N.A.S. Pensacola - (April 1944) by Dick Bloxam, Pilot 1850 Sqdn.
We began at this stage to practice leaving a formation, making a simulated fighter attack and returning to column or echelon. Similarly, how to respond to an opposing fighter attack, how to position for a fighter attack, how to make a high-side, low-side and head-on gunnery run. We each in turn rode in the back seat of the target aircraft flown by the instructor, who would comment on the dummy attacks being made by our chums, which proved to be very helpful.
Instrument flying was not allowed to be neglected. There was still time devoted to being in the back seat with the hood down, even to the point of doing a series of full take-offs on instruments. This seemed a daunting prospect at the first attempt but confidence grew with practice.
The month of May was devoted to much further practice of firing runs, to several flights at night practicing formation tactics, to learning the glide-bombing technique, to practicing primary fighter combat against each other and to lengthy (2 to 2 and a half hour) navigation flights, firstly over land and finally over water.
By this time I had run up almost 300 hours flying time. I hadn't killed myself or anyone else (I might have frightened a few) and I hadn't written off any planes soit seemed that I qualified for a pair of wings. And so on May 26th we attended what the US Navy call 'Graduation Day' on the large picturesque parade ground at Pensacola Main Base. There, together with the US Navy Cadets, we were addressed by an American Admiral and told what fine fellows we were. We then filed one by one on to the presentation platform and received the coveted Fleet Air Arm pilots wings. A truly great day. A milestone in our service career which we had often thought would never come. Naturally, such an occasion demanded a celebration and a bunch of us went into town, did a tour of the bars finishing at our favourite watering hole, the San Carlos Hotel. I can't remember whether I was drinking "Tom Collins" or "John Collins", whatever it was, it was much to easy to drink and I don't remember going back to base.
It was now time for a few days leave. Four of us decided to share the cost of hiring a car so that we might explore something of the area other yjan the Pensacola complex and town. The only problem was that no one had a driving licence. We therefore went into town, found the local licencing office, explained our need and asked how we might get a driving licence. The very laid-back response was "Well I guess if you guys can fly a plane you should be able to drive a car" and to our surprise and delight we were each issued with a drivers licence there and then. Apart from the fun we had driving around in a huge American limousine, this had a beneficial knock-on effect so far as I was concerned, for production of my US licence was later to make the issue of a Royal Navy driving licence and an Australian driving licence a mere formality. [ when back in 'civvy street' I tried the same tactic to get a UK driving licence, my three licences counted for nothing and I still had to take a test!]
In the first week of June 1944 we made the short journey (400 miles) from Pensacola on the Gulf of Mexico to Jacksonville on Florida's Atlantic coast. Here we joined Squadron VF5 of the U.S.N. Operational Training Command equipped with the Corsair FG-1D. This was the version built by Goodyear under licence from Chance Vought.
The Corsair had a Pratt & Whitney R 2800 engine of 2,000h.p. This was about the most powerful of the day and required very large propellor to adsorb the power. This resulted in the adoption of a giant Hamilton Standard 13ft. 4ins. diameter, three bladed Hydromatic propellor. This in turn dictated the need for the inverted gull wing configuration, in order to ensure blade clearance in the level take-off attitude. The R 2800-8 Double Wasp engine had a two-stage, two speed supercharger resulting in 1,970h.p. at sea level and a rate of climb of 3,000 feet per minute. Maximum speed was 397mph at 23,000 feet. Armament was six .50 calibre machine guns and two 500lb. bombs.
The US Navy were doubtful of the early Corsair's suitability for the carrier borne fighter role due to the poor forward visibility caused by the long nose, a tendency for the left wing to drop near the stall and a tendency for the aircraft to bounce back into the air after initial contact with the deck. The US Navy therefore confined their use to the US Marine Corps who were land based.
However, after various modifications the problems were either eliminated or alleviated and it fell to the Fleet Air Arm to have the distinction of being the first to introduce the Corsair to carrier borne duties.
Upon joining Operational Training Squadron, the course was divided into groups of seven with each group assigned to one US Navy instructor. My group was made up of three Canadian pilots and four Brits. They were Gerry Anderson, Bill Asbridge and RR Sheppant (Shep) all Canadian and Maurice Jones, Dick Payne, Horace Smith and myself. We were assigned to Lieutenant Alex Kostrzewsky, an experienced pilot. He was a good communicator, friendly, unflapable and dedicated to his task. We all got on very well together.
Before being allowed to fly this handsome beast, the Corsair, there was a day or two of intensive lectures, of cockpit familiarisation and a gunnery course. The latter was very intensive but particulary enjoyable because it included several hours at the firing range. Here, by means of a shotgun and clays we were taught how to hit a moving target by leading or deflecting the point of aim.
The thing I remember most about my first flight in a Corsair was the tremendous thump in the back as I opened up to full power for take-off. I spent some while getting used to how she handled, getting to know the 'feel' of her. Then after gaining plenty of height I tested the stall characteristics. There was good warning of the impending stall and when she did finally go, it was not difficult to prevent her going into a spin. I put the wheels and flaps down and tried flying at the recommended approach speed. She felt stable and comfortable and thus re-assured I went in for my first landing which I felt quite happy with.
There followed two months of intensive and highly enjoyable training in fighter tactics with the emphasis upon simulated aerial gunnery attacks. The latter was initially carried out using the aircraft's camera gun. After a measure of expertise had been gained we then progressed to using live ammunition upon a drogue towed by another plane, the drogue proving remarkably difficult to hit.
It was now the height of summer and the Floridian temperature seemed to be stuck in the 90's and with high humidity. Normal activities became uncomfortable in the oppressive heat and the only relief came in the evening by going to the base cinema or one of the hotels in town with their very efficient air conditioning.
The end of our course in early August brought the reward of a weeks leave. I bought a diamond ring in the jewellery shop of the base PX and sped off to Detroit where Bernice and I became engaged and had a wonderful week together.
The next section of our training was at Lewiston Air Base in Maine where we spent a couple of weeks adapting to British fighter tactics and formations. We then moved some 30 miles away to Brunswick Naval Air Station.
Brunswick was the base where R.N. squadrons were 'born'. About a third of the course formed 1849 Squadron, another third 1850 and the remainder 1851. Of our flight at Operations Training Unit Jacksonville, the three Canadian lads went into 1849; Maurice Jones, Dick Payne and myself to 1850 and Horace Smith to 1851. I believe the postings were purely at random but had a momentous effect upon the lives of some. While at Brunswick, 1849 had the bad luck to develop a poor accident record, culminating in a double fatality when passing over the airfield in a tight line astern squadron formation. A slight mis-judgement resulted in one aircraft's propellor severing the tail of the one on front and both aircraft plunged into the ground.
We now began a programme of intensive training as a squadron, eighteen pilots and (I think) 24 brand new FG-1D Corsairs. According to the Goodyear publicity guru's we were the first squadron to be equipped with this latest mark of Corsair.
There was much time given to the practice of flying as a squadron, sometimes with a full compliment of eighteen aircraft and varying between low level exercises and, with the aid of oxygen, 20,000 feet. My first experience of flying at these giddy heights was on my 20th birthday.
In mid-September we began practicing dummy deck landings on the runway guided by the Senior Pilot who adopted the roll of batsman. Most of October was devoted to air firing practice with a towed drogue and strafing practice on one of the many small rock islands off the Maine coast. One strafing practice was a bit hairy. Our flight of four approached in a fast, shallow dive and began to fire our six .5 inch guns, only to realise as we closed on the target, that there was a very small boat containing two anglers anchored in the lee of the rocks. We stopped firing of course and sheered away and the two trespassers left in a hurry!. This episode brought home to me the devastating effect of six machine guns and the realisation that we were being trained to kill.
Mid-November saw us flying as a complete squadron to Floyd Bennett Field, New York. There was a two day stop over in the Fleet Air Arm's 'home', the Barbizon Plaza Hotel and then to the huge USN base at Norfolk, Virginia.
1850 squadron complete with all aircraft, pilots and ground crew then embarked in an Escort Carrier, H.M.S. Reaper for transit to the UK. The journey took little more than a week and was without incident. Except that weather wise, it was the worse imaginable, with mountainous seas. Escort Carriers were American built, medium size, merchantmen which when converted became small aircraft carriers. The hangar deck had aircraft packed in like sardines in a tin can and a dozen or so were firmly tethered on the flight deck. The ship appeared to follow a vigorous depression the whole way across the Atlantic with gale-force winds which ruled out any question of taking a turn on the flight deck by way of exercise. There was so much movement of the ship, both pitching and rolling, that passage to and from the wardroom mess for meals became a hazardous exercise. Even standing still required a firm handhold on something. Strangely enough, I felt no sea sickness, due I think to the need to concentrate on staying uninjured. By the time we docked in Belfast I felt well-blooded by the sea and as the saying goes, had well and truly got my sea legs.
It was now mid-December and all the aircrew were given home-leave for the Christmas / New Year holiday and issued with rail warrants. This meant another short sea journey on the Belfast - Stranraer ferry. My earlier optimism about having got my sea legs proved sadly mistaken. The gale and huge seas had gone but had left in there wake a long sea-swell. This resulted in a gentle, persistant heaving motion and I was embarrassingly sea sick!.
Our Northern Ireland home was to be RNAS. Eglinton, about 5 miles East of Londonderry on the edge of Lough Foyle. We learnt that a new class of Light Fleet Carrier, known as the "Colossus" class, recently commissioned at Belfast, were 'working-up' in the Irish Sea area and that our squadron would be assigned to one of these. In the meantime our own squadron 'working-up' continued.
January 1945 brought with it some severe winter weather with much snow and I only recorded 5 hours flying time, compared with 37 hours during the last month at Brunswick, Maine. However each pilot had now been allocated a non-flying duty and my particular responsibility was that of Squadron Transport Officer. This only applied when we were land-based of course, but wherever we were it was my duty to acquire a car for the C.O.'s use, a 15cwt truck for transporting aircrew, a 3 tonner for ferrying our ground crew back & forth and a small pick-up and a motorcycle for general use. We also found a good secondery use for the smaller trucks. The perimeter track had become covered in hard packed snow and was therefore an ideal skid-pan without the danger of colliding with anything.
During a break in the wintery weather, I was part of a small detachment sent to the Naval Air Station at Ayr. There we exercised in bombardment spotting for the cruiser 'H.M.S. Cardiff' and also for a troop of Royal Artillery 25 pounders. The target was a derelict building on a hill top on the Mull of Kintyre. The gunners may well have been new to the job, for the fall of shot was very erratic and we came to the conclusion that we could have made a better job of it with a couple of bombs apiece. We had by this time 500 hours in our flying log books and on reflection, we may have become just a little bit cocky about it all.
Early February was devoted to more practice of dummy deck landings and carrier drill by way of a ranged take-off and carrier break-up and landings, all on the airfield.
February 12th was the big day when I flew in a flight of four to practice landing on a real aircraft carrier, H.M.S. Venerable. Four landings without mis-hap! I was over the moon!.
We stayed on 'Venerable' for two weeks, exercising at sea off the North of Ireland, practicing carrier drill. This included accelerated take-off via the deck catapult, a most exciting experience giving an enormous thump in the back. This boosted take-off was safer than the normal rapid stream take-off. During one of these, George Cathcart caught the slip-stream of the cab in front, stalled and went in the drink. Happily he survived to tell the tale.
On our last day on 'Venerable' we engaged in a pre-dawn take-off, flying in pairs until there was enough light to form into a full formation. Sadly, one pair Pete Hudson and Cliff Macey, were absent at the join-up and failed to return to the ship. One body was recovered from the sea and the only conclusion possible was that the leader of the pair instead of flying by his instruments, flew by what he thought was the horizon and that together they simply flew into the sea.
The squadron now left 'Venerable' and after a couple of days at Ayr for gun harmonisation exercise, flew to join H.M.S. Vengeance which was to be our home for the forseeable future. Our flying colleagues on 'Vengeance' were 812 Squadron, equipped with the Fairey Barracuda torpedo bomber. We didn't think much of their ungainly and underpowered planes but their large complement of pilots and observers became good chums and added much gaiety to the wardroom.
The ship left promptly for the Middle East and Far East in company with our sister ships, 'Colossus' and 'Venerable'. With the war in Europe nearing it's end we knew that we were ultimately to join the British Pacific Fleet but our first destination was Malta. There was still some enemy activity to contend with and once in the Mediterranean we flew combat air patrols (C.A.P.'s) over the ship and it's attendant destroyer H.M.S. Tyrian. However, no interference was encountered by enemy submarines or aircraft.
Life on board ship soon developed into a steady routine. When not actually engaged in flying we took part in pairs in watchkeeping duties on the bridge, our primary role being that of identifying any approaching aircraft. There were also a series of talks by the various heads of departments e.g. Commander Flying, Commander Ops, Senior Flight Deck Officer, Radar Controller, etc.
Life at sea had it's compensations. Once clear of UK waters, cigarettes and drinks became duty-free and therefore ridiculously cheap. Not that there was much drinking at sea but there were some very good sessions when in harbour. Leading brands of cigarettes were bought 'over the counter' at (I think) 2/6d for 50 in a tin, 22.5p. in today's money! Little wonder that most people became regular smokers. Beer and Spirits were bought by signing a chit at the bar with one's mess number and became part of the monthly mess bill. Seasoned sailors drank pink gin, the cheapest drink at something like 3d. a tot. Beer was more expensive because of it's bulk. Local supplies of beer appeared when the ship was in harbour but soon ran out when we put to sea.
Petty Officers and other ranks were not allowed bar facilities and had to make do with the daily issue of Pussers Rum, which was of course free by virtue of a long standing tradition.
Food supplies at sea were limited to those things which could readily be preserved in salt, or kept in tins, jars and packets, or supplied by the ships bakery. Once in harbour, the first man ashore was likely to be the mess caterer who then returned with fresh meat, fish, eggs, milk, fruit and vegetables.
Mid-March saw the ship approaching Malta. Both squadrons flew off and after about an hour's flying, landed at the island's Hal Far airfield. Meanwhile the ship anchored in Valletta harbour.
The 'Venerable' squadrons, 1851 and 814, joined us at Hal Far and together we embarked on six weeks of intensive training. Hal Far was an R.A.F. airfield and part of it's complement were flights of Warwick bombers and Beaufighters. Relations were sufficiently good that the RAF units were willing to allow their aircraft to act as targets so that we might practice interception and camera-gun attacks. There was also much strafing practice with live ammunition using sea-markers as targets and on one memorable occasion, upon a wrecked Italian "Cavour" class battleship in the Sicilian harbour of Syracruse.
The exercise to Syracruse was a simulated Taranto style attack on shipping in harbour with Cedric Coxon's Barracuda's being the main strike force and our Corsair's providing fighter cover coupled with strafing attacks on shipping and harbour installations. It proved a successful exercise for a combined operation but ended unhappily with a disaster when we were crossing the sea on return to Malta.
'Jock' Bardner's Corsair ran out of oil pressure and he decided to bail out. He was watched into the sea by his wingman and the air sea rescue boys alerted to come and collect him but no trace could be found. After re-fuelling at Hal Far, a number of Corsair's were sent to make a search of the area but without success. The Barracuda's were then sent off to make a further effort to find him: three pairs of eyes per aircraft being better than one. Sadly, not only were they without success but one of the Barracuda's ditched and all three aircrew were lost. An appalling loss which resulted in much dispondency within both squadrons.
A further exercise was in escorting the Barracuda boys, in simulated minelaying, at the entrance to Tripoli harbour, some two hundred miles away on the Libyan coast. It was from Malta that we also began the exciting practice of flying low level pinpointing exercises, over Sicily. This involved careful pre-planning of the route using a very detailed map and calculating timing to prominent landmarks, rivers, railways, villages etc., to the second. I was quite surprised to find that by flying accurate headinds at a precise airspeed (allowing for the wind in both cases) it was indeed possible to fly at tree-top level and predict the passing of landmarks to the second.
While at Malta we were issued with G-suits. These were overalls made with a hollow inner lining, which when filled with water increased the ability to withstand high G forces. Normally my own limit was 4 to 4.5G before blacking out. With a G-suit I found my limit increased to 7G, but with the dis-advantage of not being able to keep the head upright.
Our quarters at Hal Far were only a few miles from the ancient and historic capital, Valletta and we made the most of every opportunity to go 'ashore' and explore. Such ventures were somewhat restricted by the severe bomb damage to so many buildings and the only Officer's club had very little to offer in the way of food or drink.
In early May the squadron rejoined 'Vengeance' and the ship became part of the newly forming 11th Aircraft Carrier Squadron, under the command of Vice Admiral C. Harcourt RN.
Members of the 11th Aircraft Carrier Squadron were the carriers 'Colossus', 'Glory', 'Vengeance' and 'Venerable', the battleship 'Anson', the 2nd cruiser squadron 'Bermuda' and 'Belfast' and the destroyers 'Tyrian', 'Tuscan', 'Tumult' and 'Ursa'.
The group now began working-up as a task force in the Central Mediterranean with many exercises and mock raids upon various places. During one of these Eddie Kiernan had gone in the drink but managed to get out okay and was fished out by our plane guard destroyer. Freddie English also had an exciting time, splattering his Corsair all over the deck aridly watched by all on the 'goofers platform'. Luckily Freddie emerged unscathed.
I almost encountered a disaster myself when I made what I thought was a normal take-off. However as I lifted off at the end of the flight deck the plane made a determined lunge for the sea. I hauled back hard on the stick with both hands and brought the nose up just in time. After gaining a little height I increased the nose-up setting on the elevator trim but this resulted in a further downward plunge and I soon realised that the elevator trim was working in reverse - the normal 1 degree nose up setting for take-off was in fact 1 degree nose down. A check with the Petty Officer in charge of airframe work revealed that for some reason the elevator had been dismantled during the previous day's servicing. I had some choice words with a very crestfallen and apologetic airframe fitter.
VE-Day was now upon us and the fleet returned to Malta's Grand Harbour. Most of the ship's company and squadron personnel were given shore leave and for a few day's Valletta town was full of people of all nationalities enjoying well earned celebrations. At this point it was decided that the aircrews be given 7 days R & R, rest and recuperation, to be taken at the holiday resort of Taormina on the east coast of Sicily. An Italian destroyer was commandeered and ordered to take us from Valletta to Catania harbour where coaches were waiting to take us north to Taormina. This was by the coast road, winding and mountainous with breath taking views of the sea to the East and dominated by Mount Etna to the West. We were billeted at the San Domenico Hotel which we soon discovered had been the headquarters of General Kesselring, commander of the German forces in Italy. It was a very elegant hotel, with much use of Italian marble in the public rooms, stairways and corridors. My bedroom reflected the same elegance, featuring marble surfaces in the bathroom and gold taps and a balcony with an enchanting view of the terraced gardens ablaze with colour.
After the first batch of 'bods' had been delivered to Sicily word soon got back to the ship that saleable goods were a far better currency than money. It was soon realised that the one commodity freely and cheaply available on board was duty free English cigarettes. A few packs of Players Navy Cut, Churchman No.1 or State Express 555 were enough to guarantee a weeks high living in Taormina. The several bars in the village were open until the early hours with hosts of attractive Sicilian girls with whom we seemed to be very popular (as no doubt our German counterparts had been a few weeks previously).
Shortly after this brief interlude we left Malta and headed East. A few days later there were stops in Alexandria and Port Said, each unattractive ports where everyone seemed to be on the make. On going ashore one was continually pestered by sleazy looking characters who were keen to sell their sisters or failing that, some filthy pictures. We were relieved to get back on board in one piece. Then it was off into the Suez Canal. It was a fascinating and seemingly unreal experience to stand on the flight deck without any ocean to be seen; only miles of desert on either side with a very narrow strip of water ahead and astern of us.
Eventually we emerged into the Red Sea and it seemed to us it should be called the Red Hot Sea for the temperature soared to over 100 degrees F. and the the ship was like one huge oven. The only way to get a decent night's sleep was to take one's camp bed and sleep under the wing of one of the aircraft parked on the rear of the flight deck.
Our next stop was for refuelling at the Southern Yemen port of Aden. Out of curiousity, I took the opportunity of a few hours ashore together with some friends. However there was nothing worth seeing and nothing to do. We ended up taking a taxi ride along the coast road. It proved to be hot, dry, dusty and dirty. We were glad to get back on board and take a shower.
By the next morning we had sailed into the Arabian Sea and were on our way East. We were now at the latitude of only 10 degrees above the equator and it was hotter than ever. Being one of the new class of carrier, 'Vengeance' had plenty of fresh air ventilation below decks but when the outside air is very hot and humid the notion of any air being 'fresh' becomes a joke.