Walrus seaplane crashed at Rhu

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walrus_pictureLIVES were lost during the Second World War when the Marine Aircraft Experimental Establishment was based at Rhu Hangars.

The story of an MAEE Lerwick seaplane which crashed into the hillside above Faslane on October 21 1941 with the loss of seven lives is told elsewhere in the Military section of this website, and there was another fatal crash a year later — this time involving a Supermarine Walrus aircraft.

It was an important air sea rescue seaplane, a stubby looking amphibian designed by the same man who designed the sleek Spitfire fighter, R.J.Mitchell.

His pre-war prototype Walrus was a private venture called the Seagull, which soon got the attention of MAEE because of its potential as a seaplane for the Royal Navy.

Mitchell's prototype was flown to MAEE, then based at Felixstowe, on July 29 1933 for Air Ministry trials.

A further 12 Seagulls were ordered with the first two delivered to MAEE, where the aircraft was given a new name, Walrus, and nicknamed Shagbat.

Another nickname adopted by crews was 'Steam-pigeon', inspired by the copious amounts of steam produced when a very hot Pegasus engine was drenched with sea water on take-off or landing.

A total of 287 Walrus aircraft were built by Supermarine before production was transferred to Saunders Roe allowing the Supermarine factory to concentrate on Spitfire production. Saunders built 453 Walrus 11 aircraft.

It was successful in the role of a U-boat hunter and as a catapult aircraft launched from battleships and heavy cruisers. During the early part of the war, the Walrus earned a reputation for reliability and the ability to withstand damage, much in the same way as the Fairey Swordfish.

Late in 1941, the RAF asked MAEE, by then based at Rhu, to develop the Walrus for specialist air sea rescue squadrons. Thanks to MAEE the Walrus became the mainstay of many of these rescue squadrons, saving countless lives.

The Walrus was a familiar sight on the Gareloch from 1941-2, but on July 14 1942 MAEE Walrus L2179 crashed on landing at Rhu, drowning some of the crew.

Like the fatal crash of the Lerwick on October 21 1941, mystery surrounded this 'flying accident'.

The Walrus is believed to have been taking part in air sea rescue trials and landed on water with its wheels down, causing the seaplane to sink, killing crew members. Fortunately, three survived, but their colleagues were ‘presumed drowned'.

What is especially sad is that it was another 'flying accident', not meriting the historic acknowledgment given to aircraft shot down with loss of life.

maeeMAEE photographer Bob Bird — whose author son Robin supplied the information for this article — himself had a nasty moment in a Walrus when it landed at Rhu and a hatch in the belly was forced open by the force of the spray. Sea water flooded into the hull.

Bob was ordered by the pilot to fill the gap, which involved sitting in the hatch hole, while he steered the sinking Walrus to shallow waters.

At least five enemy submarines were either sunk or damaged by Walruses. The last confirmed successful attack on a submarine was by Walrus W2709 on July 11 1942 — three days before the Rhu crash — when Sub-Lieutenant P.E.Jordan and Lieutenant D.J.Cook sank the Italian submarine Ondina.

At the same time, MAEE was testing the Supermarine Sea Otter, successor to the Walrus and the last of Supermarine's biplane amphibians. The first Sea Otter became operational in July 1943.

MAEE also deliberately crashed aircraft and crew in the sea, to test air sea rescues and examine the damage to aircraft to minimise the damage in future ditchings. They also tested prototype bombs and depth charges.

It would be fitting if there was some form of memorial — perhaps at Kidston Park overlooking the bay and the Hangers — and this idea is fully supported by Robin Bird.

He says: “MAEE certainly deserves a memorial at Helensburgh lest the last flights of aircraft like Walrus L2179 and the human sacrifices are forgotten.”