The British Empire Library

Arab Migs: Volume 1

by Tom Cooper and David Nicolle

It might be thought surprising to find a specialist book about Soviet aircraft serving in the Middle East on a website dedicated to Imperial British history. However, the story of how and why so many Migs ended up in the Middle East is fundamentally tied up within Britain's role in that region. The decolonisation process and the nascent Cold War allowed new outlets and opportunities for the Superpowers to flex their influence especially as the old colonial powers retreated. RAF planes, and the air forces of her allies in the region, also came to dance and clash with these new ambassadors of Soviet military prowess. Furthermore, these nations began to replace what had largely been British (or French or American) aircraft of the Egyptian, Syrian and Iraqi Air Forces. Now this book is not wholly connected to the imperial struggles of Britain and France but they do play a surprisingly major part of the story. Of course, the role of Israel and its own air force is another essential factor but even this story crosses over with the British and French stories certainly in regard to the Suez Canal Crisis. In essence, this book may well appear to be a narrowly focussed aviation title, but in reality it reveals so much more about what was going on in this part of the World but from a refreshing and the all too often under-reported perspective of the Arab Air Forces of the region.

Before giving an overview of the contents of the book, I simply have to give huge credit to the layout, organisation and format of the title. It ticks virtually all my boxes. It explains all the acronyms used; it has an extensive bibliography with correspondingly well integrated notes expanding on themes at the end of each chapter; it has a thorough and comprehensive index making it easy to track down pilots, planes, places or events; There are eight (yes eight) Appendices giving phenomenal levels of details on the most intricate and obscure bits of information about all the various Migs serving in the various Middle Eastern countries covered; there are wonderfully informative photographs throughout the book with invariably excellent descriptions of what those pictures are showing; and on top of all that is page after page of beautiful colour plates showing the various markings on the planes that served throughout the period covered. It really is hard to fault the thought that has gone in to laying out the information in as clear and helpful a manner as possible. This book will remain on my bookshelf long after I've read it from cover to cover as it morphs itself into the ideal reference book! Simply superb layout.

The book spans the period immediately after the Second World War and takes the story up until 1967. In theory the book is about all the Arab nations that flew Migs at some point including Syria, Algeria, Morocco, Iraq... but in reality the centre of this book is undoubtedly the Egyptian Air Force who provided the lion's share of the political and military heft in this period, at least from the Arab perspective. It was interesting to be reminded just how closely the Egyptian Air Force followed so many of the customs, procedures and theories of the Royal Air Force. Of course, many of the early pilots had been trained in Britain, flew British aircraft (Spitfires, Vampires and Meteors) and relied on British technical expertise. I hadn't realised that they even conversed fully in English rather than Arabic, long after they had switched to Soviet equipment and planes. Despite being an aviation title, the authors do a comprehensive job at explaining the underlying political tensions and machinations that did so much to realign political allegiances and military alliances in the region. The biggest event by far, and the one that did so much to unnerve the British, was the seizure of power by the Free Officers Society in Egypt in 1952. This led to the rise of Abdul Nasser who would be the key character in the coming decades. However, the authors do explain that his hostility to the West and even to Israel was not necessarily a given. At first he appeared willing to keep an open mind on alliances and allegiances. He had been critical of the previous Royal Family's connection to Britain and the West but was certainly keen to keep lines of supply going to his armed forces. If anything they suggest that British (and American) suspicions of his loyalties led to their dragging their feet on training and resupplying the Egyptian military and almost forced them to look elsewhere for support. Furthermore, the authors explain how the Israeli bombing campaigns in Egypt in 1954 soured relations and heightened tensions all round. American offers of military support seemed to reek of post-Colonialism when they requested new bases in return for US military hardware. Having just negotiated the British withdrawal from Egyptian soil, Nasser was not wholly looking forward to welcoming new foreign troops to replace them. Notwithstanding these tensions, the Egyptians still looked to recruit ex-RAF experts to help train and service their largely British fleet of planes. These were augmented by personnel from India who had similar air expertise but with less political overtones attached. The key motivator for change though was the realisation that the Egyptian Air Forces needed upgrading. The era of jets had begun in earnest and the first generation of jets, the Meteors and Vampires, were badly in need of upgrading and replacing. Secretly, the Egyptians negotiated a generous arms deal with the Soviets via Czechoslovakia - part of the secrecy was to ensure existing contracts with the West were still to be honoured. In addition to getting access to cutting edge Soviet military technology, they could pay in instalments of cotton, Egypt's most important export commodity. The Soviets were keen to offer such generous terms in order to entice a leading Arab nation away from Western influence. The Cold War was supplanting the era of Empires.

Another strength of this book is the reliance on so many first hand primary accounts from various Arab pilots and aircrew. In the West we have found it much easier to access British, French and even Israeli reports and perspectives. It feels very refreshing when both sides accounts are stood up against one another. You do feel that you are getting closer to the truth even if opposing recollections often contradict one another - as they do in this book. Claiming kills has been a notoriously difficult thing to verify especially as your enemy does not wish to help give you intelligence at the time. However, with the passage of time the authors have done an assiduous job at trying to marry up air to air battle accounts and at least account for any discrepancy or point out how many planes were reported to have returned safely. A further interesting discrepancy for attacking planes on the ground were the sheer number of dummy aircraft left out to try and fool their enemies. I had no idea of the extent of this deception and would certainly help provide some of the explanation for mismatches of kills on the ground at least!

The first two chapters essentially explain the early histories of the Egyptian and Syrian Air Forces and how they came to rely on Migs. One interesting aside that I learned was just how many important regional leaders trained as Meteor pilots... I confess I had not realised that both Assad of Syria and Mubarak of Egypt were accomplished Meteor pilots. Of course there was something of the Air Force being a sign of modernity in newly independent nations and perhaps some of the romance of being fighter pilots helped give nationalistic and martial credibility in their later political ascendancies. Another interesting detail explored is the extent of Eastern bloc personnel who would replace any lingering British advisers, trainers and engineers. It does seem though that many of these Russian or Czech pilots often led sorties into combat also as the book explains on a number of occasions. The cultural and military switch though seems to have been harder for the Egyptians in particular to adapt to. Trained in Western tactics, new Soviet ideas developed to fight en masse in Europe did not always feel right - at least to some of the Egyptian pilots interviewed for the book. However, it seems as if the biggest constraint throughout for the Arab air forces who took advantage of the Mig availability, was the training of pilots. Starting from zero experience of the planes and the tactics, it seemed as if there were never enough Arab pilots coming on stream to take advantage of their shiny new weapons! Even though many pilots were sent to Eastern Europe, or even China, to train - the sheer length of time required to convert to these new planes was problematic. Furthermore, the unforgiving nature of these high performance jets, especially in a desert environment and at unforgiving speeds meant that accidents occurred all too often. And perhaps most significantly of all the 1950s and 1960s was a period of almost constant warfare somewhere for some Arab nations - especially Egypt. Even in the ostensible years of peace, Egyptian air space was constantly being probed by Israelis keen to test out their own new French jets. Losses from dogfights were not inconsiderable and one pilot took a lot longer to replace than one plane!

The third chapter illustrates the hope and the limitations that this new hardware presented to the Egyptians in particular. Ostensibly, it tells the story of the Suez Crisis of 1956. The Egyptian acceptance of Migs helped confirm her drift towards the Soviet sphere and led to the British and critically also American funding to be withheld from the Aswan Dam project. This pushed the Egyptians yet further into the arms of the Soviets and also to the idea of getting the Suez Canal to fund their Aswan Dam dreams. The authors contend, with considerable justification, that it was the very arrival of the Migs that helped speed up the entire Suez Canal intervention by the British, French and Israelis. They did not want the Egyptians to have full aerial capability to withstand their attacks on the Suez Canal area and Sinai with these new weapons systems. In the end though it was the old British equipped Egyptian squadrons which would provide more personnel and crucially pilots to try and put up resistance to the invaders. However these older planes were little match for the more modern jets that the invaders were going to use. When RAF Canberras probed Egyptian Air Space they were initially surprised at the lack of response from the Egyptians. The authors contend that this was a deliberate policy decision by Nasser who realised that his planes stood little or no chance against two European great powers. He seemed to believe that they would have more effect on the slightly more similarly armed Israelis invading Sinai and indeed the book explains that the Egyptian Air Forces did have some more success here especially in the Air to Ground role. There is a countervailing theory though that they really were not up to the job and that Nasser's explanation was something of an excuse after the event. A comedy of errors may have ensued when Israeli Mysteres flew into Sinai with their initial invasion. The silver French planes looked alarmingly like Mig 15s and may well have confused Egyptian forces on the ground who did not appreciate that the planes above them were foes rather than friends. It should not be said that all RAF planes were safe and the book explains how Mig 15s were able to damage one RAF Canberra over Egyptian air space and how one was later shot down over Syria. It does seem though as if the Egyptian Air Force's vigorous response to the Israelis in Sinai convinced the British and French to delay their own onslaught - remembering that their deception relied on the fact that the Israelis had to be separated from the Egyptians to keep the Canal open. Thanks largely to Egyptian air strikes, the Israelis had not got within 50 miles of the Canal which somewhat undermined any Anglo-French rationale to attack to defend something that was not under threat. When the British and French did strike it was to be at nightfall and this gave crucial time for at least some of the Egyptian Air Force to disperse. These night strikes were also much less effective for the Allied planes. This allowed the Egyptians to at least keep some of their planes flying over Sinai if not over the Canal! The following daylight raids by the British and French were far more devastating on airfields and facilities though. Interestingly, the Soviet trainers seemed to play a considerable role in getting the newest Mig 17s out of the country and to safe airfields in friendly countries and at least one of them claimed to shoot down an RAF Wyvern en route. The Suez Crisis would prove a double edged sword to the Egyptian Air Force though. Nasser's political victory overshadowed the relative poor performance of his armed forces. Lessons about the limitations of the Soviet equipment were not fully incorporated and processed and any problems were put down to the fact that the equipment was too new for the pilots rather laid at the feat of deficiencies of the aircraft, tactics or pilot training. A dangerous over-confidence was to be a legacy of what had been an almost accidental victory for Nasser and Egypt!

The fourth chapter is quite a diverse chapter explaining the strange period of unification between Egypt, Syria and Yemen in a political experiment with important military changes but which ultimately fell apart almost as soon as it started. The chapter also explains how the other Arab nations fared with their acquisition of Migs also, notably Iraq, Algeria and even Morocco for a short period of time. There is also the fascinating account of when Syrian Mig 17s chased the King of Jordan and his RAF pilot in a Vampire across Syria when their clearance paperwork was not in order! Fortunately the skill of the Vampire pilot helped avert what could have been a serious diplomatic incident. The book explains later how American oilman, John Mechan, flying over Egyptian air space was not so fortunate when he was shot down in a plane without proper authorisation to fly over Egyptian air space.

The fifth chapter begins the tale of constant Israeli-Arab probing of one another's air defences. The authors contend that this was largely the result of aggressive Israeli tactics wishing to test out their own new aircraft and prepare their pilots in deniable situations. The period of the 'Water War' was also concerned with the flow of water in and around the Jordan River as both sides scrabbled for this vital commodity. There are some compelling dog fight accounts in this chapter although the Israelis appeared to keep the technological edge as Mirage IIIs were brought in to augment their Mysteres. The aggressiveness of Israeli patrolling seems to shine through but the claustrophobically close air spaces for fast flying jets comes across only too easily. A couple of seconds of after burner and you can easily fly in and out of enemy air space.

Possibly it is the sixth chapter which was my favourite in the book. Probably as this was where I learned the most. I knew little of the Egyptian intervention in the Yemeni Civil War in the 1960s. I certainly knew of the British presence in Aden and her own significant aerial interventions in her own air space. However, the authors explain just how fluid the borders were and how complex the Civil War ended up becoming. It also dragged in the Saudi Arabians whose own air forces were woefully under prepared to deal with Egyptian Migs flying to hit rebel Royalist bases inside her desert borders. I found the subject of Operation Magic Carpet to be particularly intriguing. Basically, the British agreed to supply Lightnings, Strikemasters, radar and SAM missiles to help the Saudis patrol their own air space. However, the time it would take to get all this equipment ready would be too long to deal with the constant Egyptian incursions. Therefore a bizarre Saudi squadron was quickly raised with modernised Hunters flown entirely by ex-RAF crews and moved to the border region. Although there was woeful logistical support for these hurried additions to the Saudi arsenal, their mere presence seems to have been enough to have deterred Egyptian Migs from crossing the borders again. The messy Civil War continued on right up until 1967 when financial exhaustion by the Egyptian government combined with the sudden departure of the British from Aden and a rising threat from Israel. It appears that the Yemen experience was popular with the Egyptian pilots who appreciated the flying time in combat conditions and yet it also helped play into the narrative of over-confidence as most of their missions were air to ground with almost no air support for the rebels in the air! The RAF did probe themselves into Yemeni air space during the Civil War but only for their own hit and run attacks against bases and left before any Migs could retaliate. Egyptians pilots may well have felt more confidence than they should have... especially as they essentially abandoned the country without a clear cut victory.

The last chapter is almost painful to read. All through the book you have accompanied the Arab pilots through their careers and experiences. The reader knows what is in store for the Egyptian Air Force in June 1967 and yet, like reading an account of the Titanic, you can't help but be drawn to the inevitable disaster to befall the poor victims. The key word running through this review is over-confidence... in this case though it was not so much the Air Force's over-confidence - which was certainly there - but Nasser's and his High Command's. Only a decade after their 'triumph' at Suez, Nasser still believed he was the consummate politician who could do no wrong. He also believed that his Air Force, after a decade of training and with recent combat experience in Yemen, was a powerful deterrent to any Israeli plans to fight. He politically over-reached himself when he closed the Straits of Tiran and ordered a full mobilisation of his military. He felt that this was something of a gesture to try and stop Israel's aggressive flyovers of the Sinai and over the Golan Heights and form the basis of a negotiation. He did not realise that he was virtually doing an almost 1914 style accidental drift to war. His mobilisation got the Israelis to seriously consider undertaking a pre-emptive strike as the only way they could possibly defeat so many well-armed enemies on so many borders. As if this was not dangerous enough, the High Command chopped and changed its own orders to its forces and convinced itself that it could withstand an Israeli first strike. Indeed, Nasser was loathe to be seen to be the one to start any war - despite what his mobilisation seemed to indicate. The Egyptian Air Force would become the first casualty of this muddled situation. When the Israelis launched Operation Moked, they caught virtually the entire Egyptian Air Force on the ground except paradoxically the Egyptian Field Marshall Amer who happened to be flying to one of the bases that was about to fall victim to the Israeli onslaught. He could hardly have been in a worse position to react to the attack and by the time he found a safe place to land most of his Air Force had been destroyed on the ground. The Syrian Air Force fared little better. They at least had a little time to get into the air but bizarrely failed to put any CAP over their vital airfields and so those too would be destroyed all too effectively. At least some of the Syrian Air planes were able to withdraw to bases further inland. Those who did put up a fight found that the well motivated, trained Israelis with their even more modern jets generally prevailed. The utter destruction of Egyptian air power meant that her leaders' confidence collapsed. Even though some Egyptian ground units were faring OK on the battlefield, the lack of air cover and anticipated Israeli air strikes meant that an order to retreat quickly turned into a rout! The Egyptian Air Force proved by its absence its importance in defending Egyptian territory! The humiliating defeat rocked the country to its core. Many of the commanders, some completely unfairly, were court-martialled or worse. If there was a silver lining, and it was a very threadbare one at that, it was the fact that most of the hard trained Egyptian pilots survived unscathed! Most of the planes had been destroyed sitting on the tarmac! As I said before, planes could be replaced far more easily than pilots. The Egyptian Air Force would not be accused of over confidence ever again!

Although that is the last chapter, there are still all those wonderful appendices to wade through. All in all I learnt a lot more from this book than just how Migs performed in the Middle East in the 1950s and 1960s. It tells a much more holistic tale of how the Air Forces played such a vital role in establishing, defending and pushing back the borders of this tumultuous region. If there are any criticisms of this book I would have to say they are very minor. However, there were some curious spelling mistakes and quite a few missing definite and indefinite articles. A native speaker would quickly figure out what was wrong in the sentence but it did seem a little odd in places. Another proof read may well have caught some of these errors - and they were never enough to take away from the understanding of the themes of the book. All in all I was very, very impressed with this book and feel that I know much more about the relative air capabilities of the various actors in this part of the world up until that critical year of 1967! This book will now find a graceful retirement on my reference shelves safe in the knowledge that it will be referred to regularly thanks to the dignity of authority that surrounds it.

British Empire Book
Tom Cooper and David Nicolle
Harpia Publishing


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