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75th anniversary of the Royal Navy’s last VC winner

75th anniversary of the Royal Navy’s last VC winner
9 August 2020
It is unlikely you will have heard of the Onagawa Wan, a large bay on the east coast of Japan’s main island Honshu, some 250 miles north of Tokyo.

Beyond a small town/port there’s little of significance here, except a nuclear power station.


But it was in such bays that the Japanese Navy was preparing to make its last stand, sacrificing what surface ships it still had left to defend the mother islands at all costs.


For despite the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima three days earlier, there has been no word from Tokyo that it was willing to capitulate. The war would go on.


US President Harry Truman warned the Japanese if they refused to surrender they should prepare for “a rain of ruin from the air, the like of which has never been seen on this earth. Behind this air attack will follow sea and land forces in such numbers and power as they have not yet seen and with the fighting skill of which they are already well aware.”


Among them, the British Pacific Fleet – the largest and, arguably most effective, fighting force the Royal Navy has ever mustered: four battleships, over 20 fleet, light and escort carriers, 11 cruisers, 35 destroyers, 31 submarines, more than a dozen frigates and scores of minesweepers, sloops, auxiliaries and escorts.


After the terrible defeats of 1941 and 1942, when the RN’s presence east of Suez was all but eliminated, the crushing of the German and Italian Navies had allowed the Admiralty to increasingly refocus its efforts in the final year of World War 2, concentrating on Japan.


It was outnumbered by the US Navy’s formidable Pacific Fleet to which it was assigned. But this was no token effort.

In July and August 1945 alone, British carriers accounted for one quarter of the enemy shipping sunk or damaged by air power – 356,000 tons of Japanese shipping.


British submarines accounted for 34 Japanese vessels – two out of five of them enemy warships including the cruiser Ashigara, dispatched by HMS Trenchant in the Banka Strait off Sumatra.

“We learnt later that we had drowned 800 of the enemy, but this horror did not cause us to lose any sleep at all,” Trenchant’s skipper Commander Arthur Hezlet recalled.


“We thought of the Exeter, whose destruction had been wrought mainly by the Ashigara. We also remembered Prince of Wales and Repulse, the Dorsetshire, Cornwall and Hermes – all victims of the Imperial Japanese Navy.”

At 13,000 tons, Ashigara was the largest Japanese warship to fall victim to the Silent Service.

While the Silent Silence gnawed at what was left of the once-mighty Imperial Japanese Navy and merchant marine, the Fleet Air Arm inflicted death by a thousand cuts on Japan’s ability to wage war.


Having begun the war with biplanes, naval aviators entered the showdown with Japan with the best carrier-based aircraft British and American factories: fighters such as the Seafire (the navalised Spitfire) and Hellcat, the pre-eminent interceptor in the second half of the Pacific War, the Grumman Avenger torpedo bomber, the Fairey Barracuda dive/torpedo bomber, and the superb Vought Corsair, the epitome of a strike fighter.


Three dozen Corsairs provided the core striking power of HMS Formidable, flagship of the 1st Aircraft Carrier Squadron.


Formidable had survived kamikaze strikes off Okinawa in May, but been forced to head to Sydney for repairs, before re-entering the fray.


She did so with a vengeance. Her aircraft struck at airfields around Tokyo, merchant shipping, seaplane bases and one destroyer.


The latter was dispatched by 27-year-old Canadian Lieutenant Robert Hampton Gray, known as Hammy, a man with boyish good looks and captivating smile – but ruthless and fearless in the cockpit.


At 8.35 on the morning of August 9, Gray climbed into the cockpit of his Corsair for another strike mission; the attack against an airbase at Matsushima had been cancelled – Gray was to seek targets in Onagawa Wan where enemy shipping had been sighted.


He had been told not to take unnecessary risks – there was a possibility that war with Japan might end, the Soviet Union had that morning attacked Japanese forces in Manchuria to compound the empire’s misery – but when he sighted five enemy ships in harbour, Gray pressed home the attack with vigour.


Coming in as low as 50ft and leading the attack, Gray drew the bulk of enemy fire – so ferocious was it that it shot away one of his 500lb bombs. The second however he hurled into the coastal defence ship Amakusa, which exploded in the engine room and detonated the magazine. But as Gray’s Corsair passed over his crippled foe, it was engulfed in flame and corkscrewed into the sea.


From attacks against Hitler’s flagship Tirpitz in the Norwegian fjords to strikes against Japan, Robert Hampton Gray had “consistently shown a brilliant fighting spirit and most inspiring leadership”. His final act, sinking the Amakusa, earned him the Victoria Cross.


It was the final VC of 182 awarded in World War 2 and to date, the last earned by the Fleet Air Arm and Royal Navy.


For all his valour, it is doubtful Hampton Gray’s actions had any impact on Tokyo. But around the same time as his comrades landed back on Formidable, the second nuclear bomb dropped in anger, Fat Boy, exploded over Nagasaki.

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