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The Fleet Air Arm in the Cold War

Confrontation with Indonesia1963-66
East African Mutinies1964
Defence of Zambia1965-66
Beira Patrol1965-66
South Atlantic1982
During the Cold War Royal Navy carrier battle groups were deployed in support of UK Government policy in some 14 events, crises, conflicts and deterrence missions. This demonstrated the inability of potential aggressors to deter the deployment of aircraft carriers into areas supposedly dominated by land-based aircraft. Fleet Air Arm Battle Honours include Korea and The Falklands.

Use of the term "Fleet Air Arm" was discontinued in 1947, as flying was seen as an integral part of the activities of the Royal Navy. From time to time, when it was convenient to employ a generic noun, the term "Naval Aviation" was used. "Fleet Air Arm" was changed to "Air Branch of the Royal Navy," from "Air Branch of the Royal Navy" to "Naval Air Arm," and from ''Naval Air Arm" to "Naval Aviation". The term "Naval Aviation" which is used at present has the merit of emphasizing that those specially concerned with flying in the Royal Navy are an integral part of it. While still adhering to this concept, the Admiralty have, nevertheless, considered the revival of the title "Fleet Air Arm" and in May 1953 decided that it should be reintroduced. In reaching this decision the Admiralty have been greatly influenced by the strong appeal which this title, with its glorious wartime associations, makes to many of the naval aviators of today, and to many members of the public.

The Sea Fury was the Fleet Air Arm's last piston engined fighter to serve in front line squadrons. The prototype Sea Fury first flew on 21 February 1945 and carried out deck landing trials in HMS Ocean in October of that year. When the Korean War broke out in 1950, the Sea Fury was the Fleet Air Arm's leading single seat fighter, and it fought with great distinction in that war. The aircraft were mainly used in the ground attack role armed with bombs and rockets, but they also were engaged in air-to-air combat against the much faster MiG-15.

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 1950 the Royal Navy (RN) was still recovering from a shortage of manpower following the rundown after World War II. Few ships had their war complement embarked although those deployed to the Far East were more capable than those on the home station. The North Korean Peoples Army (NKPA) advanced, almost at will, through the South Korean defenses after its surprise attack on 25 June 1950.

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 three years of the war. RAF involvement limited to transport flights into safe airfields and some flying-boat MPA patrols in the open ocean off Japan. RN carrier aircraft flew thousands of effective sorties.

The first naval air strikes of the war were flown off between 0545 and 0615 on 03 July 1950 from USS Valley Forge and HMS Triumph. In September HMS Triumph played a small part in the covering force during the landings at Inchon that transformed the war. By then her elderly air group had become increasingly difficult to maintain, and she was due for replacement. Relieving her was HMS Theseus (R64), a sister ship which carried the 17th CAG equipped with squadrons of very capable Sea Fury and Firefly FR5 aircraft. The maintenance carrier HMS Unicorn (R72) served throughout the war in support of the operational carriers.

In April 1951, HMS Theseus was relieved by HMS Glory (R62) having carried out 3,500 operational sorties in 86 flying days over seven months. The light fleet carriers were built to an austere specification in World War II and had many disadvantages including lack of speed, liveliness in rough weather, and recurrent trouble with the single catapult. In September 1951, HMS Glory was relieved by Her Majestys Australian Ship (HMAS) Sydney (R17), the first Commonwealth carrier to go into action and a great credit to the RAN, which had only established its own Fleet Air Arm in 1948. The Royal Canadian Navy had also recently formed its Fleet Air Arm with a light fleet carrier on loan from Britain, but did not deploy it to Korea. In four months of operations, while HMS Glory was away refitting in Australia, HMAS Sydneys 21st CAG flew 2,366 sorties in 43 operational flying days. Casualties included three pilots killed and 15 aircraft lost. She was relieved, in turn, by HMS Glory, who fell back into the routine as if she had never been away in January 1952. For the remainder of the war, HMS Glory alternated in the operational area with yet another light fleet carrier, HMS Ocean (R68).

At last, on 27 July 1953, an armistice was signed at Panmunjom. For some months after the war, light fleet carriers continued to operate close to Korea in case there was a resumption of hostilities. The light fleet carriers provided the most conspicuous aspect of Commonwealth operations in the Korean War. Their performance was admitted on all sides to be outstanding but was possible only because of the lack of serious naval and air opposition. Had these existed on an appreciable scale, more ships would have been needed, and more effort would have been required for fighter defense and escort to the detriment of offensive operations.

Designed by Hawker's Sir Sydney Cam, the Sea Hawk F1 first entered front line service in 806 Squadron in 1953. Five Naval Air Squadrons equipped with Sea Hawk aircraft flying from the aircraft carriers HMS Albion, HMS Bulwark, and HMS Eagle, were called to give support to the Anglo-French excursion at Suez in November 1956. In the absence of Royal Air Force close support, (the Hunter Mk5 aircraft in Cyprus possessed neither the low level range nor clearance to deliver any weaponry other than gunfire), the Royal Navy provided all the British ground attack effort, and the Sea Hawks (with Sea Venoms providing fighter escort) pressed home many attacks against Egyptian shore targets, often in the face of heavy ground fire.

A combined assault on Egypt in 1956 was conducted by British and French carrier-borne and land-based aircraft. In the British operations the RN deployed three fixed-wing carriers, Eagle, Albion and Bulwark plus two helicopter carriers, Ocean and Theseus. The first ever assault landing by helicopter came in 1956. Two squadrons of Whirlwinds from HMS Theseus ferried 500 Royal Marines ashore at Port Said. 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. 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.

By the mid-1950s there had been a considerable change in emphasis on the purpose of the aircraft carrier. The Navy began think more in terms of striking targets ashore and not of ship-to-ship strikes. In 195556 the carrier was described as the "fist of the Fleet." This was good, vigorous English. It was described as the "fist of the Fleet" that would deliver the punch. In 195657, a great picture was painted of how the aircraft carrier would be capable of carrying the aircraft of the future and capable of delivering atomic weapons. In 1957 it as said that it would reinforce the hitting power of NATO allies. All these statements conveyed to people the impression that the aircraft carrier would contribute to the long-distance strike forces of NATO.

That, however, was not claimed in the 1957 White Paper. In fact, the strike rle of the aircraft carrier was watered down considerably. It was watered down still further by the Minister of Defence, and the emphasis was in paragraph 15 to the effect that the Navy's contribution to NATO should be predominantly the anti-submarine rle. This was not mentioned in the 195556 White Paper. And on 26 February 1958 the Minister of Defence went further and said: "We have no aircraft carriers large enough to operate the long-range bombers which would be needed for an effective strike operation."

US/UK assistance sought in 1958 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. UN forces including an RN carrier deployed in 1960 to the Yellow Sea on exercises aimed at deterring the North from launching a renewed attack on the South. Deterrence succeeded. No RAF involvement since no bases close enough.

British forces deployed to Kuwait in 1961 to defend it against threatened Iraqi aggression. The Navy's power of rapid intervention was demonstrated in the most striking fashion, and the success of these operations has shown as nothing else could do that the Navy was ready and able at a moment's notice to vindicate the claims that have been made for it.

The first British troops to land were the men of No. 42 Royal Marine Commando, who were brought, with their vehicles and equipment, over 1,000 miles to Kuwait by H.M.S. "Bulwark" in under two days, and the presence of this ship alone did a great deal to restore confidence there. HMS Bulwark arrived with 42 RM Commando since good intelligence had put her in the right place and used its helicopters to deploy and support them. H.M.S. "Bulwark" was soon joined by a force of two frigates and five tank-landing vessels from Bahrein, and the whole force was made fully self-supporting by the redeployment of tankers and replenishment ships.

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. British troops flown into Kuwait by RAF transport with only what they stood up inhad to requisition vehicles and wait for RN amphibious shipping to bring in more. A single RAF Hunter squadron had deployed to Kuwait from Bahrain but lacked fuel, ammunition, spares and most of all GCI radar coverage other than that provided by Bulwark. RAF transport being used to fly in troops so 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).

From 1962 through 1966, Navy Wessex and Whirlwind helicopters flew thousands of sorties over dense jungle supporting British troops in Borneo. And in 1974 helicopters from HMS Hermes evacuated British subjects from Cyprus during the Turkish invasion.

British and Commonwealth supported the Malaysian Government against Indonesian aggression and deployed forces from all three Services 1963-66. 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 value. RAF could not provide such a visible deterrent.

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 two RAF Helicopters in addition to her normal air group. Subsequent assault a model of how flexible carriers are and how quickly they can act. Another example of RAF 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".

Following the Rhodesian UDI in November 1965 the Zambian Government asked Britain to provide air defence against possible attack by the Rhodesians. Deploying an RAF fighter unit and the ground environment to support it took many months and the gap was filled effectively by HMS Eagle which provided fighters, AEW and an effective air defence environment quickly. 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 both involved for considerable periods at sea. 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. A show of strength in 1972 by Buccaneers from Ark Royal prevented a threatened invasion of British Honduras (Belize) by Guatemala. RAF too far away and could do nothing.

The year 1978 saw the end of conventional fixed wing flying with the withdrawal of HMS ARK ROYAL. A new generation began with the commissioning in 1980 of the first of three light aircraft carriers, HMS INVINCIBLE. These carriers are fitted with another British invention, the ski jump, which enables vertical take off Sea Harriers to carry a much greater load when taking off with forward thrust.

The first VSTOL landing by Hawker P1127 on HMS Ark Royal took place in 1963. Fifteen years later, in 1978, the first deck landing by a Sea Harrier was made on HMS Hermes. The following year, in 1979, the first Sea Harrier Squadron, 700A was formed. The Invincible-class carriers were designed principally to meet Cold War threats on the high seas, with short-range jets providing air defence for a naval task group, without the ability to interoperate aircraft with allies and whose primary mission was anti-submarine warfare

USN carriers played a big part in the coercive all-arms forces that drove Iraqi forces out of Kuwait in 1991; Ark Royal 5 operated in the Eastern Mediterranean in a containment role that was not, in the event, used. A total of twenty Sea Kings and eight Sea Harrier aircraft were deployed for operations in the Middle East during Operation Granby (the Gulf War). Royal Navy Sea King helicopters were deployed on Operation Granby in The Gulf, supporting the Desert Rats. Immediately on their return from Kuwait they were deployed again on a major humanitarian mission helping Kurdish refugees stranded in Northern Iraq.

Lynx XZ720 shot up or sank five Iraqi warships in three days in January 1991. XZ720 joined HMS Gloucester in July 1990 as 216 Flight. Over three days at the end of January 1991, the destroyers helicopter also carved a place for herself in history, sinking or damaging five Iraqi warships with Sea Skua missiles hence the tally on the fuselage. The successes off Iraq led to 216 Flight becoming 216th Airborne: Death or Glory. Although those few days off Iraq were the most dramatic of the helicopters career, XZ720 was only retired from front-line duties at the beginning of 2009.

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