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A Brief History of 849 NAS – Part 1 The Fixed Wing Era

Once We Were Bombers. Before the requirement of the Airborne Early Warning capability, 849 NAS was stood up as a wartime torpedo bombing squadron with Avenger (Tarpon) aircraft and was formed at NAS Quonset Point, Rhode Island in 1943 under the command of Lt Cdr Kenneth G Sharp (A) RN.

The CO's logbook on the formation of 849 NAS in August 1943.

Embarked on HMS Khedive the Squadron made their way to the UK, initially based at RNAS Grimsetter (HMS ROBIN) before being seconded to 19 Group Coastal Command at RAF Perranporth where the Squadron conducted anti E-boat patrol reconnaissance missions during the Normandy Campaign in 1944.

849 NAS Monthly Progress Report July 1944

Record book entry showing the recce routes in 1944.

Later that year 849 was sent to Ceylon and embarked on HMS VICTORIOUS where it was to play a significant part in the British Pacific Fleet’s battle against the Japanese. Most notably the Squadron took part in the strikes at Pangkalan Brandan (Op LENTIL) and Palembang (Op MERIDAN) in January 1945, in support of the US invasion of Okinawa from March to May and raids against the Japanese Home islands in Jul 1945.

Extract from 849’s Linebook on Op LENTIL

849 NAS was disbanded for the first time after the war on 31 October 1945

The birth of the AEW capability. During the war in the Pacific, low flying ‘Kamikaze’ aircraft were inflicting a heavy toll on the task groups highlighting the inadequacies of the Fleet’s radar to detect these low-flying aircraft. A British Staff requirement written as early as December 1943 suggested the use of airborne radar but there was no developmental avenue at the time. In mid-1944 the Anglo-US committee decided to pass the design and manufacture of the equipment to the US which became known as the ‘Cadillac Project’. By May 1945 35 USN AEW Avengers were flying in the Pacific although unfortunately none reached the operational areas before VJ Day. By 1947 the US had also developed the Skyraider aircraft with the AD-3W variant embarked in their Fleet Carriers in the AEW role.

The Dawn of the RN AEW Era. In 1950 the USN ordered 168 Douglas AD-4W Skyraiders with 50 aircraft assigned to the RN under the Mutual Defence Assistance Program. The first four Skyraiders arrived at the King George V Dock, Glasgow, on 9 November 1951. The following day an official handover was conducted on the quayside where RAdm W.F Boone USN Deputy C-in-C Eastern Atlantic, formally handed over the aircraft to RAdm W.T Couchman, Flag Officer Flying Training.

The first of 4 Skyraiders arriving at King George V dock in 1951

The aircraft were delivered to 778 NAS at RNAS Culdrose who had been commissioned in 1 October 1951 as the trials unit under the command of Lt John Treacher. As the aircraft had already been in USN service for some years it was deemed unnecessary to carry out protracted trials and on 7 July 1952 778 NAS was re-designated as a frontline unit and so 849 NAS was re-born, under the command of Lt John Treacher and Senior Pilot Lt Peter Hiles.

Lt Treacher and Lt Hiles in formation Decemeber 1951, shortly after 778 NAS received their new aircraft.

Peter Hiles, being a keen artist, designed the Squadron crest and the ‘Eyes of the Fleet’ was born.

The submission to the Admiralty in July 1952 which was subsequently approved in May 1953.

With its powerful APS-20 radar the Skyraider AEW1 primary’s role was indeed AEW but the versatile aircraft could conduct submarine search, tactical direction of ASW aircraft and weather reconnaissance. The Skyraider also had a sizeable fuselage capacity and during the Suez Campaign it was discovered that by removing one of the observer’s seats, it was possible to load over 1000 cans of beer into the rear cabin – much to the delight of the troops on the beach! For the next 8 years the Skyraiders of 849 NAS Flights A,B,C,D & E provided the RNs organic AEW capability. 849D undertook the last deployment of the Skyraider, embarking on HMS ALBION on 5 February 1960 conducting a deployment in the Far East. Brian Elphick was part of the crew on the last operational sortie conducted by a Skyraider and relives the tale of a slightly longer flight than they had hoped!

HMS ALBION, on her last commission as a fixed wing carrier, was returning from a year long deployment to the Far East for Christmas on a tight schedule. The final exercise (Dec Ex) was the then normal carrier sweep of the Mediterranean once clear of the Suez Canal. The other carriers involved were HMS VICTORIOUS and HMS ARK ROYAL.

The exercise commenced on 9th Dec but on the 10th the weather deteriorated very rapidly. VICTORIOUS suffered rudder problems and sheltered in the Balearic Islands. Shortly after ARK ROYAL lost her starboard catwalk to a freak wave and went for shelter off the Spanish Mainland. The exercise and all flying was then cancelled. ALBION pushed on west alone but was then forced to go about when the stern impact was in danger of causing major damage. The priority was now to try to make Pompey in time for the ship’s company to clear customs and not spend Christmas anchored at Spithead awaiting port clearance. Christmas Day was on a Sunday that year and this early clearance was mandatory before the seasonal shore break.

As the storm abated VICTORIOUS asked ALBION to collect and deliver an oxy acetylene cutting rig from Gib to assist in freeing the steering .The scene was then set for the last Skyraider sortie by 849D, with a catapult launch from VICTORIOUS and a final recovery on ALBION. The crew Pilot Lt Benny Goodman, S/Lt Brian Elphick, accompanied by his normal right hand observer Lt Clive Turner, took off at 0830 on 13 Dec heading west for Gibraltar with full drop tanks.

The brief was to supply VICTORIOUS as requested and return before dark as ALBION now had no plane guard and weather conditions were unsuitable for a night landing, not in any way land on Spanish territory or even cross Spanish territorial waters, with an emergency declared a diversion to Lisbon as a very last resort. Any hope of a diplomatic clearance to return to the UK direct from Gibraltar was at that time a complete non-starter. The ship could not slow down or wait to recover us and make in Pompey in time. As we left 849D CO Lt Cdr Terry Butler was taking £5 bets from Cdr Air and other Sqn COs that we would be stuck in Gibraltar or even Lisbon for Christmas, awaiting clearance to the UK!

On arrival at North Front, unexpected mail for VICTORIOUS turned up but not the rig which had to be chased out of the dockyard. Finally, we took off from Gibraltar and found VICTORIOUS between Majorca and Ibiza, steering by main engines trying to find enough wind to launch her CAG, now released early to UK for Christmas. Eventually with enough wind we made a quick straight in.

Job done, a free take off was firmly refused due to a lack of wind over the deck. After more mail had been loaded we were launched by the strongest catapult launch of my career. We left VICTORIOUS at 1330 with the Captain wishing us the best of luck on making Pompey on time.

We returned to Gibraltar at 1630. The strength of the catapult launch had jammed the mail bags which were eventually recovered badly torn by the waiting postie. The resulting damage report, deemed to be necessary, was quickly completed and signed. At 1700 we set off again from Gibraltar, round Spain in pursuit of the ship now well past Faro, going at best speed north for the UK, along the coast of Portugal. In the fast gathering glum of winter dusk we landed back on A at 1805. In flyco we found Terry Butler collecting his £5 notes and ALBION did make Spithead in time for custom clearance before Christmas!

My log trip records the round trip 7 hr 5 mins flown.

D Flt sailing the Suez northbound on HMS Albion December 1960 under the command of Lt Cdr Terry Butler.

The Skyraider passed from front line service on 19 December 1960.

A New Generation. The Skyraider AEW Mk 1 was replaced by the Gannet AEW Mk 3 with 700G Flight, the intensive flying trials flight being re-designated as the HQ element of 849 NAS on 1 Feb 1960. The Squadron again adopted a model of an HQ element with up to 5 Flights which embarked in the carriers. These flights, each comprising four AEW and one COD Gannet were not assigned to any particular carrier and were formed as required. Each flight, A-E, had its own distinctive aircraft markings and the Squadron also operated Gannet AS4s and T5s for training purposes. The Squadron remained at Culdrose until it was transferred to RNAS Brawdy (HMS GOLDCREST) on 15 Dec 1964. The following exerts from PAF Grant’s Linebook (pictures 7,8,9) describes the move to the Promised Land!

849 relocated to RNAS Lossiemouth (HMS FULMAR) in November 1970 and continued to provide the RN organic AEW from the carriers. One particularly memorable occasion for the Squadron came in October 1972, when they hosted HRH The Prince of Wales at RNAS Yeovilton for Exercise Red Dragon. Tim Goetz, the CO of 849 NAS relives the tale.

As part of his Naval training in 1971 Sub Lt HRH the Prince of Wales RN was due to receive two days of familiarisation on the AEW Gannet and its role. However a dose of Royal ‘flu caused a postponement. By the time the exercise was rescheduled 849 Squadron’s base at Lossiemouth had been handed back to the RAF, and tragically Tony Trudgett the Squadron QFI who was due to fly with HRH had been killed in a flying accident at Yeovilton.

By the time Exercise Red Dragon was rescheduled in 1972 I had taken command of 849 and was the only A2 QFI on the now depleted squadron, so it fell to me to be the pilot. A detachment of 849 aircrew, ground crew and a Gannet T5 (XG889) and an AEW3 (XL500) detached from RAF Lossiemouth to RNAS Yeovilton on 11 October, where final preparations were made and rehearsals carried out. 17 October was spent briefing HRH on the ground on the complexities of the Gannet and its radar, and deck-landing. The detailed briefing was carried out with the aid of copious slides of cartoons by 849 Observer “Paf” Grant. The aim of maintaining HRH’s attention was achieved for most of the time.

On the morning of 18 October I took off with Prince Charles in the centre cockpit of the T5 for a 1 hour flight. Prince Charles took the controls for much of the sortie. He had not piloted anything for a year but displayed considerable natural talent and judging by occasional whoops of delight enjoyed himself very much – quite rare in a Gannet T5! After a couple of demonstration MADDLs (Mirror Assisted Dummy Deck Landings) the trip ended with HRH landing the aircraft on the short runway at Yeovilton with the aid of the Deck Landing Mirror Sight – not an easy task from the centre cockpit even with aid of the instructor’s periscope. His first approach resulted in a Royal “bolter”, but the second was a successful arrested landing into the wires.

After lunch we took off in XL500 for a 1½ hour AEW demonstration sortie with Prince Charles in the right hand Observer’s seat. In the left-hand seat was Lt David Roué as Instructor. We flew along the south coast so that Prince Charles could see the capabilities of the AN/APS 20F radar picking up shipping and aircraft contacts and controlling another aircraft. While he clearly appreciated what he was being shown I got the impression that he would have much preferred to be in the front cockpit!

On completion of the sortie I took HRH to meet the support crew of some 30 Maintainers. On walking into the crew-room he looked at the sea of faces and asked “Does it really take this many people to maintain a Gannet?” A small Naval Air Mechanic at the back (who would have made an ideal subject for Naval cartoonist Tugg) replied “It does if you’re flying in it, Sir!”

Lt Cdr Tim Goetz briefing HRH on the T5

The Ex Red Dragon badge, designed by Paf Grant for the occasion

HRH strapping into the AEW3 under the watchful eye of Lt David Roué.

The Gannet AEW3 was at the time an interim solution until the planned introduction of a new purpose built AEW platform for use on the planned CVA-01 aircraft carriers. Neither the new aircraft carriers or the aircraft were procured and 849 NAS was decommissioned for a second time on 15 December 1978.

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