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IX(B) Squadron

The RAF’s oldest bomber squadron defending the UK day and night for more than a century

WITH NATO air forces across the world at a heightened state of alert due to events in Ukraine, reports of jets being scrambled in response to Russian aircraft flying close to the airspace of a number of countries have become commonplace.

One of the most recent events occurred near Estonian air space as a Russian IL78 Midas air-to-air refuelling aircraft was intercepted by two Typhoons – one from the RAF and one from the German air force – as part of a joint operation by NATO forces.

The RAF jet was from IX (Bomber) Squadron, operating as part of 140 Expeditionary Air Wing out of Ämari Air Base in Estonia, the unit deployed on Operation Azotiz, part of which will see joint missions flown from the Baltic state until the end of April.

No. IX (B) or No. 9 Squadron is very much associated with missions in overseas airspace dating back 109 years, the oldest dedicated Bomber Squadron of the RAF formed in Saint-Omer in France, around 30 miles south east of Calais. The squadron was the first to be formed outside the UK in December 1914, coming under the Royal Flying Corps banner, created from a detachment of the Wireless Flight.

Upon its formation it was known as No. 9 (Wireless) Squadron, a high-tech unit of the time, tasked with developing the use of radio for reconnaissance missions, flying Royal Aircraft Factory BE2s. Their first role lasted all of three months, disbanded in March 1915 before reforming at Brooklands in Surrey ten days later as a radio training squadron.

Soon they were back in France with their bombing role commencing in January 1916 with RE7 aircraft, later tasked with artillery spotting duties during the Battle of the Somme., re-equipping with a variety of aircraft through to the end of hostilities, the unit eventually returning to the UK in August 1919, now stationed at Castle Bromwich just outside Birmingham.

On April 1, 1924, the squadron’s life as a dedicated bomber unit began at RAF Upavon in Wiltshire, soon transferring to RAF Manston in Kent from where they operated Vickers Vimys before switching to Vickers Virginias, aircraft they flew for more than a decade before they were replaced by Handley Page Heyfords in 1936.

IX(B) Squadron Vickers Wellington Mk.Is flying in formation

(IX(B) Squadron Vickers Wellington Mk.Is flying in formation)

It was January 1939 when the squadron was first assigned a monoplane, only the third RAF unit to receive the modern Vickers Wellingtons, an aircraft they operated from the beginning of the war from RAF Honington in Suffolk. The squadron was involved in the first bombing raid of WW2 to actually drop bombs on September 4, 1939, operating against shipping at Brunsbüttel near the mouth of the Elbe River.

All through WW2, IX (B) Squadron fought with Bomber Command, taking part in all the major raids of the conflict, their Wellingtons replaced by Lancasters in September 1942. Crew from the squadron were real-life heroes, those who returned from missions and those who didn’t, with several of the squadron involved in the Great Escape from Stalag Luft, names such as Les ‘Cookie’ Long synonymous with daring wartime escapades.

Avro Lancaster B.3, ED831 'WS-H', of IX(B) Squadron taking off from RAF Bardney, Lincolnshire, for a raid on the Zeppelin works at Friedrichshafen in Germany

(Avro Lancaster B.3, ED831 'WS-H', of IX(B) Squadron taking off from RAF Bardney, Lincolnshire, for a raid on the Zeppelin works at Friedrichshafen in Germany)

The squadron was key in the sinking of the battleship Tirpitz, scourge of the Arctic convoys throughout the Second World War. Damaged by earlier attacks, the ship was moved into a northern Norwegian fjord by the Germans ahead of repairs, the Germans using artificial smoke to ‘hide’ the ship from enemy aircraft. With plans hatched to hit her from a Russian base, Nos. IX (B) and 617 (Dambusters) were handed the task of attacking her with Tallboy 12,000lb bombs, an operation from Yagonik scoring a hit. Tirpitz was then moved again to Tromso fjord, this time making her reachable from Scotland.

While various claims were made that Tirpitz was no longer a threat, and required at least nine months of work to make her operational again, it was assumed she was being repaired and remained a danger to British ships. An alternative theory was that sinking her would be a major propaganda scoop no matter how dangerous she really was.

On November 12, 1944, the final successful operation began, this time launched from Lossiemouth, the unsinkable ship finally sunk by the Lancaster bombers of Nos. IX (B) and 617 (Dambusters) Squadrons. While the sinking was attributed to IX (B) Squadron, a rivalry developed between the two squadrons who carried out the final successful mission, the Tirpitz bulkhead presented by the Royal Norwegian Air Force ‘owned’ at various points by both squadrons before it was presented to the Bomber Command Museum in 2002.

Post war, the squadron flew Canberras on operations during the Suez Crisis in 1956, before being disbanded in July 1961, reformed in March 1962 at RAF Coningsby flying Avro Vulcans, part of the RAF’s V-force. Assigned to SACEUR, Supreme Allied Command Europe, the squadron moved in 1966 to RAF Cottesmore, moving again to RAF Akrotiri in Cyprus (1969-74).

IX(B) Squadron Avro Vulcan B.2 XJ784 at Offutt Air Force Base in 1976

(IX(B) Squadron Avro Vulcan B.2 XJ784 at Offutt Air Force Base in 1976)

A return to the UK came in 1975 at Waddington, IX (B) disbanded again in April 1982 ahead of receiving its first Tornado on January 6, 1982 at Honington. A move to Germany came in 1986, the squadron’s new home RAF Bruggen, the fourth Tornado unit at the station.

During the First Gulf War, IX (B) flew sorties in their Tornados as part of Operation Granby, a total of 200 flown with the loss of one jet – ZD893 crashing due to technical difficulties with both crew safely ejecting – and post-conflict they policed the no-fly zone over southern Iraq.

The squadron returned to the UK in 2001 at RAF Marham and two years’ later they deployed back to the Middle East as part of Operation Telic, flying operations over Iraq. While undertaking missions one of the squadron’s Tornados was shot down by an American patriot missile, a so-called ‘friendly fire’ incident. Returning to Ali Al Salem in Kuwait on March 23, 2003, ZG710 was mistaken for an incoming missile, a US Army Patriot missile fired in error destroying the aircraft with both crew on board killed.

In 2010, IX (B) deployed to Afghanistan as part of Operation Herrick, and a year later the squadron’s Tornados took part in Operation Ellamy, flying one of the longest sorties in RAF history, and the first to be launched from the UK mainland (Marham) since WW2, hitting targets in Libya. Further operations took place in the years following against Daesh in Iraq and Syria as part of Operation SHADER, before the squadron disbanded in March 2019 at Marham – the RAF’s joint-last operational Tornado squadron.

IX (B) Squadron Panavia Tornado GR.4 ZA456 in a special scheme celebrating 100 years in 2015

(IX (B) Squadron Panavia Tornado GR.4 ZA456 in a special scheme celebrating 100 years in 2015)

On April 1, 2019 IX (B) reformed at Lossiemouth as a Typhoon aggressor and Quick Reaction Alert, QRA, squadron, the country’s first-line of defence against aircraft approaching or entering UK airspace.

The QRA tag means crews are ready to fly 24/7, fitting for IX (B) whose motto is Throughout the night we fly, whether at home or on operations overseas. The squadron’s badge emblem is the bat, highlighting the night-bombing duties that epitomised IX (B) especially during WW2.

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