Untitled by Tom Stacey, Pilot 1850 Sqdn. HMS. Vengeance
Winter in Europe in 1944 was particulary bleak. The Allied Armies were advancing slowly on Berlin and it was colder, or at least it seemed colder than previous years. I was a Fleet Air Arm Pilot in 1850 Squadron operating from HMS. Venerable off the North West of Scotland, we were engaged in working up trials of the ship and it's two squadrons.
HMS. Venerable was the first of a number of Light Fleet Carriers the Royal Navy was building and commissioning as quickly as possible so as to increase the size of Britains contribution in the fight against Japan. 1850 Squadron (all operational squadrons were prefixed 8 or 18) was allocated to HMS. Vengeance but our ship was still going through sea trials and was not ready to take on aircraft whereas HMS. Venerable was ready but her squadrons were not.
So we spent our time taking off from the deck or being catapulted into the air then landing on again. It was dicey flying and some planes were lost as well as Pilots. One of these was Cliff Macey. Cliff and I often joked that 'Ace' was part of our surnames before we ever flew.
1850 Squadron was formed at Brunswick, Maine in the USA. It was unusual for a British squadron to be formed in the States and how this came about, is worth telling.
Before the USA entered the Second World War, Britain had pleaded with the Americans for military assistance. The Americans were sympathetic but careful of their neutrality but they did agree to provide some limited non-combatant assistance. The US Navy undertook to take 50 student pilots each month and train them as pilots. These Royal Navy men would complete all ground subjects in England, they would then travel to Canada, go by train to Windsor and there they would be formally discharged from the British Forces. As civilians they would cross into the USA and there, US Admiral Towers had them taught flying at Grosse Isle, near Detroit and after initial training on to Pensacola in Florida. After receiving their US Navy pilots wings they all crossed the border into Canada where they re-enlisted, were put into uniforms and commissioned. This course adopted its founders name and was known as the 'Towers Scheme'.
Long before I went to the USA the Americans were in the War, so we stayed in uniform the whole time. Otherwise the procedure was much the same except that after being awarded our wings we stayed longer in the USA where we did 3 months operational training on the aircraft type we were due to fly in combat. In my case this was the F4U Corsair. My 3 months were spent at Jacksonville in Florida. The Torpedo Bomber pilots did their operational training at Fort Lauderdale also in Florida.
Operational training completed, we reverted back to British control and given a 4 weeks conversion course at Lewiston in Maine. Then we all went to our new squadrons and met our Squadron Commanding Officer for the first time.
All of us spoke with a noticeable American accents and despite being commissioned British pilots none of us had flown a plane over our own country.
How we came to fly Corsair's in the first place is also worth relating. The Royal Navy needed a robust fighter, its Seafire aircraft had major drawbacks. The Seafire was a Naval version of the famous Spitfire, its impressive rate of climb and extreme manouverability were far outweighed by its narrow wheelbase and its short range. The Spitfire was designed as an interceptor fighter and the Royal Navy was looking for an escort type fighter able to land on an aircraft carrier pitching in a heavy sea and which could handle dive bombing and rocket firing etc.
The USA had one fighter for which it had only limited requirements and these were available to the British if considered suitable. I am referring to the Corsair, which was only in use by the US Marines on aerodromes close to the fighting in the Pacific. The plane the British hoped to get was the F6F Grumman Hellcat but these were all required by the US Navy to man its own aircraft carriers.
So it was the Corsair or nothing. Said to have been built as a flying test bed for the Boeing B29 Superfortress, the engine was very long with a huge 3 blade propellor, these of course were no moment for a massive 4 engined bomber but they did create problems for the designer of the single engined Corsair. For a start the propellor was so big in diameter that the wings needed to be cranked to raise the aircraft to give clearance for the propellor when taxiing.
The Corsair had a vicious stall and the pilots handbook advised pilots to bale out after 1.5 turns in a spin and not to stay in the aircraft. Now this was not considered to enhance its appeal to pilots who must bring their planes on to the deck only marginally above stalling speed. Another unloveable attribute was the Corsairs ability to bounce on landing. When the first touch down was said to be Monday, the first bounce was Tuesday and the second Wednesday etc., a good landing was anything completed earlier than Thursday.
But there was something of much greater consequence; Naval architects had designed all Royal Navy Aircraft Carriers to have 20ft. of head room on their hangar decks. And the Corsair was much taller than that for its wings folded up, and it simply would not fit.
It is said that neccessity is the mother of invention. In this case it certainly was; the British did two things. First, they reduced the pressure on the undercarriage legs, this made it sit lower, but not so low that the prop was in danger of hitting the ground, it also eliminated its extraordinary propensity to bounce. Second, they squared the wings by lopping the rounded tips. This increased its stability, made it a much more friendly aircraft to fly. In addition a 4 bladed propellor was introduced, which having a smaller diameter than the 3 bladed propellor, the aircraft was able to sit lower still.
But most important the Corsair with its wings folded now stood less than 20ft. tall. So the British got Corsairs and the Americans stayed with their Hellcats. The Corsair was faster and in other respects was a better aircraft than the Hellcat. As soon as the Americans realised this they equipped all their new squadrons with Corsairs and the British had to take Hellcats. 1850 Squadron was formed before the Americans decided to keep all the Corsairs for the US Navy.
One morning, just after first light, another Corsair and mine had taken off, we could not have been gone 10 minutes when an anxious voice called on the radio, "Red two is in the drink". Red two was piloted by a friend of mine, George Cathcart. We two were inseparable, on board we shared a cabin, went ashore together and in the States we went on leave together. I was mightily relieved a few minutes later to hear that the pilot was aboard the tender. After I had landed I went to see George to hear his story.
When his planes tail lifted on take off he was alarmed to see the plane ahead had just left the deck prior to turning to starboard. When George's plane reached the same position there was too much residual turbulence from the proceeding plane's propellor and George could not control his aircraft which dived into the sea not far ahead of our carriers bow. George went so far down that it was pitch dark before he got free of his plane and headed for the surface.
Whenever planes were operating, each Carrier had a Destroyer tender which trailed some 400 yards behind for the express purpose of picking up pilots who crashed into the sea. Observers told me that our Destroyer sent a huge cloud of black smoke into the air as its skipper called for "Full ahead both". Its sea boats already closed up and they were both lowered to collect George from the icy sea. Within 5 minutes he was aboard a boat and heading for his own ship. Some of the language George used to urge the boat crews to do better would have raised eyebrows on a stoker's messdeck.
Once aboard George was raced to the Sick Bay and put between electric blankets and given hot rum and milk. Within 25 minutes he was perspiring freely and he was discharged as fit for duty. By the time I got back George was propping up the bar and recounting his experience to all and sundry.
Some 6 months earlier I had some trouble passing an eyesight medical. The US Navy doctors intended taking me off flying. At my pleading they agreed to give me another test in two days time. George had kept watch for me when I sneaked into the Sick Bay one night and waited while I committed to memory the test card hanging on the wall. As I had a photographic memory this wasn't too difficult. You don't forget that sort of thing - that's what mates are for.
To land on or take off planes it is necessary for an aircraft carrier to head into the wind so as to reduce the length of deck required. When operating as a battle group this meant that in order to maintain their station in the fleet all the ships had to head into the wind at the same time. It is therefore quite possible for the whole fleet to be heading in exactly the opposite direction to the way it wished to go.
Intervals for planes on take off are usually about 10 seconds and landing before the introduction of angled flight decks about 30 seconds. Obviously if say 40 planes were to be landed on, then this would require the ship steaming for at least 20 minutes in precisely the opposite direction to which it would like, or 40 minutes for the ship to be back where it was before it decided to land on aircraft. This time can be increased futher if the deck is pitching and it is necessary for the batsman to wave off aircraft and send them round again. It could be that George was a victim of excessive zeal to reduce the time of getting planes airborne.
When the Japanese surrendered, George and I were aboard Vengeance at Leyte in the Phillippines. Vengeance was sent to Hong Kong and we covered the entrance of the Royal Navy ships into Victoria Harbour. We spent about 4 months on shore at Kai-Tak airfield before leaving for Sydney just after Christmas 1945. Vengeance was diverted to Labuan in Borneo where we picked up 400 Australian soldiers for repatriation. We also dropped off George who had developed an appendicitis and was being flown to Sydney so that the operation could be handled at a shore Hospital.
The day the ship arrived in Sydney, 1850 Squadron was flown off and transfered to Schofields. As soon as possible I set out to visit my friend George who was recovering from his operation which had been carried out by RAAF surgeons at Herne Bay.
When I first saw George I was agreeably surprised how well he looked, but I was staggered by the news that he was to be invalided out of the Royal Navy. I recall saying, "George, I've never heard of anyone being tossed out because they had an appendix operation". George smiled, "And neither have I, they are bowler hatting me because I've been having fits. When I was ill in bed one of the nurses saw me having one and reported it to the doctors. So thats it for me".
George had been taking fits ever since he crashed into the North Atlantic and he had flown one of the fastest seaborne fighters, for a year since. He knew he was having fits but told no-one, lest he be taken off flying and no-one aboard Vengeance was aware of his problem.
My friend George died about 2 years after the end of the War, I was told his death was a direct result of his immersion in the freezing waters off Scotland. He was 23 years old.