Norfolk pilots’ bravery and fortitude in the “mother of all battles”

Twenty years ago this week, Britain woke up to news that the Gulf War had started.

A huge aerial attack had been launched to try to drive invading Iraqi troops out of Kuwait.

The assault began a more widespread offensive, Operation Desert Storm, and the allies' first aim was to destroy the air force of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein and his anti-aircraft units.

They attacked command and communication centres as well as launchers for Scud missiles as Saddam declared that 'the mother of all battles' had begun.

Led by the US and UK, the military coalition flew more than 100,000 sorties and dropped an estimated 88,500 tons of bombs during the air campaign; the Tornado ground attack jet earned a reputation as the 'warhorse' of the RAF.

The conflict, described as the 'first television war', was followed closely in living rooms around the world. For the first time, viewers watched live pictures of missiles being fired and fighters taking off from aircraft carriers. The media was also used as a propaganda weapon, as Saddam paraded western hostages on state television, threatening to send prisoners-of-war to strategic targets and use them as human shields.

He had invaded Kuwait in August 1990, claiming that state's oil production, much of which found its way to the west, was 'economic warfare'. Sanctions and diplomacy failed to shift Saddam, so on the night of January 17, 1991, the first Gulf War began.

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As the conflict played out after months of tension, Tornado pilots from RAF Marham and their flying machines were lauded as heroes. But they paid the price. Among the PoWs were pilot Flight Lt Dave Waddington and navigator Flight Lt Robbie Stewart, who were shot down by a guided missile two days into the war.

Both were captured and held for six weeks in Baghdad, undergoing brutal interrogation by Saddam's men, and it was not clear initially whether they had survived. And then it emerged they were alive when pictures of them wearing yellow PoW suits were published. The men were reunited at their Norfolk base in March that year, when they teamed up to fly together once again; they went on to have successful RAF careers.

Present Marham station commander Group Captain Peter Rochelle was 10 months out of training and flying as navigator in a Tornado that was hit by anti-aircraft fire during a night-time mission.

'The aircraft rocked and started to fall out of the sky,' he recalls. 'Our mates had ejected and were subsequently PoWS.'

Despite losing equipment, his pilot got them out of trouble and they made it home in a Tornado peppered with bullet holes. 'We left Iraq feeling rather frail with a broken aeroplane,' he said.

As the county looks back on the crucial role that RAF Marham played in that conflict, the station's very future remains unclear. The 5,000 jobs it provides East Anglia and the �100m it contributes to the region's economy came suddenly under threat when the Tory/Liberal Democrat coalition government published the results of its strategic defence review last October.

The base became caught up in the spending cuts and even now faces possible closure as the Ministry of Defence looks to merge the RAF's Tornado fleet – split these days between Marham and RAF Lossiemouth, in Scotland – on a single site.

But supporters of the Norfolk base believe the case for saving Marham, which employs twice as many people as Lossiemouth, is far stronger.

Situated in a more deprived part of the UK, Marham is vital to the local economy, and it would cost at least �50m to move elsewhere the main-tenance facilities that look after the aircraft and their complex weapons and surveillance systems.

Marham is also well placed for the conflict in Afghanistan, since Tornados do not need in-flight fuelling to get to their forward operating base, and because the station's proximity to American airbases at Lakenheath and Milden-hall in Suffolk would allow for greater collaboration in the future.

The Make It Marham Campaign was launched on November 13 and saw two weeks of campaigning to drum up support and show the government the real strength of local feeling.

Last month, those spearheading the campaign, including Norfolk MPs and EDP editor Peter Waters, delivered a 36,751-name petition to Downing Street stating the case for the Norfolk site. From celebrities, including Delia Smith and footballer Darren Huckerby, to shoppers on Norfolk high streets, the Make It Marham campaign united the county as people sought to ensure Norfolk's airbase could still play a pivotal role in the nation's defence.

The government's final decision is expected to be announced in March.