On the 6th May 1965 a group of reporters gathered expectantly at RAF Little Rissington. In the distance they could hear a low growl that rapidly became louder until, with an ear splitting roar, seven Foland Gnat T1 jet trainers, each painted a brilliant red, flashed over their heads at close to the speed of sound with no more than a metre separating each aircraft. The Red Arrows, formally the Royal Air Force Aerobatic Team (RAFAT), had arrived in dramatic style led by Squadron Leader Lee Jones.
A few days later they performed for the first time in front of the public at the National Air Display at Clermont in France where a French journalist described them as 'Les Fleches Rouge', thereby stamping the team with the name by which they have been known since. Their motto is, appropriately, 'Eclat', which means 'Brilliance'. Since then they have performed almost 5,000 times in more than 50 countries.
In 1968 the Red Arrows increased their numbers to nine to allow even more audacious formations to be practiced and the famous 'Diamond Nine' formation was born. Their ability to enthral an audience was enhanced in 1979 when they were issued with the BAe Hawk aircraft that they fly to this day. During displays the pilots regularly experience forces up to 5 Gs, 5 times that of gravity, and, in one particular manoeuvre known as the 'Vixen Break' that can increase to 7 Gs, just below the 8 G structural limit of the aircraft, flying at the edge is a regular occurrence for the Red Arrows.
Each of the pilots has to have completed an operational tour on fast jets such as the Tornado, Harrier or Jaguar. They must have accumulated 1,500 flying hours and be assessed as above average in their operational role. They spend a three-year tour of duty with the Red Arrows before returning to an operational role.
On Friday 18th September 2009 a group of reporters gathered at the control tower at RAF Gibraltar. At precisely 7pm, eleven dots were seen towards the east and a faint drone could be heard. The dots grew rapidly and the drone increased in volume until, in a flash ten of them were over the airfield at about 80 metres swooping past in V formation, the Red Arrows had arrived at Gibraltar for the first time in sixteen years to help commemorate the Battle of Britain. Red 1 - Wing Commander Jas Hawker, Red 2 - Flight Lieutenant Zane Sennett, Red 4 - Flight Lieutenant Dave Davies, Red 5 - Flight Lieutenant Kermit Rea, Red 6 - Squadron Leader Ben Murphy, Red 7 - Flight Lieutenant Mike Ling, Red 8 - Squadron Leader Graham Duff and Red 9 - Flight Lieutenant Andrew 'Boomer' Keith and two spare aircraft landed safely and waited anxiously for their comrade, Red 3 - Flight Lieutenant David Montenegro, whose aircraft, on approach, had suffered a bird strike. His aircraft touched down safely. In dispersal, examining the sizeable hole in the fuselage, David exhibited the aplomb we associate with these men. He said, 'It certainly wasnt a sparrow.'
Dave Davies, when asked what his most momentous moment with the Red Arrows had been told us it was the day he had to perform in front of the Chief of Air Staff in order to qualify to wear the red flight suit.
The following morning, at Europa Point, Jews Gate, in boats out to sea, at South Battery and on any ledge accessible between, a huge crowd gathered to watch the Red Arrows perform. Unlike the previous day the sky was a cloudless blue. At 11am somebody said, 'Theyre here'. And they were. For thirty minutes an audience that comprised Gibraltarians, Spanish, British and many other European nationals watched enthralled as the Red Arrows went through their routine. A small girl, after one manoeuvre gasped, 'They've made a heart' and her older sister said, 'And they've put an arrow through it'. More than one heart was captured that morning. As the Red Arrows made their final flight past, although their was no possibility of any pilot seeing or hearing it, they received a standing ovation from the crowd that drowned out even the roar of their nine Adour engines.
By July 1940 Germany had conquered most of Europe. The only European nation still opposing them was Great Britain. Just 22 miles of water separated England from occupied France and Goering promised Hitler his Luftwaffe could batter the RAF into submission prior to an invasion. With 2,600 bombers and fighters at his disposal his promise looked secure since he was faced with only 640 British fighters including the famous hurricane and spitfire. As Churchill put it, 'What General Weygrand called the Battle of France is over, the Battle of Britain is about to begin'.
The Battle of Britain started on the 10th July 1940 with German attacks on shipping in the English Channel and the Channel Ports and strikes against the radar masts stationed on the south coast. By the 13th August the Germans believed they had destroyed the early warning system and started the second phase of the assault, Adlertag or Eagle day. This was a deliberate attempt to wipe out the RAF in south east England either in the air or whilst still on the ground and they almost succeeded. To keep up the pressure the Luftwaffe started night bombing raids. Although the targets were airfields some bombs were mistakenly dropped on London, a situation Hitler had specifically banned. In retaliation, on the 25th August 1940, the first RAF bombing raid to Berlin took place. The target was Templehof Airport. Ninety five aircraft took part and eighty one dropped their bombs in and around Berlin. It was after this raid that Hitler made a fatal error. Goering had almost fulfilled his promise when he was ordered to change tactics and start bombing cities and industrial sites.
Instead of small numbers of enemy aircraft attacking many targets simultaneously thereby making interception difficult, large fleets of bombers, protected by fighters, made their way to a few targets. This allowed the RAF to mass not only the aircraft of 11 Group in the south east but also 12 Group further north. The Blitz had begun, a nightmare for civilians in London, Coventry, Southampton and other towns and cities but a blessing for the country as a whole.
As the long hot summer of 1940 gave way to autumn the German losses during daytime raids became prohibitive and they reverted to night raids only. Meanwhile nighttime interception techniques, including the introduction of airborne radar into Blenheim, Defiant and Beaufighter aircraft, had improved. The Luftwaffe started to take heavy casualties at night. In October 1940 Germany realised the RAF could not be defeated. Hitler was also planning to invade Russia and Operation Sea-Lion, the invasion of Britain, was abandoned. At the height of the battle, on the 20th August Churchill made an immortal statement, 'Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few'.
'The Few' were the 2,353 men from Great Britain and 574 from overseas who flew sorties between the 10th July and the 31st October 1940. 544 of them were killed and 650 planes were lost. The Luftwaffe lost 1,100 aircraft. As Wellington remarked after Waterloo, 'It has been a damn nice thing, the nearest run thing you ever saw'.
The Sieges of Gibraltar
The Tunnels and Airfield
The Rockbuster, the 100 Ton Gun
The Trafalgar Cemetery
The Treaty of Utrecht 1704
Fortress Gibraltar - The King's Bastion
© Nicholas Craig Nutter 2004 - 2012. Nick Nutter asserts his rights as the author of this article and all associated images. This article and images may not be copied or reproduced in any way without written permission of the author.