RAF Twilight War
The history of air warfare in the Twilight War is one of immense levels of activity to begin with, air battles of great magnitude occurred throughout the world. However the levels of attrition of airframes vastly outstripped the numbers of aircraft being produced, even the US and Soviets, with their immense reserves of aircraft were hit by fuel and spare part shortages not to mention dwindling stocks of high tech weaponry. All these factor caused a huge decline in operational activities especially after the nuclear exchanges in late 1997. By hook and by crook some units consolidated and continued to have some operational capability, consequently these few planes would often have a great impact on ground battles.
By 2000 few aircraft were operational outside of the Middle Eastern theatre where fuel was more readily available. Fortunately 2000 was the nadir for air operations as slowly the situation began to recover and aircraft began to take to the skies again. Encouraged by reorganising governments aeronautical industries began a slow build up, initially to provide spare parts, and later new build aircraft themselves. Yet it would be many years before air forces of any magnitude were fielded outside of relatively undamaged nations like France and Japan.
German forces crossed the border in an attempt to reunify with the East on October 7th 1996 and began to engage the Group of Soviet Forces Germany (GSFG) now depleted by the Sino-Russian War that had been raging since 1995. The Luftwaffe played a key part in this offensive, raiding Soviet airfields in East Germany, Poland and Czechoslovakia. Attacks on Soviet barracks also proved to be remarkably effective and a shocked GSFG had to scramble to avoid being summarily driven across the Oder.
The Non-German NATO nations were not unaware at the West German preparations but truly never believed the Germans would go ahead with a unilateral invasion of the East. As a response NATO mobilised its ground, naval and air forces. The first test came when Soviet Frontal Aviation units began to raid West German airfields. The NATO leadership was initially at a loss about how to respond and avoid being drawn into a war with the Warsaw Pact. A quick decision was made to maintain an air defence of West Germany, but refuse to co-operate in any offensive operations.
The first combats of the war came as air defence units of 2 and 4 ATAF intercepted incoming Soviet fighter bombers on the 10th of October and turned back the attack with heavy casualties. These combats gave the first RAF kill since World War 2 to Pilot Officer Ken Martin of 56 Squadron and would see the loss of the first RAF plane, also from No. 56. The air combats of the 10th, which especially saw the emerging dominance in air superiority of the NATO Tactical Air Forces due mainly to their superior AWACS support, caused Pravda to unleash a torrent of anti-NATO invective, but also led to a pause in major operations against West Germany. This allowed the Luftwaffe and Soviet Frontal Aviation to concentrate on their fight against each other in the skies of eastern Europe. A fight rapidly being won by the Russians.
What followed for 2 and 4 ATAF was what was called the '2nd Phoney War' as they had a period of grace, broken only by occasional Soviet 'tip and run' raids, in which NATO had grace to build up their forces. RAF Germany was reinforced primarily by helicopter units from No.1 Group, and by RAF Regiment reservists who beefed up airfield defences. The Harrier Wing also used the time to prepare numerous hide areas close to the inter-German border in advance of any possible dispersed operations. Within the highest councils of NATO debates were underway about the wisdom of going to the aid of the faltering West German offensive which had now been joined by East German forces and appeared to be a real popular revolt. NATO was split between the hawks of American, Canada and the UK and the doves led by France and Belgium. The RAF was well aware of the increasing resentment of the German populace about NATO prevarication, particularly those wives and mothers of German servicemen who picketed the air bases day and night.
No 11 Group in the UK had increased its readiness in the lead up to the West German attack and was particularly busy. Soviet long range recce aircraft had become particularly active through both the Baltic Approaches and coming down from the North Cape. At one time it was not unusual for 5 Soviet Bear maritime patrol aircraft to be active at any time in the Norwegian Sea and North Atlantic, all of which required an escort. No.11 Group shifted its balance to the north, with the Leeming Wing basing out of Kinloss and Stornoway. Forward basing was also undertaken with Norwegian airfields and even a strip in Shetland being utilised.
Air defence of the UK was vital as this was the route taken by many aircraft taking part in the huge US build-up in Europe. US aircraft transiting into the theatre were increasingly based at UK air bases due to overcrowding in Western Europe. Many older bases were reactivated and used to base tactical aircraft whilst rapid Anglo-American efforts were taken to rebuild these facilities. For the time begin many of these squadrons came under the operational control of No.11 Group and a part of the UK's air defences. Once again the UK truly became the 'unsinkable aircraft carrier.'
No. 18 Group was also hard at work tracking Soviet shipping and submarines. Some Baltic fleet units had slipped through the Skaggerak in the early days of the hostilities and were loitering in the upper reaches of the North Sea, relatively safe from German Navy air strikes. However they were a definite threat to both the oil rigs in the area and the naval forces gathering behind the GIUK gap, and required constant surveillance. No 18 Group was also very concerned about Soviet conventional submarines operating in his area and their mine laying capability that might hinder the reinforcement of the BOAR from the UK but also the massive US reinforcements planned for Europe. Further afield No. 18 Group co-operated with other nations in tracking Soviet shipping, commercial as well as military throughout the Atlantic region.
No.1 Group was busy undertaking a range of tasks, ferrying British reinforcements to Germany, and detaching her helicopter units there as well. The air-to-air refuelling units of the Group were also working hard supporting No. 11 and No. 18 Groups activities. Elements of No.1 Group committed to the Northern Flank were prepared for deployment should the situation deteriorate any further, but were held in the UK as a non-provocative gesture. However aircraft of No.1 Squadron deployed across to HMS Ark Royal when the fleet deployed into the Atlantic.
Throughout Strike Command facilities in the UK a range of enhanced security measures and hardening processes were underway. Dispersion plans to civilian airfields were activated and practised. Civilian airliner and helicopter operators were warned of a possible call-up for military use of their machinery. Reservists were called up and quickly brought up to speed. Veterans of the era refer to this time as the inevitable run up the war, when politicians lost control and the momentum of the events took over.
With the combined West and East German armies under attack by Soviet, Polish and Czech forces and in danger of being overwhelmed, NATO split. The Americans, British and Canadians entered the war on the German side, whilst the French and Belgians withdrew from the coalition. Other nations attempted to sit on the fence and undertook a defensive role.
NATO ground forces began to cross the IGBL in the second week of December and by the 12th were heavily engaged against WP forces. The RAF commenced its involvement with an array of set-piece strikes by Tornado squadrons against WP airfields in Poland and Czechoslovakia. These strikes were amongst the riskiest operations being delivered at very low altitudes right across heavily defended airfields. However carefully planned infiltration routes combined with Tornado's high speed terrain following capability enabled most raids to successfully hit their targets.
Conventional 1000lb bombs and the JP233 runway denial weapon were the weapons of choice, however the effectiveness of JP233 declined markedly once enemy gunners discovered that the weapon was supposed to be delivered at a constant altitude and velocity. RAF pilots changed their delivery profiles, which had a consequent effect on the effect of the weapon. Most Tornados that failed to return home were normally hit by AAA and man-portable SAM exiting the target area. Nevertheless the Tornados were very successful in throttling the sortie rates from the targeted airfields, and COMTWOATAF found the casualty rate acceptable.
The Harrier Wing deployed into the field in the first week of December and was soon in the action in close co-ordination with British forces operating behind WP lines. SAS teams and 6th Airmobile Brigade battalions operating in a desant role were able to direct Harriers (operating normally in squadron strength raids) onto enemy armoured columns and artillery positions in the rear. These sort of raids, conducted mainly with cluster bombs, played a major role in stopping the offensive of the Soviet 20th Guards Tank Army north of Berlin.
Sortie rates were high as the Harrier Wing followed close on the heels of the leading elements to maintain their tempo, and consequently the losses of aircraft rose as well (although pilots were often rescued). Harrier losses came mainly from mobile AAA and SAM systems defending the targets they were attacking, although they were occasionally engaged in air-to-air combat by WP fighters who quickly learned to treat this plane with respect. Losses over targets to radar directed defences caused a change of tactics by the end of the month with two aircraft carrying a load of ALARM missiles which would be launched to loiter over the target area and proved effective in reducing loss rates.
The three Wildenrath based Falcon squadrons were also suffering serious attritional losses. The British pilots made excellent use of their new BVR AMRAAM missiles, as well as revelling in the agility of the Falcon but losses still mounted. Nevertheless they all agreed that their machines were far superior to the Phantom they had been flying only a year previously, which had proved so outclassed in Luftwaffe hands. The pilots swiftly learned to make the best of their machines, although some were caught out by the lack of a navigator providing a second set of eyes. By the end of the month however the WP still seemed to have an endless supply of reinforcements to send against the west. As the number of Falcon started to dwindle COMTWOATAF was asking the MoD to consider the transfer of Tornado F.3 squadrons and even the experimental EFA equipped 618 Sqn was being prepared for deployment to the Central Front.
The helicopter units of RAF Germany had been reinforced from the UK by the Pumas of 33 Sqn and some Chinooks from 7 Sqn during the previous month and these rapidly came good. The Support Helicopters had been assigned to aid the Army's new 6th Airmobile Brigade as their main effort. 6 Brigade was originally planned as a highly manoeuvrable force used to counter WP armoured breakthroughs. However their aggressive Brigadier introduced a plan to operate his unit in a similar manner to Soviet desant troops and seize vital routes in front of the armoured spearhead. Despite muttering about 'another bloody Arnhem' the attack went ahead, and probably due to the disruption of WP forces, it succeeded.
However this coup was brought at the price of the loss of around half of the RAF helicopters involved in the action, (many of which were repaired), and led the RAF being increasingly wary of risking their helicopter assets. This attitude as well as the perception that the RAF were 'windy' about providing CAS lead to sometimes serious inter-service conflicts with the army.
The first month of NATO involvement in the war had brought out several trends. One was the technical superiority of some NATO aircraft that had enabled air-superiority to be established over the battlefield. The second was that ground defences were taking an appreciable toll of friend and foe alike. The air war over the Central Front was an incredibly deadly and confusing, many pilots reported being completely unaware of what had shot them down.
Whilst the Americans especially were proving masters of air-to-air warfare their record in ground attack duties had been less impressive. Initially wedded to the computerisation of target and mission planning the sheer volume of targets and missions reduced this process to a crawl. At one stage 3 days was required for the cycle of target acquisition, mission planning and execution. It was not good enough, and many units, especially the A-10 Warthog squadrons assigned to 2 ATAF went to a much more flexible system.
Another difficulty was in the arrangement of aircraft 'packages' including strike, defence suppression and fighter aircraft. Aggressive WP responses to the appearance of these large groups of aircraft would cause the situation to dissolve rapidly into chaos and bring about a neutralisation of the NATO technological advantage. An immediate counter was in the decreasing size of these packages and so an enhanced flexibility was created.
WP attacks into West Germany were frequent, but usually subjected to huge attrition. Air to air action and SAM belts often caused losses of 50% and higher to attack units, whilst WP defence suppression techniques proved mostly ineffective. The best attacks were joint attacks, usually started by attempts to destroy NATO AWACS drawing up fighter cover and then massed ground attacks launched to swamp ground defences. These raids were still taking a high toll on airfields and rear area depots in particular and were complemented by spectacular but mostly ineffective SSM attacks.
The WP invasion of Norway led the RAF to launch two major operations. One was the immediate reinforcement of AIRNORTH with Harrier and Jaguar squadrons of 1 Group. A simple operation that went to plan. The second was the launching of Operation REDBURN. Pre-war thinking about naval encounters had placed a key role in the hands of the WP Backfire bomber fleet based in and around the Kola Peninsular. REDBURN was the British response to this, and had long been planned and rehearsed in the days leading up to the war.
REDBURN occurred on the 10th of December, as the Tornado squadrons of No.1 and No.18 Groups took off for Norway. After refuelling at Norwegian bases they traversed up through Norway, and then passed through neutral Sweden at zero feet to hit the westernmost Backfire bases. Using the same methods as their Germany based comrades they hit runways and taxiways with a variety of ordnance. The TIALD equipped Tornado aircraft of 617 Squadron also used PGM to strike a number of HAS, whilst a pilot of 45 Squadron reported dropping a full JP 233 payload over a line of taxiing Backfires. At the same time 27 Squadron was conducting air strikes on naval facilities in Murmansk, hitting docked warships, repair facilities and even bombing the HQ of the Northern Fleet.
Surprise was remarkably complete and the response of Soviet gunners in the freezing conditions was tardy, nonetheless four aircraft failed to return from the mission. Most of the aircraft returned through Sweden, there is some evidence of collusion on Sweden's part (Swedish Viggen fighters shot down two pursuing MiG-25 aircraft but allowed the British to pass) despite a furious diplomatic denouncement of the British action. Whilst 27 Squadron returned to Norway through a gap in the radar coverage opened by US F-111's operating from the UK. The physical damage from REDBURN was soon repaired but it did give the Soviets a major shock and caused a redeployment of defence assets. More important perhaps was the destruction of some 10 Backfire bombers. (It was this mission that gave rise to The Sun's famous 'Wallop!' headline.)
Most air operations were hampered by the long Arctic winters, and saw much use of the advanced Harrier GR.9 and Tornado GR.4A of the Marham Wing in deep interdiction raids. The Jaguar squadrons were swiftly equipped with as many TIALD pods as possible and also saw a full role. However the old Harrier GR.5 of No.105 Squadron were restricted to providing close air support against trapped WP Airborne and Marine units. But it did score the notable feat of generating nearly 186 sorties in a 12 hour period on 18 December against Soviet forces near Narvik.
Air fighting on the North Flank revolved around providing direct support to ground troops in addition to destroying the enemies manoeuvre capability. Bridges and tunnels especially became prime targets and by destroying these vital communications mechanised Soviet forces were frequently stranded and outflanked by the lighter, more mobile NATO forces. The 18th Army soon began to dissolve under the pressure and its remnants would begin to rout back to the border.
However the conditions that allowed the NATO attack planes such a free hand also applied to WP aircraft. Soviet Frontal Aviation soon brought in more advanced types of aircraft, such as the Su-24 and Su-27 and began to apply pressure to NATO airforces. Crowded airbases were hit repeatedly, and aircraft were forced to operate from strips of road. The Royal Norwegian Air Force F-16 fleet dwindled rapidly and US and RAF air defence units took over the defence of the south of Norway. Perhaps luckily the Soviets were soon to concentrate mostly on attacks of the NATO Strike Fleet in the Norwegian Sea and give the battered airbases some respite.
As noted above UK air assets were soon involved in both Norway and Germany. However the first RAF offensive action of the war was launched by the old Buccaneer aircraft of 18 Group who destroyed the light Soviet surface group in the North Sea with Sea Eagle and LGB in the early hours of the 9th of December with no losses. Other units of 18 Group were also hard at work helping to track and destroy WP surface and submarine assets. The first submarine kill came soon after with the destruction of the Soviet submarine responsible for the sinking of HMS Sutherland off the west coast of Ireland by a pair of Nimrod aircraft.
UKADR was soon tested by Backfire raids from the north in retaliation for REDBURN, however the first attack was a complete debacle as the raid was picked up by AIRNORTH and the information passed to UKADR. Two full squadrons were waiting in ambush for the Soviet aircraft, the first wave of eight aircraft was destroyed in its entirety and subsequent waves broke off loosing five aircraft either from battle damage of from running out of fuel. This set the tone for further attacks from the north, which would from then on only attack when a substantial escort was available.
Further tests upon the integrity of UKADR were launched through the Baltic regions, by both Soviet long range aviation Backfire and frontal aviation Fencer aircraft. However these often faired as badly as the attacks from the north. As they had to withstand attacks from 2 ATAF units, AIRBALTAP, and NATO naval units before engaging elements of No.11 Group. Whilst some small raids caused some damage, most attacks were restricted to stand-off efforts normally countered by a combination of Patriot and interceptor aircraft.
The main fighting for UK based forces revolved around support for Naval units engaged in the Battle of the Norwegian Sea. RAF units provided air combat, maritime strike and reconnaissance for the fleet. Buccaneer and Tornado aircraft carried out numerous strikes on the Soviet Northern Fleet. Nimrod was ever present and suffered serious attritional casualties during the month, whilst successfully prosecuting many targets. Tornado F.3 was also engaged in the campaign, with 11 and 43 Squadrons, initially in maintaining the integrity of the GIUK gap and later in providing air cover for the Strike Fleet, normally from Norwegian airfields.
Mention should also be made of the airlift contribution of the Hercules wing, which was invaluable in moving forward men and supplies. Also the success of the UKADR defences and No.18 Groups contribution to the Norwegian Sea operation was largely dependant on the sterling service of the tanker fleet.
The first week of January saw NATO forces triumphant, Warsaw Pact forces had been driven from Norway and out of East Germany. A lull followed in the high tempo of operations and hopes for a negotiated settlement rose, only to be dashed on the depth of mistrust between both sides.
The new year saw NATO ground forces take and secure Berlin, whilst the counter-attack of the 20th Guards Army was finally finished off. The WP armies had been split and in danger of being eliminated in detail. A retreat was began that nearly became a rout, many of the conscript units disintegrating and heading to the rear. However the situation was saved by valiant, often doomed rearguard actions by several WP units, foremost amongst these were the Poles bitterly fighting to keep NATO away from their borders.
The massed retreat became something of a field day for TWOATAF, as traffic jams crammed the roads with targets. Air defence units had had little time to set up and so lacked their usual effectiveness. Caught between the hail of cluster bombs and pursuing NATO armoured forces many of the WP units broke across country, abandoning their equipment. SACEUR now hoped to gain as large a 'bag' of WP prisoners of war as possible, and in particular wanted to target the Oder bridges across which they were retreating.
TWOATAF was reinforced by the Marham Wing squadrons, who along with No. 9 Squadron would provide the main attack force against the bridges in the British sector. The battle for the Oder bridges lasted for a week and was an exceptionally challenging one. WP air-defences had been concentrated around the major crossing points and were intensely difficult to penetrate. Complex variations of approaches and weapons were used with varying levels of success. LGB strikes were followed by low level laydown approaches or toss bombing. And whilst numerous bridges were hit, the links were never totally severed. Casualties had mounted alarmingly and the attacks were scaled back until NATO ground forces had overrun many of the air defence sites on the 6th of January. At which stage SACEUR wanted the remaining bridges for his own uses.
The remainder of the Tornado force had been split, with the Laarbruch Wing continuing to attack airfields whilst the Brüggen Wing were tasked to aid in the feeding frenzy of attacks against retreating WP forces. The Harrier Wing also joined in this tasking but at a much reduced sortie rate as they recovered from their previous exertions.
The Falcon squadrons of the RAF were now fully used to their new aircraft and were riding a wave of moral superiority over their WP opponents. WP air attacks were becoming less and less frequent, although sparing above the Oder was continuous as both sides attempted to keep up the pressure. Apparent at this stage of the fighting was the use of ambushes by the WP airforces, when groups of less capable aircraft were set up as bait for passing NATO trade, which would then be pounced on in turn. Fast hit and run raids by Mig-25 and Mig-31 were almost as feared as attacks by the excellent Su-27 which was the NATO pilots true 'bogeyman'.
With the final retreat of WP ground units across the Oder and capitulation of those left behind the air war on the Central Front began to wind down as commanders expected a negotiated settlement. Whilst sporadic artillery duels occurred most of the fighting came between squadrons of the Oder line as both sides provoked each other. Normally these combats were small scale affairs, rarely exceeding eight aircraft but occurring daily. Lasting for nearly two months these skirmishes became a drain on the resources of NATO, whilst slowly rebuilding the morale of WP Frontal Aviation.
2 ATAF kept busy, former East German airfields were cleared and brought into service as were airfields in the Western part of West Germany. Air defences were relocated into the East to provide a barrier to further WP aerial intrusion. Also the battered squadrons were reinforced by fresh pilots and airframes. In the December fighting the Falcon wing had lost 25% of its pilots and 40% of its aircraft, a similar loss rate was common in the Harrier force, whilst the Tornados operating deep in the East had lost an even 35% of pilots and aircraft.
To supplement 2 ATAF the first Tornado F.3 squadrons were transferred across from No.11 Group at the end of January. No.5 and No.23 Squadrons were based in Wildenrath to provide some depth to the air defences and were also rotated further forward as a counter to the Foxbat Ambush tactics then being adopted by the WP. On 23rd February 1997 the first attempt to 'spring' an Ambush occurred when four Falcon's of 92 Squadron bounced a formation of Mig-21 just inside Poland. Eight Mig-25 responded, and 'Magic' brought in eight Tornado F.3 from No.5 and No.23 to try and counter the Foxbat. This combat brought in more and more aircraft from both sides and caused the biggest dogfight since January. British losses were two Falcon and three Tornado.
Also present on the central front was the Anglo-German European Fighter Aircraft Trials Unit, known as 618 Squadron. This crack formation was also used to counter the presence of the WP Su-27 units in the line, and became known as the 'Flying Circus' to the German press in reference to Richthofen's crack unit of WW1. (Naturally in reply the British pilots dubbed the unit the 'Spanish Inquisition' referring to the ecclesiastical stealth formation of Monty Python fame.)
The disintegration of the 18th Army allowed a rapid follow up of NATO forces which actually extended into Russia to the defensible Litwa River line. Air operations were less fierce than over the Central Front as many more of the 18th Army either surrendered to NATO forces or perished in the freezing conditions. This presence of NATO ground and air forces actually on Russian soil caused the redeployment of the Naval Aviation Backfire fleet further east, although the existing airfields were frequently used as forward operations bases. However the presence of NATO SF OP overlooking these airbases gave much greater warnings of the dangerous Backfire operations.
AIRNORTH operations concentrating on rebuilding airbases and provision of alternate airstrips to avoid the overcrowding that had hampered operations in December. Air operations were predominantly low intensity on both sides with occasional PGM raids on vital installations, which due to the lack of radar resources on both sides were frequently successful. Air combats were less frequent, but were still deadly as crack Soviet Navy Su-27K squadrons from their sunken carriers were operating in the area. A section of 618 Sqn was also deployed to North Cape to help counter this threat. Nevertheless the skies over the front line were something of a no man's land.
The UK continued to be relatively isolated from the effects of the war. UKADR only faced infrequent attacks, most of which were easily brushed aside. In fact Tornado F.3 Squadrons were being prepared for employment on the central front and the first two squadrons were sent at the start of the year. No.11 Group had widened its net, having expanded to aid the defence of southern Norway and Denmark. In fact the forward based squadrons helped cut down the level of attacks reaching the UK to virtually nothing. However they themselves became vulnerable to ground attacks on the forward bases, and ground losses were the main cause of attrition in 11 Group during this period.
The SACLANT designated Squadrons (normally 11 and 43) had continued to operated in defence of the GIUK line behind which SACLANT was attempting to secure the vital reinforcement lines to Europe from the Americas. Their normal foe were the reconnaissance Bear aircraft that would attempt to locate any vulnerable NATO naval units or convoys. Great cunning was required whilst hunting Bears which through natural selection had become increasingly coy and unwilling to take risks. When the Soviet Navy Backfires did make an appearance there distraction became a priority as the NATO navies well remembered the slaughter they wrecked during the Battle of the Norwegian Sea. It was even widely rumoured that convoys were deliberately left open as bait for the Backfires.
No.18 Group still had an eye on the Norwegian Sea but shifted the main effort to supporting the blockade of the GIUK gap and convoys across the Atlantic. The range and submarine hunting prowess of the Nimrod would once again prove a vital factor in the battles. At this stage to gain extra range that some Nimrod squadrons would begin to use some Irish airfields as FOB.
Details of the RAF's campaign in the Far East are very sketchy, and limited by the lack of post-war survivors or documentation. 28 Squadron's ageing Wessex helicopters combined with a flight of six ageing Harrier GR.5's were the sum total of the RAF's resources in the region although they were bolstered by civilian helicopters operated by the Hong Kong government. Their main role was in helping the Army in maintaining the border in the face of an increasing flood of refugees fleeing from the Sino-Soviet conflict.
After Britain's entrance into the war the government committed most of the Hong Kong garrison to the aid of the Chinese and the Gurkhas of the 6th Infantry Division marched away to the north. Leaving only four Wessex and two Harriers behind (and these were barely serviceable) an RAF force went with them. The grandly and cynically named Far East Air Force was badly hampered by logistical failings and struggled more from lack of supplies and fuel than from Soviet action. The combination of Wessex and Gurkhas proved especially useful in hunting down Soviet deep penetration forces.
The unit was then transferred along with the Gurkhas to fight alongside the Americans on the Yalu River. The supply situation improved immediately but combat losses occurred immediately. The Harriers were integrated into the US Marine AV-8B force operating in the area, but inside of two weeks all four Harriers had been lost. The surviving pilots were integrated into the US squadrons but they were both lost in action inside of a week.
This period saw the renewal of NATO offensive. Scattered offensives launched by the WP from Czechoslovakia into Southern Germany had petered out in ground greatly favourable to the defender, but convinced NATO that there was no chance for a settlement and so a renewed offensive 'Advent Crown' was launched into Poland. Similarly in Norway an ambitious air-sea-land operation was launched into the Kola Peninsular to finish Soviet naval and air forces in the area and secure the Norwegian frontier.
NATO recce planes had long noticed the build-up in Poland, first to rebuild the shattered WP units and then to support the offensive on the Czech front. Later veteran Russian formations were noted arriving in Poland from the Chinese front. These logistical movements were the first to be targeted in Operation ADVENT STORM, as 2 and 4 ATAF interdiction squadrons, well rested and almost back up to strength after the previous fighting, returned to the fray.
Once again the Brüggen Wing were tasked to hit WP airfields and returned to this mission with something approaching resignation, many of the pilots were becoming 'flak happy' but the results they obtained were still of the highest standards. Laarbruch Tornados were sent against communications targets hitting road and rail links, attempting to isolate the defending units on the Oder defensive line. Whilst the Tornado fleets tactics had been refined, so had the defences. WP AAA units, including many obsolete visual laid small calibre cannon, now ringed all operational airfields and made daylight attacks suicidal.
The Harrier Wing initially was kept out of the action, but as the momentum of the offensive mounted they were brought into the action. This time they had a new weapon in their armoury, Brimstone, a millimetre wave radar guided variant of the proven Hellfire. The carefully husbanded stocks of Brimstone would prove exceptional in eliminating individual tanks as the Harriers provided close air support to cover I (BR) Corps assault crossing of the Oder. Whilst the crossing was hugely successful and enabled I Corps to break through the Soviet line it was bought at the cost of fully half of the Harriers (who normally performed Battlefield Interdiction tasks) and there would be few replacements from Britain.
The now crack Falcon wing, reinforced with the Spitfires (EFA) of 618 and 58 Sqns , was similarly active and found the WP threat more numerous than ever. Every NATO incursion was met with a response, even from obsolete Mig-21's which the Soviets had reserves of in abundance. Whilst the NATO air-superiority forces were still hugely superior in individual terms and many pilots were aces many times over but attrition meant NATO no longer had air supremacy. Indeed the loss rate in some recently arrived US Air National Guard squadrons was very worrying.
Aiding the Falcon Wing were the Tornado F.3's of 5, 23 and 64 Squadrons. Whilst excellent in their original interceptor role and equipped with excellent information systems, the F.3 lacked the manoeuvrability and medium range armament to operate effectively in the central front. However their long loitering capability on CAP led them to be used as an airborne reserve. Excellent against WP incursions, they were reliant on hit and run tactics to survive over the Oder battlefields. However the experienced pilots managed to keep the casualty rate under control, even if morale began to suffer.
As the NATO airforces were coming up against unexpected resistance they were given a respite by the breakthrough of the ground forces which roled over the WP forward air bases and SAM systems. By the second week of June Warsaw had been reached and brought under siege, whilst the German Corps continued to role up the WP positions, further dislocating their air effort. All the Tornados were given the now familiar role of airfield bashing and met what would be called a 'target rich environment' with aircraft crammed on the aprons.
With WP forces now nearly thrown out of Poland it was expected that NATO would again halt to give negotiations a chance. However German and American hawks wanted to carry on and smash the WP military machine and free 'all the East from the Communist yoke'. No respite was available, and as NATO units entered USSR territory resistance hardened appreciably. The previously almost uninterested Russian conscripts rallied as the Motherland was threatened.
More importantly NATO air units were given little chance to recover, ground support elements had to move forward into Poland and increasingly found themselves attacked by Polish partisans. The Falcon Wing found itself amalgamated with the USAF units it had operated alongside since the start of the war. The Spitfires, dwindling through lack of replacement airframes but proving an exceptional aircraft, were withdrawn from 2 ATAF to the direct control of AIRCENT alongside a elite US F-15 unit as a reserve. Another Tornado F.3 squadron was brought into theatre.
The 'North Atlantic Division' of Canadians, US and Anglo-Dutch Royal Marines, launched the Kola Peninsular offensive with infiltration attacks opening the way for an armoured column to advance deeper into Russia. Steaming up the Norwegian Sea to support them was the doomed Carrier Strike Fleet. Most of the AIRNORTH capacity was dedicated to attempting to suppress Northern Fleet surface and aviation units. Things went wrong right from the beginning.
The Marham Wing attempted a repeat of REDBURN, with Operation GABRIEL against Archangel. Whilst their infiltration and attack went smoothly, the PVO Strany (Soviet air defence command) response nearly destroyed the two squadrons. The primary exfiltration routes were blocked, and the squadrons attempted to cross through Finland where they were engaged by several Finnish F-18. The survivors, fuel nearly exhausted landed in Sweden where they and their planes were interned. Of the 20 planes launched on the mission, only five made it to Sweden.
The NATO air effort was constrained by the need to avoid crossing into Swedish territory, as Sweden had suffered from Soviet reprisal raids for earlier overlooked breaches of neutrality. Also Finnish air assets were also brought into the fray against them, and their excellent Mig-29 equipped squadrons rapidly became feared. Jaguar, Harrier GR.9 and Tornado GR.1B squadrons were involved in numerous attacks against soviet air and naval facilities, whilst Harrier GR.5 were in direct support of the North Atlantic Division. Buccaneers would also join the fray.
NATO air forces never gained their previous air superiority and managed only fleeting damage against Soviet facilities, the vital Backfire fleet was barely touched. The Fleet was being badly damaged by these stand-off attacks. On land the offensive was being badly slowed by Finnish Scisscjä (light infantry) units launching harassing attacks. Tied to defending the armoured column of USMC M1A1 tanks. NATO had abandoned its earlier tactical mobility and paid the price. Eventually Murmansk was taken, but there was no navy, NATO or WP left to be based there, similarly there were no airforces left to fight in its skies. NATO withdrew back to the Norwegian frontier.
Of the air units involved in the campaign, all had taken serious damage. Aircraft had been lost and pilots ejecting into the seas had little chance of rescue. Those ejecting over land were as often recovered by Finns or Russians as NATO. Morale slumped badly over this period and many joked about heading for Sweden should they be damaged to sit out the rest of the war in a comfortable internment camp. This was perhaps most often spoken of in RAF circles, although it rarely happened in practise, with only 3 RAF pilots (excepting those from the Marham Wing) being interned in Sweden, nevertheless it is indicative of the morale situation.
The RAF element of AIRNORTH now consisted of a composite squadron, with 6 Harriers and 3 Jaguars. The RAF however kept all four squadrons officially in being as part of a long running maskirovka campaign in the North of Norway. The Buccaneers that had provided excellent service in both the maritime and conventional attack roles were now only at squadron strength, a fate shared by the No.18 Group Tornado GR.1Bs. The Marham Wing was totally destroyed, with the few remaining airframes and crew going to strengthen No.9 Squadron on the continent. The end of the Kola Peninsular saw the end of the major offensives in Norway, although the RAF AIRNORTH units remained alongside RN helicopters to support operations in the area.
This period was a quiet one for much of the RAF based in the UK. No.18 Group was heavily committed in the Battle of North Cape and the Kola Peninsular. However the Nimrods also continued to fly covering the Atlantic convoy routes, those committed to the North Cape battles suffered several combat losses from a variety of sources (although one pilot managed to claim a complacent Mig-23 with a speculative AIM-9L volley).
No.11 Group was also quiet, with the WP concentrating on the main fighting there were few assets left for attacks on the UK. Although several abortive Spetnatz raids were launched on various airfields few were successful, the 'Battle of Leeming Bar' was the most spectacular of these. 11 Group continued to contribute to the defence of southern Norway and Denmark, which left only three squadrons of Tornado F.3 and the Hawks for home defence. Nevertheless combined with the efficient Patriot SAM belt and the low threat levels this was thought sufficient.
No.1 Group was now mainly operating only transport and refuelling units, both of which had suffered relatively minor losses.
In the Middle East the Soviet invasion of Iran had caused a build-up of US forces in the region, but political considerations in Iran and the US meant that there deployment into Iran itself was delayed. However the British MEFF was less constrained and at the end of March, the desert hardened 25th Infantry Bde was sent to the Bandar Abbas area to secure the area and prepare the way for the heavy American follow in. The RAF Middle East Wing was in close support, with its Jaguars operating from Dubai and Puma helicopters from Bandar Abbas.
As the fighting escalated Soviet airborne assault forces made a daring dash to the south. The 103rd Guards Airborne Division assaulted Bandar Abbas. Many of the Pumas were destroyed in the initial airstrikes, and Jaguar support was called upon. The Jaguars were intermittently successful at slowing down 103rd Division's build up, but the weight of numbers and the on-going panic were hampering 25th Brigades counter-attack on the Soviet air-head. As the tide turned the Jaguars under USAF cover were instrumental in delaying the Soviet attacks and allowing the battered 25 Bde to withdraw.
In the next two months the Jaguars would go onto to aid 25 Bde's guerrilla struggle in the hills to the north of Bandar Abbas until the arrival of the US Marines later in the early summer. The surviving Pumas also played a valuable role in evacuating casualties and bringing in reinforcements and supplies.
The remainder of the Hong Kong based RAF presence was engaged in aiding the Navy and locally raised defence forces in securing the area and occasionally being called on to provide some very primitive ASW support. However all of the remaining units were destroyed when Victoria harbour was hit by a small nuclear device, devastating the colony.
Further north in Manchuria the remnants of 28 Squadron also found themselves in a nuclear conflict. Long since relegated to a support role some three of the Wessex survived, and were engaged in immediate relief efforts. However when the order came for 6th Infantry Division to return to Hong Kong and the unit was cut off from US aid two of the airframes had to be scrapped in order to generate enough spare parts for the remaining Wessex to make the journey south.
Back in the New Territories the RAF personnel joined with the Gurkhas in trying to relive the suffering in the area and restore some semblance of normality. The Wessex would fly when fuel could be spared, but this was only infrequently, and the RAF's war in the Far East was effectively over.
This period saw the entry into the war of Italy and Greece on the side of the Warsaw Pact, a major WP counter-attack into Poland and the first use of nuclear weapons.
Early July saw the Italians enter the war and spectacularly managed to seize the Alpine passes through Austria against rather weak initial opposition. The prospect of fresh Italian units pouring into southern Germany in concert with Czech and Russian forces rightly alarmed NATO and soon armoured forces were heading to Bavaria. However the Italian air threat was already making its presence felt with Tornados hitting hard at NATO logistics and headquarters, however a rapid re-deployment of forces managed to curtail this threat. Whilst the Italian air-to-ground capacity was good its fighter force was woefully obsolete, and soon almost destroyed. However their intervention caused an increased thinning of already overstretched assets.
The RAF contribution to this new front came from the Tornado F.3 wing (whose aircraft proved very potent against the Italians) and from the surviving Spitfires of 618 Sqn, whose multi-national aces racked up even more kills. Reinforcements came from the UK, in the shape of 11 and 43 Sqns who replaced the Tornado F.3 Wing above Poland, and the Hawks of 1 TWU in a light strike role.
In Poland the WP was stepping up its tempo of operations, massing forces for a counter-offensive. NATO interdictors were bled almost dry however, and the whole Tornado GR.4 force once eight squadrons strong now only had enough strength for three. Attempts to stop the WP offensive before it started were pressed home with great bravery, but were increasingly futile. Similarly air-defence efforts were being finally overwhelmed. Almost for the first time NATO front line ground forces had to suffer frequent often continuous air attacks. Aircraft numbers could no longer meet all requirements and stocks of vital medium range missiles like AMRAAM were close to empty.
By the end of July the Falcon wing had fewer than 4 serviceable aircraft left, and as an Anglo-American squadron was integrated into the Dutch Airforce's F-16 force. By the 7th of August the last remaining RAF F-16 had been lost, although several pilots fought on with the Dutch.
July also saw the first tactical nuclear weapons brought into play on the Polish frontier. These strikes were initially targeted only on the NATO forces on Russian soil and although NATO replied, warhead for warhead the balance of the exchange was towards the Russians. The mounting Soviet offensive finally broke through NATO defences in Poland and caused a general retreat from the east. The tired western units were saved only by bitter rearguard actions fought by veteran formations. However by the end of August NATO lines were so stretched that SACEUR initiated tactical nuclear strikes to save his Army Groups.
Harrier and Tornado ground attack units had been involved all through the retreat hitting selected targets at bottlenecks. However the forces had been so depleted that only a very limited number of strikes could be flown. When the nuclear strikes began and escalated into September the RAF's airbases came under attack. The main forward base in East Germany RAF Koethen, was destroyed by a tactical nuclear strike, taking eight Tornado GR.4 from the Laarbruch Wing with it. Later on 'Black Tuesday' 11th of September 1997 all of RAF Germany's main airbases: Gütersloh, Laarbruch, Brüggen and Wildenrath were obliterated by nuclear attacks.
Some aircraft escaped, returning to the UK or landing on French airbases. Some Tornados of 9 Squadron had been operating from roads for sometime and so escaped the carnage. The Harrier Wing, still operating 'in the field' also escaped, although some of its support units didn't make it out of Poland. The remaining Spitfires of 65 Squadron were operating as close-protection for the AWACS fleet operating now from the UK. However the picture was overwhelmingly bleak, the 2 ATAF logistics tail had been destroyed, its spare crew were dead as were its vital maintenance staff. With the exception of the Harriers from the 11th of September RAF Germany ceased to exist.
With the end of the North Cape battles saw an increasingly large amount of pressure being brought on to AKADR. Even reinforced by AWACS forced from European bases the early warning fleet was seriously depleted and not able to provide a forward defence. Also the dwindling number of squadrons available to No.11 Group was placing an increasing strain upon those that remained. The remaining Backfires launched a concerted campaign to destroy the fixed coastal radar stations that were a vital reserve for the UKADR.
The remaining Buccaneer and Tornado attack units were carefully husbanded and rarely released for operations on the continent. The RAF staff had long believed that a nuclear exchange was now inevitable. They also refused to release further Tornado F.3 squadrons to AIRCENT. A further blow was the destruction of 29 Squadron on the ground on detachment at Aalborg in Denmark in one of the heaviest WP air-raids of the war, only 2 planes on CAP would return to the UK.
The start of the nuclear exchange was greeted with a resigned inevitability throughout the RAF. The husbanded strike units were armed with WE199 nuclear bombs and dispersed to remote airfields to await for orders, orders that took a long time to come as SACEUR relied on ground based nuclear artillery and missiles. However with the destruction of the 2 and 4 ATAF airfields the RAF planes were tasked and sent on their way. Once again their targets were airfields, this time with nuclear weapons. A fatalistic malaise amongst the crews meant that many were shot down on their way to and from their targets, morale in the crews was appalling and thoughts of the approaching mutual assured destruction were very much to the fore.
The returned No.9 Squadron took up the nuclear baton with gusto however, eight planes strong and including the survivors of the Marham Wing the squadron was consumed with a desire to revenge their comrades in RAF Germany. 9 Sqn was consequently given most of the remaining civil-military targeting responsibility, and even today their willingness to destroy civilian areas to prosecute military targets is controversial.
A further complication arose when the Northern Ireland cease-fire broke down, an IRA splinter group launched an attack which provoked a internment sweep by security forces. This in turn provoked a wave of protest and attack which spiralled out of control and would lead to the eventual military involvement of the south. Most British regular units had been taken from the province earlier in the year, but the old Wessex helicopters of 72 Sqn remained and they were to give sterling service to the security forces.
Exhausted and shocked by the carnage of the nuclear exchange the lines stabilised and fighting died away as the opposing armies attempted to rebuild their units and logistics. With few aircraft surviving in-theatre and no command and control air operations were at an all time low. The British Harrier Force, now reporting direct to BAOR and 10 aircraft strong was used primarily to provide reconnaissance data for the army, although a couple of raids were undertaken.
With the UK airbases host to the survivors of AIRCENT a decent capability returned to UKADR, although morale continued to be a problem. Many RAF and USAF base personnel were called out to prevent looting and civil disturbances in the areas around their bases. However late in November the last major WP raid on the UK was launched and beaten back in fine style by a multi-national force of American, British, Canadian and Dutch pilots. What was not known until nearly 2030 was that these Soviet aircraft were the first wave of a nuclear strike on the UK airbases, their repulse was a vital factor in the survival of the UK.
However the pilots at the time felt that they had little to celebrate, as the next day a wave of Intermediate Missile strikes around London caused a firestorm that destroyed that ancient city and around 6 million of its inhabitants. Further attacks would occur through the next few weeks, and the RAF was involved in launching reprisals along with the Royal Navy's nuclear missile submarines.
The destruction of London threw the country into despair and a wave of nihilistic violence. Like the other services the RAF was decapitated and thrown into logistic and operational confusion. However many local station commanders attempted to restore order in their own localities with RAF personnel amongst Army, Police and volunteers fighting the disorders. By the end of December, with the nuclear exchange coming to an end order began to return to the British Isles. Local bodies took up the control of their own localities whilst military still retained overall authority.
The RAF Air Staff reconstituted itself at the RAF College at Cranwell and the communications links began to reassert themselves. However logistics was still a problem, especially as the arms factories of the states were no longer available. USAF units in the UK were also cut off from their high command, but similarly reformed a command structure in Britain closely aligned with the RAF.
The RAF's aircraft situation was not badly effected by the nuclear strikes on the UK, but 111 Sqn had been destroyed in the nuclear attack on Oslo. This left an air-defence force of fewer than two squadrons drawn from 25, 65 and 74 Squadrons, and four Spitfires of 58 Sqn. The strike force consisted of four Buccaneers, three Tornado GR.1B, and six Tornado GR.4 of No.9 Squadron. The situation for support aircraft was much better, but there was little for them to support.
For the RAF much of 1998 was dedicated to repairing the horrific damage done to the British Isles by the nuclear strikes. Some semblance of order had returned, with food supplies flowing again and refugee camps springing up in the south. However most communities retained something of a siege mentality in their affairs.
The Franco-Belgian occupation of the Rhineland in the new year caused no few problems, it was a move much resented by the British as a whole who saw it as a betrayal by the French. More practically several Royal Dutch Air Force units were stationed in East Anglia and wanted to go to the defence of their country. The Military government at York felt it couldn't risk involving itself directly against the French, but gave tacit support to the doomed effort of the Dutch. Facing an fresh enemy from shattered airfields the Dutch planes were rapidly overwhelmed, although some returned to the UK to save their planes.
In the first months of the war the RAF had moved its pilot training operation to Goose Bay in Canada, and had been receiving a trickle of replacement pilots through the months who had crewed the Hawk fleet to free up more experienced pilots for other operations. However in early 1998 the Soviets launched an invasion into Alaska, which X US Corps was having difficulty holding. The Canadians brought their 1st Canadian Division (including an Anglo-German brigade) up to strength with militia formations and went to the aid of the Americans. The RAF training fleet sent their Hawks of 2 TWU into the fight to supplement the depleted Canadian air units, and these aircraft provided excellent CAS although suffering many casualties in the process.
Renewed fighting on the Central Front erupted in the summer with a WP offensive, and NATO counter-offensive into Czechoslovakia that saw the final large British offensive action. The Harriers now reinforced from the survivors of Norway, again concentrated on providing accurate and timely reconnaissance data, although they were forced into whole scale airstrikes at the Battle of Fulda. UK strike units also participated, but these battles were almost totally decided on the ground. Nevertheless, back in action RAF morale improved greatly.
The end of the year again saw tragedy strike, a wave of WP strikes rained down on the industrial areas of central Scotland and the north and midlands of England. Again millions died in days, and society broke down in despair. The military was again decapitated with the destruction of the military government at York. However the time since the first strikes had not been wasted, with advanced planning and decentralisation plans in practise. However the scale of the strikes destroyed what plans had been made except for the North East which remained largely intact.
1999 was an immensely trying time for the RAF. Units on many of the Midland and East Anglian airbases dissolved, with ground crews attempting to survive with their families. Spare parts and aviation fuel were at a bare minimum, and most units had to cannibalise half their airframes simply to survive. The RAF units that maintained their discipline were moved north to concentrate in the North East, East Anglia and North Scotland. RAF Leeming became the main centre of the RAF being close to the industry and refineries of the Tees. Whilst the RAF Regiment Depot at Catterick helped to maintain its security, located as it was in the North Yorkshire buffer zone.
In East Anglia, Marham and Coltishall combined with the nearby US airbases at Lakenheath and Mildenhall to provide the area with some sort of security. In Scotland Leuchars was abandoned, whilst the northern airbases of Kinloss and Lossiemouth remained open and operational. In all these areas the RAF co-operated with the local civil authorities that had established themselves, although remained loyal to the 'Crown' and the military command structure. Now based at Catterick Garrison.
Flying operations were hugely curtailed. The Tornados and Hawks were concentrated at Leeming whilst the Nimrods and Hercules were based in Scotland. Most of the AWACS had been badly damaged by EMP pulse and only one remained airworthy. Air defence from Scotland was provided by the Royal Navy's 809 Squadron. The Tornado GR.4 and GR.1B were amalgamated into No.9 Squadrons, and would occasionally be committed to precision attacks on high-value targets.
Overseas units in Germany, Norway, Middle and Far East were now used sparingly and most often in the reconnaissance role to aid the air force and occasionally to launch attacks. The air situation was relatively safe these days, with air defences largely abandoned and fighter command and control no existent. The main danger lay in the degradation of systems and the lack of spare parts.
1999 would see the low point of the RAF's fortunes. It had fewer than 40 serviceable aircraft of all types across the world and many were out of contact or de-facto parts of other nations militaries. However from 2000 like the rest of the UK it slowly began to recover, basing its fortunes around the versatile and easily maintained Hawk where the more advanced aircraft failed.
HISTORY - AIRCRAFT- SQUADRONS - RAF REGIMENT