Yesterday I was privileged to join my father at the 68th (and last) reunion of WW2 Fleet Air Arm servicemen trained at HMS St Vincent in Gosport, which took place at the Navy Club in Hill Street, behind Park Lane in London.
The original HMS St Vincent was a first-rate ship launched on 11th March 1815 but not put into commission until 1829 when she became the flagship of William Carnegie, 7th Earl of Northesk. She was eventually converted into a training ship for boys in 1862 and was broken up in 1906.
The shore-based HMS St Vincent was commissioned in 1927 as a training establishment for boys going into the navy.
At the beginning of WW2, the shore-based HMS St Vincent stopped training boys – this task was moved elsewhere – and switched to becoming an overflow from the nearby Royal Navy Barracks and the job of training Fleet Air Arm servicemen.
The HMS ST Vincent ‘ship’s officer’ (administrator) who originally organised these Fleet Air Arm reunions subsequently died in 1970 and his son – who never served – then took on the task and has carried it on for these past 45 years. However, with the number of survivors having dwindled below double figures, he announced a few months ago that yesterday’s would be the last.
In all there were five of us at the table and just two who had passed through HMS St Vincent besides my father – Gerald Owen and Gordon Passmore.
Gerald Owen, now 92 and complaining that he could neither hear nor (worse) see as well as he would have liked, had been a tail-gunner. I asked him about his experiences of flying in the sometimes-maligned Swordfish aircraft and he immediately replied that in the eighteen months between qualifying in November 1942 (aged 19) and 1944, he had flown in no fewer than 264 missions and never endured even a burst tyre. He added “Mind you, since a Swordfish’s top speed, flat out, was only 90 knots, in a serious head wind you might be making forward progress at the rate of only about 30mph …!”
Gordon Passmore, from Swansea, will be 92 this September – he was what was described (rank-wise) as a TAG. He volunteered straight from school in August 1941 and was called up in June 1942, flying Seafires – effectively Spitfires adapted for sea – with 808 Squadron until August 1944, when he was then trained on the Hellcat and sent to Ceylon in January 1945.
Over a three-course meal and a bottle of house wine, these Fleet Air Arm comrades reminisced over their days in Gosport – the names of legendary instructors Wilmot and Savage were well to the fore in anecdotes – and laughed plenty.
At the end of the meal, after various toasts, as I sped away to retrieve my vehicle from a NCP car park off Shepherd’s Market, they parted with handshakes and, I suspect, some wistful unspoken regrets at the nature of the occasion.
However, as I drove away with my parent afterwards, there was little sentiment in his conversation. He was delighted to have been at the gathering one last time but, by the same token, as he put it, “There was really very little point in going on”.
I could but agree with him, whilst simultaneously reflecting with some sadness that all such things must indeed (perhaps) come to an end.