In May 1958 our crew flew off to RAF Nicosia in the north of Cyprus to fly operations known as MARSO (Maritime Air Reconnaissance Special Operations). During my time on 38 Squadron there was always at least one Shackleton and crew on standby at Nicosia (and later Akrotiri). MARSO sorties were almost always flown by night at very low level and with no navigation or other external lights showing. The standard brief was to fly once all the way around Cyprus at a range of about 20 miles from the coast; that would, typically, take about two and a half hours if there were no 'distractions'. We were usually given the start point, which could be anywhere on the coast depending on the intelligence the HQ had at the time, and whether we were to fly clockwise or anti-clockwise.
Our task was to search on radar for any suspicious looking small vessels, but in particular for the small fishing boats called caïques that were known to be regularly smuggling weapons and ammunition from Greece to Cyprus in support of the EOKA terrorists. EOKA was a Greek Cypriot nationalist guerrilla organisation that fought a bloody campaign with the twin aims of ending of British rule in Cyprus and for the subsequent union with Greece (ENOSIS). When we found any surface contacts, we illuminated them with powerful flares, photographed them and, if necessary, called in the Royal Navy, who were always on patrol, to intercept, stop and search them.
Cyprus, and especially the capital Nicosia, was a very dangerous place for British troops, on or off duty. One day, when we had some free time, four of us signallers decided to go for a walk around the central shopping area in Nicosia, known then as Murder Mile but its proper name was, I believe, Ledra Street. It was mandatory to wear uniform and carry arms off base. To this day I cannot remember what possessed us to take that walk! It certainly caught the attention of the ordinary Cypriots who watched us. but apart from that nothing untoward occurred.
On another occasion, while we were winding-down with a few ice-cold ‘tinnies’ after a routine MARSO, our 10-man crew watched as a large tented camp was rapidly erected on the open ground between the runways and the taxiways at RAF Nicosia. We then watched in astonishment as a stream of RAF transport aircraft landed on the airfield and parked on every available space. We continued to watch as hundreds of fully-armed British troops disembarked from the transport aircraft and occupied the tented camp. Hours later, after dark, all those aircraft took off in quick succession, presumably with the troops on board, and disappeared from sight. At the time, we (the Shackleton crew) didn’t know where they were going but word quickly spread that they were going to aid King Hussein of Jordan. Another persistent rumour said that the entire force of RAF aircraft was meant to be merely a show of intent. The crews should, according to that rumour, have been ordered to return to Nicosia before crossing into Jordanian airspace but, for whatever reason, the recall signal was never sent, or never heard, so the crews obediently continued to Amman and landed there.
On the expectation that the large British task force would shortly be returning to Nicosia, our 38 Squadron Shackleton detachment was ordered to decamp and move south, across the central Troodos mountains, to the RAF’s newly-built, but not then officially opened, airfield at Akrotiri. For the remainder of my tour with 38 Squadron, all our MARSOs were flown from Akrotiri.
Note from 29 April 2018. There was a disturbing story in one of today’s UK Sunday newspapers that cast doubt on that explanation for the sudden arrival of UK troops at Nicosia. It suggested that they had been flown in for a much more sinister purpose, allegedly the establishment, under cover of darkness, of a secret interrogation centre but in these days of so much “fake news” I have no means of knowing which story was the correct one
One night after completing a circuit of Cyprus, flying at 500 ft above the sea to increase our radar coverage, we located several large contacts on the surface about 60 miles due south of the Akrotiri peninsula, further out than we or the smugglers normally went. It was near the end of a boring flight during which we had found nothing suspicious or interesting, so the captain decided we might as well investigate. We closed in, descended to 300 feet, and illuminated the contacts by launching several high-powered flares. The ship recce expert on board our Shackleton shouted out on the intercom, "It looks like the American 6th Fleet". Another crew member watching from the nose compartment through binoculars added, "Bloody hell, their guns are tracking us - let's get out of here". We did.
On the Squadron's regular detachments to Cyprus for MARSO operations, crews usually stayed for two weeks at a time before returning to Malta. On the return flight many crew members carried a box containing a gross of contraceptives (144 packets of 3) for supply to married RAF personnel based on Malta who rarely had the opportunity to leave the island. For religious reasons, contraceptives were not on sale in Malta. The RAF Police, not local Customs officers, always searched our luggage on landing at Luqa from Cyprus but they never seemed to find the sealed boxes of condoms which, presumably by mutual agreement, were concealed in piles of our soiled flying clothing under-garments - and no-one would wish to search through those.
Above: RNAS Halfar, early morning 6 December 1958 (I took this from the open starboard beam window of Shackleton WR964)
On the evening of 5 December 1958, 38 Squadron was called again for another SAR mission, for a missing target-towing Meteor of No 728 Squadron Fleet Air Arm. Just a few minutes after taking off from the Royal Naval Air Station Halfar on Malta, radar and radio contact was lost with the aircraft. A search and rescue mission was immediately launched and the standby Shackleton at Luqa, Playmate 10, was scrambled. Air Traffic Control at Halfar reported that the Meteor had been on a local area flying sortie, so the search was concentrated on the sea area up to 100 miles from the coast at Halfar while land-based search parties started scouring the area around Halfar. At 0430 hrs the following morning, 6 December, our crew were called from our beds to join the search. After briefing in Quarry Operations, the underground complex at a distant corner of Luqa airfield, we took off in Shackleton WR964 at 0630 hrs using the callsign Playmate 11. Following a formal handover in the search area, we relieved Playmate 10 and that aircraft returned to base.
Above: My logbook for December 1958. CASEX on 19 December sortie, was a codeword indicating that we exercised with a UK submerged submarine - which, of course, we first had to find!
We flew for just over 10 hours looking for any trace of the missing Meteor, gradually widening the search area, and my log book records that we found nothing. In ideal daylight conditions we would expect to see a survivor afloat in a small dinghy within a range of three or four miles depending on the sea state, but if the downed airman was able to fire off his emergency flares or was able to erect the antenna on his emergency radio beacon, we would have been able to detect him from a much greater range. Three of the Shackleton’s five air signallers kept a visual look out in the nose position and the two beam positions near the rear of the aircraft. The other two signallers manned the radar and radios. The two pilots also kept a sharp look out but their view downwards from the cockpit was limited. Had we located a survivor, we had the option of dropping a larger life raft containing more survival aids and we would certainly have homed in the RAF’s high speed motor launches which were searching nearer the coast. Although the search continued for two more days, as far as I am aware nothing was ever found of the missing Meteor.