XV Sqn History

After the Gulf War, three Tornado squadrons at Laarbruch were disbanded, XV Squadron being one of these, at the end of 1991. On 1 April 1992, the XV(Reserve) numberplate was given to the Tornado Weapons Conversion Unit at Honington. XV(R) Sqn remained at Honington training Tornado aircrew until November 1993, when it moved to Lossiemouth, it's present home. With the closure of the Tri-National Tornado Training Establishment at Cottesmore in 1998, XV(R) Sqn became the Tornado GR1 Operational Conversion Unit, with the sole responsibility for training all future RAF Tornado GR aircrew.

On 1 March 1915 the men of No 1 Reserve Sqn and the Recruits Depot, based at South Farnborough, were amalgamated to form 15 Sqn, Royal Flying Corps (RFC). The Sqn was initially equipped with a mixture of aircraft, including the BE2c. The first Commanding Officer was Major Philip Joubert de la Ferte, an experienced airman who had carried out the first aerial reconnaissance patrol by the British Expeditionary Force in August 1914. He was to have a long and distinguished career, retiring from the Royal Air Force (RAF) as Air Chief Marshal Sir Philip Joubert de la Ferte, KCB, CMG, DSO.

 

 

 

THE FORMATION OF 15 SQUADRON

In April 1915 the Sqn moved to Hounslow where it remained for a month before moving to Swingate Down near Dover. During this time the Sqn found itself tasked with home defence duties, but continued to train for deployment to France. Around this time the Sqn began to re-equip with additional BE2c aircraft. In September 1915 Major Edgar Ludlow-Hewitt took command of 15 Sqn. However, his tenure was to be fairly short, as in November 1915 he was succeeded by Major H de L Brock, DSO.

By now 15 Sqn were ready for deployment overseas, so it was, in December 1915, that ten BE2c aircraft set out over the English Channel for St Omer, France. St Omer was, for 15 Sqn, a transit camp, for two weeks before moving to Droglandt in January 1916. The role played by the airfield at St Omer during the Great War was recognised during the summer of 2004 by the unveiling of a permanent memorial on the site.

 

In March 1916 the Sqn moved to Vert Galand, on the Somme, to become part of 3rd Wing. By an ironic twist of fate, Lieutenant Colonel Edgar Ludlow-Hewitt, MC, a previous OC 15 Sqn, now commanded the 3rd Wing. This attachment proved to be a short-lived as 3 weeks later the Sqn moved to Marieux. 15 Sqn undertook many reconnaissance and photographic missions in preparation for the Somme offensive, which commenced on 1 July 1916. Army commanders acknowledged the role played by aerial reconnaissance at the end of the first phase of the Battle, praising the quality of the work, which enabled the destruction of many German positions. The Sqn continued to undertake reconnaissance patrols and aerial photographic sorties through to October that year.

Poor weather in the early months of 1917 hampered flying operations, but 15 Sqn still managed to fly a number of reconnaissance missions. The Sqn also carried out contact patrols and ground strafing, both tasks flown over the lines at low-level and highly dangerous in the frail BE2c. The spring brought the Arras offensive, with the Sqn continuing it’s low-level work. For the Sqn it was a particularly arduous period, they suffered heavy casualties and their aircraft were also suffering from the strain of constant operations. It was therefore good news when the Sqn were re-equipped with new RE8 aircraft in May 1917. These two-seater bi-planes were christened ‘Harry Tates’ (cockney rhyming slang, named after a British music hall star of the time). The Sqn was then thrown into a series of quick moves until September when it settled at Longavesnes. It then undertook a series of night bombing raids on ammunition dumps behind enemy lines. The Sqn next took part in the Battle of Cambrai, again flying dangerous low-level missions.

It was during a period of intense fighting the following year, that a new British military force was created. On 1 April 1918 the Royal Naval Air Service and the RFC amalgamated to form the RAF. The 1918 spring offensive was a busy period for 15 Sqn, with constant flying and several quick moves. As the German offensive was held, the squadron, now at Vert Galand, returned to its more traditional aerial reconnaissance work. This continued until the final offensive in the autumn of 1918, when the Sqn also took on the unusual task of dropping boxes of ammunition by parachute to front line troops.

 

The War officially ended at 11.00 hours on 11 November 1918 after the signing of the Armistice. Following the end hostilities 15 Sqn was reduced to a cadre and in February 1919 returned to Fowlmere, Cambridgeshire, where it survived until the ‘axe’ fell on 31 December 1919 and was disbanded.

 

THE INTER-WAR PERIOD

 

Like the proverbial Phoenix, 15 Sqn reformed at Martlesham Heath on 20 March 1924, but it was little more than in name, as their aircraft were part of the Aeroplane and Armament Experimental Establishment trial fleet. The work undertaken included all aspects of aerial gunnery, aerial photography, bomb ballistics and numerous other forms of research work. Over a ten year period 15 Sqn amassed 12,100 flying hours on over seventy different types of aircraft and also saw five changes of commanding officer.

 

At the end of May 1934, 15 Sqn lost its number plate and was redesignated as the Armament Testing Sqn, absorbing it’s existing personnel into the new Sqn. This however did not spell the end of the Sqn. With new personnel and aircraft, 15 Sqn was reformed at Abingdon, Oxfordshire in June 1934.

 

 

THE BIRTH OF A BOMBER SQN

 

15 Sqn’s new role was to be that of a day bomber sqn, flying Hawker Hart aircraft, under the command of Sqn Leader Thomas Elmhirst, AFC. In taking command he made a decision that was to have a lasting effect, one that was only interrupted by the arrival of the Second World War. He instigated the tradition of writing the squadron number on their aircraft in Roman numerals. This was repeated in the new Sqn badge and, after a battle with the College of Heralds, it was agreed that the unit could now be called XV Sqn.

 

The new badge, approved by King George V, depicted a Hart (synonymous with the type of aircraft they flew). Both the badge and the numerals were proudly displayed when XV Sqn participated in the King’s Jubilee Review at RAF Mildenhall, in July 1935. This special occasion was the only time that the King and his two sons, both future kings (Edward VIII and George VI) were all seen together dressed in the uniform of the RAF.

 

In January 1936, the Air Ministry issued a policy concerning unit badges. As XV Sqn were re-equipping with Hawker Hind aircraft at the time, the Sqn updated their badge and replaced the Hart with a Hind’s Head. The change was approved by King Edward VIII in May 1936 and the design has remained ever since.

Hawker Hinds at King George V's Jubilee Review, July 1935 at RAF Mildenhall.

THE BUILD-UP TO WAR

 

The worsening political situation in Europe during the late 1930s saw a rapid expansion of Britain’s armed forces. For XV Sqn this meant converting to a new type of aircraft in July 1938. The Fairey Battle, although powered by a single Rolls Royce engine, was by any standards a large aeroplane and boasted ‘modern’ features like enclosed cockpits and a retractable undercarriage. The aircraft was to be operated by a three-man crew; a pilot, an observer and an air gunner.

In August 1939, following the declaration of a state of emergency, all XV Sqn personnel were recalled. With the approach of war, XV Sqn was assigned to the Advanced Air Striking Force and following Germany’s invasion of Poland, deployed to Bethenville, France on 2 September 1939 as the first RAF Sqn to do so.

 

 

WORLD WAR II

The declaration of war followed on 3 September 1939 and a week later XV Sqn moved to Vraux. Whilst operating from Vraux the Sqn saw little action, and before the German advance in the West, they had returned to England and a new base at Wyton in December 1939. Here they were re-equipped with Bristol Blenheim Mk IV aircraft.

However, it was not all work for the officers of XV Sqn. On 10 February 1940, they held a dinner at the Old Bridge Hotel, at Huntingdon, to which they invited former members of the Sqn. Amongst the guests were a number who flew with the Sqn during the First World War. This occasion is though to be one of the first ‘reunions’ held by XV Sqn. Photographs taken at the time show a happy group of men, many of whom would be dead just over three months later.

From the satellite airfield of Alconbury, on 10 May 1940, XV Sqn flew its first wartime bombing mission against Waalhaven airfield, which was a success. However, the Sqn’s next mission on 12 May 1940 was disastrous. Of the twelve aircraft attacking bridges on the Albert Canal at Maastricht, only six returned, and those aircraft that did come back were badly damaged. Many of those who attended the reunion at the Old Bridge Hotel were listed amongst the casualties. The Sqn continued to lose heavily and after five days had only three aircraft left; these it took to the Sedan Gap, following which there were none serviceable.

After being re-equipped at Wyton and brought back up to strength, the Sqn began raids on France and later Germany. Very quickly the squadron went over to night raids. This continued until November 1940, when the Sqn converted to the Vickers Wellington bomber, affectionately known as the ‘Wimpy’. The introduction of the Wellington meant additional aircrew on the Sqn, as the aircraft required a five-man crew. The extra crew members being a second pilot and a bomb aimer.

By December 1940 the Sqn was operational again, taking part in the offensive against Germany by night. It was also in December that Wing Commander Herbert Dale assumed command of XV Sqn, but his tenure with the Sqn was to be almost as short as that of the Wellington. Night bombing continued regularly for six months, although weather during these months created problems for Bomber Command and XV Sqn in particular. XV Sqn was then involved in a bigger enterprise. It was chosen as the second sqn to fly the first of the new generation of four-engine bombers, the Short Stirling. The first aircraft arrived on 11 April and on 30 April sqn aircraft were involved in bombing Berlin, Kiel and Hamburg.

The first loss came on the night of 10 May 1941, when the CO failed to return. His aircraft was shot down by a German night-fighter and crashed near Opmeer, in Holland, killing the entire crew. Wing Commander Dale’s body was recovered from the crash site and buried in Bergen General Cemetery. The remainder of the crew was listed as “Missing in Action” until 2004, when their remains were excavated from the crash site, identified and prepared for proper burial. Exactly sixty-three years after the crash, on 11 May 2004, the remains of the ‘missing’ six crew members were buried with full military honours, near the last resting place of their pilot, in Bergen General Cemetery.

 

In July 1941 the Sqn began a series of daylight bombing raids on Brest, escorted by Fighter Command, but by the end of the month it was back to the night offensive. In September 1941 it flew its first operations against Italy, Turin being the target.

 

Another Stirling bomber, shot down in September 1941, was seen by the German Luftwaffe as a ‘gift’ from the RAF. The aircraft, which crashed relatively intact, was salvaged by the Germans and taken away for evaluation purposes, whilst its crew were taken prisoners of war. The navigator, Sergeant Richard Pape, did not adapt easily to being a PoW and adopted an extraordinary policy for escape. His escapes were later recorded in a well-documented book entitled, “Boldness Be My Friend”. Pape later rose to the rank of Warrant Officer and was awarded the Military Medal.

During the winter of 1941 the Sqn was involved in early operational trials with 'Trinity', a device which was developed into the highly successful 'Oboe', enabling blind bombing through cloud. The whole of 1942 saw the offensive continued unabated. The Sqn was involved in the 'Thousand Bomber' raids against Cologne and Essen in May and June, and the Sqn also started a fairly regular task of mining German coastal waters and canals.

 

MACROBERT’S REPLY

 

The best known of all the aircraft operated by XV Sqn throughout it’s history is the Short Stirling bomber named ‘MacRobert’s Reply’, bearing the serial N6086 , and coded LS-F. The aircraft was paid for by a generous donation to the RAF, from Lady Rachel MacRobert, in memory of her three sons killed in RAF service. To learn more about ‘MacRobert’s Reply’, follow this link.

 

THE 1,000 BOMBER RAIDS

 

Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief Bomber Command, Air Marshal Sir Arthur Harris felt that he needed to show the politicians the mettle of the men under his command, and prove they could get the job done. He therefore formulated an operation, simply known as the ‘Thousand Plan’ in which he intended to deploy 1000 bombers to one target, on the same night. One of the senior officers who assisted Harris was Group Captain Samuel Elworthy, who had served with XV Sqn between 1935 and 1937. Two possible dates for the attack were selected, as were two targets. On the morning of 30 May 1942, Air Marshal Harris made his decision; the target was Cologne and ‘his boys’ would go that night. XV Sqn detailed twelve Stirling bombers for the raid. Two of the Sqn’s aircraft were forced to return early due to mechanical problems, but the ten remaining aircraft completed their task and returned safely to base. One of the ten was intercepted by a German night-fighter, but managed to evade four separate attacks and return home without injury. Two nights later, on 1 June, Harris ordered another 1000 bomber attack, this time against Essen. Of the eleven sqn aircraft that took part in the raid, two returned early with electrical and bomb release malfunctions.

In February 1943, the public got to meet a ‘Heroine’ from XV Sqn and helped raise money for the war effort at the same time. The ‘Heroine’ was Stirling bomber, N3669, LS-H, a veteran of sixty-nine operations with the Sqn, a record for Stirlings. The aircraft, which was on display outside St Paul’s Cathedral, generated much interest and remained on display into the following month. N3669 did not return to the Sqn after its ‘tour of duty’ in London, but instead was taken-on-charge by No 1 Air Armament School, where it was used for training purposes.

 

The rest of XV Sqn moved to Mildenhall in April 1943. Some equipment was taken to the new base by road, while two Horsa gliders were utilised to move the remainder of the equipment along with some of the groundcrew. Two Armstrong-Whitworth Whitley Mk V bombers were used to tow the gliders to Mildenhall.

THE LANCASTER ERA

 

The end of the year saw the end of the Stirling and by mid January 1944 the Sqn had converted to the Avro Lancaster. Although the ‘Lanc’ was smaller than the Stirling, it could carry a heavier bomb load; attain higher altitude and had a longer range. Unfortunately, even training sorties were not without risk and on 13 January 1944 a Lancaster failed to return from a cross-country exercise. The Lancaster was reported as last seen going down trailing thick smoke. It crashed into the Wash, off the Norfolk coast, killing all those on board. Operational missions began again at the height of the Battle of Berlin which became its regular target. Equipped with 'Gee', the squadron used some of its aircraft to mark the target for the rest of the unit.

LANCASTER ‘J’ – JIG

 

On the night of 1 May 1944 a Lancaster recently delivered to the Sqn was detailed for an attack against railway targets at Chambly, northern France. The aircraft carried the serial LL806 and was coded LS-J “Jig”. There was nothing to set this aircraft apart from the others on the Sqn, but as time went by the crews deemed “Jig” to be lucky. Some aircraft failed to return from their first mission, whilst others managed to scrape by to complete a tour of operations, but “Jig” kept on flying. It was to become the Sqn’s most notable Lancaster bomber. LS-J went on to carry out a total of 134 bombing operations before being retired in December 1945.

Increasingly the squadron became involved in the battle against the V-1s, bombing the sites in northern France and returning to daylight operations once more after D-Day. XV Sqn now became a specialized bombing squadron, equipped with 'G-H' to enable it to fly precision blind bombing by day and night, its aircraft so equipped being distinguished by two yellow bars across the fins. In September there was a resumption of strategic bombing, and there was no let-up until the squadron's final attack on 22 April 1945. It then launched into Operation 'Manna' and ‘Exodus’ missions.

 

‘Manna’ missions were needed because the Dutch railway system had ceased to function after the efforts of Bomber Command and the Dutch resistance. With no supplies getting through to various parts of Holland it was agreed to allow food and supplies to be dropped to the beleaguered Dutch. The supplies were dropped from low level in special panniers.

‘Exodus’ missions were required when Bomber Command aircraft flew to Europe to bring home the allied PoWs. XV Sqn flew its first ‘Exodus’ mission on 10 May 1945, when it detailed fifteen aircraft to fly to the French airfield at Juvincourt, near Rheims. Each Lancaster was able to carry twenty-four of the former PoWs.

THE POST WAR ERA

 

In August 1946 the Sqn re-located to Wyton and during February 1947 the first Avro Lincoln bombers began to arrive. For a short period, the Lincolns operated with the Lancasters whilst the crews converted to the new aircraft. Although the Lincoln resembled the Lancaster in appearance, the Lincoln boasted more powerful engines, increased fuselage length and a modified main-plane. Shortly after the Sqn received its new aircraft, modifications were made, which enabled the Lincoln to carry 12,000lb ‘Tall Boy’ bombs.

In November 1947 the Sqn sent two aircraft to Shallufa, Egypt, as part of ‘Operation Sunrise’. The crews, along with those of 90 Sqn and 138 Sqn, were detailed for extensive weapons training in the Middle East. However, due to an uprising by a local tribe in the ‘Canal Zone’ of Egypt which necessitated the use of military power, these crews found themselves flying operational missions. They deployed to Khormaksar from where they carried out their attacks. Some of the bombs dropped were fitted with twelve hour delayed fuses, a fact the dissident tribe found unhealthy and which brought about a quick resolution to the situation.

 

14 November 1950 saw the Sqn’s association with the Lincoln bomber draw to a close, when it relinquished the last of its aircraft. Two weeks later the Sqn was disbanded, but was immediately reformed again at Marham, Norfolk, in preparation for conversion to a new aircraft.

As a major power within NATO, and with the escalation of the Cold War, Britain needed to increase its striking potential, especially where RAF Bomber Command was concerned. To overcome the problem, seventy Boeing B29A bombers were acquired from America. Known in the RAF as the Washington B1, these aircraft would form the basis of eight RAF Sqns. Marham became the Washington Force HQ and played host to four B29A Sqns. After only two months at Marham XV Sqn relocated to Coningsby to became part of the second Washington Wing.

It was whilst XV Sqn was equipped with Washington bombers that a very poignant event in the Sqn’s history occurred. On 16 March 1951 Sqn aircraft flew for the last time displaying the code letters ‘LS”, which had been adopted back in August 1939. The new scheme for the aircraft was a natural metal finish, adorned with only the RAF roundel, fin flash and serial designation.

 

In January 1952 it was announced that, having completed twenty-five years service to the Crown and as a mark of the Monarch’s gratitude, the Sqn was to be presented with a Sqn Standard, on which it could display its battle honours. The pride and jubilation of receiving this honour was overshadowed less than a month later when, on 6 February, His Majesty King George VI passed away.

 

THE JET AGE

 

For XV Sqn, conversion to the English Electric Canberra in April 1953 saw the start of the jet age. By June, with crews fully trained on the Mk 2 variants of the twin-engined Canberra, the Sqn was declared operational. Having been resident at Coningsby for sometime, the Sqn relocated to Cottesmore, Rutland in June 1954, from where the crews continued the task of astro-navigation trials and visual and radar bombing training.

In February 1955 the Sqn moved to Honington, Suffolk. It continued a number of training exercises from Honington, including ‘Lone Ranger’ exercises. These missions enabled crews to practice navigational procedures by flying to overseas locations. Whilst, initially, the ‘target’ locations had been in Germany, Gibraltar and Libya, the number was increased to include areas in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East.

 

In 1956 the Sqn was detailed for two official reviews. The first, which occurred in April, was the visit of Marshal Bulganin, the Premier of the USSR, and Mr Khrushchev, the Secretary of the Russian Communist Party, who reviewed the Sqn’s aircraft during a visit to Honington. The second occasion was the first Royal Review of Bomber Command, by the Her Majesty the Queen, at Marham on 23 July.

 

THE SUEZ CRISIS

 

A few days after the Royal Reviews, the British Government despatched a military force to the Eastern Mediterranean. This was due to the nationalisation of the Anglo-French controlled Suez Canal Company by the Egyptain President, Colonel Gamel Nasser. With an escalation of the political situation, XV Sqn was deployed to Nicosia, Cyprus, as part of ‘Operation Accumulate’ in October 1956. During six days of fighting, the Sqn undertook thirty-seven operational missions, dropping more bombs than any other Sqn.

 

Following a cease-fire, in early November, the Sqn returned to England. Unfortunately, after having returned to Honington, orders were received to re-deploy to Luqa, Malta, due to further rising in political tension. After a further six weeks in the Eastern Mediterranean, XV Sqn returned home, where it was announced that the Sqn was to be disbanded on 15 April 1957.

 

THE V FORCE ERA

 

During the 1950s, the British Government had been developing a nuclear deterrent. For the RAF this meant the arrival of the ‘V’ bomber force, which comprised three new aircraft known as the Vulcan, Valiant and Victor, all capable of delivering nuclear bombs.

It was with Handley Page Victor B1 bombers that XV Sqn was re-formed, at Cottesmore, on 1 September 1958. As a rapid response to any hostile threat was vital, the Sqn trained hard to achieve the goal of getting four aircraft airborne in under four minutes from receiving a threat warning. It was a goal that, once achieved, had to be continually practiced. Fortunately these aircraft were never engaged in the type of action for which they were designed. However, the futuristic looking Victor bombers were often seen in the skies around the world, engaged in military exercises, training, air displays and good will visits both at home and abroad.

 

In September 1964, a Sqn deployment returned to England, having spent the last year as part of a peace-keeping force operating in the Far East. During this time crews and aircraft had been rotated between Cottesmore and Singapore. However, the home-coming did not give cause for celebration as the Sqn learned that it was to be disbanded.

 

THE BUCCANEER ERA

 

On 1 October 1970 the Sqn numberplate and crest were resurrected when XV Sqn was re-formed at Honington. The Sqn was equipped with the Buccaneer S2B, which had originally been developed as a Naval aircraft, but was later modified for use by the RAF. As no dual-controlled version of the Buccaneer existed, a Hawker Hunter T7A two-seat trainer was fitted with instruments that replicated that of the Buccaneer, so that dual pilot training could be given.

In January 1971, the Sqn officially became part of Royal Air Force Germany (RAFG), when it relocated to Laarbruch, West Germany. Before its departure to Europe approval was given for each Sqn aircraft to be adorned, as on previous occasions, with the Roman numerals ‘XV’ on top of the tail fin. The one exception to this was the Hawker Hunter, which carried the white numerals on the fuselage.

 

The Sqn’s 60th Anniversary was marked, amongst other things, with the issue of a special First day Cover. The envelopes, which bore 30pfg Deutsche Bundespost stamps, were illustrated with a BE2c, the Stirling bomber ‘MacRobert’s Reply’ and a Buccaneer. These covers were flown on a route covering Laarbruch, Wyton, Brest, Wyton, Laarbruch the same course taken from Wyton by the Stirling bombers in 1941 when the Sqn attacked German warships in Brest harbour.

 

During 1983, after nearly thirteen years service with the Sqn, it was decided that the Buccaneer was to be replaced. Although XV Sqn flew its last Buccaneer sortie in June of that year, the Sqn spent the summer months at Laarbruch preparing for the arrival of its new aircraft.

 

THE TORNADO ERA

 

In June 1983 XV Sqn began to take delivery of its first Panavia Tornado GR1 aircraft. On 1 September 1983 XV Sqn officially became the first RAFG Tornado Sqn. Following a NATO Tactical Evaluation (TACEVAL) in June 1984 the Squadron was declared operational in the strike (nuclear) role. The Sqn then became attack operational in January 1985, it’s 70th anniversary year.

In August 1990 Iraqi forces invaded Kuwait and by December XV Sqn had deployed to Muharraq, Bahrain, in preparation for war against Iraq. Operation Granby was Britain’s contribution to Operation Desert Storm, the coalition’s offensive campaign to liberate Kuwait. The Sqn carried out one of the first allied offensive missions of the war, flying low-level attacks against an Iraqi airfield on 17 January 1991. In the six weeks of operations, XV Sqn flew over 200 sorties against some 30 different targets delivering in excess of eight hundred 1000 lb bombs and 30 JP233 airfield denial weapons. Two aircraft were lost due to enemy action.

During 2001 XV(R) Sqn took delivery of the upgraded Tornado GR4. XV(R) Sqn’s current mission statement is ‘To contribute to the Operational Capability of the Tornado GR4 Force through the provision of trained personnel, whilst striving for personal and team excellence in all ground and air activities’. By this XV(R) Sqn teaches ab-initio aircrew straight from their advanced flying training, as well as conducting Refresher Courses for experienced operators returning back to the Tornado GR4. The Sqn also provides courses for Qualified Weapons Instructors, Electronic Warfare Instructors and Instrument Rating Examiners in support of the frontline, as well as providing the Tornado role display team.

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