Chris Thornhill on Jock Bevan: an Ardfern connection to the Arctic Convoys

Chris Pic 1

Reading the recent story of the passing of Convoy Veteran Jim McHugh, a mention of the ships in which Jim had served caught my eye.

One of them, HMS Nairana, an Aircraft Carrier, had come to my attention several years ago when I had been privileged to learn a little about the wartime service of a near neighbour, Jock Bevan.

As with so many of our older generation, Jock did not dwell on his wartime experiences. Instead he preferred to take pleasure in his family and his large circle of friends.

He was however a staunch member of the 835 Naval Air Squadron Old Comrades Association, supporting their aims and activities and making every effort to attend their reunions until his death three years ago.

The Aircraft

Chris Pic 2835 Squadron was formed in 1942 to provide air cover to convoys in the North Atlantic and later to the Arctic Convoys. Their main Aircraft was the Fairey Swordfish, a remarkable craft which although technically obsolete by 1939, remained in service until the end of the war and beyond.

The Swordfish biplane was affectionately and accurately nicknamed the Stringbag, reflecting its seemingly flimsy construction, open cockpit, wood framing and fabric covered wings, single engine and fixed undercarriage – with all the aforesaid held together with a network of struts and wires.

The engine had to be hand cranked to start, in the fashion of early motorcars. Its top speed was less than 100 knots; indeed many planes used in the First World War would have been able to overtake it.

Despite, or perhaps partly because of all this, it went on to become one of the most useful and successful aircraft during the war, proving itself ideal in its role of reconnaissance/torpedo/bomber.

These Aircraft and their gallant crews made an invaluable contribution to the war effort, Swordfish playing a major part in attacking the Italian Fleet at Taranto, finding and disabling the German Battleship Bismarck and perhaps above all flying endless patrols, seeking out and deterring U-Boats from attacking the convoys, both in the Atlantic and the Arctic. In total the Swordfish was responsible for sinking a higher tonnage of enemy shipping than any other type of plane.

The Carrier

HMS Nairana, public domainTo operate in their designated role as convoy escorts, 835 Squadron needed Aircraft Carriers, a ship type which was in short supply at the start of the war.

In 1941 the government requisitioned a cargo ship being built at John Brown’s yard on the Clyde, plans were drawn up and she was completed in 1943 – the first of a class of three Escort Carriers, the other two built elsewhere with plans supplied by John Brown’s.

With an overall length of 528ft and a crew of 558 she was able to carry up to 30 aircraft. In view of her Arctic Convoy experiences it is interesting to note that the original requisitioned merchant ship was being built to carry refrigerated cargo. This ship was named HMS Nairana, the second to carry that name, which is the name of a rare Tasmanian Eagle.

Before Nairana was launched and ready for service a large amount of flying training and operational flights were carried out from the Royal Naval Air Service base, HMS Landrail at Machrihanish in Kintyre.

Many practice take-offs and landings were carried out, with the old Aircraft Carrier, Argus. steaming up and down the Clyde approaches for this purpose and the Squadron returning to Machrihanish several times. I’m told that the Campbeltown ladies were considered a particular attraction of this posting.

When Nairana was ready the squadron embarked with their planes and support staff and before long put to sea to begin their convoy escort duties in earnest.

Jock Bevan and his younger brother Robin joined up at about the same time, Jock becoming an Observer in 835 Squadron, while Robin served in Midget Submarines, a somewhat ironic path of duty for them in view of the avowed aims of each unit.

Jock was one of a new draft of Aircrew joining Nairana in July/August of 1944. He had previously flown with 836 Squadron on similar duties in the West Atlantic and was just in time to be on Nairana’s passage to Gibraltar escorting one of the last outward-bound Atlantic convoys of the war.

Although this passage was relatively quiet and uneventful the Swordfish crews flew thirty-one patrols and searches (thirteen at night), which was to prove useful training for the arduous duties to come.

The single biggest turning point of the war came with the Axis opening of the Eastern Front and Britain’s determination to support our Russian allies.

To do this it was decided to supply as much materiel as possible by convoy to the ports of Murmansk and Archangel.

This was a dreadfully dangerous route, in almost full exposure to air and submarine attacks, although at first it was feared that enemy surface ships would pose the biggest threat. All of these risks were taken in the face of the appalling weather and sea conditions of the Arctic Ocean.

If you’ve seen any pictures of big ships in severe winter weather in the open sea, then try to imagine the lot of those whose job it was to fly off and on the Escort Carriers in these circumstances – sitting in open cockpits, flying for hours over a wide-open sea, keeping their eyes peeled for sight of any threats to the convoy.

Any mechanical failure, or navigational error could lead to a ditching in the sea, with almost inevitable fatal consequences.

By far the most hazardous part of each operation took part at the beginning and end of a flight, with the aircraft struggling to take to the air – and to stay there – when taking off from a pitching and tossing flight deck; or conversely trying to line up with the same flight deck at the end of a long, cold and tiring sortie, hoping that descent of the aircraft and as near as possible, the stability of the deck, could be co-ordinated.

In the event of a crash in either circumstance the Pilot and Crew would be extremely lucky to escape death or serious injury. A very real possibility existed of the aircraft skidding over the edge of the flight deck and crashing into the sea.

If the carrier didn’t run down the sinking plane, and the crew did manage to get out, they had only two life-saving aids, the Mae-West lifejacket each man wore and the inflatable dinghy carried in each aircraft. Even if they were able to deploy these, their survival time after being in the freezing waters could be measured in minutes if they were not quickly picked up and treated for exposure.

Jock Bevan had already had one such terrifying experience before serving in the Arctic.

While with 836 Squadron in the West Atlantic he was in a Swordfish which crashed on landing and went into the sea. After about 30 minutes in the water he was picked up by a ship’s lifeboat. This crash happened during daylight. Just one year and ten days later Jock was to survive another unexpected swim.

This time anti-submarine patrols were being flown round the clock to protect the convoy in the Barents Sea, north of the North Cape. To assist take-off the Swordfish had for some time been equipped with Rocket Accelerated Take Off Gear (RATOG), designed to give the heavily laden aircraft a boost of speed to lift off the deck.

At about midnight in a heaving sea, Jock and his pilot, Ron Brown, were given the signal to take off. When nearly half way along the deck the RATOG was fired – but just then the ship gave a huge lurch and heave, throwing the aircraft off line and heading for the carrier’s superstructure at rocket-boosted speed. The aircraft crashed into one of the Carrier’s Anti-Aircraft Gun batteries and went over the side into the sea.

It was when reading of this that I wondered if it was at this time that Jock and Jim McHugh had nearly met with fatal consequences, Jim’s post being that of Gun Layer.

Mercifully the two airmen managed to escape into their dinghy and were picked up by the Destroyer, HMS Onslaught, after about fifteen minutes, both suffering badly from their experience.

An official report of the time says, ‘Their limbs wouldn’t bend and their clothes had to be cut away from their frozen bodies.’

Despite these experiences Jock survived the War and lived a fulfilled life, continuing his artistic career by attending Dundee College of Art and subsequently becoming much in demand as a conceptual artist.

During the war he had demonstrated his talents by designing the 835 Squadron Badge, two winged swords over the sea, one pointing down to the menace under the sea and the other up to the deterrent aircraft in the sky above. After the war he painted many pictures depicting events from his experiences. One of these is the lead photograph accompanying this article – of a painting of Jock’s showing Swordfish in the air with HMS Nairana at sea below them.

HNLMS Karel Doorman (formerly HMS Nairana)

And Nairana herself? There was no need for escort carriers after the war so in 1946 Nairana was sold to the Royal Netherlands Navy, in whose service she was renamed HNLMS Karel Doorman – photographed above i that identity. In 1948 she was converted into a merchantman, the Port Victor, owned until march 1968 by the Cunard Line but managed by the Blue Star Port Lines. Port Line took over her ownership in 1971 and sent her to Faslane to be scrapped on 21st July that year.

Chris Thornhill

I am very grateful to Mrs Pam Bevan for allowing me to study some of Jock’s papers and to his elder son, Simon for sharing personal memories.

The Squadron Badge is from Jock’s artwork and the photograph of his painting of Swordfish in the clouds over Nairana was taken with Pam Bevan’s permission.

The photographs of HMS Nairana and of HNLMS Karel Doorman (formerly HMS Nairana) are both in the public domain.

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