Library Reference Number: 019
No 217 Squadron - Planned One-Way Missions
John Mackie flew as a pilot with Nos. 22 & 217 Squadrons, first of all carrying out operations in the United Kingdom then Middle East with torpedo-armed aircraft. Later, he was posted to the Far East on rocket/cannon-armed Beaufighters where the vast areas and distances to meet the ruthless Japanese enemy presented huge logistical problems. Those fuel problems reached an all-time crisis when it was decided that the only way to challenge the enemy was by flying operational missions where aircrew had little chance of returning to tell the story! John gives an outline of those times in the following account.
It was quite amazing that a small number of 217 Squadron's crew members even survived two months of operations from Malta in the first place. Losses were so severe that the squadron was in danger of being wiped out. Those aircrews surviving were posted to Ceylon where several new crews brought the squadron back up to strength and where the squadron's ground crews had arrived by sea in August 1941. Moving between Minneriya & Vavuniya to gain better operational bases (where runways were hastily built by local labour), the Beauforts of 22 and 217 Squadrons formed a strike force by April 1944, hopefully more ready to deal with Japanese warships. It had not been forgotten that the Japanese Admiral responsible for Pearl Harbour had commanded an invasion fleet hoping to gain a foothold in Ceylon in April, 1942, but had been repelled with Allied losses on that occasion.
In June 1944, torpedo-carrying Bristol Beaufighter TF.Xs "Torbeaus" began to arrive. Conversion to these more powerful aircraft resulted in 22 Squadron being moved to Burma in a ground-attack role, while for our part, in early 1945 a new operation was devised for 217 Squadron. This amounted to a suicide attack against the Japanese battle fleet in Signapore, code-named Operation Jinx. The distance from Ceylon to Singapore is about 2,300 miles, and the Beaufighter could not reach this target - let alone return. An alternative plan was then devised - we would fly from the Cocos Islands, 1,700 miles south-east of Ceylon, and 1,040 miles from Singapore; that is if we flew in a direct line over the Sumatra mountains which are over 12,000 feet high. Hurried developments took place to prepare our aircraft for Operation Jinx. The first being to equip us with long-range Beaufighters by fitting extra fuel tanks. An extra fuselage tank carried a 90 gallon capacity, plus a 200 gallon drop-tank. Added to the supply of 682 gallons in the mainplane, this gave us a total of 972 gallons. While preparations were made, faults sometimes occurred in the fuel-transfer system, and two of our aircraft came down in the sea, fortunately both crews being rescued.
The man who would lead the Beaufighters was W/Cmdr. John Lingard, DFC, a highly popular and well respected pilot. In preparation for these long-distance ops, we made practice flights to the Maldives Islands and back, although the crews were not informed of the reasons for those flights at that time. Usually lasting about 8 hours, I was actually airborne for 9 hours 50 minutes on one flight due to an unserviceable runway on my return. Training continued even in bad monsoon conditions and when there were severe problems in navigating for long distances over the sea with few aids available.
On 24th February, 1945, an advance party consisting of 15 members of 217 Squadron ground-crew left Ceylon by warship. Arriving at the Cocos Islands, they scrambled down nets into landing craft and, making their way ashore, they proceeded to spray the area with DDT as the islands were plagued with rats and insects. They then made their way by native canoes to where a small band of R.E.s were clearing the airfield site with bulldozers.
Back in Vavuniya, Ceylon, pilots and navigators of 217 Squadron practiced flying in formations of up to 12 Beaufighters carrying torpedoes, in close formation. Because their ground crews had left for an unknown destination, the aircrews were keyed up, aware that something was afoot. They learned their fate on 2nd May, when they were briefed to fly to the Cocos Islands, where on arrival, they were to await further instructions on attacking Japanese naval units in Singapore. They were told their targets included 3 battleships, an aircraft carrier, and destroyers all protected by enemy fighters based on three airfields on Singapore Island. No fighter escort could be provided for our Beaufighters!
Apart from anything else, a major concern for our crews appeared to be " how do we find our Cocos base in the first place, even before we begin to think about our targets in Singapore?" Cocos Islands are tiny dots in the ocean, our fuel would be running out, and our navigators did not have astro-navigational facilities. We were also unaware of any help forthcoming from the Cocos to guide us in on the final stage of our flight. Unknown to us then, an Avro York had been allocated to guide the Beaufighters to their destination. Just as well we didn't expect it, it it proved to be unserviceable! Because a Beaufighter carrying a torpedo could not be fitted with the 200 gallon drop-tank, total fuel available for the Singapore operation would be reduced to 772 gallons. Presuming we survived the mission, we would be left with a range of approx 800 miles for a distance of about 700 miles to Phuket Island. These rough calculations made no allowances for what normally occurrs in operational flying like full throttle evasive action after the attack, changes in conditions and all other problems which may arise. In hind-sight, it is highly improbable there would have been any Beaufighter survivors from such an operation.
Luckily, it never took place, due to among other things, the atom bomb being dropped in Japan.
Japan surrendered on August 14th,1945, and on 30th September of that year, No. 217 Squadron was disbanded. No details appear in the Public Record Office of the planned Beaufighter operation, and if it had gone ahead, it is highly unlikely that I would be still here to relate this account.