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33 Squadron Article

50-plus years operating Puma helicopters

A RECENT arrival at RAF Akrotiri in Cyprus were a fleet of Puma helicopters, flown in as replacements for the Griffin aircraft normally used for search and rescue duties carried out from the island station.

The crews operating the helicopters were faced with tricky weather conditions on their 2,200-mile journey to their new home, the trip taking five days with a range of overnight stops on the way: two leaving Oxfordshire on February 7 before a third followed soon after.

The RAF took delivery of the Puma more than 50 years ago, No. 33 Squadron the first Puma unit at RAF Odiham in 1971 before moving to RAF Benson in 1997. In the early 1970s the Puma was a state-of-the-art helicopter, its development part of a joint operation between the governments of the UK and France.

The switch to helicopters for No. 33 came after an extended spell overseas, the unit’s history strongly associated with postings across the globe. The squadron dates back to the middle of WW1, formed at RAF Filton near Bristol in January 1916, before being dispatched to Lincolnshire from where they flew Royal Aircraft Factory BE.2s to protect east coast locations from Zeppelin attacks. Despite coming into contact with a number of Zeppelins, none were destroyed by the squadron, and they ended the war flying Avro 504s.

After disbanding in 1919, the squadron reformed at RAF Netheravon on March 1, 1929, as a bomber unit, flying Hawker Horsleys, before becoming the first squadron to be handed Hawker Harts, the two-seater light bombers, which were taken to Egypt and flew in operations during the Second Italo-Abyssinian War.

Gloster Gladiator in pre-war RAF markings
(Gloster Gladiator in pre-war RAF markings)

Re-equipped with Gloster Gladiators in February 1938, No. 33 became an overseas fighter squadron, the start of the Second World War seeing it taking part in a range of operations in southern Europe and the Middle East: its first victories of WW2 came in June 1940 during the capture of Fort Capuzzo on the Egyptian/Libyan border, shooting down Italian aircraft.

Now operating Hurricanes, the squadron was withdrawn from desert combat in January 1941 to bolster forces resisting the Italian invasion of Greece. When Germany offered its support to Italy, more heavy fighting ensued with the squadron withdrawing to Crete where they were involved in the ill-fated battle of the island, members of the squadron who lost their lives in the conflict remembered at a memorial between Maleme and Tavronis on the island, near Maleme Airport.

No. 33’s depleted forces returned to Egypt, from where it was involved in missions in support of various Allied forces in North Africa including the Battle of El Alamein, and in December 1943 the squadron took ownership of its first Spitfires, returning to Britain in 1944 ahead of Operation Overlord, the Allied invasion of mainland Europe.

Hawker Tempest Mk. V

(Hawker Tempest Mk. V)

Based at RAF Lymphe in Kent, the squadron was now under the control of RAF Second Tactical Air Force, and it flew fighter support on D-Day, before moving back overseas, stationed in France in October 1944. It was re-equipped with the Hawker Tempest, and switched locations to Germany, where it stayed until after the end of hostilities.

In 1949, No. 33 Squadron moved to the Far East, first based at Kai Tak in Hong Kong before it was relocated to Kuala Lumpur, at this time still flying Tempests. In 1951, the squadron was handed de Havilland Hornets, before being disbanded in March 1955.

After more than a decade overseas, the squadron returned to Britain in December 1955, reformed as a night fighter squadron at RAF Driffield in Yorkshire, flying de Havilland Venoms. The squadron was disbanded in June 1957 and reformed in October of that year after No. 264 Squadron was renumbered, this time operating Gloster Meteors at RAF Leeming. Their brief sojourn with the Meteor ended less than a year later when the Squadron moved again, this time to Middleton St George in County Durham from where they operated Gloster Javelins.

In November 1962, No. 33 Squadron was again disbanded before heading overseas to Butterworth in Malaya (now Malaysia) in April 1965, this time in a completely new role, operating as a Bloodhound surface-to-air-missile unit. With the withdrawal of British military forces from the region announced in 1968, the Squadron was again disbanded in January 1970, returning to aircraft duties, but not of the fixed-wing variety.

33 Sqn HC1 Pumas

(33 Sqn HC1 Pumas)

On June 14, 1971, No. 33 Squadron reformed at RAF Odiham as the RAF’s first Puma squadron, the helicopter that was designed and originally produced by French aerospace manufacturer, Sud Aviation, following a joint helicopter development programme with the UK. The aircraft was capable of carrying around 20 personnel, or up to around two tonnes of freight, and used in a variety of combat roles including the tactical movement of its cargo in battlefield conditions.

The Puma’s first major operational service came less than a decade later, monitoring ceasefire arrangements in Zimbabwe in late 1979 and early 1980 (then known as Rhodesia), ahead of independence. The operations also brought tragedy to No. 33 Squadron when three of its members were killed when an aircraft collided with cabling near Mtoko before crashing.

The RAF Puma (Middle East) Squadron was created in 1990 when No. 33 and No. 230 Squadrons were placed on standby ahead of the first Gulf War, No. 33 soon located at a forward operating base in Iraq. Various operations followed in the Balkans in the late 1990s and early 2000s after the squadron’s move to RAF Benson, its current home, with the unit also involved with relief efforts when flooding hit Mozambique in 2000. In 2003, No. 33 returned to Iraq as part of Operation Telic, the campaign that resulted in the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.

In August 2007, tragedy struck on home soil when one of the squadron’s Pumas came down during operations near Catterick Garrison in North Yorkshire, three of the 12 people on board ZA934 killed.
33 Sqn 5-Ship Puma helicopters

(33 Sqn 5-Ship Puma helicopters)

In 2014, upgraded Puma HC.2s were brought into service after successful trials out of RAF Benson, with members of the squadron soon taking part in operations in Afghanistan with their new livery, and in 2016, the Squadron’s centenary was marked by a parade at RAF Benson.

The Puma now appears close to the end of its 50-years plus association with No. 33 and the RAF, the new medium helicopter (NMH) programme to procure aircraft to replace them still under consideration, with 2025 previously earmarked as a date for transfer to new helicopters.

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