LIBYA LATEST: RAF Tornado squadrons’ race against time to prevent genocide in Benghazi

Tornado crews knew they were in a race against time to stop Libyan forces reaching Benghazi, as jets took off from their Norfolk base.

The commanding officer of a Marham Tornado squadron told today how air and ground crews knew they were racing against time to prevent a massacre in Libya.

Personnel from Norfolk-based XIII Sqn have flown three 3,000-mile sorties over Libya, attacking air defences, tanks and ammunition dumps to protect civilians from Col Gaddafi's forces.

Tornados were scrambled hours after world leaders agreed to military action, on March 12, as the dictator's forces closed in on Benghazi.

Instead of deploying to a forward operating base, the aircraft fired Storm Shadow cruise missiles in one of the first waves of air strikes.

Wing Cmdr Howie Edwards, XIII's commander, said: 'It's one of the beauties of airpower.

'There's no doubt genocide was about to happen in Benghazi, we knew we needed to get there before his troops did.'

Most Read

Marham-based XIII and IX(B) squadrons have played a leading role in the unfolding conflict, carrying out precision strikes.

'It's tiring, it's exhilarating, it's a lot of planning - and a bit of anxiety when you're crossing the Libyan coast,' said Wing Cmdr Edwards, who took part in one mission where aircraft were ordered to abort to avoid harming civilians.

'We were literally minutes from release, so it was good the call came,' he said. 'You just get a codeword, call off the attack.'

Wing Cmdr Edwards, 39, who comes from Norfolk, joined the RAF in 1994, aged 18. He has flown Tornados with IX(B), XII and XIII squadrons.

'I've flown 2,500 hours,' he said. 'My daughter worked out how many days that was the other night, it's a lot of my life.

'Mind you, they say you spend six months of your life in traffic jams.'

Ground crews have been working around the clock to keep the Tornados in peak condition for their 3,000-mile, eight-hour flights to Libya and back.

'We've been working 24/7 since the op started,' said Sqn Ldr Sean O'Sullivan, XIII's officer commanding engineering.

'I'm ultimately responsible for the airworthiness of all the aircraft but we're not only concerned with the aircraft and making sure it's fit for purpose,' he said.

'We become very fond of our air crew and we want to make sure everything's good and they return safely.'

Both air and ground crews find the operation different to the usual tempo of squadrons deploying to theatre for a tour of duty, leaving their loved ones behind.

Air crews could find themselves doing the shopping by day and taking off on a bombing raid the same evening.

'I was in King's Lynn the other day, upgrading my mobile phone in O2,' said Wing Cmdr Edwards. 'I thought I wonder if those people know what I'm going to do tonight.'

For wives and families, coming home between sorties can be more worrying than when their partners are away - if only because when crews are deployed to theatre, their loved ones never know when they might be in the air.

Operations over Libya are likely to be XIII's final missions, as the squadron is due to disband in June, along with Lossiemouth-based XIV Squadron.

'The news when it came was very sad and we had a couple of days of mourning,' said Wing Cmdr Edwards.

'Everyone knows it had to happen. The good news is most of the people from XIII are just being re-distributed around Marham and elsewhere in the RAF.

'This operation coming along means we're going out on a high, XIII were up there making history right to the end.'