Guardians of the Mediterranean: Lime-Jug ’70 and the Strategic Significance of Malta

Since the pre-World War II times Malta was the venue of various types of military air excercises by both Fleet Air Arm and Royal Air Force. Its position in the central Mediterranean, which throughout history meant being ‘in the middle of things’, made it the ideal base from where to simulate the air defence of the British Mediterranean Fleet.

The growing attention given to the Mediterranean by the Soviets in the 1960s had becoming alarming to NATO. The eastern seaboard of this most ancient of seas was becoming a Soviet lair as more Arab states, shaking off British and French colonial influence, espoused the Soviet cause, though not Moscow’s ideology, and accepted Soviet arms in return for port and airfield facilities. The Soviet Black Sea Fleet grew in proportion while Soviet naval and air force reconnaissance aircraft flew from Egyptian, Syrian and Algerian airfields to shadow and spy upon the British, American and other NATO navies.

The importance of Malta to NATO therefore assumed another dimension and the aerial reconnaissance component in Malta was bolstered by the re-equipment of the resident RAF’s No 13 and 39 Squadrons with the latest Camberra PR.9s for high altitude recce. The vacuum in maritime patrol which had been created by the disbandment of the Hal-Far based, Shackleton MR.2-equipped No 38 Squadron in 1967 was made good by the transfer to Luqa in 1969 of No 203 Squadron from RAF Ballykelly with its more capable Shackleton MR.3 Phase 3.

RAF Akrotiri in Cyprus, too, was strenghtened, and squadrons from both islands often exchanged visits. The holding of Mediterranean exercises now took a wider aspect and increasingly came to include joint RAF and naval manoeuvres. Malta was the obvious choice for use as a base.

In November 1970 one such exercise was Lime-Jug ’70 whose aim was to practice procedures for co-operation between Royal Navy forces and RAF shore-based aircraft in the Mediterranean. After an initial work-up in Malta, the exercise was to continue in the Central and Eastern Mediterranean at which stage activity was to concentrate at RAF Akrotiri in Cyprus. Under the joint command of Admiral Sir William O’Brien, RN, C-in-C Western Fleet, and Air Marshall W D Hodgkinson, RAF, Air Officer C-in-C Near East Air Force, Lime-Jug ’70’s implementation involved some 50 combat and support aircraft besides a Royal Navy aircraft carrier battle fleet out at sea.

RAF and Fleet Air Arm aircraft literally congested Luqa. The airfield had not seen so much activity since October 1966 when the Red Arrows’s Gnats happened to be there while Vulcan B.1As of No 44 and 101 Squadrons from Waddington, No 29 Squadron with Javelin FAW.9s from Akrotiri and No 5 Squadron with Lightning F.6s from Binbrook were taking part in an exercise.

Lime-Jug ’70, which ran from 2 to 15 November, in fact involved more units, and the complete list of aircraft is shown in the accompanying box. There is something to say about each unit. For No 11 Squadron, under the command of Wing Commander Jeremy Jones, this was the first major deployment to the Mediterranean since re-equipping with the Lightning F.6 in 1967.

They were to provide the most spectacular of all take-offs from Luqa during Lime-Jug ’70, its aircraft often taking off in pairs and zooming up with full afterburners while still above the runway. Wing Commander Geoff Davies’ No 12 Squadron was the first RAF unit to receive the Buccaneer and had a mix of ex-RN S.2s, modified S.2As and newbuilt S.2Bs. The latter two versions had weapon pylon changes to accommodate Martel anti-shipping missiles.

Until then the S.2Bs were distinguishable only by their XW serials, having not yet been fitted with the bulged internal fuel tank in the bomb bay area. No 43 Squadron was still then the only RAF unit to fly the long-nose-wheeled FG.1 version of the Phantom that had originally been earmarked for shipboard use by the RN. Its commanding officer was Wing Commander I R Hank Martin. No 360 Squadron, flying Canberras with that strange-looking long, bulged nose which we used to compare to the tail-cone of the Vulcan, was a shady unit then, still four years old and engaged in electronic countermeasures training for the benefit of landbased, airborne and shipborne radar operators.

Its crew component was novel in that it was composed of both RAF and RN officers. No 201 Squadron had just exchanged its Shackletons for the new Nimrods the previous month, becoming the first unit in the RAF to operate the new maritime patrol aircraft. The Marham Tanker Wing, flying the BK.1A tanker version of the Victor, was in fact composed not only of No 55 and 57 Squadrons but also of No 214, which did not, however, send any aircraft to Lime-Jug ’70.

The 50,000 ton aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal, then the RN’s largest warship, had entered Grand Harbour one week before but left with part of her air complement on 29th October to participate in the exercise at sea, during which time her aircraft operated from her and not from Luqa. Before her departure from Malta she did disembark three Buccaneer S.2s of No 809 NAS, three Phantom FG.1s of No 892 NAS, two Gannet AEW.3s of No 849 NAS ‘B’ Flight, while her new-acquired Sea King HAS.1s from No 824 NAS shuttled to and from the sea-going carrier to Luqa.

Grand Harbour was as congested by RN warship as Luqa was with warplanes. Besides Ark Royal, there were the guided-missiles destroyers HMS London (Flagship, Western Fleet) and Fife, frigates HMS Juno, Scylla, Galatea, Yarnouth, Exmouth and Argonaut, and the submarines HMS Alliance and Otus. In addition there were a number of Royal Fleet Auxiliaries either in port or just off Malta, including RFA Wave Ruler, Tidesurge and Lyness. The Commando Ship HMS Albion and the training frigates Eastbourne and Scarborough were also in Grand Harbour but were not taking part in the exercise.

In fact they remained in port when all the other vessels had left with Ark Royal on 29th October. The Albion’s Wessex HU.5 assault helicopters were conducting their own mini-exercise during the same period, landing 800 Royal Marines of the Singapore-based 42 Commando and some 180 Land Rovers, trailers and pieces of artillery at the Mayesa ranges in Ghajn Tuffieha.

For Lime-Jug ’70 RAF Argosy C.1 transports of No 70 Squadron provided logistics between Malta and their base at Akrotiri, which was also very much involved in the exercise. The first phase of the exercise came to an end on 4th November and most of the ships taking part returned to Malta for the usual debriefing. HMS Ark Royal and some of her escorts remaining at sea. The vessels left again the day after to continue the manoeuvres in the Eastern Mediterranean, at the end of which they again returned to Grand Harbour.

The exercise was considered a success, marred only by a curious incident. On 9th November the Soviet Navy destroyer Kotlin, which was shadowing the RN flotilla during the exercise, came so close that it collided with HMS Ark Royal, some 350 miles east of Malta. Both ships suffered some damage, that on Ark Royal being very visible, though not serious, on the bow.

(Photo Credit: David Spiteri Staines)


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