RNAS Culdrose pushed the boat out when a Fleet Air Arm veteran of both the Second World War and the Suez Campaign paid a visit to the Helston naval base.
Former World War II prisoner of war and Royal Naval pilot Captain Charles Vyvyan Howard, who received the Distinguished Service Cross (DSC), wanted to see how things had changed since he was first at the base some 64 years ago, in 1949.
His daughter, Sue, had arranged the visit as a surprise for the 93-year-old, for when they visited the area on holiday; at the same time she wanted to see the airbase chapel, where she had been christened in 1951.
Back then the skies would have been full of Seafires, Sea Furies and pioneering Naval jet aircraft in the shape of Sea Vampires, Sea Venoms and Meteors.
Nowadays the helicopter is king and Vyvyan, as he is usually known, was shown around 824 Naval Air Squadron, where the newest addition to the fleet is the Merlin HM2, the Navy’s ultimate submarine hunter. It was a far cry from the 1950s, when helicopters were still in their infancy.
Vyvyan had joined the Fleet Air Arm in 1939 on the outbreak of the Second World War.
After many anti submarine and convoy patrols with the Fleet, Vyvyan gained notoriety in World War II when he saw action as part of 828 Squadron, flying his Albacore torpedo bomber in the 1941 raid on German-held Kirkenes in Norway, against overwhelming odds and hopelessly out-numbered.
In all they lost 13 aircraft from the aircraft carriers HMS Furious and Victorious.
Describing his misfortune during the raid Vyvyan said: “We launched our torpedo at a German ship in the harbour.
“As we turned to make our escape I heard a roar of cannon fire from below us, we were hit and the aircraft broke up around us. The next thing I knew we were in the Fjord and swimming for the shore and into captivity.”
He was to spend the next four years as a prisoner of war with the Germans at Stalag Luft III, famous for the “Great Escape.” He also took part in the forced march of over 200 miles when in 1945, with the threat of the advancing Russians from the east, all Allied prisoners were moved west to Stalag VIIA in Bavaria until liberated by the Americans.
After the war Vyvyan stayed with the Fleet Air Arm and was given a permanent commission before joining RNAS Culdrose and taking up flying again on the latest propeller aircraft.
Vyvyan stayed in Cornwall for the next six years, raising a family and working on various training squadrons, before taking command of 830 Naval Air Squadron, flying the Westlands Wyvern, the largest prop-driven single-seat airplane to go aboard a Royal Navy carrier.
Vyvyan was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross (DSC), given in recognition of gallant and distinguished services in the operations in the Near East from October to December 1956. He recalls how congested the airspace was over Suez. “It was a very small area to operate and after a few days we were competing for the same targets with the other aircraft from the British and French Carriers, it was like Piccadilly Circus. We often went up against the Egyptian Airforce with their Mig jets, it was an exciting time.”
In 1960 he returned to Culdrose and took a helicopter acquaintance course before taking up a new job as the Fleet Aviation Officer on the Far East Staff in Singapore.
His last appointment before retiring from the Royal Navy as a Captain after over 36 year’s service was as British Naval Attaché in Bonn, Germany.
Vyvyan said of his visit to Culdrose: “It is remarkable to return to the air station and see all these new helicopters and equipment. Visiting 824 Squadron and talking to the aircrew about their jobs was marvellous. You have made an old chap very happy!”