14th March was
the day of the big operation to turn the ship back from a freighter into an
aircraft carrier again. We started early in the morning transferring the deck
cargo below decks into the hangar. At the same time we were striking and ranging
our own aircraft on the flight deck. We then ran up the engines ready for the
fly off to HMS Bambara, the shore base at Trincomalee.
Next morning all aircraft flew off. We were then only about 30 miles away, and late that afternoon we entered the harbour at Trincomalee. HMS Bambara was to be our home for the next few weeks, and as we had been inactive for a month or so, this would enable us to catch up on some much needed flying exercises. We the ground crews disembarked for HMS Bambara on the 17th March.
I well recall arriving at the camp. As we paraded to be checked in, an incident that I’ll always remember was that as we were standing there, monkeys, who appeared quite tame, were swinging in the trees above us and dropping at our feet. This was the first time I had seen these animals in the wild and I was quite fascinated. It was also noticeable that the aircraft hangars and buildings were still riddled with bullet holes from Japanese air raids. After we had completed our joining routine, collected our kit and found our allocated messes, it was time for dinner. As we made our way to the back of a very large queue waiting for dinner, I heard my name being called. Looking round, I recognised at the front of the queue an old pal from Nelson, Lancashire, who had joined up the same time as me. We hadn’t seen each other since those early days, so he waved me over to the front of the queue and pulled me in with him, to the jeers and catcalls from the rest of the queue. As we were now in the tropics, we were working what is known as ‘tropical routine’, whereby all work ceased at noon owing to the intense heat. So I was able to spend that afternoon and night with my old mate over more than a few beers, catching up on all that had happened since we parted. He was permanently stationed at Bambara and was quite envious when he heard where we were going.
Life at the station was very enjoyable, and the fact that we only had to work until noon every day made it more so. The flying exercises during the mornings were very extensive, and they proved to be necessary, as there were several crashes that made the lack of flying practice glaringly obvious. Not all the crashes were due to lack of practice however; we lost one aircraft when smoke was seen pouring from the engine. The pilot, S/Lt Stride, had to ditch in a cove 200yds from the shore. Fortunately no one was hurt and he and his T.A.G. CPO Wilson were able to swim safely to shore.
A second ditching occurred the very next day when Captain Dickson sensationally put his Tiger Moth down very neatly in Malay Cove, after his engine had cut out on take off. He was unhurt, and determined to carry on with his flying as soon as his aircraft was salvaged, and made serviceable again. When Captain Dickson took up his command in HMS Theseus, it was his first association with aircraft carriers, and naval aviation, having previously commanded the more conventional warships. Therefore, he considered it appropriate that he should learn to fly. So he acquired his own personal aircraft, a Tiger Moth that he called ‘Montague’. With a maximum speed of only 109 mph, the Tiger Moth was a two-seated trainer biplane, having a very light framework covered with fabric. As it wasn’t designed for flying from an aircraft carrier, it had no brakes or arrester hook. So it relied totally on the aircraft handlers physically grabbing hold of it to stop it as it landed on the fight deck, to everyone’s amusement. Because we had so much time on our hands, this was mainly taken up with siestas, letter writing and swimming; we were also able to explore the local villages around Trincomalee.
Having completed the necessary flying exercises ashore, it was time to leave Bambara for the time being. We embarked back on board ship on the 18th April to prepare to go to sea for Fleet exercises and to call at Colombo the capital of Ceylon to ‘show the flag’. By 21st April the whole Group was ship-borne again and we were ready to set sail. The ‘fleet’ consisted of two carriers, HMS Theseus and Glory, two cruisers HMS Glasgow and Jamaica, and two destroyers HMS Constance and Contest. It was ironic that my pal from back home was serving in HMS Glasgow at the time, but we were never able to meet up. – Ships that pass in the night!
For the next week or so the fleet was engaged in extensive sea exercises. Mock battles were fought; rocket-firing practices at towed targets, dog fights in the air, and aerobatics, etc. It was during one of these exercises that a very unfortunate accident occurred. It was the 29th April and I was on deck waiting for my aircraft to return, when Seafire PR 449 of 804 Squadron, piloted by Lt. Tod, came in to land. His approach was all wrong and, for some unknown reason, instead of peeling off to port to go round for a second attempt, he banked to starboard, and torque-stalled. Turning over on his back he plunged into the sea upside down. The aircraft sank immediately and sadly, Lt Tod’s body was never found.
Our ‘Sea Otter’ came into service during these exercises, carrying out numerous reconnaissance flights. It was able to plot the most suitable weather conditions in which to carry out the many, varied flying exercises. The ‘Sea Otter’ was an amphibian by-plane, designed for this type of work. However, its drawback was that it had to be hoisted into, and out of the water, by the ship’s crane.