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No. 617 Squadron

Number 617 Squadron is a Royal Air Force aircraft squadron, originally based at RAF Scampton in Lincolnshire and currently based at RAF Marham in Norfolk. It is commonly known as the “Dambusters”, for its actions during Operation Chastise against German dams during the Second World War. In the early 21st century it operated the Panavia Tornado GR4 in the ground attack and reconnaissance role until being disbanded on 28 Mar 2014. The squadron reformed on 18 Apr 2018, and was equipped at RAF Marham in Jun 2018 with the Lockheed Martin F-35B Lightning, becoming the first squadron to be based in the UK with this advanced V/STOL type.

The squadron was formed under great secrecy at RAF Scampton during the Second World War on 21 Mar 1943. It included Royal Canadian Air Force, Royal Australian Air Force and Royal New Zealand Air Force personnel and was formed for the specific task of attacking three major dams that contributed water and power to the Ruhr industrial region in Germany: the Möhne, Eder and Sorpe. The plan was given the codename Operation Chastise and carried out on 17 May 1943. The squadron had to develop the tactics to deploy Barnes Wallis’s “Bouncing bomb”, and undertook some of its training over the dams of the Upper Derwent Valley in Derbyshire, as the towers on the dam walls were similar to those to be found on some of the target dams in Germany.

The squadron’s badge, approved by King George VI, depicts the bursting of a dam in commemoration of Chastise. The squadron’s chosen motto was “Après moi le déluge” (“After me, the flood”), a humorous double entendre on a famous saying of Madame de Pompadour to King Louis XV, made on the loss at the Battle of Rossbach by the French. The original commander of No. 617 Squadron, Wing Commander Guy Gibson, was awarded the Victoria Cross for his part in the raid.

After the raid, Gibson was withdrawn from flying (due to the high number of raids he had been on) and went on a publicity tour. George Holden became commanding officer (CO) in July, but he was shot down and killed on his fourth mission, Operation Garlic in Sep 1943, in an attack on the Dortmund-Ems Canal; he had four of Gibson’s crew with him. H. B. “Mick” Martin took command temporarily, before Leonard Cheshire took over as CO. Cheshire developed and personally took part in the special target marking techniques required, which went far beyond the precision delivered by the standard Pathfinder units – by the end he was marking the targets from a Mustang fighter. He was also awarded the VC.

On 15 Jul 1943, 12 aircraft of the squadron took off from Scampton to attack targets in Northern Italy. All aircraft attacked and proceeded to North Africa without loss. The targets were San Polo d’Enza and Arquata Scrivia power stations; it was hoped that the attacks would delay German troops who were travelling down into Italy on the electrified railway system to support the Italian front. The operation met little opposition but the targets were obscured by valley haze and were not destroyed. The 12 crews returned to Scampton on 25 July from North Africa after bombing Leghorn docks on the return journey. The raid on Leghorn Docks was not a great success, due to mist shrouding the target. On 29 Jul 1943 nine aircraft took off from Scampton to drop leaflets on Milan, Bologna, Genoa and Turin in Italy. All aircraft completed the mission and landed safely in Blida, North Africa.

The UK Government considered using No. 617 Squadron to target the Italian leader Mussolini in July or August 1943. The British believed if Mussolini was killed it might take Italy out of the war. It would have been a flight carried out at extremely low level with the targets of Mussolini’s headquarters and residence in Rome. Neither of these targets were within 1,500 yards of the Vatican, which the Allies had promised not to damage. However within two weeks of the plan being suggested, Mussolini was ousted by his opponents and replaced by Pietro Badoglio, leading to an armistice with the Allies.

Throughout the rest of the war, the squadron continued in a specialist and precision-bombing role, including the use of the enormous “Tallboy” and “Grand Slam” ground-penetrating earthquake bombs, on targets such as concrete U-boat shelters and bridges. Several failed attempts were made on The Dortmund-Ems Canal in 1943 (Operation Garlic); it was finally breached with Tallboys in Sep 1944. In March 1945 the squadron used the Grand Slam bomb for the first time, against the Bielefeld viaduct, wrecking it. The viaduct had withstood 54 previous attacks without being permanently neutralized.

A particularly notable series of attacks caused the disabling and sinking of Tirpitz, a major German battleship that had been moved into a fjord in northern Norway where she threatened the Arctic convoys and was too far north to be attacked by air from the UK. She had already been damaged by an attack by Royal Navy midget submarines and a series of attacks from carrier-borne aircraft of the Fleet Air Arm, but both attacks had failed to sink her. The task was given to No. IX and No. 617 Squadrons; they were deployed to Yagodnik, near Archangel a staging base in Russia to attack Tirpitz with Tallboy bombs. On 15 Sep 1944, the RAF bombers struck the battleship in the forecastle, which rendered her unseaworthy, so she was sent to the Tromsø fjord where temporary repairs were made so she was anchored as a floating battery. This fjord was in range of bombers operating from Scotland and from there, in Oct, she was attacked again, but cloud cover thwarted the attack. Finally on 12 Nov 1944, the two squadrons attacked Tirpitz. The first bombs missed their target, but following aircraft scored two direct hits in quick succession. Within ten minutes of the first bomb hitting the Tirpitz, she suffered a magazine explosion at her “C” turret and capsized killing 1,000 of her 1,700 crew. All three RAF attacks on Tirpitz were led by Wing Commander J. B. “Willy” Tait, who had succeeded Cheshire as CO of No. 617 Squadron in Jul 1944. Among pilots participating in the raids was Flight Lieutenant John Leavitt, an American who piloted one of the 31 Lancasters. Leavitt’s aircraft dropped one of the bombs that hit Tirpitz dead centre. Despite both squadrons claiming that it was their bombs that actually sank the Tirpitz, it was the Tallboy bomb, dropped from a No. IX Squadron Lancaster WS-Y (LM220) piloted by Flying Officer Dougie Tweddle that is attributed to the sinking of the warship. F/O Tweddle was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his part in the operations against Tirpitz.

During the Second World War the Squadron carried out 1,599 operational sorties with the loss of 32 aircraft.

After the end of the Second World War, the squadron replaced its Lancasters with Avro Lincolns, following those in 1952 with the English Electric Canberra jet bomber. The squadron was deployed to Malaya for four months in 1955, returning to RAF Binbrook to be disbanded on 15 Dec 1955. Reformed at RAF Scampton on 1 May 1958 as part of RAF Bomber Command’s V-bomber force maintaining the UK’s strategic nuclear deterrent, the squadron was equipped with the Avro Vulcan B1 from Aug 1960. By 23 May 1961, its aircraft were the upgraded Vulcan B1A fitted with the electronic countermeasures tail pod. The squadron’s assigned role was high-level strategic bombing with a variety of free fall nuclear bombs. Both the B1 and B1A types were equipped with various free-fall nuclear weapons. These may have included Blue Danube, Red Beard, Violet Club the Interim Megaton Weapon, Yellow Sun Mk.1 and certainly Yellow Sun Mk2. American bombs were also supplied to the RAF V-bombers for a short period under the Project E arrangements.

The squadron began almost immediately to upgrade yet again to the Vulcan B2, taking delivery of the first on 1 Sep 1961, although its high-level strategic bombing role remained unchanged until the advent of effective Soviet Surface-to-Air Missiles forced Bomber Command to reassign V-bombers from high-altitude operations to low-level penetration operations in Mar 1963, when the squadron’s Vulcans adopted a mission profile that included a ‘pop-up’ manoeuvre from 500–1,000 ft to above 12,000 ft for safe release of Blue Steel.

Vulcans were configured for the Blue Steel stand-off bomb and 617 Squadron was the first to be declared operational with it in Aug 1970 the squadron’s eight Vulcan B2 aircraft were re-equipped with the new strategic laydown bomb, WE.177B which improved aircraft survivability by enabling aircraft to remain at low-level during weapon release.

Following the transfer of responsibility for the nuclear deterrent to the Royal Navy, the squadron was reassigned to SACEUR for tactical strike missions. In a high-intensity European war the squadron’s role was to support land forces on the Continent by striking deep into enemy-held areas beyond the forward edge of the battlefield, striking at enemy concentrations and infrastructure, with WE.177 tactical nuclear weapons, should a conflict escalate to that stage. The squadron’s eight aircraft were allocated eight WE.177 nuclear bombs. As the Vulcan’s bomb bay was configured to carry only one, and assuming that RAF staff planners had factored in their usual allowance for attrition in the early conventional phase of a continental war, leaving sufficient surviving aircraft to deliver the full stockpile of nuclear weapons, it is a reasonable conclusion that the Vulcan force was held in reserve for nuclear strike duties only. The squadron’s Vulcan B2s served mainly in that low-level penetration role until disbandment on 31 Dec 1981.

The squadron reformed on 1 Jan 1983 at RAF Marham, re-equipped with twelve Panavia Tornado GR1 aircraft and eighteen WE.177 nuclear bombs, and the squadron’s role assigned to SACEUR remained one of support for land forces on the Continent. Its Tornado aircraft were each able to carry two WE.177 bombs and the ratio of weapons to aircraft at full strength increased to 1.5:1, with an allowance now made for attrition in the conventional opening phase of a continental war. The squadron continued in this role until the WE.177 weapons were retired and No. 617 Squadron relinquished its nuclear delivery capability.

No. 617 Squadron was deployed to King Faisal Air Base, Saudi Arabia following the 1990 Iraqi Invasion of Kuwait and subsequently took part in Operation Granby in Jan–Feb 1991. A Tornado of No. 617 Squadron carried out the first TIALD sortie of the campaign. In all the squadron flew 91 sorties and scored 229 direct hits with Paveway laser-guided bombs, including destroying 10 of the 22 hardened bunkers at H-3 Air Base. In 1993, No. 617 Squadron began the changeover to anti-shipping and by 1994 was operating from RAF Lossiemouth assigned to SACLANT, flying the Tornado GR1B with the Sea Eagle missile.

In Dec 1994, Flight Lieutenant Jo Salter became the first female combat ready fast jet pilot. The squadron continued its pioneering heritage by becoming the first RAF squadron to fire the MBDA Storm Shadow cruise missile, during the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

In Jul 2013, it was announced that No. 617 Squadron would become the first operational RAF unit to receive the F-35 Lightning. No. 617 Squadron disbanded on 28 Mar 2014 as part of the draw-down of the Tornado force. Beginning in 2016, the Dambusters started their training for conversion to the F-35 ahead of reforming as the first British frontline squadron with the Lightning. No. 617 Squadron will be composed of both RAF and Royal Navy personnel, operating both from RAF Marham, and from the Royal Navy’s new Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers. It will fly alongside the Fleet Air Arm’s 809 Naval Air Squadron as part of the Lightning Force.

No. 617 Squadron returned to RAF Marham after reforming on 18 Apr 2018, having trained at Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort, SC, throughout late 2017 and early 2018. On 6 Jun 2018, a quartet of No. 617 Squadron Lightnings (ZM145, ZM146, ZM147 and ZM148), supported by three Airbus Voyagers and an Airbus Atlas C1, made an eight-hour flight across the Atlantic to become the first of the UK’s aircraft to be based permanently at Marham. On 3 Aug, five more F-35Bs arrived at RAF Marham for the Dambusters. No. 617 Squadron was declared ‘combat ready’ on 10 Jan 2019.

The Dambusters underwent their first F-35 deployment on 22 May 2019 when six Lightnings deployed to RAF Akrotiri, Cyprus, for six weeks as part of ‘Exercise Lightning Dawn’. On 16 Jun, No. 617 Squadron carried out the first RAF F-35 operational mission when two Lightnings conducted a patrol over Syria as part of Operation Shader. On 25 Jun, No. 617 Squadron’s F-35Bs participated in ‘Exercise Tri Lightning’ alongside United States Air Force F-35As of the 4th Fighter Squadron and Israeli Air Force F-35Is of 140 Squadron over the eastern Mediterranean Sea. Four F-35B Lightnings returned home to RAF Marham on 2 Jul, while the other two arrived at Amendola Air Base to carry out bilateral training with the Italian Air Force, including the local F-35As of 32º Stormo. Three Lightnings departed RAF Marham on 9 Oct to MCAS Beaufort with them embarking upon HMS Queen Elizabeth for the first time alongside No. 17 Test and Evaluation Squadron on 13 Oct. On 22 Jan 2020, the Dambusters departed Marham for Exercise Red Flag at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, their first with the Lightning.



Avro Lancaster B.III (Special) (Mar 1943-May 1943)

Avro Lancaster B.I (Mar 1943-Jun 1945)

Avro Lancaster B.III (Mar 1943-Jun 1945)

Avro Lancaster B.VII (FE) (Jun 1945-Sep 1946)

de Havilland Mosquito Mk.VI (Apr 1944-Mar 1945)

Avro Lincoln B.II (Sep 1946-Jan 1952)

English Electric Canberra B.2 (Jan 1952-Apr 1955)

English Electric Canberra B.6 (Feb 1955-Dec 1955)

Avro Vulcan B.1 (May 1958-Jul 1961)

Avro Vulcan B.1A (Oct 1960-Jul 1961)

Avro Vulcan B.2 (Sep 1961-Dec 1981)

Panavia Tornado GR1 (Jan 1983-Apr 1994)

Panavia Tornado GR1B (Apri 1994-2002)

Panavia Tornado GR4 (2002-Jan 2014)

Lockheed Martin F-35B Lightning (Dec 2017-)


Battle Honours.

Fortress Europe 1943-1945

The Dams

Biscay Ports 1944

France and Germany 1944-1945

Normandy 1944


Channel and North Sea 1944-1945

German Ports 1945

Gulf 1991

Iraq 2003-2011

Additional information

Cost of Patch