17th & 18th May 2014: Newark Air Museum
- I Bombed Egypt 


By Wing Commander Philip Goodall

It was a long take off into a dark night in a fully loaded Valiant bomber. A climb to 42,000ft without the usual chat and bonhomie. We all knew about bomber raids over Germany, but what could we expect? The Egyptian Air Force was known to have Mig-15 Russian jet fighters but we had no idea of the operational capability of their pilots. Our modern bomber was totally different from the WW II Lancasters or B17s, with their air gunners to distract the fighters, so for the first time in history we would have to rely on our high level escape manoeuvres. Certainly in 1956 none of the sophisticated electronic counter measures equipment had been fitted, so we flew into the unknown. Some of the crew had seen active service in World War II, but for me it was a unique experience, my first combat mission.

Fifty two years ago I was a Co-Pilot on No 138 Squadron, which was the first Valiant squadron in the RAF and the first of the new generation of strategic bomber aircraft, the V Bombers. At that time the Valiant had only been operational for a few months so our flying was concentrated solely in proving the new generation of navigation and bombing equipment which was to be in service for the next thirty five years. In fact our only change from this testing routine was in April 1956 when we put on a flying display to impress Bulganin and Kruschev during their visit to the UK.

In July 1956 Nasser nationalised the Suez Canal and in a matter of days our pattern of flying changed. If the Valiants were to be used in a war, the crews had to be trained to drop conventional bombs. As the new radar bombing system was still being developed and was not yet fitted to most aircraft, the Valiants obviously had to be provided with a bomb aiming capability, thus they were immediately equipped with a visual bombsight similar to that used in the last war. High altitude visual bombing became the order of the day dropping practice bombs on every available bombing range in the UK.

In August 1956 the routine of my crew was suddenly changed when my skipper, Squadron Leader Bob Wilson, was tasked to establish that Valiants could operate from RAF Luqa in Malta. We flew out to Malta and carried out a full load night take off. This operation highlighted two serious problems. Luqa was the only airfield with a suitable runway from which the Valiants could operate and none of the 1,000lb bombs in Malta were compatible with the Valiant. Fortunately the Canberra used a similar weapon, so the Canberra crews unexpectedly found themselves ferrying bombs out to Malta.

A Valiant crew, as with other V-Bombers, comprised two pilots, two navigators, one of whom was a specialist radar operator, and an air electronics officer, to control the sophisticated electronics equipment, very little of which was available in 1956 and certainly had not been fitted to the Valiants.

By October 1956, there were only four Valiant Bomber Squadrons, but some of the squadrons were still being equipped with new aircraft, which meant that the total force available was just twenty four aircraft. There was frenzied activity on 138 Squadron as we made up a third of the total force. On the 19th we flew out to Malta.

In the recent past I have heard our historical experts talking about the Suez Campaign and the discussions between the Egyptians, French, Israelis and the British, which differs from my recollections. The day after our arrival we were all briefed at Air Operations and I recall my surprise at seeing a large map of Israel on one wall and a map of Egypt on the other, which made us all wonder who the enemy was to be.

As I have already explained, bombing with these new aircraft presented a problem
as only a few of the Valiants were fitted with the new radar equipment, thus it was decided to use techniques developed during World War II. A radar equipped Valiant would lead each attack and drop a red proximity marker on the selected target. The Canberras operating out of Cyprus would fly at low level using the light from the proximity markers to identify the actual target and then drop green target markers to be used as the aiming point for the bomber force. The first Valiant in each attack would drop the proximity marker and then orbit at high level to lead the bomber force to drop bombs visually on the green marker. Very obviously not the most sophisticated or accurate means of dropping bombs from 40,000ft and above.

There were two other aspects which surprised us. We were all issued with revolvers, as a means of protection in the event that we were shot down. We were also given a British Government Promissory Note which offered to pay a vast sum to anyone rescuing the holder, the aptly named “gooly chit”! Unfortunately I cannot remember the financial offer but I know they were assiduously collected after each sortie. I suppose the Air Staff were worried that if we discovered we were only worth £100, we might go on strike!

On 29th October Israel invaded Egypt and on 30th October, Britain and France threatened to invade unless Israel withdrew from the Canal Zone. On 31st October, we bombed Egypt.

My Squadron Commander, Wing Commander Rupert Oakley, a highly decorated World War II pilot, was leading the first attack planned on Cairo West. After the force had taken off it was discovered that the Americans had a number of Constellations at Cairo which were evacuating American citizens from Egypt. Unfortunately nobody had planned any recall procedures so you can imagine the panic! It so happened that the Station Commander of our base in the UK was part of the Operational Planning Team based in Cyprus, so he called Rupert Oakley on the radio, “Rupert, it’s John here, you’ve got to turn back.” Fortunately the two Officers recognised each others voices so a political disaster was averted. The aircraft returned to Luqa and were instructed not to jettison their bombs.

My Captain was leading the attack on the Egyptian Air Force base of Abu Sueir from an altitude of 42,000ft. As we approached Egypt all looked peaceful. The lights in the towns and cities were glimmering below. Our eyes were searching the skies for any signs of enemy aircraft. The Radar Operator identified the target; after a steady run, “Target Indicator away”. We turned and prepared to make our attack with live bombs. The sky was illuminated by our red proximity marker. Shortly afterwards the Canberra Pilot came on the radio, “Identified the target.” We waited for what seemed like hours but must have been minutes, then the sky was lit up again but this time by the green marker, followed by instructions from the Canberra Pilot, “Bomber Force bomb on the green marker”. By this time we were running in for our second attack; “Right, steady, right, steady, steady, bomb doors open, steady, bombs away.” All bombs dropped and we turned back towards Malta followed in turn by the other aircraft in our raid. All appeared to have worked according to plan and the entire force returned to Luqa some five and a half hours after take off.

The next day we all anticipated great publicity and applause for the new high level air aces, only to learn of the discord and argument at home. Certainly the news had a deflationary affect on the whole force with the realisation that our operations were the cause of serious disharmony. Nevertheless we had a task to complete. Attacks continued for the next five days on a variety of targets, specifically seven airfields, two military barracks, a naval repair depot and a railway marshalling yard. All the Valiants returned without damage, though Ack Ack fire was evident at certain targets.

Following the six days of operations, it was evident that the politicians rather than the military were fighting, so we made a quiet return to the UK on 7th November, less than three weeks after we left home. Not surprisingly, I suppose, we were met by the press. A Scottish friend was asked how he passed his time in Malta and assured the reporter that Egyptian callisthenics was his pastime and duly earned national publicity. The RAF smiled, as in our parlance, Egyptian PT was sleeping! My crew was met by Pathe News with the result that my Mother sat three times through the films in order to see the news and I am quite certain that the whole cinema would have known that it was her son!

The report on Operation Musketeer, the Suez War, details the RAF participation. 24 Valiants operated out of Luqa with a further 29 Canberras based at Luqa and Halfar in Malta and 59 Canberras operating from Nicosia in Cyprus. In six days of operations a total of 259 sorties were flown with 942 tons of bombs dropped.

In some thirty five years of operational service the V-Bombers participated in just two military operations, namely the Valiants at Suez and the Vulcan in the Falklands War.

I spent twenty years of my life as part of the British Nuclear Deterrent and believe that we preserved democracy in Western Europe. My last operational target was Leningrad, but fortunately when I visited the city renamed with its former title, St Petersburg, it was still standing, but that is another story.