The Flying Circus

Image: Royal Air Force

Hal Wilson’s story “The Flying Circus” was a finalist in the Art of the Future Project’s most recent contest calling for short stories and art exploring the “Third Offset Strategy” through narrative and fiction. Hal graduated in 2013 with first-class honors in War Studies and History from King’s College, London, and works in financial services. Hal has been published by the Center for International Maritime Security, and is also launching a Cold War-themed naval-warfare board game.

1964: HMS Saltash, Royal Naval Air Station, Peshawar –

Chester Richards was a man of many talents. He boasted 15 years’ service in the Royal Navy – mostly spent as a pilot officer with the Royal Naval Air Service. He was a pillar of Peshawar’s frontier society – reigning tennis champion at the Peshawar Club. He was at the tip of the spear in Britain’s long war — its five-decade “Cold War” with Imperial Germany.

Right now he was above all flustered, perspiring at a rate of knots into his flight suit as the Hagelwerfer rockets came racing down into Saltashs perimeter.

“Christ alive, Jim, just let us go already,” he scolded by radio. Richards watched in despair as his crew chief, like some doting mother, diligently gave the jet one last examination.

In the corner of Richards’ eye a racing NAAFI van caught one rocket clean amidships, sending bully beef and shrapnel whickering past his armoured canopy. Jim paled, completing his check with newfound alacrity.

“The Afghans are keen today,” observed Navigator Strachan, Richards’ laconic back-seater. With what seemed suicidal slowness amid the screaming rockets, they taxied onto Saltash’s miraculously unscathed runway.

“Final check,” Richards called, more to distract himself than out of necessity. The needle of his engine gauge obediently hovered in the proper position.

“Flying Circus is set,” Strachan reported after checking his instruments yet again. “They already spotted launches around the Khyber Pass, probably Jamrud again.”

“Roj.” Richards advanced the throttles. The old Bedford Bulldog jet limped reluctantly skyward, bound for the Khyber Pass.

Saltash here,” the base Commodore was on the radio, “Flying Circus Central, do you have them?”

“We do, sir,”

“Good. The Political Officer just got in, spoke to an Orakzai chief. Word is this isn’t just deserters serving the Second Faqir. There will be Germans up there, lads.”

Richards smiled despite himself. He finally had a live test for his concept, his Flying Circus – something the American cousins curiously called a “Third Offset.”


1960: Mediterranean Sea –

Arcing through the azure sky, Richards passed low over La Valetta Harbour, dipping his wings to Malta Dockyard’s assembled escorts.

“Let’s not be too cheeky,” Strachan chided from behind. “Flag Officer’s watching, remember.”

“He better be, him and the Italians and the Germans,” Richards retorted, gliding the Bulldog out to sea.


Richards came up astern of the British exercise flotilla, clustered around HMS Malaya and the conscientious tug towing it. Malaya was still a beautiful thing, with a sleek fo’c’s’le and proud conning tower, a solid 643 feet and £3 million of engineering prowess, built for a war that never came. Or rather, a war that Britain sidestepped. Despite Sir Edward Grey’s tearful oratory in summer 1914, France fought and failed against the Kaiser – alone.


Fifty years hence, the stout old Malaya was beyond aged, bound for an Ottoman breakers’ yard – until one last chance to serve arose. She would be a test bed for the Third Offset that the Americans wrote so much about. The First Offset, the Americans maintain, came when Britain realised the folly of sacrificing France: Costs be damned, Parliament railed, a Second Anglo-German naval race will deter Kaiser Bill! Sure enough, the new master of Europe learned to sheathe his rattling sabre – for a time. The Second Offset, the Americans argue, came when Germany obliterated a patch of occupied Ukraine in a triumphal atomic test: Costs be damned, Parliament railed, the Anglo-German atomic race will deter Kaiser Bill! Sure enough, Britain outstripped Germany’s atomic stockpile. The Third Offset, the Americans theorise, was needed after old Kaiser Bill died in 1950. His successors were pioneering un-gentlemanly new forms of hybrid warfare. Deniable Stoßtruppen units of “little feldgrau men” were riling revolt across the British Empire, waging expansionary war beneath the atomic umbrella. Rumour had it pro-German factions in Italy and Spain were preparing coups.


Even with an Empire stretching from Halifax to Hong Kong, Britain could ill-afford a third vast build-up. Instead, Britain was turning to new technologies in a last bid to rebuff the avaricious Germans – and Richards was pioneering the concept of operations with which to wield them.

Ark Royal to Flying Circus Central, Clay Pigeons are en route to test site, out.” Richards and Strachan fidgeted in their seats, watching for their delivery from Britain’s newest aircraft carrier. They did not have to wait long.

Although carrying the cheapest jet engine their Lordships could buy, the Clay Pigeons were swift as kites thanks to their diminutive frames. Each was less than half the size of Richards’ Bulldog – and less than a third of the cost.

“Flying Circus is in position,” Strachan reported, the flock tracing slow figure-eight tracks.

It wasn’t much to look at. With stubby wings and stunted airframes the Clay Pigeons were inelegant things, flying engines and fuel tanks with hardened penetrator nosecones. But inside, they employed the latest in “microchip” technology. Strachan still reviled that word – Marconi’s revolutionary microchips had made his machinist father unemployed overnight.


“Malaya Control here,” radioed the test controller. “We’re all squared away aboard Greyhound-” one of the flotilla’s destroyers “-remote weapons are online. The tug is coming up to speed, and the Italians are watching. We’ll commence shortly, out.” Richards scanned the northern horizon. As expected, an Italian cruiser was playing peeping tom at the limits of visual range.


The sudden outburst of violence from Malaya brought Richards’ attention closer to home. Erupting upwards came angry tendrils of stitching tracer, and pairs of missiles climbing columns of cotton-wool exhaust. Greyhound’s test crew had jumped the gun with their remote weapons. Behind, Strachan calmly monitored his instruments and took no action.


Outwardly unimpressive, the Clay Pigeons’ real assets were their silicon “brain” and variable-aperture “eye.” The cutting edge of British advances in affordable, learning machines, they autonomously detected Malaya’s new threats and instantly evaded. They catalogued the ship’s missile and gun stations – in case the Bulldog “mothership” was lost to enemy action – before forwarding individual contact reports back to Strachan.

Strachan himself needed only watch as they pirouetted around Malaya’s grasping reach. Darting lines of 20mm gunfire rippled up – and snatched one Pigeon by the wing, sending it crippled and cartwheeling to the ultramarine below.

“Nothing we didn’t expect, we follow the concept,” he reassured Richards up front.

Sixty seconds passed. Richards grimaced as another Pigeon fell at the end of a missile’s contrail.

“Are we ready yet?” he asked.

“Wait out… They’ve each compiled their attack profiles, chief. Execute?”

“Execute, aye.”

Richards and Strachan were the “manned” part of the Royal Naval Air Service’s “man-machine teaming programme.” Their Flying Circus – the constellation of Clay Pigeons – could loiter over a target, identifying and evading threats autonomously, but “pulling the trigger” still came down to human operators.

Instantly, their Flying Circus ceased its dancing, a full half of their number pitching down to strike. Automatically dispersed to port and starboard, they ran clear to the deck, skimming the waves and dividing Malaya’s defensive fires. Strachan seized the chance, adjusting final attack profiles for the remainder still aloft. Racing through Malaya‘s handicapped defences, they struck the veteran amidships, blasting its conning tower – and with it Greyhound‘s radio-link to the Malaya‘s guns – clean off.

Now unmolested, the sea-skimming survivors struck remorselessly. They hammered a single point in the 13-inch waterline on each flank, rupturing through. As if quietly conceding defeat, the tugboat cast off its towing lines as the blazing Malaya took on a final, fatal list.

Richards grinned beneath his chafing flight mask. A glance at his watch to confirm – it had taken just five minutes to scan, survive and sink a target of £3 million for a fraction of the cost. The fundamentals of his concept for the Flying Circus were sound: Britain could trust in cheap, simple swarm attacks to overwhelm even hardened German targets. But this was only half the fight, he knew. Could the Clay Pigeons fix and strike dispersed, discrete targets?


For his part, the captain of the Italian cruiser had already made up his mind. Thinking fearfully of Taranto, his base port, he radioed Rome. Yes, Ammiraglio, the British can sink our battleships with miniature planes… Yes, Ammiraglio, I know it sounds absurd… Ammiraglio, I saw it happen.


1964: Khyber Pass

The Stoßtruppen commandos and their Afghan Army deserters were stripping apart the Hagelwerfer battery with asbestos gloves. The components would go via camel back to Jalalabad, thence to help prod the British feringhees into invading the Afghan quagmire a fourth time.

They only realised they were under attack when, one by one, they and their rocket-launchers came apart in a blizzard of blasts.

Saltash,” Richards called, “Battery destroyed, awaiting the Staffords’ collection team.”

Over his shoulder: “Fancy tennis at the Club this evening?”

“Not bloody likely,” Strachan snorted, “Find some other-” he stopped abruptly. “Threat receiver warning! One, no, two radars – X Band, probably Hurrikans.” Richard’s control panel began wailing.

Saltash,” he grunted, throwing the clumsy Bulldog to the sheltering hills, “the krauts had air defences. Wait out.” Had the Germans laid a trap? Had they waited for a chance to kill and snatch one of Britain’s vaunted Geheimflugzeuge?

He dared a glance behind. One tell-tale shimmer. An incoming missile steadily closed in like a patient reaper.

“Strachan, earn your keep!” Richards despaired. Strachan looked back – swore – and ordered the last Clay Pigeons into action.

Two instantly raced to the aid of the fleeing mothership; the remaining four split up to hunt the offenders. Strachan had told them what to look for, and they remembered the boxy shape of a Hurrikan launcher, typically parked atop flatbed trucks. They scanned the unforgiving terrain – no tell-tale tracks, and their quarry was clearly camouflaged. Wait! One had found the back-blast of what could only be a missile launch. Another was coming under fire from the second launcher. Obediently the contact reports were catalogued; an attack request went to Strachan…

…Strachan eagerly hammered the “EXECUTE” key…

… and the Clay Pigeons hammered the German missile crews.

“The Hurrikans are dead at least,” Strachan glibly noted. Richards, following a ravine as fast as he dared, bit back a choice reply.

The two Pigeons racing to them spotted the German missile, now tracking the Bulldog with its own radar seeker. They were struggling to close the gap. Richards jinked to port on exiting the ravine; the German missile lost speed adjusting its own course… And the Pigeons caught it, colliding clumsily – this was no clean intercept – but sending the German missile tumbling to earth. The Bulldog’s threat receiver ceased wailing.

“Christ alive,” Richards gasped. “Saltash, all Clay Pigeons expended, but the local air defences are cleared. Tell the Staffords to proceed, out.”

“Well,” Strachan chimed in, “we definitely know the bloody things work now.”

Shaking his head, Richards made a mental note. He’d need to change the Flying Circus’ concept of operations. The Clay Pigeons needed longer reception ranges, because he sure as hell wasn’t doing that again.