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Wednesday, April 21, 1999 Published at 10:19 GMT 11:19 UK


Home of the Harrier

James Blatch reports on life at RAF Wittering, Cambridgeshire

Number One (Fighter) Squadron were starting to get a reputation as the 'nearly' men.

Kosovo: Special Report
They missed the Gulf War in 1991 and the Bosnian War in 1995. Even last year when it seemed certain they would spearhead Operation Desert Fox, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan pulled off a last minute peace deal, delaying the inevitable until well after One Squadron had been relieved.

Not since the Falkands Conflict, in fact, had any pilot with a One Squadron badge dropped a single bomb in anger.

That all changed on the 24th of March 1999, the Squadron went into action after a lull of 17 years.

Unexpected call

[ image:  ]
The news came to the families here in the same way that it came to everyone else, via the broadcast media. No one here expected such an early use of manned aircraft, and the move took people by surprise.

A system of briefings for the wives and family was established. Individuals are not however told if their partners are flying to war. The philosophy is: why worry them about something they can do nothing about.

But the Station Commander here, Group Captain Andre 'Des' Dezonie, does know which pilots are due to take part in each raid.

Should the worst happen, he would be one of the first to know who it was who didn't return, it would then be up to him to deliver that news to the familiy concerned.

Brits in Balkans
In fact this is somewhat of a baptism of fire for Group Captain Dezonie. He only took over command in February after the previous incumbent was killed in a flying accident in his first week of office.

But the tall, former Bosnia War pilot has so far taken it all in his stride.

"We train for this, we work for this, we just want to get it right," he told reporters early on in the campaign.

It was he, who handled questions back at home about the apparent lack of bombing success being enjoyed by the Squadron.

[ image:  ]
At a large media facility he worked hard to put a positive spin on what seemed like an embarrassing start.

"Tons of pressure weigh down on your trigger finger when you fly a mission, even if you can't really see the target, it's a lot easier to drop your bombs than it is to decide to abort, and bring back a full load," he said.

But he says the result is innocent lives are not being lost, and when they do drop, the Harriers are scoring a very high strike rate.

Families left waiting

For the families, the waiting game continues. They can, make use of a helo and information exchange which allows them to become self sufficient in the absence of their man or woman.

All the RAF Harrier pilots are male, but many of the One Squadron ground crew are women.

[ image: The RAF Wittering crest]
The RAF Wittering crest
The Wittering Admin Officer, Wing Commander David Ogg says the families are bearing up well, but the atmosphere is tense.

"We are on hand night and day for any eventuality, even if it's something like a broken washing machine or a heating problem, which are maybe things the husband would normally deal with," he said.

The 130 men and women of One Squadron should have spent just eight weeks at Gioia Del Colle near Bari, but everyone here knows they will not see their loved ones again until some form of conclusion is reached in Operation Allied Force.

Prayers are being said weekly in the Wittering parish church that between now and then, Group Captain Dezonie does not have to deliver bad news to anyone.

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