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Those Magnificent Men In Their Flying Machines

Since the inception of British military aviation in 1909 there has been an almost unbroken chain of Royal Marines Officers who have not only deigned to soldier on land and sea, but also from the air. This story of Royal Marines flying is by no means comprehensive but I hope it does give an idea of the contribution which members of the Royal Marines have made to aviation in war and peace, and it also expands on some of the more colourful personalities and incidents.

Early Days

As early as 1909 the Royal Navy was becoming enthusiastic about the possibility of aerial observation for the Fleet and an air section was formed at the Admiralty. Two years later the first four naval pilots were trained at the Royal Aero Club’s airfield at Eastchurch. Royal Marines Light Infantry Lieutenant E L GERRARD was one of the four. GERRARD received his pilot’s certificate in April 1911 and was later appointed to the staff of the Central Flying School at Upavon on the formation of the Royal Flying Corps in May 1912. He had a distinguished flying career and transferred to the Royal Air Force on its formation in April 1918 to retire as an Air Commodore.

The next Royal Marines Officer to fly was G V WILDMAN LUSHINGTON. Having qualified as a pilot in 1911 he became Winston Churchill’s flying instructor. He was considered to be a very fine pilot but was tragically killed in 1915. By the outbreak of the First World War on August 4 th 1914, a further ten Royal Marines Officers had completed their flying training. Most of them were serving with the Naval Wing of the Royal Flying Corps in the Royal Naval Air Stations which had been established at Grain, Calshot, Felixstowe, Yarmouth and Crometry in 1912 and 1913. The task of these stations was costal defence.

First World War

During the First World War the Royal Flying Corps split into two separate entities; one naval the other military. In July 1915 the Admiralty unilaterally declared independence and formed the Royal Naval Air Service despite the fact that Churchill, then First Sea Lord, expressed strong views on the need for unity in the Air Services. At this time the Royal Naval Air Service was equipped with mainly bombers. The Royal Flying Corps was divided into Corps and Army Squadrons. The main task of the former was artillery observation while the latter were equipped with fighters and a few tactical bombers.

On the outbreak of World War I the first naval air objective were the German Zeppelin sheds. Two Royal Marines won DSOs for such raids. Lieutenant C H COLLETT, the first Royal Marine to go into action in the Kaiser’s War was awarded his for the part he played in the raid on Düsseldorf on 22 nd September 1914. The second was won by Captain C F KILNER for the raid on Cuxhaven on Christmas Day of the same year.

On 24 th March Captain I T COURTNEY took part in a daring raid on a number of German submarines being constructed near Antwerp. From his base at Dunkirk he succeeded in flying his 80 horsepower AVW biplane the 250 miles to the objective, where, diving low to avoid enemy fire, he successfully despatched four bombs onto the target. Surviving the war he transferred to the RAF and retired with the rank of Group Captain.

Lieutenant COLLETT, mentioned earlier for his raid on the Düsseldorf Zeppelin sheds, was sent to Tenedos in March 1915 as part of No 3 Aeroplane Squadron RNAS to support the Dardanelles campaign. The main aviation duties were bombardment spotting for the Royal Navy. Unfortunately Lt COLLETT was later killed when he had an engine failure on take off and his plane crashed and burnt out. He was known as the Marine with the photographic memory, so accurate that he could play chess blindfolded.

A most original character who is worthy of note is the late Colonel T H ORDE-LEES OBE AFC. On the outbreak of the First World War he was given leave of absence to join Sir Ernest Shackleton’s expedition to the Antarctic. On his return he was seconded to the RFC where he applied his personal courage and great powers of invention in demonstrating new methods of parachute jumping. At the time it was not compulsory for pilots to carry parachutes. Despite official inertia and scepticism he was determined that pilots should have parachutes. To this end he demonstrated the virtues of an improved parachute by making spectacular jumps himself from Tower Bridge and elsewhere. After a long campaign of persuasion, the authorities were finally convinced and ORDE-LEES was awarded the AFC in 1919. ORDE-LEES and A C MORFORD were the only Royal Marines Officers seconded to the RFC during the Kaiser’s War to carry out purely military as opposed to Naval flying. MORFORD, whose reckless flying became legendary, returned to the Marines in 1918.

By the end of the Great War, about twenty Marines Officers had successfully trained as pilots. On April 1 st 1918, the RNAS and the RFC amalgamated to form the Royal Air Force. The formation of the RAF was welcomed by the RNAS although it is fashionable to deny it now. The pilots who survived the war were faced with the decision to either join the RAF or give up flying and return to the Marines. About fifty percent opted to continue flying, many of whom reached eminent positions in the RAF. Majors E L GERRARD and R GORDON both retired as Air Commodores; Colonel F H SYKES became Chief of Air Staff in 1919. J H D’ALBIAC was however by far the most distinguished flying RM Officer of this era. He gained a DSO as an observer with the RNAS at Dunkirk in June 1916 and joined the RAF on its formation. He went on to command RAF Greece in 1941 during Wavell’s campaign. He retired in 1947 as Air Marshall Sir John D’ALBIAC to become Commandant of London’s Heathrow Airport.

Between The Wars

After the formation of the RAF the were initially no opportunities for RM Officers to fly. However after the Trenchard-Keyes agreement of 1924, Royal Navy and Royal Marines personnel were permitted to be seconded to the ‘Fleet Air Arm’, the new name given to the Air Force contingents serving with Royal Navy units. Over twenty RM officers took advantage of the opportunity to become pilots between the wars. A number chose to transfer to the RAF after their secondment so that they could continue to fly. It was not until 1937 that the Royal Navy finally gained full administrative control of the Fleet Air Arm.

In this period some RM and RN pilots held RAF commissions in addition. Among this number figured officers such as J L MOULTON (who became a Major-General), P NORTH, N SKENE, and G MARTIN. Later on, after a gap, other officers were trained such as F BIRD, R T PARTRIDGE, O PATCH and R C HAY.

During this period one of the most notable achievements attributed to a Royal Marines Pilot was when Owen CATCHART-JONES made the first ever night deck landing onto HMS Courageous in his Flycatcher fighter aircraft in 1928.

Second World War

During World War Two, twenty six Royal Marines Officers and four other ranks are known to have served as pilots with the Fleet Air Arm. Three of these officers, A E MARSH, A J WRIGHT and R C HAY qualified to wear the Battle of Britain Bar. Royal Marines pilots operated from aircraft Carriers in the Far East, Pacific, Mediterranean, and the Atlantic, flying a large range of aircraft from the Walrus to Hurricane. Those RM officers who had qualified as pilots in the 1920s and early 1930s, and had wanted to continue to fly, had transferred to the RAF – one such officer was H M A DAY.

H M A DAY was appointed as a probationary Second Lieutenant in the Royal Marines Light Infantry in 1916. In 1924 he was seconded to the Fleet Air Arm and trained at Netheravon. He subsequently transferred to the RAF and was serving in 23 (Fighter) Squadron at Kenley in 1929. He led the synchronised aerobatic team at the first Hendon Air Shows. On October 13 th 1939 his Blenheim was shot down by three ME 109s over Germany. The crew were killed but he was taken prisoner and incarcerated in Spanenburg Castle. During his time as a POW he escaped eight times and helped to organise the Great Escape at Stalag Luft III were 83 men got out. He was one of the few to survive the escape as fifty of those recaptures were executed on the orders of Himmler. DAY himself was recaptured after four days and interred in Sachsenhausen Concerntration Camp. He was subsequently moved to the Extermination Camp at Flossenburg from which he escaped to Northern Italy two days before the armistice. Having been taken prisoner on 13 th October 1939 he regained his liberty on 13 th May 1945.

Just as the first Marine to go into action in the First World War was a pilot, so Lieutenant Guy GRIFFITHS RM, flying his Skua from HMS Ark Royal was the first in World War Two. While attacking a German U-Boat in the Atlantic in September 1939, he was brought down by splinters from his own bombs. He escaped from his aircraft in which he was trapped beneath the sea, but was then captured by the U-Boat which he had tried to sink. GRIFFITHS remained a prisoner for the rest of the war.

During the Norwegian campaign RM pilots did good work from the Ark Royal. Captain E D McIVER, who took part in the raid on shipping in Bergen harbour on 14 th April 1940, dropped his bombs with great skill in spite of very bad weather. He failed to return. Captain N R M SKENE won the DSC at Trondheim for leading a Swordfish Squadron in two bombing attacks on Vaernes Airfield, destroying three hangars in the face of intense AA fire. Captain R T PARTRIDGE won the DSO for operations in one of which he and his observer shot down a Heinkel III, made a forced landing in the snow and, though weaponless, took charge of three of the Heinkel’s crew who were all armed. Captain PARTRIDGE was later taken prisoner during a raid which Ark Royal’s Skuas made on the Scharnhorst in Trondheim Harbour, the last raid of the campaign.

Like McIVER and PARTRIDGE, Lieutenant L A HARRIS was in action early against the Germans as pilot of a Skua in 803 Squadron. He took part in the raid on the Konigsberg on 19 th April 1940. Later he was shot down and wounded before the evacuation from Norway. He was awarded the DSC. Later in the war RM flyers still had an interest in Norway. On 25 th July 1944 Lieutenant O R OAKES was awarded the DSC “for bravery, leadership, skill and devotion to duty during the successful strikes at enemy shipping off the coast of Norway.”

Major O PATCH RM was awarded the DSC in December 1940 “for outstanding courage and skill in a brilliant and wholly successful night attack by the Fleet Air Arm on the Italian Fleet at Taranto.” Within a further month he received the DSO for “courage, skill and enterprise in an attack on Italian warships.” On this last named occasion Major PATCH led a sub-flight of Swordfish in an attack on the Italian warships in Bomba Bay on the Libyan coast. He himself torpedoed a submarine and two other aircraft accounted for another submarine, a destroyer and a depot ship. All this was achieved with only three torpedoes.

Royal Marines pilots were decorated for destroying enemy bombers and shadowers during the passage of the great convoys to Malta. From June to November 1942 Major A C NEWSON commanded an Albacore Squadron which co-operated with the RAF and the Eighth Army in the Western Desert. The squadron’s work consisted mainly in finding and illuminating front line targets for the RAF bombers, and for dive bombing attacks. It was also employed in mine laying, raids on enemy occupied harbours, attacks on ships at sea and spotting for the many coastal bombardments made by the Mediterranean Fleet in support of the troops ashore. Major NEWSON was awarded the DSC “for bravery and devotion to duty in air operations in the Western Desert.” Later Major NEWSON’s squadron moved to Malta where it shared in the task of harassing the enemy’ seaborne lines of communication from Italy, Tripoli and Tunisia.

At the beginning of the final phase of operations in North Africa in November 1942, a specially trained fighter squadron of six Fulmars from HMS Victorious led by Major R C HAY RM performed most valuable work in Army cooperation and reconnaissance. The reconnoitred the roads leading to Algiers, photographed bridges and airfields and often made personal contact with the troops by landing near them. Previously in November 1941 Major HAY had been awarded the DSC for operations in Mediterranean waters. Later in the War HAYS was awarded the DSO for his actions as Air Coordinator in the Pacific and towards the end of the war gained a bar to his DSC. After the end of hostilities he transferred to the Royal Navy and retired in 1970 as a Commander.

The case of Major V B G CHEESMAN is an example of variety in flying. This officer won the MBE for an exploit in a Walrus amphibious early in the war. A British merchant ship had been torpedoed 100 miles off the West coast of Africa. Having counter-attacked the submarine with depth charges he then taxied to and fro encouraging the survivors who had escaped from the sunken ship, and aided the injured. By the time the rescue vessels had arrived the sea had risen and the Walrus had to be towed back to harbour.

The number of Royal Marines flying in the Fleet Air Arm during World War II was small, but their diligence and gallantry was by no means limited. In this connection, special significance may be seen in the citation accompanying the award of the DSC to Captain D B SMITH on 1 st July 1941. The award, it was stated was made for “outstanding zeal, patience and cheerfulness and for never failing to set an example of wholehearted devotion to duty without which the high tradition of the Royal Navy could not have been upheld.”

Post War With The Fleet Air Arm

After the Second World War a limited number of Royal Marines Officers were seconded to the Fleet Air Arm as fixed wing pilots, among them P J F WHITELY. Lieutenant T J P MURPHY, who completed his flying training in 1959, was the last Royal Marines Officer to fly fixed wing aircraft in squadron service in the Fleet Air Arm and the only jet pilot. Subsequently he went on to be one of the first RM officers to fly helicopters when he, together with Lieutenants WISE and LEAROYD, qualified to fly Whirlwinds. The three officers joined 848 Squadron in Bulwark in August 1961. Since that date there has been a constant supply of Royal Marines Officers to fly troop lift helicopters in the Naval Commando Squadrons. In 1969 Captain M REECE RM was appointed CO of 848 Squadron in HMS Albion based at Singapore.

Unit Light Aircraft

In 1965 a new stage was marked in Royal Marines aviation. For the first time since the days of Royal Flying Corps, Royal Marines were trained in purely military flying with the introduction of the unit light aircraft. 40 and 42 Commandos, both based in the Far East, were equipped with an Air Troop of three Sioux helicopters. Lieutenant P CAMERON, the first Royal Marine to be trained solely as a ULA pilot, commanded 42 Commando Air Troop. N D J WISE, a former Fleet Air Arm helicopter pilot commanded 40 Commando Air Troop, having done the necessary conversion course at the Army Aviation Centre Middle Wallop. The first RM SNCO to be trained was Sgt P LAWRENCE who attended Course 177 at Middle Wallop and then joined 42 Commando in March 1966. He was trained by Captain T J P MURPHY who had qualified as the first RM helicopter instructor. Both 40 and 42 Commando Air Troops served in Borneo during the confrontation with Indonesia. In 1966, 45 Commando serving in Aden, and HQ 3 Commando Brigade RM in Singapore, were both allocated Air Troops. 29 Commando Light Regiment, Royal Artillery which was also in Singapore in support of the Commando Brigade was also allocated an Air Troop. Finally in 1967 41 Commando, the only home based Commando at that time, was given its Air Troop which operated from Plymouth City Airport at Roborough. Initially all Commando Sioux helicopters were maintained by Royal Naval technicians, a Chief Petty Officer acting as Air troop Artificer. These ratings were Commando trained and wore the green beret. From 1967 onwards there was a gradual transition until the Naval Ratings had all been replaced by soldiers of the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers.

On 12 th August 1968 the four Air Troops of 3 Commando Brigade RM in Singapore were centralised to form the Commando Brigade Air Squadron under the command of Captain T P T DONKIN MBE RM. The squadron was organised into three flights, one Flight of three Scouts per Commando and a larger Brigade Headquarters Flight.

In 1970 the Brigade Headquarters Flights were re-equipped with Scout helicopters. It was in one such aircraft that Lieutenant FROST RM carried out a hazardous casevac operation in Malaya which earned him the AFC.

During the first half on 1971, 3 Commando Brigade was withdrawn from Singapore to the United Kingdom. The Commando Brigade Air Squadron established itself at Coypool, Plymouth on 19 July 1971 and took under command the remaining two Air Troops of the UK based Commandos and the UK based Commando Gunner Regiment. 45 Commando had returned from Aden to the UK in December 1967. Thus for the first time, all light aviation units of the Royal Marines were commanded by the one CO, Captain D R B STORRIE RM. The new squadron was organised into five Flights, one for each of the Commando Groups and a fifth for the Commando Brigade HQ. Each Flight is named after the battle honour of its affiliated Commando, namely Dieppe Flight for 40 Commando, Kangaw Flight for 42 Commando, Slaerno Flight for 41 Commando, and Montforterbeek Flight for 45 Commando. The Brigade HQ Flight is called Brunei Flight to commemorate the first time our Commando Gunners went into action to support the Brigade.

It is policy the Flights support their affiliated Commando units as closely as possible. Where the Commando goes, there its Flight goes. To this end Salerno Flight remains with 41 Commando in Malta and Montforterbeek Flight is based with 45 Commando in Scotland and accompanies that unit for training in Norway every winter. Montforterbeck Flight, Dieppe Flight and Kangaw Flight have all accompanied their units to Northern Ireland. In addition, RM Flights support their units in the amphibious role alongside the Fleet Air Arm aboard HM Ships Bulwark, Hermes, Fearless and Intrepid in the Mediterranean, Caribbean, Atlantic and Norwegian waters.

No matter what the future holds the Royal Marines must continue the tradition, now more than sixty years old, of providing pilots for the Fleet Air Arm Squadrons and now, for our own squadron. Having the facility to operate in three dimensions is a necessity in modern war and whether that facility is required over land or sea, the Royal Marine pilot will be in his element, providing a versatility second to none.

3 Commando Brigade Air Squadron RM
August 1973