by Bill Grice

We’d had such a wonderful time in Melbourne, Australia where the hospitality was unbelievable. We set sail on Sunday 20th July 1947 for our next port of call Sydney. Our aircraft took off for a farewell display over Melbourne when everything went drastically wrong. As the aircraft were manoeuvring into formation, two Fireflies of 812 Squadron collided in mid-air, locked together and spiralled into the sea in Port Phillip Bay. The two air crews were Lt/Cdr Nathaniel Martin Hearle (our senior pilot) and his Observer Lt Ken Sellers, together with Lt  Raymond Walker and his observer C.P.O. Bill Lovatt. All four were killed instantly, the body of Nat Hearle was the only one recovered, and was buried at sea the next day.

Our misfortune continued. When the aircraft returned to the ship a Seafire of 804 Squadron crash landed on deck and its arrester hook struck an Aircraft Handler O/S Tony Timmons on the head, smashing his scull, and killing him instantly. Our sister ship HMS Glory sailing with us at the time, also had a disaster the same day when one of her aircraft crash landed on deck, seriously injuring Air Mechanic Terry Sadler. He was rushed to hospital but died later. He was buried ashore at HMAS Cerberus. A disastrous day indeed, with the loss of six lives.

Fifty years later, I realised that I had very little to leave for posterity, so I wrote a book on my service career which turned out quite well. This encouraged me to try to find any old shipmates who may still be ‘on the perch’. This was also very satisfying as I started to find several old mates. I used all forms of the media to achieve this, TV. Newspapers. Magazines and the Internet. So my name was well distributed.

On 16th Jan 2004 I received an unusual E-mail from a Paul Roadknight in Australia, saying that he and his diver friend Steve Boneham had found the wrecks of aircraft believed to be two aircraft that collided in mid-air in 1947, they knew little else. He had found my name surfing the ‘net, as being someone connected with HMS Theseus in 1947, he asked “could I give him any details?”

Paul had certainly ‘hit the jackpot’ as I was able to tell him exactly what happened on that fateful Sunday, as I had witnessed it all. Since then we have worked closely together, the divers doing the hard work of taking underwater video footage of the wrecks, and me providing all the details from personal knowledge, and all the research required on such a project.

At first, they kept their activities quiet as there are human remains still in the wrecks, and they didn’t want to be stopped by the Authorities. However, it got to the stage where something positive had to be done, so I suggested that they go public and arrange a Memorial Service to remember the victims, and perhaps have the site designated a war grave. Over the last year, progress has rapidly increased with newspapers and the Australian Navy becoming interested, offering the services of a Chaplain to conduct the service, and a Bugler from HMAS Cerberus, and finally two television companies getting involved.

My 80th birthday was coming up and, as I had celebrated my 20th birthday in Sydney eight days after the accident, what could be better than to celebrate my 80th there. So I pushed for the Memorial Ceremony to take place on 20th July 2007, its 60th Anniversary, so that I could be there to pay my respects. All the arrangements were finalised, and I travelled to Australia with my granddaughter as escort.

Tracing living relatives of the victims proved very difficult as they were all unmarried, so had no immediate descendants. Nat Hearle was the eldest age 32, but he had been shot down at the beginning of the war, and spent the rest of the war as a POW. So perhaps the icing on the cake was, when I placed an article in the local newspaper of Nat’s home town. This miraculously found its way to Australia, and a second cousin Wendy Stace (Hearle). She telephoned me and was ‘over the moon’ at being ‘found’. She subsequently rounded up all the Hearles' in Australia and they were able to attend the Memorial Ceremony.

It was a cold, drizzling, dull, miserable day when we all congregated on the pier and boarded the boat at 1100 hrs and set off to arrive at the site for 1405 hrs, the exact time of the accident 60 years previous. We were lavished with food and drink all day, we generally got acquainted, and interviews were taken by the TV crews.

Arriving at the site on time, the service was conducted, wreaths laid on the water, and the plaque taken down to the wrecks by the divers. At precisely 1405 hrs a miracle happened when the clouds opened and brilliant sunshine shone down on the site. Then from the horizon a Spitfire, followed by a Russian Yak, came roaring in low, and did a Victory Roll over the sight, a very emotional moment for everyone.

During our return to Melbourne, further interviews took place, and Wendy made presentations, on behalf of the Hearle family, to the divers and myself to show their appreciation. We arrived back in Melbourne about 1930hrs where we were invited, by the Hearle family, to their hotel for dinner, ending what was a very emotional, but satisfying day.

The event was televised nationally on Australian TV two days later.

This was indeed a trip of a lifetime!

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