Robert Hampton Gray enlisted in the summer of 1940. When an opportunity to join the Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm as a pilot materialized, he accepted. He flew Hurricanes and other aircraft for various Royal Navy shore-based squadrons, and spent nearly two years in Africa. In August 1944, Gray was assigned to 1841 RAF Squadron aboard HMS Formidable as a Senior Pilot. In raids against the German battleship Tirpitz he used a daring low-level attack. He had an ability to remain relaxed despite heavy stress of combatIn 1945 HMS Formidable's assignment was the Pacific. On August 9, 1945, as the second atomic bomb fell on Nagasaki, the air war against Japan targets continued unabated. Hammy Gray led two flights of Corsairs on an attack against Japanese naval ships. As he levelled out his Corsair, it was blasted with cannon and machine gun fire. The aircraft was on fire, and one of his 500 lb. bombs was shot off. He steadied the aircraft, and aimed his remaining bomb. This bomb hit the target and sank the enemy ship. Gray continued flying but brief seconds later his burning aircraft hit the water at high speed, and broke up. Gray was killed, becoming one of the last Canadians to die in combat in WWII. Despite the shock of losing their Squadron Leader, and in spite of an order to make only one run at each target, the remaining pilots conducted two more successful attacks on the target Japanese ships. Robert Hampton Gray was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for "determination and address in air attacks on targets in Japan on the 18th, 24th. and 28th of July 1945."
The Wartime Heritage Association presented portions of this article in “Echoes of the Forties - Songs and Stories of a Wartime Generation” in its Nova Scotia performance tour during September, October, and November of 2007.
Name:Rank: Service: Awards:Date of Birth:Place of Birth:Date of Enlistment:Place of Enlistment:Address at Enlistment:Age at Enlistment:Height:Complexion:Eye Colour: Hair Colour:Marital Status:Trade:Religion:Next of Kin:Date of Death: Age at Death:Cemetery: Reference:
Robert Hampton GrayLieutenant Royal Canadian Naval Volunteer ReserveHMS FormidableMentioned in Dispatches (January 16, 1945)Distinguished Service Cross (August 21, 1945)Victoria Cross (Posthumous) November 13, 1945November 2, 1917 Trail, British Columbia July 18, 1940Calgary, Alberta Nelson, British Columbia225 feet, 9 inchesFreshBlueFairSingleUniversity StudentPresbyterianJohn Balfour Gray (Father) Nelson, British ColumbiaAugust 9, 194527Halifax Memorial, Nova ScotiaPanel 13Commemorated on Page 520 of the Second World War Book of RemembranceDisplayed in the Memorial Chamber of the Peace Tower in Ottawa on November 3Robert Hampton Gray was the son of John Balfour and Wilhelmina Gray of Nelson, British Columbia, brother of Phyllis Gray-Gautschi of Nelson, British Columbia and John (Jack) Gray who died on February 27, 1942 while serving with the Royal Canadian Air Force.The mention in Dispatches reads: “for undaunted courage, skill and determination in carrying out daring attacks on the German Battleship Admiral von Tirpitz in August 1944”The Victoria Cross was awarded: “For great valour in leading an attack on a Japanese destroyer in Onagawa Wan on 9th August, 1945. In the face of fire from shore batteries and a heavy concentration of fire from some five warships, Lieutenant Gray pressed home his attack, flying very low in order to ensure success. Although he was hit and his aircraft was in flames, he obtained at least one direct hit, sinking the destroyer. Lieutenant Gray constantly showed a brilliant fighting spirit and most inspiring leadership.” The Victoria Cross was the first one ever to be awarded to a member of the Canadian Navy.
Known as ‘Hammy’, his naval career started when as a third year student at the University of British Columbia, in Vancouver. He was selected as one of seventy-five candidates to go to Great Britain to train for eventual commission. The candidates were drawn from all parts of Canada and first became acquainted when they boarded the train at Montreal for Halifax in July 1940. They began their training as ordinary seamen in Halifax and then went overseas to continue their training. Nineteen of them close to serve with the Fleet Air Arm. Four became observers and twelve became pilots. Hammy Gray was one of the twelve pilots who received much of their flying training at Collins Bay, near Kingston, Ontario. Lieutenant Gray served for several months at Nairobi, in Kenya. East Africa. Friends spoke of his great impatience and biotter disappointment when his time of service there ended without the Japanese fleet making its appearance off the African coast, as been anticipated. Early in 1944, Lieutenant Gray returned to Canada on foreign service leave. On his return to the United Kingdom he was assigned to a Corsair Squadron as senior pilot on HMS Formidable.
A bust of Gray is one of 14 life-size statues and busts unveiled in downtown Ottawa in 2006 as part of The Valiants Memorial, which depicts key figures from Canada’s military history. Victoria Cross
A granite cairn overlooking Onagawa Bay where his Corsair crashed, is the only known instance of a monument in Japan honouring an Allied serviceman.
In 2021 a new Monument at North Saanich’s BC Aviation Museum honours Robert Hampton Gray. The monument itself consists of two black pillars of granite flanking a central pillar of gray polished granite. The right pillar features the last picture of Gray in his lieutenant’s uniform, while the left pillar features an artist’s rendering of Gray’s final attack. The central pillar records Gray’s title, awards, decorations and history.
Photos provided courtesy of Gerald W. Pash. (April 2021)