Air Chief Marshal Sir John Day, head of RAF Strike Command in Afghanistan and build-up to Iraq – obituary

Sir John Day
Sir John Day

Air Chief Marshal Sir John Day, who has died aged 76, was one of the RAF’s leading helicopter pilots and commanders who rose to become the Commander-in-Chief of Strike Command during the early operations in Afghanistan and in the build-up to the Iraq War in 2003.

He was appointed to his role at Strike Command in April 2001, commanding all of the RAF’s operational capability. The Strategic Defence Review had been announced three years earlier and many of the decisions were becoming established. These included Joint Force Harrier, the combining of four RAF squadrons and a Royal Navy Sea Harrier squadron, while the RAF’s strategic transport force was being enhanced. Among other major measures, new air-launched precision weapons were being introduced.

Following the terrorist attacks against the Twin Towers in New York on September 11 2001, and President George W Bush’s declaration of a “War on Terror”, the likelihood of British involvement increased. Day and his staff reviewed various contingency plans for possible RAF participation in future operations.

On October 7 2001, some Strike Command aircraft were committed to Operation Veritas, conducting operations against the Al Qaeda terrorist organisation and the Taliban regime. Strike Command tanker aircraft provided air-to-air refuelling support to US carrier-based aircraft, and RAF reconnaissance and surveillance aircraft flew operational sorties.

In March 2002, Chinook helicopters deployed to Bagram airfield in Afghanistan to support the Royal Marine 45 Commando. RAF transport aircraft flew regular re-supply flights. This was the beginning of an increasing RAF commitment to operations in Afghanistan.

By late 2002 the situation in Iraq had deteriorated and the likelihood of a US-led offensive increased. Day prepared his squadrons for possible action and, by early 2003, some squadron detachments had been positioned in the Gulf region.

Operation Telic (the second Gulf War) was launched on March 20 2003, with RAF aircraft in immediate action. Much of Strike Command’s operational assets, under the command of Air Marshal Brian Burridge based in Qatar, were heavily engaged in the operation, together with six RAF Regiment squadrons and personnel drawn from other specialist RAF ground support units. Tornados and Harriers flew 1,353 offensive sorties supported by airborne tankers, reconnaissance, and transport support aircraft during the campaign.

The offensive continued for a month, when some of Day’s forces began returning, but others remained stationed in the Gulf region.

The son of a tea planter in north-east India, John Romney Day was born in Gillingham, Kent, on July 15 1947. He spent his early life in India before continuing his education at The King’s School, Canterbury.

Aged 17, he was awarded an RAF flying scholarship and was one of the last military pilots in the UK to train on the Tiger Moth. He graduated from Imperial College London in aeronautical engineering. He had joined London University Air Squadron, where he continued his pilot training.

He commenced RAF officer training in 1966 and completed his training as a pilot before converting to helicopters. He joined 72 Squadron at Odiham in Hampshire to fly the Wessex on transport support operations and in co-operation with Army units.

After training as a flying instructor, he instructed on the Jet Provost at the No 1 Flying Training School at Linton-on-Ouse near York before assuming command of Oxford University Air Squadron.

He returned in 1980 to the support helicopter force as a flight commander when he joined 18 Squadron at Gütersloh, the RAF’s most forward base in West Germany. Operating from dispersed and self-contained sites in the surrounding countryside, the Wessex helicopters provided support to No 1 (British) Corps.

After attending the RAF Staff College, followed by a tour as the personal staff officer to the Air Member for Personnel, Air Marshal Sir Charles Ness, in 1983 Day assumed command of 72 Squadron, based at Aldergrove in Northern Ireland. Its primary role was assistance to the civil power and supporting the security forces during the Troubles. This frequently involved flying sorties in the difficult and dangerous border country, often in adverse weather. At the end of a demanding tour of duty he was appointed OBE.

After a year managing the careers and appointments of wing commanders, Day was promoted to take responsibility for support helicopters at HQ 1 Group. His extensive experience proved an ideal platform for his work in developing joint operations and the initial proposals for the Joint Forces Headquarters concept. His imaginative ideas were not always in line with the thoughts of his commander, but his lucid, persuasive arguments, backed up by his intimate knowledge of the helicopter world, invariably won the argument.

In 1987, he was made the station commander of RAF Odiham, the main operating base for the RAF helicopter force, where he had Puma and Chinook squadrons under command.

After attending the 1990 course at the Royal College of Defence Studies, he was promoted to air commodore to become Director of Air Force Plans and Programmes in the MoD, managing the future RAF equipment programme and costings for the 10 years ahead.

When Day became the Air Officer Commanding (AOC) of the RAF’s No 1 Group in 1994, he was responsible for the operations of his Tornado, Jaguar, Harrier, and reconnaissance forces. To better understand the role of his offensive squadrons, he converted to the Jaguar and to the Harrier and flew the Tornado. He also had responsibility for the RAF’s support helicopter force, which included the Puma and Chinook squadrons still heavily involved in operations in Northern Ireland.

On June 2 1994, a Chinook helicopter carrying 25 passengers and a crew of four crashed on to the Mull of Kintyre, after flying below safety altitude in cloud. All on board were killed. As AOC it was Day’s responsibility to convene a board of inquiry into the accident. When he reviewed the board’s conclusion, with which he disagreed, he judged that the accident had been caused by the gross negligence of the two pilots.

The judgment of the second reviewing officer, the Chiefs of Air Staff and the wider RAF fully supported Day’s finding of gross negligence, which attracted public controversy. Following subsequent inquiries, the final review, by Rt Honourable Lord Philip, published on July 13 2011, recommended the findings of gross negligence be “set aside”. This was accepted by the then Secretary of State, Dr Liam Fox.

This appointment was followed in May 1997 by a further promotion to take up the post of Deputy Chief of Defence Staff (Commitments) in MoD. His primary responsibility was to be the UK Director of Operations worldwide. This included the deployment of British forces to participate in the Kosovo campaign and the maintenance in Iraq of the two No Fly Zones, one in the north and the other in the south.

He was frequently required to brief the Prime Minister, Tony Blair, on the military options of intervention and operations. His clear, concise and strong presentations were respected by Blair, who held him in high regard.

Day handed over command of Strike Command to his successor at the end of July 2003 on his retirement from the RAF after 38 years of service. He was appointed KCB in 1999.

After retiring from the RAF, Day took up the position of senior military advisor at British Aerospace. Due to his position at Strike Command, the independent watchdog monitoring the movement of officials to companies recommended that he should wait a year. Tony Blair overruled the watchdog, saying that it was “in the national interest” to let Day move to the firm.

Day was the president of the RAF Rugby Union and for six years was chairman of trustees of the RAF Museum. For 20 years he was the president of his local British Legion Branch in Hartley Wintney and, together with his wife, would sell poppies in the local area. He sat on the council of the Burma Star Association, his father having served as a lieutenant colonel during the Burma campaign in 1944.

In July 2016 he joined the board of the Hampshire and Isle of Wight air ambulance, a cause for which Day had a special affection, and in February 2017 he was appointed chairman of trustees.

John Day married Jane Richards in 1969; she survives him with their two sons.

Sir John Day, born July 15 1947, died February 9 2023

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