The Cold War and the Tactical Signals Units

The ' Cold War' 1948 - 1990

TSU and Twin Pioneer based at RAF Eastleigh, Nairobi

The Cold War and the development of Tactical Communications Units

Operation Musketeer, Suez Canal, 1956

After the ill-fated Suez Crisis in 1956, Operation Musketeer, the British government and the RAF recognised the need for dedicated Command and Control capability – C2 – and the need to provide deployable support to air operations in ‘Out of Area’ locations. As the US had acknowledged that they broke into British cryptographic systems during the deployment, it was deemed imperative that British Forces had their own secure communications.

Development of Tactical Signals Units In 1962

22 TSU FFR Landrovers, Fujairah 1971
Air Support Detachment, Royal Signals

The 38 Group Support Unit was formed to support the UK based Expeditionary Forces within the RAF. It was based at RAF Odiham, with the responsibility for all areas of operational deployment, including a Signals element. In December 1964, the Support Unit moved to RAF Tangmere with the addition of 180 personnel from 638 Signals Troop. As a direct result of the defence cuts in the early seventies, 22 Tactical Signals Unit and 6 Tactical Signals Unit was disbanded, consequentially 38 Group Support Unit assumed global responsibility for the RAF’s expeditionary signals.


Following WWII, 6 Tactical Signals Unit had been based in the Far East and Singapore, having been involved in both the Malaysian and Borneo conflicts.  


22 Tactical Signals Unit had been based in the Middle East, and had spent time at Steamer Point and Khormaksar, during the Aden Emergency.


Since early RAF deployments, it had become apparent that Deployable communications played a significant part of the RAF’s capability, and in 1965 the 38 Group Support Unit re-organised to consist of separate Admin and Signals Support Units, collectively known as No. 50 Tactical Signals Unit and responsible for the delivery of communications support within the 38 Group.

50 Tactical Signals Unit

RA17 Long Haul HF Communications.
50 TSU ComCen and Radio Cabin
50 TSU Air Transportable Radio Communication Equipment

50 Tactical Signals Unit was organised into three flights:

 Long Range Communications Flight, Base Communications Flight and Brigade Air Support Operations. Long Range Communications Flight covered long haul communications back to UK, using a mixture of HF communications cabins, ARC radios, KWM2A, 30Li and RA17 Radios. They normally deployed to exotic locations overseas – ‘jollies’ – such as Ascension, Thailand and Melbourne, Australia. They were usually short of manpower and were often supplemented with Base Communications Flight personnel. 


Base Communications Flight handled the airhead local area communications such as Flight Watch for the tactically deployed aircraft and localised communications on airfields.


Brigade Air Support Operations were responsible for supporting Airborne and Air Mobile Brigades and carried out airfield communication between aircraft and ground Units. Nine members of this team were parachute qualified and often jumped with the Brigade Air Liaison officer as communications support. Candidates had to serve on the Unit for at least a year before applying for the role and the competition for these positions was fierce – in the five years Brigade Air Support Operations existed, only 35 members were parachute trained.


In addition, elements of 38 Group were also allocated to 604 FACS, 24 Air Portable Brigade, using Larkspur C11/R210 and A13 HF radios, A43 UHF radios. All of which were installed in LWB Landrover and Trailer combinations.

Tactical Communications Wing.

TCW Deployed Comcen, and Siemens TARE
Radio Operator and Long Haul HF Communications
244 Larkspur FFR Vehicle
TCW Air Operations Centre and Navigational Aids Deployment
TRMS, Base Support Squadron, Brize Norton,1988
TCW Feild Communication Sqn deployed FHU site
C-130 Hercules lands at an arrid airstrip in Africa, under TACATC control
TCW ConCommEx Flight Watch
VSC 501 Dish

During the 1960s and 70s, to meet changing requirements, there were several amalgamations and re-organisations across the RAF, culminating in the forming of Tactical Communications Wing (TCW) in 1969.

Utilising Larkspur, Clansman, and long-haul HF radio equipment, TCW’s remit within the Cold War was to support elements of the UK’s Joint Reaction Force. They used Fitted for Radio (FFR) vehicles to provide dedicated tasking nets. These were classed as high priority targets, so they were constantly on the move to prevent being ‘direction found’ and to keep up with the battlefield. The Unit remained at a high readiness state to support ‘early entry operations’ – for example to secure a landing point or to provide an initial military capability. TCW also operated and maintained transportable tactical communications and information systems to support RAF squadrons and units deployed worldwide on UN operations or as part of NATO’s Reaction Forces. TCW was split into two areas: Base Support Squadron and Field Communications Squadron.

Base Support Squadron provided operational planning, administrative services, and engineering support. It also provided the personnel and equipment to deploy and operate the full range of airfield navigation aids plus generators. They held 250 generators and one of the large communication security accounts in the RAF, plus 300 vehicles and trailers and 2 Harley Davidson motor bikes.

Field Communications Squadron provided the manpower to meet the deployed operational and exercise commitments in addition to a HQ flight. It was itself split into four sections: Allied Command Europe Mobile Force (AMF), UK Mobile Force (UKMF) and Tactical Air Traffic Control Flight (TACATC).

ACE Mobile Force was created in 1960 as a small multinational force, which could be sent at short notice to any threatened part of Allied Command Europe. It demonstrated the solidarity of the Alliance and its ability and determination to resist all forms of aggression against any member of the Alliance. Within ACE Mobile Force, the Tactical Communications Wing supported Close Air Support missions and heavy lift aircraft in the form of Jaguars, Harriers, Chinooks, and Pumas. All ACE Mobile Force personnel were deployed every year on an arduous, three-month exercise called HARD FALL where they had to provide battlefield communications to the RAF Squadrons in support of ground forces. These were tough – before deploying to Norway, ACE Mobile Force personnel were required to undertake Arctic warfare training in Scotland.

UK Mobile Force as a Flight within the Tactical Communications Wing supported battlefield helicopters, the Support Helicopter Force, of 33 and 230 Squadrons (Puma) and 7 and 18 Squadrons (Chinook).

Prior to Operation CORPORATE 1982 and Operation GRANBY in 1990, most of UK Mobile Force deployments were fully tactical exercises, sometimes supporting the Support Helicopter Force but more usually a Tactical Communications Wing /244 Tactical Communications Exercise. These tended to follow a pattern: TAC 2 normally deployed in February to Germany, TAC 3 in March to Denmark, TAC 6 in June to Norway, TAC 10 and TAC 11 to Denmark and/or Germany. All deployments were alongside 244 Signals detachment, which provided the Brigade HQ Communications (Main and Alternative) and Mobile Air Operations Teams. The aim was to always remain mobile; when the HQ (Square formation) was established, the Alternative (Diamond formation) would be on the move. This was to prevent the force from being located and then destroyed by their enemy.

TACATC provided tactical air traffic control and landing zone safety for airborne exercises; they were parachute qualified and able to operate with 5 Airborne Brigade and Special Forces to set up tactical airstrips in support of forward operations.

In addition to supporting operations, Tactical Communications Wing had to maintain its own standards, and so practiced inhouse evaluations. This was done through Tactical Communications Exercises, a series of internally generated and coordinated exercises. The high point was the annual Contingency Communications Exercise (ConComEx) where, under Joint Theatre plans, Tactical Communications Wing and both its Navy and Army counterparts would deploy and set up communications in any part of the World. Locations have included the Caribbean, Zimbabwe and the Far East.

With the introduction of tactical data links in the 1990’s, the Tactical Communications Wing created a flight that was responsible for the deployment of high-speed data links and the revolutionary VSC 501 satellite terminal. The data links personnel provided the backbone for the two 501s deployed in support of the Armoured Brigades during the Gulf War in 1991. With the requirement to support further satellite links during the war, the flight was expanded and supplemented with personnel from all the other flights. This was to shape the Tactical Communications Wing for the future, and it was renamed Strategic Communications Flight after the conflict.

Changing the Flights to Squadrons

Tac4 Cyprus 1990

With ever-increasing demands being placed on expeditionary communications, MOD approved the expansion of the Tactical Communications Wing in line with sweeping reforms to the British forces. This change in manpower brought about massive changes to the ethos Tactical Communications Wing; with each flight allocated similar equipment and capabilities thus eradicating the need for the old flight structures.



The Cold War

RAF Belvedere, Borneo
Borneo Foward Operations Base
Steamer Point Aden
RAF Belize, Exercise MAYAN SWORD
RAF Chinooks at a TCW & TSW Forward Operation Base,
RAF Phantoms and Deployable Communications Cabins
RAF Lyneham, C130 PAN
Harrier Deployment, Germany
Purple Warrior Landing Fleet, 1987
Ex Purple Monarch, HMS Ark Royal, Gibraltar, 1992
C130 Hercules, Tactical Air Land Operations, TALO
Nuclear Accident Reaction Organisation. NARO deployment
The Cold War was waged on political, economic, and propaganda fronts post World War II between NATO, the Soviet Union, and their respective allies.  Following the surrender of Nazi Germany in May 1945 the uneasy wartime alliance between the United States and Great Britain and the Soviet Union on the other began to unravel. By 1948 the Soviets had installed left-wing governments in the countries of eastern Europe that had been liberated by the ‘Red Army’. The Americans and the British feared the permanent Soviet domination of eastern Europe and the threat of Soviet-influenced communist parties coming to power in the democracies of western Europe. The Soviets, on the other hand, were determined to maintain control of eastern Europe to safeguard against any possible renewed threat from Germany and were intent on spreading communist ideology across the world. By 1947–48, the Cold War had solidified, when aid provided under the ‘Marshall Plan’ to western Europe had cemented Western relationships and sphere of influence, and the Soviets had continued to support puppet regimes across the USSR, Eastern Bloc and countries with similar communist philosophies, both financial and militarily. From 1953 to 1957 Cold War tensions eased, following the death of Joseph Stalin in 1953; nevertheless, the standoff remained. A unified military organization among the Soviet-bloc countries, the Warsaw Pact, was formed in 1955; and West Germany was admitted into NATO that same year. Another intense stage of the Cold War was in 1958–62. The United States and the Soviet Union began developing intercontinental ballistic missiles, and in 1962 the Soviets began secretly installing missiles in Cuba that could be used to launch nuclear attacks on U.S. cities. This sparked the Cuban missile crisis (1962), a confrontation that brought the two superpowers to the brink of war before an agreement was reached to withdraw the missiles. The Cuban missile crisis showed that neither the United States nor the Soviet Union were ready to use nuclear weapons for fear of the other’s retaliation (and thus of mutual atomic annihilation). The two superpowers soon signed the Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty of 1963, which banned aboveground nuclear weapons testing. But the crisis also hardened the Soviets’ resolve, and they began a build-up of both conventional and strategic forces that the NATO was forced to match for the next 25 years. Throughout the West and the USSR avoided direct military confrontation in Europe and engaged in a protracted ‘stand-off’ across Cold War borders. To prevent Eastern bloc allies from defecting to the West. The Soviet Union deployed troops to preserve communist rule in East Germany in 1953, Hungary (1956), Czechoslovakia (1968), and Afghanistan (1979). For its part, the United States helped overthrow a left-wing government in Guatemala in 1954, supported an unsuccessful invasion of Cuba (1961), invaded the Dominican Republic (1965) and Grenada (1983), and undertook a long (1964–75) and unsuccessful effort to prevent communist North Vietnam from bringing South Vietnam under its influence. The 1970s saw an easing of Cold War tensions as evinced in the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) that led to the SALT I and II agreements of 1972 and 1979, respectively, in which the superpowers set limits on their antiballistic missiles and on their strategic missiles capable of carrying nuclear weapons. That was followed by a period of renewed Cold War tensions in the early 1980s as the two superpowers continued their massive arms build-up and competed for influence in the Third World. In the late 1980s the Cold War began to break down during the administration of Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev. He dismantled the totalitarian aspects of the Soviet system and began efforts to democratise the Soviet political system. When communist regimes in the Soviet-bloc countries of eastern Europe collapsed in 1989–90, Gorbachev acquiesced in their fall. The rise to power of democratic governments in East Germany, Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia was quickly followed by the unification of West and East Germany under NATO sponsorship.
NBC Trench, 1970
Harrier and TCW Deployment area, Hullavington
58 pattern Webbing and SLR, Proteus 1988
MCSU field kitchen
NBC decontamination area.
Tricky Canter Vehicle Line-Up, H90
Support Helicopter HQ Detachment, Germany
FHU Support Helicopter Tasking Net, Germany, 1988
Purple Warrior Landing Craft, West Freugh, 1987
Platinum Mercury, ConComEX ComCen, Trinidad 1990
Chinook Heli-lift FHU Landrovers
Falcon Node Deployment

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization, NATO

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization, OTAN, Organisation du traite de L’Atlantique nord, has 28 European and 2 North American member states. It was founded in response to the threat posed by the Soviet Union. This is partially true as the Alliance’s creation was part of a broader effort to serve three purposes: deterring Soviet expansionism, forbidding the revival of nationalist militarism in Europe through a strong North American presence on the continent, and encouraging European political integration.

The aftermath of World War II saw much of Europe devastated, approximately 36.5 million Europeans had died in the conflict, 19 million of them civilians. Refugee camps and rationing dominated Europe.

Communists aided by the Soviet Union were threatening elected governments across Europe. In February 1948, the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia, with covert backing from the Soviet Union, overthrew the democratically elected government. Then, in reaction to the democratic consolidation of West Germany, the Soviets blockaded Allied-controlled West Berlin in a bid to consolidate their hold on the German capital. The success and heroism of the Berlin Airlift provided future Allies with some solace, but hardship and poverty remained a significant threat to freedom and stability.

After much debate, the North Atlantic Treaty was signed on 4 April, 1949. In the Treaty’s well-known Article 5, the Allies agreed

“an armed attack against one or more of them… shall be considered an attack against them all” and that following such an attack, each Ally would take “such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force”


The UK has been a key member of NATO since 1949, with it being Europe’s largest contributor, with a percentage of Gross Domestic Product, GDP being allocated to its upkeep. Prior to the cessation of hostilities in 1991, the UK deployed forces across the Cold War border with troops, equipment and aircraft located in Germany, Belgium, and the Netherlands. 

During this time, additional forces, up to 50,000 personnel, were deployed by AMF, UKMF, the RAF and member states on numerous multinational mobilisations during this period on exercises such as Lion Heart, Crusader, Bold Guard and Bold Grouse.  Tactical Communications Wing and its TSU predecessors therefore maintained a high readiness state as part of the UK and JRRF commitment.

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RAF Activities and Background