A brief history of the most successful ASW squadron in the RAF

One of the oldest numberplates of any maritime patrol squadron

Number 120 Squadron was officially formed on 1 January 1918 as a Royal Flying Corps (RFC) unit at RFC Cramlington in Northumberland, about 9 miles north of Newcastle. This puts it among the first of the subsequent long-range maritime patrol / anti-submarine warfare units to exist while bearing the squadron number they would later use in the Royal Air Force. After the RFC and Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) merged to form the Royal Air Force on 1 April 1918, all 149 RFC squadrons retained their original RFC squadron numbers, while RNAS squadrons were renumbered with numbers in the 200s and up.

RFC Cramlington had been expanding since its establishment to defend the industrial areas around Teeside from German Zeppelin bombing raids, and it became an important training base for both initial and advanced training of pilots, and for front-line units to work up prior to deployment to France. When 58 Squadron left in December 1917 to deploy to France, it created space at Cramlington and so 75 Training Squadron, which had formed the previous month at RFC Waddington to deliver advanced pilot training, relocated there. As the RFC’s plans for 1918 included a significant expansion of its day bomber forces to send to France, it was decided to create a new front-line squadron at Cramlington to take pilots from 75 Squadron and convert them to the new Aircraft Manufacturing Company (Airco) DH9 two-seater biplane bomber. Once the Squadron had received all of its DH9s and converted all of its pilots, it was to deploy to the Continent as reinforcement for the Independent Force in France.

Hence, on 1 January 1918, 120 Squadron was officially formed as an Airco DH9 unit, and on 18 January people and planes began organizing themselves at Cramlington under the 120 Squadron banner. Major Arthur Ramsay Stanley Clarke MC RFC appears to have been designated as the first-ever ‘OC CXX‘ from the Squadron’s formation, although he was officially listed as being assigned to 75 Training Squadron at Cramlington until 18 June 1918. 120 Squadron didn’t start to receive its DH9s until the spring, and so it began its first flying operations by operating all of the same aircraft types in use on 75 Training Squadron: the Armstrong Whitworth FK3, Avro 504J, Royal Aircraft Factory BE2e and RE8, Martinsyde G102, and the Airco DH4 and DH6.

On 3 August 1918, Major Stanley Clarke led the Squadron’s first relocation — to Bracebridge Heath near Lincoln — where CXX continued training on DH9s.

The inter-war years

The Squadron had not completed its conversion to the DH9 by the time Armistice was declared in November 1918. It was moved again to RAF Wyton in Cambridgeshire, where it completed training and, as an operational unit, was assigned to carry out air transport duties between the UK and the continent. The Squadron was moved to RAF Hawkinge in Kent, near Folkestone, in February 1919. It commenced the first Folkestone to Cologne passenger and mail service on 1 March 1919, supporting the British Army of the Rhine that had been stood up the same month as part of the Allied occupying forces in Germany. The Folkestone to Cologne service was considered the most important of the RAF’s routes at the time. The route was split between 120 Squadron at its base near Folkestone, and 18 Squadron in Cologne. 120 Squadron operated mostly its Airco DH9s with Puma engines, although it occasionally completed the run in a DH4. 18 Squadron operated the much-improved Airco DH9A with Liberty engines. Initially, some routes were also broken up at an intermediate stop at 110 Squadron’s base at Maisoncelle in France. This was moved to Marquis in June, but after 22 July the intermediate station was abolished due to the success of the 120 and 18 Squadron pilots in making the 250-mile journey between Folkestone and Cologne directly. 120 Squadron relocated about 10 miles west from RAF Hawkinge to RAF Lympne, on the other side of Folkestone, in July. But by late 1919 the RAF was reducing in size, and civil aviation had recommenced following the lifting of wartime prohibitions in August. 120 Squadron carried out the RAF’s final mail run from Folkestone to Cologne on 24 August, and the unit disbanded on 21 October 1919.

The first RAF Squadron in history to be equipped with an American Maritime Patrol Aircraft

In August 1939 the United States Army Air Corps ordered 38 Consolidated B-24A Liberator bombers. Following the outbreak of WWII a month later in September 1939, 20 aircraft from this order were released for direct purchase by the RAF. After a period of evaluation at the Aeroplane and Armament Experimental Establishment at Boscombe Down, they were selected for use as Long-range Maritime Patrol aircraft and sent to Scottish Aviation in Prestwick, near Glasgow, for modification.

While this was going on, the longest, largest and most complex naval campaign in history — the Battle of the Atlantic — began in earnest with the odds heavily in favour of the Nazis. As an island nation Britain required more than a million tons of shipping to be delivered per week to survive, but the limited range and endurance of the British aircraft in service at the start of the war meant that there was an area in the middle of the ocean where no aircraft could patrol. This came to be known as the Mid-Atlantic Gap or The Black Pit. Beyond the reach of Maritime Patrol Aircraft, German U-boats inflicted devastating losses on Allied shipping in the gap. Between June and October 1940 alone, over 270 Allied ships were sunk in a period German U-boat crews came to call Die Glückliche Zeit: ‘The Happy Time’. Winston Churchill later said that:

The Battle of the Atlantic was the dominating factor all through the war. Never for one moment could we forget that everything happening elsewhere, on land, at sea or in the air depended ultimately on its outcome.

Meanwhile, at Prestwick, the new fleet of American Liberators had their range and endurance improved through the addition of addition of extra fuel tanks in the fuselage and the removal of armour. The British ASV (Air to Surface Vessel) Mark II radar and Leigh searchlight were integrated to allow anti-U-boat patrols day and night. Now known as VLR (Very Long Range) variants, they were given the designation Liberator GR mk I for RAF Service. Number 120 Squadron was reformed on 2 June 1941, this time based at RAF Nutts Corner in County Antrim, Northern Ireland, specifically to operate them. The VLR Liberators, initially flown by CXX alone, had an immediate effect on the Battle of the Atlantic. With their modifications allowing them to fly for up to 16 hours — enough to still achieve a full 3 hours on task even when patrolling 1000 nautical miles from their base — they became the only aircraft that could to patrol in ‘the Gap’ and convoy losses immediately began to reduce.

Although CXX didn’t record its first attack on a U-boat until 21 October 1941, the Squadron’s experience during those first few months of flying the world’s first truly long-range maritime patrol aircraft revealed a number of fundamental tenets of this new type of warfare. As true now as they were then, albeit not always fully appreciated, some of these are that:

  • Maritime Patrol Aircraft can make a fundamental difference to a battle just by being there and sometimes without a single shot being fired. The restrictions they place on the freedom of manoeuvre of submarines and ships can be decisive, and the true effects may not be realized or understood until years later, or never. One of many examples of this that are known occurred on 11 September 1942 when the presence of a single 120 Sqn Liberator prevented attacks on convoy ON 127 by the German U-boat ‘wolf pack’ Vorwarts for its entire on-station period, but there are no doubt many others, not all of which are known.
  • Long-range Maritime patrol is a test of tenacity and determination, with a few, brief periods of action breaking up endless long, lonely hours of repetitive patrol through the day and night. Each of 120’s WWII Liberator sorties were up to 16 hours long in a battle that lasted, for them, four years. CXX’s success in destroying submarines is of course more than impressive — it is the best in history — but only when it is framed against the background of those endless hours of searching over a featureless ocean day in, day out for years can that achievement be truly appreciated. The gritty resolve that saw the CXX earn this success during a long, arduous campaign earned it a concise Squadron Motto consisting of a single word: ‘Endurance‘.

Number 120 (Iceland’s Own) Squadron

CXX moved north from RAF Nutts Corner to RAF Ballykelly in County Londonderry, Northern Ireland, in July 1942. Then on 4 September 1942 history was made when the Squadron forward-deployed a detachment of 7 Liberators to RAF Reykjavík in Iceland — an airfield that had been recently built by the British Army and that exists today as Reykjavík Airport, the domestic airport located in the city itself. The then OC CXX, Acting Wg Cdr Samuel John Harrison DFC, lead the initial deployment in person, returning to Ballykelly on 6 September having left one of his flight commanders to be the Detachment Commander. This was the beginning of CXX’s historic connection with Iceland, and it was from there that the Squadron enjoyed some of its greatest successes. By December 1942 the 120 Sqn Flight Commander in charge of the Reykjavík detachment was no less than the legendary Squadron Leader Terry Bulloch, the most successful ASW aviator in history, and it was from here that he launched his most famous sortie, in support of convoy HX 217, and earned a Bar to his DSO.

While a detachment remained forward-based in Iceland the main Squadron relocated from RAF Ballykelly to RAF Aldergrove in County Antrim, Northern Ireland, in February 1943. However, the combination of forward basing closer to the main area of operations in the mid-Atlantic and CXX’s VLR Liberators proved so potent a force that the entire Squadron relocated from RAF Aldergrove to RAF Reykjavík in April 1943. For the next year the Squadron flew from both its headquarters at RAF Reykjavík and a new, larger base with longer runways that had been constructed by the US Military on a headland in Iceland’s Southern Peninsula, around 30 miles south of Reykjavík itself. The new American base opened on 23 March 1943 as ‘Meeks Field’ in honour of a US Army Air Forces pilot, Lieutenant George E Meeks, who had died in an aircraft crash at RAF Reykjavík in 1941. Today, the field is known as Keflavík International Airport and serves a dual purpose as Iceland’s largest civilian airport as well as remaining a military airfield. Since Iceland does not have its own Military or Defence Force, the field is used as a base by aircraft of NATO partners providing air defence and maritime patrol. Throughout the Cold War it was a permanent operating base for US Navy P-3 Orion Maritime Patrol Aircraft (as United States Naval Air Station Keflavík), and the US Navy is currently in discussions to equip the field as a forward operating base for its new P-8A Poseidon MPA; the same type that will be in service with the RAF from 2019. Since Keflavík ceased to be a full-time USN P-3 base from 2006, a variety of NATO allies have taken turns in operating air defence aircraft from the field. As well as Reykjavík and Keflavík, 120 Squadron Liberators spent much of 1943 forward-deploying or refuelling at bases around the North Atlantic Rim including Goose and Gander in Canada and the CXX’s old homes of Nutts Corner, Ballykelly and Aldergrove in Northern Ireland as missions dictated.

120 Squadron remained headquartered in Iceland until March 1944 when it moved back to RAF Ballykelly to be closer to the area of operations for Coastal Command’s massive anti-submarine efforts in support of Operation Overlord, the D-Day landings. This historic link to Iceland and the success the Squadron enjoyed there was enshrined in its official Squadron badge, approved by His Majesty King George VI in August 1944, consisting of an Icelandic Falcon standing atop the Arctic. CXX continued its ties to Iceland post-war, and the annual Squadron pilgrimage to celebrate Burns Supper at the base in Keflavík became the stuff of legend in Iceland and Scotland alike.

The highest-scoring ASW squadron in WWII

Although CXX chalked up ‘possible’ kills starting with its very first attack on a U-boat on 21 October 1941, it wasn’t until a year later on 12 October 1942 that the Sqn was credited with its first unequivocally confirmed kill when U-597 was sunk by depth charges. Its most successful period came after the Squadron completely relocated to Reykjavík: within six weeks of the move, a further four kills had been credited. It was during this highly-successful period that the Squadron captured the public’s imagination, with front-page headlines in the national press variously declaring ‘Sub smashers win 5 awards in big convoy fight’ and ‘The Bull gets a U-boat’ as the nation got behind its most successful ASW squadron. By the end of the war, CXX had become unquestionably the RAF’s highest scoring anti-submarine squadron with 14 confirmed kills officially credited to the Sqn alone, alongside shared credit for a further 3 kills and 8 counts of damaging a submarine. The actual total number of kills could be even higher and will likely never be known.

Selected for preservation due to its pioneering role in very long range reconnaissance

It is sometimes stated that the reason CXX was chosen to remain as an active squadron, despite its relatively low seniority, in the reorganization of the RAF following the war was because of its record as the highest-scoring ASW squadron. But this is not the case: it was in fact one of four squadrons recommended to the Air Council to remain active, despite their seniority, due to being notable pioneers in important capabilities during the war. The other junior squadrons that the Air Council ordered to remain active despite their seniority were 297 Squadron as the first Airborne Forces Squadron, 511 Squadron as the first Airborne Transport Squadron, and 617 Squadron (The Dambusters) for pioneering the use of Barnes Wallis’s ‘bouncing bombs’. CXX made this list as the first squadron to carry out what was classed as ‘very long range’ reconnaissance, thanks to the huge reach of its VLR Liberators for the time. The Air Council approved these recommendations in July 1946 and hence, having been temporarily disbanded on 4 June 1945 shortly after Germany surrendered on 8 May 1945, CXX was re-formed in October 1946.

One of only two squadrons in the history of the RAF to be awarded its Standard early

In 1943 His Majesty King George VI marked the 25th Anniversary of the formation of the RAF by granting, to flying squadrons that had completed 25 years of operational service, the right to a ceremonial flag to be known as The Standard. The Standard is the embodiment of a squadron and the symbol under which it fights.

The general design of The Standard was chosen in 1947 and approved by the King in June 1950. Then, on 15 January 1952, history was made when a list of new Squadron Standards granted by the Sovereign was issued that contained two high-profile and notable exceptions to the otherwise sacrosanct 25-year rule. Two Squadrons that had been in operational service for less than 25 years were thus notified, at the same time, that they had earned the Sovereign’s personal appreciation their especially outstanding achievements in WWII and would be granted a Standard ‘early’. Those Squadrons were 617 Squadron for its success in Operation CHASTISE against German Dams, and 120 Squadron for its success as the highest-scoring ASW squadron in WWII — which also now makes it the highest-scoring ASW squadron in history. The announcement stated that the grants were backdated to 1 April 1951, meaning that both 617 and 120 Squadrons are considered as having become eligible for their Standards after less than 10 years of operational service in the 1940s and 1950s. While 617 was formed for the first time in 1943, 120’s previous existence as an operational squadron between 1918 and 1919 means it had around 11 years seniority in total when it was awarded its Standard.

The Standards themselves did not start to be presented until 24 April 1953, when Number 1 Squadron received the first-ever RAF Squadron Standard (some 10 years after it had received notification of its granting in 1943). The first 120 Squadron Standard was presented by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II on 14 August 1961, and it was replaced by a new standard that was presented by His Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh on 26 May 1988.

By being both on the Air Council’s 1946 list of four squadrons that should remain active despite their seniority because they pioneered new capabilities in WWII, and in 1952 becoming the only two squadrons to have ever been awarded a standard early, 617 and 120 have been treated as ‘doubly special’ in matters of seniority ever since, and both have been selected to re-form ahead of squadrons with more years of operational service. This was most recently reaffirmed with the news that 617, which disbanded on 28 March 2014 as part of the retirement of the Tornado aircraft, would re-form on 1 January 2018 as an F-35B Lightning II squadron, while 120, which disbanded on 26 May 2011 following the cancellation of the Nimrod MRA4 Programme, re-formed on 1 April 2018 as the RAF’s first P-8A Poseidon squadron.

The first Squadron to convert to the Shackleton MR1

Following the Air Council’s decision of July 1946, CXX Squadron reformed on 1 October 1946 at RAF Leuchars in Scotland, now equipped with an anti-submarine variant of the Lancaster bomber. Although some Liberators remained on the Sqn’s strength until June 1947, it was as a purely Lancaster Squadron that CXX deployed to the British Mandate of Palestine in November 1947 to search for illegal immigrants.

CXX moved north from RAF Leuchars to RAF Kinloss in 1950 in preparation to become the first unit to convert to the Avro Shackleton MR1. The Shackleton was the first completely purpose-built Maritime Patrol Aircraft the UK had produced, albeit one that took some design cues from the Avro Lincoln, itself a development of the Avro Lancaster. CXX took delivery of the RAF’s first Shackleton on 30 March 1951, and shortly after relocated back to RAF Aldergrove in April 1951 to cut down on transit time to the North Atlantic.

CXX flew its Shackletons throughout the 1950s and 1960s, returning to Kinloss in 1959. This period was dominated by the developing Cold War between NATO and the Warsaw Pact. The Squadron’s ASW patrols to find and track Soviet submarines represented the front line of that conflict and later formed a crucial part of the protection of the UK’s Continuous at Sea Nuclear Deterrent, which has been in place since April 1969.

The Shackleton’s tasks also included protection of exclusive economic areas for fishing rights and, even as ‘Iceland’s Own Squadron’ maintained excellent relations with its counterparts in Keflavík and continued the tradition of hosting bilateral events in both Iceland and Scotland, some of the Sqn’s formal tasks involved keeping tabs on the locations of Icelandic trawlers and Coast Guard vessels. Some of the latter even exchanged a few warning shots with Royal Navy warships during the international dispute over fishing rights that became known as the ‘Cod Wars’.

A distinguished Nimrod Squadron

In 1971 CXX replaced its Shackletons with the jet-powered Hawker-Siddeley Nimrod MR1 and continued flying ASW sorties as part of the UK’s Cold War efforts as well as homeland defence and fisheries protection missions. The Squadron deployed to the South Atlantic for Operation CORPORATE, the campaign to free the Falkland Islands from the occupying Argentinian forces in 1982, and multiple operations in the Middle East including Operation GRANBY in Iraq in 1991, and Operations IRAQI FREEDOM and ENDURING FREEDOM in Iraq and Afghanistan throughout the 2000s.

Through Struggles to the Stars

In common with all long-established RAF Squadrons, CXX has had to cope with losing Squadron members in the line of duty, starting with its first aircraft accident on 27 March 1918 when the Squadron’s distinctive star-adorned Armstrong Whitworth FK3 trainer, registration A1505, suffered an accident leading the the loss of Lieutenant Edmund Sidney Howells RFC and 2nd Lieutenant J Armstrong RFC. The Squadron experienced its heaviest losses during WWII, with just one of many incidents occurring on 4 October 1943 when when CXX Squadron Liberator FK 923 was lost at sea, believed to be shot down by flak while it was attacking U-boat U-539. This incident is notable because the captain of the 8-man crew that was lost was the then OC CXX, Wing Commander Richard Maitland Longmore OBE, and his loss resulted in command of the Squadron being transferred to Wing Commander J R Bland. The Squadron’s unwavering determination to succeed and its triumph through such adversity during WWII is another element commemorated by that concise, simple, and understated single-word motto: ‘Endurance’.

Since the Squadron converted to Nimrod aircraft in 1971 two Nimrods operated by CXX crews were lost during the Squadron’s 39 years of operating them. 7 members of CXX Crew 9 were lost when Nimrod XV239 crashed into Lake Ontario during a display at the Toronto Air Show on 2 September 1995, and 14 members of CXX Crew 3 including 2 Liaison Officers from other Services were lost when Nimrod XV230 experienced an in-flight fire over Afghanistan on 2 September 2006. Following both incidents, the Squadron performed to the highest standard, continuing its operational missions, living up to its wartime record of triumphing over adversity and continuing to honour the names of all those who, throughout almost 100 years of Squadron history, have fallen while serving on CXX Squadron.

A bright future awaits

The Nimrod MR2 was retired from service following a final sortie on 31 March 2010, and in the Strategic Defence and Security Review of October 2010 the Prime Minister announced the the Government would not bring into service the successor that was in development at the time, the Nimrod MRA4. On 26 May 2011 CXX Squadron temporarily disbanded once again, and its Standard was transferred to the Rotunda of the RAF College Cranwell.

In the subsequent Strategic Defence and Security Review of November 2015, the British Government announced that it would acquire P-8A Poseidon aircraft from the USA as the UK’s next Maritime Patrol Aircraft, with the first delivery in 2019. On 13 July 2017, the Defence Secretary Sir Michael Fallon confirmed that the first squadron to operate the RAF’s new P-8A Poseidons would be CXX, which will re-form at RAF Lossiemouth on 1 April 2018 ready to send crews on P-8A conversion courses. The first crews entered training in January 2019, and a CXX Sqn flying detachment stood up in Jacksonville, Florida in October 2019 to take delivery of the first RAF Poseidon aircraft, named the Pride of Moray, and begin operating it. This aircraft returned to the UK on 4 February 2020, and CXX crews gained Limited Combat Ready status and permitted the UK to declare an Initial Operating Capability on time on 1 April 2020.

Since then, CXX has been well and truly back. The Squadron took part in both multinational exercises and live operations from the UK throughout the rest of 2020. In 2021, it dropped the first torpedo (an exercise variant) from an RAF Poseidon, publicly demonstrating that the Squadron’s submarine attack capability was back and as potent as ever. It also carried out the first overseas RAF Poseidon deployment from the UK by sending a crew, fittingly, back to Keflavík in Iceland for an overnight stop. Throughout 2022, while continuing to deliver on live operations in the North Atlantic, the Squadron deployed crews to Sigonella in Sicily for several weeks to take part in a major NATO maritime exercise in the Mediterranean. It also flew ZP803, named after Northern Irish CXX legend Terry Bulloch, in a flypast over a parade in Limavady to commemorate the RAF being awarded the Freedom of Causeway Coast and Glens Borough Council. In 2023, the Squadron continued to fly on live operations in the North Atlantic, and also deployed crews at short notice to fly in the Eastern Mediterranean, to assist in the international maritime security effort related to the conflict in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories.

As it goes from strength to strength operating a brand new, and world-class, Maritime Patrol Aircraft, the story of the legendary CXX Squadron continues to be written, and the most successful ASW squadron the world has ever seen has a bright future ahead.