271 Squadron was first formed at Taranto, in Italy, on the 27th September 1918, at a time when the Flights of the Royal Naval Air Service, the forerunner of Coastal Command, were being formed into Squadrons. It consisted of Flight Nos. 357, 358, and 367, all of which were equipped with the large F.3 flying boat and possibly a small number of Short 184's. Its task until the end of the Great War, just six weeks later, was to protect Allied shipping from any U-Boats attempting to leave the Adriatic Sea. As with many such units, demobilisation was swift following the Armistice, and 271 Squadron's brief life came to an abrupt end on the 9th December 1918.
The Squadron was reborn at Doncaster on the 28th March 1940, out of a nucleus of No.1680 Flight. Equipped with the spacious but obsolete Harrow bomber, it was initially assigned to perform transport duties for No.12 Group of Fighter Command, but was transferred to Bomber Command on the 27th April. In both cases, the most common task its aircraft undertook was helping to remove squadrons from one base to another.
On the 10th May, the day that the Germans began their offensive through Belgium and Holland, 271 Squadron received a number of Bombay bomber-transports and immediately used them and the Harrows to ferry troop reinforcements to France. The Squadron was heavily engaged in the transport of troops and materiel to the continent throughout May, and to assist them in this task they received additional aircraft of all shapes and sizes; included amongst which were civil airliners, several Savoia-Marchetti SM.73P's from Belgium, a Ford 5-AT Trimotor (the only such aircraft in the RAF) and three of the very large and extraordinarily shaped Imperial Airways HP.42W's.
On the 23rd May, some of the Squadron's SM.73P's and civil airliners had landed at Merville, in France, to deliver stores, but while there the airfield was strafed by a formation of Bf-109's, destroying an Ensign and damaging an SM.73P. When the remainder of these aircraft flew back to Britain, they were fired on near Calais and an SM.73P was lost. When it became clear that France was going to fall, 271 Squadron helped to evacuate RAF personnel.
After Dunkirk, the Squadron's main task was to ferry freight and passengers around the British Isles, now relying almost completely on Harrow and Bombay aircraft. These had an important role to play during the Battle of Britain, when it became commonplace for Fighter Commander's squadrons to move to new airfields. With this Battle won and a possible German invasion delayed until the following year, 271 Squadron were granted enough of a breathing space to service and improve their aircraft; the Harrows were upgraded with a new nose and tail fairings, which led to them being known as "Sparrows".
On the 24th October, the Squadron received a DH.91 Albatross which, based at Wick, flew regular sorties to Reykjavik, in Iceland, and was later joined by a second Albatross, but these flights stopped in April 1942 after the loss of both aircraft. A detachment was still maintained here, however, and at the same time the Squadron acquired several Dominies which were used to fly such items as newspapers and fresh vegetables to remote areas of the Scottish Highlands and Islands. The remainder of the Squadron was still based at Doncaster, where the Bombays were phased out of service, leaving the Harrows with the routine duties of keeping the RAF bases in the Shetlands, Orkneys and Hebrides well-supplied. 271 Squadron was kept particularly busy at this time, flying some two hundred and forty sorties per month; one of the more unusual of which was a search and rescue operation for the crew of a downed Beaufort, who were quickly spotted in a dinghy by a Harrow crew, who in turn directed a rescue launch to their location.
Towards the end of 1942, the Allies were beginning to think in terms of an offensive war and a possible invasion of mainland Europe. As a consequence of this, 271 Squadron were brought into contact with the Airborne Forces at this time, and during the following year they carried out numerous exercises with these troops to give them flying experience whilst at the same time improving the navigational skills of the aircrews. The Squadron became a part of Transport Command when it was formed on the 25th March 1943, and in August they began to replace their Harrows with Dakotas, a greatly superior aircraft for the airborne role. Even so a Flight of Harrows was retained and converted into air ambulances, capable of supporting stretchers, with the intention of evacuating casualties from France when the invasion began.
In February 1944, the Squadron became a part of the newly formed 46 Group, and their establishment of thirty Dakotas were moved to Down Ampney, which they shared with 48 Squadron, but the Harrow Flight remained behind at Doncaster. From March until the end of May, all Squadrons in the Group trained intensively with the 1st and 6th Airborne Divisions, and the 1st Polish Parachute Brigade, in preparation for the forthcoming invasion. In this way they became familiar with the deployment of both gliders and paratroopers, and also they practiced large scale formation navigational exercises at night. In late April, 271 Squadron flew several sorties to drop leaflets over France.
In the final hours of the 5th June 1944, seventeen of 271 Squadron's Dakotas took to the air with the first wave of the invasion force. Seven of the aircraft towed Horsas while the remaining ten carried men of the 3rd Parachute Brigade and also a small load of 20lb bombs, which were dropped on certain strategic targets to create the impression that the heavy aerial activity of this night was nothing more than a routine bombing raid. Several of the aircraft were damaged by ground fire during this lift, but all returned to base safely. During the evening of the 6th June, another fifteen Dakotas towed gliders to their landing zones, carrying troops and equipment of the 6th Airlanding Brigade. On the 7th June, the Squadron suffered its first losses when sixteen of its aircraft flew a resupply mission to the 6th Airborne Division, and one was accidentally shot down by Allied shipping while another was badly damaged and forced to make a crash landing at Friston.
By the 13th June the first landing strip had been built in Normandy, and both the Dakota and Harrow elements of 271 Squadron took part in the daily evacuation of wounded soldiers from and the delivery of freight to France; during the initial stages the latter consisted of equipment to build further landing strips for tactical fighter squadrons. The removal of these casualties was a most valuable service, and many men who would otherwise have died in field hospitals were saved because of the proper medical care that they received in England. During June, 48 and 271 Squadrons between them evacuated eight hundred and sixty-nine casualties from Normandy, a figure which greatly increased with the intensity of the fighting during July and August; on the 8th August alone, the combined efforts of all the Allied air ambulances brought five hundred and twenty-seven wounded to hospitals in England.
On the 17th September 1944, 271 Squadron provided twenty-four Dakotas to tow Horsa gliders to Arnhem, only nineteen of which arrived safely, the remainder being forced to cast-off over England. On the following day another twenty-four aircraft were used to tow gliders, again without loss.
The first of the major resupply operations was carried out on Tuesday 19th September, by which time the Germans had managed to position significant numbers of anti-aircraft weapons around the drop zones, and the supply aircraft suffered heavily. Two of 271 Squadron's seventeen aircraft were shot down on this day, and a further eight were damaged. One of those that was brought down was piloted by Flight Lieutenant David Lord, who persisted with the supply drop in spite of a fierce engine fire; only one man from the eight-man crew survived. Lord was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross; the only one ever awarded to Transport Command.
Despite equally heavy ground fire, all sixteen of the Squadron's Dakotas returned safely to base on the 20th September, but on the following day the aircraft were intercepted by German fighters and three of their twelve planes were shot down. One of those downed was piloted by Jimmy Edwards, who later found fame as a popular entertainer, and he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his bravery in attempting to crash land the aircraft, which at the time was being shot at by an Fw-190, and in so doing saving the lives of four wounded despatchers who could not bail out.
The Rhine Crossing
While the Dakota element of 271 Squadron were involved in Operation Market Garden, the Harrow Flight continued with the evacuation of casualties from Belgium. During November, they alone were responsible for the removal of two thousand five hundred wounded from the front line. Typically, the Harrows would fly to Evere, and it was here, on the 1st January 1945 during the Ardennes offensive, that they suffered a disaster when the base was attacked by thirty German aircraft and seven Harrows were destroyed on the ground. The remainder safely returned to England, where their losses were quickly replaced. The Harrows continued to perform their duties until the end of the war, whereupon they were immediately disbanded.
With the Battle of Arnhem behind them, the Dakotas similarly reverted to the ferrying of freight to and the removal of casualties from the 21st Army Group. Training with the Airborne Forces continued, however, in preparation for the second attempt to cross the Rhine. On the 24th March, the Squadron towed twelve gliders on the first and only lift of Operation Varsity; one glider was forced to cast-off prematurely, but the remainder reached their landing zones and the Dakotas returned to base without loss.
Thereafter the Squadron returned to its customary transport duties, which did not cease when the war ended as supplies were needed more than ever before. Instead of evacuating wounded to England on the return trip, however, the Dakotas now carried freed prisoners of war. Towards the end of 1945, 271 Squadron moved to Broadwell and began troop flights to India. A tragedy occurred during one such flight, on the 15th January 1946, when one of the new model Dakotas crashed in bad weather near Marseilles, killing all twenty-five personnel aboard. When these long-haul flights came to an end, the Squadron concentrated on transport duties throughout Europe, chiefly to Gibraltar, Malta, and Naples. This was the theme for the remainder of the year, until, on the 1st December 1946, the Squadron was renamed 77 Squadron.
The information contain in this history has come from the article "Winged Deliverers", by Andrew Thomas. Thanks to Alan Hartley for his help.
Commanders of 271 Squadron
Squadron Leader B. V. Robinson
Wing Commander J. N. Glover
Wing Commander K. J. B. Dickson AFC
Wing Commander M. Booth DFC
Lieutenant-Colonel J. S. Joubert AFC
Wing Commander P. Peters DFC