This story was written 26 March 2009
There were three stories in the news today 26 March 2009 (not including the one about pink lights being installed in some pedestrian underpasses in selected UK cities to deter ill-behaved teenagers, because the pink light reveals teenage acne) which reminded me of a series of events in my RAF past.
The news that the advertising of condoms is to be permitted on UK commercial TV channels before the 9pm watershed, and a separate news item which states that the Pope will still not allow the use of condoms by the faithful, reminded me of what might have been an illegal trade that used to take place between Cyprus and Malta in the late 1950s. I was serving on 38 Squadron, a Shackleton anti-submarine and search and rescue squadron that was also engaged in my time carrying out anti-smuggling patrols around the coast of Cyprus. Those flights, known as MARSO (Maritime Air Reconnaissance Special Operations), were always flown by night at low level (as low as 100 feet above the sea) and with no navigation or other external lights showing. We were searching on radar for small boats that might have been involved in support of the EOKA terrorists. When we found suspicious surface contacts, we would illuminate them with flares and, if necessary, call in the Royal Navy to intercept them and search them.
We stayed in Cyprus at RAF Akrotiri for one or two weeks at a time before returning to our home base, RAF Luqa on Malta. On the return flight several of the 10 crew members in each Shackleton would carry a box of one gross of contraceptives (that was 144 packets of 3) that had been requested by married RAF aircrew based on Malta who rarely had the opportunity to leave the island. (For religious reasons condoms were not on sale in Malta.) The RAF Police, not local customs officers, always searched our luggage on landing at Luqa (for operational reasons!) and they never seemed to find the boxes which, presumably by mutual agreement, were concealed in piles of our soiled flying clothing under garments – and no-one would wish to search through them! (More about MARSOs on my main website here - opens in a new window.
Above: Two Shackletons on a remote dispersal at RAF Luqa 1959.
The second bit of news today concerned the re-formation of Spandau Ballet, a pop group from 30 or so years ago which seems to have passed me by. I was stationed in Berlin at RAF Gatow from 1978-80, barely three miles from Spandau Prison – where the Nazi war criminal Rudolf Hess was still incarcerated. I believe Spandau Ballet changed their name from The Makers after a visit to the West Berlin Spandau.
That reminds me of something else. One night on a MARSO about 60 miles due south of the Akrotiri peninsula, rather further out than we, or the smugglers, normally went, we located several large radar contacts on the surface. It was near the end of a boring flight with nothing found so the captain decided we might as well investigate. We closed in, descended to about 100 feet, and then illuminated the contacts. The ship recce expert on board our Shackleton shouted out on the intercom, “It looks like the American 6th Fleet!” Another crew member watching through binoculars in the light of our powerful flares added, “Bloody hell, their guns are tracking us – let’s get out of here!” We did! When we landed back at Akrotiri a senior officer met us at the aircraft to say that the Americans had complained at what we had done. Then he added, “Apparently they’re on a secret mission to Lebanon. But it’s their own damned fault – they hadn’t told us they were there.” I suppose that would have been some consolation to our relatives had we been shot down - not to be confused with the 'special relationship'!
In 1975 I spent 10 days as the guest of the US 6th Fleet on board USS Independence.
Above: That's me on base leg for the final approach to the USN CV62 somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean, off the coast of Portugal. (I had better be honest: I was using my camera; a US Navy pilot was doing the flying!)