Norfolk prepares to give RAF Marham squadron a hero’s welcome
A momentous year steeped in history and achievement will culminate in a hero's return when RAF Marham's II (AC) Squadron flies home from Afghanistan tomorrow (Tuesday).
Members of the force's oldest fixed wing squadron can expect a warm welcome from the hundreds of family and friends preparing to greet them with cheers and banners on the runway.
But news of the GR4 Tornado squadron's return has also been met with joy and relief in the wider community, with residents, MPs and council leaders all keen to express their gratitude for its contribution at home and abroad.
West Norfolk Council leader Nick Daubney said last night: 'We are so glad the squadron is coming home, it is wonderful news.
'They have done a fantastic job both for the community and for Britain and NATO's interests.
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'We are so proud of them and say welcome back to West Norfolk.'
Affectionately known as Shiny Two, the reconnaissance squadron has spent a demanding four months in Afghanistan where it has played a crucial role in Operation Herrick.
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The deployment came hot on the heels of a six-month stint on Operation Ellamy over Libya last year.
Alongside their day-to-day duties in Afghanistan, members managed to raise nearly �5,000 for Scotty's Little Soldiers, which supports the children of servicemen and women killed while serving with the armed forces.
The II squadron formed in May, 1912 and members set themselves a gruelling sponsored challenge as part of series of events held to commemorate its centenary.
One of its first flights was from Farnborough Airfield in Hampshire to Montrose in Scotland and in honour of that historic flight, personnel completed the same distance every day for 100 days.
Using treadmills and exercise bikes, rowing machines and cross trainers, the squadron covered 100,000km in 100 days while on deployment, raising �4,800for the King's Lynn-based charity.
Scotty's Little Soldiers fund-raiser Brendan Holmes said: 'We were amazed by how much the squadron managed to raise and we are so grateful for all their hard work.
'We are delighted they are coming home and can't wait to thank them in person.'
South West Norfolk MP Elizabeth Truss, a key figure in the campaign to keep the Tornados based at Marham, said tomorrow would be a tremendously important day for Norfolk.
'What II Squadron has achieved is tremendous given the level of pressure they have been under both in Afghanistan and the campaign in Libya,' she said.
'When the squadron comes homes it will be a moment of celebration, but also congratulation from local people because I think we all realise how much the team from RAF Marham contributes. 'As well as their day jobs, the squadron has also been raising money for bereaved families, which is incredibly impressive.'
The base's short-term future was secured following a successful campaign by the Eastern Daily Press to keep the RAF's Tornado fleet based there rather than in Scotland.
Nearly 37,000 people signed the Make It Marham petition in November 2010 to save the base from closure, highlighting the public's overwhleming support for its three Tornado GR4 sqadrons.
The petition was delivered to Downing Street and last July the government announced the Tornado station would stay open - saving more than 5,000 local jobs and more than �1bn for the local economy.
Early indications are the Marham base will also be home to the new Joint Strike Force (JSF) jets following the Make it Marham Mark II campaign, securing its long-term future.
In February this year, II Squadron personnel were made honorary citizens of Swaffham following a nomination by Breckland councillor Ian Sherwood.
'When there was a possibility of losing the Tornado squadrons from RAF Marham, which put so much into the Swaffham community, I felt we should recognise what they do,' he said.
'We want them all to feel how much they are valued. Every time they have to go out we worry and their families worry.
'We really feel a connection to the squadron and it is important that they know and understand that. RAF Marham's II (AC) Squadron will always be close to the hearts of the community of Swaffham.
'Their continuing work overseas to bring a better world is much appreciated.'
Former Swaffham mayor Shirley Matthews added: 'We are very proud of the contribution that our local squadron has made over in Afghanistan and are delighted they are all home again.'
The squadron's centenary celebrations got under way in March when the tail livery of a GR4 aircraft was painted to depict the iconic Bristol Scout aircraft it used during the First World War.
In May the squadron, a founding member of the Royal Flying Corps, was presented with a new standard by Air Chief Marshal Lord Jock Stirrup, who commanded the squadron while it was based in Germany during the 1980s.
Personnel attended a service of dedication at Ely Cathedral and also played a part when the BBC's Antiques Roadshow visited RAF Marham later that month.
In June, the squadron began pre-deployment training for Afghanistan and in September current and former members gathered at the National Arboretum in Staffordshire for the unveiling of a new memorial.
The service started with a flypast of a Spitfire, of the same type operated by the squadron during the second world war, from the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight and concluded with a flypast of the II (AC) Squadron Tornado in the centenary paint design.
After three years of design, planning and fund-raising, the memorial featured a Roman numeral II carved out of black granite.
The squadron's achievements include the first use of airborne cameras in 1914, the award of the first air Victoria Cross in 1915 and the first pictures of the D-Day landings in 1944.
Its battle honours include Western Front 1914 to 1918, Neuve Chappelle, Ypres 1915, Somme 1916, Dunkirk, Normandy 1944 and Iraq 2003.