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RAF Marham

From the threat of closure to becoming the British HQ of the F-35B Lightning

IN 2010, a young MP just starting out on a Westminster career took it upon herself to help lead the fight to save an RAF base in her constituency. 

The future of RAF Marham appeared far from certain back in 2010, the new government’s defence review earmarking the station as one of two under threat, the then Tornado operations at the Norfolk station in danger of being relocated to Scotland. 

But the local MP helped spearhead the campaign to save RAF Marham, launching a petition for its retention which attracted nearly 40,000 signatures in a little over two weeks; she also asked 13 Parliamentary questions on the station in a little over six months, along with securing a special debate in the House of Commons on the effect a potential closure would have on the local economy.

Tornado GR4 aircraft are pictured returning to their base at RAF Marham in Norfolk following their participation in Operation Ellamy in 2011. 

(Tornado GR4 aircraft returning to RAF Marham following their participation in Operation Ellamy in 2011.)

In the summer of 2011, it was confirmed that RAF Marham would be staying open, becoming the home of the RAF’s Tornado force, then Defence Secretary Liam Fox admitting the government had listened and acted upon the concerns of the community. The local MP in question was a certain Liz Truss.

The position an RAF station holds in its local community is epitomised by the campaign to save Marham, with Norfolk residents supported by the local paper, the Eastern Daily Press, EDP, in the fight to save what they saw then, and still see now as their station. The EDP’s support included posting the petition for its readers to sign on its front page at the height of the campaign, replacing their usual page one story.

RAF Marham has been at the heart of the Norfolk community for more than 100 years, opening in 1916 during the First World War as a training base and night-landing site, helping protect the eastern coast from German Zeppelin raids.

Today it is home to 617 Squadron, – best remembered by the public as the Dambusters squadron – the UK’s first F-35B Lightning squadron. Also at Marham is 207 Squadron, training the next generation of Lightning pilots from the RAF and the Royal Navy, and 6 RAF Police (Lightning) Squadron, providing and assuring a controlled operating environment for the Lightning at home and on exercises abroad. Marham is also home to the 3 Force Protection Wing, responsible for the command and control of deployed activity during contingency operations, with 2620 RAuxAF Regiment and 15 Squadron RAF Regiment falling under its wing.  

F-35 Lightning landing on HMS Queen Elizabeth

(F-35 Lightning landing on HMS Queen Elizabeth)

The Lightning is the latest short take-off and vertical landing (STOVL) aircraft which can operate from RAF stations or aircraft carriers, with F-35Bs from 207 Squadron departing from Marham for HMS Queen Elizabeth in January 2020, becoming the first British squadron in a decade to operate jets from a British carrier in home waters. 

Integrated Training Centre being constructed at RAF Marham 2017

(Integrated Training Centre being constructed at RAF Marham 2017)   

In 2016, a £250million investment began at Marham ahead of the arrival of the Lightnings, with new hangars and squadron buildings constructed along with the Lightning National Operating Centre, NOC, accommodating 125 personnel. The NOC was opened by the Queen in February 2018 – Her Majesty had been RAF Marham’s Honorary Air Commodore since 1977 – with the Royal Family retaining its strong connections with a station situated just over 20 miles south of the Sandringham Estate.

Marham’s location near the Norfolk coast increased its importance in the defence of the UK, but that role was diminished when hostilities stopped at the end of the Great War in 1918, and it was effectively decommissioned for nearly 20 years before reopening as a heavy bomber unit in 1937.

During the Second World War, Marham operated a variety of aircraft including Wellingtons, Stirlings and Mosquitos, and it was home to a number of squadrons, No.38 and No.115 Squadrons arriving before hostilities had begun. They were joined by No.218 Squadron and No.105 Squadron, with Marham home to No.2 Group Bomber Command between 1942 and 1943, and 8 Group Pathfinder Force from 1943-44; the station closing to operations in March 1944 for the construction of concrete runways.

Post-war the station hosted the USAFs B-17 Flying Fortresses and B-29 Super Fortresses during Project Ruby in 1946, testing the effectiveness of what were labelled ‘deep penetrating’ bombs against reinforced concrete targets. Marham had a longstanding link to the US military during the Cold War, with B-29s and B-50s stationed there, and the runway was one of the few in the country able to accommodate the B-52 Stratofortress, which arrived on a regular basis during the 1970s and 1980s for NATO exercises.

In the 1950s, RAF units at Marham operated the Canberra along with the V-bomber force: Valiants, Vulcans and Victors carrying Britain’s strategic nuclear deterrent. During the Falklands War in 1982, Handley Page Victors from Marham were involved in Operation Black Buck, helping refuel the Vulcans involved in the longest bombing mission in aviation history at the time, flying from Ascension Island to Port Stanley to bomb the airfield. 

A Tornado GR4 from RAF Marham takes off to join Operation Ellamy over Libya.

(A Tornado GR4 from RAF Marham takes off to join Operation Ellamy over Libya.)

Ahead of the first Gulf War, Tornado Squadrons from Marham deployed to the Middle East, beginning 25 years of continuous operations in the region. In 2011, Tornados from Marham flew directly to attack Colonel Gaddafi’s air defences in Libya – a 3,000-mile round trip – as part of Operation Ellamy, the UK wing of NATO’s Unified Protector, a joint venture supporting the uprising against Gaddafi.

Today, with its future assured, Marham is home to more than 3600 service personnel, civil servants and contractors, with squadrons involved in the latest NATO operations.

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