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80th anniversary of RAF`s evacuation of Kabul

www.mod.uk    Department of defence UK

RAF personnel currently serving in Afghanistan were recently praised for their work on Operation Herrick by Defence Secretary John Hutton. At the same time they were marking the 80th anniversary of a previous mission in the country. Report by Simon Williams and Steve Willmot.

In 1928, when Afghanistan was plunged into a bloody civil war and Kabul was laid siege to, it was the RAF that flew in to evacuate nearly 500 staff form the British Embassy and their families, creating military history in the process.

That operation won the RAF the international reputation for humanitarian operations it still enjoys today.

The anniversary of the evacuation was marked by British Ambassador Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles and staff at the British Embassy in Kabul as Defence Secretary John Hutton flew in to Helmand to praise the RAF and Army troops in the wake of recent successful operations against the Taliban in the Nad e-Ali district.

Over the winter of 1928/9 a revolt sparked by the Shinwari tribe in Jalalabad spread across the country, leading European legation staff to take refuge at the British Embassy in Kabul.

Surrounded, and without any means of communicating with British Forces stationed in Iraq, Embassy staff used sheets arranged on the ground to get their SOS message out to RAF surveillance aircraft flying routine missions across Afghanistan.

Once the alarm was raised the RAF flew to the rescue, mounting 84 active sorties, rescuing 586 people and flying nearly 60,000 miles (96,561km) at high altitude in one of the most severe winters on record.

To maintain Britain`s neutral diplomatic position the RAF`s Vickers Victoria aircraft from 70 Squadron and Westland Wapiti biplanes from 20 Squadron were disarmed, flying in conditions none of the pilots had ever experienced.

The first evacuation took place on 23 December 1928 in a Victoria flown by Squadron Leader Maxwell, supported by Squadron Leader Nichols in a Wapiti fighter bomber and three De Havillands.

They managed to evacuate 21 staff and 600lbs (272kg) of luggage from Kabul to Peshawar in Pakistan.

Regular evacuations continued for more than a month, with the last German and Turkish passengers flying to safety in February 1929.

The success of the operation just ten years after its formation established the fledgling RAF as a vital part of the UK military at a time when it was struggling to find a peacetime role.

Writing to Chief of the Air Staff Sir Hugh Trenchard, British High Commissioner Sir Francis Humphrys said:

"We owe everything to the magnificent achievements of the RAF."

During the missions one Victoria suffered engine failure while others were forced to turn back as sub-zero temperatures took their toll.

This article is adapted from a feature in the recent edition of RAF News. With thanks to its Editor.


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