WORLD WAR TWO AVIATOR BACK WITH HIS SWORDFISH
Royal Naval Air Station Culdrose was honoured with a visit by Lieutenant Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve (A) Freddie Harsant; at 94 believed to be the oldest surviving Swordfish Observer.
Freddie was in the thick of the action during World War Two, having served in the WesternDesert, the Red Sea, Indian Ocean, South & North Atlantic, and two Arctic Convoys (PQ 13 and PQ 14). He flew Swordfish, Walrus, Albacore and Barracuda aircraft, and was a Special Advisor to the American 12th Air Force prior to ‘Operation Torch’ - the Allied invasion ofNorth Africa.
A particular incident he was involved in was the sinking of HMS Edinburgh in May 1942. Freddie was on board as the Flight Commander of the ships’ Walrus amphibian aircraft, as well as the ship’s photographer and one of the regular watch keeping officers. Struck by a mine and attacked by German forces who inflicted further damage with torpedoes, HMS Edinburgh went down fighting, damaging one of the German ships so severely that it was scuttled. Freddie was ‘Officer of The Watch’ when the torpedoes struck, and took the iconic photographs of the hit at the stern of the ship. “We had to abandon her as she was only held together by the deck plates and keel by this stage, and in any event needed to ensure that the gold bullion we were carrying from Russia did not fall into German hands” said Freddie. “It was done in a very orderly manner and most unlike the depictions I have seen in films of people panicking. In our case I simply leaped off the ship onto a rescuing escort when told to do so by a Chief Petty Officer seaman.”
Freddie’s highlight of his visit to RNAS Culdrose was the arrival and being reunited with his favourite aircraft, the Swordfish flown in by its Royal Naval Historic Flight crew, led by Lieutenant Simon Wilson.
Hosted by 750 Naval Air Squadron, the home of today’s Naval Observer training, Freddie met and chatted with a wide range of current and future aviators, from Captain Orchard OBE, CO of RNAS Culdrose – who has flown the Swordfish himself – to some junior aircrew and youngsters considering a Royal Navy flying career. Lt Harsant brought to life the experiences of wartime flying, including descriptions of air combat training, rocket assisted take-offs, deck landings, as well as long range anti-submarine patrols - returning to find that his host ship had departed elsewhere.
One of his more hazardous memories was not in the air at all, but trying to crane his Walrus aircraft back on board once it had landed in the sea. He had to balance on the upper wing holding a heavy hook and catch the passing ship, an event fraught with danger to his fingers, head, and a high likelihood of being knocked into the sea.
Invalided out of the service owing to lung problems Freddie subsequently became a successful head teacher and author, basing three books on his wartime experiences. Asked what advice he would give to youngsters today, he said he would encourage anyone with a thirst for adventure to join the Fleet Air Arm as it gave him a lifetime of friends and memories. Reflecting on his day at RNAS Culdrose Freddie said:
“You have rekindled a lot of memories from a very exciting time of my life. It has been fabulous to be next to the Swordfish again, but above all my reception here in a Naval Air Squadron has truly felt like coming home. Thank you.”