One of the best aspects of writing about historical naval aviation sadder is meeting deeply impressive people who have contributed to that history. One of the saddest aspects is the inevitability of losing these friends to time. Two people who helped me a great deal with my book on the Fairey Barracuda – David Mitchell, former Sub Lieutenant RNVR, and David ‘Shorty’ Hamilton, former Commander RN – have left us in the year since it was published (thanks to Jean Hood for passing on the sad news of David Hamilton’s passing yesterday). I wanted to offer a salute to mark my unending appreciation, both for their kind and generous assistance with the book, and the service they gave their country.
David Mitchell died in his adopted homeland of Switzerland in April 2017. David flew Fairey Barracudas as an Observer in 744 Squadron, which involved aircrew training and developing the anti-submarine tactics with new technologies that proved their worth in the Cold War.
Sub-Lieutenant David Mitchell (on the left) with other officers of 744 Naval Air Squadron
“We had one squadron of Barracudas, 744 Squadron which was at Maydown, a subsidiary aerodrome north of Eglinton. And there was an RAF Ballykelly next to it, Nutts Corner, it was called – they had a call sign ‘HARPIC’ – Nutts Corner was ‘clean round the bend’, you see! It was just a joke, but they were told to change it, and stop being facetious!
“Trouble was, we were flying at about 1,500 feet, maximum, and once did an exercise to see if I could bail out if something went wrong. I had first to unship the compass, unship the blister, put my chart board away, get my parachute out and hook it on, and hook the dinghy on, and dive out of the window. I got to ‘Olympic standard’ was 400 feet underwater by the time I could pull the ripcord.
“If you’ve got to bail out of a Barracuda, you’ll never make it if you were at the altitude we were flying, it was impossible. You had to unship the compass, which is next to the blister, undo the blister and let it fly away – because you can’t get out at the top, otherwise, because there’s a big tailplane at the back with two struts off it, and you’d hit the tailplane so you had to get out the side window. And if I’m… I mean the pilot might be able to do something but I don’t think… or the Air Gunner. You see I’ve got the chart board in front of me, and I’ve got the radar, and the machine for [towing?] the sonobuoys. I’ve got to put the chart board away, take the compass off, let the blister out, then put my dinghy on, and the parachute, then dive overboard. And at the height we were flying, you couldn’t do it. If you’re warned that the engine’s stopping, you’re going to lose five hundred feet before you know you’ve got to bail out.”
David Mitchell’s Observer wings
David M’s descriptions of the technical detail of subhunting in a Barracuda were fascinating:
“We had a lot of electronic equipment in it. We could drop a sonobuoy – the Air Gunner dropped the sonobuoy through a chute at the back. And then you drop a pattern around the disappearing contact which you picked up on the radar. You could hear the submarines underneath, ‘chm-chm-chm-chm’, and work out more or less its speed, and its direction by seeing which of the sonobuoys are getting louder and which are getting fainter, see if it’s going north, north-east at about six knots, or something like that – you could follow it. On a fleet exercise I followed one for a couple of hours, and when it surfaced at the end of the exercise I was on top of it. It was no trouble.”
I had many long and highly enjoyable chats with David over the phone and he kindly invited me to Switzerland to stay with him, an offer which I’m sad to say I was never able to take up. Hearing about his service was both enlightening and a great pleasure, and he was able to combine great accuracy and technical detail with humour. I took a recording of David singing one of the many less than complimentary Fleet Air Arm songs about the Barracuda
He left the Navy in 1947, and built a very successful career in finance, and some success as an inventor for which he won several awards. He worked for a time in Africa, then Switzerland, where he married and raised a family. I was privileged to go to Geneva in June for a gathering of family and friends to celebrate David M’s very full and impressive life. He had been very complimentary about the Barracuda book, and his family were pleased for his service to have been recorded in this way which I was naturally delighted with.
David Hamilton passed his Royal Navy officer’s exams in 1939 and went to the naval college at Dartmouth the following year. He served on the destroyer HMS Whelp and the cruiser HMS Nigeria, where he found himself on the receiving end of the Barracuda strike squadrons, in a manner of speaking: “I see in my diary that Barras from Hatston used to do dummy torpedo runs on us when we were operating from Scapa Flow,” he told me – “at least twice in Jan 1944 at HMS Nigeria, a 6 inch cruiser off Scapa Flow.” Hamilton later saw Barracuda strikes in anger flying off from the carriers Nigeria was escorting in the North Sea, and sent me a picture from Picture Post of the aircraft overhead the cruiser.
After the war, Hamilton decided to transfer to the Fleet Air Arm, where he trained as a pilot and Observer, courtesy of the new ‘cross training’ policy whereby Commanding Officers were trained in both disciplines. It was in doing his Observer training that David H encountered the Barracuda again. The handful of Barracuda Mk.Vs that had been built before their cancellation were used as Observer trainers, and David H flew several from RNAS Lee on Solent in the late 1940s, on wireless and radar training. He had no pictures of them, and asked me to send him some which I was pleased to oblige. He responded “thanks for the pics – what a mess. I was in 768 Sqdn, Seafires at Eglington 1948 and an USN P2V Neptune stopped for a few days. Taking one of their pilots to look at a Seafire we walked past a folded Barra and he remarked ‘was anyone hurt in the wreck?’ Touché.”
(I couldn’t resist titling the chapter on the Barracuda’s postwar service ‘Was Anyone Hurt In The Wreck?’)
Barracuda Mk.V RK558 which David H flew during his Observer training
David H also lent me a copy of Mount Up With Wings, by Mary de Bunsen, an ATA pilot who had delivered Barracudas to operational squadrons during WW2. I was extremely grateful for this, as the book is now so rare as to command ridiculous prices – way out of my range – and the book had to go from Australia, where David H lived, to the UK and back. Fortunately the book made it safely both ways, and I was able to include de Bunsen’s experiences in the book alongside those of both Davids.
David H had a long and extremely distinguished career in the FAA, and it’s no exaggeration to say that he was one of the rocks on which the postwar service was built. He served as a Deck Landing Control Officer, and was on HMS Indomitable in that role when that carrier suffered a serious fuel explosion. He was Flight Deck Officer on HMS Albion during Suez operations in 1956 and flew several sorties in Sea Hawks. He was later Senior Pilot with 894 Squadron on Sea Venoms and was CO of 892 Squadron when it took the first Sea Vixens to sea. There are too many ‘firsts’ in David H’s career to list here! Today happens to be the 70th anniversary of David H gaining his wings.
David Hamilton (centre) while with 767 Naval Air Squadron (photo from www.naval-history.net)
Fortunately for naval aviation historians, David H wrote his memoirs, currently in the able hands of ‘Carrier’ author Jean Hood for editing, and I have no doubt that when these are published they will be required reading for naval aviation enthusiasts.
In the meantime, a brief history of Hamilton’s career is available at on NavalHistory.net
David Campbell Mitchell, Sub Lieutenant RNVR – 10 October 1925 – 18 April 2017
David M.A.H. ‘Shorty’ Hamilton RN – 18 May 1926 – November 2017
Blue skies, gentlemen