It is a pleasure to speak in this debate. It is particularly welcome to have this debate today because someone with very strong links to my constituency celebrated his 97th birthday yesterday—Johnny Johnson, the last surviving British Dambuster. Many will know him for his bravery, along with that of his 617 Squadron comrades, in 1943. After the war, he lived in Torbay for many years. He became a councillor for a period of time. He was also the chairman of Torbay Conservative Association at the time of the Maastricht votes, so he had a very interesting time and had some wonderful tales he could still tell many years later, particularly when he did a TV interview about why the then Member for Torbay had not attended one rather crucial vote. I must tell my chairman that he need have no worries about me this time.
The RAF had a very big impact on Torbay, particularly during the war. Many of our hotels were requisitioned to become RAF hospitals, including the Palace hotel, where I had my wedding reception. That hotel operated as an RAF hospital until it was bombed in 1942, with a number of service people being killed in the raid. Many people developed an abiding link with Torquay—and with Torbay, in particular, due to the time they had spent there recovering from their injuries of war.
That link with the RAF continues today. We have the Royal Air Forces Association club in the heart of Torquay, with Steve Colhoun as branch chairman and Linda Tombs as branch secretary. It is extremely active in supporting the veterans community and acting as a champion for the RAF by encouraging people to think about it as a career. We have a thriving air cadet corps. The 200 Torquay Squadron of the Air Training Corps is a vibrant branch. We see it at every Armistice event, and it is out there making a real difference in the local community. The air cadets are not just a recruiting arm of the RAF; they teach the RAF’s ethos to so many young people, to give them success in whatever career they choose—although we particularly welcome it when people decide that they want to carry on wearing light blue for a much longer period. I pay particular tribute to the squadron’s commanding officer, Michael Gormley.
It was great to see the RAF in action when I spent a year in the armed forces parliamentary scheme. I saw a whole range of things, from Fylingdales, where RAF personnel are on permanent watch as part of the ballistic missile warning system, to Akrotiri, whose RAF forces have been critical in hitting Daesh. The 84 Squadron, a helicopter squadron, is also based at Akrotiri.
We all know about the divide of Cyprus and the very difficult situation there, which we hope one day will be resolved by peace talks and negotiations. I saw something quite telling there about the role the RAF plays. In the squadron’s mess room, there were two letters on the noticeboard: one from the Greek Cypriot authorities, thanking the squadron for its help during recent wildfires, and one from the Turkish Cypriot authorities, to which it had also provided assistance. That highlighted the way the RAF provides not only a force against our country’s enemies but a visible sign of Britain supporting and assisting. Of course, a constant watch is also kept over our skies by the quick reaction alert crews.
It is encouraging to look towards the future, in particular to the F-35, but also to Tempest. People might wonder why on earth we are talking about an aircraft that probably will not see operational service until I am not far off the age when I get my bus pass, but there are long lead-in times.
I hope we will continue to work with our traditional allies, particularly given the rising threat in Russia. That not only makes sense in terms of spreading costs, but it makes eminent sense that we have similar planes and aircraft, so that if we ever need to operate completely interdependently, we can literally operate on the same platforms. The RAF will be managing not only the challenge of working across the world, but the challenge of working with the Royal Navy, as it looks to operate off the Queen Elizabeth class carriers.
It is great to have this opportunity to reflect on the last 100 years of the RAF, even if it is a relatively brief chance to do so. This force not only served our nation with great distinction in 1940 but continues to do so today. A whole new generation of children and young people from Torbay will hopefully look towards it as part of their future—a future that will not depend on someone’s gender, now that the services have completely opened up all roles to men and women. It has been a pleasure to talk about the phenomenal contribution of the RAF in the past, the present and the future.