Navy Blue FIGHTER PILOT
THE WARTIME NAVAL AVIATION CAREER OF LIEUTENANT DON SHEPPARD Canada's Only Corsair Ace
A THREE PART SERIES
EPISODE ONE: FIRST A SAILOR, THEN AN AVIATOR
Canadians like their fighter pilots. Perhaps more than any other figures in our military heritage they are a source of pride and admiration that even transcends generations. Bishop, Barker, Beurling, Collishaw and Gray are amongst those who receive the most acclaim—in the typical understated Canadian way—but there are many others whose names, if not celebrated, still ring familiar and are held with respect. Donald John Sheppard is one of those lesser lights: “A gallant young fighter pilot with plenty of dash and enthusiasm”, according to his superior officer.
Because he flew for the Royal Navy from a British aircraft carrier and met his greatest success on the other side of the world in theatres of war not as well known to Canadians, his name does not resonate as much as some others. In fact, Sheppard is probably better known in the United Kingdom than he is in Canada--the British company Hobbymaster has produced a die-cast model of the Corsair he flew in the Pacific and his exploits have graced the covers of books and journals published in the UK. But, as this study of his Second World War service demonstrates, his career is worthy of attention.
The quiet young man from Toronto—he was just 21 when the war ended—faced a range of experiences in operations that took him from north of the Arctic Circle to south of the Equator, and which put him at the forefront of some of the most significant missions carried out by the Royal Navy in the Second World War. During this time Sheppard fulfilled his duties as a fighter pilot with exemplary ability; an indication of his skill is that he met enemy aircraft six times in aerial combat and on each occasion emerged the victor. The goal is not to heighten acclaim for Sheppard—his modesty would protest any such motive—rather to portray the experiences of a young Canadian at war, one who through skill, opportunity and fortune, realized tremendous success that earned him the respect of his colleagues and superiors.
One of the happy side-effects of biographical history is that the study of an individual opens avenues into related subjects. Don Sheppard was a naturally skilled fighter pilot, but that alone does not account for his success. He took his training and preparation extremely seriously—for example, he preserved several critical training documents for continued study—and an examination of his professional development demonstrates its critical influence on his success and, perhaps, even his survival. Likewise, by tracing his flying experiences on almost a mission-by-mission basis, a process made possible through rarely used primary source material such as training and combat reports as well as the author’s interviews with Sheppard, one can weave his experience into the overall context of the campaigns in which he flew, creating greater understanding of those events. Finally, through Sheppard we gain insights into the operational history of the Chance-Vought Corsair, his favorite aircraft; life in the 47th Naval Fighter Wing and 1836 Naval Air Squadron, the units to which he belonged;
and flying from the aircraft carrier HMS Victorious, the ship in which he was proud to serve. We are also introduced to his fellow naval aviators, including one of the outstanding fighter leaders of the Second World War, Lieutenant-Colonel Ronnie Hay, as well as a number of Canadians who also deserve to be remembered. We are not just shining a light on Don Sheppard, but on the experiences of a group of young men wearing darkblue who flew at sea in the latter years of the Second World War. As with the other ‘fighter boys’ who went to war, theirs is a tale worthy of illumination.
Don Sheppard’s entry into the service was probably fairly typical of anyone from a Canadian household with boys of enlistment age. During summers at the family cottage on Lake Simcoe, Ross Sheppard instilled a love of sailing in his three boys so it is not surprising that all three went into the navy. The eldest brother Bill was the first to go, accepted into the RCNVR and heading overseas in the summer of 1940. Don, the youngest of the three boys, bucked the natural order. Still attending Toronto’s Lawrence Park Collegiate, as he later recalled, he had joined the militia “with no particular aim in mind but to get some experience in the military before the war was over—since this was 1940 or 41, you can see that I was pretty young and naïve.” His next action discloses early signs of the cunning and initiative—and humor—generally associated with successful fighter pilots:
One day in 1941 I found an application form for the Fleet Air Arm on my brother’s desk in the room which we shared at home. On reading the form I discovered that the Royal Navy was actively recruiting Canadians for the Fleet Air Arm. It was apparent to me that I was far better qualified than my brother to enter this service which had fired my imagination with its success at Taranto and in the destruction of the Bismarck. I therefore filled in the application (unbeknownst to my broth-
er) and sent it off to an address in Halifax along with the necessary supporting papers. Much to my surprise (and my brother’s) I received a reply in about a week’s time instructing me to get an aircrew medical from the RCAF and pay my own way to Halifax as soon as I was 18, which I did.
Arriving on the east coast in January 1942, Sheppard reported to HMS Saker, a ‘stone frigate’ consisting of a small cluster of buildings on the airfield at Eastern Passage, now CFB Shearwater. There, after passing a preliminary interview, he swore allegiance to the King, received the lofty rank of Naval Airman 2nd class (NA II), and was issued with a Pay and Identity book, uniform, hammock and kit bag. Days later he embarked in the armed merchant cruiser HMS Alcantara, which proceeded to the UK in convoy HX-174. A reminder that he was off to the war came on the night of 17 February 1942 when a U-boat torpedoed a ship in the convoy.
Sheppard reported to HMS Daedalus, the Fleet Air Arm’s (FAA) main establishment at Lee-on-Solent, where he immediately received another opportunity for sober reflection.
On 12 February 1942, the day before Sheppard arrived in the United Kingdom, Fairey Swordfish of 825 Squadron had been decimated in a futile attack on the battlecruisers Gneisenau and Scharnhorst during the infamous ‘Channel Dash’. 825 was based at Lee-on-Solent, and Sheppard’s first duty upon arrival at Daedalus was to attend the memorial service. “When advised at the service that the entire squadron had been shot down”, he recalled, “I had some misgivings about the military service I had chosen to pursue and made a silent wish that I would ultimately be selected to be trained as a fighter pilot rather than a torpedo/bomber/reconnaissance (TBR) pilot.” That decision was some time away, and after passing a final selection board, Sheppard spent the next few months receiving basic naval training at HMS St Vincent in Gosport. The RN took great pains to emphasize that the FAA was just one branch of the navy: in the words of aviation historian Stuart Soward, “One aim of St Vincent was to instill in all Royal Navy aircrew the over-riding doctrine that an airman is first and last a seaman.” According to Ted Davis, another Canadian on Sheppard’s 38th Pilots Course, “This was where we were indoctrinated into the navy, where we were inspired to become naval airmen. The living conditions were spartan, the discipline was rigid, and the food was anything but appetizing. And yet I know the majority of those who trained there will recall those days with a certain amount of nostalgia.”
Aviation trainees passing out of St Vincent entered one of two schemes: initial pilot training by the RAF in the UK followed by advanced training with the RCAF in Canada, or completing all stages with the United States Navy. Sheppard took the latter route, probably on the basis of personal choice. This program was known as the Towers Scheme, after Captain John Towers USN, who proposed in the summer of 1940 that the USN train FAA carrier pilots for service in American Lend-Lease aircraft. The scheme ultimately produced more than a third of the RN’s pilots and enabled many of their squadrons to work-up in superior circumstances in the USA.
Sheppard’s initial flying training proceeded routinely. He began at the Flight Preparatory School at Naval Air Station (NAS) Grosse Ile outside Detroit, Michigan. Known as an ‘E-’ or Elimination-Base, the sprawling base at Grosse Ile was home to about 3,000 personnel including 750 student pilots. It was basic flying school, so one mistake and you washed-out. On 15 September 1942, Sheppard went up for the first time in a Spartan NP-1 primary trainer, with Lieutenant (j.g.) Syd Roth USNR as his instructor. The two flew together a lot over the next few months, and years later Sheppard remembered Roth’s kindness and patience, and how he instilled him with confidence. On 25 September, after 12.8 hours dual, Sheppard successfully soloed in a NP-1 numbered 3689. He continued to refine his skills, mostly under Roth’s tutelage, and at the end of September moved up to the more powerful Stearman Kaydet with increased concentration on precision flying.
On 7 December 1942, after accumulating 48.3 hours at the controls, Sheppard graduated Primary Flight Training— in the certificate stamped in his logbook, Roth wrote “No noticeable points to watch.” With that hurdle behind him, Sheppard headed south to the USN’s main aviation training center at Pensacola, Florida for Intermediate Flight Training. It was probably at this point that he was selected for fighters, and at Pensacola he flew the heavier and more powerful Vultee SNV -1 Valiant as well as variants of the North American SNJ Texan. Training serials prepared him for many aspects of carrier flying, including formation flying, night operations, aerobatics, gunnery training and dummy deck landings. When he left
Pensacola in mid-May he had 141.8 daytime hours as pilot, 5.8 at night. His status also improved: he was now a gentleman flyer with the exalted rank of Temporary Midshipman (A), Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve (RNVR). He was probably more proud of the fact that he had earned the right to wear the wings of both the Royal and United States navies.
The next stages of Sheppard’s training through the second half of 1943 were the most influential in his development as a naval aviator and saw him begin to fine-tune the specialized skills of a fighter pilot. From 20 May to 2 July 1943 he undertook the Royal Navy Fighter Course at NAS Miami, located at Opa Locka airfield, a little more than ten miles north of downtown Miami. This was an important milestone. Not only would Sheppard learn the finer points of fighter combat, but for the first time since leaving the United Kingdom, he would be imbued with Royal Navy, rather than USN, doctrine, tactics and procedures. In short, although there was still some involvement with USN instructors, he would learn to fight from a FAA perspective. For this, Sheppard was in good hands. The Fighter Course was headed by Lieutenant-Commander Donald Gibson DSC RN, who had a remarkable wartime career. He had flown Gloster Gladiators and Blackburn Skuas in the trying 1940 Norwegian campaign where, amongst other harrowing experiences, he survived a doomed raid on German warships in Trondheim harbour. On what became known as ‘Black Thursday’ throughout the FAA, eight of fifteen Skuas were shot down. Gibson, who retired as a Vice-Admiral, compared it to the Charge of the Light Brigade, pointedly observing that “ideally all future admirals should ideally be shot at in an aeroplane while they are still young.” In the Mediterranean, Gibson shot down three enemy aircraft in operations at Oran and Dakar, and flying a Fairey Fulmar during the Battle of Matapan, destroyed a JU-88 and boldly strafed the Italian battleship Vittorio Veneto. On a mission soon after, his Fulmar was shot-up by enemy aircraft causing Gibson to crash while landing on HMS Formidable; after skidding over her bow into the sea, he could clearly hear the carrier’s screws as she thundered overhead. He got out but his Observer did not. Later, Gibson commanded 802 Squadron flying Grumman Martlets off HMS Audacity, where he had another narrow escape when the carrier was torpedoed and sunk during the battle over convoy HG-76. By any measure, Gibson had seen a lot, and he took great pains to pass his considerable know-how along to the budding naval aviators under his tutelage.
As one example, Gibson distributed a 32-page primer on fighter operations titled “Straight from the Horse’s Mouth”, which he authored with other instructors at the fighter school.
Based on “experience, sometimes bitter”, its purpose was to give the young flyers a reference book to recall the important elements of their training after they went into action. Gibson explained “the art of being a fighter pilot consists of thirty percent knowledge and seventy percent horse sense, neither being any use without the other”, and he expanded upon that credo in chapters covering subjects such as General Advice to the Fighter Pilot, Strafing, Formation and Escort, Harmonizing of Guns, and Deflection Shooting. Some aspects of that advice would prove particularly influential to Sheppard. As just one example, Sheppard recalled “At that time, the USN doctrine called for fighters to come in high with the bombers and accompany them down in their attack in steep dives in order to provide FLAK suppression. However, when we arrived in Miami the RN Liaison Officer [Gibson] advised us to disregard the USN strafing techniques and concentrate our efforts on a very low level high speed approach to the target which was only to be attacked once.”
“Keep low”, Gibson advised in his chapter on strafing in “Straight From the Horse’s Mouth”, and “when I say Low I do not mean keep at about fifty feet, I mean five. Let your airscrew be just above the ground.” And “never do more than one run on the target. It is highly wasteful and it is likely that a further run would not be effectual, but merely costly in the pilots of your Squadron.” Sheppard’s logbook shows that from 3 –5 May he flew five sorties that focused exclusively on “British strafing.” Although Gibson’s instruction would prove sound, strike doctrine was far from uniform throughout the FAA and varied amongst squadrons, fighter wings and task groups depending on the whim and experience of leaders, with the result that pilots like Sheppard sometimes had to follow tactics that went against their conviction and training.
During his two months at the Fighter School, Sheppard put in 26.9 hours solo, 1.5 at night. Evolutions included aerial combat, strafing, formation flying and navigation serials
over both land and sea. The bulk of this flying was in SNJ variants but in mid-June he ‘graduated’ to the Brewster F2A-3 Buffalo. Although the obsolescent Buffalos were the subject of derisive criticism—Gibson described them as “probably the worst fighter aircraft produced by any allied country during the war”—they nonetheless remained a second-line naval fighter, and for Sheppard they were a step up from training aircraft. He was finally flying a fighter. His classmate, Don ‘Pappy’ MacLeod, a fellow Canadian, put it this way: “In those days we thought Brewster Buffaloes were pretty good—all we wanted to do was to go 300 miles an hour. It may sound pretty silly today, but to go 300 miles an hour was our aim, so we got into those airplanes and did things like that.” On 2 July, Gibson endorsed Sheppard’s certificate “Completed R.N. Fighter Course”, assessing his abilities as “Average”. In the typically understated parlance of the Royal Navy that meant that he was as good as most of his contemporaries, and thus had the potential to be, at the very least, a competent naval aviator. With another step behind him, Sheppard headed north to NAS Quonset Point, Rhode Island where he undertook a month of ground training before heading to NAS Lewiston in Maine where his operational training began in earnest.
“Hard hitting aviation units of the British navy are training for aircraft carrier service”, declared one New England newspaper: “Units of the British Fleet Air Arm, using wallop packing American planes, are going through the tough and exacting training for aircraft carrier operations.” Sheppard found it tough and exacting, indeed. To this point, his flying record had been free of calamity but that soon changed. At NAS Lewiston Sheppard joined the FAA’s 738 Squadron, which was responsible for providing advanced training to students who had received their preliminary training in the USN system. 738’s fighter complement was a dramatic step up from SNJs and Buffalos, and included front-line Grumman Martlet Mk Vs and Chance Vought Corsair Mk Is. Sheppard received his cockpit check-out on Martlets from 738’s CO, Lieutenant Commander John Reed, RN, on 5 August 1943, but pranged before he got airborne on his first flight. His logbook gives no detail beyond “Crashed on take-off”, however, a compilation of wartime flying accidents in Maine reveals that his aircraft swung off the runway and suffered moderate damage—Sheppard probably had difficulty coping with the Martlet V’s increased torque or its narrow undercarriage, and lost control. He got right back on the horse, and starting the next day, began a series of successful flights in Martlet Vs. On 23 August, however, he had a close call when he was forced to make an emergency landing after his aircraft sustained serious damage in a collision with another Martlet during formation flying. Such incidents occurred on a regular basis, and during Sheppard’s two months at Lewiston and NAS Brunswick, FAA pilot trainees were involved in some 60 accidents
from mishaps while taxiing, to prangs during landing and taking off, to devastating mid-air collisions. Flying was a dangerous business, and if Sheppard took anything from these experiences, it was that fortune played an important role in survival and that things happened extremely quickly in modern, high performance fighters.
After accumulating 20 hours in Martlets, in the third week of October 1943, Sheppard began his operational career when he joined 1835 Squadron at NAS Brunswick, Maine. 1835 was a newly-formed front line squadron designated to join the 47th Naval Fighter Wing in the aircraft carrier HMS Victorious. The Wing concept, long utilized by the RAF, was new to the FAA. Previously, operational training and deployment had been based upon individual squadrons, but in the summer of July 1943 senior officers realized that the growth of the naval air arm had reached the point where they needed to adjust. One officer explained how “Recent visits to RAF Wings have made it abundantly clear how far we have lagged behind in the tactics of operating large numbers of aircraft, and how roughly we shall be handled by a wellorganized enemy if we persist in using our existing method.” In the new organization, operational squadrons were assigned to either Torpedo/Bomber/Reconnaissance (TBR) or Naval Fighter Wings. After conducting work-ups at the squadron level, they would move on to individual Wing training, and then conduct joint TBR/fighter-wing training before joining a carrier. The 47th and 15th Naval Fighter Wings—the latter destined for HMS
Illustrious— were, at that time, the only wings equipped with Chance Vought Corsairs.
Don Sheppard became inexorably linked with the powerful bent-winged Corsair, arguably one of the most capable fighters of the Second World War. “There is nothing about a Corsair that good pilot technique can’t handle”, a USN training film boasted, “…at cruising speed [she] hums along like a sewing machine…with plenty of guts in her engine, plenty of sting in her guns.”
The Corsair’s design and development are not central to Sheppard’s story, yet how it came to enter FAA service is germane. The RAF’s control over most aspects of naval aviation for much of the inter-war period meant that development of British carrier-borne aircraft had suffered badly. Consequently, at the outbreak of war the FAA was forced to combat modern enemy fighters and bombers with antiquated or deficient aircraft such as the Fairey Gladiator, Blackburn Skua and Fairey Fulmar. Help was sought through the adoption of RAF Hurricanes and Spitfires modified for carrier operations, but although they offered better performance, they did not stand up well to the rigors of flying off carriers. With its next generation carrier aircraft still on the drawing board, the Royal Navy turned to the United States to fill the void, and gladly accepted Grumman Wildcats, Avengers and Hellcats as well as Corsairs through Lend-Lease. Whereas the USN had initially rejected the Corsair as a carrier aircraft the FAA made it work and ultimately accepted some 2,012 of the fighters. Corsairs stirred varying emotions in those that flew them. In his book The Forgotten Fleet, historian John Winton explained, with “its general air of scarcely controlled menace, it inspired almost as much fear in the hearts of those who were going to fly it as in the enemy.” Winton cites the reaction of 1833’s Senior Pilot, Lieutenant Norman Hanson, RNVR, the first time he laid eyes on what he derisively called “the bent wing bastard”:
“The sentry on the hangar which held our Corsairs showed us into a side-door and we went up a stair case on to a balcony overlooking the hangar. There were these monsters. Really, they looked killers to me. They were the most dangerous bloody looking things I had ever seen. I’m not ashamed to admit it, that night I made a will.”[ Sub-Lieutenant Hugh Pawson, a Canadian who later flew in 1833 under Hanson, had a different reaction, scrawling “One man’s opinion!” beside Hanson’s complaint in his personal copy of The Forgotten Fleet. ’Pappy’ MacLeod thought reactions to the Corsair could be generational: he shared Pawson’s view and thought ‘sprogs’ like them who had been through the US training system had more of an affinity for the so-called “killer plane” than FAA veterans who had trained earlier on British aircraft. Perhaps the fairest and most cogent analysis of the Corsair came from Major R.C. ‘Ronnie’ Hay, a Royal Marine (RM) who was later to become Sheppard’s wing leader in the Far East and the Pacific. Hay had flown British naval fighters since the beginning of the war, and had fought the enemy in obsolescent or illequipped aircraft such as Blackburn Rocs and Skuas, Fairey Fulmars and early marks of Supermarine Seafires. After continually facing long odds in those aircraft, the Corsair was a revelation. It was “an absolutely marvelous aircraft”, Hay recalled:
The US Navy Corsair was just the right aircraft for that war. It was certainly better than anything we had and an improvement on the Hellcat. It was more robust and faster and although the Japs could out-turn us in combat, we could out-climb, out-dive and out-gun him. By far the most healthy improvement was its endurance, with about five hours fuel in your tanks, you don’t have the agony of wondering whether or not you will make it back to the carrier.
After suffering with “inadequate aircraft” through the earlier part of the war, Hay remembered “it was a real relief we were on top.” Like Pawson, MacLeod, Sheppard and most others, Hay grew to love the Corsair, but there is no question that the fighter’s early reputation as an accident waiting to happen sparked a degree of anxiety amongst pilots.
On Saturday 23 October 1943, Lieutenant-Commander Michael Godson, 1835’s commanding officer, checked out Sheppard on the Corsair’s cockpit drill. Once satisfied, Godson told the young Canadian he was going away for the remainder of the weekend but he wanted him to be familiar with the aircraft by the time he returned. Shortly afterwards, Sheppard took off for his first flight in the fighter in which he was to make his reputation, flying Corsair Mk I JT-146 on a one-hour familiarization flight. In the afternoon he put in another hour in JT-155.[ xxv] “It was quite a shock” he recalled. “With its long nose and 2,100 hp engine the Corsair felt like you were riding on the tail of a torpedo.” “In my first ten hours in the Corsair”, he continued, “I was extremely careful not to do anything that might get me into difficulties. Each flight safely completed gave me the confidence to try further maneuvers and expand my knowledge of this magnificent aircraft. The first ten hours were certainly a mixture of trepidation, fear and excitement.”
Over the next month Sheppard flew Corsairs on an almost daily basis. The evolutions were typical of a squadron about to embark on operations: aerial firing, formation attacks, air-to-ground attacks, aerobatics, dogfighting and low-level flying. Sheppard started out flying Corsair Mk Is, but on 18 November, took his first flight in a Mk II. This version featured significant improvements, including a shorter, squared off wing (intended to enable it to fold its wings in the cramped hangars of RN carriers but with the happy side effect of improving its rate of roll), a long-stroke oleo leg on its landing gear that reduced bounce at touchdown, and an improved-visibility canopy—the latter two modifications made the Corsair Mark II and subsequent marks much more pilot-friendly for carrier deck landings than the Mark I.
From that point to the end of his operational career, Sheppard mainly flew Corsair IIs, with an occasional sortie in a Mk III, identical to the Mk II except that it was built by the Brewster Aeronautical Company.
Sheppard’s timing in switching to Mk IIs was not a coincidence since the squadron had begun to prepare for the most challenging aspect of naval aviation, landing on an aircraft carrier. For many, this was scarcely more than a controlled crash, and ‘sprogs’ in particular were acutely aware of the inherent dangers of landing on a small, moving deck. 1835’s pilots had carried out Aerodrome Dummy Deck Landings (ADDLs) to simulate carrier landing procedures throughout November, and on the 19th the squadron flew south to Norfolk, Virginia for the real thing. On 22 November, flying JT-224, Sheppard headed out over Chesapeake Bay for the escort carrier USS Charger— it is worth noting that although the USN expressed reluctance in flying Corsairs off large fleet carriers, the RN conducted its carrier qualifications on much smaller escort carriers (CVE). “On rendezvousing with the carrier”, Sheppard recalled, “My flight of four Corsairs joined the landing circuit, confident that our shore training would allow us to land safely. On my first approach I was astonished at the number of signals I received from the batsman. Signals were coming so quickly I could only respond to about half of them. However, I got safely over the stern and landed on the flight deck.”
It transpired that Lieutenant-Commander Godson had decided to assume the duties of Landing Signal Officer on the spur of the moment, replacing 1836’s Senior Pilot whom the pilots had practiced under previously. Despite this upset, Sheppard managed the requisite four successful carrier landings that fully qualified him as naval aviator. He went on to amass 98 deck landings in Corsairs without serious incident.
While Sheppard sweated through his first deck landings, the Admiralty disbanded 1835. Wanting to increase the strength of operational squadrons from 10 to 18 aircraft, the FAA folded some units together, and Sheppard and four others, including fellow Canadian, Sub-Lieutenant Barry Hayter, RNVR, transferred into 1836 Squadron.
The change would have given little pause since the two squadrons had been training together at NAS Brunswick and the pilots knew each other well. Sheppard carried just three training flights with 1836 before the squadron departed overseas, but one of these, a climb to 35,000 feet, took on added ‘twitch’, in pilots’ lingo. On an identical sortie two days earlier, his squadron mate, Sub-Lieutenant J.D. “Scruffy” Wallace, RNVR, lost control of his Corsair at that altitude and plummeted to his death, presumably because his oxygen system malfunctioned. Sheppard’s high-altitude sortie went without a hitch. Two weeks later the squadron flew to Norfolk, Virginia, where the pilots, ground crew and aircraft embarked in the escort carrier HMS Atheling for passage to the United Kingdom.
Atheling, commanded by Captain Ian Agnew, the first officer of the Royal Canadian Navy to command an aircraft carrier, transited the North Atlantic without incident in company with the troop convoy UT-6, transporting American GIs and materiel to England. After arriving in Belfast on 10 January, Sheppard went to RNAS Burscough in West Lancashire for the short instrument flying course conducted by 758 Squadron. Over the next three weeks, he put in 3 hours on Link trainers and 7.50 dual hours in Airspeed Oxford aircraft, most of it under ‘the hood’, and graduated on 2 February with an uninspired grade of ‘C’. Sheppard then moved to RNAS Machrihanish at Campbeltown, Scotland, where he began intense operational training prior to embarking in HMS Victorious, the aircraft carrier that was to be his home for the next 15 months.
Peruvian frigate Villavisencio, as part of a midshipman training cruise, visited Esquimalt and North Vancouver in June.
The Illustrious-class carrier HMS Victorious was Don Sheppard’s home from the time he went to sea in March 1944. Like her sister ships Illustrious, Formidable and Indomitable, Victorious was a workhorse of the Royal Navy, seeing action in critical operations in theatres around the globe. Designed to carry 36 aircraft, by the time Sheppard joined ‘Vic’ she was operating more than 50 which, with the additional crew required to fly and maintain them, imposed great stress on her organization and systems. The outstanding feature of the class turned out to be the armored flight deck, which allowed them to shake off damage that would have forced other carriers out of action. Photo: Imperial War Museum
Victorious pounds through heavy seas while working with the Home Fleet in northern waters during 1942. Her deck park features Fairey Albacore TBRs and a Fulmar fighter, both typical of the obsolescent aircraft the FAA had to rely upon at that stage of the war. The screen across the fore end of the flight deck was meant to block the wind, which could cause damage to the fragile biplanes and made it difficult for sailors to wrestle them around deck. The high seas and wind evident in this image demonstrate well the significant challenges naval aviators routinely faced when operating aircraft from the pitching deck of a carrier. Photo: courtesy Sheppard papers
The armed merchant ship HMS Alcantara. Prior to joining the navy Don Sheppard had never been outside Ontario, but after taking the long journey by train to Halifax, he found himself crossing the North Atlantic in a convoy that came under attack by U-boats. Photo: Imperial War Museum, © IWM (FL 386)
Naval Air Station Grosse Ile was located on the southern tip of Grosse Ile, Michigan, just south of Detroit. During the Second World War, NASGI was one of the largest primary flight training stations and it was there that more than 5,000 pilots, mostly naval cadets, received their introduction to flying. On 15 September 1942, Sheppard soloed at Grosse Ile in a Spartan NP-1 primary trainer. Image via Wikipedia
USN Brewster Buffaloes cavorting over NAS Miami. Although the Buffalo had earned a terrible reputation, they were the first fighters flown by young trainees like Sheppard, and a real step up from training aircraft. Canadian Don MacLeod probably put it best: “all we wanted to do was go 300 miles an hour...” Photos: US Navy via Warbird Information Exchange
The Grumman Martlet was a Godsend for the Fleet Air Arm since it was the first truly modern high performance fighter in their stable that was designed to operate from aircraft carriers. As it turned out Don Sheppard was not prepared for the Martlet’s power. Interestingly, the Royal Navy changed the names of the Grumman aircraft acquired through Lend-Lease: thus, Wildcats became Martlets; Avengers, Tarpons; and Hellcats, Gannets. To avoid confusion, they later reverted to their original American monikers. Photo: wwiivehicles.com
These two images show Mark I and Mark II Chance Vought Corsairs cruising over Maine in 1943. The most obvious difference between the two was the latter’s “improved-visibility canopy”—it is easy to see how the pilot’s view improved from the Mk I’s ‘birdcage’, and it also helped give the Corsair its classic look. One can also discern the Mk II’s shorter, squared-off wing. Note the Canadian Maple Leaf nose art on the Mk I. Photos: courtesy Howard King
Prangs were common at Maine as the young, inexperienced pilots learned that it was a big step to the high performance Chance Vought Corsair. Don Sheppard recalled his first hours flying Corsairs “were a mixture of trepidation, fear and excitement.” Here, a little heavy footwork on the brakes by another pilot results in a nose-over at NAS Brunswick. Photo: courtesy Howard King
A number of Royal Marines saw distinguished service with the Fleet Air Arm in the Second World War, and Lieutenant-Colonel ‘Ronnie’ Hay was amongst the most illustrious. He saw action in virtually every theater of the war, early on against terrible odds, and finished with a DSO, DSC and Bar, and an estimated four victories with nine shared (his original logbook went down with HMS Ark Royal, preventing a precise total). A skilled, inspirational and outspoken officer, Hay’s leadership and commitment to training were instrumental to the success of the 47th Naval Fighter Wing and Don Sheppard. Photo: courtesy Tony Holmes and Osprey Publishing
The newly formed 1835 Squadron pose with a Corsair at Brunswick, Maine. Sheppard is at right in the back row, Barry Hayter next to him. Next to Hayter is Peter King in the summer uniform. Photo via Howard King.
A mixed formation of Corsair I and IIs flying over the New England countryside. Sheppard and his squadron mates were airborne constantly during the autumn of 1943, fine-tuning all aspects of fighter combat in preparation for operations overseas. Photo: courtesy Howard King
HMS Atheling; the escort carrier (CVE) that took Sheppard and 1836 Squadron across the North Atlantic. Atheling was similar to USS Charger, the ship upon which Sheppard met his carrier qualification. Commanded by a Canadian, Captain Ian Agnew, RCN, Atheling went on to serve in the Indian Ocean with the Eastern Fleet. Photo: Royal Navy via NavSource.org
A Corsair landing on; its tail hook grasping for a wire. The Corsair’s high landing speed and long snout—Sheppard said it was “like riding on the tail of a torpedo”—made it a challenging aircraft to get on deck. Whereas the USN was initially reluctant to operate Corsairs even from its larger carriers, the FAA, desperate for modern fighters, made it work.