Photographs & Stories - Chris Nethercoat
My 9 yrs old boy recently started taking an interest in aircraft, and I had been looking out for Beverley material to show him for a while now, without much success at all until I found the Beverley Association site. Of course he’s mainly into Spitfires and Hurricanes at the moment, but when he saw a Bev photo I downloaded from the BBA site he said is was, “cool”! Interestingly, the Cosford Aerospace Museum, does not feature the Beverley at all - not a picture or a mention anywhere, yet, as we know, the Bevs were the workhorses and tactical transport mainstay of their era, and certainly of most of the airborne ops whilst I was in Aden.
I got to be very attached to those great lumbering beasts - despite their looks, I always felt safe in them and they were so perfect for their roles, I don’t think the C130s were ever quite so versatile, or so well-fitted for tactical supply in difficult terrain, as were the Bevs.
I was in the RAF from 1964/69 - the best times of which were when I was at RAF Khormaksar in Aden, where I was an S.A.C. on one of the 6-man, >Mobile Air Movements Squadron teams based there. I was actually one of those there till the very last day of the withdrawal, and on the very last aircraft out. During my tour of duty, two or three people from the MAMS detachment would go out on;just about every air transport operation or exercise that took place, involving the movement of troops, supplies, equipment, machines, arms, munitions and casualties, anywhere and everywhere in the Arabian Peninsular and East Africa. Mostly on Beverleys, but occasionally on Argosies too, if the strip would take them, particularly along the coastal route stations. 84 and 30 Squadrons were the Bevs, and 105 squadron (I think) the flying Pigs. The MAMS role was to go with the aircraft to ensure the aircraft were loaded effectively and safely - i.e. with loads distributed safe to fly, and restrained against the right G factors, with any hazardous cargo properly secured or protected, and the entire cargo payload also positioned in the right place for rapid unloading, or a very quick turn round, often in hostile or primitive conditions. All whilst the AQMs served and made tea for the flying aircrew (joke, if any ex-AQMs read this!).
As well going all over South Arabia our teams had two quite long detachments to Embakasi (in Kenya) and in Ndola and Lusaka, in Zambia, whilst the oil-lift, following Rhodesia’s declaration of UDI, was ongoing. We were turning round Argosies, Britannias, C130s, assorted other aircraft (Like a Carvair, and others I now forget), all laden with either 45 gallon steel drums, or huge rubber drums of oil - that had come overland to Nairobi from Dar es Salaam. At Ndola the airport itself was protected by a flight of UK Javelins - from whom I am not sure, and the ‘Movements Office’ was a ten-foot square tin-roof hut, that we shared with the local Flying Doctor service. Once when off duty, we were roped into going out deep into the African Bush to help recover a wrecked light aircraft, and we met with mud-hut villagers who had never seen white people before.
My usual ‘oppo’ was Barry ‘Geordie’ Fisher an ex-boy entrant. Barry and I were never really close friends around the billets and at MAMS HQ, (I was a bit of loner anyway) - but we shared a lot of experiences together and came to rely on and trust each other on the job - and I think we worked well as a team. Two other rankers I remember were Rod Packman and Alan Howe, with both of whom I shared a room. There might even have been a third team, as we were ‘Charlie’ team, but my memory is getting a bit rusty for names and details that far back, it was over thirty years ago.
Each MAMS team also had two SNCOs, and a junior officer in charge, and on anything more than a ‘milk-run’ trip one at least NCO would go also with us. The SNCOs, were no doubt also involved in planning and admin functions that we erks knew nothing about, and at least one would come with us on anything out of the ordinary, but for the bread and butter milk-runs (such up country re-supplies, or FRA troop movements) it was usually just two of us, and a corporal at most, getting up in the very early hours for a pre-dawn take-off, and back before the heat got too much and affected the flying.
The officers I recall were Pilot Officer Paul Stamp, and Flying Officer Jock Drysdale, (who tended only to turn out only on the longer or more interesting trips!) and the O/I.C. was a Flight Lieutenant known as ‘Black Mac’. One of the two Sergeants was Tony Lamb, the other was John Mathews? The two flight sergeants, I don’t remember their names, but both were both Irishmen, one of whom taught us the words to the songs ‘The West Claire Railway’ and ‘The Wild Rover’, which we would often belt after a few Tiger beers. I think a later replacement for one of them was a Flt Sergeant Belcher. My two special mates at Khormaksar (not on MAMS), were Corporal Dick Lynn (who I knew from my days at RAF Cosford) a big chap, whose hobby was football refereeing, and an SAC John Cosgrove.
I think the most satisfying thing for all of us, is that, after a short while, even though every task was a bit different, nobody ever had to tell us what to do. We knew from experience what needed to be done and how - and even though as lowly airmen and not much more than boys in years - we each became confident enough to organise and manage teams of locals to do the back-breaking work, and those flight crews that knew us did not interfere.
In Zambia, for example, there were some occasions when things were so busy, that I single-handedly marshalled in some of the arriving aircraft, managed the entire unloading of the oil, and back-loading of the empties, with only the help of a score of native labourers. Whilst another airman or corporal, would be doing the same elsewhere on the pan. On the oil-lift we took a competitive pride in turn-around times, including refuelling, that could sometimes be a quick twenty-five minutes. The further away from home station you got the less emphasis there was on rank or status, and the more there was on what you knew and were capable of doing.
Our teams regularly went to a lot of interesting and exciting places including scores of sorties and detachments up-country, to Wadhi Behan, Mukalla, Muqueiras, Dhala etc, that became almost everyday trips. 90% of the trip on Bevs - Dhala in particular was a very tricky place to get into with sheer, steep cliffs at the end of the runway - and only the Bevs with their reverse pitch thrust could do it. Very occasionally, we were turned back from a flight up country because the pilot got a radio report that there were armed ‘dizzies’ awaiting us in the hills. The intelligence came from SAS and ‘political officers’ who were dotted about the countryside around our bases.
Geordie and I, with our Corporal John Moreland (later replaced by Frank ?), also went on many re-supply trips along the coast route to Riyan, Salalah, Masirah Island and to Sharjah - in what was then known as the Trucial Oman States. The other team’s members would have done very similar trips, but, of course, I only know about where we went and what we did, but Rod and Alan’s stories would be just as varied.
At Riyan, where an old Dakota did get in every now and then, we once did a grain supply trip and I vividly remember about ten or twelve locals, led by an old chap whose knee joint was bent sideways, unloading the sacks on their bare shoulders and chanting ‘Al Hamdu Lilla’, incessantly as they worked. On this particular trip the Beverly captain had agreed to backload a huge volume of personal effects for the (British) Colonel of the Hadramat Bedouin Arab Legion, who was due to return to the UK after eight years in post. We loaded up his stuff and he thanked us all and gave everyone a Legion head-dress (kuffia and aqual) as a souvenir, and off we took. Two day later we learned he has been shot dead - by his own driver on the grounds that he was abandoning the men who need his continued leadership.
Funny thing about most of those desert Arabs, they could very generous, loyal and hospitable, but they were also capable of deliberate cruelty and were merciless to their enemies. At Habilayn, an upcountry desert camp and airstrip, near the Yemen border, I heard a story, that says something about the way of life for some of the very poorest of those local people. An Arab came into the camp to ask for medical help for someone who had fallen into a well nearby. The man was asked where the casualty was now, and he said, “still in the well, since yesterday”. “But why didn't you tell us sooner?” he was asked - to which the answer was, “I wasn’t coming this way till today!”.
I did three quite long stints at Habilayn, where the enemy Blindicide rockets were coming in several times a week. There were about 300 or more army chaps there, including SAS, supported by just a BASO and 2 RAF erks at any one time, handling Bevs, Andovers (I think), Wessex, Scouts and Sioux helicopters, Twin Pioneers and Beavers, with occasional Dakota visits, and also the odd Hunter strikes ;called up when a gang of ‘dizzies’ had been spotted. Being on 24 hour call-out, we never did regular guard duties, or had to carry the old 303s, because whenever we were sent anywhere dodgy we strutted around with .38 S&W pistols, or Sterling SMGs much of the time, and felt we were really into something. With good reason sometimes, because at Habilayn we came under ‘dissident’ fire on many nights, mostly sporadic rifle fire, but also from rockets sometimes - which the British Army returned with mortars and GPMGs, and occasionally our 105s would open up, if they had a target, ;it could certainly get quite noisy, and a bit scary too. Especially if you were in the ‘shitehouse’ at the time. This was mostly used after nightfall, as it was both very exposed, and rather too stinky during the day.
Once, when we were attacked really quite fiercely, I recall several of us were cowering in our dugouts, the tent shaking so much that one of our chap shouted it was, “rubble falling on us, and we'll get a direct hit in minute”. But not so - it was just a chap who was so scared we couldn’t get him to move into the ‘sanger’ and so he was hiding under a bed, with his legs kicking against the walls of the tent! But they did kill some of us sometimes - The cookhouse got it once, which was just twenty yards from where we slept.
I well recall another incident, at Habilayn, when a bunch of Marines had been brought up country, for the experience of it, and somehow an anti-tank weapon they were being shown (which I think was normally detonated from a protective pit in the ground) went off by accident and killed nine or ten of them by the blast. I’d seen the flash and heard the bang from our side of the camp, and minutes later could just make out people scurrying around. We alerted a Wessex crew, who were on standby in the next tent, and as soon they found out what had happened I went with them to the gun-site about a mile way from the camp.... they were all dead and laying just as they fell. Funny thing was I lifted three or four of them myself, I remember it was as if they weighed no more than sleeping children - must be the adrenalin. After they were checked over by an M.O., the bodies were brought out onto the strip again and lined up on their stretchers, in the heat of the Aden sun, and impromptu guard of honour was formed. It was brought to attention, by an RSM, whilst the bodies were loaded into a Wessex, to go back down to Khormaksar. Then, as the last one went in, a bugler played the Last Post. The remembrance of that moment still gets my neck hairs going even now.
My team also so did one long trip down to Lethoso and Botswana, in two Bevs, for their independence celebrations, with a glorious few weeks living off the hog at the George Hotel, Manzini, in Swaziland. As far as I remember the route was via Mombasa, Lourenco Marques, to Matsapa? then on to both the capitals for their respective Independence Days, with a contingent of UK bandsmen and foreign office on types on board, flown in to mark the occasion. I also somehow got to see something of Madagascar on the return trip - I think because we could not get into Lourenco Marques.
I also remember a couple of trips to a place called Assab, by the Red Sea, when we were picking up foodstuffs that had be dumped there and collected, for some political because the Suez Canal was impassable, (I think) but I forget the exact reason. Another time, at short notice we had to take a squad of FRA (Federal Republican Army) soldiers, (our side) and some British soldiers, to bail out the local pro-British Sheik on the Island of Socotra, who was being got at by some ‘dizzies’ who had sailed out from the mainland. We landed and all spread with guns at the ready, to protect the aircraft, while some young officer, led his platoon and their FRA backup into the nearby township. An hour later, without a shot being fired they emerged with prisoners in tow - the captives and the FRA seemingly on the best of terms, the prisoners made a pile of their weapons and we took them all back to the mainland. I heard later they'd been beheaded, but I don’t know if it was true.
Several times we got to fly and work on a Belfast, but in general most of the shorter sorties were in Beverly aircraft.
Of course whilst we ‘blue jobs’ were swanning around in aeroplanes, the real everyday action was in and around the strategic centres and townships, such as the notorious Crater District, where the army patrols would be getting shot at many times every day, especially in the last months. But it was not always like that. At the start of my tour at Aden we used to be able to go swimming in the sea to Elephant Bay, beyond Steamer Point, but later as things got tighter we were recommended not to go far at all. On one of my rare later recreational visits downtown, along the Maalla shopping strip (later known as the Murder Mile), on my 21st birthday, our own small group was sniped at from a nearby building - that made it memorable.
I think we were supplemented by some UK MAMS chaps towards the end, the names escape me now, but I do remember, coming in from off a Beverley flight, and on opening the clamshells and lowering the ramps - seeing a gang of pasty-faced, white-kneed newcomers waiting there. On asking a rather plump chap then to put the pegs into the anti-tip strut for me, I was met with a torrent of, “who the f*** do you think you are” type abuse. That was my first meeting with a very experienced air mover who did not take kindly to being told what to do.
After the close-down of Khormaksar, when Aden became the Peoples Republic of South Yemen, I ended up spending a further six months in Bahrain. From there making two or three trips into Jeddah and Riyadh, in Saudi Arabia, taking in radar cabins, and up to Kuwait a coupe of times and into Teheran once, I forget why. And once we took part in a exercise on Yas Island in the Gulf, that was early-aborted, because the paratroopers and other soldiers taking part could not cope with the 140 degrees heat.
But by then I was ready to come home. It was not the same at Muharraq, it was more humid, there was less to do, and there was not the sense of purpose that we felt in Aden. Also whilst in Aden the MAMS teams were the envy of many on the camp, because of the variety in our roles, and because we were we excused parades and guard duties and worked unusual hours. Up at Muharraq we were just incomers - with no privileges, living in the transit billet, and resented a bit by some of the movers already there - can’t blame them, we got all the interesting jobs and must have seemed a bit cocky.
Khormaksar was for a while, the busiest airport in the world, because it was also a civil airport and a route station to the Far East for civil and military aircraft of several countries and governments. I remember a few very tense hours once when an Air India passenger jet could not get its landing gear down, and so it stacked around for hours, to use up its fuel, before a crash-landing without wheels. It was smoky, but fairly quiet as it slid along on its belly, but it ran out of runway and went through the perimeter fence in the sea (maybe that was the plan) and came to rest twenty yards out into the shallow water. I was there with a fire crew, and, miraculously, nobody was hurt, except the pilot who was only bruised - but he did a terrific job to get them down so safely.
In the last few weeks of RAF Khormaksar we were all very busy bringing back stuff from up country for shipping anything worth taking, back to the UK or up to RAF Muharraq. But to see that great hive of activity being so rapidly run down and stripped of everything useful, first by us, and then by the locals, was more than a little sad. My understanding of the politics of it is still a bit hazy but, though an orderly one, it was still an ignominious withdrawal. We’d been forced out by sustained terrorist activity by FLOSY and the NLF, but as soon as the British did leave the place quickly descended into inter-factional fighting and chaos. Despite that, such is the way of international politics, that I found myself, whilst then stationed up in Bahrain, going back to Aden again, in a C130, not long after we were kicked out, supplying the new government with boxed JP trainer aircraft!
And perhaps my only personal small claim to a place in history derives from those few weeks, when as the very last RAF serviceman out of Aden - just one step ahead of a Major Gen Philip Tower, who was C. in C. Middle East, I was also the very first uniformed serviceman (as far as I know) to set foot in Aden again - on the first flight back. When we were not sure it if was safe to land or not, but as soon as we stopped moving, and the side doors opened, I jumped out - in order or to claim that dubious distinction before anyone else could do so.
After my tour I heard it said that there were many more incidents of bombs, explosive sabotage, snipings, etc in the Aden campaign, that any other ‘peacetime’ engagement, including N. Ireland. Though far fewer fatalities than N.I. So, having had all this excitement, (I was still only twenty one) it was bit of a come-down to to end up at RAF Benson, in the Ops Centre, doing Argosy Trim Sheets!
J4276154 SAC ‘Ned’ Nethercoat C. R.
1964/69 -my postings.
RAF Innsworth - square bashing
RAF Kirton in Lindsey -Supplier A. training
RAF Cosford - permanent staff at SCAF
RAF Abingdon - short training detachment for Air Movements training
RAF Khormaksar in Aden - MAMS service
RAF Muharraq in Bahrain - MAMS service
RAF Benson - Load Control in Ops Centre.
Demobbed July 1969