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One leaves Wittering

ClickClickGary Parsons reports: On 28 July 2000 No. 1 (F) Squadron formally departed RAF Wittering and relocated to neighbouring RAF Cottesmore, joining its two sister RAF Harrier squadrons, Nos. 3 and IV(AC) Squadrons. It ended thirty-one years of Harrier operations at Wittering for the premier squadron, a remarkable length of time in times of constant change in the armed services.

To mark the occasion, nine Harrier GR7s carried out a flypast in a figure "1" formation, led by the current Officer Commanding No. 1 (F) Squadron, Wing Commander Sean Bell. This formation, exclusive to 1 (F) Squadron, is only flown to mark significant points in the squadron's history and is rarely seen. The formation transited Norfolk and Squadron Leader Gary Waterfall, fresh from a tour with the RedsLincoln, before flying over the squadron's hangar at 11:38 am, and turning on finals to Cottesmore. As the formation is rarely flown, rehearsals comprised of two separate elements, the two only coming together on the day itself. The squadron was well prepared, as all the formation flying was controlled by Squadron Leader Gary Waterfall, former Red Arrows and Harrier display pilot.

The move to Cottesmore was announced by the Secretary of State for Defence in his statement on the Strategic Defence Review, and forms an integral part of Joint Force Harrier. This is the first time in the Harrier's history that all three operational RAF squadrons have been co-located at the same base.

No. 1 (Fighter) Squadron, Royal Air Force, can trace its history back to 1878 when it was formed at Woolwich as No.1 Balloon Company of the Royal Engineers. It became No. 1 Squadron of the Royal Flying Corps at Farnborough on 13 May 1912 still with balloons, but re-equipped with the Longhorn on 14 August 1914.

It became a fighter squadron in July 1916 when it was equipped with a number of Nieuport 17CLs, flying offensive patrols over the lines against German circuses. Its first large operation was the Battle of Arras in 1917 during which the squadron scorecard reached 200 enemy aircraft. Returning to No. 1 Squadron Royal Flying Corps, Clairmarais - July 1918. Picture courtesy of RAF Witteringthe UK in March 1919, the squadron disbanded in the following January, only to reform the next day in India with Nieuport Nighthawks and Sopwith Snipes. Fifteen months later the squadron moved to Hinaidi in Iraq where it was employed in carrying out policing duties until it again disbanded in November 1926.

In February 1927 1 (F) Squadron began its long association with Tangmere, in Sussex, where it was reformed as a Home Defence Fighter squadron with Siskins. Receiving Hawker Fury Is in February 1932, the squadron gained a reputation for its aerobatics prowess, giving displays at venues throughout the world. The squadron started to re-equip with Hurricanes in October 1938.

Early figure '1' flown in the 1930s. Picture courtesy of RAF WitteringHeavy involvement in the Battle of France led the squadron to be withdrawn to Tangmere by 23 June 1940. In August it marked its entry into the Battle of Britain by destroying two Messerschmitt BF110s; there was no let up in the fighting until 9 September when the squadron moved North to Wittering for a rest, the first time 1 (F) Squadron would be associated with the Cambridgeshire airfield.

In February 1941 the squadron started 'Rhubarbs' and night flying; during the month the first of its Hurricane IIAs arrived. This heralded a period of change for the squadron whose strength now included both Czechs and Poles; the emphasis increasingly focused on night flying. In July it returned to Tangmere and, having achieved night operational status, this became its main task. The squadron continued to conduct night intruder patrols until re-equipping with Hawker Typhoons in July 1942; it then moved North to Acklington where it reverted to daytime operations.

The unit exchanged its Typhoons for Spitfire XIs in April 1944 and with these continued its bombing raids. In June the squadron began anti-V1 patrols and this became its exclusive occupation, eventually tallying thirty-nine hits. In May 1945 it converted to Spitfire F21s but these were only used operationally to cover the Channel Island landings. In 1946 the squadron returned to Tangmere and took delivery of its first jet aircraft, Gloster Meteors. These aircraft were followed by Hawker Hunter F5s which were flown from Cyprus during the 1956 Suez crisis.

In June 1958 1 (F) Squadron was disbanded but reformed almost immediately on 1 July, to fly Hunter F6s from Stradishall, by renumbering No. 2683 Squadron. It then moved to Waterbeach from where, flying Hunter FGA 9s, it operated in the ground attack role as part of 38 Group. The squadron continued in this role for the next eight years, operating out of Waterbeach and then West Raynham.

Air Marshal Sir Kenneth Hayr recalls the early daysClickJuly 1969 heralded a move to Wittering to commence conversion to the Harrier GR1 and become the first operational squadron in the world to fly this unique vertical/short take off and landing (VSTOL) aircraft.

Since this time 1 (F) Squadron has served in many parts of the globe, including Belize and, most notably, the South Atlantic during the Falklands War in 1982. It undertook the air defence role in Ascension Isle before deploying for aircraft carrier based operations over the Falklands, equipped with Sidewinder air to air missiles. Aircraft flew for nine hours, direct to Ascension Isle that set a new distance/duration record for the Harrier. Some aircraft then flew direct to the South Atlantic, where they operated off HMS Hermes. During this conflict, over 130 sorties were flown against heavily defended targets on the Islands; three aircraft were shot down by enemy fire. All the pilots ejected successfully, although one, who sustained shoulder injuries, was captured and became our only prisoner of war - he was later repatriated to the UK. The squadron moved to RAF Stanley in the Falklands at the end of hostilities and took on air defence duties until the latter part of the year when it returned to Wittering.

1 (F) Squadron continued to fly the Harrier GR3 until 1989 when it converted to the second generation Harrier GR5. In September 1992, having converted to the current state of the art, computer driver, night capable GR7, the squadron commenced an intensive night flying programme to conduct a trial into the use of the Forward Looking Infrared (FLIR) and Night Vision Goggles (NVG) which give the aircraft its extended role capability.

In April 1993 the Harrier Force took over the policing of the Northern Exclusion Zone in Iraq from Jaguar aircraft. August 1993 saw 1 (F) Squadron deploy to Turkey to take its turn in conducting 'Operation Warden'. The three operational Harrier squadrons were rotated on a regular basis until 1995 when this commitment ceased for the Harrier Force. In support of 'Operation Deny Flight' Harrier aircraft replaced Jaguars in August 1995; 1 (F) Squadron deployed to Gioia del Colle, Italy, in late November for the first of two spells of operations in the Bosnia theatre.

Last to leaveIn addition to being declared to the Tri-Service Joint Rapid Defence Force, 1 (F) Squadron is assigned to the NATO Supreme Allied Commander and is at constant readiness to react quickly if ever called upon to defend the realm. The squadron regularly deploys overseas to conduct exercises from the Arctic to Southern Europe. It is fully trained to conduct operations from Royal Navy aircraft carriers, and prior to deploying on board HMS Invincible for Operation Bolton (21 November 1997 - 15 March 1998) the squadron had already deployed on two separate occasions during 1997 to practice this role. In February 1999, in support of Operation Deliberate Forge, 1 (F) Squadron again deployed to Gioia del Colle to replace IV (AC) Squadron. Subsequently, 1 (F) Squadron formed Flypast over 1(F) Squadron's hangar at Witteringpart of the UK commitment to NATO's Operation Allied Force. Harrier GR7s from the squadron were involved in operations throughout the air campaign against the Serbs. The key to Harrier operations is flexibility, mobility and concealment.

The squadron badge is a winged numeral '1' and is an adaptation of No. 1's first unofficial badge which comprised a figure 'l' on the national marking within a laurel wreath between two wings. The motto "In Omnibus Princeps" translates as "Foremost in Everything". No. II(AC) Squadron is, however, always quick to point out that it was the first squadron to fly 'real' aeroplanes.

Air Marshal Sir Kenneth Hayr back in the hot seatAir Marshal Sir Kenneth Hayr was the first Officer Commanding No. 1 (F) Squadron to convert to the Harrier in 1969 at Wittering. Visiting Wittering on the day that the squadron finally departed, he had this to say on the introduction of the Harrier:

"It was the most exhilarating thing that you do at the time - it was a truly amazing aeroplane. We were charged with almost experimenting, to see how it functioned operationally, we used it tactically in a way that only helicopters had been deployed before, not jets!"

How does it feel now that 1 (F) Squadron is leaving Wittering? "An element of nostalgia and emotion; this has been 1 Squadron's base for the last thirty years or so; that's unique. I'm a firm advocate of the Joint Harrier concept, bringing the Sea Harrier and Royal Air Force Harrier together, with a view to replacing this capability in the next generation with an aeroplane which will be even more exciting. Nostalgia is compensated by the future; I think it's a bright future."

1(F) Squadron's T10 will no doubt be a frequent returnee to WitteringDespite the departure of 1 (F) Squadron, RAF Wittering will remain "The Home of the Harrier" - pilots will continue to be taught how to fly the Harrier GR7 at 20 (R) Squadron, the Operational Conversion Unit, the largest of the RAF's Harrier squadrons, and the Cottesmore squadrons will use the vast airfield and its many take-off strips for normal day-to-day training missions. In 2003, 899 Naval Air Squadron, the Royal Navy's Harrier Operational Conversion Unit is scheduled to move to RAF Wittering from Royal Naval Air Station Yeovilton in Somerset. Wittering will see considerable investment in the intervening years, including the construction of a 'ski-ramp' similar to that at Yeovilton for carrier-style take-offs to be practised.

 

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