Marshal of the RAF Sir Michael Beetham: Pilot who flew dangerous sorties in the Second World War and later oversaw the RAF's Falklands campaign

Beetham had chanced the terrifying odds of being a pilot with Britain's Second World War Bomber Command, which by hostilities' end in Europe had lost more than 55,000 men

Thursday 05 November 2015 00:28
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Beetham, centre, with his Lancaster bomber crew in 1946
Beetham, centre, with his Lancaster bomber crew in 1946

The codeword was: "Superfuse!", and when it came over, British fists in the ops room of the Royal Navy's Task Force flagship HMS Hermes, steaming south, jabbed the air with delight. At the same moment in faraway Whitehall, the Chief of the Air Staff, Sir Michael Beetham, punched his palm, tears welling in his eyes.

The word meant success, and first honour to the RAF in opening the Falklands War, on 1 May 1982. It had been Beetham's idea that a 1950s Cold War delta wing bomber, the Vulcan, should make an extraordinary round trip of 7,860 miles from Ascension Island to crater the runway at the islands' capital, Port Stanley, to deny its use to the enemy.

It meant much, much more than the holes – one of them 60ft across – gouged in a South Atlantic landing strip. It meant consternation in Buenos Aires that the British had the strategic reach to bomb the Argentinian mainland; the enemy's withdrawal of some of his air force to protect his cities; a fillip for the Task Force commander, Admiral Sandy Woodward, who supported anything that might help prevent the Argentinians bombing his ships; and for Beetham it was a crowning moment, using every element of his long experience, stretching back to his time as a Lancaster bomber pilot raiding Second World War Berlin.

This 1982 raid, "Operation Black Buck", covered more than three times the distance US crews had flown to bomb the Japanese mainland in the so-called Doolittle Raid in 1942. It also revived RAF expertise in the art of mid-air re-fuelling; one of the components needed to attach the fuel lines was pressed into service after being used for years as an officers' ashtray.

Beetham had flown the Vulcan since it first came into service to carry nuclear warheads in the early 1950s. And as commanding officer of 214 Sqn he had flown a Valiant, another aircraft of Britain's nuclear armament-carrying "V-Force", in the first non-stop 6,000-mile journey from London to Cape Town, being awarded the AFC for his achievement.

Now, in his wood-panelled office at the Ministry of Defence, the man who had been head of the RAF since 1977 could still conjure up in his mind every thrum of the Vulcan's four Rolls Royce Olympus engines, and imagine the feelings of the pilot, Flt Lt Martin Withers, and his crew of four as they sped above the ocean. The Falklands raid, with 25 conventional 1,000lb "iron" bombs, dropped at five-second intervals, was, astonishingly, the 30-year-old Vulcan's first fulfilled war mission.

The Vulcan's other great moment, mercifully never taken to completion, had been confined under strict secrecy in 1962 during the Cuban missile crisis. On 27 October crews of the nuclear armament-carrying V-bombers – Avro Vulcans, Vickers Valiants and Handley Page Victors – took to their cockpits, five minutes from take-off.

At Bomber Command HQ at High Wycombe, Beetham – Group Captain, Operations, under Air Chief Marshal Sir Kenneth "Bing" Cross – had been at the centre of the rising tension, and he recalled how the threat of Armageddon appeared to have passed the population by: taking a break, he noticed that "the sun was shining, and the media were obsessed with some football match – it all seemed quite unreal."

Later he reflected: "I don't think that many politicians really understood some of the implications of the very high states of readiness which nuclear forces routinely maintained." Margaret Thatcher was the only one to demand an explanation.

But Beetham knew far closer brushes with death: he had chanced the terrifying odds of being a pilot with Britain's Second World War Bomber Command, which by hostilities' end in Europe had lost more than 55,000 men.

The soldier's son, educated at St Marylebone Grammar School, had thrilled at watching the dogfights over England in 1940 during the Battle of Britain, and had resolved to fly. But by the time he qualified, the need was not for fighter pilots but for bomber pilots, and his career began with sorties over Berlin as a Flight Lieutenant with 50 Sqn from November 1943.

The following month, with a petrol tank holed by a Ju88 attack, he managed to get his aircraft and crew home; on the night of 25-26 February 1944, after bombing Augsburg he once more nursed his aircraft back to Britain, an engine having overheated and failed; and on 30 March he and his crew survived Bomber Command's most disastrous raid, the attack on Nuremberg, in which 95 of 795 aircraft were lost. His citation for the DFC praised his devotion to duty, gallantry in the air and the offensive spirit he had shown in battle.

After the war Beetham took part in Operation Exodus, flying home ex-prisoners of war. He was offered a permanent commission in the RAF, and in 1956, after helping the Colonial Office to make surveys of Africa, he took part in "Operation Buffalo", the British nuclear tests at Maralinga, Australia, as personal staff officer to the Task Force Commander.

He was later commanding officer at RAF Khormaksar, Aden, during Britain's last years there, 1964-66, and served at the Supreme Headquarters, Allied Powers Europe, near Mons in Belgium from 1972-75. He was selected for staff college in 1952 and in 1967 attended the Imperial Defence College, both experiences intended to prepare him for decision-making in time of nuclear war. In fact they readied him for what would be his true challenge: the crisis meetings of late March and early April 1982 about a probable conventional war, during which Thatcher, on military chiefs' advice, resolved to send the Task Force.

Beetham retired soon after the Falklands War – on his last day he was raised to the rank of Marshal of the RAF. He became Chairman of the Trustees of the RAF Museum, and as President of the Bomber Command Association led the campaign for the Bomber Command Memorial which was unveiled by the Queen in 2012 in Green Park, London.

By chance the only remaining airworthy Vulcan met its end within days of his: XH558 can no longer be maintained to take to the air, and on 28 October 2015, four days after he died, it made its final flight.

ANNE KELENY

Michael James Beetham, airman: born London 17 May 1923; DFC 1944, AFC 1960, CBE 1967, KCB 1976, GCB 1978: married 1956 Patricia Lane (one daughter, one son); died Norfolk 24 October 2015.

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