No. 217 Squadron RAF 1942-45

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 cowling.

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 trained crews.

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 overland.

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 disbanded.

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