AFTER four years serving in the harsh terrain of Afghanistan, the RAF’s fleet of Merlin helicopters is coming home to Oxfordshire.

And Wallingford will celebrate the return of the RAF Benson crews with a special Armed Forces Day party on June 26.

The Ministry of Defence (MoD) announced on Tuesday that the Merlin crews had carried out their final operations after providing continuous support to frontline British forces.

Mayor of Wallingford Bernard Stone said: “The relationship between RAF Benson and the town of Wallingford is so important.

“The Merlins are returning after doing their duty and will be deployed elsewhere, but there will be significant investment in the town from the RAF and that is something we welcome.

“The RAF personnel make up around two-thirds of the Wallingford population and we are a real community here.

“It’s always been a hugely positive relationship and very important to the town.”

Former mayor of Wallingford Ros Lester, who handed out long service medals to RAF personnel last year, said: “Many of the men and women stay in the town after they retire and they bring so much to our economy.”

On June 26, the helicopters will give a flypast and children will be allowed to climb inside and explore the aircraft.

A spokesman for RAF Benson said: “We are extremely proud of the Merlin force’s contribution to operations in Afghanistan, and indeed all other operations they have undertaken over the past 10 years, and we’re looking forward to their safe return to the UK.”

In their time in Afghanistan, the helicopters have moved more than 7,900 tonnes of equipment, and transported more than 130,000 personnel.

They have flown more than 18,000 hours in Helmand.

The 22 Mark 3 and six Mark 3a Merlins, shared between 28 (AC) and 78 Squadrons, have been mainly used as troop transporters.

Squadron Leader Kevin Harris, the commanding officer of the Merlin detachment at Camp Bastion, said: “The aircrew and engineers have worked tirelessly in support of UK forces in Afghanistan and it has been an immense privilege to have commanded such a fine group of young men and women.”

Defence Secretary Philip Hammond said: “The Merlin fleet has served with distinction, but our role has changed significantly in recent months and returning the Merlin fleet now is a key element of our orderly drawdown from Afghan-istan.”

The future of RAF Benson was secured in 2009 when Armed Forces Minister Bob Ainsworth said helicopter arrangements at the base would not change.