20 June 2024 Military Aviation » Malta-based » Royal AF » 203 Squadron  

203 Squadron

Motto: Occidens oriensque - West and East.


With the Soviet Navy increasing its presence, especially in the Mediterranean, a permanent maritime patrol presence was needed, and so, four Avro Shackleton Mk.3/3 of 203 Squadron, RAF Ballykelly, North Ireland were ferried via Gibraltar to Malta in January 1969, being initially based at Hal-Far. The squadron was declared operational on 1 February, and continued using the Shackletons until replaced by the more capable Nimrod MR.1, which started arriving in October 1971. By this time, the squadron had already transferred its base to Luqa.

Except for a brief relocation to nearby NAS Sigonella in Sicily in March 1972 (see The Nimrods Arrive, below), the squadron would remain based in Malta until disbanded on 31 December 1977.

The squadron was reformed on 16 October 1996 as No 203 (Reserve) Squadron, when the Sea King OCU at St Mawgan was given the squadron number. It is currently responsible for the training of all Sea King SAR crew for Nos 22, 78 and 202 Squadrons.

WR974/H MR.3/3 MR 3 First flown 1.5.57 and A/Cn 24.5.57. Released for C(A) development work on 12 month free loan 31.5.57 and prepared by Avro Woodford/ Langar for tropical and winter trials. Delivered to the A&AEE Boscombe Down from Langar 5.7.57 and flown out of Idris, Libya, for armament trials in tropical conditions 7.57 - 8.57. On return to Boscombe transferred to 49MU 27.8.57 for additional 'winterization' by Avro CWP. Back to Boscombe Down 20.9.57 and despatched to CEPE Canada 8.10.57. Damaged 19.11.57 the aircraft was repaired in Canada and the trials completed. WR974 was delivered from Boscombe to 49MU Colerne 16.4.58 and modified to full Phase I standard by Avro CWP against Contract 6/Acft/15025/CB6(a). Allotted to 23MU 27.8.58 and ferried to Aldergrove 25.9.58. Issued to 203 Sqn 12.58 and coded ‘F’. Badly damaged landing at Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, 18.8.59, WR974 was repaired on site by Fairey Aviation of Canada 11.59 - 6.60 and returned briefly to 203 Sqn before delivery to Avro Langar for Phase II update. Retained on completion and transferred to the MoA Air Fleet for use as a Phase III TI aircraft against Contract KD/L/081 and 082/CB6(a). Suffered damage in hangar accident 20.4.64. Allocated to the A&AEE for radio and navigation trials 16.7.64 and delivered to Boscombe Down 7.9.64. Carried out winterization tests on equipment after which returned to HSA Langar for pre-service preparation 3.3.65. Reallocated to the A&AEE 17.5.65 for further tropical trials of Phase III navigation equipment and flight tests of the Griffon 58 equipped with modified oil coolers. Arrived at Boscombe 21.6.65 and returned to Langar 10.9.65 for more Tl work, including stand-by bomb bay heating, photographic electronic flash unit and sonobuoy homer tests against Contract KD/L/125/ CB6(a). To Boscombe Down 23.3.66 for acceptance trials on the new equipment, on completion of which WR974 was despatched to ASWDU at Ballykelly 20 6.66. To HSA Bitteswell 7.66 for modification transferring to Langar until allotted on loan to MinTech 17.2.67 for further evaluation of sonobuoy homer equipment. To the RAE Farnborough 12.5.67 for tests by the Radio Department. Transferred to the A&AEE Boscombe Down for armament trials to ASR 816 12.7.67. WR974 returned to Ballykelly for more ASWDU trials 8.2.68, departing to HSA Bitteswell 5.4.68 for preparation to current service Phase 111 standard, completed 27.8.68. To 203 Sqn coded ‘H’. Loaned to 42 Sqn 9.68 - 1.69, returning to 203 Sqn until 1.70, when sent to Bitteswell for mods 1.70 - 3.70. Back with 203 Sqn 26.3.70, but transferred to the Kinloss Wing 6.4.70 and coded K. To Cosford 11.12.70 for No.2 SoTT as an instructional airframe with maintenance serial 8117M. Offered for sale 1988 and purchased by P. Vallance of Charlwood, West Sussex. One of 5 that initially formed 203. Taken over from a 42 Squadron detachment that was at Luqa, to bring 203 up to strength. Replaced by WR980/S.
WR980/S MR.3/3 First flown 13.11.57 and A/Cn 25.11.57. Ferried to 23MU the following day and issued to 220 Sqn 1.58 as ‘O’, markings retained when the unit was renumbered 201 Sqn 1.10.58. Despatched to Avro Langar 3.59 for Phase I modernization, completed 12.59, when WR980 was delivered to 206 Sqn and became ‘A’. To Avro Langar 11.61 for Phase II update and repairs, completed 3.63, when the aircraft returned to 206 Sqn and was recoded D. Transferred to 201 Sqn as ‘L’ 3.64 and 120 Sqn 5.65, but allotted to HSA Langar 6.65 for Phase III (Viper) modifications, completed 3.66. To 206 Sqn 3.66 as S, a code retained with the Kinloss Wing from 2.67. Modified at HSA Bitteswell 8.69 - 9.69, WR980 returned to Kinloss until put up for disposal and flown to 5MU Kemble 3.4.70. To the RAF Fire Fighting and Safety School, Catterick, 26.11.70 and SoC Cat.5 (Scrap). Scrapped in UK late 1970.
WR986/G MR.3/3 A/Cn 30.4.58 and delivered to 23MU Aldergrove 13.5.58. Issued to 206 Sqn 6.58 and coded ‘F’. Sent to Avro Langar 10.59 for Phase I modification completed 12.59, when despatched to 203 Sqn and coded ‘K’. A visit to 49MU Coleme for mods 7.60 and a Cat.3 damage repair on site 5.61 interrupted service with 203 Sqn. In 10.61 WR986 was transferred to 201 Sqn and coded M. Allocated to Avro Langar 7.62 for Phase II update, completed 9.63. To 120 Sqn as E 9.63 until 10.65, when despatched to Avro Langar for Phase III modernization. Completed 9.66, when issued to 203 Sqn and coded ‘G’. Underwent mods at HSA Bitteswell 7.69 - 11.69, but otherwise remained with 203 Sqn until written off Cat.5 (Scrap) 1.9.71 following the discovery of severe damage due to rat infestation. The aircraft was broken up at Safi, Malta. One of 5 that initially formed 203.
WR987/D MR.3/3 A/Cn 23.5.58 and delivered to 23MU 28.5.58. Issued to 220 Sqn 6.58 and coded ‘R’, retained when unit renumbered 201 Sqn 1.10.58. Transferred to 120 Sqn 121.58 and coded ‘G’. Despatched to 49MU Colerne 6.60 for Phase I modification and repair by Avro CWP, completed 7.61, when returned to 120 Sqn still as ‘G’. To Avro Langar 2.62 for update to Phase II standard, completed 4.62, when again back to 120 Sqn, but as ‘C’. To HSA Langar 9.65 for Phase III (Viper) conversion, completed 12.66. To 203 Sqn and coded D. To HSA Bitteswell for mods/overhaul 5.68 - 8.68 and 10.69 - 12.69, remaining with 203 Sqn until flown to 5MU Kemble 12.1.72 for open storage. Transferred to Honington 17.6.72 for fire practice. SoC Cat.5 (Scrap). One of 4 last remaining Shackleton MR.3/3s in RAF service. Left Luqa for RAF Kemble on 12.01.72.
WR988/E MR.3/3 A/Cn 28.5.58 and delivered to 23MU 9.6.58. Issued to 120 Sqn 7.58 and coded ‘C’. To Avro 10.59 for mods/repair, returning to 120 Sqn 6.60, but despatched to 49MU Coleme 8.60 for Phase I modification by Avro CWP. On completion 8.61 delivered to 203 Sqn and coded ‘J’. Allotted to Avro 7.62 for Phase II update, completed 10.62, when transferred to 201 Sqn and coded ‘K’. To HSA Langar 6.65 for Phase III (Viper) modernization, completed 6.66. To 203 Sqn and coded ‘E’. To HSA for mods 1.69 - 7.69 and loaned to 42 Sqn briefly during summer 1970, but otherwise WR988 remained with 203 Sqn until flown to 5MU Kemble 1.72 for open storage. Ferried to Macrihanish 25.4.72 for fire-fighting practice and SoC Cat.5 (Scrap) on arrival. One of 5 that initially formed 203. Also was one of 4 last remaining Shackleton MR.3/3s in RAF service. Left Luqa for RAF Kemble on 12.01.72.
WR989/K MR.3/3 A/Cn 25.6.58 and delivered to 23MU 3.7.58. Prepared for service and issued to 120 Sqn 8.58 coded ‘B’. Suffered Cat.3 damage, which was repaired by Avro CWP 11.59 - 1.60. To 49MU Coleme 6.60 for Phase I modification by Avro CWP, returning to 120 Sqn 8.61. Allotted to Avro 10.61 for Phase II update, completed 12.61, when returned to 120 Sqn still as ‘B’. Despatched to Avro Langar 12.63 for modification to Phase III standard, completed 6.65. To 201 Sqn and coded K. Transferred to 120 Sqn 11.66 for a month before despatch to HSA Woodford for Viper installation 12.66 - 4.67. Returned to Kinloss on Wing strength still as ‘K’, but spent 5.67 at 60MU Leconfield for radar altimeter installation and on 8.4.68 was loaned to MinTech for low-temperature/high-humidity flight trials on the Viper installation at the A&AEE Boscombe Down (flying in calibrated water spray produced by the Canberra WV787 'tanker'). Returned to Kinloss Wing 3.7.68 and visited HSA Bitteswell 8.68 - 10.68 and 8.69 - 10.69 before transfer to 203 Sqn 3.70. Apparently retained ‘K’ as code. To Bitteswell 1.71 - 2.71 for mods, returning to 203 Sqn until ferried to 5MU Kemble for open storage 12.1.72. Despatched to Leeming 14.7.72 for fire fighting practice and SoC Cat.5 (Scrap) on arrival. One of 4 last remaining Shackleton MR.3/3s in RAF service. Left Luqa for RAF Kemble on 12.01.72.
XF700/F MR.3/3 First flown 9.7.58 and A/Cn 11.8.58. Delivered to 23MU 18.8.58 and issued to 120 Sqn 9.58 coded ‘A’. To 49MU 4.60 for Phase I mods and repair by Avro CWP, completed 4.61. Returned to 120 Sqn as ‘A’. To Avro 10.61 for Phase II update, returning to 120 Sqn 7.62 still as ‘A’. Allocated to HSA Langar 8.63 for Phase III modernization, completed 3.65, when delivered to 206 Sqn and coded ‘U’. Transferred to 201 Sqn as ‘M’ 5.66 and allotted to HSA Woodford for Viper installation 12.66. On completion 4.67 XF700 returned to the Kinloss Wing, retaining the ‘M’ code and apart from mods at HSA Bitteswell 5.68 - 6.68, the aircraft remained on Kinloss charge until 1.69, when transferred to 203 Sqn and coded ‘F’. Despatched to Nicosia, Cyprus, 26.10.71 for fire-fighting training and SoC Cat.5 (Scrap) on arrival. Scrapped 1.72 after spares recovery by 103MU. One of 5 that initially formed 203.
XF708/C MR.3/3 Delivered direct to 201 Sqn 1.3.59 already Phase I modified. Coded ‘O’ on arrival. Allocated to Avro Langar 5.62 for Phase II update, completed 8.63, when issued to 120 Sqn as ‘A’. To HSA Langar 11.65 for Phase III modernization and used for Tl of static vent cross-connector (to eliminate effects of yaw on pressure instruments) and Mods 1349, 1368 and 1403 from 19.10.66 to 6.2.67, when despatched to 203 Sqn and coded ‘C’. Apart from mods by HSA the aircraft remained with 203 Sqn. transferring from Ballykelly to Luqa with the unit 29.1.69, until 1.72 when flown to 5MU Kemble for storage. To Duxford 23.8.72 as a 'flying exhibit' for the Imperial War Museum. In practice XF708 was grounded on arrival. Current. One of 5 that initially formed 203. Also one of 4 last remaining Shackleton MR.3/3s in RAF service. Left Luqa for RAF Kemble on 12.01.72.


The Nimrods arrive.

Colin Pomeroy, who was a crew member with No. 203, describes the squadron’s time on these Islands. He has written a book No. 203 Squadron – The Malta Years. Anyone interested in purchasing a copy can e-mail me and I’ll pass on your details to Mr. Pomeroy.

Not mentioned in the account below, but listed in his book, is that, for several months after their return, the Nimrods were stationed in Park 4, the site of today’s Malta International Airshow. However, intelligence reports revealed a terrorist plot to attack the Nimrods and destroy as many as possible. The aircraft were then moved to park 2, were they would remain until the squadron’s disbandment in December 1977.

The following account was written for the Malta Aviation Sciety’s newsletter, and is being reproduced with permission of both the MAS and Mr. Pomeroy himself.

As the 1960s drew to a close, the Cold War was intensifying, and nowhere more so than in the Mediterranean, where the Soviet Navy’s surface and sub-surfaced presence was particularly strong. Thus, shortly after three of 203 Sqn’s Shackletons Mk.III aircraft had returned to RAF Ballykelly, in Northern Ireland, from a detachment to RAF Luqa to participate in exercise Eden Apple, Ballykelly Operation Order 12/68 was issued detailing the arrangements for the transfer of the squadron to Hal-Far (where the squadron was initially based until moving to Luqa).

During January 1969, four Shackletons transited to Malta, via Gibraltar: WR986, WR988, XF700 and XF708, whilst WR974 was taken over from a 42 Squadron detachment to the island. With five aircraft on line, the squadron was declared operational on 1 February, and until the last of these venerable aircraft were returned to the UK in January 1972, a routine of maritime patrols, operational detachments to other bases such as RAF Akrotiri and Masirah (where in the summer of 1971 search and rescue cover was provided for transiting Lightning fighters) was established. Activity was always at a high level, and as an example, the squadron flew over 3,600 hours in 1970.

In October 1971, the first of two Nimrod MR.1s (XV257 and XV258) arrived at Luqa, the squadron being at its initial full ‘maritime 4-jet’ strength by the end of December.

No sooner had the winds of change ceased to blow on 203, and life begun to settle into a routine, that political considerations* necessitated the move of the Nimrods to USNAS Sigonella in Sicily. It was from here that the aircraft continued their routine patrols across the waters of the Mediterranean, but with detachments necessary back to RAF St. Mawgan for servicing beyond the scope of the Sicilian facilities, and to Akrotiri for rest and recreation.

On 20 March, a Nimrod from Sigonella flew low over Luqa as the RAF ensign was lowered for what was then thought to be the last time, but happily, events proved otherwise, and during the period 21-29 April, the squadron re-deployed to Luqa, supported by 25 Hercules and 19 Belfast sorties.

The waters of the Mediterranean basin are far from ideal for searching for submarines by sonobouy, due to their varying salinity content, surface heating and the inflowing of fresh water from the surrounding land masses. So most initial submarine detections obtained by Nimrods were by radar, ESM or visual means, with sonics and magnetic anomaly detectors (MAD) information being more normally used to refine a datum. Many a Soviet nuclear-powered or conventional submarine found itself added to the NATO intelligence plot when caught napping by 203 Sqn crews. As far as surface combatants and support vessels were concerned – which tended to spend much of their time at well known anchorages such as Hammamet, Kithera and Lampedusa – photographic, visual and electronic intelligence gathering was considered to be the bread and butter side of airborne life for the squadron’s crews.

In April 1973, Flt Lt Colin Hughes’ crew beat all comers from the UK based maritime patrol squadrons to win the Aird-Whyte ASW competition, and then went on to beat the Old Commonwealth teams in the international Fincastle trophy competition held that autumn in Australia – a first for a non-UK based crew!

Sadly, all good things come to an end, and on the last day of 1977, the squadron disbanded at Luqa, and an era, appreciated both professionally and socially by RAF and Maltese citizens alike, came to an end. The name of 203 Squadron, though, has not passed away, for in October 1996, the Sea King OCU at St. Mawgan was renamed No. 203 (Reserve) Squadron, thus returning one of the oldest RNAS/RAF squadrons to active service. It could be argued that 203 Squadron is the oldest British military flying unit . . . but that’s another story!

* The author is here referring to the 1971 general election, which saw the return to power of the Malta Labour Party. It immediately expelled all NATO forces and the US Navy’s 6th Fleet, and asked that British Forces leave Malta by 1 January 1972. The deadline was later extended to 15 January, and then 31 March. An agreement reached in late March saw the British remaining in Malta until 31 March 1979.

203 Squadron – The last Days.

Colin Pomerey describes the last days of 203 squadron in Malta.

December 1977 saw the activities gathering pace ahead of the final disbandment, but flying continued, the last operational sortie being flown by Flt Lt Bowen and Crew 2 on the 30th. Prior to that though, another major SAR incident occurred. On the 9th Sqn Ldr Green and Crew 9 were scrambled in response to an incident close to Cyprus. A Mayday call had been received on 121.5 MHz by an Israeli C-130 Hercules from the container ship MV Jasmine, which was listing at an angle of 45º and in danger, it was thought by its skipper, of sinking. An RAF Hercules was already on scene when the Nimrod arrived in the area and had succeeded in directing another container ship, the Zim Tokyo, to the listing vessel. At 0925Z the Nimrod took over as On Scene Commander and as communications link with Olympus Radar, Israeli CH-53 Sea Stallion helicopters and their F-15 Eagle escort. Below the Jasmine had launched a lifeboat with some twenty persons aboard, with a further five crew members remaining on the ship. Eventually it became apparent that the list had stabilised and that the ship would be able to make port in Limassol under its own power and at this point the Nimrod came off task.

Tempered by the knowledge that the end was in sight for a particularly successful and happy squadron, social events continued at Luqa. On the 2nd of December the Air Commander Malta was dined out in the Officers’ Mess, whilst on the same evening a ladies dining-out night was held in the Sergeants’ Mess – to be followed by a formal dining-out night in the Sergeants’ Mess on the 7th. An emotive all ranks Squadron Party was held at the Verdala Hotel on the 9th, where the highlight of the evening was the ceremonial arrival of a huge cake decorated with Squadron badges made entirely from icing. The final official social events were receptions in the Airmen’s Club and Sergeants’ Mess on the 29th and a reception for 200 guests in the Officers’ Mess on the 30th. It has to be said that during these final days that as much sorrow was shared by members of the Maltese community as it was by members of 203 Squadron and their families.

The disbandment parade, some 200 personnel strong and with an audience of over 500, was held on Saturday the 31st of December, where the Reviewing Officer was AVM RD Austen-Smith, AOC AHQ Cyprus. The Air Commander Malta, Air Cdr HD Hall, and the Station Commander, Gp Capt CA Vasey, were in attendance, and the parade was commanded by Wg Cdr Carter, with Sqn Ldrs Johnson and Essex as flight commanders. The Squadron Standard was paraded by Fg Off Rawsthorne, escorted by MAEOp Mike Hill and FS Graham Johnson and FS W Bill Kirk. Music was provided by the RAF Luqa Station band, under its conductor Sgt P Vann. Sqn Ldr Tanner piloted the ‘mighty Nimrod’ flypast aircraft. The only downside to a most impressive, if sad, occasion was that high winds necessitated the parade being held in the main hangar.

The Squadron was honoured to have at the parade ex-Squadron Commanders and members, including Sqn Ldr ‘Tich’ Rochford (who had been on the Squadron in April 1918 when it had been renumbered from No 3 Squadron RNAS), Air Cdr L Fox, Gp Capt CA Masterman, Wg Cdr WE Hamilton, Wg Cdr GA King and Wg Cdr WL Smyth.

After the parade Flt Lt Mike Starling and Crew 10 carried out 203 Squadron’s last Nimrod flights, when returning the AOC to Cyprus, via RAF Akrotiri, on the 31st of December.

Of the seven aircraft on charge on disbandment day, Annex A to Admin Order 1/77, dated 31 Oct 77, listed their disposal as in the table below.

03.01.78 XV242 Flt Lt Riddett RAF St Mawgan
05.01.78 XV236 Flt Lt Caines RAF St Mawgan
09.01.78 XV249 Wg Cdr Carter RAF Kinloss. Via RAF Waddington carrying the Standard for laying-up at RAF College Cranwell.
12.01.78 XV263 Flt Lt Bowen RAF Kinloss
17.01.78 XV260 Flt Lt Laing RAF Kinloss
19.01.78 XV258 Sqn Ldr Green RAF Kinloss
19.01.78 XV252 Sqn Ldr Tanner RAF Wyton

The table below lists the Nimrods that are known to have served with 203 squadron. Also given is the departure date of aircraft that were in service when the squadron was disbanded on 31 December 1977.

XV228 d/d Woodford 03/11/2005 for MRA4 conversion.  
XV236   Departed for St.Mawgan on 05.01.78.
XV240   First to be seen with squadron badge on 16.11.73.
XV242 To MRA4 PA-3/ZJ517. Departed for St. Mawgan on 03.01.78.
XV249   Departed for Kinloss via Waddington on 05.01.78. Carried squadron Standard and standard party for the laying ceremony at RAFC Cranwell.
XV250   The aircraft was the winner of the 1973 Fincastle trophy held in Australia. The aircraft sported a red kangaroo badge for some time.
XV252   Departed for Wyton on 19.01.78.
XV253 To 9118M, to MRA.4 PA-8/ZJ521.  
XV257 w/o 03/06/1984, scr. Woodford 92.  
XV258 To MRA4 PA-5/ZJ515. Departed for Kinloss on 19.01.78.
XV260   Departed for Kinloss on 17.01.78.
XV261 To 8968M, scr. Lyneham 1995.  
XV263 To 8967M.Departed for Kinloss on 12.01.78.
13 Squadron 37 Squadron 38 Squadron 39 Squadron 73 Squadron 185 Squadron 203 Squadron 222 Squadron 283 Squadron 1357 Meteorological Flight Malta Communications Flight
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