No 120 Squadron was officially formed at Cramlington near Newcastle on 1 January 1918 with the intention of reinforcing the Independent Force in France. Although being formed on 1 January it was not until 18th that it began assembling. Indeed. When Major A.R. Stanley-Clark, MC, became commanding officer in June, the Squadron was still not fully formed.
In August 1918, the Squadron moved to Bracebridge Heath, near Lincoln, where it continued training with the DH9 aircraft – a two-seat single engine day bomber.
Before No.120 could become fully operational, the Armistice was signed on 11 November 1918, following which, the Squadron moved to Wyton where it remained in limbo until March 1919 when the unit was assigned to mail duties.
A regular international British Air Mail service was first proposed in July 1917. In January 1918, the idea was put forward again when the French government suggested to the British Air Minister that they should jointly explore the possibility of a service between London and Paris. Nothing came of this until 17 November 1918 when a basis of agreement was reached between the RAF and the Army Postal Service. While the RAF would carry mail by air between airfields, the Army Post Office would undertake all ground organisation and movement.
The inaugural mail flight, by an aircraft of No.55 Sqn., was arranged for 16 December 1918, but was postponed for four days due to bad weather. A little later, four Squadrons, Nos. 57, 99, 110 and 205 were tasked to provide all services for mail flights between Hawkinge and Cologne; Hawkinge and Valenciennes; Valenciennes and Namur, and Namur, Spa and Cologne. This arrangement was to be abbreviated when No.120 Squadron was posted to Hawkinge on 20 February 1919, it having been decided that 120 would share the England to Cologne flights with No.18 Sqn then based at Cologne and No.110 Sqn based at Maisoncelle, France.
Bad weather grounded all aircraft for almost a week, but on 1 March 1919, 120 Sqn began the worlds first regular international airmail service when its DH9 aircraft of ‘B’ Flight carried 23 bags of mail from Hawkinge to Maisoncelle, leaving at 0900 hrs in formation, and returning to Hawkinge the same day, with 18 and 110 Sqns taking the mail onwards. With the service gaining experience and momentum, letters could be delivered to the British Occupation Forces in the Rhineland within ten hours of leaning London.
By May 1919, the Squadron was being re-equipped with the DH10 aircraft – a twin-engine biplane with a speed of 115 mph at 15,00ft and capable of carrying a payload of 900lbs.
On the night of 14 – 15 May, Captain Barret with Lieutenant Fitzmaurice as navigator and Lieutenant Oliver as observer flying in a DH10 took off to fly mail non-stop from Hawkinge to Cologne, completing its journey in three hours – the first time the RAF had flown mail by night.
On 23 July 1919, No.110 Sqn ceased to be employed on the mail service and from that date all flights were made directly between Merheim (Cologne) and Lympne (Kent), with emergency landing grounds at Aachen, Ans, Nivelle and Marquise. However, due to the rapid post-war contraction of the armed forces, the RAF’s future participation in the airmail service was to be short lived. On 15 August 1919, Sir Samuel Instone established the ‘Cologne Service’, a commercial civilian organisation working as an air mail carrier for both the GPO in England and the Army Postal Service in Germany – 13 days later No. 120 Squadron was disbanded.
120 Squadron had carried the mail in 130 of 173 trips flown by the Forces Mail Service and had delivered 7,164 bags of mail weighing some 90 tons without loss. The Squadrons performance in this task led, in due course to a congratulatory letter from Winston Churchill, the then Secretary of State for Air.
At the beginning of The Second World War in September 1939, RAF Coastal Command had only eleven general reconnaissance squadrons, ten of which operated with the short range Avro Anson, and four long-range flying boat squadrons, two of which flew obsolete aircraft. Only the Commands single Lockheed Hudson squadron and its two Short Sunderland squadrons could be described as being capable of providing a reasonable shipping escort.
In April 1939, US Congress voted to allow the expansion of the US Army Air Corps and by August of that year Consolidated had an Air Corps production contract for 38 of the new B-24A aircraft. The outbreak of war, in September prompted the French government to place an order with Consolidated for 60 of the new bombers, with an option for a further 120, under the designation LB30MF (Mission Francais).
In Britain, development work on new heavy bombers was slow and at this time a British Purchasing Commission was at work in the USA seeking aircraft to fill the gap. In August 1940, the British Ambassador in Washington DC submitted a list to the US government showing Britain’s most immediate and important requirements; the second item on the list was for 50 Consolidated bombers. The British request was received sympathetically and in October 1940 an agreement was signed releasing twenty B-17 Fortresses and thirty-five B-24 Liberators. The B-17’s were all production models, but the Liberator batch was made up of all the US Army Air Corps order for test aircraft (YB-24) and most of the first production batch (B-24A).
The first B-24 Liberator to reach the UK landed safely at Squires Gate, Blackpool, on 14 March 1941.
Against this background of events and circumstances, No.120 Squadron was reformed at RAF Nutts Corner, Northern Ireland, being charged with the task of operating with this technically advanced aircraft against the U-boat. For the first time, aircraft could now operate far out into the Atlantic and down into the Bay of Biscay, to offer protection to convoys. It could be said that this was the beginning of the end for the U-boat.
On 2 June the first entry in the Squadrons Operations Record Book was made: -
At RAF Station Nutts Corner (Commanding Officer, Group Captain N.A.P. Pritchett), No120 Squadron, formed under authority of HQ Coastal Command. Postgram S/9411/22/23BRG, dated 2 June 1941. Conveying establishment No. WAR/CC/208, dated 1 June 1941. Authority ‘S’ aircraft comprise an initial issue of 9 Liberator aircraft.
On 6 June, Wing Commander W.N. Cummings, DFC. Arrived on posting from No. 204 Squadron to take command of No. 120 Squadron while, two days later three unarmed, unmodified Liberator aircraft (AM913, AM914 and AM922) were flown into Nutts Corner by Colonel McReynolds of the US Army Air Corps and Mr Homer G. Berry, of Consolidate d Aircraft.
On 7 August 1941 Wing Commander Cummings brought the first operationally modified Liberator – AM928/A, into Nutts Corner from Scottish Aviation, Prestwick, and the Squadron could at last, see the aircraft it was to take into action.
The Squadron officially began operations on 20 September when Flt/Lt. S.J. Harrison and crew in Liberator AM924. D/120 flew an anti-submarine patrol, accompanied by the Commanding Officer, Wg/Cdr. McBratney.
The aircraft left Nutts Corner around mid-day and headed due west through a corridor some ten miles wide running east west from Lough Erne to Baleek in Donegal. The planed task being an anti-submarine sweep out to 28 degrees west followed by a square search of an area and return to base, a round trip of some 17 hours. The weather was bad, with mountainous seas, continuous rain and bad visibility. After ten hours the aircraft was recalled to base.
The Squadrons first action (and that of the B-24 Liberator) came on 4 October 1941 when Fg /Off. T. Llewellyn and crew took off from Nutts Corner at 08:13 hrs flying Liberator AM924. D/120, they were tasked with the anti-submarine escort of convoy OG.75 some 500 miles west of Ireland. A search was carried out for submarines, which had been reported by the Senior Naval officer of the convoy. While carrying out this search a F/W Condor was sighted about one mile away to starboard. The Liberator gave chase, flying at a height of 600ft and was overhauling the Condor at a rate of 35 knots, when at a range of 800yds fire was opened with the front 20mm canons, 184 shells being fired. The Condor turned to starboard into cloud and D/120 turned to port to intercept, when the enemy aircraft came out of the cloud it was 200ft above the Liberator whose rear gunner fired, but he was hampered by the tail fin, the starboard side guns managed to get in a burst of fire at 600yds. The Condor then dived to 300ft but the chase had to be abandoned as the Liberator had received two hits in the engagement and the inner starboard engine had to be feathered. D/120 landed safely back at base at 18:00 hrs.
The squadron went on to sink 14 U-boats during WW2. They were disbanded on 4 June 1945 and reformed on 1 October 1946 when No.160 Squadron was renumbered.
'Yea, Though I Fly Through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, I Shall Fear No Evil. For I am at 50,000 Feet and Climbing.'