By psmiddy, Aug 31 2021 10:09AM
Operation Pitting – the UK evacuation of Kabul – officially finished on Saturday. Officially, because yesterday, a RAF Voyager was on its way over there from Dubai, so something is still going on. Nonetheless a time to take stock. But first, the tale of another hurried evacuation.
In 1974, when I was very, very young, I volunteered for a lot, and that summer was despatched to RAF Lyneham (RIP) for 2 weeks, arriving around August 10th. It had barely registered with me that Turkey and Greece had kicked off a war over Cyprus, and that the RAF had facilitated the escape of the Cypriot leader, Archbishop Makarios.
I was initially despatched to 216 Squadron who flew the venerable Comet C Mk4c, and had a couple of flights; they clearly soon tired of me and sent me over to one of the C130 squadrons, then on August 15th I was asked if I wanted to fly out to Cyprus that evening? A rhetorical question, clearly. At 2140 that evening we flew out to Akrotiri, as part of Operation Ablaut – the reinforcement of the British Forces there. I was told our cargo was a mobile radio station for the British Embassy, and a lot of ammunition (hmmmm) to replenish troops already in theatre. The seven hour flight passed swiftly by. As we approached Akrotiri in the middle of the following morning, I could see puffs of smoke, presumably from artillery fire, in the Troodos mountains. The proper aircrew retired to the Mess, and a well-earned drink and kip.
I stayed with the aircraft to welcome our load for the return flight, which was part of Operation Fallacy – the evacuation of civilians from the warzone. These were the wives and children of servicemen and diplomats. Like those in Kabul in August, they had been given only a few hours to pack up only those belongings they could carry on board. Fatigue and worry etched the faces of the womenfolk, apprehension was less evident in the children. The adults were very stoical and well-behaved.
On the return flight I assisted with passing around food, drink, and sickbags (and collection of the latter!). Conditions were beyond Spartan – the C130K with its canvas sling seats was designed for relatively short flights carrying sturdy paratroopers or soldiers. The only toilets were chemical ones behind a hastily erected curtain.
I was brought forward to the cockpit for a respite and after a few minutes the captain, Flt Lt Price got up and asked me if I wanted a ‘drive’. Obviously a C130K was a quantum leap bigger than anything I had flown up to that point, so I gingerly manoeuvred the yoke. Standing behind me Flt Lt Price encouraged me to try a few turns. So there I was, at 24,000 feet over the Alps, undulating a full passenger load around for 20 minutes! On my return there were no complaints from passengers – indeed I had managed not to wake them from their slumbers. Looking on t’Net just now, I learn that each Herc carried 82 civilians out.
Of course this escapade was very different from events in Afghan: the British had no intention of leaving Cyprus in a military sense – we wished to hang on to our so-called Sovereign Base Areas. Moreover, whilst this was a full, if contained war, British Forces did not represent the enemy, and it was broadly being played according to the rules (the Geneva Convention). Unlike in Kabul, our passenger load had not had to wait for days under a full sun in excrement lined streets.
In retrospect my tangential and fleeting involvement in this conflict has enhanced my already high respect for those Western forces, particularly the British, engaged in Operation Pitting in Afghan. Assembling and screening a passenger load, and turning round an aircraft, on an airfield not under your control, is a very demanding task. Note, for example, one of the RAF’s C17s in its take-off nearly collided with civilians rushing onto the runway a few days ago. Cyprus was ordered by comparison.
The RAF in the last weeks has been using three C130s (albeit the current J version – Lockheed can be the only aircraft manufacturer who goes back up the alphabet for its succeeding models!). That has barely registered in the news because the MoD is presumably embarrassed that the RAF’s C130J fleet is shortly to be scrapped – despite offering continued utility, and ten years earlier than planned. Indeed this episode has underlined that a full current strength, not an emasculated, Air Transport fleet is needed by the RAF in years to come. Note that the Royal New Zealand Air Force continues to operate C130s as old as the one in which I flew in 1974!
Other issues / lessons? Why did the UK Government and the MoD ignore the increasingly strident calls from the wider defence community to instruct our former interpreters (& families) from Afghanistan until the last moment? Such calls were being made 3-4 months ago. Disgraceful.
Johnny Mercer MP resigned as Veterans Minister in April this year in fully warranted disgust at the cut in his department’s funding. Service through the period of the Fall of Kabul (v. 2021), will surely create a raft of servicemen with stress issues, and Mr Mercer’s former department should have its funding reinstated forthwith.
Without wishing to add to the bloated income stream of the legal profession, there should be urgent inquiries on both sides of the Atlantic at recent strategic decisions. Not the least to pin down why exactly the US base at Bagram was closed so early in the timeline. It is difficult to overstate how much this Afghan episode has now undermined the USA’s status as a (dependable) world power.