THE HISTORY OF RAF AKROTIRI 1955 - 2005
The history of RAF Akrotiri began on 1 July 1 1955 when the first 30 personnel posted to the 'Unit' established themselves in the flat, dry, rocky scrubland on the windswept Akrotiri Peninsula. Nicosia Airport was temporarily closed as a result of terrorist activity and the handling of the island's civil aviation was diverted to Akrotiri - with a tented 'civil airport reception centre to match. An RAF Regiment Light Anti-Aircraft Wing was also brought in. By the end of August 1956 Station strength had reached 260 officers and 2864 other ranks: a massive increase in 12 months. It brought with it 1430 personnel on the daily sick-parade, mainly a result of the over crowding and unsanitary conditions, as construction lagged behind the unforeseen demand for accommodation. From its rough beginnings with caravans and mud tracks, the Station was laid out, roads made, hangars and some permanent buildings constructed. Three new barrack blocks were opened allowing another 32 families onto the Station into formerly misappropriated married quarters.
Other intended married quarters were still in use as billets, Station Sick Quarters, the Education Centre, the Hospital and the NAAFI. A bank had opened for business and 4 wooden shacks served as shops.
|A small theatre club was in existence and out along Ladies' Mile, the Sailing Club had been formed. In its first 12 months as a functioning operational airfield, RAF Akrotiri had not only survived but had expanded and flourished. Although continuously affected by the EOKA troubles in one way or another and with more than a quarter of the year spent on a full war footing for the Suez Crisis, morale was high and the pioneer spirit was still strong.|
Aircraft Squadrons and Visitors
Although No 13 Squadron had re-equipped with reconnaissance Canberra aircraft in mid-1956, there was to be a conversion of another 3 of the Station's squadrons in 1957. The Canberra changeover of yet another resident squadron followed in 1958. The Base's strength peaked to almost 4100, however, there was still much to be done. In fact, it was not until 1959/1960 that permanent air traffic control and air operations facilities for the multi-squadron Flying Wing were ready for occupation and the tents, caravans and huts, which had to serve until then, abandoned.
The Officers' Mess was struck by lightning and completely burnt down in December 1960. Once rebuilt, the Mess was able to play its part in the visit of the Princess Royal a year later in November 1963, when she officially opened the custom-built Princess Mary's RAF Hospital, now known as TPMH. The Queen and Prince Philip had already spent time on the Station in 1961 on their way to India by air.
The Build Up and New Aircraft
Christmas 1963 once more saw the Station standing-to; this time for the first troubles between the Greek and Turkish Cypriot communities, occurring scarcely three years after the Republic had gained its independence. The following year was to be another filled with change. Missile-armed, all-weather fighters known as Javelins, arrived to augment the existing air defence capability, with Lightning interceptors to reinforce them.
No 1563 Flight arrived with Whirlwind helicopters for communications and Search-And-Rescue duties. RAF Transport Command took over the civil trooping commitment between UK and Cyprus and opted to use RAF Akrotiri as the terminal airfield in lieu of Nicosia.
Other transport schedules began making use of the Station and, before the end of 1964; the airfield was once again operating around the clock. In December, Akrotiri took over from El Adem in Libya as the main RAF staging post in the Mediterranean region between UK and military units 'East of Suez'. Just over 10 years from the date it had 'opened for business' the Akrotiri runway was closed down for 3 months of essential repairs and maintenance and the Squadrons dispersed on detachment to Nicosia and El Adem. When the Station reopened, it was to receive yet another addition, namely No 70 Squadron (Hastings) which arrived as the first ever resident transport squadron. With all her chickens back in the roost, Akrotiri was now indisputably 'The Big A' - the Royal Air Force's biggest operational flying station.
Yet more was to come in April 1967, when more Lightning interceptors joined the residents. Towards the end of the year, the other 'Big A', the Argosy transport aircraft were flown in to begin to replace the ageing Hastings. Britannia, VC10, Comet, Belfast and Hercules transports passed through in a constant stream, the numbers swollen yet further with visits by most of the combat aircraft then in service. By now the airfield catered for no fewer than 3 operational Flying Wings and 6 resident Squadrons, a fully developed air defence system and supporting engineering and administrative wings - a total establishment of over 4000 Servicemen and an overall RAF community of 11000. The special case of 'Big A' was recognised in 1965; it needed an Air Rank commander of its own and so Air Cdre C D North-Lewis was posted in as Station Commander.
In January 1969, the Canberra bombers were phased out of service and Akrotiri's 4 squadrons were disbanded. In their place came 2 squadrons of Vulcan Bombers from UK to maintain the CENTO Strike Force.
In the early 1970s Akrotiri was described as 'an air-force in miniature on just one Station'. Certainly, by this time 5 resident squadrons covered almost every aspect of the use of airpower: No 56 with Lightning interceptors; Nos 9 and 35 with Vulcan bombers; No 70 with Hercules and Argosy transports; and a more recent acquisition, No 84 with Whirlwind search-and-rescue helicopters.
Cyprus was to be plunged into another crisis, drawing all the Sovereign Bases' resources into play at both ends of the island when intercommunal fighting began in 1974. For RAF Akrotiri the main task was initially centred on the rescue and evacuation of tourists of many nations seeking sanctuary in the over-crowded SBAs. Aircraft of No 70 Squadron provided the on-island airlift, flying evacuees into Akrotiri for onward routeing to the UK by RAF long-range transport aircraft or civil airliner. One trip had 22 different nationalities on the aircraft. As fighting continued, the decision was taken to evacuate British Service families and a second and more intensive airlift operation was mounted: some 9000 people of nearly 50 nationalities were moved under RAF control and the 1974 RAF award of the Wilkinson Sword of Peace went to RAF Akrotiri for the active assistance it had given to people of all nations. In the same year, the Station's search-and-rescue capability had saved 27 lives at sea. Late in 1974, just as the dust was settling, the new passenger terminal came into use to replace the stores hangar that had been a make-shift conversion 11 years earlier, and which had coped with 13000 passengers every month as well as handling 24 million pounds of air-cargo per year.
It had been a particularly busy year at RAF Akrotiri and the Station was looking forward to a more relaxed summer. But then came 2 August 1990 and the Station found itself thrust into the centre of the Gulf War activities. Operation Granby was up and running. The year had already been packed full of activity for RAF Akrotiri. A full programme of Armament Practice Camps (APCs) had been overlaid with a sequence of other intensive operational and training detachments, culminating in our use as reception airfield and Forward Mounting Base for Exercise Purple Venture 90. This full-scale Command Post Exercise involved some 600 personnel in setting up a Two-Star Joint Force HQ Akrotiri for the notional out of area deployment of a two-Brigade force. RAF Akrotiri looked forward to August when a sharp drop in planned activities would give personnel the opportunity to draw breath and relax briefly - then came 2 August. When asked on this occasion to reconfirm its requirement for reinforcement personnel to sustain 24-hour operations, the Station was not overly excited. When the first of these reinforcements arrived within 96 hours it confirmed what everybody had by then realised - this was no routine planning 'dust off ' but the first steps in what were to become known as Operations GRANBY, DESERT STORM, DESERT SHIELD, PROVIDE COMFORT and HAVEN. Co-incident with the request to review reinforcement requirements, a stream of other orders and instructions began to arrive from MOD and HQ Strike Command.
Most important was the order to freeze the APC squadron changeover then in train between the Tornado F3-equipped No 5 and No 29 Squadrons. After frenetic preparations, 12 aircraft and 20 crews deployed to Dhahran on 11 August. Within 2 hours of their arrival in theatre some of these aircraft mounted Air Defence (AD) patrols thus becoming the first UK units to arrive and be committed. Back at Akrotiri, 11/12 August saw the transit of 12 Jaguars from No 54 Squadron en route to Thumrait, while on 17 August 6 RAF Germany Phantoms, drawn from No 19 and No 92 Squadrons, arrived to provide a key element of our own emerging AD system. This was further enhanced by the arrival of No 20 Squadron RAF Regiment equipped with Blindfire Rapier SAMs. Visiting Air Defence Ground Environment staff from UK, working with staffs from HQ British Forces Cyprus and 280 Signals Unit, quickly developed a comprehensive AD organisation, while local operations staff produced aircraft dispersal and local air defence plans. By the end of the month, a further deployment of No 11 Squadron F3s passed through Akrotiri to replace aircraft and crews from the original Dhahran detachment, who subsequently recovered to UK via Cyprus. August also saw the transit of Nimrod Maritime Patrol Aircraft en route to Seeb, while other Nimrods arrived to operate from Akrotiri. Many of these operations involved Air-to-Air Refuelling (AAR) support and, throughout this deployment phase, a constant stream of Tri-Star, VC10 and Victor tankers passed through Cyprus. Meanwhile, the Air Transport (AT) force of Tri-Star, VC10 and Hercules started intensive slip operations through Akrotiri. Further augmented by a huge variety of civil charter and other nation's air transport aircraft, the AT effort was to set the main pattern of air operations at Akrotiri. At varying levels of intensity, AT operations continued from the initial deployment phase through embargo operations to military build-up, support for hostilities, withdrawal and, ultimately, relief to Kurdish refugees in Northern Iraq and Turkey.
Some statistics from this immense task may serve to illustrate its impact on Akrotiri. For example, April 1990 saw 84 AT movements, while October brought 1460. Total October aircraft movements at 3162 were the highest since the Cyprus conflict in 1974. Such a surge in activity levels impacted on every element at RAF Akrotiri. While Station personnel bore the brunt of bringing the airfield to 24-hour operations, the arrival and integration of reinforcement personnel meant that, after some 2 weeks, most Sections were able to adopt sustainable three-shift work patterns. Faced with the influx of reinforcements and detachments and the huge throughput of crews, managing accommodation became something of a continuous nightmare. Bunk bedding and room sharing sometimes by up to 16 people in standard rooms became the norm, and some unlikely areas were pressed into service, with mattresses on floors, to serve as emergency accommodation. The system was severely stretched but the Station never had to resort to tents and, while many customers may have been far from comfortable, none went without a bed. Catering on 24-hour basis for such numbers also posed immense problems, on which were overlaid record-breaking demands for in-flight meals. Accounting in terms of both manpower and money also brought new challenges. While supporting intensive airfield operations, engineering and supply staffs had their own mountains to climb. In a very short timescale, the Armourers found themselves controlling one of the largest bomb dumps in the RAF - hastily reconverted from peacetime storage use by the efforts of a locally - based squadron of Royal Engineers and Property Services Agency. The inload and outload of those dumps involved all 3 Services in intensive working which ensured support for the strike aircraft. While continuing with its greatly increased resupply tasks, the Joint Supply Unit faced the major challenge of receiving, storing and managing record quantities of aviation fuel.
The Station Medical Centre was reinforced to provide cover for the greatly increased Akrotiri population, and also to allow the SMO to become the focal point for managing all the various aspects of the aeromed task. These ranged from training local Army and RAF personnel as stretcher bearers, through managing the 150 aeromed team personnel deployed to Akrotiri to provide medical cover on flights to and from the Gulf and UK, to setting up the necessary documentation cell. Akrotiri was the only link in the aeromedical chain where a 100% check on aircraft patient manifests could be made to enable the Medical Evacuation Cell at United Kingdom Land Forces to designate UK destination hospitals. Some 800 patients passed through the aeromed chain during Granby, actual battle casualties were mercifully few, and it was with great relief that the medical facilities were quickly disbanded on cessation of hostilities. In fact the LCTF, which took some 17000 stock items to establish, was transformed in 24 hours into the venue for Akrotiri's victory celebration party! RAF Akrotiri, in common with all other British Forces Cyprus facilities, had assumed a high Internal Security (IS) alert posture.
The then-resident No 34 Squadron RAF Regiment and RAF Police personnel mounted higher profile operations; these involved manning additional Observation Posts, rapid deployment of snap vehicle check-points and patrols by the resident Wessex of No 84 Squadron. There was also increased patrolling of all approaches including our extensive coastline. The 'professional' IS forces were augmented by elements from the Station Guard Force (SGF), a specially trained squad totalling some 100 personnel drawn from all Sections and Units across the Station. SGF deployment put considerable extra manpower demands on already stretched units, but their use throughout the operation greatly enhanced the defensive posture. IS operations were further complicated when, as acclimatised troops, No 34 Squadron was put on standby for deployment to the Gulf in two half-squadron groups. In due course they were replaced at Akrotiri by No 2 Squadron RAF Regiment and, at the beginning of September, the first of No 34 Squadron elements deployed to Bahrain to constitute the defence force for the RAF detachment in Muharraq. The second element deployed in early October to Dhahran where they became part of a tri-national Saudi, US/UK force defending the air base and accommodation compounds. No 34 Squadron returned to Akrotiri and, after a short spell of leave, resumed responsibility for Akrotiri external IS defence in mid-December.
The outbreak of the Gulf War hostilities on 16 January 16 1991 led to a further heightening in Cyprus security states and once again all defence forces were heavily committed to the IS task. In particular, the Wessex of No 84 Squadron undertook a 50% increase in flying rate and a four-fold increase in numbers of aircraft on standby, including aircraft detached to other key locations within the Sovereign Base Areas. Sea defences had been enhanced by the arrival of three RN Attacker Class fast patrol boats whose high-profile patrolling of SBA waters, coupled with the operations of the attached Nimrod MPA, increased maritime deterrent capabilities immeasurably. The end of hostilities brought a welcome return to more normal operations for the IS forces. However, the recovery of forces from the Gulf and subsequent operations for Kurdish relief and deterrence of further Iraqi aggression meant that, with only a few short breaks, the airfield continued to support 24-hour operations some time after the conflict. The existence of the Cyprus bases and their instant availability to support large-scale deployments to the Middle East were critical factors in enabling Britain to provide speedy military assistance to UN operations in the Gulf conflict.
Towards the end of 2002 the middle east looked set to be firmly, once again, in the media spotlight. The threat from the use of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) from Iraqi forces under the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein proved such that the US Department of Defence and the UK Ministry of Defence felt it necessary to draw up plans for a possible Gulf War II. It came as no surprise at all to the residents of RAF Akrotiri that this lone island in the east of the Mediterranean would figure largely in those plans.
These plans became reality, Operation IRAQI FREEDOM commenced with UK forces operating under the code name of Operation TELIC.
In January 2003 no decision had yet been made as to forthcoming war with Iraq. UN inspectors in the country were still urging Saddam Hussein to comply with resolutions concerning WMDs. On 7 January the government ordered the largest deployment of troops since the first Gulf War. RAF Akrotiri commenced 24 hours operations enabling 2 Gp aircraft constant transit to and from the Middle East. With the expected numbers and the diversity of aircraft a lot of work was needed to make the airfield suitable and it soon became a construction site. Dispersals were added and existing ones enlarged. The airfield had a very short space of time in which to ready itself for some of the largest aircraft in the world to start transiting through. The station had quickly become a great deal busier and there was on ominous sign for the future as the weather also played its part. Conditions were such that a tornado formed just off the coast and threatened to cause havoc across the station. However, with fast jets airborne and out of danger and some near misses for the newly resident Royal Navy Task Group, RAF Akrotiri had a narrow escape. As the tornado moved north Limassol was not so lucky and a great deal of storm damage was caused.
February 2003 saw the beginning of the large influx of USAF personnel mainly to support the large tanker fleet that were to take up residence at RAF Akrotiri. This was a far cry from a base used to having only a handful of aircraft remaining at the airfield at any one time, along with occasional Armed Practice Camps (APC). Alongside the tanker fleet was a whole host of various rotary and fixed wing aircraft. Fitting them all onto this small peninsular proved to be a real jigsaw puzzle with aircraft regularly using taxiways as a means of parking. The month saw some other very interesting arrivals to the region, two of the largest were the US Aircraft Carriers USS Harry Truman and USS Theodore Roosevelt and their accompanying task units. The logistics required to support the carrier groups were enormous. RAF Akrotiri supported the constant ship-to-shore flights providing fuel, supplies and mail to the 36,000 sailors.
February also saw another example of Mother Natures helping hand with the second wettest month since 1956 when a total of 152.8mm of rain fell in a month. that averages just 66.1mm.
March 2003 saw a significant escalation of activity accompanied by rumours that a 'war with Iraq was imminent. The construction of the extra dispersals was complete, and RAF Akrotiri could boast on extra 11 acres of dispersal space for aircraft to park. The airfield was crammed with aircraft and personnel. In all over 200 extra US Forces were now resident on base but the atmosphere was one of anticipation. Towards the end of the month the first Aeromed flights began to arrive from the Middle East for TPMH. The stark reality what was happening was close to everyone's thoughts and gave! an insight into what was to come. Security Awareness around the base rose considerably after war protesters managed to gain access to the base. Some were arrested as a result of their trespass but many remained just outside the perimeter protesting peacefully. The station Fire and Rescue service received reinforcements when 20 USAF fire-fighters joined them. For the first time in RAF history. UK and USAF fire-fighter were working side-by-side. The partnership worked and 67 aircraft emergencies Were successfully dealt with. On 20 March 2003 the war began. In the early hours of the morning a combination of F-117 Stealth Fighters and F-16 aircraft, along with around 40 long-range cruise missiles targeted buildings deep in Baghdad, Working on. an intelligence tip-off, some the missiles were targeted Saddam Hussein himself. The Iraqi leader narrowly escaped, but the war was firmly underway.
A number of sorties were flown deep into Iraq with over 130 different aircraft types flying over the skies of Iraq. Akrotiri's new resident tanker fleet began an intense period of flying. A total of 5 miles of extra fuel piping was required to suck airport!!
On the 13th of April 2003 US troops to control of Baghdad as the Iraqi regime collapsed. As a result, fewer missions were required to be flown into the Gulf area and this had a knock on effect on RAF Akrotiri. Towards the end of April the first fast jet crews transited through Akrotiri on their way back home to UK. At the same time a USAF C-17 departed to land in the heart of Baghdad loaded with humanitarian supplies.
On the 1st May 2003, President George W Bush, declares the war officially over and a great victory over the Iraqi regime. Operation TELIC however, is far from over and whilst troops remain in Iraq, Akrotiri will continue to play its part in the link from the middle east to the west.
RAF Akrotiri proved itself a valuable asset to operations during the Gulf War II. Each and every section was stretched to the limit helping maintain 24 hour operations for a prolonged period and sustaining an airfield that was busier than Luton Airport. It's worth noting therefore, that only 500 extra personnel were despatched to Akrotiri and looking at the statistics it's quite amazing how much was achieved with such a small increase in manpower. Between January and May there were over 15,000 aircraft movements.
Over 12,000 troops
transitted through RAF Akrotiri.
The end of official hostilities did not bring an immediate end to Operation TELIC however: The presence of US and UK forces in the region maintaining security meant that Akrotiri continued to play its role long after President Bushes' speech. The conflict once again proved the worth of RAF Akrotiri as a base. With its strategic position in the eastern Mediterranean it continues to provide a crucial stepping stone for forces operating in the area and wil no doubt continue to do so for many years to come.
Not much has changed operationally at RAF Akrotiri in recent years, but the only operational flying squadron which is permanently based at Akrotiri today is No 84 Squadron. No 34 Squadron RAF Regiment continued to serve on-island until 1996 when they moved back to the UK. Their place was taken by personnel from the resident Army infantry battalion (RIB). In 1986 one event dominated - on Sunday, 3 August , RAF Akrotiri suffered an attack by mortar and automatic fire. The Station responded by raising its security awareness to the high levels which are still obvious today. The Operations Centres (Ground and Air) maintain a constant watch in conjunction with the SBA Police - just in case. In 1988 a new command structure in Cyprus resulted in the closure of Air Headquarters and Headquarters Land Forces Cyprus, both based at Episkopi and instead the formation of a Joint Headquarters - British Forces Cyprus. Shortly afterwards, in 1989 Joint Units were also formed at Akrotiri, replacing single service Units such as 17 Ordnance Battalion (RAOC), 58 Squadron (RCT), 48 Cyprus.
A Rock Ape Remembers
More History in the Archives