812 Squadron by John Dickson, Pilot 812 Sqdn. HMS. Vengeance.
The Squadron was formed at Stretton on the 1st June 1944, initially with 12 Barracuda's which later increased to 16. Our C.O. was Lt.Cdr. (A) C.R.J. Coxon RN, who was at the time, the youngest Lt.Commander in the Royal Navy (I believe he was only 23). He already had a busy War in Malta and had been mentioned in despatches. The original complement of air crew was as follows;
Pilots:- The C.O. Cedric Coxon, Lt. Peter Poole (Senior Pilot), Lt.'Poppa' Bristow, Lt. Charlie Wintringham (RNZNVR), S/L. Les Terry, S/L. Digby, S/L. 'Jock' Balfour, Midshipman 'Dicky' Dickson, Acting Petty Officers Steve Blakey, 'Slip' Slater, and Sid Hunt. There were also 6 Pilots just back from the USA, where they had been trained and where they had flown SBD Dauntless Dive Bombers, that had done so well at the Battle of Midway. Our Navy had acquired some Curtis Helldiver dive bombers (a more modern aircraft) and formed 1820 Squadron. It was intended to form other Squadrons and our six lads thought that was where they would go. However the Helldivers were LETHAL! 1820 Squadron soon packed up and I believe the aircraft were too big for our ships anyway. Nonetheless our six 'yankee' trained boys were not happy bunnies when they discovered that their destiny was Barracudas. These Pilot's were S/L. 'Sam' Smallwood, S/L. Pete 'Ace' Throssel, S/L. Dick 'Robbie' Burns, S/L. Jack 'Jackie' Birch, S/L. 'Happy' Pain and S/L. Johnny Cookson.
Observers:- There was a nucleus of Senior (or experienced) Observers with us from the outset, Lt. 'Spike' Regan (Senior Observer), Lt. Gordon 'Blood' Wallace, Lt. 'Toby' Tobias and S/L. 'Tommy' Dewsnap.
Telegraphist Air Gunners:- I am not sure how many were on our original complement, probably eight or nine. I know P.O. Casey (Senior TAG), Rouse, Hughes, Sargent and Geoff Squire were among them.
When we 'clocked on' on the 1st June 1944, most of us pilots had not flown Barracudas, so we hustled across the airfield to 798 Squadron, where we had an intensive conversion course by way of Masters, Fulmars and finally Barracudas. After six trips on 'Barras' I was back with 812 and first flew with the squadron on 17th June 1944.
In those days it was normal for aircrew to do their operational training as individuals in the various training schools around the U.K. Torpedo attacks, dive bombing, anti-submarine attacks, target spotting and deck landing were all taken step by step and when completed the pilots were matched up with observers and air Gunners who had been similarly engaged with their own trades. As fully intergrated crews they then waited in a pool until they were fed into the Operational Squadrons as demanded and on a piecemeal basis.
We were different, probably as guinea pigs, we carried out all this operational training 'as a Squadron' and I think it worked. Morale was high - we got to know one another really well and there is no doubt, we were pretty good!! It also gave the C.O. and Senior Observer the opportunity to weed out the few who were not going to measure up. Although we didn't know it for some months we were already earmarked for one of the new Light Fleet Carriers which were expected to be ready in late October / December 1944. 814 Squadron (who went to HMS. Venerable) worked up in similar fashion but they didn't form until 1st July 1944, so we were always the first and the best!. I believe 837 Squadron which formed at Stretton on 1st August 1944 and later went to HMS. Glory followed this pattern.
On 28th June 1944 we departed Stretton for Crail on the north side of the Firth of Forth. We stayed there until 7th September and our time was spent learning Torpedo Attack - day and night - A/S bombing and W/T exercises. It was all very intensive, quite scary at times and hard work. Cedric Coxon lead us brilliantly. Amazing to think that by March 1945 when we were in Malta, we were told to forget all about Torpedo Attacks - there were no enemy ships left to sink!! After that we were mainly concerned with Dive Bombing, Anti-Submarine work and Army co-operation.
Steve Blakey must have been quickly off the mark when we got to Crail. He found himself a girl friend who lived at Lochton Farm probably six miles from the airfield. On 13th July 1944, he was showing her how low he could fly when he forgot the sloping ground and crashed into a field on the Farm. Sadly L/Airman Sargent, his TAG, was in the back and they were both killed. I remember as a 19 year old, I was a bit upset (Steve had been on the next course to me while training) but Cedric was really livid. In his eyes Steve had broken all the rules, he was showing off and had killed another crew member and written off an aircraft. He had no sympathy and on reflection he was right. The funerals took place in Crail Churchyard. Cedric did not let me go - he was obviously trying to protect someone so young!. Apart from Sam Smallwood bending his aircraft in a landing accident we completed our time at Crail and had proved ourselves to be highly competent Torpedo Pilots.
On 7th September 1944 we left Crail in formation and flew down to Burscough (just inland from Southport). On the way Les Terry had problems with the fuel feed and he ditched very gently off Blackpool Tower!. He and Dewsnap stepped off the sinking plane into the dinghy and barely gor their feet wet!. Dewsnap was delighted - he was going on leave to get married and had with him a new uniform which had also stayed dry!. Robbie Burns followed them down and when he knew they were OK, landed at Squires Gate as he was by then, low on fuel. Many years later I learnt that Blackpool Lifeboat which picked them up, chalked up it's one and only rescue mission. It was never called out again during the War.
At Burscough a whole crowd of newly qualified and just commissioned Observers anxiously awaited us, the news of what had just happened filtered through and they wore some pale and apprehensive features when we met!!. These Observers had been pupils of 'Blood' Wallace when he was an instructor at Arbroath and we understood he had picked the best of the course to come to 812. There was one Midshipman among them - 'Bambi' Brook (he looked too young to have left his Mum) so he was allocated to me!. Geoff Squire our T.A.G. was somewhat older and certainly more worldly-wise. It was generally accepted that he was our father figure and boss of the show. Geoff was a brilliant swimmer and as strong as an ox. I felt happy with him in the back seat because I was a very poor swimmer and tended to keep my 'mae west' partly inflated - just in case. Geoff was courting an Admiral's daughter at that time. Just goes to show you didn't need a commission to pull the birds!.
We stayed at Buscough until 10th November 1944, mainly doing Observer type exercises - Nav. Ex's - W/T etc., we still did some Torpedo practice - some at night, Dive Bombing and Fighter evasion, a new game involving 'corkscrewing' in formation while being 'attacked' by the Fireflies of 1772 Squadron. On 6th October I was doing an air test, got up to 10,000 ft. and managed to loop the aircraft. Some said it couldn't be done but I enjoyed it and soon showed the crew that it was really quite safe. I was told that someone else (probably Throssel) had managed to roll the aircraft - I never tried it. On 19th October Peter Poole said it was time for us to practice deck landing. The exercise ADDL's involves a tight low circuit, slow approach just above the stall with plenty of power on and following the 'batsman's' signals down to the deck, where hopefully he gave 'the cut' when you chopped power and sank gracefully onto the runway. Then without stopping you picked up flaps, opened up and go round and do it again and again and again!. When doing it to give the batsman practice, we became known as 'clockwork mice'. Anyway we were a bit apprehensive as no one likes dragging in just above the stall speed and we were even more in wonder when Peter said, "We'll make a start straight away, like TONIGHT".
So I did my first ADDL's at night and having survived the first landing I opened up to go round again, but in my panic I pulled the flap lever right through a little gate to the dive-brake position!. Now a Barracuda won't get airborne with dive brakes on and I ended up in the hedge at the end of the runway. No one was hurt and the aircraft was barely scratched, but I had learned a lesson.
At Burscough I managed to 'borrow' a Stinson Reliant from the Station Flight (an American aircraft like an Auster / Piper Cub etc.). I took 'Bambi' up in this from time to time and he had his first flying lessons - it was a side by side dual control aircraft with passenger seats behind. As an aside 'Bambi' obtained his private pilot's licence about 8 years ago, he now flies me about in a Cessna!.
We left Burscough for Fearn (way up in the North East of Scotland above Inverness) on 10th November 1944. I would say that by then, we were fully worked up and ready to go to sea but no, the ship wasn't ready and they had to send us somewhere. My log book shows a 3 hour flight. My memory is of cold, snowy and frosty weather, a pretty bleak airfield and no Town nearby where one could enjoy a good run ashore. We continued the usual grind - A/S Bombing, Dive Bombing, Nav. Ex's, Search and Shadow Ex's, Fighter evasion with Seafires etc. The airfield was pretty crowded, 814 and 837 Squadrons were also there - all like us, ready and waiting to join Carriers that were delayed. Peter Poole taxied into the mud and got stuck, we practiced Carrier Ranging - pretending to be on a flight deck and being flagged off in quick succession then joining formation with two other Barracuda Squadrons. It must have looked impressive.
Sadly on the 25th November 1944, we had our worst day. We were to take off on one of these Carrier Ranging exercises, it was very cold and very frosty, apart from being iced up I couldn't get my aircraft started - this meant a delay while new cartridges were installed. Meanwhile the rest of the Squadron took off and my position in the first sub-flight was empty. Hunt and Muncer both thought they would fill the slot. As far as I know no orders were given for them to do so. One came in from below and one from above (should never do this) so one aircraft just sat on top of the other. Both fell down in to Nigg Bay, five of the six crew died and Harry Saggs escaped with a broken back, apart from the two pilots both air-gunners P.O.'s Hughes and Balsam and S/L. Crosthwaite who was Sid Hunt's observer lost their lives. Of course we were all in a state of shock and disbelief.
Meanwhile back at Fearn life carried on and we all became rather bored. Exercises were repeated over and over and social life was almost non existant. Christmas came and went, the Scots New Year was a bit livelier but there was a grave shortage of Wrens. It was only the rather plain 'left overs' who offered any sort of hospitality and they were quite easy to resist. By then we were becoming a nuisance as Fearn was getting overcrowded, other Squadrons in a less advanced state of working up needed our quarters, but where to send us?. Eventually we were offered space at RAF. Ballyhalbert in Northern Ireland.
On 5th January 1945, in Squadron formation (now 18 aircraft) we flew from Fearn to Ballyhalbert. This was a forlorn and desolate spot. Cold, Snow, Ice, Sleet and Mud, damp miserable Nissan huts to sleep in - probably they hadn't been used for months. Our 'landlords' the RAF, were not at all friendly or hospitable, most of us were so cold at night we didn't bother to undress. Carrier Drill, Dive Bombing, A/S Bombing and ADDL's were the order of the day. S/L. Hodginson retracted his wheels instead of his flaps while taxying and S/L. Johnny Cookson ran off the runway into the mud and stood his aircraft on it's nose. No casualties though.
At last on the 15th January 1945, HMS. Vengeance was commissioned and it was only then that we knew for sure that she was to be 'our' ship. Some of the crews 'walked' on board on the 25th January while the rest of us (12 aircraft) flew as a Squadron to the ship sailing off the Isle of Arran where we made our first deck landings on the 26th January 1945. There were no accidents and the drinks were free in the wardroom that night. The next day I did my first deck take off and my second deck landing with full crew aboard. Remarkable!. I think the back seat boys were very brave. Those that had 'walked' aboard did their first ever deck landing with full crews!.
Johnny Cookson in my aircraft ended up half over the side on 27th January and the next day 'Poppa' Bristow did the same. No casualties, but badly bent Barracudas. On the 1st February, five aircraft flew off to Ballyhalbert to collect odds and ends left ashore. On the way back to the ship, the weather closed right down and we got split up. Flying in NIL visibility and mindful of the high ground on the Mull of Kintyre, I turned back to Ballyhalbert and two or three others did likewise. The others pressed on at sea level and squeaked into RNAS. Ayr where I joined them next day. It was a complete shambles and could have been very tragic. We were stuck at Ayr until the weather cleared and we able to fly back to the ship on the 4th February.
On 10th February S/L. Alfie Fyles tangled with the barrier while landing on but only the aircraft was hurt. At that time S/L. Jack Birch and I flew off to Ayr. For the next week we were guests of Rolls Royce in Derby where we did an engine handling course. We lived in luxury as their guests and enjoyed a good break. We were able to break our journies at Huyton, Liverpool where Jack lived and we met his Mum and Dad and a couple of his lady friends. The ship was at anchor off Greenock when we reported back on board on 17th February.
The boys from 1850 Squadron flew aboard on 25th February 1945, having previously done some deck landings on HMS. Venerable. I had lost another of my aircraft (mine were usually coded 'R') on 21st February when Ashton landed heavily on the deck and the undercarriage collapsed!. No one hurt. We were making a mess of the Barracudas, because S/L. Rushbrook (another New Zealander) flew into the barrier at night on the 1st March and three days later Lt. Charlie Wintringham (RNZNVR) with S/L. 'Shiner' Wright in the back stalled on approach and flopped into the sea astern of the ship. They were soon fished out by the guard ship.