Written on 05 December 2018
During my time flying as an Air Signaller on No 38 (Shackleton) Squadron based at RAF Luqa, Malta, I flew on several search and rescue missions. When any Search and Rescue (SAR) mission located one or more survivors, the standard orders were to remain in visual contact with the survivors until they were rescued, or we were relieved by another aircraft, or until PLE – Prudent Limit of Endurance. PLE was the point where the aircraft had just sufficient fuel to return safely to an airfield – in our case usually RAF Luqa. That rule was changed for one special SAR mission I flew on.
That special occasion involved several Shackletons being detached from Malta to RAF El Adem, a few miles south of Tobruk on the Mediterranean coast at the eastern end of Libya. When we arrived at El Adem, our crew was briefed about a secret SAR mission. We were told that we would be flying patrols at 10,000 feet in the vicinity of what was colloquially referred to as Nasser’s Corner, where the boundaries of Egypt, Sudan, Chad and Libya meet in the middle of nowhere. We would be providing safety cover for a special flight, but we did not need to know the nature of that flight. One rumour suggested that it was a Royal flight; another rumour said that it was an aircraft carrying a nuclear weapon either to or from Christmas Island.
Above: That's me operating the Shackleton's radar equipment on a routine flight in 1959.
We were ordered to maintain strict radio silence after take-off from El Adem and not contact any of the normal air traffic control stations. We signallers had to maintain continuous HF (short wave) Morse listening watch on a specified ground station in Nairobi listening for coded messages and we had to fly at 10,000ft instead of much lower in order to enhance HF long range reception. This time our orders were to remain on task patrolling our allotted area until relieved by another aircraft or, not until PLE, but until our fuel was exhausted! That latter option would have resulted in a forced landing somewhere in the vast Sahara Desert.
We flew for 12 hours maintaining radio silence. We signallers logged the routine tuning signals broadcast from Nairobi every 30 minutes. We were given no information whatsoever about the progress of the operation. Fortunately, just as we were starting to get worried about our fuel state, we were ordered to return to El Adem and land. Whether it was a Royal personage or a nuclear weapon, we were never told and scanning the newspapers and listening to the BBC General Overseas News Bulletins in the following few days offered no clues. We were ordered not to record the sortie in our flying log books.
There are many interesting articles on the Internet about the UK nuclear tests on Christmas Island - try this one (opens in a new window).