Spotlight: "Red, Red, Red, Air Attack Red!"… by Tom McGhee

...the call came blaring over the tannoy system and yet again personnel dived for their S10 respirators and helmets before scampering to their designated air raid shelters. Seconds after getting under cover the roar overhead indicates that another incoming raid has got through the multi-layered defences and was wreaking havoc somewhere on the airfield. Hopefully the old decoy aircraft scattered around the airfield were taking the brunt of the hits, rather than the operational Phantoms of 23 and 56 Squadrons. These repeated attacks were getting tiring for the personnel involved, but not so for us watching from outside the fence as RAF Wattisham was once again the number one target in Exercise Priory.

The Priory series of Exercises were held regularly during the 1980s and along with Mallet Blow, Elder Forest, and other associated exercises put UK Air Defences fully to the test. The format of the exercises usually involved a Monday to gather all the assets together, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday of intense air activity, and a Friday wash-up day. All of the UK Air Defences would be tested, and to simulate the full wrath of a Warsaw Pact attack, aircraft from numerous NATO nations would fly realistic attack missions against Britain’s East coast. From the Bloodhound Air Defence unit at RAF Bawdsey in Suffolk, all the way up to the Phantom Fighter base at RAF Leuchars in Fife, all of 11 Group’s units would be subject to the week-long training exercise.

A typical Priory week would see the best concentration of fighter aircraft available anywhere in Europe, here’s a typical rundown of what additional aircraft would be around:

Wattisham 12 Hawk T1A Point Defence Fighters
Honington 6 RAFG Tornado GR1s, 4 x Dutch AF F16s
Coltishall 12 French AF Jaguars, 6 Danish AF F16s
Marham 2 French Mirage F1CRs
Wyton 3 Italian AF Piaggio PD808s, 2 German AF HansaJets, 1 Norwegian AF Falcon
Cottesmore 12 German AF AlphaJets
Waddington 12 German AF AlphaJets, 8 Danish AF F-16s
Coningsby 8 Canadian CF-18s
Binbrook 4 German AF RF-4Es

Of course all these bases were home to their own squadrons, so with a fast car and a good supply of coffee great trips out were almost always guaranteed.

However Wattisham was always good to stay at because it was virtually assured of being attacked by all these visiting aircraft as well as the ones that flew 'Round Robin' missions from their European bases. Most notable of these would be the French Mirage IVAs, which would attack at regular five minute intervals, and the 'Spangs', the F-4Ds and F-4Es of the 52nd TFW that usually attacked all at once! Wattisham would also play host to a 'defector' aircraft where a crew calling in Russian would try to defect and land. This defector aircraft would usually be a RAF Jetstream or Shackleton and Wattisham would have to find a Russian language speaker in order to instruct the pilot on what to do. Listening in to the scanner could be quite amusing on these occasions, but would also prove invaluable as you hear “Two Tango 455, you are cleared for airfield attack” giving us outside the fence a couple of minutes warning of the impending air-raid siren!

As well as Wattisham seeing all the attacks, Thursday could often be counted on to bring in all of Binbrook’s Lightning fleet as their own base went 'Black' after being nuked. These limited endurance fighters would usually land over a twenty-minute period, sometimes in amongst air raids, and usually very low on fuel. Another unusual aircraft seen during the exercise would be the Hunter from Boscombe Down which would attack along the length of the runway spraying water over the airfield to simulate a chemical attack, but the sight of attacking Canberras being chased down by defending Phantoms and Hunters is one which will forever live with those who witnessed it. As for today's exercises, a pale shadow is an understatement...