V-Force: Victors in Malaya
57 Sqn at Tengah (image courtesy of Terry Filing via vforcereunion.co.uk)
50 years ago, between 1963 and 1966, the UK’s armed forces were involved in the Indonesian ‘Confrontation’, an undeclared war caused by Indonesia’s opposition to the creation of the state of Malaysia. Most of the action was limited-scale ground combat on the island of Borneo, with the involvement of air and sea power limited to the logistical support of the ground troops. That said, on 1 September 1964, an Indonesian Air Force C130 Hercules was lost as it attempted to evade an RAF Javelin fighter while attempting to infiltrate troops into the Labis area of Malaysia, North West of Singapore. The crew and all 48 troops on board were killed. One little-known contribution to British forces in the Far East came in the form of a very big ‘gun’ indeed; semi-permanent detachments of the RAF’s nuclear strike force, the V-Force, deployed in the conventional bombing role. One imagines that, compared to the V-Force’s UK-based routine of training flying, target study and nuclear Quick Reaction Alert standby, a periodic 3-month detachment to the tropics was not an unpopular duty with the crews! The political and strategic considerations surrounding both Confrontation and the role of the V-Force have been covered amply elsewhere; this entry in the Finest Hour blog serves simply to highlight the interesting flying opportunities that this detachment provided to one particular Victor bomber crew.
Typically, the V-Force detachment would comprise a rotation of 4 Victor or Vulcan bombers to RAF Tengah in Singapore or RAAF Butterworth on the island of Penang. By Autumn 1964, the task of providing aircraft and crews was held by the Victor wing at RAF Honington; by May 1965, 57 Sqn was providing the crews for the in-theatre Victor B1as. On 6 May 1965, Flight International published an article written by a journalist Robert Rodwell who had briefly experienced low-level flight over Malaya with Flt Lt Terry Filing and his 57 Sqn crew. Although, due to understandable security at the time, precise details of the heights and speeds flown were left deliberately vague, Mr Rodwell left readers in no doubt as to the nature of the activity by describing his sang-froid at the close proximity of trees gained during a few days’ intensive flying in helicopters and supply-dropping transport aeroplanes in Borneo. Tellingly, he also describes the discomfort of flying in the tropical heat at low level wearing, in addition to normal flying clothing and survival equipment, the long ’treescape’ abseiling pack and the sweat bath thus induced; he also describes the “Himalayan proportions” of a 2000ft hill as it appeared ahead and the breaking of his sang froid as it was negotiated! Rodwell also describes a subsequent series of practice medium-level visual bombing runs at Song Song range, followed by continuation training in the circuit, a typical profile for a Victor training sortie. Indeed, knowing how sweaty low flying in this environment was, the crews preferred to plan a flight to include a period at high level to cool the cabin prior to their descent for the low level leg. During the descent, the air conditioning would be switched off to prevent hot humid air from being pumped into the cabin at low level.
The Victor. Flight International, May 1965 (courtesy www.flightglobal.com)
The aerodynamic and technical superiority of the Victor over the other V-Bombers is well-documented, but operating this sophisticated aeroplane in the tropics presented a number of challenges. Aerodynamically clean it may have been, but the Mk1 Victor’s Sapphire engines left it underpowered, making heavyweight takeoffs at high temperatures interesting to say the least. The crews did not trust the performance documentation they were given, and routinely added 10% safety margin for routine flying. On one occasion, more precision was required as they were tasked with flying to the island of Gan, carrying the maximum bomb load performance would allow, thus the maximum bomb load possible from Tengah with enough fuel to reach Gan needed to be calculated. Several flights were made with gradually increasing bomb loads. An observer was positioned at the end of the runway to report the point at which the wheels left the ground, the runway length remaining and hence the margin for a subsequent aircraft to increase its load. Not for nothing were heavyweight circuits an important part of the Victor syllabus.
Victor XH621 Low Level over Malaya (www.flightglobal.com)
High relative humidity affected the Aeroplane in a number of ways, but the most safety-critical was, again, in respect of its engines. The Javelin fighter was also equipped with Sapphire engines and Tengah’s resident Javelin squadron had experienced a number of cases of ‘centreline closure’ with the Sapphire. This was a condition caused by the ingestion and subsequent freezing of supercooled water droplets present in the locally-prevalent tropical storms. The water droplets absorbed the heat from the compressor casings, causing them to contract onto the compressor blades, which in turn led to engines exploding. Somehow, this information was not passed to the Victor crews prior to their deployment. With the engines housed in pairs in the wing roots, in the event of the failure of one engine, the drill was to shut down the adjacent engine on the same side of the aeroplane as a precautionary measure, in case damage had spread. The night Terry Filing suffered the loss of an engine due to centreline closure, he duly shut down the adjacent engine as the drill required. During his recovery to the airfield, he lost an engine on the opposite side to the same cause; clearly some innovation and deviation from the standard drill would be required! Flt Lt ‘Tommy’ Thompson was the Duty Victor pilot in the Control Tower that evening, and recalls a particularly undemanding duty due to the number of senior officers who arrived in the Tower to offer their advice as the emergency unfolded! Terry Filing received a well-deserved Air Force Cross for his actions that night.
Victor XH621 Low Level over Malaya (www.flightglobal.com)
Back to ‘our’ crew, who, in addition to training sorties, carried out Maritime Radar Reconnaissance to provide warning of any build up in Indonesian forces. These flights took them in close proximity to Indonesia without being disturbed by the Indonesian Air Defences, useful knowledge which would serve them well later, as we will see. Returning from one of these missions after the possible detection of some Indonesian Naval activity, they were at high level (50000’ plus) over Singapore when they ran into a tropical storm and encountered severe icing in the Victor’s pitot-static system which at the time was heated by DC power only. With no reliable airspeed, mach or altitude indications, only the use of basic flying skills assured their safe return, a lesson sadly relearned only recently by the current generation of airline pilots.
RAF Tengah 1965 - Hunters, Javelins, Victors, Canberras (Tommy Thompson)
Light relief was provided in the unlikely form of Lancaster G-ASXX, who made a stopover at RAAF Butterworth during her journey from Australia to Biggin Hill for the Historic Aircraft Preservation Society. At the time, this was the last flying Lancaster in the world, restoration of the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight’s machine occurring shortly afterwards. On departure from Butterworth for Calcutta on 7 May 1965, the Lancaster was escorted by a RAAF Canberra and ‘our’ crew in their Victor. Given the description I had once heard of visibility from the Victor as “sitting in your porch, looking through the letterbox and trying to land your house”, I was always intrigued as to why the Victor had flown in the number 3 position in the formation, placing the lead aircraft on the opposite side of the Victor to its Captain. All becomes clear when one peruses the Captain’s logbook; the main purpose of the flight was for him to perform an Instrument Rating Test on another Victor Captain and thus he would have been flying from the right hand seat, next to the Lancaster. Nowadays, this Lancaster is better known as ‘Just Jane’ and is preserved at The Lincolnshire Aviation Heritage Centre at East Kirkby. This event is not Finest Hour’s only link with 57 Sqn and Lancasters, more of which in a future instalment. Finest Hour also has every intention of continuing the tradition of ‘unusual’ mixed formations, although we can state with absolute certainty that we will never better this one!
Lancaster Formation (Tommy Thompson)
Lancaster and Victor at Butterworth (Tommy Thompson)
Lancaster Nose art (Tommy Thompson)
Another complex and temperamental system on the Victor was its ’90 way’ bombing system which, as its name suggests, provided 90 different ways of dropping the Victor’s maximum conventional bomb load of thirty five 1000lb bombs. This was the largest bomb load ever carried by and dropped from a British aeroplane. The full load had been dropped during the Victor’s early trials but Confrontation required a ‘Firepower Demonstration’ in a less-than-subtle effort to dissuade the Indonesians from escalating the conflict. The story of the Victor’s final drop of 35 1000lb bombs has never been fully told, but Andrew Brookes’ excellent books ‘V-Force’ and ‘Victor Units of the Cold War’ come closest to telling the story. Tony Blackman’s book ‘Victor Boys’ describes some of the attempts to drop the full load, including an attempt to drop the bombs in a ’stick’ which failed due to a fault in that crew’s ‘’90 Way’ system. Earlier during Confrontation, XV Sqn had dropped the full load in a concentrated block from XH648 and this event is shown in the well-known photograph of that aeroplane (XH648 is the only surviving Mark 1 Victor and is preserved at the Imperial War Museum, Duxford). However, the picture is well known as a fake, having been ‘doctored’ to force the appearance of an immaculate set of bombs. What the propagandists wanted was a trail of bombs released in sequence, the first bomb exploding on impact with the sea before the last bomb left the aeroplane, the intention being to create a ‘wall of water’ as an impressive spectacle. ‘Victor Boys’ describes only the unsuccessful attempts to achieve this but shows that lessons were being learned in adjusting the ’90 Way’ system and in the separation of the bombs to achieve the desired result.
Victors at Tengah (Tommy Thompson)
Victor over the Malacca Straits (Tommy Thompson)
Victor close formation (Tommy Thompson)
Clean Lines - Victor B1a (Tommy Thompson)
Victor Rear Crew (Tommy Thompson)
On 25 May 1965, following a rehearsal 8 days earlier, ‘our’ crew took off in Victor XH621 with the full thirty five 1000lb live bombs and headed for the China Rock range, tasked to create the ‘wall of water’ for the benefit of the Far Eastern press, some of whom were invited to observe from nearby ships. The crew were unaware of the previous attempts and thus there remained some concern of the risk of ‘sympathetic detonation’ of the bombs back up the stick towards the aeroplane. Equally, the crew were well aware of the negative effects of moisture on elements of the ’90 Way’ system and were keen to complete the task before the high humidity had time to take full effect. Equally, they were carrying a reduced fuel load due to the sheer weight of bombs so neither lengthy holding nor numerous attempts to drop would not be possible. The mission was pre-planned, so the crew expected the range controllers to have cleared the range of shipping. On their first 2 runs, the Range Safety Officer did not give clearance to drop, due to the presence of small fishing boats. Short of fuel, the crew informed the range that they would be bombing on their third and final run. The crew made their live run, releasing all 35 bombs in sequence, as intended by the originators of the plan, before landing at Changi. We believe this was the only occasion on which a Victor successfully dropped such a stick of bombs and the last time a full load was dropped by a Victor. The Captain credits the success of the mission to his 2 navigators, who came up with a simple but effective scheme to mitigate the effects of moisture on the temperamental bomb release system; this element of the story has yet to be published. XH621 was scrapped at RAF St Athan in the mid-late 1970s.
Victor bomb loading (IWM)
In his excellent and detailed blog, Tony Cunnane, then a Valiant Air Electronics Officer working on operational planning in Air HQ Far East, describes the plans for operational use of the Victors had Confrontation escalated further. The Victors would have performed their operational bombing missions from the RAAF airfield at Darwin in Northern Australia. Thus, Darwin became a regular destination for the Victors, whose transit would typically be carried out at high level. The RAAF’s habit was to detect the high-flying Victors on its air defence radars and despatch Mirage III fighters to intercept. On 2 June 1965, our crew, again in XH621, was one of 4 Victor crews sent from Butterworth to Darwin, but on this occasion, their arrival was to be as clandestine as possible. Due to the knowledge gained on the earlier MRR missions, the crews had the expertise to skirt Indonesian airspace with minimal risk of interception before descending to low level in an exercise intended to test the new Australian Air Defence radar system. It should be borne in mind that, by this time, and in response to the increased numbers and capability of Soviet Surface-to-Air Missile defences, V-Force strike tactics had moved from their original concept of high-level operations to one of penetration at low level; thus the crews were well-practiced in the skills required to operate tactically at low level. On this occasion, their effectiveness was more than proven; the first the Australian radar operators knew of their extremely low level visitors was when they heard the roar of each Victor in turn as they routed overhead the radar station. The Victors continued to Darwin where Tony Cunnane observed their arrival, describing his feeling “jolly proud to be British” as each Victor blew up “huge clouds of dust” during its attack on the airfield before pulling up into the circuit to land.
35 x 1000lb in one drop
Victors at Darwin (Tony Cunnane)
Victors to Darwin
After a flypast for photographers on 3 June, the logbook shows the Victors participating in Exercise SHORT ACRUX until 10 June. This exercise involved a mix of high and low level operations, with interception by RAAF Mirage IIIs on the high-level sorties, before returning to Butterworth on 12 June.
Exercise SHORT ACRUX
Exercise SHORT ACRUX (Tommy Thompson)
Mirages at Darwin (Tommy Thompson)
Mirage Engine Change (Tommy Thompson)
In January 1965, a Gaydon-based Valiant had returned from a flight with a fatigue failure of the main spar. By mid 1965. the decision had been made to scrap the Valiant fleet, leaving the RAF with an urgent need for an Air-to-Air Refuelling Tanker. At the end of June, our crew returned to Honington, with 57 Sqn moving to Marham at the end of 1965 to become a tanker squadron. In mid 1966, our crew was one of 3 posted as the nucleus of the newly-reformed 214 Sqn and thus the era of the Victor tanker was underway. But that, as they say, is another story…