In Friendship and In Service
Supporting the RAF Family
The Royal Air Force Association, Republic of Ireland
By Wesley Bourke
Photos by Michael Coyne
Published in Winter 2017 edition
Founded in 1929, the Royal Air Forces Association (RAFA) is committed to providing confidential, professional and fair services to members of the wider Royal Air Force family from the youngest recruit to the oldest veteran and their families. On-going training and support for welfare volunteers and staff ensures services are consistent and of the highest possible standard. All are treated with dignity and respect at all times. There is one branch of the RAFA in the Republic of Ireland. 2017 was a big year for the branch as for the first time the annual European Area Conference was held in Dublin.
The RAFA is the charity that supports the RAF family. When someone in the RAF family needs help, the charity they turn to is the Royal Air Forces Association. The RAFA helps develop a strong sense of community and feeling of wellbeing amongst all Service personnel and their families by encouraging unity and a feeling of community. Service charities and organisations such as the RAFA, Royal Air Force Benevolent Fund and the Royal Air Force Families Federation play a key role in this wider Royal Air Force community. This community is more commonly known as the Royal Air Force Family, and all the organisations work closely with the Royal Air Force to provide the necessary welfare and support to all who are part of it. Today, there are over 1.5 million people in the RAF family who are either serving or who have served in the RAF (whether as a regular or reservist) and their spouses, partners or dependent children.
The RAFA has over 65,000 members in over 400 branches worldwide. They are at the heart of the Association. Many members volunteer their time to deliver welfare services, raise essential funds and help in countless other important ways. A large number of the volunteers who support the crucial welfare work have been trained to nationally accredited standards. The RAFA have over 540 volunteer Honorary Welfare Officers make over 102,200 welfare visits and calls offering personal support to meet each individual’s and family’s needs
Just some of the roles undertaken by the RAFA include:
- Give expert advice and professional assistance on War Pensions and the Armed Forces Compensation Scheme, achieving more than £540,000 in pension and compensation payments.
- Every year the RAFA help 2,500 people enjoy a much-needed Wings Break. The Storybook Wings initiative has supported 2,300 RAF children who struggle when their parent is not at home – whether on deployment or working away during the week.
- The RAFA funds the refurbishment of 30 comfortable contact houses on stations where, for example, a separated parent can spend a precious weekend with their children.
- Assist around 50 RAF veterans or their widows/widowers to lead safe, independent lives in the RAFA sheltered and supported housing.
- Through the RAF Families Federation, the RAFA give RAF personnel and their families the chance to influence future policy
- Distribute more than £1.8m in welfare grants to serving and ex-serving personnel.
- Work with Alabaré and The Soldier’s Charity to help homeless ex-military personnel to rebuild their lives.
At the time of the European Conference the Chairman of the Rep. of Ireland Branch was Pete McWilliams. From Rathdrum Co. Wicklow, Pete joined the RAF when he was 17 on 10 March, 1967. He served for 12 years as an electronic technician telecommunication; specialising in cryptography and secure communications. ‘When I served, explained Pete, ‘it was at the height of the Cold War. I saw service in Oman, Gibraltar, Germany and the United Kingdom along with other detachments around Europe, the Middle East and Near East’. When Pete left the RAF, he went into the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve (T) as a Warrant Officer Instructor in the RAF Air Cadets. ‘The motto of the RAF is “Per Ardua ad Astra”, “Through Adversity to the Stars”.
It’s a wonderful motto,’ continued Pete, ‘We are all very proud of our service’. The Rep. of Ireland Branch was founded in 1947, and incorporated the following year. The branch has 230 members from all over the country. These members are mostly made up of RAF veterans who served as far back as World War II. Pete told us the role of the branch here in the Rep. of Ireland: ‘A registered charity here, our main function is welfare. We look after veterans or their families who have fallen on hard times. The kind of help we give ranges from giving them a tank of oil to help them get through the winter, to providing a social outlet for members. We have outings here in Ireland and abroad, along with a meet up every month in the National Yacht Club in Dún Laoghaire. It is our way of fighting loneliness and isolation. We are very grateful to those who support us such as Leopardstown Park Hospital where several of our veterans stay’.
Over the weekend of 6 – 8 October 2017, the Republic of Ireland Branch hosted the European Area Conference at the Marine Hotel in Sutton. Representatives from branches in France, Germany, Guernsey, Jersey, Luxembourg, Malta, Netherlands, Spain and Switzerland joined the Republic of Ireland Branch for the event. The British Ambassador to Ireland, HE Robin Barnett, gave the opening address: ‘For me the RAF is a perfect example of effectiveness and professionalism. It is also very much an international fellowship. Pilots and airmen from many nations helped us succeed in winning the Second World War. One of the great things about the RAF is its very large international family and one of the great things about the RAFA is that it exists to help look after the members of that family. When you are part of such an organisation for a long period of time you build up a sense of friendship and comradeship and common purpose. And I think the work the RAFA does in keeping that spirit alive for everybody who served in the Royal Air Force is something really special. I think it is great that you are here in Ireland. People sometimes forget that many people from Ireland served in the RAF and indeed continue to do so. Today veterans are treated with the respect and honour they deserve. It is a real success story when around the world there are a great many challenges’.
Brexit was high on the agenda at the conference. Especially how it will affect those members outside the United Kingdom. During the conference the Rep. of Ireland Branch received several awards. Frank Brien, the branch Standard Bearer, was awarded an Area President’s Certificate and badge for his outstanding work over many years, representing the branch at formal and informal events. Tony Breen, was awarded the Wally Marriott Trophy in recognition of the huge efforts he puts into supporting the branch’s social gatherings and visiting veterans in his local area. The branch also received a Certificate for contributing £7,500 to the Wings Appeal in 2016/17.
European Area President, Air Marshal Philip Sturley (Retd)
I had a full career in the RAF for 37 years. I was born in Kiltimagh, Co. Mayo. When we were young, we moved to England. I went to a really good Jesuit school. Part of joining that school we had to join the cadets. I joined the Air Cadets and fell in love with flying. My mother wanted me to be a priest. She gave me her blessing to join the RAF. I was the only person in my family to join the military. I flew fighters for most of my career. My family was in quite a hard way. My father died when I was about 14 and I nearly had to leave school. The RAF gave me a scholarship. It was both to stay in school and to go on to university.
At Southampton University I studied aeronautics and astronautics engineering. While there I flew the Chipmunk, which was the basic trainer at the time. I spent three years thereafter which I received my commission in 1972 and then went on to RAF Cranwell where I flew the jet Provost. Following that I went up to up to
Valley for advanced fighter training on the Hawker Hunter. From Chipmunk to Provost and then the Hunter is incredible considering what they do now.
My first tour was with the F4 Phantom at RAF Coningsby where we did a lot of detachments to Germany. You must remember this was the time of the Cold War. My job as a fighter reconnaissance pilot was to watch out for the Russians along the border. I did several tours there and ended up commanding No. 2 Squadron. I went on then to get promoted and do several staff jobs. I came back to fighters flying the Tornado and commanded RAF Cottesmore in Rutland in 1992. In 1998, I was appointed Air Officer Commanding No. 38 Group, Assistant Chief of the Air Staff in 2000, and Chief of Staff to the Air North Commander in 2003 before retiring in 2005.
During all of this I learned to become a glider pilot. The RAF have a very strong glider training programme. This has become a passion of mine, particularly racing gliders. I go every year to the Alps and to the Andes in Chile. When you are flying with your unit you don’t have time for sport flying. Gliding is great fun. In my career I’ve flown a total of 110 different types of aircraft. The famous Royal Navy pilot, Captain Eric Melrose ‘Winkle’ Brown, achieved over 400 types.
After I retired, I served as President of the Royal Air Force Association for six years. The RAFA is the largest single service charity within the British Armed Forces. It is aimed at people in need who have served in the RAF. If they need help the RAFA is there for them and increasingly people need help. When you think of it at the end of the Second World War there were a million people in the RAF. We have estimated that there are a couple of million people who have served at some stage in the RAF. As the population ages they will need at some stage help. It may be simply in need of a friend and keeping in touch.
The RAFA is a vast family. As you can see from this conference there are members here from all over the European area. They are all here this weekend to discuss, how best to do well by our people. It is important to remember you don’t have to be a member of the RAFA to benefit from its services. All you have to do is to have served. We want people to be members and get involved in the activities and make them feel wanted. An important initiative these days is what we call ‘befriending’. This is having somebody in each area that goes out and checks that those on their own are all right. Beside the financial burdens, loneliness can be one of the biggest problems for people. Typically, you find people are too proud to admit they need help, so we have to keep an eye out for them.
We have been lucky over the years with the calibre of people it has recruited. Having a network of branches throughout the United Kingdom and abroad means we have an extensive network that can reach out to the larger family. The Royal Air Force is coming up to 100 years. By that time, I will be in the service for 50 years, half of its life. We are very proud of our history. Although we are the youngest of the services when you look at our performance in that time and even today, the RAF is the service of choice. Whether it by deployments to deal with crisis in Syria or Iraq, or the gales and floods in the Caribbean, it is the air force that gets there first.
For more on the Royal Air Force Association in the Rep. of Ireland please contact: