My Dad's War in the Fleet Air Arm

Discussion in 'Veteran Accounts' started by Margaret Watson, Oct 29, 2014.

  1. My Dad, Peter Watson wrote this memoir a few years ago. I believe it was to send to James Holland for his excellent book "Fortress Malta". My dad is now 93 and still has a sharp memory.

    "After a short stay at H.M.S. Daedulos (Lee on Solent), I was posted to Alexandria, Egypt sometime in late August 1940. This time, I think with about six other T.A.G.'s, we left Liverpool on the S.S . Strathmore, a fairly new Cruise type ship that was still doing a regular civilian trip to Australia, so we travelled as regular passengers. We sailed without an escort taking a route far out in the Atlantic. Out of the range of U Boats I presumed, as it tok us 19 days to reach Cape Town. From there we went to Mombasa and then to Bombay, where we disembarked. We spent a week or so there before leaving (full of Sikh Army troops), bound for Port Said. Finally, we arrived in Alexandria towards the end of August 1940. I was attached to a Fleet Requirement Squadron. We mainly took interpreters (Italian speaking), up the desert to Tripoli, Mersa Matru, Sollum, Tobruk, etc., to interview the thousand of Italians captured by General Wavel's forces. Other duties were towing drogues, to enable the Mediterranean Fleet to have anti aircraft shoots. On one occasion we took off(Swordfish) and made a run over the Fleet. From the lead ship, H.M.S. Warspite I think, came the order by aldis lamp. "Go Higher." I relayed this to the pilot, who said. "We are at cloud base now." I flashed this back to the Fleet, who repiled to "Go higher". My pilot unwisely flew into the clouds for about five minutes. When we descended, I think the entire Fleet opened up on us. In those days Admiral Cunningham regarded all unidentied aircraft as hostile . We beat a hasty retreat into the clouds and returned to base. One other flight of note. H.M.S. Kelly was sunk by enemy action off the coast of Crete. The Captain was Mountbatten and he was going to Cairo to complain about the lack of air cover. (I guess you can't complain about things you haven't got). However, we went in a Skua aircraft (not the most reliable of planes). Capt Mountbatten arrived, impeccably dressed in civilian clothes. We exchanged hellos and I handed him his parachute harness. He replied, "I don't think I need that. If anything goes wrong you can show me what to do." Being a naval airman you didn't argue with a Captain. My private thoughts were "you will be behind me in the plane so you will probably have to make your own arrangments". However nothing untoward happened. As you know, he went on to much greater heights. (See Mounbatten: a Hero of our Time, by Richard Hougth, page 134 and Chapter Note 5). Although we were subjected to a few air raids it was a fairly quiet time compared to what was to come.

    On the 5th June 1941, I left Alexendria by Sunderland flying boat for Malta landing at Kalafrana. I thnk it was mainly Italian planes that were bombing Malta at this time. Not very successfully and usually at night. It appeard to me that they flew up to 15,000 feet off the Island, and then glided down and dropped their bombs from about 10,000 feet, at no particular target as far as I could see. Occasionally they were caught in the searchlights of the shore battery, and the 'Hurricanes' sent up to intercept them clained quite a few victims. The R.A.F. pilots used to put on their tail lights so we were able to watch them move in for the kill. (Great show.) However it was a different kettle of fish when the Luftwaffe arrived. They bombed with great accuracy, mornimg, noon, and night. A better way to describe it was, breakfast ,lunch and dinner. Daytime bombing by up to 200 hundred aircraft. The Junkers 87 being the most frightening. Dornier and Heinkel bombers, and also M.E 109 fighter planes, initially mainly attacking millitary targets.

    Back to 830 Sqadron. I do not now have my Log Book, as I gave it to the Curator of the Malta War Museum when I visited there in 1999 . The Sqaddron was not particulrly well run at this time. (June 1941). No T.A.G's went to the pre flight briefings (if they had them). One of my first ops. was a torpedo attack with one other Swordfish. The pilot told me that it was to be on a hospital ship that was actually carrying military equipment to Tripoli from Sicily. We found it alright, all lights on board shining brightly. No escort. We dropped our tin fish but both apparently missed whether by accident or design, I know not. I was told much later that it had struck a mine entering Tripoli harbour and sank. But, once again I had no means of verifying this story. As I said the T.A.G's did not go to pre flight briefings. One had to look under the fuselage of the plane you had been detailed to fly in. Torpedo - convoy. Mine - Tripoli Harbour. Bombs on rare occasions (goodness knows where, probably Sicily). We did not have the same pilot regularly. Some were pretty good, others going too close and very low to drop their missiles. The anti aircraft guns were pretty heavy (especially the Bofor type guns). Mine laying in Tripoli harbour was not too bad as Wellington bombers were attacking Tripoli at the same time and drew most of the flack.

    My next near death expience was on the night of 27th August 1941, when the pilot was Sub. Lt. Aldridge. We prepared for take off but we didn't take as much runway as customary and about half-way along the runway I realised we were probably in trouble. Sure enough, he throttled back. We hit the first wall about 60mph and I think there we lost the undercarriage, some thirty yards on we hit the second wall and lost the torpedo. Fortunately it was a new type that had to run a certain distance in water before it was activated. We finally finished up on the 3rd wall and by this time we were in flames but still upright. I was O.K.(more or less) and went to jump over the side when I saw the pilot still sitting there. So I yelled to him to get out, which he did. We retreated behind another wall and were finally rescued by some ground crew. I went to the Sick Bay where I had a few stitches in my arm caused by flying debris, no doubt. Then I went back to bed. Unhappily, there was another event with Sub. Lt. Aldridge and T.AG Geoff Pimlott. They took off to attack a convoy. They didn't find it and as usual brought back their tin fish back with them for further use. I was sitting in our billet waiting for them to return when I heard one approahing very fast. The next thing I knew, there was a tremendous explosion. A Swordfish had flown straught into the ground. Sad to say, we had run out of the new type of torpedos and were using old submarine ones, and this one exploded on impact. Needless to say, they were both killed, although I understand the T.A.G. (Pimlott) lived for a few hours. I attended their funerals and was somewhat disgusted to find that the pilot (commisioned) had a polished wooden coffin, but the T.A.G. an ordinary wooden one. However they shared the same grave at Imtarfa, which I visited on my visit in1999.

    Round about this time, the Luftwaffe returned in force, so things were pretty dicey.

    We lost four Swordfish one night. The thought was, they must have lost ther way due to an unusual type of electrical storm and were unable to get D.F. bearings to return to Malta. WeI lost T.A.G Ken Griffihs. He and his pilot, Lt. Wigram ( I think) were never accounted for. T.A.G Johnie Fallon managed to get ashore and was taken prisoner of War. I think they were on a bombing raid to Paneterleria, a small Italian island in the Mediterranean. By this time Lt. Cdr. Hopkins had arrived and things improved greatly, although the number of aircraft had been reduced somewhat. The T.A.G.'s went to the pre flight briefings and also went to the Officers Mess on return for some refreshments. Also at this time the senior observer of the squadron was one Lt. the Honorable Keppel (grandson of Admiral Keppel). He was a great asset to the squadron and especially to 'his' T.A.G.'s. One story about him. An air raid on Halfar one afternoon and I was a little late getting to a shelter and was knocked base over apex, or words to that effect, by the blast of a bomb. Thinking that the shelter may have been hit. I ran to the parade ground to seek help. There I met Lt. Keppel, somewhat bloodied but unbowed. I said to him "Are you alright Sir?" (silly question really). He replied, "Watson, they tried to kill me". I said, "I believe that's the name of the game". I think it was an affront to his dignity. I was surprised to find that his blood was the same colour as mine, I thought it should have been blue. He was a fine man and I never found any more about him. Things got worse from thereon and although we we still managed a few 'ops' with the Swordfish we still had left, things in general were pretty bleak. Food was fairly basic as I have said, stew or corned beef being the staple diet. In between times I found hardtack biscuits helped to assuage my hunger. I didn't realise the civilian population were far worse off than us.

    April 1942 was really bad. Constant bombings including civilian targets. I think Malta would have been starved into submission. However, early in May, Spitires started to arrive and immediately showed their superiority over the the Germans like in the battle of Britain. The Luftwaffe knew the losses they would have to endure to take Malta. By this time I was about to leave Malta and I knew that things would get better for the Maltese people. (See James Holland's great book -"Fortress Malta"). Just before I leave the Island, I would like to say that the only relief we had, was that if we knew early enough in the day that we were not flying that night, we would probably go down to Valetta and visit "The Gut". I expect you have heard all about that place, so I will not say further. Other times we had a few beers in the N.A.A.F.I., or visited a local establishment (for want of a better word) where we imbibed "Ambeet shandies". (Cheap red wine and the equialent of 7 Up). A pretty potent brew.

    As they say, all good things come to an end. On the 9th May 1942, the day arrived when we were to leave Malta. We arrived in Grand Harbour in the morning. H.M.S. Welshman, on which we were to return to the UK, was already docked and had unloaded some vital supplies. As usual the Germans bombed the harbour. When the raid was over, it appeared that the ship was damaged. A near miss had thrown a small mobile crane onto the deck, It was removed and we left at full speed non stop to the UK. arriving somwhere in Wales. I phoned home and once again, a surprised and delighted Mum answered my call.

    It was sometime in July, that I read in "Flight" magazine, that I had bee awarded the D.S.M. Leading Airman 'Lucky' Reynolds (later killed) also was awared one, and the remaining six T.A.G's of the squadron were mentioned in Dispatches. It was really a squadron award. (See A.F.O. 3195/42). In late August a very proud Mum and I went to an Investiture at Buckingham Palace, where I received my Award from H.M King George VI. A great and unforgettable day.

    The rest of my service was somewhat mundane after Malta. In late Decenber I was posted to No.1 Royal Naval Air Gunners School that had just been opened in Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, Canada. We arrived in Halifax on Xmas Eve. No black out, no rationing, no pubs (only a liquor ration monthly). I understand that Cdr. Mudie saw the local liquor distribution branch and infomed them that Englishmen could not perform properly without their beer, etc. Lo and behold we had a supply of alcoholic drinks in all messes on the base. The locals were amazed and to be invited to a Guest Night was a great treat for them. I stayed their as an Instructor until June 1944 when my request to return home was granted.

    I stayed at Lee on Solent for a couple of months and was then posted to 767 Sqadrom, composed of Fairy Fireflys. It was a non-combat squadron that helped in the training of ground crews to home in by radar (I presume) on enemy bombers. We had an Avro Oxford aircraft for this role. It was a bit of a change for me flying at 250 - 300m.p.h. at 20000 feet, rather than 90m.p.h at 20 feet above the ocean. I stayed with this Squadron, serving at various Naval Air stations in England and Wales until my demob on the 7th December 1945. Like most veterans I received my Civy suit and left the service stony broke. I received the War Gratuity Payment of 52 pounds .. That worked out to about 5 old pence a day over six and a half years. No further comment required."

    Hope this of interest.
  2. Tricky Dicky

    Tricky Dicky Don'tre member

    Hi Margaret

    A wonderful story - I especially enjoyed the Mountbatten remarks

  3. Andreas

    Andreas Working on two books

    Thank you Margaret. Fascinating story.

    With kind regards

  4. Thanks for your kind remarks.
    I thought I should post the rest of his story up until now.

    "Employment: April 1938 - August 1939. Stock Jobbers, London Stock Exchange. My uncle was a partner in the Firm.
    Service: May 1939 applied to join the R.N.V.R. On 30th August called up and joined The Royal Navy. Volunteer for the Fleet Air Arm as a telegraphist air gunner(T.A.G.). Trained at H.M.S Kestrel (Worthy Down, Hampshire) from 11th September 1939 to 21st April 1940.

    From this date until the about the middle of August 1940, my record of service seems somewhat incorrect, probably due to the chronic happenings at that time. From this point on, as far as I can remember are things that remain pretty clear.

    My first posting was to 767 Squadron stationed at Hyeres, in the south of France(a French Naval Air Station). It was a Swordfish Sqdn. that had been flown from H.M.S. Argust to train pilots on deck landings. I remember going to Cherbourg, with I think, 3 other T.A.G.'s. We spent the night in a slit trench due to the bombing but managed to leave by train for Toulon. It was a somewhat harrowing journey that took at least a day with the Germans bombing close to us. On arrival at Hyeres we worked tropical routine, 4a.m. to12 noon. The food was pretty good, though not to the liking of some of the ground crews of the Sqadron, especially the continental breakfsats. There was however, a good helping of red wine at the main meals.

    It was here that I had my first near death experience. One morning I was crew (T.A.G.) with various pilots on short trips so they could get the lie of the land. On about the third trip as we were going across the air field to take off we both saw a squadron of Italian C.R.42 approaching. It must have been shortly after June 5th when Italy declared War on the Allies. I shouted for the pilot to stop, which he did, and we jumped over the side and dived into a slit trench at the side of the airfield where we watched them strafing hangar area. Being Italians they did't hang around too long. It was probably a good thing it wasn't a sqdn. of M.E. 109's. I think that they would have taken time to pay us some attention (i.e. pilot, I and the swordfish). Some days after this it became clear that we had to leave or be interned or worse. Unfortunately, no T.AG.'s flew, any available seat being taken by spare obervers and pilots (all commisioned ranks) whist the T.A.G.'s were naval airmen, equivalent to able seaman. I believe that Lt. Cdr. Dickens (grandson of Charles Dickens), was the Sqdn. commander at this time. I was told that they had flown to Algiers. I think we left the next day from Toulon on an old rust bucket of a merchant ship and arrived in Algiers a couple of days later. Algiers looked wonderful from the harbour, but it was a different picture ashore. We were billeted in what I think was a Foreign Legion camp which was somewhat primitive, especially the toilets. We stayd there for a week or so, and then boarded a train to Casablanca that took a couple of days. We were surrounded by the native population together with their belongings: goats, chickens, etc. I don't remember much about our stay in Casablanca but it was several days at least. Then we boarded another decrepit merchant ship to go to Gibraltar. How long that took I don't remember, a few days at least. We stayed in Gibraltar for a couple of weeks. I remember Nat Gonnella, a noted trumpet player of that time, performing in various bars. Once again we left Gibraltar aboard another merchant ship, unescorted, and finally arrived home. Owing to the length of time that my parents had not heard from me they got in touch with the naval authoritities who evidently could't help and said that I should officially be reported as missing. You can imagine that my mother was surprised and relieved when I phoned her.

    Perhaps I shoud mention here, that I undertsood that the Sqdn. had with some difficulty obtained enough petrol to fly the aircraft to the neaest base occupied by the British, i.e., Malta. On their way I was also told that as they thought an invasion of Malta might be imminent, the CO, R.A.F. Halfar, had laid obstacles on the airfield to prevent any hostile planes landing there. He was somewhat shocked to see this Sqdn of Swordfish all land with out harm all over the field and more or less out of fuel. (True or false I know not)."

    And after the war:

    "I returned to my pre war job. I married in 1948 and was living with my mother and younger brother who was suffering from some mental illness as a result of his service in the Black Watch regiment. My father had died in 1947, and it became impossible to stay with one young child and another on the way. The only sure means of getting a house those days was to join a County Police Force. So I became a member of the Kent Police. I pounded the beat at Dartford for four years and was then transferred to the Criminal Investgation Department in which I served the rest of my 30 years, apart from a year back in uniform on my promotion to Sergeant. This included a secondment to New Scotland Yard as a Det. Insp. for 3 years. I retired in 1980 with the rank of Det. Chief Inspector. I served from Sept. 1950 until the 8th Sept. 1980.\

    The wife and I emigrated to Vancouver six weeks later to join our three daughters who had left England at various times in the late 1960's and early 1970's. I had a small job as Security Chief at a high class Country Club in West Vancouver for seven years and since then I have lived a life of leisure."

    Attached is a photo of the plane crash in Malta that he was involved in.

    image.jpg image.jpg
  5. spitsortie

    spitsortie Member

    I am writing a book called 'Voices from the Siege of Malta', and am looking for ex-servicemen or civilians to come on board with their stories.
    Please do not hesitate to ask me any questions.
    Thanking you,
    Peter (spitsortie)
    Luca82 likes this.
  6. Luca82

    Luca82 New Member

    Hello I am Italian and I found a real picture of one of the 4 Swordfish that ditched in Cefalu, Sicily on 11th-12th November 1941. Please email on and i will send you the picture. I am also trying to contact the family far as i know they Campbell, Wingram, Osborn
  7. Luca82

    Luca82 New Member

    Good morning,

    my name is Luca and I am an Italian airline pilot resident near London but originally from Cefal├╣, a small town on the north coast of Sicily. A friend of mine recently found some pictures of an FAA plane on the beach of Cefalu'. According to our war journal also three other FAA planes ditched on the sea very close to our coasts on 11/12th November 1941. The reason I am now writing to you is that I would like to get in touch with them or their families and show them these pictures (see attachments) and why not, invite them to Sicily.

    On the internet I found this website written by Ian Campbell, one of the pilots' son that took part in the very interesting mission.

    11 November 1941 (I suggest you also read the whole story about Mr Campbell's life, including his escape as a POW...very interesting!)

    From the fleet air arm museum these are the names of the 4 Swordfish:

    V4421: Sub Lt S W L Campbell, Ldg Airman J R Fallon Ditched, fuel shortage on enemy convoy search POW

    K8405 Sub Lt R W Taylor, Sub Lt F L Robinson Failed to return, enemy convoy search POW

    V4295 Lt G M T Osborn DSC, Lt Cdr J G Hunt, Sgt M Parke Failed to return, enemy convoy search POW

    K5979 Lt A F Wigram, Ldg Airman K D Griffiths Failed to return, enemy convoy search Killed

    according to an article found in an italian magazine, that plane landed on the beach and capsized (taylor's) Two ditched (osbor and campbell's) and one hit some some rocks in the sea and exploded (Wigram's)

    I really hope you can help find these pilots' families.

    Kind regards,

    Owen likes this.
  8. John(txic)

    John(txic) Junior Member

    Thanks for the dit: good to see the TAGs got some decent treatment in the end.
  9. Colin Banfield

    Colin Banfield New Member

    Hi Margaret

    Thank you so much for posting your father's memoir.

    My name is Colin Banfield and I live in Kelowna, BC, Canada. Your father remembers his near death experience at the hands of Sub. Lt. Aldridge. Lt. Leslie Frederick Edward Aldridge was my uncle. He was one of my mother's (Marjorie's) three brothers. He died at the age of 26 on my mother's 24th birthday, September 22nd 1941 in Hal Far, Malta whilst piloting a Swordfish with TAG Kenneth Pimlott. Leslie was the son of Sir Frederick and Lady Laura Aldridge from Grays, Essex.

    I had heard stories from my mother of how he tragically died but your father's memoir, about hitting the three walls, was new to me. I gained great comfort from the knowledge that your father attended his funeral. They were all heroes to me, pilots and TAGs. May they all rest in peace as we live in peace from their sacrifice.

    With best wishes,

    Colin Banfield
    Tullybrone and 4jonboy like this.
  10. Colin Banfield

    Colin Banfield New Member

    IMG_0788.JPG IMG_0789.JPG

    Hi Margaret

    Further to my previous reply, I have just seen your later posting with the photo of the burned out Swordfish that my uncle Leslie was piloting with your father when it hit three walls and caught fire. I have never seen this photo before and doubt that my mother did before her death in 1999. Thank you so much for posting this.

    I also note with great interest that your parents emigrated to Canada and lived in West Vancouver, which I know very well as I live in Kelowna and have several friends who live in West Vancouver. Do you live there?

    To add more detail to your father's memoir I have added a photo of my uncle, LT. Leslie Aldridge and his despatch for distinguished service as published in the London Gazette of 17thFebruary 1942.

    With best regards and thanks,

    Colin Banfield
    Kelowna, BC, Canada
    Margaret Watson likes this.
  11. CL1

    CL1 116th LAA and 92nd (Loyals) LAA,Royal Artillery Patron

    hello Colin welcome to the forum

    Margaret has not been on the forum for over a year
    I have sent her a private message showing your interest

  12. Andreas

    Andreas Working on two books

    Hi Colin

    Please see some relevant documents concening the death of your uncle attached. Screen Shot 2022-08-03 at 9.56.17 PM.jpg
    Screen Shot 2022-08-03 at 10.03.51 PM.jpg

    Screen Shot 2022-08-03 at 10.03.24 PM.jpg


    With kind regards

  13. Andreas

    Andreas Working on two books

    Reading the above reports, it appears clear that your uncle had a run of very bad luck on that mission, which accumulated to a point that it killed him and his observer.

    All the best


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