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31 Squadron

A new role for No. 31 Squadron as Waddington awaits the arrival of the Goldstars 

IN MARCH 2019, the final flypast of the Tornado took place over RAF Marham, the event seeing No. 31 Squadron disbanded, with plans to reform at Waddington at a date still to be finalised by military chiefs.

Nine Royal Air Force Panavia Tornado GR.4 aircraft fly together for one last time in a farewell flypast over their home base at RAF Marham.

(Nine Tornados fly together for one last time in a farewell flypast over RAF Marham - 📸 Alan Wilson)

It was the end of 35 years for the Goldstars flying the iconic aircraft, first taking possession of the Tonka in 1984 at RAF Bruggen, the ‘new’ jet ending the squadron’s eight-year association with the Jaguar. 

The Tornado was synonymous with No. 31, and in February 2019 the Squadron led a three-day farewell tour, a formation flying over most RAF stations and other key sites associated with the Tonka, before they were replaced by Typhoons.

31 Sqn Tornado Showing Formation Year

(31 Sqn Tornado Showing Formation Year - 📸 Steve Lynes)

The departure of the Tornado came four years after the Goldstars celebrated their centenary, one of the earliest RAF squadrons, formed at Farnborough in October 1915 as part of the Royal Flying Corps, RFC. While many of the early military aircraft saw action in mainland Europe in World War One, No. 31 Squadron were soon on their travels with their Royal Aircraft Factory B.E.2cs, heading to Risalpur on the North West Frontier (formerly part of India, now in Pakistan), a detachment seeing action against the Ottoman forces in Aden.

A Royal Aircraft Factory B.E.2c

(A Royal Aircraft Factory B.E.2c)

They were stationed at Risalpur through to the end of WW1, supporting the British Army in battles with local tribesmen, earning the motto that adorns the ceremonial badge which translates as ‘First into Indian skies’.

Their first incursion into Afghan airspace occurred in 1919 – almost 100 years before what could have been their last in 2014 – with their involvement in operations as part of the third Anglo-Afghan War, carrying out raids in Jalalabad where three aircraft were lost.

They spent the next decade policing the Waziristan, now part of Pakistan, and Afghanistan regions, flying Bristol F.2 Fighters and then Westland Wapitis, supporting the British Army in crushing rebellious forces.

During this period, their most famous commanding officer arrived in the region to take charge, a certain Arthur Harris. The man who earned the moniker ‘Bomber’ for his exploits in the Second World War, becoming Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief of Bomber Command, was far from happy with the living and working conditions of the men under his command, particularly the shortage of spares. On occasions, planes were forced to take off on wheels with bare rims because there were no tyres available, Harris lasting around 15 months, making his concerns about conditions known to his many influential friends back in London.   

The Squadron were regularly moved to a number of different sites during the next 15 years, most poignantly being based at Quetta in 1935. On May 31 of that year, the area was hit by a massive earthquake with the squadron suffering many fatalities – records list 20 deaths from No. 31 amongst around 50 RAF members killed; estimates put the total death toll in the region at up to 60,000.

They remained on the borders of what was then India and Afghanistan up to the start of the Second World War, flying Douglas Dakota Mk.1s on supply missions between Calcutta and Rangoon after the Japanese invasion of Burma, the squadron disbanding in Java in 1946 before reforming in Karachi.

In 1948, No. 31 Squadron was reformed at RAF Hendon, its first home base for 33 years, flying Ansons and Devons, and in 1955 they headed to Germany, operating Canberras out of Laarbruch. The Goldstars specialised in reconnaissance as part of NATO’s air defences until 1971, moving on to Bruggen when they were re-equipped with Phantoms.

No. 31 Squadron Jaguar GR.1 at the Queen's Silver Jubilee Review in July 1977

(No. 31 Squadron Jaguar GR.1 at the Queen's Silver Jubilee Review in July 1977)

The new aircraft meant they were tasked with strike/attack duties, a role they maintained through subsequent re-equipping with Jaguars in 1976, and then Tornados in 1984. In December ’76, No. 31 Squadron were declared combat ready for SACEUR, Supreme Allied Command Europe, carrying conventional and nuclear weapons.   

The Tonkas saw the Goldstars allocation of WE.177 nuclear bombs increase, the aircraft able to carry two, but they were back to full conventional mode when the Berlin Wall fell and the old Soviet Union collapsed. Action was seen in Operation Granby in 1991, the first Gulf War, No. 31 Squadron joined by elements of Nos. IX (B), 14, 17, and 27 Squadrons, flying out of Dharan in Saudi Arabia.

Air policing in the Middle East continued through the 1990s, with No. 31 also conducting air operations over the former Yugoslavia from Bruggen and also out of a base on the island of Corsica.

RAF 31 Sqn Tornado leaving it’s shelter at RAF Brüggen

(31 Sqn Tornado leaving it’s shelter at RAF Brüggen)

The squadron’s detachment at Bruggen ended in 2001, their departure effectively marking the end of the RAF’s 56-year presence in Germany. The Goldstars reformed at Marham in August of that year, a month before the British military was again on high alert following the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York.

No. 31 Squadron were soon on the move again, first to Kuwait from where they flew sorties over Iraq during the second Gulf War, and almost as soon as the Tornados were released from Gulf duties in 2009, they switched to Afghanistan as part of Operation Herrick, the Squadron back flying over a country they operated in 90 years previously.

Up until 2014, they flew reconnaissance missions across the country and provided fast air support to troops on the ground in the fight against the Taliban. A deployment to Cyprus followed, the squadron back flying over Iraq, before they returned to Afghanistan; the squadron then returned to Cyprus, playing their part in Operation Shader, the US-led mission against so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

In October 2015, to mark the Squadron’s 100th birthday, a memorial stone was dedicated at the National Arboretum in Staffordshire, a gift from the 31 Squadron Association, with a dedication at the ceremony by Air Chief Marshal Sir Stuart Peach.

A Protector RG1 in No. 31 Squadron markings at RIAT, 2018

(A Protector RG1 in No. 31 Squadron markings at RIAT, 2018)

The end of the road for the Tornado meant the disbandment of the Squadron, with new duties awaiting the Goldstars when they next reform. At Waddington, their role will include taking command of up to 16 Protector RG1s, the remotely-piloted state-of-the-art air system.

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2 comments

  • Perhaps this is of interest to your readers.
    There are three containers full of “100 years 31 Squadron History” at Royal Air Force Museum Laarbruch, former RAF Laarbruch.
    The exhibition was put together by Terence o’Halloran.
    Regards
    Heinz Knechten
    Chairman RAF Laarbruch Museum
    www.laarbruch-museum.net

    RAF Laarbruch Museum
  • Fantastic blog

    Russ Morgan

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