Video: RAF Marham squadron will be the last Tornado detachment to leave Afghanistan

Tornados on a runway ready for take off. Picture: Mark Nicholls

Tornados on a runway ready for take off. Picture: Mark Nicholls - Credit: Mark Nicholls

RAF Marham's 31 Squadron is currently on its final deployment in Afghanistan. As Mark Nicholls reports from Kandahar Airfield, it is a posting which symbolically completes the circle on the squadron's lingering links to Afghanistan and the Indian sub-continent.

For 31 Squadron, the skies above Afghanistan are a natural hunting ground.

This is the part of the world where almost a century ago it earned the motto 'In cælum indicum primus'- First in Indian Skies.

The deployment as the first Tornados sent to Afghanistan in 2009 saw 31 Squadron 'revisiting' its roles of the early years of the 20th century when it operated from the Indian sub-continent to secure areas around Kabul and the Khyber Pass.

It is perhaps apt that 31 Squadron, known as the Goldstars, is also to be the last Tornado detachment to leave Afghanistan when the drawdown of UK forces from the country is complete later this year.

The role in Afghanistan has mellowed a little in recent tours; from frequent bombing missions and fast, low passes against enemy factions in support of ground forces, it is now more involved in reconnaissance and working in closer liaison with Afghan forces.

Fitted with an array of reconnaissance sensors and precision weapons, the all-weather Tornado GR4 remains a versatile aircraft, despite being four decades old.

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But they are a world away from the early aircraft flown by the squadron when it formed at Farnborough on 11 October, 1915.

Deployed to India, arriving on Boxing Day, it was initially based in Bombay and then from May 1916 at Risalpur operating along the North-West Frontier during World War One, assisting the British army against dissident Peshawar tribesmen, using Bristol BE2c and Henri Farman biplanes fitted with bomb sights and racks.

Two of the machines even had wireless sets which were used for observing and directing artillery fire.

The end of WWI brought little change to the routine. Equipped now with Bristol Fighters, 31 Squadron's 'army co-operation' role was to continue and the emerging importance of air power in the hostile Frontier region led to the Squadron's involvement in the Third Anglo-Afghan War in 1919, policing Waziristan and Afghanistan.

In the years that followed bases changed regularly as operations dictated. The most permanent was Quetta, where the squadron suffered many fatalities in 1935 when a massive earthquake struck the area.

The squadron badge, a mullet in front of a wreath of laurel, was approved by King George VI in June 1937 with the mullet indicating the Star of India, underlining claims to being the first military unit to fly in India.

With the outbreak of World War Two in 1939 the squadron change to a bomber-transport role, re-equipping with Valentia aircraft and flying supplies over Iraq and seeing action in Syria, Iran and Egypt.

After the Japanese invasion of Burma, the squadron flew between Calcutta and Rangoon dropping supplies to the 'forgotten' XIVth Army.

Operating in monsoon conditions, largely from Indian bases, 31 Squadron suffered many losses as it supported Chindit raids and the battles of Kohima, Imphal and the Arakan.

Re-equipped with the DC3 Dakota, 31 Squadron moved to Java after the Japanese surrender to transport released PoWs from jungle camps to repatriation centres.

The squadron later flew Ansons, Proctors, Beaufighters, Spitfires and even Tiger Moths before moving to Laarbruch in Germany in 1955 with Canberra PR7s and then Phantoms and Jaguar GR1s, armed with conventional and nuclear weapons, and operating from RAF Bruggen.

Transferring to Tornado GR1 in 1984, and still retaining the nuclear strike capability as part of Cold War operations, 31 Squadron saw action in the Gulf War of 1991 leading the RAF's detachment in Dhahran as part of Operation Granby with the contingent comprising aircraft and aircrew from II(AC), IX(B), 13, 14, 16, 17 and 617 squadrons.

Called upon for NATO operations over the Former Republic of Yugoslavia in 1999, the squadron left Germany in 2001 for RAF Marham with a role which included patrolling the no-fly zones of southern Iraq in the run-up to the Iraq War of 2003.

During the conflict, 31 Squadron formed part of the Tornado GR4 Combat Air Wing which also included elements of II(AC), IX(B) and XIII from RAF Marham and 617 Squadron from RAF Lossiemouth, firing Air Launched Anti-Radiation Missiles (ALARM) to neutralise Saddam Hussein's aerial threat, attacking strategic targets and using the new Storm Shadow weapon for the first time.

The Tornado operation from Ali Al Salem in northern Kuwait was led by 31 Squadron's CO, Wing Commander Paddy Teakle, who was awarded the DSO for his role.

Part of the 138 Expeditionary Air Wing (EAW) at RAF Marham, in the years after Saddam Hussein was toppled from power 31 Squadron continued to support ground forces in Iraq, operating from Al Udeid airbase in Qatar before switching to Kandahar in 2009 for operations in Afghanistan as the first Tornado squadron to replace the Harriers.

Throughout July this year, 31 Squadron personnel stepped up training for the final deployment to Afghanistan as the UK prepared to pull out forces after a 13-year involvement in the country.

In the immediate run-up to its fifth tour to Afghanistan as part of Operation Herrick, the squadron also flew humanitarian missions over Iraq.

The squadron has a true global presence (actually spending only a dozen or so years in the UK since formation) but the return to Afghanistan, however, is a scenario that brings the history of 31 Squadron full circle with it now operating in the same theatre and army support role as it did in its formative years.

Commanding officer, Wing Commander Rich Yates, said the prospect of entering its centenary year on active service in Afghanistan has created a 'real buzz' around the squadron.

'We are here at the end of the British involvement in Afghanistan in the place where we operated at the very start of our history,' he explained.

'We were involved in the Third Afghan War of 1919 and in our early days operated in the North-west Frontier Province, Afghanistan and Waziristan, and that is a part of the world which deeply resonates with the squadron. To be on operations doing the same kind of missions in the same place nearly 100 years on has a perfect symmetry to it.

'We were first in Indian skies…and now last in Afghan skies.'

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