A MISSION to provide vital support to Caribbean islands left in ruins following the devastation of Hurricane Irma is effectively complete.

Aircraft deployed from RAF Brize Norton have returned to the base after more than a month of helping the British Virgin Islands with Operation Ruman – a project that will ‘define the base for years to come’.

When the crews first arrived in early September with food, water, building materials and people to offer hands-on support on the ground, they saw devastation similar to that caused by a large explosion. Cars and planes were scattered across the landscape and trees were stripped of their bark as a result of intense winds.

Now, as the military's humanitarian efforts in the area draw to a close, the picture is more hopeful, with the decimated island communities beginning to rebuild and start the long the journey back to normality.

Squadron leader Rich McPhadden acted as detachment commander for 70 Squadron, directing crews from a hub in Barbados.

He said: “The devastation was obvious. It looked to me as though a large-scale explosion had happened.

“Most residential buildings were destroyed and a lot of commercial properties. Cars and aircraft were scattered around the place.

“There was no foliage on the trees. The winds were so strong that some trees had their bark stripped away. I hadn’t seen anything like it.”

From the makeshift hub, aircraft filled with aid was deployed to the surrounding islands.

The relatively new A400M Atlas proved ideal for the situation thanks to its versatility – the ability to switch between transporting people, both military personnel and islanders, and freight with ease – and its ability to land on small island runways despite its enormous size.

Two of the aircraft were being used for the operation, which saw a total of 62 flights leave the base.

The Atlas was also used to move families who had lost everything to areas where they could begin to rebuild their lives.

Sqn Ldr McPhadden continued: “Some people lost everything and we were fortunate enough to be able to transport some families with children, in some cases, to new lives.”

Station commander, group captain Tim Jones said the operation would define the base for years to come.

He added: “What we’re seeing now is the early stages of the islands getting back on their feet.”

Now only one Atlas remains in the Caribbean, but only as a result of technical problems, and is due to return soon.

The operation, one of the base’s largest since the Afghanistan war, saw more than 800 tonnes of freight and 2,508 military personnel deployed to the Caribbean.