THE most familiar unit of the Royal Air Force is the squadron, but the basic organization of the R.A.F. begins at the Air Ministry and operates through a series of Commands. The Home Commands comprise bomber, fighter, coastal, training and maintenance commands. The Home Commands are organized into groups. Thus in April 1938 there were five groups and one auxiliary group in the Bomber Command. Each group is composed of stations, squadrons, schools and depots.
There are ten squadrons, for instance, in No. 3 (Bomber) Group, whose headquarters are at Mildenhall, near Bury St. Edmunds, Suffolk. The R.A.F. stations at Feltwell, Honington, Marham, Mildenhall and Stradishall belong to this group, with two bomber squadrons at each station. Similarly fighter squadrons are included in Nos. 11 and 12 (Fighter) Groups of the Fighter Command, and army cooperation squadrons are included in No. 22 (Army Cooperation) Group of the Fighter Command.
All the R.A.F. squadrons are complete units. They might be called personalities, so well is their historical individuality preserved. Each squadron has, or is due to have, its badge and its motto. The mottoes of some of the earliest squadrons to be formed bear witness to the element of competitive spirit between members of different units. The motto of No. 1 (Fighter) Squadron, for instance, is In omnibus princeps, “First in all things”. Not to be outdone, No. 3 (Fighter) Squadron chose for its motto Tertius primus erit, “The third shall be first”. The badges of these squadrons represent respectively the numeral 1 equipped with wings and a mythical monster known as a cockatrice perched on a monolith, or large block of stone.
All the badges follow the same basic specifications. The badge is surrounded by a circle edged with laurel leaves and is surmounted by a crown. A scroll beneath the badge bears the squadron’s motto. At either side of the face of the badge (that is to say, at “three o’clock” and at “nine o’clock”) is the official number of the squadron, in Roman or Arabic numerals. On the circumference of the upper half is the description of the squadron, as for instance “Fighter Squadron”, “A.C. Squadron”. Sometimes the words “Army Cooperation” are written out fully, instead of being indicated by initials. The words “Royal Air Force” occupy the lower half of the circumference.
The distinguishing badge of the squadron occupies the centre of the device, and the subjects chosen vary between surprising extremes. Sometimes they are symbolic, such as winged bombs or flashes of lightning. Many of them are animals, real or legendary. One squadron has a skull and crossbones, another a ship in full sail.
The badge of an R.A.F. squadron has similar associations to the colours of a regiment and the prowess of the various squadrons is proudly recorded. The histories of the squadrons provide excellent reading, for they describe the work of each squadron, viewed as the work of an individual unit, in a new perspective, and not lost in the large-scale record of the feats of the Royal Air Force as a whole.
The first three squadrons of the Royal Flying Corps were formed on May 13, 1912, and the fourth in September 1912. Today they are still squadrons Nos. 1 to 4 of the Royal Air Force, Nos. 1 and 3 being fighter squadrons and Nos. 2 and 4 army cooperation squadrons.
“SEEK AND DESTROY” is the motto of No. 41 Fighter Squadron and the unit badge symbol is a double-armed cross. This symbol is visible, surmounted by a crown, on these Hawker Demon two-seater fighters. During the war of 1914-18 this squadron used F.E.8 single-seat pusher fighters, D.H.5 single-seat tractor biplanes and S.E.5a aircraft. The squadron was disbanded after the war and re-formed in 1923.
No. 2 Squadron was the first to leave its parent station (Farnborough) as a complete unit. In 1913 it flew to Montrose and was thus the first squadron to be stationed in Scotland. In the same year, six aeroplanes of the squadron were flown from Montrose to Limerick to take part in the Irish manoeuvres. Many records for long-distance flights by military aeroplanes were broken by this squadron in its early years, and Captain C. A. H. Longcroft was awarded a trophy for a non-stop flight from Montrose to Farnborough by way of Portsmouth. For this flight he was awarded the Britannia Trophy (see the chapter “Some Famous Air Trophies”).
The earliest experiments in night flying and in aerial photography were made by No. 4 Squadron at Netheravon (Wiltshire); but to No. 3 Squadron belongs the credit of having taken the first effective aerial photographs in time of war. In February 1915, before the battle of Neuve Chapelle, aeroplanes of this squadron succeeded in taking photographs of the ground in front of the Allied line to depths varying from 700 to 1,500 yards.
Many more squadrons were formed in the early years of the war of 1914-18. No. 12 Squadron was the first to abandon a Latin motto in favour of an English one. Its badge is a fox’s mask, and the motto “Leads the field”. In November 1915 No. 14 Squadron, a few months after its formation, went to Egypt. Its motto is in Oriental characters and the translation is “I spread my wings and keep my promise”. This squadron, with No. 17 Squadron, was split up into flights operating in the Western Desert, defending the Suez Canal and cooperating with the military forces in Palestine. Many long and hazardous desert flights were made by these squadrons.
In 1916, No. 17 Squadron was sent to Salonika and was for some months the only R.F.C. unit operating on the Salonika Front. In 1917 the squadron was equipped with various types of aircraft, which later included Armstrong Whitworths. These machines contributed much to the success of the 1918 offensive against the Bulgars by descending on and bombing troops and supplies on the roads. Before the squadron was disbanded in 1919, various flights had visited places as far apart as Batum (Transcaucasia), Tiflis (Georgia) and Istanbul. The squadron was re-formed in 1924.
The story of No. 26 Squadron is one of pioneering and adventure. Its badge reveals its origin. The springbok’s head shows that the unit was connected with South Africa. The unit consisted of a number of South African officers who had learnt to fly in England and was formed at Farnborough for service in German South-West Africa at the beginning of the war. In July 1915 the squadron returned to England. In December 1915 it left England for service in German East Africa and flew to Mombasa. With eight B.E.2cs and eight Farman biplanes, the squadron operated over an exceptionally difficult region in German East Africa. Mountains, forest and bush made advance hazardous, and ground parties had to prepare landing machines.
On one occasion a flight was cut off, without petrol or ammunition. The local porters who had been instructed to carry petrol to the squadron emptied the tins to lighten their weight, and refilled them with water as they reached their destination. One flying officer belonging to the squadron was forced down on a reconnaissance flight and for four days he wandered through the jungle without food, in a state of severe exhaustion aggravated by fever. Baboons stole his clothes and he had to spend one night in a tree with a leopard waiting for him at the bottom.
THE OPEN BOOK at the top of the squadron badge seen in this photograph is an appropriate symbol for the University of London Air Squadron. The large cross below the open book is representative of the cross on the arms of the City of London. An officer is giving instructions to a pilot before a flight during a training period in camp at Halton, Buckinghamshire.
Associated with the badge of a squadron are not only the feats of the squadron as a unit, but also the exploits of individual members of the unit. The badge of No. 39 Squadron, which was formed at Hounslow in April 1916, is a winged bomb, and the motto Die noctuque, “By night and by day”. Many pilots of this squadron achieved distinction for their prowess in bringing down enemy aircraft. Lieut. W. Leefe Robinson, was a member of this squadron. The German airships L 31, L 32 and L 33 were brought down by officers of the same unit. The L 33 was brought down without being seriously damaged by fire, and thus it was used to provide information which led to the introduction of the new British airship type, of which the first was the R 33.
The use of radio in military aircraft was made extensively possible by the work of No. 5 Squadron as a whole and in particular by Captain D. S. Lewis. In 1918 this squadron worked in cooperation with the Canadian Corps, thus accounting for the maple leaf which forms the squadron’s badge.
The badge of No. 45 Squadron, a winged camel, reflects the importance and success of the introduction of the Sopwith Camel. The squadron had suffered heavy casualties in France with its previous machines but, when the Camels were sent out to it in 1917, it scored remarkable successes in the Ypres sector. After having been transferred to Italy the squadron brought down 114 enemy aircraft, with a loss of only six of its own aircraft. Before the war had ended the squadron had brought down more enemy aircraft than any other squadron equipped with Sopwith machines.
Individual exploits have brought honour to the badges of nearly every squadron. Captain J. T. B. McCudden, of No. 57 Squadron, brought down fifty-seven enemy fighters, yet he was only one of the men of that squadron who earned decorations, of which more than forty were won in the war period.
The King's Approval
When the Royal Air Force was formed on April 1, 1918, the squadrons which composed the Royal Naval Air Force were taken over. All the numbers up to 150 were already in use by the squadrons of the Royal Flying Corps. To avoid duplication and prevent confusion, the R.N.A.S. squadrons were given their previous numbers plus 200, so that No. 3 Squadron R.N.A.S. became No. 203 Squadron R.A.F.
This squadron originated in the early days. Four naval officers learned to fly and formed a unit in 1911. This unit in 1915 became No. 3 Squadron R.N.A.S. Its earliest operations extended inland from the coast of Belgium and in the Dardanelles. The squadron was disbanded in 1920, re-formed the same year, disbanded again in 1923, and was reconstituted in 1929 as No. 203 (Flying Boat) Squadron.
A ship in full sail is a strange thing to see on the badge of an R.A.F. Squadron, yet for No. 269 Squadron it is not inapt. In 1914 a seaplane detachment was operated jointly at Port Said by the English and the French, for the defence of the Suez Canal. Two captured tramp steamers were used as seaplane carriers and renamed Anne and Raven II. In 1916 this small group was reinforced by the aircraft carriers Ben-my-Chree and Empress. Operations were carried out over a wide area. The coasts of Syria, Sinai and the Red Sea were patrolled. Later, the squadron’s activities extended to the Gulf of Aqaba and even to the East Indies. The unit was designated No. 269 Squadron in 1918.
All the badges of R.A.F. squadrons are designed by the Chester Herald, College of Arms, and are approved by the Sovereign before registration. The symbols are devised in accordance with orthodox heraldic practice and are generally chosen to represent some historical or other association of the unit concerned. Some of the more recently established units have heraldic devices which refer to the locality in which the squadron was formed. No. 610 Squadron, for instance, the County of Chester (Bomber) Squadron of the Auxiliary Air Force, was formed in February 1936 at Hooton, Wirral. Its badge is a wheatsheaf, the emblem of the County Palatine of Chester. The Red Rose of Lancaster appears on the badge of No. 611 Squadron, the West Lancashire (Bomber) Squadron, formed at Speke in the same year.
A FORMATION FLIGHT OF HAWKER HART AIRCRAFT of No. 605 County of Warwick Bomber Squadron. This squadron of the Auxiliary Air Force was formed at Castle Bromwich, near Birmingham. The Esher Trophy, presented to the Auxiliary squadron having the best all-round record of the year, was won by No. 605 Squadron each year from 1930 to 1935. It was also won by this squadron in 1927.