A Short History of the RAF Mountain Rescue Service 1943-2013
The RAF Mountain Rescue Service (MRS) has its true origins back in the mists of time when it was, and still is, the duty of the RAF station nearest to the crash site to render every assistance to survivors of a military aircraft accident. Whilst research is still on-going there are records of RAF mountain rescues in the Mountain Rescue Association (MRA) archive going back to 1938. Both the outbreak of the Second World War, with a huge increase in the size of the RAF and the need to move training stations are far as possible from enemy attack i.e. to the West of the UK, led to a huge increase in the number of crashes and the task of searching for and rescuing survivors traditionally fell on the Senior Medical Officer (SMO) 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 pertinacity 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.
An iconic photo of Doc Graham in his Jeep with a wood and canvas GS Stretcher strapped to the side.
Incidentally Flt Lt Graham was then posted to India and helped to rescue a Royal Canadian Air Force navigator whose aircraft crashed during supply dropping to Wingate’s Chindits in Burma. This rescue involved Graham’s first and only parachute jump which took place behind enemy lines, followed by a long carryout into China. He was awarded the DSO for his part in the rescue. Despite such dedication Flt Lt Graham succumbed to a serious illness which resulted in his hospitalisation in 1944 and he sadly died in hospital on 10th October 1980. 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, he went on to become an Air Commodore; in 1946 he too was awarded the MBE for Services to Mountain Rescue. For a full list of the national honours and awards given to MRS Troops go to Appendix B. It is a sad fact that many of the pioneers of these early days remain unidentified. With today’s shrinking air force it might be worth noting that by 1944 there were 681 operational RAF airfields in the UK, see the map at Figure 1 which is courtesy of Gp. Capt. Phil Roser, OC RAF Leeming c1993. Seventy years later that same will and determination to save lives still exists in the RAF MRS.
Figure 1 A Map stamped MOST SECRET showing the location of all Operational RAF Airfields in 1944
For a full list of all MRS bases and their locations go to Appendix A.
There have been many notable MRS MRT call-outs in the past 70 years. In 1951 the RAF Kinloss team were faced with a technically challenging rescue for which they were neither adequately trained nor equipped but the crash of the 120 Sqn Lancaster was non-survivable and many important improvements to the MRS came out of the subsequent inquiries; a conference held at the Air Ministry to review all aspects of MRS training and operations, not the least of which was annual courses in Winter and summer climbing techniques. To assist and reinforce training the UKs first MR handbook was produced, known in RAF jargon as Pamphlet Aeronautical (Pam Air ) 299, this A5 handbook described all the varying techniques, equipment etc. and in its 7th Edition is still in extensive use today.
The command structure was also changed with a centralised post at the Air Ministry straight down to the teams thus by-passing the normal Command and Group interfaces. A Group Captain post of Inspector of Mountain Rescue (IMR) was introduced although this was fairly quickly downgraded to a Squadron Leaders post and in 1971 the IMR was renamed Inspector of Land Rescue (ILR) which remained the only staff post in the MRS until a specialist Warrant Officer was appointed in 1991 and then finally in 1995 the MRS lost its unique staffing and became part of 18 Group and subsequently 3 Group at Northwood.
In 1954 the MRS’ only OBE was awarded to Sqn Ldr David Dattner AFC who, as the Officer i/c the Kinloss team had made many huge improvements in the teams capabilities especially in the field of first aid where he would regularly offer himself up as a guinea pig for injections and the suturing of deep wounds, perhaps fortuitously this latter practice never became MRS policy for the O i/c!
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 pertinacity which involved abseiling past a knot 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 was 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 the following award were made to the team.
Flt Lt RG Robertson O i/c and detachment Commander MBE
FS H Appleby Team Leader BEM
Sgt J Emmerson Lead high altitude climber BEM
SAC G Murphy Explosives expert BEM
SAC G Hercod Relit a duff explosives fuse Queen’s Bravery Award
Sgt D Bottomer C in C’s Commendation
Sgt P Whelan C in C’s Commendation
The Hastings pilot who dropped the team supplies on numerous occasions, Flt Lt RJ Kingdom was also awarded the MBE.
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 MTRs from Kinloss, Leuchars and Leeming searched in appalling conditions, not aided by a misidentification of the wreckage of one aircraft by an RAF Tornado whose IR kit was not accurately calibrated. Sadly this was yet another non-survivable accident as both aircraft had 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 Mountain Rescue Teams (MRT) 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 RAFs only all-weather SAR assets.
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 descent 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 the articles section.
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. 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, radio procedure and area knowledge. Once passed, the troop is deemed to be “Part-Trained” and then allowed to wear of the mountain rescue badge on the right fore-sleeve of dress 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 minority of troops practice fell running, a traditional country sport in northern England, and excellent training. A regular troop can expect to spend at least 60 days a year on the hill: this extensive training makes the most seasoned RAFMRS members some of the fittest mountaineers in the world. In addition, in the early days of the service, many troops undertook parachute training to allow them to be dropped into remote areas as a fast reaction for search, rescue and medical support.
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.
The St Clement Dane memorial plaque
unveiled by the CDS ACM Sir Jock Stirrup
Many expeditions have been mounted by RAFMRS, and some serving troops and ex-troops have also participated in other organizations’ expeditions. Expeditions areas have included, but not limited to: – Alaska, USA Rockies, Patagonia, Greenland, The Arctic, Columbia, Borneo, Iran, Turkey, Morocco, Himalayas , European Alps, Norway, New Zealand, South Georgia and Antarctica, in fact RAFMRS have climbed all over the world! To celebrate the Millennium the MRS mounted an Everest Expedition and in 2001 Dan Carroll and Rusty Bale successfully summited.
The late Johnnie Lees GM RAF presenting Ted Atkins and his Everest team with an original Everest painting commissioned by the MRA and painted by Pat Donovan VMRT 1950’s
Each year since 1951, the service has run separate residential 2 week long summer and winter mountaineering courses. The focus is on training lead climbing and technical rescue techniques to junior MRT members. Another special course is held every few years to select and train new MR Team Leaders. Experienced Party Leaders may apply to attend the MR Team Leaders Course and on successful completion of this course, they are qualified to become a Team Leader in the future. There is also a Deputy Team Leader post which may be used to gain experience before taking on a TL post.
As befits any organisation within the Royal Air Force, the MRS has had several royal visits and meetings, the last of which was with HRH Prince Charles at his home in Highgrove, Prince Charles was the Patron of the Everest Expedition and in a moment of inspiration described the expedition’s leader, Ted Atkins as “ Quite Mad”.
In a moment of ironic theatre HM Queen Elizabeth II meets Paul ‘Quackers’ Duckworth, Leeming TL and Brian Canfer, ILR at the RAF Marham Royal Review 1992, Gortex clothing was on display but Troops wore home-made MRS jumpers in the heavy downpour!
In addition to their primary role of mountain SAR the MRS has a number of important tertiary roles, not all of which can be discussed in a forum such as this. Perhaps their most significant other role is the guarding of aircraft crash sites especially, but not only, on steep or hazardous terrain. For example, once the two F-15s had been located on Ben MacDui the teams provided crash guards and assistance to crash investigators and recovery crews for many weeks, each team providing cover for a week on a rota basis; and this all occurred at the same time as the MRS was mounting its Everest bid. Similarly, when an RAF Jaguar crashed on a remote mountainside in western Alaska on 26th July 2001 the RAF’s Aircraft Recovery & Transportation Flight (Smash and Crash to their friends) requested MRS assistance to reach the crash site and Ch Tech Kevin Hewkin, the Stafford Team Leader led a 7 man team to complete this task, fortunately, by then the triumphant Everest Troops had returned and the F-15 task had been closed.
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 title Troop, and the MRA has compiled a list of the names of almost 3000 who gave such dedicated service, in every case in addition to their normal RAF duties and without an extra penny in pay.
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 articles within this website are recommended
- “Two Star Red” by Gwen Moffat, and “The History of the MRS” by Sqn Ldr David Lofts,
- “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 www.rafmountainrescue.com also occasionally available from Amazon etc.
RAF MRS Bases
|Grid Ref||J158789 Irish Grid|
|Dist & Bearing||180 – 7km|
|Dates Operational||1949 – 1953|
|Comments||Co-located with Belfast Airport|
|Team||RAF Barrow in Furness|
|Nearest Town||Barrow in Furness|
|Dist & Bearing||270 – 3km|
|Dates Operational||1946 – 1946|
|Dist & Bearing||225 – 4km|
|Dates Operational||1945 – 1946|
|Dist & Bearing||330 – 11km|
|Dates Operational||1945 – 1946|
|Nearest Town||030 – 9km|
|Dist & Bearing|
|Dates Operational||1950 – 1955|
|Team||RAF Gt Orton|
|Dist & Bearing||260 – 7km|
|Dates Operational||1951 – 1952|
|Team||RAF Harpur Hill|
|Dist & Bearing||180 – 2km|
|Dates Operational||1945 – 1960|
|Comments||Non airfield, ammunition dump|
|Dist & Bearing||150 – 6km|
|Dates Operational||1944 – 1944|
|Dist & Bearing||290 – 11km|
|Dates Operational||1946 – 1953|
|Comments||Isle of Man|
|Dist & Bearing|
|Dates Operational||1944 – 2011|
|Nearest Town||North Allerton|
|Dist & Bearing|
|Dates Operational||1959 – 1983 & 1989 – to date|
|Nearest Town||St Andrews|
|Dist & Bearing|
|Dates Operational||1955 – to Present|
|Dist & Bearing||315 – 18km|
|Dates Operational||1983 – 1989|
|Dist & Bearing||200 – 6km|
|Dates Operational||1945 – 1949|
|Grid Ref||SH 434588|
|Dist & Bearing||215 – 8km|
|Dates Operational||1941 – 1945|
|Team||RAF Madley aka RAF Hereford|
|Dist & Bearing||240 11km|
|Dates Operational||1944 – 1947|
|Comments||Nearest village is Kingstone no Madley!|
|Dist & Bearing||330 – 11km|
|Dates Operational||1943 – 1945|
|Dist & Bearing||010 – 1km|
|Dates Operational||1944 – 1945|
|Team||RAF St Athan|
|Dist & Bearing||270 – 11km|
|Dates Operational||1947 – 20**|
|Dist & Bearing||NE side of town|
|Dates Operational||1960 – 2004|
|Dist & Bearing||070 – 10km|
|Dates Operational||1944 – 1959|
|Dist & Bearing||150 – 10km|
|Dates Operational||1949 – to date|
|Team||RAF West Freugh|
|Dist & Bearing||150 – 8km|
|Dates Operational||1944 – 1950, 1951 – 1957|
|Dist & Bearing||360 – 3km|
|Dates Operational||1944 – 1946|
|Team||RAF Wig Bay|
|Dist & Bearing||340 – 8km|
|Dates Operational||1950 – 1951|
|Nearest Town||Newton Stewart|
|Dist & Bearing||160 – 17km|
|Dates Operational||1943 – 1945|
|Latitude & Longitude||3423N 03258E|
|Location||Southern tip of the Island|
|Dates Operational||1964 – 1975|
|Team||RAF Kia Tak|
|Latitude & Longitude||C2220N 11421E|
|Location||090 2km from centre of Kowloon|
|Dates Operational||1961 – 1967|
|Comments||New Territories, not Hong Kong Island|
|Latitude & Longitude||C1240N 04500E|
|Dates Operational||1960 – 1966|
|Comments||Inland from NE edge of the large bay on which Aden stands and on the Southern Rim of the Crater area|
|Latitude & Longitude||C2030N 05845E|
|Location||Masirah Island Arabian Sea|
|Dates Operational||1972 – 1975|
|Latitude & Longitude||3511N 03311E|
|Location||Cyprus 250 – 12km from Nicosia|
|Dates Operational||1954 – 1964|
|Comments||Former Nicosia International Airport|
|Latitude & Longitude||C2510N 05530E|
|Location||Persian Gulf, UAE|
|Dates Operational||1966 – 1971|