UK Military Aviation

MAY 10 2011
Military Aviation >> Royal Air Force > XIII Squadron Ceases Flying

Last October's Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) paved the way for a reduction in the Tornado GR.4 Force which, as it's transpired, will lead to the loss of two frontline squadrons; XIII Squadron based at RAF Marham in Norfolk and 14 Sqn from north of the border at RAF Lossiemouth. Of course, the great irony of it all is that it comes at a time where the Tornado GR.4 is deployed on concurrent operations in both Afghanistan (Op HERRICK) and, since March, Libya (Op ELLAMY).

XIII Squadron formed at Gosport on January 10th 1915, serving in France during the Great War, initially as an Army Co-operation squadron and later pioneered the technique of formation bombing. The Martinsyde G.100, Royal Aircraft Factory F.E.2 SPAD VII and XIII aircraft, as well as the Sopwith Dolphin all saw service with the Squadron during that period.

A return to England followed during the inter-war years and, at the outbreak of World War II, XIII Squadron called Odiham home, from where it operated the Lysander. In the period to the end of the War, the Squadron would be based in France, at Hooton Park in Cheshire, Odiham again, before heading off to the North African theatres such as Tunisia and Morocco, and finally on to the Middle East at Kabrit in Egypt.

With aviation evolving on an almost daily basis at that time, the Squadron seldom operated one type for long, and the Lysander that saw the War in was soon replaced by the Blenheim, and then, in turn, the Ventura, the Baltimore and finally the Boston.

The changes of aircraft often brought with them a changing role and XIII found itself performing everything from reconnaissance to anti-invasion and anti-submarine patrols, dropping smokescreens to help mask paratrooper and glider insertion, as well as employing other diversionary tactics, day and night bombing and propaganda leaflet dropping.

One of the Squadron's more famous wartime encounters came on September 12th 1943 when Flying Officer Finch, flying Blenheim BA997/U "Uncle", sighted a fully surfaced German U-Boat south-east of Sardinia. Having dropped four 250lb depth charges that straddled the submarine, the third exploded within ten yards of the conning tower, causing the U-Boat to disappear beneath the surface in a cloud of steam and spray.

After a brief period of disbandment shortly after the culmination of the Second World War, the unit reformed as 13 Photographic Reconnaissance (PR) Squadron, operating the Mosquito in what was then known as Palestine. A return to Egypt and a transition to the Meteor PR.10 followed, with the Squadron also involved in suppressing the Mau Mau Rebellion in Kenya and Uganda during October 1952.

With tensions rising during the build up to the Suez Crisis, XIII became a Canberra PR.7 operator and relocated to Akrotiri on the island of Cyprus. As the sole British reconnaissance squadron in theatre, it was charged with assessing the capabilities of the Egyptian Air Force. Canberra WH799 was shot down by either a MiG-15 or a Syrian Air Force Meteor NF.13 while monitoring the build-up of Soviet-supplied aircraft to Syria. Flying Officer Urquhart-Pullen sadly died during the incident, but the other two crewmembers fortunately survived.

The Mediterranean region remained XIII Squadron's home for the next 20 years, split between bases in Cyprus and at Luqa in Malta. After upgrading to the PR.9 variant of the Canberra, the Squadron returned to the UK in 1978, this time taking up residence at RAF Wyton. It was, however, disbanded once again in 1982.

Lying dormant for almost eight years, XIII was resurrected on January 1st 1990 at RAF Honington, this time as an operator of the Tornado GR.1A - another photo reconnaissance platform, but one that was capable of carrying a full range of offensive weapons too.

The Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in August 1990 led to the Squadron commencing a work-up with immediate effect, deploying to the region in January of 1991 with aircraft equipped with a new suite of sensors and video recorders. The Tornado remained in the Persian Gulf all the way through to 2009, with XIII Squadron being the last to operate under the Op TELIC banner.

During this period the GR.1As were upgraded to GR.4 standard, with the 'new' platform excelling in the night-time, low-level environment that made extensive use of its Terrain Following Radar (TFR) coupled with the NVGs (Night Vision Goggles) that the crews would wear.

With little time for respite following operations in Iraq, the GR.4 was deployed to Afghanistan to take part in Op HERRICK where it would replace the Harrier in theatre. XIII Squadron was responsible for manning that detachment from July through October of 2010, during which time it conducted countless CAS (Close Air Support) and Tactical Reconnaissance missions in support of allied forces.

In March of this year, after it had been announced that XIII Squadron would be one of the two squadrons lost following the SDSR, the Squadron was heavily involved in the early raids on Libya in support of Op ELLAMY. Utilising the Stormshadow air-to-ground missile, XIII Squadron crews flew round-trips from RAF Marham to Libya and back, making them some of the longest bombing missions flown from UK soil since World War II.

And so we come to May 6th 2011. At 13:13:13, Wg Cdr Howie Edwards, Officer Commanding XIII Squadron, led a six-ship formation of Tornado GR.4 aircraft over RAF Marham in a dagger formation - mimicking one element of the Squadron's badge which gives rise to its nickname of 'The Stabbed Cats'.

After flying through Marham the formation transited through the Squadron's former homes of RAF Wyton and Honington, returning to Marham some 38 minutes later as three pairs, each performing impressive 'beat-ups' of the XIII Squadron HAS (Hardened Aircraft Shelter) site as they did so.

With Wg Cdr Edwards landing last, the aircraft manoeuvred such that he, as Squadron Boss, could lead the formation back to its HAS site for once last time. As they vacated the runway, the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight's Lancaster, PA474, gave its own performance for the assembled crowds with a couple of delightfully graceful and poignant passes. The only thing missing from the afternoon's proceedings being XIII Squadron's markings on any of the Tornados that took part in the flypast.

A champagne reception, courtesy of RAF Marham Station Commander, Gp Capt Pete Rochelle, greeted OC XIII as he stepped down from his aircraft.

I spoke to Gp Capt Rochelle, firstly about XIII's demise:

"It's always a sad day when you lose a squadron but we'll hang up the Squadron Standard at Cranwell - hanging it up there doesn't necessarily mean it's gone. There is a saying that you never actually kill a squadron - you can't - and there will be many fantastic memories of all of the people that have been on XIII Squadron in the last few months.

"We've been very busy during the Libya campaign from here, and it's this HAS site that we operated from whilst carrying out those operations. The main effort for that came from XIII Squadron's engineers and aircrew, so they finish in good order, fine style and in the usual traditions of the RAF. We're really happy about that, though of course it is still a sad day, but we're very proud."

I couldn't help but muse upon the irony that sees the Royal Air Force giving up two Tornado squadrons at a time where the GR.4 Force is deployed in two theatres concurrently. Was this proof that SDSR had got it wrong?

"The SDSR, they draw their conclusions based on certain criteria, but the world's quite an uncertain place and our guys - Tornado guys - are in Afghanistan at the moment - 617 Squadron from RAF Lossiemouth are there right now - and our guys from II(AC) Squadron, including engineers from IX(B) Squadron, as well as a whole load of others, are all down there currently in Italy flying missions over Libya.

"There's been a lot of things in the news, I guess, in the last few weeks about things that have changed, and some people have assumed that when we go to war we'll do all of our fighting alongside the Americans, that isn't always the case, but each round of talks in London is almost the same as the last. They'll have to look and reconsider and discuss things and see what else comes out of it downstream, so it all goes back into the melting pot."

Gp Capt Rochelle was keen to point out that, while two squadron number plates have been lost, the overall picture is not as grim as it might otherwise sound:

"As you know, the GR.4 Force has shrunk in size by two squadrons, which was the plan from SDSR, but in terms of man-power, there are adjustments and rationalisations, and it's not one-for-one, but with the five remaining frontline squadrons, we'll continue to maintain our operations in Afghanistan and keep doing what we're doing in Libya.

"The fleet gets reduced in terms of what we do at the front-end, because, obviously, there are less people to operate and maintain them, but we're not going to go and scrap the aeroplanes because we'll need to put them into the sustainment fleet, simply because we've got to keep the jets in order to survive through to our Out of Service Date (OSD).

"It'll depend upon what we're going to be doing but broadly speaking we'll be working in terms of frontline squadrons having 14 jets are their disposal, which is up from the ten that we've been basing things around recently."

As stated previously Wg Cdr Howie Edwards was the unfortunate man at the helm to see out XIII Squadron's demise, for now at least. I asked him how he felt in the immediate aftermath of such a significant occasion:

"It's a bag of mixed emotions. We've come off a high, you know. We've been in Afghanistan last year and then (Operation) ELLAMY in Libya this year, so we've gone from a high operational tempo to a shutdown, so we're at an ebb now in activity for us...."

I wondered what basis had been used to select the squadrons that would go and what the prospects were for XIII Squadron to be resurrected once again, as it had been on more than one occasion in the past:

"There were many factors involved, some of the driving ones were the cycle of squadrons rolling through operations; obviously you wouldn't disband a squadron that was about to go on operations, so I think that was a major player.

"Of course, I hope that XIII will be back - I've got no information to say otherwise at this stage - so the Standard will be lodged at RAF Cranwell and it will sit there for five years, and should the need arise to bring it out again out, then it'll happen."

Wg Cdr Edwards' confirmed that the majority of XIII's personnel would be remaining within the GR.4 community - even staying at RAF Marham - with only a handful being posted away and that, "in keeping with the normal postal cycling of the Royal Air Force," rather than anything else. His final summation seems the perfect way to succinctly describe what has happened to the Tornado GR.4 Force in all of this:

"We're bolstering the remaining five squadrons. It's not so much a cut as a rebalancing act, so we're improving resilience for the remaining squadrons by giving them more man-power."

XIII Squadron formally disbands on Friday 13th May.

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