The Story of the Stingers  -  90 Years “Scottish Thistle” Squadron

The forerunner of the Belgian Air Force, the Compagnie des Aviateurs (Flying Corps) was formed by a royal decree of 16 April 1913. The Escadrille I (Squadron I) was the first of its four initial units, which were all based at Brasschaat, north of Antwerp. Initially, Escadrille I was equipped with four Farman-Jero HF.16 and HF.20 aircraft and flew its first operational missions on 26 May 1913 during a large-scale army exercise at the Camp of Beverlo, Leopoldsburg. At the outbreak of the 1st World War, the unit was attached to the 3rd Artillery Division of General Gérard-Mathieu Leman and was stationed at Ans, a municipality not far from the strategic city of Liège. Escadrille I flew its first war missions on 4 August 1914. They consisted of reconnaissance flights in the region of Liège. The rapid push of the German invaders and the fall of Liège forced the Belgian troops to retreat. Escadrille I first moved back to Wilrijk, then via Oostende to Saint-Pol-sur-Mer, near the French city of Dunkerque, where it arrived on 12 October 1914 to join two other flying units that had retreated to that location earlier. Unlike the other squadrons, Escadrille I did not stay in France for long as only five days later it left for Sint-Idesbald, near Koksijde, to be closer to the frontline.

 In March 1915, the Compagnie des Aviateurs became the Aviation Militaire Belge (Belgian Military Aviation). It was credited with a first official aerial victory on 17 April 1915 when Captain Fernand Jacquet and his observer Lieutenant Hans Vindevogel of Escadrille I shot down a German Albatros. They were flying a Maurice Farman MF.11.


Farman MF.11bis of the Aviation Militaire Belge in flight

The decision to create a fighter unit within the Aviation Militaire Belge was taken on 18 January 1916 and Escadrille I became the first genuine Belgian fighter squadron on 22 February 1916 under the designation 1ère Escadrille de Chasse (1st Fighter Squadron). It was equipped with Nieuport 10 Bébé fighters. Due to continuous shelling by German troops at Sint-Idesbald, the 1ère Escadrille de Chasse returned to the airfield of De Moeren in June 1916. It was from this airfield that it executed the bulk of its war missions, flying successively the Nieuport models 11, 16 and 17 and from August 1917 onwards the Hanriot-Dupont HD.1, supplemented with a number of Sopwith Camels in December of that year.


During the reorganization of the Aviation Militaire Belge of February 1918, the 1ère Escadrille de Chasse was renamed the 9ème Escadrille de Chasse (9th Fighter Squadron) to form the Groupe de Chasse (Fighter Group) of Capitaine-Commandant Fernand Jacquet with Nos. 10 and 11 Squadrons. The Groupe de Chasse continued to operate from the main fighter base of the Aviation Militaire belge at De Moeren until it started to follow the moving frontline from late October 1918 onwards. The by then named Thistle Squadron ended the Great War with 66 confirmed victories, the majority of which were won by famous aces like Willy Coppens, André de Meulemeester, Jan Olieslagers and Fernand Jacquet.


The unit’s badge, the Scottish Thistle or Chardon d’Ecosse, appeared for the first time on the Hanriot-Dupont HD.1s delivered to the 1ère Escadrille de Chasse in 1917. The original design was from the hand of pilot André de Meulemeester and consisted of a slim stalk with a number of dentate leaves and an inflorescence resembling the cork of a bottle of Champaign. Willy Coppens later redesigned the badge, giving it much more detail, especially to the flower. Inspiration for the thistle design was probably found in a nearby-stationed unit of the Regiment of Scots Guards. The motto was British too. Nemo me impune lacessit (no man provokes me with impunity) was the motto of the Most Noble and Most Ancient Order of the Thistle, formed in 1687 by King James II.

N° 1 Squadron's motto "Nemo me impune lacessit" (no man provokes me with impunity) painted behind the cockpit of Hanriot HD-1 N° 78 now preserved at the Aeronautical department of the Royal Army Museum in Brussels. 

 During the interbellum, the Thistle Squadron saw numerous changes in equipment and designation. After the war, it resided for a short period of time at Sint-Agatha-Berchem, near Brussels, but was soon stationed at Schaffen, near Diest. At first, it flew former-German Fokker D.VIIs and Spad XIIIs. Later on, it was equipped with the Nieuport-Delage Ni-D.29, the Avia BH.21 and the Fairey Firefly. Finally, on the eve of the Second World War, it received the more potent Hawker Hurricane Mk.1. In 1924, the 1ère Escadrille was renamed 2ème Escadrille of the IVème Group (2/IV). When the Régiments Aéronautiques (Aeronautical Regiments) were formed in 1926 the 2ème Escadrille was disbanded, but its traditions were adopted by the 3ème Escadrille / Ière Group / 2ème Régiment Aéronautique (3/I/2Aé). With the reform of the Military Aviation in 1929, the unit’s designation once more changed into 2ème Escadrille (2/I/2Aé).


Nieuport Delage NiD.29 C.1 N49 seen at Schaffen-Diest

Fairey Firefly IIM of 2/I/2Aé seen at Schaffen Diest in July 1939

 When the Germans invaded Belgium in the early morning of 10 May 1940, the Luftwaffe immediately attacked all airfields in the country. In Schaffen, 9 out of 11 serviceable Hurricanes of 2/I/2Aé were destroyed. The two surviving aircraft escaped to Beauvechain, where they were joined later that day by a third aircraft that had survived the German attack in a maintenance hangar. The Thistle Squadron was disbanded the next day after the Germans destroyed two of its last three Hurricanes. Some of the unit’s pilots evaded to England and joined the Royal Air Force to continue their fight against the German invader.


On 1 November 1946, No. 351 Squadron was created as third Belgian Spitfire XIV unit to complement the Nos. 349 and 350 Fighter Squadrons, which were formed during the war as RAF Squadrons. It soon adopted the pre-war emblem of the Scottish Thistle and received the squadron letter code 3R. On 10 January 1948, No. 351 Squadron was renumbered and became No. 1 Fighter-Bomber Squadron. It is said that Baron Willy Coppens de Houthulst himself requested to carry through this re-designation.

N° 351 Squadron was based at Florennes from mid 1947 onwards as part of the 161st Day Fighter Wing and later on as No. 1 Thistle Squadron it formed together with the N° 2 Comet and N° 3 Holly Leaf Squadrons the 2nd Wing all equipped with the Supermarine Spitfire XIV.


Spitfire FR.14 SG-102 3R-C (RAF RN116 still visible) was delivered to N° 1 Squadron at Florennes on 12 October 1949.

In June 1951, the Spitfire gave way to the fighter-bomber Republic F-84E/G Thunderjet arriving from Karup in Denmark. This change of equipment not only meant the transition from prop driven aircraft to fast jets but also a change from the well established RAF way of thinking and organising to the more radical American way of managing. Already on 10 August 1955 the first Republic F-84F Thunderstreak a further development of the Thunderjet is delivered to N° 1 Squadron at Florennes.


A N° 1 Squadron F-84G Thunderjet being prepared for a flight.

An N° 1 pilot ready for take-off in Republic F-84F FU-1/3R-L from snow covered Florennes on 20 April 1956 (real winters then...).

  On 30 June 1971, No. 1 Squadron moved to Bierset Air Base where it received its first Dassault Mirage VBA in January 1972. It stayed there until the General Dynamics F-16 began to replace the Mirage from March 1989 onwards.

Defence Minister François-Xavier de Donnea, Lt. Col. J-P Sparrenberg (OSN 3W TAC), N° 1 Sq. CO Maj. Pierre Léonard and squadron pilots at Dyarbakir (Turkey) during an AMF South (Allied Mobile Force) deployment after the ministers flight in a Dassault Mirage 5BD on 14 June 1987.

 The introduction of this new aircraft brought the Thistle Squadron back to Florennes on 15 March 1989, where it still is based today. In 2000, the unit was also officially declared operational in the role of tactical aerial reconnaissance. In the past decennium, pilots of the Thistle Squadron participated in a number of international peacekeeping and air policing operations: Joint Guardian / Joint Forge (Bosnia, 1998), Deliberate Forge / Allied Force (Kosovo, 1998-1999), Eastern Eagle (Afghanistan, 2005) and NATO Baltic Air Policing (2004, 2006-2007).

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To commemorate the 90th anniversary of the creation of its Thistle badge, No. 1 Squadron of the 2nd Tactical Wing at Florennes Air Base decorated the tail fin of Lockheed Martin F-16AM FA-101 with pictures of some of its most famous aircraft. The starboard side is adorned with a painting of a World War I era Hanriot-Dupont HD.1, the type on which the Thistle emblem appeared for the first time in 1917. On the port side figure the Spitfire XIV, F-84F Thunderstreak and Mirage VBA, three of the major types with which No. 1 Squadron was equipped after World War II. The name Stingers was also adopted as the unit’s radio call sign.


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Text and pictures by

© Jos Schoofs & Daniel Brackx (June 2006)

Last updated 21/06/07 18:28   Daniel Brackx