No. 151 Wing RAF

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No. 151 Wing RAF
Active 7 September 1941–22 October 1941
10 March 1944–1 June 1946
1 October 1959–9 September 1964
Country  United Kingdom
Branch Ensign of the Royal Air Force.svg Royal Air Force
Commanders
Notable
commanders
Wing Commander Henry Neville Gynes Ramsbottom-Isherwood (1941)
Aircraft flown
Fighter Hawker Hurricane (1941)

No 151 Wing Royal Air Force was a British unit which fought alongside the Soviet forces on the Kola Peninsula during the first months of Operation Barbarossa during World War II. The 1941 expedition to Murmansk achieved three objectives from the point of view of the British government: it provided vital aid to the Soviet Union at a critical moment; it introduced the Soviet forces to the use of modern technology, control systems, and fighter tactics; and it showed the Finns that offensive action against the Soviet Union would result in direct military confrontation with the Western Allies.[1]

Operational history[edit]

The delay in starting the Finnish-German offensive from northern Finland gave the British an opportunity to intervene. Within days of the German Invasion starting, Britain and the USSR entered into a formal military alliance. Finland's Army command was disturbed by the possibilities of intelligence activities by the numerically large British military and Consular representation in Finland. Finland suggested restrictions on the British Helsinki legation in late July.[2] The British were anxious to offer immediate support to their new ally and British submarines, mine layers and aircraft carriers quickly put in an appearance off the north coast of Finland. On 31 July 1941, carrier-borne aircraft from Furious attacked the harbour at the Finnish town of Petsamo. The British lost three aircraft and inflicted only minor damage on a small freighter and harbour facilities. In a further attempt to hinder naval traffic in the area, the Royal Navy mined the approaches to Petsamo.

The British undertook to provide air support in the Murmansk area and to train Soviet pilots for the Hawker Hurricane fighters which were to be sent to the Soviet Union. No. 151 Wing was formed for this purpose, composed of the reinforced No. 81 and No. 134 squadrons of the RAF. The Wing was commanded by Wing Commander H.N.G. Ramsbottom-Isherwood of the Royal Air Force. The first elements of 151 Wing, consisting of 24 Hawker Hurricane IIB aircraft, arrived at Murmansk-Vaenga airfield (about 10 km (6.2 mi) north-east from Murmansk[3]) on 7 September 1941 after flying from the carrier Argus. These were reinforced by aircraft, equipment and personnel transported by merchant ship to Arkhangelsk and assembled there.

The remit of 151 Wing was to provide both training and operational support to the Soviet Army. The Hawker Hurricane was not the most modern aircraft by late 1941, having been designed in the 1930s with priority given to ease of maintenance and operation in arduous field conditions, but it proved well suited to conditions around Murmansk. Furthermore, the British, Australian and New Zealand ground crew and aircrew were mostly veterans of the Battle of France and Battle of Britain. They were highly experienced. They brought with them a modern radio and radar air-control system.

During the following month, the Royal Air Force provided air cover to Soviet troops trying to hold off enemy forces from Murmansk and the Murmansk railway. In particular they provided fighter escorts to Soviet bomber aircraft operating along the front. The RAF pilots carried out their final operational flight on 8 October 1941. At that point, they started handing their aircraft and equipment over to the Soviet Air Force, which was completed by 22 October. The personnel of 151 Wing returned by sea on British ships and they started arriving back in Britain on 7 December.

Aftermath[edit]

The main objectives of the 1941 expedition to Murmansk were to show the quality of the Hurricane aircraft if properly handled and to train Soviet pilots and their ground crews how to handle the British military equipment that would be supplied to the Soviet Union. The operation was judged to have fulfilled these objectives successfully.[4] Only 81 Squadron received the battle honour 'Russia, 1941'.

The Soviet Union recognised the contribution of No. 151 Wing by the awards of the Order of Lenin to Wing Commander Ramsbottom-Isherwood, Squadron Leaders A.H. Rook [5] and A.G. Miller, and Flight Sergeant Haw.[6] In 1944, the Engineering Officer in charge of assembling the Hurricanes, Flight Lieutenant Gittins, was awarded the Order of the Red Star.[7]

On 5 July 1942, No. 153 Wing RAF was raised in England with the intention of resuming RAF operations on the front. This was a force of four squadrons of Supermarine Spitfires and two squadrons of ground-attack Hurricanes. This would have involved around 2,000 Commonwealth personnel. However, most likely due to increased convoy casualties, the operation was called off and 153 Wing was stood down.[8]

On 2 September 1942, two Bomber Command units, No. 144 Squadron and No. 455 Squadron, Royal Australian Air Force, flew 32 Handley Page Hampdens from Britain to Murmansk. The Hampdens had been refurbished as torpedo-bombers and the trip to Russia (Operation Orator) was designed to cover Convoy PQ 18. The Admiralty did not want to repeat the tragedy of the Convoy PQ 17, destroyed by the U-boats and Luftwaffe. But, first of all, the British wanted to protect the convoy from the German surface fleet, especially the battleship Tirpitz.[9][10] Nine Hampdens were lost on route,[11] due mainly to harsh Arctic weather, compass failures and enemy anti-aircraft fire.[12] The two squadrons operated briefly from Vaenga air base, before handing their Hampdens over to the Soviet Air Force.[13]

Commonwealth aircrews remained active in the Murmansk area until 1944, mainly in the form of maritime patrol and escort duty supporting Arctic convoys. At various stages, RAF, RAAF and RCAF aviators operated Catalina, Lockheed Hudson and photoreconnaissance Spitfire aircraft out of Vaenga and Lakhta.[14]

Later operations[edit]

No. 151 Wing was active later in the war and afterwards. From 10 March 1944, to 1 June 1946, it operated as a transport wing. From 1 October 1959, to 9 September 1964, it was an air defence missile wing, probably operating Bristol Bloodhound surface-to-air missiles.

See also[edit]

  • Normandie-Niemen, another Western air squadron operating on the Eastern Front.

References[edit]

Notes
  1. ^ RAF campaigns Murmansk, 1941
  2. ^ Wuorinen 1948 pp. 130–133
  3. ^ Location of Vaenga
  4. ^ RAF campaigns :Murmansk, 1941, Chapter I, paragraphs 6–8
  5. ^ RAF Records
  6. ^ Morrison, Douglas (14 May 2009). "Stalin's British heroes: A forgotten medal reveals the extraordinary courage of the RAF aces". dailymail.co.uk. Retrieved 29 January 2011. 
  7. ^ RAF Hurricanes in Russia
  8. ^ RAF Hurricanes in Russia, Last paragraph
  9. ^ Vladimir Kropunik
  10. ^ RAF aircraft crashed in Swedish Lapland :wreck and remains of crew recovered, 1976
  11. ^ RAAF in Russia, paragraph 9
  12. ^ RAAF in Russia, paragraph 7
  13. ^ RAAF in Russia.
  14. ^ RAAF in Russia: Vladimir Kropunik, paragraphs 6 and 10
Bibliography

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]