On the same day that the world was struck by news of a second atomic bomb, the last Victoria Cross of World War 2 was won by a Royal Navy Reservist. No sailor or Royal Marine has been awarded Britain’s – and the Commonwealth’s – highest military decoration since the deeds of Lieutenant Robert Hampton ‘Hammy’ Gray on the morning of Thursday, August 9 1945.
Exactly 100 minutes before the attack on Nagasaki, Gray – known as ‘Hammy’ by friends – was leading a flight of eight Corsair fighter-bombers from carrier HMS Formidable, 750 miles to the northeast. Twenty-seven-year-old Gray was already a veteran of Formidable’s raid on the Tirpitz in Norway and numerous fighter-bomber strikes in the Pacific theatre when he attended the pilots’ briefing on the carrier that fateful Thursday.
Formidable’s Commanding Officer, Captain Ruck-Keene, urged his fliers “not to take unnecessary risks” with Japan teetering on surrender. But war was war and strikes this day were planned against airfields around Onagawa Wan, 250 miles north of Tokyo, to keep the kamikazes grounded.
Formidable knew all too well the threat posed by the Japanese suicide bombers. She had been hit off Okinawa in early May – the aftermath has provided us with some of the iconic imagery of a kamikaze attack – before being hurriedly repaired in Australia and sent back to Japan, where her aircraft struck at shipping and land-based targets.
Corsairs on the deck of HMS Formidable
Lieutenant Robert Hampton 'Hammy' Gray RCNVR
HMS Formidable on fire after being hit by Kamikazes in May 1945
"One of the gallant company of Naval airmen who fought and beat the Japanese from Palembang to Tokyo" - Official gazette.
On the morning of August 9, Gray’s flight noticed flak guns belching on well-camouflaged shipping in the harbour. They continued on to the airfields – were they found few pickings – but on the run for home, the senior pilot of 1841 Naval Air Squadron was determined to knock out the enemy warships. Racing low over the Honshu hills, Gray led his flight towards the defiant destroyer, intent on sinking his two 500lb bombs into it.
His posthumous citation described him running a gauntlet of concentrated fire, ignoring the steel hail, and heading directly for his target, the destroyer Amakusa. Flying at mast height, Gray released the warheads which tumbled into the destroyer, then began to make his break for safety.
Still at barely 30 or 40ft ‘Hammy’ Gray’s port wing burst into flames, the aircraft flipped over on to its back and plunged into the bay, disappearing in an instant.
Amakusa at least was crippled and sank in an instant, but Gray’s loss was mourned by all on Formidable. “He was liked and respected by all,” fellow flier Sub Lieutenant A Hughes recalled. “His death cast a shadow not only on the pilots, but on the whole ship.”
Victory Cross citation
For great valour in leading an attack on a Japanese destroyer in Onagawa Wan, on 9 August 1945. In the face of fire from shore batteries and a heavy concentration of fire from some five warships Lieutenant Gray pressed home his attack, flying very low in order to ensure success, and, although he was hit and his aircraft was in flames, he obtained at least one direct hit, sinking the destroyer. Lieutenant Gray has consistently shown a brilliant fighting spirit and most inspiring leadership.
To Gray’s parents, Sub Lieutenant John Blade wrote: “I would have done more for Hammy than any other pilot I served under. He had an unfailing joviality and a sense of proportion which gave me the greatest confidence in his judgment.”
In the rush of events which typified the Japanese empire’s collapse, the exploits of Robert Hampton Gray have largely been overlooked by history.
A former medical student from British Columbia, the Canadian volunteered to join the Royal Navy in 1940, earning his wings in the autumn of 1941. He served extensively in North Africa before joining Formidable in the European theatre of operations, twice receiving a mention in dispatches for his heroism.
News of his death reached the family home in the appropriately named Canadian town of Nelson, as Emperor Hirohito declared “the war situation has developed not necessarily to Japan’s advantage” – ushering in peace in the Far East.
It would be another three months before the Canadian was gazetted for his deed. He was, it said, “one of the gallant company of Naval airmen who fought and beat the Japanese from Palembang to Tokyo.”