Robert Hampton Gray was the last Canadian to earn the Victoria Cross during the Second World War. (submitted)

Remembering Hammy Gray, the B.C. ‘hick’ turned daredevil wartime flyer

BC Aviation Museum is out to host a memorial monument for Canada’s last Victoria Cross

It was almost uncanny.

How many times in almost 20 years of rummaging through those filing cabinets had my hand found itself reaching for that file? What were the odds, in a large room full of such cabinets, each of whose four drawers contained hundreds of folders, and all adding up to 10,000 files or more?

If it had been a lottery ticket I’d have been rich!

That file was like all the others in the old Victoria Press Ltd. Library (or morgue as some prefer): just a sealed manila envelope standing on its side, slit along the top edge for entry, and stuffed with newspaper clippings. Well, not always stuffed; sometimes a file consisted of a single obituary. I don’t recall that this one contained much more than one clipping, yellowed with age and deep amidst the “G”s when I first chanced upon it.

It was the terse, typed heading that had originally drawn my attention while looking for something else: GRAY, HAMPTON, VC. This, as it turned out, was incomplete. His full name, rank, military and honours status were Lieut. Robert Hampton Gray, VC (Victoria Cross), DSC (Distinguished Service Cross), RCNVR (Royal Canadian Navy Volunteer Reserve).

He was Canada’s last recipient of the British Commonwealth’s highest military honour during the Second World War and he was one of Canada’s last active casualties of that six-year-long conflict.

I knew from that first chance encounter with his pathetically small file in the VC Press library that I’d write about ‘Hammy’ Gray one day and that opportunity finally came with the Citizen’s special annual Remembrance Day edition in 2005. Three weeks ago, he returned to the fore with a two-page spread in the Times Colonist announcing that the Sidney-based BC Aviation Museum is seeking public donations for its own memorial to Robert Hampton Gray, VC.

The son of a jeweller, Gray was born in Trail in November 1917 and graduated from high school in Nelson in June 1936. Four years of art studies at the University of Alberta ended prematurely in August 1940 with his enlistment, as an ordinary seaman, in the RCNVR. He commenced pilot training on board HMS St. Vincent at Gosport four months later and completed his basic instruction the following October. As a newly-minted sub-lieutenant he was posted to HMS Daedalus for advanced training, then to HMS Huron. Finally, as a full-fledged pilot, he joined 757 Squadron at HMS Kestrel.

Known to his comrades as Hammy, he was said to be of medium height, slightly plump with straight blonde hair and a fresh boyish complexion. Ever cheerful and notoriously unhurried in everything he did, he endured with good humour — even playing the caricature of a backward colonial — when teased about his “hick” hometown in little-known British Columbia.

Transferred to 789 Squadron, HMS Afrikander, in May 1942, he served in South Africa and Kenya where, promoted to lieutenant, he was assigned to 877 Squadron and, for the next 15 months according to a naval biography, he “continu[ed] to add to his experience as a relatively senior fighter pilot…”

After a few weeks home on leave he joined the aircraft carrier HMS Formidable as replacement senior pilot — second in command — of the seaborne 1841 Squadron.

In August 1944, while piloting a ‘gull-winged’ Corsair fighter, he participated in Operation Goodwood, four attempts to bomb the German battleship Tirpitz in its lair in a Norwegian fjord. Although the raiders encountered a wall of anti-aircraft fire each time, Gray, during one attack, led his sections of Corsairs in a low-level strike against three enemy destroyers anchored in the fjord. Several of the aircraft, including Gray’s, were equipped with cameras which later showed that the “hick” from British Columbia had virtually flown “right down the [destroyers’] barrels”; his daring earning him a Mention In Dispatches.

As the war in Europe wound down in the spring of 1945, the Formidable was off to the Pacific to fight the Japanese. Off Okinawa, she survived several kamikaze attacks by Japanese pilots and her own aircraft flew numerous sorties. Gray, in the last weeks of July, led a strafing mission against enemy airfields and a strike against shipping and airfields in the Inland Sea area. For sinking a destroyer with his bombs, and his “already established record of fine operational service,” he was awarded the DSC.

On Aug. 9, 1945, the day of the atomic bombing of Nagasaki and three days after that of Hiroshima, and within five days of Japan’s surrender, the fighter-bombers of 841 Squadron took off from Formidable’s flight deck to attack three enemy airfields but a change of orders sent them in search of three warships at anchor in Onagawa Bay.

Flying in two four-plane sections, the Corsairs, each of which was armed with two 500-pound high-explosive bombs, approached from landward so as to have the jagged coastline for cover. Diving at 400 mph from 10,000 feet, they were met with a “holocaust of anti-aircraft fire [that] blossomed around and in front of them,” not just from the warships but from shore batteries which had been on the alert since the Corsairs flew over on their initial mission.

Ignoring the lethal barrage, Gray, in the lead, dove upon the Amakusa. When he was hit in the engine, his first bomb broke loose and exploded without doing injury to him or the enemy below. He continued his straight-line attack, not releasing his second bomb until he was little more than 40 feet above the sea. Only then, although it’s thought that he was wounded, did he begin his run-out.

From beginning to end his attack had taken less than a minute. In that microcosm of time his bomb doomed the Amakusa and most of her company to a watery grave. And the enemy guns, having found their mark, did the same for Lieut. Hammy Gray.

His last minutes were witnessed by S/Lieut. John Blade who’d dropped his own load and, as he emerged from the smoke and fire, from 300 yards behind, saw flames spurting from Gray’s port wing.

According to the Fleet Air Arm Museum, Gray’s Corsair began a deep bank to starboard, “then with wings ablaze rolled onto its back and plunged at full power into the waters of the bay. In Blade’s opinion the aircraft must have dived straight into the sea bed because hardly a trace of oil was left on the sea surface to mark Gray’s entry…”

Regrouping, the surviving fighter-bombers (a second was also shot down whose pilot survived) delivered a second attack under the leadership of S/Lieut. MacKinnon. They didn’t have to concern themselves with the Amakusa, she having already gone down, so the airmen concentrated on the other vessels and severely damaged them before returning to HMS Formidable where Blade safely belly-landed his damaged aircraft.

V-J Day came just six days later, on Aug. 15. On Nov. 12, 1945, Lieut. Robert Hampton Gray was gazetted as Canada’s sixth and last airman to receive the Victoria Cross.

His abbreviated commendation reads: “On 9 Aug 1945 at Onagawa Wan, Honshu, Japan, Lieutenant Gray led an attack on a Japanese destroyer. In the face of fire from shore batteries and heavy concentrations of fire from some five warships, he pressed home his attack, flying very low in order to ensure success. Although he was wounded and his aircraft in flames he obtained at least one direct hit, sinking the destroyer. His aircraft crashed into the bay.”

In 1978 Ikuhiko Hata described a memorial ceremony staged at Onagawa Bay by Japanese naval veterans. Among those in attendance was L/Cmdr. Takeo Kojima, captain of a minesweeper who lost his ship, a leg and 157 comrades on that memorable day in August 1945. Another veteran, a survivor of the Amakusa who was just 17 at the time, pointed to where his escort ship had gone down after being hit by Lieut. Gray’s bomb. He marvelled at the pilots’ daring as they roared down through the clefts in the coastal hills and literally skimmed the waves as they made their first attack.

Incredibly, 30 years ago, the Japanese government formally acknowledged Gray’s heroic attack on its naval forces by approving the installation of a memorial overlooking the battle scene. It’s the only such monument to a former enemy ever erected in Japan. As a result of the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami, the memorial was relocated and rededicated in August 2012.

The BC Aviation Museum has embarked upon a memorial to Lieut. Robert H. Gray to grace the entrance to the museum at the Victoria International Airport. Deductible donations can be made to the “Lieut. Gray Fund” care of the Naval Association of Canada Endowment Fund, PO Box 42025, Oak Bay, Victoria, B.C., V8R 6T4, or by going online to canadahelps.org.

The memorial is to be dedicated on Aug. 9, 2020, just days before the 75th anniversary of the end of the Second World War in August 1945.

www.twpaterson.com

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