RCN News - - Front Page - BY MICHAEL WHITBY



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.

Part One

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: wwi­ive­hi­

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

Photo: cour­tesy Shep­pard pa­pers

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.

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