Friday, May 13, 2011

Shedding some light on Aircraft Carriers usage by the UK in the post WWII

Britain has fought countless operations after the end of the second world war, all over the world, and almost everywhere, to an extent or another, all three services have been part of the effort. However, most small-wars are not very known or remembered, and even more darkness seems to cloud the many more missions of the RN’s aircraft carriers. I thought it was the case to provide a brief but pregnant list of notable operations.

Here you can expect to find the most notable operations carried out around the world from the end of the IIWW to our days and the demise of the Harrier GR9, but it is by no way a complete chronology. Many more missions, commitments and deployments could be listed. 

To integrate this list with further detail, a Must-See is the article Naval Aviation, Blogs and Think Tanks on Think Defence. The article is very accurate, and makes for a great read. 
Palestine 1948
Naval aircraft from
HMS Ocean covered the final evacuation of British forces from Palestine in May 1948. RAF aircraft had already been evacuated and only carrier-borne naval aircraft were capable of providing the protection required in an effective way. The RAF was, for years, part of the Palestinian conflict, and also suffered several losses of crewmembers and planes during the complex operation.

Korea 1950-53
HMS Triumph joined the USS Valley Forge to strike at North Korean targets shortly after N Korea attacked the South in June 1950. The British aircraft carriers Triumph, Theseus, Glory and Ocean provided all the UK’s tactical strike and fighter operations throughout the 3 years of the war. RAF involvement was limited to transport flights into safe airfields and some flying-boat MPA (Short Sunderland) patrols in the open ocean off Japan and a number of pilots sent flying US Sabre jets in theater, and even Gloster Meteors of the 77 Royal Australian Air Force. A complete breakdown of
RAF squadrons involved is as follows:

88 Short Sunderland Iwakuni, Japan

205 Short Sunderland Iwakuni, Japan

209 Short Sunderland Iwakuni, Japan

1903 Flight Auster AOP6 - The pilots were Royal Artillery personnel, flying Auster Air Observation Post 6 aircraft, and the aircraft technicians were RAF.

1913 Flight Auster AOP6 - The pilots were officers and NCOs of the Glider Pilot Regiment, flying Auster Air Observation Post 6 and one US L-19A Bird Dog aircraft.

NOTE: the glider Pilot Regiment has been the core from which modern day AAC started.

RAF Air Movements Iwakuni, Japan 1951-1953,

RAF Air Servicing Flight, Iwakuni, Japan. CO Flt Lt Bishop was theonly officer. 6 mechanics, 1 storeman. 18 months tour due to Korean war

A complete list of all units from all three services:

RN carrier aircraft flew thousands of effective sorties. A FAA pilot became famous shooting down a Mig 15 with his Sea Fury (which as many will probably know was the last evolution of the Hawker Tempest of IIWW memory)

CVL Triumph (28 June 1950 – 29 September 1950) Launched 2 October 1944.
    No. 800 Squadron, Fleet Air Arm (
Seafire 47)
    No. 827 Squadron, Fleet Air Arm (Firefly FR.1)

CVL Theseus (29 September 1950 – 23 April 1951)
    No. 807 Squadron, Fleet Air Arm (
Sea Fury)
    No. 810 Squadron, Fleet Air Arm (
Firefly 5)

CVL Glory (23 April 1951 – 30 September 1951, 8 November 1952 – ceasefire)
    • 23 April 1951 – 30 September 1951
    No. 804 Squadron, Fleet Air Arm (
Sea Fury)
    No. 812 Squadron, Fleet Air Arm (
Firefly 5)
    • 8 November 1952 – ceasefire)
    No. 801 Squadron, Fleet Air Arm (
Sea Fury)
    No. 820 Squadron, Fleet Air Arm (
Firefly 5)

CVL Ocean (5 May 1952 – 8 November 1952)
    No. 802 Squadron, Fleet Air Arm (
Sea Fury)
    No. 825 Squadron, Fleet Air Arm (
Firefly 5)

HMS Glory is notable because it equaled a record previously established by HMS Ocean, flying 123 sorties in a single day, , a feat which involved every pilot, including Commander "Air" flying four sorties, which resulted in the destruction of seven bridges, 28 buildings, and five oxcarts. After leaving the United Kingdom in May 1951, she steamed 157,000 miles and flew 13,700 sorties, of which 9,500 were operational. Her aircraft destroyed 70 bridges, 392 vehicles, and 49 railway trucks for the loss of 20 aircrewmen. Weapon expenditure for this ship alone totalled 278 1,000 lb bombs; 7,080 500 lb bombs; 24,328 three-inch rocket projectiles; and 1,441,000 rounds of 20 mm cannon ammunition.

A combined 17,000 officers and men of the Royal Navy, Royal Marines, and Royal Fleet Auxiliary Service served afloat in Korean waters, and 4,300 more served ashore in Japan. Of this number, 165 officers and men were decorated for gallantry, and 289 were mentioned in despatches. British warships steamed 2,100,550 miles and used 632,150 tons of fuel. Carrier aircraft dropped 15,200 bombs of various sizes and fired 57,600 rockets and 3,300,000 rounds of 20 mm cannon ammunition in 23,000 operational sorties.

Throughout the war, the Commonwealth Task Force kept at least one carrier on station around Korea, while another was nearby, being refitted or resupplied. During their tours in Korea, the carriers would frequently stop at Malaya to help out the troops engaged there against the Malayan Communist Party. In September the Commonwealth navies contributed warships and support vessels to the Inchon Landings.

On 13 september, planes from HMS Triumph acted as spotters in one of the most successful ever naval gunfire bombardment, which gained admiration of the US commanders. At the end of the day's operations, General MacArthur signalled to Admiral Andrewes, "My heartiest felicitations on the splendid conduct of the Fleet units under your command. They have added another glamorous page to the long and brilliant histories of the Navies of the British Commonwealth."

During Korea’s war, in 1950, for the first time the Royal Navy used helicopters in anti-mine role from HMS Theseus.

Suez 1956
This entailed a combined assault on Egypt by British and French carrier-borne and land-based aircraft. In the British operations the RN deployed 3 fixed-wing carriers, Eagle, Albion and Bulwark plus 2 helicopter carriers, Ocean and Theseus. Because of their ability to gain better position the strike carriers reacted more quickly to calls for action than RAF aircraft in distant Cyprus and Malta (Akrotiri and Nicosia, for the record). Despite only having one-third of the total British strike fighters embarked, RN strike fighters flew two-thirds of the strike sorties and their aircraft spent longer over the target area. RAF aircraft had long transits from their bases, carried less weapons and could spend little time on task, most of that at high level to conserve fuel.
The two LPHs or “Commando Carriers” made the FIRST true helicopter amphibiousassault in history.

Levant 1958
US/UK assistance sought to protect Lebanon and (land-locked) Jordan against Iraqi aggression. Eagle provided support for airborne and amphibious forces deployed into theatre. RAF transport aircraft flying British troops into Jordan were protected by carrier-borne fighters since RAF fighter bases were too far away for their aircraft to be effective.

At dawn of 17 July 200 troops of the 2 Battalion 16 Para Regiment were brought to Amman by Hastings transports of the No.70 Sqn RAF. This small force was initially very isolated then the Israelis would not permit any British aircraft to use their airspace for passage. Under the pressure from the USA, however, the situation changed. Besides, the fighters from USS Saratoga and USS Essex were also sent to patrol the Jordanian airspace, and escort additional RAF transports that by the following day brought some 2.200 troops of the 16 Para to Amman, together with some light artillery.

Until Hunters F.6 could be relocated in Oman, the protection came from HMS Eagle’s embarked fighters, and US Navy fighters from the 6thFleet carriers.

Korea 1960
UN forces including an RN carrier deployed to the Yellow Sea on exercises aimed at deterring the North from launching a renewed attack on the South. Deterrence succeeded. There was no RAF involvement because no land-bases were close enough.

Kuwait 1961
British forces deployed to Kuwait to defend it against threatened Iraqi aggression. HMS Bulwark arrived with 42 RM Commando within 24 hours (since good intelligence had put her in the right place) and used its helicopters to deploy and support them. British troops were flown into Kuwait by RAF transport with only what they stood up in – they had to requisition vehicles and wait for RN amphibious shipping to bring in more. Strike carrier Victorious took several days to arrive with her battle group from the South China Sea but brought the ‘complete package of power’ that subsequently dominated the area. A single RAF Hunter squadron had deployed to Kuwait from Bahrain on an incomplete aerodrome but lacked fuel, ammunition, spares and most of all GCI radar coverage other than that provided by Bulwark. RAF transports were being used to fly in troops so there were none available to support the Hunters which left once Victorious arrived. The need for the RN to support RAF aircraft led to the second commando-carrier, Albion, being fitted with better surveillance radar (Type 965).

Confrontation with Indonesia 1963-66
British and Commonwealth forces supported the Malaysian Government and Brunei against Indonesian aggression and deployed forces from all 3 Services. Ground troops were Gurkhas and 3rd Commando Brigade plus an armoured car squadron. One of general Walker’s first "challenges" (Walker was in charge of operations) was curtailing the RAF’s centralised command and control arrangements and insisting that aircraft tasking for operations in Borneo was by his HQ, not by the RAF’s Far East HQ in Singapore.
The Far East Fleet provided a considerable deterrent against Indonesian escalation and the presence of its strike carriers posed a threat that Indonesia could not counter. Carrier and air group transits of high-visibility international waters such as the Sunda Strait added to their deterrence value. RAF could not provide such a visible deterrent, even thought it managed to provide a number of Javelin fighter which flew sorties along with Navy Sea Vixens on the indonesian border. The “scare tactic” of the RAF, counteraltar to the Carrier group of the Navy, was deploying a number of Avro Vulcans in 1965 on RAF Butterworth, in Malaysia. 

A decisive role in support of the Royal Marines and Army was played by the Navy’s Commando Wessex Helicopters flying several thousands of hours operating from Albion and Bulwark in succession and mostly from Forward Air Bases ashore in unusually demanding conditions over a period of 4-5 years. The RN had adopted forward basing, notably at Nanga Gat in the 2nd Division on the Rajang River, which the RAF had previously declared unsafe for helicopters but subsequently used as a forward base for Whirlwinds. At Bario in the 5th Division, RN helicopters received their fuel in air-dropped 44 gallon drums from RAF Beverleys. The expansion of the Army Air Corps (AAC) was creating air platoons or troops of 2 or 3 Sioux in many units, including some infantry battalions, which proved very useful.
The Air Force had a presence of Whirlwind and Belvedere helicopters and Twin Pioneers. But the Air Force’s refusal to delegate operational control of helicopter tasking to the Ground Commander and the strict observance of aircrew duty time or monthly aircraft flying hour limits were great obstacles to their effectiveness. In contrast the Naval helicopter squadrons had great rapport with the Army and Royal Marines and applied practical exceptions to such limitations.
The Commando Ship gave invaluable back up for the aircraft deployed ashore and incidentally was the main form of transport for RAF helicopters from Singapore to Borneo.

East African Mutinies1964
Following a mutiny by Tanganyikan Army units in January 1964 Britain was asked to provide assistance. HMS Centaur was at Aden and embarked 45 RN Commando; 16/5 Lancers with their vehicles and 2 RAF Helicopters in addition to her normal air group. The subsequent assault was a model of how flexible carriers are and how quickly they can react. (Another example of land-based aircraft being taken into action by an RN carrier.) Centaur was capable of launching her normal air group although at times it would have been a ‘squeeze’.

Defence of Zambia 1965
Following UDI by Rhodesia, the Zambian Government requested air defence arrangements from the UK. HMS Eagle was positioned from 23 November to 7 December 1965 pending the arrival of RAF fighters.

Beira Patrol 1965-66
Following on from the defence of Zambia, Britain undertook to enforce UN sanctions preventing tankers from entering Beira with oil for Rhodesia. Only carriers could search the vast areas of sea involved in the months it took the RAF to build up an MPA base and deploy aircraft to it. Eagle and Ark Royal were both involved for considerable periods at sea. For nine more years, RAF Shakletons and RN ships held up the blockade. The Beira patrol finished on 25 June 1975 when Mozambique became independent. They assured Britain that they would not tranship oil to Rhodesia. 76 RN ships participated in the blockadeeffort.

Aden 1967
British forces were evacuated from Aden in November 1967 covered by an RN task force off shore. RAF aircraft were among the forces evacuated and therefore relied on RN carrier-borne aircraft for their defence while they did so. Many ships involved, included LPD Fearless.

Belize 1972.
A show of strength by Buccaneers from HMS Ark Royal prevented a threatened invasion of British Honduras (Belize) by Guatemala. RAF were too far away and could do nothing. The naval presence and the british troops inside Belize were decisive to stop the war before it could even start.

South Atlantic 1982
The Total Exclusion Zone (for enemy aircraft and shipping) was established and maintained around Falklands entirely by carrier-borne Sea Harrier fighters and a Hunter Killer Submarine. Long range use of Vulcan aircraft by RAF proved totally ineffective, in particular in relation to their cost, failed in denying Port Stanley’s airport to the Argies, and the myth of the Vulcan scaring Argies into keeping their Mirages back to protect their capital is absurd. RAF Harrier GR3 operations were possible only from RN carriers until operational base established ashore for last two weeks of conflict. Significantly the RAF needed carriers/Atlantic Conveyor to get their GR3 Harriers into the combat theatre. Nimrods flew from Ascension, but it was down to FAA helicopters to chase the argentine subs, including the Santa Fe. A few RAF pilots flew RN Sea Harriers on occasion.

Kuwait 1991
USN carriers played a big part in the coercive all-arms forces that drove Iraqi forces out of Kuwait; Ark Royal 5 operated in the Eastern Mediterranean in a containment role that was not, in the event, used.

Bosnia/Former Yugoslavia 1992-96
RN and USN carriers operated in support of UN and NATO operations in the former Yugoslavia. Carriers were able to position clear of the weather which sometimes limited RAF and coalition operations from land bases. The UK Government ordered one carrier to be available constantly in case it proved necessary to withdraw British forces under fire since land-based aircraft could not guarantee to do so and did not have the valuable mix of fighters and helicopters close to the scene of action.

Winter 1998 – 1999
Invincible with 9 Sea Harriers FA2 on board is part of the SouthernWatch no fly zone effort on Iraq.

Sierra Leone 2000
Illustrious provided air support (including Sea Harrier armed reconnaissance missions) for British forces that rescued UN forces in Sierra Leone; providing a secure base that could not be located or attacked by the terrorists ashore. The carrier acted as the national command centre, and Harrier GR7 from the RAF were part of the operation.

Afghanistan 2001
HMS Invincible and HMS Ocean both provided helicopters and help in getting troops into Helmand. Harriers GR9 later deployed on Kandahar, until Camp Bastion was built in 2006. Still to this day, despite the bases built into Afghanistan, the US keeps at least one and more often two carrier groups at sea committed to Afghanistan. France’s Charles De Gaulle has also deployed in support of Afghanistan, sometimes escorted by RN units as well. (lately the submarine HMS Tireless, for example)

Iraq 2003
Ark Royal 5 operated in her alternative LPH role and with Sea Kings and RAF Chinooks embarked landed Royal Marine commandoes on the Al Faw Peninsula. Chinooks were difficult to operate because they could not be struck down into the hangar and blades could not be folded – had to be removed. USN carriers provided around 80% of the air strikes in the campaign.

Afghanistan – up to 2009
Naval Strike Wing made regular deployments in Afghanistan with the Harrier GR9 in support of Herrick as part of Joint Strike Harrier.

Last 800 NAS deployment at sea on Ark Royal was in 2010. A previous cruise had been possible in 2008. Squadron personnel deployed at sea many more times along the Joint Force Harrier years, but often without planes, all committed to sustain ops in Afghanistan, so that US Marines Harriers, Spanish Harriers and Italian harriers were invited on board in exercises to keep the ship and squadron’s personnel as capable and ready as possible. 

I don't want this list to be seen as an Anti-RAF argument, but as a reminder of the activity and sterling service of the Fleet Air Arm and of the Royal Navy carriers throughout history. It is also a reminding that there are things that only Naval Aviation can do, despite all what the RAF has done. This list must be intended as a reminder of just how precious naval aviation strike capability is, and it intends to shed light over many little known wars and exploits of the british armed forces, which in so many fields, so many times in history, have been innovators. 
Particularly in terms of naval aviation, besides. First "true" carrier in 1918, first angled deck, first catapult launch, first jet landing on a carrier at sea, first shipborne helicopter assault, etcetera. 

And all this is just a brief summary, which does not even touches the countless peacetime operational deployments which saw and see the FAA travel all over the world. Still in 2006, just prior to disbanding, Sea harrier squadrons trained in Oman, Cyprus, in the US, in Poland, even, moving constantly from a location to another. 

And all the while, 24 hours out of 24, day after day, the FAA has provided ship flights to the navy’s warships and contributed to SAR service. RN Sea King SAR helicopters from HMS Gannet (Prestwck airport) have been, in the last few years, the busiest of all in the UK SAR fleet. 

Today the FAA also keeps two Lynx ready at all times to take off for anti-terrorism duties and provides Lynx HM8 when required to “simulate” the Apache in training exercises on Salisbury and keep the real Apaches free as much as possible, so that they can deploy where they are really needed, in support of the Army. 

You don't often see the FAA on the headlines often. Yet it is there, working. Day after day. Because "peace" does not mean that the navy sleeps. 


  1. Gabriele, you still seem to be carrying some of the anti raf nonsense from others, I know English is not your first language but saying in 1982 that the RAF were totally innefective is just nonsense

    There is equally a lot of stuff that is innacurate even in this revised list, some of it opinion with an anti raf sentiment

    Sorry, but there it is

  2. The Black Buck raids were ineffective when their cost is considered. It was an astonishing demonstration of global reach, but it did reach results that were completely out of proportions with the cost of the raids. They delivered some effect, but the very same results could have been obtained at lower cost doing things differently. At least, that's what i believe. As impressive as it was, it wasn't cost-effective.

    Calling ineffective the Harrier GR3 raids won't be correct, and i specifically avoided doing so. Those were precious, as you've very well explained in your own article, and i wouldn't dare denying that.

  3. Wasn't all the fuel given to the UK for free by the US? The USN commander on ASI who ran the port thought so.

  4. Fair enough Gabriele, explain how the same effect could have been achieved by something else, with no cost to operational capability elsewehere.

    You can't say something was infective because it was costly.

    You can say it was costly and we might have use those resources elsewhere but you have to say what

  5. TD, your basic point is that calling in more Harrier GR3 from squadrons in Germany would have hurt the "operational capability" in europe. True.

    But the Victor air tankers and Vulcan bombers busy in the Black Buck raids did not erode operational capability elsewhere? Just like the Harriers, they could be only in one place.

    You say that the Vulcan had more chances to survive the AA guns deployed around Stanley and it is true. However, strikes were made both by Sea Harriers and Harrier GR3 over Stanley, and if the Task Force hadn't been tricked by the fake craters prepared by Argies after the Vulcan raids, you can bet that strikes would have continued.

    Anyway, Stanley's runway was 4500 foot long. Unsuitable for Mirages and other planes. There never were Mirages or Skyhawks forward based on the Falklands, and there could not be for lack of proper airfields.
    Pucaras could be forward based, but mainly went to Goose Green and Pebble Island, which was notoriously attacked by a SAS group and the Pucaras destroyed.

    Stanley received Aermacchi MB-339, an italian aircraft that is a trainer, is used by the Frecce Tricolori to this day and, at most, can carry a couple of 30 mm guns and perhaps a couple of light bombs.
    6 were used, mostly for recce, even though one MB-339 was possibly the first plane which attacked the Task Force, by engaging HMS Argonaut, i believe.
    At least 2 were shot down, 3 captured.

    The rest of the Stanley force was 4 propeller-driven Beechcraft T-34 Mentor.

    Hardly such a worry, and they continued to fly anyway despite the strikes.

    The first attack on Stanley was a Harrier attack, and there was also naval gunfire used against the airstrip. Further strikes could (and should) have been used, had the argies trick not succeeded.

    For the same money used for the Black Buck raids, i would have tried to convert at least another merchant vessel to carry more Harriers GR3 down south, and moved mountains and seas in order to send more helicopter and possibly more laser-guided bombs.

    Moreover, i would have wanted a lot more effort into an emergency conversion for some more Sea King helicopters into AEW platforms desperately needed.

    Or, ultimately, i would have wanted to strike the air bases from which the real argie airborne menace came: but it was all too clear, to everyone, in the UK and Argentina, that the Vulcan could have never entered argie's airspace without being shot down by the Mirages.

    Which, thinking about it, was a reminder of how crazy it was the idea that the Vulcan could make it into URSS's airspace loaded with nukes.

    It probably was impossible because the added weight and drag would have required even more AARs, but i would have even thought about removing the nuclear warhead from some Blue Steel missiles to at least try and damage the airbases in Tierra del Fuego to stop the Mirages.

    Ultimately, TD, the Black Buck raids were 6 extremely-expensive, extremely-impressive, not very effective air attacks. They did nothing to stop C130s from landing in Stanley, and did nothing at all against the Mirages.

    The Stanley argentine deployment is described elsewhere too.
    Mirages would have required a 2000 feet extension to the runways. Skyhawks similarly.

  6. Or, ultimately, i would have wanted to strike the air bases from which the real argie airborne menace came: but it was all too clear, to everyone, in the UK and Argentina, that the Vulcan could have never entered argie's airspace without being shot down by the Mirages.

    I think the main reason was political rather than opertional. Taking the war to the mainland was a step too far. It was risky but not suicidal as you make out.

  7. Gabriele

    I need to clarify the issue of runways and black buck

    Black Buck had two very clear objectives, the first was to deny the runway to Argentine A4’s, Mirage’s and Skyhawks and the second was to send a very clear strategic message to the Junta.

    Cost in cash terms has nothing to do with it, once an operation begins, you have what you have in terms of capabilities, have very little time to do anything about it and money is no object. Corporate was not a war of choice, it was a national maximum effort exercise and did you know Margaret Thatcher specifically excluded her Chancellor of the Exchequer from the war cabinet except to tell him to open the coffers and don’t ask questions.

    I have made this point several times before but you have to realise 1982 did not have the benefit of google maps or absolute clarity of enemy intentions, force strength and capabilities so the decision cycle would be influenced by uncertainty.

    On to fast jets

    If Stanley was capable of being used by Mirage or Skyhawks then the air war and subsequently, the war, would have been very different. Argentine aircraft were operating at their maximum range, had no fuel for manoeuvre, no fuel for afterburner and no fuel for heavy payloads. You will note that only a few actually carried any self defence missiles and most kills were of departing aircraft. These disadvantages were caused by distance.

    This is what you have to understand, it was a priority objective.

    Skyhawks and a pair of Neptunes had landed at Port Stanley post invasion and therefore with intelligence seeping back to the UK it would have been obvious that Stanley and Skyhawk was a viable proposition. We knew Stanley could be extended and we knew there were engineers on the island with AM2 runway matting. This was proven by the fact we used the leftover AM2 and pins at Stanley to extend the runway ourselves to allow safe loaded operation for Hercules, war time v peace time rules are very different. All our AM2 matting went down on the Atlantic Conveyor although the US also supplied some from their USMC war stocks, we used something called PSA at San Carlos FOB, which is a lighter version of AM2.

    Although the unextended runway would have been too long for Mirage’s it was definitely NOT too long for Skyhawks, which after all, are carrier aircraft. The US operated them from short fields in Vietnam, they had arrestor hooks which could be used on land with arrestor gear and the take off/landing distance is less than 4,000ft even without cats and arrestor gear, especially at sea level in cold weather i.e. Stanley

    A4 Skyhawk at Stanley was a very real threat.

    So the threat was real and in the end Skyhawks never returned to Stanley, mission accomplished.

    Could the same have been carried out by the Harriers?

    Possibly but it would have thrown them into a heavily defended location where they would have been the hunted and because we had so few of them and their worth to the operation it would have been madness to keep doing it. To achieve runway penetration you need an attack profile that means the bombs drop vertically and at speed, to do this you need height and this pushes you into the engagement envelope of the Roland, Tigercat and radar controlled 35mm weapons. Sea Harriers and Harriers at the time had very little in the way of bomb aiming equipment for medium altitude strikes.

    Yes Stanley was used by a number of aircraft including the 339’s and one even attacked HMS Argonaut but these weren’t the concern and the material impact of lone Hercules flights into the area was minimal, given they had weeks to reinforce and resupply beforehand. Black Buck was of course a failure in this regard but that is secondary.

  8. I would also add, they signposted that we had an anti radar capability and forced a change in operational use of their air defence systems


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