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54 Squadron

The former strike squadron now training the RAF's eyes and ears in the sky

THE RAF currently has seven Operational Conversion Units, OCUs, squadrons whose role is to train personnel in operating specific aircraft – effectively how to fly particular aircraft, to utilise the technology available on board, and the tactics to get the best results out of both the aircraft and its weaponry. 

One of those is No. 54 Squadron, based at RAF Waddington, the hub of the Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance operation, ISTAR, the RAF’s ‘eyes and ears’ in the sky.

LIV Squadron is the former strike unit, the RAF’s first Jaguar squadron back in 1974, which was reformed on September 1, 2005 as No. 54 (Reserve) Squadron, initially responsible for training aircrews on three platforms – E-3D Sentry, Nimrod R1 and Sentinel R1 – and later on RC-135 Rivet Joint Aircraft, replacement for the Nimrod, and the MQ-9A Reaper, the hunter-killer unmanned aerial vehicle, UAV.

A detachment of No. 54 also operates out of RAF Lossiemouth, acting as OCU for the Poseidon MRA-1; in 2019, LIV personnel ferried the RAF’s first such aircraft, the Pride of Moray, from the Boeing factory in Seattle to Jacksonville, Florida, where additional work was carried out before its transfer to Scotland.

54 Squadron Shop

Click here to view 54 Squadron memorabilia 

For more than a decade, LIV Squadron has also been delivering the Qualified Weapons Instructor Course, attracting pilots from across the globe as well as RAF personnel, keen to receive some of best training available in the world.

LIV’s current role is a long way from Castle Bromwich in the West Midlands, the site where No. 54 Squadron was formed in May 1916 during WW1. Initially equipped with BE2Cs and Avro 504s before becoming the first Royal Flying Corps, RFC, Squadron to operate Sopwith Pups; in December 1916 the squadron was relocated to France to operate day fighting missions. As well as their work as bomber escorts, No. 54 specialised in taking out enemy observation balloons, notably during the Battle of Arras, a British offensive on the Western Front during April and May 1917.

Sopwith Camels replaced the Pups allowing the Squadron to resume fighter duties which continued until the end of hostilities, returning home to RAF Yatesbury in February 1919 before being disbanded later that year in October.

There would be no overseas posting for LIV post war, and they weren’t reformed until 1930 at Hornchurch in Essex, going through a range of aircraft during the 30s until receiving their first monoplane, the Supermarine Spitfire in March 1939. 

Patrols of the Kent coast were the initial duties at the start of WW2, before aircraft from the squadron provided cover for the Dunkirk evacuation in May and June 1940. LIV was also instrumental in the Battle of Britain, with the Squadron amongst the many who suffered heavy losses, both of personnel and aircraft – a notable pilot was Alan ‘Al’ Deere, a New Zealander who shot down 11 German aircraft despite himself being shot down seven times. 

Pilots of 54 Squadron, May 1941 gathered round a Supermarine Spitfire Mark IIA Rochford, Essex. On the wing sits their commanding officer, Squadron Leader, R F Boyd, with the squadron mascot "Crash".

(Pilots of 54 Squadron, May 1941 gathered round a Supermarine Spitfire Mark IIA Rochford, Essex. On the wing sits their commanding officer, Squadron Leader, R F Boyd, with the squadron mascot "Crash".)

After recouping at RAF Catterick, LIV returned to Hornchurch in 1941, flying bomber escort missions over Northern France before being dispatched to Caithness in Scotland later that year to undertake coastal patrols. 

The Squadron were then heading overseas, joining No. 1 Wing of the Royal Australian Air Force, RAAF, to assist in defence duties against Japanese aircraft around Darwin in the Northern Territories. After initial mechanical problems and the inexperience of some of its newer pilots, LIV performed admirably in battle, eventually being disbanded in Melbourne in October 1945.       

They re-emerged post-war in November 1945 at RAF Chilbolton, No. 183 Squadron redesignated as 54 (F) which was handed the role of training pilots destined for overseas service. In 1947, the squadron switched to flying De Havilland Vampires and moved to RAF Odiham, a year later six of the aircraft completed the first jet fighter formation transatlantic crossing – a journey involving eight hours of flight, the jets flying in three legs accompanied by ground crew in Avro Yorks.

Hawker Hunter of 54 Squadron in 1968

LIV Squadron took up fighter duties in 1955, flying Hunter Mk 4s, continuing in the role through to the early 1970s, when they were equipped with the aircraft synonymous with No. 54 Squadron – the Jaguar.

The unit was reformed at Lossiemouth in March 1974, the RAF’s first Jaguar squadron, before heading south in August of that year to operate out of RAF Coltishall. With the Cold War at its height, their role was as a front-line SACEUR, Supreme Allied Command Europe, operational squadron, carrying both nuclear and conventional weapons. In the event of hostilities between NATO and the Warsaw Pact, No. 54 would be required to support land forces on the European mainland using their conventional arsenal and, if required, deploying tactical nuclear weapons.

They retained this role until the late 1990s when their nuclear weapons were effectively retired, several years after their conventional arsenal played a crucial role in Operation Desert Storm, No. 54 Squadron a key element of the air assault launched on Saddam Hussein’s forces in the first Gulf War. In 1991, pilots and ground crew from LIV Squadron formed part of the 22-strong Jaguar force based in Bahrain – the detachment flying more than 600 missions during the three months of the conflict.

After hostile action over Iraq had officially ended, the squadron were soon on their travels again, but operating over familiar territory: as part of Operation Warden personnel from LIV were deployed to southern Turkey, this time patrolling the airspace of northern Iraq.

Three 54 Sqn Jaguar GR1As over northern Iraq in 2002

(Three 54 Sqn Jaguar GR1As over northern Iraq in 2002)

Further deployments to Italy followed as part of Operation Deny Flight, the NATO response to the war in the Balkans, and Operation Deliberate Guard. Plans to operate the Jaguar squadrons during the Iraq War in 2003 were abandoned when Turkey refused permission to operate from their air bases, and the following year, government defence cuts saw an announcement that the Jaguars would be withdrawn from service by 2007.

On March 11, 2005, No. 54 Squadron were disbanded at Coltishall, reforming at RAF Waddington in September of that year in their new ISTAR role.

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1 comment

  • No mention of LIV Hunters at Tangmere and then onto West Raynham where they (and 1 Squadron) converted to P1127s (jump jets)

    Steve

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