RAF 100: Ten icons of the air

PUBLISHED: 07:22 31 March 2018 | UPDATED: 15:50 02 April 2018

A Tornado GR4 taking off at RAF Marham. Picture: Ian Burt

A Tornado GR4 taking off at RAF Marham. Picture: Ian Burt

Archant 2017

Choosing ten iconic aircraft from the dozens of types which have flown from RAF airfields in East Anglia is a tricky task. But Trevor Heaton has a go….

a Wellington bomber. Archant librarya Wellington bomber. Archant library

Sopwith Camel

The First World War had only just over seven months to run when the RAF was formed out of the RNAS and RFC. One of the most famous airplanes of the war, this fighter had two synchronised machine guns which made it a formidable adversary in dogfights. It was one of the planes which equipped Nos 51 (HD) and 75 (HD) Squadrons in Norfolk and Suffolk.


The F-35 Lightning aircraft that the new squadron headquarters at RAF Marham will house. Picture: Crown copyright.The F-35 Lightning aircraft that the new squadron headquarters at RAF Marham will house. Picture: Crown copyright.

Sqn Ldr Douglas Bader commanded 242 Sqn when it became one of the first two squadrons to move into RAF Coltishall. Its Hurricanes served in patrols protecting coastal convoys, and were part of the ‘big wing’ strategy based at RAF Duxford during the Battle of Britain.


The most famous RAF aircraft ever? It’s hard to argue against that. Two of the airfields to host this celebrated fighter were Ludham – including 610 Sqn, commanded by the legendary ‘Johnnie’ Johnson – and at Matlaske (or ‘Matlask’ as the RAF had it), including 19 Sqn.

Spitfire in flightSpitfire in flight


Six Wellingtons from RAF Honington took part in the first bombing raid of the war on September 4 1939. They attacked warships at Brunsbuttel, in Schleswig-Holstein, northern Germany. RAF Mildenhall’s 149 Sqn also flew Wellingtons until replaced by Short Stirling bombers in 1941.


The iconic RAF bomber of the Second World War. Regional aerodromes which hosted it included Little Snoring (115 Sqn and 1678 HCU). These two units moved to the north Norfolk airfield from East Wretham.


This fighter-bomber’s locations included West Raynham, where 141 and 239 Sqns were based from 1943 until the end of the war. A reminder of the cost of war came on May 2-3 1945 when a Mosquito from 169 Sqn from RAF Great Massingham was shot down and the crew killed in the last Bomber Command raid of the conflict.


…the English Electric Lightning, that is. RAF Wattisham hosted a succession of squadrons which were equipped with this sleek Cold War aircraft, the only British-built fighter capable of reaching Mach 2. They served at the airfield until 1974.


One of Britain’s Cold War V-Force (alongside the Valiant and Vulcan), which was given the original Operational Requirement of being able to bomb a target ‘from a base which may be anywhere in the world’. RAF Marham saw three Valiant squadrons replaced by Victors in the mid-1960s. The tanker force built on the airfield’s reputation for innovation in air-to-air refuelling, which had been demonstrated by 214 Sqn commander Wing Cdr Michael Beetham in 1959 when he flew from Marham to Cape Town – non-stop. Victors played a vital role in the Falklands War.


We could easily have added RAF Coltishall’s Jaguar to our ‘icons’ list, but we have opted instead for the Tornado, which first arrived at Marham in 1983 with the re-formed 617 Sqn (the Dambusters). Marham Tornados have served in conflicts since the First Gulf War of 1990-91.

F-35 Lightning

Another era, another Lightning. This cutting-edge all-weather joint strike fighter is the replacement for the Tornado and has the capacity to operate at sea as well as on land. The stealth fighter is capable of short takeoff and vertical landing. During training with the aircraft Wing Cdr John Butcher said: “The capabilities and potential of this aircraft are immense and this is a very exciting time to be a fast jet pilot.” The plane, which will be based at Marham from the summer, can fly at Mach 1.6 or more… ten times the speed of the Sopwith Camel.

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