Mountain Rescue Service

RAF Mountain Rescue Service (RAF MRS)

Mountain Rescue Service Crest

During the early stages of the Second World War the discovery of an aircraft crash in the mountains was often a matter of chance and the subsequent removal of casualties a difficult problem. Stations near mountainous areas made their own arrangements for the organisation of search parties, and used the most readily available equipment for their purposes. Early in 1942 one such party was organised under the direction of Flight Lieutenant George Graham, the Station Medical Officer at No. 9 Air Gunners School Llandwrog, North Wales. It soon became clear to him that the equipment and personnel at his disposal were inadequate to deal with the number of aircraft crashes in the mountainous Snowdonia area. Flight Lieutenant Graham adapted what equipment he could for mountain rescue and trained selected volunteers from the station. By the end of 1943, 33 survivors had been rescued from 22 crashes.

At this stage, Flying Training Command decided to inaugurate rescue units, under the direction of the Senior Medical Officer, at three other stations within their Command, to co-ordinate the rescue work of all units, supply special equipment, and supervise the training of volunteers. From this work evolved the present RAF Mountain Rescue Service. Further recognition followed when it was decided to place responsibility for the organisation of the Service with the Air Ministry. This responsibility first lay with the Director of Flying Control and Rescue. His successor today is the Director of Air Offensive (MOD) (RAF).

It was found that during 1943, despite the rescue efforts in some mountain areas, 571 aircrew lost their lives in 220 crashes in other mountainous and upland districts in the UK. Home Command was therefore invited to form Mountain Rescue Units and four more were inaugurated. The areas covered by the Service were the North Wales mountains, the Northern and Western Grampians, South West Scotland, the Pennine Chain and North Yorkshire Moors, the Lake District, and the South Wales hills.

From that time to this, the story is one of slow and sometimes painful development, of continual changes in team personnel, and innumerable problems. However, the foundations of the Mountain Rescue Service had been laid, and the experience, hard work and enthusiasm of the early pioneers and those who have since passed through the various units and teams has stood the present day service in good stead.

In the early years many of the teams were not trained for difficult rescues on rock faces, the nucleus of a team consisted of fell and hill walkers, rather than climbers and mountaineers. Experience showed, however, that a practical knowledge of mountaineering was essential if teams were to function efficiently. As a result, the development of individual rock, snow and ice climbing skills has been actively encouraged over the years with numerous training courses being held. This is reflected by a steady increase in technical climbing ability and members of the RAF MRS now rank amongst the most proficient of Service mountaineers. This was demonstrated in 2001, when Flight Sergeant ‘Dan’ Carroll and Corporal ‘Rusty’ Bale reached the summit of Everest by its North Ridge during the MRS millennium expedition.

From small beginnings at RAF Llandwrog in North Wales, the RAF Mountain Rescue Service expanded in the 50’s to include teams based in Cyprus, Hong Kong and the Middle East. However, during the 70’s the Service reverted to being UK based only, as the final non-UK based team at Akrotiri was disbanded in 1976. Despite this the MRS has still operated in numerous overseas locations since including Borneo, Albania, and Alaska in order to recover aircraft and rescue military personnel.

The 90’s saw a series of studies into the continued viability of the MRS, linked to the general drawdown of the Services. In 1992 the post of Mountain Rescue Chief Instructor was created and in 1995 the Inspector of Land Rescue post was moved from MOD to Headquarters 3 Group at Northwood, where it was re-titled Squadron Leader Mountain Rescue Service. A direct result of the continued drawdown was the closure in 1996 of the MRT at Valley; leaving teams at Kinloss, Leuchars, Leeming, Stafford and St Athan. This was followed in 1997 by the creation of two Flight Commander Mountain Rescue Service posts to provide the MRS with a more conventional management structure. This was then followed in January 2000 by the formation of the MRS Headquarters Flight at Stafford.

In 2004, further planned reductions to the RAF’s core manpower and the long-term future of the Search And Rescue Force led to the rebrigading of the MRS. Teams at RAF Stafford and RAF St Athan were closed and RAF Valley MRT was re-opened. The Squadron Leader was relocated to Valley and became OC MRS. The Flight Commanders posts were also relocated to Valley to manage Operations and Logistics. The overall management of the MRS would now be directly through the SAR Force Commander.

In 2015 with the closure of SAR Force and the introduction of HMCG providing the air assets of SAR the MRS moved from 2 Gp to come under the command of the newly reformed 38 Gp under 85 (EL) Wg.

Over the years, the co-operation of civilian rescue organisations has proved invaluable to the RAF Mountain Rescue Service and many strong bonds have been formed. Liaison and joint operations with these organisations, coupled with an ongoing programme of training and exercises throughout the world will continue to enhance the efficiency of the RAF MRS.

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