No. 217 Squadron (RAF): Second World War

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No.217 Squadron began the Second World War as a home-based maritime reconnaissance squadron, spent 1941 and the first part of 1942 serving as an anti-shipping squadron, before moving to the Far East (via Malta) where it remained for the rest of the war.

The squadron was reformed at Boscombe Down on 15 March 1937 as a general reconnaissance squadron and was equipped with the Avro Anson. At the start of the Second World War the squadron was used to fly patrols over the Western Approaches to the Channel, moving to the incomplete base at St. Eval on the north-west coast of Cornwall in October. In May 1940 the squadron received its first Beaufort torpedo bombers, but the new aircraft suffered from some serious teething problems and its introduction was delayed until 24 September. Once in service the Beaufort was used for attacks on enemy shipping and for mine laying.

In February 1942 the squadron took part in the attempts to stop the 'Channel Dash', the daring German naval sortie that saw the Scharnhorst  and Gneisenau move from Brest to Germany. When news of the German sortie reached Britain No.217 Squadron was split, with most of its aircraft at St. Eval, on the north-west coast of Cornwall, while a detachment was at Thorney Island near Portsmouth. The squadron's first sortie involved four aircraft from Thorney Island, and ended in farce - the ground controllers were operating on the wrong radio frequency and so the Beauforts were never informed of a key change of plan. Two of the four aircraft reached the French coast but didn't make contact with the German ships, while the second pair found one large German warship (believed to Prinz Eugen) off the coast of Belgium but both of their torpedoes missed. The first two aircraft then made a second sortie and both found the Scharnhorst, but once again their torpedoes missed. This left the main part of the squadron, from St. Eval. These aircraft moved to Thorney Island then made a late attempt to find the German fleet, but only managed to find four small minesweepers.

After two years at St. Eval the squadron moved to the north of Scotland, before in May 1942 it began to prepare for a move to Ceylon. The ground echelon were sent directly to the Far East, but the aircraft would be diverted to the Mediterranean.

In the summer of 1942 the squadron's aircraft moved to Malta specifically to provide cover for the passage of the June 1942 convoys that were to approach Malta from both ends of the Mediteranean. On the morning of 15 June the squadron attacked an Italian fleet that was steaming south to intercept the convoys, crippling the cruiser Trento (later sunk by the British submarine P.35). A second sortie later in the day failed to make contact with the retreating Italians. The squadron then remained on Malta for two months, carrying out attacks on enemy shipping across a wide section of the Mediterranean, reaching as far as Greece.

After two months on Malta the aircrew finally moved to Ceylon. Their Beauforts were left behind in the Middle East, and the squadron received the Lockheed Hudson instead, using it for anti-submarine patrols. New Beauforts arrived in April 1943, but were only used for a short time before in July the squadron became a Beaufighter-equipped strike unit, intended to be used against any Japanese fleet that attempted to repeat the earlier attacks on Ceylon. The feared Japanese attacks never materialised, and so the squadron flew defensive patrols for the next two years.

In May 1945 the squadron move to the Cocos Islands in preparation for the planned invasion of Malaya, but their aircraft remained in Ceylon and had not caught up with them when the Japanese surrender ended the war. The squadron was disbanded on 30 September 1945.

Aircraft
March 1937-December 1940: Avro Anson I
May 1940-November 1941: Bristol Beaufort I
November 1941-August 1942: Bristol Beaufort II
October 1942-June 1943: Lockheed Hudson III and IIIA
October 1942-June 1943: Lockheed Hudson VI
April 1943-August 1944: Bristol Beaufort I
June 1944-September 1945: Bristol Beaufighter X

Location
March-June 1937: Boscombe Down
June-August 1937: Tangmere
August-September 1937: Bicester
September 1937-September 1938: Tangmere
September-October 1938: Warmwell
October 1938-August 1939: Tangmere
August-October 1939: Warmwell
October 1939-October 1941: St. Eval
October 1941-February 1942: Thorney Island
    December 1941-February 1942: Detachment to St. Eval
March-May 1942: Leuchars

June-August 1942: Luqa
August 1942-February 1943: Minneriya
February 1943-April 1944: Vavuniya
April-September 1944: Ratmalana
September 1944-May 1945: Vavuniya
May-June 1945: Cocos Islands (Ground crew)
June-September 1945: Gannavaram

Squadron Codes: MW,

Duty
1939-1940: Maritime Patrols
1941-1942: Anti-shipping, home based
1942: Anti-shipping, Malta
1943: Anti-submarine, Ceylon
1943-45: Strike squadron, Ceylon

Part of
September 1939: No.15 G.R. Group; Coastal Command
1 July 1944: No.222 Group; Air Command South East Asia

Books

 

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (pending), No. 217 Squadron (RAF): Second World War, http://www.historyofwar.org/air/units/RAF/217_wwII.html

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