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51 Squadron

The Squadron at the forefront of Exercise Red Flag as allies reinforce the commitment to defend each other

MORE than 300 RAF personnel have spent the last few weeks at the Nevada Test and Training Range as part of the latest Exercise Red Flag, a chance for allied air forces to work alongside each other.

A range of scenarios are played out which involve aircraft from a number of countries working together, flying sorties across an area of around 4,500 square miles – equivalent to half the size of Wales.

As part of the latest missions, aircrew from No. 51 squadron have been involved in integrated flying operations, teaming up with USAF personnel to fly a RC-135 Rivet Joint intelligence-gathering aircraft, Airseeker, the first time in several years a combined crew has taken control of an aircraft in the Red Flag event.

A 51 Squadron Rivet Joint

(A 51 Squadron Rivet Joint - 📸 MOD)

The detachment of the squadron, normally based at Waddington, is led by Flight Lieutenant Dan Wilkes, who sees the exercises as crucial in the development of the members of 51.

“This exercise is an extremely important opportunity for us to integrate and work with our USAF colleagues,” said Flt Lt Wilkes. “With the high operational tempo of the squadron, the opportunity to conduct such high-intensity training that the exercise offers is extremely valuable.”

The squadron’s roots date back to 1916 as part of the Royal Flying Corps, RFC, the precursor of the RAF, with a primary role of defending east coast locations from the threat of Zeppelin attacks; they were first stationed at Thetford before moving to RAF Marham. During WW1 they also served in a training capacity, members of the squadron putting new pilots through their paces at night, operating Avro 504Ks.

At the end of the war the squadron disbanded, with a near 20-year hiatus before they reformed at Driffield in East Yorkshire in March 1937, flying Virginias and Ansons – reborn when ‘B’ Flight of 58 Squadron was renumbered. Like other bomber squadrons, a large bird was chosen to represent it, No. 51’s badge noted for the goose that adorns it.

At the start of WW2, in fact on the first night (September 3, 1939), the squadron flew Whitleys over Hamburg to carry out leaflet drops. Later they took part in the first Bomber Command attack on a German land target, hitting the air base at Hörnum on March 19, 1940, and they were also involved in the first attack on Italy.

Women's Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) personnel  painting a Whitley Mk V of 51 Squadron in 1942

(Women's Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) personnel  painting a Whitley Mk V of 51 Squadron in 1942)

A notable mission the squadron was involved in was on a radar installation in northern France, Operation Biting. RAF reconnaissance flights had revealed the location of a radar site, with scientists believing it was key in successfully targeting RAF bombers so a decision was made to put it out of commission and steal the technology used.

Early ideas for a commando raid were dismissed as it was believed there would be heavy losses suffered, so an airborne assault followed by a seaborne evacuation was chosen. Amongst those heavily involved was Percy Pickard, the first RAF officer to be awarded the DSO three times during the war, who was made CO of No. 51 Squadron in November 1941.

A low-level drop from between 500 and 600ft in converted Whitleys was decided as the best method – 12 aircraft flying in formation, with an RAF flight sergeant who was expert in electronics along with 119 paratroopers flown into Bruneval in northern France, near the port city of Le Havre.

The mission departed from RAF Thruxton in Hampshire on February 27, 1942, and despite coming under heavy fire near the French coast the paratroopers were successfully dropped near the target.

The raid was more successful than anticipated with the discovery of new type of radar, Würzburg, its components returned to Britain where scientists discovered it was of a modular design, making maintenance of the system far easier than on similar British models. The paratroops also returned with a captured German technician who, unfortunately, was unable to assist on discovering more about Wurzburg, either because his knowledge was limited or he was immune to the British powers of persuasion.

Loading bombs into a 51 Squadron Halifax at RAF Snaith

(Loading bombs into a 51 Squadron Halifax at RAF Snaith)

By Spring 1942 the squadron was attached to Coastal Command, tasked with attacking U-boats, before returning to Bomber Command in October 1942. No. 51 Squadron was from then until the end of the war involved in many mass bombing raids over Germany, operating out of Snaith in Yorkshire, also taking part in missions in support of the D-Day landings and strategic bombing in mainland France as Allied forces advanced through the country during the summer of 1944.

As the end of the war approached, the squadron was transferred to Transport Command, helping repatriate POWs from the Far East, with the squadron later involved with the Berlin airlift before it was disbanded in 1950.

Reformed in August 1958 when No. 192 Squadron was renumbered No. 51, it was given a ‘Special Duties’ role which started a long association with radar and telecommunications research and operational surveillance duties, work considered secret enough that the squadron was only publicly recognised for it following the ‘end’ of the Cold War in the early 1990s.

51 Squadron Nimrod in 1989

(51 Squadron Nimrod in 1989 - 📸 Rob Schleiffert)

In the late 1950s the squadron carried out their secretive work operating de Havilland Comets, switching to the Hawker-Siddeley Nimrod in 1974, flying operations during the Falklands War in 1982 before later being deployed as part of the first Gulf War in the early 1990s. Their Nimrods and intelligence gathering was also utilised during Operation Telic, the Iraq campaign that led to the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003.

In 2009 the draw down of their Nimrods began, the squadron later transferring to the RC-135W Rivet Joint, personnel from No. 51 heading over to Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska in January 2011 for training with the new aircraft. They received the first of their new Airseekers on November 12, 2013, its maiden operational sortie taking place on May 23, 2014, the squadron heavily involved with Operation Shader, a joint campaign against ISIL forces operating in Iraq and Syria.

The Airseekers form a crucial part of the Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance (ISTAR) Force, and with current world events, joint exercises like Red Flag have taken on even greater significance.

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