Experiences of an 855 Naval Air Squadron pilot

operating out of Hawkinge in 1944

Recalling events from his time as a naval Avenger pilot flying with a squadron operating

with RAF Coastal Command on anti-shipping operations.

by Roger Johnson


Grumman Avenger three seater torpedo bombers being serviced. Image © IWM (A 19915)


In May 1984 I visited Hawkinge on a trip- from Australia where I have lived for the last 24 years. I walked through to the remains of the dispersal area by Killing Wood from which on the night of 22 July 1944 I had taken off on a one way flight. I then called in at the newsagent and mentioned that I once flew from Hawkinge whereupon I was shown your editors book and given his address. I found him at home and we discussed the war years and he apologised for the paucity of information in the book on the two naval squadrons that operated out of Hawkinge in 1944. Apparently he had been unable to find out very much about them. I left my card with him and that was that until January 1985 when he asked me if I could write a short article about my experiences for this journal.


My story is not particularly remarkable in comparison with others but my return visit made me realise that first-hand experiences could now be becoming rarer. I was 21 at that time and older participants are beginning to die off.


In Roy Humphrey's "Hawkinge 1912-1961" he remarks how Hawkinge became, on 23rd May, host to a most unusual type of aircraft when 24 Grumman Avengers of 854 and 855 FAA Squadrons arrived for operations. According to one of the Plying Control officers the arrival, too, was unusual as the Avengers came in using a carrier approach with power on and only a few knots above the stall. To those used to the side-slipping approaches of the Air-Sea Rescue Spits the Avengers appeared to be hanging in the air on their props. The Avenger had no trouble operating out of Hawkinge although doubts were raised when Midshipman Litherland of 855 Squadron took off a week or two later with a 2000lb bomb load and lost power after take-off, descending gently onto the bomb storage bunkers without, surprisingly, any harm to him! Confidence was regained in official circles when 854 put on a demonstration of three-plane formation take-offs with fully-laden aircraft. Nevertheless for night operations, landings were made at Manston.


Both squadrons had spent three months working up at Squantum U.S. Naval Air Station in Boston harbour. A good standard of glide-bombing had been obtained by nightly sorties over Cape Cod with a dozen aircraft forming a circuit over Wellsfleet each in turn attempting to drop a practice bomb into a tub on a rock in the harbour. All pilots had practised torpedo- attacks even if they had not carried out such an attack and several had qualified in dive-bombing. However, in the Hawkinge period, glide-bombing was the mode used.


855 Squadron landed on HMS Queen off Norfolk, Virginia, in May 1944 and disembarked in the Clyde, arriving at Hawkinge on 23rd May. Three incidents from that flight stick in my memory: taxying along a lane with wings folded to enter Abbotsinch aerodrome from the quayside where the aircraft were hoisted ashore; passing over what, after the States, looked like a village with a large church and realising it was York; and a night at Hucknall where we rediscovered fish and chips and saw a Tempest and Firefly for the first time.


Avenger squadrons operated with Coastal Command from Hawkinge, Thorney Island and Perranporth before and after D-Day carrying out what was succinctly described as "Channel Stop", designed to prevent any ship from interfering with the "Overlord" landings. In briefings it became clear that as well as E-boats, U-boats, R-boats and so on, there was some nervousness about a new fast underwater weapon dubbed the W-boat. Such a craft, to my knowledge, thankfully never appeared. Initially daylight patrols of four to five hours were carried out over the eastern part of the Channel both before and after the D-Day landings. From 1st July we started night rover-patrols from Ijmuiden to Cap d'Antifer with individual aircraft taking off at 30 minute intervals. Armament was four 250 Ib blast-detonated GP bombs with two 50 calibre forward guns and a 303 in a dorsal turret operated by the air-gunner/radio operator. The observer sat behind the pilot with his ASV screen.


As Roy Humphreys remarked, although some 60 individual attacks were made on shipping, targets were mostly small, highly manoeuvrable craft and it was difficult to claim successes. The night I remember most distinctly was the first night of the VI "doodle-bug" - presumably 13th June. I had been starting a patrol and was off the Pas de Calais when I noticed abnormal petrol consumption. I aborted the patrol and headed back for Manston. By the time I neared the airfield sometime around midnight, the fuel gauge indicated close to zero and the perimeter defences were in full-blast. I assumed an intruder was in the circuit. As no runway lights were on I flew south to the orbit control inland from Deal and flashed the code of the day. I flew back to Manston and with great relief saw the runway lights come on as I was almost over the down-wind end. I immediately dropped wheels and flaps and came in like a stone amongst Mosquitoes taking off. Once down the engine faltered and I was just able to run off onto the grass before it went completely dead. The three of us clambered out and sat under the wing whilst all hell seemed to be going on above. Eventually a bowser appeared and after refuelling I was able to taxi to dispersal. Although we later saw many Vis and fired at several, I am not likely to forget the night of their debut!


On the night of 22-23rd July I took off from Hawkinge at 15 minutes before midnight for a patrol from Cap Griz Nez to Cap d'Antifer and back. Off Boulogne I let my AG, Leading Airman Stan Norman, have a burst at a passing VI but no result was obtained. A few minutes later I saw two flares in the Dieppe direction. Two-thirds of the first leg of the patrol passed when my observer, Sub-Lieut. Jim Gleeson, had a contact on the ASV. The ASV worked badly on this trip as the first contact, which should have been very definite, was weak, and Jim asked me to orbit to starboard. In the middle of these approach proceedings a flare appeared about a mile to the south revealing nine E-boats in three columns heading in a ENE direction. Cloud base was 10/10ths at 1100-1200 feet and visibility was consequently nil. I had two alternatives: one, to climb through the clouds and risk of losing contact in order to drop my flares from 4000 feet. the height necessary for releasing them. The second alternative was to make use of the other plane's flare and attack -unmediately, counting on a sighting report having been transmitted by the other plane- This last course seemed the better as we had experienced a number of contacts being lost and from experience a week before of radar-bombing on the Goodwin Sands it had proved extremely ineffectual with the equipment we had. One of the dangers with this tactic was the chance of another flare being dropped illuminating my aircraft for the E-boat gunners. As he had just dropped one I did not think he would drop another so shortly afterwards. The deciding factor was that I was in a position to attack (Fig 1).


I set my bomb switches, opened bomb-bay doors, had a double-check from the AG that his switches were set for a 60 foot interval for a stick of four bombs. The AG was in his turret in case of one ship being disabled and a strafing run being indicated. I went in on the first run at 1000 feet but the flare extinguished itself during the run-in and the wakes were visible as a slight blur only when I was a little too far over to drop (Fig 2).


The second run-up was done on ASV but it brought me into a position which required a sharp turn at the last moment on sighting the E-boats. The difficulty here was the inaccuracy of the ASV and the fact that the wakes were not visible until one was right over them (Fig 3).


I decided I could get into a better position in another run-up. No flare was encountered on the first run but a fair amount of 40 mm tracer was met on this one. I climbed to attack from astern to pick off the two rear ships in the starboard column on the third run. I did this, not relying an ASV but by doing a turn procedure from my last sighting. (Fig 4)



This was successful and brought me into a very good attacking position. However, I met very accurate and extensive 40 mm fire on the run-in and at the moment of release, or a second later, a shell exploded in the fuselage behind me. I did a steep turn away. There was a glow behind me which at first I took to be a ship on fire but, on feeling the heat, realised it was from the plane itself. I proceeded to climb. The AG then informed me there was a fire in the rear so I asked him if he could put it out. Things then happened quickly. The fire spread from below over the edge of the wing, the Avenger having a mid-wing, and the heat became excessive. Because of the glare it became impossible to continue to fly on instruments which meant there was no possibility of ditching the aircraft even if I could have stood the heat. I realised the plane was about to be consumed by flames so gave the order to bale out- I myself slid back the canopy, released my straps and forced myself out into the slipstream. It was a case of doing anything to get out of the unbearable heat rather than a calculation that I had any chance by jumping. I pulled the rip-cord immediately I was out of the cockpit and was aware of hitting the tail with my leg. I had hardly recovered from the jerk of the parachute opening and must have done about half a swing when I hit the water. When I emerged on the surface I released my harness, inflated the Mae West and K-type dinghy. I remember having to tell myself that unless I carried out all the necessary actions correctly I was a goner. I struggled into the dinghy and started to bale it out with the dinghy cover which I had held onto through the whole process.


It was pitch dark with only the searchlights visible on the Normandy shore. I could only feel and not see the dinghy. The only noise was the throb of the E boat engines as they receded into the distance. There was no sign of aircraft or crew.  I think I must have been about as low as one can be to expect to get out of an aircraft. The attack started at 1000 feet, bombs dropped at 900 feet and then I climbed again. But after instrument flying became impossible I could have lost a few hundred feet.


Many times since that night I have tried to reconstruct what could have happened. I always have difficulty understanding how a metal object like an aircraft ignites. My guess is that the incendiary shells ignited the smoke-flares in the tail section in which case the AG could have been overcome before he could drop down out of the turret, clip on his "chute and exit by the side door. On the other hand flames were coming out of the bomb-bay and over the leading edge of the wing and this suggests the flares in the bomb-bay were set alight or a cannon shell which I sensed hit behind me came through the ventral petrol tank and ignited it. Possibly it carried on and hit Jim Gleeson. I had received no communication from him during or after the attack. If he had not been hit he had an easier exit than the AG although, as I found out, the tail was in line with the cockpits. Fortunately I was upside down: he may not have been so fortunate. Either the plane exploded or hit the water whilst I was under water for I imagine I would have been aware of a burning aircraft when I emerged. Possibly not. It all remains a mystery.


To top it all there was no sign of any crippled E-boats. I felt certain that if the four blast-detonated 250 pounders had dropped when I released them, covering a distance of 80 yards, one at least of the last two ships would have been hit. I may, of course, have had a hang-up which were not an unusual happening.


A strong breeze from the north was now blowing and it took me all my time to keep the dinghy baled out. Any attempt to paddle against the sea was disastrous. I could not find the baler in the dark and used the raft cover. I felt weak from immersion and the cold although my face was burning after the heat in the cockpit. I had gashed my left leg above the ankle on hitting the tail but I thought then that it was a burn and applied some acroflavin jelly in the morning. My socks and boots had come off and I could never get the dinghy with less than two inches of water in which to sit. I heard an 'Avenger' pass over in the night but I had no Very pistol as, at that time, we had not been equipped with them. All I could do was to feebly flash my squadron letters with my Mae West lamp.


With the coming of dawn I watched the Beaufighter patrol pass over at 8-10,000 feet and return. An hour later two rocket carrying Typhoons came along the coast from the west, one passing overhead at 200 feet. I had released my fluoricine bag on seeing them approach and coloured the water all around. I waved frantically but being just a speck I was passed unnoticed.


My next visitor was more sinister. At about 7 am I watched a triangular fin appear ten yards or so from my dinghy. It made three leisurely circuits and then came straight at the dinghy, turning at the last moment. As it swirled by me I saw the ugly snout and barnacle covered back of a six foot shark. I deemed it wiser to stay still than attempt to scared it away and sure enough in another minute it disappeared. Although I had done a lot of sailing up the west coast of Scotland and seen many basking sharks I had never heard of a blue shark in English waters and certainly never mentioned it afterwards for fear of being accused of shooting a line.


It was only after the war that shark fishing became an industry in the Channel. It was not until noon that the sun roused me up to observe how close the wind had taken me to the cliffs. To the east I could hear the Sunday morning church bells in Dieppe. I began paddling and paddled without stopping until 11 pm. I estimated I travelled from about two miles offshore to about six or seven, against the wind and a little sea. In the morning I had seen one Avenger and two air-sea rescue Spitfires out to sea, so I decided that by heading out I had more chance of being seen or picked up. I think I could have lasted a few days although paddling became a great strain and I was becoming numb. However, at 11 pm or so, a German patrol boat coming, I suppose, from Le Harve intercepted me. I had no chance of escaping as his course came directly for me and I was easily seen, although I kept still and put myself between the ship and the gathering dusk. And so I was picked up and taken into Dieppe. My watched stopped at 20 mins past midnight and so I had been in the water for 22^ hours.


My story after that was like many aircrew prisoners of war. It had a scary start as I was forced to sit on a coffin with guards in the back of a truck. Was the coffin occupied or was it for me? By way of various prisons and interrogations I was taken to Paris and Brussels before finishing up in Sfcalag Luft III, a few months after the great tunnel escape and shooting of prisoners. After a winter march I was eventually liberated from Luckenwalde, 30 miles from Berlin, by the Russians in April 1945.


855 Squadron operated from Hawkinge for another 2 months and then moved to Thorney Island, Bircham Newton and Docking in Norfolk. On the night after I was shot down, Jim Murphy, my Green sub-flight leader, disappeared under the same circumstances as myself, probably attacking the same flotilla. A year or two ago I happened to come across Vol 2 of the. "Chronology of the War at sea 1939-1945^ the German account of the sea war, in which it says that on the night 21/22 July the torpedo boat T28 and E-boats S 132, S 90 and S 135came into Dieppe and were transferred with an escort from the 8th MTB Flotilla from Le Harve to Boulogne and on 22/23 July from Boulogne to the Hook of Holland. it later savs S 190 and S 135 came into Dieppe and were transferred to Boulogne on 25 July with the 4th MMS Flotilla. As I made my attack on 22/23 just west of Dieppe on a flotilla heading east, this does not quite fit. Perhaps the German record is a day out. My brother, who coincidentally was a CO of an ML patrolling later in that area, heard of a green 'Avenger- wheel being picked up. It could have come from my aircraft or from that of Jim Murphy.


The only remaining pilot of Green flight, Sub-Lieut. Ron Gowland, went on to achieve a successful score of ships sunk and damaged and along with the CO, Lt-Cdr. Jock Harrowar, and Sub-Lieuts. Lees-Jones and Hunter, was awarded a DFC. Lieut- Scott was lost attacking a destroyer from Thorney Island in October. After Docking the Squadron was disbanded in December and most pilots joined other squadrons in the British Pacific Fleet. 854 Squadron played a leading part in the attack on Palembang, losing its CO, Lt-Cdr. Mainprice and his wingman Roland Armstrong in diving through the balloon barrage. 855s Senior Pilot, Lieut.'Pablo Percy .achieved fame in the Korean.War and retired as a Captain.


Operating out of Hawkinge proved to be a rewarding interlude for these two naval air squadrons. The warm summer/the cycling down the lovely lanes to our billets in the 'Colonels' house^ with its swimming pool, the scents of the countryside and the Brown Ale in the bar, provided an extreme contrast to life afloat or, for that matter, the night patrols only half an hour away. For me it has kept an additional poignancy as it was my last experience before being entrapped into the life of a prisoner. Also because I lost good friends and for a feeling I shall have to the end of my days that there is something shameful for the pilot of an aircraft to be saved and his crew lost. It may not be sensible but there is an expectation that the skipper be the last out. I thought I was but that most likely was not so. So for me it is a painful story to tell and one that I have rarely told. The details are recalled here only because I made notes at the time. The names of my crew and of Jim Murphy and his crew are now inscribed on the FAA memorial at Lee-on-Solent to those lost at sea with no known grave. In agreeing to write this account for Roy Humphreys I felt that their memories could best be served by havingan accurate record of their involvement in operations in which soon all the participants will have disappeared from the scene.

R.K.H. Johnson



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Topic: Experiences of an 855 sqdn pilot
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Mike Waite
Dec 2014
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Mike Waite (Worcestershire) says...
Thank you for your service Mr Johnson.
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