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18 Squadron

The RAF’s first Chinook Squadron still flying the most iconic of aircraft

ON January 17 this year, Chinooks from RAF Odiham arrived at Ämari Air Base in Estonia as part of an agreement between the governments of the two NATO allies agreed late last year.

The aircraft were later spotted flying over the capital Tallinn, with the exercises taking on a more crucial role following events over the last ten months; Ämari is located around 150 miles from the Russian border.

The presence of RAF personnel in Estonia coincided with an international meeting at Tapa Army Base in the Baltic state, where Defence Secretary Ben Wallace was joined by defence chiefs from eight other European countries to present a united front in support of Ukraine’s fight against Russian aggression.

The Chinooks were crewed by No. 18 Squadron, or 18 (Bomber) Squadron as it is also known due to its heritage prior to 1964 when it first became a helicopter unit – it would be 17 years later (1981) when No. 18 became the first squadron equipped with the Chinook.

18 Squadron Chinook
(18 Squadron Chinook)

Formed in 1915 at Northolt, the squadron’s first major deployment was during the Battle of the Somme a year later, attached to the Cavalry Corps, with the squadron also heavily involved in the Battle of the Lys in 1918.

Post-war, No. 18 moved to Germany where they carried mail between the first incarnation of the British Army of the Rhine (BAOR) and the UK, returning home in September 1919, before disbanding.

It would be 12 years before the squadron reformed at Upper Heyford on October 20, 1931, operating the Hawker Hart light bomber, moving on to RAF Bircham Newton in Norfolk five years later, where part of the unit was detached to form No. 49 Squadron.

In July 1936, No. 18 joined No. 1 Group RAF heading back to Upper Heyford, the squadron transferring to 2 Group in 1939, now operating Bristol Blenheims.

At the start of WW2, the squadron transferred to France in a strategic reconnaissance role, and when Germany invaded, their reconnaissance work was combined with bombing missions against German troops, before being ordered back to Britain in May 1940, operating out of RAF Watton in Norfolk.

Bristol Blenheim

(Bristol Blenheim)

Assigned anti-shipping duties, their missions proved far more varied, with one particular operation gaining the squadron notoriety throughout the armed forces. Douglas Bader had recently been captured by German forces in France, and during his escape from his stricken Spitfire, one of his artificial legs had been caught in the downed plane.

After some negotiations at a senior level, the Germans granted permission for a plane to drop off a replacement leg, No. 18 Squadron handed the task, a wooden container carrying the artificial limb was parachuted into St Omer airfield.

The squadron’s operations then switched to North Africa, with day bombing duties, before supporting the Allied advance through Italy, eventually ending the war stationed in Greece, the squadron disbanding on March 31, 1946.

In December 1947, No. 18 reformed at RAF Netheravon as a transport unit with Dakota aircraft, playing a key role in the Berlin airlift during 1948 and ’49 when Russian forces blocked many routes into the German capital.

18 Squadron Vickers Valiant B.1

(18 Squadron Vickers Valiant B.1)

They were soon stationed at RAF Scampton, this time as a bomber unit, flying Canberra B2s, and in 1956 a temporary move was made to Cyprus, from where they flew missions over Egypt during the Suez crisis: taking part in 32 attacks on Egyptian targets. Disbanding again in January 1957, it was December the following year that No. 199 Squadron, operating Canberras and Vickers Valiants, were redesignated as No. 18 Squadron.

The unit’s switch to helicopters came in January 1964, shortly after the delivery of Westland Wessexes to the RAF, the Intensive Flying Trials Unit forming the basis of the first operational unit to be equipped with the Wessex, No. 18 reforming in that role.

An 18 Sqn Westland Wessex HC2 in 1967

(An 18 Sqn Westland Wessex HC2 in 1967)

The squadron later moved to RAF Gütersloh in Germany in support of the second incarnation of the BAOR, disbanding in November 1980 ahead of the switch to the most iconic of helicopters, the Chinook.

It was November 22, 1980 that the first Chinook was delivered to the RAF, No. 18 reforming shortly after at Odiham in Hampshire as the first squadron flying the tandem rotor aircraft. It would be only months later that the squadron was preparing for military action, its Chinooks committed to form part of South Atlantic Task Force, the British response to Argentina’s invasion of the Falklands Islands.

Six aircraft were modified including the installation of chaff dispensers and infra-red flare decoy dispensers with options explored on exactly how to get the helicopters to the south Atlantic. Eventually only five were dispatched onboard container ship, MV Atlantic Conveyor: one disembarking at Ascension Islands, the important staging post used ahead of moving further south to the Falklands.

Arriving at Ascension Islands on May 5, one Chinook was removed before more aircraft were packed on board the ship, Atlantic Conveyor now also carrying 14 Harriers.

On May 25 as work continued to ready remaining aircraft for removal – all Harriers had been successfully transferred and one Chinook was airborne – the ship was hit by two Exocet missiles, with an uncontrollable fire breaking out: 12 people were killed with all remaining aircraft on board lost, comprising three Chinooks, six Wessexes and a Lynx.

Chinook CH47 ZA718 Bravo November, releasing decoy flares whilst flying over Afghanistan in 2006

(Chinook CH47 ZA718 Bravo November, releasing decoy flares whilst flying over Afghanistan in 2006)

Chinook ZA718 ‘Bravo November’ then found itself onboard HMS Hermes, a situation that was far from ideal, and with only one operational aircraft, No. 18 Squadron needed to reorganise. A total of 77 members of the Squadron had been transported aboard Atlantic Conveyor and MV Norland: those onboard the stricken Atlantic Conveyor were repatriated to the UK with two crews (two pilots and two crewmen per crew) and 27 ground crew remained to fly and support the aircraft.

Unfortunately, all the spares, manuals and servicing tools were lost, and it was unknown how long ZA718 would remain useable without them. But useable it was, with ZA718 flying almost continuously until the end of the conflict, transporting troops and equipment.

A return to Gütersloh came the following year, the squadron later taking part in first Gulf War in 1991, their Chinooks flying out Saudi Arabia. A move from Gütersloh to Laarbruch followed in 1992, a switch to Odiham coming in 1997 as the British presence in Germany was drawn down.

The squadron returned to the Gulf as part of Operation Telic in 2003, and were also crucial in operations in Afghanistan throughout the 2000s and 2010s, but the squadron continued to combine humanitarian work with military operations, most noticeably in 2017: their Chinooks helping with the relief effort following Hurricane Irma in the Caribbean.

Supporting other countries’ efforts militarily or in a humanitarian crisis remains a key focus of the RAF, with No. 18 Squadron’s current exercises in Estonia part of the UK’s commitment in support of the defence of a NATO ally – Apache helicopters and Typhoon fighters will also be deployed to the country over the coming weeks.

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