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Sharp end of the gauntlet

Gary Parsons reports from RAF Coningsby on 17(R) Squadron's official reformation

19 May 2005 signalled the first instalment in RAF Coningsby's future as the premier station for the Eurofighter Typhoon. 17(R) Squadron officially reformed, accepting its standard back from RAF Cranwell, where it has lain for the past six years. Although 17(R) Squadron has been in existence since 2003, it was in effect a squadron designate while at Warton during the 'Case White' evaluation phase - now it has arrived at Coningsby, the immediate future is for the squadron to pave the way for air-to-air operational status and initial air-to-ground capability as the Typhoon Operational Evaluation Unit, responsible for the technical and tactical exploitation of the aircraft.

Its new Commanding Officer, Wing Commander Jon Hitchcock, is already a Typhoon 'veteran'. Previously responsible for forming the Operating Conversion Unit (29(R) Squadron) at Warton, Hitchcock will now play the most vital role, that of developing Typhoon's operational effectiveness. He said "Over the past two years, 17(R) Squadron has been a key participant in the drive to introduce Typhoon into active service. Whilst there remains much to do, much has been achieved, not least the completion of a number of large scale trials and two major deployments to Singapore and the United States of America. On 1 April of this year the squadron arrived with the first single seat aircraft at RAF Coningsby where we will continue to push the boundaries as we drive Typhoon capability forward into the future. Great squadrons never die and it is fitting that Number 17 Squadron has been re-born in such an important role for the future of the Service."

No 17 Squadron was formed at Gosport on 1 February 1915 and, after a period of training, embarked for Egypt in November. On 24 December, it began to make reconnaissance flights over the Turkish lines in Sinai, also flying in support of troops engaged with Turkish army units in the Western Desert. Detachments were also to be found in Arabia until July 1916, when the squadron was sent to Salonika as a mixed unit of twelve BE2cs for reconnaissance, a scout component of two DH2s and three Bristol Scouts. At first it was the only RFC unit in Macedonia but was later joined by others and in April 1918 handed over its fighters to a newly formed 150 Squadron.

On parade
A flypast by the last three types operated by 17 Sqn was flown - Typhoons, Tornados and Jaguars

For the rest of the war, it was engaged in tactical reconnaissance and artillery spotting on the Bulgarian border. In December 1918, the squadron re-equipped with twelve DH9s and six Camels, sending A Flight to Batum to support the White Russian forces and B and C Flights to Constantinople in January 1919. On 14 November 1919, 17 Squadron was disbanded.

Reforming at Hawkinge on 1 April 1924, with Snipes, 17 Squadron formed part of the fighter defence of the UK until the outbreak of World War Two. Successively equipped with Woodcocks, Siskins, Bulldogs and Gauntlets, the squadron remained in the UK during the Abyssinian crisis but lost most of its Bulldogs as reinforcements for Squadrons moving to the Middle East and had to fly Harts for a period. In June 1939, Hurricanes were received and flew defensive patrols until the German attack on France in May 1940. Fighter sweeps were then flown over Holland and Belgium and the French airfields were used to cover the retreat of allied troops. In June the squadron moved to Brittany as the remnants of BEF and RAF units in France were evacuated, retiring to the Channel Islands two days before returning to the UK. 17 Squadron flew over southern England throughout the Battle of Britain, being moved to northern Scotland in April 1941.

In November 1941, the squadron sailed for the Far East where war broke out in December. Diverted to Burma, it arrived in January 1942, as Japanese troops neared Rangoon. Defensive patrols were flown until the Rangoon airfields were overrun and 17 Squadron moved north, eventually being cut off from India while operating from Lashio. The surviving aircraft were flown out and the ground personnel made their way across Burma to the Indian border. By the end of May, the squadron had re-assembled at Calcutta and in June received aircraft again for the defence of the area. Ground attack missions began in February 1943 and continued until August, when the squadron moved to Ceylon.

Spitfires began to arrive in March 1944 and were taken back to the Burma front in November to fly escort and ground attack missions. In June 1945, it was withdrawn to prepare for the invasion of Malaya and was taken by carrier to the landing beaches near Penang in early September, soon after the Japanese capitulation. In April 1946, it arrived in Japan to form part of the Commonwealth occupation force until disbanded on 23 February 1948.

Inspecting the parade at Coningsby was Air Chief Marshal Sir Patrick Hine, President of 17(F) squadron association. In 1970, Hine reformed 17 Squadron at RAF Brüggen in Germany and flew the Phantom, having been Project Officer for the McDonnell Phantom II in the Operational Requirements Branch before in 1968.

On 11 February 1949, 691 Squadron based at Chivenor for anti-aircraft co-operation duties was renumbered 17 Squadron, being officially disbanded on 13 March 1951, passing its tasks to 3 CAACU which was formed five days later. 17 Squadron reformed at Wahn on 1 June 1956 as a Canberra photographic reconnaissance Squadron in Germany, disbanding on 31 December 1969. On 1 September 1970, 17 Squadron reformed at Bruggen with Phantoms, which were flown until December 1975. Conversion to Jaguars began in September and in January 1985 the squadron began to convert to Tornado GR1s. The Jaguar element disbanded on 1 March 1985 when 17 became fully equipped with Tornados. The squadron last disbanded in April 1999, the squadron standard being laid up at RAF Cranwell.

17(R) Squadron will ultimately have up to six aircraft, and there are no plans to amalgamate it with the co-located Fast Jet & Guided Weapons OEU (FJ&GWOEU), although one can see the logic in an eventual extended squadron taking in the Tornado and Harrier work once Jaguar is retired from the unit early next year. Whatever, with Typhoon service introduction expected to continue well into the next decade, 17(R) Squadron is assured of being at the sharp end of Typhoon capability.

With thanks to the CCO RAF Coningsby for the squadron history


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