120 Squadron History
No 120 Squadron was originally formed at Cramlington, Northumberland, on 1st January 1918, under the command of Major AR Stanley Clarke, MC. The end of the war precluded operational service, but in March 1919 it became an Aerial Post Squadron carrying the world’s first regular international mail service between Hawkinge in Kent and Maisoncelle in France flying DH 9 aircraft. In May that year the Squadron re-equipped with DH 10 aircraft and operated the service to Cologne. The Squadron was disbanded in the late summer of 1919.
During 1940 it became clear that trans-Atlantic convoys could only continue if they were provided with air cover, especially over the large central gap, which was outside the range of conventional air support. Consequently No 120 Squadron was reformed on 6th June 1941 at Nutts Corner, near Belfast. The Squadron was equipped with the long-range Liberator aircraft which, by operating far out into the Atlantic, provided the assistance required and also the derivation of the Squadron’s motto ‘ENDURANCE’. The Squadron flew anti-U Boat operations and convoy escort, firstly from Nutts Corner and then from Ballykelly.
In April 1943 the Squadron moved to Reykjavik Iceland. Unperturbed by the changed surroundings, 120 managed to sink four submarines within the first six weeks. Due to the close association between the Squadron and Iceland, the White Icelandic Falcon was chosen as the emblem for the Squadron Badge. The bird, which has long been Iceland’s national emblem, is portrayed standing on the most northerly portion of the globe.
At the end of 1943 the Liberator Marks I and III were replaced by the Mark V, which carried ASV III radar and Leigh Light. By this time, however, the U-Boats were operating much closer to European shores and sightings became less frequent. Accordingly, the Squadron returned to Ballykelly and remained there until the end of the War. Patrols were flown in support of Operation Overlord in June 1944, but the War did not stop there, and three more submarines were destroyed before May 1945. The Squadron emerged as the RAF’s top-scoring anti-submarine squadron, with fourteen U-Boats destroyed and half shares in three others, plus at least eight damaged.
Disbanded in June 1945, the Squadron was reformed at RAF Leuchars with Lancaster aircraft in October 1946. In 1947 the Squadron was detached to Palestine and flew patrols to detect illegal immigrants.
In January 1950 the Squadron moved to RAF Kinloss, where in March 1951 the first Shackleton Mk Is were received. The squadron actually carried out the flight tests for the “Shack” keeping 10 aircraft almost continuously flying for 3 months. The crews flew 300 hours in those 3 months which is more than we fly in 1 year these days!
A further move in 1952 took the Squadron to RAF Aldergrove, where it remained for seven years, during which time the Mark I Shackleton gave way to the Mark II and then the Mark III. During this period the Squadron saw service all over the world, from Australia to Norway and the Far East to the Caribbean.
The Squadron returned to RAF Kinloss in April 1959 and on 14th August 1961 Her Majesty the Queen presented the Squadron with its Standard. The Squadron’s excellent war record earned ‘The Sovereign’s appreciation for outstanding operational service’ and resulted in the requirement for 25 years’ continuous service being waived, an honour shared only with No 617 (Dambuster) Squadron.
During the sixties the main operating area was the North Atlantic, with the Squadron exercising with Royal Navy and NATO forces, although frequently it was called upon to locate and shadow Soviet naval forces. In 1966 detachments were sent to the Far East to assist during the Indonesian confrontation and during 1968-9 further detachments operated from Sharjah, where sorties were flown to detect illegal immigrants into the Persian Gulf States.
On 21st December 1970, the Squadron flew the last ASW Shackleton away from RAF Kinloss and re-equipped with the Nimrod MR Mk I in February 1971. Four months later CXX, as 120 Squadron is known, took the new aircraft on its first West-about trip, which was subsequently diverted onto a SAR incident whilst on a demonstration flight in Singapore. Regular Squadron deployments to RAF Tengah, FEAF, started in April 1972. During this year the Squadron also won the coveted Aird-Whyte inter-squadron ASW trophy.
Late 1973 saw the Squadron’s involvement in the ‘Cod War’ flying surveillance sorties over Iceland’s disputed fishing limits. Support was provided to the RN and to British trawlers in the face of harassment by Icelandic gunboats.
Along with other Nimrod squadrons, CXX’s tasking was expanded in 1977 to include Operation Tapestry to locate, report and photograph foreign fishing boats within the UK’s new 200 mile fishing limit and also to monitor the North Sea oil rigs and pipelines.
The Squadron recorded its 60th Anniversary in January 1978. The celebrations included a commemoration flight over the Atlantic to lay a wreath in the area where Wg Cdr Longmore, a wartime CO, was killed in action.
New ground was broken in 1978 when the Squadron took part in exercise Midlink, which was flown from Karachi, On 1st April 1979 a Squadron aircraft made the last military flight out of Luqa, Malta. In 1980 the Squadron again won the Aird-Whyte trophy and CXX crews were creditably involved in two major Search and Rescue incidents, the Alexander Keiland oil rig disaster and the MV Finneagle rescue.
During 1981 the Squadron converted to the Nimrod MR Mk 2. This updated and more sophisticated version of the ‘Mighty Hunter’ was first tested in combat during the Falklands Crisis of spring 1982. CXX crewed the first Mk 2 Nimrods to arrive at Ascension Island, the Forward Operating Base during the campaign. A CXX crew made the first Falklands to UK direct flight on 18 November 1983, covering the 7689 nms in 18 hours and 15 minutes. Over 70 members of the Squadron received the South Atlantic Medal for their involvement in the Campaign and the Squadron was awarded the Battle Honour ‘Falklands 1982’.
Other notable events in the Eighties include winning the Wilkinson Sword for Tactics in 1982 and 1983, a feat never before achieved. In addition the Squadron was awarded the Smallwood Electronic Warfare Trophy and the Coastal Command Cup in 1982. In March 1984 the No 120 Squadron Prichard Memorial Window was dedicated at St Columba’s Church, RAF Kinloss. A further win of the Aird-Whyte trophy in 1985 led to the Squadron competing in, and winning, the prestigious Fincastle Trophy in 1986. During August 1987 an epic SAR mission involving a CXX crew took place from Ascension. Hunting for a downed aircraft, the crew flew sorties totalling 93 hours of flying time, this action leading to the award of the Arthur Barret Memorial Prize for Outstanding Airmanship to the Captain. The Plessey Trophy was also won in this year. The 70th Anniversary was celebrated in I988 and HRH The Prince Philip presented CXX with a replacement Squadron Standard.
During this time the cold war was fought in the North Atlantic with the Nimrods flying numerous sorties aganst Soviet submarines, warships and surveillance ships.
In recent years, the Squadron has continued to maintain the high standard of operational capability first exhibited during World War II. Indeed, history repeated itself for, just as CXX crews were the first to deploy to Ascension Island for the Falklands Campaign, so on 12th August 1990 CXX was the first Squadron to deploy crews to the Persian Gulf area for Operation Granby following the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. The Squadron boss at the time Wing Commander Neal commanded the Nimrod detachment at Seeb International airport in Oman where mainly surveillance flights of the Persian Gulf was flown. However as the war dragged on other tasks were carried out or experimented in by the detachments, including overland combat search and rescue. Their greatest success came in the target vectoring of RN Lynx helicopters using Sea Skua missiles and US A-6 Intruder aircraft against the Iraqis fast patrol boats
In 1993 crews deployed to Sigonella Sicily for Operation Sharp Guard, the blockade of the former republic of Yugoslavia. There sorties were flown in support of NATO and the fledgling WEU naval force in the Adriatic enforceing the embargo and guiding the friendly warships to suspicious merchant ships.
The Squadron has regular deployments to Lajes in the Azores, Keflavik in Iceland,Bodo, Andoya in Norway, Valkenburg in Holland, Sigonella in Sicily, Lann Bihoue in France, some of these at short notice. We take part in numerous NATO exercises around Europe and fly in support of the RN especially at weekends!
Search and Rescue is presently our biggest job with a crew on continuous 1 hour standby to support the SAR helicopters in any eventuality. We also provide support to the Fast Jets who deploy across the Atlantic carrying out SAR Trails to North America on a regular basis.
Major detachments the squadron has been involved with in the last 12 months include 2 aircraft circumnavigating the globe combining participation in Exercise Stardex 99 in Malaysia with the first Nimrod visit to the Japanese MPA base at Atsugi, Tokyo.
In November 1999 a single Nimrod visited Argentina for the first time since the Falklands Conflict to participate in a Search and Rescue exercise. The crew taking part had been the Fincastle trophy winners for 1999 as a well done. At the same time 2 aircraft deployed to San Diego for a Fleetex, which a workup for a newly operational aircraft carrier, in this case it was the USS John C Stennis.
The last major event the Squadron took part in was the deployment of 4 crews and aircraft to Florida for Exercise Rum Punch in May, which is a yearly exercise for the Nimrods to practice a live drop of the Stingray torpedo.
At the end of May 2 aircraft departed Kinloss for a 5 week detachment to Hawaii to take part in this years RIMPAC exercise which had representatives from Australia, Canada, Japan, South Korea and of course the United States.
In the longer term, 120 Sqn will become the first to receive the brand new Nimrod, the MRA-4, planning to be fully operational with the new aircraft in 2004.