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RAF Regiment

Defending RAF assets at home and abroad

LATE last year a new ‘ghost drone’ was being trialled at RAF Akrotiri in Cyprus, an ‘eye in the sky’ able to track and detect targets while itself remaining invisible to the enemy.

The equipment can be operated from anywhere in the world so long as the user has a phone signal, with the trials carried out by the RAF Regiment, an arm of the military far less well known than some of their service colleagues.

February 1st marks the 81st anniversary of the RAF Regiment’s formation, their role to protect RAF assets at home and abroad, ensuring that operations can continue without interference from outside forces – the ground fighting force to support air operations. With a range of assets to defend, the regiment is broken down into regular and reserve squadrons, organised into wings.

They also work in the recovery of downed aircrew or other key personnel, and those who join are initially trained as combat infantry, with gunners specialising in infantry tactics and force protection, and officer training also involving ground combat tactics and squadron leadership.

The Royal Air Force contingent of Her Majesty The Queen’s funeral procession marching along The Mall.

(The Royal Air Force contingent of Her Majesty The Queen’s funeral procession marching along The Mall.)

The King’s Colour Squadron, the ceremonial drill unit, is made up of officers and gunners of the RAF Regiment, best known recently for their service during the repatriation of the late Queen from Scotland back to London – the squadron officially renamed on October 27, 2022.  

Their formation came midway through World War Two, the decision linked to the vulnerability of airfields and the fact that control of the air was clearly vital in battlefield domination. The need for a better system became apparent in various phases of WW2: in particular the Battle of France which was soon followed by the Battle of Britain in 1940, and the loss of Crete the following year.

In June 1940, the tactical airfields being used by the British military in France proved particularly vulnerable, RAF units suffering badly at the hands of the rapidly advancing German army. RAF stations in Britain were then targeted by the Luftwaffe during the Battle of Britain, with the Air Ministry investigating ways in which the RAF could look after its own defence rather than relying on the Army.

The loss of Crete in 1941 was another low point, centred around a failure to recognise the importance of defending the airfields on the island. When the main operating centre at Maleme on the north of the island was taken intact by enemy forces, German reinforcements could be brought in en masse which led to the loss of the whole island.

The Findlater Stewart Committee was convened following the Crete debacle, with the aim of finding an effective method of airfield defence. The recommendation was an RAF Aerodrome Defence allowing RAF commanders to control the defence of their own assets, releasing army units to be redeployed. 

An RAF Regiment Humber LRC in Middelburg, Netherlands, during Operation Infatuate, November 1944

(An RAF Regiment Humber LRC in Middelburg, Netherlands, during Operation Infatuate, November 1944)

The new Corps, the RAF Regiment, was established by Royal Warrant on February 1, 1942, with its first depot at Belton Park in Lincolnshire – the launch coming with 66,000 personnel drawn from the former Defence Squadrons, Nos. 701-850, growing to a force of more than 80,000 during the remaining years of WW2. As well as defending ‘home’ airfields and forces, their added role was to seize, secure and defend airfields on foreign lands, as the Allies began their offensive and forced the German army into retreat.

Training schools at home and overseas were established and, as remains to this day, all regiment members were initially trained as combat infantrymen. By the end of hostilities in 1945, the Corps were recognised for their work in all the major campaigns of the Second World War from 1942-45, particularly their distinguished service in Burma (now Myanmar) fighting Japanese forces attempting to capture the airstrip at Meiktila.

They were also among the first units ashore at the Juno beachhead during the Normandy landings, with their service in Italy at Monte Cassino also recognised.

Post-war, there were postings across the globe as British forces withdrew from lands of the former Empire, notably in Palestine, Suez, Malaya, Oman, and the Yemen, where it is believed they picked up the moniker ‘Rock Apes’, from an incident in the early 1950s in Aden. Two RAF Regiment officers went out one night to shoot at local baboons, known as rock apes, and unfortunately, one officer ended up shooting and injuring his mate, and when asked why he did it he responded that in the dark he looked just like a ‘rock ape’ – the name sticking.

Also noted for their work with internal security and peacekeeping duties, in 1969 the RAF Regiment were the first reinforcement troops into Northern Ireland, arriving ahead of the further deployment that became Operation Banner, the longest British Armed Forces posting in history (1969-2007).

In a bid to improve airfield defence in the 1960s, the RAF Regiment were looking to identify a short-range weapon, the result was the Tigercat system, which was introduced in 1968 with No. 48 Squadron RAF Regiment, the UK’s first effective fully portable low level SAM. It was superseded by the Rapier in the 1970s, a system also used to protect RAF stations in Germany.   

RAF Regiment in 1988 on tour in Belize with Rapier missile system

(RAF Regiment in 1988 on tour in Belize with Rapier missile system)

In the 1980s the RAF Regiment was deployed to provide air defence at San Carlos in the Falklands War, with Rapier squadrons remaining in post to provide air defence for RAF assets assigned to the Falklands until 2008.

The largest deployment of the RAF Regiment since WW2 was during Operation Granby, the liberation of Kuwait in 1991, elements among the first units to advance into Kuwait and push the Iraqi forces back over the border.

RAF Regiment near Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan, in 2010

(RAF Regiment near Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan, in 2010)

The RAF Regiment were also heavily involved in Afghanistan, responsible for the defence of Camp Bastion and Kandahar air bases, and they were also involved in the recovery of 15,000 Afghan personnel from Kabul following the withdrawal of military forces from the country, Operation Pitting: the largest humanitarian and aid operation undertaken since the Second World War.  

In 2022, a range of events were held to mark the regiment’s 80th anniversary, including a special Changing of the Guard ceremony at Buckingham Palace.

 

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