And So To War

A Sneak Peek of Heaven High, Ocean Deep


In 1944, with the invasion of Europe underway and the battles in the Atlantic all but won, the Royal Navy’s strength could now be focused on the Pacific where the Japanese were still a long way from defeat. Eager to stand toe to toe with their American cousins, the British sent the largest fleet they had ever assembled to the Far East and began an intense, bloody war of attrition against the Axis foe. This book follows the story of the aircraft carrier HMS Indomitable and her daring 5th Fighter Wing, whose actions would come to define the Pacific Fleet and its courage in the face of injury, imprisonment and death.

Below, you will find an exclusive sneak-peek of Heaven High, Ocean Deep. Here, the pilots of the Fleet Air Arm prepare to go off to war in the Pacific.

During 1943 the Fleet Air Arm began to expand at an ever-quickening pace. With six large carriers and a plethora of other ships to serve, any other course of action would have been impossible to contemplate. But with so many different types of aircraft becoming available, or already in service, the programme was a complex one to administer. In each case the pressure to produce sufficient fighters and bombers had to compete with many other pressing demands placed on manufacturers in Britain and the States. The bombing war over Germany, the Mediterranean campaign and battles in many parts of the Far East and Pacific were absorbing vast numbers of men and ever diminishing resources. As Gordon Aitken, a fighter pilot serving with 1833 Squadron put it, ‘the Fleet Air Arm had to suck on the hind tit to get even a fraction of what it needed.’

Each carrier received an eclectic mix of the best aircraft available, but it was a programme with huge uncertainties as the war fluctuated both one way then the other, causing leaders to switch their precious resources to defend or attack wherever an advantage could be exploited or disaster averted. Dominating everything were plans for the ‘second front’ in France, soon to become a reality. With so much activity and so many pressing demands the Navy slowly built up its forces, from different sources, and awaited assignments, which would inevitably be in the Indian Ocean and then the Pacific, as the Atlantic war began to die down.

For most these questions of high policy and logistics were shrouded in mystery and secrecy, so played little part in their day-to-day lives until active service beckoned. They saw the end result of these machinations with new Seafire, Corsair, Hellcat, Avenger, Barracuda and Firefly squadrons being formed, to sit beside or replace existing units that made do with aircraft many thought ‘past it’. But these new squadrons had to find bases where they could form up and exercise. In the States, with so many establishments available there were few problems. The same couldn’t be said of Britain where there were huge pressures on facilities, especially with so much activity in the crowded skies over the south and along the eastern side of the country.

For this reason, Corsair and Avenger squadrons tended to form and work up in the USA, near Chance Vought and Grumman factories, with the same thing happening in Britain with Supermarine and Faireys. Only the new Hellcat squadrons broke this mold, presumably because they were tried and tested and available in greater numbers for shipment overseas during 1943. In some ways they were regarded as a stopgap measure only. Corsairs and new marks of Seafire were seen to be the latest and most effective weapons becoming available, so would form the core of this new force. Therefore only one or two Hellcat wings were planned, though squadrons for operational service on escort carriers or for training purposes would also be formed. The 5th Fighter Wing came into existence in late 1943, for service on HMS Indomitable, a fleet carrier then undergoing refit in America. Initially it was planned that three new squadrons would make up this wing, but this was reduced to two, 1839 and 1844, when space considerations and a shortage of pilots were taken into account.

And so the posting system slowly came to life, drawing recruits from other squadrons, training establishments, home service or leave to man the new wing. For most it would be their first operational assignment, whilst many of the ‘old hands’ lacked combat experience. But there was a small hard core of very experienced men, led by Tommy Harrington and Dennis Jeram, the two new squadron commanders, to impart the important lessons they’d learnt in battle and try to get their pilots ready for action.

During the course of the war Northern Ireland had been home to many new squadrons. Here they were able to gain experience in a relatively peaceful setting and, at the same time, help protect shipping entering the Northern Approaches. Convoy and anti-submarine patrols could be tedious, but they were essential in protecting vulnerable freighters plying their essential trade to and from Britain’s western ports. Many airfields had sprung up to support these operations and one at Eglinton, near Londonderry, became home for the two new Hellcat squadrons in November 1943. Although built for the RAF it was used by both services until May 1944 when the FAA became virtually its sole user, commissioning the establishment as HMS Gannet.

Noel Mitchell, who was posted as a lieutenant to 1839 Squadron, captured the spirit of these early months in Northern Ireland:

Noel Mitchel

Some of us arrived at Eglinton on 15th November 1943. It was to our pleasurable surprise that we found Lt Cdr Jeram as our Commanding Officer – he was an excellent type.

We found a situation that had arisen many times before, in as much as we had no aeroplanes to fly. So for a week we sat on our backsides waiting for someone to ‘extract their fingers’. Eventually, after several visits from the gentlemen of Flag Officer Carrier Training’s staff to see how we were progressing we were supplied with ten new Hellcat MK1s.

After a week’s flying, just getting our hands in, we got down to some serious training. Jerry, our CO, became somewhat bad tempered as the days passed because, now that the powers that be had given us aircraft, they had not thought about supplying us with spare parts and replacements. There was also the problem of getting ‘hands’ to do the work. I, as the Squadron’s Stores Officer bore the brunt of his grievances. This in turn I put on the stores basher who immediately blamed the Station Main Stores, who in turn blamed the Admiralty, the latter blaming the Americans….

After much gnashing of teeth, we started our training, which consisted of formation and low-level flying and so on. Most of us had completed deck landing training, but needed to sharpen up our techniques according to the CO who wasn’t too impressed, so we practised Aerodrome Dummy Deck Landings (ADDLs) with Jerry batting us down, swearing vociferously when we didn’t reach his high standard. Tommy Harrington did the same for the 1844 boys when they arrived.

Both were very scornful of mistakes, but one incident with ‘Habers’ [Jack Haberfield] springs to mind that rendered them both speechless for a time. One day, with snow on the ground and a very cold wind coming off Lough Foyle, Jack came floating down after a short flight with his wheels up. It wasn’t uncommon for new pilots to do this, but he was a very old hand and should have known better. We fired red signals, waved and cursed but still he came down, waving at us, some later said ‘happily as though he didn’t have a care in the world’. In his mind I’m sure the CO was already preparing court martial papers, but shelved these thoughts temporarily when the Hellcat did a belly landing and rushed over in a jeep to extract the ‘happy’ pilot. In fact, his undercarriage had failed and his landing was a text book one. Greatly relieved we adjourned to the Wardroom for a few drinks, whilst Habers went to see the MO for a check-up.

Air firing at a 15ft sleeve towed by a specially adapted plane or into ground targets occupied a great deal of time and caused a great deal of rivalry. Some virtually went within a few feet of the towed target in their eagerness to score as many hits as possible. All targets were assessed by Wrens, but particularly those for air firing which were recorded by cameras in the firing mechanism. There was much ribbing when these were played back to us, followed by instructions, sometimes polite, on how we might improve.

After a couple of months of this we not only learnt how to do things as a team as opposed to a group of individuals, but we became much better acquainted with each other. And each lunchtime and in the evenings we would meet in the wardroom and over a glass or two would discuss the day’s flying and generally talk shop. It has always been said in the Navy that most business was done over a glass of gin, which probably accounts for it being so cheap!

Over Christmas ‘Jimmy the One’, Lt Commander Simon, 1st Lieutenant of the station, who was a great fellow organised a pretty hectic round of parties, which everyone was determined to enjoy to the full, it being the last chance we might have to do so.

With Christmas behind us we got down to more training, sometimes doing big escort exercises with 1844 Squadron, which meant instead of the usual 12 aircraft there were 24. As might be expected these exercises sometimes ended in complete chaos with aircraft flying in all directions, usually due to too many pilots giving orders and unnecessary nattering over the R/T. In fact, it is better to have no R/T than all the screaming and shouting that can go on with it.

Each Saturday afternoon we used to put on civvies and go over the border into Eire where the chief attraction was ham and eggs repeated as many times as we were able to eat. Customs were very strict on the return trip and used to stop the train every 20 minutes to make an extensive search. On one occasion Jerry, Dick Mackie, Habers, myself and some others were testing out these customs officials prior to smuggling some silk stockings, when I happened to say I had a pair. It looked as though things might get out of hand, so I tried to make clear that I’d been joking. They didn’t believe me, took me out of the carriage to the station master’s office where they stripped me naked and conducted a close search. It was a long time before we tried our hands at smuggling again.

It was on 31st January that we suffered our first casualty. Sub Lt Corkhill was killed instantly when his engine caught fire flying at low level near Ballymena and he hit a hill covered in cloud. This was indeed a tragedy which might easily have happened to any one of us.

Corkhill had been a keen duck shooter and this became a popular past time amongst the rest of us. All we had to do was wait over on the far side of the airfield just before dark and shoot them as they flew low over Lough Foyle. On one occasion when light was fast disappearing we heard a ‘swish swish’ of wings and opened up with our shot guns. Our target forced landed 30 yards away and was found to be a swan. However, nothing lost we hung it up and two weeks later it produced a fine dinner for 10 of us.

Early in 1944 we were told that our ship would be HMS Indomitable, for which everyone was thankful because she was a large carrier. This produced two trains of thought. One that going to a large fleet carrier meant we were due to go east. The other being that it didn’t matter where we went as long as we had the biggest carrier to land on. There were many varied reasons for people wanting to go east – some to fight the Japs, others to travel, some to see their girlfriends and last, but not least, our New Zealand squadron members who would be one step nearer home. Some of them had been away for two years or more.

All this led to more parties and a little less flying as we seemed to be well in advance of our programme, or so it seemed until staff people kept popping in and asking why this or that hadn’t been done.

In mid-February along came the Captain and Commander (Flying) from Indomitable. They put us in great spirits by telling us that we were well ahead of the ship and that, in all probability, we would get three weeks leave before joining her towards the end of April. All this made life extremely pleasant, but not for long. Four days later along came an Admiralty pink signal, one of those of which no one seems to know the origin, instructing us to proceed overseas.

John Hawkins, who by this time had taken up his secondary duties as ‘Records and Link Officer’ for 1844 Squadron and become its unofficial diarist, takes up the story:

Never has such a transformation been seen before. We started working like mad to get the aircraft serviceable. Stores were packed with the greatest speed and by 2 o’clock on the 25th the squadron was ready to move. Before lunch orders were given to fly all the aircraft to Belfast for embarkation on HMS Begum, Tommy Harrington added that we weren’t to do a beat up of Eglinton or the city on the way. At 16.30 the whole Wing took off and was last seen heading towards Belfast in thick cloud. Claude (Westfield) and Jacky (Ruffin) were left behind to look after the troops and stores that would travel to Belfast by train the next day. That evening the boys proceeded to get as drunk as usual., but there was no hurry to sober up the morning after because Begum couldn’t get alongside the loading jetty because of rough weather. So we stayed in Belfast at the Officers Club and had another party, which none of us will forget.

Finally, on the 27th Begum managed to get alongside and once the stores had been dealt with the loading of aircraft began. A very high wind was blowing the whole time and until the crews got used to it manoeuvring the aircraft proved difficult. However, 24 Hellcats were put down below in the hangar and then everyone started on 24 Barracudas belonging to 815 and 817 Squadrons, with five more being added later, plus four Wildcats. All of them were put in position, some with wings spread and others folded, on the flight deck.

Work went on throughout the night to get the ship ready, which allowed some of us time to get ashore for one last fling. But it would take until 2nd March for all the work to be complete and enable the ship to move outside the harbour where we dropped anchor to top up with fuel. At 5 am the next morning we set sail, with the Captain announcing over the tannoy that our destination would be Gibraltar, but gave us no further news.

A little later we rendezvoused with the rest of our convoy of ten frigates, one cruiser, HMS Nigeria, and HMS Atheling another carrier crammed full of Corsairs and more Barracudas – ‘Fred’s trick aircraft’ again. Coming up the rear were a liner of the Empress type and two ‘Kaiser’s floating coffins’ (USN escort carriers of poor repute).

As we headed south and out into the Atlantic, Beaufighters of Coastal Command provided cover throughout the day. A large swell built up which caused the ship to slow its pace, but a heavy sea mist fell which hid the convoy from prying eyes and U-boat attack, especially in the Bay of Biscay. Our passage to Gib was fairly uneventful, except for one suspected U-boat sighting which resulted in four depth charges being dropped without result. At 0130 on the 10th the Rock was spotted and into the Mediterranean we went.

And so the convoy made its way through the now calmer waters of this once very dangerous sea. With the war in North Africa over and Italy suing for peace in September 1943, there were few bases left from which the Germans could operate aircraft capable of striking well-protected shipping. There was still a chance of U-boat attack, but even that risk had diminished greatly in this confined sea, their navy seemingly focussing its boats in the Atlantic. There were alarms and counter-measures – depth charges and violent manoeuvring – yet no enemy attacked and no ships were lost.

Due to be released in February 2019, Heaven High, Ocean Deep is a seminal description of the British in the Pacific theatre. Be sure to follow us on Facebook and Twitter or sign up to our email newsletter to get the latest news straight to your inbox.

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