BALLYKELLY - THE SHACKLETON ERA 1952-1971
PART 1 - A STATION REBORN
If you take the main road north out of Londonderry and travel up the east bank of the River Foyle, you will pass the sites of three wartime airfields. First is Maydown, now a large industrial complex, while the second, Eglinton, is now the location of the City of Derry airport. The third airfield is Ballykelly, situated on the shores of Lough Foyle, fifteen miles from Londonderry and two miles from the small town of Limavady.
The low-lying, farmland site was approved for the construction of an airfield in mid-1940, and an RAF opening party arrived to take over the partially completed aerodrome in June 1941. No operational units were based at first, but during 1942, No.120 Sqn. with Liberators and 220 Sqn. with Fortresses arrived to carry out anti-submarine patrols and convoy escorts over the Atlantic Ocean, with some success. In 1943 these units moved out and the base was taken in hand for upgrading to handle the later, heavier marks of Liberator, which were then planned. This entailed lengthening the main runway and providing additional hangar space, as Ballykelly was also to become a Liberator servicing and modification facility. It was at this time that the runway was extended across the main Londonderry-Belfast railway line. From late 1943 to the end of the war, Nos.59, 86 and 120 Squadrons at various times flew Liberators from Ballykelly in the long and tedious fight against the U-boats, ranging from the Bay of Biscay to Arctic waters off North Norway by day and also at night, using Leigh Light equipped aircraft. By the end of the war, Ballykelly-based squadrons had been responsible for sinking no fewer than twelve U-boats, sharing with other aircraft and surface ships in the destruction of several others, and damaging many more.
Care And Maintenance
The task completed, Ballykelly went to Care and Maintenance status late in 1945. However, as the Cold War era was starting, the need to counter the Soviet submarine threat was the next challenge. On the formation of NATO, the United Kingdom assumed a major anti-submarine role across the eastern Atlantic and North Sea areas. During the latter stages of the war an anti-submarine tactics school had been established at the Londonderry Naval Base, and afterwards this idea was further developed into what became known as the Joint Anti-Submarine School (JASS). Commanded jointly by RN and RAF personnel, JASS was officially opened on 30 January 1947. The unit had its own air elements, Royal Navy Barracudas of No.744 Sqn., based at Eglinton and the RAF's JASS Flight, based at a now re-opened Ballykelly, initially equipped with two Lancasters, one Warwick and one Anson. The task at JASS was to run courses to train the crews of ships and aircraft in the broader aspects of anti-submarine warfare, with emphasis on the development and application of combined tactics. There is more about JASS later.
Another unit, which was based around this time, was the Air Sea Warfare Development Unit (ASWDU), arriving from Thorney Island on 27 May 1948. The Unit's task was the development and testing of new maritime equipment, and in the course of this work had used a variety of aircraft types, but by the time it settled in at Ballykelly was mainly equipped with Lancasters. On 10 May 1951 ASWDU moved on to St.Mawgan, but was to return to Ballykelly in later years.
Further development plans were in hand which would affect the future of Ballykelly. Immediately after the return to the USA of the Lend Lease Liberators, suitably modified Lancasters fulfilled the RAF land-based maritime patrol requirement. With the expansion of the RAF's maritime strength, a new aircraft was being specifically developed for the task. This aircraft was, of course, the Shackleton developed by Avro from the Lancaster and Lincoln but a very different aircraft indeed. A number of bases in the UK were chosen to house the future Shackleton squadrons and Ballykelly, situated at the western extremity of the British Isles, was one of them. The plan was that the Shackleton should be used on the long ocean patrols into the Atlantic, with Gibraltar, St.Eval and Aldergrove earmarked as bases as well as Ballykelly. The Neptune, bought from the USA as interim equipment until sufficient Shackletons became available, was to cover the North Sea area from Kinloss and Topcliffe. In early 1951 the airfield closed to non-essential flying for further upgrading to change it from a typical wartime aerodrome with fairly basic facilities widely dispersed, into a station equipped to support three maritime patrol squadrons.
Grin and Bear It
There was no middle ground with Ballykelly; you either loved it or hated it. The advantages were many; long sandy beaches close by, friendly but somehow different local population and, in the early days at least, access to unrationed fresh food from across the border in Donegal. You could even cycle there- up to Lisahally, boat across to Culmore, walk to Muff and there you were! A popular destination was Buncrana, where a certain restaurant (could it have been the Lake of Shadows?) reputedly sold steaks so enormous that they literally extended over the edge of the plate!
The main disadvantage was a feeling of isolation in an unfamiliar environment, you couldn't jump on a train and get to your destination relatively quickly- there was always a boat journey across the Irish Sea to be negotiated which complicated things, so much so that many personnel viewed Ballykelly as an overseas posting. As far as aircrew were concerned, they arrived as part of a crew that had generally been together since the start of training. Many of the members were very young, maybe eighteen or nineteen and they tended to stick together and socialise together. Apart from the messes on the camp Limavady offered a couple of cinemas, one of which allowed you to bring your bicycle into the auditorium with you and lock it to an iron bar provided for the purpose! Watering holes included the Alexander Arms Hotel and Henry's Bar, with regular dances being held in the Agricultural Hall.
A feature of the station, whether unique or not isn't known, was the rearing of pigs in some disused huts - whether they flew or not isn't known either!
At the outset, living conditions for the based personnel were little changed from the war years; cold, damp, leaky accommodation, in some cases remote from the airfield proper, such as on No.4 Site or Trenchard Site as it was grandly known. Bicycles and oilskins were the order of the day. The airfield was prone to flooding after prolonged heavy rain, the problems caused by this occurrence perhaps giving rise to the Station motto - nos difficultates non terrent - our hardships do not deter us! The non-operational facilities were fortunately located on a slight rise just above the airfield itself, which was reached by a long straight road, which brought you down on to the airfield near the threshold at the 03 end of the secondary runway. Although rough and ready you just had to make the best of it and most people usually did and became very fond of the area, although for the unmarried personnel living on base, there was comparatively little contact with the local people. Aircraft from other Shackleton squadrons were constantly visiting to attend JASS, which meant that there were usually some old friends arriving from OCU days and an excuse for a party!
An operational hazard was the presence of high ground surrounding the base on three sides, Benevenagh or Ben Twitch, as it was known at Ballykelly, some five miles to the northeast being a particular danger. It was called Ben Twitch as a result of wartime operations at the nearby Limavady aerodrome requiring a warning to aircraft operating in the vicinity of Benevenagh. This was achieved by mounting a low powered non-directional radio beacon on the hillside which activated the alarm klaxon in the aircraft whenever they got too close. The unexpected alarm caused the twitches which gave it its name.
By early 1952 the base was considered ready to become an operational station in No.18 Group, Coastal Command, and the association between Ballykelly and the Shackleton, which was to endure for nineteen years, was about to begin.
PART 2 - THE EARLY YEARS (1952-1955)
Above - WB849 of JASS Flight, 1952. Photo via David Hill.
At this time JASS Flight were the only unit at Ballykelly which positioned the individual aircraft letter as shown on the nose. The unit was also different in that their aircraft carried a black band round the outer wings and round the mid fuselage. At the end of 1954 the three Mk 1's were replaced by Mk 2's and the unit disbanded in March 1957.
A feature of the build-up of the Shackleton force was the formation of new squadrons out of existing units. Trained crews from these squadrons joined new crews graduating from No.236 OCU at Kinloss to form the new squadron.
At North Front, Gibraltar No.269 Squadron formed out of No.224 on 1 January 1952, being granted all the oldest aircraft 224 possessed, including one example which was undergoing repairs after hitting the sea wall on landing at Gibraltar! On 14 March the new squadron moved to Ballykelly taking up accommodation on the south side of the airfield, before moving into permanent premises at the northeast corner of the airfield on the far side of the main runway. Shortly afterwards No.240, formed out of 120 at Aldergrove on 1 May, moving the sixty or so miles from Aldergrove to Ballykelly on 5 June, immediately after participating in the Queen's Birthday flypast over Buckingham Palace. Later in the year the squadrons lined their aircraft up on the main runway with the crews paraded in front of them as the Queen passed by on a train on her way to Londonderry. Also around this time JASS Flight replaced its Lancasters with Shackletons, the first one arriving on 18 March with all three delivered before the end of the month.
All Shackletons delivered initially to Ballykelly were Mark 1's, with the ASV 13 radar scanner situated under the nose and a single non-retractable tailwheel. The Mark 2 was following closely behind and featured a more streamlined nose containing two 20mm cannon, with the scanner being moved amidships behind the weapons bay, which gave 360-degree search capability. A retractable twin tailwheel was introduced, with bays for vertical and oblique camera installations positioned just forward of a glazed observation position in the tailcone. Otherwise there was little difference between the two types. The brakes were still air operated but in the Mark 2 they were operated by toe pedals and lockable rudders on the ground to give the pilot better taxiing control. In the Mark 1 the brakes were selected by a hand-squeeze control that opened the air valve, one of the problems with this system was that in a crosswind without rudder locking the Mark 1 was almost impossible to taxi safely and there was numerous accidents.
At the outset the Mark 2 was not considered to be operationally different from the Mark 1, and as the later version became available, it was issued to the squadrons including 240 and 269, to be operated in parallel. Both types had a crew of ten, two pilots, two navigators, flight engineer and five signallers, whose job was to operate the radar and sonics, also manning the guns if required. Crews normally stayed together for long periods which helped to promote efficiency and a special sense of comradeship; indeed it has been said that a Shackleton crew was a party waiting to happen! In a large crew which worked closely together and depended upon each other to obtain optimum operational results, no single member could afford to do a sub-standard job, everyone else would notice. Combine this with inter-crew rivalry on a squadron and competition between squadrons, and it's not difficult to appreciate how highly Shackletons and their crews were regarded among their NATO allies.
The Shackleton's main task was maritime reconnaissance and anti-submarine warfare. Search equipment comprised the ASV 13 radar, which could pick up a decent target up to a range of 40 miles in favourable sea conditions from an altitude of 1000ft. Poor sea conditions could, however, severely curtail the effectiveness of the radar return. On confirmation of a contact, a pattern of sonobuoys would be laid over the location and the position of the underwater contact deduced from the sounds picked up by the sonobuoys. At this stage sonobuoys were of the passive variety i.e. they only received sound from other sources, and did not transmit any sound signals of their own which could be bounced back off an underwater object. An attack would then be made using depth charges or, later and much less often, acoustic torpedoes. Shackletons also carried a large variety of pyrotechnics such as flares and marine markers, as well as rescue equipment for the SAR role. Visual search was also important, especially on search and rescue sorties.
A typical operational sortie, if there was such a thing, could be a fifteen hour navigational exercise (Navex) over a triangular course over the North Atlantic usually at levels down to 1000ft or less in all weathers day or night, finishing with a practice homing and simulated attack on No.9 radar buoy moored off the north coast. Standard height for the attack was 300ft at night, and 100ft in daylight. Take off Runway 27, climb out, right turn over Lough Foyle with County Donegal to the left and Ben Twitch to the right. Cross the coast over Magilligan Strand with the Point under the left wingtip, steer for Inishtrahull Light and out over the Atlantic. Conditions aboard were noisy and uncomfortable, and on long flights over the sea things could become somewhat boring but the Shackleton, despite the lack of crew comfort, was a sturdy aircraft and proved to be a very good submarine hunter.
As the squadrons achieved their full complement of eight aircraft, they began to settle down to the normal peacetime routine of training sorties involving navigation exercises, bombing and gunnery practice, maritime surveillance and anti-submarine exercises, many of which involved detaching aircraft at other bases in the UK or much further afield. Search and rescue (SAR), carried out in rotation by individual crews at a time, was also a very important task. Certain detachments became a regular part of the squadron calendar, such as the 'Fair Isle' visit to Malta each year to exercise with the Royal Navy submarine squadron based there.
Much closer to home as far as the Ballykelly squadrons were concerned, was the annual three-week visit to JASS. This involved ground instruction in tactics and techniques, followed by theoretical exercises at HMS Sea Eagle, the naval shore establishment in Londonderry. The practical side would then follow involving ships, submarines and aircraft from NATO countries operating in the Northwest approaches. At the end of each phase all personnel would return to Sea Eagle, find out how well or badly they did and argue about the outcomes! The object of the exercise was to constantly develop and improve the techniques involved in the combined air/sea approach to anti-submarine warfare, vital as the Soviet Union was constantly improving and enlarging its submarine force. Of course there was a fair amount of light hearted banter at the same time- RAF aircrew were constantly amused by naval reference to 'going ashore' and 'waiting for the liberty boat' in reference to a shore establishment! Needless to say, the navy was not amused at this attempted mockery of deeply cherished naval custom.
An essential component in achieving maximum operational effectiveness was the engineering organisation supporting the squadrons. Aircraft were normally left out in the open on the airfield and minor servicing was carried out while the aircraft were at their squadron dispersal. Each of the operational squadrons possessed a T2 type hangar in which first line servicing at squadron level was carried out. A form of centralised servicing was adopted from the beginning whereby the Aircraft Servicing Flight (ASF), undertook both second line and deeper servicing of all systems on the Shackleton. The unit occupied Hangars 4 and 5, which were extended length T2 type. Because of the 120ft. wingspan of the Shackleton and the 100ft. maximum opening of the hangar doors, the aircraft had to be pushed in side-on, using low trolleys on rails embedded in the hangar floors. The tailwheel was mounted on a hand-pulled trolley and the whole assembly was then towed into the hangar by tractor or, on occasions, pulled by large amounts of manpower! At first, there were shortages of some spares, and it was commonplace to remove parts from one aircraft to keep another airworthy. One Mark 1 in particular, WB820, seemed to bear the brunt of this policy and apparently didn't fly for eighteen months after arrival at Ballykelly with 269 Sqn. Airtests usually followed a period of maintenance, and this was the opportunity for the long-suffering fitters and mechanics to go aloft for a short trip over the North coast.
A Third Squadron Forms
On 1 January 1954, the third and final Shackleton squadron at Ballykelly, No.204, was formed. By this time the mistake of equipping squadrons with both marks of Shackleton was being rectified, with 240 and 269 slowly relinquishing their Mark 2's as detailed below and standardising on the Mark 1, and 204 nominally being equipped with solely Mark 2's. In the event it wasn't quite as simple as that with the squadron only having four Mark 2's of its own on formation, along with a couple of Mark 1's, WB828, and VP284 which arrived in February. A further four Mark 2's WL790; WL738; WL747 and WL748 were borrowed from 240/269 Sqns., along with some Mark 1's. The situation was normalised in August when the squadron stopped using the earlier mark completely, and took on charge the four Mark 2's it had been borrowing.
Above, a Westland Dragonfly of Eglinton Station Flight overflies WB861/D of 240 Squadron at Ballykelly. The light slate grey letters were worn either side of the roundel, the squadron letter 'L' always to the rear. The protective shield has been removed from the scanner for the ASV13 radar under the nose. Photo per David Hill
The Locals Complain
With three fully equipped squadrons, JASS Flight and frequent visitors using the airfield at all hours of the day and night, Ballykelly had become a very busy station. Some indignation about the noise was expressed in the Chamber of Limavady Borough Council, with complaints of "low flying jets", and querying whether all this activity was necessary, after all "there isn't a war on". A diplomatically worded letter from the station CO no doubt helped to smooth things out.
Notable among the visitors to JASS at that time were Lancasters of the RCAF, whose appearance was immaculate, with a highly polished natural metal finish in stark contrast to the heavily exhaust-stained Shackletons painted white overall with medium sea grey upper surfaces. Code letters also appeared in medium sea grey.
Colours and Markings
In the early fifties, Coastal Command used a system of lettering allocated within the two coastal Groups to identify individual squadrons. A second letter to identify particular aircraft in a squadron then accompanied this. The positioning of these letters on the fuselage varied from unit to unit, but generally the squadron/unit code appeared towards the rear, and the individual letter towards the front of the aircraft. The individual letter was usually referred to as the hull letter, perpetuating the practice when all maritime squadrons were equipped with flying boats. Markings as applied to the Ballykelly units during 1952-1954 were as follows: -
Unit Code - L.
Hull Letters in the range A to H. These letters were positioned either side of the fuselage roundel, with the Unit letter to the rear.
Unit Code - B.
Hull letters in the range A to H and J. A different presentation was used in that the Unit letter was placed on the rear fuselage, just forward of the tailplane, with the individual letter on the nose, but very small and invisible from a distance.
Unit Code - G.
Hull letters were W;X;Y. Positioned on nose in standard size.
At this stage no squadron badges of any kind were carried although a newly delivered Mark 2, WL747, attending the Coronation Review at Odiham did carry what appeared to be a squadron crest on the nose. JASS Flight aircraft wore single black bands on the outer wings and mid-fuselage, which were unique.
At the time of 204's formation individual hull letters were starting to go out of fashion at Ballykelly, although unit letters continued to be worn. 204 Sqn. was allocated Unit Code 'T', and individual letters in the range R to Y. It's not clear whether the squadron ever actually used the letters on their aircraft.
Ballykelly also had on strength a Station Flight Anson, TX167, used for communication work between bases. Two other types were also present; an Airspeed Oxford, N4775, which was restored to airworthy condition after being discovered derelict when the station re-opened, and a Tiger Moth, DE574. The Oxford only lasted a short time before it was pushed back into a hangar and quietly forgotten about. The Tiger Moth was somewhat different and was in great demand, be it as the CO's personal mount or something to jump into and go up to Portrush Golf Club and buzz some colleagues! It unfortunately came to a sticky end when on one occasion the engine stalled on final approach, the aircraft landing in a tree and becoming rather bent.
In 1955 approval was given to start repainting the Shackletons gloss overall dark sea grey. This was felt necessary because of the difficulty in keeping the aircraft even moderately clean. The four Griffons and the two cabin heaters left heavy exhaust stains on the white paintwork, the new scheme didn't prevent the exhaust smoke, but at least it wasn't so obvious! It is rumoured that grey M/T paint was used initially at Ballykelly, but it was found that it peeled off after a very short time and the practice had to be abandoned!
Although life at Ballykelly, for the younger members of the Shackletons' crew at least, allowed ample time for having a good time, the potential for tragedy was never far away. Within eighteen months of the first squadrons' arrival, two Shackletons had been lost with only one survivor from the two crashes. Less than two weeks after 240 had arrived at Ballykelly, the squadron detached five aircraft to Scampton to take part in Exercise Castanets in the North Sea. One of the aircraft VP261, actually on loan from 120 Sqn. at Aldergrove, which also had a detachment at Scampton for the exercise, crashed on 25 June 1952 off the Berwickshire coast while exercising with the submarine HMS Sirdar. The aircraft was captained by W/Cdr Bisdee, OC Flying at Ballykelly. Of the thirteen crew aboard, eleven died outright, with two persons being rescued by the submarine, which witnessed the impact through the periscope. One of the survivors died the following day.
On 11 December 1953, 240 Sqn. were to suffer a second fatal crash when WL746, a 269 aircraft on loan and captained by F/Lt Chevallier, failed to make a scheduled report shortly after concluding an exercise with a submarine. Later wreckage was found in the Sound of Mull, but no survivors from the crew of ten and the cause of the accident was never established. F/Lt Chevallier was a very popular member of a very happy squadron, having run the station model club and been instrumental in started up 240's squadron newsletter. It was a bleak time at Ballykelly, as within a few days of the crash a bus carrying civilian workers to the base was involved in a serious accident with several killed, and a Royal Navy Avenger from the neighbouring airfield at Eglinton crashed with the loss of the crew.
A potentially dangerous but fortunately less serious accident occurred at Ballykelly on 26 October 1954 when VP256, originally coded A of 269 Sqn., attempted to take off with the elevator locks engaged. The aircraft failed to get airborne and ended up off the end of the runway, eventually being categorised a write-off. There were no casualties.
However, life had to continue and the chance of getting away on detachment to exotic locations provided some reward for enduring long, noisy hours and potentially hazardous conditions. Detachments to remote places all over the world were a feature of life in Coastal Command, and not only for the aircrews. Every Shackleton leaving for an extended period away from base took along an appropriate mix of groundcrew, plus a selection of spare bits and pieces. The capacious weapons bay could be used for storage of gear, although it was not unheard of during the Shackleton's career for the weapons bay doors to accidentally open in flight, depositing sundry items to the four winds. Some of the more notable detachments which took place in the early years included :-
Operation Castanets - 240 Sqn. went to Scampton. Aircraft involved included WG507/E; WG509/G; WB860/C; WB859/B. - 269 Sqn. was based at Lann Bihoue, Lorient, France.
Exercise Emigrant - 269 Sqn. sent six aircraft to the RCAF base at Greenwood, Nova Scotia
Exercise Mainbrace - 240 Sqn. detached to Sola/Stavanger. Major NATO maritime exercise. Squadron involved in submarine searches. Aircraft involved included WB858/A; WB861/D; WG509/G.
Exercise Mariner - Shackletons from both squadrons are believed to have been detached to Montijo, Lisbon for this major annual NATO exercise. Before leaving, the crews were informed that they would be the first British forces operating from Portugal since the Peninsular War! The ASF was under pressure to get as many aircraft as possible ready in time. The Station Flight Anson was also involved - it flew down to Lisbon loaded with spares and personnel, flying over the Pyrenees. On the return journey one of the long suffering Cheetahs gave up over the mountains and many items had to be jettisoned to lighten the load. They made it back to Ballykelly eventually, but had nothing to declare at Customs!
Exercise Durbex II - 204 Sqn - Detachment to South Africa. Aircraft involved WL738; WL740; WL790; WL792. Left Ballykelly on 14 June, route Idris - Khartoum - Nairobi - Durban, arriving on 19 June, total flying time 33 hours. Started return journey on 5 July, routing via Accra instead of Khartoum, arriving back at Ballykelly on 10 July, total flying time 43 hours 10 mins. Due to the unserviceability of one aircraft at Nairobi, a fifth was sent out from Ballykelly. The exercise only lasted three days!
Operation Cooks Tour - 240 Sqn - This detachment involved Photographic and other survey work of a number of islands in the Line Islands group in the central Pacific Ocean to ascertain their suitability to support atomic tests in the area. Three aircraft left Ballykelly routeing via Goose Bay - Winnipeg -Vancouver - Honolulu - Canton Island in the Phoenix Island group, west of the Line Islands. One aircraft, WB860, suffered an engine failure and was delayed at Canton Island until a spare engine was flown out in WG507. Once repaired, WB860 continued its journey westabout via Fiji - Townsville - Darwin - Singapore - Negombo - Habbaniya - Luqa - Aldergrove (customs clearance) - Ballykelly. The crew (Captain Flt. Lt. Bill Williams), were met by the station commander and a party from Command HQ and informed that they were the first operational crew to circumnavigate the globe.
During the first three years of Shackleton operations there had been triumph and tragedy; difficulties with a shortage of spare parts had largely been overcome, and living conditions, while not luxurious, had certainly improved. Two crews had been lost in accidents, and most others had experienced in-flight emergencies of one sort or another. The established pattern of operations would continue with new challenges ahead.
PART 3 - WORLDWIDE DEPLOYMENTS (1956-1958)
As the mid-fifties approached the work that the UK had been undertaking in the development of thermonuclear weapons was getting to the stage where a number of devices would have to be exploded in a series of test programmes. The work carried out by the 240 Sqn. detachment in September 1955 helped to decide which Pacific island would have the dubious distinction of hosting the live tests. Elsewhere trouble was brewing which would necessitate UK military intervention, and all these events would have an impact on the operational tasks of the Ballykelly squadrons in one way or another. However, the normal duties of the maritime squadrons would have to be carried out as well, which would make for a busy time.
New Style Markings
In 1956 the markings worn by Shackletons at Ballykelly, in common with those at other stations, underwent a revision. Aircraft were now standardised on the overall dark sea grey scheme, with only a white squadron code on the rear fuselage. However, this arrangement was altered twice in quick succession; first the unit letter being repainted in red outlined in white, and secondly the unit letter being dropped in favour of the squadron number, also in red outlined in white, positioned on the rear fuselage. The individual letter was placed on the nose, again in red and white. At Ballykelly they decided to be different and dropped the use of the nose letter altogether, although squadron insignia started to appear on the noses as follows: -
204 - A dark grey cormorant standing on a mooring buoy in a white shield.
240 - A winged helmeton a rectangular white background.
269 - The squadron crest of a sailing ship in full sail in a white disc.
JASS Flt - No badge was carried but, as mentioned earlier, black fuselage and wing bands were carried.
Many of the aircraft also carried crew captain's name below the badges.
Above - a 1957 shot of VP287 of 269 Squadron, taken at Bovingdon. The Shackletons based at Ballykelly, unlike all other Shackleton units, did not use individual aircraft hull letters until 1960. No 269, in common with 204 and 240, paced a squadron crest/badge in place of the aircraft letter, often with the crew captain's name somewhere on the nose, in this case F/Sgt WH Cowey. NumberOne Props are not dressed properly, because the engine was broken. Photo per David Hill.
Throughout their period of service Shackletons were continually receiving updates or additions to the fittings and equipment. Three major update programmes would eventually take place, but at this stage, only piecemeal changes had occurred. Notable among these was a search and rescue aid, SARAH (Search And Rescue Automatic Homing), which started to become available in 1956 although the equipment wasn't fitted to Shackletons until the late fifties, and not at all to the Mark 1. H-shaped aerials positioned on either side of the nose and selected alternately every six seconds, received a signal from a transmitter in the lifejacket of a downed airman. Although of help, the location of small objects in a rough sea was still largely down to good visual coverage and good luck.
Another fitment, in the mid-fifties, was Autolycus. This device was intended to be able pick up the diesel exhaust fumes from a submerged submarine using its snort. The obvious difficulty was distinguishing submarine fumes from those of any other vessel, and its options for effective use operationally were limited, although an improved and highly effective version did appear in the mid-sixties.
Both marks of Shackleton had been delivered with a dorsal gun turret housing two 20mm Hispano cannon, the Mark 2 having a further twin installation in the nose. While the nose guns were to remain fitted right up to the aircraft's withdrawal from maritime service, the dorsal turrets were removed progressively from 1956.
Demise of JASS Flight
At the beginning of 1955, JASS Flight replaced their Mark 1s with three new Mark 2s. As no other Shackletons at Ballykelly carried hull letters at this time, the unit had the choice of the whole alphabet and settled on the following - WR969/A; WR967/B; WR966/C. The unit code G was carried initially, but was removed when Coastal Command altered its policy on squadron letters in 1956. Unfortunately, the unit's life was to be short, at the beginning of March 1957 it was disbanded, WR966 and WR969 being delivered to No.220 Sqn. at St.Eval by crews from 204 Sqn. on 6 March, with WR967 going to No 42 Sqn. also at St.Eval four days earlier.
Over the Christmas period 1955, an upsurge in terrorist activity by EOKA in Cyprus led to a decision to dispatch additional troops to the island to counter the threat Shackletons from most UK squadrons were ordered to transport the troops, while Hastings' were to carry the heavy equipment. A number of crews and aircraft from all three squadrons at Ballykelly were involved firstly carrying troops from Lyneham to Luqa, and then flying shuttles between Luqa and Nicosia in the first available aircraft of whatever squadron. Generally thirty-three fully equipped troops could be carried in some discomfort in every available space in the aircraft, the time taken for the flight from the UK to Malta being some eight and a half hours. To allow as many troops as possible to be accommodated, a reduced crew of five, two pilots, navigator, flight engineer and signaller, was used. The operation ended on 24 January 1956, the whole episode demonstrating a further use for the Shackleton in an operational setting, that of troop transport.
No sooner had the operation to transport the troops to Cyprus been completed, than 269 Sqn. started to prepare for a major detachment in support of UK atomic testing on Monte Bello Island, off the NW coast of Australia. Four specially modified aircraft, including VP255 and WB820, left Ballykelly on 18 February. Each crew comprised an additional member, a meteorological observer, and the purpose of the operation was to obtain weather information in the Timor Sea. The aircraft routed Ballykelly - Idris - Habbaniya - Karachi - Negombo(Ceylon) - Changi - Darwin. Meteorological sorties were flown from Darwin until 25 June, when all four aircraft flew down to Melbourne and finally Sydney. On 2 July a four-ship formation overflew the Sydney Harbour Bridge, before starting the long journey home, arriving on 11 July.
Yet More Tasks
One of the methods of gathering data for weather forecasting in the UK was by means of Ocean Weather Ships moored at set locations in the North Atlantic Ocean. The crews of these converted frigates led a lonely and uncomfortable existence bobbing up and down in an invariably lively sea. Shackleton crews were in the habit of using these ships for homing practice or waypoints in a navigational exercise, and one task they were delighted to perform was the dropping of Christmas goodies to the ship at Station Juliet a few days before the festive season, a commitment which endured until the ship's withdrawal in the sixties.
During the fifties, progress in commercial air travel allowed members of the Royal Family to travel routinely by air across the Atlantic. However, it was still considered necessary to escort the royal aircraft across the miles of ocean. The usual arrangement was for the RCAF to provide the escort over the western half of the Atlantic, with the RAF taking over in mid ocean. Two aircraft were involved, one flying ahead and one behind and the Ballykelly squadrons frequently were tasked with these missions. On occasions it was necessary to travel further afield, as on 15 October 1956, when 204 Squadron sent WL738 and WL740 to cover HRH the Duke of Edinburgh flying from Gibraltar to Kano, Nigeria. One drawback was the relatively slow speed of the Shackleton compared to the current airliners of the day, such as the Stratocruiser and Constellation. On occasion Shackletons were called out on SAR to escort transatlantic airliners, which had had to shut down one engine for one reason or another. Even with three engines a Constellation could generally outpace a Shackleton with four, which could be somewhat embarrassing!
During October 1956, No.36 Sqn. flying Neptune MR 1's and based at Topcliffe, took seven aircraft to Ballykelly on their annual visit to JASS. On 10 October, WX545 took off on a local Jassex and during the course of the sortie flew into a hillside on the Mull of Kintyre, with all nine crew being killed.
Challenger was the code name for the operation, which transported thousands of troops from the UK to Cyprus via Malta who were involved in the Suez Campaign during October/November 1956. Similar arrangements were put in place as in Operation Encompass earlier in the year, with Shackletons from many home-based units shuttling loads of thirty-three fully equipped soldiers from Lyneham to Luqa and on to Nicosia. The operation started for the Ballykelly squadrons at the beginning of November and was completed just before Christmas.
Partly as a result of 240's survey work, which had been carried out in August 1955, Christmas Island in the South Pacific was chosen as the site for testing British thermonuclear weapons in a phased programme, which lasted two and a half years. Shackleton squadrons were involved in every phase in roles which included patrolling of the prohibited areas, meteorological reconnaissance, SAR and casualty evacuation, and regular transport shuttle between Christmas Island and Honolulu. After an initial detachment by two aircraft of No.206 Sqn. from St.Eval during the period of the setting up of facilities (Grapple Phase I), all three Ballykelly squadrons bore the brunt of the work until the completion of the tests in late 1958. Aircraft participating in Grapple wore special markings consisting of a large red frigate bird clutching a grappling hook placed above the fin flash, which was replaced by a Union Jack outlined in white. Also a white top to the fuselage, originally intended to be introduced only on Shackletons based overseas, was applied to all aircraft by mid-1958. Ballykelly involvement was as follows:-
Above - WB859 warming up at RNAS Eglinton 'At Home', 19th July 1958. This aircraft had been detached to Christmas Island with 240, leaving Ballykelly on 26th March 1958 and returning by 3rd June. Just visible on the fin is the Union Jack, which replaced the fin-flash for the detachment. Above this was painted a red frigate bird was positioned holding a grappling hook in its claws. The winged helmet squadron badge on a white square is on the nose. Photo via David Hill
240 Sqn. detached to Christmas Island for Grapple Phase II.
On 26/27 February the first aircraft departed Ballykelly routeing Lajes, Azores - Kindley Field, Bermuda - Charleston AFB, South Carolina - Biggs AFB, Texas - Travis AFB, California - Hickham AFB, Hawaii - Christmas Island. Total flying time approximately 42 hours. Further aircraft followed in March.
Aircraft which received special mods at 49 MU, Colerne and were probably involved in the detachment were WB835; WB856; WB860; WB861; WG507; WG509 and possibly WB859. Conditions on the island were basic but adequate and there were the obvious attractions of a typical South Pacific island. Accompanying the aircraft was a contingent of squadron support and maintenance personnel, who travelled out in the Shackletons. Three thermonuclear devices were dropped by Valiants on 15 and 31 May and 19 June, and the detachment had returned home, using the same route as the outward journey, by 4 July.
240 Sqn. again to Christmas Island for Grapple Y.
Aircraft involved WB823; WB826; WB828; WB859; WB860; WG507; WG509 Left Ballykelly on 26 March. Nuclear bomb dropped on 28 April. Detachment returned to Ballykelly on 3 June.
204 Sqn. took over from 240, as Grapple Y graduated into Grapple Z.
The squadron replaced its Mark 2 aircraft with Mark 1's, reckoned to be more suitable for the task. These were VP263; VP266; WB828; WB850; WB856 and WB857. All these aircraft were previously on the strength of either 240 or 269 Sqns and were modified for operations from Christmas Island. The main body of the squadron left for home during July, leaving a couple of aircraft behind to operate alongside 269 when they arrived.
269 Sqn. made their first trip to Christmas Island in support of 204 in Grapple Z, the first aircraft leaving Ballykelly on 14 July and routeing westwards as before. Similar duties were performed as on previous detachments, and this major movement of aircraft and personnel halfway across the world was becoming pretty routine for the Ballykelly squadrons. The series of tests were now coming to a close and two final drops from Valiants were made on 2 and 11 September. Aircraft used by 269 on the detachment consisted of VP265; VP289; VP294; WB826; WB835; WB860 and WB857, which was left behind by 204. An unusual request to 269 arose during this time when a casualty injured in a road traffic accident needed to be airlifted to Honolulu for specialist treatment. Although a large aircraft, the Shackleton has a fairly small entry door on the rear starboard fuselage. Quite a bit of imaginative thinking was required to figure out a way of easing the stretcher and the seriously injured patient through the door and inside the aircraft. It was finally achieved and the patient duly flown to Honolulu and, having survived an attempt by the Americans at delousing the aircraft interior with everybody inside subsequently made a complete recovery! All aircraft had returned home by early October.
So ended Operation Grapple. A commitment for the Shackleton squadrons of the utmost national importance had been successfully completed. But these weapons drops were not the only bomb tests being supported by Ballykelly's squadrons.
No.204 Sqn. was selected to cover a further series of tests, that of atomic weapons, at Maralinga in central Australia. A detachment left in August 1957 and was based at RAAF Pearce, W. Australia, flying meteorological reconnaissance sorties. Aircraft involved were WL739; WL748 and WL795. The detachment had ended by November.
Above - A scene from one of the ASF hangars, Ballykelly, March 1958. The unidentified aircraft from 204 Squadron sports a RAAF roundel below the cockpit window, indicating that it probably took part in the squadron's detachment to RAAF Pearce, Western Australia, August-November 1957. The purpose was to undertake meteorological sorties in support of Atomic weapons testing at Marralinga under the codename Operation Antler. This narrows down the identity of the aircraft to either WL739; WL748 or WL795. Also of interest, and which could solve the problem is the name 'F/L FH Chandler' under the co-pilot's window. Many years later, on 7th October 1971, a 204 Sqn Shackleton, then based at Honington and piloted by F/L Bill Houldsworth, scattered the ashes of the late Frank Chandler off the Donegal coast. Frank died aged 48 and had requested this be done at the place where he had begun so many Atlantic patrols when based at Ballykelly. Photo per David Hill
The Home Front
While all these comings and goings were taking place, life carried on at Ballykelly with participation in various exercises, as well as JASS courses and Fair Isle detachments. Notable was Exercise Strikeback in September 1957. This was a large NATO exercise comprising Orange and Blue Forces, which in its various phases stretched from Jan Mayen Land in the north to Portugal in the south. 204 Sqn., part of the reconnaissance element of the Orange Force, sent three aircraft to Kinloss including WL738 and WL740 and flew patrols up to near Jan Mayen Island. 269 Sqn. went in its entirety to Wick, the detachment being notable for an eight aircraft scramble at 0630 on 19 September at the start of he exercise.
Two SAR escorts for Royal flights were flown by 204 Sqn. during 1957, one on 29 May and the other, an escort to HM the Queen going on a visit to the USA and Canada, flown in WL744. On 1 September 1958, ASWDU moved back to Ballykelly from St. Mawgan after an absence of more than seven years, bringing with it nominally three aircraft. The unit tended to chop and change its aircraft depending on what trials were being conducted, and over the next couple of years would use examples of both early marks of Shackleton. One of the most important tasks being undertaken around the time of the move was the operational evaluation of ECM equipment, known as Orange Harvest, which would become part of the phase II package of improvements. More about the unit later.
Revised Squadron Numberplates
As the Grapple commitment was coming to an end, changes to the squadron numberplates were introduced at Ballykelly. In order to perpetuate the identity of more senior squadrons, No.269 was re-numbered 210, and No.240 became 203. Coinciding with these changes, re-equipment of the squadrons was also underway, including the arrival of the latest version of the Shackleton - the Mark 3.
PART 4 - RAPID ADVANCES (1959-1963)
By the end of 1958 the Shackleton, in both variants, had been in service for more than seven years and a number of shortcomings had become apparent. An improvement on the earlier marks had been in the planning and design stage for quite a protracted period, in fact since shortly after the Mark 2 entered service. This was originally designated the Mark 2A eventually becoming the Mark 3, and was intended to overcome the deficiencies in range and endurance the earlier marks had exhibited in operational service as opposed to that envisaged at the design stage. However, the promised performance again proved elusive, due mainly to the heavier overall weight of the new model, which led to delays in the placing of production orders. Eventually these were placed and the new aircraft, albeit slowly, started to come off the production lines at Avro's Woodford plant in Cheshire. The main external differences between the Mark 3 and earlier versions were a tricycle undercarriage and wingtip fuel tanks. Internal changes were mainly aimed at enhancing the working environment for the crew, with the navigationaland other operational equipment being similar to the Mark 2 then in service. Although the Mark 3 was a new airframe and was to be considered a different aircraft type to the Mark 2, their main role was the same. Technology was advancing at an ever increasing rate, and to remain effective against the new generation of submarines which were coming into service at the time, the same new and updated equipment would have to be installed in both types. This would eventually be carried out in three distinct phases over six year period.
The Mark 3 Arrives
Above - Mk 3 XF706 of 203 Sqn. This aircraft served with the squadron as a basic Mk 3 for a year from December 1958. Several non-standard features are apparent which were typical of 203 at this time: smaller than normal squadron number; no hull letter, and a small seahorse squadron badge on the nose placed over a crew captain's name. The Union Jack denotes an overseas detachment, possibly to Norfolk, Virginia for Exercise Fishplay IV, for which 203 sent five aircraft in September 1959. Photo via David Hill
Not only did 240 Sqn. suffer the trauma of renumbering, they were also faced with the not inconsiderable task of getting to grips with this latest version of the Shackleton. The Mark 3 had first entered squadron service with No.220 Sqn. at St. Mawgan in August 1957, some two years late. Deliveries to other squadrons followed and 203 received their first examples in November 1958. By the end of the year the following had been taken on charge:- WR974; XF702; XF703; XF704, and XF705, with WR973 arriving in February 1959. The XF series aircraft were brand new basic Mark 3's, while WR973 and WR974, being among the first of their mark to be completed and therefore more than two years old, were already modified to Phase 1 standard when they arrived at Ballykelly. Phase 1 introduced an improved search radar, the ASV Mk.21, ILS, VHF homer, the Mark 5 radio altimeter, doppler navigator and Mark 10 autopilot. A flame float dispenser was also fitted in the port beam. The Mark 3 had a difficult introduction into service, and even by the time 203 received their aircraft, problems with the engines and undercarriage were still occurring.
The remaining Mark 1 aircraft which had been inherited from 240 were quickly dispensed with, the last four WB859; WB860; WG507 and WG509 having served the squadron faithfully since formation in 1952. Three went to 23MU for open storage and eventual scrapping, while WB860 soldiered on with 204 Sqn. for a further year before suffering a similar fate.
Squadron establishment was now reduced from eight aircraft to six in Coastal Command, reflecting a belief that fewer maritime aircraft would be required in future, and also of course, saving money! The detrimental effects of this reduction were to be felt later when aircraft were being withdrawn from the squadrons in considerable numbers to undergo the various equipment updates, and a shortage of available aircraft was experienced in trying to meet pressing needs all over the world.
Ballykelly's policy of not applying individual hull letters was still in force at the time of the Mark 3's introduction. To go even further, 203's squadron number on the rear fuselage was presented smaller than standard. They did, however, include a small seahorse from the squadron crest on the nose, with crew captain's name below on at least some of their aircraft.
On 17 August 1959, one of 203's aircraft, WR974, left Ballykelly to fly to the RCAF base at Greenwood, Nova Scotia. Because of bad weather at Greenwood, the aircraft was diverted to the RCN base at Dartmouth. The weather wasn't particularly good there either and the aircraft landed too far down the wet runway and could not stop in time on the rather short distance available. To avoid going off the end of the runway the pilot retracted the undercarriage and WR974 came to a halt, fortunately with no injuries. Severe damage was caused, this being repaired at Dartmouth by Fairey Aviation of Canada, with the aircraft finally returning to Ballykelly in August 1960, somewhat later than planned!
On the 23rd September, 203 took the remainder of their aircraft to the NAS Norfolk, Virginia to take part in Exercise Fish play IV, returning some three weeks later.
Demise of the Mark 1
While 203 Sqn. were experiencing the joys of the Mark 3, the other squadrons at Ballykelly were also changing their complements of aircraft, although the change for them was perhaps less problematic. As the new decade approached, a process of continual movement of aircraft, both Mark 2's and 3's, would occur as aircraft went either to Avro's or a Maintenance Unit for update. The Mark 1 had come to the end of its operational career, but would continue in a training role for a few more years.
At the end of Operation Grapple 204 Sqn. had Mark 1's on strength, having been specially equipped for the occasion. During 1959 the squadron reverted to the Mark 2, the first two, WL745 and WL793, arriving in July 1959. These were already Phase 1 modified, as were subsequent deliveries to the squadron, WL797; WR951 and WR957. The exceptions were WR962, which spent a month with 204 from June 1959 and WR955, with the squadron for a year from October 1959, which were basic Mark 2's.
The first Mark 1 to go was WB848 in January 1958, and the last, WB860 departed to 23MU in March 1960, leaving ASWDU as the only unit at Ballykelly using the occasional example for trials work.
WL751/N of 204 Squadron running up the engines beside the squadron dispersal. This aircraft was with the squadron from June 1960 to June 1961 as a Phase I modified example. By this time the Ballykelly squadrons had come into line in terms of adhering to normal Coastal Command markings, most obvious of which was the adding of an individual hull letter on the nose. The spire of the Ballykelly Parish Church is visible above the outer left engine. Photo David Hill.
269 Re-Equips with the Mark 2
Meanwhile over on the north side of the main runway near the 03 threshold of the minor runway, 269 Sqn. were getting used to the later version of the type. The squadron had been partially equipped with the Mark 2 back in 1953, when mixed version units were in vogue, but had quickly passed them on when the difficulties in operating the two types side by side were realised. Shortly before 269 Sqn. was renumbered 210, five Mark 2's had been delivered to the unit, WL748; WL750; WL790; WL795 and WR956. A sixth, WR955, arrived in February 1959, which brought the squadron up to full strength. At this stage none of the squadron aircraft carried hull letters, just the squadron number on the rear fuselage and a squadron badge on the nose.
The squadron was the first at Ballykelly to be earmarked for a possible colonial policing(COLPOL) detachment. While Ballykelly's aircraft were involved in the nuclear weapons detachments, other Shackleton squadrons were operating from a number of Middle East locations against rebel tribesmen in the Aden Protectorate and Oman. In preparation for a possible detachment to the Middle East, 210 sent three aircraft to Idris, Libya in March 1959 for training, with the rest of the squadron following a few weeks later. In the event the squadron was not needed for this additional role.
Mark 2 Modernisation
As with the Mark 3, the earlier Mark 2 was similarly being updated to Phase I standard. At the time of the squadron re-numberings all Mark 2's were basic unmodernised examples. But by 1958, aircraft were being withdrawn from squadron service and sent to either Avro's or 49MU for update, which took, on average, about a year. These were eagerly awaited because of, among other things, the ASV21 radar, which promised big improvements over the old and rather unreliable ASV13. A specially modified Mark 1 aircraft belonging to ASWDU had toured Shackleton bases during the second half of 1958 to give a preview of the new equipment and provide some instruction. As already mentioned, 203 received one Phase I modified aircraft at the time of their re-numbering, but a few months were to follow before the other two squadrons swopped their basic aircraft for the updated version. No.210 Sqn. got their first, WG555, in April 1959, while 204 received two simultaneously in July, WL745 and WL793. As more Phase I modified aircraft became available, so each squadron's entire complement would change, and this was only the start of the modernisation programme!
Re-equipment was complete in all three squadrons when WL748 arrived for 210 Sqn. in January 1961, although XF703 was delivered to 203 in May 1961, having previously served with 120 Sqn. as a Phase I
WL797/Y of 210 Sqn, as a Phase II modified aircraft. Official records seem to imply that this aircraft was only modified after it left 210 prior to it going to 42 Sqn. In the background a freight train is passing along the railway line to Londonderry which at one point crossed the main runway. Photo via David Hill.
Hull Letters At Last
The Ballykelly squadrons had been unique among Shackleton units in not applying hull letters to their aircraft during the period 1954-1959. However, this was about to change. Towards the end of 1959 hull letters, applied in the standard Coastal Command pattern, started to appear on the noses of aircraft of all the units based at Ballykelly. The letters were allocated on a station basis i.e. letters weren't repeated on the base, and each unit had its own sequential allocation. These were: -
ASWDU - A and B
203 Sqn. - E to L (except I)
204 Sqn. - M to R
210 Sqn. - T to Z
With a squadron complement now down to six aircraft, it can be seen that not all letters were taken up at any one time.
For a short time after the introduction of station letters, 203 persisted with their seahorse badge on the nose, but by the time the Phase I modified had been delivered, this practice had been discontinued. The seahorse made a brief reappearance in 1965 on the fin prior to the removal of squadron markings due to centralised servicing. Just to be different, 204 Sqn. moved their cormorant badge in a shield to the tail fin above the finflash to start with, alternating between that position and a squadron crest on the nose up to the time squadron markings were removed. No. 210 Sqn. didn't apply any insignia at first but by early 1960 had the griffin from the squadron crest in a white disc on the nose beneath the cockpit, this position remaining unchanged until the general removal of squadron insignia. ASWDU hand painted the unit badge on a pre sprayed dural panel and rivetted onto the nose just forward of the captain's window of their two aircraft. By 1962, coloured spinners were also introduced, this period being the most colourful in terms of squadron marking at Ballykelly.
Squadron allocation was as follows:-
ASWDU - pale blue (50/50 ground equipment blue and white)
203 - roundel blue on the Mark 2
204 - Red
210 - dark green
In 1961 the squadron number was reduced in size and moved to a position above the scanner installation. The roundel was also made smaller and positioned just above and behind the wing trailing edge. The title 'ROYAL AIR FORCE' was introduced on the rear fuselage, just below and forward of the tailplane.
210 Sqn Near Misses
Not long after 269 Sqn. transitioned into 210, a bizarre incident occurred at the squadron dispersal. A decision had been taken to dispose of a quantity of time-expired World War II depth charges, which had been stored in Ballykelly's bomb dump since the end of the war. The chosen method of disposal was to load them onto Shackletons and quietly dump them at sea. Prior to loading they had been made safe, but some consternation had been caused when the first of the depth charges to be dropped had exploded on impact with the sea. On 26 May 1959 a crew from 210 were detailed to transport a further batch for dumping. All went well with a full load of twelve 250lb. devices duly loaded aboard a Shackleton parked at 210's dispersal area. The crew were quietly engaged with last minute tasks before boarding the aircraft prior to take off when the unthinkable happened, the complete load of depth charges were released onto the tarmac of the dispersal and started rolling about and bumping into each other! The unexpected explosion of the depth charges on the previous occasion sprang immediately to the minds of the crew members standing close by, and some record sprinting performances were recorded by some most unlikely people in an effort to put as much distance as possible between crew and a potential massive detonation! Fortunately no explosion took place; the depth charges were safely rounded up and successfully disposed of the following day.
Another potentially catastrophic incident befell another 210 Sqn. crew on 20 October 1961 when one of the squadron's Phase II aircraft, WR968, crashed on landing. A three engined approach and landing went wrong and the aircraft left the runway and caught fire. The crew evacuated in double quick time, and although the aircraft was burnt out there were no serious injuries. Provided nobody gets hurt these incidents usually have their funny side and no doubt get embellished as time goes by. A similar occurrence, at night and in poor weather conditions is another example
...there was a standing order that during local flying the galley on the aircraft was not to be used. On this occasion a 204 Sqn. crew was getting in some landings in driving rain when the aircraft slewed off the runway and got bogged down in the soft grass. As it came to a halt the first priority was not to immediately abandon the aircraft, but to cover up signs of hot soup being prepared in the galley, which by then had spread over a good deal of the floors and walls!
Enter the Phase II
The second stage of the Shackleton's continuing update programme got underway before all planned aircraft had gone through the Phase I mods and had been delivered back to the squadrons. Among modifications included in the Phase II package were: -
- Orange Harvest ECM equipment, easily identified by the plinth for the aerial head situated on the top of the fuselage. The aerial itself was heavy and caused problems with drag, and was rarely seen fitted to Phase II aircraft unless the equipment was to be specifically used
- Introduction of Mark 1c Sonics System, which allowed the deployment of active sonobuoys in addition to the passive variety
- UHF Radio Equipment
- UHF Radio Homer, which had smaller more rigid aerials on the nose
- Improved Radio Compass, which had a recessed aerial just behind the cockpit roof
- HF Aerial posts made more substantial and moved further back on the top of the fuselage
- Mark 2 aircraft were supposed to receive the engine exhaust system of the Mark 3, although in many cases this was retrofitted some time later.
The period of time that aircraft were at Maintenance Units or Avro facilities undergoing Phase II mods varied according to how complete the Phase I fitment had been, but on average took 8-10 months. No. 210 Sqn. received their first three during February/March 1961, WL787; WL791 and WR968. The first Phase II for 204 arrived in March 1961 (WR964), and the unit had five on strength by June.
203's Phase II's
203 Sqn's progression to Phase II's was a little more complicated. The unit received its first Phase II (WR988), in August 1961 and sent two (WR984/H and WR973/E) for modification, getting them back towards the end of 1961, at which time WR984 was recoded J. However, they were only destined to receive three Mark 3 Phase II aircraft before it was decided, because of a shortage of Mark 3's due to the modification programme, to re-equip the squadron with Mark 2 Phase II's. The first, WR965/J(later K), arrived in April 1962, followed by WL800/E; WL742/H; WL750/F; WL753/G and WR957/J. Immediately after re-equipment the squadron was involved in two exercises, Strong Gale and Cold Road, operating off Norway up to Bear Island and Spitzbergen, using Bodo as a base.
For the first time the squadrons at Ballykelly were now standardised on the one mark of Shackleton, and eventually all aircraft would be modified up to Phase II standard.
ASWDU - A Law Unto Itself?
As already mentioned, ASWDU had returned to Ballykelly in September 1958, occupying buildings and two dispersal pans in the centre of the airfield near the southern end of the disused runway. The unit was different from the others at Ballykelly and worked very hard at trying to maintain those differences. First of all, it reported directly to Coastal Command Headquarters at Northwood and not to 18 Group like the operational squadrons. This meant that it was a lodger unit and could operate in relative isolation from the rest of the station â€“ no orderly duties, no SAR requirement, and for the erks no Gale and Crash Crew duty, a dreadful week long stint which included turning aircraft into the wind at all hours of the day and night. The unit could also find that it had to be unavoidably away at times of great upheaval, such as the presentation of squadron standards by Princess Margaret!
With two aircraft of its own, the unit comprised six or seven pilots and the same number of navigators. The numbers of signallers/AEOps were probably less than in an equivalent operational crew. All aircrew were probably a bit older than average and most highly experienced, all the pilots generally being qualified crew captains. Much time was spent away from base in the course of trials work, Malta and Bodo being popular for hot and cold trials work respectively. Close ties through regular visits were maintained with equivalent organisations in the US Navy, VX-1 at NAS Key West, and in the RCAF, the Maritime Proving and Evaluation Unit at Summerside. Indeed, more often than not, aircrew from these units were on exchange posting with ASWDU, and vice versa.
Because of its relative isolation from other units on the station, a number of extra-curricular activities are reported to have sprung up at various times during the unit's existence, including rabbit breeding, cattle dealing and car re-spraying to name but a few! Also, it always seemed necessary to do a navex to Gibraltar just before Christmas so as to replenish spirits stocks, although no doubt the other squadrons on the station had cottoned on to this one. Some day the full, unabridged story will be told of the unit and the remarkable individuals who so successfully ran these enterprises.
WR957/J of 203 Sqn probably taken shortly before squadron insignia was removed from the Ballykelly squadron aircraft. This progressively occurred from around the second half of 1965 into 1966 and was brought about in part by the need for squadrons to use any available aircraft on the station while some of their own were away on detachment, particularly the detachment to Changi during the Indonesian Confrontation from September 1964-January 1966. Photo via David Hill.
Early Sixties Detachments
As the new decade approached, Ballykelly's squadrons continued to be sent to far flung corners of the world, both on operational and goodwill visits. Some of the highlights were:-
Exercise Sea Lion. Two aircraft from 210 Sqn. left on 25 April for Singapore to take part in this SEATO exercise. Aircraft involved were WR963/Z and WR969/Y. On the way home the aircraft joined up with other squadron aircraft at Idris, where they were on further medium level bombing practice in preparation for possible COLPOL detachment.
Calypso Stream. Four aircraft from 204 Sqn. were involved in this goodwill tour of the Caribbean. The aircraft, WL745/M; WL751/N; WL793/O and WL797/P left Ballykelly on 11 July, routeing via Lajes, Azores and visiting Kindley Field, Bermuda; Palisadoes, Jamaica; Piarco, Trinidad and Stanley Field, British Honduras. The squadron got in some trooping practice with each aircraft carrying 29 troops from Trinidad to British Honduras as part of a troop rotation to the threatened territory. The aircraft also flew along the border with Guatemala in an effort to deter any thoughts of aggression from across the border. Returned to Ballykelly on 2 August.
Exercise Fallex 60. 204 Sqn. were involved in this major NATO exercise. Not strictly a detachment, although the squadron operated from Kinloss at various stages, as part of the Orange reconnaissance force. Aircraft had an orange band painted on the rear fuselage, including WL751/N and WL793/O.
Capex 60. 203 Sqn. sent three aircraft to Cape Town for the anti-submarine phase of this exercise, operating alongside No. 35 Sqn. SAAF, also a Shackleton unit.
Jetex 61. This Indian Ocean exercise involved four aircraft of 204 Sqn. Detachment (WG558/P; WL745/M; WL751/N and WL793/O), left Ballykelly on 20 February, routeing Luqa - El Adem - Khormaksar - Katunayake, Ceylon. On the return leg flew from Khormaksar to Nairobi, and continued across to Kano, Nigeria - Idris - Ballykelly, arriving home on 20 March.
Exercise Fairwind VI All squadrons were engaged in this major exercise. Several aircraft were based at Kinloss for the duration.
Emergency deployment to the Caribbean. A two-aircraft detachment, (one each from 204 and 210 Sqns.) went out to Jamaica to support 42 Sqn. in relief operations in the aftermath of Hurricane 'Hattie'. Belize City, British Honduras was devastated in the hurricane, and the aircraft flew troops and emergency supplies from Jamaica to Stanley Field. The operation gradually wound down, with the Ballykelly aircraft being released in early December. The ruggedness of the Shackleton allowed it to operate under the prevailing primitive conditions which defeated the RAF's dedicated transport types.
Further emergency deployment to the Caribbean. Riots in British Guiana had paralysed the country, and 204 Sqn. were again ordered to Jamaica to fly in supplies to Georgetown, as the docks were strikebound. The aircraft flew out on 19 February via Lajes and Bermuda. This was an open ended detachment expected to last 7-10 days, but eventually went on for five weeks. Due to the urgency of the operation, 204 had to borrow two aircraft from 210, and the aircraft involved were: - WG555/N; WR966/O, with WL748/X and WL787/T being supplied by 210. Daily flights were flown from Jamaica to Georgetown, this being yet another use for the Shackleton! A welcome return to Ballykelly was made on 23 March.
Exercise Blue Water. No.210 Sqn. again sent two aircraft to the Far East to take part in the annual SEATO exercise. Based at Butterworth, Malaya.
Exercise Fairwind VII. Seven aircraft of 204/210 Sqns. were detached to Kinloss for this major NATO exercise.
COLPOL Training. 210 were on the move again, this time to Khormaksar for yet more internal security training, a task they were destined never to fulfil operationally.
Ballykelly Station Flight
During the early sixties, two aircraft were part of Ballykelly's Station Flight. A Vickers Varsity, WF331, was used for movement of stores to and from bases in England and occasionally further afield. A Hunting Pembroke, WV739, was utilised on communications duties and various personnel transport tasks. Another aircraft, Shackleton WG558, was delivered to Ballykelly after Phase II conversion, in August 1962. It wasn't allocated to a particular squadron and was classed as the Station reserve aircraft, coded C. This state of affairs remained until April 1963 when it was transferred to 210 Sqn. and coded Y. This was the only time that a Shackleton was held in reserve in this manner. As the sixties progressed and the Defence Budget increasingly came under pressure, Station Flights became an expensive luxury and started to disappear.
204 Goes Sea Skimming
A near catastrophic incident befell a 204 Sqn. crew on 19 April 1961. WR957/R had successfully completed a tiring15 hour Navex and was making a simulated attack on the local radar buoy moored off the coast. In the darkness the aircraft descended too low in the approach, and at the last minute the pilot started to climb, but not before the aircraft hit the sea and bounced back up again. The radar operator reported a loss of picture, which was subsequently found to be due to the scanner being torn out of the bottom of the aircraft. A safe landing was made at Ballykelly when it was discovered that in addition to the radar scanner the cameras and tailwheel doors were missing, and the fins, rudders and bomb doors had been dented. It was an incredibly lucky escape, and testament to the strong construction of the Shackleton.
Memorable Events at Home
The Aird Whyte Trophy, competed for by all Coastal Command squadrons, was from 1961, based around an actual sortie against a submarine operating in a prescribed area, plus a theoretical tactical exercise carried out at JASS. The first competition carried out under this format was won by 203 Sqn.
Another notable, if not amusing, event took place on 12 May 1960. The Air Officer Commanding 18 Group decided that the format of his annual inspection would be a test of operational efficiency instead of the customary parade. This was in the era of the four minute warning and the threat of nuclear holocaust, and the object of the exercise was to get as many of the based aircraft airborne in the shortest possible time, so that they could fly off to safe dispersed airfields. Inevitably word got out and most crews were in their aircraft, checks complete before the AOC had even arrived! When the signal to take off was received imagine the noise (and congestion) as the aircraft queued to get on to the runway. The locals must have thought it was the real thing!
A notable record was set in March 1963 when WR964/Q of 204 Sqn. stayed aloft for 24 hours 36 minutes, the longest recorded Shackleton flight.
Due to the closure of RNAS Eglinton six miles up the road, a new unit moved into purpose built premises on the south side of the airfield at Ballykelly on 6 February 1963. This was No.819 Naval Air Squadron, equipped with three Wessex HAS 1's. This was the second time that the squadron had been based at Ballykelly, the previous time was for three weeks in April 1941 for anti-submarine training off HMS Archer. Aircraft on strength at the time of the move were:- XM872/320; XM931/321 and XM916/322, with a further two arriving in July:- XP145/323 and XM921/324. The squadron's task was anti-submarine training and perhaps also to keep a watch on the approaches to the Faslane submarine base, at which the first British nuclear attack submarines were starting to be based. It was well known that Soviet submarines regularly probed the area, and 'fishing trawlers' festooned with antennae were almost permanent fixtures anchored just outside territorial waters, observing the comings and goings during exercises and JASS courses.
The squadron also was regularly detached to aircraft carriers and helicopter support ships for short cruises. The helicopters were finished in standard Royal Navy anti-submarine scheme, with the red hand of Ulster in a white disc below the tail rotor. Later, a large squadron badge was added aft of the cockpit. At the time they were the only military helicopters based in N. Ireland, and as such were occasionally called out on SAR missions around the coast.
The Orion Makes its Debut
In May 1963 a major NATO exercise Fishplay VII was held. It had major implications for the squadrons at Ballykelly, 203 moving to Keflavik, Iceland, and half of 204 going to Aldergrove for the duration. These moves were to make way for an influx of visitors, Neptunes of the Aeronavale and VP-24, USN, and making its first visit to Ballykelly, the P-3A Orion. Four examples arrived from VP-8 at Patuxent River, Maryland, and were the centre of attraction of the remaining Shackleton crews at Ballykelly, as the Americans considered them to be state of the art as far as airborne submarine hunting was concerned. The noise levels were so different, purring turboprops as opposed to the growling Griffon piston engines of the Shackleton.
New Squadron Standards
Shortly after the completion of Fishplay, preparation got underway for a unique ceremony; the presentation of new Squadron Standards to all three squadrons on the same occasion by HRH Princess Margaret.
PART 5 - CONSTRUCTION AND CONFRONTATION (1964-1967)
Ballykelly had now been operational in its second period of activity for more than ten years and in order to ensure that the station continued to be able to carry out its many and varied duties, development had to take place.
As 1963 started, a number of major building projects had been completed, including a new Sergeant's Mess. However, further improvements were planned that would enable Ballykelly to operate the next generation of maritime patrol aircraft to be adopted by the RAF.
One of the facts of life about the continual development of an aircraft type is that it will inevitably increase in weight, which in the absence of more powerful engines mean a requirement for longer runways. In 1943 the main runway had been extended to around 6000ft. to allow the later marks of Liberator to operate at maximum weight. This had necessitated crossing the main Londonderry-Belfast railway line and it was decided that trains had preference over aircraft! Now, the same runway was to be lengthened at the 09 end for a second time, to 8000ft. At the other end, V-Bomber scramble pads were constructed to enable the station to carry out its role as a dispersal airfield for four Vulcans.
The most obvious development, however, had to be the construction during 1964-65 of a large new hangar near the two existing hangars belonging to the former ASF(now more properly called the Engineering Wing), which was capable of housing six Shackletons at one go. Additional workshops, stores and hardstandings were also provided, with new roadways linking the engineering area with the main accommodation areas up near the main gate in Ballykelly village.
The engineering area was situated behind the squadron offices and dispersals, accessed over a bridge off the taxiway stretching between the thresholds of runways 27 and 03. Along this taxiway, from the 03 end were first, numerous dispersals built during the war and used for visiting aircraft. Over to the right in the corner was the 819 Sqn. Next was 204 Sqn. and hangar No.3, followed by ASWDU's offices and two dispersals. The taxiway then straightened, with 203's offices and dispersals to the left and the squadron's T2 hangar (No.2), to the right. Carry on over the 27 threshold, and you arrive at 210's area, hangar No.1 and newly constructed dispersals, the only accommodation north of the east-west runway.
Far East Detachment - Part 1
As 1964 progressed, Indonesia was increasingly infiltrating insurgents, first into Borneo and then into parts of Malaysia. In May 204 Sqn. sent out a detachment to Changi to undertake survey work in the area. The detachment, consisting of WR964/Q; WR966/O and WG555/N, left on 19 May. Route and flying times were as follows:-
- Ballykelly - El Adem: 12hrs 15 mins.
- El Adem - Khormaksar: 10hrs 15mins.
- Khormaksar - Gan: 9hrs 35mins.
- Gan - Changi: 9hrs 45mins.
- Total Flying Time: 41hrs 50 mins.
A number of survey flights were flown from Changi between 29 May and 10 June, the aircraft leaving for home on 14 June, arriving on 19 June. Flying time on return leg was 42hrs 45mins.
Far East Detachment - Part 2
By August, the Indonesians had started to infiltrate regular forces by parachute and a full scale war was in prospect. The UK decided to considerably strengthen its forces in the area and, as part of this build-up, a Coastal Command detachment was to be sent to bolster 205 Squadron, the resident Shackleton squadron at Changi, Singapore. The task fell to the Ballykelly squadrons, and as the duration of the commitment was obviously uncertain it was planned that each squadron would in turn nominally take command of the four aircraft/ four crew detachment for a three month period. Crews and aircraft could, however, be drawn from all three squadrons at any time during the detachment.
No.204 Sqn. took control of the first phase of the detachment, which left Ballykelly on 11 September with the following aircraft:- WR964/Q; WR969/R; WL739/P and WR965/K.
As already mentioned, command of the detachment and crews were rotated every three months, but the aircraft stayed out longer, coming home only if major servicing was due or if it was scheduled for the next update programme and being replaced by another flown out from Ballykelly. Other aircraft involved at various times included: - WL791/V; WL796/M; WL748/X; WL753/G; WL750/F; WL787/T and WL788/Z.
The Shackleton's role in the Indonesian Confrontation, as it became known, was to fly patrols (codenamed Hawk Moth) out over the Straits of Malacca to try to detect clandestine infiltrations of the Malaysian coast by the Indonesians. A sub-detachment of two aircraft was also set up at Labuan, aircraft and crews rotating every two weeks. The patrols turned out to be mostly routine with the odd exciting moment now and again. No. 203 Sqn. took over the detachment from 210 followed by 204 and this was the pattern of events until the commitment, as far as the Ballykelly squadrons were concerned, ended with the completion of 204's second stint in January 1966. An interesting alteration to the markings on WL748/X occurred in the latter half of the detachment. 203 Sqn. brought the aircraft home and painted their squadron number on the fuselage in place of 210's, although the aircraft was still officially with 210.
For the squadrons at Ballykelly, this detachment placed particular pressures on the crews both at home and away. The annual squadron training commitment remained, with four crews out at Changi carrying out two thirds along with their scheduled operational tasks, and the three crews back at Ballykelly carrying out one third.
This was also the first detachment where crews were frequently flying aircraft from other squadrons, something which hitherto was virtually unheard of back at Ballykelly. This inevitably led to the need for the squadrons back home at Ballykelly to share remaining aircraft also. As this practice continued and became more widespread, it would eventually lead to the progressive removal of squadron insignia altogether from the period late 1965 through to summer 1966, as crews were naturally unhappy about flying in aircraft marked with another squadron's markings.
COLPOL Training for 204In October 1966, 204 Sqn. was called upon to temporarily reinforce 37 Sqn. in Aden. The detachment was in two phases and involved WR952/L and WL753/G in the first phase, leaving Ballykelly on 17 October, and WL750/F and WR951/N as the second phase, departing on 3 November. A variety of operations, including COLPOL training, alongside the depleted locally based squadron was carried out. The establishment of 37 Squadron was normally only four aircraft at this time, so any unforeseen problems to more one aircraft at a time had a serious effect on operational capability. An unusual event occurred shortly after the detachment's arrival when WR952/L was diverted from normal operations to search for a missing RAF Dakota off Kamaran Island. The aircraft was intercepted by two Egyptian Air Force MiG-21s, which disappeared as quickly as they had arrived. The aircraft had returned to Ballykelly by 27 November.
819's Bangs and Prangs
Following the move from Eglinton in February 1963, the unit seemed to experience problems in the operation of their Wessex helicopters resulting in the loss of several machines. One had already been lost before the move, XM915/321, ditching off the north coast of County Londonderry in November 1961. During an attachment to HMS Hermes, XP145/323, crashed at sea on 4 October 1963. During a second period of aircraft carrier attachment, XM931 was lost off HMS Ark Royal on 28 February 1965.
The squadron recoded its aircraft in the 530 series in July 1965, and on 20 July 1966 XP114 crashed. Its replacement, XP113/531, lasted only six weeks when it ditched off Ballykelly on 9 September. A further replacement, XP155, arrived at the end of September 1966, but it crashed as well, in May 1967.
The accident prone HAS 1's were progressively replaced by re-built Mark 1's, then known as the HAS 3 from April 1968, and these soldiered on without loss until the squadron left Ballykelly.
On 4 June, 204 Sqn. took four aircraft across to Summerside, Prince Edward Island to take part in Exercise Polestar, routing through Keflavik. Aircraft involved were WG555/N; WR964/Q; WR966/O and WL751/U. The aircraft returned on 22 June, nightstopping at Argentia, Newfoundland.
Phase III Starts to Appear
Back with the RAF and by 1965 the Phase II modified Mark 2's and 3's had been in service for up to four years, and the next update programme was getting underway. Mark 3 aircraft were the first to be sent for update, and this was again going to cause some upheval on the squadrons. It would, however, be some time before Ballykelly started to receive the new version of the Shackleton.
Removal of Squadron Markings
As already mentioned, towards the end of 1965 through to the summer of 1966 squadron insignia (badges/crests, coloured spinners and squadron numbers) were removed from the Shackletons at Ballykelly, Kinloss, St. Mawgan and Gibraltar. This move was mainly brought about by the increased sharing of aircraft by squadrons because their own aircraft were away on detachment. The introduction of centralised servicing at the main Coastal Command stations reinforced this unfortunate move to anonymise the aircraft. Centralised servicing was the system whereby aircraft were serviced or overhauled by a single engineering team at one location. In order for this to operate as efficiently as possible, the aircraft were not owned by a particular squadron and became Ballykelly Wing aircraft. The exceptions to this rule at Ballykelly were the Mark 3's of 203 Sqn., which were only flown by 203 crews, and the two aircraft assigned to ASWDU, which at various times had special equipment fitted and had to be reserved for testing and evaluation purposes by ASWDU crews. The official date of transfer of aircraft from 204/210 Sqns. to the Ballykelly Wing was February 1967, although 204/210 had been flying each other's unmarked aircraft back to the time of the Changi detachment in 1965/66. The whole process was further complicated by the impending arrival of Phase III modified aircraft, and for the crews to convert onto the updated version.Thus ended the most colourful period of the Shackleton's service, but as far as the airfield watcher was concerned the removal of squadron insignia caused endless problems, the familiarity of noting regular squadron aircraft at their recognised dispersal areas giving way to any Mark 2 aircraft parked at the squadron dispersal areas.
Hull letters, of course, remained but could now be considered as station instead of squadron letters. The allocation from late 1966 was as follows:-
ASWDU - A and B
203 Sqn. - C to G
204/210 Sqns. - H to Z (except I)
A temporary exception to this pattern occurred in the latter part of 1966 when a couple of Mark 3's were delivered to 203 Sqn., and were possibly coded M and N, as the codes F and G were still being used by WL750 and WL753 respectively. When these aircraft left the base in 1967 the Mark 3's were re-coded to conform to the pattern above.
Overseas Squadrons Start to Disband
Also in 1966 the reduction in the United Kingdom's commitments overseas meant that the need for the RAF to be based in the current strength was no longer necessary. Consequently, the Shackleton squadrons at Gibraltar, Malta and Aden gradually started to disband. First to go was No.224 at Gibraltar in October 1966, followed by 38 at Malta in March 1967 and 37 at Khormaksar, Aden in September 1967. As so often seems to happen in these situations, resources may disappear but commitments remain, and the remaining home based squadrons would frequently be hard pressed in trying to fulfil all the duties demanded of them over the next few years.
Updated Shackletons Become Available
Meanwhile back at Ballykelly life carried on with the usual round of training exercises that entailed regular, routine visits to bases such as Bodo, inside the Arctic Circle, and Gibraltar. For the time being there were no long term overseas commitments after the rigours of Hawk Moth patrols in the Far East, although elements of 203 and 210 Sqns. did manage to go over to NAS Patuxent River, Maryland to take part in Exercise Landlubber during March and April. The squadrons were now thinking about relinquishing their Phase II's for aircraft which were Phase III modified, these already being delivered to the squadrons at Kinloss and St. Mawgan. All available Mark 3's would receive the latest update programme, while 43 of the remaining 60 Mark 2's would also be updated, including ten trainers for the Maritime Operational Training Unit. Phase III introduced the following:-
- Complete rebuild of the airframe
- New radio compassRe-design and extension of the tactical table
- SARAH replaced by SARBE, an improved homing aid, not requiring the H-shaped aerials on the nose
- Larger generators to cater for increased electrical load
- Ability to carry the Mk.10 nuclear depth bomb
- Improved VHF radio, evidenced by the single aerial just forward of the HF posts
The Mark 2 also received repositioned cabin heaters in the rear fuselage with the air intakes visible on the lower rear fuselage, behind the scanner. Perhaps the most radical change affected the Mark 3, the fitment of Viper turbojets, giving 2,500lb of thrust, into the rear of the outboard engine nacelles to assist the aircraft during take-off. Continual addition of new addition of new equipment to both marks had meant a steady increase in weight, a fully loaded Mark 1 weighing 86,000lb compared to an empty Mark 3 Phase III (without Vipers) with a maximum take-off weight of 104,000lb, too much for four Griffons! A fully loaded Mark 2 Phase III was some 8,500lb lighter and just bout managed without additional engine power, although performance obviously suffered. The operational capability was, however, identical between the two marks.
204 Sqn sent a detachment to the Middle East in autumn 1966 to re-inforce the resident 37 Sqn in Aden. Four aircraft were involved, WR952/L and WL753/G going out in October, these being replaced by WL750/F and WR951/N in early November. Here WL750 is seen over Sharjah, November 1966. Photo David Hill.
The first Phase III to arrive at Ballykelly in June 1966 was for 203 Sqn. and was a Mark 3, WR988, eventually coded E. The squadron re-converted to the later model, as sufficient quantities would be available for four squadrons after all aircraft had gone through the modification programme. 203 was the final Mark 3 Phase III squadron, the other squadrons had received aircraft to Phase III standard but without Vipers, these being fitted later, but 203's aircraft all had the Viper fitment on delivery. The rate of delivery was somewhat slow, the fifth and final example, XF708/C, not arriving until February 1967. As the Mark 3's arrived some of the squadron's Mark 2s transferred to 204/210 Sqns., to replace aircraft which had been sent on the modification programme, which caused some confusion during the first few weeks of 1967.
The first two updated Mark 2's, WL801/A and WG556/B, arrived in August and September 1966 and were assigned to ASWDU. Between September 1966 and January 1967, 210 Sqn. nominally received five aircraft, with 204 starting to be re-equipped January 1967. By February 1967 centralised servicing was in full swing and further deliveries were assigned as Wing aircraft. Between August 1966 and January 1968 a total of eighteen Mark 2 Phase III's were delivered to Ballykelly, in addition to the five Mark 3's of 203 Sqn., making a station complement of twenty-three. Two further Mark 2's were added to the total in 1969 before the rundown commenced, by which time all the allocated station letters had been used at one time or another.
A Royal Observer Corps visit to Ballykelly in August 1966 saw WG554/A of the Air Sea Warfare Development Unit positioned outside the 204 Sqn hangar for close inspection. The unit badge was placed on a plate and riveted to the port side nose of its two aircraft, and spinners were pale blue, obtained by a 50/50 mix of white and ground equipment blue. Photo via David Hill.
Business As Usual
The squadrons were now getting used to their new, heavier aircraft containing additional equipment. The Shackleton had now reached the limit of its potential as far as its anti-submarine role was concerned, although it would be called upon in the twilight of its career to start out in a new role; that of airborne early warning. But that was still some six years away and those years would be as busy as any which went before for the Ballykelly squadrons. One of the results of the introduction of centralised servicing was the move of squadron offices closer to the central operational area of the base around the large newly built hangar. The most remote dispersal, which belonged to 210, tended to be reserved for visiting crews. The 204 Sqn. offices were given over as a passenger terminal for a fledgling air service linking Aldergrove, Ballykelly and Prestwick using an ex-Aer Lingus Viscount. However, the airline involved, Air Ulster, soon realised that the use of such a large aircraft was uneconomic and the service only lasted a few months.
The Beira Patrol
In March 1966 renewed attempts were being made to stop supplies of oil reaching the rebel regime in Rhodesia. The UN sanctioned a blockade of the port of Beira in Mozambique through which, it was believed, Rhodesia was receiving tankerloads of oil. A Royal Navy taskforce patrolled the Strait of Mozambique and the RAF was required to supply air surveillance to identify suspicious ships which could then be intercepted and boarded for inspection. Initially, the task fell to Nos. 37 and 38 Sqns. based at Aden and Malta, but as these squadrons disbanded, and after a stint by 42 Sqn with the Mark 3, it fell to the Mark 2 units at Ballykelly to take over.
The detachments were based at Majunga, on the northwest coast of the island of Madagascar, or the Malagasy Republic as it was by then known. Initially three aircraft and crews formed the detachment, and by the time the Ballykelly squadrons arrived, a bearable if somewhat spartan camp, named Camp Britannique, had been established. The airfield was shared with the local airport and some additional concrete had been laid to accommodate the Shackletons and the weekly transport aircraft from the UK. Because the government of the Malagasy Republic didn't want the RAF's presence to be seen as permanent, the facilities were required to have a degree of non-permanence about them. As a result Camp Britannique was a collection of tents and aluminium prefabricated huts located next to the airport The senior NCO's were housed in a former maternity hospital, and the HQ offices and the admin accommodation occupied a former shop in the main street of Majunga town. Various other personnel had rented flats, bungalows wherever available. The climate was hot all the year round, half the year wet, the other dry, which was hard on both men and machines.
The air operations were part of Operation Mizar. The three detached aircraft had a variety of tasks; one aircraft was tasked to undertake the surveillance flights on an irregular basis as required, usually two to three per week; another was responsible for search and rescue and any other flights that might be necessary, such as a transit up to Gan, with the third held in reserve. This aircraft soon became a source of spares to keep the other two airworthy, but at least this practice contributed to a negligible sortie failure rate, which wasn't bad considering the remoteness of the location.
Ballykelly's involvement started in late April 1967, 210 Sqn. providing three crews and aircraft, with 204 and 210 generally taking it turn about to provide personnel (while 210 remained based at Ballykelly) at three monthly intervals right up until the closure of the base. There was a six-month period from May to November 1968 when 205 Sqn. from Singapore took over, after which the detachment was reduced to two aircraft and crews.
The normal route to Majunga was Ballykelly - Gibraltar - Malta - Djibouti - Mombasa (or latterly, Khartoum - Nairobi) - Majunga, an approximate flying time of 40 hours. A major variation to this routine, however, involved a crew of 210's second detachment, which went out in October 1967. One aircraft was being rotated back to Ballykelly and WL737/Z was being flown out as a replacement. Because of the Arab - Israeli War then taking place, it was decided to keep the aircraft well away from the Middle East and consequently it was routed Gibraltar - Cape Verde Islands - Ascension Island - Kinchasa, Belgian Congo, where a war was also taking place, and on to Nairobi where someone had the cheek to let down a mainwheel tyre, necessitating a one week stopover, and then finally on to Majunga!
Rotation of air and ground crews took place by RAF Britannias, which flew the regular weekly service. The aircraft were flown back to Ballykelly during a detachment change-over if servicing was due. The surveillance sorties quickly became routine, identifying possible sanctions breakers and reporting them to the navy, and also providing the patrolling frigates with very welcome mail drops. The requirement to maintain aerial surveillance in the area after Ballykelly's closure actually contributed to prolonging 204's existence, as the task was considered too trying for the highly sophisticated Nimrod then entering service.
When a squadron was involved in providing the detachment, the absence of up to half the available crews inevitably put an increased pressure on the remainder in their efforts to fulfil the squadron's normal duties, which didn't seem to diminish as a result of this prolonged, and some would say futile, commitment.
Aircraft involved in this detachment (some dates are approximate) were:-
|WL751/M||April 1967 - March 1968|
|WL785/P||April 1967 - November 1967|
|WB833/T||April 1967 - November 1967|
|WL737/Z||October 1967 - April 1968|
|WR961/U||October 1967 - April 1968|
|WL800/J||October 1968 - April 1969|
|WL793/S||October 1968 - March 1969|
|WR955/N||April 1969 - October 1969|
|WL737/Z*||April 1969 - January 1970|
|WL755/L||September 1969 - March 1970|
|WR965/Q||January 1970 - June 1970|
|WL747/X||March 1970 - September 1970|
|WL738/Y||June 1970 - January 1971|
|WL754/H||September 1970 - March 1971|
* not confirmed
WR964/Q taking off from Keflavik, probably during 1966. This aircraft joined 204 in March 1961 as a phase II modified aircraft and remained at Ballykelly until February 1967. At the time the photograph was taken, all squadron markings had been removed, although close inspection reveals a different shade of grey where the squadron number on the fuselage and badge above the fin flash were positioned. Photo via David Hill
PART 6 - A WEALTH OF VISITORS
From the earliest days of its post-war existence, Ballykelly attracted large numbers of visiting aircraft, not only from other RAF bases but also from all NATO countries who possessed land based anti-submarine aircraft.
The Roar of Merlins
Following the station's re-opening in 1947, the commonest aircraft to visit was the Lancaster, in its modified GR3 form. during the winter of 1947, many maritime squadrons were detached, including No. 37, 38, 120 and 203 Sqns., some of these making the long journey from Ein Shemir, Palestine, for JASS training. Incidentally Sunderlands of 201 and 230 Sqns. also took part, flying from Castle Archdale, Co. Fermanagh. The Lancaster was only a stopgap solution to the maritime requirement, and magnificent aircraft though it was; it was less than ideal for the special type of work involved.
For almost twenty years the Lockheed Neptune was a regular visitor in the colours of the UK, USA, Canada, Netherlands, France and Portugal. In its later years this aircraft also suffered weight problems which necessitated the addition of two underwing turbojets to assist in take off. All US Navy Atlantic Fleet squadrons were to be seen, including regular examples from VX-1, the US Navy test and evaluation squadron. The last to visit were a pair of Dutch SP-2H's,Nos. 211 and 217, in December 1969.
Other twins who were frequent callers were Norwegian Catalinas in the fifties and early sixties, followed by Grumman Albatrosses of 330 and 333 Sqns., which in turn were replaced by Orions in the late sixties. A rarer type was the Lockheed Harpoon of the Portuguese Air Force, to be seen very occasionally until replaced by the equally infrequent Neptunes, some of which still carried a pair of machine guns in a dorsal turret in 1966.
Latterly, Atlantiques from Germany, France and the Netherlands were to be seen, as well as an influx of no less than eight Dutch Navy Trackers on 30 May 1969 for a JASS course. The more normal detachment size for most types was four, staying between two to three weeks.
Having converted onto the Gannet at nearby Eglinton in 1958, the German Navy returned frequently to the shores of Lough Foyle to continue training in the area.
Together with The Netherlands, the most frequent participants operating from Ballykelly in NATO exercises and JASS courses were the US Navy and the RCAF. As the Neptune was withdrawn from service, so the Orion became a common site. Single examples came, not only from East Coast squadrons but also from Moffett Field, California and Barber's Point, Hawaii, the ultimate pattern being one aircraft from the Atlantic Coast and one from the Pacific. Occasionally other types called in: there was a period when Lockheed Warning Stars stopped over, and in the late sixties EC-130Q's similarly called between their submarine communications missions. A regular visitor was a Mildenhall based transport (latterly a C-117 Super Dakota), which brought in supplies for the US Naval Communications Base in Londonderry.
The RCAF had been visiting Ballykelly since the early fifties and were always welcome guests: their highly polished natural metal finish Lancasters turning heads at the time. They progressed through midnight blue and light grey and white Neptunes to the Canadair Argus, a formidable aircraft in every sense. The low pitched growl of its Wright Turbo Compound engines was unforgettable as it came in on approach from Greenwood, Nova Scotia or Summerside, Prince Edward Island. It was a huge aircraft with a crew of fifteen, easy 24 hour endurance, and used the same radar as the Neptune. During the sixties there were seven or eight detachments a year, with up to four aircraft at a time.
As already mentioned previously, there was a requirement for each Coastal Command maritime patrol squadron to send a number of crews to JASS each year. Also included were the Malta based units, but generally not the squadrons at Aden and Singapore. Although long distances were involved, it does seem somewhat strange as UK based Shackletons frequently flew to their bases for operational tasks as well as training exercises. There were exceptions on a couple of occasions; some Mark 1's of 205 Sqn. did attend a JASS course in 1961, possibly at the time of aircraft being refurbished in the UK, and 37 Sqn. visited once in 1965 for the same purpose.
Another group of very rare visitors in July 1964 arrived in Shackleton 1722 from the only other user of the aircraft, the South African Air Force. Two crews were involved in a JASS course and also had the opportunity to fly in RAF Phase II's which were an advance on their own equipment.
Less frequent visitors to Ballykelly in the early sixties were the ECM modified Gannets and Sea Venoms of 831 NAS, based at RNAS Culdrose. Six detachments of two aircraft of each type were made between November 1962 and November 1965, the first of which ended in tragic circumstances. Two Gannets, XA414/393 and XG798/397 took off from Ballykelly on the morning of the 27th November 1962. Shortly afterwards, both crashed into high ground on the Donegal Hills near Greencastle to the north of the base, killing all on board.
Many other types were occasionally to be observed coming and going. From May to October 1957 Eglinton's runway was receiving attention and its residents were temporarily housed at Ballykelly. These included Gannets of 719 Sqn., and Avengers of 745 Sqn., plus elements of HMS Bulwark's Air Wing. In November 1957, seven CS2F-1 Trackers of the Royal Canadian Navy off HMCS Bonaventure, were temporarily based.
On 15 July 1958, a Sea Hawk, XE335, of 804 Sqn. FAA, crash-landed at Ballykelly after an in-flight emergency while giving a display at nearby Eglinton, fortunately with no casualties. In August 1959, a large number of Hastings and Beverley transports descended as part of a military exercise, Red Onion, in the west of the province which involved a large scale parachute drop.
As maritime aircraft came and went, so too did accompanying transport types, bringing in personnel and essential items. Not all aircraft travelled as light as the Shackleton!
After the V-Bomber dispersal pads were constructed in 1963, Avro Vulcans frequently arrived as part of the plan to disperse the V force in times of East-West tension. Their appearance allowed an interesting comparison to be made between two rather different Avro designs.
In the late sixties a new combination of aircraft types were detached for ten day periods. In December 1968 six Sea Vixens of 899 Sqn., and three Gannets of 849 Sqn., from HMS Eagle arrived, presumably to undertake air defence exercises in the NW Approaches. Six months later, a similar group was based, this time the Sea Vixens were from 893 Sqn., HMS Hermes.
When a particularly busy JASS course was in progress Ballykelly, and indeed the entire local area reaped the benefit. Take the position in early June 1969 for example when the following visitors were present over a three week period:-
- P-3A Orion 151372 LF21 of VP-16 from NAS Jackonsville, Florida.
- P-3B Orion 153432 RD 4 of VP-47 from NAS Moffett Field, California.
- P-3A Orion 150605 LP10 of VP-49 from NAS Patuxent River, Maryland.
- P-3A Orion 152165 QA 1 of VP-22 from NAS Barber's Point, Hawaii.
- S-2A Trackers Nos. 147; 148; 154; 155; 156; 162; 163 and 170 of the Dutch Navy.
- Atlantiques 61+02 and 61+10 of the Federal German Navy.
- Argus 20730; 20736 and 20739 of the Canadian Forces.
If you add to this the presence of some eight frigates and destroyers, and half a dozen submarines from four countries in port at weekends, the city of Londonderry could get a bit lively. Shore Patrols from the Netherlands and Canada, and a joint RAF/RN patrol from HMS Sea Eagle roamed the hotspots; the Corinthian Ballroom, Eamon Murrin's Maiden City Bar, The City and Melville Hotels and the many other bars in William Street and Strand Road.
Finally, a portent of what was to befall N. Ireland, the presence during 1969-70 of detachments of RAF Wessex helicopters in support of the Army in their peacekeeping role in the Province.
PART 7 - COUNTDOWN TO CLOSURE (1968-1971)
As 1968 dawned, Ballykelly and its squadrons were continuing to carry out their many and varied duties. The detachment at Majunga meant that three crews from 204/210 Sqns. were always away on the three month tour, with others either preparing to go or having just returned.
ASWDU and their two aircraft were busily engaged in testing and evaluating of equipment that would ultimately be installed in the Shackleton's maritime replacement, the Nimrod. No. 203 Sqn. had just returned from a detachment in Malta, at the end of which another incident occurred which came into the category of near miss.
No.203 Sqn. had sent the detachment to Luqa, Malta for Exercise Eagle Eye, and on completion WR987/D was returning home. The aircraft had apparently flown through a sandstorm on the Luqa-Gibraltar leg, but without any obvious ill effect. The aircraft left Gibraltar on 13 December bound for Ballykelly, but after two hours was obliged to shut down one Griffon due to failure of a propeller translation unit. A decision was made to jettison fuel and to divert to Lisbon, and 20 minutes later a second engine developed an oil leak and was also stopped. Things were now serious with the aircraft losing height, despite the occasional five minute bursts from the port Viper and the two inboard engines at full power. Altitude was stabilised at 500ft. and after some further difficulty, including having to avoid the Salazar Bridge and getting caught in the slipstream of a civilian airliner, which had offered to guide the Shackleton in, a safe landing was made in poor visibility. The pilot, Flight Lieutenant Michael Bondesio, was awarded the Air Force Cross for his airmanship, courage and determination. The aircraft had three Griffons and one Viper replaced before finally departing for Ballykelly.
News of Closure
On 5 January 1968, it was announced that Ballykelly would close by mid-1970. JASS was already due to move, and with the introduction of the Nimrod it was felt that only two bases were required, and from a geographical standpoint Ballykelly seemed the obvious candidate to be closed. As so often happens in the incessant scaling down of defence assets, the millions of pounds spent upgrading the station's facilities during the sixties in order to operate the Nimrod would now be money spent unnecessarily. In the event the closure date would be postponed due to delays in the introduction of the Nimrod, and the local community would mount a campaign to reverse the decision which meant the RAF leaving this part of N. Ireland, without success.
However, the closure decision didn't affect the activities of the base and at short notice in late January, three aircraft were sent to Akrotiri, Cyprus to help in the search for an Israeli submarine, missing in the Eastern Mediterranean on its delivery voyage from the UK. The submarine, re-named Dakar, was formerly HMS Totem and had visited Londonderry Naval Base as part of JASS training, exercising with Ballykelly's Shackletons in the process. Unfortunately, a massive search operation involving several nations failed to find any trace of the submarine.
Further mishaps continued to occur, on 1 April WR956/Q, a Mark 2 Phase III which had only been delivered to the Ballykelly Wing three months previously, skidded on landing on a wet runway. There were no casualties and the aircraft didn't catch fire and appeared relatively undamaged, but was declared a write off on the day of the accident. It was subsequently towed to the fire dump and gradually disappeared over the next year.
A sorry looking WR956/Q on the fire dump at Ballykelly shortly after sliding off the runway while landing on 1st April 1968. Although appearing relatively intact, it was Struck Off Charge the same day, being declared Cat. 5 (Scrap). A phase III modified aircraft, it had only been at Ballykelly for three months prior to the accident. Photo via David Hill.
Tragedy Strikes Again
On 19 April at 0753 WB833/T, the original Mark 2 prototype now brought up to full Phase III standard, took off from Ballykelly with a 204 Sqn. crew aboard to exercise with the submarine HMS Onyx south of the Mull of Kintyre. The weather was bad with worse to come and a cloud base of around 400ft. During the exercise the aircraft overflew the coastal strip twice while turning to engage the submarine. On the second approach it hit a hillside at about 400ft altitude. There were no survivors among the crew of eleven. Seven of the crew were buried in the graveyard of the Tamlaghtfinlagan Parish Church, which borders the airfield, joining the graves of many others who had died on operations from Ballykelly during World War II.
This accident was the fourth fatal crash to befall the Shackleton force in as many months with the loss of thirty-nine aircrew, and inevitably questions were raised about the aircraft's safety. On examination of the circumstances of the individual crashes it became clear, however, that the causes were not related and there was no suggestion of failure of any particular part of the aircraft. In the event it was decided to reduce the weight of the aircraft by removing the sound proofing in the rear thus bringing the centre of gravity forward.
Update for 819
Also in April 1968 No.819 Sqn. received the first example of the updated version of the Wessex, the HAS 3. XP143/530 was followed by three others over a four month period, with the Mark 1's gradually being phased out. While finished in the same colour scheme to their predecessors, a radar scanner dome positioned on the top of the fuselage behind the rotor housing distinguished the Mark 3. The squadron crest was moved down to the cabin door and replaced on the rotor housing by a stylised black Achilles heel badge.
The remainder of 1968 comprised more yet more exercises and some temporary relief from the Beira Patrol when 205 Sqn. took over and sent two aircraft in early May to replace a 204 detachment.
For Exercise Dawn Patrol in the Mediterranean from the end of April into May, three crews from 204/210 Sqns. flew down to Luqa in WL800/J; WL755/L and WL745/O. Immediately following this the aircraft operated from Elefsis, Greece in support of Medtacex, mainly remembered for the poor accommodation provided for the personnel involved. All had returned by 6 June. On 18 June the station's aircraft were involved in a search for a missing yachtsman in the N. Atlantic. A total of fourteen sorties had been flown when WL801/A from ASWDU quite by accident flew almost overhead a dinghy containing the yachtsman, who fired a distress flare which was seen aboard the aircraft in an area 220 nautical miles east of his estimated position. It was a miracle that he was spotted, as the crew at the time were considered to be in transit and not actually on task, so a comprehensive eyeball watch wouldn't necessarily have been in place. Lindholme rescue gear was dropped and a nearby freighter was homed in and he was eventually picked up.
Eden Apple, a further large exercise in the Mediterranean was held in November. A large contingent from Ballykelly took part and this, combined with the fact that 204 had again taken over the Majunga commitment from 27 October, meant for a time the base seemed quite deserted, for example, only five aircraft being visible on the airfield on 17 November - WG555/K; WR955/N; WL785/P; WL747/X and WL737/Z.
The Rundown Starts To Take Effect
Towards the end of 1968 it had become known that 203 Sqn. would transfer to Malta in the New Year, the first time the Mark 3 would be permanently based outside the UK. The Malta based Shackleton squadron had been disbanded nearly two years previously, maritime cover in the Mediterranean being provided by the UK based squadrons when available. The Soviet Union had been strengthening its naval forces in the area and it was felt by the powers that be that a permanent presence was once more required.
Consequently, on 30 January 1969 the squadron moved to Malta in what was the first tangible sign of the decision to close the station. This left Ballykelly as an exclusively Mark 2 operator for a second time. Although the rundown had begun, the pace of operations and the number and variety of visitors did not diminish. Additional aircraft were also being delivered to boost the numbers available to the remaining squadrons, WL748 arriving in January and coded R. This meant that from February 1969 there were eighteen aircraft on strength; two assigned to ASWDU, and sixteen nominally available to 204/210 Sqns., of which two were detached to Majunga.
Squadron Badges Reappear
The comparative drabness in the appearance of Shackletons since the removal of unit insignia was somewhat lifted during 1969 when various markings started to appear on some aircraft. Three aircraft, WL800/J; WG555/K and WL755/L were seen around this time sporting a 204 cormorant badge in a white circle below the cockpit. The reason for this demonstration of squadron identity is unclear, probably they were applied for a particular detachment and were removed fairly soon afterwards when they became part of the pool again.
Other strange markings started to appear; at the end of May 1969 a large dayglo Mickey Mouse was seen just aft of the hull letter on WL748, and earlier in August 1968 WL755/L had what appeared to be twelve red boats painted under the cockpit on the port side only, which were removed soon after. From July 1968 several aircraft, including all the Mark 3's, displayed what appeared to be a small station badge positioned on the nose behind the hull letter.
At the end of May a joint 204/210 detachment went to NAS Patuxent River, Maryland to participate in Exercise Sparkplug, reputedly named after the sparkplug-like appearance of the Shackleton's Orange Harvest ECM plinth! Three aircraft, WL745/O; WR961/U andWL756/V flew out on 28 May via Keflavik and Greenwood and had returned by 18 June via Kindley and Lajes.
In July, two aircraft, WL758/W and one other, possibly WL748/R, with 204 crews were involved in a westabout circumnavigation to simulate re-inforcement of the Far East Air Force Shackleton squadron.
The aircraft left on 8 July, taking nine days to reach Singapore. The route followed was:-
|Ballykelly - Gander||11hrs 15mins|
|Gander - Charleston AFB, South Carolina||8hrs 55mins|
|Charleston - Dyess AFB, Texas||5hrs 30mins|
|Dyess - McClellan AFB, California||7hrs 5mins|
|McClellan - Hickham AFB, Hawaii||11hrs|
|Hickham - Wake Island||9hrs 50mins|
|Wake Island - Guam||6hrs 40mins|
|Guam - Labuan, Borneo||10hrs 40mins|
|Labuan - Changi, Singapore||4hrs 5mins.|
Three days were spent in Singapore before continuing the journey
|Changi - Gan||10hrs 5mins|
|Gan - Sharjah||11hrs 15mins|
|Sharjah - El Adem, Libya||10hrs|
|El Adem - Luqa||3hrs 10mins|
|Luqa - Ballykelly||8hrs 45mins|
The aircraft returned to Ballykelly on 24 July.
In September a joint 204/210 detachment went to Malta for two weeks to renew old friendships and rivalries with 203 Sqn. Aircraft involved were WG555/K; WL748/R and WL738/Y.
The Middle East Beckons
RAF Shackletons had a long history of operations in various parts of the Middle East; 37 Sqn. had been based at Khormaksar for many years, and several of the UK based units were detached to various locations on the Arabian Peninsular on COLPOL operations during the fifties and sixties. Somehow the Ballykelly squadrons seemed to miss all of this, probably because they were engaged in fulfilling all the requirements in the rest of the world! Various detachments passed through places like Khormaksar, Sharjah and Masirah en route to points further east, but only 210 in June 1962 and 204 towards the end of 1966 stayed briefly for COLPOL training.
By the end of 1969, the number of operational Shackletons was starting to dwindle as the Kinloss squadrons prepared to re-equip with the Nimrod, and so the number of aircraft suitable to withstand the rigours of Middle East patrol operations was also less. Because of this, in the twilight of its existence, Ballykelly was now to get the opportunity to send a detachment to Sharjah. It was probably about the last thing that the squadrons wanted to hear, such were the commitments already in hand! However, at the end of October 1969, three aircraft departed Ballykelly for Sharjah to take over from the Kinloss squadrons in maintaining a presence in the Gulf area. This detachment, involving crews from both squadrons, would last until 210 Sqn. reformed there permanently on 1 November 1970. Aircraft involved in this detachment were:- (some dates are approximate)
- WG555/K - October 1969 - February 1970, June 1970 - October 1970
- WL751/M - October 1969 - April 1970
- WL785/P - October 1969 - April 1970
- WL748/R - April 1970 - October 1970
- WL756/V - February 1970 - September 1970
On 27 November another landmark in the inexorable reduction of the RAF's maritime strength, the disbandment of Coastal Command occurred, under which the UK based Shackleton squadrons had been organised. Closer to home, JASS at Londonderry finally closed at the end of the year, moving to a new centre at Turnhouse.
The Final Year
The start of Ballykelly's final full year of operations found the squadrons fully committed, with two aircraft out in Majunga and three in the Middle East. The Shackleton's maritime career was now rapidly coming to an end as the Nimrod replaced aircraft in the squadrons which had been equipped with the Mark 3.
ASWDU disbanded on 1 April, having completed its final task of evaluating and testing new equipment destined to be fitted in the Nimrod. Throughout its existence, the unit's aircraft had been fitted with items of equipment which would subsequently, assuming the trials were successful, be fitted as standard into Shackletons at squadron level. One piece which didn't become operational was Magnetic Anomaly Detector gear, necessitating an extension to the rear of the aircraft and tested in the mid-fifties but found to be incompatible with the Shackleton's electronic environment. Other bits and pieces fitted and evaluated at various times, included early versions of the Orange Harvest ECM equipment, updated Autolycus and Infra-red Linescan equipment, designed to detect minute temperature changes over the surface of the sea.
One of the ASWDU aircraft, WG556/B, joined the complement of the Ballykelly Wing, the other going for storage. Throughout the remainder of the year other aircraft began to depart the base. One departure which would herald the beginning of the Shackleton's second incarnation was that of WL745/O, which left in March to conduct trials for the Airborne Early Warning radar fitment.
Minor changes to the Shackleton's appearance continued to be made. The familiar yellow propeller blade tips gave way to red-white-red strips and red anti-collision lights were fitted top and bottom to the fuselage, both of which didn't seem to fit in with the Old Lady. A series of white dots, called Foam Lance Points, were painted on the bomb bay doors to indicate where a foam lance could be pushed through the thin metal skin of the door in the event of fire, avoiding the ribs.
One Last Royal Duty
In October 1970, 204 were tasked with the job of escorting HRH Prince of Wales on a visit to Mexico and the Caribbean. On 13 October two aircraft, including WL755/L, took off for Acapulco via Lajes, Bermuda and Nassau. By 23 October the crews were in Barbados, returning home on 29 October.
210 Sqn. Disbands
Nos.204 and 210 continued to provide crews for the Sharjah detachment throughout most of 1970, until 210 reformed there on a permanent basis on 1 November 1970, having disbanded at Ballykelly the day before. They took over refurbished aircraft, formerly used as trainers by the Maritime Operational Training Unit with personnel from that unit. The numbers of aircraft and crews at Ballykelly didn't immediately alter after 210 officially ceased to exist. The aircraft on strength were now nominally assigned to 204 Sqn. and not the Wing, as there was now only one Shackleton squadron remaining at Ballykelly.
Once the Phase III aircraft had been delivered there was relative stability among the based Shackletons. Back in January 1969, WL748/R arrived ex-205 Sqn., and WL754/H, fresh from 205 and trials with the Ministry of Technology, appeared in October 1969. A swap was done with 205 Sqn. at Singapore when WL798 travelled westwards, taking the hull letter Z of WL737, which went in the opposite direction.
A few aircraft left before the station finally closed. These were :-WL798/Z to Cosford for use as an instructional airframe in December 1970WL747/X to 5MU Kemble for major overhaul prior to conversion to AEW2 in December 1970WL756/V to 5MU Kemble prior for conversion to AEW2 in January 1971. Also in January, 819 Sqn. left Ballykelly for Culdrose to re-equip with the Sea King. They would return north again in due course after conversion, but to Prestwick, Ayrshire, not Northern Ireland.
Another RAF unit not previously mentioned but which played an important part in the local operations undertaken by the Ballykelly squadrons, was No.1105 Marine Craft Unit. The unit was first based in Londonderry, up near Craigavon Bridge beside the Royal Navy's seaward defence squadron base. It was equipped with three marine craft of differing sizes and was responsible for retrieval of various stores dropped from aircraft off the coast, and many other related duties. The unit moved to Portrush in March 1964 to be closer to its area of operations, and finally disbanded there on 1 April 1971. The craft, Nos.1662; 1378 and 2770 actually left Portrush Harbour for the last time on 5 March.
The Last Act
On 31 March 1971, 204 Squadron left Ballykelly and took eight Shackletons to Honington, Suffolk as there were accommodation problems at Kinloss, the originally intended destination. Thus ended nineteen years of Shackleton operations at Ballykelly during which time its squadrons had been to the fore in virtually every operation and task undertaken by the Shackleton force during that time. No. 204 Squadron was to exist for just one more year before it would disband the last squadron to employ the maritime version of the Shackleton. The need to hold on to the Shackleton was based on a simple fact: the Lindholme package needed to be beefed up for dropping by the Nimrod at a far higher drop speed than the 140kts used by the Shackleton. The official closing ceremony took place on 7 April, and the base was handed over to the Army on 2 June and re-named Shackleton Barracks, exactly thirty years after the base first opened. Although this was the end for Ballykelly, the Shackleton was far from finished, carving out a new career as an airborne early warning platform that was to last for another twenty years.
There was much sadness among the local inhabitants at the closure of the base and the departure of the RAF from this corner of Northern Ireland. Indeed, it marked the final dismemberment of what had been a comprehensive anti-submarine operational/ training presence by both the RN and RAF in the area dating back to 1943. Thousands of servicemen and their families experienced the ups and downs of life there and innumerable ties with the local population were forged.
The departure coincided with the onset of a dark chapter in the often-turbulent history of Ireland, and resulted in huge damage to property and considerable loss of life in the years that followed. A large part of the centre of Londonderry was reduced to rubble; many of the landmarks familiar to a succession of eager young servicemen, hotels, bars, dance halls disappearing during a horrendous period between 1971-1974. Ballykelly village itself suffered in 1982 when the Droppin' Well Bar was bombed with the loss of eighteen lives, including several soldiers who were based across the road at Shackleton Barracks.
Things in the area are much brighter now and there is genuine optimism about the future. At the beginning of 2002, the Army is still in residence at Ballykelly; and a lot of new building has recently taken place on the base, which would be the envy of the previous RAF occupants - several three-storey blocks for the soldiers, and a new officers' mess. On the airfield, the control tower has recently been renovated and the concrete runways are still used by the occasional Hercules delivering supplies, and the various types of RAF and Army helicopters based at Aldergrove are frequent visitors. As the army presence in N Ireland inevitably starts to reduce as the peace process takes root Ballykelly is still expected to remain into the future as a permanent garrison.
But none of this is remotely comparable to the sight and sound of a Shackleton coming in over the fence and gracefully (or perhaps not so gracefully) settling onto the runway after an arduous fifteen hour trip!
!! COMING HOME !!
Truly the end of an era.
Ballykelly 2008 - photo courtesy Niall Hartley