Wednesday, May 27, 2009

15 Sqn RAF Regiment return hom from Iraq having done last British patrol

The Force Protection of the Contingency Operating Base, or COB, at Basra International Airport has – from the initial operation to occupy the country – been the responsibility of the Royal Air Force, delivered by Force Protection Wings which deploy for 6 month tours.

The final Force Protection Wing to deploy, commanded by Wing Commander Simeon Sharples (42) from Louth, recently handed over their responsibility for protecting the base to American Forces. The US have taken over the COB at the airport which includes a number of remaining UK personnel who are tasked with ensuring a safe and ordered withdrawal of all UK forces’ kit and equipment from Southern Iraq.

“I am immensely proud to be here as our mission in Iraq draws to a close and we prepare to leave,” commented Simeon, who was also in Iraq at the outset of hostilities in 2003.

Since their arrival, the RAF Regiment and other elements of the Force Protection Wing have been instrumental in fostering relations with the Iraqi people in their patrol area. Now Simeon sees that the tribal infighting of 2003 has given way to co-operation between tribes and families as Iraqis pursue new economic opportunities unavailable under Saddam’s regime.

As his troops prepared for their final patrol a few days ago, Simeon said: “I regularly visit village leaders and over time we have developed genuine trusting relationships. To me, the proof that Iraq is changing for the better is that these days my guys can go out and work alongside the Iraqi police and Army and help develop something close to a normal policing role.”

He added: “I see great potential for this country and I find the fact that my guys have had a significant hand in helping achieve that – alongside our colleagues from all three services - immensely satisfying”.

At the forefront of the Force Protection Wing’s activities are the RAF Regiment Squadrons who have rotated through the COB in 6 month tours. This week sees the return of 15 Squadron to the UK commanded by Squadron Leader Chris Berryman, (40) from RAF Honington, who is completing his third tour in Iraq. He deployed with 115 RAF personnel from his squadron to Iraq in early February.

“This has been hard work in a hard environment with very real threats”, he said as the last patrol carried out their weapon checks. “I am pleased to say that every one of my team has lived up to the challenge, they have responded to this most difficult of jobs as I would expect of any member of the RAF Regiment: with vigour, enthusiasm and a determination to see the task to the very end with total professionalism”.

Reflecting on his tour he said: “Our Regimental history has been linked with Iraq since 1922 when 3 RAF Armoured Car Company was formed at Basra. The Iraqi people have been our friend for a long time and I like to think that we have now invested in their future”.

However there has been a price to pay for the rewards of the RAF Regiment. Four of their gunners have been killed on operations in Iraq, three during one rocket attack in July 2007. In its time the Wing has responded to many incidents ranging from intruders to the airfield to combating insurgent rocket teams targeting the airfield, who launched over 220 attacks on the base during one three month period in 2007.

The sad loss of Leading Aircraftsman Martin Beard from 1 Squadron RAF Regiment during a battle with insurgents marked a low point in the history of the RAF Regiment; however the bravery of the Squadron members under fire was recognised when Corporal Dave Hayden was awarded the Military Cross for his acts of selfless bravery during the fierce battle. Other Squadron members were awarded honourable mentions for their activities on that day.

This weeks final patrol was led by Flying Officer Jon Giffin (26) from Gloucester. He estimates that this is the last of over 5,000 combat patrols that the Wing have conducted in the past six years. His ten man patrol equipped with both agile Weapons Mount Installation Kit or ‘WMIK’ and the more robust Mastiff patrolled into the small hours of the morning covering ground that so many of his colleagues have grown to know intimately over the past six years. Whilst theirs were the last combat UK boots on the ground in Basra, there is still much work to be done by the many troops remaining in Iraq.

15 Squadron’s vehicles, kit and equipment must now be prepared for an ordered return to UK with hundreds of tons of similar military hardware. This job has fallen to the Joint Force Logistic Command. They will remain in Iraq until every item on the Iraq military inventory, from Chapsticks to Challenger tanks, are cleaned, checked, fixed, packed and properly accounted for and then shipped to their next shelf, camp or warehouse ready for use again.

The patrol was welcomed in by Royal Marines Brigadier Paul Stearns the Commander of British Forces in Iraq. “It gives me great pleasure to see our combat role come to an end” he said “The RAF Regiment have provided a pivotal function here in Basra, they have afforded us and the local population the peace of mind that we are safe going about our business in and around the base.” he added. “We can now look forward to a new relationship with the Iraqi people, one of close co-operation in terms of economics, culture, commerce, defence and development. Without the efforts of the Force Protection Wing and all the three services’ personnel who have served in Iraq over the past six years, this would not be possible”.

On behalf of the RAF Force Protection and RAF Regiment capability at headquarters Air Command, Group Captain Andy Hall said: “This is time to reflect on the considerable commitment that our people and families have made over the years in Iraq, their professionalism, grit and determination. Our thoughts especially go out to those who have died whilst serving on this operation, they will always be remembered.

“The return of our final combat troops from Iraq marks another important phase in our very proud history. The men of the RAF Regiment have risked their lives daily over the past six years, so that our other servicemen and women can go about their missions as safely as possible. It is a great testament to their efforts that the lives of the local people have improved through the security that has been provided, along with projects to enhance their way of life, education and agriculture – this is, after all, why we came to Iraq in the first place. This is an honourable end state and the RAF Regiment should be proud of its legacy in Iraq and the immense capability that it has to offer.”

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