Tornados' flight home closes RAF era in Europe

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The Independent Online
Warrant Officer George Fuller inhabits a rapidly shrinking world. In his 37 years with the RAF, he has been turfed out of one far-flung base after another from Hawaii to Belize, and even from garrisons closer to home, such as Abingdon in Oxfordshire. "Wherever I go, it gets closed down," he laments.

The jinx has followed him to RAF Bruggen, two runways cut on the German- Dutch border. The base was to have been the last outpost of British air power on the Continent beyond the millennium. But on Wednesday the Government announced that Bruggen's 52 Tornados would fly home by 2002, ending the RAF's presence in mainland Europe.

Though WO Fuller is due to retire in 18 months' time when he reaches 55, he is full of foreboding. By doing away with foreign bases, he fears the RAF will lose its main drawing power: adventure.

"The British services used to recruit with the slogan - 'Join the Air Force, see the world, meet the people, and bomb them'," he said. "In my day, we never considered serving in England."

After 2002 any bombing will have to be long-range, and servicemen will spend more time away from their families, training in Canada's Arctic wilderness. "That's going to put a great strain on marriages, and that will not be good for morale," said Sgt Glenn Walker, who at 32 is ushering in the new era.

Most RAF personnel at Bruggen are married with children, who are nurtured by a strong community and excellent schools. "People used to look forward to a tour of duty in Germany," said Valerie Thomas, the wife of a wing commander.

The men come in the knowledge that their families will be well looked after. The women are kept busy by voluntary work, coffee mornings, shopping trips to a choice of three countries, and club life in the evening. The Forces' radio and television stations keep the expats in touch with British news. The tedium of living in a bubble is relieved by Club Med-style leisure facilities, including an 18-hole golf course, tennis courts and subsidised ski trips.

"We certainly don't want to go back to the UK in a hurry," said Mrs Thomas.

The locals are in no mood to hasten her departure. "We have always looked at the possible closure of the base with one eye in tears and the other smiling," said Karl-Heinz Kreder, mayor of the district council.

Apart from the money that the airmen were spending at the village's tax-free shops, Mr Kreder stands to lose nearly 6m German marks (pounds 2.7m) a year in German government subsidies, paid to service the British population.

The empty houses will most likely to be allocated to immigrants from the former Soviet Union such as Kazakhs. Mr Kreder leaves no doubt that he prefers the Brits to the Kazakhs.

But German hostility to the base is largely to blame for the decision, as Michael Portillo, the Secretary of State for Defence, admitted on Wednesday. Because of a German ban on low-flying, the RAF has to carry out all training in Britain.

But senior officers wonder whether Mr Portillo's pledge that the RAF's wings will not be fatally clipped is realistic.