Chief of the Air Staff who flew bombing raids over Berlin and went on to oversee the Air Force’s role in the Falklands conflict.
In a career that took him from flying bombing raids to Berlin during the Second World War to overseeing the RAF’s successful role in the Falklands War he was never less than personally courageous and a tenacious champion of the Force.
He inherited the appointment at a difficult time and at a relatively young age. Recognising the seriously impaired morale of the service following the heavy cuts his predecessors had been compelled to accept, he set about restoring some stability and improving the terms of service of RAF personnel.
Along with his fellow Chiefs, he had to address the severe problems of service pay, which were seriously hindering recruitment and causing an exodus of skilled people. The need for the military to meet the demands of the fireman’s strike at the end of 1977 brought the issue into the public domain. By the middle of April 1978, the Labour Government had not addressed the matter, so the four Chiefs released details to the national press.
The story was covered in considerable detail and it attracted much public support but it earned the Chiefs a very sharp public reprimand from the Prime Minister. Within a few weeks the Armed Forces Pay Review Board recommended a significant pay increase. On his first visit to an RAF station after this result, Beetham earned a spontaneous round of applause.
Soon after the election of Margaret Thatcher’s government in 1979 he faced further serious challenges when it was decided to carry out a major defence review. Beetham had ensured that the senior appointments on the Air Staff were filled by the brightest men of that RAF generation. Thus he was well-equipped to fight the RAF’s corner, which he did with considerable skill, tenacity and resolve, during the “Nott Review”.
While major issues such as the purchase of Trident and the deployment of cruise missiles were being debated at Chiefs of Staff level, there were many RAF matters also engaging his attention. The Tornado had just entered service and he had to defend it against much unjustified criticism in the early days. The RAF’s air defence posture was also far from satisfactory and the purchase of helicopters and development of the transport force were other important issues. He was also determined to build up the RAF Regiment and the revived Royal Auxiliary Air Force which had been cut in the 1957 Defence White Paper.
He was nearing retirement when the Argentine forces invaded the Falkland Islands on April 2 1982. As Admiral Sir Terence Lewin was in Australia for defence talks, Beetham was acting Chief of Defence Staff. He was undoubtedly vexed by the direct approach made by Admiral Leach, the First Sea Lord, to the Prime Minister, without any prior consultation with his fellow Chiefs, during which he convinced her that the islands could be retaken by an amphibious-led assault.
He put this episode aside, however, and set about energetically drawing up plans on how the RAF could be involved most effectively. At the heart of this was Beetham’s concern that the RAF should make a direct operational contribution and not be confined solely to the re-supply of men and materials. He put the whole of the RAF’s transport fleet on standby, despatched Nimrods to Ascension Island and pressed successfully for the employment of RAF Harriers from the Navy’s aircraft carriers.
With his knowledge of strategic bombing and his expertise on air-to-air refuelling, he instructed his staffs to assess if a bombing attack against Port Stanley Airfield was feasible. He appreciated that there was little prospect of inflicting lasting, or major, damage but he believed such an attack, mounted at extreme range – the longest bombing operation from base to target at the time – would send a clear message to the Argentines that air power based on Ascension Island could pose a major threat to mainland Argentina, in addition to boosting the morale of the islanders.
He realised that such an attack was an especially demanding undertaking for his Vulcan bomber and Victor tanker crews but he pushed for it in the face of some scepticism in Whitehall.
A bomber crew of 35 Squadron pose with their Lancaster aircraft: Flight Lieutenant Michael Beetham is in the centre of the line
For Beetham, the operation was a potent illustration of the case for the strategic impact and flexibility of air power which he had argued for during the previous year’s defence review, and a confirmation that the qualities of daring and courage which he had experienced in Bomber Command during his time as a Lancaster pilot in the Second World War were still present in the service which he led. His personal staffs later recalled that at the moment he learned of the success of the operation, his eyes filled with tears and he beat his hand with his fist, a rare display of emotion.
A few months after the end of the Falklands conflict, Beetham handed over the reins to his successor and retired from the service.
The son of Major G C Beetham MC, Michael James Beetham was born on May 17 1923 in London and educated at St Marylebone Grammar School. He volunteered for the RAF in 1941 and trained as a pilot in the USA under the US/UK bi-lateral Arnold Scheme.
On his return to England, Beetham trained on Lancasters, an aircraft he would describe later in his life as the one for which he had the greatest affection. He joined Bomber Command’s No 50 Squadron in November 1943 just as the Battle of Berlin had got under way and flew his Lancaster to the city no fewer than ten times. He also flew on the disastrous raid to Nuremberg on the night of March 30/31 1944 when 96 of the bomber force failed to return. Such losses had a profound affect on the 20-year-old Beetham.
Although his bomber was damaged by anti-aircraft fire on a number of occasions, he faced his greatest danger on a training flight when he and his crew were forced to bale out of their burning Lancaster. He went on to survive 30 operations over Germany when the losses were at their highest. Assessed as an outstanding pilot, he was awarded the DFC for his gallantry and leadership.
After a period training bomber crews, he returned to operations as the war ended and dropped food supplies to the starving Dutch population during April and May 1945.
Offered a permanent commission in the peacetime RAF, Beetham served at HQ Bomber Command. In August 1949 he assumed command of No 82 Squadron flying Lancasters on photographic survey and aerial mapping for the Colonial Office in East and West Africa.
In 1953 he moved to the operational requirements branch in the Air Ministry where the issues of bringing the three V-bombers into service took up much of his time. He was closely involved in drafting the specification for the TSR 2 aircraft, and its subsequent cancellation was, in his view, a grave mistake. During this period he attended the 1956 atomic weapons trials at Maralinga, Australia, where he witnessed the four tests. This experience had a major influence on his later strategic thinking and the employment of nuclear weapons.
Beetham joined the V-Force in 1958 when he was given command of No 214 Squadron operating the Valiant. The squadron was about to embark on air-to-air refuelling trials. He recognised the strategic significance this capability afforded for projecting air power at extreme range and he strove to perfect the flying techniques and procedures. A year later he felt ready to demonstrate the value of this additional capability with a number of special long-distance flights.
On July 9 1959 he and his crew took off from Marham in Norfolk and headed for South Africa. Refuelling in flight twice, they arrived over Cape Town after a flight of 11 hours 28 minutes. A few days later they returned in just over 12 hours. These two non-stop flights broke the speed record for the distance and provided a convincing demonstration of the feasibility and potential of air-to-air refuelling. For his work, Beetham was awarded the AFC.
Then almost totally a Bomber Command man, Beetham spent the next four years in senior staff appointments working for some of the Command’s most dedicated and forthright commanders. These challenging times included the Cuban missile crisis and the shooting down of Gary Powers over the Soviet Union, an incident which exposed the vulnerability of the Valiants and other V-force aircraft to a new generation of Soviet Missiles. The cancellation of Skybolt and the acquisition of Polaris, which led to the transfer of the UK’s strategic nuclear deterrent capability to the Royal Navy, had major implications for Bomber Command and he was deeply involved in the staff work.
Identified as heading for the top of his service, there was a need to broaden his experience. So, in 1964, he was sent to Aden to command Khormaksar, then the RAF’s largest operational base, operating a wide variety of tactical and transport aircraft, but no bombers. His arrival coincided with the start of a major terrorist campaign against British forces and his squadrons were in action over Radfan and in support of ground forces throughout the troubled colony.
After two years as the Director of Strike Operations in MOD, Beetham took command of the RAF’s Staff College at Bracknell. In August 1972, he became Assistant Chief of Staff (Plans and Policy) at SHAPE, an appointment that over a number of years attracted the RAF’s most capable senior officers. He worked under the charismatic and bullish American General Al Haig and his work was at the heart of Nato policy making, in particular the nuclear planning aspects. This unique opportunity to work in the international arena was to prove a great asset in his future appointments.
After a period as the Deputy C-in-C at Strike Command, he left in January 1976 to be the C-in-C of RAF Germany and Commander Second Allied Tactical Air Force. His RAF squadrons were in the midst of a major aircraft re-equipment programme and there was great emphasis on the ability of his airbases to survive any pre-emptive attack.
This exposure to tactical operations and integrating his squadrons’ capabilities with those of other Allied air and land forces was invaluable when he took up his appointment as CAS. Beetham always maintained that his time in Germany was one of his most challenging and satisfying.
Throughout his career, Beetham was determined to keep flying and remain abreast of current capabilities and tactics. He was a very determined man who dominated his service during his time as CAS giving it strong leadership. He fought tenaciously for the RAF’s cause and was unafraid of taking a combative stance if he felt it necessary. No detail escaped his attention, and he was always the master of his brief.
At heart, and more privately, he was an intensely loyal and compassionate man. He was, however, a product of his generation in not overtly displaying that latter quality. Indeed, he was seen by some as an authoritarian figure, not a natural communicator, and he never sought popularity but he was considered by many to be one of the RAF’s strongest and most influential Cold War chiefs.
After retiring from the RAF, Beetham’s services and experience were much in demand. For four years he was chairman of GEC Avionics but the RAF remained his greatest love. For many years he continued to have an influence on numerous service issues, all with a view to improving its capabilities and public image.
He joined the Board of the RAF Museum at Hendon in 1984 at a time when it was emerging from the growing pains of early expansion. The addition of the Battle of Britain and the Bomber Command Halls had over-extended its finances. Beetham was determined to ensure the debts were covered but the fund-raising strategy he inherited was fatally flawed. In characteristically vigorous style, and with the help of key trustees, he negotiated for the debt to be paid through a loan agreement with HM Treasury.
Prince Charles receiving his parachute wings from Sir Michael Beetham, the then Chief of the Air Staff, in 1978
With the survival of the museum in question, Beetham’s consistent support of the organisational changes introduced by a new director secured its future. With the foundations laid, he retired in 2000 after 15 years as chairman. In recognition of his significant service the Trustees named their new conservation centre at RAF Cosford after him in 2002.
Determined to put the RAF’s history on a formal footing, he was a leading instigator in the formation of the RAF Historical Society in 1986 and remained the society’s president until his death. He also gave great support to the RAF Club in Piccadilly and was a long-serving president who took a close interest in the club’s affairs.
For many years he was president of the Bomber Command Association. He was instrumental in the erection of a statue to his wartime chief, Sir Arthur Harris, at the RAF Church of St Clement Danes in London. After it became apparent that successive governments would not sanction a Bomber Command Medal, he poured his energy and influence, into the creation of a major memorial to all the lost aircrew of the Command. Despite failing health, he was determined to see the culmination of his efforts and he was able to attend the dedication of the memorial by the Queen in Green Park in July 2012.
Beetham never forgot his lost comrades. In 1981 he unveiled a memorial on the site of his old airfield at Skellingthorpe near Lincoln, which commemorates the 1,984 men killed flying from the airfield. He was assiduous at attending annual reunions, on one occasion meeting up with four men of his old crew who had not seen each other since the end of the war.
A keen golfer and tennis player in his younger days, and in retirement a captain of the Royal Norfolk Golf Club, Beetham was appointed CBE (1967), KCB (1976) and GCB (1978). He was a Deputy Lieutenant of Norfolk, was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Aeronautical Society (1982), and was an Honorary Liveryman of the Guild of Air Pilots and Air Navigators. He was awarded the Polish Order of Merit in 1998.
Michael Beetham married Patricia Lane in 1956 and she survives him with their son and daughter.