RAF personnel are marking the 20th anniversary of a parachute drop into Sierra Leone as part of Operation Silkman – part of British military action to support the West African country’s Government against the Rebel United Front.
Presenter Jo Thoenes, of BFBS - The Forces Station, spoke to those that served during the operation in 2001, as well as those marking the anniversary in 2021.
The interviews will be played as part of the Totally Connected Show on BFBS Radio.
What Was Operation Silkman?
Operation Silkman was a series of military demonstrations to show the UK’s commitment to the government of Sierra Leone.
The misson also intended to send a message to the Rebel United Front, an armed militia that was aiming to overthrow the Government, that British Forces could arrive at any time to conduct aggressive military operations should they be required.
Unknown to the personnel carrying out the parachute jump, there was another reason for the intervention. Intelligence had discovered that a meeting had been planned between an RUF leader and his Liberian backers to discuss illegal diamond trading in Sierra Leone.
Jo Thoenes spoke to Group Captain Dutch Holland, Station Commander at RAF Honington, about why the drop was planned. Gp Capt Holland, who was a Flight Lieutenant 20 years ago, explained why the forces were taking part in the drop. He said:
“To make sure all the world knew we were there, and there in force.”
The parachute drop was to be the first British mass-parachute airborne operation since the Suez in 1956.
LISTEN RADIO INTERVIEW PART ONE: Picture Credit RAF Regiment
On January 13, 2001, three Royal Airforce C-130 Hercules aircraft took off from Ascension Island and flew 150 RAF gunners to the drop zone in Sierra Leone.
Group Captain Doz James was part of the lead C-130 crew at the time. Speaking of what it was like at the time, he said:
“Our role at the time was to provide subject matter expertise to anyone parachuting, whether it was on exercises or operations.”
LISTEN RADIO INTERVIEW PART TWO: Picture Credit RAF Regiment
The drop was well publicised across the media, and therefore the meeting between the RUF leader and Liberian backers did not happen.
The night before the drop was filled with anticipation. Flight Lieutenant Nathan Smith, who was the first one to jump, spoke about how he felt waiting. He said:
“The night before was quite jovial, we’d received orders, we understood where we were going to be … very surreal moment of everything you’d trained to do was coming into practise.”
Those taking part in the drop had to carry everything they would need for a month on the ground, which meant for most they’d be living in the clothes they were wearing on the drop day.
LISTEN RADIO INTERVIEW PART THREE: Picture Credit RAF Regiment
The drop was well documented and watched by Sierra Leone’s President Ahmad Kabbah, alongside his Minister of Defence and Chief of Police.
On the day the drop took place in the early morning, the aircraft left Ascension Island and after a six hour flight. they approached Sierra Leone facing a lot of sea fog.
The lead aircraft had a near miss with another aircraft that happened to by flying in the other direction at the same time. Group Captain Doz James was in the lead aircraft and he remembered the moment, saying:
“We popped up and half a mile in front there was an aircraft that just happened to be flying in the opposite direction, so we managed to get back on track.”
The drop zone was quite small and so the troops were unable to get out in one go - the aircraft had to go around the zone three or four times. Flt Nathan Smith added:
“I remember looking out and seeing a sea of parachutes deploying behind me, but I had a really nice descent.”
LISTEN RADIO INTERVIEW PART FOUR: Picture Credit RAF Regiment
In the month they were in Sierra Leone, Number II Squadron carried out joint activities with personnel from the United Nations Mission in Sierra Leone (UNAMSIL). They also took part in public demonstrations of General Purpose Machine Guns, as well as jungle patrols.
The drop and ground demonstrations after were the last phase of military action in Sierra Leone. The previous November there had been a large amphibious assault demonstration.
Operation Silkman ended the following year with the Government and its military in control of Sierra Leone.
LISTEN RADIO INTERVIEW PART FIVE: Picture Credit RAF Regiment
The anniversary is still marked today to share the pride and history of Number II Squadron.
Squadron Leader James Iago, the current OC II Squadron RAF Regiment, shared how important the history is, saying:
“It’s incumbent in my position to ensure younger people are absolutely aware of the Squadron’s history, not just 20 years ago, but also on the formation of the regiment.”
All photo credit - RAF Regiment