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The Flight Deck

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posted on 2024-06-05, 18:11 authored by Their Finest Hour Project Team

I had known that the journey I was going to make today was not likely to be an easy one. Memories, bad ones, were going to be everywhere. When Betty and I had made arrangements to come down on our annual holidays to visit our eldest son and his wife at their new home in the small market town of Alton in Hampshire, I wondered if we would end up making this journey. I had known that if he did say we should go, it would be a bad idea, and it was. I also knew that there was no way I could avoid saying we would make the journey. He would never be able to fully understand the emotions the trip would create - emotions I thought I had put behind me a long time ago. Being so close to Lee-On-Solent where I had been based with the Fleet Air Arm for some of the Second World War had made this trip almost inevitable.

I had spent less than a year on board the aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious during the war. The ship was on a duty station which ran from Cape Town in South Africa to Trincomalee on the Island of Ceylon. We patrolled this stretch of ocean to support the French invasion of Madagascar (known as Operation Ironclad) as well as prevent Japanese warships heading west or German warships heading east from making use of the Suez Canal. I had been posted there after being elevated to the rank of Leading Seaman. My earlier training and postings within the Fleet Air Arm had all been to shore based stations in the South of England.

On the Illustrious, I had quickly been assigned to one of the deck crews. Our job was to make sure aircraft were made ready for the pilots who would take them out on patrol each day, and then secure them below deck when they returned. Their job was to 'project power', that quaint expression which gave them free licence to carry out as much damage to enemy ships as they could. A Lieutenant - in our case James Carruthers - was officially in charge, but everyone in the unit worked on the basis that it was the Leading Seaman who knew what needed to be done.

'Ginger' Edwards had joined the crew a few days after I came aboard. He was full of the excitement that most teenagers had, feeling that he was doing an important job for his country. Dangers were in the background and kept firmly there.

As the two newcomers, we naturally came into quite close contact, in spite of our differences in both age (I had just turned twenty-one) and rank. I could see that behind the brash exterior there was a shyness and uncertainty to the youngster. He needed to have someone to act as an older brother to show him the ropes. It was a role I unconsciously slipped into. Within a short space of time, we were inseparable. On our occasional leaves we were never far apart. I learned all about his home life and how he had been determined to get away from his domineering father as soon as he could. On one occasion, while finishing a pint in a pub on the waterfront in Cape Town, he had explained how he had even used a friend's birth certificate to allow him to sign up before he reached the official minimum recruiting age. I couldn't bring myself to tell him about my own difficulties with my father, but it didn't matter. I could see he wasn't ready for those kinds of demons.

We said, as all comrades do, that we would meet up again after the war was over and spend time together.

Like many others, as soon as the war was over, other things came into my life. I married and, within a short space of time our first son was born. Creating a home and getting a job so that I could provide for my family became my only thoughts for some long time, made all the more necessary after twins and then a fourth (and then a fifth) child came along in (very) short succession. Any other thoughts had been pushed firmly into the back of my mind.

Now I was in the front passenger seat of my son's car, speeding towards that meeting that I had promised all those years ago. The memories almost overwhelmed me. I wondered how I would cope.

When the car stopped on the seafront at Lee-on-Solent, Betty wanted to get out with me to cross the road. Ian was quick to say "Mum, I think Dad might need just a few minutes by himself, don't you think? Why don't I turn the car around in that lay-by up there in front of us, and then bring it back so that I'm facing the right way for when we leave?" Betty subsided in the back seat, disappointment written across her face in large letters.

The obelisk was much bigger than I had thought. The legend running across the top of it read:

'These Officers and Men of
the Fleet Air Arm died in the service
of their Country and have
no grave but the sea'

My hand shook a little as it traced down the rows of names engraved in gold lettering. It came to rest on the one I had been looking for.

A/S R.F.Edwards

I remembered Richard Francis' shock of bright red hair as if he was still standing next to me on the flight deck. I also remembered the chock which had become wedged underneath the wheel of the Fairey Swordfish as it was ready to take off. I had run forward to release it - as the leading man, I felt it was my responsibility. Lieutenant Carruthers had other ideas though. "Tell Ginger to do it, that's an order," he shouted into the wind. I did as I was told.

Ginger knew, as we all did, that when you were that close to the aircraft and the engine was running, you kept your head down to protect your eyes against debris blown around in the downdraft from the propellers. As a result, he didn't pay as much attention as he should have to where he was running when he took the chock away.

I swept the pieces up myself. Lieutenant Carruthers apparently had pressing business elsewhere. No-one else knew or cared that Ginger would have been eighteen years old just two days later.

Jack Lumley
Chief Petty Officer - HMS Illustrious 1942


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Jack Lumley

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Ian Lumley

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Shared online via the Their Finest Hour project website.

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