Toujours à propos
A history of No. 211 Squadron RAF in two world wars, as recorded at the time and as later recalled by surviving members. This website was launched on Easter Sunday 2001, the 60th anniversary of the Squadron’s most unfortunate operation in Greece.
Major additions came to a natural close in 2016 with the 70th and 75th Anniversary updates of March and April. Smaller revisions continue: on 31 July each year or more immediately if needed.
Originally formed in March 1917 as No. 11 Squadron Royal Naval Air Service, when the RNAS and the Royal Flying Corps amalgamated in April 1918 the Squadron emerged in the new Royal Air Force as No. 211 Squadron. Operating in the day bomber role, its Airco DH9s carried out bombing and reconnaissance operations over Flanders. The Squadron disbanded in 1919.
In the great mid-1930s expansion of the RAF, 211 Squadron re-formed as a day bomber unit at Mildenhall in June 1937 with the Hawker Audax. The Squadron was soon to re-equip with the Hawker Hind and move to Grantham in Lincolnshire and, briefly, Aldergrove (Northern Ireland). As world tensions rose through the mid and late 1930s, the Squadron was posted to the Middle East in April 1938 with its Hinds. There they remained, to re-equip with the Bristol Blenheim I as a medium bomber unit from late April 1939.
With the opening of Middle East hostilities in June 1940, 211 Squadron mounted operations against the Italians in Libya and the Western Desert. After Italian forces invaded Greece from Albania in late October 1940, the Squadron formed part of the British Air Forces contingent sent to support the Greeks. Almost destroyed there by the Luftwaffe in the Spring of 1941, the Squadron withdrew successfully from Greece via Crete to Egypt and on to Palestine, to be briefly active against the Vichy French in Syria that May.
After 12 months of front-line service, from early June 1941 they were given a six month rest. Tasked to operate as a reserve training squadron and form No 72 Operational Training Unit, they moved to The Sudan with a mixed bag of Blenheim Is and Blenheim IVs.
From late December 1941, the Squadron was re-forming in Egypt with old hands extricated from 72 OTU and a considerable number of RAAF aircrew. Equipped with refurbished but ageing Blenheim IVs, in late January 1942 they were sent in strength to the Far East for the first disastrous campaign against the Japanese in Sumatra and Java, only to be disbanded in the field. In late February and early March 1942, a lucky few were evacuated from Java to Ceylon and Australia, while many more fell captive.
Re-formed in India from August 1943 with the Bristol Beaufighter X, the Squadron was to be heavily engaged as a long-range strike fighter unit against the Japanese in Burma from January 1944 until May 1945. Stood down from operational readiness to convert to the de Havilland Mosquito FB VI that June and July, they were expecting to take part in Operation Zipper, the invasion of Malaya planned for September 1945. However, following the Japanese surrender that August, the Squadron was eventually posted to Thailand in November 1945 as part of the delayed Operation Bibber deployment to Bangkok. There the tropical conditions found out weaknesses in their aircraft, and the Squadron was disbanded at Don Muang in March 1946.
The Squadron saw much action over the course of the war. Equipped with either three-seat or two-seat aircraft (and either 12, 16 or all too briefly 24 of them at its disposal) and some 500 air and ground personnel overall, the Squadron suffered the loss of 320 men.
Of the 320 dead, 134 men were killed on air operations, in accidents or died from illness (nearly all of them aircrew). At least 375 men were taken Prisoner of War (of whom 28 or possibly 29 were aircrew), most of them in the Far East in March 1942. Perhaps 364 men (18 of them aircrew) were taken captive by the Japanese: of these, 186 men (8 of them aircrew) are known to have died in captivity.
From 1937 to 1945, 99 Australians are known to have been members of the Squadron, 48 of them as war-time operational aircrew (22 of whom died: in training, on 211 Squadron operations or in captivity).
Toujours à propos
Despite terrible losses, again and again they got their kit together, formed up, got to where they were supposed to go, and set out once more to do what they were expected to do, at Ramleh, Dabaa, Quotafiya, Menidi, Paramythia, Aquir, Wadi Gazouza, Palembang, Kalidjati, Tjilatjap, Bhatpara, Ranchi, Feni, Chiringa, Yelahanka, St Thomas Mount, Akyab and at Don Muang.
Characteristically, the boys are off-hand about it all to this day, simply calling the worst moments “a very shaky do” or “pretty hairy stuff”. They will tell you that they were (and are) just ordinary fellows. And so they may be. But the things they did, now a lifetime ago, were far from ordinary and well they know it.
As a respectful archive from those who wished to record, for all who wish to seek for themselves, this account does not aim to romanticise or glorify the evil that is war. Yet war may call forth the finest of acts from men and women—if oft to their own destruction. We should give thanks, that the 211s did what they were asked to do and that some of them got away with it.
Many years have now passed since these young men went to fight against awful things. Their service was not in vain, despite the waste of war, yet none of those who returned were untouched by what they had survived. As for those who went but were never to return:
“They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old;
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.”
Lest we forget
For the Fallen (Laurence Binyon 1869—1943) was published in The Times of London in 1914. The fourth stanza quoted here was recited at the dedication of the London Cenotaph in 1919. Among English-speaking peoples, the Ode has become part of the custom and usage of Armistice Day and like solemnities, where the young and the old gather to give thanks and to reflect. In thinking about its Edwardian tone it is well to remember that Binyon, himself too old for armed service in the Great War, stepped forward to serve as a stretcher-bearer in the trenches of the Western Front.
The Squadron badge
Prepared at the College of Arms by the then Chester Herald as Inspector of RAF Badges and approved by HM King George VI in July 1938, the badge recalls the origins of 211 Squadron in the latter part of World War I. Taken from the coat of arms of the Belgian city of Bruges (Brugge), the capital of Flanders and a port since mediaeval times, the city was the seat of the Counts of Flanders and the Dukes of Burgundy. The lion rampant is azure (that is, the blue of Bruges), with claws and tongue the conventional heraldic gules (red), and wearing the golden coronet of a Duke. The lion’s disjointed paws and head are heraldic acknowledgement of the squadron's efforts in the anti-submarine campaign: the destruction of Bruges docks.
“A lion disjointed and ducally crowned” (RAF official).
Notably, the large print copy and brief description on file for the Squadron’s badge made no reference to the heraldic colour of the lion, which was sufficiently obvious from the painted parchments presented to the Sovereign. Once authorised, in the usual way one painted copy was presented to the Squadron, by then in Egypt. On departing thence for the Far East in January 1942, that copy was left for safe-keeping with Middle East Command. Some photographic prints were already held by the Squadron in the Middle East (by airmen Dudman and Sainsbury for example), at least one larger print surviving all the drama of Sumatra and Java for use in India in December 1942.
In late 1944, the badge paintings for 45 Squadron and 211 Squadron had both been returned from the Middle East to the Air Ministry, who thereupon signalled ACSEA whether they were to be retained by RAF Air Historical Branch or sent on to India by Air Bag. In reply, BAFSEA signalled preference for the paintings to be retained by AHB and for photographic copies to be forwarded for distribution to Squadron Messes (all faithfully recorded in TNA AIR 2/3809).The new prints so sent were the then usual black and white, of which a number of examples survive in postcard size.
In India, Squadron esprit was such that embroidered silk copies of suitable size were soon arranged, through a local uniform-wallah. Here initiative struck a difficulty: in the absence of a colour representation or plain description, the blue lion was mistakenly assumed to be the classic red lion common to British heraldry, from the Sovereign down and including a phalanx of Red Lion pubs across the land. In any event, in due course a number Squadron members were soon possessors of the silk panels. A number of examples survive, held by the families of Squadron men from late 1944 and 1945. An apparent proof copy also exists, with lion red but Squadron mis-stitched as Soadron.
The Squadron motto
Toujours à propos
Generally taken to mean Always at the right moment, but equally might be understood as Always to the purpose.
There have long been differing views on the right thing to do about recording the history of 211 Squadron in World War II. Since the war-time publication of TH Wisdom’s Wings Over Olympus, other than the 1965 verse Epitaph For A Squadron by their old CO AVM JR Gordon-Finlayson DSO DFC, the story was little told for four decades after the war. Unearthing the extent of the post-war recording of the Squadron’s history has required patient search and considerable luck.
In the 1980s, magazine articles by ex-211s Eric Bevington-Smith (in Air Enthusiast No 16) and James Dunnet (in Flypast No 28) were followed by Air War for Yugoslavia, Greece and Crete 1940—41 of Shores, Cull & Malizia in 1987, and in 1988 by Smith’s Victory of a Sort—The British in Greece 1941—46.
In the 1990s, magazine articles by S/Ldr AS Thomas in Aviation News and in Flypast by A/Cdr GR Pitchfork MBE (writing as “Ralph Graham” in his 1996 Men Behind the Medals story for Sgt LR Page DFM+Bar) helped the Squadron further emerge from the mists of the past.
HF Squire’s Middle East Scrapbook of 1997, followed by Hugh Campbell and Ron Lovell’s So Long Singapore in 2000 and the late James Dunnet’s Blenheim Over the Balkans in 2001 all contributed greatly to redressing the Squadron’s long silence. In 2002 and 2005, the late Graham Warner’s The Bristol Blenheim—A Complete History at last gave full recognition to the service of a remarkable aircraft.
Further Flypast articles added to the story: in 2000 by the late George Checketts (ex-211 Squadron WOp/AG) and more recently by Graham Pitchfork’s 2013 Men Behind the Medals account of P/O RW Pearson DFC. The March 2009 publication of Looking Backwards Over Burma by ex-211 Nav/W Dennis Spencer DFC gave a fine account of his service in India, while the late Peter Wright's 2011 account of pilot RD Campbell's Middle East service, The Elephant on My Wing, brought their World War 2 story full-circle, from 1939 in the Western Desert, on to Greece in 1940 and there to captivity in 1941.
The full extent of printed accounts of the Squadron is shown by the Sources reading lists.
In 1996, prompted by the Air War book of Shores, Cull & Malizia, my late father CFR “Nobby” Clark set down for me some manuscript notes of his service as a Sergeant Observer with 211 Squadron from 1940 to 1942. In setting out simply to preserve his foolscap notes, I found they posed a number of puzzles. These drew me in to more and more research so that, with his assistance, what had begun as a simple transcript had by 1998 become a little book: our 211 Squadron RAF, Greece, 1940—1941: An Observer's Notes and Recollections.
That little book, though limited in circulation and now long out of print, in turn drew forth more and more enquiries. It seemed to me that the best way to meet that interest (and with proper respect to my father’s desire for privacy) was to turn the book into a website. In that way, I hoped also to preserve the later material I had already accumulated, while making the whole story easier to find. My father died in September 2003.
All our original book’s content is included here, much revised and with much additional material, as the Site summary shows. The story now spans the Great War activities of the Squadron and the whole World War II period from the re-forming of the Squadron in 1937 to its final disbanding in 1946. Period background is covered in some detail, with my own notes on the theatres in which they operated and the various aircraft types with which they were equipped.
In compiling this account of the Squadron story, I have drawn heavily on original records of the time and on the personal collections of many members of the Squadron, whether RAF, RAAF, RCAF or RNZAF, as my Acknowledgements and the Sources pages show. Other on-line accounts of Squadron members are listed on the Sites & Links page.
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Site created 15 Apr 2001, last updated 12 Sep 2021. Page created 28 Oct 2001, last updated 31 Jul 2020
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