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News > Alumni News > RAF Memories - A Military Career

RAF Memories - A Military Career

This month will see Remembrance Day including a service in the Ipswich School Chapel on Sunday 12th November. We thought we would share Hally Hardie's (OI 1949-58) RAF memories.
Hally Hardie on Sark
Hally Hardie on Sark

Hally Hardie writes:

A while back I was asked to contribute my military career experiences to the OI News.

In 1958 I left the School with the right qualifications to attempt a flying career as a pilot in the RAF. In fact I followed Tim Mermagen, the then Headmaster’s younger son, into the RAF College Cranwell some three years behind. It had been my intention to emulate Tim with his success in gaining his pilot’s wings to continue with an exemplary career up to the point he had a mid air collision over Snowdonia resulting in his untimely death whilst avoiding a built-up area. 

However, a year into my three-year course I was invited to become a navigator instead, it being deemed my piloting skills (or lack of) might prove expensive! Unfortunately, the School in the 1950’s didn’t have an RAF element in the CCF, so I was unaware that a Flying Scholarship could have proved a very useful introduction to flying. So it was that in December 1961 I graduated with my Navigator’s wing. As luck would have it I was good enough to be selected for a photographic reconnaissance course on Canberra aircraft, which was an ideal choice. In the two-man crew it was the navigator who dominated with the decision making to bring back accurate and timely evidence, both photographic and visual, as required.

Thus it was that my first tour in the photographic reconnaissance world was a posting to Singapore, RAF Tengah. Again luck was on my side here as my pilot was to be a guy who became the 15th Duke of Hamilton. The MoD posters had asked him where he would like to go? Germany or Singapore, which in those days was a no-brainer – Singapore of course. At the end of the Bassingbourn course learning the tricks of the trade we departed the UK for two and a half years flying all sorts of interesting trips and experiencing intriguing activities on the ground.

In the Far East, less than three months into the job the Brunei Revolt was orchestrated by the then President of Indonesia. His plan was to annex the colonial states of Malaya, Sarawak, north Borneo, Brunei and Singapore before they could be moulded into the forthcoming country of Malaysia. So it was action stations for No 81 PR Squadron to get as much intelligence from aerial photography whilst ground and naval forces were amassed to continue with their efforts on the ground. The Brunei Revolt became what was called the Indonesian Confrontation – or Konfrontasi – which basically was an undeclared war. People were being killed, most of them being British and Malayan soldiers as well as Indonesian troops, and this was in the jungle border areas of Sarawak, North Borneo and Brunei. The Malayan States and Singapore were far too well protected for the Indonesians to dare try to take these on, but there were a few attempts later on. This ‘war’ lasted from early 1963 to late 1966, and the number of British military personnel in the Far East theatre apparently reached approximately 80,000 - so we were told.

The photo recce tasks at this time were taking aerial survey photography to produce up to date mapping of the whole area of North Borneo, Brunei and Sarawak, so that the ground forces would have a better chance of doing what they needed to in the jungle. Have a look at your atlas to see what a chunk of the world that is. The existing maps were essentially sheets of white paper with a few towns and kampongs, the coastlines, and the major rivers (mostly incorrectly mapped). Don’t forget we’re talking about the 1960’s here with the existing technology of the time. The weather across the jungles was almost constant cloud, making our job difficult and drawn out, thus taking four years to complete. 

We also had high level intelligence sorties to get knowledge of Indonesian airfields, watching Mig 17’s and 19’s flying around below unaware of our presence, in retrospect, rather amusing. But the outcome of those sorties could have been so different. We also did a lot of low level flying taking in maybe four different targets per two and a half to three hour sortie. The targets being a whole range of possibilities for tactical attacks in the event of us having to gain knowledge of such on the Indonesian side of the borders. These all required visual as well as photographic knowledge, the visual side requiring an air report to ground forces for rapid action if needed. Beyond these sorties were the usual training sorties which finished up taking quite a lot of ‘pretty pictures’ for senior officers, local politicians, friends and families. From Singapore there were detachments to Australia, Hong Kong,The  Philippines, Thailand, The Maldives for a variety of tasks and liaison visits. This was really a wonderful experience and introduction to the operational RAF world and to an extent satisfied the ‘Biggles’ in me.

OK, all that was crammed into a hectic two and a half years, albeit I did visit the Far East again for a number of detachments doing other interesting jobs. One of these was a few weeks in Hong Kong flying daily missions south out low over the South China Sea looking to intercept what were called the Vietnamese boat people. These were the Vietnamese who felt they had to escape the wrath of the communists after the end of that war. Another task was to take aerial photography of the Indonesian side of the Sarawak/Indonesian  border – legitimately – at their request to help them bring their maps up to date. I spent a couple of weeks in the Malaysian jungle learning how to survive without food or clean water with just what you might find if jumping out of an aircraft with precious little but your wits. As I have said before, what a wonderful experience of life which few others could have without great expense.

That was my first and without doubt my best tour. Doing a real and positive job with a worthwhile end which had many challenging moments well beyond the humdrum of the rest of RAF training.

So what happened next for me? I returned to the UK in 1965, to continue a similar pattern of flying with The Canberra PR flying at Wyton, near Huntingdon. We still did high level survey flying, and many other photo tasks for national and local government. We completed low level flying in anticipation of having to use such experience and knowledge against some 30 target groups wherever we may be called to around the world, but mostly looking at the European theatre. We were also called to back-up 81 Sqn. as they were working to extremes in Singapore. The Mediterranean PR Sqns. were also called upon for this task. To train us for possible deployment to unusual venues where our skills may have been required we flew many unsupported detachments to likely areas including Kenya, Bahrein, Libya, Norway, Denmark, Germany, Malta, Cyprus, Hong Kong, Gibraltar, Trinidad, and the Bahamas.  As you see there was no need to spend too much money on exotic holidays! But the family would object. Other little training ‘jollies’ would be e.g. the Winter Survival course at Bad Kohlgrub, or Norway, with a lot of skiing, Desert Survival, Sea Survival, only a few days at a time but oh what an experience! Well that took up another two and a half years of RAF life.

Then came a short tour in Germany, at Bruggen, on the Dutch border again with PR Canberra flying for a couple of years before the squadron folded. Nearly all the flying was low level, low being classified as 250 feet above the ground, but in all reality if push came to shove for hot action we would have to commit to ‘the weeds’ or you would never get back to report with film or word. Such low flying made the task of visual acquisition of the target very difficult at times, and the lower still even more difficult. In-flight reporting of the target details was tremendously important though the radio technology wasn’t really up to it – no satellites orbiting to relay messages. Then, after two short years of cheap cars, booze and other goodies it was back to reality in the UK. 

Now it was a succession of ground tours both administration and training with flying possibilities. These tours were designed to give a greater breadth of knowledge, should you get pushed up the ranks so as to make better informed decisions – in theory – looking at the results of such, one did wonder! Was this the Peter Principle?

Onward, through the years I got back to a flying squadron again, another PR Canberra unit, this time in Malta. This was only a two year tour. The remaining of my 25 years in the RAF were spent at Wyton, mostly ground jobs but with flying possibilities. The latter included four weeks tidying up the Oman aerial photographic survey with a lot of flying between 33,000 to 35,000 feet for the best scale for the end product. This was flown from Thumrait in the middle of the country. The last few days of the detachment thwarted a 100% task coverage as it started to rain – yes in the desert – and the yellow/brown of the sand turned everything green within three days. 

My very last proper photo job was in 1983. An aerial survey over a small patch of Egypt around El Alamein, the task being to produce suitable mapping photos so that ground forces, including British sappers would go in and try to clear up more of the still extensive minefields.

Here we are, 25 years later, deciding to leave the RAF for new ventures. But what an incredible experience of life in the RAF. Not all those serving in the Forces would have had such a life by any stretch, but a whole load of people have enjoyed themselves whatever.

Hally Hardie (OI 1949-58)

We thank Hally for the details of his 25 years with the RAF and his contribution to aerial photographic reconnaissance.



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