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Archive Report: Allied Forces

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815 Squadron FAA Crest
28.10.1958 No. 815 Naval Air Squadron Whirlwind HAS.7 XL869 Lt. Brian Evans

Operation: Anti Submarine Training/Exercise

Date: 28th October 1958 (Tuesday afternoon)

Unit: No. 815 Naval Air Squadron (NAS) Fleet Air Arm

Type: Westland Whirlwind HAS.7

Serial: XL869

Code: WA/219

Base: Royal Navy Air Station Eglinton, Northern Ireland

Location: 1 mile north of Portrush, Northern Ireland


Lt. John Michael Shrives - Pilot - Survived - rescued

Lt. Geoffrey William Marshal Thompson - Observer/Sonar Operator - Survived - rescued

Lt. Brian Peter John Evans - Observer/Specialist Equipment - killed


The seas to the North of Ireland were vital seaways for the British in 2 World Wars. Under persistent attack from German U-boat packs, convoys coming from the US and Canada were funneled into this channel en route to the major industrial ports on the Clyde and the Mersey. There's no doubt that had the Germans strangled this route, Britain would not have been able to carry on the war.

Post-war the enemy had changed, and was now the USSR, but the vital nature of the channel remained a preoccupation, almost an obsession, for British military strategy. Effective anti-submarine measures were constantly improved along with coordination between RAF and Royal Navy assets, including the use by the Navy of sophisticated helicopter techniques.

Consequently, the despatch in mid-1958 to the Northern Ireland base of RNAS Eglinton, close to Londonderry, of the elite Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm anti-submarine 815 Naval Air Squadron - flying off HMS Bulwark - using its brand-new and advanced Westland Whirlwind helicopters - was a key deployment in the overall strategy against the threat from the USSR.

To accomplish its mission the Royal Navy depended on the quality and reliability of its equipment as much as the skill, training and persistence of its personnel.

It was to this mission that Lt. Brian Evans (left) was committed and in which he paid the ultimate sacrifice.

In terms of equipment, in 1950 Westland Aircraft was already building the American Sikorsky S-51 under license as the Westland Dragonfly, and decided to purchase the rights to manufacture and sell Sikorsky's larger Sikorsky S-55 helicopter for the Royal Navy anti-submarine role. While a Sikorsky-built pattern aircraft was flown by Westland as early as June 1951, converting the design to meet British standards (including the provision of a revised main-rotor gearbox), was time consuming, and the first prototype British aircraft, now named the Whirlwind, registered as G-AMJT and powered by the American 600 hp Pratt & Whitney R-1340-40 Wasp engine did not fly until August 1953. This was followed by ten Whirlwind HAR.1s, which entered service shortly afterwards. They served in non-combat roles, including search and rescue and communications functions. The later HAR.3 model had a larger 700 hp Wright R-1300-3 Cyclone 7 engine.

The performance of early versions was limited by the power of the American Wasp or Cyclone engines, and in 1955, the Whirlwind HAR.5 was introduced to service, powered by an uprated engine designed and built in Britain, the Alvis Leonides Major.

This was followed by the similarly powered HAS.7 (shown right), which became the first British helicopter designed for anti-submarine warfare in the front-line when it entered service in 1957. A sliding door for crew access can be clearly seen. This would play a crucial role as the accident of XL869 unfolded. The HAS.7 could either be equipped with a dipping Sonar for submarine detection or carry a torpedo, but could not carry both simultaneously, so sonar equipped 'Hunters' were used to direct torpedo armed 'Killers'. The HAS.7 was powered by a 750 hp (560 kW) Alvis Leonides Major 755/1 radial engine. It had a hovering ceiling at 9,400 ft (2,900 m) and a range of 334 miles at 86 mph.

Equipped with their new Whirlwind HAS.7 helicopters, 815's crews worked tirelessly to improve their skills to thereby deny any potential enemy control over the coastal seas leading into mainland Britain.

Operating in Hunter-Killer pairs requires considerable coordination between the participants which can only come with long practice, particularly in the adverse weather conditions of the North Atlantic where visibility is limited and strong winds and sea currents make accurate submarine tracking difficult.

Just such an exercise was underway in participation with other NATO nations including the Royal Dutch Navy when this accident occurred.

The basic reason for the accident was that the Alvis Leonides Major engine had been plagued from the outset by unreliability. So persistent were the problems that crew confidence in their craft must have been seriously undermined.

Indeed, their worst fears were realized when Whirlwind XK934 from a sister squadron, 820 Naval Air Squadron, ditched into Lough Foyle after engine failure on 7 May 1958. Unfortunately, the helicopter was not recovered, and therefore a thorough understanding of what caused the failure could not be determined, but at least the crew was safely picked up on this occasion, by HMS Zest.

Then, on 21 October 1958 a sister craft of Lt. Evans' helicopter, 815 Naval Air Squadron Whirlwind XL877, piloted by Lt. John Shrives ditched into the sea 10 miles off Inishowan Head, County Donegal, Northern Ireland after a devastating and complete loss of directional control while coming to a hover. The crew of Lt. Shrives, Lt. I.A.C. Cobbold and Lt. T.R. Coombes were extremely fortunate to survive this and were rescued just 15 minutes after ditching from the dinghies into which they had scrambled by the Dutch submarine HNLMS Zeeleeuw (Sealion), operating as part of the major exercise underway to the North.

Tragically, just one week later, Whirlwind XL869, remarkably being flown by the same officer who had previously ditched into Lough Foyle, Lt. Shrives, but now with Lt. Brian Evans and Lt. Geoff Thompson onboard, was not so fortunate. This time yet another failure resulting from overheating led to the craft plunging into the ocean just a short mile off Portrush, with fatal consequences.

The experienced pilot - Lt. Shrives - said at the inquest in late November 1958 that during the afternoon of October 28 1958 his craft was on anti-submarine training exercises with himself in command and Lt. Brian Evans and Lt. Geoff Thompson onboard as observers and operators of the specialized equipment being carried. The Whirlwind was towing an Asdic Repeater Target.

Some 3 or 4 miles off Portrush the engine began to overheat and he immediately lifted from the hover, which required the engine to provide considerable power, and set a course for Magilligan, where the nearest landing base was located. About 2 miles out the engine began to overheat badly, progressively losing power, and he made the decision they would not be able to reach Magilligan and therefore changed course for Portrush where he knew a RNLI Lifeboat Station was located.

He had been able to transmit Mayday distress calls as soon as the initial problem surfaced and by the time he reached the terminal phase of this flight, a fixed wing Fairey Gannet aircraft was overhead and Lt. Holcroft, flying another Whirlwind was also at the scene of the ditching. Lt. Holcroft was able to direct a Search And Rescue Dragonfly helicopter to the location, both the Gannet and the Dragonfly having been despatched from RNAS Eglinton when the first distress call had been made. The Navy was therefore in a position before impact to know precisely its location and had resources on hand to effect an immediate rescue of the crew in the form of the Search And Rescue Dragonfly. Additionally, surface vessels, including the RNLI Lifeboat from Portrush, were already heading at full speed to the scene, guided by the circling Gannet.

About a mile from Portrush the helicopter was only a few feet above the wavetops and after sending a final Mayday Lt. Shrives ditched into the ocean.

Lt. Shrives said that as the craft entered the water, he released his safety harness and made a rapid exit by pulling himself through the window and he then swam clear. He fully expected to see his observers follow him, but when he didn't see them, he swam back towards the helicopter and shortly thereafter Lt. Thompson surfaced beside the craft.

Lt. Thompson said that about 2 minutes before the craft struck the water, he saw Lt. Evans slide the door back in preparation for ditching, but as the craft hit the water he heard the door slam shut again as a result of the impact, which most probably indicates the craft still had some forward motion rather than settling horizontally into the water. Water rapidly filled the cabin and within seconds rose above his head. He saw the light of the window above him and pulled himself towards it and climbed out. The last time he saw Lt. Evans he - Evans - was swimming about the cabin. The craft sank in less than a minute after this last sighting. It may have been that Lt. Evans had been stunned by the impact and could not orient himself in time to effect his escape.

The Dragonfly Search And Rescue helicopter managed to winch up one of the survivors and flew him to the nearest shore, where he was picked up by Lt. Holcroft's Whirlwind and flown onto RNAS Eglinton. The Dragonfly then returned for the other survivor and flew him direct to Eglinton. The RNLI Lifeboat from Portrush had also arrived on scene, and two Gannet aircraft homed two destroyers and a Seaward Defence Boat to the scene but despite every effort in an extensive area search that lasted all night, Lt. Evans was not found. He was presumed to be still inside the helicopter.

Dragonfly using winch-man to effect a rescue at sea.

Subsequent attempts by the Royal Navy to locate the craft met with success on November 17 1958 when HMS Shalford from the 31st Minesweeping Squadron located XL869 and buoyed it.

On November 21 1958, HMS Barbecue managed to winch the Whirlwind to the surface, along with the body of Lt. Evans and it was taken to Londonderry and thence to Eglinton.

Careful handling was required in order to conduct the recovery whilst paying full respect to Lt. Evans.

Boom defence vessel HMS Barbecue (L) and Minesweeper HMS Shalford (R)

At the inquest, medical evidence was given by Surgeon-Lieutenant B.A.A. Philips from RNAS Eglinton that in his opinion death was due to drowning. Identification had been provided by Commander H.J. Lambert MBE DSM, Staff Officer of 815 Squadron.

The Coroner, Dr. M.F. Leslie O.St.J, expressed sympathy with the relatives of the deceased and with the members and personnel of RNAS Eglinton who had lost a respected colleague:

"To many of us around these shores the helicopters are a means of saving lives. The job of the people who manned them was a dangerous one, and this unfortunate accident brought home to us the great sacrifice the members of the crews made in carrying out their work. I am not only speaking for myself, but also for the entire community."

The Foreman of the Jury and those appearing for the Admiralty asked to be associated with these remarks.

In December 1958 all 815 Squadron HAS.7 Whirlwinds were replaced by the earlier HAS.3 model while the HAS.7s were sent 'to be fixed' at the Royal Naval Aircraft Repair Yard at Fleetlands, near Foxbury Point on the opposite bank from the Naval Dockyard at Portsmouth. Crew morale at 815 could not have been improved, however, as at least 3 of the supposedly more reliable HAS.3s were themselves ditched in Portland Harbour after engine failures.

Such were the perils facing Royal Navy anti-submarine helicopter crews in those days.

Eventually 815 Squadron moved to nearby RNAS Culdrose and were re-equipped with a 'rectified' HAS.7 fleet until it disbanded in December 1960. Royal Naval Air Station Culdrose is the Royal Navy airbase near Helston on the Lizard Peninsula of Cornwall UK, and is the largest helicopter base in Europe (as of 2018). Its main role these days is serving the Fleet Air Arm's front line Sea King and Merlin helicopter squadrons

A line of six Westland Whirlwind HAS.7 helicopters of No 815 Squadron
flying in formation over the sea near RNAS Culdrose, Cornwall in 1959

Brian Evans was born in 1933 in Newton Abbot in Devon. He joined the Navy as a Cadet in 1952. In time he was posted to 815 Squadron aboard the carrier HMS Bulwark. Navy squadrons regularly deploy from their ships to land bases, as did 815 to RNAS Eglinton in 1958.

He married Joyce Adeline Evans (nee Trace) and at the time of his deployment to RNAS Eglinton lived with her at Argus Camp in County Derry together with their two very young children.

In the afternoon of November 25 1958, Lt. Evans was laid to rest in the beautiful Saint Canice's Churchyard, Eglinton, County Londonderry, situated nearby the former RNAS Eglinton, now City of Derry Airport.

Saint Canice Churchyard, Eglinton (photos courtesy John McClenaghan)

Lt. John Shrives was promoted to Lt. Commander in due course and went on to command 829 Naval Air Squadron. Lt. Geoff Thompson went on to become an Instructor on 705 Naval Air Squadron.

An almost identical Whirlwind HAS.7 helicopter to the one flown by Lt. Shrives and his crew is to be found today (2018) in the Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm Museum at RNAS Yeovilton (known as HMS Heron).

Note on Helicopter Engine Failure and Recovery: Auto-Rotation:

Helicopters suffering from engine failure have an obvious problem since the only thing keeping a helicopter aloft is the lift being generated from the rotor blades - there are no wings as on an aircraft and therefore no opportunity to glide - thus, engine failure means no rotor rotation and hence no lift with the catastrophic result the helicopter instantly falls. Pilots are trained to utilize a technique known as auto-rotation to handle this. Upon engine failure, the pilot must instantly put the craft into a nose-down condition in order for forward momentum to be obtained (or maintained) which can be translated into rotational energy at the appropriate time, sufficient to turn the rotor and hence provide lift, even though the engine will no longer be rotating the blades. This energy transfer should provide enough lift to cushion the fall of the craft, hopefully resulting in a softer landing than would otherwise occur. Auto-rotation is a very precise manoeuvre, requiring the pilot to pull the nose up and thereby arrest the dive into the ground, just before impact but early enough to allow the transfer of energy to occur to dramatically slow the descent and thus permit the craft to reach the ground effectively in a hover. Performed correctly the helicopter will land safely though often with a harder arrival than normal.

But Navy helicopters operating in the anti-submarine role were usually flown at heights too low for auto-rotation to be effective. An engine failure would therefore normally plunge the craft to the surface in seconds.

Researched for and dedicated to the relatives of this officer with thanks to sources as quoted below:

Gavin Bamford ( for advice), Kate Brett (RN), Dr. Stuart Blank (Military Archive Research), Richard Hargreaves (Navy News), PRONI, MOD, Dr. Jane Harrold (Britannia Museum), Lt Cdr Malcolm Tennant RN (Retd) Curatorial Volunteer Fleet Air Arm Museum, Natalie Conboy (Old Royal Navy College), Michael Shrives (son of the pilot), Kate Tame (Senior Editor) and Roy Wilcock (Senior Editor) of Aircrew Remembered, Kelvin Youngs (Director of Aircrew Remembered) and the Aircrew Remembered Archives.

KTY and SY - 03.01.2018

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