A Brief History of No 201 “Guernsey’s Own” Squadron

WORLD WAR 1

During the First World War the Squadron was employed at first on coastal patrols, flying from Dover, and later on fighter operations, operating on the continent. In these early days the unit flew a variety of aircraft including; Farman Seaplanes, Caudrons, Moraine monoplanes, Sopwith Camels and Triplanes. In the middle of February 1915 ten machines from 201 bombed the Submarine base at Zeebrugge. One submarine is known to have been damaged.

On The 26th August 1915 Squadron Commander Bigsworth made the first ever confirmed airborne “kill” on a submarine, when he surprised the U-14 off the Belgian coast near Ostend. After dropping 65lb bombs from low level he turned to see U-14 sinking stern first beneath the waves. The Squadron’s success continued the very next day with the sinking of a further submarine by Sub- Lieutenant Mulock.

Another Squadron Pilot, Flight Sub-Lieutenant Warneford, was the first Airman to destroy a Zeppelin in the air. On 7th June 1915 Warneford spotted Zeppelin LZ-37 over Bruges. Approaching from above and behind, he cut back his engine and at only 150 feet above the Airship, flung six bombs at the Zeppelin. The sixth exploded, destroying LZ-37 but the blast turned his Moraine Saulnier aircraft upside down and out of control. Warneford regained control but a fractured fuel pipe forced him to land behind enemy lines. After repairing the damaged pipe he was able to return home and was subsequently awarded the VC by the King, the first for aerial combat of any kind.

In 1917 the Squadron was awarded the Croix de Guerre for assistance given to the French Army during the Third Battle of Ypres. A unique distinction for any British Air unit, now incorporated on the Squadron Standard. In November 1918 the VC was awarded to Major W. Barker of 201, for his heroic attack on a large enemy formation and the shooting down of four enemy aircraft despite serious injury to himself.

After the armistice, the Squadron was disbanded, having been credited with over 280 enemy aircraft destroyed.

BETWEEN THE WARS

No 201 “Flying-Boat” Squadron was re-formed in 1929 and stationed at Calshot near Southampton, appropriately equipped with Supermarine Southamptons. The Squadron trained in the roles of anti-submarine patrols and warship reporting. The Saro London flying boat entered service with 201 Squadron from mid 1936 and on 23rd July that year the Squadron was presented with its official Squadron crest, approved by King Edward VIII. The crest features a “Blue Seagull, wings elevated and addorsed” and the motto “Hic et Ubique” – Here and Everywhere.

In May 1939, the affiliation between the Bailiwick of Guernsey and 201 Squadron was announced; close ties have been maintained ever since (except during the German occupation of the Channel Islands in WWII) and each year Squadron members visit Guernsey for Battle of Britain parades and fund-raising events.

WORLD WAR II

At the outbreak of War, 201 was equipped with Saro London Mk2 Flying Boats and operated from the Depot ship “Manela” at Sullom Voe. During 1939 Squadron crews located several damaged vessels. Thus began the Search and Rescue role, which continues to this day. The Sqn began to re- equip with the Short Sunderland in early 1941 and, despite losing several aircraft in accidents, it proved to be the mainstay of Coastal Command during the war. Convoy escort and anti-submarine patrols were the main tasks throughout the war, operating from Sullom Voe (Shetland Islands), Castle Archdale (Lough Erne, Northern Ireland) and Pembroke Dock (Wales).

At the height of the Battle of the Atlantic, on 14th March 1943, Flying Officer W. Robertson and his crew carried out an attack on the German U-boat, U-384. In late afternoon the crew sighted a U-boat’s conning tower. The submarine crash-dived and, because it took the Sunderland over a minute to reach the datum, a depth charge attack was ruled out. The crew marked the position and resumed patrol. Later the crew returned and spotted a fully surfaced U-boat, which opened fire as the Sunderland dived to attack. The forward gunner returned fire and a stick of depth charges was dropped. The eruption lifted the submarine’s bow into the air and, moments later, the U-boat was seen to sink stern-first into the depths. This was the first officially credited “kill” for 201 in WWII, despite many previous engagements.

During operation OVERLORD, the invasion of Normandy, 201 Squadron patrolled the South West Approaches and the Bay of Biscay as part of No 19 Group and destroyed three U-boats. By VE day, 201 had played its part in the Norwegian Campaign, the Battle of the Atlantic, the hunting of the “Bismark” and the invasion of Normandy, one DSO, 12 DFCs (and 2 Bars) and 11 DFMs were awarded to Squadron personnel by the end of the war. 201’s crews had flown over 20,000 operational hours, attacked 20 U-boats with 7 confirmed as destroyed.

THE POST WAR YEARS

The year 948 saw 201 Squadron Sunderlands involved in the Berlin Airlift. In spite of considerable initial problems, the Sunderland soon proved its worth, being particularly suitable for carrying salt as it was the only aircraft proofed against corrosion! In December 1955 the Squadron received its Standard and in March 1956 a detachment took Sunderlands to the Far East.

THE SHACKLETON ERA

The Squadron was again disbanded, albeit for a brief period, in 1958, reforming at RAF St Mawgan where it made the transformation from flying boats to the land based Avro Shackleton. During the 12 years that 201 Squadron operated the Shackleton, it was involved in operations in many exotic parts of the world. In the autumn of 1963 the Sqn was deployed to Nassau in the Bahamas for what were described as colonial policing duties against Cuban infiltration. However, during their stay, the arrival of Hurricane Flora saw Squadron crews fly relief supplies into Havana! In June 1965 four 201 Squadron crews were sent to Singapore, in support of the Royal Navy in the Malacca Straits, during the Malayan emergency.

The Beira Patrol

Following the unilateral declaration of independence by Rhodesia in 1965 Shackleton crews, included those of 201 Squadron, supported the Beira Patrol, a blockade of shipping carrying supplies destined for the country. This lasted until 1975, with Shackleton crews operating from a base at Majunga on the island of Madagascar. Between 1967 and 1969 Squadron crews were detached to Sharjah to conduct maritime surveillance patrols over the Arabian Gulf to ensure a controlled and orderly departure of our forces from the region as Britain relinquished her colonial commitments in the Middle East.

NIMROD, THE MIGHTY HUNTER

In November 1970, 201 became the first squadron to equip with the Hawker Siddeley (later BAe Systems) Nimrod, the world’s first all-jet maritime aircraft. The Squadron was now based at RAF Kinloss. During the the cold war 201 Squadron Nimrod crews were not only committed to the routine surveillance of the Soviet fleet in the North Sea, the Atlantic ocean and the Mediterranean Sea, but also saw service in the Far East, monitoring Soviet movements through the Malacca Straits, as well as providing a 24/7 Search and Rescue (SAR) presence in the UK’s area of responsibility. Throughout this period collaboration with NATO and other allies and participation in exercises resulted in many overseas visits and detachments, adding variety to the normal diet of surveillance missions. SAR Operations during the period included the ill-fated 1979 Fastnet Boat Race and the 1998 Piper Alpha tragedy where 165 rig personnel and two rescuers lost their lives.

The Falklands War

Early 1982 saw the start of the Squadron’s conversion to the modernised Nimrod MR2 and in May its participation in the South Atlantic conflict. Flying out of Ascension Island, Nimrods had to refuel up to three times from Victor tankers to carry out their mission of surface surveillance off the Argentinian coast. On one sortie a crew chased an Argentinean Boeing 707 carrying out a similar mission. Shortly afterwards Sidewinder missiles were fitted to the aircraft for self-defence!

The Gulf War

Within one week of Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in August 1990, a 201 Sqn crew, along with crews from the other Nimrod Squadrons, arrived at Seeb in Oman to begin patrols in the Arabian Gulf. In the following months, Nimrod crews identified, photographed and challenged merchant vessels to ensure that the UN sanctions against Iraq were not contravened. In January 1991, with war declared, a 201 Sqn crew flew surface surveillance missions off Kuwait City harbour in support of the coalition naval task force. A typical mission would involve transit to the area to detect any Iraqi naval activity. The information obtained was passed to the task force and, if necessary, a Surface Combat Air Patrol (SUCAP), typically American A-6 Intruders, attacked the enemy using targeting provided by the Nimrod crew.

Operation Sharp Guard

From October 1992, 201 Sqn crews were involved in Operation “Sharp Guard” helping to enforce UN sanctions imposed on the various factions of the civil war in the former Yugoslavia. Nimrods and Maritime Patrol Aircraft from other nations, operating from NAS Sigonella, Sicily, have patrolled the Adriatic Sea identifying and challenging merchant shipping in support of Warships from NATO.

THE FINCASTLE ASW TROPHY

The Fincastle Competition tests the skills of the best maritime crews from the Air Forces of Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the UK. 201 Sqn represented the Royal Air Force at this prestigious event 11 times during a 24 year period, more than any other RAF Squadron, winning the trophy 5 times.

THE GUERNSEY AFFILIATION

As noted above, the affiliation with the Bailiwick of Guernsey was announced in May 1939. It was inaugurated on 26th May 1939 when the Commanding Officer and a crew of No 201 (Flying Boat) Squadron, in a Saro London aircraft, visited St Peter Port, Guernsey. Since then a 201 Squadron Museum has been established at Castle Cornet, St Peter Port, displaying the history of the Squadron. On the 12th September 1994, after 55 years and with the affiliation as strong as ever, the whole squadron paraded in Guernsey where 201 Squadron was given the unique honour of the “Privilege” of Guernsey. It is with pride that No 201 (Flying Boat) Squadron calls itself “Guernsey’s Own” Squadron.

BATTLE HONOURS

As the Squadron can trace its roots back to 1914, this makes No 201 the oldest maritime squadron in the world. The Squadron has participated in many of the major events of the 20th century and the Squadron Standard is testimony to this. 201’s Battle Honours are:

  • Western Front 1915-1918
  • Arras, Ypres 1917
  • Somme 1918
  • Norway 1940
  • Atlantic 1941-1945
  • Bismark and Normandy 1944

Further honours not on the Standard but to which the Squadron is entitled are: Amiens, Hindenburg Line, Channel and North Sea 1939-1945, Biscay 1941-1945, South Atlantic 1982, and Arabian Gulf 1990-1991.             

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