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Indefatigable Veterans Visit HMS Victory In Fleet Air Arm’s Centenary Year

In the centenary year of the Fleet Air Arm, veterans from HMS Indefatigable’s Association met recently on Nelson’s flagship, HMS Victory, in Portsmouth Naval Base. The veterans were hosted by Commodore Martin Westwood, a senior serving naval aviator from Naval Command Headquarters and the Commanding Officer of HMS VICTORY, Lt Cdr ‘Oscar’ Whild prior to a Memorial Service at Portsmouth Cathedral.

64 years ago in April 1945, the aircraft carrier HMS Indefatigable was deployed as part of the Pacific Fleet encountering kamikaze attacks from Japanese aircraft as they took part in Operation Iceberg, an allied operation to halt the flow of oil to the Japanese war machine.

Lt Philip Rowell, a young Navy Sea Fire fighter pilot, now 86, was amongst the group of veterans visiting Portsmouth from mid Wales.  He flew combat air patrols from the aircraft carrier providing support to the initial assault on the island of Okinawa in April 1945. Describing his experiences of operational flying to Commodore Westwood, he explained:

“I had a number of very close shaves. The Japanese used a number of tactics to lure us into “flat-traps”, seemingly easy targets of their destroyers close to shore but concealing massive anti-aircraft batteries. My CO was shot down and it was a very close run thing for me on one occasion when I landed on the deck with only 30 seconds of fuel remaining just off the coast of Japan, fortunately the ship turned just in time for me to line up my landing.”

The British Pacific Fleet’s mission was to prevent the Japanese air force using the five airfields in the Sakishima Islands to stage aircraft through from Formosa to attack the US forces in Okinawa. At 0728 on April 1st 1945, a suicide bomber hit the base of the control tower of HMS Indefatigable, killing 14 of the crew. By the end of the operation, all five British aircraft carriers, HMS Indefatigable, Formidable, Indomitable, Illustrious and Victorious had all been hit at least once by a kamikaze or bombs and the destroyer Ulster and the cruiser Swiftsure also sustained casualties.  

Bernard Wilcock, 84, from Fareham was a Petty Officer manning one of the weapons control centres below decks when the kamikaze aircraft hit the ship. He remembers;

 “I was down below managing one of the control centres and we felt a huge bump. It happened on Easter Day and was a real shock because it was the first suicide attack we had heard of.”

Christopher Whitfield, son of Commander John Whitfield, the carrier’s second in command organised the reunion along with Les Wills, the Secretary of the Association.
Les (82) from Sutton Coldfield joined the Navy as a boy seaman and left the ship in Fremantle in1946 after the war ended. He said;

 “We’ve been meeting for 22 years in Portsmouth and are very grateful to have the opportunity this year to visit HMS VICTORY for a reunion photograph. We are a dwindling number of veteran shipmates but it’s wonderful to see the ships, meet up with our shipmates and reminisce.”

Christopher added:  “This year is a special one for us because of the Fly Navy 100 celebrations. Those who took part in flying the aircraft will be part of the Fly Navy 100 events, which is fitting given the participation of Indefatigable in the war”

On his third visit, Eric Lawton’s son Paul drove from his home in Orkney to bring his father from Halifax to Portsmouth to meet old comrades from the Association. Eric served as a stoker on the carrier between 1943 to 1946. “It’s wonderful to see the ships in the naval base, this reunion means a great deal to him.” 

Commodore Westwood greeted the group of veterans warmly and commented:

 “The Royal Navy is marking the Fleet Air Arm heritage this year with a range of regional and national public events under the banner Fly Navy 100.  I think it is vital that we keep passing on the baton of operational experience down the generations and particularly important to recognise the contribution these remarkable individuals have given to Naval aviation over the years and those who continue to serve today deployed all over the world both in the landlocked theatres of operation like Afghanistan and on our ships at sea.”

29th Apr 2009

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