RAF Idris: Written on 06 April 2019
This piece was transferred from my main website on 06 April 2019 and a few recent thoughts are now included here to bring it up to date since, once again, Libya is making the world’s headlines.
Over the years, quite a few readers have asked me for more information about RAF activities in Libya, and especially where exactly RAF Idris was/is - so here goes. Bear in mind that there at least two places called Tripoli. The one in this article is on the Mediterranean Coast in the north-western corner of Libya, and the other one is at the other end of the Mediterranean in Lebanon. The site of RAF Idris was a few miles due south of the Libyan town called Tripoli. The first time I went to RAF Idris was in 1954 when I was a transit passenger on a Hastings aircraft of RAF Transport Command en route to Ceylon. It was the first time I had ever been out of the UK. On the next page there are three scans of my diary pages for my short stay in Idris in December 1954.
In the 1930s, the airfield at Idris was called Castel Benito, which I gather translates as "The Chateau of the Blessed One". During WW2 the airfield was used by the Italian Air Force but, after being captured by the British, became known simply as RAF Castel Benito. (See note at the bottom of this page.) In 1952, the RAF base was again renamed, this time at the request of the Libyan Government, as RAF Idris in honour of the then King of Libya. During the 1950s, RAF Idris was mainly used by the RAF as a staging post for flights between UK and the Middle and Far East. In those days the RAF's Hastings transport aircraft required four or five refuelling stops en route from UK to Singapore. RAF Idris was also used for military aircraft operating on the nearby bombing ranges.
From 1957-59, I was a sergeant air signaller on No 38 Squadron (Shackletons) at RAF Luqa on the beautiful island of Malta. Our home base at RAF Luqa was a very busy joint-user civil/military airport and the circuit there was often full to capacity, so our crews regularly flew across the Mediterranean to RAF Idris for pilot training and for duty-free shopping. Our squadron pilots, who apparently regularly needed to practise circuits and landings, used both Idris and the nearby American base Wheelus for that purpose while the ‘spare’ signallers (the Squadron always made sure there were a few 'spare' siggies onboard) did the duty-free shopping for the whole crew, and the engineers back at Luqa, and waited to be picked up an hour or so later when the pilots had had their fun.
Wheelus AFB in the 1950s had been established on another former Italian AF airfield, built in 1923, called Mellaha on the coast several miles due east of Tripoli. After the USAF left Wheelus in 1970, the airfield became a Libyan People's Air Force installation and was renamed Okba Ben Nafi Air Base. In recent years, the former Wheelus AFB was known as Mitiga International Airport, Libya's second airport, but is now inactive. (There is a lengthy but fascinating article (from 2008) about Wheelus AFB, which was named after a junior USAF officer. Search for ‘wheelus afb’ on your favourite search engine.)
The RAF finally withdrew from Idris following the coup d'état led by Muammar Gaddafi on 01 September 1969 which overthrew King Idris and resulted in the formation of the Libyan Arab Republic. The former RAF airfield was later extensively redeveloped and then became Tripoli International Airport. As part of the 2014 Libyan Civil War, the airfield was heavily damaged in in what became known as the 'Battle of Tripoli Airport' and was then out of use until it was reopened for limited commercial use in July of 2017.
Sadly, I was not allowed to take 'private' photographs during any of my stops in Libya but, in any case, I was usually far too busy sorting out the duty frees!