We had been nursing the idea for a long time. A live O.B. from the flight-deck of a carrier at sea seemed to be most attractive; and Their Lordships of the Admiralty were all in favour.
Ray Dicks and I did, in fact, reach the deck of H.M.S. Victorious at Portsmouth to investigate the possibilities; but the ship was snatched away and sent to the Far East because, they said, global strategy comes before telly. In any case, to mount a seafaring O.B. would involve some 20 tons of assorted hardware and 40 bodies. So we abandoned the idea and bent our minds to film with all its obvious advantages for such a project. Again, the Admiralty made encouraging noises and it was arranged that the general manager, Ray Dicks and I would be flown to Malta and translated to H.M.S. Eagle at sea while she was working up her new air squadrons. Eagle had just completed some modernisation costing a cool £30,000,000. All mod. cons. They told me: ‘you will be amazed’.
Unhappily, our general manager couldn’t go but Ray Dicks and I set out for Malta. Just like the man said, we were met on arrival by a naval pilot, a truck and an aeroplane. Somewhat to my dismay the aircraft was not a helicopter but a Gannet; a large, pregnant, hideous machine stripped of its gadgetry and roughly converted to courier duties.
In a cosy 87 degrees, we stuft’ed ourselves into flying clothing; into overalls and mae west and dinghy and crash-hat and radio.
It all took time.
‘If you get an order to bale out’, a polite and patient sailor told me, ‘just roll over the side clear of the aerials, dwell a pause and pull the rip-cord. When you enter the sea, the dinghy should inflate. If it doesn’t you should…’ And off we went, at 50 feet over the Mediterranean so that a parachute would have been of academic interest. Eagle was 20 miles out, paddling along majestically into wind while one of the young gentlemen practised decklandings in a Vixen. I studied the situation and listened to the R/T. Evidently, the Vixen was being gauche and we would have to wait. ‘That was a bolter’, announced the radio – in other words, the pilot had misjudged his approach and opened the taps to miss the angled deck. This, I felt, was exactly where I came in, years ago. I was always kept hanging about the ship while something unsatisfactory went on below.
Then we were invited to land. Hook, wheels, flaps; all the vital things. We went into the arrester wires (better than discs) at 100 knots and came to rest neatly abreast the island. An elegant flight of steps was offered and we were greeted by the commander, wearing a telescope as is proper when receiving visitors however dubious their origin. We were taken up to the compass platform to meet the captain. We had come aboard.
They looked after us magnificently. The domestic arrangements were a revelation to me. The wardroom was run like an efficient hotel and the cast included a hall porter and a head butler – in bell-bottoms; very rare. Everything worked, including the elaborate air-conditioning. This astonished me. In my day, H.M. ships couldn’t produce a glass of cold water without a major crisis below stairs. The telephone in my cabin said to dial 999 if I was in any way unhappy. A deferential steward arrived to discuss my dress for dinner. Ray and I were O.K. for dress by courtesy of Rediffusion’s wardrobe who had equipped us with white tuxedos, ex ‘Crane’, perhaps, but natty and much admired, we thought.
Our host officer took us up to the island to watch the afternoon’s flying, and then we were bidden to take drinks with the commander before being introduced to the wardroom. Our lives had been programmed and it was never a dull moment. We were shown everything, from the radar to die prop shafts.
For sheer visual impact, apart from the noise and the people, it would be hard to beat the effect of a Buccaneer coming on to the deck at night and swooping into the wires at 150 m.p.h. The ship had to hustle to get enough wind down the runway. A Buccaneer weighs 23 tons and cost a million pounds sterling. When I was a practitioner in these matters, I trundled to the deck at a stately 90 knots or so. I am glad I flew when I did and not in one of Eagle‘s sophisticated electronic monsters. It is all done by computer, they said. If a transistor doesn’t fancy its programme, something regrettable can happen – and fast.
Eagle carries, as a peacetime outfit, the strike Buccaneers (of nuclear capability) a squadron of Vixen fighters, a squadron of radar Gannets, a squadron of anti-sub-marine choppers and a flight of Scimitars to cope with the prodigious thirst of the Buccaneers. Altogether, she is a complex thing; 44,000 tons, 2,500 men to support a floating airfield 800 feet long. Indeed, the price of Admiralty and of keeping the Queen’s peace.
It seemed to me that fair comment upon the whole arrangement was made by an elderly artificer whom we encountered in the lower steering compartment. No longer is this ship steered, albeit remotely, by one of those old-fashioned, simple devices called a wheel. No; a sailor lolled in a swivel armchair and steered to within ¼ of a degree with a joystick. The artificer took me aside ‘You know, Sir, this lot really worries me…’ I knew exactly what he meant.
When we were due to leave the ship they told us calmly that we would be launched by catapult. It has been a long time since I did this interesting trick; and the first time ever for Ray Dicks. So we climbed laboriously into all our clobber and signed one of those forms which blames it all on you if anything goes awry. The ship was downwind and, as we taxied on to the catapult, I had a good view of the sea; very blue, wet and deep. The steam catapult is inexorable. I put my head against the pad and clutched the cockpit sides. I thought about insurance, and then the turbo props screamed up to peak revs and off we went. From nothing to 100 knots in 100 feet; an acceleration of three times 32 feet per second per second – or something.
Back ashore we sorted ourselves out and went off to visit Rediffusion, Malta. The next day we left for England. Our Comet had a thrombosis in its hydraulics so that we festered for four hours in Naples. Then Miss Gracie Fields joined us and eventually we took off for London. We arrived late, tired, cross and in torrential rain. We were home from the sea.
And another thing; we are indeed going to make a programme, on film, about H.M.S. Eagle. Charles Squires will direct and, no doubt, give his own peculiar flavour to the story of this most extraordinary ship.