MRS 70th Anniversary
RAF MOUNTAIN RESCUE SERVICE 70th ANNIVERSARY
2013 marks 70years of unbroken service by the RAF Mountain Rescue Service (MRS). The four teams based today at RAF Kinloss, RAF Leuchars, RAF Leeming and RAF Valley will all celebrate the heritage and past achievements of the MRS in a wide variety of areas. Whilst it was born out of necessity during WW2, RAF MRS has evolved over the years. With 70 years of experience, today’s MRS are established aircraft crash specialists and enjoy excellent relationships with civilian Mountain Rescue Teams, the police and landowners. It is now an integral, yet fully independent, element of the RAF Search and Rescue Force, which has developed the excellent cooperation with the RAF Rescue helicopters and crews.
The individual teams will each celebrate in their own style in their local area and MRS vehicles will sport our 70th anniversary logo throughout 2013. The MRS, along with the Mountain Rescue Association, will also celebrate the 70th anniversary with a ceremony at the grave of Flt Lt Graham in the Lake District on 7th July 2013, 70 years on from his creation of RAF MRS in its present form on 6th July 1943.
A SHORT HISTORY OF THE RAF MOUNTAIN RESCUE SERVICE 1943 – 2013
There are records of ad hoc RAF mountain rescues going right back to 1938. The outbreak of the Second World War, with the huge increase in the size of the RAF and the need to move training stations as far as possible from enemy attack, led to a huge increase in the number of crashes. The task of searching for and rescuing survivors traditionally fell on the Senior Medical Officer of the nearest RAF station to an accident. Of all those involved in the early days of WW2, Flight Lieutenant George Desmond Graham is credited with taking the most prominent role in the creation of the MRS by constantly bombarding the Air Ministry with requests for equipment and training. He had been posted to RAF Llandwrog in North Wales (now Caernarvon airfield) in 1941 and by the end of 1942 his ad-hoc activities had resulted in 10 lives being saved. His tenacity and persistence resulted in the creation of the RAF MRS in 1943 and he opened his unofficial log book for the Llandwrog team on 6th July 1943; he was awarded the MBE for services to Mountain Rescue.
Another notable figure at this time was Flt Lt David Crichton, the SMO at RAF Harpur Hill who like Graham formed a very creditable MRT despite the shortages in training and equipment. In 1946 he too was awarded the MBE for Services to Mountain Rescue. It is a sad fact that many of the other pioneers of these early days remain unidentified. Their spirit has lived on, however, and seventy years later that same will and determination shown by these pioneers to save lives still exists in the RAF MRS.
Operations in the 1950s
There have been many notable MRS past 70 years. Arguably the most influential was the Lancaster crash on Beinn Eighe in 1951. The RAF Kinloss team were faced with a technically challenging rescue for which they were neither adequately trained nor equipped. The crash of the 120 Sqn Lancaster was non-survivable but it took them months to recover the bodies. Many important improvements to the MRS came out of the subsequent inquiry, however, not the least of which was annual courses in winter and summer climbing techniques. It can be said that the crash and its aftermath acted as a catalyst in the creation of the modern RAF MRS. To assist and reinforce training the UK’s first MR handbook was produced, known in RAF jargon as Pamphlet Aeronautical (Pam Air ) 299. In its 7th Edition this document is still in extensive use today.
In 1954 the MRS’ only OBE was awarded to Sqn Ldr David Dattner AFC who, as the Officer in Command of the Kinloss team, had made many huge improvements in the teams capabilities especially in the field of first aid. He would regularly offer himself up as a guinea pig for injections and the suturing of deep wounds; fortuitously this latter practice never became MRS policy for the OIC!
In 1958 FS Johnnie Lees led the RAF Valley MRT during a difficult and dangerous rescue of an injured Army officer at night; for his courage, skill and resolve which involved abseiling past a knotted rope with a semi-conscious survivor strapped to his back, he was awarded the George Medal.
The record for the most decorated of all MRS rescues to date went to the RAF Nicosia MRT in 1959 when they were called to search for the crew of a British Avro Tudor civilian freighter which had gone missing near Mount Suphan in Turkey with a highly classified cargo of ‘missiles’ for test firing on the Australian Woomera range. At 4058m Suphan was well outside of the Akrotiri team’s normal experience and specialist equipment such as crampons were flown by jet from the UK to Cyprus especially for this SAR operation. One of the strengths of RAF MRTs is the diversity of the trades of the team members and in this case having team members qualified to handle explosives was a distinct advantage. Sadly this crash was also non-survivable so the team’s priority was changed to destroying the remnants of the cargo. 70 Sqn Hastings were used to fly selected team members to Turkey and drop additional supplies throughout the protracted operation which lasted from 30th April to 7th May. For their outstanding contributions members of the team were awarded the BEM, Queen’s Bravery Award and the C in C’s Commendation, while Flt Lt RG Robertson, the detachment commander, was awarded the MBE. In addition, the Hastings pilot who dropped the team supplies on numerous occasions, Flt Lt RJ Kingdom, was also awarded the MBE. In addition, in the early days of the service, many troops undertook parachute training to allow them to be dropped from aircraft into remote areas as a fast reaction for search, rescue and medical support.
Operations into 1990s
Whilst air-portability has always been preserved for most team assets in order to allow rapid reinforcements to be moved around the UK this was put to an extreme test on 15th March 1994 when a British Army expedition from Hong Kong ran into difficulties in Northern Borneo. WO Alister Haveron who was then SAR1d at MoD and MRS Chief Instructor assembled a team drawn from all 6 MRS teams and they assembled at Heathrow within 10 hours of the initial request joined by experts from the RAF School of Survival. After an aircraft change at Kuala Lumpar the team arrived at Kota Kinabalu in Sabah 26 hours after leaving the UK. The Army personnel had been attempting to descend Low’s Gully which started near the top of Mt Kinabalu, 13,455 amsl. As the soldiers should have completed their descent by 8th March they were now seriously overdue so without time for acclimatisation the team set off for the top of the Gully….for the full story go to www.rafmra.com/articles but let it suffice to say that after a 3 week operation the missing expedition members were found alive.
More recent Operations
In March 2001 two RAF Lakenheath USAFE F-15Cs were reported missing over the Cairngorms in appalling weather which prevented any helicopter activity; for 2 days RAF MRTs from Kinloss, Leuchars and Leeming searched in appalling conditions. Sadly this was yet another non-survivable accident as both aircraft hit the side of Ben MacDui whilst flying in cloud.
There have also been some decidedly ‘unusual’ rescues of which the RAF Kinloss MRT call to a USAF crash in southern Scotland in 1949 probably wins the prize for this category. To give teeth to the Berlin Airlift and show the USSR that the Allies meant business large numbers of B-29’s were detached to the UK from the USA on a 3 month rotation, one of the airfields which hosted these formidable bombers was RAF Scampton. The normal crew varied between 8 and 13 but on transit flights 20 personnel and their kit were shoe horned on-board despite there being fewer than 10 seats, standards were different then! On 17th January 1949 two B-29s were due to return to the USA, the met briefing warned of an active cold front with severe embedded icing; the first aircraft departed and having selected a 5000’ cruising height until clear of the front they made it to Reykjavik before being diverted back to the UK due to bad weather in Iceland. The second aircraft elected a higher cruising level and when severe icing was encountered they asked for and were given clearance to climb; the next anyone knew of the aircraft was a huge explosion as is it crashed into the hillside above Strachur. Several people heard the crash and were eventually able to locate the fiercely burning wreckage. Kinloss MRT was called, they were just about to deploy by air to Prestwick when they were stood down…. but then two days later were asked to redeploy to assist in recovering bodies. On arrival they were offered RN naval ratings, slightly the worst off for a generous rum ration, mustered to assist and after co-opting a local farmer and his horses they proceeded to the crash site for the harrowing task of recovering the 20 badly burnt bodies which took two days. Large quantities of US dollars, amazingly unburnt, were blowing around and having collected up all the money and other personal effects these were commandeered by a USAF Major who claimed to be a Padre, who promptly burnt them all on site! It was possibly the most confrontational callout any Troop could recall and subsequent detailed investigation into the crash has also confirmed that the aircraft captain was smuggling diamonds and other jewels out of Europe back to the States where he intended to set up business as a jeweller.
Gales, rain, snow storms or freezing temperatures do not stop the MRTs getting to those regions where others fear to tread, and rescuing those in trouble. Now integrated within the RAF’s Search and Rescue Force, the MRS will go anywhere, anytime, regardless of the weather - hence the motto 'Whensoever' and they are rightly proud of their title as the RAF’s only all-weather SAR asset.
All RAF MRT members are volunteers. For reasons lost to history, RAF MRT team members are known as "M.R. troops" or just "troops." Traditionally, team membership is reserved for enlisted men and women, although officers may serve as part-time team members. In any case, on an MRT, your status is independent of rank. This status relates to your mountaineering and rescue experience; often an airman could be leading a senior officer in a hill party. For some, service on a team is a primary duty - these full time members are known as Permanent Staff. For others, it is a part-time activity for which they are granted relief from other normal secondary duties, such as guard duty.
Most training is done "on the hill" (the term for mountaineering training days). Note that "the hill" is the term used even for very high mountains! Further classroom training includes first aid training, radio procedure and navigation theory. All troops are required to pass a three-week trial period before being allowed to join and once accepted, new troops are considered novices. Novices then embark on approximately one year of extensive training, learning the theoretical and practical skills required. A troop will then take their Part-Trained Assessment, normally on a training weekend, after the first year. This assessment covers all aspects of hill safety, navigation, rock climbing, rescue techniques, first aid, helicopter training, radio procedure and area knowledge. Only once this is passed, the troop is deemed to be “Part-Trained” and then allowed the privilege of wearing the mountain rescue badge on the right fore-sleeve of their uniform.
Training then progresses towards the “Trained” status. This involves a more in-depth understanding of MRT procedures, rescue techniques, and mountaineering skills (both in summer and winter conditions) and culminates with another assessment. Once a troop has then gained enough experience, and passed the appropriate assessment, they will be made a Party Leader. Party Leaders may lead other MR troops on the hill and be responsible for training others in all aspects of MR operations.
Walking, mountain navigation, high-angle rescue techniques, rock climbing, first aid and winter mountaineering are the primary training activities, which are carried out in all weathers. A regular troop can expect to spend at least 80 days a year on the hill: this extensive training makes the most seasoned RAF MRS members some of the fittest mountaineers in the world.
Sadly such intense training and operational commitment comes at a high price and there have been many fatalities since its inception. In 2008 a plaque was installed in St Clement Dane’s church, London to mark the ultimate sacrifice made by 12 Troops.
MRS at 70
Today, RAF MRTs are located at RAF Kinloss, RAF Leuchars, RAF Leeming and RAF Valley. RAF Valley is also the location of MRS HQ, which is made up of full time team members whose day jobs are to support the 4 teams with regard to their communications equipment, administration, vehicles, supply and training.
In its busy first 70 years many thousands of personnel have been proud of the Mountain Rescue Troop title, and many more thousands have been grateful for their dedication and commitment. Now, as ever, RAF MRS continue to live up to their motto of “Whensoever”.
This is but a small précis of the almost 70 year history of the MRS, and is the result of the combined efforts of several Troops, for further reading the following are recommended
a. “Two Star Red” by Gwen Moffat, now out of print but available to read on-line at http://www.rafmra.com/
b. “The History of the MRS” by Sqn Ldr David Lofts, an internal RAF publication also at http://www.rafmra.com/
c. “Whensoever , the history from 1943-93” by Frank Card ISBN 0-948153-23-7 available from the RAFMRA for £10 +P&P see committee details at http://www.rafmra.com/ also occasionally available from Amazon etc.
Thanks to RAF Mountain Rescue Association for help with details of MRS history and for photographs from their archive.