Exercise Honourable Ties

On Monday 16th May 2011, six members of 54(R) Squadron (Senior Aircraftmans Becky Molloy, Luke Shingler, Claire Nelson and Richard Coopey, Flying Officer Olly Burrell and I) departed RAF Waddington on a Staff Ride to Belgium and France. The purpose was to visit a variety of air and ground based military sites from WWI and WWII. All sites had a historical relevance to 54(R) Squadron.

Day 1

After a bright and early meet at Waddington, the group set off for Dover. Arriving in Calais we headed to Ypres, Belgium. After an initial faf with Sat Nav, Becky got us safely to Ypres around 5pm.

At 7.30pm, the staff ride members met up to discuss 54(R) Squadron history. This gave the group the background of 54(R) Squadron operations and why we were visiting the locations. We then made a short two minute walk from the hotel to the magnificent Menin Gate for the last post. This moving ceremony has been performed every evening since July 2nd 1928. By the commencement of the ceremony, a large crowd of a few hundred people had gathered. Two of the Squadron personnel (Becky and Luke) were very fortunate to be invited to be involved with the ceremony and laid a wreath on behalf of 54(R) Squadron. This was a fantastic way to start the Staff Ride and the actual scale of the losses shocked a number of the group. After the ceremony the group had a meal together and chatted with a few locals regarding the ceremony.

Day 2

After recharging the batteries, we set off to Hellfire Corner for a brief presentation. This was a difficult location as it is now located next to a roundabout and a cycle path!! It was very noisy and bikes were constantly dodging us when steaming round the corner. This was an essential brief and set the background for the rest of the morning’s stands (presentations). A short 10 minute drive and we arrived at the Hill 62 Canadian Monument for our first stand of the trip. The area researched and discussed was air and ground liaison during WWI and this was delivered by Richard. This was a very enjoyable stand with a stunning backdrop of Ypres town to aid the information given and prompted lively debate. The group then visited Hill 60 which now has an Australian monument and it was here that the group got a real appreciation for how tough trench warfare was. The terrain was still deep and uneven due to the heavy shelling.

Another short journey saw us arrive at Tyne Cot Cemetery. Upon entering the cemetery the group were shocked by just how many graves were placed there. All of the personnel agreed that it was an odd feeling at Tyne Cot as it is a beautiful, well kept and peaceful place but it is impossible not to be moved when you see the sea of headstones. Becky then delivered stand two, discussing how the repatriation of personnel had changed from WWI to the modern day. This was a very fitting question given the location and brought out great discussion on the future of British servicemen being repatriated from theatre when RAF Lyneham closes.

On the journey between Tyne Cot and St Omer airfield we made an unscheduled stop to the German Cemetery at Langermarke. The group were surprised by the contrast of the British and German cemeteries and the group talked about their differences and how this had occurred.

After a lunch break, we arrived at St Omer airfield. This is a pivotal place for all Staff Rides in France to visit as it has the Royal Air Force Memorial. This is still a working airfield but not on such a grand scale as it was used during both World Wars. Due to the depot being long gone and long grass covering a great deal of the view, Claire made excellent use of a number of visual aids during her stand to help the group picture this once hub of air power during WWI. Claire discussed how logistics helped the projection of airpower on the Western Front and compared it to modern day logistic processes.

Day 3

Again the day started early with us back on the road before 8am driving over an hour before arriving at Arras Cemetery. This was a smaller cemetery than Tyne Cot but still commemorates 34,785 servicemen, with an individual memorial for the Royal Flying Corps. After a brief presentation on the battle for Arras, Olly delivered his stand on the benefits of an independent air force during WWI and the inter-war years. He also compared the independent air force to modern day changes and the similarities to the recent SDSR.

After a two hour drive, the group moved away from WWI and focused on WWII and in particular the Dunkirk Evacuation. 54(R) Squadron played a pivotal role in operations around the Dunkirk area during the evacuation and this was discussed during the final two stands of the Staff Ride.

The first site visited was Bray Dunes. This site was very important, with thousands of troops getting evacuated from the beaches by small boats. Luke delivered his stand on how the Army perceived the RAF during the evacuation in a World War Two pillbox, adding to the setting. This provoked lots of views from all individuals.

A short twenty minute drive saw us arrive at The Mole at Dunkirk. This was used for the bulk of the evacuation of Dunkirk with at one point over a two hour period, 15,000 men being evacuated from the harbour equating to two personnel a second. I delivered our final stand of the Staff Ride on The Mole and covered how and why air and naval support changed the tactics for the BEF during the evacuation of Dunkirk. The group also analysed the importance of modern day Air and Land Integration. After travelling back to St Omer the group found a great restaurant that evening and confirmed the day’s main learning points.

Day 4

Although this was the last day, the group still managed to visit one final location which was the La Coupole Museum in St Omer. This is a gigantic underground bunker which was built by the Germans in 1943 to store, prepare and launch the V2 rockets. A very impressive museum, La Coupole covers a large variety of different topics and has short 20 minute videos showing the history of the V1/2 rockets and how the technology from these rockets was developed for later NASA space missions. The group then made a short one hour journey to Calais and boarded the ferry arriving back at Waddington at 5pm.

On reflection, every member agreed that the Staff Ride was a massive success. Staff Rides are a great tool for developing personnel, with the whole group learning vast amounts regarding 54(R) Squadron history and the Royal Air Force. Some members are already looking at possible locations to visit in 2012. We all believe that it is very important that we and future generations continue to visit sites such as these, to preserve the memory of those who fought and died in the pursuit of the freedom that we all take for granted today.

By Flying Officer Andy Harris

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