No 211 Squadron RAF

In the winter chill of 1937, 211 Squadron were at home in Lincolnshire, at Grantham, west and inland 400ft above the mists and damp of the Fens. Under Squadron Leader RJA Ford they were working-up on their newly-arrived Hawker Hinds, the Audaxes already returned to Depot at Ternhill.

In late December 1937 the Squadron was preparing to send the 6 aircraft of ‘B’ Flight under F/Lt EM Withy to Aldergrove in Northern Ireland, to provide the machines for an Air Gunners Training Course. The support party, one officer and 12 airmen, were sent by sea. At wintry Grantham that month, the task of ‘A’ Flight was the same: training Air Gunners. Bill Edwards was posted in at the start of the month. On its return, the Air Party encountered weather bad enough to sock-in one section of three aircraft at West Freugh.

At the end of the month they were off to Southampton by rail, to board HMT Lancashire. The voyage was well-represented among the photographs of Geoff Grierson. Going to the Med with them were No 80 (Fighter) Squadron and No 113 (Bomber) Squadron. Over the next three years, the three units would see much action, often in close company.

211 Squadron abroad

On 10 May they arrived at Alexandria, leaving for Helwan Camp by train. There they took to tents at the start. The first aircraft were delivered on 20 May, the remainder arriving within a week. The comparative speed of delivery saved on storage costs and made for good practice: disassembled by the UK Packing Depot for sea transport, on delivery the Squadron re-erected the aircraft themselves. By 27 May the men had been accommodated in proper huts, the camp now more grandly titled RAF Station Helwan.

By the first week of June, four aircraft were serviceable, reassembled and with the necessary tropical modifications. Service life as ever, a matter of hurry up and wait: the pace of re-assembly was made difficult by a lack of spares and parts, including the necessary over-size radiators. Meanwhile, with few aircraft available to fly, Allan Farrington was packed off to Air Depot Middle East on a parachute course.

The Palestine Hills

In mid-July the Squadron was ordered to Palestine, where the local situation was getting over-heated. To assist the Palestine Police and Trans-Jordan Frontier Force in controlling a violent situation, the Squadron was to send ‘A’ and ‘B’ Flights to Ramleh, with the support of the HQ Flight, leaving ‘C’ Flight at Helwan. The British & Commonwealth Orders of Battle site gives a good history of the Trans-Jordan Frontier Force while Bowyer gives a good summary of the air action in RAF Operations 1918—1938.

The Squadron was to co-operate closely with the TJFF, using the XX emergency call technique. A brief signal from the field, of those two letters and a map reference or road location, was to be met with immediate air assistance. At the end of August 1938, the CO and F/Lt Barclay flew North to the landing ground at Jisr el Majamie, ten miles south of Lake Tiberias. At the local TJFF HQ they met with “Colonel Chrystal” (sic) to talk over their support role before the Squadron’s pending move forward to Semakh on the southern shore of the Lake. At this period, Lt Col JI Chrystall MC, a New Zealander, was the officer commanding the TJFF (London Gazette 8 March 1938).

The relaxed demeanour apparent in many Squadron photographs of the period (the unknown Airman and Grierson for example) stand in contrast to the unstated tension in their shots of armoured vehicles and convoys, and damaged or crashed aircraft. The ORB makes the pace pretty clear, though details of aircraft and aircrew are scant indeed in these early days of full-on action. Farrington, for example, certainly went to Palestine but is nowhere mentioned.

On the cusp of war

In any event, the speed of their deployment and the success of their support duly noted, at the end of September the Palestine duty was drawn to a close “in view of the European situation”. Munich, in short. They returned to Egypt forthwith and by 4 October were able to mount a brief forward move to their war station at El Dabaa. Greyhounds, indeed.

Based at Helwan once more, they took part in the mass RAF flypast over Cairo on the 18th and to Heliopolis the next day, for a formal Review in the presence of HE the British High Commissioner to Egypt Sir Miles Lampson and the Egyptian Minister for War. It was on this occasion that the Squadron was presented with the College of Heralds close-copy of the Squadron badge, by Lampson. The badge parchment remained in the Middle East until October 1944, when it was safely returned to the Air Ministry and taken into the keeping of the Air Historical Branch. Late that year, they made a batch of black and white prints and sent them out to the Far East for Squadron personnel.

War comes to the Western Desert

In early June 1940 the long wait in the sand was over. War had finally come to the Western Desert. Mussolini may have declared the start of hostilities the night before, but at dawn on the 11th it was the Blenheim squadrons of the Desert that struck the first blows over Libya. For some reason, the 211 Squadron ORB for that month is substantially incomplete, with no record of operations at all. Fairly full records exist from July 1940 until February 1941.

On 5 July, the ORB mentions a 12 aircraft raid on El Gubbi. Absolute maximum effort for the Squadron at this period (nine-aircraft formations were to become more usual), it is possible that F/O Farrington may have flown his first sortie of the war this day.

His first recorded sortie came on 10 July in L1528, with Sgt Close and LAC Appleyard, again as part of a 12 aircraft operation against petrol dumps at Tobruk. All returned safely, though typically in desert conditions two aircraft encountered engine problems and turned back. Thereafter, he flew often and successfully, his tally of sorties mounting steadily, some days taking to the air twice. In the custom and practice of the time, his crew changed often, though on three trips LAC Tickner came as gunner.

At the end of August, Tickner graduated from the turret to the Observer’s seat and LAC Ralph Wingrove took over as Gunner and Wireless Operator. The three went on to mount 10 raids together over the next five weeks, Tickner and Wingrove both advancing to Sergeant from early September. About that time, as a signaller with two years in Egypt and 18 operations to his credit, Wingrove was recalled to the UK. Sgt Martin took over the back seat duties.

Following his turn as Squadron Adjutant, Farrington acted as OC 'A' Flight several times, starting on 13 September 1939 and until, perhaps, the arrival of F/Lt Gordon-Finlayson later that month. On 5 October 1939 GF and Farrington took a local familiarisation flight together.

In May 1940, with GF in command in the absence of S/L Judge, Farrington may have acted as OC 'A' Flight again. When GF was promoted to Squadron Leader on the loss of Gordon Bax on 4 September 1940, Farrington had been promoted to F/Lt and was to take on ‘A’ Flight from then on (London Gazette No 34960, 4 Oct 1940, wef 3 Sep 1940). This 'A' Flight photo thus likely dates between September 1939 and August 1940, perhaps most likely August 1940, at El Dabaa.

By Guy Fawkes Day, 5 November 1940, Allan Farrington had 20 operations in the Squadron ORB, 11 of them flying Blenheim I L1528. Then they were off to help the Greeks. Somehow L1528 survived all the tender attentions of both Regia Aeronautica and Luftwaffe in the Desert and Greece, to serve with 70 OTU at Nakuru (Kenya) and finally Shandur on the Great Bitter Lake. By then surely a very tired airframe, she was finally struck off charge on 1 January 1944.

Winter Over Olympus

Through the snow, the cloud and the mountains of Northern Greece, the Greyhounds flew to do their duty. If the weather was freezing, the pace was hot, while off-duty the local hospitality was of the warmest. The adventures of The Bish & co returning from the forced-landing on Corfu are the stuff of legend. Others of the Squadron, officers and men alike, felt that same warmth in Greek homes that Christmas. A warmth rather more personal for Farrington, as will be seen.

Winter or not and parties or not, there was work to be done. Now F/Lt, Farrington with Tickner and Martin made their first trip in Greece from Menidi on 27 November, in L8513 to Durazzo in Albania. In clear weather and under orders, the raid was aborted—all aircraft returning safely. The three were to make 15 more sorties together in Greece, most of them in L8513. Quite remarkably, this aircraft also survived to serve out its days with 70 OTU until finally struck off charge on 1 January 1944.

Grantham Trio March 1938: Farrington, Boehm, Edwards (Grierson collection) Taken from the 211 Squadron shot at Grantham in Geoff Grierson's albums, 40046 Pilot Officer Allan Leonard Farrington on the left.

Lt Chrystal, self [AL Farrington], Capt Loughran (Farrington collection) Caption: ALF. There are stone buildings not unlike this in Egypt. Farrington's tweed gear suggests brisk weather, not impossible in Egypt, if perhaps more likely in northern Palestine. In the soft photograph, the two shoulder insignia faintly seen on the shoulders of "Lieutenant Chrystal" could be consistent with the two stars of that rank. However, the 1937 Army List records only one such name, that of TJFF Commander Lt Colonel JI Chrystall MC. The two insignia may in fact be the star and crown of a Lt Colonel, though the absence of Chrystall's 1918 Military Cross purple and white ribbon is as puzzling as Allan Farrington misrecalling his rank, the Army equivalent of an RAF Wing Commander. Tentatively, then, Palestine August 1938 and possibly the Jisr el Majamie visit noted above.

Exhibition diving by P/O Farrington, Helwan c1938 (Wingrove collection)

From LAC Ralph Wingrove's album in the Helwan section dated 1938, on a page entitled Around the Camp (ie Helwan), immediately before the pages labelled 21 January 1939 On the way to Ismailia. The diving shot is thus most likely to date from late 1938 or early 1939. The original is a contact print on Velox paper 2.5in x 3.5in. The Helwan Swimming Baths were an understandably popular RAF recreation spot and Wingrove took a number of photographs there.

On the platform, the announcer has a megaphone. To the right, two men in off-duty gear are adjusting their cameras. On the edge of the pool ten or a dozen swimmers relax. Several are observing with close interest the efforts of their diving champion Pilot Officer. In 1938 Farrington won the Plain Diving trophy in the RAF Middle East Command Swimming Championships and the Inter-Services Diving, too. The Plain Diving trophy (a silver diver) and the Inter-Services medal are treasured mementoes in the family.

Perhaps 1938 or 1939. Stints in the field aside, life in pre-war Cairo for a young RAF officer could be quite comfortable, as this beautifully formal be-ribboned, colour-enamelled photographic card suggests. Farrington has signed laconically just with his family nickname, Tup.

Hawker Hind Helwan: loading or unloading? (Farrington collection). Grierson and Wingrove both caught Hinds in this transportable state, GG apparently on arrival in May 1938 and Ralph apparently as they were being disposed of in 1939. Which, one wonders, was this? Disposal in 1939, perhaps, as the scene looks to be the same occasion as the shot in Wingrove's album.

Washing down the dust of the Desert (Farrington collection).

Jock Davies, right, Farrington centre, an unnamed very tanned Sergeant on the left. Caption and names: ALF. Possibly around 1940, from the style of uniform. The presence of a relaxed Sergeant indicates a remarkable degree of informality. Davies and Farrington also appear in Bobby Campbell's Officers Mess group. In the absence of flying badges of any sort, Davies' role is hard to track. There seem to be no operations listed for him. He may yet be found mentioned elsewhere in the ORB and its Appendices, perhaps as a non-flying officer.

"Jock" Davies & Allan Farrington taken in the bed of a Wadi (Farrington collection)

Caption: ALF. An interesting shot. The jodhpurs, shirts and jumpers are suggestive of quite cool weather, feasible in Winter in the Middle East. A keen competitive horseman who had been a drover for a period around Wagga Wagga in 1935, Farrington continued to ride in Egypt when the opportunity presented. "Jock" is not the Welshman Gerry Davies of operations in Greece.

211 Squadron 'A' Flight August 1940 (Wingrove Collection)

Group shots of Squadron from this period are all too rare, so this image from Ralph Wingrove's album is of considerable interest. Printed on unmarked rather heavy photo paper, the rather flat print quality and the name Wingrove in one corner of the rear (though not in the same hand as on his 1939 menu print) strongly suggests a distribution copy of a Squadron shot. Undated and otherwise unnamed as to personnel, the print lies in the El Dabaa section of Wingrove's album dated from August 1939 through to August 1940. The central figure, hatless and leaning forward in relaxed posture with arm and hand on knee, is Allan Farrington, clearly in command. It may be AC Wingrove standing second from the right (in front of the port engine). In the rear rank, "Mush" Hale, giant of the groundcrew, at the far left, and the late Moy Jones 4th from the left.