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7 Squadron

The Squadron playing a key part in Special Forces operations across the globe

THE RAF’s Chinook force is based at Odiham in Hampshire, with No. 7 among the three squadrons based there flying the heavy-lift helicopter, the unit part of the Joint Special Forces Aviation Wing (JSFAW) supporting UK Special Forces operations.

Dating back almost 110 years, No. 7 were formed at Farnborough on May 1, 1914, the last Royal Flying Corps (RFC) squadron established before the outbreak of WWI, and one of the first to be disbanded, initially lasting only five months until September. They were, however, soon reformed, and deployed to France in April 1915 operating both Royal Aircraft Factory R.E.5s (reconnaissance) and Vickers F.B.4s (escort fighters).

The squadron were mainly handed interception and observation roles during WWI both at home and on the European continent, famously responsible for the first ever interception of an enemy aircraft over the British mainland on Christmas Day 1914.

The squadron disbanded at the end of 1919, reforming four years later with Vickers Vimys at RAF Bircham Newton in Norfolk as a night heavy bomber squadron, continuing in that role throughout the 1920s and 30s when it progressed through a number of different aircraft, the unit gaining a reputation as a master of the art of bombing. In October 1935, part of No. 7 Squadron split off to form No. 102 Squadron, the remainder moving to RAF Finningley in Yorkshire, re-equipping with Handley Page Hampdens ahead of the outbreak of WW2.

In June 1939, No. 7 became a training unit, preparing crews for the Hampdens of No. 5 Group, staying in the role during the early part of WW2 before it was disbanded in April 1940, merging with No. 76 Squadron to form No. 16 Operational Training Unit, OTU.

7 Squadron Stirling "S for Sugar" at RAF Oakington
(7 Squadron Stirling "S for Sugar" at RAF Oakington)

On August 1, 1940, No. 7 Squadron was reformed at RAF Leeming as the first to be equipped with the new Short Stirling four-engine heavy bomber, the first raid with the Stirling taking place against oil storage tanks near Rotterdam, which was by then firmly under German control. The unit would later transfer to become part of the Pathfinder Force, finding and marking targets for the main force of bombers of Bomber Command, before ending the war by taking part in mercy missions to drop food and supplies to Dutch civilians and repatriate POWs.

Post-war, No. 7 switched from flying the Lancaster to the Lincoln, moving to RAF Upwood in Cambridgeshire, the squadron involved in operations in the Middle East and Far East before it was disbanded early in 1956, reforming later that year with Vickers Valiants at RAF Honington in Suffolk. The unit was again disbanded in 1962, an eight-year hiatus ending in 1970 when they reformed at St Mawgan in Cornwall as a target facilities unit flying the Canberra, an aircraft they operated until January 1982.

It was September 1, 1982, that No. 7 Squadron reformed at RAF Odiham in the Support Helicopter role, flying Chinook HC.1s, the unit soon involved in a number of operations at home, predominantly in Northern Ireland, and abroad, notably flying out of Akrotiri to drop supplies in Lebanon, a multinational peacekeeping force in the country in 1983 included members of the 1st Queens Dragoon Guards.

7 squadron Chinook HC1 at Fairford 19 July 1987
(7 squadron Chinook HC1 at Fairford 19 July 1987 - Rob Schleiffert)

The first Gulf War in 1990/91 saw the Chinooks of No.7 dispatched to a forward operating base at Al Jouf, Saudi Arabia, supporting the Army during Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm. The squadron’s numerous duties included inserting SAS foot patrols into Western Iraq, flying resupply missions to SAS fighting columns, and famously flying the SBS into Kuwait City to secure the British Embassy; they later took part in humanitarian relief operations for Kurdish refugees in Northern Iraq.

Tragedy struck the squadron on June 2, 1994, a Chinook flown by a four-man crew from No.7 crashing in the Mull of Kintyre, the helicopter carrying 25 senior members of the British security forces from Northern Ireland to a conference in Inverness going down in bad weather. All on-board the Chinook were killed, the accident the RAF’s fourth worst peacetime disaster.

In 2000, No.7’s Chinooks were deployed to Sierra Leone as part of Operation Palliser, given just a few hours’ notice of the need to depart, the flight the longest self-deployment in the history of the aircraft – 3,000 miles over three days from Odiham to Freetown. In the West African country, the squadron supported I PARA Battle Group, later carrying SAS and SBS forces as part of Operation Barras.

In April 2001, the squadron became part of JSFAW, and with tensions heightened followed the September 11 attacks, the unit was involved in a raid on the MV Nisha, a cargo ship on its way to the Tate & Lyle Sugar Refinery factory in London in December 2001, with reports suggesting the vessel was carrying what was described as ‘terrorist material’.

A task force was assembled including SBS and SAS operators, two Chinooks from No.7 fast-roping operators on board who quickly secured the ship which was at that time 30 miles off Beachy Head. The ship was brought into port and searched, and while nothing untoward was discovered on board, the operation indicated the willingness of the military and security services to respond to any potential threat.

The unit was also involved in missions in Iraq (Operation Telic) and Afghanistan (Operation Herrick) in the 2000s, one of their Chinooks forced to make an emergency landing after reportedly being hit by RPG fire while flying over Sangin in the Helmand Province on August 19, 2009. The aircraft had taken off from Kandahar Airport with a crew of four and 15 troops from the Royal Rifles when it was forced down, with all 19 safely extracted, and the damaged Chinook destroyed to prevent it from falling into enemy hands.

In March 2020, No. 7 was among the squadrons that HM Queen Elizabeth approved the award of Battle Honours to, commemorating their work in Sierra Leone and in Afghanistan.

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