to tell us as we had no idea! Ray, Dickie and I walked into Ops to be shown by the Ops Officer a signal authorising us to continue to fly home to Honington, after turning round the aircraft. I passed on the message to the ground crew to refuel the aircraft and then we all went for breakfast in the Officers’ Mess.
This didn’t take too long and we were soon back and getting aboard ready to start up. The airfield was quite deserted except for the resident Shackleton squadron that was based at Luqa. During the previous few days Valiant ‘V’ bombers had also been based there taking part in the aerial conflict over Egypt but they too had been withdrawn to the UK. By the time we got to the top of climb out of Luqa, we were soon sitting in brilliant sunshine and I felt quite good, feeling somewhat revived after the meal.
It took about the same time to fly back to Honington as it had to fly from Nicosia to Luqa and around midday the green fields of Suffolk appeared as we descended below the cloud. We landed back once more at our home base. Transport collected us from the aircraft and we dropped Ray at the Mess, whilst Dick and I continued to our married Quarters. We were still dressed in our flying kit which was all stained brown with the dust from Nicosia. Joan was inside the quarter, ready to greet me in all my dust. I felt terrible and so dirty and the only thing I wanted was a hot bath. Whilst soaking away and almost falling asleep in the very comfortable hot bath, I heard a knock on the front door. Joan came up after a few minutes to say that I needed to go to Ops as they wanted to see me for a few minutes. What transpired was that the Ops Officer, an ‘oldie’, was being a bit obstreperous and wanted me to fill in an Ops debrief. He simmered down a bit and was very apologetic when I told him how long I had been up and I was soon back in our quarter and asleep in bed. There would be no further involvement in the Suez war.
Fred Jones on being a Canberra pilot on No 44 (Rhodesia) Squadron during Operation Musketeer (Suez crisis)