74 Squadron was formed at Northolt on July 1st 1917 as a training squadron of the Royal Flying Corps but was subsequently moved to London Colney where it was established as a front line unit and on 20th March 1918 was sent to France equipped with SE5a aircraft. It was in France that it earned its ‘Tigers’ nickname as a result of the aggressive spirit shown by its pilots, amongst whose ranks were to be found the likes of Mick Mannock, Ira Jones and Keith Caldwell. Within seventy days of 74`s arrival on the Continent, one hundred enemy aircraft had been shot down with the loss of just one of its own. By the war’s end, and after just seven months in theatre, this total had risen to 224 – 140 confirmed, 68 probables and 15 balloons. However, its wartime exploits did not prevent 74`s disbandment in July 1919. It would be September 1935 before the squadron was re-established, an event which actually happened whilst on board ship en route to Malta with Hawker Demons as part of the British government’s response to the Abyssinian crisis. Returning to the UK in August 1936, 74`s new home was Hornchurch and it was whilst here that the Squadron`s tiger head badge and famous `I Fear No Man` motto was authorised. In April 1937 the Demons were exchanged for Gloster Gauntlets and then in February 1939 the Tigers received their first Spitfire 1.
The outbreak of the Second World War found 74 still at Hornchurch but often operating from the satellite aerodrome at Rochford. By this time Sailor Malan had joined the Squadron and during the months ahead he and his colleagues, including H M Stephen, John Freeborn and John Mungo Park, were to be involved in extensive operations against the Luftwaffe. In the Phoney War there was little operational activity but when the Low Countries were invaded in May 1940, 74 flew extensively on offensive operations and soon afterwards, when Fighter Command was engaged in establishing air supremacy over the beaches of Dunkirk, the Squadron was fully employed on convoy protection and patrols over the French coast. During the Battle of Britain and with Sailor Malan now its Commanding Officer, 74 flew against German raiders over London and the Thames estuary and they met with considerable success. On 11th August, for example, the Squadron flew into battle four times and at the end of the day claimed twenty four enemy aircraft destroyed and fourteen damaged. From the Chief of the Air Staff came a telegram:
A magnificent day’s fighting, 74… Mannock started it and you keep it up.
But the hectic pace of operations took its toll and on 14th August the Squadron was retired to Wittering for a short rest before moving to Kirton-in-Lindsey, Coltishall and then in October back to the front line at Biggin Hill. The RAF had now gone on to the offensive and during November 1940, 74 destroyed 26 enemy aircraft. In February 1941 it moved to Manston but was then sent up to Acklington before moving across to Llanbedr and Long Kesh where, after the hectic pace of operations, they found themselves in a backwater by comparison. It was at this time that the Governor of Trinidad made a presentation of Spitfires to 74 which subsequently became known as `Trinidad` Squadron. This remained so until the 1950s.
In 1942 74 set sail for the Middle East, reaching Palestine in the July – but it was a squadron without aircraft, the ship carrying those which it was due to have flown having been sunk. For a while, in an unprecedented move, 74 were used to provide maintenance facilities for a USAAC Liberator unit before moving to Teheran where it started to receive Hawker Hurricane IIbs. Under the command of Sqn Ldr `Spud` Hayter it transferred to the Western Desert and undertook convoy escort duties in the eastern Mediterranean as part of 219 Group. On 23rd July it took part in a large offensive operation over enemy occupied Crete during the course of which transport, stores dumps, RDF stations and barracks were attacked and severely damaged. In August the Squadron exchanged its Hurricanes for Spitfire Vbs and Vcs and transferred to Cyprus from where it was sent to the Aegean islands of Cos and Simi, only to be caught up almost immediately in the German invasion. Air and ground crew were drafted in to help in the islands` defence and there are many stories of bravery within Squadron ranks as well as those of adventurous escapes. Unfortunately 1 member was killed and 17 ground crew were captured and became POWs. They have often harrowing stories to tell.
The Squadron itself was withdrawn to North Africa and continued to fly offensive sweeps and convoy patrols before returning to England and North Weald and Lympne in April 1944, flying new Spitfire IXs, attacking enemy railway yards and transport and escorting bombing raids on V1 sites in France prior to D Day. On that day itself 74 flew patrols over the invasion fleet and after the landings attacked German positions. In July it moved to Tangmere as part of 134 Wing and then moved to France as a component of the 2nd TAF with 145 Wing. Flying in support of the advancing Allied armies 74 was credited by the Canadian 4th Armoured Brigade as providing the ‘closest air support to date!’ The Squadron advanced as the Allies advanced and it was based fleetingly at Lille, Courtrai, Duerne and Schijndel. In March 1945 it received Spitfire XVIs which it flew alongside its LFIXs. By April it was at Droppe in Germany and that is where, on May 2nd, it received news of the German surrender. Its last wartime operation was an armed reconnaissance in the Wilhelmshaven area.
Returning to the UK, 74 was one of the early squadrons to equip with the Meteor F3. Based initially at Colerne it moved for a brief period to Bentwaters and then took up a long residency at Horsham St Faith where it became a component of Fighter Command’s first post war jet fighter wing. In December 1947 the Meteor F3 gave way to the F4 and then in October 1950 the F8. 74 became the first winner of the Duncan Trophy, awarded to the day fighter squadron making the greatest contribution to day flying in all weathers. This was at a time when the RAF did not have specific `all weather` squadrons. 74 won the Duncan Trophy again in 1952 and followed this in 1953 with the Dacre Trophy for weapons firing at the Acklington gunnery school.
In March 1957 the Hawker Hunter F4 was introduced followed a few months later by the F6. In July 1960 the Tigers proudly became the squadron chosen to introduce the Lightning F1 into RAF operational service. Under the command of Sqn Ldr John Howe and by now with Coltishall as its home, displays were flown at Farnborough and Paris. At the same time they were working hard to iron out the many teething troubles that beset this demanding, exciting aeroplane. At the 1961 Farnborough show, nine Lightnings were rolled in formation: in 1962 `The Tigers` became Fighter Command’s leading aerobatic team. A move to Leuchars in 1964 saw an end to display flying and in its place the equally demanding Intensive Flying Trial, designed to prove the operational capabilities of the aircraft which were by now Lightning F3s. It was whilst at Leuchars that 74 hosted its first Tiger Meet, the gathering of NATO squadrons with the tiger as their emblem and an Association of which 74 had been a founder member in 1961. Tiger Meets continue to this day, albeit in modified form, embracing the world’s Tiger Squadrons and increasingly restricted by lack of available funds. Meets combine social and operational aspects of squadron life and are used to further the understanding of roles, aircraft and operational procedures on the ground and in the air.
In June 1967, 74 undertook a logistically impressive deployment to Tengah, Singapore, where it became a component of the Far East Air Force. Refuelled en route by Victor tankers, the deployment of the thirteen Lightning F6s with which the Squadron was by now equipped was the largest to be undertaken thus far with such support. Four of 74`s aircraft which later flew from Tengah to Darwin in northern Australia in June 1969 set a 2,000 mile record for the longest non stop flight made by a Lightning . Once at Darwin they participated in an air defence exercise with the Royal Australian Air Force.
After four years in Tengah, the Tigers disbanded on 25th August 1971. Their Lightnings were flown to Cyprus where they were taken on charge by 56 Squadron. 74 themselves lay dormant for thirteen years until October 1984 when they reformed at RAF Wattisham under Wg Cdr Dick Northcote on the F4J Phantom. These aircraft, unique to the RAF and wearing a very distinctive duck egg blue paint scheme, the origins of which nobody is sure, were purchased from the US Navy and after rework at the San Diego Naval Facility were ferried back to the UK in batches of three accompanied by VC10 tankers, the last arriving at Wattisham on January 5th 1985.
Declared operational on 31st December 1985, 74 flew this mark of Phantom until it was retired and replaced by the Spey-engined FGR2. 74 disbanded again in October 1992, this time as the last Phantom operator in the Royal Air Force – but stood up again immediately at RAF Valley with the BAe Hawk which it flew until September 22nd 2000 in the training role.
74 has always played a pivotal role in the story of the RAF, introducing new aircraft into operational service (such as the Lightning), developing new tactics (as did Sailor Malan during the Second World War) and as the Squadron through which all air defence and ground attack RAF pilots passed on their way to the front line (which they did at Valley).
Not for the first time, but quite probably the last, on 22 September 2000 74(F) Squadron officially disbanded. Victim of ‘rationalisation’ in the RAF, three reserve squadrons at Valley was deemed too inefficient, so one had to go, 74 drawing the short straw.
In a low-key ceremony outside its hangar at a windswept Valley, the standard was paraded for a final time in front of Air Vice Marshal Robinson, who broke the news that 74 definitely wouldn’t be re-appearing as a Eurofighter squadron in the foreseeable future. Speculation had thought that it would, possibly as the Operating Conversion Unit, but it seems a decision has been made and 74 doesn’t feature in the RAF of the future.
It brings to an end a long tradition, with its finest hour being that with many other fighter squadrons over the skies of southern England in 1940.
The Tigers have a proud tradition which is maintained by the 74 (F) Tiger Squadron Association which brings together Tigers from all eras at an Annual Reunion and by means of newsletters.