RAF Tornados return home from Libya operations

This news article was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

After completing over 8,000 hours of flying and almost 1,500 sorties the Tornado Force personnel from RAF Marham have begun returning home after successfully completing their mission to help free Libya and protect the civilian population from attack.

The Tornados first launched on Operation ELLAMY on 19 March 2011 and now, almost eight months later, they are leaving Gioia del Colle, the Italian air base from where they have been operating, as NATO has formally announced the end of Operation UNIFIED PROTECTOR.

Officer Commanding IX (Bomber) Squadron, Wing Commander Andy Turk, has been there from the beginning. He led IX (B) Squadron out to Libya when the campaign first kicked off, and is bringing squadron personnel home as Libya celebrates its independence.

On his return, Wing Commander Turk reflected on the ‘roller coaster ride’ that has been Operation ELLAMY, UK forces’ contribution to Operation UNIFIED PROTECTOR to enforce United Nations Security Council Resolution 1973:

This has been an extremely dynamic campaign and we have been responsive throughout to the situation on the ground.

We’ve had to launch at very short notice, often involving a weapon-load change at the very last minute to ensure that we can provide the most effective response to an evolving situation.

We’ve also had occasions where we’ve been extended on task when towards the end of a sortie we’ve been swept up into a changing situation and a rapidly developing battlefield.

The results on the ground have been fantastic; we have witnessed truly historic and real pivotal moments and have positively contributed towards the freedom of the Libyan people.

Similarly, as aircrew have been on high alert, ground crews and engineers have been working around the clock to ensure the Tornados have been able to complete their missions as required.

The more hours flying, the greater the ‘wear and tear’ on the aircraft, but the engineers from the Tornado squadrons have risen to every challenge and never failed to deliver.

Senior Engineering Officer, Squadron Leader Colin Feeney, talked of the demands it has placed on the ground crews and engineers and the ‘team effort’ involved:

Generating aircraft for Operation UNIFIED PROTECTOR missions has been an enormous team effort for the engineers across the whole of the Tornado Force.

Engineers and ground crews have been drawn together from RAF Marham and Lossiemouth to work at Gioia, joining IX (B) Squadron in a single team to prepare aircraft for operating over Libya.

The operation has been really demanding, with high summer temperatures and the relentless pace of missions we’ve had many different challenges, but it’s the constant professionalism and training of the RAF engineers that’s maintained the air presence, without a single day lost, and the Tornados have been airborne whenever they have been needed.

Over 8,000 hours have been flown on Operation ELLAMY, keeping the mechanics busy in servicing the aircraft, whilst the avionics guys have kept vital weapon and navigation systems functioning and the armourers have safely loaded the weapons and reconnaissance pods.

Everyone involved in the operation has worked tirelessly; it’s been an incredible effort and we’re all very proud of our contribution.

Flight Lieutenant Will Cambridge flew the last sortie over Libya; it has been a busy few months but he said the picture on the ground is vastly different to his first mission:

When we first started flying missions over Libya, you could see the Libyan people facing a very real threat. The pro-Gaddafi forces would position their tanks outside villages and fire indiscriminately at the civilians inside.

On the last mission, during which we conducted overwatch, it is clear the picture is now completely different. The many tanks and technicals which would have been seen on many of the previous sorties are no longer there.

It has been a privilege to have flown as part of Operation ELLAMY and to have made a real difference to the lives of innocent people. It is my hope that they may now look forward to a brighter future.

Wing Commander Andy Turk, Officer Commanding IX (Bomber) Squadron, is welcomed home by his sons
Wing Commander Andy Turk, Officer Commanding IX (Bomber) Squadron, is welcomed home by his sons [Picture: Senior Aircraftman Chris Hill, Crown Copyright/MOD 2011]

The endeavours of all military personnel involved in the operation was recognised by the Defence Secretary, Philip Hammond, on a recent visit to Gioia del Colle.

He said:

This is a job well done and we will be sending our crews home from tonight. I have given my personal thanks today to some of the aircrew and support personnel at Gioia del Colle. They can be immensely proud that their hard work has assured the liberty of the Libyan people.

As the remaining Tornado aircrew ‘crewed in’ for the last time, ready to make their journey home, 906 Expeditionary Air Wing (EAW) Commanding Officer, Group Captain Squires, bid them a final farewell and paid tribute to their efforts:

The swift response by the RAF at the start of the Libyan crisis helped demonstrate the coalition’s commitment to protecting the Libyan civilians.

The RAF’s battle-winning Tornados have been at the forefront of the missions ever since, applying relentless pressure on Gaddafi’s forces and preventing him from carrying out his very real threat to crush his own population.

The skill and professionalism of our people has been at the heart of the EAW’s contribution to what has been an intense but very rewarding operation.