Memories of flying in the Royal Navy

Sub Lieu tent. (A) RNVR A.W. 'Nobby' Clarke recalls he flew Seafires on front-line service with 879 squadron before ending his time in the RN flying on second-line duties with 772 Squadron.

by Tony Clarke

 

He joined the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve in the Fleet Air Arm and was sent to Canada on the Empire Training Scheme where he learnt to fly. In the Fleet Air Arm he was always referred to as "Nobby" Clarke. After qualifying on the North American Harvard he returned to the UK and converted at Yeovilton to Seafires. In 1944 he was then posted No.879 Squadron on board the escort aircraft carrier HMS ATTACKER.

 

 

This piece is made up from the 879 squadron diary and history, Nobby’s flying logbook and personal memories. The squadron diary picks up the story:

...The aircraft went to Burscough on 6 February and the ship went into Alexandra Dock, Liverpool for the repair of damage caused by fencing with Fencer, on 9 February. The squadron went on leave until 15th, extended to 18th and then again to 22nd, returning to Burscough. By the end of February we were a 20 aircraft squadron and apparently 27 pilots - including 9 from 886, S/Lts Buchan, Bricker, Ganley and Morey and 2 POs who are not named. Buchan was to assist Gowan in oversight of armaments. The other ranks numbered 168." (WAC joins the squadron and makes first flight 11th March)

"After some weeks exercising from Bangor Bay, the squadron went to Long Kesh near Lisburn, Northern Ireland on 24 March. April was spent exercising from Long Kesh with the ship based at Bangor Bay. On 24 April Gibson and Lloyd fired live ammunition at civilian lorries in error! No one was hurt. I suppose they were meant to be firing at other targets, otherwise the question would surely have arisen - who loaded live ammunition?"

"The shooting of the bus in Northern Ireland by Doug Gibson & Trevor Lloyd incident took place on April 24th 1944. The two were part of our team of which Lt Easy (Cheesy) was leader I was his No.2. I cannot remember whether the target was a shooting range near the coast with a control tower on a small island or peninsular which had an old bus shell 800 yards to starboard. Our instructions were to carry out a strafing (low level) with live ammunition and to approach at 100 ft altitude, Easy & myself first, with a five minute interval, when Gibson & Lloyd were to follow. Easy and I went in registering multiple hits on the old bus, but unfortunately another bus happened to arrive and park exactly 800 yards to port to collect the civilians working on the targets. Easy and I had approached from the East and Gibby & Lloyd it seems approached from the West thus choosing a real bus as target. It's remarkable that none of the occupants of the bus were hit, yet the cylinder block of its engine had been penetrated by cannon shell and all the windows smashed. The only injury being the foreman who sprained his ankle jumping from the bus. Gibby & Lloyd went to apologise the following day. My word weren't those chaps lucky!"

"On 28th April all who wished to do so went on a picnic in the Mountains of Mourne accompanied by the CO, Lt. Cdr Leckie and Cariss. Les Staton and I hitchhiked around Lough Neagh that day. On 30 April we went back on board and safely landed on 20 aircraft in the afternoon. We went to Greenock next day.”

 

  HMS ATTACKER anchored in Bangor Bay NI, March 1944.


Off to Scapa

“We sailed shortly after noon on Thursday, 4th May in company with HMS ROYALIST, STALKER and HUNTER, turning north through the Minches overnight, with a gale blowing and changing course frequently, arriving at Scapa Flow in the evening of 5th May. ( My log book records 1.05 hr flight on the 4th May and notes 'ran into aircraft ranged forward'. ) There is no mention in the Diary of the fact that throughout that uncomfortable night armourers were belting up ammunition in the 'rooms' welded on beneath the after end of the flight deck where every vibration of the ship was magnified! No mention either of the reason for this trip which was that it was thought that the German Battle cruisers, SCHARNHORST, GNEISENAU and PRINZ EUGEN might make a bid to get out of the Norwegian fjords into the North Atlantic, and we might be needed! On Sunday, 7 May we were ordered back to Bangor Bay!”

 


Warmer climes, of to the Mediterranean

 “On 10 May we hoisted several Seafires aboard from tenders. One was hoisted to the deckheads in the afternoon, fell in the evening and was written off. The one it fell on was repairable. The ship's Bosun spent next day making stronger shackles, and on 12 May five Seafires were securely slung up. Aircraft serviceability was now 100%. HMS ATTACKER was now senior escort carrier. Our new Captain came aboard, but his name was not recorded! This was Capt. H.B. Farncomb RAN.

On Sunday, 14th May we sailed with STALKER at 1245. We had 30 aircraft on board. We came up with a large 7 knot convoy bound for Gibraltar at 1800. Next day we were at fighter readiness till noon and then at strike readiness- 2 fighters and 2 bombers with 500 lb bombs - for the aircraft could now carry a bomb rack on the long range fuel tank fittings. HUNTER caught us up. S/Lts Buchan and Bricker were given responsibility for A and B flight armourers. The voyage was apparently without event. Two groups of 5 Seafires were flown to Gibraltar on 24 May and next day we berthed at the South Mole at 1130 hours. The squadron worked from the North Front while the ship was there. (Note in my log book 29th may 'At North Front') On 2 June, the ship moved to the detached Mole.

There was constant depth charging in the Straits of Gibraltar at nights in case any submarines tried to drift through. The relative densities of the waters of the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea created currents into and out of the Med at different levels, so subs could go either way without using their engines. On the night or Sunday, 4 June there was more than usual depth charging. At 02.15 an explosion rocked the ship and momentarily put out all the lights. Apparently a sub "had got into the Bay of Algeciras, observed the silhouette of ATTACKER and loosed off a torpedo which hit the mole and would have seriously damaged the ship had there not been a floating raft between the ship and the mole. There was some panic in the bunk space which was very soon almost empty, but the ship soon stopped rocking and a blanket of silence was imposed about the incident.”

“On 6 June we sailed with HUNTER, arriving at Mers-el-Kebir next day. Nine days later we moved on to Algiers, and flew off 6 aircraft to Blida, formerly a French airport. Half the squadron went ashore to Blida on 18 June and found themselves under canvas. The Diary says they consoled themselves with the extra 4/6 per day; I was there, and actually it was quite pleasant - indeed towards the end of our month's stay there when we were moved into some of the permanent barrack buildings we found them bug-ridden. The routine at Blida was to work from 0600 to noon, with a break for breakfast, and then to go by lorry about an hours journey to Castiglione a seaside place where the swimming was very pleasant, returning about 1600 hours! It was very satisfactory.”

“The ship went to Naples to drop the other half of the squadron at an RAF base. (Mylogbook notes 22 June Ship to Pomigliano to Capodichino. Then on 25 June to Orvieto) The ship then had a boiler clean, but there is no record of what the squadron 'got up to in Italy-.except that Gowan had to bale out on 22 June, north of Arezzo and turned up at Orvieto on 7 July. On 22 June Blida had its first rain in June for 13 years. (My logbook 11th July 'Armed Recce - Fabric on elevators shot away underside - hit 5 bods knocked out an armoured car) On 19 and 20 July the hands at Blida were offered flights in Swordfish aircraft (My logbook 19th July 25 min local flying in Swordfish). Except for a delay party under PO Wales the half of the squadron at Blida rejoined its other half on board on 22 July and sailed for Malta next day with KHEDIVE, PURSUER, SEARCHER and EMPEROR, anchoring in Dockyard Creek on 25 July.”

“Meanwhile the delay party at Blida moved into the permanent barrack accommodation and I seem to recall used blowlamps to de-bug the wooden bed frames there. Its next task was to clear up the tent site that we had occupied. I do not remember who it was helped me to collect all the glass cola bottles from the tents, but we took a large number back to the canteen and got umpteen francs back for our trouble! There was not a lot to be done on the aircraft until Daily Inspections were done for their take-off to the ship but we did wash them all, removing a good deal of oil with accumulated dust from their bellies. When eventually we had seen them off we returned to Algiers to find the ship had left for Malta. We were instructed to report to the Naval Barracks in Algiers. PO Wales successfully pleaded there that we had had a gruelling time at Blida and requested leave until such time as we could proceed to Malta. We got 48 hours at a rest camp at Surcouf a few miles along the coast. We then took passage on a small wooden vessel with a convoy, during which we had a number of enemy aircraft overhead alerts. However our greatest danger seemed to be when one of our destroyers came at great speed at dawn to check that we were OK, and dealt us a glancing blow on our port quarter! I think the skipper of our boat was French, but I don't think he called the destroyer's skipper a cochon!”

“Arriving at Grand Harbour, we loaded on to a lorry to be taken across the island on some very narrow roads and down to a small harbour where we were told the ship would pick us up at the end of its day's exercises. The Diary mentions being in and out of Marsa Scirocco (now called Marsaxlokk) during the first few days of August, but that was not where we were picked up. I have a very clear memory of the place where we waited through a hot afternoon- and were driven to bathing from a small landing stage to cool off- and when my wife and I visited Malta in 1983, I identified the small place, Ghar Lapsi, on the south coast of the island as the place.”

 


Operation DRAGOON

The Diary tells us that on 11 August preparations for the landings in the south of France began and there was to be no more flying until then. Next day Task Force 88 comprising 4 cruisers, 13 destroyers and 9 carriers - ATTACKER, PURSUER, KHEDIVE, SEARCHER, EMPEROR, HUNTER, STALKER, and two USN carriers, TULAGI and KASSAN BAY - sailed at 1800 hours. We had 27 Seafires aboard, 19 of which were equipped for dive bombing. Bombs were loaded on 14 August for operation DRAGOON and the first sorties took off at 0600 hours. Cloud and haze prevented identification of targets, but there was no flak, no enemy aircraft and no wind! (WAC 15th August tactical recce over S. France - some light flak)

On Wednesday 16 August the first 8 sorties went off at 09.30 on a bombing and strafing mission between Brignoles and Aix. Red section was targeting a railway bridge, and though the bridge was not claimed the road was cratered and an armoured car, a bowser, a lorry and two trailers and a searchlight were all set on fire. Leckie's tail plane was hit but he got back safely. 26 sorties were flown during the day - 8 bombing, 10 tactical reconnaissance, 2 spotting and 6 providing cover, and at the end of the day we had 24 aircraft serviceable. Comment was made on the keenness shown by the troops. (My logbook 19th Aug 'Dive bombing, suspected tanks - hit two Lorries, severe heavy AA')
After withdrawing to Maddalena in north Sardinia for refuelling and stores, we returned to the attack on 20 August. Next day Shaw baled out near Nimes and Calder force landed near Avignon. It was a week before we heard they were safe. Clarke landed on, caught his hook on a plate on the after lift, was thrown up over the barrier and landed on top of 5 aircraft parked forward I was flying LR710 & damaged LR643, NN128, and LR740). Gowan was unfortunately still in his cockpit and his thigh was broken by Clarke's airscrew going through the cockpit door. Gowan's condition was critical. (My logbook 21 Aug TacR, Severe accident deck landing A25.)

 

The aftermath of the crash on deck which damaged 5 parked aircraft and seriously injured Sub. Lt Gowan

 

“By 24 August we had finished our job and again withdrew to Maddalena. We had flown 226 sorties of which 120 had been bombing missions. Gowan was taken off the danger list on 28 August and having taken on more stores and some more aircraft we sailed for Alexandria on 29 August, sending the aircraft off to RNAS Dekheila on 2 September (My logbook 2 Sept 'Ship to Dekheila'). The Diary says each watch had a 48 hour leave early in September; I do not remember that. We rejoined the ship on 14 September and with ROYALIST, PURSUER, KHEDIVE, EMPEROR and BLACK PRINCE sailed for the Aegean Sea, where our main task was to prevent German withdrawal from the Greek islands and a subsidiary task was to refuel our escorting destroyers.”

“The Diary for 19 September records that 'Easy's bomb would not drop; he landed successfully with permission. No-one was to be seen on the deck at the time'. I remember this well. The rule was that if a bomb would not drop, after shaking the aircraft about to try to be rid of it, one then released the bomb carrier complete with bomb. If it still would not drop, one would not risk the ship by landing on, but either ditch in the sea or bale out over land. However Commander Flying gave permission for Easy to land on, and the ship's Company was made aware of the situation. It was fraught with danger. I was with my part of watch of armourers in the catwalk at port forward of the flight deck, all of us watching with great interest to see what happened. When Easy's plane touched down, the force of landing dislodged the bomb. While the plane caught an arrester wire and was safely stopped, the bomb sped ahead going straight for the Island superstructure. However it glanced off one of the barrier fittings which was about 2" above deck level, and was deflected directly towards my group at their action station. I have never seen half a dozen people disappear so quickly as they dived down a few steps and through to the gangway that crossed the ship under the flight deck. My thoughts were that if the bomb went off now none of us would be safe so I watched as it came to rest about 4 feet from the edge of the flight deck. The sequel to this was that the Ship's Armaments Officer came to defuse the bomb, but was trembling so much as he faced his task that he was brushed unceremoniously aside by one of 879's POs who did the job calmly and quickly.”

 

Flying Log entries for September 1944 and rough drat of the A25 accident report for the barrier crash on he 19th. Click to see larger versions

 

(My logbook 19th Sept Force Cover, Barrier prang on Landing A.25). Here is what I wrote in a pencil draft of the A25 report "On 19/9/44 whilst approaching HMS ATTACKER in Seafire L2C LR704 I received the 'come as you are' signal, on the final phase of the approach I received indication to go down. I obeyed this and again received the 'come as you are' signal. Over the round down I received the down signal. I closed the throttle gently at first but realising I was higher than usual I throttled right back, the a/c touched the deck three points, the arrester hook hit deck between two arrester wires and bounced up. The a/c rose from the deck about 4ft and the tail wheel fell off. Realising that it was too late to pick up an arrester wire I eased the control column forward heading the nose of the a/c for the first barrier. The barrier stopped the a/c which came to rest on the forward lift facing aft."

Whether it was referring to this crash or another, after WAC died, Basil Watson the ships padre remembered "I also see him getting out of his cockpit after that awful pancake landing forward of the barrier. I was told by the Captain that my place was at the side of the bar until I was sure that he was fit enough to go to bed. What an experience for him at 18.")

We sailed for Alex next day and after a week spent servicing the aircraft say our CO. Lt Cmdr Carlisle replaced by Bailey, and returned to the Aegean to continue our harassment of' the German withdrawal, which incidentally went under the name of Operation OUTING. We spent another week at Dekheila in early October with some practice strafing in the desert, and popped back to Alex in mid-October, but meantime carried out bombing and strafing missions in the islands and on the Greek mainland.

(My log book Oct 3 1944 TacR over Rhodes) "...we took off from H. M. S. ATTACKER at about 0400 hours in almost total darkness. The ship was positioned due west of Rhodes so we were heading due east and flying between two and five thousand feet, as we reached the island dawn was breaking and it was just light enough for us to search the harbour and coastline for any shipping movements...we had just circled Rhodes once when all hell was let loose from the Ack Ack guns, it took them ten or so minutes to wake up. No sooner had the bursts started when there was an ominous thud behind the cockpit of 293 followed by clouds of smoke and a foul smell of cordite. I thought I had been hit but later on landing it was discovered to be the detonator in my IFF set...." (My log book 4th October TacR over Melos - approached at 0 feet, severe accurate A/A)

We visited the islands of Khos and Mitylene, which had been liberated and the padre reminded us at Divisions on Sunday 29 October that St Paul had visited these islands, as recorded in the Acts of the Apostles.

There was unrest on Mitylene where the people had been starving so we put a demonstration flight of' 8 aircraft over on 26 October. Lloyd, the last to land on caught the barrier and landed on top of 7 aircraft parked forward. Four were written off and the other three damaged. Two days earlier we had recorded our first prang in 190 deck landings! The people of Mitylene were not impressed with our show of strength so 4 aircraft were sent to bomb the town next day! At Khios we had seen at first hand what hunger really means. Boats from the island were hanging about the ship and when we ditched gash, including the remains of food which had lain in a large bin on the part after sponson all day, men and boys from the boats were diving into the sea to pick up scraps from our waste. Several of the ship's company were to be seen lowering chocolate and other things in buckets to the sailing boats. On one afternoon when we were allowed a short run ashore, the only currency we could use was cigarettes. Some of us collected a few large denomination notes - 100,000 drachmas and so on with which the Germans had flooded the occupied territories; they had no value of course except as curios.

We left Khios for Alex on 29 October, arriving at 1500 next day to hear that we were going home. We had flown 240 sorties between 16 September and 29 October and now no time was to be lost in getting home. In Malta on 3 November we book on 150 ratings for passage to the UK. We stayed only 4 hours in Gibraltar on 6 November and next day the skipper broadcast that we were to have 14 days leave on arrival at Devonport. There was a long swell as we crossed the Bay of' Biscay. We reached Devonport on the 10th November and went on leave that afternoon. It was recorded that 15 of our pilots were leaving us. This included me.

 


Second Line Flying – 772 Fleet Requirements Unit

Perhaps as a result of a less than exemplary record in deck landings, I was posted to the Isle of Man where I flew missions for training radar operators. At first this flying was in the Chance Vought Corsairs which was pretty exciting but the pilots were all rather disappointed to be transferred to Grumman Wildcats (called Martlets by the RN). Here is an account of another crash: "You recalled in your letter to a friend our incident with the Martinet when a wheel fell off, that incident is burned in my mind and I've now looked up the log book and find that I had been using that aircraft several days before ferrying various bods to the mainland on leave. Vie actually took off together on that fateful morning of May the l0th 1945 at about 11.15 and as we neared take off on the north facing runway I felt a bit of a jerk underneath and only when we got air-born did I get a call from Andreas tower to say that my tail wheel had fallen off and I was to fly on to Ayr where a spare would await me. Aircraft was Number 655.

On entering the circuit 50 minutes later at Ayr and attempting to land a whole series of Red Verey lights were fired off and we were sent round again. We were then instructed to fly low over the control tower with wheels down. A frightened voice then came over the air informing us that it was not our tail wheel that had fallen off, it was our Port main wheel, and what were we going to do about it.
Tentatively I suggested I would do a wheels up on the grass, when the same frightened voice stated that he was Lt Cdr Mortimer and that I should bloody well know that in no circumstances should a radial engined aircraft be belly landed on grass as it would dig in and turn over, a fact I much doubted since the grass was very firm at this time.

I was then instructed to orbit until fuel was reduced and take my time doing a wheels up on Runway No 2. ( I think) . By this time literally hundreds of people appeared running across the aerodrome cars, bicycles, on foot, ambulances, fire wagons, crane etc and after circling for ten minutes or so I decided to do a long low dummy deck landing approach getting the speed down to the lowest possible, we slipped in very low over the hedge, the tail wheel touching the very near end of the runway, my aim was for the crane as a stopping point, strangely the aircraft without an undercarriage floated gently along dropping to about 50KPH indicated air speed and once the exhaust had touched the ground the craft only slid about ten or twelve feet before coming to rest, oil from the cooler which had bust went all over the hot exhausts and created a cloud of blue smoke but nothing worse. The crane literally had only to reverse a few feet and was able to lift the aircraft so that a new wheel could be fitted to the undercarriage and the aircraft towed away.

I had been most concerned about you Yong with a great big winch in the back and its l~ arm sticking down for the drogue wire which I thought would strike the ground and tear the rear half of the aeroplane off with you in it. My only suggestion to you at the time was to place your back against the bulkhead and face aft, or perhaps you do not remember.

When we had stopped and you had got out, that idiot Mortimer got up onto the port wing and leaned into the front cockpit shouting did you turn the fuel off before landing - as a matter of fact I had not in case I needed to go round again. He shouted at me you Bloody fool, don't you know you always have to turn the fuel off before crashing an aircraft turn it off now. Now get out and get in my car -- both of you...

We both got in his car and he drove us like a maniac to the control tower where we were debriefed made ~port and then were told to report to the medical officer for a check up. We were kept hanging around the control tower and by the time we got to the mess the bar was shut and lunch was off.


 

Flying Log entries for May 1945 showing the May 10th incident where the wheel fell of a Marine necessitating a belly landing.

 

Mortimer then sent for me and said I was not to leave the aerodrome until the engineers report was completed and my A. 25 crash report, he was off on leave and I was to report to Commander Flying and get him to clear me. This of course meant staying overnight at Ayr for which purposes I had no gear, no pyjamas, no washing gear, nothing in fact.
The following day I went to see the A E 0 and he said the aircraft would not be back in order for months and he was going to sign nothing until he had time to take 655 apart. The engine was probably a write off anyway since with a steel propeller the shaft would be distorted on striking the ground as would all the engine bearings.

I explained all this to Commander Flying who was a decent chap and signed me out the following day, and as there was a spare to take back to Andreas Lt Gunn the then Andreas C.O. who told me to fly it back.

Months later I was called in to see Lt Gunn who informed me that Mortimer had reported me for failing to get a clearance certificate of airworthiness for 655 before leaving Ayr and that I had thus 'Incurred their Lordships displeasure'.

A very unsatisfactory ending to what I pride myself as being one of the best bits of 'recovery from unusual positions' I have ever achieved in a lifetime or in my flying career and I am now grateful for the contents of your letter to your friend."
 

William Anthony Clarke

14 March 1924 to 08 April 2001

 

Nobby Clarke photographe4d at the last squadron reunion in 1992.

He is proudly wearing an 'Iron Cross'  -

“my mates presented me with this saying that it had come from General Galland of the Luftwaffe to congratulate me for writing off 6 Seafires deck landing which was more British Aircraft destroyed in the Med in 1944 than had been destroyed by the Luftwaffe”

 

Related pages

Sub Lieutenant (A) William Anthony Clarke, RNVR (P)

A History of 879 Naval Air Squadron

A History of HMS ATTACKER

 

 

  Privately published unofficial history 'The life and times of 879 Royal Naval Air Squadron' compiled by Eric Heald, this document has been used as a framework for passages relating to this squadron

 

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Copyright George Clarke 2014 & The Royal Navy Research Archive 2015


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