Updated: Nov 22, 2020
Peter Randall has very kindly provided a ’dit’ about the 71 days 849 D Flt flew in support of the Beira Patrol in 1966; a little known operation but the last real fixed-wing operation conducted by the Squadron. Firstly, a little background on the Beira blockades for those not familiar (I wasn’t!)
The Royal Navy established the Beira Patrol in March 1966 to block oil shipments to Rhodesia via Mozambique, after the UN Security Council passed Resolution 217 following the Rhodesian government’s declaration of independence from the UK in November 1965. The patrol lasted until 1975 with 76 Royal Navy frigates, destroyers and aircraft carriers contributing (along with RAF Shackleton aircraft until 1971).
Peter’s memories from the time.
Eagle had spent the last 2 weeks of Feb 1966 at Singapore, during which time Harold Wilson had leapt up in the House of Commons to announce the disbandment of the FAA because “we cannot afford any more aircraft carriers and even if we could, we couldn’t afford the aircraft to go in them”. Sound familiar!? Much gloom in Eagle.
Prior to March 5th , the day the balloon went up, the ship was operating off the West coast of Malaya and I had taken an aircraft into Butterworth with mail and an ops officer and returned alone to the position of the ship given to me by MLA. No ship – so commence square search, being reluctant to press the button for a steer in case the mistake was mine!! After 15 mins, still no ship, so was forced to call and was duly told in-between controller‘s chuckles that he had been watching me and steer 270. About 90 miles later, there she was with huge white wake, charging off due west at 30 kts!! All requests for explanation were duly turned down, as was my plaintive plea for the ship to turn into wind for recovery --- “can’t spare the time, come on you can hack it!” The wind was about 30 degrees off so it was an interesting arrival.
Even when onboard no one was talking about what was going on. All charts had been locked away, letters home were now banned and of course there was no talking to family on the radio/tel. Gradually, the word got round and we picked up two Scimitar engines at Gan and continued at 30 kts to the Straits of Mozambique, whereupon the Gannets commenced a 24hr radar picture covering an area 250 nm from Beira in order to pick up any rogue tankers coming out of the Persian Gulf, which might make a dirty dart to Beira to pump oil to Salisbury (capital of Rhodesia, now Harare).
Only 2 tankers did during the 71 days we were on station; the Joanna V and the name of the other escapes me; it was not envisaged that we do much about it though, for fear of provoking a frightful political incident, other than send the jets to buzz the ships and make a lot of noise in the hope of frightening them off. A picture of Joanna V was taken from my Gannet as it approached Beira, which was published in The Telegraph later with the caption that it had been taken from an RAF Shackleton - by then a squadron of them had been sent to Madagascar and were based out of Majunga(married accompanied I might add!) because the weasel Wilson didn’t want to admit cancelling the FAA one week and then calling for an aircraft carrier the next. The picture showed quite clearly the port wing and drop tank of a Gannet…
It is also worth mentioning the sea conditions in the Straits of Mozambique at that time of the year are horrendous and the ship was rolling and pitching to such a degree that jet operations often had to be suspended, but the Gannets had to continue a 24 hr plot. During the day one could take one’s own wave off, but at night one had to entirely rely on Commander Air who was sitting in flyco with his finger hovering over the wave-off button whilst staring at a moving arm pitch recorder. We had calculated that if an aircraft was in the RIGHT place on the glidepath at the WRONG moment it would be knocked out of the sky, so it was quite scary and much hair was made to rise on the back of the neck.
The ship was replenished at sea for the whole of the 71 days, a record that stood from 1966 until the first Gulf War. Ark Royal was supposed to relieve us but was stuck in Singapore having been sabotaged by a disgruntled sailor putting sand and gravel in the main shaft bearings. I didn’t find out if the culprit was eventually apprehended.
1. Many beards were grown both within the Squadron and amongst the Ship’s company, just another way to relieve considerable boredom I guess.
2. Gannet 070 (the very aircraft currently on display the Museum), worried us greatly. We were flying 5.5hr details at 15,000 ft and this aircraft emitted the most extraordinary creaks and groans. It sounded as though it was about to fall apart which was a trifle unsettling, particularly at night. There were no diversions available - we could hardly go to Salisbury and we were not welcome in Durban - so it was either ditch alongside the ship or crash it on the deck. Fortunately, we got through the whole operation without anybody having to make that decision. Our engineer, Bernie Taft, (who was awarded an OBE for his unstinting efforts) took that aeroplane to bits with the help of his team and put it back together again twice and it still creaked and groaned!
3. John Sillet had an exciting experience one very dark night in the shape of a single engine failure at about 500ft on final approach to the deck. He couldn’t have been placed in a worse position really and although he did all the right things the aircraft ditched short of the ship. Happily, they all got out and the plane guard helicopter winched them out very quickly.
4. Towards the end of the operation, the CO John Coward, SOBS Doug Allan and myself as Senior Pilot attended a briefing where it was seriously discussed that we bomb Salisbury. Luckily the whole adventure came to an end before this monstrous suggestion could be carried out. Even if it had been, I wouldn’t have given much likelihood of the bombs hitting the target owing to a palpable lack of enthusiasm for such extreme action amongst the aircrew, even though it wouldn’t have involved any Rhodesian nationals, all of whom had quickly been sent back to the UK at the outset just in case any scenarios of that nature occurred.