'Tornados prove the case for Norfolk's RAF Marham'
PUBLISHED: 10:05 26 March 2011
Tornado crews from RAF Marham were in the air within hours of the decision by Western and Arab leaders to take military action against Libya.
Tornado has helped spotlight vital role
From searching for Zeppelins in the early 20th century to providing cover for Allied troops in recent conflicts, crews from Marham have played a vital international role for more than 90 years.
But it was the emergence of the Tornado aircraft and conflicts abroad over the last three decades that saw the base come into its own.
Since the mid-1980s, various squadrons of the versatile two-seater aircraft have been based at the Norfolk RAF station.
While the Tornado entered RAF service at the height of the cold war, it was during the first Gulf war that the reconnaissance and ground attack version of the aircraft, then the GR1, came to the fore.
With missions to attack Saddam Hussein’s airfields with a series of daring low-level raids using munitions to put runways out of action and keep the Iraqi air force on the ground, the Tornados suffered heavy losses during those first few night-time raids of January 1991.
While succeeding in their mission, the Marham Tornado squadrons saw a number of pilots and navigators killed or taken prisoner as their aircraft were downed by Iraqi anti-aircraft guns.
Just over a decade later – in 2003 and now flying the modified GR4 version of the Tornado ground and reconnaissance attack aircraft – the Marham-based crews were again at the forefront of the assault on Baghdad as coalition forces went to war against Saddam Hussein for a second time.
Between the two Gulf conflicts, however, the Tornado crews had been kept busy with a heavy schedule, flying missions over southern Iraq, patrolling the so-called no-fly zones to protect the Marsh Arabs from Saddam’s attacks, and were also deployed over Bosnia.
While gaining little public attention in these intervening years as they operated out of the Ali Al Salem airbase in northern Kuwait, Tornado crews were frequently under attack as they flew dangerous missions.
Yet when war flared again in March 2003, Marham’s Tornado crews from II (AC), IX (B), XIII and 31 squadrons spearheaded the British air effort with midnight strikes launched from Ali Al Salem on Baghdad and other strategic Iraqi military and government targets in wave after wave of bombardments.
With the toppling of Saddam Hussein in April 2003, Tornados remained on patrol in the Gulf. In the years that followed, as insurgency spread across Iraq, the Tornados maintained a regular presence in the skies over the country, and later in a similar role in Afghanistan.
They launched some of the first strikes against Col Gaddafi’s air defences, flying from Norfolk to North Africa.
Now campaigners are demanding the government keep Norfolk’s last RAF flying base open – saying the action this week in which crews played a vital role in enforcing the no-fly zone has proved their case to keep the base.
Marham is currently under threat from plans to reduce the size of the RAF’s Tornado force and base it at a single airfield, possibly in Scotland.
South West Norfolk MP Elizabeth Truss said: “Clearly RAF Marham’s proximity to the Middle East has been very useful to secure the no-fly zone over Libya and has underlined its strategic importance.
"Clearly RAF Marham’s proximity to the Middle East has been very useful to secure the no-fly zone over Libya and has underlined its strategic importance."
“The base has been instrumental so far and it has been obvious from what has happened over the past week that the commonsense case is to keep RAF Marham open.
“No one can predict what will happen in the future but it is inevitable that Britain will take up a leading role in global issues and we need a force to back that up.
“With the Middle East being an area of upheaval at the moment, we need to be able to send planes there without them having to stop so the government’s only option is to keep Tornados at Marham.”
Ms Truss, whose constituency includes RAF Marham, added: “I think it would be wrong for the government to decide RAF Marham should be closed and I think it would shock the international community which has seen the important role Marham crews have played this week.
The campaign which united Norfolk
It was at the EDP’s head office in Norwich on a brisk November morning when MPs, councils, businesses and communities across Norfolk united to launch a bid to save RAF Marham.
Little was known about how many people would back our Make It Marham campaign, which had just two weeks to run before a petition was to be handed in at Downing Street – but a target figure of 20,000 was set.
However, in just 18 days, the target was smashed with almost 37,000 people from across the county – and further afield – showing their support for the RAF base.
The fight to save the Tornado base started when campaigners, led by South West Norfolk MP Elizabeth Truss, took to the streets in Swaffham on November 13.
The number of people who had backed our campaign reached the 6,000 mark two days later with the number signing our online petition increasing daily.
Then, six days into the campaign, MPs were told that more than 10,000 people had signed the petition to stop Marham’s Tornado fleet being moved to Scotland.
The fight to save RAF Marham then moved to another town which could be hit badly by the closure of the Tornado base – Downham Market.
Ms Truss again led the signature collection and was joined by an energetic team of volunteers, including town, borough and county councillors, as well as Downham traders.
On November 20, we published a petition form on the front page of our weekend edition – something not believed to have been done in our 140-year history.
The fight to save RAF Marham was also bolstered the same day by a sell-out Carrow Road crowd, many of whom signed a petition before taking their seats to watch Norwich City take on Leeds United.
The campaign to save the Tornado base then received a further boost when celebrities and sporting personalities, led by Amanda Holden, lined up behind our Make It Marham campaign ahead of the petition handover.
The backing of the county’s famous residents, which also included TV presenter Trisha Goddard, had an impact as the amount of people backing our campaign soared over 25,000.
It came as the two station commanders of RAF Marham and RAF Lossiemouth both spoke to the EDP about their love for the Norfolk RAF base and how it would be “difficult” for them to see it closed.
Then on November 31, a large delegation descended on a snow- covered 10 Downing Street to deliver a petition with nearly 37,000 signatures.
The delegation, which included seven Norfolk MPs and council leaders, also put forward the case to save RAF Marham to defence secretary Liam Fox.
Since the petition handover, it has emerged that RAF Leuchars could be closed with its fighter aircraft moving to RAF Lossiemouth.
Should this happen Marham would remain the main home of the RAF’s Tornado fleet, along with the facilities to maintain the aircraft, which gave the Make it Marham campaign a massive boost.
It has also been revealed that armed forces minister Nick Harvey said the cost of relocating the Norfolk base’s Tornado fleet and facilities to Scotland would be “very high,” prompting campaigners to demand to see the costs.
“I want to end the ongoing uncertainty for the future of the base and will keep pressing the Ministry of Defence for a decision.”
The first Tornado crew flew the 3,000 miles from RAF Marham and back last Saturday to launch missiles over Libya which marked the first bombing raid launched from the UK since 1945.
The following night, jets took off again from Norfolk’s last RAF flying base for Libya but the crews abandoned their mission after reports there were civilians near their target.
On Monday, the first Tornados started to arrive at the Gioia del Colle base in southern Italy, from where they are have been flying “armed reconnaissance missions” to safeguard Libya’s population from Col Gaddafi’s forces.
Then on Thursday night, a Tornado launched a number of guided Brimstone missiles at Libyan armoured vehicles which were threatening the civilian population of Ajdabiya.
Nick Daubney, West Norfolk Council leader, said it was this “vital” role that RAF Marham played in global conflicts which made the borough proud.
He also said it was why the EDP’s Make it Marham campaign united MPs, councils, businesses and communities across the county and saw 37,000 people sign a petition.
Mr Daubney said: “Whatever is asked of the crews at the base, they always deliver in a superb and excellent fashion.
“Over the last 20 years they have been in demand when there is a new crisis in the world and the crews from RAF Marham always deliver.
“In the last week they have shown what a fantastic job they do and I don’t think there is any question at all about the importance of the base to this country and the world.
“You never know what’s round the corner but what we do know is the squadrons at RAF Marham have not only kept the people of this country safe but also around the globe.
“The message from me after seeing how the events have unfolded this week is that the base must stay open.”
Fellow Make it Marham supporter and former cabinet minister Baroness Gillian Shephard added: “The crews have equipped themselves marvellously as they always have.
“I hope the events of the past week have highlighted the advantages of having a base closer rather than further away from where there’s likely to be trouble.
“I hope now there is no doubt nationally about the importance of keeping RAF Marham open and that the strategic defence review will confirm this.”