Thorney Island

Christmas leave, 1942, was something of a milestone for the Squadron. It heralded not only the end of the year Wit the end of our 'working up' training and the beginning of operations, and the change from the warm winter cosiness of St.Merryn (a small war-time base) to the vast permanent peace time station of Thorney Island under the Coastal Command of the R.A.F. We had new things to do and new things to learn. We were helped by the traditions laid down by F.A.A. Swordfish Squadrons which had-served at Thorney, St.Eval and East Anglian R.A.F. stations since the earliest days of the war; in fact 836 was relieving 816 Squadron which had sustained considerable casualties on cross-Channel operations. These included the unspectacular work of mine-laying, reconnaissance and night attacks on enemy shipping and ports. Only the ill-fated attempt of Lt.Cdr. Esmonde V.C. and 825 Squadron to stop the Channel escape of the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau made the headlines. We were all aware of the furtive, shadowy nature of the former and the horror of the latter, not least because the re-formed 825, like 816, left Thorney as we arrived.

We flew from St Merryn to Thorney that cold December day over snow-covered southern England. It was in many ways like entering a new world, or re-entering the war zone we had left behind us at Lee months ago. Anti-aircraft guns defended the airfield, and with the balloon barrage formed part of the defences of Portsmouth and Southampton. At the dispersal points of Thorney stood twin-engined monoplanes-Lockheed Hudsons and Hampden bombers- while the runways were full size, able to take Lancasters and Liberators. Great camouflaged hangars stood at strategic points, and we could spot the Georgian style three-storeyed living quarters as we came in to land using a mere fraction of the long runway. It all looked decidedly operational.

30 Dec

 During the move from St Merryn, the party changed trains at Exeter , where a raid, by Me.109's had taken place earlier in the morning. A  C.P.O, describing the incident, said the machines were so low that the pilots could be heard shouting to each other.

3 Jan 1943  S/Lt Allen described his first wind-finding effort in Trinidad . As datum, he chose a white patch on the mountains which he assumed was snow, only to find on completion of the manoeuvre that this was a small cloud.
5 Jan The CO recalled a visit to Colombo while serving in H.M.S.Glorious. Banned from dancing on account of a lack of evening clothes,he and fellow officers put on a cabaret turn at a fashionable hotel, their efforts, however, failing to please the editor of the local paper, who next morning published scathing remarks in his leading article to the delight of the ship's company.
Night Torpedo attacks
We were made welcome by the R.A.F. Station staff and particularly by the R.C.A.F. squadrons who flew the Hudsons and Hampdens. The strategy seemed to be that the Hudsons would carry out a nightly radar sweep from Thorney to Le Havre to Cherbourg and back, while F.A.A. squadrons (we were joined by 833 Squadron commanded by Major W. Anton R.M. on 1st February) would stand by to attack any convoys or ships discovered by the Hudsons. The Hampdens were used as night bombers. On one occasion Johnstone and Taylor did the 'sweep' in a Swordfish. But neither they nor the Hudsons saw anything, so there were none of the night torpedo attacks which had proved so successful earlier in the war against enemy shipping off the Belgian and Dutch coasts from Manston and Docking and in 1941-2 against Rommel's convoys from Malta

Swordfish in their black camouflage- over Thorney Island-second photo from Phil Blakey

Mine Laying
But there were mine-laying trips laid on probably through intelligence sources in France:these were concentrated on Le Havre and Cherbourg.The code word for mine-laying was 'gardening'.This entailed flying across the Channel at a maximum 150 feet (so as to avoid radar and deter enemy fighters) and dropping the mines accurately in a harbour or channel. Navigational accuracy was important otherwise the whole exercise was pointless. We navigated by dead-reckoning, calculating our winds and thus our track, by taking back bearings on flame floats which we dropped on the sea.In choppy waters they often became invisible as they dipped into the wave troughs, but we usually got our track right and confirmed our position from landmarks on the French coast. One night we found to ur delight that someone had left a lighthouse operating north of Le Havre,so we made a fix and dropped our mine spot on. 

 At the beginning of the stay at Thorney Island the expression "gardening" had not been developed:

Details were recorded of mission (GMA logbook)

By March :

(From Robbie Roberston's  Logbook)

Problems of measuring aircraft height above water
These trips called for incredible concentration from the Pilots flying on instruments for three hours on end at very low heights. Taking off at ten-minute intervals, they had no other aircraft to 'fix' on. The big imponderable was the barometric pressure which could and did vary on either side of the Channel. Thus an altimeter  properly set with the correct barometric pressure on take-off could be reading 'high' or 'low' if the pressure over Le Havre (which we had no means of knowing) was different one the aircraft could be flying considerably lower than the altimeter indicated. Observer and Air gunner kept a constant look out to warn of too low altitude. Nevertheless, more than one aircraft came back with wet wheels and it will be seen, one aircraft and its crew were lost in Le Havre harbour due to this factor.
9 Jan On a mine laying trip rather dark conditions were encountered, and at one moment Lt Fox (with Lt Palmer) bounced on the sea. As their aircraft sustained no damage the story did not seem well substantiated, though the rumour that Lt Fox claims to have taken the opportunity to set his altimeter accurately  is unfounded
16 Jan The Squadron having been released from standing by, most members immediately made their way ashore. Lt Turner and VIA Piercy reached Brighton where they found the curfew regulations somewhat restrictive and spent the evening being hounded out of a series of hotels.
18 Jan S/Lt Robertson celebrated his 21st birthday. The C.O. caused amusement in some quarters by using the Officers' Mess Tannoy to ask for "any Midshipman of the Watch". At the height of the revels the central figure disappeared in circumstances which the Squadron had come to regard as typical
Swordfish Fires
But at times it seemed our casualties were more likely to come from incidents on this side of the Channel. Jim Palmer and Frank Fox were one evening checking their aircraft while a Hampden was being refuelled in the next bay. Suddenly the fuel and the Hampden caught fire. Fox and Palmer leapt out of their aircraft just in time and hid behind the nearest bunker while the fire spread, bombs exploded and their Swordfish joined the Hampden in the conflagration. Then the Squadron was augmented by additional crews to ease the pressure of the duty roster and one of the newcomers, an Observer, determined to test his equipment before take-off, pulled the trigger of a loaded Very pistol in his cockpit. Another conflagration, another Swordfish written off, and one Observer quickly despatched from the Squadron back to the Pool.
As well as being  given a Squadron car we were also given a motor cycle  for use of the 'Duty Boy' to travel from Mess to Dispersal. Phil Blakey and Nick Piercy especially were delighted with this. Perhaps Nick discovered a lifelong affection for this form of transport for later, as Lord Piercy, he would ride from his home at Elford, near Tamworth, to the House of Lords on his motor bike until him untimely death while riding a motor cycle in 1982. Phil and Nick taught this writer, who had some knowledge of the machine through helping his brothers in peacetime, to ride it. But after showing him the gears they sent him on his way round the perimeter track and went off to the mess for lunch. After two circuits the rider discovered they'd not told him how to stop it, so he drove boldly into a grass bank on the car park outside the Mess. It stalled, he fell off; it could have been worse.
Mine Laying Flights
We quickly settled down into a routine. The Squadron spent more time than it would have liked on stand-by, ready for take-off should the Hudsons see something needing our attention. But the crews found their tedium relieved by three or four days' leave especially after 825 joined us in February, and the more adventurous might go up to London or Brighton for a bit of relaxation. We soon became used to the briefings and the Ops room, and the serving of our 'operational' eggs and bacon at evening meals; the issue of halibut oil pills and the availability of ultra violet lamps confirmed our status as operational types. Only three of the fourteen officers had previous operational experience, and the rest of us greenhorns were most grateful, particularly to Ransford and James Turner for their example and encouragement. Ransford, with Malta behind him, was in his element, not least when flying over the Mole at Cherbourg so that by the time the last aircraft arrived the whole place was alight with searchlights and ack-ack which helped G for George pinpoint the pilot and observer neither of whom had ever seen it decided that the long structure jutting out to sea beneath them was Brighton Pier. They reversed course and landed safely, the Observer(this writer no less) receiving a ticking off from James 'dropping' area for its mine. On that night we approached the coast in cloud, and searchlights and barrage balloons told it that Southampton was under attack from a German air raid. G for George, in cloud and unsure of its landfall, decided to steer east for safety, keeping everyone waiting with airfield lights and pundit beacon aglow while the enemy air raid was on. But James was no doubt worried by the non-arrival of Reg Singleton's crew, who as will be related, had ditched in the Solent,and by Bob Barrett and Nick who were also 'missing', having landed at Hurn.
20 Jan

Among the transport provided for Squadron use was a motor-cycle. Several of the crews attempted to learn how to drive, with results such as loss of caps, some impromptu cross- aerodrome route-finding, and loss of equilibrium with or without pillion riders. The latest use for the cycle was by S/Lt Piercy who took turns round the perimeter track to counteract the "atmosphere" of the Officers' Mess.

22 Jan

A"Balbo" flight in conjunction with 825 Squadron included some fairly close combined formation. A R.A.F. officer later said the mess lights had had to be switched on as the sky was so darkened by Swordfish.

23 Jan

Reading of Harris' efforts at singing of a comic song in "Three Men in a Boat" -reminded the Squadron of one of its own Members who was keen on Gilbert and Sullivan choruses - "Singing; his voice appearing to come from the cellar, and suggesting the first low warnings of an approaching earthquake: When I was young I served a term /As office boy to an attorney's firm,"

26 Jan Advantage was taken of many of the luxuries provided for flying crews, such as ultra‑violet treatment, halibut oil pills, and operational eggs-and-bacon. Early morning tea was instituted by the stewards, and for those who had the day off it became a popular habit to take breakfast in bed. This was in pleasant contrast to the normal morning's work which consisted of paddling through the mud to the Nissen hut and sitting by the Valor stove, until time to return to the Mess.
Mass Dive Bombing
For the ground crews life could be tedious, as after the D.Is(Daily Inspections) the aircraft stood at dispersal points awaiting the appropriate armament for operations. Sometimes mines would be loaded and later chanced for torpedoes and flares, and even bombs were loaded and then changed back. These changes of armament were the result of changes in operational intention, but on cold, wet winter days and nights, were not all that welcome. But there were bright days as when the Squadron was invited to test the anti-air defences with dive bombing attacks. Then at least the crews could admire, as did their RAF. counterparts, the skill of their Pilots as they 'let their hair down'. On one occasion 836 and 825 combined to carry out a ‘Balbo’ - a mass dive bomb attack (named after an Italian General). An R.A.F. officer later said that the mess lights had to be switched on as the sky was so darkened by Swordfish.
28 Jan One run ashore by a group from the Squadron included a visit to the bar of the 'Ark Royal". Singing to the accompaniment of a piano culminated around closing-time in the chorus "Goodnight Ladies", rendered with the ulterior motive of singing the inevitable "Salome"
1 Feb Several members attended the performance of "Cinderella". Amongst many amusing turns, not the least was to see one of the Ugly Sisters descend into the audience and  vlolently embrace Lt Fox.
2 Feb With the return from leave of a certain WAAF officer, the absence of S/Lt Lisle from the "naval ante-room" became quite noticeable.
4 Feb Seeing the ground-crews at work on modern RAF aircraft, S/Lt Blakey asked us "wouldn't you like to be with a Fortress Squadron, and have D.I’s  which last a week?"
8 Feb A spate of 24-hour leave passes made it very convenient to run up to London overnight. When S/Lt Macve did this, he was much teased as to whether he had his chocolate ration with him, and he regrets having told of an occasion when he generously parted with his week's supply to a lady of his acquaintance.
14 Feb A party visited Brighton , and left the cinema prematurely, only to find they had an hour's wait before the pubs opened. While strolling round the town in this interval a kiddie aged about 3 approached S/Lt Macve with delighted cries of "Daddy".
15 Feb The radio inter-com, of aircraft F was satisfactory, but Lt Fox did not know his own speech would be transmitted during an R/T exercise. Lt Palmer, carrying out such an exercise with "Kiwix" (a WAAF on the ground station) closed down with the transmission “I have landed now", and it is understood the interruption by Lt Fox - "A b---- awful landing too" – was perfectly received.
Sport & Entertainment

Morale was good, however, not least because of the attractions at Thorney and its environs. The Squadron Rugby team played five games and won two of them. There were concerts and pantomimes (when one of Cinderella's Ugly Sisters came into the audience and kissed Frank Fox). C.P.O. Bailey's previous experience in the R.A.F. - he had changed to the R.N. when the Naval Air Arm came under Naval control - made for good inter-Service relations. But 'runs ashore' to Pompey and Lee enabled the 'troops' to look up 'old oppos', while the 'Crown' at Emsworth was near at hand. Visiting the 'Crown' at lunchtime in the 1960s, this writer found it almost impossible to imagine the packed, heaving masses of sailors and airmen who thronged its bars every night in those war years. It was a happy meeting ground for officers and men and it was perhaps fortunate that there was a causeway from 'Crown' to camp which witnessed unsteady gaits steadying gradually along its way.

Sometimes people walked further, like Tyrell and Muir who, having missed the last train from Chichester, wended wearily back into Thorney at 3 a.m. Chichester or 'Chi' as we affectionately called it, was our most popular haven. Its cathedral and market hall, its buildings, parks and trees gave it a softness which it retained despite the conglomeration of uniforms which thronged its streets. We drank in the 'Unicorn', played pool in the 'White Horse' and once or twice ate in the 'Dolphin and Anchor' where James Turner once warned his guests against ordering chicken - "the stand-by of any third class hotel". There were Forces clubs and dances. Altogether 'Chi' remained a rather special memory for us, not least because of the well-remembered journeys back to Emsworth by the last train with some 'sleeping' partners travelling on the luggage rack. Catching the last train could be a close run thing, usually comprising a fair sprint to cross the lines before the level crossing gates were closed.

17 Feb

S/Lt  Robertson, walking across the aerodrome late at night, says that he ended his evening out by falling into a hole.

21 Feb

RANAS No .1406/277/2.

The  Secretary of the Admiralty. (Copy to the C.O., No.836 Squadron)

Forwarded in accordance with 0.U.6372, Chap4

1. With the exception of free gun exercises carried out by the Observers of No.836 Squadron, it is considered that a satisfactory period of armament training was carried out by this Squadron.

(Sd) A.T.T.Bayliss for Rear Admiral,Naval Air Stations.Lee on Solent .

22 Feb S/Lt Muir says he dreamed he did a navex, - whose analysis gave zero calculation error, 0.2% wind error, and 0.7% other error.
23 Feb S/Lt Aggleton reported having seen two FW190's while returning from a bombing exercise at Pagham Harbour . A telephone message reached F/O Capes a short while later, saying "The intruders have landed at Tangmere".
24 Feb Three members of the Squadron were noticed to be hobbling badly in the morning - S/Lts Muir, Macve and Tyrrell. Apparently they had had an impromptu ramble from Chichester the previous evening; leaving after the last train and arriving at 3 a.m.
Further Sport
The Mess at Thorney was also a pleasant place to be. The footprints on the ceiling of the ante-room gave a wrong first impression. We and the Canadians were a lively lot, but there were rarely the high jinks associated sometimes with heavy bomber or fighter squadrons. The Station Commander was at pains to make us feel at home and there was also a welcome at appropriate times in the W.A.A.F. quarters; and F.A.A. and W.A.A.F. were known to wander. around Thorney Island Church which had as well as its wooded churchyard, a hospitable church porch. We were also useful as neutrals in refereeing soccer and rugby matches played by the R.A.F. team. This writer was 'stooged' into refereeing a cup match between, I believe, the R.A.F. Regiment and a Royal Marine Commando Unit. At all events it seemed to the referee that in normal circumstances all twenty-two players would have been sent off in a match that could best be described as 90 minutes of unarmed: combat, with ball! The referee escaped unscathed , save for the embarrassing memory.
26 Feb Very few prizes are offered for identification of the following:-
  Tail Spin Turner   Dauk Singleton
  Crash Lisle   Hyphen Palmer
  Wild Irishman Allen   Pint Pot Piercy
  Dry Boots Johnstone   Snake Walsh
  Little Man Muir      
1 Mar An early start was made in order to fly to Lee for a new aircraft. Even so, it is thought rather showing off by Lt Walsh when in his rear cockpit seat he produced a mechanical razor and proceeded to shave himself.
3 Mar

A visit to Chichester saw the collection of two Land Army girls into the party on the train. S/Lt Robertson paid marked attention to one,but when both got out at Bosham he insisted on kissing her companion first. This earned from her the remark "Don't mind me, I'm just in the queue".

5 Mar S/Lt Macve tells of a RAF navigator who thought the FAA charts were not on Mercator projection because the latitudes and longitudes were not parallel to the edges of the chart.
7 Mar On a night operational trip, S/Lt Taylor considers his pilot most conscientiously obeyed the instruction to fly low. "I could feel the spray while we were over the sea" he said. Eighty miles out at sea Lt Turner picked up the beacon on his return and proceeded to "get all his equipment packed up" (in the words of . the C.O.). This system was badly shaken, however, when on approaching the coast the C.O. maliciously asked for the pundit letters.
8 Mar S/Lt Aggleton recalled a carrier landing he made when he says he was being taken down in the lift before he realised he had touched down
12 Mar

Several incidents arose from the occasional beating-up of the aerodrome - officially to give AA gunners some practice. While taxi-ing S/Lt Blakey administered cutting blows to a Post Office van. S/Lt Aggleton so much scared a perimeter bus by his low flying that the driver swerved into the "rough".

Change of Personnel
The Squadron left Thorney in mid-March 1943, bringing the second 'era' of the period under review to an end. It was a moment when the Squadron had reached its highest numerical strength and was about to lose some of its stalwarts, not least James Turner and Frank Fox, both of whom were to get their own squadrons. But sadly, we suffered other losses in the early days of March.
Losses of Personnel

On 3rd March at Le Havre John Lisle's luck ran out when the barometric pressure on the other side of the Channel caused his altimeter to mislead him, and losing height to drop his mine correctly he flew into the sea. He and his Air Gunner Pat Solway, a cheerful and lovable Glaswegian survived in the dinghy, but Paddy Allen did not make it. The most John could do was to let off flares when the following aircraft G for George arrived to let us know that there were survivors. Four nights later Reg Singleton returning from Cherbourg at the same time as a German air raid, found himself blinded by our own searchlights which at his slow speed stayed with him, forcing him to ditch. After five hours in the dinghy in the Channel he was picked up and taken to the Isle of Wight . Next morning G for George flew over to pick him up, and he was never so glad to see Johnstone and Taylor as then. Sadly, his Observer Billy Muir, and his Air Gunner L/A George, were both drowned. It was ironic that none of the men who died did so at the hands of the enemy. Lisle and Solway went to P.O.W. camps, the former till the end of the war. Pat Solway was taken ill in captivity and invalided home. He was lost sight of till the 1980s when John Lisle initiated a search which located him in Glasgow still suffering from a chest complaint, from which he died in 1983. In his last years he took an interest in the doings of his former mates, by letter and telephone with John Lisle, Jim Palmer and John Taylor.

We were very saddened by these losses and the manner of these misfortunes, and though the move from Thorney on l3th March absorbed some of the shock nothing could hide the fact that there were three absentees from the crew room. Billy Muir was the youngest of our group, but behind his boyish looks and slim figure there was a keen and competent Observer. His good humour, sense of fun and ready wit made him a most pleasant companion. He was intelligent, and his modesty and moderation in all things made a con­siderable contribution to the civilising tone of the Squadron. Paddy Allen, extrovert and athlete, was a 'character'. Very bright, sometimes blunt, he was a good man to have on your side, and often his very 'Rashness' pro­voked laughter where anger had been intended. In the mess, in the air, or on the rugby field, this surely was a 'broth of a boy' and as an Observer the perfect foil to John Lisle so that the pair transmitted the impression of a zany, crazy outfit.

If there is more to tell of John Lisle it is mainly because he has survived to tell it. His war time experiences would fill a book and his pre 836 record would quickly depress any aspiring Observer. he joined the Navy in 1939 and soon found himself ‘stooged’ into teaching his sea-scout semaphore to recruits at Bullins, Skegness, where the new sailors learned their boat drills in rowing boats on the swimming pool with holes bored in the blades of the oars to simulate the real thing. Thence to Ack-Ack duty on North Sea coastal convoys - uncomfortably dangerous as a career, but less so than some of the devices invented for him to use. One of these consisted of lengths of wire at the end of 200 feet of twine projected into the air by a pistol. The tug of the twine on the operator's finger pulled the pin on a grenade which fired off the lengths of wire. The idea was to tangle those wires round the propeller of the dive-bombing attacker. Depressed when a drunken skipper told him of the courage of his predecessor and pointed out the bullet holes on the poop as proof, John left the D.E.M.S. disenchanted with the prospect of 'pooping' off at Stokes from the poop deck indefinitely. He was persuaded to try for the F.A.A. The drill, he was told, was to know the answers to two trigonometry questions, sin/cos equals tan, and Pythagoras. He applied, and though he thought he would be rejected for his lack of Secondary School qualifications (he had left school early), he got his interview. The trigonometry questions came in the right order, and he was accepted. It still amazes him how this happened, and even more so how he passed his flying course. One of the many things John couldn't do was navigate.. He found his way by railway lines, and when they disappeared or crossed he became confused. He would land at the first airfield he saw, ask for his plane to be checked and go to the main building to find a notice indicating its location; then take off to the nearest railway line and start again.

John's first prang was on a trip from Netheravon to Hendon when, confronted by the London Balloon Barrage, he turned north into a snow storm, force-landed in a snow covered field and turned his Hawker-Hart over. Then he travelled from the local station (taken there by an obliging land girl) to Wimbledon carrying flying helmet and parachute. There, taken for a German parachutist, he was put in a cell at the police station to await the arrival of Special Branch at midnight. Soon John was sent to the Ark Royal where, as we have seen, he piloted James Turner on occasions. His first landing on Ark was spectacular in that he missed all the wires and stopped two feet short of the forward end of the flight deck. On another occasion, about to fly on to the Ark from Gibraltar he saw the great ship torpedoed before his eyes, and later taking off at night he had another escape when at full throttle his port wing hit a Fulmar which had been left parked with its nose on the runway. The crash ripped the site of his cockpit away. His passenger, an Engineer Commander, disappeared into the night, his discarded helmet and parachute marking his terrified flight to safety. Back in England piloting a new Walrus from a Midlands factory to Lee (sans compass) he found himself enveloped in fog and force-lanced on St.Catherine's Hill in Hampshire, misjudged the contours, and after a downhill slalom pitched up by a hedge next to a convenient pub.

And so when John joined 836 he had many experiences behind him, to which were then added those previously recorded - in a field short of the Lee airfield and on the shoreline of Argyll. Thus his luck really did run out in Le Havre harbour. It was later rumoured, apocryphally, that John applied to the Germans for repatriation on the grounds that he would be more useful to them as an F.A.A. pilot than as a P.O.W.

The Thorney Island Squadron board does not acknowledge that 836 or 825 squadrons were there.

Apparently no squadrons between Jan and April 1943!