RAF Shoots Down Drone, First Kill in…Errrr…

December 21, 2021

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On the 14th of December an event occurred that has not happened for a long time; the Royal Air Force shot down a hostile aircraft.

Specifically, a drone.

An RAF Typhoon engaged and destroyed the UAV as it was in the vicinity of the Al-Tanf base which is located on the southern Syria border. According to a statement from the British Ministry of Defence:

 

“As the drone continued on its track, it became clear it posed a threat to Coalition forces. RAF Typhoons conducting routine patrols in the area were tasked to investigate.

“Despite the small size of the drone making it a very challenging target, it was successfully shot down using an Advanced Short Range Air to Air Missile (ASRAAM) and the threat eliminated – a tribute to the skill and professionalism of Royal Air Force pilots.”

An-Tanf, which is believed to house a contingent of US Special Forces and intelligence personnel from other nations, is thought to be an important training and logistics facility for local militia engaged in anti-ISIS operations. But the base also appears to be an impediment to Iranian operations in the region and has come under attack in the past from Iranian-controlled groups. It is thought that the drone shot down was being operated by one of these entities.

Questions about an-Tanf aside, the incident has raised a bit of a debate, not on the current military and political situation in Syria, but one of military history. And, like the situation at an-Tanf, it too is somewhat murky on the details.

When did the Royal Air Force last shoot down an aircraft?

It is a little more complicated than you might think. Because for all the operations and conflicts that the RAF has been involved in, there hasn’t been a clear-cut engagement with RAF aircraft for some decades.

The most recent contender is an alleged incident that occurred during Operation Desert Storm in 1990/1. The story goes, and pending solid evidence it remains just that, that during a bombing run on an Iraqi airfield one Tornado GR.1 strike aircraft found either an Iraqi MiG or Mirage trying to take off.

As the unfortunate Iraqi lifted off the Tornado’s bombs arrived, knocking the MiG out of the air and destroying it.

The problem with this is does this count as an air-to-air kill? Obviously, the Tornado crew would think so, and the aircraft involved got renamed as the “MiG Eater” and a kill mark added to the cockpit.

But as the details remain somewhat murky and no official kill claim was, as far as I can find, credited we can probably dismiss this one.

In fact, it is 1982 before we find the first solid contenders. During the Falklands Conflict of that year, RAF pilots flew against Argentine Air Force and Navy aircraft, shooting down several as part of the overall tally of twenty-one kills achieved by the British Sea Harrier fighter.

In fact, the last kills by RAF pilots were the last air-to-air kills of the war. On June 8, Ft. Lt’s David Morgan and David Smith both attacked A-4 Skyhawk fighter bombers that had just struck a landing craft in the Bluff Cove area. In the subsequent combat, Smith shot down one aircraft, Morgan two.

Now if you ask the RAF, I suspect they say that this the last time they shot down enemy aircraft.

Problem is, I also suspect that if you ask the Royal Navy, they’ll say that, actually, it’s the last time THEY shot down enemy aircraft. Because though both Morgan and Smith were RAF pilots, they were seconded to the Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm at the time and flying FAA Sea Harrier fighters.

So, with a bit of contention on this incident, let’s keep looking.

In fact, another possibility occurred just a couple of weeks before this on the 25th of May 1982. Although this one I’m pretty sure the RAF don’t want listed.

On that day an RAF Phantom shot down an aircraft, there is no dispute on that. Unfortunately, the aircraft was an RAF Jaguar attack aircraft and the whole thing was an accident.

XV422, an RAF Phantom FGR.2 of no.92 Squadron was conducting an air intercept practice over Germany. The aircraft was vectored onto two targets that were designated as hostile for the purposes of the training exercise and moved in to engage. The two “targets” were RAF Jaguar GR.1s returning home to their base in Brüggen.

They had been quite happily minding their own business when one of them, piloted by Ft. Lt Steve Griggs, became the recipient of a series of unfortunate cockups.

Earlier that day XV422 had been part of a rapid response exercise.

This had seen the aircraft armed with a full set of air-to-air missiles, including several live AIM-9G Sidewinders. This was a standard exercise, and once completed, the aircraft were to have their armament removed and reloaded with acquisition rounds; inert missiles with real, heat-seeking heads. These could achieve lock on, which during training would be registered with the aircraft’s systems as a kill but couldn’t be launched.

Except many things went wrong in the safety procedures and, to cut a long story short, Lt. Griggs found himself the recipient of a live Sidewinder unexpectedly slamming into the rear of his aircraft. Fortunately, he was able to eject and suffered nothing worse than a cut chin.

But the Jaguar was very much shot down by an RAF aircraft.

To be fair to the Royal Air Force, this was an accident and not combat, so I think we should recuse this one. Which leads us to our next few incidents which are all unconfirmed and essentially speculative.

The first of these were in 1969. That year a US Air Force assistant crew chief stole a C-130 from RAF Mildenhall.

Sgt Paul Meyer seems to have had a mental break down – possibly caused by PTSD from his service in Vietnam – and took it into his head to fly back to Viriginia to see his wife. He proceeded to fly over the Thames Estuary and headed south over the English Channel. The C-130 subsequently crashed in the sea near Alderney, and Meyer’s body was never recovered.

Ever since this tragedy, there have been stories and rumours that the aircraft was shot down, though whether by the RAF or the USAF changes depending on the telling.

RAF Lightning and Hunter interceptors were scrambled to track down the Hercules, but whether they found it and action sanctioned is unknown.

A similar situation revolves around our next case.

Between 1963 and 1966, Indonesia and Great Britain fought an undeclared war in Borneo. Indonesia objected to the formation of Federation of Malaysia and sought to instigate instability in the region by launching attacks against Malay and Commonwealth forces. One of the main ways they did this was by inserting special forces by parachute into the contested areas.

The RAF got the job of interdicting these flights, and this led to the loss of at least one Indonesian Air Force C-130B.

On the night of 2nd/3rd of September 1964, this aircraft, T-1307, crashed into the Karimata Strait off the coast of Malaysia, killing all 55 personnel on board.

Officially, the aircraft was lost from flying low to try to avoid interception by radar stations and British interceptors. But there have been continued rumours of one no.60’s Javelin’s returning from a sortie that night missing one of its Firestreak air-to-air missiles.

Again, this remains rumour with no official confirmation from either party involved, and so therefore also gets disqualified.

So, how about the Korean War? Britain was heavily involved, surely the RAF got some kills?

Again, yes…kind of.

Several RAF pilots did get credited with kills of MiGs during the three-year conflict, but again not in RAF, or even British aircraft. They were seconded to USAF F-86 Sabre squadrons, and this is where they saw action.

Of course, we have the famous example of a piston-engine Sea Fury shooting down a MiG-15. But that was, once again, a Fleet Air Arm aircraft and pilot.

No, for the last officially credited kill made by RAF pilots in RAF aircraft we have to go to…

1948.

What happened in 1948? Well, the establishment of the state of Israel.

This event sparked the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. And slap bang in the middle of this were the British, including several RAF squadrons.

The British had overseen the region since the end of World War One, and now were pulling out of the area. But being caught in the middle of the rising conflict meant that, naturally, accidents happened.

And on 22nd May at 0610 two Egyptian Spitfire Mk.IXs attacked the British air base of Ramat David south east of Haifa, probably mistaking it for an Israeli base.

The British pilots, who had spent the night drinking every drop of alcohol in the place as preparation of their pulling out, scrambled to get into the air. Ironically, they were flying Spitfires as well – Mk.XVIIIs.

In the course of the next three hours the Egyptians launched two more strikes against the base with five more aircraft. The RAF Spitfires shot down four of them. The last of these is thought to have been shot down by Flying Officer Tim McElhaw of no.208 Squadron (you can listen to a recording of him describing the event HERE.)

And that is the last officially credited air-to-air kill made by the Royal Air Force.

So, this rather confused history comes to an end. Congratulations to the RAF for ending their streak, and glad it was an unmanned drone that it was achieved with.

Links:

British Typhoon jet shoots down hostile aircraft over Syria

Former RAF Jaguar pilot tells the story of when he was shot down by a RAF Phantom interceptor

Was the newlywed mechanic who stole a plane shot down?

https://id.wikipedia.org/wiki/Djalaludin_Tantu – Indonesian wiki on one of the officers lost in 1964

Tim McElhaw interview IWM

Related:

B-52 vs. F-100 Super Sabre; The Tragic Shooting Down of the Ciudad Juarez

Massacre of the Innocents? – The Shooting Down of RF531

The Argentine Commando Raid on Gibraltar – Operation Algeciras

The Day Marines Shot a Warship with Anti-Tank Rockets

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Ed Nash

Ed Nash

Ed Nash has spent years traveling around the world. Between June 2015 and July 2016 he volunteered with the Kurdish YPG in its battle against ISIS in Syria; his book on his experiences, Desert Sniper, was published by Little, Brown in September 2018.
Ed Nash

Ed Nash

Ed Nash has spent years traveling around the world. Between June 2015 and July 2016 he volunteered with the Kurdish YPG in its battle against ISIS in Syria; his book on his experiences, Desert Sniper, was published by Little, Brown in September 2018.

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