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6 Squadron

The record-making squadron that registered 93 years of continuous service

THE focus on Typhoon operations from Lossiemouth in the Channel Four Series, Top Guns: Inside the RAF, has drawn attention to those squadrons flying an aircraft that is the primary defender of UK airspace – in the Quick Reaction Alert (QRA) role, Typhoons are airborne seconds after any potential threat is identified to tackle the danger head on.

Among the squadrons based at the Moray Station is No. 6, their motto Oculi Exercitus translating from Latin as the ‘The eyes of the Army’, representative of the essential role played from its inception more than a century ago in support of ground operations, starting with its work in Belgium during World War One.

The squadron dates back to pre-RAF days, formed in January 1914 at Farnborough under the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) banner, boasting at the time two Royal Aircraft Factory B.E.2s, two Farmans (French biplanes), and also a man-lifting kite.

The squadron moved over to mainland Europe in October of that year shortly after the outbreak of WWI, first supporting IV Corps in the allies’ attempt to stave off the German takeover of Antwerp, the city already close to falling to the enemy who occupied the key Belgian seaport until November 1918.

Serving with great distinction on the Western Front throughout the 1914-18 conflict, No. 6’s duties included tactical reconnaissance, artillery observation, aerial photography and trench mapping. Towards the end of WWI, the squadron’s focus turned to bombing duties, conducting low-level assignments during 1918.

In 1919 the squadron was posted to the Middle East, initially to Iraq, beginning a 50-year spell on overseas duty. During the inter-war years, the squadron was actively involved in rebellions and conflicts across the region, and at the outbreak of WW2, No. 6 was stationed in Palestine, flying aircraft including Hawker Hardys, Gloster Gauntlets and Westland Lysanders.

Hawker Hardy aircraft operating from RAF Ramleh in the 1930s
(Hawker Hardy aircraft operating from RAF Ramleh in the 1930s)

The squadron remained in the region during the early war years, gaining a reputation for its tank-busting capabilities in desert battles in Egypt and Libya, flying the Hawker Hurricane IID fitted with a 40mm cannon, No. 6 earning the nickname of the ‘Flying Can Openers’. A move to Europe came in February 1944 at Taranto in Italy, and then to the former Yugoslavia for a short time, operating on anti-shipping duties with their Hurricanes now equipped with rocket projectiles.

6 Squadron Hawker Hurricane over the Western Desert during 1942
(6 Squadron Hawker Hurricane over the Western Desert during 1942)

At the end of WW2, No. 6 Squadron returned to Palestine, initially co-operating with local forces to defend the Kirkuk to Haifa oil pipeline from attacks, the unit also involved in a range of other operations in the region. A switch from Hurricanes to Hawker Tempests arrived in 1947, No. 6 being the last squadron to fly the stalwart of the Battle of Britain; the Tempests were later swapped for de Havilland Vampire FB.5s, and in January 1950 the squadron transferred to Iraq, later that year receiving a Royal Standard from King Abdullah I of Jordan in recognition of service in the Middle East since 1919.

The squadron moved to the newly created RAF Akrotiri in Cyprus in 1956, by now operating de Havilland Venom FBs, attacking Egyptian airfields during the Suez crisis, and in 1957 No. 6 became a Canberra squadron, an aircraft it flew out of Akrotiri until 1969 when a return to the UK ended a 50-year spell on continual overseas deployment.

It was RAF Coningsby that welcomed the return to the UK of No. 6 Squadron, becoming the first to fly the Phantom FGR.2, re-equipping with the Jaguar at Lossiemouth in 1974. It would be a short stay north of the border, soon returning south to Coltishall where No. 6 remained as a Jaguar squadron until April 2006.

At Coltishall, No. 6 took on tactical nuclear duties with several of its Jaguars armed with WE.177 bombs, a role it retained until 1994 when the end of the ‘first’ Cold War saw the weapons withdrawn. During Operation Desert Shield, the precursor for Operation Desert Storm in 1991, several of the Squadron’s pilots earned battle honours flying missions into Kuwait which was then occupied by Sadaam Hussein’s forces.

6 Squadron SEPECAT Jaguar GR.3 over northern Iraq during 2000

(6 Squadron SEPECAT Jaguar GR.3 over northern Iraq during 2000)

A decade later, No. 6 was due to take part in Operation Telic, with plans for UK ground forces to enter Iraq from Turkey in the north, a substantial proportion of the RAF’s offensive resources expected to operate from two Turkish airbases – Incirlik and Diyabakir. However, there was hostility in Ankara about the prospect of coalition operations being launched from Turkish soil, with officials eventually refusing permission for any aircraft to operate.

The squadron returned to Coltishall, remaining there until its closure in April 2006, relocating to Coningsby for a year until No.6 was disbanded on May 31, 2007, the last squadron to fly the SEPECAT Jaguar until the aircraft’s abrupt withdrawal from RAF service.

The Jaguar was expected to remain in service until 2009 before the decision was brought forward by two years to October 2007, and then brought forward again by six months, the squadron informed on April 24 that six days later, April 30, 2007, the aircraft would be considered no longer ‘a deployable RAF asset’.

The first ever disbandment of No.6 ended 93 years of continued service, considered the longest unbroken spell of any squadron in the world, a record that included operations from 91 bases on three continents. No. 6s then Commanding Officer, Wing Commander John Sullivan, admitted at the time that he was “choked up” saying: “It’s the first time 6 Squadron has had to surrender its standard and a record of unbroken service – we are the longest continuously serving squadron in the world. I’m disappointed and reluctant to give up that mantle but the directive was clear to me and as a loyal military man, I had to execute my orders.”

6 Sqn Typhoon taking on fuel from an RAF Voyager in 2016
(6 Sqn Typhoon taking on fuel from an RAF Voyager in 2016 - MOD)

A three-year hiatus for No. 6 Squadron ended when it reformed at RAF Leuchars on September 6, 2010, its Typhoons arriving from Coningsby complete with squadron colours. In March 2011, the squadron took over the QRA role from No. 111 Squadron, making the move to RAF Lossiemouth in June 2014 ahead of RAF Leuchars transferring to British Army control.

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