Mick Britton reports as 25 Squadron disbands at RAF Leeming. Pictures by the author and from official sources
Although never one of the most glamorous fighter squadrons of the RAF, never quite capturing the public's imagination in the way of either 56 (Firebirds) or 74 (Tiger) Squadrons for example, 25 Squadron has always enjoyed a high reputation within the RAF and had friends in high places who kept it in being when the 'Geddes Axe' struck so indiscriminately after the First World War, and more recently returned it to prominence when the Tornado F3 was introduced into RAF service. After almost nineteen years service on the type at RAF Leeming in North Yorkshire, it will be disbanded within a few days of the ninetieth anniversary of the RAF on 4 April, as the run-down of the type gathers pace in the wake of the service entry of Typhoon.
Formed in Scotland at the historic airfield of Montrose (the only RAF station ever officially recognised as being haunted) on 25 September 1915, under the command of Major Felton Vesey Holt, the Squadron was originally issued with a motley assortment of aircraft including the BE2c and Caudron G111 for training purposes, but it was destined to be one of the RFC's first dedicated fighter squadrons (along with others numbered in the low twenties). At the beginning of 1916 it was equipped with FE2bs (two-seater 'pushers' with rear mounted engines - a configuration derived to allow the use of a forward firing machine gun to counter the German Fokker menace), which it took to France. Conceived to counter the first generation of German fighters, the FE2 was soon outclassed by new types that were entering service, such as the Albatros, which took a steady toll on the Squadron. However, it struck back in some style when the crew of 2nd Lt McCubbin and Cpl Waller shot down the great ace Max Immelman 'The Eagle of Lille' on 18 June 1916. This victory was the zenith of the Squadron's first fighter period as thereafter it gradually switched to the bomber role, re-equipping with the DH4 the following year, with which it acquitted itself well during the German offensive of April 1918 when it responded magnificently to its orders to 'take all risks' to press home its attacks. Those orders had been issued by the RAF's field commander Sir John Salmond, who subsequently ensured that 25 Squadron was spared the 'Geddes Axe' when it returned home in 1919 following a spell of occupation in Germany after the Armistice. Not only was it spared, but was returned to its original fighter role at Hawkinge in Kent, equipped with Sopwith Snipes, under the command of Wg Cdr Sir Norman Leslie on 1 February 1920.
It was one of a very elite club, as when the other few fighter squadrons were dispatched overseas it was for two and a half years solely responsible for the air defence of the nation - until the Chanak Crisis required that it too be sent overseas (to San Stephano in support of the Constantinople garrison), but fortunately the situation was resolved diplomatically allowing the Squadron to return home in October 1923. Whilst abroad, it had gained a new CO, Sqn Ldr Arthur Hicks-Peck, who was determined to establish 25 Squadron as the RAF's top fighter unit - once they were equipped with the new Gloster Grebe II, he set about achieving this by setting standards of gunnery and formation flying that were way above those of its competitors. Under his leadership, in 1925 the squadron performed the first of those spectacular aerobatic routines that were the highlight of Hendon displays during the inter-war years, establishing a tradition among RAF fighter Squadrons that would remain until the seventies. The Squadron was the victim of its own success with the Grebe in so far as it was not considered for re-equipping with new aircraft until 1929 when it received the Armstrong Whitworth Siskin IIIA, long after other squadrons.
During the thirties 25 Squadron was one of only three squadrons to be equipped with the Hawker Fury, and with the new aircraft came a new CO in the shape of Sqn Ldr Walter Edward George Bryant, another perfectionist in the mould of Hicks-Peck, who sought to improve the Squadron's marksmanship by organising game shoots and formation flying by practising on the parade ground, mounted on cycles. These homespun methods clearly worked as during 1933 and 1934 the squadron made a clean sweep of the Fighting Area trophies and performed its aerobatic routine at Hendon with the aircraft tied together in 1934 and 1935. The following year it appeared at Hendon with new mounts in the shape of the Super Fury and also had the Squadron badge approved by Edward VIII, depicting a Hawk rising from a gauntlet in testimony of its long association with Hawkinge, together with its motto of 'Feriens Tego' (Striking I Defend).
With the shadow of war looming, Hawkinge was considered too vulnerable as a war station and consequently 25 Squadron was assigned to Northolt in the event of hostilities occurring. The short range of the Fury was addressed by its replacements, with first Hawker Demons, then Gladiators. However, these were only a stop-gap to familiarise the pilots and mechanics with the Bristol Mercury engine prior to receiving the aircraft that it would take into combat - the Bristol Blenheim IF. 25 was one of three former Demon Squadrons that had been selected for the very demanding role of night-fighting, in which it was initially to pioneer the use of radar, or airborne interception equipment as it was originally known. This was actually installed in four Blenheim IVFs, which formed a separate flight based at Martlesham Heath, eventually being transferred to the Fighter Interception Unit at Tangmere. In the absence of any enemy night raiders during this 'Phoney War' period the squadron had cause to revert to its secondary role of long range strike, which it had the opportunity to practice during a strafing attack on the German seaplane base at Borkum in November 1939 - its first combat mission.
The Squadron's first losses occurred on 3 September the following year in tragic circumstance of misidentification when a flight of three Blenheims returning to North Weald after a radar calibration sortie were set upon by Hurricanes (whose pilots doubtless mistook them for Ju-88s), resulting in two being shot down. Just the following night the squadron recorded its first kills when PO Herrick, a Kiwi, shot down two He 111s in quick succession. This was considered quite an achievement at the time, and is mentioned in many biographies of 'The Few', particularly those who were stationed at North Weald. The addition of a third kill on the night of 13 September earned Herrick a well deserved DFC. Despite Herrick's exceptional achievement, the Blenheim was not a success in the night-fighting role due to its lack of speed and the unreliability of the early radar sets, so was soon replaced by the Bristol Beaufighter (the first of which had been delivered to the squadron prior to Herrick's third victory - but was soon lost in a mid-air collision with a Blenheim).
A move up the Great North Road to Wittering led to a honing of the Squadron's night-fighting skills at the hands of two of the RAF's most colourful characters; Basil Embry, the Station Commander and Sqn Ldr David Atcherley, its new CO (one half of the infamous 'Batchy' Atcherley twins). In an effort to coax better performance from the radars, legend has it that the pair enrolled a number of Cambridge University students into the RAF with the rank of Sergeant and sent them up on patrol with immediate success, thus proving that operation of this complex equipment required a higher level of intelligence than was the norm among the aircrew pool from which operators had been drawn. By such unconventional methods 25 Squadron mastered the Beaufighter and its radar as its increasing number of kills proved (thirteen in May and June 1941 at the tail-end of the night Blitz). The following year saw a move further up the Great North Road to Church Fenton in Yorkshire (via a temporary detachment to Ballyherbert in Northern Ireland) and when new equipment arrived in the shape of the Mosquito the squadron moved onto the offensive, by engaging in night intruder missions over the continent and kills of a new quarry appeared on its scoreboard - trains!
Its three flights began to specialise in different missions, namely bomber support (A Flt), night defence (B Flt) or night intruder (C Flt). By the end of the year it began to take on charge the Mosquito mark XVII, equipped with the much-improved American Mark X radar. It was possibly the ultimate wartime night fighter judging by the subsequent increase in squadron victories (the nine claimed in March 1944 being a monthly record). By now the squadron had moved again, to Coltishall in Norfolk, whence it was pitched into the battle against the V-1 flying bombs, but this was to be the end of its defensive duties as it spent the remainder of the war almost entirely on the offensive, engaged in the night intruder role under the command of one of its old boys; Sqn Ldr Singleton.
With peace restored 25 Squadron returned to the County of Kent, but to a new home at West Malling where it was re-equipped with the ultimate Mosquito, the NF Mark 36. Recognised as the senior night fighter Squadron charged with the air defence of London, it was no surprise when it was selected in 1951 to be the first such unit in the RAF to be equipped with jets in the shape of the DH Vampire NF10, a two-seat version of the single-seat day fighter then in widespread use. This was replaced in turn with the Meteor NF12 and 14 in 1954, but in March 1959 came a move away from Kent, to Waterbeach in Cambridgeshire, and new equipment in the shape of Gloster's ultimate product; the big twin-engined Javelin. Switching from the FAW7 to the uprated FAW9 that boasted re-heat and Firestreak missiles, the Squadron moved up to Leuchars in Fife, under the command of Wg Cmdr P G K Williamson. There it was one of the fortunate few all weather/night fighter squadrons to survive the infamous Duncan Sandys White Paper that proposed the wholesale replacement of interceptor aircraft with missiles, just as it had survived the 'Geddes Axe' after the First World War.
Ultimately it was forced to join the ranks of the unmanned missiles when, following disbandment at Leuchars in 1962, it was reformed at North Coates in Lincolnshire as a Bloodhound missile squadron. A move to the sharp end in RAF Germany in 1970 was probably the highlight of the Squadron's missile era where it provided the short range air defence of the three 'clutch' bases of Bruggen, Laarbruch and Wildenrath.
The need to bolster the UK's air defences in the face of increased threat posed by the Warsaw Pact in the 1980s led to the introduction of a new long-range interceptor in the shape of the Panavia Tornado F3 plus the development of a new operating base to house a Wing of these at RAF Leeming in North Yorkshire, the location being selected by the need to bridge the Humber-Forth gap, identified by an analysis of the results of air exercises. Following the establishment there of 11 and 23 Squadrons, the identity of the third squadron was cloaked in some secrecy and when its first aircraft was photographed with a question mark alongside the first letter of the tail code in the summer of 1989, speculation inevitably increased. When Flt Lt Ian Black flew that same aircraft, ZE858/FB, resplendent in new 25 Squadron markings into Finningley Airshow that September the cat was well and truly 'out of the bag'. Although the Squadron was not officially stood up until October, when the standard was transferred, it joined in that month's 'Elder Joust' air exercise despite not yet being declared combat ready - it was eventually declared as such to SACEUR following a short work up that December.
The following year it celebrated its 75th Anniversary, and in fashion presented one of its aircraft in a commemorative paint scheme (one of the more tasteful ones - and the only one to include battle honours), but celebrations were cancelled following Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, which led to the need to work-up a composite Leeming F3 Squadron to be sent to the Persian Gulf. Named the 'Desert Eagles', this detachment was composed of three flights, each manned by one of Leeming's three squadrons - however, by the time Operation 'Desert Storm' broke they had been relieved by a contingent from Leuchars. After the end of the Gulf War some semblance of normality returned and 25 Squadron was awarded the honour of providing the solo display F3 aircraft for the forthcoming airshow season, so the crew of F/Ls Archie Neal and Jim Brown began to work up their routine using another specially-painted aircraft. 25 Squadron was the only unit, apart from the F3 OCU, to be accorded this honour, later repeated for two seasons towards the end of the decade with Flt Lt Willie Hackett as the display pilot.
In April 1993 Leeming took up one of its longest commitments, lasting several years, when it dispatched six aircraft to Goia Del Colle in Italy for the UN Operation 'Deny Flight', policing the skies over the warring factions of the former Yugoslavia. This commitment was to last until 1996 with each of the Leeming squadrons in turn manning the detachment along with the other F3 Squadrons. The end of 'Deny Flight' coincided with a change in RAF doctrine to one of a concept of an expeditionary force and the Leeming Wing assumed a new role as Immediate Reaction Force, which 25 Squadron put into practice in June when it flew to Alaska to participate in the USAF exercise 'Distant Frontier'. A busy year for the squadron ended on a high when, in December, it was awarded the Dacre Trophy, presented to the best RAF fighter squadron.
The Squadron returned to the USA in the beginning of 1998 to participate in 'Red Flag' and, as the F3 force had been slimmed down with the disbandment of yet another squadron, the deployments began to come thick and fast both at home and abroad - St Mawgan in May for Exercise 'Brilliant Foil' and Slovakia in August for 'Co-operative Chance'. With tension building up in the Gulf once more 25 Squadron found itself visiting Saudi Arabia three times in fourteen months around the millennium to participate in Operation 'Bolton', which involved policing the Southern Iraq 'No-Fly Zone'. It must have seemed to its personnel that the Middle East was becoming the Squadron's second home during this time as it also visited Jordan and Oman in quick succession.
More recently the Squadron has contributed an aircraft and personnel to Operation 'Winter Solstice' in Lithuania over Christmas 2005, Exercise 'Bersama Padu' in Malaysia in 2006, and last summer participated in Exercise 'Indra Dhanush' with the Indian Air Force at Waddington, where it flew against the impressive Su-30 Flanker. Now, as another chapter in its history draws to a close, it is hard to resist the suspicion that this just might turn out to have been the final one, for whilst it has always survived previous disbandments these are strange times with the current round of defence cuts probably the most savage since the dreaded 'Geddes Axe' of 1919, the express purpose being to fund the continuing operations in Iraq and Afghanistan that are rapidly becoming the most expensive conflicts engaged in by this country since the Second World War. At least there was a recognisable logic at the end of the 'War to end all wars', whereas today the purpose is to allow the continuation of war.