Standing on the Hampshire coast looking out across the Solent towards the Isle of Wight, the Lee-on-Solent Memorial bears the names of over 1,900 servicemen and one woman of the Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm who have no known grave. They flew fighters, torpedo bombers and reconnaissance aircraft or served as groundcrew; engineers, mechanics and fitters who repaired, refuelled and rearmed the aircraft. They died in operations across the globe, serving alongside the sailors of the Royal Navy and Merchant Navy in almost every theatre of the Second World War.
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The history of naval aviation actually predates the First World War, but it was during the Second World War that naval air power became the key weapon for domination of the seas.
A Supermarine Seafire landing on the flight deck of HMS VICTORIOUS. © IWM A 9728
By the end of the First World War the Royal Navy were working to convert older battleships and had placed orders new ships to be built for the sole purpose of carrying aircraft at sea. During the Second World War the aircraft carrier surpassed the battleship as the dominant weapon at sea. For the Royal Navy it was the men of the Fleet Air Arm who piloted the fighters, bombers and reconnaissance aircraft which gave the carriers their power. The Fleet Air Arm aircraft guarded the ships of the fleet, engaged the enemy on land and sea, and scouted for the hostile submarines and surface vessels.
Three pilots of the Fleet Air Arm pose for a picture in front of a Supermarine Seafire aboard their aircraft carrier. © IWM TR 1121
Alongside their sailor colleagues the men of Fleet Air Arm served in almost every theatre of the Second World War. They supported the land operations in France in 1940, and following the Dunkirk evacuation they bolstered the depleted forces of the Royal Air Force in the defence of Britain during the Battle of Britain.
In the Mediterranean they supported ground forces in Greece, North Africa and Italy, and provided vital air cover to convoys bound for the fighting fronts and the besieged island of Malta.
Sea Hurricanes of the Fleet Air Arm on the deck of HMS Victorious on route to Malta during Operation Pedestal, the greatest supply convoy of the war. In the background can be seen, HMS Indomitable and HMS Eagle. Eagle was lost soon after this photograph was taken © IWM A 15960
In November 1940, Swordfish biplanes of the Fleet Air Arm carried out a daring night raid on Italian warships harboured at Taranto, crippling several powerful Italian ships. The operation was carefully studied by the Japanese military who went on to launch their own carrier-based air attack against the American Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbour a year later.
In the Atlantic, aircraft of the Fleet Air Arm harried the German surface fleet and were heavily involved in the sinking of the German battleship Bismarck in May 1941, and Tirpitz, in November 1944. They also escorted convoys of merchant ships, protecting them from German U-boats during the Battle of the Atlantic.
Fleet Air Arm Barracudas and Corsair pilots aboard HMS Formidable after a raid on the German Battleship Tirpitz, August 1944 © IWM A 25454
In the Far East in 1945 the Fleet Air Arm were involved in the final operations against Imperial Japan, striking at the oil fields in Sumatra and attacking shipping and land targets on the Japanese mainland.
Aircraft Carriers of the British Pacific Fleet at anchor, 1945 © IWM MH 5309
Serving with the Fleet Air Arm came with many dangers. They faced all the dangers associated with war time service at sea and in the air, with the added danger of flying from an airfield that was pitching and rolling and forever on the move in the endless ocean. Over 3,300 service personnel of the Fleet Air Arm died during the Second World War, more than half have no known grave. Many were lost when their aircraft carriers were sunk or having been shot down crashed into the sea, others made navigational errors and were never seen again.
Lee-on-Solent was chosen as the location for the CWGC’s memorial to the missing of the Fleet Air Arm as it was formerly home to HMS Daedalus, the primary shore establishment and administrative centre of the Fleet Air Arm.
The rapid increase in the number of aircraft carriers in the Royal Navy during the war created a great need for pilots and aircrew. In 1942, New Zealand was invited to recruit personnel for the Fleet Air Arm and New Zealanders would make up 10% of aircrew during the war. Those who died and have no known grave are commemorate the CWGC’s New Zealand Naval Memorial in Devonport, Auckland, New Zeeland.
Amongst the 1,900 names listed on the Lee-on-Solent Memorial is that of 23-year-old 3rd Officer Thelma Daphne Jackson of the Women’s Royal Naval Service, the only woman commemorated on the memorial. She was killed in the same incident which also took the life of her husband, 22-year-old Sub-Lieutenant Arthur Myles Jackson, as well as Sub-Lieutenant Eric Fretwell. On 23 July 1944, all three took off from Perranporth in Cornwall in a Swordfish torpedo bomber piloted by Fretwell. The exact circumstances of their deaths are not known, but they never reached their destination. No wreckage was ever located, but it is likely that they crashed into the sea due to mechanical trouble.
Visit Lee-on-Solent Memorial
This Memorial is located on the main sea front, sited on Marine Parade West, approximately half a mile west of the town centre.