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Commander Stan Orr DSC and 2 Bars: Fleet Air Arm Ace

28 September 1916 - 11 August 2003

Commander Stanley Gordon Orr, who has died aged 86, was one of the Fleet Air Arm's top-scoring aces of the Second World War, during which he was awarded a DSC and two Bars.

His first seagoing appointment was to 806 Naval Air Squadron, flying the two-seater Fairey Fulmar reconnaissance fighter. This was a sturdy aircraft which had a long range, but was inferior to the latest single-seat fighters.

After embarking in the carrier Illustrious and working up off Bermuda, they joined the Mediterranean Fleet and shot down more than 20 enemy aircraft during the next few months; Orr's personal score was seven (including three shared).

In December 1940 aircraft flying from Illustrious and Eagle made the Eastern Mediterranean their own, bombing the German army in North Africa and attacking German and Italian airfields. Orr was awarded his first DSC for gallant service against enemy aircraft.

He was airborne on January 10 1941 when three squadrons of General Geissler's crack Stuka divebombers attacked Illustrious. They circled the fleet at 11,000 ft, above the effective range of anti-aircraft fire, then dived down on to the carrier. This novel yet expertly performed manoeuvre was too interesting to be really frightening, according to the Commander-in-Chief Admiral Cunningham.

Orr had descended to sea level to shoot down an Italian torpedo bomber, whose attack was a diversion from the German high-level assault. Several bombs hit Illustrious, setting her on fire, and, but for Orr's desperate efforts in climbing through the fleet's anti-aircraft barrage to attack the enemy, she might not have survived.

After refuelling at Hal Far on Malta, 75 miles away, he returned to take on the Germans, who came back later in the afternoon with an escort of Messerschmitt fighters. The dogfights overhead, in which six or seven Stukas were destroyed, strengthened the fleet's morale.

For the next few weeks Orr and the surviving Fulmars of 806 took part in the defence of Malta, where he added five more kills to his record, and was awarded a second DSC.

Stanley Gordon Orr was born in west London on September 28 1916. He was educated at Paxton Park boarding school, until the Wall Street crash left his father, a stockbroker, in financial difficulties; Stan went on to Regent Street Polytechnic.

At 16 he became an apprentice at the Humber Motor Co and then at a London engineering firm which built Vale Special sports cars. When the latter went bankrupt in 1936, Orr moved to the experimental department of Handley Page, where he worked on the prototype Hampden and Halifax bombers and became fascinated by flying.

He was rejected by the RAF because of poor eyesight, and, on applying to the Navy, took the same test in the same room in Kingsway, London, and was accepted into the Fleet Air Arm.

By April 1940 Orr had completed training in southern France, and landed for the first time on the training carrier Argus,

from which he was immediately sent into action, flying a Skua (right). However, bad weather prevented him from landing on the carrier Glorious, so instead he flew to Hatston in the Orkneys to attack shipping off Norway. He then moved to Detling in Kent, where he carried out a number of sorties over the beaches of Dunkirk.

Glorious was sunk off Norway in an ill-fated meeting with the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, and over Dunkirk several of Orr's friends were shot down by RAF Spitfires which failed to recognise the naval Skuas as friendly aircraft. But Orr's luck held.

After Illustrious, and shore-based operations over Syria, Orr became an instructor, passing on his knowledge of aerial warfare. In August 1942 he crossed the Atlantic with 80 officers and naval airmen to form, largely unaided, 896 Naval Air Squadron, which was equipped with Sea Martlets at Norfolk, Virginia.

Only 26 years old himself, Orr drove his pilots hard. Leading them in tight formations under bridges, he would pour scorn on poor achievement and impart his mastery of the aerial dogfight by suddenly appearing alongside to ambush them with friendly bursts of fire.

So thorough was his training that all of his original squadron survived the war. Even the Admiralty, in a letter of commendation, was moved to mild praise, referring to the very satisfactory state of his squadron and the excellent results obtained in air firing exercises.

In a little-known instance of Anglo-American co-operation, 896 Squadron, in the carrier Victorious, joined the US Pacific Fleet. The only American carrier available in the South Pacific was the Saratoga, and although the British were themselves short of naval air power, Victorious, refitted at Norfolk Navy Yard in the winter of 1942-43, was sent as a reinforcement; she was temporarily renamed USS Robin, and her aircraft bore USN-style star markings.

However, in March 1943 Orr was prevented from joining Victorious as part of the American Pacific fleet when he was stricken with poliomyelitis. It was thought that he would never walk again, but, after 10 weeks in an iron lung, he made a complete recovery, making his way home from Pearl Harbor by steamer, train and the Queen Elizabeth.

In London Orr was reticent about what had happened to him. He had arrived ahead of his medical records, and instead of being grounded, as he feared, he was given a new command, based at Eglinton, where his former squadron pilots rejoiced to find him propping up the bar.

Orr commanded 804, newly equipped with Hellcats (left), until June 1944. He embarked in the escort carrier Emperor, first on convoy duties in the North Atlantic, then attacking shipping off the Norwegian coast.

The squadron joined No 7 Naval Fighter Wing, and Orr flew fighter cover during Operation Tungsten, the Fleet Air Arm's daring dive-bombing of the Tirpitz in Kaa Fjord, North Norway, which crippled the battleship.

One day in May 1944, Orr shot down a German seaplane and shared in the kill of two others which were landing on the water. He was awarded a third DSC for his courage, skill and determination, and mentioned in dispatches for outstanding services in Emperor.

Later that year he became a chief flying instructor, was accepted for the Empire Test Pilot School at Boscombe Down, and twice commanded the Naval Test Squadron. On the first occasion he was awarded the Air Force Cross.

On the second, as a gifted mechanic who in wartime had designed 'Orr's ring', a device to protect the Hellcat's pitch-control if it should hit its wire barrier, his squadron was awarded the Fleet Air Arm's Boyd Trophy.

When Orr retired in 1966 he had flown more than 100 types of aircraft. His last appointment was in command of the Interservice Hovercraft Trials Unit, after which he was recruited by Peter du Cane to become Vospers' chief test pilot on trials of hovercraft and fast patrol boats.

Orr has been described as one of the Fleet Air Arm's most brilliant fighter pilots. His tally of enemy aircraft shot down or otherwise destroyed stood at 17.

Orr, who died on August 11, married Myra Page in 1940. She died in 1999, and he is survived by their two sons.


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: 10 April 2021, 14:54