A Beaufort I in a dispersal pen at Luqa airfield in Malta, photographed
in 1942. It has two Vickers K guns in the nose, operated by the navigator, an
ASV radar aerial beneath the fuselage, and a large air filter above the engine
Beaufighter TFXs of 217 Squadron from RAF Vavuniya in Ceylon,
practising formation flying in 1945 in preparation for Operation ‘Jinx’, the
torpedo attack against the Japanese fleet in the Lingga Roads near Singapore
In mid-April 1942, 217 Squadron received orders to prepare
flying to Ceylon, equipped in the torpedo-bomber role. The purpose was to help
protect the island against a possible invasion by the Japanese forces which had
conquered Malaya and occupied Singapore. But the squadron was unable to comply immediately,
for it was not completely equipped with torpedo-carrying Beaufort IIs or with
Moreover, on the first day of that month, Wing Commander
‘Mac’ Boal had failed to return from a torpedo attack against a German convoy
near Stavanger Fjord in Norway. This convoy had consisted of ten vessels
carrying supplies to the German forces occupying Kristiansand, escorted by
three trawlers converted into flak ships. Boal had led two other Beauforts into
the attack but had been shot down. He and the wireless operator Sergeant Stan
Clarke had been killed. The navigator Sergeant John Sinclair and the air gunner
Sergeant Maurice Mayne had been wounded but both had been picked up to become
PoWs for the rest of the war. The other two Beauforts had dropped their
torpedoes; these had missed but the aircraft had returned safely.
The preparation for the flight to Ceylon proved very
protracted. Wing Commander W.A.L. Davies arrived to command the squadron. New
crews joined from the Torpedo Training Unit, some after a rather skimpy course.
New Beaufort IIs fitted with torpedo racks were slow to arrive. After several
weeks, the crews began to fly down to Portreath in south-west Cornwall, where
long-range tanks were fitted for the long flight ahead. The first leg of this
was to be over neutral Portugal to Gibraltar. The next would be to the besieged
island of Malta, and then a longer flight to Cairo in Egypt. It was not until
10 June that a first section of nine Beauforts arrived at RAF Luqa in Malta,
with six more on the next day. Seven others eventually trickled in but another
made a forced landing in Portugal, and the crew were interned. The arrival of
these Beauforts was a bonanza for the Air Officer Commanding, Air Vice-Marshal
Sir Hugh Pughe Lloyd, for he was able to employ them temporarily on operations
which were far more urgent than a possible Japanese invasion of Ceylon. While
heavily bombarded from the air, Malta was vital for the protection of Allied
convoys carrying supplies to the British Eighth Army in North Africa. Some
Beauforts of 22 Squadron had already arrived but the newcomers were also
required to torpedo warships of the Italian Navy as well as to sink Axis
vessels taking supplies to the Afrika Korps.
When the first Beauforts of 217 Squadron arrived in Malta,
the island was so short of supplies that it could barely hold out any longer.
Fuel and food were the most critical. However, two Allied convoys were
approaching. One, code-named ‘Harpoon’, had left the Clyde and passed
Gibraltar. The other, code-named ‘Vigorous’, had left Alexandria in Egypt and
was also nearing the island. Both were under constant attack, mainly from the
Luftwaffe, and had already suffered severe losses.
On 14 June the crew of a Baltimore reported spotting an
Italian naval force converging on ‘Vigorous’. Nine Beauforts of 217 Squadron
were ordered to attack at dawn the following day, led by Wing Commander Davies.
Eight took off at about 04.00 hours but the other, flown by Flying Officer
Arthur Aldridge, was delayed by another aircraft blocking the exit from his
sheltering blast pen. Aldridge decided it was too late to link up with the
other Beauforts and set course directly for the enemy fleet which, unknown to
him, consisted of four cruisers and four destroyers. It arrived a few minutes
before sunrise and the Italian gunners did not open fire, believing that a
solitary aircraft flying out of the twilight must be friendly.
Aldridge circled and picked out a large vessel leading the
formation. He flew at an angle of 45° ahead of it and released his torpedo from
about 800 yards. The torpedo ran true while he turned away. It struck the
10,500-ton heavy cruiser Trento in the bows and exploded. At this point five of
the other Beauforts arrived and attacked, while the remaining three headed
north to hunt for two Italian battleships which had also been reported. Both
formations flew into intense fire. All dropped their torpedoes but the Italians
were able to ‘comb their tracks’. The action against the cruisers had been
witnessed by the commander of the submarine HMS Umbra, which closed with the
stricken vessel and put another torpedo into her. The Trento heeled over and
sank, with heavy loss of life. The submarine then moved north to the Italian
battleships and fired four more torpedoes, but all of these missed.
All the Beauforts returned to Malta but the crews were told
to take off again, after replacing two damaged aircraft and one wounded gunner.
They did so but found no targets, for the Italian warships had headed back to
Taranto. Nevertheless, the ‘Vigorous’ convoy turned back to Alexandria, since
its gunners had expended almost all their ammunition. Only two merchant ships
from the ‘Harpoon’ convoy arrived at Malta, on the following day. The two
convoys lost one cruiser, five destroyers, two minesweepers and six merchant
ships, but they had brought some relief to Malta.
The next operation took place on 20 June when twelve
Beauforts set off for an Axis convoy near the toe of Italy. Two aircraft which
were last to take off were attacked by two Junkers Ju 88s. One flown by
Sergeant Hutcheson managed to evade but the other, flown by Flying Officer
Frank Minster, was shot down and there were no survivors. The other Beauforts
did not find the convoy and returned without loss.
On the following day, nine Beauforts in three vics led by Squadron
Leader Robert Lynn set off to attack a heavily-defended convoy bound for
Tripoli in Libya. They were escorted by six Beaufighters of 235 Squadron. All
three Beauforts in the first vic were shot down during the attack. Lynn and his
crew lost their lives. The pilots of the other two managed to ditch; the crews
were picked up by the convoy, some of them wounded. Two more Beauforts were
hit, but they and the other five managed to return to Malta, albeit with some
wounded. The formation had torpedoed and sunk the German merchant vessel
Reichenfels of 7,744 tons.
On 23 June, Wing Commander Davies led seven Beauforts of his
squadron, together with five of 39 Squadron, to another convoy off the toe of
Italy. They hit and damaged the 6,835-ton Italian merchant vessel Mario Roselli
but two Beauforts of 39 Squadron were shot down. One of the pilots in a
Beaufort of 217 Squadron was wounded in the leg and crash-landed in Malta. A
respite followed until 3 July, when Squadron Leader Patrick Gibbs led a mixed
force from 39 and 217 Squadrons to attack a convoy off the south-west coast of
Greece. Torpedo hits were claimed but two Beauforts of 217 Squadron were shot
down; these were flown by Sergeant Russell Mercer and Sergeant James Hutcheson,
and there were no survivors.
After this attack, 217 Squadron was released for over a
fortnight. Its losses had been severe and there was a problem with sickness
among the surviving aircrews in all three Beaufort squadrons, some of whom were
suffering from tick fever, dysentery or scabies. Rations were down to
near-starvation level, which exacerbated these problems.
The first attack after this recovery period took place on 21
July when Squadron Leader Gibbs led three Beauforts of 217 Squadron with four
of 86 Squadron and two of 39 Squadron to a convoy near the Greek island of
Cephalonia. They claimed some success and all returned safely.
On 22 July, Wing Commander Davies returned to the UK.
Patrick Gibbs was promoted to Wing Commander and took over the remainder of 39,
86 and 217 Squadrons in Malta. These began to function as a single unit,
sometimes with men from different squadrons flying in the same aircraft.
An attack with this composite unit took place on 24 July,
with three Beauforts of 217 Squadron and three of 86 Squadron, escorted by nine
Beaufighters of 235 Squadron. Their target was a large merchant ship which had
been spotted near Cephalonia, escorted by two destroyers and two flak-ships.
The Beaufighters and the three Beauforts from 86 Squadron attacked first, but
all the Beauforts were shot down by an intense barrage. However, the three from
217 Squadron attacked from the opposite direction, taking the enemy gunners by
surprise, and scored two torpedo hits on the Italian Vettor Pisani of 6,339
tons, which caught fire and burnt out. Four of the men from 86 Squadron were
killed but eight were picked up to become PoWs.
An attack which took place on 28 July resulted in one of the most extraordinary events of the Second World War. Nine Beauforts were racked up with torpedoes and took off under the leadership of Gibbs to attack a merchant ship escorted by two destroyers south-west of Greece. Two Beauforts of 217 Squadron were shot down. Three crew members of the aircraft flown by Pilot Officer R.I.C. Head were picked up by one of the destroyers. The four men in the other Beaufort, flown by Lieutenant Ted Strever of the SAAF were picked up by an Italian Cant floatplane and taken north to the Greek port of Prevesa. On the following day, they were taken in another Cant towards Taranto in Italy, but managed to overpower the armed guard and the Italian crew. They flew the Cant to Malta and landed in a bay, despite being attacked by Spitfires.
Another convoy for Malta, code-named Operation ‘Pedestal’,
entered the Mediterranean via Gibraltar on 10 August. Five merchant ships
reached Grand Harbour, the last being a crippled tanker on 15 August. The
convoy had suffered the loss of an aircraft carrier, two cruisers, a destroyer
and nine merchant ships, but it had brought enough fuel and supplies to keep
Malta viable for two months. At last, 217 Squadron was released to continue its
flight to Ceylon, but it could muster only eight crews and Beauforts from the
original twenty-one which had landed at Luqa. The aircraft were fitted with
long-range tanks for the flight ahead.
The last crew left Malta on 28 August. The flights to Ceylon
took place in a series of hops to RAF landing grounds or stations. From Cairo
the usual route was south to the northern tip of the Red Sea and then east
across Iraq to Habbaniya, near Baghdad. The next stage was south-east down the
Persian Gulf to Bahrein. Then they turned east once more, to Karachi in India.
The final stages were south-east via Bombay and Bangalore to RAF Mimmeriya in
central Ceylon. The squadron’s ground party had already arrived by sea and then
After a few weeks, the crews converted from Beauforts to
Lockheed Hudsons. New crews arrived and Wing Commander A.D.W. Miller assumed
command in November. The squadron became employed in anti-submarine patrols
over the Indian Ocean. Detachments were sent to Ratmalana, close to Colombo in
the south-west of the island.
These patrols in Hudsons proved uneventful and in February
1943 the squadron moved about fifty miles north to RAF Vavuniya, where living
conditions were slightly more comfortable. Wing Commander R.J. Walker took over
the squadron in March and the crews converted to Beauforts again during April.
Together with 22 Squadron on the same station, they formed a torpedo-carrying
strike force against Japanese warships, but the latter were engaged on more urgent
matters in the Pacific and failed to appear. One crew from 217 Squadron was
lost during torpedo practice on 26 August 1943, having probably hit the sea
while flying at very low level.
This inactivity with Beauforts lasted for over a year and
became so irksome to the aircrews that they called themselves ‘The Ceylon Home
Guard’. However, torpedo-carrying Beaufighter TFXs (‘Torbeaus’) arrived in June
1944 and the aircrews began to convert on to them. Wing Commander John G.
Lingard DFC took over 217 Squadron in the following August. The aircrews began
to train with deadly rocket projectiles (RPs) and by the end of the year their
squadron became a very effective fighting force. At this time, 22 Squadron was
similarly equipped and began moving to the Burma theatre.
In early 1945 a new operation was devised for 217 Squadron
by the RAF’s No 222 Group in Colombo. This consisted of an attack against the
Japanese fleet in Singapore and was code-named Operation ‘Jinx’. However, the
Beaufighters could not reach Singapore from Ceylon, a distance of about 2,300
miles, and it was decided that they would operate from the tiny group of the
Cocos Islands, about 1,040 miles from Singapore provided they crossed the
mountainous range of Sumatra. The operation was sanctioned by Vice-Admiral Lord
Louis Mountbatten, Supreme Commander of South-East Asia Command.
Huge efforts were made to prepare a staging post on the
Cocos Islands for the operation. There was already a small party of Royal
Engineers in a cable station on one of them, named Direction Island, and an
advance party of airmen from 217 Squadron was landed there by cruiser in early
March. These were followed by three large transports bringing over 200 airmen
with building materials and supplies which included eighty-one torpedoes. ‘Station
Brown’, with buildings and a runway of pressed steel planking on crushed coral,
had been cut from the jungle at the end of April, under the command of Air
Commodore A.W. Hunt.
Meanwhile the aircrews of 217 Squadron were practising
long-distance flights of about eight hours in twelve Beaufighters fitted with
extra fuel tanks. They knew they had to fly to the Cocos Islands and were told
that their targets in Singapore included three battleships, an aircraft carrier
and several destroyers, protected by fighters from three airfields. It was
obviously an extremely dangerous operation, and possibly suicidal.
On 3 May, the men of 217 Squadron learnt that the operation
had been cancelled. They were not told of the reason and were furious at their
wasted effort. In retrospect it seems that the directive came from Mountbatten,
for he had become intent on Operation ‘Zipper’, an invasion of the Malayan
mainland near Phuket Island planned to begin in late August. All secondary
operations were cancelled to conserve resources.
No 217 Squadron was ordered to move to RAF Gannavarum, south
of Madras on the east coast of India, and to practice rocket and cannon firing
in preparation for this new operation. The ground and air parties completed
this move on 22 June, but Operation ‘Zipper’ never took place. As the world
knows, the atom bombs were dropped on Japan and the country surrendered
unconditionally on 14 August. On 30 September of that year, 217 Squadron was