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LXX Squadron

The Squadron that took part in two Kabul evacuations – 93 years apart

AN Atlas 400M recently set a record for a non-stop flight from RAF Brize Norton to Guam in the Pacific Ocean, the journey taking 20 hours and 36 minutes.

It was the longest recorded flight by an Atlas and involved three refuelling operations carried out by Voyagers, the route also passing closer to the North Pole than any previous flight by the aircraft type.

Among the many squadrons involved in the record-breaking feat was No. 70, no stranger to endurance flights as evidenced by their 28-hour marathon during the Falklands War in 1982, more of which later.

Better known as LXX, they were the first frontline RAF Squadron to operate the Atlas 400M, their record of taking part in long-distance missions ensuring that the motto on their badge, Usquam, is more than fitting. Translated as anywhere, or in any place, No. 70 have been ready to be deployed to destinations across the globe for more than century, initially formed during World War One.

A Sopwith 1½ Strutter #A1924 of LXX Squadron
(A Sopwith 1½ Strutter #A1924 of LXX Squadron)

It was April 22, 1916 at Farnborough that LXX Squadron was created, equipped initially with the new Sopwith Strutters, complete with synchronised machine-gun enabling it to fire through the propeller, before being posted to France, taking part in bomber, reconnaissance, fighter, and escort duties. The following year the squadron re-equipped with Camels, and their skills in the air accounted for 287 claimed victories against the enemy in WWI, with 19 aces – pilots shooting down five or more enemy aircraft – among the ranks of No. 70.

Post war, the squadron reformed in Egypt in 1920 when No. 58 Squadron was renumbered, this time operating as bomber-transport squadron flying Vickers Vimys. The unit transferred to Iraq in 1921 where they helped set up a mail route from Cairo to Baghdad, by which point they were flying Vickers Vernons.

A coup in Afghanistan in December 1928 led to first time LXX Squadron took part in an air evacuation from the capital Kabul, the unit returning for Operation Pitting in 2021. Operating Vickers Victorias, No. 70 helped transfer around 600 British and European officials out of Afghanistan, flying over treacherous mountain ranges at a height of 3,000 metres in unfavourable weather conditions.

In 1939, the unit returned to Egypt, and was stationed there at the outbreak of WW2, their operations stepping up when Italy entered the war in June 1940, and Mussolini’s forces moved into Egypt. The squadron converted to a heavy bomber unit equipped with Wellingtons, and conducted operations in North Africa before switching its focus to the Middle East – missions focusing on Syria and Iraq.

A return to North Africa followed supporting the 8th Army’s advance into Libya and then Tunisia, relocating to Djedeida near Tunis in November 1943, their operations including carrying out attacks on targets in Italy, flying directly from Tunisia. When Allied forces successfully advanced through Italy, No. 70 moved to Tortorella Airfield, near Foggia, the squadron now flying long-range Liberators.

At the end of hostilities LXX were disbanded before reforming in May 1948 at RAF Kabrit in Egypt when No. 215 Squadron was renumbered, handed transport duties across the Middle East, now equipped with Douglas Dakotas which they retained until 1950. In 1955, the squadron moved with their Vickers Valettas to a new home at RAF Nicosia in Cyprus, Handley Page Hastings and twin-engine Percival Pembrokes also added to LXXs aircraft.

Armstrong Whitworth Argosy C.1 of LXX Squadron named Horatius in 1971
Armstrong Whitworth Argosy C.1 of LXX Squadron named Horatius in 1971

Their long sojourn overseas continued with a switch to RAF Akrotiri, still in Cyprus, in 1966, and after a short time operating the Armstrong Whitworth Argosy C.1 transporters, a conversion to C-130 Hercules was initiated in 1970. The squadron played major roles in a number of incidents in the early 1970s including airlifts from Pakistan in 1971 and from Cyprus in 1974, LXX involved in the evacuation of dependants and tourists from Akrotiri following the invasion of northern Cyprus by Turkish forces.

A full-time return to the UK arrived in 1975, the squadron transferring to RAF Lyneham, their first permanent home station in 55 years.

The squadron’s vital work across the globe, however, continued, with operations in Zimbabwe, then Rhodesia, during the ceasefire which was brokered in December 1979, and three years later in the south Atlantic.

During the Falklands War in 1982, LXX Squadron were heavily involved in setting up the air bridge between Lyneham and the Ascension Islands, then on to the south Atlantic, vital in keeping the Task Force supplied with people, provisions and equipment.

Marshalls of Cambridge fitted refuelling probes to 16 Hercules helping them service the Task Force, allowing one No. 70 Squadron crew operating from Wideawake on Ascension Island to set a then world-record air drop mission. Their Hercules was able to fly to the Falklands and back with the support of Victor Tankers, a mission that lasted in excess of 28 hours, air-dropping electrical components and missiles to a Rapier missile battery positioned near Port Stanley.

A decade later the squadron took part in Operation Granby, the successful campaign to remove Saddam Hussein’s forces from Kuwait in 1991.

XV193 landing on runway

(XV193 landing at RAF Lyneham in 1983 - Rob Schleiffert)

Two years’ later the squadron suffered one its darkest peacetime days when one of its Hercules crashed during a low-level flying exercise near Blair Atholl in Scotland. On May 27, 1993, three Hercules from the squadron were flying from Lyneham to RAF Kinloss, engaged in formation and navigation routines; after a simulated drop into a dummy drop zone in a valley (Glen Tilt) eight miles north of Pitlochry, RAF Hercules XV193 stalled at low level and low speed and crashed into the moorland on Glen Loch, all nine crew members killed.

An official RAF memorial cairn was created near the crash site at Kirkmichael, with a memorial tree to the nine who lost their lives planted at Brize Norton.

In 2003, the squadron was involved in Operation Telic (Iraq War), one of its last major operations before it was disbanded in 2010, reforming four years’ later as the RAF’s first frontline A400M Squadron at Brize Norton.

Crews from LXX Squadron were deployed to Dubai in August 2021, ahead of their role in Operation Pitting in Kabul, the largest RAF airlift since the Berlin operation shortly after the end of WW2.

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