A royal review at Wattisham
Dave Eade reports on Wattisham's recent 'Air Assault Day'.
"Our aim today is to show off our brigade to our old comrades, our families and our local friends, and to give the air assault community an opportunity to get together."
The above welcome summed up the celebrations and activity at Wattisham on Saturday 25 May. Guest of honour was HRH The Prince of Wales, although locals and press-gang may have been disappointed that the appearance of the two young princes, leaked in the local press on Thursday, failed to materialise. Arriving in the Royal Flight S76 G-XXEA, His Royal Highness took part in a drum-head service, parade of veterans and a capability demonstration of the 16 Air Assault Brigade. It was, of course, for the tactical demonstration that Air-Scene UK had been invited, leaving the paparazzi to go their own way. It was sad to hear one comment from a press-wag - "I am only here in case something happens".
16 Air Assault Brigade has, of late, found itself called on for all manner of tasks, from collecting arms from the ex-warring parties in Macedonia to mine disposal in Afghanistan. 'Busy' is a word that trips off the tongue frequently when talking of the unit and many a local from around the airfield will bear that out.
The action took place around a supposed lightly defended airfield, which was to be taken and used as a forward Operating Base (FOB). First in, as always, was the Pathfinder Platoon (PF Pl), dropped in by freefall from 25,000 ft by Hercules (in theory). Strong winds caused one of the six troops to land well away from the action, albeit safely, although the fast exit of an ambulance to the former 56 Squadron HAS site suggested that this was not the case. Tasked with finding the enemy strength and forward reconnaissance, the Pathfinders would report the situation back to HQ.
Two RAF Jaguars (operating from Mildenhall) of the Coltishall wing were then sent in on low level reconnaissance to get an accurate situation for the planners. Gazelle and Lynx helicopters then inserted troops to set up arrival facilities for Pumas and Chinooks to insert more in number. Hercules brought Milan tanks and MSGs - lightly armed Land Rovers to soften up the enemy. All did not go well though and further reinforcements were brought in the form of Lynx anti-tank helicopters, Gazelle forward air controllers and 105mm guns and mortars underslung from Chinooks ZA713 and ZA775. Further attacks by the Jaguars brought the inevitable conclusion.
16 AAB then had a demonstration from Middle Wallop based Apache ZJ167 which gave a good idea of the capability (well, flying anyway) of this new piece of kit. Bad news of the day was that the Apache programme is falling behind - now where have we heard that story before? It will be 2005 before the final regiment at Wattisham (4) gets theirs, the order being 9 Regiment (Dishforth), 3 and finally 4 (Wattisham).
An idea of the armament capability of the Apache (ZJ174) was demonstrated in the static display of Gazelle, Lynx (AH7 and 9), Puma and Chinook.
Days like this always have their emotional side and the parade of veterans was evocative, but I end up wondering where such pride in our modern-day service has gone - we don't see much of it nowadays. Perhaps it comes from fighting a war - I don't know, I am just reminded of the comment from an old Prime Minister that we've never had it so good!
At the end of the day we were left reflecting that if ever the what-not hits the fan, 16 Air Assault Brigade is in a fit and ready state to help deal with it.
Thanks to Gail Stephens from the 16 Air Assault Brigade Media Centre for her help on the day.