- Contributed by
- People in story:
- Richard Griffin
- Location of story:
- Various countries.
- Background to story:
- Royal Navy
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 10 December 2004
Memories of the Fleet Air Arm 1939-1945
I joined the Royal Navy as a boy in January 1939. The navy at the time was about to start replacing Royal Air Force personal then serving on HM ships with newly trained Naval ratings. I volunteered for this new Air branch as and Air mechanic [O], which stands for Short Service Flying division. My official number was S.F.X.5, which made me the fifth person to join.
After new entry training at HMS Victory in Portsmouth I and my class  went for our technical training to the RAF gunnery school at Sheerness where we were to learn all about guns, bombs, explosives etc., but on the outbreak of war in September 1939 we were re-transferred to a former WAAF base in Cardiff to complete our training.
Pay for us in those times was 7 shillings a week, so being broke one night, myself and two ‘oppos’ went into Cardiff. I produced my P.O. bank book at the Post Office, drew out the total balance which amounted to one shilling, then with this huge sum we brought 3 half pints of beer which came to sixpence, one packet of five cigarettes at tuppence, then around to the fish and chip shop for four pennyworth of fish and chips.
We then took a stroll along the water front to ogle the girls. A happy evening ashore for one shilling!
When I finished initial training at Lee-on-Solent in November 1939 I was drafted to the naval air station at Worthy Down near Winchester. There I did some more training and got rated to Air Mechanic first class. It was at Worthy Down that I was drafted to 815.
As with all new assignments you had to get used to new oppos and used to being a part of a team. We had the standard wooden hut accommodation with a black central stove with the pipe going through the roof.
There were 5 armourers. Gissing, Bonner, McCauley; all serving ratings who had transferred from general service to the air division and myself a new entry, with Corporal Gater RAF who was serving with the navy until we naval types gained time and experience to take over.
It was a free and easy enough time for us; after duty we were able to go to Winchester and there was weekend leave.
The pilots did a lot of flying, we used to fit six practice smoke bombs and then hop in the rear cockpit and go up with the plane. That was quite a thing, the plane at about 300 ft., would dive straight down to the target then drop the bombs and pull out. The ‘Gs’ left the stomach behind.
1940 was one of the big, cold winters; snow and ice everywhere. One night seven of us went ashore to Winchester. We missed the last bus back.
It was a seven mile walk back to camp, then came freezing rain. We couldn’t walk on the icy road, we had to walk on the grass edge...What a trip. We got back covered in ice, that was a bad winter.
We had ‘C’ painted on the tails of the aircraft, that meant we were due to go on board Courageous, but she was sunk in the Channel, so this was changed to an ‘L’ the recognition letter for Illustrious.
During this period we went as mentioned to Cardiff and did some flying training. Also during this period we were at Littlehampton.
I met a girl there, she was a lovely girl but we were there only a few days; I was eighteen. She remains a happy memory of those days.
We eventually got orders and moved by train to a little camp near Plymouth and we knew then that everything had come together.
For me, my first ship, first time to sea. I was very excited.
We traveled into Plymouth Dockyard and there was the great 22,000 ton carrier alongside, and so we embarked.
For me that was the biggest thrill of my life, you would have to be on a large warship to sense the atmosphere; the hum of machinery, all the passage ways, the noise, the smell. Anyway we settled in, were allocated to mess decks and were acquainted with ships routine and orders etc.
We had joined the ship on the 7th June 1940 and she sailed that night. We straight away ran into some very heavy Atlantic weather, so much so, that the forward bulkheads were staved in and had to be shored up.
The ship had a flared bow making her liable to this in heavy seas.
At Worthy Down, the ex R. N. lads were always ribbing me; ‘wait until you get to sea, you’ll spew your ring up. Ha. Ha.’
As soon as the aircraft had flown on board we started to fly anti submarine patrols. This entailed loading the A/C with 100 lb A.S. bombs.
Normally two of us lifted these onto the bomb racks but Gissing, Bonner and McCauley were all comatose - sea sick, leaving new entry Dick to do the loading. I was seasick too, felt bloody awful in fact but not as bad as they were. I was always seasick every trip if the sea was rough.
After a few days we were all recovered, it was quite an experience for the first time being born on those huge Atlantic rollers.
We eventually arrived in the Bermudas mostly to do on and off flying exercises. One day it was decided that there was enough wind to operate the aircraft whilst anchored in harbour, fine - then the wind dropped. All the Swordfish managed to land back on OK but of the Fairy Fulmers [fighters], one tore out its arrester hook and went over the side, one crash landed on the golf course and one went somewhere else but where I can’t recall.
It was all quite relaxed, the sun was warm, we were wearing our tropical whites, there were a couple of runs ashore in Hamilton, and the war seemed a long way off.
Captain Boyd cleared the lower deck and gave a little pep talk in which he expressed the view that he was looking forward to seeing bombs bounce off our 4 inch armoured deck. A bit prophetic that; only they didn’t bounce.
All this of course was to work the ship up for everybody to get acquainted with all the various facets of an aircraft carrier in wartime.
After a couple of weeks we sailed to join the Mediterranean fleet, we passed Gibraltar and went on through to the Eastern Med and eventually came into Alexandria which was to be our base of operation. This was a fascinating sight; blue sky, the glare of the desert and the smell.
Craft of all descriptions in the harbour; five British battle ships, Valiant, Queen Elizabeth, Barham, Revenge and Resolution. There was the old French battleship Lorraine, the aircraft carrier Eagle, cruisers, destroyers, Egyptian feluccas, craft of all sorts. All the natives in burnoose’s and skull caps. We couldn’t wait to go ashore.
However as always the aircraft flew to the RAF base at Aboukir, we followed and we did a couple of weeks exercising there. I was amazed at the antiquated airplanes the RAF were using, some old biplanes even more ancient than our old Swordfish.
I remember seeing lizards poking their heads out of holes and sand, dust and palm trees but with a gap of nearly 60 years much of the trivia of everyday is lost from my memory.
In due course it was back to the ship and off to sea again.
Whenever we put out to sea there was always an operation on. Sometimes it was to escort an incoming convoy, or to carry out a bombardment as we did against the Italian positions at Bardia just before the 8th Army attacked and captured it. Shortly after this engagement, we disembarked to Dekalia and I was flown in the Swordfish to Bardia.
It was a makeshift landing strip in the desert. I had no clothes. I remember sleeping under the stars that first night; boy was that cold with dung beetles, sand and scorpions for company. Still it was good fun for all that.
Eventually things got organized; blankets, tents, etc but of course, we were helping to cover the advancing 8th Army. As they advanced, we moved up behind them.
For the short time we were at Bardia we had the opportunity of passing through the clutter of an entire army. There were masses of weaponry of all kinds and laying around some unexploded 15 inch shells from our battleships guns. There were trenches and dugouts, clothes and personal belongings of all kinds.
It was customary for aircraft carriers to fly the aircraft off to an airfield ashore in order to keep pilots flying and in general to carry on maintenance. When in port at Alexandria we were located at the Egyptian Misr airline field at Dekhalia just outside Alexandria.
There were some permanent buildings but our billets were tents in the sand. When we finished work for the day there was a NAAFI canteen we could use but we often went to the canteen, obtained a bucket [or two] of beer, took it back to the tent, dipped cups into the bucket, passing the time, swapping yarns, writing letters home and telling jokes etc.
In the first week of January 1941 we were due to re-embark on the ship for another sweep to the westward.
The night before, we imbibed the usual buckets of beer and settled for the night.
The next morning one of our oppos Able Seaman Hogg - ‘Oggy’ for short was very upset and agitated. He said ’last night I kept wanting to go for a pee but every time I tried to get out, my mother was standing by the bed and kept pushing me back in.’ He was really puzzled and upset. The rest of us were busy packing kit and put it down to too much beer.
We duly embarked and the Fleet sailed this time to pick up an East bound convoy from Gibraltar. During the enemy action related in the next paragraphs while we were under heavy air attack, Oggy was one of the gun crew on one of the multiple 2lb guns on the port side. This took a direct hit from a 1,000 lb bomb killing all the gun crew.
We used to sail out through the Med; usually seas were calm and the sky clear and sunny. We were normally at 2nd degree readiness and called to action stations if any enemy ships were signalled or enemy aircraft sighted.
The ships tannoy system always kept the crew acquainted with what ever was going on, as well as orders and routine matters. This enabled all the crew to be in touch with whatever was going on around.
We frequently closed to action stations against high level Italian bombers; all the guns of the fleet would bang away, then would come sticks of bombs happily exploding between the ships. Otherwise we would be busy doing maintenance loading bombs, depth charges, torpedoes, or whatever.
We had to fly anti-submarine patrols all hours of daylight, so we were kept busy. When we were off watch we could exercise, smoke, relax and so on by walking up and down the flight deck, which was over 850ft long.
Sometimes when the ship returned to Alexandria the air division remained on board or flew off to Dekhalia depending I suppose on operations.
In November 1940 we sailed as usual and about this time we flew on board six Swordfish from HMS Eagle, so something was on.
We learned that the air group were to attack the Italian naval base at Taranto, and we were soon busy getting as many aircraft as possible serviceable. All the ammunition was brought up from the magazine, plus torpedoes and bombs and extra planes were on board. It was pretty crowded. We worked 18-20 hours a day to get it all ready. Then on the night of Nov 11th one by one off they flew. It was a dark night with no moon, the ship cruised some 200 miles from Taranto and we all waited anxiously, then after a couple of hours came the first roar of a Pegasus engine, then another. Finally all had returned but two. One of these being Lt Commander Williamson C.O. of 815.
The next morning we were elated when RAF reconnaissance showed one battle ship sunk, two more heavily damaged and other damage. Well - this was what we had joined for but later there was a price to be paid.
We were ashore at Dekhalia at the beginning of 1941 doing our usual maintenance and flying routines and having a swim on Xmas day, the only time I’ve ever done that.
In February 194,1 we embarked on the carrier for what was to be the last time we were on board. As always we read orders of the day, there was a message from the C in D commenting that units of the German air force had been sent to air fields in Sicily and we might expect rather more activity than hitherto.
We arrived off Pantaleria and things started to hot up. The ships tannoy system kept us informed of events as they unfolded.
The cruiser Bonadventure engaged enemy units to the westward, the destroyer Ballant struck a mine and her bows were blown off. I remember standing in the well deck, a grey sea surging past. There seemed to be an eerie, still air over the ship. I have often thought about that since...Fear? Premonition? I know I had a very strange feeling.
Suddenly the fleet came under heavy air attack mainly directed at Illustrious by squadrons of Stuka dive bombers. All the guns of the fleet opened fire. Two seaplanes launched a torpedo attack, a diversionary feint. The tannoy told us that large numbers of air craft were in the air over Sicily, the ship was all closed up at action stations. The next thing all the ships guns opened up; the steel box of a hangar was like a huge soundbox.
My action station as with all maintenance crews was in the hanger with the aircraft, which by the way were all heavily armed and loaded with torpedoes ready for an attack on the Italian Fleet. Illustrious was armed with 16 4.5 dual purpose guns and 8 6 barrelled 2lb quick firing AA weapons. The ship kept jumping and shaking, several large bombs hit the shop aft, the after hanger was on fire, the noise was indescribable. My baptism of fire, all that sticks in my mind are impressions.
I was standing more or less in the centre of the hanger. A chap came through down from the flight deck, his rubber suit was full of holes, blood leaking from all of them. I helped carry him down to the casualty station in the washroom flats. The surgeons were busy, with blood washing from side to side with the sway of the ship.
I returned to my action station in the hangar. The ship continued to rock and sway. I looked up with fear and apprehension. Then there was an almighty flash as a 1,000 lb bomb pierced the 4 inch armoured deck and exploded. I was only aware of a great wind, of bits of aircraft, debris, all blowing out to the forward lift shaft of 300 tons which was also blown out.
There were dead and wounded around, my overalls were blown off, I had small wounds to the back of my head and shoulder. I was probably 10-15 feet away from the bomb when it exploded. Luck I survived? I prefer the thought of someone looking out for me.
The hanger by then was burning all over. The ships commander came and said ‘Come on lads close the armoured doors.’ The overhead sprays then flooded the hanger. The ship started to sink by the stern and everyone had to blow up lifebelts. Then, a spot of humour in all that chaos. Poor old Corporal Gater came through a side door white as a sheet saying ‘I wish I hadn’t bloody joined.’
The battering carried on for six to seven hours.
There were many wounded piled up; the aft surgeons station had been destroyed, the forward station was unable to cope quickly with so many casualties.
Captain Boyd finally steered with the engines into Malta; the ship was quiet at last. The next morning we cleared lower deck and a roll call was taken, an announcement on the tannoy ordered in case of further attacks on the ship all hands other than gun crews etc should go over the side and into the big caves in the hillside. No sooner said then over the enemy came again, so over the side we went!
That same day all air maintenance ratings were dispersed, the surviving 815 and 819 squadron people shipped on the cruiser Orion back to Alexandria there to reform as 815 and where we operated an RAF command for the next two years. There were three aircraft in the air when Illustrious was damaged, there were some spares at Dekhalia, some spares were sent from the UK and we were soon fully operational.
My last memory of Illustrious was clearing lower deck and lining the ships side to pay a last salute to the destroyer carrying our dead to sea for burial. The rows of white ensigns lay row upon row, the crew at attention as we were. Words are inadequate to express our feelings.
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