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43 Squadron

The Squadron whose members are still Fighting the good fight

WHILE the Battle of Britain over the summer of 1940 is seen by many as the time when the Second World War became real to the population of the UK, it was February 1940 when the first Luftwaffe aircraft was downed on English soil, the Heinkel 111 brought down by a Hurricane of No. 43 Squadron in a field close to the North Yorkshire fishing port of Whitby.

No. 43 became synonymous with their role during the Battle of Britain over the summer of 1940, but they were very much battle ready by that point, the unit nicknamed the Fighting Cocks renowned for their aerial exploits in both world wars, over British and foreign soil.

The squadron was formed in April 1916 under the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) banner at Stirling in Scotland, created from No. 18 Reserve Squadron, soon relocating to France on fighter reconnaissance duties, flying Sopwith 1½ Strutters.

Sopwith Snipe E8015 of No. 43 Squadron, late 1918
(Sopwith Snipe E8015 of No. 43 Squadron, late 1918)

The Strutters were replaced with Camels in September 1917, the unit switching to ground attack duties, a role it continued until the end of WWI by which time the squadron were flying Sopwith Snipes. The Snipes were flown over to Germany to take part in occupation duties, staying for 12 months before the squadron moved to RAF Spitalgate (Grantham) where it disbanded on December 31, 1919.

After five-and-a-half years, No. 43 reformed at RAF Henlow in Bedfordshire, returning with Snipes before switching to Gloster Gamecocks, the new aircraft the inspiration behind their nickname, the black and white checkered markings of No. 43 also originating during this era. By the start of WW2, the squadron was flying Hawker Hurricanes, operating defensive patrols over the north of England, moving from Tangmere to Acklington in Northumberland to provide cover for the industrial heartland of Tyneside.

The initial stay at Acklington only lasted a few months, the squadron heading north to Wick in Scotland early in 1940, before a return to north east England at RAF Usworth and back to RAF Acklington. It was while flying out of the north east that aircraft of No. 43 famously intercepted and shot down the Heinkel 111 bomber near Whitby – the first German aircraft downed on English soil of WW2.

On February 3, 1940, operators at Danby Radar Station located three Heinkel bombers who had started attacking unarmed fishing trawlers in the North Sea. According to the leader of the Hurricanes sent to intercept the Heinkels, Flt Lt Peter Townsend, the three RAF aircraft flew at sea level at maximum speed to avoid detection and give them the best chance of surprising the enemy.

They engaged the Heinkels at 9.40am just off the North Yorkshire coast, damaging one to the extent that it was forced to crash land: the Luftwaffe pilot shocking Whitby residents going about their morning activities with an impromptu low-level flypast of the town, coming down on snow-covered farmland, two of the occupants killed, the others taken captive.

Supermarine Spitfire Mk.Vc JK101 of No. 43 Squadron at Jemmapes, Algeria.
(Supermarine Spitfire Mk.Vc JK101 of No. 43 Squadron at Jemmapes, Algeria)

With the war effort moving apace, No. 43 were soon heading back south, flying cover during the Dunkirk retreat, and then involved in the Battle of Britain over the summer of 1940. In 1942, the unit, now flying Spitfires, were moved to North Africa, before switching over to Malta in June 1943 to offer cover for Allied activities in Sicily.

They transferred to Corsica a year later to give fighter cover for Allied landings in southern France, before heading to Italy and then Austria where they were located at the end of the war; two years after the end of hostilities, No. 43 Squadron disbanded in May 16, 1947.

On February 11, 1949, No. 266 Squadron was renumbered No. 43 (Fighter) Squadron, reforming at their former home of RAF Tangmere, entering the jet age with the Gloster Meteor. A year later the unit headed north to RAF Leuchars as the first squadron to operate the new Hawker Hunter, a few years later gaining notoriety when their aircraft appeared in the 1957 film, High Flight.

The early 1960s saw No. 43 overseas for the first time since WW2, relocating to RAF Nicosia in Cyprus before switching to RAF Khormaksar in Aden (Yemen), forming part of Middle East Command (MEC). Sorties were flown across the region over the next few years, the squadron officially disbanding on October 14, 1967, despite the Fighting Cocks continuing operations until November when South Yemen gained independence.

The squadron were back on British shores with a return to RAF Leuchars, becoming a Phantom unit on June 6, 1969, before officially reforming on September 1, 1969; No. 43 becoming part of the Quick Reaction Alert (QRA) force, first responders to any potential threat to UK airspace, both at home and later covering the same role in the Falkland Islands as part of 1435 Flight.

The Phantom era lasted 20 years before No. 43 was re-equipped with the Tornado F3 in September 1989, and in November 1990, their unit was deployed to Saudi Arabia as the lead F3 squadron at Dhahran, remaining on active service throughout the 1991 Gulf War.

In 2003 the unit returned to the Gulf as part of Operation Telic, when coalition forces led by the US removed Saddam Hussain from power in Iraq as part of the response to the 9/11 attacks. In 2005, the squadron was recognised north of the border with No. 43 being awarded “Freedom of the City” of Stirling, the location 89 years’ earlier where it was formed, and three years’ later the unit absorbed 56 (Reserve) Squadron to become the Tornado F3 Operation Conversion Unit, OCU.

Panavia Tornado F.3 ZE887 of No. 43 Squadron taking off from Kemble Airport, 2008.
(Panavia Tornado F.3 ZE887 of No. 43 Squadron taking off from Kemble Airport, 2008 - Adrian Pingstone)

The squadron’s 90th birthday was marked by a paint job for the flagship ZG757 Tornado, with a gloss black spine and anniversary emblem of the Fighting Cocks on the tail, and when the squadron were stood down for a fourth occasion in July 13, 2009, there were few fears about the future, No. 43 expected to become an operational squadron for the new Typhoon jet.

It would be seven years’ later, May 22, 2016, when the Squadron Standard was laid up at the Church of the Holy Rude in their spiritual home of Stirling, that any plans for a Typhoon role for No. 43 were at best on hold, with no immediate plans for reforming the squadron. Former members, however, keep the Fighting Cocks flag flying with an annual reunion and a website where news of members’ activities is shared.

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