Fighter Squadrons' Branch - Sabre Photos
NO 77 SQADRON’S INVOLVEMENT IN UBON, THAILAND, 1962
In early May 1962 the Communist Pathet Lao made rapid gains over Government forces in Laos and several Westerners were taken hostage. Asian newspapers gave front page coverage to these developments which foreshadowed a likely SEATO military response. When this became apparent, meaning that RAAF Units at Butterworth could be involved, 78 Wing Headquarters ordered 77 (F) Squadron to deploy to Singapore. This was to overcome any possible Malayan political sensitivity in the event of an RAAF deployment associated with a SEATO operation. The problem was that Malaya was not part of the SEATO arrangement. This meant that aircraft could not legally deploy north from Butterworth but could do so from Singapore.
On 28 May ten fully armed Sabres together with pilots and servicing ground crew departed for RAF Tengah on Singapore Island. On 29 May an order was received to deploy eight Sabres to Thailand. Accordingly, a flight of eight 77 Squadron Sabres flew to Bangkok under the command of the 77 Squadron C.O. Wing Commander Hubble. Squadron Leader Myers led the remaining two aircraft back to Butterworth.
After arriving in Bankok the 77 Squadron Detachment flew to Ubon in Thailand on 1 June. The reason for the two day delay was to allow time for a works party drawn from 78 Wing and Base Squadron Butterworth, under the command of Squadron Leader M.A. Truman (the 78 Wing Administrative Officer), to prepare a basic tented campsite at the bare Ubon airstrip. In addition this party was also required to co-ordinate the deployment with units from the US 7th Fleet.
Notification was received on 5 June that two Squadron members had been decorated, Wing Commander Hubble, a Bar to his AFC and Flying Officer Bartropp an AFC.
On 3 July, some 4 weeks after the 77 Squadron Detachment arrived at Ubon, an Administrative Order was received at Butterworth creating No. 79 (F) Squadron at Ubon with effect 31 May. Thus, regardless of what the official history may, or may not record about the formation of 79 Squadron, 77 (F) Squadron carried out the operational deployment to Thailand and operated at Ubon with effect 1 June 1962. At this stage the Ubon Detachment consisted of a flying element of eight Sabres, 10 aircrew and 40 NCOs and airmen, plus a self-accounting Base Squadron element.
It was decided that a personnel rotational system, both pilots and ground crew, would be employed between the Squadrons of 78 Wing and 79 Squadron in order to keep dependants in Penang.
From the withdrawal of No 3 Squadron from Butterworth in February 1967 until the withdrawal of No 79 Squadron in July 1968, the task of providing pilots for Ubon fell upon No 77 Squadron.
On 31 jul 68, all eight aircraft were successfully redeployed to Butterworth. A flypast in a figure eight was flown over Ubon on departure as a final salute to the 8th Tactical Fighter WING, USAF. On arrival at Butterworth, a vic formation flypast was carried out and the flight was met by the Temporary Officer Commanding, Group Captain H A H Pickering.
Following arrival, No 79 Squadron was reduced to a “name only” status.
No79 (F) Squadron - UBON.
Recalled by Cliff Viertel (one of the original eight Sabre pilots).
The story behind the black cobra insignia on the tail fin of No79 (F) Squadron F 86 Avon Sabres at Ubon is an interesting chapter in the poorly (and inaccurately) recorded history of this very successful RAAF deployment. This account is first-hand information from ground crew and aircrew who were there during the critical first month of the life of the new No 79 (F) Squadron. It is written in response to a request for information, from the commander of the current Royal Thai Air Force unit based at Ubon, on the origin of the black cobra on the tail fin of an RAAF Sabre in a photograph held by him.
In early 1962 the Thai Government, which had gone through several military coups in recent years, was reluctant to commit military assets to the North Eastern region of Thailand, apart from the Army garrison forces in the major towns. Royal Thai Air Force units were concentrated around Bangkok. The government was not confident that SEATO allies would come to their aid if they were threatened by a communist push through Laos. They were also unsure of the support from the local population in the eastern provinces, due to the Lao ethnic mix on both sides of the Mekong River border areas, and also in the southern provinces, due to Muslim dissidents.
A perceived imminent threat of a Pathet Lao/Communist Chinese/North Vietnamese movement into Thailand through Laos was developing rapidly during May of 1962. Lao Government forces were being over-run and the Pathet Lao forces had taken several western prisoners. As part of a SEATO response, the Australian Government ordered the deployment of an RAAF Squadron of eight Sidewinder equipped Mk 32 Avon Sabres, to Thailand. The role of the squadron was to establish control of the air during daylight hours over eastern Thailand.
Other air units to deploy at short notice were;
- No 20 Squadron Royal Air Force, equipped with ten Hawker Hunter ground attack aircraft, operating from Chieng Mai;
- RNZAF Bristol Freighter transport aircraft at Korat;
- USAF Squadrons at Takhli and Korat and a US Marine Squadron at Udorn
A total of about 5000 US personnel were deployed, including an ‘Enhanced’ US Marine unit (‘Enhanced’ meaning equipped with nuclear surface to surface missiles).
On the morning of May 28, 1962 ten Sabre aircraft (eight plus two spares), with long range ferry tanks and fully armed with two Sidewinder Air to Air missiles and two 30m.m. Aden guns with high explosive ammunition, was withdrawn from No 77 Squadron at RAAF Butterworth, Malaya. Only one day’s notice was given. Due to political sensitivities (Malaya did not support SEATO), the aircraft were withdrawn to RAF Tengah in Singapore where the tail fin markings of 77 Squadron’s green chequerboard pattern were painted out in black paint, leaving just a black rectangle.
On May 29, 1962 eight aircraft flew to Bangkok where senior Thai, American and Australian officials met them. The two spare aircraft returned to Butterworth from Tengah , as all aircraft remained serviceable.
Late morning of June 1, 1962 the eight Sabres flew from Bangkok to Ubon, which, at that time, was an unattended concrete airstrip of about 7000 ft x 125ft. An advance party of about 40 RAAF personnel had arrived two days earlier from Butterworth and had set up a basic tented camp initially for about 60 persons.
RAAF Contingent Ubon consisted of No79 (F) Squadron, initially drawn entirely from No77 (F) Squadron plus a self-accounting Base Squadron, initially staffed from Butterworth units but quickly re-staffed from units in Australia. There were no RTAF units at Ubon and no buildings or support facilities.
The First Three Weeks.
During the first week the aircraft were kept fully armed and ready for action but did not fly until the USAF radar unit, callsign ‘LION’, became functional. This unit had been in place for several weeks prior to our deployment, as part of a general upgrade of the Thai air defence system. Area reconnaissance and radar unit training occupied us in the early days.
On June 15 we were given the honour of providing an armed escort for a visit to Ubon by their Majesties, King Bhumipon and Queen Sirikit to Ubon. Apparently they had not visited these outer provinces for many years and the local population were very excited. They continued their tour through other border areas protected by the visiting forces.
Around June 16 1962. ‘LION’ started picking up about 20 slow moving radar returns each night after midnight. These were lost around road junctions within 50kms of Ubon and the USAF radar unit commander became convinced they were helicopters delivering insurgents.
The RAAF commander, Wing Commander John Hubble, spoke with the local Thai Army commander and was advised that they had no reports of unusual activity. Due to the risk of ambush if unknown intruders were in the area, the Army elected not to patrol widely until the situation became clearer but increased their alert status and placed armed guards on major facilities around Ubon. All US personnel were issued with weapons and ammunition and the radar unit was placed on high alert.
The RAAF commander required Government approval to issue arms on Thai territory. During the evening of June 19, the Air Operations Centre in Bangkok ordered all SEATO units in Thailand to come to high alert status and ordered two Sabres to take off at first light to check the target areas. This was taken as a direct request from the Thai Government, which had a high level role at the AOC.
The RAF Hunter Squadron in Chieng Mai and all USAF and US Marine Squadrons were ordered to place two aircraft on 5 minute alert and two more on 30 minute readiness from first light until further notice.
The Australian Commander sent ‘Ops Flash’ messages, (classified Secret) to Canberra and Butterworth through the AOC channels in Bangkok, notifying them of the threat and reluctantly issued arms and ammunition to all personnel late on the evening of June 19. Slit trenches were dug around the camp and aircraft dispersal areas and were manned by armed personnel before dawn.
Two Sabres, armed with 30mm HE ammunition, took off at dawn and were vectored right on to several target areas but could see little. Our Rules of Engagement (borrowed from the USAF, as we were still waiting for the official Rules of Engagement from Canberra, which did not arrive until late July) permitted us to fire only if fired on. I flew the mission as No 2 to Flt. Lt. Doug Johnston. We expected to be fired on if insurgents were present and our armament switches were on, ready to return fire. We could see the treetops along the roads and could see that the patchy cloud base was about 200 feet. There was little horizontal visibility due to shallow raised fog layers.. The section leader decided to drop below the cloud patches, where adequate forward visibility with the low angle rising sun showed that the road and surrounding relatively open area was clear. ‘LION’ Control was advised and we returned to base after a 40-minute flight.
Our commander, Wing Commander John Hubble was convinced that it was a false alarm, but AOC Bangkok did not call off the general alert and aircraft readiness for several days. RAF records show that No 20 Squadron RAF remained with two armed Hunters on 5-minute alert and two more on 1-hour alert until June 22.
Although we were never given an official explanation of the unidentified targets, a USAF Officer advised me unofficially that the returns were probably due to heavy parcels of saturated air sliding downhill to the lowest point where they would condense as dew and disappear. He had observed the same thing with that type of radar in Germany. No official explanation is on record.
The 79 Squadron Cobra.
This story helps explain the 79 Squadron Cobra. On arrival at Ubon our tailfins had only a black rectangle, which offended our very proud ex-77 Squadron members. It is difficult to be inspired by a black patch on your rear end! J.L. (Jim) McGowan, Sergeant Instrument Fitter was thinking about some sort of emblem when a large cobra was found in one of the recently dug slit trenches. One of his team was Instrument Fitter L.A.C. Dick Boldery, who had artistic talents. He was commissioned to draw up a cobra, ready to strike, which seemed a good idea at the time. The result looked good so a stencil was cut and the left over black paint from Tengah was applied. A few touches, such as eyes and tongue and the 79 Squadron black cobra was born. It rapidly spread to the tails of the other seven Sabres.
The Squadron Crest.
The official No79 (F) Squadron crest, dating from WW2, is an eagle with outstretched wings and the motto is ‘Born to Fight’. At some point after 1964, another crest bearing the black cobra insignia and the words, ‘No 79 Base Squadron’ appeared and is also available from militaria suppliers. The status of this insignia is unclear as the Base Squadron was established as RAAF Contingent Ubon Base Squadron, but the crest exists and the black cobra lives on.
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