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41 Squadron

The Squadron helping ensure the RAF is ready for any threat to the UK airspace

WHEN an incursion into UK airspace is made by an unidentified aircraft, the threat is countered by the Typhoons, the multi-role combat jet on 24/7 standby, maintaining the quick reaction alert, QRA, interceptor role.

The aircraft require regular testing to ensure they are capable of defending the country from any potential foe and during a recent exercise, a Draken Europe L-159E Honey Badger jet provided the ‘live’ threat for the Typhoon over the North Sea. The operation is part of the UK’s Interim Red Air Aggressor Training Service (IRAATS), Draken providing the RAF with replicated threats mimicking the tactics and techniques of enemy aircraft.

The L-159 took off from Teesside Airport where Draken Europe is based, with No. 41 Squadron’s Typhoon departing from Coningsby to intercept over the North Sea. No. 41’s role is as the Test and Evaluation Squadron (TES), developing operational tactics and evaluating new avionics and weapons, a function they have performed since 2006, their previous reconnaissance duties ending when their Jaguars were retired in the mid-2000s.

Like many RAF squadrons, No. 41 was born during World War One, formed at RAF Gosport in Hampshire in April 2016, disbanding a month later before reforming in July. They departed for France in October 1916 flying Royal Aircraft Factory FE8s, but of the 18 that left Gosport only 12 made it to St. Omer, the others forced to make emergency landings elsewhere due to mechanical problems – the six pilots completing their journeys using other modes of transport with their aircraft stranded.

The FE8s were used to conduct ground attacks with the aircraft no match for the German Albatros in the air, taking part in the Battles of Arras and Messines before the squadron was re-equipped firstly with DH5s, and then SE5a fighters, operating successfully in the Battles of Cambrai and Amiens.

They disbanded on December 31, 1919 reforming at Northolt in April, 1923 with Sopwith Snipes, spending the next decade armed with a variety of aircraft before heading to Aden in 1935 during the Abyssinian Crisis, flying Hawker Demons. They returned to a new UK home at RAF Catterick in September 1936, remaining there through to the outbreak of World War Two, becoming the third squadron to be equipped with Spitfires.

A short deployment to Hornchurch in Essex allowed No. 41 to provide cover during the Dunkirk evacuation in May 1940, returning to Catterick for several weeks before heading south again in July 1940 and operating throughout the Battle of Britain: of the 49 pilots who flew with No. 41 Squadron during the Battle of Britain, ten were killed and 12 wounded in action, with a total of 100 claimed victories from July 1940 to the end of that year.

After a period of rest and recuperation following their efforts throughout 1940, the squadron relocated to Merston on the Sussex coast in July 1941, joining the Tangmere Wing under one of history’s most famous pilots, Douglas Bader. They undertook a series of operations in France over the next 18 months, and in February 1943 they became the first of only two squadrons to receive the new Griffin-engine Spitfire, Mk XII.

41 Squadron Spitfire XIIs on 12 April 1944

(41 Squadron Spitfire XIIs on 12 April 1944)

Ahead of the D-Day landings in the summer of 1944, No. 41 provided air support which continued during the early days of the intense Allied campaign to reclaim occupied Europe from Nazi forces. On June 19, the squadron was relieved of its duties over France and tasked with the job of destroying the German’s new V-1 flying bombs using techniques that included flying alongside the missiles and creating air movements that upset the V-1s gyroscope and caused them to crash before reaching their intended targets.

In December 1944, No. 41 moved to Belgium conducting reconnaissance flights over Germany which continued until the end of hostilities. On April 1, 1946, No. 41 Squadron was renumbered No. 26, the same day seeing No. 122 Squadron renumbered No. 41 at RAF Dalcross, now Inverness Airport.

After a spell as a training unit, No. 41 reverted to a fighter squadron in June 1948, with April 1951 seeing No. 41 enter the jet age when they were equipped with Gloster Meteors, now based at Biggin Hill. The end of the road for Biggin Hill seven years later – its infrastructure deemed unsuitable for modern military requirements – saw No. 41 disbanded, reformed a day later on January 16, 1958 at RAF Coltishall from a renumbering of 141 Squadron and becoming an all-weather night fighter unit.

41 Squadron Jaguar in 2003

(41 Squadron Jaguar in 2003 - 📸 Rob Schleiffert)

On September 1, 1965, the squadron reformed at RAF West Raynham in Norfolk in a new role, armed with surface-to-air (SAM) Bloodhound missiles before disbanding again in September 1970. On April 1, 1972, they reformed as fighter reconnaissance and ground attack unit at RAF Coningsby, operating McDonnell Douglas Phantoms, jets that were later to be deemed unsuitable for the squadron.

The Phantoms were re-designated as interceptor rather than fighter aircraft, with a new No. 41 (Designate) squadron being formed at Coltishall in 1976 as a Jaguar unit – the two 41s operating independently for six months before the Phantom 41 unit was disbanded with the new No. 41 forming part of Supreme Allied Command Europe (SACEUR) Strategic Reserve, with regular deployments to Northern Norway from the late 70s onwards.

In 1991, the squadron formed part of the Jaguar force involved in the first Gulf War, afterwards deployed to Turkey to defend Iraq’s Kurdish minority and enforce the no-fly zone in the northern part of the country (Operations Warden and Resonate North). Soon after a further deployment to southern Italy saw the squadron take part in Operation Deny Flight over Bosnia, a commitment that continued until 1995 with a No. 41 Jaguar becoming the first RAF aircraft to drop a bomb in anger over Europe since the end of WW2.

Further deployments as part of the Iraq War occurred in the 2000s, but the withdrawal of the Jaguars from service meant a new role was needed for No. 41, the unit moving back to Coningsby to assume the role of the Fast Jet and Weapons Operational Evaluation Unit, (FJWOEU). Initially operating the Harrier GR9 and Tornados GR4 and F3, No. 41 took delivery of its first Typhoon in 2013, by then the unit had been restructured as the Test and Evaluation Squadron (TES).

A flypast of a 41 Squadron Tornado and three 41 Squadron Harriers, RAF Coningsby, October 2006

(A flypast of a 41 Squadron Tornado and three 41 Squadron Harriers, RAF Coningsby, October 2006)

TES personnel are involved in many such exercises similar to the December 20 North Sea operation, the first time a Honey Badger had been used against the UK’s Combat Air Force, with No. 41 TES helping ensure that the RAF is ready to counter any potential threat to the UK airspace.

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