Remembering the Telegraphist Air Gunners
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Bob Vargerson (Telegraphist Air Gunner) 820 Squadron - HMS Indefatigable My Experiences in Canada, Indian and Pacific Oceans during World War Two. At the ripe old age of seventeen and a half I volunteered to be a Telegraphist Air Gunner in the Fleet Air Arm and was drafted to H.M.S. St. Vincent in Portsmouth where I was selected to go to Nova Scotia to be trained. The course of ten months consisted of wireless procedures; Morse code sending and receiving at thirty words a minute, and air gunnery. These skills where carried out in Swordfish and Avro Anson Aircraft. The wireless training was quite straight forward in Anson’s, flying about one hundred miles from base, keeping in touch with the base with the position of the aircraft etc. by means of the Morse-key. The gunnery part of the training has been a talking part of my life for the past sixty years. This was carried out in Swordfish aircraft with a free mounted gas operated Lewis gun in an open cockpit. The gun was mounted on what could only be described as a length of one inch water pipe bent to half a circle and bolted on to either side of the fuselage. The gun was secured with a coupling around this pipe and could be manoeuvred from port to starboard, being secured in any position with a pin that was fitted in to the appropriate hole drilled around the pipe. The ammo pan of two hundred bullets had to be fitted to the top of the gun. With two trainee air gunners crammed in the rear cockpit of the aircraft, the aim of the exercise was that one gunner would clamber over the gun with the pan of ammo making doubly sure his G string was firmly fixed to the deck, and make fast the pan. He would then pull the pin and with one leg over the outside of the aircraft man haul the gun to the side that the drogue could be seen, securing the pin in an appropriate hole. When the towing aircraft changed direction, he would reverse procedures, - pin- gun-leg and body to the other side of the aircraft. This procedure caused great difficulty with two bodies in this tiny cockpit and the slipstream at about one hundred and fifty mph and the temperature below zero. On many occasions I have been rolled up on the deck in fits of laughter at the antics and positions that my off-sider would get into. Loosing the ammo canister was “commander’s report” and the number of hits on the drogue was very few. The only way we could get a good score was to buy the young Canadian pilot flying the towing aircraft a few beers in the mess the night before the exercise. This training was in preparation for young air-gunners to be sent out on active service to the Far East, and as you can see 1 was completely clueless when introduced to the Avenger turret. My first raid was on an oil refinery at Palembang, Samartra the largest contingent of aircraft ever, to carry out a raid by the Fleet Air Arm. Taking off from the carrier at 6 am, we had about one hundred miles to the target. The task force from HMS Indefatigable was one Squadron of Avengers, two Squadrons of Seafires and one Squadron of Firefly’s. There were three other large aircraft carriers in the fleet with the same strike force. On approaching the coast at ten thousand feet, we were attacked by Zekes and Zeros from all directions. Firing my guns from this modern aircraft after the free mounted Lewis gun was like driving a Rolls compared to a VW Beatle!! On the arrival at the target, which was well on fire, we put the aircraft into a dive through heavy Ack Ack Guns and Barrage Balloons pulling out at one thousand feet and dropping 4 five hundred pounders on to the refinery then made a hurried retreat back to the ship. We lost nearly a quarter of our aircraft. This was just the start and in ten months in the South Pacific we lost 82 men from HMS Indefatigable mainly pilots, observers, air- gunners and a number of ground crew lost when hit by a Kamikaze suicide bomber. My tour of duty consisted of 26 dive-bombing strikes on islands and ships in the Pacific area with the ship finishing up in Tokyo Bay for the signing of the Armistice. We returned to Australia with British, Aussies and Yankee POW,s, war brides and the ship’s company. On our arrival in Southampton, on my twentieth birthday in November 1945 we were greeted by a handful of dockers and were kept on the ship for twenty four hours before being allowed to go home, even the POW,s had to do through customs. Consequently we are now known as “The Forgotten Fleet”. My flying log book tells me that on 13 September 1945 I made a raid on Tokyo, being the last bomb of the war. This article was published at dated: 18 December 2005