Golden Gate Wing Guest Speaker Archive

Presentation Date: June 28, 2007

Lieutenant Errol Mauchlan Royal Fleet Air Arm

Speaker Photo

* Observor (Navigator) on both Swordfish and Barracuda aircraft.
* Flew Swordfish bi-planes in 829 Squadron which became 810 Sqdn. in Eastern Fleet.
* Hospitalized in Mombasa with typhus - returned England to join RAF Sqdn. 78 via Alexandria, Egypt as Naval laison officer to lay mines from Halifax bombers.
* Assigned in Sept. '44 to 848 Sqdn. and began work up (training) in Barracudas on HMS Glory.
* Took Japanese surrender at Saipan - HMS Glory converted to hospital ship to pick up POW's enroute back to England.
* Returned to England via merchant ship. * Born 1921 in Earlston, Scotland, and educated in Earlston & Berwich.
* Volunteered to join the Royal Navy's Fleet Air Arm in June 1940 - called up in December 1940
* Trained in Gosport, England as Observor (navigator).
* Naval Gunnery School and Signals School in Portsmouth Harbor
* Commissioned and supposed to attend Royal Naval College in Greewich
* Assigned to HMS Illustrious, which he joined in Mombasa, Kenya
* Flew Swordfish bi-planes in 829 Squadron which became 810 Sqdn. in Eastern Fleet.
* Hospitalized in Mombasa with typhus - returned England to join RAF Sqdn. 78 via Alexandria, Egypt as Naval laison officer to lay mines from Halifax bombers.
* Assigned in Sept. '44 to 848 Sqdn. and began work up (training) in Barracudas on HMS Glory.
* Took Japanese surrender at Saipan - HMS Glory converted to hospital ship to pick up POW's enroute back to England.
* Returned to England via merchant ship.
* Separated from the Fleet Air Arm, married and attended Edinborough University. Received Honors in English and literature.
* Commemced working for the British Government Ministry of Education.
* Immigrated to Vancouver in 1956 and on to San Francisco in 1957
* Two children (one of each) worked as Assistant Dean at UC Berkeley from 1957-1991 and retired.
* Lives in Berkeley as a widower with his daughter, Fiona, a cat and a large dog.
* Errol's wife worked for the Wine Institute in San Francisco.

By the end of May 1940, the German blitzkrieg in the West had tattered Great Britain’s plans to aid France and the Low Countries. The British Expeditionary Force retreated to the French coastal town of Dunkirk, where a motley, yet heroic, flotilla of ships and boats evacuated the great majority of the BEF troops.

While the Army recovered from the debacle on the continent, Britain’s Fleet Air Arm was recruiting young men to fly and fight in its carrier-based aircraft. Errol Mauchlan responded to that call.

"I graduated from high school in June 1940," says Errol Mauchlan. This was just a few weeks after the events of May 1940, which knocked France out of the war, knocked the Netherlands out of the war and knocked Belgium out of the war.

"I had done pre-Calculus, and this persuaded them that I was qualified to become an Observer."

Called up in December 1940, Mauchlan went through four months of basic naval training before beginning to learn the skills of the Observer (Navigator) because the Royal Navy was also trying to convert "landlubbers" into naval officers.

"We spent a lot of time visiting ships, playing around in boats, learning sea navigation and so forth. We spent a whole month at the Naval Signals School, learning all the flags that were displayed and doing intensive work sending and receiving Morse code, because the Fleet Air Arm only had wireless in its aircraft."

The training also included naval gunnery training information, which Mauchlan said he supposed was useful, but it was hard to see how what it really served.

Flying school started in Arbroath, Scotland, about 20 miles north of Dundee. Mauchlan recalls simulated torpedo and bombing attacks, mine-laying and long range reconnaissance over the North Sea.

"We were being trained on Fairey Swordfish aircraft. The Swordfish was a single engine biplane, with a fabric-covered body and three open cockpits, that normally flew at about 110 miles an hour."

Despite its slow speed and wood, cloth and wire construction, the Swordfish was the instrument of a host of distinguished operations in World War II.

In 1940, Swordfish from the carrier HMS Illustrious attacked the Italian Navy at Taranto, sinking three battleships, a cruiser and three destroyers. This effectively took the Italian navy out of the Axis war effort.

The Swordfish’s second major success was the crippling of the Bismarck, which led to the mighty German battleship’s pummeling by Royal Navy gunfire, and her sinking by a cruiser’s torpedoes.

And, in a less heralded but more significant series of actions during 1941, Swordfish of 830 Squadron in Malta sank about two million tons of Italian shipping bound for Rommel’s Africa Corps. These Swordfish crews slept by day in underground quarters on the rocky island, their aircraft parked in underground bunkers. By the dark of night 830 Squadron flew its torpedo sorties against Italian cargo convoys.

Mauchlan says the aerodynamics of the Swordfish enabled it to do its job well and keep its crews alive.

"You could get down to 30 feet above the water and feel perfectly stable and drop your torpedo and go on. It was extremely maneuverable. It could turn on its wingtip, get down on the water and dodge about, so that even the 350 mile-per-hour Messerschmitts couldn’t get at it."

Mauchlan’s key duty for his Swordfish crews was dead-reckoning navigation.

"At top speed the Swordfish could perhaps reach about 140, but couldn’t hold it for long. It’s obvious that if you’re flying at about 110 miles an hour, say at 5,000 feet, there’s always a wind at that level. And depending on what that wind is, will determine what you’re tracking across the ocean."

He also trained to check the height of waves before launching a torpedo, and to take a compass bearing on a smoke bomb dropped over the side, both by hanging outside the biplane’s cockpit. He says he was fortunate to perform his duties in the balmy air of the South Pacific rather than the frigid wind of the North Atlantic.

In 1941, Mauchlan earned his wings and was commissioned as a sub-Lieutenant. To complete the course, he was to be sent to Royal Naval College in Greenwich, for studies on the history, protocol and ceremonies of the Navy. The training was to include two weeks of dress dinners in the college’s Painted Hall.

Instead, Mauchlan got two weeks leave and then received a posting to Squadron 830 in Malta, with instructions to buy 1000 Portuguese escudos and to wear civilian clothes. Plans were to fly him from Plymouth, England to Lisbon, Portugal.

Arriving in Plymouth, Mauchlan and two members of his training group found the plans had changed. They were put onboard the 40-knot minelayer HMS Manxman, and told they were off to Cape Town, South Africa to join the carrier HMS Illustrious. They arrived in less than two weeks, only to discover Illustrious had come and gone.

"We were taken by the South African Air Force and flown to Mombasa, Kenya, with stops in Johannesburg, and Bullawayo, in what was then Rhodesia… We got to Mombasa and sure enough, there was the HMS Illustrious. That started what we came to call our ‘club run.’ "

The war in the southwestern Pacific had heated up while Mauchlan was en route. The Japanese Navy had sunk the battleship HMS Prince of Wales and battlecruiser HMS Repulse off the Maldives. The British Eastern Fleet, having once been the protector of Malaya, lost its homeport of Singapore and retreated to Mombasa. Nearly overnight, HMS Illustrious had become the Eastern Fleet’s only capital ship, and had gained a new "routine" mission.

"Our job was to sweep the Indian Ocean to intercept and destroy any intruders that had emerged, and to keep the ocean free for the Eastern Fleet to return. We spent the next eight months doing what was called our "club run", from Mombasa to Colombo in Ceylon (Sri Lanka), back and forth, doing continual dawn and dusk reconnaissance patrols.

"There would be twelve aircraft flying different sectors around the ship, in effect sweeping a diameter around the ship of 300 miles, twice a day. Colombo is 2,200 nautical miles from Mombasa— that’s as the crow flies, but of course Illustrious wasn’t going as the crow flies.

"So each of our trips would take us about 2-3 weeks. The Illustrious had to be refueled at sea. We generally ran out of fresh food in about twelve days, so we lived the rest of the time on corned beef and hardtack. We had completed four back-and-forth sweeps when we sailed into Columbo on the first leg of our fifth trip to find that the Eastern Fleet had returned."

That ended the HMS Illustrious’s Indian Ocean campaign, and the carrier sailed back to Mombasa, where the Swordfish were flown to an airbase in Kenya for maintenance and Mauchlan suffered a stroke of bad luck.

He took part in a pick-up game of rugby, and no sooner had he returned to the carrier, than Mauchlan came down with a severe fever and delirium. Placed on a hospital ship, the fevered lieutenant could only watch as the Illustrious steamed out for a return to the United Kingdom.

It took a couple of weeks for Mauchlan’s fever to break and the delirium to cease, and then he was put aboard a train to recuperate another month at a hospital in Nairobi, and then a month’s sick leave in the village of Naivasha, north of Nairobi.

"It was on Lake Naivasha, where there was a flock of flamingos and a pretty large tribe of hippopotami. I spent a very pleasant time walking, reading and recovering from the fever."

Returning to Mombasa, Mauchlan was assigned to a small airfield at Tanga, Tangyanika, where four Fairey Albacores were based. The Albacore was larger and about 40 miles an hour faster than the Swordfish, and was considered a bit more comfortable with its metal fuselage and a canopy over the cockpit.

Mauchlan says he spent a few weeks "playing around with these Albacores, getting accustomed to them" before flying them north to Alexandria, Egypt. From there, a merchant ship carried Mauchlan to the U.K., where he had two weeks of leave.

During those two weeks, Mauchlan got orders to report to the RAF Bomber Command’s 78 Squadron. It was August of 1943, and 78 Squadron was to perform mine-laying duties in German–held harbors, in preparation for the planned Allied invasion of Europe in the coming summer.

"Over the next year we made sixteen raids, dropping all the various harbors along the North Sea coast of Germany and down into the Atlantic. We went to places like Kiel, Stettin, Heligoland, Lorient, St. Nazaire and Brest. And I suppose we must have done it successfully. My job was to supervise the mine loads and make sure everybody knew what the targets were."

The aircraft for these missions was the Handley-Page Halifax, a four-engine heavy bomber with on-board "Gee" and "H2S" radar.

"Gee picked up beams from stations in Britain, which meant that by twiddling a few knobs you could determine your precise location at any point. H2S gave you a complete picture of the ground vertically under the aircraft, and it was H2S that was used to deliver the mines, because each bomber was given a target that was a certain bearing and distance from some landmark in the harbor. "

Mauchlan says the operation was in some ways "not very satisfactory" for him, because the mining raids only came up about once every three weeks. The raids also created a morale problem, in that 78 Squadron was still doing regular night bombing over Germany.

"The guys generally viewed the mining-laying operations as a ‘soft option’, because we came in from the sea, were maybe over the target for 2-3 minutes at most, then we were off again, back out to sea. Whereas, if you were doing a bombing raid on Germany—say Stuttgart, Dusseldorf, Berlin or the Ruhr—you were trudging over Germany for three or four hours. Of course, every antiaircraft battery that you passed shot at you and there were also night fighters attacking. They all looked at the mine operations as ‘soft options’ and wanted to do it.

78 Squadron was truly representative of the British Commonwealth, with members from Britain, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and even four American crews. These were young men who joined the Royal Air Force before the United States had come into the conflict. After Pearl Harbor, the Americans in 78 Squadron were ‘repatriated’ and wore U.S. Eighth Army Air Force uniforms.

The first of two missions to Kiel proved to be the most exciting for Mauchlan and his crew, as their Halifax was hit by shrapnel from flak.

"The flak was pretty hot in Kiel. It’s a long flight you know, well up the German coast. They were ready for us, though I don’t know why. We weren’t in the target zone long enough for a fighter to do anything to us."

Mauchlan recalls that after D-Day took place, minelaying operations ended. He was appointed as a Senior Observer on the newly-formed 837 Squadron, destined to join a light Fleet carrier in construction in Belfast, Northern Ireland and would be headed for the Pacific.

"Then, with its typical eccentricity, the naval bureaucracy sent us to the Royal Naval Air Station Fern in the Doorknock Firth, 25 miles north of Inverness in Scotland. Of course we were snowed-in all winter, which was a remarkable preparation for the Pacific. We completed our work-up there and were supposed to join the HMS Glory in February 1945. In fact we didn’t join it until May 1945, after the European war was over.

The HMS Glory carried the newer Fairey Barracuda, a single engine monoplane with shoulder-type wings and a large airbrake. The aircraft was a disappointment to Mauchlan.

"The Barracuda, I believe was one of the worst aircraft produced in the war. Whoever designed it, and I suspect it was a committee, wanted it to be not only a torpedo bomber but also a dive-bomber. And it did neither of these things well. Moreover, it was underpowered, and this meant that carrying a torpedo, it was very unstable."

Mauchlan notes that Barracudas did succeed in dive-bombing the German battleship Tirpitz. But he says he personally never felt very comfortable in that type of aircraft.

Due to delays in construction, Mauchlan says it was June before the HMS Glory set out on its shakedown cruise to the Pacific. The first stop was Columbo, Sri Lanka, where the aircrews had a two-week jungle survival course. The crew learned which jungle plants were poisonous and which were edible, and how to find potable water.

Mauchlan says they also had the benefit of a uniform design that could aid in navigating through the jungle. The pants were without a zipper:

"We had button-up flys. Two of the buttons on our flies— one had a large spike on the back. The other was magnetized and had a tiny white spot on the edge, and if you put the magnetized button on top of the button with the spike on it, it showed you magnetic north."

HMS Glory arrived for duty in the Pacific two days after the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. After the second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki, Japan surrendered on August 14, 1945. Glory, being the newest, cleanest carrier in the Royal Fleet, was named, on behalf of Australia, to take the Japanese Southeast Army’s surrender at Rabaul, New Guinea.

After the ceremony, the carrier went to Sydney, Australia, where aircraft and aircrews were put ashore, and the carrier was converted to a hospital ship to repatriate British and Australian prisoners of war in Singapore and Hong Kong. That meant lots of shore leave for Mauchlan and his squadron mates.

"We spent the next four months just living the life of Riley in Sydney, until we were eventually repatriated to the U.K in February of 1946. I was demobilized in April of 1946."

Errol Mauchlan returned to academia by reapplying to Edinburgh University, graduating four years later with an honor’s degree in English language and literature. After six years of work for the British government, Mauchlan came to the United States and worked as a budget assistant for then Chancellor Glenn Seaborg to start a long, distinguished career at U-C Berkeley.