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Squadron Structure
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The purpose of this article is to shed some light on the sometimes confusing subject of military aircraft organisation during the Second World War. Unfortunately, not only did each service within each nation have different ideas about how to organise aviation units; these organisations also varied immensely with differing aircraft types and roles, and at different time periods throughout the war. So, to get things started, we will look at a Swordfish squadron in the British Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm at the outbreak of World War II.

The squadron is, to many nations, the basic organisational unit of a group of military aircraft and personnel. Typically, certainly for Royal Navy and Royal Air Force squadrons, this would be based around 12 aircraft although this number often varied. Admiralty Fleet Order (AFO) 1939 gives a very comprehensive statement of the exact number of personnel, and their ranks, required to man a Torpedo/Spotter/Reconnaissance squadron of 12 Swordfish aircraft:

Naval Flying Personnel

LtCdr(P) or (A) ...1

Lt or Sub Lt(P) or (A) ...11

LtCdr or Lt(O) or (A) ... 12

PO Airman ... 1

Ldg or Airman ... 11”

So what does this all mean? Let’s first look at a table which compares equivalent ranks in all three British armed forces to help put things in perspective:



Royal Navy

British Army

Royal Air Force

Lieutenant Commander


Squadron Leader



Flight Lieutenant

Sub Lieutenant


Flying Officer


2nd Lieutenant

Pilot Officer

Chief Petty Officer

Staff Sergeant

Flight Sergeant

Petty Officer



Leading Hand




So, going back to our quote from AFO 1939, the first line refers to a Lieutenant Commander (Pilot) or (Air Branch). This is the Squadron’s Commanding Officer, who we see from the table above holds a rank equivalent to an army Major or RAF Squadron Leader. At this stage of the war, the Squadron CO must, according to AFO regulations, be a pilot. AFO 1939 describes some of the duties of the squadron CO:

(a) Ordering an attack and giving general directions regarding the objective and the methods to be employed

(b) Ordering the engagement of enemy aircraft

(c) Breaking W/T (Wireless Telegraphy) silence

(d) Authorizing signals based on general inference as opposed to routine operations

(e) Altering or terminating the operation in progress

(f) General safety of the unit”

From this, we can see that some of the CO’s responsibilities are laid out in black and white very clearly – if the squadron achieves notable successes or performs poorly, the CO is ultimately accountable.

Moving on we then see a further 11 pilots required, holding the rank of either Lieutenant or Sub Lieutenant. The rank of Midshipman is the most junior commissioned officer rank in the Royal Navy, and flying training was such a lengthy process that, in theory, any officer would have been promoted to Sub Lieutenant by the time of completion of training: this explains why AFO 1939 does not mention any Midshipman pilots, although in actual fact there were many throughout the war. AFO 1939, in paragraphs which might seem overly prescriptive to anybody working outside of the world of military aviation, now goes on to describe exactly what each pilot is responsible for:

(a) All manoeuvres in the air

(b) The tactics of air fighting, torpedo and bombing attacks

(c) Movements of the aircraft when land, ship, or water-borne; when landing and taking off, or being launched or hoisted on board, and for making decisions definitely governed by his own ability to fly or by conditions which he alone could determine in time.”

So, of our 11 ‘line’ pilots aside from the CO, the most experienced of these is designated the Senior Pilot. The Senior Pilot, commonly referred to as the ‘Splot’, also had his duties laid down very clearly in AFO 1939:

The Senior Pilot will be responsible to the Senior Officer of the Unit for:

  1. The technical administration of the unit

  2. Flying discipline and training of pilots

  3. Safety, and suitability of accommodation, of aircraft

  4. Maintenance and readiness for service of aircraft and of their equipment (except those specified under the duties of the senior observer)

Aside from this, the SP would lead whichever Flight or Sub Flight of aircraft was not being led by the CO. We have already seen in a previous article that an RAF fighter squadron would rigidly be broken down into ‘A’ and ‘B’ Flights, each of six aircraft with the Squadron Leader taking control of ‘A’ Flight whilst his second-in-command, the Flight Lieutenant, would lead ‘B’ Flight. The flexibility required by maritime aviation operations called for a more fluid approach to aerial organisation – a naval squadron could be split into Flights of four, five or six aircraft and then further sub-divided into Sub Flights or two or three aircraft, all depending on what the tasking called for, how many aircraft were actually serviceable and ready to fly on the day and the number of aircraft the carrier was actually in a position to launch.

Line 3 of our AFO extract refers to our next member of the Swordfish crew: the observer – 12 of which were attached to the squadron. The observer carried out a similar duty to an RAF navigator; again, AFO 1939 tells us exactly what the observer did:

(a) The navigation of the aircraft on all occasions when navigational methods are employed

(b) Control of the signalling of the aircraft (except when limited by the CO’s power of veto over breaking W/T silence)

(c) Making observations and reports including spotting or other special observing”

We can see from line 3 that the rank of Lieutenant Commander was open to observers at squadron level. Again, the most senior of these officers would be designated the Senior Observer, or ‘Sobs’ and whichever was the most senior out of ‘Splot’ and ‘Sobs’ would be the squadron’s second in command. The role of observer in the Fleet Air Arm did, initially, have some very significant differences from its RAF counterpart. Observers were considered part of the ship’s crew for administrative purposes, and were not part of the squadron. So, whenever a squadron disembarked from an aircraft carrier, it would take all of its aircraft, pilots and maintenance staff, but the observers would remain onboard and wait for the next squadron to arrive before being attached to them. Also, observers would not considered to be aircrew, as they were part of the ship’s company. As a result, they were not entitled to wear a flying badge (wings) on their uniform. Both of these regulations changed during the war, and by the end of the war not only were observers full members of the squadron and wearing their own wings, they were now allowed to be appointed as squadron Commanding Officers.

The final member of the Swordfish crew is the TAG: the Telegraphist Air Gunner. As well as manning the aircraft’s rear gun, he is also responsible for using the Swordfish’s W/T set and signalling lamp, all under the direction of the aircraft’s observer. The TAG was the aircraft’s only ‘rating’ aircrew; that is, he was non-commissioned. AFO 1939 directs that one Petty Officer would be the senior of the squadron’s TAGs, although this role would, where available, fall onto a more experienced Chief Petty Officer.

Confused? It’s about to get worse. If we now look at a Fleet Air Arm two-seat fighter squadron, such as a squadron of Blackburn Skuas, things change again. First, AFO 1939 now dictates that a fighter squadron will consist of only nine aircraft. Second, as the Skua has only two seats, there is not enough room for an observer and a TAG. As a result, only the lead aircraft in each formation would carry an observer; the remaining aircraft would have the rear cockpit crewed by a TAG.

All of this gives us a better idea of how a squadron was organised at the executive level and in the air, but what of the equally important ground crews? Again, AFO 1939 dictates exactly what numbers and ranks are required by each type of squadron. A Swordfish squadron of 12 aircraft could expect a maintenance support organisation of some 50 ground crew. The RAF practise was to divide these into ‘fitters’ who specialised in engine maintenance, and ‘riggers’ who specialised in airframes. Further specialists were also required to maintain radios, armour, cockpit instruments and electrics. On top of this, a squadron would also have a further 20 or so ratings employed in other duties such as administration. In charge of all of these men, and later in the war, women (although only shore based in Fleet Air Arm squadrons) was the squadron’s Engineering Officer – typically a Lieutenant and most often an ex-rating promoted up through the ranks. However, every squadron officer, including aircrew, would also be employed as a Divisional Officer and would be in charge of a group of ratings for discipline and administration.

So what of the RAF practise of non-commissioned pilots and navigators? They did exist in the Fleet Air Arm, but were far rarer. Once naval pilot training saw greatly increased numbers after the war commenced, all pilots were initially trained as ratings with a view to being commissioned later on in training. As a result, some rating pilots were the product of showing ‘un-officer like qualities’ during training. David Wragg recites one such anecdote of two trainee pilots who were caught stealing aviation fuel and selling it – both were imprisoned for six months before resuming pilot training on their release and arriving at the front line as rating pilots.

Whilst these lists and numbers appear to be very rigid, the uncertainty of war meant that most squadrons would not be operating anywhere near the very exacting numbers specified in AFOs. Squadrons may well not have 12 aircraft, and if they did the likelihood of all 12 aircraft being fit to fly at any one point was remote. Personnel numbers would also vary, as would their ranks – as the war progressed, an increasing number of Lieutenants were forced to take on the role of Squadron CO as casualties increased.

The next level above the squadron was the Wing, commonly consisting of three squadrons of identical aircraft types. The wing leader was normally a very experienced Lieutenant Commander, a policy which differed from the RAF practise of utilising the next rank up for the role: Wing Commander.

Hopefully this article goes to show just how many variables could be encountered in the organisation of a single squadron – if you now pause to consider how many differences will be highlighted in even a cursory look at organisations from different countries, you will see that we would need an entire book to cover all of the squadron organisational structures during the Second World War!

About the author:
Mark Barber, War Thunder Historical Consultant
Mark Barber is a pilot in the British Royal Navy's Fleet Air Arm. His first book was published by Osprey Publishing in 2008; subsequently, he has written several more titles for Osprey and has also published articles for several magazines, including the UK's top selling aviation magazine 'FlyPast'. His main areas of interest are British Naval Aviation in the First and Second World Wars and RAF Fighter Command in the Second World War. He currently works with Gaijin as a Historical Consultant, helping to run the Historical Section of the War Thunder forums and heading up the Ace of the Month series.








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