Book review: Apache Over Libya

Apache Over Libya by Will Laidlaw

With US Marine Corps AH-1W Cobra attack helicopters currently striking targets around the Libyan city of Sirte, the pilots involved will be keenly aware of the British experience of five years ago.

The sophistication of the air defence threat that faced coalition forces in Libya in 2011 – and just how close pro-Gaddafi forces came to shooting down a UK Apache helicopter – has been laid bare in a new memoir.

In his story of the involvement of Apaches from 656 Squadron, Army Air Corps (AAC), Will Laidlaw has produced a remarkably detailed and yet gripping account, outlining how the Apache was rerolled for ship-borne operations and thrown into the Libyan conflict.

Apache 2

While the involvement of HMS Ocean and her embarked Apache attack helicopter crews was widely covered by the general media at the time, the story soon moved on with the fall of Gaddafi forces.

Five years later, it is certainly worth revisiting the wider story of the Apache’s involvement and how the crews training in the Mediterranean were pulled into the Libyan civil war.

To illustrate how key 656 Squadron was to operations, throughout the campaign crews fired 99 Apaches, 4800 rounds of 30mm and 16 rockets across 48 sorties and striking 116 targets.

Nevertheless, Libya’s air defence threat was vastly more sophisticated that what AAC Apache crews had become accustomed to facing in Afghanistan – the campaign that had become the sole focus of many within the command structure (and outlined by former 656 WO1 Ed Macy in his much more two dimensional books Apache and Hellfire).

While the number of chaff and flares fired in self-defence against incoming missiles remains classified, Laidlaw’s account of taking evasive action against radar lock-ons is unnerving.

As well as being an at-times intensely personal account – he soberly explains such aspects as the ever-present strain on the families back home, the comradery of operations, the inevitable banter in times of extreme stress, the boredom – Apache Over Libya is also a story of organisational change.

While many within the Ministry of Defence were highly sceptical of allowing the integration of the Apache for ship-borne operations, the aircraft’s sudden availability to coalition planners when they needed an asset with the ability to strike targets that had previously been able to evade attack from fast jets was ultimately too persuasive.

In many ways it is surprising the MoD has allowed the account to be published. As well as the operational details the book reveals, Laidlaw does not hide his contempt for an organisation that initially stood in the way of ship-borne processes being developed, and then later became too risk adverse to allow further operations to be launched from HMS Ocean.

But given the huge contribution the book makes in our understanding of 656’s role in the defeat of pro-Gaddafi forces in 2011, it would have been a travesty if publication had been stymied in any way.

All proceeds from the sale of the book will be donated to SSAFA and Combat Stress.

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