REVIEW – Bolts from the Blue: From Cold War Warrior to Chief of the Air Staff

2 mins read

By Sir Richard Johns
Published by Grub Street

Sir Richard Johns
Grub Street, £25 (hbk)

Air Chief Marshal Sir Richard Johns’ book can, in essence, be divided into two distinct sections: his ‘junior’ and ‘senior’ officer days, and then his days shouldering the responsibilities of air rank, culminating in his appointment as Chief of the Air Staff.

Yet whatever rank he bore, his love of flying and of the Royal Air Force shines through whatever else he recounts.

Sir Richard carried out his training on Piston Provost and Meteor aircraft, graduated from the Royal Air College, Cranwell, in 1959, and flew his first operational tour on the Javelin all-weather/night-fighter. He then served as ADC to the Commandant at Cranwell, before being posted to Aden on the Hunter and operating over the inhospitable mountains and deserts of the Arabian Peninsula – a period which gave him great professional and personal satisfaction.

After training as a flying instructor (QFI) at Little Rissington, he instructed on the Gnat trainer, then, back again at Cranwell, on the Jet Provost. There he taught a young Prince Charles, a student pilot of whom Sir Richard thought highly.

Following Staff College, he was posted to the Harrier force in Germany, and he gives the reader a fascinating insight into the distinctive way of operating this unique jet, writing of both the pure piloting skills of flying the aircraft and of the tactics used in the event of a potential break out from the east of Warsaw Pact armour. He was later to command the RAF Germany Harrier (and Helicopter) Force.

Now rising rapidly through the ranks, during the 1990s he held several senior national and NATO posts. His involvement in the First Gulf War and the protection of the Kurds, and later in the Balkans, makes for fascinating reading.

In 1997, Sir Richard was appointed Chief of the Air Staff . He reveals the trials of bearing ultimate responsibility for the efficiency and morale of the Service, the constant battle against those who viewed the armed forces as, at best, a necessary but expensive arm of government.

The sheer diversity of his responsibilities is reflected in the number of acronyms used to add detail to his functions at this high level. The annex listing the abbreviations runs to 175 entries!

Sir Richard retired from the RAF in 2000 and was appointed by the Queen as Constable and Governor of Windsor Castle, a position which he held until 2008. He was also appointed in 2000 as Honorary Air Commodore of the RAF Regiment.

Sir Richard’s book, with its good selection of photographs, is a truly excellent read, with his honesty, integrity, sense of humour, and willingness to recount tales of when he has been the butt of a joke shining throughout. He reveals much about the Cold War hitherto unpublished.

If I was to make one very minor criticism of the book it would be of the picture selected for the front cover, which portrays a rather glum-looking Sir Richard in full-dress uniform, complete with sword, medals, decorations, and shoulder-draped greatcoat. This is a disservice to the great aviation character the book reveals he most certainly was.

Review by Colin Pomeroy

This article was published in the December 2019 issue of Military History Matters. To find out more about subscribing to the magazine, click here.

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