The Daily Telegraph
Captain Alan Hensher
Naval helicopter pilot decorated for his service in Borneo with the carrier Albion, the ‘Grey Ghost’
CCaptain Alan Hensher, born June 9 1928, died August 28 2022 APTAIN ALAN HENSHER, who has died aged 94, was an ardent advocate of naval air power who led his young pilots in appalling flying conditions over the Borneo jungle.
In 1962 the commando carrier Albion was about to cross the Equator in the Indian Ocean, and her captain about to be ducked in tribute to King Neptune, when a “flash” signal arrived ordering her to proceed to Borneo at full power. Briefly, some thought that this was some bizarre twist to the crossing-the-line ceremony, but a rebellion had broken out in Brunei and Borneo, prompted by Indonesia’s opposition to the creation of the Federation of Malaysia.
Hensher, in command of the embarked Wessex helicopters of 845 Naval Air Squadron, ordered immediate readiness. Within five days of the signal, Albion had landed Royal Marines of 40 Commando at several places on the coast, and in the next month Hensher’s helicopters had flown more than 1,200 sorties. Because of her frequent appearances off the coast at first light Albion quickly became known as the “Grey Ghost”.
Hensher identified the need for forward operating bases, which had to be carved out of the thick jungle, despite heavy rains which forced 845’s helicopters to fly in a gap that was often less than 50 feet between the dense cloud and the 200 feet-high tree canopy.
He also ordered his helicopters to fly in pairs, so that if one were forced down the other would be able to locate it, and he inspired the aircraft maintenance staff, who worked in primitive conditions.
Building on the Navy’s established practice of giving operational command to the commander on the ground instead of referring decisions back to some distant headquarters, Hensher established a rapport with the army at every level and ensured a successful campaign.
The achievements of 845 NAS’S achievements were all the more remarkable because 14 of Hensher’s pilots had less than 300 hours’ flying experience. The squadron was awarded the Boyd Trophy for its feats of aviation, and Hensher was appointed MBE.
Of Huguenot descent, Alan Anthony Hensher was born in London on June 9 1928; his father was a furniture manufacturer. He entered the Royal Naval College as a cadet in 1942: he was small and pugnacious, and it was predictive of his career that he should play in the college rugby 1st XV, the hockey 1st XI, and become captain of boxing.
As a midshipman, he completed his training in the cruiser Nigeria (194648), when she was escort to King George VI and the royal princesses on the 1947 royal tour to South Africa. Hensher first learned to fly in Tiger Moths, and subsequently flew the Seafire and then the Sea Fury and Wyvern fighters for 827 NAS in the carrier Eagle (1951-52).
Subsequently he flew the antisubmarine Firefly before converting to jets, but after qualifying in night fighting, and while serving with 891 NAS, he developed ear problems which were to trouble him for the rest of his life. After gaining his watchkeeping ticket in the dispatch vessel Surprise, Hensher retrained as a helicopter pilot, flying the Westland Whirlwind anti-submarine helicopter in 820 NAS in Northern Ireland and in the carrier Hermes in the Far East (1958-59).
He then served two years with the US Marine Corps based at El Toro in California, where he flew several types of helicopters. He learnt the latest, advanced state of the USMC’S thinking on amphibious operations – and also to “barbecue, and to appreciate the stringency of the martini”.
After command of 845 NAS, Hensher joined the staff of the Director of Naval Air Warfare (1964-66), held the unusual appointment of assistant defence attaché (Navy) at the British Embassy in South Vietnam (1966-67), and served as CO on the helicopter unit at the Joint Warfare Establishment at Old Sarum in Wiltshire (1967-68).
While Commander (Air) at HMS Seahawk, the Royal Naval Air Station at Culdrose (1968-69), Hensher was reunited with the engine of Sea Fury VR934, in which he had ditched in 1951. He recalled that he was “20 miles from the coast of Cornwall, enjoying some aerobatics, when there was a sudden change in the beat of the engine and a loss of power. I turned north for the coast, but continued to lose power, and ditched near a group of fishing boats, and touching down at about 95 knots in a cloud of spray.”
That was the last he saw of VR934 until a trawler dredged up the engine and he was obliged to have his photo taken sitting on top of it, observing, “you may judge which of us has worn the better in the intervening 18 years.”
Hensher returned to the Far East as Commander (Air) in the carrier Albion in 1970-72 and then to the Directorate Naval Air Warfare (1973-74), where he assisted the future Admiral of the Fleet Sir Ben Bathurst in writing the first drafts of the staff requirement for the Wildcat and Merlin helicopters.
On promotion to captain, Hensher’s career took another unusual turn. He became a student at the Canadian National Defence College at Kingston, Ontario, and served as naval adviser in Ottawa (1976-78). He held an appointment at the headquarters of the Commander-in-chief Fleet at Northwood (1979-80), before a final appointment, as naval attaché at The Hague (1981-83).
In retirement Hensher worked for the Cancer Research Campaign for two years, then in the family furniture, property and self-storage business.
An ardent advocate of naval aviation, he was chairman of the Fleet Air Arm Officers Association (1991-96), and campaigned hard for the Fleet Air Arm Memorial, “Daedalus”, which was unveiled by Prince Charles at Embankment Gardens in London in 2000.
A lifetime golfer – he was a member of Liphook Golf Club – and watercolourist (though he never sold a picture), he was the owner of a 1967 Jaguar/daimler and 1975 Rolls Royce Corniche Convertible. He liked to cook and appreciated fine wines.
In 1955 Alan Hensher married Val Ingram. She predeceased him and he is survived by their two sons: for many years the Canadian Joyce Dawson was his companion.