The Squadrons of the Wartime Royal Air Force
During the Second World War, the British Royal Air Force (RAF) emerged as one of the most unique fighting forces in history. Its beating heart were its squadrons.
But what is a squadron if not a cipher following arcane military logic? An entity created and fostered to live in a world of violence? Every air force in the world has squadrons, each like some riotous boy’s-own club, especially in the early days of aviation and especially during the war.
A squadron is the most basic quasi-autonomous, combat component of a fighting air force. It has generally anywhere from nine to 15 aircraft and is staffed by about a hundred people. It is a conglomeration of disparate, moving parts: Aviators to armorers, cooks to typists, mechanics to machinists, window washers to administrators. Their raison d’etre is to fly in the face of fire. Their aircraft are symbolic of brute strength or agility. There is nothing reassuring about these machines even though they may be graceful.
Their pilots adopted bawdy emblems, full of projected machismo, often juvenile which is unsurprising considering that at least during the Second World, when most of these emblems were hewn out of thin air, that most of the pilots were just out of school or college.
These were the nitty gritty details of machines tuned to wreak havoc and destruction, and during the Second World War, the Royal Air Force had 553 of them. But where the British experience differs from others was how the English chose to structure their air force — also the world’s oldest, having been formed in crucible of World War I.
It was the most culturally diverse of all the air forces of the war, populated by scores of people from across the empire: from Jamaica to Fiji, from Canada to South Africa, from Argentina to New Zealand.
It also had an entire “foreign” legion of 130 squadrons made up Free Poles, Free French, Free Czechs, Free Belgians, Free Norwegians, Free Danes, Free Greeks, Free Dutch and even Free Yugoslavs who had fled their subjugated homelands to fight again. Finally, there were also Americans who had thrown in their lot with the British or the Canadians, some after having been rejected as pilots in their own country. Within the individual histories of these squadrons, vignettes of key events within the larger battles and campaigns can be found.
For example, there were the men of a squadron who irrecoverably altered the course of the war by shooting up the staff car of a famous German Field Marshal's while he happened to be in. Men of another squadron single-handedly delayed the introduction of a German capital battleship into combat operations. On another instance, fliers from yet another squadron saved the lives of scores of resistance fighters by blasting open a Gestapo headquarters in occupied Europe. In the Far East, a handful of aviators from a fighter squadron prevented a densely populated city from being bombed. By in large, however, the squadrons sustained the overall momentum of the Allied air offensive against the Axis powers through the usual humdrum of daily activities: the unglamorous, lethal raids, the mundane but sometimes adrenaline-high patrols, the delivering of letters and communiques, the ferrying of troops, agents and supplies, the charting of the weather and shooting rolls and rolls of film of enemy forces and the landscape they held. Without these, the war could not have been won.
To be fair, a squadron by itself is nothing, being a number with a rota of pilots and staff. In the wartime United States Army Air Force (USAAF) and in the German Luftwaffe, they were little more cogs within the overall command structure of a flying group or combat wing which manifested the esprit d’corps. In these other air forces, the squadron was interchangeable as to be almost an afterthought of organization.
In the Royal Air Force, the squadrons of the Second World War breathed life. They were full of faces and names, with a history dating back to an arguably more elegant age of the early century. No bawdy emblems were allowed – all insignia had to be approved by the ruling monarch and to each was added a creed. Most were hewn out of Latin, others in the language of the regions that squadrons called home. They breathed culture and sophistication. But that did not mean they could not be inane.
On the dry island of Malta, where 185 Squadron was raised for example in the maelstrom of 1941, the new squadron took a sentence in Maltese as its motto — Ara Fejn Hu (Look where it is). This, as far as squadron mottoes went, was reasonably tepid. In comparison: 34 Squadron — Lupus vult, lupus volant (Wolf wishes, wolf flies), 139 — Si placet necamus (We destroy at will), 157 — Our cannon speak our thoughts, 179 — Delentem deleo (I destroy the destroyer), 261— Semper contendo (I always fight) or the peerless French motto of the Canadian 425 Squadron — Je te plumerai (I shall pluck you).
"Although all war is a symptom of man's failure as a thinking animal, still there was in these memory-wars some gallantry, some bravery, some kindness" John Steinbeck
In addition to the front-line squadrons, the RAF also had 80 training and miscellaneous units during the war, including Operational Conversion units (OCUs), Operational Training Units (OTUs), Heavy Operational Conversion Units (HOCUs), Maintenance Units (MUs). Also, there existed 20 other establishments and camps, devoted to tactic development, advanced training, aircraft testing and other special tasks.
Every RAF squadron raised since 1918 has been disbanded at least once during its career. This was particularly true after the First World War ended in November 1918. RAF strength plummeted from the original wartime strength of 190 combat-ready squadrons to less than 45 by 1925. By mid-1934, however, many of these disbanded squadrons had been resurrected to deal with the rising complexities of international relations in the years approaching the Second World War.
By the beginning of World War II on 3 September 1939, RAF strength had reached 150 combat squadrons, of which 29 were with Bomber Command, 50 with Fighter Command, 19 with Coastal Command, 18 with Army-Cooperation Command, 19 with RAF Middle East, six in India and lastly the last five on Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), Malaya (now Malaysia) and Singapore.
By 1942, RAF strength had roughly tripled, and included new squadrons incorporated pilots from all over the world. Squadrons from the independent RAAF (Royal Australian Air Force), the RCAF (Royal Canadian Air Force) and the RNZAF (Royal New Zealand Air Force), serving in Western Europe (and in some cases the Mediterranean and the Far East) came under the overall operational control of the RAF.
After World War II, the RAF again wound-down as the British government focused on cutting costs. In this time of demobilization, roughly 75 percent of the RAF’s wartime squadrons disbanded within the first ten years of peace, although some reformed in the 1960’s to face the Soviet threat during the Cold War. From the late ‘70’s through to the ‘90s, the RAF’s numbers reduced even further. Those that remain today are the inheritors of a rich history that dates back to more than a hundred years, through war and peace.
All artwork within the inside pages by author (except where noted)
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