Marshal of the Royal Air Force Sir Michael James Beetham, GCB, CBE, DFC, AFC, FRAeS, (17 May 1923 – ) was a World War II bomber pilot and a high-ranking commander in the Royal Air Force from the 1960s to the 1980s.
At present, Beetham is one of only four people holding his Service’s most senior rank and excluding Prince Philip’s honorary rank, Beetham has the longest time in rank, making him the senior Marshal of the Royal Air Force.
Beetham was born in London and educated at St. Marylebone Grammar School.
As a young man he witnessed the Battle of Britain from the ground which prompted him to join the RAF in May 1941. Following flying training in the United States and Great Britain, he was assigned flying duties with 50 Squadron just prior to the Battle of Berlin. During the Battle, Beetham flew his Lancaster on bombing missions over Berlin 10 times. In a raid over Augsburg he lost an engine and he survived the Nuremberg Raid in which many Bomber Command aircraft were destroyed. In February 1944, whilst Beetham was on a training flight, one of his aircraft’s engines caught fire. Beetham and his crew bailed out, landing by parachute near East Kirkby; Beetham then joined the Caterpillar Club. In May 1944, at the end of his first operational tour, Beetham was posted to a flying instructor role. Beetham returned to operation duties with 57 Squadron just as the war in Europe was coming to an end. He was involved in the repatriation of prisoners-of-war.from Germany and Italy. In November 1945, just after the end of World War II, Beetham was posted to 35 Squadron which was then selected to carry out the victory fly-pastover London and conduct a good-will tour of the United States.
In 1953, Beetham was posted to the Air Ministry’s Operational Requirements Branch. Much of his time was taken up with the problems of bringing the V-bombers into service. Notably, Beetham also drafted the first specification for the TSR 2. Beetham’s next appointment was as the Personal Staff Officer to Task Force Commander of Operation Buffalo. The open-air nuclear test explosions witnessed by Beetham led him to the view that it would be very difficult to limit the extent of a nuclear war once it began.
Beetham was promoted to wing commander in 1958 and he then took up the post of Officer Commanding 214 Squadron. In July 1959 Wing Commander Beetham captained the first aircraft, a Valiant bomber, to fly non-stop from the UK to Cape Town.
After several staff tours during which time he was promoted to Group Captain, Beetham was appointed Station Commander RAF Khormaksar (in Aden) in November 1964. At the time of his arrival, Khormaksar was the RAF’s largest overseas base and markedly overcrowded. That December saw the start of a major terrorist campaign against British forces in Aden (the Aden Emergency) and over the next two years Beetham spent considerable time dealing with the security of his overcrowded station. However the security problems did not prevent the aircraft based at Khormaksar being used on operations in the neighbouring region of Radfan or being a major staging post to the Far East and elsewhere.
He left Khormaksar in 1967 as an air officer and more senior appointments followed. These included: Commandant of the RAF Staff College at Bracknell, Assistant Chief of Staff (Plans and Policy) at SHAPE, Deputy Commander-in-Chief of Strike Command and Commander-in-Chief RAF Germany and the Second Tactical Air Force. Final Tour
Beetham’s final tour saw him appointed as the Chief of the Air Staff. As the professional head of his Service, Beetham defended the decision to introduce the strike version of the Tornado and supported the introduction of the Airborne Early Warning Nimrod which was later cancelled. He also worked to build up the RAF’s reserve forces. Towards the end of his tenure as Chief of the Air Staff, the Argentine invasion of the Falkland Islands occurred. Beetham was involved in the decision to send the Task Force to the South Atlantic. When Beetham relinquished his appointment in October 1982 he had served for more than five years, making him the longest serving Chief of the Air Staff since Trenchard.
As a Marshal of the Royal Air Force, Beetham remains on the RAF’s active list, although for practical purposes he retired in 1982. In the 1980s and 90s Beetham was Chairman of GEC Avionics. Michael Beetham held the appointment of Honorary Air Commodore of No 2620 Squadron, Royal Auxiliary Air Force Regiment from 1983 to 2001. He was also Chairman of Trustees of the RAF Museum, between 1983 and 1999. The museum’s conservation centre is named the Michael Beetham Conservation Centre in his honour. Beetham is also President of the Bomber Command Association.