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207 Squadron

The Lightning crew ensuring F-35B jets operate from both land and sea

THE latest batch of F-35B Lightnings were delivered late last year to the RAF at Marham in Norfolk, taking the stealth fighter jet numbers operated by British pilots and personnel up to 30, the first arriving back in 2012 for trials work.

Operating alongside the Typhoon, the Lightning has multi-roles, conducting a range of missions including air-to-air and air-to-surface, electronic warfare and intelligence gathering. The jet’s short take-off and vertical landing (STOVL) capability allows it to operate from the new aircraft carriers, with versatility proving key to its importance to both the RAF and the Royal Navy.

It was 2017 when the Chief of Air Staff announced that No. 207 Squadron would become the Operational Conversion Unit, OCU, for the Lightning, the unit returning to Marham after 54 years away from the Norfolk station, bringing with them six of the aircraft, famously becoming the first UK squadron in a decade to operate jets in home waters from a British carrier, HMS Queen Elizabeth, in January 2020.

Working in conjunction with the Royal Navy was a return to the squadron’s roots, starting life as No. 7 Squadron Royal Naval Air Service, RNAS, in France midway through the First World War in 1916, soon carrying out bombing and reconnaissance duties in their B.E.2cs from their Petit-Synthe base. They also operated as a night bomber unit, particularly key in the second Battle of Ypres, regularly hitting railway targets and ammunition dumps.

When the RAF was formed in April 1918, No. 7 RNAS became No. 207 Squadron RAF, returning to England at Netheravon where it was equipped with the Handley Page O/400, before heading back to France where its night raids continued.

Handley Page O/400 bomber D8345 of 207 Squadron about to land at RAF Andover, May–June 1918.

(Handley Page O/400 bomber D8345 of 207 Squadron about to land at RAF Andover, May–June 1918.)

Post-war the squadron were stationed in Istanbul (then Constantinople), before returning to England where they were re-equipped with Fairey IIIFs. In 1935, in response to Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia, the unit headed to Sudan, before once again being instructed to return home to RAF Worthy Down in Hampshire, becoming part of Bomber Command. A further move to RAF Cottesmore saw the squadron handed an Operational Training Unit (OTU) role, which they held until 1940 when the squadron’s duties were assumed by No. 12 OTU, 207 released to form part of No. 5 Group Bomber Command.

Moving to RAF Waddington, the squadron was handed the dubious honour of operating the Avro Manchester bomber, an aircraft that ‘enjoyed’ a very short shelf-life before being replaced by the Lancaster in March 1942. In October 1943, No. 207 became the first residents of the newly-opened bomber station, RAF Spilsby, their first operation from their new Lincolnshire base over Hanover on the evening of October 18: the unit lost two of their Lancasters; six crew killed and eight becoming POWs.

Plans were in place in the summer of 1945 for No. 207 to form part of Tiger Force, a combined Allied unit to combat Imperial Japan, but the move never came to fruition following the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki which hastened Japan’s surrender.
Vickers Valiant B.1 of 207 Squadron at Filton Airport, Bristol, in the 1960s.

(Vickers Valiant B.1 of 207 Squadron at Filton Airport, Bristol, in the 1960s)

Post war the squadron was disbanded in 1950, reforming in 1951 in their first stint at RAF Marham, flying the American bomber, Washington B1, replaced in March 1954 by the English Electric Canberra. A further aircraft change came two years later when the squadron became part of the V-bomber force – Britain’s nuclear bomb-carrying fleet – operating Vickers Valiants for a decade; they took part in the Suez campaign in 1956 without their usual nuclear payloads, flying sorties out of Malta over Egypt.

de Havilland Devon C.2 of 207 Squadron, 1977.

(de Havilland Devon C.2 of 207 Squadron, 1977)

When the Valiants were grounded following concerns over spar fatigue, a situation which became evident when the bombers started flying at low-altitude, No. 207 was disbanded, reforming in 1969 at RAF Northolt as the RAF Communications Squadron. At this time they were operating a range of aircraft, including Devon C.2s, Basset CC.1s and Pembroke C.1s, with the retirement of the last Devons in 1984 seeing the squadron again disbanded.

Tucano T1 ZF292 of No. 207 (Reserve) Squadron landing at RAF Linton-on-Ouse after Squadron disbandment flypast, 13 January 2012

(Tucano T1 ZF292 of No. 207 (Reserve) Squadron landing at RAF Linton-on-Ouse after Squadron disbandment flypast, 13 January 2012)

After an 18-year hiatus, a squadron flying the Tucano T.1 at No. 1 Flying Training School, RAF Linton-on-Ouse, was renumbered as No. 207 (Reserve) Squadron, providing training for both RAF and Royal Navy students. One of its most famous pupils was the Prince of Wales, then just plain old Prince William, who was part of 207 Squadron in 2008.

The 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review resulted in the Squadron again being disbanded in 2012, with several years passing before a decision was made to make 207 the OCU for the Lockheed Martin F-35B Lightning. It was March 2019 that they reformed back at Marham, bringing with them their Lightnings, shortly after spending time with the aircraft at Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort in the US.

With No. 207 Squadron involved in operating Lightnings from British aircraft carriers, and delivering the latest batch of the 48 ordered from Lockheed, they will maintain their key role going forward with the MoD expected to purchase more of the aircraft – the exact number is yet to be decided, and will most likely be based both on the state of the public purse and events overseas.

A pair of F35Bs at RAF Marham

(A pair of F35Bs at RAF Marham)

In 2021, then defence minister Jeremy Quin said: “Funding for a second tranche of F-35 Lightning has been delegated to Air Command as part of our recent annual budget cycle. A decision on future tranches of F035B will be made in due course. As you know, we are going to acquire 48. We have committed to have 48 in service by 2025 and we will be acquiring more.”

• The total number of 30 Lightnings acquired by the RAF and Royal Navy so far includes ZM152, an aircraft that was infamously lost at sea on November 17, 2021. Operating from HMS Queen Elizabeth, the F-35B failed to generate the required power to execute a take-off from the carrier and simply toppled into the sea on operations in the eastern Mediterranean – the pilot successfully ejecting and parachuting back on to the flight desk, suffering only minor injuries. The interim report on the accident was published in September, indicating that the loss of the aircraft was “most likely caused by human, organisational and procedural factors.”

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