In February 1986 a well renowned Irish Flight Sergeant in the RAF Regiment looked up from the stream he was washing in on Sennybridge Training Area in Wales and grinned at the 44 members of Basic Gunner Course 1/85 from beneath the headphones of his Sony walkman “They’re playing a song for youz lot on the radio” he said to the Trainee Gunners as they furiously attempted to scrub the rust from the gas plugs of their Self Loading Rifles and un-stick the remnants of Bacon grill from their mess tins in preparation for the Battle Inspection they knew was coming. “It’s called ‘When the Going Gets Tough, the Tough get Going” he grinned. For 30 trainees of that course the going got too tough and they never made it.
About a year ago at Warcop Training Area, the going began to get a lot tougher for the current Gunners of 501 Squadron Royal Auxiliary Air Force. Based at RAF Brize Norton, the Squadron provides a reserve of trained RAF Regiment Gunners and along with their regular sister squadron, 1 Squadron RAF Regiment, is part of No 4 Force Protection Wing, also based at Brize Norton. With the imminent prospect of a Defence Review and doubtless some form of cutbacks the Officer Commanding briefed the Squadron on his plan to make the Squadron’s future as robust as possible. His intent was to make its Gunners the ‘Gunners of Choice’ for the Force Commander to deploy on operations.
501 Squadron Gunners are no strangers to deploying on operations; indeed, between 2003 and 2008 the Squadron deployed more of its reservist Gunners on operations with regular RAF Regiment units than any other reserve squadron within the RAF’s Force Protection Organisation.
But not without cost. In 2007 Gunners from the Squadron deployed to Basra Coalition Operating Base (COB) embedded into 1 Squadron RAF Regiment. The Squadron was tasked with protecting Basra COB from insurgent attack, an almost impossible task given the range that insurgents could launch stand off attacks from and the proximity ofBasracity. The Gunner’s from 501 were in the thick of it during a tour which has become known as “the summer of love” when over 800 rockets were fired at Basra COB.
In one such attack a 122 mm rocket was engaged by the resident Phalanx battery, cutting the warhead in half from the propellant. The warhead fell into B Flight’s accommodation lines who had just returned to rest after finishing a patrol, killing 3 Gunners and seriously injuring six more. One of those seriously injured was Senior Aircraftsman Phil Kimber from 501 Squadron, who sustained serious head injuries. Later in the tour OC 1 Squadron led a 40 man patrol, including several reserve Gunners from 501 Squadron, into the Al Waki market place on the outskirts ofBasraCityat dusk in response to insurgent activity in the area. As the sun began to set, the Gunners entered the market place where they were engaged from at least a dozen firing positions on the rooftops surrounding them. The 90 minute fire fight that ensued would become the biggest ground contact the RAF Regiment has had since World War II and resulted in the first Military Cross being awarded to an airman. 501’s Gunner’s have continued to deploy with a number of regular RAF Regiment Squadrons toAfghanistanwhere they have continued to enhance the Squadron’s reputation.
501 Squadron’s lineage goes back to when it was formed in 1928 as part of Lord Trenchard’s vision for units of part time flyers who could rapidly augment the regular Royal Air Force in time of war. In 1939 the Squadron did exactly that, being mobilised and deployed to France as part of the BEF, the Squadron was flung into viscous aerial combat with the German Luftwaffe on the 10th May 1940 and was one of only two squadrons to fight constantly without respite through the Battle of Britain in the summer of 1940. Today the Squadron Standard is laid up in Bristol Cathedral and shows the seven Battle Honours won during World War II. Although our role has changed from being a flying Squadron to that of a Force Protection unit manned exclusively by RAF Regiment Reserve Gunners, we maintain that we are the only “Fighter” squadron based at RAF Brize Norton and maintain close ties with the Squadron Association who still have a small, sadly dwindling number of the “Few” left as active members.
The reservists of 501 Squadron have continued to conduct themselves on operations with the same spirit that led to their forebears becoming known as “The Fighting Five-Oh-One” during the Second World War. In 2010 Senior Aircraftsman Wayne Ince became the first RAF Regiment Reservist to be awarded an operational honour for the part he played in apprehending a Taliban rocket team, an action which resulted in a marked decrease in the number of attacks on Kandahar Airbase. Then in 2011, Cpl MikeGardnerbecame the first reservist to be awarded the prestigious RAF Regiment NCO Leadership award for his outstanding leadership whilst mobilised as part of 1 Squadron RAF Regiment. We are fiercely proud of our unit’s history which is second to none and the fact we are the only Squadron within the RAF to have the Freedom of a County conferred on them, but keenly aware that you can not rest on your laurels, particularly when a Defence Review is looming.
So, back at Warcop the Squadron commenced its annual training camp to prepare its Gunners for the challenge of doing something we have not done for many years and which few other Reserve or Regular Regiment units are doing, namely the Cambrian Patrol, probably the toughest military skills competition in the world.
Things began to get very physical for the Squadron’s Gunners. Battle PT, speed marches and assault courses. Blank firing Battle Exercises were followed by a very wet and demanding tactical live firing package. Then came a combat survival exercise where the Gunners lived out on the hills as they learnt to build survival shelters, make a fire, kill then skin a rabbit before Royal Marine instructors taught them how to cross water obstacles by making floatation packs from their kit. Then it was time to put theory into practice by crossing an ice cold lake on the training area. They then moved into an evasion exercise where they were hunted by a Company sized Hunter Force from the local TA Infantry unit and civilian police dog teams across some of the roughest parts of the Pennine way.
The training has continued to be physically demanding this summer with most of the Squadron’s training weekends taking place on the Brecon Beacons as the squadron gets “Hill Fit” for the Cambrian Patrol, completing the Fan Dance and longer routes across the hills both as teams and individuals. And it has started to pay off. In May a team from the Squadron came 2nd in the UK Reserve Forces Military Skills Competition and in front of a team from the Royal Marines Reserve.
When the RAF Regiment was formed in 1942 its first instructors were drawn from the Royal Marines. The Squadron has continued to build on this historical link, conducting a very demanding and physical joint Unarmed Combat training weekend, which saw the Squadron’s Gunners literally getting to grips with their counterparts from the Royal Marines Reserves from Poole andBristol.
The Squadron is now again conducting its annual continuous training. This year will see those Gunners selected for the Cambrian Patrol spending yet more time carrying heavier weights over the Welsh mountains, as well as conducting more joint training with the Royal Marines, this time amphibious raiding on the South Coast as a prelude to playing enemy for a JNCO Course the Squadron will be running for the new Lance Corporal rank, which the RAF Regiment has finally adopted.
We still await the impact of the Future Reserve 2020 Review, but as per our Squadron Motto, ‘Fear Nothing’, not only because of our operational record and the knowledge that our Reserve Gunners are second to none, but because whilst Carlsberg don’t do Royal Auxiliary Air Force Squadrons, if they did………!