RAF and USAF in Libya in the 1950s - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

A Yorkshire Aviator's Autobiography
Tony Cunnane
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RAF and USAF in Libya in the 1950s

This piece was written on 25 August 2011 and a few factual updates added on 13 January 2018

There are a number of references to RAF Idris, Libya, on my website. Several people have asked me for more information, and especially where exactly RAF Idris was/is - so here goes. There are at least two places called Tripoli: the one in this article is on the Mediterranean Coast in the north-western corner of Libya, and the other one at the other end of the Mediterranean in Lebanon. The site of RAF Idris was a few miles due south of the Libyan Tripoli. The first time I went to RAF Idris was in 1954 when I was a transit passenger on a Hastings aircraft of RAF Transport Command en route to Ceylon. It was the first time I had ever been out of the UK. (See this page).

Originally, in the 1930s, the airfield at Idris had been called Castel Benito, which I gather translates as "the Chateau of the Blessed One". During WW2 the airfield was used by the Italian Air Force but, when captured by the British, became known simply as RAF Castel Benito. In 1952 it was renamed again, this time at the request of the Libyan Government, as RAF Idris in honour of the then King of Libya. In the 1950s RAF Idris was mainly an RAF staging post for flights between UK and the Middle and Far East. It was also used for military aircraft operating on the nearby bombing ranges – and also for duty-free shopping trips from Malta!

From 1957-59, I was a sergeant  air signaller on No 38 Squadron (Shackletons) at RAF Luqa on the beautiful island of Malta. Our crews frequently flew across the Mediterranean and dropped in at RAF Idris, and sometimes at Wheelus AFB base just a few miles east of Tripoli, for pilot training and for duty-free shopping American-style. 38 Squadron had to have a specific 'military' excuse for landing at Wheelus rather than Idris. Our home base on Malta, RAF Luqa, was a very busy joint-user civil/military airport and the circuit there was was often full to capacity. Our squadron pilots, who apparently regularly needed to practise circuits and landings, used both Idris and Wheelus for that purpose while the ‘spare’ signallers (the Squadron always made sure there were a few 'spare' siggies onboard) did the shopping and waited to be picked up an hour or so later when the pilots had had their fun. (See this page)

The RAF finally withdrew from Idris in the 1960s following the coup d'état led by Muammar Gaddafi on 01 September 1969 which overthrew King Idris and resulted in the formation of the Libyan Arab Republic.. The former RAF airfield was later extensively redeveloped and then became Tripoli International Airport. As part of the 2014 Libyan Civil War, it was heavily damaged in the 'Battle of Tripoli Airport' and was out of use until it was reopened for limited commercial use in July of 2017.

Wheelus AFB in the 1950s had been established on another former Italian AF airfield, built in 1923, called Mellaha on the coast several miles due east of Tripoli . When I was based in Malta in the late 1950s, the US Base Exchange at Wheelus (or it might then have been a PX not a BX) was an truly excellent duty-free shopping centre and we Brits could avail ourselves of the facilities quite legally - but only if we were introduced and escorted by an American serviceman

After the USAF left Wheelus in 1970, the airfield became a Libyan People's Air Force installation and was renamed Okba Ben Nafi Air Base, which name does not trip off the tongue quite so easily. Today, the former Wheelus AFB is known as Mitiga International Airport, Libya's second airport. There is a lengthy but fascinating article (from 2008) about Wheelus AFB, which is named after a junior USAF officer, on the Internet - just search for ‘wheelus afb’ on your favourite search engine.

Final thought. The name/word 'Benito' appears several times in my website in an entirely different, and definitely not holy or blessed, context - click here

Sadly, I was not allowed to take 'private' photographs during any of my stops in Libya.

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