No. 54 Squadron (RAF): Second World War

No. 54 Squadron (RAF): Second World War

No. 54 Squadron (RAF) during the Second World War

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No.54 Squadron spent the entire Second World War flying the Supermarine Spitfire. During 1940 it helped to protect the Dunkirk evacuations and took part in the Battle of Britain, before in the summer of 1942 it moved to Australia, arriving after the worst of the Japanese raids were over.

No.54 Squadron was reformed as a fighter squadron in 1930, flying a series of biplanes until in March 1939 it received its first Spitfires. The Spitfire squadrons were considered too precious to send to France, and so No.54 spent the first few months of the war flying defensive patrols.

It's serious combat debut came during the evacuation from Dunkirk, when a significant proportion of the RAF's Spitfire squadrons were used to prevent German bombers from reaching the beaches. The squadron then played a major part in the first half of the Battle of Britain, eventually having to be moved north to Yorkshire in September to recover. The squadron returned to the south coast in February 1941, and until November took part in the costly fighter sweeps over northern France.

In June 1942, after a six month break in Scotland, No.54 Squadron departed for Australia, as part of a Spitfire wing sent to protect the north coast against Japanese raids. Although the squadron was in place by August, its aircraft were constantly diverted to the Middle East, and No.54 didn't return to combat until January 1943. By this time the threat of Japanese attack was receding, and the raids stopped in July, but the squadron remained in Australia to the end of the war.

March 1939-February 1941: Supermarine Spitfire I
February-May 1941: Supermarine Spitfire IIA
May-August 1941: Supermarine Spitfire VA
August 1941: Supermarine Spitfire IIA
June-November 1941: Supermarine Spitfire VB
November 1941-March 1942: Supermarine Spitfire IIB
March-May 1942: Supermarine Spitfire VB
September 1942-May 1944: Supermarine Spitfire VC
March 1944-September 1945: Supermarine Spitfire VIII

June 1931-May 1940: Hornchurch
October 1939-March 1940: Detachments to Rochford
May-June 1940: Catterick
June 1940: Hornchurch
June-July 1940: Rochford
July 1940: Hornchurch
July-August 1940: Catterick
August-September 1940: Hornchurch
September 1940-February 1941: Catterick
February-March 1941: Hornchurch
March-May 1941: Southend
May-June 1941: Hornchurch
June 1941: Debden
June-August 1941: Hornchurch
August 1941: Martlesham Heath
August-November 1941: Hornchurch
November 1941-June 1942: Castletown
June 1942: Wellingore

August 1942-January 1943: Richmond (Australia)
January 1943-June 1944: Darwin
June-October 1944: Livingstone
October 1944-September 1945: Darwin
September-October 1945: Melbourne

Squadron Codes: KL, DL

1939-1942: Fighter Command
1942-1945: Fighter Wing, Australia


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Hornchurch Aerodrome Historical Trust

The year of 1939 began quietly enough with a visit to the aerodrome by twenty-two officers of the 2nd infantry division of the Aldershot command of the British army. They arrived on the Imperial Airways liner ‘Hannibal’ to watch a tactical exercise.
Over the next few months Hornchurch entertained both French and Romanian Missions, as well as a Siamese military contingent to show the running of a British RAF fighter station.
The ‘Home Defence Exercise’ took place in early August as a prelude of things to come.

The following is an extract taken from the station diary for late August and early September1939:

22.8.39 Instructions received to recall all officers above the rank of Flight Lieutenant.
23.8.39 All regular personnel recalled from leave.
24.8.39 Station defence scheme put into operation and all aircraft of squadrons took up positions at dispersal points. Camouflage of all buildings begun by Works and Buildings, with the operations room manned continuously with a skeleton crew.
25.8.39 fifteen officers arrived on posting for war appointments.
26.8.39 Certain war vehicles collected from Wembley.
27.8.39 Class E’ and Volunteer Reserve personnel begin to arrive.
28.8.39 one officer and forty-four men of the National Defence Guard and arrived to augment the station personnel on guard duties.
31.8.39 Splinter proof boxes placed in position in hanger windows by Works and Buildings.
1.9.39 Operations room manned continuously with complete staff.
2.9.39 General mobilization of the Royal Air Force including the Auxiliary Air Force and Reserves.

A very rare sight at Hornchurch aerodrome, a Hawker Hurricane parked up on the apron with a Miles Magister aircraft in the background, this picture was taken in early 1939.Photo source, Percy Morfill.

On the 1st August 1939, 250 cadets of the Office Training Corps Air Section arrived to look around the aerodrome. When they were given the opportunity to view the new Spitfires of 54 squadron, pre-war coded DL, they all showed a very keen interest in the new machines.Photo source, Keystone.

Although war had now been declared with Germany, the aerodrome was playing host to a film crew from the London Film Productions, who were shooting some flying sequences with B’ flight of 74 squadron, the semi documentary film revolved around life in fighter and bomber command and was titled ‘The Lion Has Wings’ staring Merle Oberon and Ralph Richardson.

Just three days into the war, on the morning of 6th September 1939, a single aircraft returning from patrol over the English Channel was plotted as ‘hostile’ by the 11 Group controllers at Uxbridge, the Hurricanes of 56 Squadron based at RAF North Weald, were scrambled to intercept the raider. None of the pilots involved had ever seen combat and almost certainly none of them had ever seen an enemy aircraft at this early stage of the war.

This photograph shows pre-war pilots taking a break outside the main hanger at Hornchurch between flying practice on the 1st August 1939, just one month before hostilities started. Photo source, Getty Images.

An informal group shot of 65 squadron pilots at Hornchurch in 1939. Photo source, the Australian War Memorial. A view across the eastern boundary of the aerodrome on the 3rd September 1939, the day war was declared. Bell tents were erected by 65 squadron out on dispersal in readiness for the Germans next move. Photo source, Percy Morfill.

The Hurricanes of 56 Squadron became split in their hunt for the so-called ‘intruder’ and in turn, these aircraft were plotted as ‘hostile’ and soon the Ops Room table in Uxbridge became cluttered with ‘hostile’ plots. As a result, further squadrons were scrambled to investigate and Spitfires of 54, 65 and 74 Squadrons from Hornchurch were sent out.

Once the Spitfires of 74 Squadron’s A’ Flight, led by ‘Sailor’ Malan caught sight of one of these suspect plots, Malan ordered ‘Tally Ho’ over the radio, which was the universal signal to attack. Almost as soon as he gave the order, he realised that he had made a mistake – the ‘hostile’ aircraft were in fact two of the Hurricanes of 56 Squadron. In the ensuing melee, both Hurricanes were shot down and although one pilot baled out safely, the other, 26-year-old Pilot Office Montague Hulton-Harrop had the unfortunate distinction of being the first RAF pilot to be shot down and killed over England during the Second World War, albeit by his own side.

King George VI congratulates Flight Lieutenant Alan Deere of 54 squadron on his award of the Distinguished Flying Cross presented at RAF Hornchurch. Air Officer Commander-in-Chief, Fighter Command. Photo source, Imperial War Museum.

Pilot Officer Johnny Allen of 54 Squadron receives the DFC from King George VI at Hornchurch on the 27th June 1940. Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding Air Officer Commander-in-Chief, Fighter Command, standing in the centre, just behind the King with his hands clasped behind his back. Photo source, Imperial War Museum.

Byrne and Freeborn on landing back at Hornchurch were put under arrest and quickly brought before a court martial. Fortunately, both men were acquitted, for it became clear that in the confused atmosphere prevailing on the day, it was impossible to apportion blame. However, this whole affair led to considerable ill-feeling in some quarters. Malan had appeared for the prosecution at the court martial and had accused Freeborn of being irresponsible and of ignoring orders. Freeborn, on the other hand believed that Malan was covering his own back and indeed during the court proceedings, Freeborn’s counsel, Sir Patrick Hastings, accused Malan of being “a bare faced liar.” Remarkably, once the dust of the court martial settled, the two men continued to serve together in 74 Squadron, although not surprisingly relations between the two never recovered.

The incident became known as the ‘Battle of Barking Creek’ although the action took place over rural Essex, nowhere near Barking Creek but as this unattractive feature of east London was the butt of several music hall gags of the time, it was probably inevitable that this misunderstanding would be christened thus by the rank and file of the RAF, who as always showed humour in adversity.

King George VI shakes hands with Flight Lieutenant Dickie Lee, after he had presented him with his DSO and DFC medals. Photo source, Imperial War Museum.

Flight Lieutenant Dickie Lee, after being awarded the DSO and DFC, and Flying Officer Kenneth Blair, after being awarded the DFC, by King George VI at RAF Hornchurch. The awards were given for their distinguished service as fighter pilots with 85 Squadron over France during the Dunkirk evacuations. Photo source, Imperial War Museum.

So, after the dramatic start to September, things began to settle down into a long period of inactivity for the Hornchurch squadrons, as their diary entries show the following weeks of the anti-climax in what became a waiting game for the enemy to make its next move. No contact had been made throughout October and even into early 1940, a period that would come to be known as the ‘Phoney War’.

By May of 1940, the German war machine marched across the Dutch, Belgian and French boarders pursuing the British Expeditionary Force back towards the coast and within weeks had driven the British onto the beaches of Dunkirk, surrounded by the German army. With ‘Operation Dynamo’ being put to into action back in England, the plan to evacuate as many troops as possible from under the noses of the Germans using a flotilla of small boats and Naval warships with air support being given by squadrons flying most notably from RAF Hornchurch. This aerial dual was a prelude for things to come, it would also make household names of many of the young pilots flying these dangerous sorties.

An extract from Prime minister Winston Churchill’s speech delivered to the House of Commons on the 18th June 1940, which gave us these now famous words. ‘What General Weygand called the Battle of France is over. I expect that the Battle of Britain is about to begin. Upon this battle depends the survival of Christian civilization. Upon it depends our own British life, and the long continuity of our institutions and our Empire’. ‘Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say’, “This was their finest hour.”

After an awards ceremony at Hornchurch, the decorated pilots cheer King George VI. They are, (left to right): Pilot Officer Johnny Allen, Flight Lieutenant Robert Stanford Tuck, Flight Lieutenant Alan Deere, Flight Lieutenant Adolph Malan, Squadron Leader James Leathart and an RAF bugler. Photo source, Imperial War Museum.

No. 54 Squadron (RAF): Second World War - History


The history of RAF Akrotiri began on 1 July 1 1955 when the first 30 personnel posted to the 'Unit' established themselves in the flat, dry, rocky scrubland on the windswept Akrotiri Peninsula. Nicosia Airport was temporarily closed as a result of terrorist activity and the handling of the island's civil aviation was diverted to Akrotiri - with a tented 'civil airport reception centre to match. An RAF Regiment Light Anti-Aircraft Wing was also brought in. By the end of August 1956 Station strength had reached 260 officers and 2864 other ranks: a massive increase in 12 months. It brought with it 1430 personnel on the daily sick-parade, mainly a result of the over crowding and unsanitary conditions, as construction lagged behind the unforeseen demand for accommodation. From its rough beginnings with caravans and mud tracks, the Station was laid out, roads made, hangars and some permanent buildings constructed. Three new barrack blocks were opened allowing another 32 families onto the Station into formerly misappropriated married quarters.

A small theatre club was in existence and out along Ladies' Mile, the Sailing Club had been formed. In its first 12 months as a functioning operational airfield, RAF Akrotiri had not only survived but had expanded and flourished. Although continuously affected by the EOKA troubles in one way or another and with more than a quarter of the year spent on a full war footing for the Suez Crisis, morale was high and the pioneer spirit was still strong.

Christmas 1963 once more saw the Station standing-to this time for the first troubles between the Greek and Turkish Cypriot communities, occurring scarcely three years after the Republic had gained its independence. The following year was to be another filled with change. Missile-armed, all-weather fighters known as Javelins, arrived to augment the existing air defence capability, with Lightning interceptors to reinforce them.
No 1563 Flight arrived with Whirlwind helicopters for communications and Search-And-Rescue duties. RAF Transport Command took over the civil trooping commitment between UK and Cyprus and opted to use RAF Akrotiri as the terminal airfield in lieu of Nicosia.

In January 1969, the Canberra bombers were phased out of service and Akrotiri's 4 squadrons were disbanded. In their place came 2 squadrons of Vulcan Bombers from UK to maintain the CENTO Strike Force.

It had been a particularly busy year at RAF Akrotiri and the Station was looking forward to a more relaxed summer. But then came 2 August 1990 and the Station found itself thrust into the centre of the Gulf War activities. Operation Granby was up and running. The year had already been packed full of activity for RAF Akrotiri. A full programme of Armament Practice Camps (APCs) had been overlaid with a sequence of other intensive operational and training detachments, culminating in our use as reception airfield and Forward Mounting Base for Exercise Purple Venture 90. This full-scale Command Post Exercise involved some 600 personnel in setting up a Two-Star Joint Force HQ Akrotiri for the notional out of area deployment of a two-Brigade force. RAF Akrotiri looked forward to August when a sharp drop in planned activities would give personnel the opportunity to draw breath and relax briefly - then came 2 August. When asked on this occasion to reconfirm its requirement for reinforcement personnel to sustain 24-hour operations, the Station was not overly excited. When the first of these reinforcements arrived within 96 hours it confirmed what everybody had by then realised - this was no routine planning 'dust off ' but the first steps in what were to become known as Operations GRANBY, DESERT STORM, DESERT SHIELD, PROVIDE COMFORT and HAVEN. Co-incident with the request to review reinforcement requirements, a stream of other orders and instructions began to arrive from MOD and HQ Strike Command.

Most important was the order to freeze the APC squadron changeover then in train between the Tornado F3-equipped No 5 and No 29 Squadrons. After frenetic preparations, 12 aircraft and 20 crews deployed to Dhahran on 11 August. Within 2 hours of their arrival in theatre some of these aircraft mounted Air Defence (AD) patrols thus becoming the first UK units to arrive and be committed. Back at Akrotiri, 11/12 August saw the transit of 12 Jaguars from No 54 Squadron en route to Thumrait, while on 17 August 6 RAF Germany Phantoms, drawn from No 19 and No 92 Squadrons, arrived to provide a key element of our own emerging AD system. This was further enhanced by the arrival of No 20 Squadron RAF Regiment equipped with Blindfire Rapier SAMs. Visiting Air Defence Ground Environment staff from UK, working with staffs from HQ British Forces Cyprus and 280 Signals Unit, quickly developed a comprehensive AD organisation, while local operations staff produced aircraft dispersal and local air defence plans. By the end of the month, a further deployment of No 11 Squadron F3s passed through Akrotiri to replace aircraft and crews from the original Dhahran detachment, who subsequently recovered to UK via Cyprus. August also saw the transit of Nimrod Maritime Patrol Aircraft en route to Seeb, while other Nimrods arrived to operate from Akrotiri. Many of these operations involved Air-to-Air Refuelling (AAR) support and, throughout this deployment phase, a constant stream of Tri-Star, VC10 and Victor tankers passed through Cyprus. Meanwhile, the Air Transport (AT) force of Tri-Star, VC10 and Hercules started intensive slip operations through Akrotiri. Further augmented by a huge variety of civil charter and other nation's air transport aircraft, the AT effort was to set the main pattern of air operations at Akrotiri. At varying levels of intensity, AT operations continued from the initial deployment phase through embargo operations to military build-up, support for hostilities, withdrawal and, ultimately, relief to Kurdish refugees in Northern Iraq and Turkey.

Some statistics from this immense task may serve to illustrate its impact on Akrotiri. For example, April 1990 saw 84 AT movements, while October brought 1460. Total October aircraft movements at 3162 were the highest since the Cyprus conflict in 1974. Such a surge in activity levels impacted on every element at RAF Akrotiri. While Station personnel bore the brunt of bringing the airfield to 24-hour operations, the arrival and integration of reinforcement personnel meant that, after some 2 weeks, most Sections were able to adopt sustainable three-shift work patterns. Faced with the influx of reinforcements and detachments and the huge throughput of crews, managing accommodation became something of a continuous nightmare. Bunk bedding and room sharing sometimes by up to 16 people in standard rooms became the norm, and some unlikely areas were pressed into service, with mattresses on floors, to serve as emergency accommodation. The system was severely stretched but the Station never had to resort to tents and, while many customers may have been far from comfortable, none went without a bed. Catering on 24-hour basis for such numbers also posed immense problems, on which were overlaid record-breaking demands for in-flight meals. Accounting in terms of both manpower and money also brought new challenges. While supporting intensive airfield operations, engineering and supply staffs had their own mountains to climb. In a very short timescale, the Armourers found themselves controlling one of the largest bomb dumps in the RAF - hastily reconverted from peacetime storage use by the efforts of a locally - based squadron of Royal Engineers and Property Services Agency. The inload and outload of those dumps involved all 3 Services in intensive working which ensured support for the strike aircraft. While continuing with its greatly increased resupply tasks, the Joint Supply Unit faced the major challenge of receiving, storing and managing record quantities of aviation fuel.
Normal weekly issue of AVGAS is 960 cubic metres in Granby this rose to a weekly average of 4715 cubic metres. Between 1 - 27 January 1991, more fuel was issued than in the whole of 1989. As the possibility of hostilities grew ever nearer and British land forces were committed to the UN multi-national force facing Iraq, plans were developed to cope with potential casualties. A complex aeromedical evacuation system was put in place and medical services and facilities at Akrotiri were fully committed. The Princess Mary's RAF Hospital (TPMH) expanded from its normal 60-bed capacity to its full 200-bed capability by re-activating and equipping normally dormant wards. British and Belgian service medical teams reinforced TPMH staff. At the same time, a 300-bed Low Care Transit Facility (LCTF) was established in a large storage building adjacent to the airfield to provide a holding area for up to 300 patients daily in transit from the Gulf in C130 aircraft and transferring to civil Boeing 737s at Akrotiri.

The Station Medical Centre was reinforced to provide cover for the greatly increased Akrotiri population, and also to allow the SMO to become the focal point for managing all the various aspects of the aeromed task. These ranged from training local Army and RAF personnel as stretcher bearers, through managing the 150 aeromed team personnel deployed to Akrotiri to provide medical cover on flights to and from the Gulf and UK, to setting up the necessary documentation cell. Akrotiri was the only link in the aeromedical chain where a 100% check on aircraft patient manifests could be made to enable the Medical Evacuation Cell at United Kingdom Land Forces to designate UK destination hospitals. Some 800 patients passed through the aeromed chain during Granby, actual battle casualties were mercifully few, and it was with great relief that the medical facilities were quickly disbanded on cessation of hostilities. In fact the LCTF, which took some 17000 stock items to establish, was transformed in 24 hours into the venue for Akrotiri's victory celebration party! RAF Akrotiri, in common with all other British Forces Cyprus facilities, had assumed a high Internal Security (IS) alert posture.

The then-resident No 34 Squadron RAF Regiment and RAF Police personnel mounted higher profile operations these involved manning additional Observation Posts, rapid deployment of snap vehicle check-points and patrols by the resident Wessex of No 84 Squadron. There was also increased patrolling of all approaches including our extensive coastline. The 'professional' IS forces were augmented by elements from the Station Guard Force (SGF), a specially trained squad totalling some 100 personnel drawn from all Sections and Units across the Station. SGF deployment put considerable extra manpower demands on already stretched units, but their use throughout the operation greatly enhanced the defensive posture. IS operations were further complicated when, as acclimatised troops, No 34 Squadron was put on standby for deployment to the Gulf in two half-squadron groups. In due course they were replaced at Akrotiri by No 2 Squadron RAF Regiment and, at the beginning of September, the first of No 34 Squadron elements deployed to Bahrain to constitute the defence force for the RAF detachment in Muharraq. The second element deployed in early October to Dhahran where they became part of a tri-national Saudi, US/UK force defending the air base and accommodation compounds. No 34 Squadron returned to Akrotiri and, after a short spell of leave, resumed responsibility for Akrotiri external IS defence in mid-December.

The outbreak of the Gulf War hostilities on 16 January 16 1991 led to a further heightening in Cyprus security states and once again all defence forces were heavily committed to the IS task. In particular, the Wessex of No 84 Squadron undertook a 50% increase in flying rate and a four-fold increase in numbers of aircraft on standby, including aircraft detached to other key locations within the Sovereign Base Areas. Sea defences had been enhanced by the arrival of three RN Attacker Class fast patrol boats whose high-profile patrolling of SBA waters, coupled with the operations of the attached Nimrod MPA, increased maritime deterrent capabilities immeasurably. The end of hostilities brought a welcome return to more normal operations for the IS forces. However, the recovery of forces from the Gulf and subsequent operations for Kurdish relief and deterrence of further Iraqi aggression meant that, with only a few short breaks, the airfield continued to support 24-hour operations some time after the conflict. The existence of the Cyprus bases and their instant availability to support large-scale deployments to the Middle East were critical factors in enabling Britain to provide speedy military assistance to UN operations in the Gulf conflict.

Towards the end of 2002 the middle east looked set to be firmly, once again, in the media spotlight. The threat from the use of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) from Iraqi forces under the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein proved such that the US Department of Defence and the UK Ministry of Defence felt it necessary to draw up plans for a possible Gulf War II. It came as no surprise at all to the residents of RAF Akrotiri that this lone island in the east of the Mediterranean would figure largely in those plans.
These plans became reality, Operation IRAQI FREEDOM commenced with UK forces operating under the code name of Operation TELIC.
In January 2003 no decision had yet been made as to forthcoming war with Iraq. UN inspectors in the country were still urging Saddam Hussein to comply with resolutions concerning WMDs. On 7 January the government ordered the largest deployment of troops since the first Gulf War. RAF Akrotiri commenced 24 hours operations enabling 2 Gp aircraft constant transit to and from the Middle East. With the expected numbers and the diversity of aircraft a lot of work was needed to make the airfield suitable and it soon became a construction site. Dispersals were added and existing ones enlarged. The airfield had a very short space of time in which to ready itself for some of the largest aircraft in the world to start transiting through. The station had quickly become a great deal busier and there was on ominous sign for the future as the weather also played its part. Conditions were such that a tornado formed just off the coast and threatened to cause havoc across the station. However, with fast jets airborne and out of danger and some near misses for the newly resident Royal Navy Task Group, RAF Akrotiri had a narrow escape. As the tornado moved north Limassol was not so lucky and a great deal of storm damage was caused.
February 2003 saw the beginning of the large influx of USAF personnel mainly to support the large tanker fleet that were to take up residence at RAF Akrotiri. This was a far cry from a base used to having only a handful of aircraft remaining at the airfield at any one time, along with occasional Armed Practice Camps (APC). Alongside the tanker fleet was a whole host of various rotary and fixed wing aircraft. Fitting them all onto this small peninsular proved to be a real jigsaw puzzle with aircraft regularly using taxiways as a means of parking. The month saw some other very interesting arrivals to the region, two of the largest were the US Aircraft Carriers USS Harry Truman and USS Theodore Roosevelt and their accompanying task units. The logistics required to support the carrier groups were enormous. RAF Akrotiri supported the constant ship-to-shore flights providing fuel, supplies and mail to the 36,000 sailors.

February also saw another example of Mother Natures helping hand with the second wettest month since 1956 when a total of 152.8mm of rain fell in a month. that averages just 66.1mm.

March 2003 saw a significant escalation of activity accompanied by rumours that a 'war with Iraq was imminent. The construction of the extra dispersals was complete, and RAF Akrotiri could boast on extra 11 acres of dispersal space for aircraft to park. The airfield was crammed with aircraft and personnel. In all over 200 extra US Forces were now resident on base but the atmosphere was one of anticipation. Towards the end of the month the first Aeromed flights began to arrive from the Middle East for TPMH. The stark reality what was happening was close to everyone's thoughts and gave! an insight into what was to come. Security Awareness around the base rose considerably after war protesters managed to gain access to the base. Some were arrested as a result of their trespass but many remained just outside the perimeter protesting peacefully. The station Fire and Rescue service received reinforcements when 20 USAF fire-fighters joined them. For the first time in RAF history. UK and USAF fire-fighter were working side-by-side. The partnership worked and 67 aircraft emergencies Were successfully dealt with. On 20 March 2003 the war began. In the early hours of the morning a combination of F-117 Stealth Fighters and F-16 aircraft, along with around 40 long-range cruise missiles targeted buildings deep in Baghdad, Working on. an intelligence tip-off, some the missiles were targeted Saddam Hussein himself. The Iraqi leader narrowly escaped, but the war was firmly underway.

A number of sorties were flown deep into Iraq with over 130 different aircraft types flying over the skies of Iraq. Akrotiri's new resident tanker fleet began an intense period of flying. A total of 5 miles of extra fuel piping was required to suck airport!!

On the 13th of April 2003 US troops to control of Baghdad as the Iraqi regime collapsed. As a result, fewer missions were required to be flown into the Gulf area and this had a knock on effect on RAF Akrotiri. Towards the end of April the first fast jet crews transited through Akrotiri on their way back home to UK. At the same time a USAF C-17 departed to land in the heart of Baghdad loaded with humanitarian supplies.

On the 1st May 2003, President George W Bush, declares the war officially over and a great victory over the Iraqi regime. Operation TELIC however, is far from over and whilst troops remain in Iraq, Akrotiri will continue to play its part in the link from the middle east to the west.

RAF Akrotiri proved itself a valuable asset to operations during the Gulf War II. Each and every section was stretched to the limit helping maintain 24 hour operations for a prolonged period and sustaining an airfield that was busier than Luton Airport. It's worth noting therefore, that only 500 extra personnel were despatched to Akrotiri and looking at the statistics it's quite amazing how much was achieved with such a small increase in manpower. Between January and May there were over 15,000 aircraft movements.

Over 12,000 troops transitted through RAF Akrotiri.
In 3 weeks Cyprus communications unit airfield section installed over 200 telephones and 30,000 metres of cable were connected
Over 14,000 personnel movements were processed by personal management clerks.
Air Movements squadron dealt with between 25,000 and 56,000 kgs of air cargo each month.
Over 10,000 kgs of classified mail and 31,000 kgs of air mail were processed.
E-blueys rose from single figures to over 11,000 messages.
Operation TELIC Clerks - handled over 1000 additional enquiries.
- dealt with over 1000 air movements.
- processed 3600 in-theatre flight bookings.

The end of official hostilities did not bring an immediate end to Operation TELIC however: The presence of US and UK forces in the region maintaining security meant that Akrotiri continued to play its role long after President Bushes' speech. The conflict once again proved the worth of RAF Akrotiri as a base. With its strategic position in the eastern Mediterranean it continues to provide a crucial stepping stone for forces operating in the area and wil no doubt continue to do so for many years to come.

Eagle Squadron Memories

In September 1939, as war winds buffeted Europe, Americans watched warily while the German blitzkrieg swept across Poland. Despite the United States’ official policy of neutrality, many realized it was just a matter of time before America was drawn into the conflict, especially after the invasion of France and the Low Countries in May 1940 made Nazi intentions clear.

Some Americans, not wanting to wait for an official declaration of war, sought to enlist wherever they could. To young pilots and would-be airmen, the early tales of aerial battles lent a romantic allure to combat flying. Adding to the excitement was the recent development of sleek new fighter aircraft such as the Supermarine Spitfire, capable of flying at well over 350 mph.

As Britain’s Royal Air Force faced off against Germany’s Luftwaffe, the need for competent pilots became increasingly apparent. Famed World War I Canadian ace Billy Bishop suggested that recruiters look to the United States for a promising source of new pilots and air crewmen. Despite the unfavorable legal climate created by America’s Neutrality Acts, the Clayton Knight Committee was set up to recruit pretty much anyone who was interested in flying.

Clayton Knight was a World War I pilot veteran with connections, and along with Bishop and another WWI pilot, Homer Smith, he worked out a recruiting plan. Knight approached the chief of the U.S. Army Air Corps, Maj. Gen. Henry H. “Hap” Arnold, who was happy to supply a list of recent Air Corps washouts—the first targets of the recruiting efforts. Many possessed good flying skills but were a little too unruly for the Army Air Corps. About 300 were signed up by May 1940. Eventually more recruiters spread out across the country, seeking volunteers with some aviation experience. The new recruits were actually signing up with the Dominion Aeronautical Association, a supposed civil aeronautics firm that just happened to have its main office located next-door to the Royal Canadian Air Force headquarters in Ottawa. By the fall of 1941, more than 3,000 Americans had been successfully recruited, and by the end of the year that number had swelled to 6,700.

Among the Americans attracted by the prospect of flying Spitfires against the Germans were John “Red” Campbell, Art Roscoe, John Brown, Bill Geiger, Gene Fetrow and Spiro “Steve” Pisanos. Each signed up when the RAF recruiters toured the United States, and all eventually became members of the American Eagle Squadrons in the RAF’s Fighter Command. A total of 244 U.S. pilots eventually joined the three new Eagle Squadrons that had been formed. Roscoe and Geiger were assigned to No. 71 Squadron—the first to form up, on September 19, 1940—while Brown, Campbell and Fetrow were in No. 121 Squadron. Pisanos would later join 71 Squadron. The final Eagle Squadron was No. 133.

JOHN CAMPBELL, who had been flying since age 15, traveled from National City, near San Diego, to Hollywood to enlist in the RAF. The British turned him down because he was only 18, but three days later—having just turned 19 and carrying a letter from his parents—he came back.

“I arrived as a wet-behind-the-ears 19-year-old,” Campbell later recalled. “The British assumed we were there to do a job, and expected we would do it. This was quite different from the United States Army Air Forces, which assumed you couldn’t do it, unless you proved otherwise.”

Campbell already had significant flying experience when he joined up, and had also formed a picture of aerial warfare from the pulp magazines of the day. The popular magazines were instrumental as a recruiting tool, since many stories concentrated on the seemingly glamorous life of a fighter pilot. Campbell credited those magazines as the real reason he signed up. “I thought that every time you went up, you shot down five,” he said. He would learn that aerial combat was quite different in real life.

After flight training in the U.S. and Canada, he joined a convoy bound for England. At his assigned base, Campbell then checked out in a Miles Master. With the Battle of Britain already raging, he got three weeks of training in Spitfires, about 25-30 total hours, with no time on instruments.

“I only flew two ops in them, and they were enjoyable to fly,” he recalled. The Spitfire training started with “sitting for a half-hour in the cockpit with a flying sergeant putting me through cockpit drills.” The next morning he would check out a parachute, show the instructor he knew the cockpit drills and then taxi out, open up the throttle and take off.

Campbell then got to spend five weeks in Hawker Hurricanes—a total of about 54 hours—and, as he recalled, that was “more than most guys.” They flew two or three times daily, but the Eagle Squadron members were initially given old beat-up Hurricane Mark Is. Eventually the Americans received Hurricane IIb models, which they used on fighter sweeps through Belgium and northern France. Campbell felt the greatest difficulty in flying both the Spitfire and Hurricane was having to change hands from throttle to stick, and to the gear and flap controls.

Campbell really took to the Hurricane, and lamented the fact that the press largely overlooked it during the Battle of Britain. He noted that the “Hurricane got 80 percent of the kills, while the Spitfire got 100 percent of the credit. You never ran into a German pilot that was shot down by a Hurricane—they always said it was a Spitfire.”

He felt the Hurricane made a better gun platform, as it was more stable, and was best used against the German bombers. Spitfires were deployed at higher altitudes, and were more likely to engage enemy fighters. Campbell considered the Hurricane easier to land, stating,“It did not float like the Spitfire, you just flare to land, and it lands.”

In comparison to the German Messerschmitt Me-109E, Campbell said the Hurricane “lost most to the 109 at low level, where the 109 was faster, so we had to use tactics.” But he added that “at altitude, the Hurricane was faster, could turn better and had a better gunsight.”

Campbell also flew Hurricane IIcs at Gibraltar, which he described as “the first of the four-cannon-equipped models designed for tank busting.” He was later assigned to the Far East campaign, went to Port Sudan on an aircraft carrier, and took off from there for Java and Singapore. Stationed at Ceylon when the Japanese attacked, Campbell claimed “they got such a bloody nose that they didn’t try it again.”

Campbell believed that the “Hurricane could out-turn both the Mitsubishi A6M Zero and the Nakajima Ki.43 Oscar. In the slow, turning battles the Spitfire got eaten up, so Hurricanes remained in production until the end of the war.” He fought against both the Zero and the Oscar, and “got shot down twice, and I shot down two each of them.” The first time he went down, he made it back to his base after 21⁄2 days—to find all his personal effects gone. “I saw my wingman sleeping, and said, ‘Boo, this is the ghost of Red Campbell and where is my stuff?’ That woke him up in a hurry.”

After he was shot down the last time, over Java, Campbell became a prisoner of war for the duration of the conflict. Sent to a disease-plagued labor camp, he weighed only 98 pounds when the camp was finally liberated.

ART ROSCOE took his first flight at age 13, and from that point on always wanted to work in the aviation field. He got a job with Douglas Aircraft, and it was there that an RAF recruiter caught up with him in February 1941.

Roscoe recalled: “I had about 30-40 hours of flight time, and went out to Pomona to see how to get in [the RAF]. They told me to buy another 30 hours of flight time, and come back to see them then. I went back, took the flight test, and they let me know a couple of days later.” He went to flight school at Glendale, Calif., for another 75 hours, and then took a train to Nova Scotia to catch a steamer for England. His British flight training was in Spitfires at Landau with No. 53 Operational Training Unit.

“My Spitfire was never in really good shape, but you couldn’t get hurt in it if you stayed on top of it,” he remembered. “It could outturn practically anything you could turn on a dime and have nine cents left.”

The No. 71 Squadron pilots were often tasked with escorting Boeing B-17 Flying Fortresses on bombing missions, and frequently ran into Focke Wulf Fw-190As that had been lurking above them. The German fighters would typically make one pass, diving down on the bombers, while the Spitfires performed a split-S and went after them through the cloud cover. The Spits only had 15 seconds of .303-caliber ammo and six seconds of 20mm cannon rounds, so the pilots tried to make every round count. Roscoe recalled one particular B-17 escort mission to the Bay of Biscay, during which two Fw-190s attacked his flight: “The fellow in back of me got a cannon hit in his radio, so I was lucky.” He shot down his first enemy aircraft on October 2, 1941—an Me-109 over France.

In June 1942, Roscoe volunteered to help defend the island of Malta. He arrived at Malta on August 11 via the carrier HMS Furious, which was carrying a load of 35 Spitfires. The plan was to launch seven flights of five planes each, and just as Roscoe’s flight was taking off, the carrier Eagle was torpedoed and sunk while alongside Furious.

For the trip to Malta, they were given the Spitfire Vc, equipped with a tropical air filter. The planes carried only 90 gallons of fuel, mainly to assist in keeping their weight down for takeoff. Since the flaps had only full up and down positions, a wood block was inserted to hold the flaps at 15 degrees to assist in getting off the carrier. Once airborne, the pilots lowered their flaps, allowing the wood blocks to fall out, then raised them again.

“We were told ‘no crash landings,’ and if we got into trouble we were to head to Vichy French–held North Africa and hope for the best,” Roscoe recalled. All the members of his group made it to Malta. When they got there, the newcomers joined No. 229 Squadron, and found a lot of Battle of Britain veterans already fighting the Germans.

Roscoe said Malta was “a fighter pilot’s paradise—you went for the bombers first, had one crack at them, and then the fighters would be on your tail.” It didn’t last long, as most of the aerial fighting ended in October 1942, and they were restationed by the next month. Just before the fighting ended, Roscoe was severely wounded in a dogfight. Four cannon rounds from an Me-109 crashed through his cockpit, but only one hit him—in the shoulder. His plane was on fire, and the German pilot pulled up alongside for a look. Roscoe managed to kick his rudder, swerve behind the 109, and fire his cannons, shooting his tormentor down. He then crash-landed his Spitfire, as he was too weak to bail out.

Like many other Eagle Squadron members, Roscoe transferred into the USAAF when he was given the opportunity. “I had asked for [North American P-51] Mustangs, but ended up with the [Republic] P-47 [Thunderbolt]. It could out-dive practically anything—like a streamlined brick coming down,” he related. He ended the war as a squadron commander, with four confirmed victories, and another three probables.

JOHN I. BROWN III started out with Hurricanes, recalling that “of course everyone who signed up wanted to fly fighters, but we weren’t even guaranteed to fly. Some went to fighters, some to bombers and some to transports.” He quickly moved on to Spitfires.

“The Spit was very unforgiving you had to fly with an iron hand and a silk glove,” Brown remembered. He also lamented having only 78 rounds of cannon ammunition, but said the 1,300-round-per-minute rate of fire for the .303 machine guns “could cause damage—chunks would fly off enemy planes—it could be very effective.”

Most of the missions were rather short, as his Spitfire had about two hours and 45 minutes’ flight time before it would be running on fumes. “We got about 90 miles into France, a very limited range, and coming back we had to land at the [British] coastal airfields,” he said.

“If you had your wings, it was assumed by the RAF that you could fly anything,” Brown stated.“I flew things I had never seen before. The attitude was that if you were going to get killed, do it in training. Don’t waste a plane on an operational mission.”

While at Duxford, Brown joined the USAAF and switched to the P-47. He recalled that the Thunderbolt “was one hell of an aircraft in combat, as it could take a lot of punishment.” In November 1944, he made another switch, this time to P-51s until the end of the war.

While flying the Mustang, Brown got some experience fighting against the new German jet fighter, the Messerschmitt Me-262 Schwalbe. He remembered that if a pilot called out “jet in the area,” everyone went down fast, like “a funnel to a beehive.” His group eventually claimed 22 of the Me-262s.

“Only the Mustang would try anything against them,” Brown recalled, noting the P-51 could do “600 mph in a dive, and could catch up with the 262.” Using that tactic, Brown and his flight leader went after a Me-262 that was on the deck, heading home. The German jets only had about 45 minutes of fuel. “My leader got it as it passed over the airfield, needing to land,” he recalled.

BILL GEIGER didn’t get to experience much combat during World War II. He did fly some bomber escort missions, recalling that in the summer of 1941, “we never lost a bomber to any fighters.” Shortly thereafter, he was shot down over the English Channel near Dunkirk while flying a Spitfire. German fighters had picked him off at about 15,000 feet over the Channel. He said:“My plane was on fire, and wouldn’t fly anymore. I banged on the cockpit [canopy]—it was supposed to slide but nothing happened. I beat on it with everything I had, then bent out a corner and let the slipstream grab it, and off it went. I popped out of the cockpit, and pulled the ripcord. I felt very much alone, but when I realized I was going to survive, the fear went away.”

A German boat picked up Geiger after he spent five hours in the water. Since it was still early in the war, the Eagle Squadron members were not supposed to wear their insignia, an order that Geiger had chosen not to obey. He recalled, “Not only was I wearing my insignia, I also had extras in my pocket.” Geiger realized he was in big trouble, and fully expected to be shot.

“I was led away by a German officer with a two-man squad, and I thought about running,” he remembered. The officer recognized Geiger’s Brooklyn accent, since the German had been a truck driver in New York before the war. It turned out that he had never become a U.S. citizen, and when Adolf Hitler urged all Germans to return to the fatherland, he went back. “He asked me if I was an American, and when I admitted it he told me that I was going to be all right,” Geiger recalled. It was the start of 31⁄2 years in a POW camp for Geiger—and the end of his war.

GENE FETROW was working at Douglas Aircraft’s Santa Monica plant when the war in Europe broke out, serving as an inspector for A-20 Havocs. Hearing from a friend that an RAF recruiter was at the Roosevelt Hotel in Hollywood, Fetrow went to see him.

“I told him I had been flying since I was 15 years old, mostly Fleet biplanes,” Fetrow recalled, “but he asked how many hours I had. I only had about 35, so he told me to get more time.” He signed up with a local flying school, and put in another 35 hours as quickly as possible.

Returning to the recruiter, Fetrow took a flight test in a Waco biplane and was told they would let him know if he was accepted. A few days later a confirming telegram arrived. They still wanted him to get more training before heading overseas, however, so Fetrow spent an additional 75 hours in Stearman, Ryan STS, Vultee BT-13 and North American AT-6 Texan trainers.

Arriving in England on a transport ship, Fetrow reported for fighter training. Flying Spitfire Mark Is and IIs, he accumulated about 70 more hours of valuable flight time.

Fetrow served in No. 121 Squadron, flying mostly the Spitfire Mark Vb equipped with two cannons and four .303 machine guns. He flew about 120 missions from England, and was part of the ill-fated August 19, 1942, Dieppe Raid, in which his aircraft was shot up pretty badly. The Dieppe Raid turned out to be the only operation of the war that involved all three of the American Eagle Squadrons. Fetrow supported the mission by providing low cover, one of a flight of four Mark Vbs that ran into trouble shortly after crossing the harbor at Dieppe.

As Fetrow told it: “I saw several Fw-190s to my right and down below strafing our people on the beach. I thought our top cover would take care of some of them, so I started taking my flight down. A 190 then came down on me and put a 20mm deflection shot through my wing and another into my radiator. I wasn’t hurt, but the engine was hurt—my oil cooler blew apart. The engine seized up over the Channel, I rolled upside down, but the canopy wouldn’t eject—it only rolled back about six inches. I had to beat it with my elbows to get out, and my cockpit was filling with smoke. Once I was out, it got real quiet, and I saw my Spit hit the water.”

Fetrow had managed to send out a Mayday call over his radio, and the Air-Sea Rescue team came out to retrieve him while he was still in his dinghy. But by the time he got back to base, the RAF had already listed him as missing in action. “All my stuff had already been divided—my camera, cigarettes and shoes—and it took about a week to get everything straightened out,” he recalled.“We really took a beating that day, but we got about as many of them as they did of us— about 100 shot down.”

Fetrow eventually was transferred to serve in the Italian campaign. In May 1944, he was flying with the RAF’s 1st Tactical Air Force, usually on one of two main missions. The fighters would escort Consolidated B-24 Liberators and Martin B-26 Marauders out of Sardinia on missions to destroy German lines of communication and transport, or they would conduct ground-strafing missions against anything that moved.

“I once saw an old donkey and peasant farmer pulling a cart of hay,” Fetrow related. “I put a couple of slugs into it, and it went sky-high. It had been full of ammo for the German troops.”

He recalled another time when they saw some Tiger tanks: “We couldn’t do much against them, as they were camped in a dry riverbed in the woods. I left two Spitfires up as top cover, and the rest dove down, with one pilot managing to hit their fuel dump. I dove down too fast and steep—very poor manner, a classic case of pilot error. I realized I was in trouble, and pulled back on the stick. I blacked out, the plane did a snap roll, and I came to while flying upside down through a dry wash. My wings were bent, rivets had popped, instruments were broken, but I nursed it back up to 3,000 feet.”

Fetrow managed to get the Spitfire back to Corsica, where he was amazed when the wheels came down. He made a fairly normal landing, but his aircraft was subsequently pushed into the scrap heap. Ground crews managed to salvage only the prop, engine, wheels, tires and radio. That experience was enough, however, to convince Fetrow of the aircraft’s structural integrity.

“The Spitfire was hard to land, but it had great brakes,” he remembered. “I got three Fw-190s while in Spitfires, so it was my favorite plane.”He also had some experience with the P-47 after transferring to the USAAF 335th Fighter Squadron later in the war, and served as a test pilot for many other aircraft.

Another problem with the Spitfire was in retracting the landing gear—“you had to change hands to do it,” Fetrow recalled. He also said the fuel tanks were poorly placed, especially the one in front of the instrument panel. “I lost a friend when that tank was hit, exploding into a fireball, which rapidly consumed the cockpit area.”

STEVE PISANOS was another guy who couldn’t wait to fight the Germans and signed up with an Eagle Squadron recruiter before the United States entered the war. Technically, he wasn’t officially an American. Pisanos had come to the States from Greece in the summer of 1938, and shortly afterward had taken basic flying lessons on his own. He had renounced his Greek citizenship, but it wasn’t until May 1943 that he became a naturalized citizen—while he was in London, of all places. Of that momentous event, he remarked: “Uncle Sam and I are best friends, and I felt nothing but gratitude. I was the first to become a citizen outside of the U.S.”

After advanced training, Pisanos shipped out to England in February 1942. He received instruction in tactics before joining an operational training unit, flying Miles Masters, Hurricanes, P-40E Kittyhawks and P-51A Mustangs during his final training phase. He was assigned to the 268th Army Co-operation Fighter Squadron, and began flying combat missions over Holland in the P-51A. Known to his fellow pilots as the “Flying Greek,” he came to the attention of Squadron Leader Chesley Peterson in No. 71 Squadron, and was officially transferred in early September 1942.

In his one month with No. 71, he flew Spitfires and Hurricanes before transferring into the 334th Squadron, 4th Fighter Group, VIII Fighter Command, at the end of September, when the Eagle Squadrons were disbanded. Pisanos noted that the American Eagle Squadron pilots were heavily recruited by the USAAF, as “in reality we had Ph.D. degrees in fighting—we had experience.” The recruiter said, “You come with us—you are an American, would you accept a second lieutenant [commission] in the Air Corps?” Once he was with the 334th, Pisanos flew the P-47 and briefly the P-51 again.

“The Spitfire was a great aircraft, but it was limited because it had no fuel capacity to go great distances,” Pisanos recalled. He also rated the P-47 in the same fashion, as it “could not stay with the bombers on long-distance missions, and the Luftwaffe would just wait there for the fighters to turn back.”

As for the P-51, Pisanos emphasized, “That was it!” He participated in the first escorted Berlin mission with the 4th Fighter Group on March 4, 1944, and when the Germans saw the P-51 escorting the bombers, he said they knew they had lost the war.

Pisanos wound up his combat career in spectacular fashion. On March 5, he shot down two German aircraft, giving him a total of 10 victories in the space of 110 missions spanning 300 combat hours. On the way home, his engine failed and he was forced to crash-land in France. Evading capture, Pisanos managed to join up with members of the French Resistance, and was based in Paris until it was liberated in August of the same year. Because he knew too much about the Resistance, Pisanos was permanently grounded for combat and sent back to the States, spending the rest of the war as a test pilot at Wright Field in Ohio.

The ranks of Eagle Squadron members have greatly dwindled over the past few years. In 2006 they held their last official reunion. Of the 17 living members at the time, only five were well enough to attend. John Brown, Gene Fetrow, Bill Geiger and Art Roscoe have already made their final flight. Steve Pisanos has finished his book of memoirs, which was released in December 2007.

Frank Lorey III is a federal- and state-registered historian with more than 340 articles and several books to his credit. He has appeared many times on the History Channel and does historical archeology work on military plane crash sites. For further reading, he recommends: The Eagle Squadrons, by Vern Haugland and The Flying Greek: An Immigrant Fighter Ace’s WW II Odyssey With the RAF, USAAF, and French Resistance, by Colonel Steve N. Pisanos.

Originally published in the March 2008 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.

RAF squadron strength

Post by maxs75 » 24 Oct 2006, 17:03

Hi there,
I'd like to know what was the estabilished strength of a RAF fighter squadron during WW2, and if there were some differences through different theater and periods.
I know that there were differences for the actual strength anyway.

Post by gjkennedy » 26 Oct 2006, 01:53

From memory, I think the basic strength was twelve at the start of the war, increased to sixteen during the conflict?

Post by maxs75 » 26 Oct 2006, 20:11

It is possible that it was raised from 12 to 16, but do you know if it was raised even more later? I've read about bomber squadrons with 24 or more planes, but I don't know if it was just a field strength higher than the estabilished strength. Usually smaller planes (fighter vs bombers) were in larger numbers on each squadron in other air forces.

Post by gjkennedy » 27 Oct 2006, 19:11

It's a long time since I looked at WW2 airforces and aircraft (been too busy with ground troops for years now!).

I had a quick check in the US Army handbook on British forces. They note that a fighter squadron had sixteen aircraft plus two in reserve, and that both medium and heavy bomber squadrons had sixteen machines (no mention of reserves). The handbook was printed in September 1942, so the info should be accurate for that period into early 1943. My instinct is that sixteen was about the maximum for a RAF squadron, but as I said, I haven't done any serious delving into the subject.

Post by maxs75 » 01 Nov 2006, 21:17

Thank you.
I know that the bomber squadrons were to have 16 planes, but there were some exceptions. Maybe it was the same for fighters. Anyway I asked in other forum and I got the same answer (16 per sqn).

Post by RichTO90 » 01 Nov 2006, 22:24

maxs75 wrote: Thank you.
I know that the bomber squadrons were to have 16 planes, but there were some exceptions. Maybe it was the same for fighters. Anyway I asked in other forum and I got the same answer (16 per sqn).

Actually this is the fighter organization adopted sometime in 1942 IIRC. Through the Battle of Britain the Fighter Squadron consisted of 12 aircraft, divided into two six-aircraft ‘Flights’ and each in turn into two three-aircraft ‘Sections’ (Blue, Red, Green, and Yellow, typically with Blue and Red in A Flight and Green and Yellow in B Flight). Nominally there was also a reserve of 4 aircraft, but IIRC that was reduced to 2 later on.

By 1942 the tactical reforms instituted by Sailor Malan and others resulted in the 16-aircraft squadron, organized still in two flights, but each of two "finger-fours". The 2-aircraft reserve was also retained.

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