THE STORY
OF "NICKI"
Sea-Hurricane IIc NF 672- (7K) of
FAA 804 and 835 Squadrons - Royal Navy

AS SEEN BY ONE OF
HER PILOTS

by Ian Burgham
with Lt.-Cmdr Allen Burgham,
DSC, MiD, RCNVR (Ret’d) (RNZNVR)
photo credit: I.Burgham, NHC (Nairana)


THE BEGINNING

In December of 1942 the war was old news in Britain. For more than two years the merchant navy had been staggering under the onslaught of U-boat attacks while Admirals still believed in the value of battleships, many choosing to remain ignorant of the value of aircraft in a naval war. As a result, escort carriers had barely been invented, let alone built. The war in Europe was seemingly a lost cause - Britain alone on that side of the Atlantic retained her sovereignty. D-Day was almost a full two years away.

On December 18, 1942, then sub-lieutenant Allen Burgham, left the Naval Air Station at Donibristle in Scotland and flew in a DeHavilland 86 to the busiest wartime airdrome in Britain, the Naval Air Station at Machrinhanish on the Mull of Kintyre in Scotland. Al Burgham was a young and inexperienced fighter pilot in the Royal New Zealand Navy Volunteer Reserve and he had just been ordered to leave his training squadron (#748) to join 804 Squadron - an operational front line squadron with a prestigious reputation and a top flight combat record.

The young sub-Lieutenant had just celebrated his 22nd birthday at the end of October. He had accumulated 93.25 hours of flight in a dual control single engine aircraft, 175 hours of solo flight in single engine aircraft and a further 14.40 hours of flight in night time conditions in single engine aircraft. This was more or less the normal required training for “rookie” pilots joining operational squadrons in 1942. As yet he had had no deck landing training having only experienced the comfort and safety of paved runways and not yet fully aware of the feats of flying skill it would take to land on a small escort carrier at the best of times let alone in severe weather.

Sub-lieutenant Burgham had volunteered for military service in his native New Zealand in 1940 at the age of nineteen and had spent time in both England and subsequently, Canada, learning to fly as a member of the Commonwealth Air Training Program. While in Kingston, a small city in Ontario, Canada, he had already cheated death in a horrendous crash while attempting to land his Harvard Trainer (Texan in the US) in thick fog at night. Released from convalescence, he had shown both courage and determination in climbing back into the cockpit. He was awarded his wings, earmarked as a potential fighter pilot, and was sent back to England for more advanced operational training. So it was that on December 18, 1942, only a year after Pearl Harbor had been attacked, he had been sent from his training squadron at St Merrin in the southwest of England to join his first operational fighter squadron. During his flying training he had flown Fulmars, Hurricanes, Spitfires, Seafires, Albacores, and of course, Harvards, Tiger Moths, Miles Masters and Magisters. 804 Squadron had been flying Hurricane Is and was converting to newer Hurricane IIC’s.

3.jpg (37407 bytes)

THE HURRICANES OF 804

On December 21, 1942 sub-lieutenant Burgham reported to his new commanding officer, Lieutenant (A), later Lieutenant Commander (A), Jackie Sewell, Distinguished Service Cross. Al Burgham was the most inexperienced of 804’s pilots. And 804 was an intimidating squadron for a rookie to join. It was staffed with very experienced senior pilots, all of whom had seen air-to-air and air-to-sea and ground combat. They were the crème de la crème of the Royal Navy. In the book "Alone on a Wide, Wide Sea", the author writes that 804 was

“…an elite squadron with a fine war record, a high profile and high morale. As well as accounting for an impressive number of enemy aircraft, 804 had the distinction of providing pilots for the CAM (Catapult Armed Merchant) ships. (The once only flights of these cata-fighters were, to say the least, hazardous; for most of their flying was done far from land in the lonely reaches of the Atlantic, and once a pilot had been catapulted-off he had no hope of ever being able to land; on completing his mission he had either to ditch in the sea or bail-out.)”

804’s Hurricane 1s were being replaced by Sea-Hurricane IIc's. Thus it was that Burgham joined as the newest of pilots and was immediately placed in the cockpits of newly delivered aircraft. It is possible that “Nicki” was delivered in December of 1942 or January of 1943. Al Burgham’s log refers to the new batch of Hurricanes in January and according to the log he flew NF 676, NF 670, NF 700, NF699, NF 702, and NF 675 throughout January as he trained in air combat and completed his first deck landings aboard the carrier, HMS Argus. 804 trained intensively until June of 1943. References are made to NF701, NF698, NF 699, NF678 and NF 693. At this time Burgham’s log does not mention NF672 but 804 had a fleet of 12 Hurricane IICs and at some time “Nicki” (NF 672) was one of them. In fact the plane may not have been delivered to the squadron until nearer April or May and indeed its rather confused official records indicate that this may have been the case.

In June of 1943 the Royal Navy decided that 804 was to become fully operational. The widely held supposition was that they were being trained-up to join a Fleet Carrier as an active operational squadron. The pilots of 804 were ordered to go on a conversion course to be trained to fly Hellcats - planes that, unlike Hurricanes, had been designed and built to operate from carriers. But after two weeks on an engine handling course 804 was broken up and, while a nucleus of pilots was kept together and, in time, sent to join the escort carrier HMS Emperor, various pilots were distributed amongst various squadrons. It is a testament to the elite status of this squadron that most 804 squadron pilots went to senior commands, either training squadrons or operational squadrons.

FROM 804 TO 835

This was the fate that befell Al Burgham. On June 20th he had been ordered, with the rest of 804, to fly to Eglinton in Northern Ireland, there to convert to Hellcats. By July he had become a disappointed and slightly reluctant member of 835 Squadron’s Fighter Component (835 being a composite squadron of both torpedo bombers and fighters). For the man who was, in the words of his Commanding Officer to become “a great leader who was to lead his fighter-section with quiet efficiency on some of the most amazing feats of flying in the war” this was a somewhat shaky beginning. Later, as Senior Pilot and Flight Commander of the Fighter Component of 835 he would be Mentioned in Dispatches and win the Distinguished Service Cross, but for now the make-up and spirit of 835 seemed a long way away from the elite and elan of 804.

With Burgham went a number of Hurricane IIc’s from 804, six in all…and “Nicki”, NF 672, was one of them. Sadly the next five months were months filled with aggravation and frustration. The Hurricanes had been assembled with the Swordfish torpedo-bombers to serve as Sub-strafers. The idea being that while the Swordfish lumbered slowly in to attack with depth -charges or rocket-projectiles, the Hurricanes would dive quickly upon the surfaced U-boats and strafe them to silence the U-boats ack-ack, allowing the bombers to work unopposed. It was also thought that the fighters might be of use against Focke-Wulf Kurriers, Junkers 290's, and the much faster, high performance Junkers 88's shadowing and attacking the convoys. How quickly the thinking changed once the great air and sea battles commenced.

From August through to December of 1943, 835 trained in the arts of air warfare. The swordfish perfected submarine attacks, the Hurricanes continually practicing their air to sea attacks all the while awaiting their ship; awaiting the floating home that never seemed to come. Time and again they were posted to aircraft carriers only to be disembarked as priorities shifted and admiralty made the decisions that executive branches make answering the challenges of war which remained a mystery to the young pilots of the squadron. HMS Ravager, HMS Chaser, HMS Battler … and the impatience and frustration grew. Meanwhile training went on with wartime intensity. Burgham’s log reads: “Attacks and Dogfights”, “Low Flying”, “Air Firing”, “aerobatics”, “Formation and Attacks”, “Patrol Formation”, Section Attacks and Patrol”, “Air to Ground Firing”, “Air Firing”, “Low Flying and Attacks”, “ADDL’s” (Deck Landings), “Air to Sea Firing”, Radar Calibration, Combined A/S Attacks. Sometimes it was “Nicki” he flew. Day after day, month after month of training for the combat that never came.

NICKI JOINS HMS NAIRANA

1.jpg (48092 bytes)Finally, on December 31st, New Year’s Eve, the squadron flew for the last time without a home. On December 29th the squadron had been ordered to fly to RNAS Eglinton. They were then immediately ordered to join HMS Nairana for combat duty, and life for the pilots of 835 was never to be the same again. As the then Commanding Officer wrote in 1997, “ …this time it was different. This time, right from the start, we had the feeling we were on the threshold of something important …and there were changes to our aircraft and to our tactics, which were obviously being made with a specific job in mind… the camouflage of our Hurricanes was altered. They were painted white”.

2.jpg (55563 bytes)Even though camouflage was standardized under Admiralty rules, the suggestion of the Commander Flying, Edgar Bibby, DSO, that the Hurricanes be painted off-white met with universal approval amongst the fighter pilots. The Captain of Nairana, Captain Taylor, agreed with the argument that white, as opposed to regulation gray and blue, would hide the planes against the white of the clouds in the Atlantic but thought that Admiralty should be consulted and a formal request for the change should be made. Bibby, following the courage of his convictions, didn’t wait. One day the Hurricanes were gray and blue, the next day they were white:

“…and their subsequent successes undoubtedly owed much to their camouflage, for on more than one occasion they were able to close right in on their target without being seen”.

nairana1.jpg (47092 bytes)  nairana2.jpg (42782 bytes)

HMS Nairana, a one-only merchant conversion similar to HMS Vindex, had been laid down as a cargo vessel in John Brown’s shipyards in Glasgow. She was however ordered converted to an escort carrier with the following selected specifications:

Her flight deck was only 495 feet long and 60 feet wide. The average Woolworth American- built carrier was 450 feet long and 102 feet wide. Nairana had no deck room for pilot error or weather- related landing disaster. She was a particularly difficult carrier upon which to land. Pilots had to land dead center. A dozen feet to the left or right or a few feet too low or high and a pilot was apt to make the kind of mess one would not easily walk away from. This increased the stress of the pilots who flew from her to the point where it increased the fatigue within the squadron after months of flying from her in outrageous weather and light conditions in the arctic. But, while the width of American carriers made deck landings much safer and operations easier and more comfortable, Nairana had one quality which finally made her ideal for operations in the arctic where she and her crew and pilots were to be severely tested. She was built with rivets and not welded and, being of sturdier construction was less prone to accident or breakdown and could operate in far worse weather conditions. In other words, she was more seaworthy.

When Nairana and 835 finally teamed up they formed what was to become a famous partnership. For fifteen months they were to be continuously employed on Atlantic and Arctic convoys driven to the limits of endurance in an unremitting battle against the enemy and the elements. In fact they were to be immortalized and recognized in history as demonstrating the most famous feats of flying in the most severe weather and battle circumstances of the entire war. They proved that Navy pilots could operate in the severe conditions of the Arctic Ocean. They proved that it was possible to land dead center in poor visibility, sometimes even at night, in a buffeting wind. During one famous arctic storm in 1945, the wind into which they flew was measured at over 70 knots and gusting to over100 knots. This caused the stern of the carrier to corkscrew and pitch up to fifty feet and roll at angles beyond 35 degrees as it moved through waves over forty feet high. The cold was so numbing that the pilots and crew in Swordfish were literally frozen into their cockpits.

As Dick Mallet, Nairana’s Operations Officer wrote years later:

“ When you got in touch with me after all these years I couldn’t sleep for nights. I was so haunted by memories of what we had all been through…my impression is that for more than a year 835 was almost continually flying in the most appalling conditions, and close to the limits of possibility. There was a tremendous esprit de corps in the squadron, but towards the end everyone became operationally fatigued. Not round the bend; just totally bloody exhausted.”

But for now Nairana and 835 had formed a new team ready to take on the elements and the enemy with fresh spirit. During this time “Nicki” appears in my father’s log periodically. Although “Nicki” was not his personal plane, she was often the fighter ranged on deck and to which he was directed during both scrambles and training exercises. Then in January Nairana and 835 set sail to join Captain Frederick (John) Walker and his famous 2nd Escort Group on a hunter- killer trip that resulted in the sinking of 7 U-boats. As Nairana joined a Britain-bound convoy to supply air and submarine defense, Walker signaled the ship, “Well done Nairana. Your pilots have performed miracles!”

4.jpg (68625 bytes)

NICKI ON DUTY AND IN BATTLE

The next few weeks turned into months of continuous convoy duty. And if incidents against U-boats or Junkers weren’t exhausting enough the deck landings and crashes took their toll on the young pilots (Burgham survived six crashes in all). On March 2nd Lieutenant Burgham crashed NF 700 breaking her back catching the oleo tail wheel and hitting the round down. The ship pitched wildly and the round down rose up thirty feet just as the Batsman gave the signal to cut his engine. On March 27 Burgham was again scrambled with his number two, Charles Richardson, with him. This time he was flying “Nicki”, NF672, but the enemy was not contacted as “Number Two’s radiator temperature was too high and the mission was aborted”.

Over the next few weeks Burgham flew “Nicki” periodically, sometimes being scrambled after enemy bombers, mainly Junkers 290’s which were constantly testing the convoy’s defenses and reporting positions; sometimes on training flights as 835 continued convoy service in the North Atlantic as well as to and from Britain and Gibralter. The weeks wore on with the words constantly surfacing in his log “Scramble after Bogey” or “Scramble after Bandit”. Then on May 25th and again on May 26th Burgham found himself once again flying “Nicki” and this time he and “Nicki” were about to be blooded. What follows is his personal report:

“In the morning of the 25th of May/44, Burgham (NF672) and Richardson, together with Mearns and Wallis were scrambled to investigate radar contacts which very soon disappeared from the screen. We (Burgham and Richardson) were told to orbit on the starboard side of the convoy, and Mearns and Wallis on the Port side. Mearns spotted two U-boats approaching the convoy and shadowed them. Nairana sent out Swordfish to attack them and an escort vessel was dispatched as well. As the Swordfish blundered into the area the U-boats disappeared. The escort vessel subsequently reported they must have been whales, which pleased Sam no end. After 1hour and thirty minutes we landed back on.

In the afternoon Nairana began refueling a frigate. While this was taking place Nairana picked up a radar contact and ordered “Scramble 2 Fighters”. Richardson and I (this time in JS248) manned our aircraft and prepared to take off. Nairana continued with the refueling as we sat in our cockpits ready to go! Shortly thereafter a J.U.290 approached from astern and flew fairly low over the starboard side. I remember feeling extremely frustrated. I am not 100% sure of the timing of these next events but after the refueling was interrupted or completed, the radar had another contact and Richardson and I were scrambled and vectored to intercept. After a while, but a little too soon, the Fighter Direction Officer gave us a change of course onto a reciprocal, thinking we had passed the target. I turned to starboard when Charles, who by this time had been obscured by my wing, shouted “Tally Ho”, and whipped into a turn to Port. Not seeing the target or knowing its relative position, I tightened my turn and saw a J.U. 290 diving for cloud, being chased by Richardson, firing at its disappearing bulk. The 290 soon disappeared from the screen and, as the light was fast fading, we were directed back to the ship.

The last time J.S.248 had been flown it had flap trouble and when I lowered the flaps I began to wonder if they actually were down. It was too dark to see the indicators and I was a bit worried about Richardson’s deck landing abilities in poor light, (he had had a barrier prang on the 12th of May), so didn’t request a check. I proceeded straight in with a few extra knots on the clock. This proved to be the wrong decision as I floated up the deck, drifted to starboard and caught the trip wire. The wire broke with the result that my wing hit the starboard barrier stantion and one round was fired from each of the starboard cannon, shells were in the breach from my previous action against the 290. The shells penetrated the bridge and knocked the Commander Flying off his perch.

Next morning, the 26th, shortly after standing to and before breakfast, at 07:30 as I well remember Richardson and I (this time I was flying in NF 672 “Nicki”, were scrambled again to investigate a contact. Some distance out on the convoy’s starboard bow, we saw a JU 290.which must have just descended to sea level to escape convoy detection. We were at 2,000 or 3,000 feet and decided to separate so that we could attack him from opposite sides. He soon saw us and turned away, putting Richardson in a position to attack first. As he committed himself to a diving attack the J.U. took the usual evasive action by turning towards him, making it difficult for him to get a bead on it. This meant that the 290 was turning away from me and put me in an excellent position to attack. As I approached it I could see Charles Richardson closing in astern in a very tight turn, when his wing tip hit a wave and he exploded in a ball of oily flame. As the J.U. began a turn towards me, I came within range, opened fire and began to see pieces falling from the aircraft which climbed a little, then nosed over into the sea, where it exploded. I checked for survivors, then went to circle the oil slick where Charles’ Hurricane had gone in. I could see what appeared to be his “Mae West” but no sign of life. I circled the site until a Swordfish arrived to “home-in” an escort vessel. As I circled Richardson’s oil patch I began to reflect on what had all happened so quickly and realized that the flashes emerging from various parts of the enemy aircraft, that I had thought nothing of at the time, had actually been muzzle flashes from its guns! It made me realize that this was a little different from all the dummy attacks we used to make on poor innocent aircraft around the skies of the U.K. Before I returned to Nairana I dived “Nicki” on the remains of the J.U. 290 to alert Swordfish to its position.

Later that day, Mearns and Wallis were scrambled and intercepted a pair of J.U. 290s. Their combat reports indicate that they selected individual targets. Mearns destroyed his and Wallis scored hits on his, but it managed to elude them and escaped. A note on the combat report says that German radio transmittals from Ushant indicated that a damaged J.U. 290 went down into the sea on the way back to base. Probably Wallis’ target.”

The next morning Highlander took station close on the port quarter. Once again the squadron lined up on the flight deck. And once again there was a moment of absolute silence while every ship in the convoy, its flag at half-mast, stopped its engines as the body of Charles Richardson, Allen Burgham’s Number 2, slid into the gray waters of the Atlantic.

For a few more weeks and months the convoy service continued unabated. By October though the war changed for 835. If they had thought that the North Atlantic war was tough, things were to become a whole lot tougher. The Hurricanes were flown off Nairana for the last time; the last operational Hurricanes of the war, the last one of Nairana’s deck flown by Sub-lieutenant Atkinson. “Nicki” was not amongst them as she had been damaged in a barrier crash-landing while being flown by Atkinson, Allen Burgham’s Number 2. Later that October 835 Squadron converted to Wildcats, aircraft more suited to carrier service and better for Arctic conditions.

835 Squadron made the major part of their reputation in the arctic. They literally were worked to exhaustion. (*) Casualties for the squadron were high. They won more than their share of Distinguished Service Crosses. Their story contains controversy. They were worked beyond the limits of endurance. They were literally asked to sacrifice themselves with no thought for necessity and no thought for the protection of human life as far as the squadron members were concerned. Courts of Inquiry and near mutiny followed as part of the story. But the contribution is unquestioned and the heroism is acknowledged in history. “Nicki” was part of their story and this is a part of her story.

(*) During this combat period my father and some of his fellow pilots individually amassed over 128 deck landings. This is a huge number and indicates a large number of combat missions flown.

NOTE

According to Lt.Commander Allen Burgham:

“NF 700 was the aircraft whose back I broke by hitting the rundown with the tail wheel on March 2, 1944. (SEE PHOTO BELOW) NF672 is called “Nicki”. My records indicate that 7N was the identifier of NF691. NF672 was labeled 7K and was the aircraft I was flying when I shot down a Junkers 290 in March of 1944.”

5.jpg (49996 bytes)


BACK TO FREE PREVIEW INDEX

SUBSCRIBE ME!