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Captain Val Bailey

Captain Val Bailey – last man to leave the sinking Ark Royal.
Born: October 27th 1919. Died: January 13th 2010 Age: 90

In the spring of 1942 Admiral Chuichi Nagumo’s carrier strike fleet was venturing further westwards into the Indian Ocean and British vessels were coming under increasing attack. On April 9, Bailey, attached to No 273 Squadron RAF in China Bay, Ceylon, was scrambled when, shortly after dawn, a wounded Hurricane pilot landed to report ‘large numbers of Japs around’.

Despite being a very junior lieutenant, Bailey was the most experienced pilot in No 273, and, in anticipation of meeting superior Japanese fighters, had stripped all unnecessary gear from his cockpit: parachutes were not available, which saved still more weight.

‘I took off and headed out to sea climbing all the time as I was certain I would need all the height advantage,’ he wrote afterwards. ‘I saw a ship below with steam and smoke coming out and more aeroplanes milling about than I had ever seen. The ship was Hermes, which was sinking, and I dived down to her as fast as the [Fairey] Fulmar would go, surprising some Japanese Navy 96s with a Zero or two about. As I came behind the first Navy 96 I squeezed the trigger and destroyed it. Thereafter life became chaotic. I kept the throttle fully open whilst weaving about, by now very low and more anxious to avoid a collision than find a target. However it wasn’t possible to miss a Navy 96 which appeared in front of me which I knocked bits off.’

(Left: Captain Val Bailey, sitting centre, with 886 Naval Air Squadron and the dog Piglet before D-Day)

Admiral Nagumo succeeded in sinking Hermes and her escorts, while British aircraft losses were 48 in the air and many more on the ground in Ceylon. But the determined fight by Bailey and his comrades against more than 70 torpedo bombers and their fighter escorts had shown Nagumo the risks of venturing further into the Indian Ocean. The raid marked the limits of Japanese expansion westwards.

Percival Ervine Irvine Bailey, always known as Val, was born on October 27 1919. His father served in the Indian army and later worked for Sir Arnie Lunn, the celebrated skier and mountaineer. Val was educated at Hilltop Court, Seaford, Sussex and entered Dartmouth in May 1933, where he won colours for rugby and once danced on the quarterdeck with the visiting Prince of Wales.

After the training cruiser Frobisher, Bailey served in the battleship Resolution during the Spanish Civil War, where, as a midshipman, he was given command of a motorboat to rescue British civilians from Bilbao and Santander. In the cruiser Neptune he enjoyed happy days on the South Africa station before returning to the debutante season in London, which interrupted his sub lieutenant’s courses.

This lifestyle continued even after the outbreak of war, with his appointment to the destroyer Active at Gibraltar under the command of Lieutenant Commander Errol ‘Flash Alf’ Turner. ‘He [Turner] taught me much,’ Bailey recalled, ‘some of it ship handling and a lot in shore going activities.’ Nevertheless Turner felt compelled to write to Bailey’s mother, asking her to inform her son that ‘life doesn’t start and end with some titled lady in a nightclub’.

Bailey witnessed the bombardment of the French fleet at Mers-el-Kebir, and took part in East Coast convoys, before learning to fly in Tiger Moths at RAF Eldon, Birmingham. He survived a court martial for siphoning petrol, and flew a variety of aircraft including the Hurricane (‘ of the best aircraft I ever flew’) before joining Ark Royal.

There Bailey was playing backgammon when, at about 15.30hrs. on November 13 1941, he felt a considerable explosion and Ark bounce up and down before taking on a starboard list: she had been torpedoed by Friedrich Guggenberger’s U-81.

It was an idyllic day, the sun shining and the sea flat calm, but Ark lost all power and was unable to use her pumps. Her captain ordered an evacuation and most of Ark’s people boarded destroyers. Bailey insisted on staying, though there was little he could do to help except admire the bravery of the senior engineer as he and his team tried to counter the flooding.

Accompanied by the unsettling sound of water gurgling through the drains, Bailey climbed through the darkened ship along the sloping decks to liberate a few creature comforts from the wardroom. He and his small party reached the forecastle, but Ark listed more and more until they had to move onto the ship’s side.

The gunner, who was in Bailey’s party, insisted that Ark would not capsize until listing by 36 degrees. Pointing out that she was already on her side, Bailey dragged and pushed his party down towards the sea, gave the man in front of him a shove and then flopped into the sea himself, thereby becoming the last man to leave the famous ship.

From the water he saw ‘the ship turn right over and go down bow first, effectively doing a roll off the top, which seemed very suitable for an aircraft carrier.’

While on survivor’s leave Bailey claimed to have invented the B&B [brandy and Benedictine] in the bar of Hatchetts to the music of jazz violinist Stéphane Grappelli.

By 1944 Bailey was in command of 886 Naval Air Squadron of Seafires, which was training to provide offensive sweeps and bombardment spotting on D-Day. On June 6 he flew three sorties, but the next day he was shot down by his own side, landed in a minefield, and was briefly taken captive as a German before being evacuated.

In his flying career Bailey flew 49 types of aircraft and made 273 deck landings, and claimed 2 Japanese and 2 Germans kills.

By his own account he had led the life of Riley until one Sunday in the early 1950s, when he had a vision of thunderbolts raining down as he read the Bible in church. From then on Bailey offered his thanks to God for the blessings He had conferred on His humble servant. Even so, Bailey remained a good host and raconteur. His later career included being Naval Attaché in Buenos Aires and Commodore at HMS Drake, the barracks in Plymouth.

Val Bailey, who died on January 13 2010, was married briefly during the war. In 1954 he married June Crosthwaite, who survives him with their two daughters.

Reprinted with the kind permission of the Daily Telegraph obituaries column.
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Article prepared by Barry Howard.

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 • Last Modified: 25 February 2021, 20:53