The gradual drawdown of the Royal Air Force Tornado GR4 fleet hits a significant milestone in 2017, bringing an end to the Tornado fleet in Scotland, and an end to 23 years of a familiar sight around the Moray skies. March 31st will see the last RAF Tornado unit based at RAF Lossiemouth disbanding and thus ending the long association between Moray, Scotland, and the Tornado. February 22nd saw a chance for a select few Scottish enthusiasts to say their goodbyes during an afternoon hosted by XV(R) Squadron, from where Niall Paterson brings this article.
XV Squadron History
Formed on March 1st 1915 at Farnborough as a training unit (initially equipped with some six aircraft types), 15 Squadron deployed to France on December 22nd 1915 with Royal Aircraft Factory BE.2Cs and Bristol Scouts. Flying as reconnaissance assets for the Army, the unit was heavily involved in the Battle of the Somme providing aerial photographic intelligence which allowed the destruction of key German positions. 15 Squadron also performed low-level strafing activity during the Arras offensive of 1917 (flying the BE2c), and again to support the Battle of Cambrai (after re-equipping with the RE8). The Squadron relocated back to the Fowlmere, Cambridgeshire at the end of the war and as was the case with many other units, was disbanded December 31st 1919. However, 15 Sqn was to reform in 1924 as a test unit within the Aeroplane and Armament Experimental Establishment, flying bombers for the RAF until June 1934 when the Squadron was re-purposed with light bombers at Abingdon – first flying the Hawker Hart and later on the Fairy Battle. It was whilst equipped with the Hawker Hart that the tradition of marking squadron aircraft with the roman numerals “XV” was started, and is the reason the unit is now referred to as XV Squadron – rather than 15 Squadron.
At the start of the Second World War, XV Sqn deployed back to France with their Fairy Battles, operating as part of the Advanced Air Striking Force before returning to RAF Wyton in December 1939 to reequip with Bristol Blenheim IVs and later with the Vickers Wellington. However later in 1940 the Squadron became the second to be equipped with the new Short Stirling, and it was one particular Stirling that would become an integral part of the Squadron’s history – even to this day. Lady MacRobert donated £25,000 to fund a new aircraft in memory of her three son’s who tragically died during flying accidents whilst on operations. The aircraft was on strength with XV Sqn wearing the code LS-F and became known as “Freddie” or MacRoberts Reply.
Lady Rachel MacRobert donated £25,000 to fund the purchase of a Stirling bomber and four Hawker Hurricanes, in memory of her three sons who tragically died whilst flying in the RAF – Sir Alastair MacRobert in 1938 in a crash near Luton, Sir Roderic MacRobert in 1941 during a strafing attack in Iraq, and lastly Sir Iain MacRobert whilst carrying out an air-sea rescue search later in 1941. Stirling N6086 was assigned XV Sqn wearing the code LS-F and became known as “Freddie” or MacRoberts Reply. Although the tradition of naming an aircraft as “MacRoberts Reply” ended after the initial Stirling was damaged in a landing accident (and subsequent replacement W7531 was shot down over Denmark), the tradition was revived in 1982 by Buccaneer XT287 – and every XV Sqn aircraft coded as “F” since that time has carried the title and crest of the MacRobert family. The Squadron still has one of the original propellers from the first “Freddie” at RAF Lossiemouth.
Between 1947 and 1984 XV Squadron went through many changes in aircraft types and roles. These included heavy bombing with Avro Lincolns and Conventional & Nuclear Strike with English Electric Canberra B2s, with which type the Squadron was involved in the Suez Crisis as part of Operation ACCUMULATE – flying 37 missions in support of operations there. 1958 saw the Squadron became part of the “V Force”, flying Handley Page Victors out of RAF Cottesmore until 1964 when the unit disbanded. XV Squadron was resurrected again in 1970, with the previous Victors replaced with Blackburn Buccaneer S2Bs (plus a Hawker Hunter T7A to act as a training aircraft) which were operated out of RAF Laarbruch, Germany until 1983 when the Squadron was reequipped with Panavia Tornado GR1s.
XV Squadron Tornados
Having become “attack operational” with the Tornado in 1985, the XV Squadron combat debut of the Tornado occurred five years later. Operation Desert Storm saw the Tornado GR1s of XV Squadron deploy to Bahrain to take part in Operation GRANBY, taking out Iraqi Air Force bases and other targets of interest during the first Gulf War. Desert Storm started a continuous operational commitment of RAF Tornado GRs for the next 25 Years. To celebrate this milestone, in 2016 Tornado GR4 ZG750 was painted at RAF Lossiemouth in the colours of a Tornado GR1 from Operation GRANBY as a mark of respect for all aviators who took part the conflicts the Tornado Force were involved with over that time. Whilst that aircraft was briefly assigned to XV Squadron, it quickly relocated to IX Squadron at RAF Marham in the summer of 2016.
In 1993 the Tornado GR1s of XV Squadron moved to their current home of RAF Lossiemouth on the North East coast of Scotland, where the unit became responsible for training all RAF Pilots and Navigators on the Tornado, a task which will soon be a memory come a few short weeks. In 1998 the Squadron became the Operational Conversion Unit (OCU) for the Tornado GR1 and from 2000 the upgraded GR4 variant.
The event on February 22nd 2017 was an ideal opportunity for the 16 enthusiasts who were invited to have a look at the units day to day business, by the current Commanding Officer of XV(R) Squadron, Wing Commander Paul Froome. The Squadron had lined up six of the eleven Tornado GR4s on strength for the gathered enthusiasts including ZD741, the last Tornado GR4 to have the MacRoberts Reply markings applied. ZD741 has the original war code of LS-F applied (LS being the code letters used for XV Squadron until the early 1950s) instead of the usual “F” which had been the code for a number of years.
Beginning with a brief history of the Squadron and a rundown of safety procedures, our guide Flight Lieutenant Bill Reed explained what we would be hoping to do during the visit. The first stop was to XVs flight line where five of the units finest were being prepared for the afternoon’s sorties, whilst a sixth taxied out for departure from Lossiemouth’s Runway 28. It was a great opportunity to watch the crews doing all the safety checks before crewing in and conducting start-up checks, prior to taxiing out for their respective sorties. A visit from the earlier mentioned Op GRANBY Tornado ZG750 which is based at RAF Marham was well received by the entire group of enthusiasts as it gave many the opportunity to get some closer shots of the aircraft.
Once the last GR4 taxied out for departure, it was over to the Operations Planning room where Flt Lt Reed explained what goes into planning a sortie from RAF Lossiemouth. Whilst it at least seemed simple the way it was shown/described, effective mission planning is one of the key skills taught to all RAF flight crews. XV Squadron occupies two hangars, and both were visited before the ground moved to the memorabilia room (where the propeller blade from the original “MacRoberts Reply” is displayed), before returning to the flight line for the departure of ZG750 and the return of the last couple of GR4s from the earlier launch.
To end Flt Lt Reed offered for a jet to be powered up at dusk/darkness for a quick night shoot, before it was time to say our goodbyes and wish everyone on the Squadron all the best for their future, whatever it holds.
XV(R) Squadron will cease flying operations from RAF Lossiemouth on March 17th with a planned flying tour around Scotland. There will then be ferry flights of the assigned GR4s to RAF Marham and RAF Leeming (the former for transfer to other units, the latter for those aircraft destined for the “Reduce to Produce” or RTP programme) after the unit officially disbands on March 31st.
The author wishes to thank Wing Commander Froome, Flight Lieutenant Reed, Flt Lt Smith and all the personnel on XV(R) Squadron for their hospitality and for all their help in organising a truly fantastic afternoon. AeroResource wishes them all the best for their future.