On 13th October 1943, Ballyhalbert received yet another squadron returning from “Operation Avalanche”, this time it was 899 squadron which flew in from the escort carrier HMS Hunter equipped with a mixture of Seafire IIc/LIII’s plus Spitfire Vb’s and ‘hooked Vb’s. This was almost certainly designed to be a period of R&R after the intense operations connected with the Salerno landings, but the squadron’s stay at Ballyhalbert was relatively short and on January 17th 1944 the squadron transferred to RNAS Sydenham, bringing with it some 20 aircraft.
Here the unit began working up for its next embarkation, formation flying, ADDL’s, air to air and dive bombing were the order of the day. Leaving Sydenham on April 1st the squadron embarked HMS Khedive to continue working-up with the ship and remained with the carrier for almost 4 weeks before returning to RAF Long Kesh on April 27th. The work-up here included a fairly large-scale exercise with US aircraft around Lough Neagh with 899 supplying 16 Seafires. On May 15th the squadrons 20 Seafire LIII’s left Long Kesh for a further period aboard Khedive but this time in and around Scapa Flow.
In July 1944 Khedive along with the escort carriers Attacker, Emperor, Pursuer and Searcher sailed for the Mediterranean to take part in the invasion of southern France “Operation Dragoon” which began on August 15th 1944. Following further operations in the Agean sea against German shipping and shore installations, HMS Khedive arrived back in Belfast on October 12th 1944 when 899 flew ashore once again to RAF Long Kesh. The work-up again included bombardment-spotting, air to air firing practice as well as ADDL’s and practice dive bombing.
On January 25th 1945 the squadron (now increased to 24 a/c) departed for RNAS Sydenham from where it operated whilst carrying out deck-landing practice on HMS Ravager in the Irish Sea before continuing for its initial work-up with HMS Chaser also operating in the Irish Sea/Clyde area. The squadron finally left Sydenham on February 26th 1945 embarking on Chaser which sailed for Ceylon to take part in the war on Japan, however 899 saw no action and the squadron was disembarked to Schofields, Australia to form a Seafire pool for other squadrons.
In June 1943 an order was issued which stated that squadrons embarked on carriers would be grouped into numbered wings with each wing bearing a distinguishing number, prefixed by its purpose. In order to avoid confusion with their RAF counterparts each would have the word Naval in its title and so commencing on October 25th 1943, 19 such Naval Fighter Wings (NFW) were formed with others planned which never materialised. The first visit of a Seafire NFW took place at Ballyhalbert when 887 squadron (now part of 24 NFW along with 894 squadron) arrived on February 6th 1944 from Burscough equipped with 12 Seafire FIII/LIII’s. Two days later on the 8th the other component arrived from Burscough when 894 squadron flew in with 12 more Seafire FIII’s to begin a period of intense working-up to mould both units into an efficient, operational fighting machine.
Both units remained in the Province for some months, disappearing now and then to practice particular skills at other naval bases eg; 887 went to Eglinton on March 21st then to Culmhead on April 18th before returning to Ballyhalbert May 15th ~ May 23rd during which time the squadron carried out Deck Landing Practice (DLP) on HMS Indefatigable in the Irish Sea/Clyde area.
894 also left for Culmhead on 28th April returning with 887 to Ballyhalbert on May 15th and went straight into DLP with Indefatigable. The 24th NFW left Ballyhalbert for Eglinton at the end of May (887/29th and 894/30th), here the squadrons continued working up, concentrating on air-to-air and air-to-ground firing. Leaving Eglinton on July 4th – 887 squadron flew via Wick and Skaebrae to embark HMS Indefatigable on July 6th whilst 894 remained at Eglinton until July 18th when it departed via Grimsetter to join Indefatigable on July 24th. Both squadrons saw action off the Norwegian coast during August which included providing cover for attacks on the German battleship “Tirpitz”. Towards the end of 1944 Indefatigable set course for the Pacific with the 24th NFW still on board, they were to face the horrors of the war in the Pacific including operations over mainland Japan.
Seafires at Eglinton
Seafire being recovered after a wheel up crash.