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XI (F) Squadron Article

Speed and Strength still the watchwords for the world’s oldest dedicated Fighter Squadron

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IT was back in 2011 that RAF Typhoons were first deployed in enemy combat – patrolling the no-fly zone over Libya to prevent Colonel Muammar Gaddafi from attacking his own people who were rising up against the brutal dictator.

At the forefront of that campaign, tagged Operation Ellamy, was XI (F) Squadron, the world’s oldest dedicated fighter squadron, with then Wing Commander Jez Attridge handed the ‘honour’ of speaking to the media about the mission, highlighting his pride at seeing how the aircraft was able to meet the modern-day demands of policing the air space.

XI (F) Squadron Typhoon armed with ASRAAM (outer wings) Paveway II bombs (under wings) and Litening Pod (under fuselage) takes off for Libya from Gioia del Colle, southern Italy.

(XI (F) Squadron Typhoon armed with ASRAAM (outer wings) Paveway II bombs (under wings) and Litening Pod (under fuselage) takes off for Libya from Gioia del Colle, southern Italy.)

The pilots, navigators and grounds crews had been deployed to Gioia del Colle in Bari, Italy ahead of the operation, and when it comes to deployment overseas, XI (F) Squadron can rightly claim to be masters in that particular field.

For almost 40 years the squadron was based outside the UK, effectively flying the British flag across the globe, and during the Second World War they were one of the few RAF squadrons to fight against German, Italian, Japanese and Vichy French forces.

Today, Squadron XI (F) forms part of the front-line Quick Reaction Alert, QRA, UK air defence, based at the southern arm at Coningsby in Lincolnshire, its pilots and ground crew on permanent standby to react to any potential threat to UK airspace. Their squadron badge comprises two eagles, commemorating the unit’s First World War operation of two-seater fighter aircraft, the eagle symbolising speed and strength. 

The squadron’s claims to be the oldest dedicated fighter squadron in the world appear fairly watertight, formed in 1915 at Netheravon in Wiltshire as part of the Royal Flying Corps, RFC. Their initial mission was to fly Vickers Gunbus fighters over France to attack German forces with all previous squadrons, both at home in Britain and abroad, designated as reconnaissance or army co-operation units; it wasn’t until February 1916 that the German equivalent of the RFC, then called the Fliegertruppen, moved to designate fighter-only units.

Throughout the remainder of war, the squadron utilised a range of aircraft to carry out offensive patrols over German-held territory, eventually being disbanded a year after the end of hostilities in 1919. The squadron was reformed at RAF Andover in January 1923, seeing action at Risalpur, now part of Pakistan, departing for the Northwest Frontier on December 29, 1928. Flying Westland Wapitis, the squadron carried out air raids against rebelling tribal forces, testing their flying skills to the limits after finding themselves patrolling in an area with mountains higher than the operational limits of the Westlands.

A Bristol Blenheim of XI(F) Squadron takes off from Colombo's racecourse in Ceylon

(A Bristol Blenheim of XI(F) Squadron takes off from Colombo's racecourse in Ceylon)

Their departure in 1928 was the beginning of a near 40-year exile from the UK, and after Risalpur the squadron’s work included the relief effort following the 1935 Quetta earthquake in modern-day Pakistan, before spending a short time in Singapore ahead of the outbreak of the Second World War. After another brief stint in Karachi, they began the transfer in May 1940 to Egypt, only to be moved to Yemen a month later when Italy entered the war. From Aden they could play an active part in the Abyssinian campaign against Mussolini’s East African forces, launching raids in their Bristol Blenheims on Italian bases.

The next three years of World War Two saw XI (F) being shuttled around to wherever they were needed: Egypt, Greece, Palestine, Iraq and then to Ceylon, now Sri Lanka, to defend the island from Japanese forces.

In September 1943 the squadron headed back to India, this time operating Hurricanes, engaging in action against the Japanese in Burma (Myanmar), a year later becoming the first squadron to re-enter Burma with a successful landing at Tamu. The squadron was then equipped with Spitfires and after the Japanese surrender they became part of the Occupation Forces in Japan, before being disbanded in February 1948.

A Preserved de Havilland Venom in XI (F) Squadron colours

(A Preserved de Havilland Venom in XI (F) Squadron colours)

They were reformed the following year in Germany with Mosquitos, receiving their first jet aircraft, the Vampire, in August 1950, before becoming the first unit to operate the Venom FB1 in 1952. The squadron was disbanded in 1957, reforming in 1959 with Meteor night fighters, before they were replaced by Javelins, with the squadron now based at Geilenkirchen, located on the German/Dutch border, 40 miles west of Cologne.   

Gloster Javelin XI(F) Squadron in 1965

(Gloster Javelin XI(F) Squadron in 1965)

In 1966, the squadron’s near 40-year overseas posting effectively ended when they were disbanded, reforming in April the following year at RAF Leuchars, beginning a 21-year association with Lightning aircraft. Now located on the east coast of Scotland, the squadron patrolled the most northerly UK air defence zone, up to Iceland and the Faroes; during the Cold War this was a region that saw regular contact with Soviet-era Badgers, Bears and Bisons.

XI (F) Squadron Lightning

(XI (F) Squadron Lightning)

With patrols stretching out to the Arctic circle, the deployments of the squadron relied heavily on Victor tankers for refuelling, and despite being described “like being saddled to a skyrocket”, the limitations of the Mach 2 Lightning as an interceptor were with regards to its fuel capacity, seeing it replaced by the Phantom at Leuchars. In 1972, the squadron relocated with their Lightnings to RAF Binbrook in Lincolnshire, joining 5 Squadron in a partnership that lasted 16 years.

XI (F) Squadron Typhoon and Tornado

(XI (F) Squadron Typhoon and Tornado)

When Lightnings were replaced by the Tornado, No. 5 Squadron headed to Coningsby in 1988, with XI becoming the last Lightning squadron in service before they reformed with Tornados at Leeming in July 1988. Whilst based in North Yorkshire, the squadron were involved in operations in the Middle East and the Balkans, disbanding in October 2005 before the RAF announcement soon after that XI Squadron would re-equip with Typhoons at Coningsby.

In March 2007 after their arrival at their new home, the squadron dropped the (F) designation to recognise its lead multi-role duties, four years later leading the policing of the no-fly zone over Libya as part of Operation Ellamy. 

In 2015 the Fighter status was restored – in recognition of its centenary year – and to this day Squadron XI (F) remains at the front line of Britain’s air defences.    

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