Ex Pirate Gold 2

In the early hours of a hazy Monday back in June personnel from across RAF Marham set out on the first leg of Ex PIRATE GOLD 2, to commemorate the Normandy landings in France.

The exercise was a blend of Force Development (FD) and Adventurous Training (AT) that combined an ocean going Challenge 67 yacht, two light aircraft from RAF Marham Flying Club, the BAe Shuttle as well as a very long coach journey! In addition to Station personnel, participants also included personnel from MOD – DE&S, BAe Systems, Rolls Royce and a very special guest of honour. Our VIP was Mr Laurie Weeden, who had piloted a Horsa glider during the original Normandy landings of June 1944.

The idea for Ex PIRATE GOLD 2 began 18 months ago when Sqn Ldr Mic Baker hatched a plan with OC 31 Sqn, Wg Cdr Rich Yates, to combine AT with the 70th Anniversary of the Normandy Landings. After much  planning, and many reminders that ‘no plan survives first contact’, Ex PIRATE GOLD 2 took 34 people to France and was the biggest, most complex AT/FD exercise that RAF Marham has seen in the last five years. It was also the largest FD outing that the RAF has put on this year!

Central to this exercise were the different FD stands that personnel had to research and then present throughout the week. Each stand was intended to enable others to learn about the sacrifices made and to compare the ways Air/Land/Sea integration took place then and now. Museums, radar stations, Sword Beach and Randville Cemetery were just a few of the sites stands were held at.

Getting to Normandy was not an easy task and required several different forms of transport including yacht, ferry, coach and light aircraft. Indeed, so complex were the arrangements that the whole group only came together on the Wednesday, when combined FD stands were held. To celebrate our successes a ‘Dining-In’ night was held in the hotel that evening. It was also an opportunity to listen to Laurie Weeden speak about his experiences during the Normandy landings.

All who heard Laurie speak said it was a privilege to listen to such a distinguished D-Day veteran. Born 6th June 1922 he served as a Glider Pilot with 14 Flight, part of F Sqn, during D Day. His unit was responsible for  landing troops, explosives and medical supplies; all of which were pivotal in the early stages of the operation to ensure that key targets were either blown up or captured. Laurie described piloting the glider through dense cloud and low visibility into the landing zone at the ‘speed of concord’. He was approaching with a 25 knot tail wind because the landing lights had been orientated 180 degrees out! With the end of the field looming, he  slammed down the nose wheel and came to a stop just before the tree line. After unloading, Laurie and his crew made it back to the UK in less than 72 hours.

Enthusiasm for the trip was clear from the outset, not least when Fg Off Conolly reported at the gym at 0500 on the Monday. Unfortunately, this was a full day early, as his transport on the light aircraft was on the Tuesday! With a sheepish smile he soon returned to the Mess. Getting to the different stands was not easy and was made no easier by the length of the coach. Normandy roads are extremely narrow & very busy with numerous overhanging trees. Hindsight is a wonderful thing and one of the lessons identified from the exercise was the realisation that for a trip like this possibly two smaller coaches should be considered to bring greater flexibility.

One of the most enjoyable and challenging journeys to Normandy took place on the Challenge 67 yacht. Timings into France did not quite go to plan and what should have been a relaxing 12 hour cruise became a night time voyage of endurance. Sea sickness tablets were tested to the full, with the yacht lurching from side to side fighting through the wind. It would be wrong to hold any one person responsible for the extended voyage. However, several of the crew were overheard suggesting that Sqn Ldr Mic Baker had deliberately got the timings for the entry into the lock wrong so that he could spend more time on the sea he loved! Apparently a ‘day ashore is a day wasted!’ Matters did not improve on the journey home. The yacht again took over 20 hours to reach Gosport. For all this, it was a salient reminder of the journey that so many had taken 70 years earlier. We had the luxury of showers, coffee and croissants in the marina, whilst they had to fight their way up the beaches not knowing if the next bullet had their name on it.

Many of those who led the stands were of a similar age to those who landed on the beaches during the Normandy Campaign (19-21years). This was particularly noticeable during the visit to Ranville Cemetery where a short service of commemoration was held for those who paid the ultimate price for their part in this campaign. Wreaths were laid on behalf of the Station Commander, MOD, BAE Systems and Rolls Royce. The service  concluded with a flypast by a GR4 Tornado along the edge of the village, near the cemetery.

Ex PIRATE GOLD 2 was a complex operation with many moving parts that brought together a variety of personnel from across the RAF family. It was a long time in the planning but worth every moment. Our thanks go to the Station Commander for allowing it to happen and to Sqn Ldr Mic Baker for persevering in the face of many obstacles.