Obituary: Sir Keith Williamson, Marshal of the RAF who helped Britain win the Falklands War

Sir Keith Alec Williamson, Marshal of the RAF, AFC KCB GCB. Born: 25 February 1928 in London. Died: 2 May 2018, aged 90.

Marshal of the RAF Sir Keith Williamson joined the service as an apprentice, rising through the ranks and, as Commander-in-Chief of the Royal Air Force, played a significant role in the Falklands War, which saw air superiority help win the conflict.

He would later become the first of those who had entered service by that route (as an apprentice) to be promoted to Chief of the Air Staff, in October 1982, shortly after the war.

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Williamson also played a pivotal role in promoting and working with other European air force chiefs on the European Fighter Aircraft (EFA) following the withdrawal of the French from the project. The EFA was developed in 1994 into the highly successful Typhoon multi-role fighter, which is currently the RAF’s main combat aircraft.

Fiercely loyal to his men and the RAF, he never shied away from conflict, be it with his superiors or politicians, and had little time for bureaucrats.

This, coupled with his temperament and left-of-centre political views, was perhaps why he ultimately missed out on becoming Chief of the Defence Staff. He nonetheless had a glittering career. He believed that “we neglect our air capability at our peril,” explaining, “Command of the air prevents defeat, as in every war since aeroplanes first appeared over the battlefields of Flanders. He, who commands the air doesn’t lose, may not win but doesn’t lose. I believe that, bang for buck, you get far more value for money investing in the air.”

Born in Leytonstone, north-east London, he was the son of Percy and Gertrude. His desire to become a pilot was sparked after witnessing the aerial dogfights during the Battle of Britain in the summer of 1940. Post-war, he never thought of becoming anything else.

Educated at Bancroft’s, an independent school in Woodford Green, he was evacuated following the school’s bombing to Market Harborough in Leicestershire, where he attended a grammar school. Already in the Air Training Corps, he enlisted as an RAF apprentice just before his 17th birthday and spent the next three years at RAF Cranwell in Lincolnshire training to be an air radio fitter with the ambition of becoming a pilot.

Upon graduating, he was selected for a flight cadetship at Cranwell, passing out in December 1950. A keen sportsman, he also gained colours in cricket and football.

His first tour, in July 1951, was to RAF Fassberg, northern Germany, where he flew Vampire fighters with No 112 Squadron in the early days of the Cold War. “It was a particularly exciting time. We’d just recovered from the Berlin Airlift (1948-49), the Korean War (1950-53) had started and the RAF was expanding.” The squadron flew five to six sorties a day. “The whole of Germany was our low-flying area and we learned tactical flying.”

He took a course as a pilot attack instructor before volunteering for service in Korea, being attached to No 77 Squadron of the Royal Australian Air Force, where he flew twin-engined Meteors, though these were easily outclassed by the highly manoeuvrable and sophisticated Russian-built MiG-15. Williamson described them as “a terrible aeroplane and inadequate for the job… I didn’t feel I was hastening the end of the war.”

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He recalled the loss of a Lincoln bomber, which resulted in the squadron being scrambled and ordered to fly around the area, ready to engage. “To a young man, that just heightened the exhilaration.” By April 1956 he was flying Hunter fighters and returned to his old squadron, now based at Brüggen by the Dutch border.

In 1957 a Defence White Paper caused a huge shake-up, not least with the abolition of National Service but more controversially the decimation of the RAF’s squadrons, including the Brüggen wing. The RAF saw its squadrons reduced from 55 to just 5.

Williamson believed the “monstrous paper did more damage to this country’s ability to defend itself than any single person since Napoleon.”

Williamson nearly left the service but was made a flight commander of one of the few remaining squadrons in Germany, No 20, based at Oldenburg, north-west Germany. He then spent the next few years as an instructor and examiner at the Central Flying School before managing the appointments of aircrew officers.

At the height of the Cold War, in 1966, Williamson moved back to the operational side and took command of his first squadron, No 23 Squadron, at Leuchars in Fife (1966-68), flying supersonic Lightning Mach2 fighters. Leuchars’ position made it ideally suited as a base to ensure the integrity of northern British air space and intercept unidentified aircraft. He saw this period as one of the most fulfilling of his career as a fighter pilot and was awarded the Air Force Cross.

He was promoted again and returned to Germany, this time to command at Güterlsoh, the most forward of the RAF airfields in the Second Tactical Air Force and the home of two Lightning squadrons and two Hunter fighter reconnaissance squadrons.

Williamson then enjoyed spells at the Royal College of Defence Studies and as Director of Air Plans at the MoD, responsible for the future size and shape of the RAF. On arriving in September 1972, the RAF was undergoing a major restructuring after Britain’s withdrawal from east of Suez. Further promotions followed including Air Vice-Marshal, and in 1978 he took charge of RAF Support Command at Brampton, near Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire. Soon after, he was promoted to Assistant Chief of Staff Policy and Plans at Supreme Headquarters Allied Forces Europe. He thoroughly enjoyed working with his European and US counterparts at a time when Nato was feeling under a greater threat from the Soviet Union.

1980 saw Williamson move to Commander-in-Chief, Strike Command, where he was in charge of the RAF during the Falklands War. He oversaw the RAF’s first blows and their longest operational raids, Operation Black Buck, the successful attacks, by Vulcan bombers from Ascension Island, on Port Stanley’s airfield. The operation led to the withdrawal of Argentine fighter defences from the islands to the mainland. Victors, Nimrods, Hercules and Harrier jump jets went on to play crucial roles in the recapture of the islands.

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Williamson retired in 1985 after his three-year tenure as CAS ended, although he continued to support his Service as president of the Royal Air Forces Association, president of the Officers’ Association and vice-president of SSAFA, the Armed Forces charity.

He married PatriciaWatts, daughter of a wing commander, in 1953, and they had two sons and twin daughters, one of whom died in 2015.

Martin Childs

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