No. 263 Squadron (RAF): Second World War

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Westland Whirlwind of No.263 Squadron
Westland Whirlwind
of No.263 Squadron

No.263 Squadron began the Second World War as a fighter squadron equipped with the Gloster Gladiator biplane which it used in Norway, and ended it as a Typhoon squadron in the Second Tactical Air Force.

No.263 Squadron was reformed on 2 October 1939 as a fighter squadron. Remarkably it was equipped with Gloster Gladiator biplanes, and took these aging aircraft with it to Norway in April 1940. After three days operating from a frozen lake (Lake Lesjaskog) all of its aircraft were unfit for service and the squadron was forced to retreat to the UK to collect new aircraft. The squadron returned to Norway in May, this time operating from bases further north. It remained there until the Allied evacuation of Narvik, and then loaded its aircraft onto the carrier HMS Glorious for the return trip. All of these aircraft were lost with the carrier when she ran into the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau.

The squadron began to reform at Dren on 12 June 1940, and was to be the first squadron to operation the Westland Whirlwind (although the Hurricane was used for a period before the first Whirlwinds arrived). In November 1940 the squadron took its Whirlwinds to the south-west to fly convoy protection patrols. Offensive sweeps across France began in June 1941, but the aircraft were not equipped to act as fighter-bombers until June 1942. The fighter-bomber Whirlwinds were used to attack German airfields and shipping, before being replaced with Hawker Typhoons in December 1943.  

Offensive sweeps over France began on 1 February 1944, at first with bombs, but using rockets from July. In July 1944 the squadron became part of No.136 Wing, 84 Group, 2nd Tactical Air Force. This wing had not yet moved to France, and in early July it was joined at Hurn by the Typhoon squadrons of No.146 Wing. In late June No.136 Wing was dissolved, and the squadron joined its new neighbours, accompanying them on their return to France. Apart from a short break early in 1945 the squadron remained with the group until the end of the war. 

There was always a danger of attacking friendly units by mistake, although the worst example to befall No.146 Wing came on 27 August when aircraft from Nos.263 and 266 squadrons attacked six ships southwest of Erretat, after first having checked with their controllers to make sure that they weren't friendly. Sadly the small fleet was made up of four Allied minesweepers and two trawlers, and two of the minesweepers were sunk. The fault for the incident was later traced to a failure to notify the RAF of a change in the course of the flotilla. 

During the German retreat from Normandy Typhoons of No.146 Wing destroyed the last permanent bridge remaining over the Seine, trapping many of the survivors.

Over the winter of 1944-45 the wing was used to attack the remaining isolated German garrisons on the Scheldt estuary and Walcheren Island, left behind by the retreat of the main German armies. At the start of October the squadron moved to Deurne airfield at Antwerp, where it found itself under fire from V2 rockets - five airmen were killed by one rocket on 25 October.

As the advance came to a halt in the winter of 1944-45 the Typhoon squadrons flew fewer sorties in direct support of the armies and instead began to operate further behind German lines. Attacks on Geman headquarters continued, with No.146 Wing making an attack on the believed location of the German 15th Army in a park in the centre of Dordrecht on 24 October. This attack killed two German generals, seventeen staff officers and 236 others, a massive blow to the efficiency of the 15th Army.

The wing's next targets were isolated garrisons around Arnhem and Nijmegen. The squadron also took part in an attack on a 'human torpedo' factory at Utrecht, and an attempted attack on the Gestapo HQ at Amsterdam on 19 November, but this second attack was stopped by the weather. Nos.193, 257, 263 and 266 Squadrons returned to the same target on 26 November, this time with more success, with some bombs going through the front door of the building!

The wing was largely unaffected by Operation Bodenplatte, the Luftwaffe's attempt to destroy the Allied air forces on the ground on 1 January 1945. Only three of the wing's aircraft were damaged, of which one came from No.266 Squadron.

Another headquarters target was attacked on 18 March in the build-up to the crossing of the Rhine. This time General Blaskowitz's Army Group H was the target and 62 members of his staff were killed. In April the wing used Mk 1 supply containers to drop supplies to SAS troops operating behind German lines.

The squadron was disbanded on 30 August 1945.

Aircraft
October 1939-June 1940: Gloster Gladiator I and II
June-November 1940: Hawker Hurricane I
July 1940-December 1943: Westland Whirlwind I
December 1943-August 1945: Hawker Typhoon IB

Location
October 1939-April 1940: Filton
April-May 1940: Lesjaskog
May 1940: Turnhouse
May-June 1940: Bardufoss

June 1940: Drem
June-September 1940: Grangemouth
September-November 1940: Drem
November 1940-February 1941: Exeter
February-March 1941: St. Eval
March-April 1941: Portreath
April-August 1941: Filton
August-December 1941: Charmy Down
December 1941: Warmwell
December 1941-January 1942: Charmy Down
January-February 1942: Colerne
February-April 1942: Fairwood Common
April-August 1942: Angle
August-September 1942: Colerne
September 1942-February 1943: Warmwell
February-March 1943: Harrowbeer
March-June 1943: Warmwell
June-July 1943: Zeals
July-December 1943: Warmwell
December 1943-January 1944: Ibsley
January 1944: Fairwood Common
January-March 1944: Beaulieu
March 1944: Warmwell
March-June 1944: Harrowbeer
June-July 1944: Bolt Head
July 1944: Hurn
July-August 1944: Eastchurch
August-September 1944: B.3 St. Croix
September 1944: Manston
September-October 1944: B.51 Lille/ Vendeville
October 1944-January 1945: B.70 Deurne
January-February 1945: Fairwood Common
February-April 1945: B.89 Mill
April 1945: B.105 Drope
April-June 1945: B.111 Ahlhorn
June-August 1945: R.16 Hildesheim

Squadron Codes: HE

Duty
17-23 July 1944: No.136 Wing; No.84 Group; 2nd Tactical Air Force
5 August 1944-13 January 1945: No.146 Wing; No.84 Group; 2nd Tactical Air Force
13 January-10 February 1945: APC Fairwood Common
10 February 1945 to end of war: No.146 Wing; No.84 Group; 2nd Tactical Air Force

Books

Gloster Gladiator Aces, Andrew Thomas. A look at the wartime career of the only biplane fighter still in RAF service during the Second World War. Covers the Gladiator's service in Finland, Malta, North Africa, Greece, Aden, East Africa and Iraq, where despite being outdated it performed surprisingly well.
cover cover cover

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (4 August 2011), No. 263 Squadron (RAF): Second World War, http://www.historyofwar.org/air/units/RAF/263_wwII.html

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