Photo Gallery: RAF Marham welcomes back the last Tornados from operations over Libya

PUBLISHED: 10:39 02 November 2011 | UPDATED: 11:49 03 November 2011

Flt Lt Steve Morris with his dog Jezebel after returning to RAF Marham from operations over Libya. Picture: Ian Burt

Flt Lt Steve Morris with his dog Jezebel after returning to RAF Marham from operations over Libya. Picture: Ian Burt

Archant © 2011

Family and colleagues greet members of IX Squadron as they arrive home.

Norfolk base played leading role

They roared into the skies hours after world leaders agreed to use force to protect the Libyan people against Gaddafi.

Flying its first combat sorties from Norfolk since the second world war, the RAF seized control of the desert skies with precision attacks on anti-aircraft batteries and radar installations.

Then Marham jets joined Nato allies at their forward operating base at Gioia Del Colle, in Italy, from where they took to the air to seek and destroy Libyan ground forces mobilised to smash the uprising.

In contrast with its drawn-out involvement in two Gulf wars and the ongoing nightmare that is Afghanistan, RAF Marham’s involvement in the Libyan conflict was straightforward from the start.

There was a clear exit strategy long before the new flag of free Libya fluttered over Benghazi and Tripoli and Gaddafi’s forces were held at bay in the dictator’s home town of Sirte.

Back at home, the future of the base was less certain.

While Whitehall mandarins decided whether to keep the base open or add it to the growing list of defence cuts, aircraft were taking off on 3,000-mile bombing raids.

Morale remained high despite the announcement that one of the squadrons taking part in the conflict, XIII, was one of two to disband as part of the cutbacks.

Senior officers warned the RAF was “running hot” and becoming over-stretched in July after the initial 90-day operation was extended for a further three months.

“You do the fighting, I’ll do the talking,” replied David Cameron, in a put-down which failed to deflect growing criticism of the cuts from within the ranks.

Col Gaddafi’s air force took the sensible option.

They defected or remained on terra firma, giving Marham crews the run of the skies.

But as the dictator’s forces rounded on rebels and civilians alike, the 16-strong Tornado force flew armed reconnaissance sorties from their adopted home in southern Italy, hunting down his armour to prevent a bloodbath.

Tanks were no match for jets armed with precision weapons and the latest aerial imaging equipment, fine-tuned on training flights over the Norfolk countryside, before being put to use protecting ground troops in Afghanistan.

Bigger targets, like ammunition dumps, radar installations and command dumps were tackled with air-launched Storm Shadow cruise missiles.

When Tornados took off from Norfolk and attacked a Libyan warship, leaving it a smoking hulk in Tripoli harbour, Group Capt Rochelle said: “I feel great pride in having the opportunity to command such an adaptable and capable Tornado force that proves its agility time and time again.”

Those at home might have been forgiven for wondering what more RAF Marham could do to prove its worth as a fighting base, as the debate rumbled on over whether a reduced Tornado force should be based in Norfolk or Scotland.

While politicians talked of regional economies and the number of livelihoods affected, airmen and women were risking their all to save lives and deliver freedom and democracy thousands of miles away.

When the long-awaited and oft-delayed announcement on the base’s future came in July, it came with a caveat.

Marham will remain the Tornados’ main operating base as long as the 600mph jet remains in service. But by 2021, the Tornado is due to be replaced by the new joint strike fighter.

And long before IX Sqdn touched down, a review was under way to see where that will be based.

With a thundering roar the last seven Tornados to leave Italy after flying missions over Libya arrived back on home soil in Norfolk this morning.

The end of the United Nations operation to support rebel forces with air cover means the front line crews from RAF Marham are back on base and preparing for a couple of weeks leave.

Station Commander Gp Capt ‘Rocky’ Rochelle was waiting alongside the runway as the formation of seven split low over Marham before coming into land to be greeted by family and colleagues from IX Sqn.

Two of the jets had a fast turnaround and headed off to Lossiemouth in Scotland where they are stationed, but for the Marham crews it was a welcome homecoming.

“It was a fantastic last mission for Operation Unified Protector and Ellamy. It’s a homecoming for the guys who worked extremely hard,” said Gp Capt Rochelle.

“They have been working all the hours that God sends to makes sure they get over the right area all the time and Libya is a massive country, a huge geographic area,” he added.

The initial Storm Shadow Operation was launched from Marham with crews flying over to Libya in the longest sorties launched from the base since the second world war.

Gp Capt Rochelle said it was the speed of the RAF’s ability to commit to such a mission, and the professionalism with which it had been conducted, which made him “hugely proud” of everyone involved.

“We were asked to turn from our normal training cycle and supporting of Herrick in Afghanistan to turn on a sixpence and turn around and point in the direction of Libya and launch Storm Shadow operations and we did that in a 48-hour turnaround process. Being able to watch those first eight aircraft get airborne and head south for a 3,000 mile round trip - that’s probably got to be a highlight,” he said.

Gp Capt Rochelle travelled to the Italian base of Gioia del Colle two or three times to “see the guys face to face” but was mostly back at Marham running the show in terms of Storm Shadow missions and looking after Operation Herrick.

Navigator Flt Lt Vicki Neighbour, the only female member of IX squadron, returned to Marham yesterday having completed her first operational tour.

“It’s a really good introduction as a first tour because its we did a lot of weapons work which is what we trained for,” she said.

Flt Lt Neighbour said she was “glad to be home” and was planning to head to Scotland to see her baby nephew while she took some leave.

Flt Lt Charlie Thompson has already been back on base for a few weeks as he was allowed to leave Italy and return for his wedding at Ely Cathedral on October 14.

“The RAF allowed one or two of the guys to come over as well. It was really nice,” he said

He was part of operations over Libya for two months and flew 100 hours during that time.

Along with other members of IX Sqn, Flt Lt Thompson was waiting for the final few to return to Marham.

Wng Cmmdr Andy Turk said he was a “little overwhelmed” at his return to base where two of his sons, dressed appropriately in flying suits, were excited to greet him.

“I feel very proud and it has been a real adventure,” he said.

He was full of praise for the Tornado jets which, despite approaching 30 years of age, were still inspiring to fly and a potent force.

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