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JL Granatstein: Hammy Gray, Canadian Hero

“He had blonde hair – straight and fine – with a cool, boyish complexion. Of medium height and prone to plumpness, with a somewhat rolling gait,’ Squadron Commander Hammy Gray said on HMS. Formidable. “He was extremely warm, always cheerful and even-tempered – rather easy-going… modest…. ribbed around this small western town.

Somehow it doesn’t sound like the usual description of a hero, but Lieutenant Robert Hampton Gray of the Royal Canadian Naval Volunteer Reserve would receive the Distinguished Service Cross and the Victoria Cross at posthumously for his actions during the final stages of the war in the Pacific. in the summer of 1945.

Robert Hampton Gray was born in Trail, British Columbia, in 1917—his father was a Boer War veteran and jeweler—and grew up in Nelson. After high school, he attended the University of Alberta for a year, then transferred to the University of British Columbia. He intended to go to McGill for a medical degree, but instead joined the Navy in the summer of 1940. He did his basic training at HMCS Stadacone in Halifax, then applied for officer and pilot training. Many applied for the former, fewer for the latter, but Gray was chosen for both and traveled to England where he was commissioned as a second lieutenant.

Gray then returned to Canada for pilot training under the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan in Kingston, Ontario, returned to Britain, and was posted to Nairobi, Kenya. There he spent most of the two years as a naval pilot ashore flying Hawker Hurricanes, but with some time flying from the aircraft carrier. Illustrated. His brother, who was flying with the Royal Canadian Air Force, was killed during operations during Gray’s African posting.

Now a lieutenant, Gray got a ticket on HMS Formidable, another Royal Navy aircraft carrier and in August 1944 played a leading role in two attacks on the German battleship Tirpitz sheltered in a Norwegian fjord. The battleship was not sunk in these raids (it was in November 1944), but Gray’s courage and skill in piloting his fast and well-armed fighter-bomber, the F4U Corsair, “right in the guns “guns of the German destroyers protect the Tirpitz was noted, and it was mentioned twice in dispatches. In April 1945, Formidable joined the British Pacific Fleet as the Allies closed in on Japan, attacking sea and coastal installations.

Japan was in dire straits in the summer of 1945, its cities burned, its merchant fleet all but destroyed. There was no sign of surrender, however, and the United States and its British Commonwealth allies, including Canada, were planning a seaborne invasion which all feared would meet the same fanatical resistance the Americans had faced. for nearly three months in Okinawa. Japanese kamikaze pilots were still attacking Allied shipping, and their airfields were prime targets. Under these circumstances, the pressure on the leadership in Tokyo had to be kept up, and on July 18, 24, and 28 Gray led his flight of six Corsairs in attacks on airfields and shore installations around Japan’s Inland Sea. Once again his remarkable bravery was noticed and Admiral Sir Philip Vian, Commander of the British Pacific Fleet, recommended him for the immediate award of the Distinguished Service Cross, a high decoration.

Hiroshima was struck by the atomic bomb on August 6, and while no one in the fleet knew its effects in detail, it was clear that this weapon of enormous power would shake the Japanese leadership and the end of the war would come. was drawing. near. Aircrew on Formidable, as Gray’s Squadron Leader recalled, were ordered to “calm down” on 9 August and avoid unnecessary risks as they set off again to straf the airfields. Neither Gray nor his comrades knew that Nagasaki had been leveled that day by the second atomic bomb.

The chosen route took Gray’s flight over Onagawa Bay on Honshu where five Imperial Japanese Navy ships were at anchor. As Gray’s Victoria Cross citation foretold in November 1945, “Airmen…dived to attack. Furious fire was opened on the aircraft from ground army batteries and warships in the bay. Lieut. Gray chooses an enemy destroyer as his target. He swept away heedless of the concentrated fire and headed straight for his target. His plane was hit and hit again, but he kept going. As he approached the destroyer, his plane caught fire but he came within fifty feet of the Japanese ship and dropped his bombs. He scored at least one direct hit, maybe more. The destroyer sank almost immediately. Lt. Gray has not returned,” the quote concluded. “He had given his life at the very end of his intrepid bombardment.”

The historian of Royal Navy operations in the Pacific, John Winton, wrote that “Grey’s VC was in a sense the saddest and certainly one of the least known of the war. The war was so close to ending; the cause for which he gave his life was already won. Japan surrenders on August 15. Gray is most likely the last Canadian serviceman killed in action during the Second World War, and his Victoria Cross is the only one awarded to an RCN member during the 1939-1945 war.

Gray is commemorated by one of fourteen statues and busts at the Valiants Memorial near Confederation Square in Ottawa.

The monument honors those who have served this country in times of war and the contributions they have made to building our nation. These 14 men and women were chosen for their heroism and because they represent critical moments in Canada’s military history. https://www.canada.ca/en/canadian-heritage/services/monuments-art/monuments/valiants.html

Most Canadians miss it and few know Gray’s courage. They should know more. He deserves to be remembered as the Canadian hero he was.

Rodney N.

The author Rodney N.