Sir Michael Beetham was a rare breed, a career serviceman who, inspired by the heroics of the British, Canadian, Polish and Czech Spitfire and Hurricane pilots during the initial exchanges of the Battle of Britain, volunteered shortly after to join the RAF, winning the DFC and progressing to the pinnacle of the service having masterminded the legendary, long-range Vulcan bombing raid during the Falklands War. Upon retirement he became president of the Bomber Command Association and was instrumental in campaigning for a fitting memorial to the 55,573 bomber crew who lost their lives during the Second World War.
Aged 18, Beetham joined the RAF in early 1941 after witnessing the RAF fighters engaging Luftwaffe bombers over the Solent and Portsmouth Harbour in the summer of 1940. He later recalled telling his father, “That’s for me!”
Upon enlisting, he was posted to Florida where he was awarded his wings by the US Air Force. Once home, he trained in Wellington and Lancaster bombers and by October 1943, he was flying with 50 Squadron based at Skellingthorpe near Lincoln. He once mused, “In common with almost all the other pilots, I was in the slightly peculiar position of being able to fly a four-engine heavy bomber without being able to drive a car.”
By the time he had reached his 21st birthday he had completed a tour of operations as captain of a Lancaster bomber. Beetham took part in the catastrophic raid to Nuremberg, on 30 March, 1944, when 96 of the 795 bomber force failed to return, with the loss of more men in one night than in the entire Battle of Britain. He later recalled his sense of foreboding about the mission, explaining, “We were expecting the raid to be cancelled... We didn’t usually fly during the full moon period because it was too easy for German fighters to spot us.”
With Bomber Command suffering the highest losses, Beetham was hit on numerous occasions, but was forced to bail out only once after a training exercise went wrong; two of his crew perished. He went on to complete 30 operations over Germany. Assessed as an exceptional pilot, he was awarded the DFC for his gallantry, leadership and “outstanding courage and devotion to duty”.
Born in Muswell Hill, north London, in 1923, Michael James Beetham was the son of Eva and Major George Beetham, MC, whose families had a strong military tradition. Educated at St Marylebone Grammar School, he was not particularly academic, but excelled at sports, particularly cricket and rugby.
Post-war, he was offered a permanent commission and was involved in “Operation Exodus”, the repatriation of PoWs. In August 1949 Beetham took command of No 82 Squadron and spent three years flying Lancasters on aerial surveys for the Colonial Office in East and West Africa before becoming squadron leader and bringing the new V-bombers into service.
In 1956, he took part in “Operation Buffalo”, the four British nuclear tests at Maralinga, Australia, as personal staff officer to the Task Force Commander. This experience had a significant influence on his later strategic thinking and the employment of nuclear weapons.
In 1958, Beetham joined the V-Force and given command of No 214 Squadron operating the Valiant. In order to broaden his experience, he was appointed commanding officer at RAF Khormaksar, Aden, during Britain’s last years there, 1964-6, before serving at the Supreme Headquarters, Allied Powers Europe, near Mons in Belgium, 1972-5. He also worked under the enigmatic and bullish US General Haig and his work was at the heart of Nato policy-making, in particular nuclear war planning. He was later appointed Air Marshal, Commander-in-Chief RAF Germany.
In Germany, the RAF squadrons were undergoing a major aircraft re-equipment programme and there was huge emphasis on the capability of his airbases to survive any pre-emptive Soviet attack. This experience of tactical operations and integrating his squadrons’ capabilities with those of other Allied air and land forces would be invaluable when appointed as Chief of the Air Staff (CAS) in 1977. He later maintained that his posting in Germany was one of his most challenging and satisfying.
His most demanding role as CAS and acting chief of the defence staff under Margaret Thatcher came in April 1982 following the invasion of the Falkland Islands by Argentina. He was heavily involved in the decision-making and planning that led to the sending of a Task Force to retake the islands. Using his wealth of combat and non-combat experience he ordered, against a backdrop of Whitehall scepticism, the bombing of Port Stanley airport - at the time, the longest tactical raid ever.
Flying from Ascension Island and refuelling mid-air, a Vulcan bomber successfully bombed the airstrip. Although not all the payload, 25 conventional 1,000lb “iron” bombs dropped at five-second intervals, hit the target, the psychological damage was done. Learning of “Operation Black Buck’s” success, it was reported that Beetham’s eyes filled with tears, a rare display of emotion.
When the conflict was won, Beetham decided to retire and was made Marshal of the RAF on his last day.
He became chairman of GEC Avionics and was honorary air commodore of No 2620 Squadron, Royal Auxiliary Air Force Regiment. For many years he continued to have an influence on numerous service issues, all with a view to improving its capabilities and public image. He later became president of the Bomber Command Association and campaigned tirelessly for Britain to formally acknowledge its debt to the men of Bomber Command who lost their lives. In 2012, the Queen unveiled the £6 million Bomber Command Memorial in Green Park, central London. He then helped to raise money for the International Bomber Command Centre, an educational centre and peace garden in Lincoln, which is currently partially built and awaiting more funds.
Beetham died after battling prostate cancer; he is survived by his second wife, Patricia, whom he married in Christchurch, New Zealand, in 1956, and their son Alexander and daughter Lucinda. He always referred to his wife as “his rock”.