Burgh MAEE man escaped from sunk sub

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A HELENSBURGH man who made a dramatic escape from a mini-submarine in Loch Striven serves as an example of the talent to be found in the Marine Aircraft Experimental Establishment at RAF Helensburgh during World War Two.

Joiner’s son Duncan Gay was born in Helensburgh on March 15 1913, and educated at the then Hermitage School in East Argyle Street. He started his career in dental mechanics and prosthetics.

On April 12 1939 Duncan, of 38 East Argyle Street, married shop assistant Mary Copeland, of 5 Rosslyn Terrace, Maitland Street, at the Imperial Hotel on the seafront.

On the outbreak of the Second World War that year he joined the MAEE as a civilian instrument maker and flight test observer.

This involved specialised desk work and the completion of 1500 hours in flying boats including the troublesome Saro Lerwick.

This was a dangerous occupation. In October 1941 a Saro Lerwick belonging to the MAEE crashed killing everyone aboard, including a civilian trials observer.

MAEE worked closely with the Royal Navy and Barnes Wallis, and Duncan was involved in the bouncing bomb trials conducted for Wallis by the MAEE on Loch Striven.

He was also a Sub-Lieutenant in the Royal Naval Reserve and was involved with X-craft and midget submarines trials on the same loch.

MAEE conducted trials involving a Sunderland dropping two-man torpedoes for a possible attack on the German battleship Tirpitz.

X-craft-wOn one occasion in his RNR role Duncan was called upon to take part in a practice dive, but ended up being stranded on the bottom of Loch Striven. The X-craft submarine could not surface as the electrics failed.

With the battery flooded, thick chlorine fumes started to fill the confined dark space. Communications were also out of action.

Death was looking Duncan and two other men in the face, so he started flooding the submarine, calculating that it would be possible to get out when the pressure inside equalled that outside.

After 40 minutes he was able to open the hatch and all three trapped men escaped to the surface. No doubt this life saving, quick thinking action, was a product of his time with the MAEE.

It was not unusual for MAEE personnel to receive other postings. Duncan was posted for a time to HMS Excellent in Portsmouth, and in 1944 qualified as a Royal Navy diver, first class.

By the end of the war he was undertaking the high speed photography of underwater weapons, probably in Glen Fruin, where MAEE had constructed a huge indoor testing water tank named the Admiralty Hydro Ballistic Research Establishment at the west end of the glen.

In 1957 he was posted to the Mechanical Engineering Research Establishment at Thorntonhall, near East Kilbride. Here he pioneered the development of an air bed to treat burned patients and an air fluidised sand bed giving contour support to patients.

Later, after the establishment moved to a purpose-built site at East Kilbride and had its name changed to the National Engineering Laboratory, he played a leading role in developing modern motors used in the post war spinning industry. For this he was awarded the MBE.

In his private life he was a competitive yachtsman and marksman, as were many of his colleagues who served at RAF Helensburgh.

In fact, it is said that MAEE moved to Helensburgh from Felixstowe at the outbreak of the war on the recommendation of its commanding officer, Group Captain E.J.P.Burling, an accomplished yachtsman who had previously sailed the Gareloch.

He said that the Gareloch would be ideal for flying boats even though Helensburgh and Rhu initially had no facilities.

Burling quickly requisitioned Ardenvohr, the Royal Northern Yacht Club building at Rhu, as his officers mess. Civilian staff regularly did Home Guard and rifle practice as part of the establishment’s security arrangements.

Vincent Drake, who was in charge of the MAEE marine section and air sea rescue trials, was also a keen yachtsman and marksman. He was in the MAEE’s winning team which took part in the Ministry of Supply Rifle Association Championship.

Much of this information was unearthed by retired Merseyside newspaper editor Robin Bird, whose father, Bob Bird, was the MAEE photographer at Helensburgh and went out in little boats during sea trials.

Bob learned to shoot under the watchful eye of Mr Drake, who was head of the Home Guard, but he hated doing Home Guard duty after a day’s work. Like Duncan he enjoyed sailing and shooting as a pastime after the war.

The MAEE staff of 375 was not just made up of RAF and WAAF personnel. There were scientists, mathematicians, technicians, tradesmen, photographers, artists, secretaries and various other occupations.

MAEE-secret-wThose serving at RAF Helensburgh came from all over the country and British Empire. They included many colourful and slightly eccentric characters.

It was the country’s top secret base for the development of flying boats, anti-submarine radar, anti-submarine warfare, armament testing, and the testing of sea survival equipment for ditched aircrews.

The staff in Helensburgh and Rhu worked closely with Government departments, the Ministry of Aircraft Production, the Air Ministry, operational squadrons, the Royal Navy, the USA and others.

As a result there was a lot of paper work to be read and analysed by lots of people. Trials and tribulations all had to be recorded, typed, illustrated, catalogued, copied, cross-referenced, approved and rubber stamped ‘Most Secret.’

Most of these reports are now in the National Archives at Kew, London, and Robin, author of two books about MAEE, went to Kew to study them this summer.

He said: “Their secret embargo has expired, and they make fascinating reading.

“The mathematical equations in some reports are mind-blowing, equating to things like air drag, water resistance to a flying boat hulls, and seaplane research generally carried out at Helensburgh.”

MAEEOnce MAEE boffins had solved problems such as hydrodynamic stability, impact loads, hull designs, water resistance, behaviour of an airborne Highball bouncing bomb, reports had to be read and acted upon.

So wording, graphs, photographs and illustrations had to be presented in an easy to read and understand form. This is where photographers and artists played a part.

Duncan Gay, one of the few local employees, died in March 1998 at the age of 85, survived by his wife, two sons and five grandchildren.

Like so many of those who served at RAF Helensburgh, he did not divulge much in later life about his exploits and achievements during the war. After all, it was top secret — as the MAEE files at Kew do testify.

  • Duncan's sister Isabella married scientist Albert Whittle, brother of Air Commodore Sir Frank Whittle who invented the turbojet engine.