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Library Reference Number: 178

Memoirs of Flying with the Royal Navy

George Gibb, Scottish Saltire Branch, ACA

Memoirs of Flying with the Royal Navy. Although the present generation of aircraft carriers are becoming even more sophisticated with ever increasing levels of technology, their value during world war two was sometimes underestimated and unrecognised. Otherwise how would it have been possible for aircraft to carry out operations in such far flung areas in the Middle East, swiftly changing to turn their attention to enemy targets in the Far East, providing take-off and landing facilities when no Allied airfields were within reach. The following account by Saltire Branch member George Gibb leaves no doubt on the swift mobility of naval air power, covering his experiences stretching from UK to Australia and all points between.

815 squadron badgeI joined the Royal Navy on 6th June 1941, trained at Lee-on-Solent for a month, then off to flying school in Tiger Moths at RAF Elmdon. After nine hours on those, then off to RAF Netheravon flying Fairey Battles. After a further three months flying training, I gained my "wings and was posted up to the R.N. aerodrome at Crail, "HMS Jackdaw". There I flew the favourite of them all - the Fairey Swordfish or to give it its popular name - "Stringbag. We then spent one month training on torpedo dropping at Crail using the "Isle of Thanet" for practice. As this vessel was of no further military use following a collision, and having been designated a target ship, it was plying up and down the River Forth for this purpose. Once again I was on the move, this time to HMS "Condor" at Arbroath for another period of one month, this time for further training in night flying.

My first appointment as a Midshipman was to a Proctor squadron towing drogues for the Army to shoot at; the only good thing about that posting was being able to dance with Vivien Leigh who was very beautiful. This came about because Laurence Olivier was the Proctor squadron C.O., and he had married Vivien Leigh in August 1940. Nine months later I was in Egypt with No.815 Swordfish Squadron. Rommel came as far west as El Alamein, so we flew to Syria to the ruins of Balbeck, where we shared the airport with the Free French.

SwordfishWhen Prime Minister Churchill appointed General Alexander as Commander-in-Chief Middle East Forces and General Montgomery in charge of the Eighth Army, we were recalled to HMS Grebe (Dekheila), and were stationed alongside 821 & 826 Albecore Squadrons who did so well in supporting ground forces during the battle for El Alamein which started on 23rd October 1942.

However, on our return to Egypt it was noticed that our petrol bowser was missing! Captain Howe requested that someone from our squadron had better go back to Syria to find it. I was picked for the job and was given a Tiger Moth to fly to Syria. En route to Beirut I landed at Lydda in Palestine. While there I met my mathematics master from school (he was a Squadron Leader in the RAF) and had a great lunch with him. Taking off from Lydda after refuelling, I had only climbed to 200 feet when my engine failed and I managed to make a forced landing. The plane was towed back to Lydda, where it was found that instead of 77 octane fuel, they had filled my tank with H2O - water.! This meant completely stripping down the engine, but the Station CO came to my aid, providing me with a car and driver I proceeded by road to Beirut.

There was a RN "Walrus Squadron there, and provided accommodation whilst we searched and asked all round about our missing bowser. It appeared to be a difficult task as no one knew anything of a petrol bowser, but then came a break. In a café in Damascus I was discussing my problem with a Major in the Royal Engineers who recalled seeing it in a nearby Army base. We drove to this base and there in a courtyard was the bowser (28 feet long, full of aviation fuel). Emblazoned on its side with 6 ft letters "No.815 ROYAL NAVY AIR SQUADRON."

I immediately sent a signal to the C.O. in Egypt and arranged for the bowsers return by train to Alexandria. On retracing my steps back to Lydda, I picked up my Tiger Moth which had been fully refurbished, was found to be in excellent shape, and flew back to Alexandria. The C.O. was quite delighted, but Im sure that 212 group Lydda and Alexandria exchanged some signals - some of those not very polite!

I rejoined 815 Squadron and followed the 8th Army up the desert with stop-overs at Mersa Matruh, El Alamein and Benghazi. Here I was diverted from my normal routine and detailed to fly with two other Albacores making it a three aeroplane flight. We flew at night at 55 feet (under the German radar) and formatting on green wingtip lights. The journey was 455 miles (using overload tanks) and led by Lt. Cdr. Jock Murricane, who after the war was C.O. of the RNVR Squadron at Abbotsinch. He was a super boy and his navigation was spot on arriving at Hal Far, Malta, on the appointed hour. We all flew back on a returning aircraft to rejoin the Squadron.

Further reference to Lt Cdr Desmond "Jock Murricane may be found in the book "Murricanes Men" by Giles Davies (1997), which describes the story of 1830 & 1843 Squadrons, the Air Division of F.A.A. R.N.V.R. 1947 - 1957. Jock Murricane had gone to sea at age 16, and in addition to his wartime service where I was fortunate to meet up with him, he became CO of 1830 Squadron RNVR flying Seafires and Fireflies post-war. His record of bravery earned him the well-deserved award of DSC.

Our last ferrying operation was carried out from Castel Benito in Tripoli. The Squadron split there - one half to Malta the other half to the 1st Army coming from Oran. After the occupation of Sicily on 10th July 1943, the Squadron was disbanded and we went back to Alexandria. Party night was at the Anglo-Hellenic Club House, then off to Cairo and a Liberator flight to Lyneham at Swindon, UK. After a few weeks leave, I was posted to Machrihanish as a deck landing instructor using the training gained in the Clyde - flying all types e.g. Swordfish, Seafires and Hurricanes, this post also covered training Pilots and Batsmen. My next posting was to the greatest place on Earth! "HMS Excellent in Portsmouth, training to be a Ships Gunnery and Air Gunnery Officer, Whale Island as it was known. This was a wonderful experience - white trousers and gaiters was the daily rig, and I enjoyed eleven months there.

My next posting was to a baby carrier "HMS Arbiter undertaking Atlantic convoys to Norfolk, Virginia, - Pier 35 at Brooklyn - and the United Kingdom. One typical crossing occurred on the morning of July 7th 1944 when "Arbiter loaded aircraft (44 Hellcats, 7 Corsairs and 2 Martlets) at Norfolk, Virginia, for ferrying to the UK as deck cargo. Having loaded, she berthed at New York to embark a number of civilians and RN personnel at 35th Street Pier, Brooklyn. Then joining Convoy CU31, Arbiter set sail for UK on July 10th 1944 HMS Arbiter was to make one final Atlantic run on August 1944, before her role was to change dramatically. To enable this change to take place Arbiter was ordered to the Harland and Wolf Shipyard, Musgrave Channel, Belfast, for refurbishment ready for her task in the Far East. Now I was off to Australia to join Admiral Sir Bruce Frasers new British Pacific Fleet.

En route we called at Cochin on the Malabar Coast of western India, then on to Trincomalee and Colombo in Ceylon. Eventually we arrived at Sydney and tied up alongside No.4 berth at Woolamaloo on 2nd May 1945. I remember on VE Day I was on duty as Officer of the Day. No splicing the main brace for me! The ship joined the Fleet Train as planned - Sydney or Brisbane up to Manus Island replenishing the Fleet Carriers "Indefatigable and "Indomitable who were now involved in bombing missions on Japan Home Islands after seeing earlier action in and around Burma and Malaysia. The dramatic and sudden end to hostilities came about however, by the dropping of the Atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki - then it was all over.

I left HMS Arbiter in Sydney before she made two humanitarian trips to Hong Kong before being de-commissioned, bringing prisoners of the Japanese back to Australia. After a few more duties, Arbiter was at last released from service, unloading her final load of passengers at Tail o Bank, Clyde, on 10th June 1946 and relocated to Rosyth. She was officially handed back to the US Navy on 3rd March 1946.

Charles Lamb, DSO* DSC* flew in the thick of action during the early part of the war, mine-laying, U-boat hunting and harrying E-boats at Dunkirk, and was later one of the two Pathfinder Pilots with 815 Squadron, FAA, at the Battle of Taranto. Post war, Charles Lamb wrote the book "War in a Stringbag." He was succeeded by Lt. Cdr J.W.G. Wellham, DSC. He was my CO throughout, a wonderful chap to serve under.

I came home to UK in the "New Amsterdam via Durban and Capetown, and on arrival was sent to Redford Barracks for demobilisation. Given a cardboard box (containing suit, shirt, shoes etc) I sold the lot for £5 at Waverley Station and my war was over. I had met some interesting, wonderful people and for a considerable time afterwards really missed them all. I had seen the world at the Admiraltys expense - what a trip!

George Gibb's account brings to mind the hazardous nature of landing and taking off on the very limited space of a constantly moving deck with little room for error. Some measure of the risk involved may be gathered from the following brief account of incidents which occurred on the 'Arbiter' on its crossing to Australia - even without enemy action! > >
On 14th February 1945, 24 Corsair aircraft of 1843 Squadron, Royal Canadian Navy, embarked on Arbiter and began a flying programme in preparation for passage to Australia. They suffered three flying accidents after only four days training while the ship was steaming off Cumbrae light in the River Clyde. On Sunday 18th February, a Sub Lt was killed when his Corsair KD582 turned sharply and drove into the sea on take off; an elevator had been damaged by the prop of another aircraft while running up on the flight deck. This was spotted prior to take off but too late to abort the launch. The same prop damage was inflicted on KD599 but the Pilot managed to abort the launch. The third incident involved a Pilot who caught the last arrester wire and put the Corsair KD594 into the number 3 barrier.
The squadron suffered 17 incidents during its association with Arbiter, the final one taking place on March 22nd when the Pilot lost sight of the Deck Landing Control Officer and flew KD507 into the starboard walkway, the aircraft fell overboard, removing an anti aircraft gun mounting as it went. - - - J.B.(Ed)

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