Early Cold War RAF


A Firestreak air-to-air missile on a dolly being transported by armourers to waiting Javelin FAW.9 XH887 of 23 Squadron based at RAF Leuchars detached to the Fighter Command Missile Practice Camp at RAF Valley on 13 May 1963. A red plastic ‘Noddy’ cap protects the infra-red missile’s sensitive nose cone. Before Firestreak’s introduction in 1958, interceptors had to be within range and position of their target to use their Aden cannons. Firestreak could be used at a range of five miles and from a number of different attack angles. Consequently, new interception techniques were developed at the Central Fighter Establishment at RAF West Raynham. The Javelin FAW7 was the first aircraft to be fitted with air-to-air missiles as standard, carrying four missiles on underwing pylons. Two Firestreaks could also be carried by the Lightning, mounted on the forward fuselage. It remained in service until 1988. (RAF-T 4036)


The pilot of Lightning F.6 XR761 of 5 Squadron from RAF Binbrook guides his aircraft’s refuelling probe into the drogue released from a Mark 20 underwing refuelling pod of Victor K.1 XA928 of 57 Squadron based at RAF Marham, in 1966. Air-to-air refuelling was an important role of the V-Force, initially being undertaken by the Valiant. Following the Valiant’s retirement, the tanker role was assumed by the Victor The first converted Victor bomber/tankers were received by 55 Squadron at Marham in May 1965. The scrambling of tankers from Marham during a QRA interception enabled the short-range Lightnings to patrol further from base for longer The fuel was transferred through a drogue deployed by hose drum units situated either under the wing or in the bomb bay, with the flow of fuel activated by the pressure of the probe. XA928 originally served with 10 Squadron before being converted into a tanker serving with 57 Squadron from March 1966. (RAF-T 6270)

After the Second World War, relations between the West and the Soviet Union deteriorated and the former wartime allies became adversaries. The blockade of Berlin from June 1948 indicated the Soviet Union’s bellicose intentions in Europe and the world seemingly faced the prospect of another conflict. In Britain, war weariness and an economy in near total collapse, led to rapid demobilization and a general decline in RAF strength after 1945 and by 1948, the RAF found its front-line squadrons ill equipped for the Cold War.

In August 1949, the Commander-in-Chief of Fighter Command, Air Marshal Sir Basil Embry, began to strengthen Britain’s air defences. Outdated wartime aircraft were struck off and by 1952, all front-line air defence squadrons were equipped with jet aircraft, the Gloster Meteor and de Havilland Vampire and Venom. Obsolete in comparison to the Soviet MiG-15, the Meteor was replaced as principal day fighter by the vastly superior Hawker Hunter. Introduced to service with 43 Squadron at RAF Leuchars in July 1954, the Hunter was serving in eighteen squadrons by 1959. The Gloster Javelin took up the night fighter role in August 1956 and together with the Hunter, provided Fighter Command’s airborne defence for the rest of the decade. By 1964, both aircraft had been superseded by the supersonic English Electric Lightning, which entered service with 74 Squadron at RAF Coltishall in 1960, equipping all UK air defence squadrons until 1969 and the arrival of the Phantom.

In Germany at the start of the 1950s, the Second Tactical Air Force (2TAF) operated only thirteen Vampire day and three Meteor night fighter squadrons. Previously considered part of an occupation force, in 1951 2TAF’s squadrons were assigned to NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR), becoming an integral part of European air defences within NATO’s order of battle. The Command expanded to a peak of thirty-five squadrons by 1955, including ten squadrons of Canadair Sabre F.4s. In the following year, thirteen squadrons reequipped with the Hunter, followed in August 1957 by the first Javelins, which entered service with 87 Squadron at RAF Brüggen. In 1965, the Lightning came to Germany, equipping 19 and 92 Squadrons.

The catastrophic 1957 Defence White Paper outlined a defence policy that prioritized nuclear over conventional forces and envisioned a surface-to-air missile system to protect the bomber bases, supported by a minimal force of manned fighters. As a result, Fighter Command was drastically reduced. From a post-war peak in 1956 of 600 front-line aircraft in thirty-five squadrons, by April 1962 it had shrunk to a mere 140 aircraft shared between eleven squadrons. The Second Tactical Air Force was initially cut from a total of thirty-five squadrons to seventeen, and by 1963 there remained just two air defence squadrons in Germany. The effect of these cuts was dramatic with squadrons disbanding almost overnight. This reduction in capability, compounded by further cuts in subsequent years, had an effect on the morale of RAF personnel for the next twenty years.

By 1970, despite cuts in numbers of aircraft and squadrons, RAF personnel in Britain and Germany had for twenty years successfully maintained interceptors and strike aircraft on permanent standby, ready for orders that could have signalled the start of nuclear war.

Following the detonation of the first Soviet nuclear weapon in August 1949, the potential threat to British cities from each unidentified radar contact grew considerably. Early interception was crucial. British air defences were, for the first time since the war, brought to a state of heightened readiness. From July 1950, day and night fighter squadrons provided a minimum of two aircraft at two-minute cockpit readiness under plans called Operation Fabulous. Operational Readiness Platforms (ORPs) were built alongside the runway, with Telebrief communication lines installed enabling aircrew to receive the order to scramble directly from the Sector Controller. From the early 1950s, improvements in ground-controlled interception and early warning radar increased Fighter Controllers’ speed and accuracy in directing pilots to the contact before it reached the coast.

Initially, the principal threat was from the antiquated Soviet Tu-4 Bull, a copy of the American B-29. With the development of a Soviet long-range bomber and reconnaissance force, by the early-1960s the threat was from the Tu-16 Badger, Tu-95 Bear and the M-4 Bison, far more capable aircraft, which frequently approached UK airspace to test RAF defences. Working with the NATO early warning chain in Norway and Europe enabled much earlier detection, enabling interceptions further out at sea, and essential when Soviet aircraft started to carry stand-off missiles. In 1961 with UK air defence increasingly integrated with NATO, Fighter Command and UK air defences were assigned to SACEUR.

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, air defence squadrons continued to maintain aircraft on heightened readiness. By the mid-1960s and now known as Quick Reaction Alert (QRA), this was held at just two Lightning-equipped air stations, RAF Leuchars, and alternately either RAF Binbrook or RAF Wattisham. Lightnings initially on the ORP were held at ten minutes’ readiness in a dedicated QRA shed near the runway, which also provided accommodation for air and ground crews.

Similarly, a small number of aircraft from 2TAF’s and later RAF Germany’s air defence squadrons maintained Battle Flight, operating as part of NATO in the defence of Western European airspace. Due to the proximity of Soviet forces, Battle Flight was kept at a higher state of readiness than Fighter Command, with aircraft at two-minute readiness on ORPs, or later five minutes within hangars.

Maintaining QRA was the responsibility of personnel from across the station, not just aircrew. Operations staff and Air Traffic Control ensured air defence operations took priority with a team of ground crew responsible for the maintenance of QRA aircraft and aiding the pilot to achieve a rapid scramble. For ground crew, QRA or Battle Flight often provided a break from day-to-day routine, with crews occupying themselves with secondary tasks or recreation activities, interrupted by periods supporting QRA.

In 1950, as Fighter Command heightened Britain’s air defences, Bomber Command looked to develop its ability to fight the war over enemy territory. While the V-Force of strategic nuclear bombers was under development, the RAF improved its force of conventional bombers. In May 1951, the English Electric Canberra, the RAF’s first twin-jet bomber, entered service with 101 Squadron at RAF Binbrook.

Designed to be a fast lightly armed tactical bomber within 2TAF, the versatile Canberra assumed the role of principal bomber within Bomber Command’s main force, replacing the obsolete Lincolns and Washingtons still in service. Production was made a priority and in early 1955, there were thirty-five Canberra squadrons in the UK and Germany. As sufficient numbers of V-bombers became operational, the Canberra was gradually withdrawn from UK service. The last main force Canberra squadron, 35 Squadron, disbanded in September 1961.

Remaining in RAF service, the Canberra eventually deployed to Germany as intended. In August 1954, 149 Squadron’s Canberra B.2s moved from RAF Cottesmore to Gütersloh. Three further squadrons formed alongside it later that year. Between 1957 and 1958, following a growth of Soviet forces in Eastern Europe, the B.2 squadrons were replaced by squadrons of multi-role Canberra B(I)6s and B(I)8s specializing in low-level interdiction and close air support, a substantially different role from that undertaken by Canberra crews in the UK. With the cancellation of their replacement, the TSR.2 in 1965, Canberra B(I)8s remained in service in Germany until the early 1970s.

In their primary wartime role, the B(I)8s were issued American Mark 7 free-fall nuclear bombs, bringing a low-altitude, tactical, nuclear-strike capability to British forces in Germany. In this role, by January 1960, all four squadrons were maintaining QRA on behalf of NATO, with one loaded aircraft (two from 1962) at fifteen minutes’ readiness. Aircraft were held in a QRA shed within a compound guarded by a combination of RAF and USAF armed police. QRA duty aircrew spent twenty-fours in this compound, accompanied by a USAF Alert Duty Officer who controlled access to the weapon. Prior to their QRA duty, each crew rigorously studied its assigned targets and flight profiles to provide an immediate response to SACEUR’s call for a nuclear strike.

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, in addition to QRA, life in the RAF was marked by regular training exercises. Interceptor pilots honed their skills in various air-defence manoeuvres, flying in battle formation or low-level interception known as ‘rat and terrier’. No-notice scramble exercises tested aircrew and ground crews’ ability to respond. Annual large-scale NATO air defence exercises were held over the UK or the Continent, during which training was held in conjunction with Bomber and Coastal Command squadrons which, as part of their own training, acted as the enemy force. In addition to simulating bombing raids on UK cities and ranges, Canberra B(I)8 crews practised low-flying around Germany, ending at the Nordhorn bombing range and a practice of the Low Altitude Bombing System (LABS) method of dropping nuclear weapons. This manoeuvre, as well as live firing and bombing training in the interdictor role, was frequently undertaken at locations in Germany, the UK or the ranges in Libya and Cyprus. Long-distance navigation flights by individual aircraft to the Mediterranean or Middle East, known as Southern Rangers, were a welcome break from QRA and routine training.

By the mid-1960s, NATO wide TACEVALs (Tactical Evaluations) were regularly being held to test the alertness of NATO forces. All aspects of Canberra QRA and Battle Flight – aircrew, ground crew and station operations – were evaluated. At individual stations, smaller MINEVALs (Minimum Evaluation) and wider RAF MAXEVALs (Maximum Evaluation) were also held prior to prepare for TACEVALs, together ensuring units were ready for unexpected operations. Generally loathed by air force personnel, by the 1970s TACEVALs had become synonymous with RAF service, particular in Germany. By the end of the Cold War in 1990, RAF Germany’s nuclear strike Canberras, later replaced by Bucaneers, Phantoms, Jaguars and Tornados, had been on QRA for thirty years, while Battle Flight had been maintained for over forty. Today, RAF interceptors still maintain QRA, watching, waiting and ready to intercept.

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