He was rescued by Prince Philip when his aircraft ditched in the Java Sea, but helped to reduce supplies of fuel for the Japanese war effort.
By Captain Peter Hore, Telegraph Naval Obituarist
Daily Telegraph – VE Day 75th Anniversary Edition – 8 May 2020
Petty Office Norman “Dickie” Richardson, who has died aged 96, was a rear-gunner in the Fleet Air Arm plucked from the waves by Prince Philip when his aircraft was hit and forced to ditch in the Java Sea in 1945. At first light on January 24 1945 Richardson, a Petty Officer Telegraphist Air Gunner, launched as rear-gunner in Lieutenant “Gus” Halliday’s aircraft from the carrier Victorious, in Operation Meridian I, one of the Fleet Air Arm’s raids on Japanese-held oil refineries at Pladjoe, near Palembang on Sumatra.
Richardson recalled that he had eaten an early, hearty breakfast “because I was a seasoned sailor”, but nerves had prevented many others from tucking in. They flew in formation low across the sea to avoid radar, climbed over the mountains at 14,000ft and sped across the jungle towards the refineries.
“When we got near, we saw that barrage balloons were up, which we did not expect and if you hit a cable it would take your wings off.”
As Halliday dived through the balloons and intense anti-aircraft fire, Richardson had
“no recollection of being frightened because I was busy firing back at attacking aircraft … some of our planes went down, but we caught them on the hop”.
It was different in Operation Meridian II when the operation was repeated on January 29 against refineries at Sungai Gerong, southern Sumatra. Richardson knew that “they would be ready for us”. Again, Halliday dived through the balloons, but the aircraft was hit, caught fire and the bomb doors jammed open. Petrol leaked everywhere as Richardson used bursts of machine-gun fire to ward off an enemy fighter. Halliday kept the aircraft flying, but they were forced to ditch in the sea.
While the aircraft filled with water, Richardson hauled a dinghy out of a wing bay, but it did not inflate. As Halliday, Richardson and the third crew member, Austin Webster, were clinging together in the heaving seas, there was, Richardson later admitted, “some degree of apprehension, even panic, as every wave hit us over the head”. After about 20 minutes they were rescued by the destroyer Whelp, whose first lieutenant was Prince Philip of Greece: Richardson always thought the pyjamas he was given belonged to the prince.
The result of Operations Meridian I and II was the reduction by 75 per cent in refined fuel for the Japanese war effort.
On February 9 Halliday and his crew resumed flying, and subsequently took part in operations in support of the American landings on Okinawa and strikes against airfields used by Japanese kamikaze aircraft on the Sakishima Islands, and on Formosa. In July they attacked targets on the mainland and shipping in the inland seas of Japan, including the Japanese carrier Kaiyo.
Richardson was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal for gallantry, skill and marked devotion to duty in air strikes in the Far East.
Norman Edward “Dickie” Richardson was born on July 25 1923 in Cardiff. His father was a veteran of the Royal Naval Air Service in the First World War, and on his 18th birthday Dickie volunteered for the Navy, joining No 32 Telegraphist Air Gunners’ course at Worthy Down. Among the pilots were the actors Ralph Richardson and Laurence Olivier, known respectively by their reputations for crashing aircraft as “Pranger” and “Super Pranger”.
In 1942 Richardson was sent to the US to train on the Grumman Avenger torpedo-bomber, joining 832 Naval Air Squadron in the British carrier Victorious, which was temporarily renamed USS Robin and sent through the Panama Canal to replace losses in the US Navy’s Pacific fleet. Returning to Britain in August 1943, he joined the newly-formed 849 NAS, which after a spell in Katakuranda, Ceylon, where Halliday chose Richardson for his aircrew, embarked in Victorious for operations against the Japanese.
Postwar, Richardson emigrated to Australia, where he worked as an engineer and a sheep farmer. He moved again, to Northern Rhodesia, where from 1957 to 1969 he worked for Roan Antelope Mines as welfare officer overseeing a change from migrant to settled workers and the development of the African township at Luanshya, which became known as the “garden town of the copperbelt”. Returning to England, he and his wife ran Mayfair Picnic Box in London’s Shepherd Market.
An effective networker, Richardson campaigned for a memorial to the “Palembang Nine”, the British and New Zealand naval airmen who were shot down over Sumatra and taken prisoner during the war but were murdered by the Japanese after the war.
He married Marion Baker in 1949 and is survived by his two sons and a daughter.
Norman Richardson, born July 25 1923, died March 19 2020