Tribute to the nation's aviation heritage
TV adventurer, travel writer and actor Charley Boorman, pictured right, was among 500 guests at a Reception on board HMS Illustrious on Saturday 11 May to pay tribute to the crucial role played by the Fleet Air Arm in the Battle of the Atlantic. Over 40 Naval Air Squadrons flew some of the most hazardous missions imaginable during the arduous six year campaign providing vital air cover for the convoys.
The reception, which was a fundraising event in support of the Fly Navy Heritage Trust, was held on the flight deck of the 22,000 tonne Helicopter and Commando Carrier moored in the Thames at Greenwich as part of this month’s 70th Anniversary commemorations of the Battle of the Atlantic.
The highlight of the evening was a fly past by the Royal Navy Historic Flight’s Fairey Swordfish - the open cockpit, fabric biplane that did so much to turn round the deadly Atlantic struggle, dramatically stemming convoy losses. These remarkable aircraft and their aircrews flew from the pitching decks of converted merchant ships in all that the North Atlantic could throw at them including dense fog, mountainous seas and bitter cold, providing desperately needed air cover for convoys under constant threat from marauding U-boats.
The Swordfish is equally as important in the nation’s history as the Spitfire and the Hurricane and is one of the last and certainly the rarest remaining links with the Battle of the Atlantic. Swordfish Mk 1 LS326, a veteran of the campaign, flew with ‘L’ and ‘K’ Flights of 836 Naval Air Squadron, embarked in Merchant Aircraft Carriers (known as MAC ships) Rapana and Empire MacCallum on convoy protection in the North Atlantic.
Among the Veterans watching the flypast was Swordfish Telegraphist Air Gunner Ron Underwood, who flew in the actual aircraft Swordfish LS326 with 836 Naval Air Squadron. “It was very emotional seeing the Swordfish flying over a carrier again” said Ron. “The combination of a carrier, a flypast and ceremonial sunset by the Band of HM Royal Marines was wonderful – a really memorable evening.”
Swordfish embarked in MAC ships made over one hundred and seventy round trips with Atlantic convoys. Out of two hundred and seventeen convoys with MAC ship protection by the Swordfish only one was successfully attacked by U-boats.
The effectiveness of the contribution made by Swordfish aircraft, together with the courage and commitment of their aircrews is little known, but as the Swordfish flew over HMS Illustrious on Saturday in strong winds against a dark grey sky, her rugged resilience over 70 years later was the greatest possible tribute to all those who served in the Battle of the Atlantic and to the Nation’s Naval Aviation Heritage.
Speaking at the event, Charley Boorman said: “It was absolutely amazing and a real privilege to stand on the flight deck of a carrier and watch this remarkable historic aircraft fly over London. I love the challenge of extreme frontiers” continued Charley “but I feel very humbled – to think that young naval aircrews flew outmoded, fabric covered biplanes in some of the worst flying conditions in the world, against a determined and well-equipped enemy - and won! It’s a sort of David and Goliath story really. Their courage and bravery was truly formidable!”
Chief Executive of the Fly Navy Heritage Trust, Captain Mike Nixon OBE Royal Navy, pictured left, said “Keeping the Swordfish flying is a living legacy to the spirit and ethos of Naval Aviation. She sits at the heart of the Nation’s Naval Aviation Heritage. The support and goodwill from all our guests this evening has been tremendous and the money we have raised will go towards restoring a much needed spare Pegasus engine for the Swordfish.”
The pilot of Swordfish LS326 was Lieutenant Si Wilson Royal Navy and the other crew members were Lieutenant Commander Paddy McWilliams Royal Navy and Lieutenant Commander Andy Thompson Royal Navy. The Swordfish will take to the skies again later this month for the 70th Anniversary of the Battle of the Atlantic events in Liverpool between 23 and 26 May.