Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson said it was “very fitting” that Britain’s cutting-edge F-35 Lightning stealth fighter jets will carry the name of the squadron that carried out the daring Dambusters raid.
Mr Williamson announced the imminent arrival of the supersonic warplanes on a visit to RAF Coningsby on the 75th anniversary of the Dambusters mission.
The Lancasters flown by 617 squadron in the Second World War used Barnes Wallis’s revolutionary bouncing bombs to target and disable Hitler’s industrial heartland during their night-time mission on May 16/17 1943.
The squadron was recently stood back up for the F-35 jets, which will be based at RAF Marham in Norfolk and are expected to arrive next month.
Mr Williamson announced the arrival of the F-35s while stood in front of a Lancaster Bomber in a hangar at the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight on Wednesday.
“If you think about what the Dambusters were doing 75 years ago they were using the very cutting-edge technology in order to be able do the job that they had been asked to do,” he said.
“If you think about the modern 617 squadron, we’re going to be giving them the very best of technology, the very cutting edge of technology, the very best and the most advanced aircraft in the whole world and it’s fitting that those that have such an amazing jet have and carry that squadron name.”
He was shown inside the cockpit of a Lancaster, viewed a Spitfire and paid tribute to the “sacrifice” of the original 617 squadron.
Asked if the new F-35s could be deployed to Syria, Mr Williamson said: “At the moment we have quite considerable resources that we’re using in terms of our actions in terms of Syria and Iraq and we wouldn’t be looking at bringing the F35s there certainly just at the moment.”
The commanding officer of 617 squadron, Wing Commander John Butcher, said he was “inspired” to join the RAF by his late grandfather, also called John, who flew Lancasters in the Second World War.
The flight lieutenant, who was in his early twenties when piloting Lancasters, flew 30 operational missions from 1943-44, became an instructor on the Lancaster training unit then left the service shortly after the war.
“I was always fascinated in his stories,” said Wg Cdr Butcher, who is set to become the first person to land an F-35 on UK soil.
“He used to talk to me a lot because I would ask him a lot of questions about his service career, about the flying that he’d done, the training he did to get ready, about what it was like with his crew and I think it was just an amalgamation of all of those stories that inspired me to want to join the RAF and my parents tell me that I declared that at a very young age.”
Asked what his grandfather would have made of the new jets, he said: “I think he would be amazed if I was able to talk to him about what the F35 can do.”
He said that the Lancaster was cutting-edge technology in 1943, and that the F-35 is cutting edge today.
A Lancaster flight had been planned to mark the 75th anniversary of the Dambusters raid, but wind conditions prevented this and a Typhoon was due to take its place.