Robert Hampton Gray: cool courage in the face of heavy odds

Surrounded by smoke and flames in the wheelhouse (a room located under the open bridge and containing the helm and engine telegraph), Acting Chief Petty Officer Max Bernays ordered the two junior sailors working as telegraph operators to get clear, leaving him alone at the helm and trapped by the blaze.

As the second atomic bomb was falling on Nagasaki in southern Japan, Lieutenant Robert Hampton Gray was leading two flights of Corsair aircraft against airfields in the Matsushima area of northern Honshu.

It was August 9, 1945, and the Second World War was almost over.

Gray, a Canadian naval pilot serving with the Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm, was flying with 1841 Squadron from the aircraft carrier His Majesty’s Ship (HMS) Formidable.

There was little enemy activity; a first strike from Formidable had left the targets in ruins.

Since Gray was briefed for the secondary target of naval ships at nearby Onagawa Bay, he decided to attack again.

The other flight members recall him saying he was going in, and peeled off to follow him in the high speed run.

As Gray levelled out his Corsair, it was blasted with cannon and machine gun fire.

The aircraft was set on fire and one of his 500-pound bombs was shot off. He steadied the aircraft and aimed his remaining bomb. It hit the ocean escort vessel Amakusa below the after gun turret, exploding the ammunition locker and blowing out the starboard side of the ship.

Amakuza rolled and sank immediately.

Robert Hampton Gray

Robert Hampton Gray

Gray continued flying but brief seconds later his burning aircraft rolled over, hit the water at high speed and broke up. Gray was killed, becoming one of the last Canadians to die in combat in the Second World War.

Despite the shock of losing their leader, and in spite of the order to make only one run at each target, the remaining pilots conducted two more successful attacks on the target Japanese ships.

For his actions, Gray was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Cross on August 31, 1945, and the Victoria Cross (VC) on November 13, 1945, the highest medal for valour in the British Commonwealth.

From his VC citation:

“For great bravery in leading an attack to within 50 feet of a Japanese destroyer in the face of intense anti-aircraft fire, thereby sinking the destroyer although he was hit and his own aircraft on fire, and finally himself killed.

“He was one of the gallant company of naval airmen who, from December 1944, fought and beat the Japanese from Palembang to Tokyo. The actual incident took place in the Onagawa Wan on the 9th of August 1945. Gray was leader of the attack, which he pressed home in the face of fire from shore batteries and at least eight warships. With his aircraft in flames he nevertheless obtained at least one direct hit which sank its objective.”

In a condolence letter written to Gray’s mother, Lieutenant-Commander Richard Bigg-Wither, 1841 Squadron’s Commanding Officer, said Gray’s “cool courage and determination in the face of heavy odds and the loss of their leader inspired the others who pressed on in two further attacks, putting paid to the first destroyer which rolled over and sank. The two destroyer escorts were hit and badly damaged.”

Bigg-Wither said Formidable’s crew was devastated by the loss. “The bottom fell out of life on board after it happened and the victory, when it came, seemed so hollow somehow. He was so well loved by us all and simply radiated happiness wherever he went.”

Gray was born in Trail, B.C., and enlisted in 1940. By September 1941, he was a naval pilot with the rank of sub-lieutenant. He was sent to the African theatre of operations where he spent nearly two years flying Hurricanes and other aircraft for various Royal Navy shore-based squadrons. Hungry for action, he was appointed to 1841 Squadron aboard HMS Formidable as senior pilot in August 1944.

After four years of service, Gray was going into combat.

His first action involved four attacks against the German battleship Tirpitz when the 42,500-ton vessel was holed up in a Norwegian fjord. In the fourth attack, on August 18, 1944, Gray led his flight in a daring low-level strike against ships protecting the battleship. Other targets included the adjacent seaplane base and airfields in a bid to draw fire away from the attacking Barracuda dive-bombers. The bombing attacks failed. Six Corsairs were lost and three Barracudas crashed on landing.

The final strike came on August 29, 1944, when Gray repeated his audacious low-level attack against three heavily armoured German Narvik-class destroyers. His aircraft, and 16 other Corsairs, suffered flak damage. An additional Corsair was lost.

Gray was awarded a Mention in Dispatches for his “undaunted courage, skill and determination in carrying out daring attacks on Tirpitz.”

HMS Formidable’s next assignment was the Pacific. The carrier joined the British Pacific Fleet in April 1945. The first major action was strikes against Japanese air bases supporting Japan’s defence of Okinawa. Aircrew losses were heavy – the British carriers lost 47 aircraft to enemy fire and operational causes.

Gray’s character during this period was reflected in a letter home to his parents. To ease their fears, he played down the air operations as “fairly hard flying, but not dangerous.”

Similarly, he downplayed the effect of the deadly kamikaze attacks on his ship and the dreadful loss of personnel and aircraft.

Gray’s ability to lead under such heavy pressure while remaining relaxed was remarkable, and he was well known for his unruffled manner under combat stress.

By July 1945, the combined Allied fleets were attacking the Japanese mainland, striking any target to be found. Gray continued to lead his flights in heavy strikes. In addition to successful low-level strafing attacks against airfields, he headed a strike against the Japanese naval base at Maisuru. Here he made a direct hit on a Japanese destroyer, setting it afire and finally sending it to the bottom of the ocean.

His leadership in this action against well-defended ships was so remarkable that Admiral Philip Vian, then in command of the Carrier Group, sent a congratulatory message to Formidable.

Gray was just 28 years old when he was killed in action.

He was the last Canadian to be awarded the Victoria Cross.

A memorial to Gray is part of the Valiants Memorial near Parliament Hill in Ottawa, and there is another one at the Norman Rogers Airport in Kingston, Ont., where he underwent part of his pilot training in 1941. As well, his name is inscribed on the Sailor’s Memorial at Point Pleasant Park in Halifax.

The town of Onagawa also erected a memorial in his honour on the shore of Onagawa Bay in 1989, close to the area where his plane is known to have crashed. He is the only member of a foreign military to be so honoured by Japan.

Image Gallery

Page details

Date modified: