Cold War Patrol: Unveiling the Covert Missions of N° 203 Squadron

By Colin A Pomeroy

With this routine R/T exchange another Cold War maritime patrol sortie departs, sometimes in the evening dusk, sometimes at the crack of dawn, from Malta towards its allotted area in the Eastern Mediterranean. Let us join the eleven man BAE Nimrod crew and see something of the activities of N° 203 Squadron at RAF Luqa in the mid-1970s. Why were they in Malta and what did they do?

The Hawker Siddeley (now BAE) Nimrods, which replaced the Squadron’s Shackleton MR.3/Phase 3 aircraft early in 1972, flew patrols coordinated with aircraft of other NATO countries, these being mainly land-based P-3 Orions of the US Navy flying out of Sigonella in Sicily and Rota in Spain, and carrier-borne aircraft of the US Sixth Fleet (S-3 Vikings and helicopters).

Their task was the surveillance of Warsaw Pact surface combatants and support ships and the detection and tracking of Warsaw Pact submarines, both conventional and nuclear powered. Additionally the aircraft provided long-range search and rescue cover for the Central Mediterranean.

The crew flying the sortie we are now accompanying would have commenced their pre-fly preparation over two hours before the four Rolls-Royce Spey Mk.250 turbofans were wound up to take-off power, with some work even having been carried the day before. At the formal briefing 90 minutes before the scheduled take-off time, the Duty Operations officer (Maritime) details the mission objectives and briefs on the latest known Warsaw Pact and NATO shipping positions, on any known submarine targets and on friendly patrol areas.

The co-pilot then briefs on the weather expected en-route, in the patrol area and back at Luqa and at the planned diversion airfield (normally Sigonella; occasionally Brindisi or Cagliari-Elmas). The flight engineer briefs on the service-ability state of the aircraft scheduled for the mission (and its reserve), and the navigator runs through the route to be taken and the location of the tasked patrol area or areas.

The air electronics officer (AEO) briefs on a host of specialised information, including call signs, codes to be used, radio frequencies to be monitored, target radars to be especially watched out for by the ESM (Electronic Support Measures) operators and submarine “signatures”. And finally the captain briefs on his overall plan for the effective conduct of the sortie and fields any questions or suggestions put forward by the crew.

The thirty minutes planned for the briefing over, the crew boards a coach and is taken out to the waiting Nimrod, the flight engineer having proceeded ahead of the rest of his colleagues to commence his preparation of the aircraft for flight. Some thirty minutes before take-off, all checks of the aircraft and its avionics having been completed and the aircraft Form 700 (technical log) signed by the captain, permission is sought from the control tower for engine start, with which the ‘mighty hunter’ begins to come to life.

We taxi past the old control tower to the north-east of the airfield, perhaps wait for an Air Malta Boeing 720 or a British Airways Trident to land, and then move onto the runway. Whilst taxing out we will have received our ‘airways clearance’- from Malta Control via Luqa Tower. Take-off checks complete and take-off clearance received, the Speys are selected to take-off power, ‘V1’ (decision speed) and ‘Rotate’ are called by the non-flying pilot -and we are airborne and climbing on course above the Maltese Island towards our cruising level of, probably, flight level 270.

The military surveillance radar at Fort Madliena would monitor the aircraft out to its maximum detection range. The Nimrod operates to the same ‘Performace A’ criteria as a passenger-carrying airliner, so the take-off power used might not have been 100% (full) power and an engine failure before V1 would have allowed us to abort the take-off safely within the runway remaining, while an engine failure between ‘V1’ and ‘Rotate’ would have allowed us to safely continue the take-off with the capability of accepting a second engine failure above 35 feet (10,7 m) and still climb safely away from the ground. Very reassuring for the crew!

As we proceed down the Mediterranean our ‘Crossing Coast Checks- Outbound’ are performed, soon to be followed by the ‘On Task’ checks, for we are effectively on patrol as soon as we clear the land, as the crew never know when the unexpected might occur and a rapid response from a fully prepared crew and aeroplane might be essential. Today our mission is to check on a known Soviet anchorage at Kithera, just outside Greek territorial waters, and then carry our anti-submarine patrol well to the south of Crete. Our flight time to Kithera is just over an hour and ten minutes, so time for the first of many cups of coffee and for final thoughts to be given to the task ahead.

To avoid alerting the Russians of our presence we plan to descend to just below their radar cover- at a planned distance from the anchorage if their radars are switched off, or upon intercepting a radar signal if earlier (remembering that a radar signal can be detected by the Nimrod’s ESM equipment well in excess of the range at which it has the energy to be reflected back to the ship and be seen on her radar operator’s screen).

Captain from ESM. Racket bearing 092 degrees. Assessed as Headnet Charlie. Soviet air guard radar.

Captain from navigator. Bearing’s good- passes through the anchorage.

Time to go down, our own ASV21 radar at standby to avoid offering a detection to the Soviets. We slowly descend reaching our minimum operating altitude- normally just 200 feet (61 m) above the sea- some 20 or so miles (32 km) from Kithera.

Crew from co-pilot. Warships visible on the nose. Range about 10 miles. The nearest appears to be a Kashin class destroyer.

Radar on, reports the captain.

Radar contact. Five targets, centre bearing 095 degrees, range 8 miles, reports the radar operator.

Captain from ESM. Gunnery control radars locked on. Various bearings on the nose.

Aircraft depressurised, reports the flight engineer, whilst the AEO chips in with Camera ready in the port beam 4” lens fitted.

The pilot manoeuvre the aircraft to ensure that the best flight path is flown for the photography and visual intelligence gathering on the first pass.

Camera from pilot. First two targets approaching. Don class support vessel followed by the Kashin. One mile; half a mile; Don coming to you now, now, now. Kashin now, now, now. Photographs taken. Roger. Half mile to a second Kashin..

..and so the anchorage is thoroughly and systematically investigated before the Nimrod departs for the second half of its mission, which is more of a routine nature, our task to lay a sonobuoy field in a pre-planned area and then to sweep through the area with radar whilst monitoring the sonobuoys.

Buoy 15 in one mile. Clear reports the pilot. Buoy 15 away. Buoy 15 serviceable, reports the monitoring AEOp..

…and the patrols continues. By now the Nimrod will be flying on only its two inboard engines, the outers having been closed down to improve fuel performance. With dusk having given way to darkness, and the Nimrod masking its presence by dowsing all external lights and covering up all windows, the patrol will soon be over and ATC clearance sought for the climb out to return to transit height. However, the quiet is dramatically broken.

Captain from radar. Small intermittent radar contact. 170 degrees, 8 miles.

Nothing there on the surface plot, confirms the navigator.

Crew from captain. Action stations. Prepare for MAD.

Nearest buoy is buoy 12, reports the tactical navigator.

Nothing on buoy 12, reports the Jezebel team.

The Nimrod is now bearing upon the radar target. At the reported radar range of five miles (8 km) the bomb doors are opened, initiating slight turbulence throughout the aircraft. The bomb doors are opened, not to allow for a weapons drop, but to give the opportunity to drop the large ‘1C type’ directional sonobuoys carried in the bomb bay. The radar operator continues the homing.

Three miles, steady.Two miles, left, left two (degrees). One and a half miles, steady. One mile- searchlight.

At this point the co-pilot switches on the 60 million candle power searchlight and reports, in as calm a voice as he can muster:

Target sighted. Snort and periscopes. Right three degrees. Steady. On top now. MAD Mark.

From the navigator:

Jezebel buoy 6 away. 1C buoys (channel) 4, passive, and 7, active away. Pilots, you have a high gain steer back to datum.

Only the co-pilot and the starboard beam lookout saw the target; the flying pilot was locked on to his flight instruments at just 500 feet (152 m) above the sea! The co-pilot reports:

Target was tracking 140 degrees at about 5 knots. Definitely a Foxtrot class submarine.

The target is prosecuted until all possible date on the submarine, which has now dived, is gleaned and the Nimrod crew are advised by the flight engineer that the prudent limit of endurance fuel level has been reached and it is time to head back towards the George Cross Island. Debriefings reports are started upon and, about 100 miles (161 km) out from Luqa, descent clearance is sought from Malta Control and the ‘Crossing Coast Checks, Inbound’ are completed. Nine hours after the wheels had lifted off, our patrol is finally over.


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