HMS Illustrious (CV-7)
British Aircraft Carrier of WW2
By Stephen Sherman, June, 2007. Updated March 1, 2012.
August 1940 ushered HMS Illustrious into the fleet, her first assignment in the Mediterranean providing cover, anti-shipping strikes and raid positions in North Africa.
On November 11, 1940 as she launched a surprise twenty-one aircraft night time attack on the Italian fleet at Taranto, sinking one battleship and heavily damaging two others. Illustrious suffered extensive damage January 11, 1941, after receiving 8 bomb strikes from Sparrowhawk and Stuka dive bombers, and was bombed again while being repaired in Malta. She sailed to Virginia for permanent repairs January 25, where one propeller shaft was removed reducing her top speed to 23 knots.
Returning to service in May 1942, Illustrious ventured to the Indian Ocean, returning to the Mediterranean a year later, rejoining the Eastern Fleet in 1944 and supporting the landings at Okinawa as part of Admiral Nimitz' Task Force 57 in 1945. Hit by two kamikaze aircraft, her armored flight deck withstood, but hull progressively warped, adding to the permanent damage that would have her designated to training and trial service post war, until her decommissioning in late 1954.
*Displacement:* 28, 661 tons, full load
*Length:* 710 ft
*Beam: *95 ft
*Draft: *28 feet
*Propulsion:* 6 Admiralty 3-drum boilers, 3 Parsons geared turbines producing 110,000 shp (82 MW) driving three shafts
*Speed:* 30.5 knots (56 km/h)
*Range: *11,000 nautical miles (20,000 km) at 14 knots (26 km/h)**
16 × QF 4.5 inch naval gun (8 × 2)
40 x QF 2 pounder naval gun (5 × 8)
3 x Bofors 40 mm gun (3 x 1)*
38 x Oerlikon 20 mm cannon (19 x 2), (14 x 1)
HMS Illustrious was sold November 3, 1956 and scrapped at Faslane.
Memories of the Fleet Air Arm 1939-1945
Di Rayburn submitted the following article, with this introduction:
My father was on Illustrious at
Taranto. I have some notes written by him just before he died about
how he joined her, and the battle. He typed the
notes himself while he was seriously ill. I have corrected some of the
errors but didn't wish to
fiddle around with his own way of telling the story too much.
Joining the Royal Navy
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 and 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 which 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 Illustrious, a 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, the passage ways, the noise and 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 although 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 and local craft of all sorts with 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 did a couple of weeks exercising there. I was amazed at the antiquated airplanes the RAF was 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 carrying 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 it was 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 lying 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 and passed 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 them. We frequently closed to action stations against high level Italian bombers. All the guns of the fleet would bang away and 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.
Raid on Taranto
In November 1940 we sailed as usual, and about this time we flew on board six Swordfish from HMS Eagle … Something was on. We learned that the air group was 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. 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.
Baptism of Fire
In February 1941 we embarked on the carrier for what was to be the last time I was 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. Things started to hot up, and 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 and then all the ships guns opened up. The steel box of the hangar was like a huge sound box.
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, and the after hanger was on fire. The noise was indescribable. In 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 down from the flight deck; his rubber suit was full of holes with blood leaking from all of them. I helped carry him down to the casualty station in the washroom flats.
The surgeons were busy. Blood washed 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, and 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 all around. My overalls were blown off and 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 came 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, and 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 than 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, but there were some spares at Dekhalia, some 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 were at attention as we were. Words are inadequate to express our feelings.
Once again back in Dekhalia we were soon back in the swing. Dekhalia was the old Egyptian Airline field; there was a large hangar a mess hall, canteen and a few other buildings. There was no living accommodation and we lived in tents, which we dug in to protect against possible air attack. The air was warm, and the field bordered on the bay of Alexandria, so it was a pleasant enough location.
There were occasional raids on the fleet in Alex. There was an AA battery at Agamy Point adjacent to the camp and this made an awful clatter at times but it was more noisy than dangerous.
After a little while, we had orders to move to Cyprus to operate against the Vichy French. Some of us flew in an old Bombay Bomber. We located at Nicosia civilian airfield. Apart from a contingent of Green Howards, we were the only English on the island. We were accommodated in a 1st class hotel in Nicosia each with en-suite bathroom and shower, it was like being on holiday.
The meals were a little exotic too: roast pigeon with stuffed cucumber etc. When we arrived at first, an old RAF corporal appeared from some where bearing a large map and after the officers duly studied this with a bit of a conflab, a number of Cypriot workmen arrived and proceeded to dig at X marks the spot ! Then lo and behold, up came 250 lb bombs and other clutter, the only snag being that this magazine was all WW1 vintage and had probably been there ever since.
The bombs were all MK 1 GP. They had a hollow tube through the middle and needed a special arrangement of exploders and detonators to prime them for use. No one had a clue what to do with them - that is except me.
I remembered one of the old army instructors at the training school at Eastchurch describing these types and we had taken down all the details. I had kept all my notes and they were in my kit over at Alexexandria, so I was flown over to pick them up and subsequently we were able to assemble the armament as required.
We were operating against the Vichy French forces in Syria, Lebanon and other targets within range of our Swordfish. One time we had orders to locate and destroy a ship in the area that mustn’t reach it’s destination. Eventually it was located inside a Turkish port and one of our planes attacked it there but I believe the torpedo ran on into the town causing a bit of mayhem. I wonder if that little episode ever found it’s way into the history books?
After a little while air attacks on Nicosia air field caused us to be moved to an emergency field in the olive groves near Limasol where we set up our own tented camp. There were no facilities, we lived on tinned rations but there was plenty of water, the weather warm and sunny. Quite a pleasant way to run a war. There were no places to visit ashore but we did manage to visit the local cafe from time to time and partake of the local brew.
As always we had orders to move; went down to Famagusta to board a navy sloop. Leaning over the side was my old mate Arthur who I joined up with. That was good for a tot or two of rum below.
We lost a plane or two on Cyprus, otherwise it was a fairly quiet interlude apart from one of the nights it was my turn to stand guard.
Aircraft were sited around half a mile from our tented accommodation. They were dispersed around the perimeter of the field in sandbagged bays. The routine was to have a patrol throughout the night around the airfield. On the night it was my turn for duty I was a leading hand and in charge of the watch. I elected myself to the midnight watch 12-4 am . Some time during the watch I was sitting on an oil drum thinking of nothing in particular, when away in the distance from the direction or our tents came the sound of footsteps. It occurred to me that this was one of the officers coming to check out the sentries, so I got ready to show him I was on the ball.
On came the footsteps at a steady pace. It was a brilliant moonlit night you could read a newspaper. I peered, the steps were like boots on tarmac, yet there were only dirt paths! The steps come closer, I couldn’t see anything then suddenly they turned and came towards me, coming it seemed quite close. I was by this time, apprehensive. I shouted ‘Halt who goes there?’ no answer, there was no one to be seen. I challenged again, the footsteps seemed almost upon me ‘Halt or I fire!’ Feeling a bit stupid I opened fire, all 5 rounds in the mag. The steps came up to me - through me - and disappeared in the distance. A voice in the distance shouted ‘No one’s here.’ I didn’t know of any other units around, none of my watch or anyone else heard a thing. To this day I still don’t know whether it was an Hallucination.
Back at Dekhalia we were soon organised; since we were in support of the desert army we traveled up and down all the time operating against submarines and surface craft. I think through all the campaigns we sank some 150,000 tons of enemy shipping. Quite a bagful.
The first place we settled at was Mersa Bagush (ed. - Mersa Matruh?), about a 150 miles west from Alexandria, the Cyrenaican desert wasn’t big rolling dunes, it was sand and dust on rocky ground with some sparse vegetation intermingled.
Occasionally when the Khamsine wind blew it was pretty hellish for the dust got into all the body orifices and smothered everything and made difficulties for keeping the aircraft weapons in good trim. When we first arrived the water wells had been poisoned and water had to come up from Alex by tanker. We were only allowed 1/2 pint of water a day each and that went into the communal mess for tea and cooking. However the Italians had had a good supply of bottled Vichy mineral water and as there was a fair bit of this kicking around it made things a bit easier. We used to clean our teeth in it but we were unable to wash or clean our clothes.
Food was all tinned, even Huntley & Palmers hard tack biscuits. Still, there was tinned bacon, tinned fish & chips, we did alright. We were plagued with flies, fleas, scorpions, huge centipedes and camel ticks which we had to burn out with a cigarette. All the same, it was a fee and easy existence, our only clothing a pair of shorts and of course the lovely warm sun.
It was at Mersa one day; I was in the cook’s tent getting a lecture on how to make scrambled eggs from our cook, who in civilian life had been a chef in the Savoy hotel in London. All of a sudden came a terrific commotion, we dashed outside, there were German Messerschmits all over the place shooting up planes, tents and everything else. There were planes on fire and blokes diving all over the place; the cook and me did a hasty scamper into the nearest slit trench until it was all over, just like on the telly.
This raid was a bit unusual, the German lines at that time were a long way to the west, but these jokers had fitted long range fuel tanks to give them the range.
We were always kept busy, I don't ever remember being bored, a great adventure really.
The next air strip on was Bagush. Same set up, sand and scrub. We were there for a little while; the first thing we did at a new location was to dig a slit trench. near where we lived and worked as there was always the risk of enemy planes diving in from nowhere.
At Bagush, I decided one time to have a go at them. I carefully dug a deep gun pit, and erected a gun mount fitted with twin Vickers Mk quick firing guns from one of the planes and made up the ammo with tracer incendiary and armour piercing bullets. ‘Ha’ I thought ‘that will give the bastards something to think about.’ Well - the next night there was an air raid. Out I dashed to have a moment of glory...My gun emplacement was crammed full of bodies cowering from the raid. I shouted and hollered but not a one would shift, so I had to find another hole to dive in.
Another night at Bagush, there was a severe raid going on against another airfield a few miles up the coast.
We had three Swordfish due to land from that patrol. The routine was for the flare path to be briefly switched on then our job was to hop out and guide the aircraft to it’s dispersal point. This night as soon as the flare path came on, the enemy aircraft up the road decided to have a go down our way. I was out on the runway to guide my plane in when all hell broke loose, bombs bursting everywhere, really pretty too, just like a huge firework. A bit of quick dashing about then I can tell you.
When the Germans were invading Greece, we were sent there to a small airfield just outside Athens. At first this was pleasant, we were able to have a couple of runs ashore in Athens. In fact I met a nice Greek girl, another budding romance. Well not quite....The Germans invaded…I had no luck!
Just before we left I was ashore with a couple of opos. We had a hotel room for the night. During the night, there was this almighty bang, huge cracks appeared in the walls, furniture fell all over the place. We made a big beeline down to the cellars serving as an air raid shelter.
I was impressed by the stoicism of the Greeks. There had been an air raid on the Piraeus Port of Athens that night and they had hit an ammunition ship, the train loading ammunition along the quay had also been hit and was on fire. These two had exploded causing the big bang.
The port was an absolute shambles. A few days later, we evacuated and saw all this, witness to the sombre faces of the populace who knew what we were leaving them to.
From Greece, we boarded a little steamer and travelled down to Crete. That had a sombre atmosphere. We landed at Suda Bay. The old cruiser York was sunk in the harbour from air attack, her guns sticking up out of the water. There was this long jetty, where we disembarked. A wizened old Chief Petty Officer came up and said ‘there's two sorts here lads, the quick and the dead so you better be bloody quick.’ Quite a welcome!
One time we moved up to Derna, a little town there quite deserted of course and ransacked where the armies had passed through. There was an airfield close to a little bay and we operated from there. The gear laying around was unbelievable, weapons, uniforms, etc. A good time was had by all. Plenty of firing at all sorts of targets, no drinking water, no water to wash with, we were a crummy lot.
The problem with all the Italian camps were the fleas, big and black and hungry. If you poked your head into an abandoned tent or wherever there was a zzzzzzzzzzzzz as these blighters descended on you. There were several large wooden huts around, so we were able to use these as living quarters. Also in the huts were several very large vats of red wine; manna from heaven. By drinking enough of this brew at night it was possible to get off to sleep without suffering from flea itch too much. Otherwise it was a blanket over the head and decimate the blighters with a lighted candle.
Life on these desert airfields was much the same one from another. They were always close to the coastal road and it was possible now and again to hitch a lorry and get a swim in the sea, which enabled us to clean up now and again.
It was at Derna that Giss [Gissing] had a bad attack of Pleurisy. There was no penicillin in those days, so he was being treated with sulpha drugs, he was laid out on his bed very ill. One night we were gathered round his bed cheering him up when we heard the sound of an enemy plane passing over. We could always recognize who was what from the sound of the engine. Anyway, this joker came back and started to circle; we knew then that he had spotted our tents and was going to have a go. There was an immediate dash for the nearest slit trench, which was about 100 yards away. Well - old Giss did the 100 yards in about 10 seconds flat, easily beating the rest of us. We were all a bit bomb happy by that time and always kept an ear upwards.
We were in Bagush when Montgomery’s 8th Army began the big retreat from Tobruk. The coastal road ran by the airfield and for days we watched this huge column of troops and all the other paraphernalia of war moving along the road.
We had orders to pack the lorries; we put demolition charges in the ammo dump gradually the line on the road petered out.
The C.O. was waiting for orders to move out and fly the aircraft off while groups of tanks squared up and started firing. Eventually we got the order to go and we got onto the road and started back to Dekhalia.
Quite a journey that was, groups of soldiers burying their mates by the roadside, wrecks and gear cluttered the roadside. I saw a poor old dog dragging its hind legs behind him. All the detritus of a retreating army. We got to Fuka, which was a huge re-fuelling dump; there were about 20,000 vehicles waiting to refuel, it was fortunate the Germans had no air power or there would have been mayhem. We arrived back in Dekhalia to scenes of panic, guns were being dug in around the air field perimeter, all the buildings had been evacuated, gear scattered everywhere. ‘The Germans are just up the road,’ they said ‘well, we’ve just come 200 miles and didn’t see them’ we said but pretty soon they were at El Alamain and the next bit we were flat out.
Swordfish would carry 6 250 lb bombs and we were busy dawn till dusk arming the loading the planes. The front was only a few miles up the road, it was a quick turn around.
As soon as the army advanced we followed, eventually the army advanced past Tobruk, past Benghazi and things became fairly stable.
After 6 months in the desert you were sent back to Dekhalia to be de-loused. Scabies crabs and ticks being the worst problems. Then you were due for a two week leave in Cairo. I had a fortnight in Cairo but I can’t remember a thing about it. There can be some awful gaps in memory. I remember one early morning I had to fly in an old Australian Walrus push propeller aircraft. I had only had time for a weak cup of tea and I was violently air sick but I can’t remember where I went or why. Strange.
By the end of 1942 all the original squadron ratings had been drafted back to the UK and of the ones who had started at Worthy Down I was the only one remaining. By that time, I was rated to Acting Petty Officer and it was my turn to come home. I went to Port Said and took passage on an old cargo vessel the SS Destro through the Suez Canal, down the Red sea.
We called in at Cape Town. Once back in England, I took an air gunnery course at Whale Island, I went to Dunfermline, joined 1850 squadron, then went to Jacksonville Florida to train on corsair fighter bombers.
Came back to the UK and embarked on the light aircraft carrier Venerable. After a short while, we transferred to Vengeance. We then sailed to join Indomitable, Glory and Colossus to form the 11th aircraft carrier squadron. We sailed to Malta, arriving there on VE day 1945.
From there to join the British Pacific Fleet via India, we were only a short time in Sydney Australia when the atom Bomb on Hiroshima ended the war. Indomitable and Vengeance then sailed to Hong Kong. Admiral Harcourt on Indomitable gave the Japanese 24 hours to surrender. He took over as Governor, then Indomitable sailed off to other climes leaving Vengeance to take control of the Island.
We formed a company of four platoons of armed sailors. Being a P.O. Gunners mate, I was in charge of 4 platoon of 24 sailors and we had the job of taking over and securing Victoria Barracks the old British H.Q.
After clearing up there, we moved to Kowloon the mainland taking charge of some 2,000 Japanese Prisoners of war who had voluntarily shut themselves into the prisoner of war camps, to protect themselves against Chinese bandits who were roaming around.
Whilst in Victoria barracks I used to set a watch from my platoon around the perimeter of what was a very large area. One night my officer and myself were wandering around when we came across a quite large circular building with a typical Chinese roof. It was boarded up and surrounded by masses of barbed wire. No way in at all. My officer, [I can’t recall his name] and I decided it was our duty to investigate this.
Eventually we made an entrance through all the obstacles and got into the building. Lo and Behold! it was an Aladdin's cave stacked from floor to ceiling with wonderful Oriental ceramics etc. Well, he and I decided to take a souvenir and before long word got around and others started to help themselves. Eventually the Governor put a stop to what was really looting. Any way, the only thing I had taken away was a large Chinese vase highly decorated.
I went from China to Sydney, then to Freemantle and embarked on the SS Britannic to travel back to the UK. We called in to Bombay en route but crossing the Indian Ocean I had a very funny feeling about the Chinese vase. I felt that it had an aura of very bad luck, so much so that I heaved it over the side. Two days out from Bombay and an artificer with whom I had shared a mess with on Vengeance contracted Smallpox. The poor chap was shut away in a temporary hut on the forecastle. He eventually died. The rest of us were battened down below, vaccinated and only allowed out when we arrived in Liverpool.
[His daughters note.]
Dad was very fond of this tale as there was a sequel to it when he got home. He had written as had all the sailors to their families instructing them to get vaccinated against small pox before the men came home on leave. Dad was horrified when he reached our little house to find mum had chickened out of having us done. It gave you a notoriously painful arm and I was such a miserable baby she couldn’t face more tantrums. Dad went mad and arranged for the doctor to call and give us both a jab. He came and duly scratched our arm with the vaccination. Dad asked ‘How much?’ [pre National Health days] while drawing a five pound note from his wallet. The doctor reached across and deftly took the note from dad's hand saying ’That’ll do nicely, Good morning’ and had left before dad's fingers had closed.