DR ROSS MAHONEY: OK. So we’re going to move on a little bit now. And we’re going to look at the shift in Britain’s defence posture that emerges in the late 1960s and early 1970s. In the late 1960s, the British government decides to withdraw East of Suez and focus its efforts on the NATO alliance. So Emmett, by the early 1970s, Britain has essentially left its bases in Far East, has left Singapore. What does this tell us about Britain’s place in the world and the RAF’s posture in this period?
DR EMMETT SULLIVAN: Well, the RAF shows it still has the potential to operate globally. There is an increasing reinforcement of our NATO commitments. We talked previously in the course about Britain’s role in decolonisation and even the Falklands War has been dealing with, theatres far flung from Britain. But probably from 1968, we can say that the focus of the air force is to help defend British interests within NATO and to help defend Britain. That’s been a developing commitment. It’s not a new one per se. The North Atlantic Treaty Alliance comes up in the aftermath of the Second World War and offers mutual defence.
So when it comes to West Germany being an independent nation, we see the establishment of RAF Germany in the late 1950s to maintain a presence there. So what we’re seeing is a reinforcement of an existing commitment rather than a switch from global to a Europe theatre as being something new.
DR ROSS MAHONEY: And it’s quite an interesting thing about designations here, isn’t it? If we think back to the RAF in Germany in the late 1940s, it’s the British air force of occupation. In the aftermath of the Berlin airlift, it becomes the second tactical air force again. And the name it had at the end of the Second World War against the establishment of RAF Germany is quite important. But this refocuses quite an interesting one in the forces deployed. We’re coming back to the idea that the importance of alliance and collective security is important to Britain’s defence. Tell us a little bit more about that.
DR EMMETT SULLIVAN: What we’re seeing in certainly the late 1960s, after a period of quite positive rapprochement, is from the mid 1970s, some historians talk about at the beginning of the second Cold War. So from ‘75 onwards, there’s a strengthening of the alliance within Western Europe. And there’s a greater feel that supporting Germany as a potential front line– well, effectively a front line in the Cold War, but effectively a battlefield in any hot war that might take place– was very important, because defending our allies and mutual defence around that was quite critical.
I think it’s also an issue that one or two commentators had put forward that during the 1970s and particularly the oil price crises, the binding together of Europe as an entity became more important. Mutual support at a political and economic level started to work in. And of course, Britain becomes a member of the European Economic Community as it was in 1973. So we’re having a reinforcement of a redefinition of Britain’s role into a major regional power with a world influence, rather than, as we might have started in 1945, a world power, although potentially the weakest of the three world powers at the time.
DR ROSS MAHONEY: And what about the RAF’s commitment to Germany? What’s it deploying during the 1970s?
DR EMMETT SULLIVAN: Well, we’re seeing the RAF covering a number of critical roles. Clearly with the basing of the F-4 Phantoms in a “front line environment,” that’s a commitment to defending RAF assets and other NATO assets in West Germany. We’re starting to see the introduction of the Jaguar, as you know originally designed as an advanced trainer, but then later converted to quite a successful single-seater bomb truck. And that’s looking to make tactical, conventional strike, and potentially nuclear strike in theatre, if need be. And of the pre-existing aircraft– the Buccaneers are increasingly becoming important as, again, as a low level interdictor. And we’re starting to see late ’60s, early ’70s, the introduction of the Harrier.
And the Harrier is quite important as a concept. It might not have been the one that the RAF most favoured in the late 1960s. But the fact that it had short takeoff and vertical landing capabilities meant that in a war situation it could operate out of rough airfields, if need be just simple fields themselves without necessarily all of the fixed assets which were associated with conventional fixed-wing aircraft. So in terms of close support of armies and also in strike, the Harrier eventually gives a new dimension to the RAF’s capacity in Germany during the early ’60s, but particularly in the 1970s.
DR ROSS MAHONEY: So we’re getting to the point where we’re seeing the RAF refocus its efforts on Europe. In the next section, we’ll start to explore that a little bit more and the development of RAF Germany into the 1980s.