Much of the RAF's Operation Telic assets have now returned home - Gary Parsons reports on the last major movements back to the UK. All pictures by the author unless stated otherwise.
"Tell Everyone Leave Is Cancelled" was the mood when Operation TELIC was announced back in early February. The intervening twelve weeks has seen tension, apprehension, action and relief in equal measure as first the war was expected - then actioned - and subsequently won.
Nearly a month has passed since the unofficial end of military action in Iraq and the situation has eased sufficiently for the majority of the RAF's assets to return home. 6 May saw IX and XIII Squadrons return to Marham, following II(AC) and 31 Squadrons earlier the previous week, and the following day brought IV(AC) Squadron back to Cottesmore, leaving just 1(F) Squadron in theatre. The Marham crews retuned in a mixture of GR4s, illustrating the pooled nature of the Tornado Wing operating from Kuwait.
Air Chief Marshal Sir Peter Squire was at Marham to welcome the eight returning Tornado GR4s, symbolising this as the peak of the homebound movements. He praised the efforts of both aircraft and crews, as well as reminding the assembled press party that sacrifices had been made with the loss of a crew from IX Squadron early in the conflict - a loss that a close-knit community such as Marham feels deeply.
In all, the RAF accounted for ten percent of coalition sorties during Operation Iraqi Freedom, averaging between 120 and 140 sorties per day, but considers its effectiveness to be proportionally greater as the majority involved the use of precision guided weapons. During the first Gulf War the ratio of precision weapons to 'dumb' bombs was approximately ten to ninety; twelve years later this figure has been effectively reversed. Unlike Operation Desert Storm, weather is now not an issue with the advent of GPS guided munitions. Enhanced Paveway now offers a bombing accuracy of between four to eight feet - from a release height of 30,000 feet! New weapons such as Maverick and Storm Shadow were used for the first time, the latter being hurried into service somewhat quicker than peacetime conditions would have allowed, but used to great effect.
Marham also provided the bulk of the RAF's reconnaisance assets, with GR4As from II(AC) and XIII Squadrons and two Canberra PR9s from 39(1 PRU) Squadron. Good use of the RAPTOR pod was made by the GR4As, while the venerable Canberras were used to good effect in Scud-hunting missions. Deployment of the Canberra had been kept quiet during the build-up to war, but as Wing Commander Ken Smith, OC explained both its pilots and aircraft could boast an impressive tally of experience - the aircraft are forty years old, and one pilot was the ripe old age of 57! It was further proof of the capability of the PR9, which sadly is rapidly approaching the end of its service life as it is deemed uneconomic to operate - its age simply means spare parts are hard to find, plus the wooden fin construction requires carpenters to be retained in an age of composite materials and electronic trickery.
In total thirty Tornados were deployed on Operation Telic, the majority now being back in the UK. Some will remain in theatre providing security in the period of creating an interim government in Iraq, while those that have returned will undergo servicing and removal of the temporary light-grey colour scheme. If left, the paint will begin to corrode the airframe, so sadly it will mean the end of the splendid array of nose-art, a feature traditional on operational aircraft dating back to the early days of modern warfare. It is hoped that one or two will survive long enough for the early summer airshow scene, so catch them while you can!
With thanks to Dale Donovan, Strike Command and the CCOs and staff of RAF Marham and RAF Cottesmore