Coastal Command Post War II

Avro Shackleton MR3

This period was also one of confusion, while the Neptunes and Shackletons remained a constant Coastal Command was also looking at extending the lives of ten of the command’s Short Sunderlands however as the type would need extensive and expensive upgrades to its avionics and weapons systems. Another Short product, the Seamew, was also intended for Coastal Command use, the intention being to base flights at St Mawgan and Ballykelly. However, this was a period of defence cuts thus all programmes were put under close scrutiny. The result of this was the cancellation of the Sunderland life extension while the Seamew programme was cancelled as its handling, performance and overall usefulness was questioned.

The Shackleton was also accumulating secondary roles such as trooping, which was tested to the full during Operation Encompass undertaken during January when 1,200 troops were flown to Cyprus to counter terrorist activity. Colonial policing also became a Shackleton role, being allocated to No. 42 Squadron, which took over the task from Bomber Command. These extra duties helped the AOC-in-C to counter the desire of the Air Ministry to reduce the overall strength. Initially it was proposed that the entire force would be four active units although Coastal Command would counter with a need for a minimum of nine squadrons operating in the MR role, one covering MR and Met while sixteen older MR1/T4s would be operated by the Maritime Operational Training Unit, formed from No. 236 OCU and the SMR at Kinloss on 1 October 1956, while a further three aircraft would be used for trials work.

1957 was a tumultous year for Coastal Command. The Sunderlands had finally retired resulting in the final closure of Pembroke Dock while St Eval would suffer a similar fate as Nos 220 and 228 Squadrons would move to St Mawgan to prepare for the Shackleton Mk 3 as St Eval was not capable of supporting this model. When No. 42 Squadron departed for colonial policing duties in Aden this sounded the death knell thus St Eval was finally closed in 1959.

The genesis of the Shackleton MR3 would rest upon the need for Coastal Command to cover its projected strength of 180 front-line aircraft by 1956. Although other projects had been put forward the Air Staff finally plumped for the Avro product, issuing OR.320 in January 1953. The first Shackleton MR3 made its maiden flight on 2 September 1955, although production aircraft did not reach service until 1957 by which time some of the contracts had been cancelled. The MR3 was a complete contrast to the earlier models in that it was carried on a tricycle undercarriage, had wing-tip mounted fuel tanks, modified ailerons, a clear view canopy and a sound proofed wardroom to help alleviate the effects of long patrols. Defensive armament consisted of a pair of nose-mounted 20mm cannon, the upper turret being deleted. During 1966 a programme was instituted to upgrade the MR3, the most obvious change being the fitment of a Bristol-Siddeley Viper engine in each outboard engine nacelle resulting in the type being designated the MR3/3.

First deliveries were made to No. 220 Squadron based at St Mawgan in August 1957, although the unit retained some of its MR2s. The squadron had a short existence as it was renumbered as No. 201 Squadron in October 1958. This unit would last a lot longer than its predecessor as it remained as a Shackleton operator until 1970 having moved to Kinloss in December 1965. Close on the heels of No. 220 Squadron to equip with the Shackleton MR3 was No. 206 Squadron, also based at St Mawgan. This unit traded in its 5/3 mix of MR1As and MR2s for a similar number of the new model in January 1958. No. 206 Squadron would also move to Kinloss, departing St Mawgan in July 1965 and remaining there until re-equipping in August 1970.

St Mawgan was also the home for No. 42 Squadron, although this unit would continue to fly some of its MR2s alongside the MR3s after their delivery in November 1965, retaining them until replacement in September 1971. Ballykelly and No. 203 Squadron would be the final recipient of the Shackleton MR3 in June 1966 having first used this model between December 1958 and July 1962. No. 202 Squadron would leave Coastal Command in February 1969 when it was transferred to Luqa, Malta, as part of Near East Air Force (NEAF).

Development of weaponry for the Shackletons continued apace with the Mk 30 Homing Torpedo finally being cleared for service in March 1955 after a period spent trying to get the delicate mechanisms to work properly under operational conditions. With this weapon in service it would see the final demise of the depth charge as the primary anti-submarine weapon. To complement the Mk 30 development work was also taking place on an active homing torpedo codenamed Petane. Unfortunately, delays in clearing the torpedo for service use would result in cancellation and its replacement by the American Mk 43 weapon although the latter’s strike rate was less than that of the British weapon. Also missing from the Shackleton fleet was an airborne lifeboat that had been prominent under the Lancaster GR3s. Although a boat was planned for the Shackleton it was never developed and the fleet was supplied with Lindholme gear that became a standard throughout the command. Avionics for the Shackleton were also under continual improvement, Orange Harvest was constantly being improved while a Doppler system known as Blue Silk was also developed, which was an improvement on the Green Satin system. The primary radar system installed in the Shackleton was the AN/ASV-21 developed for submarine detection; this too was in a state of constant development in order to improve its capability and its ease of operation.

This period was also one of confusion, while the Neptunes and Shackletons remained a constant Coastal Command was also looking at extending the lives of ten of the command’s Short Sunderlands however as the type would need extensive and expensive upgrades to its avionics and weapons systems. Another Short product, the Seamew, was also intended for Coastal Command use, the intention being to base flights at St Mawgan and Ballykelly. However, this was a period of defence cuts thus all programmes were put under close scrutiny. The result of this was the cancellation of the Sunderland life extension while the Seamew programme was cancelled as its handling, performance and overall usefulness was questioned.

The Shackleton was also accumulating secondary roles such as trooping, which was tested to the full during Operation Encompass undertaken during January when 1,200 troops were flown to Cyprus to counter terrorist activity. Colonial policing also became a Shackleton role, being allocated to No. 42 Squadron, which took over the task from Bomber Command. These extra duties helped the AOC-in-C to counter the desire of the Air Ministry to reduce the overall strength. Initially it was proposed that the entire force would be four active units although Coastal Command would counter with a need for a minimum of nine squadrons operating in the MR role, one covering MR and Met while sixteen older MR1/T4s would be operated by the Maritime Operational Training Unit, formed from No. 236 OCU and the SMR at Kinloss on 1 October 1956, while a further three aircraft would be used for trials work.

1957 was a tumultous year for Coastal Command. The Sunderlands had finally retired resulting in the final closure of Pembroke Dock while St Eval would suffer a similar fate as Nos 220 and 228 Squadrons would move to St Mawgan to prepare for the Shackleton Mk 3 as St Eval was not capable of supporting this model. When No. 42 Squadron departed for colonial policing duties in Aden this sounded the death knell thus St Eval was finally closed in 1959.

Coastal Command underwent further contractions as some of the Shackleton MR1s were converted to T4 trainers, although some aircraft were gained when the Joint Anti-Submarine School was disbanded releasing a handful of aircraft for front-line duties. Although the MR3 had been cleared for squadron use it was restricted until some of the problems such as hydraulic malfunctions and engine fading were ironed out. It had been intended that No. 228 Squadron would be the first to re-equip, although the deteriorating state of the aircraft flown by No. 220 Squadron hastened their replacement. Even so, given the problems experienced with the MR3 the squadron continued to operate the MR1 alongside the newer machine. Maintaining the operational front-line strength for Coastal Command was becoming more difficult as the extra duties piled up. Not only were colonial duties carrying on longer than expected, other aircraft were being diverted to protect the zone in the Hebrides missile range.

In March 1957 the Jordanian government severed the long-standing treaty ties with Britain therefore over the next few months the British started to remove stores from the two RAF bases and from Aqaba. By 6 July 1957 a ceremonial guard from the 10th Hussars and the Middlesex Regiment handed over the base to the Jordan Arab Army. During July 1958 a call for assistance came from King Hussein of Jordan and the 16th Para Brigade responded sending the 2nd Battalion Para to Amman airfield on 17 July courtesy of some Coastal Command Shackletons. A flight of Hawker Hunter fighters followed in the afternoon, followed by Blackburn Beverly transports with the 33rd Para Field Regiment aboard. Their task was to defend the hills overlooking the runway of Amman’s aerodrome. By mid-October the situation had eased thus the paratroops were withdrawn on 2 November.

In June 1958 intensive flying trials began with the Shackleton MR3, the plan being to fly 1,000 hours in nine weeks. Taken into consideration was the projected fatigue life of 3,000 airframe hours, although it was thought that none of the airframes would ever reach that figure. Even so, it was planned that modifications to the MR3 would include airframe strengthening when the Phase 1 modification programme was undertaken. While the MR3 was undertaking its flight trials revised fatigue life figures for the earlier models had been calculated. Unlike more modern aircraft the fatigue life for such aircraft was calculated on the life of the main spar structure. Without any modifications the spar life for both the MR1 and MR2 would be limited to between 2,500 and 2,700 hours. This put Coastal Command in a difficult position as the MR3 was still not fully up to speed while the earlier models required major upgrading to continue in service. Adding to the woes of the AOC-in-C Coastal Command had been informed that it was intended to reduce the command to only six squadrons flying thirty-six aircraft with a handful of spares to cover overhauls.

At the beginning of 1959 No. 42 Squadron was replaced by No. 224 Squadron for colonial policing duties the former returning home to St Mawgan. By March 1959 the Coastal Command strength had dropped to twenty-four aircraft but nevertheless No. 120 Squadron despatched aircraft to take part in Exercise Dawn Breeze IV, which was followed by preparations for Calypso Strait, a tour of the Caribbean, although this was extended due to unrest in British Honduras, better known as Belize. By mid June the Shackleton fleet was in trouble again as all those aircraft that had more than 2,150 hours on the clock were grounded due to cracks in the main spars. This affected all of the earlier versions thus a substitute had to be found to keep the pilots current. To that end the squadrons were supplied with a handful of Vickers Varsities while MOTU crew training was carried out using Shackleton MR3s that were still cleared for flying. With no replacement in sight an accelerated programme of modifications was put in place, the intention being to relife the spar for a total life of 5,000 hours. This programme saw the first reworked aircraft return to their squadrons in August 1959 with the entire fleet being back in service by October.

The early months of 1960 saw the Phase I update programme completed, which was immediately followed by the start of Phase II, although this concentrated on updating the aircraft’s avionics and the weapons capability, with the American Mk 44 torpedo being added to the incumbent Mk 30 torpedo. Even as the Shackleton fleet was being upgraded the Air Ministry was undertaking the machinations of selecting a replacement. However, this was not the easy task as it first seemed, as not only was the RAF looking for a replacement, NATO and the US Navy were also on the hunt for a replacement for the venerable Lockheed P-2 Neptune. Like many of the proposed joint programmes none of the participants could agree on exactly what was required. The outcome was that the United States selected another Lockheed product, the P-3 Orion, while those interested parties in NATO selected the Breguet 1150 Atlantique. Both these designs were rejected by the RAF and Air Ministry; the P-3 was considered too slow while the Atlantique was rejected as it only had two engines and was considered to have too low a safety margin for long-range operations. Eventually OR.350 was issued, requesting a new aircraft to be ready for service in 1960, although as with most projects it would be subject to time slip.

Exercises would occupy the Shackleton squadrons during the 1960s. In July 1960 three Shackletons from No. 204 Squadron departed Ballykelly to undertake Operation Calypso Stream III that involved visiting Bermuda, Jamaica, British Honduras and Trinidad, the distance covered being 10,000 miles. Having returned home to Ballykelly No. 204 Squadron would join the rest of Coastal Command and Bomber Command in preparing for Exercise Fallex 60. This was a large NATO exercise that combined numerous exercises into one. This involved Blue Shield First/Second Watch, antisubmarine and shipping exercises, Sword Thrust, Bomber Command attacks plus Coffer Dam and Ballast One. Also involved in this exercise were units from the RCAF plus the carriers USS Saratoga and Shangri La from the US Navy. The Fallex exercises that followed were all of a similar nature, however Fallex 62 was a completely different matter. This was a full simulation of an all-out attack against NATO complete with an armoured attack backed up by a full range of nuclear weapons. Within the first few days the entire exercise had come to a shuddering halt as the projected loss of life inflicted by the enemy orange forces, between 19–15 million dead in Britain alone, revealed that NATO was completely unprepared for such an assault.

On a lighter note the Aird Whyte Competition between the squadrons of Coastal Command was revamped as the Fincastle Trophy. This would, and still does, involve crews and aircraft from Britain, Australia, Canada and New Zealand. 1961 was also notable for a threatened invasion of Kuwait by an unstable Iraq regime. As Britain was still providing security for the country Operation Vantage was launched to provide troops, aircraft and naval forces. For the Shackleton squadrons this meant that No. 42 Squadron would be placed on standby while Nos 203 and 204 Squadrons would be used to transport some equipment for Bomber Command. Fortunately for the Iraqis they had the sense to withdraw from the border while the Arab League would take over the security of Kuwait.

1963 was also an exciting year for the Shackleton squadrons. In August No. 201 Squadron sent a detachment to Nassau their brief being to deter Cuban forces attempting to capture refugees seeking political asylum. During their eight-week detachment the squadron undertook general surveillance and anti-smuggling patrols plus flew relief supplies into Mayaguana Island after it was devastated by a hurricane. A further detachment, this time provided by No. 210 Squadron, was deployed to Cyprus in December due to yet another round of trouble between the Greeks and the Turks. The trouble between the two ethnic groups continued until August 1964, resulting in the squadron having to send a rotating detachment to keep the aircraft flying. During this same period the Shackletons of Nos 120, 201, 204 and 206 Squadrons undertook Operation Adjutant, which was intended to assess the movements of Russian submarines passing through the choke area to the north of Britain. During this period over 2,000 hours were flown until August when the operation was completed.

September 1964 would see the whole of Coastal Command involved in Exercise Teamwork, which included the crews and senior students from MOTU that became the shadow unit No. 220 Squadron for the period. Most of the squadrons operated around Britain although No. 204 Squadron would fly to Norway from Gibraltar and operate out of Bodø while part of No. 203 Squadron would also travel north but only as far as Kinloss. A reshuffle of the Shackleton squadrons would take place in early 1965 as it had been determined that the greatest threat to shipping approaching the British Isles was from the Soviet Northern Fleet. To that end No. 201 Squadron was transferred from St Mawgan to Kinloss in July 1965 while MOTU came the other way. Kinloss thus became the home for No. 18 Group’s assets while St Mawgan was home to No. 42 Squadron, the sole operational unit of No. 19 Group. From October the Kinloss-based squadrons took over the Affluent detachments, incorporating the Hornet Moth patrols. To Coastal Command these patrols in this undeclared war with Indonesia were a drain of resources. Fortunately the confrontation would eventually end in August 1966.

Exercise Calpurnia held during December 1965 involved all of the Coastal Command squadrons and required the crews to detect and carry out mock attacks against submarines provided by the Royal Navy. As ever the command was operating under financial constraints thus the planning staff had to contend with the day-to-day running and increasing overseas commitments, very much a case of doing more with even less. To that end more overseas detachments were undertaken in order to give the crews as much experience as possible. 1966 would also see No. 42 Squadron undertaking the final Exercise Capex to South Africa; these detachments were discontinued due to increasing pressure from the rest of the world concerning apartheid. No. 42 Squadron would also take over the Mizar patrols operating from Majunga in support of the Rhodesian blockade during which they acted in conjunction with Royal Navy patrols.

The operational squadrons had already received their initial allocation of Phase III Shackletons, which allowed some of the earlier MR2s to be modified to Phase III standard. Some of these aircraft would be transferred to MOTU to replace the outmoded Shackleton T4s. It was also at this time that centralized servicing and wing pooling of aircraft became a fact of life. Conceived as yet another means to save money both these ideas would result in loss of morale in both aircrew and ground crew. Adding to the work load of the Coastal Command stations was the news that Britain would withdraw from Aden in 1967. This news would see internecine fighting between the various tribal factions and increased attacks on British forces in theatre. As with all such conflicts in the Middle East the trouble soon spread to the remainder of the Persian Gulf. In order to monitor the possibility of illegal weaponry entering the area a MARDET (Maritime Detachment) was established at Sharjah, the crews and aircraft coming from the Kinloss wing. Not aiding the situation was further trouble in Cyprus that required more reinforcements from Britain.

From January 1968 the Shackleton T2 Phase IIIs entered service with MOTU, although the last T4 would hang onto July. The re-equipment of MOTU would bring benefits to Coastal Command as the new aircraft were equipped to the same standard as the operational units as No. 38 Squadron had just disbanded. This coupled with an increase in Soviet naval activity in the Mediterranean required that a detachment be sent to Luqa, Malta, from No. 42 Squadron for three months before No. 203 Squadron was permanently transferred to NEAF in February 1969.

On the re-equipment front both the British Aircraft Corporation and Hawker Siddeley Aircraft presented responses to OR.350. By June 1963 it had been revamped by the Ministry of Defence as Air Staff Target 357 and this was to be based upon existing designs thus the Trident and VC 10 and the Comet were in the running. Eventually, Hawker Siddeley won the competition and utilized two redundant Comet 4 airframes to create the HS801 prototypes. Both airframes flew in 1967, although the Nimrod did not enter service until 1968.

Coastal Command would be a pioneer in the use of the helicopter in the role of airsea rescue. The first machine utilized was the Bristol Sycamore, a small batch of four being delivered to St Mawgan for trials with the ASWDU for anti-submarine and rescue trials. No. 22 Squadron would reform at Thorney Island in March 1955 and take over the four Sycamore HC12s as their first equipment, retaining them until January 1956. While No. 22 Squadron was developing search and rescue techniques the Air Ministry was authorizing the use of the Westland Whirlwind as the primary aircraft in this role. The squadron received its first Whirlwind HAR2s in June 1955 while still based at Thorney Island. The HQ and A Flight were based at Thorney Island while B Flight was based at Martlesham Heath and Felixstowe with C Flight located at Valley. Twelve months later the HQ and A Flight had moved to St Mawgan with an outstation at Chivenor that had originally been part of No. 257 Squadron. The other flights were located at Felixstowe, Tangmere and Coltishall, all part of B Flight. C Flight had aircraft based at Valley while D Flight had aircraft operating at Thorney Island, Manston and Brawdy. The HAR2s were retained until August 1962 when the turbine-powered Whirlwind HAR10s were received, remaining in service until November 1981. On 27 November 1969 Air Marshal Sir John Lapsley would take the flypast salute at St Mawgan on the disbandment of Coastal Command, comprising two Westland Whirlwinds, nine Shackletons and a single Nimrod. The following day No. 18 (Maritime) Group took over the assets at Northwood while the existing headquarters at Pitreavie Castle, 18 Group, and Mount Devon, No. 19 Group, became the headquarters of the Northern and Southern Maritime Air Regions respectively.

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