Captain AA Hensher MBE RN
Captain Alan Hensher, who had died aged 94, ardent advocate of naval air power who led his young pilots in appalling flying condition over the Borneo jungle.
In 1962 the commando carrier Albion was about to cross the line in the Indian Ocean and her captain about to be ducked in tribute to King Neptune, when a ‘flash’ signal arrived ordering her to proceed to Borneo at full power. Briefly, some though this was some bizarre twist to the crossing-the-line ceremony, but a rebellion had broken out in Brunei and Borneo, prompted by Indonesia’s opposition to the creation of the Federation of Malaysia.
Hensher, in command of the embarked Wessex helicopters of 845 Naval Air Squadron, ordered immediate readiness. Within five days of the signal, Albion had landed Royal Marines of 40 Commando at several places on the coast, and in the next month Hensher’s helicopters had flown more than 1,200 sorties. Albion, because of her frequent appearances off the coast at first light quickly became known as the ‘Grey Ghost’.
Hensher identified the need for forward operating bases, which had to be carved out of the thick jungle, despite heavy rains which forced 845’s helicopters to fly in a gap often less than 50 feet between the dense cloud and the 200 feet high tree canopy. He also ordered his helicopters to fly in pairs, so that, if one were forced down, the other would be able to locate it, and he inspired the aircraft maintainers who worked in primitive conditions.
Building on the Navy’s established practise of giving operational command to the commander on the ground instead of referring decisions back to some distant headquarters, Hensher established a rapport with the army at every level and ensured a successful campaign. 845’s achievements were all the more remarkable because fourteen of Hensher’s pilots had less than 300 hours flying experience.
845 NAS was awarded the Boyd trophy for its feats of aviation, and Hensher was awarded the MBE.
Alan Anthony Hensher, of Huguenot descent, was born in London, the son of a furniture manufacturer. He entered the Royal Naval College as a cadet in 1942: small and pugnacious, it was predictive of his career that he should play in the college 1st XV, the hockey 1st XI and become captain of boxing.
As a midshipman he completed his training in the cruiser Nigeria 1942-48, when she was escort to HM George VII and the Royal Princesses on the 1947 Royal tour to South Africa. Hensher first learned to fly in Tiger Moths, and subsequently flew the Seafire and then the Sea Fury and the Wyvern fighters in 827 Naval Air Squadron in the carrier Eagle 1951-52.
Subsequently he flew the anti-submarine roleFirefly, before converting to jets, but after qualifying in night fighting and while serving with 891 NAS he developed ear problems which were to trouble him for the rest of his life.
After gaining his watchkeeping ticket in the despatch vessel Surprise, Hensher retrained as a helicopter pilot, flying the Westland Whirlwind anti-submarine helicopter in 820 NAS in Northern Ireland and in the carrier Hermes in Far East 1958-59. Next Hensher served two years with the USMC based at El Toro, California where he flew several types of helicopters, learned the latest, advanced state of the US Marine Corps’ thinking on amphibious operations and also to “barbecue andtoappreciatethe stringency of the martini”.
After command of 845 NAS, Hensher joined the staff of the Director of Naval Air Warfare 1964-66, held the unusual appointment of Assistant Defence Attaché (Navy) at the British Embassy in South Vietnam, 1966-67, and served as CO on the helicopter unit at the Joint Warfare Establishment at Old Sarum 1967-68.
While Commander (Air) at HMS Seahawk, the Royal Naval Air Station at Culdrose,1968-69, Hensher was reunited with the engine of Sea Fury VR934 in which he had ditched in 1951. He recalled that he was “ twenty miles from the coast of Cornwall, enjoying some aerobatics when there was a sudden change in the beat of the engine and a loss of power. I turned north for the coast, but continued to lose power, and ditched near a group of fishing boats, and touching down at about 95 knots in a cloud of spray.” That was the last he saw of VR934 until a trawler dredged up the engine and he was obliged to have his photo taken sitting atop the engine, observing, “you may judge which of us has worn the better in the intervening 18 years”.
Hensher returned to the Far East as Commander (Air) in the carrier Albion in 1970-72 and then to DNAW 1973-74 where he assisted the future Admiral of the Fleet Sir Ben Bathurst in writing the first drafts of the staff requirement for the Wildcat and Merlin helicopters.
On promotion to captain, Hensher’s career took another unusual turn. He became a student at the Canadian National Defence College at Kingston, Ontario, served as naval adviser in Ottawa 1976-78, held an appointment at the headquarters of the Commander-in-Chief Fleet at Northwood 1979-80, before a final appointment as naval attaché in The Hague 1981-83.
In retirement Hensher worked for the Cancer Research Campaign for two years, then in the family furniture, property and self-storage business.
An ardent advocate of naval aviation, he was chairman of the Fleet Air Arm Officers Association 1991- 96, and campaigned hard for the Fleet Air Arm Memorial, ‘Daedalus’, which was unveiled by Prince Charles in Embankment Gardens, London in 2000.
A lifetime golfer, a member of Liphook Golf Club, a water colourist (though he never sold a picture), and the owner of a 1967 Jaguar/Daimler and 1975 Rolls Royce Corniche Convertible, Hensher liked to cook and appreciated fine wines.
In 1955 he married Val Ingram who predeceased him and he is survived by their two sons: for many years the Canadian Joyce Dawson was his companion.
Captain A A Hensher, born June 9, 1928, died August 28, 2022.