Article Memoirs of a Ground Liaison Officer by Lt Colonel (Ret) T.W. Whittaker, OBE

Dr.Yahia Al Shaer

Mi Sergeant
MI.Net Member
Sep 14, 2020

Memoirs of a Ground Liaison Officer

Lt. Colonel (Ret.) T. WE. Whittaker, OBE

I attended a Ground Liaison Officers' Course at the School of Land Air Warfare at RAF Old Sarum, Wiltshire at the end of 1954. Following this course, I was posted to Headquarters No. 11 Fighter Group, RAF, Hillingdon as GSO2 (Liaison). My primary task was to arrange Close Air Support for army formations on exercises in the south of England. On reporting for duty, I was interviewed by the Chief of Air Staff, a highly decorated veteran of the Battle of Britain. He made it quite clear that the primary role of No. 11 Fighter group was the defence of the UK against the Russian threat and I could have anything I liked except aircraft for Close Air Support exercises for the army! This was not a very promising start for a newly qualified GLO! In fact, it turned out to be a blessing because it made me look round for alternative means of providing Close Air Support for army exercises. Over time, I built a very good relationship with Fleet Air Arm squadrons based ashore in the UK. The primary role of the Fleet Air Arm was to support the Royal Navy in their task of keeping the sea lanes open. Their secondary task was the support of the army ashore in combined operations. I soon found that the Fleet Air Arm took this task very seriously and were keen to take part in army exercises. By the time the Suez Crisis blew up in the autumn of 1956, I had established an extensive 'old boy net' which turned out to be most useful.

Suez Time Table

In late August 1956, I was recalled from leave and ordered to report RAF Old Sarum. On arrival, I found that together with the other two GLOs based in the UK, we were to be formed into three Air Control Teams and we were to be assigned to 2 (BR) Corps. The first job was to draw up stores and complete mobilisation as quickly as possible. We had just about completed mobilisation when the three GLOs were ordered to go to Malta to join 3 Cdo Bde to sort out their Close Air Support problems and establish confidence in the system. In particular, to get the ground-to-air communications working. I was told that the main problem was the WS 201 VHF set used by the Forward Air Controllers to brief the strike leaders. This was no surprise to us as we had all had trouble with these sets on exercises in the UK. We had got them working properly so I insisted that we should be allowed to take these sets complete with batteries as accompanied baggage. Movement Control at Brise Norton were adamant that we could not take them with us as the aircraft already had a full load. I said we would not go without them. Stalemate! Eventually Movement Control gave in and offloaded 3 men and their gear to make room for our radios.

The morning following our arrival in Malta, we were up at sparrows for a Close Air Support Exercise from 0500 to 1100 with the carrier squadrons. Our WS 201 worked and the exercise went well. This went a long way towards establishing confidence in the system. At 1400, we embarked in LST's for a full scale amphibious assault exercise on the west coast of Malta. The three GLOs from the UK found themselves in a new world! My Air Control Team landed with the second wave shortly after first light. Unfortunately, our landing craft grounded on a sandbar well short of the beach. My load included a 22 AH 12 Volt Battery in addition to my own gear. As I was at the front end of the landing craft, I was the first out and dropped into the deep water beyond the sand bar. By the time the water reached my armpits, I was getting worried! However, at that moment we touched bottom and got ashore safely. Once ashore, I needed to establish my ACT where we could get a good view of the battle field. A three-story building to my right front looked just right so I led my troops at the double up the stairs to the roof top. Soon afterwards, I became aware of a bit of a disturbance on the floors below. On investigation, I found that we had invaded the Wrennery and caused considerable alarm! For the first two hours, we were required to pass our Air Support Requests through the HQ ship, HMS Meon on the Air Request Net. Communications with HMS Meon on the Air Request Net did not work. After two hours, HMS Meon withdrew from the exercise and the Carrier HMS Bulwark took control of the Air Request Net. From there on, things went well. On investigation, I found that control of the Air Request net was in the hands of RAF operators using naval radios and army procedures. For the rest of the work-up period, I put the R. Sigs Cpl from my Air Support Signals Tentacle aboard HMS Meon to sort out the Air Request Net. After this, the Air Request Net was satisfactory. It was at about this time that I was given another hat: GSO 2 (Liaison) on the G Staff of 3 Cdo Bde HQ. This was very valuable as there was much to be done to refine air support procedures in conjunction with the CB GLOs and Fleet Air Arm squadron commanders and senior pilots. The weak link remained the JFSC on HMS Meon. Some of the officers who would staff the JFSC in action were based in London and did not take part in any of the work-up exercises in Malta. This was to be the cause of a serious incident during the battle for Port Said.

The efficient use of the massive Close Air Support available to the assault troops demanded excellent communications and a sound knowledge of the procedures to be used. A key element was the 'Bomb Line'. This was a line on the ground beyond which the air forces had freedom to operate without reference to the ground forces. Targets on our side of the 'Bomb Line' could only be engaged by aircraft operating under the direct control of an ACT. The 'Bomb Line' was promulgated by the JFSC daily for the following day. The CB GLOs were responsible for ensuring that pilots were properly briefed regarding the location of the 'Bomb Line'.

Close Air Support Communications
Each Commando was provided an Air Control Team (ACT) consisting of a GLO (army), and two Forward Air Controllers , one RAF pilot and one French Airforce pilot. Each ACT had a Tentacle from No 2 Air Support Signals Unit (R. Signals). The link between the troops ashore and the Fleet Air Arm squadrons was the Air Request Net. ( click here to view Net Diagram) The ACTs were equipped with WS 201 VHF sets for ground-to-air communications. These sets were not designed to be man portable and were very difficult to manhandle ashore during assault landings. Eventually, we acquired some two-wheeled trolleys that solved our mobility problems until our transport caught up with us. In addition to our WS 201 ground-to-air sets, each ACT had a WS 62 (Man Pack HF) set tuned to the Commando Command Net. Each Tentacle had a WS 31 HF set on the Command net and a powerful HF set on the Air Request Net. Click here to view ACT Diagram

6th November. L Day.
Shortly after first light on L Day, the Royal Navy bombarded the Port Said water front in preparation for the landings. The assault troops were 40 Cdo, RM, on the left close to the mole and 42 Cdo, RM, on the right. Just before we landed, we were told that the beaches had not been cleared of mines. I remember we 'trod lightly' until we were clear of the beach!

In fact, we were lucky. The beaches had not been mined. 40 Cdo made rapid progress against light resistance to start with. Early in the afternoon, X Troop was held up by a strong enemy position in Navy House and asked for an air strike to cover their assault. There was some delay in getting approval for this strike as the Navy were reluctant to see their old Canal Zone HQ destroyed. Eventually, we were allotted 8 Sea Hawks equipped with 56-lb rockets. The attack on Navy House from the air was a very tricky operation because the leading elements of X Troop were only about 80 yards from the north face of the building. The attack was skilfully controlled by Flt/Lt John Howe, RAF, and was a complete success. Following this strike, 40 Cdo cleared Navy House and consolidated their position.

This fierce battle resulted in about 30 Egyptians killed and 20 wounded. The use of Close Air Support in urban areas was difficult due to the proximity of our own troops to potential targets. This was the only Close Air Support operation carried out on the 40 Cdo sector that day.

Friendly Fire.
At 1600 hours, 45 Cdo, RM, were landed by helicopters to the right of 42 Cdo with the task of linking up with 3 Para at El Gamil. I had established an OP on the roof of the police station on the west bank of the Canal. HQ 40 Cdo was in the same building. From there my view to the west was blocked by tall buildings but I could see the general area where 45 Cdo had landed. I saw a Wyvern from 830 Squadron circling the area. I was listening on the Ground Attack Common channel and heard a pilot report of the JFSC in HMS Meon that he could see some troops and a couple of A/Tk guns and gave a grid reference. As these troops were inside the 'Bomb Line', he asked for permission to attack. By the time I got the position indicated by the pilot plotted on my map, I could see that they must be 45 Cdo. In the mean time the controller in Meon had instructed the pilot to attack. I tried to call up the aircraft on Ground Attack Common to abort the attack but was unable to make contact. In fact, the target was HQ 45 Cdo, RM. One Marine was killed and 15 people were wounded including the CO, Lt Colonel Tailyor, and the GLO (Major Long). As this target was clearly inside the 'Bomb Line', it should not have been engaged without reference to the troops on the ground. It was the duty of the controller in HMS Meon to tell the pilot to contact the nearest ACT. In this case, No 3 ACT attached to 45 Cdo or No 2 ACT attached to 42 Cdo. If there had been any difficulty making contact on the Ground Attack Net, the controller could have made contact via the Brigade Command Net or the Air Request Net. This tragedy was entirely due to the fact that the controller had not taken part in any of the work-up exercises and did not know the rules. The Wyvern pilot was not to blame.

By the evening of 7th November, our forward troops had reached El Cap and were poised to break out from the Canal Zone and head for Cairo. The order to cease fire at 2345 hrs came as a shock and a bitter disappointment. In the days that followed, we had a very uncomfortable feeling that Port Said might be the number 1 target for a Soviet nuclear attack and we were sitting on ground zero!

Dr. Yahia Al Shaer
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