We sailed for Gibraltar on 12th March 1945, before that we had the odd day at Ayr and I flew a couple of trips to Abbotsinch (Glasgow) probably collecting replacement aircraft. On the way to Gibraltar there was a U-boat scare and we flew the odd A/S patrol (operational at last). Nothing was seen but believe it or not this qualified us for the Atlantic Star service medal. We did not go ashore in Gibraltar but soon passed into the Mediterranean where on the 20th March we flew off the ship to Hal Far, Malta.
On 24th March, 'Jock' Balfour damaged his undercarriage doing ADDL's. Night Dive Bombing and night A/S Bombing on towed targets by the light of flares were new games and good fun, otherwise we practiced laying mines in Tripoli harbour and on Lampedusa Island. We dropped bombs on Filfla rock which we were assured was uninhabited. On 3rd April S/L. Hodginson's engine failed and he ditched into a calm sea. He and S/L. 'Dicky' Boston were soon picked up by the Air Sea Rescue launch, a bit wet but unhurt - but one less Barracuda remained. Two days earlier, on Easter Sunday, Jack Birch, Bill Broad, 'Bambi' Brook and I went to the Malta Opera House in Sliema. We saw 'Madame Butterfly' and it was magnificent, my first experience of opera.
In less than a week tragedy struck again. On 6th April S/L. Bardner one of our Corsair pilots bailed out some way off the coast after his engine failed. His parachute was seen to open and the position was pretty well marked. During the day we flew off searches feeling pretty certain that we would see him in his dinghy but no one did. I think we all volunteered to fly again that night hoping to see some signal flares from the dinghy. The sea was quite calm and it was a cloudless night. I took off at about the same time as Jack Birch and we were to fly diverging courses to the search area. No more was ever heard of Jack and his crew, S/L. Dave Robins and P.O. Hamill. No wreckage was ever seen, no one knew what caused the accident and the Corsair pilot was never found either.
A few new crews had joined the Squadron just before we left the U.K. and now we picked up three more. At the same time a few 'old hands' departed the scene notably 'Blood' Wallace our second Senior Observer. At about this time there was some disquiet over the structual strength of the Barracuda (metal fatigue?). Apart from ours there had been other unexplained crashes so, in rotation, our aircraft were withdrawn and where necessary, the wing spars and cross sections were strengthened. There were also rumours that we should re-equip with Avengers but I doubt if this was ever an option as there were none to spare and the light fleet carriers were not designed to operate these larger and heavier aircraft.
On 1st May 1945 I suffered my one and only deck landing accident. After taking off from the ship my throttle lever jammed (later discovered to be a linkage problem) which meant I could not fully close the throttle which would lead to a fast approach. At the same time Geoff's gunner's hood had jammed open and this would make the control difficult at low speeds. The deck declared a full emergency and we nearly got away with it. We caught the last (8th wire) and the barrier operator didn't quite get it lowered in time. The prop hit the barrier but there was no other damage. It couldn't have been too bad because I flew the same aircraft three days later. It was a night take off, off the accelerator and this time the wheels would not come up so we did a quick 'about turn' and landed back on before the ship turned out of wind. All this happened in my own aircraft coded 'N1R'. About a week earlier we were a bit upset with Les Terry who was not my best chum anyway. Taking off the deck one night he flew the aircraft immediately ahead of me. He failed to obey the rules i.e. turn smartly starboard on leaving the deck to clear the prop wash from the chap already on his way up the deck behind. When I went off the front end I had virtually no control and we rolled to starboard and slipped below deck level. Instinct and deliverance from on high gave me the strength to kick on full left rudder and somehow we missed the wave tops and staggered into the air. 'Bambi', Geoff and I thought Terry should pay our laundry bills for soiled underwear but he seemed quite unconcerned.
'Poppa' Bristow had a new routine on the 4th May, instead of his usual landing to port, where the batsman had to take smart evasive action, he thought he'd give the starboard side his attention. Unfortunately, he landed a 'bit long' and clobbered the crane with his wing tip. Not much damage but I think the crane came off best.
8th May 1945, V.E. Day the ship was in Grand Harbour and looked well with all the lights blazing. There was a party in the Sliema Club and we had a couple of days sailing and swimming. It was great to hear all the church bells ringing across the Island. In retrospect I think our celebrations were a bit subdued, probably because we knew any action that might involve us was further East and we did not know how long that would last. Our War was not yet over.
One morning we were up at first light and boarded an Italian destroyer (now our allies) in Grand Harbour. Off we went to Sicily where we enjoyed a week's leave in Taormina. We were billeted in the San Domenico Hotel - a posh place - it had been Nazi General Kesselring's H.Q. The Italian currency was worthless so all goods and services were paid for in cigarettes. We had a free issue of 20 a day at the hotel and had each bought 2000 duty frees from the ship. It was the only time I've been a millionaire in terms of spending power!. The Air Gunners did not have the same access to cigarettes so they decided to flog off some of their flying kit. One chap went so far as to sell his Irvine jacket as a result of which he became 'wealthier' than all of us put together. We swam and sunbathed all day - ate Italian ice-cream and danced all night on the terrace of the Bristol Hotel, all quite magical with the moonlight on the snowy slopes of Mount Etna in the background.
Back on board, we left Malta on 22nd May 1945, eastwards through the Med to Port Said. A couple of days ashore in Alexandria, where we went to the Alexandria Sporting Club and lost our money at the race track. The jockeys were so strong in the arm they could stop the most fiery nag from ever getting ahead of the field!. Sticky cream cakes and strawberries at Pastroudi's, I doubt this place ever knew there was a War on!. Lots of little boys had sisters anxious to meet us, but we were able to resist!, all the sisters seem to be called Cleopatra - I think she must have been very busy and lucky to have so many little brothers.
Down through the Suez Canal leaving Aden off to port after we had gone down the Red Sea. They said it got up to 140 degrees in the engine room and the lads down there could only work half hour watches. We had a flight deck engineer officer known as 'Snowdrop' because he was always so pale. The poor chap died in the heat and I remember his funeral off the quarterdeck, this took place within a few hours of his death - the first time I'd seen a burial at sea.
On the 9th June we arrived off Ceylon (Sri-Lanka now), we were accelerated off the deck very early and landed at Trincomalee on the North East coast where we had breakfast. The climate here is DRY and HOT. We were soon airborne again and flew South West across the Island to RNAS. Katukurunda (a fair way South of Colombo but on the coast) We flew through a tropical storm en route - it was violently turbulent and a miracle that we stayed in formation. On this side of Ceylon the climate is HOT, STICKY, HUMID and HORRIBLE! and we were here for a month. We didn't do too much flying while we were there but were fitted with R.A.T.O.G. (rocket assisted take-off gear). Lots of smoke and sparks but not terribly efficient, the idea was to boost us off the deck with a useful load in the prevailing high temperatures.
I guess it was about this time that our future was again in doubt. There were rumours of 'Vengeance', 'Venerable', 'Colossus' and 'Glory' joining the East Indies Fleet ready for the invasions of Rangoon and Singapore. Bearing in mind the poor performance of Barracudas in these climates, a year or two earlier it wasn't surprising we weren't wanted. It was obvious that our role was changing and we shed a few more aircrew notably my Observer 'Bambi' Brook, Bill Broad and Joe Spencer. On the 4th July we flew all aircraft back on board and after a day or two in Colombo, round to China Bay and then we sailed for Australia on 7th July 1945.
On the 11th July when we were half way across the Indian Ocean we took off with R.A.T.O.G. covering all and sundry with smoke and sparks. We did a mock attack on the Cocos Islands while the Corsair boys practised their photo-reconnaisance skills taking pictures of the native girls on the beaches. Two days later we practised dive bombing with long-range fuel tanks attached.
The ship anchored off Freemantle on 16th July but we didn't go ashore. I thought our first sight of Australia looked a bit woebegone. On through the Australian Bight. At first light on 22nd July while still miles out at sea we could smell the eucalyptus and gum trees, a wonderful change and the promise of happier days ashore.
22nd July 1945 we flew off to Jervis Bay, about 80 miles South of Sydney. This was an R.A.A.F. airstrip taken over by the Navy and commissioned as HMS. Nabswick - otherwise MONAB 5 (Mobile Naval Air Base). A magnificent breakfast was served in the Links Hotel on the edge of the airfield. I remember steak, eggs and kidneys all served by pretty 'Ossie' girls. There was no proper accomodation on the airfield so we were overjoyed to be billeted at the Hotel. We had left three aircraft behind when we flew off and by the time the ship anchored in the Bay that afternoon they were mended and the Captain did not want them cluttering up his deck. Three of us were taken by launch back on board and told to fly them off. It seemed the Captain had no thought of raising the anchor and steaming out to give us a fair wind over the deck, instead we were told we could be boosted off while the ship stayed firmly at anchor. This did not seem a good idea to me particularly as I had drawn the short straw and was due off first. Johnny Cookson and 'Robbie' Burns thought they could reasonably refuse if they saw me swimming! Anyway, they wound the catapult up to the over boost notch and off I went well blacked out. By the time I opened my eyes I was over the edge of the airfield so I just landed never having retracted the undercarriage. It must have been the shortest recorded flight since the Wright Brothers in 1903. Flying was very spasmodic, mainly consisting of ferrying old (to) and new aircraft (from) the holding pool at Bankstown on the outskirts of Sydney. I marvelled at the rows and rows of brand new aircraft from the States all pristine in the midnight blue paint finish of the British Pacific Fleet, shining in the warm sunshine. These were Hellcats, Corsairs and Avengers. The Barracudas were to be found almost out of sight in the rear rank!.
The ship was in dock in Sydney having new anti-aircraft guns fitted and we all had a weeks leave, we lived on board and sampled the delights of the beaches and City as we pleased. On the 8th August 1945, I was on a train going back to Jervis Bay when I saw newspaper headlines about the Atomic Bomb on Hiroshima two days earlier. The next day the second bomb dropped on Nagasaki. The War ended on the 15th August 1945 and the World was at peace.
So there we were, probably the most worked up and highly trained Squadron never to have fired a shot in anger. This had been achieved over an intense fourteen and a half months period and sadly 10 of our good chums did not live to see the day and Harry Saggs had a broken back. Of much less importance we had ditched, wrecked or at least, heavily damaged at least twice that number of His Majesty's aircraft.
I recollect a strange sense of bewilderment that it had all ended so quickly and on a personal note, I was confronted with the stark fact that I had a future and what was I going to do with it?. Up to then, most of us had given this situation no thought and I don't remember any conversations on the subject.
But for the Atomic Bombs, the invasion of mainland Japan would have taken place in November 1945 and I expect we would have been in support. We would have needed to operate from fairly close to the coast due to our limited range. I guess we would have been attacking land targets. If the Kamikazes had still been operating the Light Fleet Carriers might not have done so well as we did not have heavily armoured decks like our big carriers.
I also read that because the Yanks did not want us in their theatre of operations, we would have gone back to the East Indies to support the invasion of Malaya. I wonder if there was a definitive answer?.