Interview with Keith Alec Williamson


Interview with Keith Alec Williamson


Sir Keith Alec Williamson was born in in Leytonstone, Essex. Early education was at Bancroft’s School until bombs fell across the school. He was then sent to a grammar school in Market Harborough where he joined the Air Training Corps. On leaving school he became and aircraft apprentice at RAF Halton before gaining a scholarship to RAF Cranwell as a cadet. After he was posted to Germany to join a Vampire squadron. As the Korean war had broken out, he volunteered to fight and joined 77 Squadron of the Royal Australian Air Force flying Meteors. On returning to Great Britain, he was posted as aide-de-camp to the Commander-in-Chief (Home Command). After three years he returned to Germany as flight commander for 20 Squadron, flying Hunters. On promotion to Squadron Leader he became a qualified flying instructor at the Central Flying School and then an examiner. Then followed staff college before being posted to the Air Ministry. His next posting was to command 23 Squadron at RAF Leuchars which operated Lightnings. He subsequently describes life back in Germany as station commander at RAF Gütersloh. Further senior postings were to Whitehall, staff college and as assistant chief of staff at Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE). After commanding Support Command and then Strike Command his final posting was as Chief of Air Staff before retiring in 1985 as Marshall of the Royal Air Force.







01:38:50 audio recording


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CB: My name is Chris Brockbank and today is Monday the 15th of January 2018 and we’re in Burnham Market talking with Sir Keith Williamson. Marshal of the Royal Air Force, Sir Keith Williamson about his early days and his life as a result of being in the RAF. Sir Keith what are your earliest recollections of life?
KW: I suppose it’s living in Leytonstone in East London. I don’t remember a great deal about it. My, my father had had been in the Army during the war and had been badly injured twice. Badly injured twice, and was maimed and he was at the time, I remember, a junior civil servant. But he had, in fact, I subsequently discovered that he’d at the age of fourteen or fifteen he’d gone off on a ship from London docks as a cabin boy and gone out to South Africa and found he didn’t like being a cabin boy any more so he jumped ship and went to live with his step sister who was at that time living in, married and living in Johannesburg and they were very well off compared with the rest of the family. And he was back on leave in England when war, A, was imminent and then was declared and he and my uncle joined the Territorial Army and went, went off. My uncle was very badly injured as well. It’s actually quite, it is actually quite interesting of course. My uncle was injured by the same shell that maimed my father and killed a friend of theirs and when my father came out of convalescence, he went to see the parents of the friend of his and met my mother who was the daughter, and married her. So, our dynasty, what there was of it emerges from a shell hole in, in Belgium. And I remember, I remember singing, “When the Poppies Bloom Again,” and every November the 11th was a very melancholy experience in our household. And I have an older brother who is four years older than me and he was at that time sent away to, well, he wasn’t sent away actually he was a day boy but at Bancroft School which was a minor public school and I took an examination for a scholarship to Bancroft’s and became a boarder at Bancroft’s and my brother subsequently became a boarder. At that time my mother, I think they you can claim that they were the, not social climbers, I’d rather, and I’d like to put it rather nicely. Anyway, anxious to get away from East End of London. A whole host of people were in the East End of London and we moved out in to Essex and lived, lived at Ilford in Essex at a whole new building estate that people flooded to and thought we were one up on everybody else which we weren’t of course. And at that time my father was still a junior civil servant but my, my grandfather was a, an undertaker in Leytonstone and by our standards he was quite wealthy. I mean we, we had a car before anybody else had a car and I think it came from the profits of people dying around Leytonstone. And it was while I was at, a boarder at Bancroft’s that we saw the Battle of Britain overhead and one night we had a stick of bombs that dropped right across the school which I thought was great fun and I think we had the next day off which was very important. But my parents didn’t think that was great fun and so I was plucked out and sent to a Grammar School in Leicestershire at Market Harborough and it’s, I then joined the Air Training Corps because actually I couldn’t imagine anybody not wanting to be in the Air Force and not wanting to be a pilot in the Air Force. But of course, by the time I I joined the Air Training Corps the war was coming towards it’s end and training had stopped, virtually stopped and I discovered girls. I’d been at a boy’s boarding school and it was a mixed Grammar School and it was absolutely marvellous. They were delightful girls and I still get, keep in touch with a number of them. But I thought of nothing else there. I didn’t do any work at school so I wasn’t terribly well qualified for anything. So, I joined the Air Force initially at Halton and we went to, to Cranwell and at Cranwell we had a massive advantage of having that lovely building right in the middle of where we were training. And although during the war it had been just an ordinary Flying Training School at the end of the war the Flying Training School was closed and it was becoming a Cadet College again and they were looking around for people to populate, populate the, the College. So, I thought that was for me. I think that was pretty cocky of me because I was by no means top of the hamper. There were some much cleverer people than me but in the end six of us got scholarships. One went off to, to Cambridge and the five of us were Cadets at Cranwell in much the same way that had happened before the war. I mean, what’s the name? Whittle had been a Cadet and had gone to, to, had been a brilliant pilot and had gone to Cambridge and become a brilliant scientist. There were a number of others who had done exactly the same thing so nothing particularly remarkable about my, my progress. But I loved it at Cranwell. I got a lot from it because at that time when I left being an aircraft apprentice and became a Cadet, a Cadet with people who had been at normally Sixth Form College, Sixth Form at that stage in their school and I’d very quickly found that we were certainly on a par with them and I was, I was higher up the hamper at Cranwell as a Cadet than I was up the hamper as an apprentice. And of course, then I, we joined a squadron. I joined a Vampire squadron. Marvellous. Every day was Christmas Day. We went to Germany and of course the Korean War was, had broken out and we all volunteered for that and they took the Sabre people from Fighter Command and took the ground attack people, that’s F84s and Meteors by the time we got out there from Germany. From Germany. So, I joined an Australian squadron, 77 Squadron doing ground attack and that really was, it opened my eyes because the Meteor should never have been sold to the Australians. I mean it was, it was a disgrace. We knew that they were, it wasn’t up to, the Meteor was fine for 1945 but it was hopelessly outdated by the time I got to 77 Squadron in, well the early ‘50s. The Americans, and they’ve done it time and time again put so much money into solving the problems of supersonic flight they, they very quickly discovered that thin wings, swept wings were the only answer whereas you look at a Meteor it's got the thickest wings I’ve ever seen and the straightest wings I’ve ever seen. It was not about to solve the problems and its performance in Korea was really rather pathetic although it was flown with great elan by, by the Australians. The subsequent ground attack people from the RAF who went out to, they flew the F-84s and benefited from the, not swept wing but benefited from very thin wings. And so, when I came back from Korea I thought well that’s fine, I’ll now take over a flight on what squadron was begging to have me and discovered that nobody actually wanted me and I went off to be an ADC which is a fate worse than death to anybody who aspires to be a pilot. I, my boss was an irascible bugger but he liked, I’d only just got married and he liked Pat. He didn’t like me but he liked Pat which was fine. I do remember he was CinC Home Command and amongst the other many other things that Home Command looked after, all the odds and sods there, there was NAAFI and he was president of NAAFI. And I can remember I used to, when he was going off on a trip that I wasn’t involved in I’d stand at the door and snap to attention and shut the door and think good I’ve got rid of him for a couple of hours and I’d go and fly. They had a very nice Communications Flight at White Waltham where we were and when he was in a very bad mood and I could tell when he was in a very bad mood I used to shut the door very quickly and get him away as quickly as I could. And on one occasion he was in a terrible mood and was cursing everybody so I got him away and as he was driving away, they had Humbers in those days with a window between the driver and the back and I saw him move the window and he was, his mouth was going at the sergeant driver. When the sergeant got back, I said to him, ‘He was in a pretty bad mood. How did you cope?’ He said, ‘He was no problem. No problem.’ He said, ‘We were going across Lambeth Bridge and he said, “You bloody fool. You’re going across the wrong bridge. This is not where we should go.”’ And this driver ignored him completely and said, ‘No. We’re on the right way, sir.’ And of course, by that time they’d driven up outside NAAFI Headquarters and it was Imperial House and it had enormous letters, “Imperial House,” written right across it. And he looked, he got out, looked up at it and said, ‘Jewson, somebody’s moved the bloody place.’ [laughs] He was, I was, gave me a massive, when I had an ADC and I was getting cross, not that it happened very often of course and his face, his lips were turned down I used to say to him, ‘Don’t look at me like that Richard. I was an ADC to an even bigger shit than me.’ But anyway, I I went, for three, for three years I think I was an ADC and then I turned up at, in those days our postings were done by the Director General of postings 2, in a building in Holborn. And I arrived. Then this squadron leader said, ‘We want you to go and be a flight commander at —’ And I thought, good. Good. And it was some ground training place. I forget which. It was one of, one of the Kirton Lindsey or one of these places and so I said, ‘I’ll do any, I’ll even volunteer for CFS rather than than go on the ground. I must fly.’ And so I did. I went to CFS which I didn’t enjoy and then went in to the flying training more. I went, I was an examiner for a time and I couldn’t wait to get out of it. And now what do I, oh I’ve missed out a Hunter. Where did I go to Hunters? I forget now. Dear God.
Other 2: Would you like a cup of tea?
CB: We’ll just pause a mo.
[recording paused]
CB: So, the Hunter’s bit was actually in Germany.
KW: Oh yes.
CB: So, what was that?
KW: What do you mean what was that?
CB: No. Where was it?
KW: Well, Bruggen. Bruggen first and they were, this was the time of the Sandys Acts.
CB: Oh yes. ’57.
KW: And so Bruggen, the Bruggen fighter wing was closed overnight and I moved to Oldenburg as a flight commander on Hunters. And then Oldenburg was handed back to the Germans and we moved to Ahlhorn for a short time before coming back to England. That must have been when I went to CFS. Yeah. So, I’ve, I’ve been taking you down the wrong line.
CB: I think you went to CFS in ’58.
KW: That’s right. Just after Sandys.
CB: Yes. Did QFI and then examiner.
KW: Yeah.
CB: What didn’t you like about CFS?
KW: That’s a very good question.
CB: Because you were a pretty experienced bloke like this in action as well as in fighter duties.
KW: No, I [pause] it’s a very good question. I’m not sure what I didn’t like about the CFS but I didn’t like the atmosphere. I came from a fighter squadron and I, I didn’t like examining either. Sitting on my hands watching chaps make absolute arses of themselves. No. I can’t, I can’t elaborate.
CB: Is it frustrating training novices?
KW: Yes.
CB: And —
KW: Yes, it is.
CB: But CFS was learning how to train.
KW: Yeah.
CB: How to do the assessments and training.
KW: You only, only sat at CFS for six months, or five, six months and then you go and train and I certainly didn’t like saying to a chap, ‘I’m sorry but you’re never going to make a pilot.’ Taking the rug from under his feet. I never liked that. And knowing, knowing that the chap had not much natural ability made the effort of flying with him that much greater and no, I didn’t like it. Preferred to be on my own.
CB: But you stayed there quite a while before you moved on, didn’t you?
KW: No.
CB: Did you?
KW: No. I stayed for five months course and then I went to Syerston and I was there for about eighteen months I suppose. And from —
CB: What were you doing there?
KW: Well, that’s Flying Training School. And from there I, I was made an examiner so I used to fly around all the schools. So, I didn’t like doing that either. Its surprising I stayed really.
CB: What did they give you to go around the schools in?
KW: Oh, whatever. Whatever was flying at the time. All the basic flying training was a Jet Provost, Piston Provost [pause] Tiger Moths. All sorts of funny aeroplanes. We used to go around the clubs as well and fly with, because their Cadetships were given and we used to examine the instructors.
CB: This was for flying scholarships.
KW: Yes. For flying scholarships.
CB: Yeah. So, after that came to an end —
KW: Well, Staff College of course.
CB: 1962.
KW: Yeah. Yeah. And that was marvellous. I actually did feel, for the first time I think, part and parcel of the Air Force hierarchy. That’s a bad way of putting it. Felt I might have some chance of adding to the service. There was a feel, this was at Bracknell there was a feeling of, I don’t know [pause] it’s very difficult to explain. Families, we most of us lived in, actually in Bracknell. We were there for a year. Got to know each other extremely well from all sides of the Service. Got to respect them too. I thought it was, when they combined all three Staff Colleges together they’d, Greenwich, Camberley and Bracknell disappeared from the view. I thought that a terrible mistake and I had nothing whatever, I refused to have anything to do with what was going on down at [pause] What is that place down in Wiltshire?
CB: In where? Where?
KW: In Wiltshire.
CB: What?
KW: The School. The Combined School.
CB: Oh right. Now? Shrivenham now.
KW: Shrivenham.
CB: Yes.
KW: Shrivenham.
CB: Right. We’ll stop there for a mo.
[recording paused]
KW: Squadron leader. Wing commander level. The Army have always had a major level. If you haven’t been to Staff College by the time you are a major or while you are a major you’ve had it and the Navy have never taken Staff College seriously and they, they’ll send you to Staff College if they haven’t got anything else to do with you. So, the three Services have got completely different ideas on what —
CB: Yes.
KW: And I’m sure we had it right.
CB: At squadron leader, wing commander level.
KW: Yes.
CB: Yes.
KW: Yes, because when you’ve spent so much money training a Phantom pilot for instance you wanted to keep him flying for as long as possible. When he comes to the end of his flying, immediate active flying then that’s the time to take him away. And I do remember subsequently when I was commandant at Bracknell feeling that our job there was to take these super pilots from the squadrons, get their feet on the ground so that they realistically acknowledged the sort of desperate pressures that are on the Service. Money. Largely associated with money. And we had one very good flight commander, his name was John [Hough] I remember and after about two terms he stood up one day, he said, ‘I’m fed up of learning what we can’t do and what we can’t have. I want to know what we can do.’ And I thought, yeah. You’re absolutely right. We do want to know what you can do but you can’t do it until you know what you can’t have. And it’s this old dilemma. Do we tell them too much? Subsequently of course he and a number of others immediately left the Service and went to fly for British Airways. Anyway, I enjoyed my year at Bracknell and Pat enjoyed it too. What was next?
CB: So, it set you up well for your next role after staff college.
KW: Oh, yes that was, this, it’s actually interesting. In my day they used to pin what you were, where you were going to go when Postings Day came and everyone was excited about where they were going. They used to pin a notice on the board rather like degrees at university, you know. And I thought I really had drawn the short straw because I was down to go to a posting, a personnel posting job.
CB: You were a wing commander at this stage.
KW: No.
CB: Oh.
KW: No. I was a squadron leader.
CB: Oh.
KW: And I was a wing, a postings job looking after squadron leaders in several Commands and I thought this was disaster. I mean, this is, just precisely what I don’t want to do and it turned out to be absolutely super. I was working with a very nice, it was a hell of a grotty little office in, looking out over a block of flats in, in Holborn and I tell you nothing goes on in those flats that’s worth looking at. I used to sit there watching them. And I was with a very nice chap. He was posted, promoted and posted and in came what I thought was the worst choice in the business because it was, I don’t know if you ever knew John Nichols, he was the only chap who shot down a Mig in —
CB: In Korea.
KW: In Korea.
CB: Yes.
KW: He was a glamour boy. He was, he was good looking. He’d got a DFC from shooting down. He came in and I thought, I’m not going to like you. And for the next nine months we did nothing else but laugh. I mean, he was, it was tremendous fun and at the end of that he posted me to command 23 Squadron. Lightnings at Leuchars. And I realised actually that if you’re immersed in personnel business it’s a small world. They all looked after themselves of course there and I was looked after very well. So, I did. I went up to Leuchars for two years and I must say that that was certainly the best tour of my service life. It was absolutely marvellous. Nought to thirty thousand feet in two and a half minutes, you know. Marvellous. From a standing start. Marvellous.
CB: Near vertical climb, was it?
KW: Yes. Yes. Yes. Had to be careful. Supersonic all the time. Supersonic. Not climbing. I mean, you had to be very careful about —
CB: Yeah. Overland.
KW: Overland and things.
CB: What was the great thing about the Lightning?
KW: Well, I mean just the performance. The performance was non parallel but the, I mean it was a bloody awful aeroplane to service them but it was super to fly and the serviceability rates were rather pathetic.
CB: Had a higher rate of engine fires than most planes.
KW: Yes, it did.
CB: Why was that?
KW: It did. Well, it, they had two engines. One above another. That had never been tried before. That’s to keep the profile low and of course it made the servicing very difficult and very often you had to take an engine out to change something like a cabin altimeter. Altimeter. That’s an exaggeration, you didn’t have to do that but little things could cause big problems. But it was super. Super flying. And I went from Leuchars to Gütersloh as station commander and they had Lightnings there of course as well. Lightnings and Hunters. But none of this time has got anything to do with Bomber Command.
CB: It hasn’t, but it’s got a lot to do with your career.
KW: Well —
CB: Because as a fighter man you wanted the ultimate in fighter aircraft, didn’t you?
KW: Well, yeah. Yeah. Well, of course.
CB: And, and when you were doing your Leuchars role what was the main activity there?
KW: Well, there was a great deal of intercepting of, of the Soviet aircraft coming, coming around. They were perfectly entitled to be there but we, you get in to this extra ordinary business of letting them know that you’re there and that you know that they’re there and that means the next time they come you’ve got to make sure that they know that. So, it’s a, it’s a never-ending game really.
CB: Yeah. And your ground radars are crucial to that.
KW: Oh yes.
CB: Particularly the ones in Shetland.
KW: Well, they’re not Shetland. They were. There were radars in Shetland but the three main control places were at Brawdy. No. What am I talking about? Brawdy. [pause] Neatishead. That’s terrible. I can’t remember the name.
CB: Boulmer, one of them, is it?
KW: Boulmer.
CB: Boulmer
KW: Boulmer.
CB: Yeah.
KW: That’s right. Not Brawdy but Boulmer. They were actually the two most important ones. Particularly Boulmer which was the master controller over and there was never any, any problem but one was doing an awful lot of fuel transfers and meeting up with the Victors from Waddington.
CB: How long would a sortie last?
KW: Sorry?
CB: How long would a sortie normally last?
KW: Well, how long is a piece of string? Seven, eight hours and it used to get uncomfortable on that.
CB: So, you’d be refuelled three times for that.
KW: Well, at least three times. Yes. Yes. And we used to do a firing camp at, in Cyprus. Flying out to Cyprus. The French were being as always as helpful as possible that they could be preventing us from refuelling over their, their soil so we had to go all the way around.
CB: So, when you were in Gütersloh you’ve got a completely new scenario there so what’s the, what’s the activity?
KW: Well —
CB: You haven’t got Bears coming down from the north.
KW: No. But you’re very close to the, the front line so you’re, we were the nearest airfield to the Soviets so we used to have refuelling aircraft positioned out there constantly practicing refuellings should we need it. We never, never got serious like it had had in the Vampire days. When they were shooting down Lincolns and things.
CB: Yes. Your challenge was to avoid going over the frontier, was it?
KW: Certainly, in Vampires it was. It used to be terrifying, you know because it was a very crude recovery system in those days and you’d transmit and they’d take a bearing on on your transmission and tell you what heading you should make to get to Gütersloh. And if, if it was 270 or anywhere near 270, you thought my God I’m over Eastern Germany. But we didn’t actually have any, any problems in those days. Looking back.
CB: Did the, did the Soviet Block put up their own fighters if you did that? Were they near the frontier or not?
KW: They, they would if we, we used to have exercises going down to Berlin, down the three corridors. Not I might say with Lightnings, and if we strayed either way they would put up aircraft but they never, I mean they knew it was a game and we knew it was a game [pause] And I loved Berlin. Berlin was, it was run on the German economy but everything that we had enjoyed was free to us so that, they had marvellous opera, a marvellous concert theatre. The CinC was part of the Kommandantura at the end of the war and so he had a house in Berlin to justify his position. The, the Army chap had a house and when I say a house magnificent houses they were too. And we used to go out there quite a lot from Germany.
CB: But you wouldn’t take the Lightnings.
KW: Didn’t take Lightnings.
CB: Was that because their manoeuvrability was restricted?
KW: No. It was because serviceability, the length of runways everything was agin it. No. We used to go up in a little old Pembroke which was very useful.
CB: And in Gütersloh then, what was life like there?
KW: Well, I used to take the visiting firemen around Gütersloh and say, ‘Take a good look at this. This is why the Germans lost the war and we won it.’ Because they had a row of hangars that were ideal for the ME109 era but were absolutely no good at all for the Lightning era. They had an airfield that couldn’t be lengthened but was too short for comfort for aircraft like Lightning like we were landing on. It’s an exaggeration to say short but it was not as comfortable as many of the other runways we landed on and there were all sorts of other things that showed that our planners in between the wars who planned these beautiful double ended hangars so if, if you had one sick aeroplane at one end it didn’t block the entire hangar full. You could wind the doors open from the other side. Well, they didn’t have that. If you had a sick aircraft at the front of your hangar you had to repair it or, or not use that hangar. And they had very small hard standings. So, we were very well looked after, between the wars. They weren’t.
CB: They just didn’t want to put money in to it.
KW: But I suppose they were building up at such a ferocious rate they wouldn’t. I don’t know.
CB: And how did the community get on with the local community at Gütersloh?
KW: Very, very well actually. The Gütersloh town itself was very wealthy. Even in my day it had the Claas agricultural machinery. And you see Claas —
CB: Oh yes.
KW: Machinery all around here. It had the Miele washing machine factory which is, gets top marks as a, as the best and most expensive washing machine and there was one, oh Bertelsmann, which is the largest book publishing organisation in Europe if not the world now. And we knew the bosses of all three and they were very good to us. Of course, out of our league in money terms but [pause] And Herr Miele, he was a lovely man. He, he was awarded an OBE. That was just after we left actually for his work for Anglo-German relations. He was a lovely man. He said to me, he said, ‘In 1936 my father he said, “Karl. Karl you must join the Nazi party.” And he said, “Dad why should I do it? Why do I want to join the Nazi party? I don’t want to join the Nazi party. I’m not joining the Nazi party.” He said, “Karl, one of us has got to join the Nazi party and its not going to be me.”’
CB: Pragmatic.
KW: And he, he also said at one stage, I mean this is a chap who was a multi-millionaire. He said, ‘I turned to my boss —’ He’d obviously got, right at the end of the war got a job at Gütersloh Airfield. ‘I turned to my boss, Sergeant Smith —' and Sergeant Smith was the, the quartermaster and he was Karl Miele’s boss. It didn’t last very long I might say. Yes. So we enjoyed it very much at Gütersloh. It was of course reputed to have been Herman Goering’s favourite airfield but then I think we would say that about any airfield out there.
CB: So where did you go after that?
KW: I went to the first course on the IDC courses. Not the, what the hell do they call the course now? [pause] Isn’t that terrible?
CB: What was the IDC? International something, was it? Defence.
KW: Defence College. Yes.
CB: Yes.
KW: But Imperial Defence College.
CB: Oh Imperial. Yes.
KW: But Imperial became a dirty word.
CB: Yeah.
KW: So, it’s a year’s course at Belgrave Square.
CB: What rank are you at this point?
KW: I was a group captain. And I did the course and at the end of it I was promoted and became, well after a short tour in, a very short tour in Whitehall I became an air commodore and was director of air plans.
CB: And before that didn’t you go to run the Royal College of Defence Studies?
KW: No. That is the Royal College of Defence Studies.
CB: Ah. That’s what it is called now.
KW: Yes. That’s right. That’s what it is called now.
CB: Right. Ok. So, in plans, was that interesting?
KW: Yes. It is the crucial air commodore slot in the Air Force there’s no doubt. It’s [pause] it was demanding but, but being at the centre of everything nothing was going on in the Air Force that I didn’t know about.
CB: So, this is strategy, equipment?
KW: Yes.
CB: Personnel. The lot, is it?
KW: Yeah. Equipment and the fall out in personnel from that of course.
CB: And from there that’s when you went to run the Staff College.
KW: Yeah. Yeah.
CB: So, having been a student before and then returned to be the director then —
KW: Commandant but —
CB: Commandant.
KW: Yeah. I did it for a year and I was very cross that I was taken out and sent to SHAFE for, to be Assistant Chief of Air Staff, Policy and Plans. I didn’t realise at the time but that is a key job in NATO terms and I think it was Denis Spotswood when he was at CAS who was determined to keep that job in the Air Force. Not to let the Navy or the Army or any other nation get hold of it and I think almost every subsequent CAS has has done that job.
CB: So SHAFE is Supreme Headquarters Allied Forces Europe.
KW: Yeah.
CB: So you’re tying together all the NATO activities.
KW: Yeah. In theory but of course what you’re really doing is, is wresting control as far as you can from the Americans. NATO is an American organisation understandably because they put the most of the money in.
CB: Yeah. Yeah.
KW: But if you get a piece of string and tie it to all the American posts and shake it until all the non-American posts fall out you are still left with a coherent set up. The Americans could run it themselves. He was determined if we were going to have somebody in the policy and plans organisation that, and I only did that for a year and I was grateful because A it was very busy, B trying to understand the American system and it was all American system. It was really quite difficult. I used to say that if you took away all the Americans from the staff at SHAFE you would be left with absolute chaos because you’d got Greeks, Turks, French subsequently, not in my time but the Spaniards, Belgians but all rowing their own, hoeing their own row rather like the European union. But the Americans, they’ve got it under control. But it was —
CB: So is there a moral in that which is effectively you’ve got to make sure that everything clicks in with the American system.
KW: Oh yes. Of course. Of course. And one shouldn’t, they’re paying the bills —
CB: Exactly.
KW: One shouldn’t rile at having to do it their way. I used to say that when, when anyone comes into the Royal Air Force the first job any officer coming into the Royal Air Force their first job ought to be to go to SHAFE to see how the Americans do it. They’d ever complain about anything ever again. But that’s pretty naïve because it’s the Americans who are paying the bill so we’ve got to do it their way.
CB: So, effectively you were the sounding board were you on what was going on for the RAF?
KW: No. No. It was more than a sounding, less of a sounding board. It was [pause] it was giving respectability to an international organisation that actually didn’t have any respectability. I worked for Al Hague. Hell of a nice chap, Al Hague and I, I’d vote for him for president but I wouldn’t buy a second-hand car from him. They are tricky dickies these Americans.
CB: And what was their reaction to you in this role?
KW: Well, they were used to it. They were used to —
CB: Because you were an air marshal now.
KW: Yes. Well, air vice marshal.
CB: Vice marshal.
KW: Yeah. They were used to an RAF Air Vice Marshal going through. My predecessor Michael Beetham, he had done it. I think he was probably the first but they they’d got used to it and all the subsequent ones had done it.
CB: Because he was a blunt, opinionated, forceful sort of character Beetham. Was he?
KW: Yeah. Yeah.
CB: Wartime experience.
KW: Yeah. Yeah. He was a —
CB: Originator of the TSR2.
KW: Yeah. He was. Yeah. Yeah.
CB: And it was a smooth transition to you in the role.
KW: Yes, I don’t think there was any, any dramas. I mean you say the [pause] had TSR2 basic, he was a fairly junior, o/r chap when the —
CB: Oh right.
KW: The TSR2 but I mean nevertheless they were very important roles they had to play in setting up but I don’t think you could say that he was to blame for what happened to the TSR2.
CB: No. No. No. I meant he was the originator.
KW: No. I think that’s exaggerating too. He picked, picked the baton up and ran with it and he ran very hard. Of course, he lived in South Creake.
CB: Oh, did he? Yes. Not ten miles away. So, after being at SHAFE then what happened? What did you do next?
KW: I came back to Training Command and that’s, that was interesting actually. It was at a time when the Hawk was coming in to training [pause] and Training Command embraced the factory side of, of what was Maintenance Command or had been Maintenance Command. So, we had a factory at Sealand up in Cheshire and we had to deal with civil servants and unions and things that was new to my experience.
CB: What were the key factors really in running Training Command then?
KW: Well, it’s a matter [pause] any training organisation has got to make sure the output is, is keeping in step with the requirement and I think they did alright. There never were, there was, there was trouble because [pause] shouldn’t really bring politics into it but you probably don’t remember but in, this was in 1978 it was towards the end of the Callaghan government and money was very very tight. People were queuing up to leave the Service and we, we had, I mean it’s bizarre really. We had waiting lists for people to rise to the top of the of the queue to leave the Service. So we had a lot of instructors, flying instructors who were themselves longing to leave the Service. And what a way to encourage youngsters to come in. You come in this dynamic force which everyone else is desperate to leave and we’re in danger of being in that spot at the moment for different reasons. So that was, that was a depressing time. And then of course Margaret Thatcher was elected and she, she would have lost her, well the Conservatives would, would have certainly lost the next election if it hadn’t been for the Falklands.
CB: Meanwhile you’d changed Commands, hadn’t you?
KW: Yes. I, I’d gone. I’d gone from Brampton in Huntingdon to Strike Command. And in winning the battle over the over the Falklands Margaret Thatcher was extraordinarily generous to us. That generosity lasted, I think, oh all of about two weeks but —
CB: So, how was she, how did this generosity extend itself?
KW: Well, you can have what you want. Tell me what you want. You’ve lost a Nimrod. Not a Nimrod, a [pause] Hercules. You’ve lost a Hercules. You must replace it. Well, we didn’t want to replace it. There were more, by then there were more important things to spend money on but anyways she was kind to us initially. And then we had John Knott and Michael Heseltine. Well, if Michael Heseltine had, well on the face of it he was a very powerful man in cabinet so if he was, if he had been as interested in defence as he was in Michael Heseltine he would have been a magnificent Minister of Defence but he wasn’t and he didn’t. He was only interested in Michael Heseltine and he is still only interested in Michael Heseltine.
CB: Yeah. Could we just take a step back? You joined as CinC Strike Command. Here is a link historically with the wartime activities of the RAF. To what extent would you say there was a consideration, understanding, admiration of what had happened in Bomber Command that might have been then transferred to later times? With V bombers for instance?
KW: Virtually none I would think. I was, I admired [pause] the Vulcan force was just about to be disbanded. It was equipped with bombsights, radar, that were suitable for the 1950s. It had not done any inflight refuelling training in the memory of, of any of the pilots and yet they, they organised, Michael Beetham at the helm organised this bombing expedition against Stanley which I was lost in admiration for at the organisation, the discipline, the [pause] well the way, the way it was organised. The whole operation was a magnificent example of airmanship at its best. I was very sceptical. I wasn’t, I didn’t think it was a sensible thing to do but it clearly was and it was done extremely well although I was CinC at the time the aircraft had been allocated to 18 Group and were being controlled by AOC 18 Group and CinC Fleet. So, I actually had nothing to do with launching the [pause] all I had to do was make sure they got what they needed to do what they said they wanted to do and that was the easy bit from my point of view. But to launch that number of aircraft. To get one aircraft load on to Stanley was really, actually even now it hasn’t been understood. I, I remember meeting, shortly afterwards meeting a French general whose name I can’t now remember who was a bit of a pain in the arse to us or had been in the old days. He used to argue a lot but he was a real operator. He knew what he was talking about and he said to me ‘Tell me —’ he said, ‘How far is it Ascension to the Falklands?’ So I said, ‘Well, it was about four thousand miles.’ He said, ‘Four thousand miles there and four thousand miles back.’ He said, ‘It is miraculous.’ At the same time some of our armchair critics were sitting being interviewed and saying, ‘Oh, yes, well of course that’s what the Vulcan was procured for.’ And clearly had got no understanding of what they were talking about but this from a Frenchman that did. Forget. General Forget. A great chap. So, I didn’t really have any operational control over those chaps. And I did have a slight contretemps with both Michael Beetham and the chaps who, who were flying it that I thought they should going, bombing from lower than they were going to bomb from but I think I was wrong in that they’d if you want to penetrate you have to have some downward movement. I don’t know. I’m —
CB: Certainly a tricky task.
KW: Yes.
CB: Then one of them broke his refuelling boom off Brazil.
KW: Yeah. That was inevitable really. Yes.
CB: Something would happen.
KW: Yes.
CB: Yes.
KW: But they’d set up Brazil to be used as an alternative and they’d done that very nicely. Particularly when at the time Brazilians were really on the Argentinian side. But I knew that if, if we lost a Vulcan it would be disaster. But they went through a very dangerous exercise and they did it very well.
CB: Then the aftermath of the Falklands was what? There needed to be better provision for air defence did there?
KW: No. I don’t think that was —
CB: In the Falklands.
KW: Oh yes. In the Falklands certainly. Yeah. Oh yeah. Yeah. It was obvious we needed to know what aircraft were going in and out and that did involve some expense of putting radars in pretty inaccessible places. And I certainly was determined that we shouldn’t have fighters wasting their time if they hadn’t got the ground support they needed.
CB: But of course, as a fighter man you had the full understanding of defending the island.
KW: Yeah, but I —
CB: So, what did you do about airfields?
KW: Ah, well I’ll tell you the way that Whitehall works or it doesn’t work. They sent a man out to Stanley because they, they were saying that Stanley can be extended, there was no need for a new airfield and they sent a man out to Stanley who not only had never flown but he was an Army general, to tell us whether we needed an airfield. It is indescribable. Fortunately, he came back and obviously they’d got at him down in the Falklands and explained to him why in words of one syllable there was no possibility of extending Port Stanley Airfield to take the modern aircraft and they’d have to bite the bullet. It would be cheaper to bite the bullet and build a new airfield and this is what they did of course [pause] And little has been made of the reinforcements that we sent down with the Harriers to the Falklands. Once again, extremely dangerous exercise that the chaps had never tried before, never, never practised before, were never capable of practising before but which went actually very smoothly.
CB: This is operating from carriers.
KW: It’s getting down to the carriers in the first place and then operating from the carriers throughout the war.
CB: So how did that work? Getting the Harriers there.
KW: Well, they, they refuelled. They refuelled and landed at sea. I mean, I forget actually the detail precisely of where they landed but between, somewhere between the Falklands and Ascension Island.
CB: And this is all with RAF pilots.
KW: Yes. Yes.
CB: What would you think was the most memorable event in your time as CinC Strike Command?
KW: I don’t know [pause] Well, I think actually the final success in the Falklands. Of course, we had tremendous problems with getting the infra-red equipment to be used on the ground by the Army.
CB: Is it target illumination?
KW: Yes. Yes. Yes. And to make sure that it got done in a useable state. That the Army were au fait with how to use it and B that it worked when it did. And right at the very end I do remember a bomb [pause] We were asking for reports of where the, where the, what the bombs were achieving and I remember one message that came back, “It’s gone straight down the barrel of the gun.” There was one gun that was holding us up. I think it was probably an exaggeration but nevertheless it got the message across that A the equipment was working and B they had better watch out. Yes. I think the relief of knowing that so much depended on it.
CB: So, then your final posting was just after that. So, what was the final posting?
KW: No. That was, that was the last one.
CB: It was after.
KW: Yeah.
CB: Ok. So, then you took over as CAS. Chief of the Air Staff.
KW: Yeah. Yeah.
CB: So that ran from when?
KW: 1982 to ’85 and that covered the post-war period. So, I don’t think that’s any help to you and your Bomber Command.
CB: Just a final question on that. What, what did it feel like to be effectively in charge of the whole of the RAF having started at the lowest point?
KW: I don’t think it even remotely troubled my mind. I mean, it was —
CB: Because you had the political —
KW: Yeah.
CB: Liaison much more as you went further up the line, didn’t you?
KW: Absolutely right. And I, I’ve not met many politicians who I would allow across my front door. One or two marvellous chaps and one or two quite likely, unlikely chaps. I remember when I was commandant at Bracknell we had the Secretary of State for Defence was that man from Barnsley.
CB: Yes. Fred Mulley.
KW: No. No. No, not Fred Murray.
CB: Mulley.
KW: Not Fred Mulley.
CB: No.
KW: No. No.
Other: I should know. I’m from Barnsley.
KW: Are you?
Other: Yes.
KW: That’s terrible. You should. You should jolly well know that.
Other: I know.
KW: Anyway —
CB: It should trip off the tongue but I can’t remember it.
KW: It would trip off my tongue. Anyway, it’ll come when you’ve gone. But he came, we used to have the chiefs of all, all three Services and the Secretary of State for all three Services come down and talk to the Staff College and he was due to come down on one occasion. He, they normally had lunch with us and either spoke before lunch or spoke after lunch. He was due to speak after lunch and he refused to come to lunch and when we met him he was very bristly. He was clearly very, he thought he was going to be got at. You have questions from all the students. Thought he was going to be got at. But the, I forget what the first question was but it was absolutely marvellous and it set him off on a train and he was the best Secretary of State for Defence I had, I ever served because he was interested in defence. He, he understood that his job was to improve defence. Not to pare defence and get the money. What was his name?
CB: I got the wrong, I had the wrong political party just then. Yes.
KW: He was very very Labour. Isn’t that terrible?
Other: I’ll remember when I get home.
KW: Yes. But he was absolutely lovely. And we had one or two who were absolutely dreadful. And of course, the Sandys Acts, Sandys standing up at his, in Hansard now, ‘There’s no future —’ This is 1957, ‘No future in manned aircraft. Defence will be in the hands of the missiles.’ In 1957. And never heard of him being sacked. No. He was a marvellous chap. He was Winston’s Churchill’s son in law. Must be a good chap. What is that man’s name?
CB: Let me divert you then while you’re considering that.
KW: Yeah.
CB: Because the final point really is here you are working for the chief of, with the Chief of the Defence Staff so you’ve got the Navy, the Army and the Air Force all tying in together. How does that work?
KW: Well, under, under the scheme that the last war was run and under the scheme that the Falkland war was run it worked fairly well. But as soon as you appointed a primus inter pares you got people who want to show they’re in charge and, ‘It’s my ideas.’ And it doesn’t work. It’s, I said at the time that it was a [pause] I had a phrase for it [pause] To the effect that it was, it made no sense. Logically it was nonsensible because you, as a Naval officer know, are not and cannot ever be the Principal Naval Advisor to the Queen or to the government if you’re not CDS. But if you are CDS the only advice you can give is Naval advice. So, you must be able to discuss it. I was quite prepared to fight my corner for the Air Force and certainly sometimes of course you do get party lines crossed. But no, it, this was Michael Heseltine determination that we, we should have an enhanced central staff and its nonsense and it means of course now CAS lives down in High Wycombe. Don’t know where the hell the Naval chap lives. You’re not a team but it was, I don’t know why it was done frankly because Michael Heseltine refused to allow us to be even involved in the discussions.
CB: Of? Of major strategy.
KW: No. No. Of high direction of —
CB: Right.
KW: Of defence. Forbad PUS of the day from discussing it with us.
Other: Roy Mason.
KW: Roy Mason. He is the man. You are absolutely right. Lovely man.
Other: Yeah.
KW: Lovely man. I’d have him on my side fighting but he, he was so nervous but once his dander was up his dander was up and he was jolly good news.
CB: So, you retired from the RAF in 1985 you said, and you were then promoted.
KW: Well, that’s —
CB: Marshal of the Royal Air Force.
KW: Yeah. That’s —
CB: You were the last to receive that rank, were you?
KW: No. No.
CB: Craig, was it?
KW: No. I need, I need you to tell me his name.
CB: There was —
KW: Harding.
CB: Harding. Yeah. Just one other.
KW: One other. Yes.
CB: And when you came to retirement what did you think that you might do next?
KW: Well, I, I got a job with one of the companies which fell apart before I got the, got to the job. I was going to take over on Marconis. Do you remember Marconi turned belly up? Who was after [pause] Weinstock? I forget. Anyway, and I had got nothing to add to anything so I played golf.
CB: Very good. What’s your handicap now?
KW: I’ve, I’ve given up.
CB: What was it before you gave up?
KW: Eleven.
CB: So, you’ve done quite well.
KW: No. No. No. No.
CB: What was the highest handicap you had?
KW: That was the highest I ever had.
CB: Oh, it was. But you enjoyed it. That was the key.
KW: Yes, and it was, we had the loveliest course at Brancaster and I was playing with Michael Beetham. I was staying with Michael Beetham actually on one occasion and coming down the 18th fairway the Wetherby family from Newmarket were coming in and they had seven dogs. It was absolutely lovely. They were running all over the place. I think they had five whippets and two other dogs and I thought I’ve never been on a golf course that allowed dogs to roam where they like and I think it’s delightful so this is where I want to play golf. So, when I got back we were actually up here looking for a house to move in to and I said to Pat, ‘I’ve solved where we’re going to live. It’s here.’ And that’s what we did and we’ve been here ever since.
CB: How long was that?
KW: Well, 1984 we were, so it’s thirty three years.
CB: In anticipation of retirement.
KW: Yes. Yes.
CB: Very good.
KW: I I had no feelings that I had a battle to win.
CB: No.
KW: I would have liked to have earned more money but then that’s life.
CB: What would you say was in your whole career with the Royal Air Force what was your most memorable event?
KW: Event?
CB: Or what is your most cherished memory? Put it a different way.
KW: Well, I think actually being a squadron commander of a front line squadron was absolutely ideal and there at Leuchars we had a squadron headquarters in the old air traffic building which had of course the balcony and overlooking the airfield. And just over there was the Royal and Ancient Golf Course so we, we had everything that we needed apart from the good weather. The weather wasn’t all that good.
CB: Well, Marshal of the Royal Air Force, Sir Keith Williamson thank you very much.
KW: Thank you, and, I shall —
CB: For a most interesting conversation.
KW: I shall sue you if you use it for any purpose, nefarious purpose and I shall sue you —


Chris Brockbank, “Interview with Keith Alec Williamson,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed September 24, 2023,

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