Air Marshal Sir John Curtiss: Airman who served in the Berlin Airlift and the Falklands conflict

For the Falklands war, he ended formation flying to save fuel and ordered mid-air refuelling

As a flier in the 1948 Berlin Airlift, and, as an Air Marshal directing air operations in the 1982 Falklands campaign, John Curtiss twice stretched the limits of the RAF’s pioneering glory. As a squadron leader during the Airlift, a 14-month Nato operation to break the Soviet blockade of the German city, he saw at first hand the hazard of undercarriages buckling beneath the strain of short, frequent flights heavily loaded with supplies of food or fuel. Aircraft built for other tasks had to be coaxed into the job required, and 34 years later, as one of the top three Falklands commanders, he put that lesson into practice again.

Curtiss was quick to have Falklands campaign aircraft adapted for mid-air refuelling so that they could cover distances undreamt of, in single sorties travelling halfway across the globe. Curtiss’s training as a Royal Air Force navigator gave him an especially broad view of operations. As an Air Marshal he still proudly wore his navigator’s single-wing insignia, and is remembered by Second World War contemporaries of 59 Squadron, as Flt Lt E Allan recalled in his memoirs, as having been “the first occurrence  of a nav becoming a pilot”.

He is also thought to have been the first navigator to rise to be an Air Marshal. After the Falklands, Curtiss also acknowledged: “It was... fortunate for me that during my career I had flown with every operational Command.” These included Bomber, Fighter, Training and Transport Commands.

He had made 263 short-distance supply trips into Berlin with the British Empire’s long-distance workhorse, the propeller-engined, triple-tail finned York transport aircraft. And in 1982 from Northwood HQ he had the command at his fingertips of Nimrod Mk 2 patrol and Canberra reconnaissance aircraft; Sea King, Wessex and Chinook helicopters; Victor tankers; Hercules transporters; and Harriers, Vulcans, and Phantom jets.   

In 1982 Curtiss was one of the handful of senior military leaders who attended meetings at the Cabinet Office with the Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, and her War Cabinet as part of the FLAIRGO – Flag, Air, and General Officers Committee – headed by Admiral Sir John Fieldhouse, Commander-in-Chief, Fleet, with Curtiss as Air Deputy and Major-General Sir Jeremy Moore as Land Deputy. Curtiss’s largest headache was the security of the campaign’s vital airbase on Ascension Island, a volcanic outcrop midway between Britain and the Falklands, about 4,000 miles from both.

“An air or sea attack by an enterprising opponent could have had a catastrophic effect” , he said in Through Eyes of Blue, an anthology of RAF memoirs edited by Wing Cdr Anthony Ross (2002). “So I added two Phantom air defence aircraft and an RAF Regiment Squadron to our defences. The Royal Navy provided a guard frigate.”  

Ascension, bristling with security and communications equipment, was being watched by a Soviet intelligence-gathering ship three miles off its single runway. Co-operation had to be sought from the US Air Force, to whom the runway had been leased. Air operations, Curtiss said, could only just be sustained through the hostilities’ 100 days by keeping an oil and a water tanker close by.

Still more alarming, the pioneering opening salvo of the air war, codenamed  “Black Buck”, the bombing of the runway of the Argentine-occupied Falklands capital, Port Stanley, by Flt Lt Martin Withers in a Vulcan of 101 Squadron on 1 May 1982, revealed fuel use so high that future raids would have to be made differently.   

The 7,860-mile raid – a round-trip distance never attempted before – succeeded in cratering the Stanley runway to stop Argentine jets using it, but one of the 11 Victor tankers needed for it almost ran dry and was only just saved from crashing in the sea by another scrambled from Ascension. 

Curtiss abandoned formation flying, in which dissimilar aircraft had to compromise their speed and therefore fuel performance. He extended mid-air refuelling capability with the conversion of the Nimrods, allowing them to take their Searchwater radar much farther south than their original 1,800 mile range. So sophisticated was the Nimrods’ radar that they could distinguish between submarines and whales – a problem that haunted the Task Force as it steamed south, watching for Argentine attack but coincidentally also following the mammals’ southward migration. Curtiss’s Air Commander’s Report of the Falklands campaign, Operation Corporate was opened to public access from 8 February this year, but at the time of his death was again unobtainable, being “in use” by an unnamed government department. 

John Bagot Curtiss was the son of EFB Curtiss, a major in the Royal Flying Corps, which was formed in 1912 and superseded by the RAF in 1918. He was educated at Radley College, Oxfordshire, and in New Zealand, where his family had relatives, attending Wanganui Collegiate School on North Island, before returning to Britain to study at Worcester College, Oxford. He joined the RAF’s Oxford University Air Squadron in 1942, and after training as a navigator flew bomber missions over Germany in 1944 and 1945 with 578 and 158 Squadrons.

After stints with 51 and 59 Squadrons in Transport, and 5 and 29 in Fighter Command, in 1967 he became Director of the RAF Staff College at Bracknell in Berkshire, before serving as Station Commander, RAF Bruggen, and Group Captain, Operations, at HQ Strike Command. From 1974-75 he was Senior Air Staff Officer at HQ 11 Group, then Director-General, Organisation, RAF, until 1977, when he returned to Staff College as Commandant. In 1980 he became AOC No 18 Group, and, the Falklands victory won, retired, twice knighted, in 1983.

He capped five years as Director and Chief Executive of the Society of British Aerospace Companies with much charitable work, and in 2008 raised £4,000 for his local hospice in Hampshire with a sponsored parachute jump when he was 83.

John Bagot Curtiss, Royal Air Force officer: born 6 December 1924; CB 1979, KCB 1981, KBE 1982; married 1946 Peggy Drughorn Bowie (three sons, one daughter); died Milford on Sea, Hampshire 14 September 2013.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
Rita Ora will replace Kylie Minogue as a judge on The Voice 2015
tv
Life and Style
tech
Life and Style
Alan Turing, who was convicted of gross indecency in 1952, was granted a royal pardon last year
life
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black and Ed Stoppard as her manager Brian Epstein
tvCilla Episode 2 review: Grit under the glamour in part two of biopic series starring Sheridan Smith
Life and Style
life
Arts and Entertainment
Tennis player Andy Murray's mum Judy has been paired with Anton du Beke for Strictly Come Dancing. 'I'm absolutely delighted,' she said.
tvJudy Murray 'struggling' to let Anton Du Beke take control on Strictly
Life and Style
Vote with your wallet: the app can help shoppers feel more informed about items on sale
lifeNew app reveals political leanings of food companies
Arts and Entertainment
The cover of Dark Side of the Moon
musicCan 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition? See for yourself
Sport
New Zealand fly-half Aaron Cruden pictured in The Zookeeper's Son on a late-night drinking session
rugby
Extras
indybest
Voices
A new app has been launched that enables people to have a cuddle from a stranger
voicesMaybe the new app will make it more normal to reach out to strangers
Arts and Entertainment
Salmond told a Scottish television chat show in 2001that he would also sit in front of a mirror and say things like,
tvCelebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Graduate / Junior C# Developer

£18000 - £25000 Per Annum + bonus and benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Lt...

IT Project manager - Web E-commerce

£65000 Per Annum Benefits + bonus: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: If you are...

Female PE Teacher

£85 - £125 per day: Randstad Education Chester: Job Opportunity for Secondary ...

Teaching Assistant - Shropshire

Negotiable: Randstad Education Chester: Teaching Assistants needed in Shropshi...

Day In a Page

Secret politics of the weekly shop

The politics of the weekly shop

New app reveals political leanings of food companies
Beam me up, Scottie!

Beam me up, Scottie!

Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

Beware Wet Paint

The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
Sanctuary for the suicidal

Sanctuary for the suicidal

One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits