RAF Transport Command by Keith Wilson
Ferio Ferendo – ‘I strike by carrying’
From a young age I was fascinated by aviation! Initially it was general aviation that caught my eye but eventually, after visiting a number of Royal Air Force (RAF) and United States Air Force (USAF) open days, I was hooked on military aviation. Strangely, it wasn’t always the fast and loud fighter aircraft that caught my eye (and ear!) as I had an instant fascination for the older, lumbering but occasionally graceful, transport aircraft.
Operating in service with the USAF were massive fleets of C-130s and KC-135s; some based in the UK, mainly at RAF Mildenhall. However, these were often supplemented by the piston-powered ‘Stars’ – the C-97 and KC-97 Stratocruisers; the C-124 Globemasters; the occasional C-54 and C-118; and by far my personal favourites – the C-121 Constellation and Super Constellation. What’s not to love about a Super Connie’!
Around the same time and operating within the RAF were the Beverley, Hastings, Britannia, Belfast, Argosy and Comet; all along with the majestically graceful, fast and oh-so-noisy Vickers/BAC VC-10. Most of these aircraft were employed within RAF Transport Command and effectively they provided the backbone to a service that was often underfunded and overstretched; while occasionally – during periods of conflict – it was overstretched to its very limits!
Fast forward far too many years than I care to admit and I still find myself with an unhealthy fascination for old, lumbering, transport aircraft. So, when Kevin Paul at Amberley Publishing suggested I should research and write a book on RAF Transport Command, I could not resist the challenge!
I find the research aspect of the book the most fascinating – especially the picture research. The vast majority of images for this book come from the archives at the Air Historical Branch at RAF Northolt where I am indebted to Lee Barton, the Branch’s Photographic Archivist. His knowledge of exactly which images are available and more importantly, just how to find them, is invaluable; as is his enthusiasm and attention to detail. Lee was also able to assist with additional research which enabled some ‘new’ information to be unearthed and included in this volume.
RAF Transport Command was called into existence by Parliamentary proclamation on 25 March 1943. At the time, all of its component parts had already been on active service for three-and-a-half years. It was not a new role created for the RAF, as its main activities of transport and ferrying aircraft had already grown significantly under the demands of World War II; especially the reinforcement routes that crossed the Atlantic and Africa. UK-based transport squadrons had played a vital and active supporting role in the battles of France and Britain; had carried supplies to the beleaguered Malta; while the Middle East Air Force transport wing had operated in close co-operation with the Eighth Army – probably, the first use of integrated air power. Then there were the carriage of the airborne forces for both the Italian and European campaigns of 1943-45.
Transport Command went into battle on five occasions during the Second World War. Firstly, they supported the invasion of Sicily in 1943 (Operation Husky), then there was the aborted Dodecanese Islands operation later that year (Operation Accolade), they spearheaded the Allied invasion of Europe in 1944 (Operation Overlord), transported the airborne forces in the ill-fated attempt to capture the bridges at Arnhem in September 1944 (Operation Market), and carrying troops across the Rhine in March 1945 for the final push into Nazi Germany (Operation Varsity).
Some readers may not be aware that a lesser-known but nevertheless essential wartime role of Transport Command was the moving of mail, particularly to the front line. Specially-modified Hawker Hurricane IIC of 1697 (Air Despatch Delivery Service) Flight based at RAF Northolt, were equipped with underwing tanks that carried the mail bags to the troops, providing them with a welcoming boost in morale.
Later, when the war in Europe had been won, Transport Command were involved in a massive trooping operation to reinforce the Far East against the Japanese, before being involved in a significant logistical effort to repatriate British Serviceman after the Japanese surrender on 14 August 1945.
At the end of the Second World War, Transport Command was spread far and wide across the globe. However, the thorny question arose of exactly what to do with such a large Command once the hostilities had ceased? Thankfully, there was no question of it being disbanded. An Air Staff paper of 28 May 1945 noted: ‘Experience has shown that Air Transport has a lasting place in the RAF which cannot be filled by other forms of transport of by the Merchant Air Fleet’.
RAF Transport Command – a pictorial history is carefully divided into eight chapters, each representing a key period in the Command’s relatively short but impressive history – despite the various Governments’ Defence Reviews and the consequential swaging cuts they delivered. It includes the Berlin Airlift; activities in Korea, Malaya and the ‘Japan Shuttle’ (1950-54); Entering the jet age (1955-59); Air Mobility (1960-64); and the period of re-equipment with the Andover, Belfast and VC-10 (1965-67).
As the title suggests, this is predominately a picture-led volume; each image being supported by a detailed and informative caption. In selecting the illustrations for this book I have often been obliged to choose between quality and originality and I have gone to great lengths to include as many ‘new’ images as possible.
The change from Transport Command to Air Support Command on 11 August 1967 was not just a change of name but of operational concept. The searching review of Defence policy undertaken by the new Labour Government when they came to power in October 1964 had considered the former Imperial commitments and, in the words of the Defence Estimates1967, had aimed ‘to foster developments which will enable local peoples to live at peace without the presence of external forces’ – effectively allowing the withdrawal of British Forces from the Middle and Far East, as well as Aden.
This policy was not without its implications. It was considered that ‘Britain should maintain obligations to friends and allies across the world and should retain a capacity for contributing to the maintenance of peace – a Rapid Reaction Force’. The Supplementary Statement on Defence Policy 1967 also stated: ‘In the next decade, new aircraft will enable us to move forces across the world faster and in larger numbers than was possible even a few years ago’.
However, the role and title of ‘Transport Command’ did not accurately represent this new role and the title of ‘Air Support Command’ was considered more appropriate to moving the new ‘Air Mobility Force’ wherever it may be required.
The change of name appears to have had little or no effect at squadron level as roles and tasks remained much the same, it was only the Command name on the side of the aircraft that had changed.
Transport Command always was a formidable force and particularly demonstrated that in the final years of its distinguished existence; it had become a powerful and effective arm for the nation’s mobile ever-ready defence forces.
Keith Wilson's new book RAF Transport Command: A Pictorial History is available for purchase now.