Marham’s Shiny Two set to take their turn in Afghanistan

PUBLISHED: 09:49 09 January 2014 | UPDATED: 10:05 09 January 2014

Wing Commander Jez Holmes. Picture: Matthew Usher.

Wing Commander Jez Holmes. Picture: Matthew Usher.

© Archant Norfolk 2014

A Norfolk Tornado squadron is set to take its turn providing air support to allied ground troops in Afghanistan.

Sqn Ldr Bryn Williams with his wife Rachel, and two daughters Alice (2) and Naomi (5). Picture: Matthew Usher. Sqn Ldr Bryn Williams with his wife Rachel, and two daughters Alice (2) and Naomi (5). Picture: Matthew Usher.

Members of Marham-based II(AC) Sqn – known as Shiny Two –welcomed friends and family to the base to highlight the support which will be on offer to the loved ones they leave behind, after a farewell blessing from the padre.

Around 100 airmen and women from the 101-year-old squadron, which is believed to be the world’s oldest, will carry on its proud traditions using aircraft and technology their forebears could not even have dreamt of, as their canvas biplanes battled the Hun above the First World War trenches.

Wing Cdr Jez Holmes, II(AC)’s commanding officer, said: “They’re a strong squadron, a great bunch of people. We’re well prepared and ready to go.

“The context for each deployment changes, even though you’re going back to the same country, to achieve the same aims.

Shiny Two’s proud history

Formed as an “army co-operation” squadron before the First World War, II(AC) Sqn – known as Shiny Two – can claim to be the world’s oldest.

Its biplanes saw service on the Somme, Ypres and Western Front in the 1914-18 conflict, and were the first to fly the English Channel to France to take part in operations.

During the Second World War it flew Lysanders, Tomahawks, Mustangs and Spitfires over Europe. The squadron remained in Germany after the war, flying Phantoms and Jaguars.

By the first Gulf War, in 1991, it was equipped with the new Tornado when it took part in strikes on Iraqi airfields and Scud missiles.

After the conflict ended, the RAF drew down its force in Germany and II(AC) moved to Marham, where it has been based ever since.

As well as the second Gulf War, in 2003, II(AC) also played a leading role in the 2011 Libyan conflict, flying sorties from its Norfolk base to attack air defences and armoured vehicles.

This deployment will be the final one for the II(AC) as a Tornado squadron. When it returns from Afghanistan later this year, it will disband and reform as a Typhoon Squadron based at RAF Lossiemouth.

“Air power is our asymmetric advantage over there, it’s something the insurgents don’t have. The Tornado can get from one end of the country to the other pretty quickly.”

As well as speed, the sleek jets which train over the Norfolk countryside have aerial imaging equipment which can enable experts from Marham’s imaging wing to spot areas of recently-disturbed soil which could indicate an IED (improvised explosive device) has been placed.

Where a low-level show of force fails to deter insurgents from attacking ground forces, the aircraft also pack a devastating punch.

From the men and women who fly them to those who keep them in the skies, the mood in the far-flung hangar was buoyant as squadron members’ thoughts turned from their adopted home amid the sugar beet fields to the job ahead.

“I’ve got people who are going on their 13th deployment,” said Wing Cdr Holmes. “I’ve got people going on their first, so it’s different for everyone.”

Sqn Ldr Bryn Williams, one of II(AC)’s flight commanders, was preparing to say goodbye to his wife Rachel and daughters Naomi and Alice, aged five and two.

“You get used to them going away but you never know what life’s going to throw at you while they’re away,” said Mrs Williams, 35.

“Certain aspects get easier, certain aspects get harder. Having children helps as a distraction but it’s also hard being effectively a single parent.”

While 2014 is expected to see the gradual drawing down of combat troops from Afghanistan, the RAF will be expected to offer them a protective umbrella as long as there are boots on the ground.

Sqn Ldr Williams, a 35-year-old Tornado navigator looking forward to his third tour in the war-torn country, said: “We’ll be just as busy. The nature of what we’re doing may change subtly but I expect we’ll be just as busy.”

While Shiny Two gets down to the job in Afghanistan, Marham’s base support squadron swings into action to help those charged with keeping the home fires burning.

Wives and partners can call on Flt Lt Gary Walker and his cohorts to help with everything from housing issues and financial problems, to support for children affected by the absence of a parent.

Out in Afghanistan, during air and ground crews’ down time, II(AC) members will be grappling with the charity challenge they have set themselves – a sponsored 102,000km run, cycle and row marathon in aid of adopted charity the Swaffham and Litcham Home Hospice.

“We all need to do eight to 10k each over the period,” said Tornado navigator and keen runner Flt Lt Deborah Borrie.

“We’ll definitely be doing it.”

Leigh Taylor, project manager with the charity, which provides palliative care and support for 230 people in West Norfolk and the Brecks said: “This kind of support is invaluable.”

The squadron has set up a charity page online for anyone wishing to sponsor it towards its £10,200 target can click here to visit.

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