Howard Heeley, Down to Earth Promotions, talks to the 'Boss' of 31 Squadron on its 90th birthday weekend, 24/25 September 2005
Sandwiched between a two-month deployment in support of coalition forces in Iraq as part of OPERATION TELIC and an impending NATO OPEVAL (Operational Evaluation) at RAF St Mawgan, Cornwall, 31 Squadron recently found time to celebrate the 90th Anniversary of its formation on 11 October 1915.
I was privileged to join the Squadron at their base at RAF Marham, Norfolk on 24 September where they hosted a series of Anniversary events. Amongst a busy three-day schedule, which included the rededication of the Squadron Standard, an Anniversary Dinner, an all-ranks hangar party and a Church Service, the Squadron found time for a 'Families Afternoon'. Despite this hectic schedule I was able to spend a short time with the current Squadron 'Boss', Wing Commander (Wg Cdr) Alistair Byford MA RAF, to talk about ongoing operational commitments and also with Air Commodore (Air Cdre) Dick Bogg RAF Rtd, who is the current President of the 31 Squadron Association.
For the Families Afternoon the squadron had managed to assemble representative examples of each of the post-war jet aircraft types it had flown. These visiting aircraft were displayed around the Marham 'waterfront', and after dragging myself away from the Canberra, Phantom, Jaguar and assorted Tornados (plus several other interesting aircraft and helicopters) I spoke with Wg Cdr Byford about the 31 Squadron 'Goldstars', who operate with the motto In Cælum Indicum Primus - 'First into Indian Skies'.
HFH: "Over the years 31 Squadron has undertaken a variety of roles from Army Co-operation to Transport, Communication/Liaison to Reconnaissance - do you see your current attack role changing in the future?"
Wg Cdr Byford: "31 Squadron will continue to operate in the same way with the Tornado, but we are continually seeking to expand the capability of the type. The current novel capability for the squadron is that we are currently introducing the BRIMSTONE anti-armour weapon, which we brought into service here in April 2005.
"We currently working to expand the initial operational capability of Brimstone and we are now working with MBDA and other service agencies towards achieving full operational capability for the missile, which should be achieved later in the autumn. There are some further test firings to undertake at the China Lake Naval Air Weapons Station, California, USA, before it achieves final operational capability and 31 Squadron crews are going to be involved with that process. That will enable us to expand our capabilities further.
"More widely, what we are seeing is a shift from traditional post-Cold War deep strike and attack missions that Tornados have been undertaking to more close air support type sorties, of the type we have been doing in OPERATION TELIC out in Iraq. That is a feature that is going to continue, with more cooperation work with the Army and increasing close air support work. In a sense this brings 31 Squadron almost full circle, because when we were formed in 1915 and through into the 1920s out in Iraq, India and the North West Frontier we were doing exactly the same type of roles - air policing, army cooperation and air control. So in a way we have gone through a whole variety of roles and we are back in the same place we started at ninety years ago!"
HFH: "Do you have any current deployments or exercises due?"
Wg Cdr Byford: "We have just returned from two months deployment in OPERATION TELIC and we are just about to take part in a NATO OPEVAL. This is similar to the TACEVAL (Tactical Evaluation) system but testing us in a more deployment-based mode. We will be doing this in conjunction with IX(B) Squadron in October and then following on from that our next major deployment is going to be RED FLAG at the beginning of next year."
HFH: "You have just mentioned IX(B) Squadron; do you have any close connections with any other Marham Strike Wing Tornado Squadrons?"
Wg Cdr Byford: "We do. We are technically a dual-role squadron, although we are now effectively tri-role with being the lead squadron with Brimstone. As well as the attack role, one of our other specialisations in partnership with IX(B) Squadron is ALARM (Air Launched Anti-radiation Missile). So we are the two specialist ALARM squadrons within the Tornado Force and we are fairly closely linked with them. We also both came back from Bruggen, they are the next Squadron to us on the 'waterfront' here at Marham and so there is also a healthy rivalry between us. Likewise II(AC) and XIII Squadrons tend to be twinned off as well or rivals in a similar way. They were both originally the Tornado reconnaissance squadrons resident at RAF Marham before we got here and they are also geographically located over the other side of the runway. So we are probably closest to IX(B) Squadron because of background, geographical location and as the specialist ALARM Squadrons."
HFH: "I understand that to start off your 90th anniversary celebrations that you held a ceremony on 23 September to rededicate the squadron standard - could you tell me anything about that?"
Wg Cdr Byford: "I think IX(B) Squadron may also be in the same position, but I believe that 31 Squadron is one of the few squadrons that have been granted the right to emblazon all three of the major Postwar Battle Honours - Gulf War 1991, Kosovo 1999 and Iraq 2003 on our Standard, an honour of which we are very proud.
"There are two levels of Battle Honour, you can be granted a Battle Honour if your squadron took part in a campaign - without the right to emblazon this on your standard. However if you were involved with direct confrontation with the enemy and showed gallantry and spirit under fire you are awarded the ultimate accolade, which is the right to emblazon it on your standard. Certainly there are very few squadrons who have earned the right with those three campaigns. So yes, we rededicated the standard to start off the 90th anniversary celebrations."
HFH: "31 Squadron seems to be unusual because it has spent much of its time overseas - do you still have any strong connections with places like Germany, the Far East or India?"
Wg Cdr Byford: "Not what you might call strong connections anymore, but as you said one of the unique aspects about the squadron's history is that since it was formed on 11 October 1915 until it came back from Germany in 2002 it barely served in the UK at all. There was just a short spell when it was a Metropolitan Communications Squadron at Hendon, but other than that almost its entire service has been overseas. Whilst it is perhaps fair to say that we don't have many strong links overseas, we also don't have many strong links with the UK. We are really still just finding our feet back over here.
"One strong link we do have in the local area is the Burma Star Association. In Norfolk that Association is very strong because of the Royal West Norfolk Regiment and some other local regiments that were involved in the 14th Army in the Far East. Sadly many of those were taken prisoner of war and were involved in the infamous Burma Railway. At the end of the war 31 Squadron was the first one that landed in Thailand and helped to evacuate/repatriate them, many of whom were in a very bad way. One of the 31 Squadron Association members who is with us this weekend, 'Bert' Edwards MBE AFM flew the first Dakota in to Thailand in 1945 to collect the prisoners of war."
HFH: "Mentioning 'Bert' Edwards and the 31 Squadron Association brings us appropriately on to that organisation. The squadron seems to be very close to the association, do you have any thoughts on that relationship?"
Wg Cdr Byford: "I count myself as being very fortunate as 31 Squadron Commander that we are linked with one of the longest established and largest associations in the RAF and we value that very much. Certainly when we are away on operations the association supports us and looks after us in a welfare way and they also publicise our efforts and help promote us.
"One of the success stories of the association is that it has always welcomed all ranks from across the rank structure of 31 Squadron. I think that in the past some of the other squadron associations have focused very much as being set up as an association of comrades from the Second World War. As that generation is beginning to fade away they have found it very difficult to expand and get new blood in, whereas 31 Squadron Association has always welcomed anybody who has served on the squadron and I think it has been a success story because of that."
HFH: "Thank you for sparing the time to talk with me today and good luck on OPEVAL."
The 31 Squadron Association is believed to be one of the longest established Royal Air Force Squadron Associations, so this seemed to be the natural place to start the conversation with the current President of the 31 Squadron Association, Air Cdre Dick Bogg RAF Rtd.
HFH: "How long has 31 Squadron Association been in existence?"
Air Cdre Bogg: "Since about 1960, although some say 1959 and it has gone from strength to strength since then, which is mainly due to very strong support from the World War Two contingent who were principally flying the Dakota in India and throughout the Far East. They have been the backbone of the association and they are now in their mid-eighties and have been obliged to hand on to the younger generation in order to keep it going. Our great strength is that we are one of the few associations that is not simply and officer and aircrew association, with a good mixture of all ranks that support and run it. We believe that we are probably the strongest association of any of the RAF squadrons; you may say that I am just saying that, but I have had several colleagues and former squadron commanders and friends who have said to me 'We envy you, the way that you are organised and we envy the strength of your Association'."
HFH: "What level of membership do you have?"
Air Cdre Bogg: "We enjoy support worldwide from about 450 people, but that is reducing due to the World War Two generation passing away. We have active members in Australia and Canada, with Vice-Presidents in both countries.
"We have held an annual reunion every year since 1960, as close to 11 October as possible, which was the date the squadron was formed in 1915. For many years the squadron has supported that reunion and it is much easier now that it has returned from Germany to the UK.
"Nowadays they generally provide a flypast to start the weekend off and the squadron commander comes along and brings the squadron standard, this also gives us the opportunity to have a dining-in night with the squadron standard and the standard party. This helps to give the occasion a bit of formality and that is the sort of thing that keeps the association members enthusiastic and so supportive. Normally at the association dinner we would get between 100 and 150 people, but we have had as many as 230, but again that number seems to be dwindling."
HFH: "Other than reunion events, what other activities does the association get involved with?"
Air Cdre Bogg: "The association also likes to support the squadron and give them something, in return for the squadron supporting the association. We also place a strong emphasis on the welfare role a bit like Royal Air Force Association (RAFA) and we are always willing to try and support any members that need assistance.
"They are also very enthusiastic and for example during the first Gulf War when Wg Cdr Witts took the squadron out to the Gulf, we learnt that things were a bit difficult where the squadron was based and the association members arranged all sorts of welfare goodies. Even some of the young airmen were not getting any letters and the association members went away and invited school kids to write to 'An airman on 31 Squadron somewhere in the Gulf'. That enthusiasm spread across to the squadron and when they came back they sent the young airman out to the schools involved as a thank you.
"Generally once during a squadron commander's tour he will have a big open weekend like this one when he invites the association along. As President of the association I am very pleased with how things are going and I am also very pleased that we have several young guys joining the association to help keep it going. Without young people coming in it would dwindle and die. We have several serving NCOs who are brilliantly enthusiastic, which not only I applaud but the older generation are delighted that these guys are coming in to keep it going. They are beginning to take important jobs on the committee because that is where the real work gets done.
"The association also buys a lasting memento for each of the major anniversaries. For example, when I was the squadron CO it was the seventieth anniversary and the association raised money and brought two huge beautiful crystal port decanters, which were in use at the dinner last night. We have brought other items; at the eightieth I think it was a large crystal replica of the squadron standard with all the battle honours on and last night we presented to the squadron with ninety years of squadron history on three wooden panels to put in the squadron headquarters, complete with a mounted crest."
HFH: "I understand that you managed to make a flight on 22 September?"
Air Cdre Bogg: "Yes, that is correct, it is eight years since I retired, twelve years since I last flew a Tornado and it is seventeen years since I was operational, so it was with great pleasure that I was able to take up my traditional back seat and fly with Wg Cdr Byford. They even surprised me by stencilling my name under the back cockpit of the Goldstars' anniversary Tornado, ZA564."
Air Cdre Bogg became CO of 31 Squadron on Tornados in November 1984 in what he described as "A dream posting to operate the type he helped introduce to the service". During a detachment he was promoted to the rank of Group Captain, and for the first time in its history a Group Captain commanded the 'Goldstars'. A posting followed this promotion with the handover coinciding with 31 Squadron being presented with a new standard. He then became Station Commander at RAF Honington, which also operated the Tornado.
Members of the 31 Squadron Association have also been active away from RAF Marham, looking for other special ways to mark this 90th anniversary year. Several months ago they approached the Trustees of Newark Air Museum about the possibility of being allowed to repaint Canberra PR7 WH791 in 31 Squadron markings to celebrate that the flew the type operationally from 1951 to 1971. The aircraft is on loan with the museum so the proposal was put to the owners, who readily agreed.
The team to work on the aircraft was assembled by Terry O'Halloran, a 31 Squadron Association member who lives in Lincoln. Terry was an engineer who worked on Canberra PR7s with 31 Squadron between 1965 and 1968 at RAF Laarbruch in Germany. The team, which includes the aircraft owners, has been working on the aircraft at the museum's Winthorpe airfield site in Eastern Nottinghamshire most weekends since late August 2005. Once they have completed repainting WH971, they believe it will further enhance the reputation of 31 Squadron in which they celebrate the 90th anniversary of being 'First into Indian Skies'.
Thanks to Wg Cdr Byford and Flt Lt Abson of 31 Squadron RAF Marham; the RAF Marham Photographic Section; and to Air Cdre Bogg and Terry O'Halloran of the 31 Squadron Association for their time and assistance in preparing this article.