A Royal Naval Officer’s amazing tale of survival

[This story was first published online on the Chichester Observer website on April 19, 2018. The original story can be read here: chichester.co.uk/news/nostalgia-a-royal-naval-officer-s-amazing-story-of-survival-1-8465492.]

Midshipman Hordern in the gunroom, at work on his journal
Midshipman Hordern in the gunroom, at work on his journal

“I don’t feel like a hero, which is what people called me for being a survivor,” says Michael Hordern, reflecting on his past as a Royal Naval Officer. “Although, I suppose, I’m still here to talk about those past days, which historically were very eventful.”

Eventful they certainly were – Mr Horden was active in his role from 1933-1958, serving in the Second World War.  

I met Mr Hordern at his Felpham home along with his daughter Sarah, the youngest of his three children.

Born on September 15, 1919, Mr Hordern is, as he says, “well into his 99th year”. He spoke with humour and clarity about his memories, which, he explained, had also been written down as a memoir.

“It had never occured to me that I was going to be anything other than a naval officer”, Mr Hordern reflects in this book, Memoirs: The Personal Account of a Royal Naval Officer, 1933 – 1958.

As a 13 year old, young ‘Mike’ was taken up to London to undergo an interview for acceptance as a possible naval cadet, and entered Dartmouth Naval College in the spring of 1933.

Mr Hordern’s ‘term’, or school house, at Dartmouth College, consisted of 34 young men who left the college in December, 1936. “I’m one of two left, and the remaining one is older than I am,” Mr Hordern says. “But it’s only in the last few years that many of them have died. The war only took four, and we have held several reunion dinners over the years.”

After passing out of Dartmouth, Mr Hordern and his peers went to sea in the cadet training cruiser, before becoming Midshipmen, a rank known as ‘the lowest form of animal life at sea’. Two years later, in 1939, Mr Hordern removed his Midshipman’s white patches and put on the single gold stripe of a Sub-Lieutenant with pride as he prepared to start a year of specialist courses.  The declaration of war meant that the course timeframe had to be changed, and Mr Hordern received his Certificate of Commission, dated June 16, 1939. In this year, he also met a Joan Elizabeth Thompson, who later became known as ‘Liz’, who joined the WRNS as a Royal Marine ‘Wren’. “64 years married -so we didn’t do bad!” Mr Hordern refers to Liz as ‘the love of his life’ in his memoirs, speaking of their marriage in October, 1940.

Nostalgia 1904 Michael Hordern 1
October 31, 1940 – the happy wedding at St Andrew’s Church, Royal Marine Barracks at Eastney

“I suppose the highlight was 1940, which of course was historically the year of the Battle of Britain, which is the main thing that stands out,” Mr Hordern says. “Those were momentous times.”

That year, Mr Hordern had joined HMS Walpole. He said: “I well remember that time as I was in a destroyer based in the mouth of the Thames estuary, in the heart of all that was going on. Remarkable times – you were escorting conveys down the East Coast, and from time to time being bombed.” When the Dunkirk evacuation took place, Walpole was not involved: “We missed going to Dunkirk – goodness knows why – so we had very little knowledge of what was going on, but that having happened, we found ourselves going out every night on what were termed ‘anti-invasion patrols’, which meant staying up all night at action stations off the coast of Kent, peering into the darkness for invading landing craft, which is hard to describe, and as far as we were concerned it was something which was necessary,” Mr Hordern explained.

At the end of 1940, he was then appointed to flying training with the RAF as a Fleet Air Arm pilot. “I was more than happy to go flying,” Mr Hordern tells me. “I spent most of 1941 flying training, and was then free to be sent wherever, so I flew through the rest of the war and after the war until I retired in in 1958.”

After flying training, Mr Hordern says he was “free to be sent for my first flying appointment at an air station controlled by the Navy in Egypt, of all places.

“And then of course the question is how does one get to Egypt when we have no control over the seas or air in between, the Mediterranean being virtually closed? I found myself leaving this country in a civilian aircraft, across to Ireland, being a neutral country, flying in plain clothes. There was a lot of people on the flight in no uniform, so I didn’t know who or what they were. Eventually, we got to Egypt by a flying boat from Shannon in Ireland, to Lisbon, another neutral country, and then to North Africa, down the west coast of the country, to Lagos. Here all passengers by then got into uniform and we found out who was who. Eventually I found myself in Alexandria and reported for duty.”

“I think that must have been the end of 1941, spent Christmas there. Then I found myself appointed to a Navy fighter squadron, flying Hurricanes fighters, based in Tobruk, which in those days and later became quite a famous name in military history. That didn’t last very long because the Germans, under Rommel, pushed us out that part of North Africa, and we had to come back to Alexandria. From there our Hurricanes were taken away – we were two squadrons, navy squadrons, who were put under RAF control having come from an aircraft carrier that had been badly damaged in wartime action, and were operating under RAF control.

“We were sent from Egypt to fly different new aircraft, two squadrons to fly out to Sulong – Sri Lanka, then called Ceylon. Which meant a lengthy journey, flying in small groups, through Palestine, Iraq, down the Persian gulf, through Bahrain, across to Afghanistan, down through India, finishing up in Colombo in what was then Ceylon, where we were located on an RAF station there, for the defence of Colombo against Japan.

“Previously, while on my way out to Africa, Japan had attacked the Americans at Pearl Harbor, and were now the enemy. They had captured Singapore, and everything was very defensive, and the Japanese in that part of the world had complete control.

“I saw action at Ceylon, and then after that, the Royal Navy was able to send a force out to that part of the world. We landed aboard the aircraft carrier, and operations took on a different turn.

“And then my career took me back to Mombasa, East Africa, shore based there after a spell – I contracted malaria and my ship and squadron sailed away and left me in a hospital there.

“Eventually I then was sent to another carrier and joined that, flying different aeroplanes, which we got from Narobe, having been delivered there in crates unassembled and made to fly, which we then collected, flew back down to Mombasa. I joined another carrier, eventually back to England.

“Then of course we come to 1943, and I found myself in the Mediterranean involved in the combined American/British landings in North Africa, followed by Sicily, followed by Italy, all of which I was involved in.

“So after another year away, after my first born was born, I first met my first daughter when she was four months old, and life progressed, having survived. I think I had two years apart, with a bit in between – obviously, otherwise there wouldn’t have been any children! I had by then risen in seniority and become a SO squadron and I went to America to form another squadron with American fighter aircraft, which meant a few months in Maine on the east coast of America. I eventually joined a carrier classed as a light fleet carrier, the Vengeance, which was one of a force of carriers destined for the Japanese war.”

The aircraft carrier’s first fighter squadron leader, Mr Hordern, by then Lieutenant Commander, joined the Vengeance in 1945 at the age of 25. He was to lead the Vengeance’s American-built Corsair into battle against Japan, sailing for the Far East in early 1945. By the time she’d arrived, however, the war against Japan was over.

“The war eventually ended, which I’d survived,” says Mr Hordern. “I’d got as far as Australia, ready to join the Japanese war. Then we heard that Japan had surrendered.”

“I retired at 1958 at a time when all services were going through major changes and reductions in size, as has happened ever since. I had the option of voluntary retirement, which I applied for and got. There were no openings for civilians flying, otherwise I would have gone for that, if there had been a demand for civil airlines!”

Mr Hordern and his wife were also licencees of the Thatched House in Felpham for a time.

Mr Hordern today with his Memoirs
Mr Hordern today with his Memoirs

The full history of Mr Hordern’s experiences as a Royal Naval Officer is outlined in his Memoirs, of which a few personal copies are held by the Fleet Air Arm and family members.

Writing the book took about five years. “When I got around to starting, I spent time sitting thinking, and taking notes, before writing,” Mr Hordern explained. “As a midshipman, which I was in my early life, you had to keep a journal, so I had a journal for two years of my early life, and then when I started flying, you had a flying log book. This has every flight I ever made in it – I’ve got three log books, so I had these aids for my memory before even putting pen to paper, plus I’ve always had quite a lot of photographs of where I was and what I was doing. Writing the book made me realise how much happened in short spaces of time.”

Sarah typed up the book, saying: “It was a much bigger job than I’d anticipated – I used to get sent these brown envelopes full of notes! It took a long time.”

Son Anthony, a professional photographer, put the book together.

Today, Mr Hordern has six grandchildren, and, at the last count, eight great grandchildren. He still plays petanque, and is the life president of the Arundel Petanque Club.

“I’ve often, as one’s bound to do, look back on one’s past, and think about the past, and my best memories are of the 1940s. I’m fortunate that my best memories are of those long ago days,” he says. “But thanks goodness for that!”

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