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Archive Report: Allied Forces

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Robert Gray VC Bust
Robert Gray VS - Canada's Naval Ace

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Robert Hampton Gray, 28 years old at the time of his death, was a courageous and respected leader of men in combat.

Hammy, a good student in high school, liked politics and literature. He was relaxed, casual in his dress and would slouch rather than sit. Gentle of countenance, he loved the ironic and enjoyed mimicking anyone, he was irreverent and liked to express mock disgust or outrage.

In the fall of 1936 he entered the University of Alberta and later transferred to the University of British Columbia for Pre-meds. At U.B.C. he was a fraternity house manager and worked on the university yearbook for 1941. Abruptly at the end of the 1940 university term he decided to enlist in the armed forces with the Royal Canadian Naval Volunteer Reserve (RCNVR) as a rating on loan to the Royal Navy as a prospective officer cadet. He was one of 150 from across Canada and by war's end, 28 had been decorated for bravery. Eighteen of these men never made it home.

Hammy sailed with the first 74 recruits to England on the 13th of September, 1940 for training at HMS Raleigh. In December, the Fleet Air Arm (FAA) offered Hammy a faster route to war with an invitation to join the FAA for pilot duties first at HMS St. Vincent, Gosport. He was to find out that the road to an officer’s commission was a long one of hard training and discipline.

In March 1941 his elementary flying training started on the open cockpit monoplane known as the Miles Magister. This was carried out at No. 24 EFTS located at Luton near London. Flying for the first time on March 21st he wrote home about his love of flying and how pleased he was with his decision to join the Fleet Air Arm.

In June of 1941, Gray was sent to Canada to complete his Service Flying Training on the Canadian built Harvard 2 trainer at No. 31 Service Flying Training School in Kingston, Ontario. He disliked what he thought was a childish emphasis on routine and discipline at this school but changed his attitude when he began to fly Fairey Battle trainers. By Sept. 1941 Hammy was commissioned as a Sub Lieutenant and graduated as a pilot – he would soon be off to war but would have to wait three long years before he saw enemy action.

He was first posted to South Africa in May of 1942 to the newly formed 789 Squadron. 789 operated Albacores, Sea Hurricanes, Swordfish and Walruses on support duties from Wingfield, South Africa. 789 Squadron was positioned there to protect against Imperial Japanese Navy fleet advances through the Pacific. After the American success at the Battle of Midway, this threat to South Africa eased and Hammy was re-assigned to Kilindini, Kenya with 795 Squadron. In Sept. 1942 Hammy was appointed to 803 Squadron flying Fulmars from Tanga and then posted to 877 Squadron.

On December 7th, Hammy’s squadron was posted to HMS Illustrious, sister ship to HMS Formidable, the ship that would later become Hammy’s final home. He was promoted to Lieutenant on December 31st 1942 and assigned to 877 Squadron flying Sea Hurricanes as second in command.

On August 6th, 1943, Hammy was posted back to England and became the senior pilot of 1841 Squadron. After four long years of training and operational flying he was finally going to see action as 1841 Squadron was assigned to HMS Formidable which was about to undertake further attacks on the Nazi battleship Tirpitz as part of Operation Goodwood.

The first Tirpitz attack, planned for Aug. 21st, was cancelled due to poor weather and aborted again on the 22nd due to heavy cloud. On the 24th, 18 Corsair ground attack aircraft along with 16 Barracuda aircraft loaded with bombs were launched along with six other Corsairs which were loaded with armour piercing bombs. German anti-aircraft gunners ashore and on the Tirpitz and on other escort vessels were ready and waiting.

Hammy, in his first combat, lead his flight of Corsairs straight down at point-blank range to suppress the anti-aircraft fire and draw it away from the slower attacking Barracudas. This attack did not succeed in sinking Tirpitz and resulted in heavy British aircraft losses.

Formidable launched another attack on the 29th with Hammy again leading a daring close-in attack while receiving a direct 40 mm hit in the rudder. He flew back to the ship and orbited for 45 minutes in a brave show of airmanship waiting his turn to land rather than disrupt the landing pattern. With his gun camera film showing extreme close-ups of the anti-aircraft guns, he was heard to say that "some dumb Canadian needed a good talking to". He was awarded a Mentioned in Despatches (MID) "for undaunted courage, skill and determination in carrying out daring attacks on the Tirpitz".

By the spring of 1945, operations in the European theatre of war were winding down after the invasion of Europe and allied success in re-occupying much of Europe. Formidable was re-assigned to operations in the Pacific and the final drive to defeat Japanese forces. At this time, 1841 and 1842 Squadrons were refitted with 20 new F4U-1D Corsairs while other squadrons aboard now flew 12 Grumman Avenger torpedo bombers and 6 Hellcat fighter aircraft.

At the end of June 1945, Formidable and four other British carriers sailed from Sydney to join the USN Third Fleet under U.S. Admiral "Bull" Halsey. As the allied fleet pushed towards the islands of Japan, they fought against Kamikaze aircraft while launching strikes on Japanese airfields, warships and other strategic military targets. Matsushima Military Airfield was a key target assigned to the aircraft of HMS Formidable.

On the night of August 8th, Admiral Vian, leader of the British forces, briefed Squadron Commanders not to take any unnecessary chances in their attacks on Japanese targets, as the atomic bomb had been dropped on Hiroshima and Japanese capitulation was expected at any time. Also, the senior officers knew but could not disclose that another A-bomb was to be dropped the following day on Nagasaki. Pilots were told to limit staffing or bombing runs to one pass to limit risks.

ROBERT GRAY VC ATTACKS

At 0835 on August 9th, Hammy Gray climbed into his aircraft and prepared to lead his flight of seven Corsairs in the attack on Matsushima airfield. At the last minute, Chief Petty Officer Dick Sweet was sent to Hammy’s waiting aircraft with an urgent message that Matsushima Military Airfield had been heavily bombed earlier and was thought to be out of commission and if so he was to seek other targets of opportunity. Hammy lead his flight to Matsushima airfield, confirmed the damage and the need to attack other targets such as Japanese ships he had seen anchored in Onagawa Bay.

Flying from the mainland side at approximately 10,000 feet Hammy turned his two flights towards Onagawa Bay to avoid anti-aircraft fire. He dove his aircraft in order to get down to sea level for the short bombing run at his chosen target. All Japanese ships in the bay were heavily armed and prepared for an air attack. Additional anti-aircraft positions dotted the surrounding hills creating a killing zone for attacking Allied aircraft.

Hammy headed for the largest ship in the harbour, the ocean escort vessel Amakusa that was about the size a small destroyer. As he leveled out for his bombing run, one of his two five-hundred pound bombs was shot away by a hail of cannon and machine gun fire from Amakusa, Minesweeper 33, the target ship Ohama (a target ship being a gunnery training vessel) and Sub Chaser 42. Hammy released his other bomb and scored a direct hit on Amakusa. This bomb penetrated her engine room instantly killing 40 sailors (including all in the engine room) and triggering an the explosion in the aft ammunition magazine. This massive explosion resulted in the sinking of Amakusa in just minutes. Hammy’s flight members then recounted seeing his aircraft enveloped in smoke and flame. They reported that his aircraft, at an altitude of only fifty feet, rolled to right into the sea in an explosion of debris and water. The aircraft was never seen again.


SY 7 May 2016

Acknowledgements: Sources used by us in compiling Archive Reports include: Bill Chorley - 'Bomber Command Losses Vols. 1-9, plus ongoing revisions', Dr. Theo E.W. Boiten and Mr. Roderick J. Mackenzie - 'Nightfighter War Diaries Vols. 1 and 2', Martin Middlebrook and Chris Everitt - 'Bomber Command War Diaries', Commonwealth War Graves Commission, Tom Kracker - Kracker Luftwaffe Archives and Fred Paradie - Paradie Archive (both on this site), Robert Gretzyngier, Wojtek Matusiak, Waldemar Wójcik and Józef Zieliński - 'Ku Czci Połeglyçh Lotnikow 1939-1945', Anna Krzystek, Tadeusz Krzystek - 'Polskie Siły Powietrzne w Wielkiej Brytanii', Norman L.R. Franks 'Fighter Command Losses', Aircrew Remembered Databases and our own archives. We are grateful for the support and encouragement of UK Imperial War Museum, Australian War Memorial, Australian National Archives, UK National Archives and Fold3 and countless dedicated friends and researchers across the world.
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