During the early 1970s, endemic sabre-rattling by the right-wing Guatemalan regime against its tiny neighbour British Honduras (subsequently Belize) caused the British government growing concern, and in January 1972 intelligence of a possible attack by Guatemalan paratroopers caused Britain to take action. The Royal Navy carrier Ark Royal – then in mid-Atlantic – was despatched towards this outpost of Empire as the lead element of a force intended to deter the Guatemalans from military intervention.
On the 28 January, with Ark Royal still several hundred miles off the coast of Florida, it launched two Buccaneer strike aircraft from 809 Naval Air Squadron to fly over British Honduras as a visual demonstration that Britain was serious in its defence of the colony. The mission, involving both outbound and inbound refuelling was at the Buccaneers’ limit, but after a six hour flight the aircraft returned to the Ark. The mission was deemed a success, and following the arrival of ground reinforcements the Guatemalans toned down their bellicose rhetoric.
This incident was little more than a diplomatic storm in a teacup, and seemingly not worthy of the book-length treatment it is given here. But it is greatly to Rowland White’s credit that he has followed up his success with Vulcan 607 to produce a tautly written real-life thriller. Resting on a foundation of the most detailed research, White deftly interweaves the various elements of the story – diplomatic, military and naval – into a satisfying whole.
At the same time, Phoenix Squadron is also a story of British naval aviation in the post-war world, the skill of the Royal Navy’s pilots (who were to influence America’s Top Gun programme) set against the steady and remorseless decline of British naval aviation (Ark Royal, the Navy’s last true carrier, was decommissioned in 1978). This repudiation of Britain’s traditional ‘oceanic’ strategy came under close scrutiny during the Falklands campaign in 1982: would the Argentineans have invaded if Britain had possessed a viable carrier force? The publication of this paperback edition is now especially relevant, with the two proposed Royal Navy carriers under threat from the latest round of defence cuts.
Corgi, 524 pages, £7.99 (p/b); Bantam, 349 pages, £18.99 (h/b)
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