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47 Squadron

The Squadron that flew into regions from where most are desperate to escape

IN April 2023, as Khartoum descended into chaos with fighting breaking out between rival military factions, thousands of terrified British nationals found themselves stuck in Sudan in the middle of the battle, with most routes out of the African nation closed.

As people looked for escape routes, it soon became clear an airlift was necessary, the RAF leading the evacuation; among the aircraft involved was one that has become synonymous with carrying out such rescue missions for more than half a century.

The C-130J Hercules was key in Operation Polar Bear, initially flying in and out from an airstrip close to Khartoum – fighting was centred at the capital’s airport – before moving to the eastern coastal city of Port Sudan.

47 Squadron Hercules

(47 Squadron Hercules)

Around 2,500 were evacuated by British military aircraft, with No. 47 Squadron heavily involved in the mission, as Wing Commander James Sjoberg, Officer Commanding No. 47 Squadron explained.

“On operations, the Hercules and No. 47 Squadron have always had a good reputation and a very thorough pedigree for operational output,” said Wg Cdr Sjoberg, a pilot with more than 4,000 hours on the Hercules.

“We’ve continued to deliver at the highest end on Operation Shader in the Middle East; on Operation Pitting we were the last aircraft out of Kabul, and we’ve carried out a huge number of evacuations saving a lot of lives.

“Even this year when we thought the aircraft would be fully into drawdown mode, we’ve been in Sudan with up to three aircraft helping evacuate entitled personnel. I really couldn’t be prouder of the people who have helped the squadron to do that at every turn, they’ve been absolutely amazing… I know we’re going to bottle up that excellence and move it forward on to the A400M and C-17.”

The end of the road for the Hercules after 56 years’ service with the RAF was a sad moment for all associated with the aircraft, No. 47 seeing their Standard laid up at College Hall Officers’ Mess at Cranwell ahead of reformation at a date yet to be finalised.

 

The squadron has spent more than half of its life operating the Hercules, first taking control of their aircraft in 1968, 52 years after it was formed in March 1916 at Beverley, tasked with the protection of Hull and the surrounding area from German Zeppelin attacks during World War One. No. 47 was equipped with a range of aircraft and after six months flying defensive patrols the squadron was split up, some joining 33 Squadron, with the remainder heading overseas to Salonika in Greece to support troops fighting in Macedonia.

The overseas section was involved in the failed attempt to sink the German battlecruiser Goeben which had run aground off the coast of north west Turkey early in 1918. Despite numerous sorties from the squadron and other aircraft, they caused limited damage to the ship, mainly due to lack of power in the bombs they were using.

Following the war, the squadron was sent to southern Russia to support the White Russian forces of General Denikin. The RAF were there primarily in a training role, but No. 47 carried out operational missions against Bolshevik forces using Airco DH.9 bombers and Sopwith Camel fighters.

On February 1, 1920, No. 206 Squadron was renumbered No. 47 Squadron at RAF Helwan in Egypt, operating a detachment in the Sudan before the complete squadron moved to Khartoum in October 1927 – almost a century later they would return to the city to help in a humanitarian evacuation.

In October 1925, three aircraft from No. 47 carried out the first RAF round trip between Egypt and Nigeria, covering the 6,500 miles in 24 days, flying for 80 hours.

Fairey IIIF's of 47 Squadron on the Blue Nile at Khartoum in 1930

(Fairey IIIF's of 47 Squadron on the Blue Nile at Khartoum in 1930)

At the start of the Second World War, No. 47 was involved in the East African campaign, attacking Italian targets in Eritrea and Ethiopia using Vickers Welleseys, before moving to North Africa in December 1941 to undertake anti-submarine patrols. In July 1942, the squadron was handed a detachment of Bristol Beaufort torpedo bombers, flying its first anti-shipping operations against convoys supplying enemy forces in Libya.

The squadron moved on to Tunisia where it was re-equipped with Bristol Beaufighters, carrying out reconnaissance in the Mediterranean and Aegean Seas, searching out shipping to attack. Transferring to India in March 1944, the Beaufighters were swapped for De Haviland Mosquitos six months later, a move that proved very short term, their wooden structures not suited to hot and humid conditions in the region. Returning to Beaufighters, support was given to operations in Burma against Japanese forces, day and night, before being re-equipped with Mosquitos in April 1945.

At the end of the war, the squadron relocated to Java to support Allies under attack from nationalist forces, before they were disbanded on March 21, 1946.

It was September 1, 1946 that No. 644 Squadron was renumbered 47 at Qastina in Palestine, the unit now a transport squadron with converted Handley Page Halifaxes. A return to the UK followed with the squadron finding a home at Dishforth in North Yorkshire in 1948, where they became the first RAF squadron to convert to Handley Page Hastings.

The Squadron was integral to combating the Berlin Blockade, the first major crisis of the Cold War when the Soviets blocked the Allies’ access to the city areas under western control, No. 47 flying out of Kiel in Germany. The Hastings were used to carry coal, amongst other supplies, the squadron returning to the UK and making the short relocation from Dishforth to Topcliffe.

47 Squadron Beverley in 1964

(47 Squadron Beverley in 1964)

Another aircraft first followed in March 1956 with the squadron receiving the Blackburn Beverley heavy-lift transport planes, moving troops and also aiding in disaster areas hit by floods, droughts or other natural disasters.

The squadron was disbanded in October 1967, before reforming in February 1968 at Fairford with the aircraft that has become synonymous with No. 47, the Hercules.

During the Falklands campaign in 1982, No. 47 was heavily involved in Operation Corporate, the near-24/7 flights that kept supply lines open to the Ascension Islands. Several Hercules were modified to ease the passage to Ascension and also to enable them to make the trip from Ascension on to the Falklands, additional fuel tanks and refuelling probes hurriedly fitted.

As well as frontline operations during the Falklands, No. 47 was also briefed on the possibility of flying SAS forces into Argentina and attacking the home base of their Super Etendard fighter aircraft, the jets which fired the Exocet missiles that sank two ships of the Task Force.

The initial plan of Operation Mikado was to land two Hercules on the runway at Rio Grande with 55 SAS soldiers aboard; they would destroy the aircraft and Exocet missiles at the site, with the Hercules staying on the tarmac, engines running, before making a swift escape to the Chilean base at Punta Arenas. The plan was altered to involve a smaller team in a Sea King helicopter but was abandoned when it became clear it could only be pulled off as a suicide mission.

47 Squadron Hercules

(47 Squadron Hercules)

In the early 1990s, No. 47 flew the first Hercules into Kuwait International Airport after Saddam Hussein’s forces had been expelled, and a decade later they returned to region to operate during the Iraq War.

Operations followed in Afghanistan and in 2011, the Squadron moved to Brize Norton, its home for 12 years before June 2023 when Her Royal Highness, The Princess Royal, attended No. 47s stand down parade.

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