The Military Museums

Lt. Hampton Gray VC

Robert Hampton Gray was born in Trail, British Columbia, on 2nd November, 1917, the son of a Boer War Veteran.

Lt. Hampton Gray VC

Robert Hampton Gray was born in Trail, British Columbia, on 2nd November, 1917, the son of a Boer War Veteran.

Lt. Hampton Gray VC

Hampton Gray received his early education in a public school and high school in Nelson, B.C., and then spent a year at the University of Alberta in Edmonton followed by two years at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver where he received his Bachelor of Arts. In 1940 he joined the Navy, and was one of 13 who qualified as pilots in the Fleet Air Arm. In 1944 he was a lieutenant on HMS Formidable, where he took part in attacks on the German battleship Tirpitz in Alten Fjord.

For his brilliant work during the attack, he was Mentioned-in-Dispatches. In July 1945, he was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for aiding in the destruction of a destroyer in the Tokyo harbour.

On August 9th he led another attack against a Japanese Naval Base where he single-handedly sunk a second Japanese destroyer. During the attack his aircraft was hit and crashed into the ocean. Neither Lieutenant Gray nor his plane were ever found. He was posthumously awarded the VC. Hampton Gray was one of the last Canadians to die during the Second World War, and the last Canadian to be awarded the Victoria Cross.

Lieutenant Gray has no known grave as neither he nor his plane were ever found. His name is inscribed on the Sailor's Memorial in Halifax, Nova Scotia.


Lieut. R.H. Gray, D.S.C., R.C.N.V.R., of Nelson, B.C., flew off the Aircraft Carrier, HMS Formidable on August 9th 1945, to lead an attack on Japanese shipping in Onagawa Wan (Bay) in the Island of Honshu, Mainland of Japan. At Onagawa Bay the fliers found below a number of Japanese ships and dived into attack. Furious fire was opened on the aircraft from army batteries on the ground and from warships in the Bay. Lieut. Gray selected for his target an enemy destroyer.

He swept in oblivious of the concentrated fire and made straight for his target. His aircraft was hit and hit again, but he kept on. As he came close to the destroyer his plane caught fire but he pressed to within 50 feet of the Japanese ship and let go his bombs. He scored at least one direct hit, possibly more. The destroyer sank almost immediately. Lieutenant Gray did not return. He had given his life at the very end of his fearless bombing run.

The London Gazette, 13th November 1945

The Story of Robert Hampton Gray, V.C.

On 9 August 1945, with the Second World War reaching a fiery yet conclusive crescendo, a Canadian pilot embarked on a final mission to sink a Japanese vessel and earn the Commonwealth's highest military honour.

Robert Hampton 'Hammy' Gray, soaring through the skies over Japan in Corsair KD658 – coded 115 – spied his final target. Below in Onagawa Bay, near Miyagi Prefecture, a cluster of enemy vessels were moored as if awaiting the 27-year-old Canadian pilot's next move.

They included the Etorofu-class destroyer escort Amakusa, two minesweepers, a training ship and submarine-chasers, although it was the 1,000-ton Amakusa that had caught his attention.

Cruising at 10,000 feet (3,048 metres), Gray's flight of eight fighters began a simultaneous dive, attempting to mask themselves behind the surrounding high ground while they made their approach. However, it seemed the Japanese gunners had already spotted them minutes earlier as, shortly after appearing over the hilltops, a maelstrom of flak and tracer fire whirled around the pilots.

It was the morning of 9 August 1945, mere hours before the atomic bomb detonation over Nagasaki and within days of the Second World War ending. For Gray, it would also be the day he earned the Victoria Cross.

Youthful and Ferocious

Born in Trail, B.C., on 2 November 1917, Gray's military roots ran deep. He was the son of a South African (Boer) War veteran originally from Scotland, his parents – John and Wilhelmina – ultimately moving the family to Nelson, B.C., where he attended school.

The oldest of three siblings – that of his brother John (Jack) and sister Phyllis – Robert (often known by his middle name, Hampton) acquired a reputation as a fun-loving student who made friends easily and enjoyed the likes of sports, politics and literature.

Over the years, the fair-haired Canadian maintained an air of youthfulness, sometimes deceptively quiet but almost always cheerful.

Gray went on to enrol at the University of Alberta in Edmonton before transferring to the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, graduating with an arts degree. Though he intended to train as a doctor at Montreal's McGill University, he instead enlisted in the Royal Canadian Naval Volunteer Reserve (RCNVR) in 1940.

There, he was mobilized as an ordinary seaman and sent to H.M.C.S. Stadacona in Halifax, N.S. This position he held for but a short time as he was eventually selected alongside just over 70 candidates for service in the British Royal Navy (RN).

Becoming one of only a small group of Canadians to qualify as pilots in the RN's Fleet Air Arm, Hampton earned his wings back in Canada while participating in the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan. Upon graduating in October 1941, he received a sub-lieutenant commission and was returned to the United Kingdom.

His first experience of operational duty was in 757 Naval Air Squadron in Hampshire, England, from March 1942. Nevertheless, it wasn't long before he was posted to the African theatre, beginning his tour in Kenya.

Gray would spend time in the likes of Nos. 795, 803 and 877 Squadrons, as well as a reputed period in 789 Squadron and a known spell aboard the aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious. But the years went by, and still he had not seen combat.

In May 1944 – at that point having been promoted to lieutenant – he departed Africa for several weeks' leave in Canada. He joined 1841 Squadron that August aboard HMS Formidable, an aircraft carrier and sister ship of Illustrious.

It would be from here, finally, that Gray could apply the ferocious flying style he'd developed in training. Now, though, his apparent aggressiveness bordering on recklessness would be used against the enemy. From here, too, his course would be set on a trajectory to become a legend.

'Undaunted courage, skill and determination'

The August 1944 naval operation codenamed GOODWOOD (not to be confused with the land-based Operation GOODWOOD in Normandy the previous month) would be Hampton Gray's opportunity to put his acquired skills to the test.

In the Altafjord of northern Norway, the German battleship Tirpitz lay in anchor. The mission was to target the roughly 42,500-ton Bismark-class beast.

Poor weather had already impeded progress, yet the Canadian led his section in an attack against defences on the 24th. He was ordered to do so again on the 29th.

Flying low in his new Chance Vought Corsair IV as enemy anti-aircraft fire filled the sky, Gray launched himself into battle against shore batteries and three Narvik-class German destroyers, thereby drawing their barrages away from the slower-approaching Fairey Barracuda torpedo bombers still navigating the fjord.

At one stage, as later witnessed through his aircraft's camera footage, Hampton passed directly over a destroyer's guns to attack its bridge.

Unfortunately, however, this particular assault failed to sink the Tirpitz. Worse still for Gray, a shell burst tore away most of his rudder.

But Hammy remained cool. Over the next 45 minutes, the daring pilot calmly circled Formidable in his damaged Corsair while he waited for his turn to land.

For what would be described as 'undaunted courage, skill and determination', Lieutenant Gray was mentioned in dispatches. It would be far from the last time he displayed such qualities, although, with the looming end of the war in Europe, his path now veered in the direction of Japan – and toward his rendezvous with fate.

Seasoned Flier

In April 1945, Formidable joined the British Pacific Fleet and then embarked for Sakishima Gunto, an archipelago between Formosa (present-day Taiwan) and Okinawa.

Involved in operations to support Allied forces on the latter island, it was while aboard Formidable that Gray and the crew experienced first-hand the horror of kamikaze attacks, where Japanese pilots deliberately – and suicidally – crashed their planes into ships.

By July, Hammy, considered a seasoned flier, had been tasked with striking enemy airfields and other targets in and around the Japanese mainland. His run-in with a Japanese ship in the Tokyo Bay area on the 28th was the clearest indicator yet of his credentials, scoring a direct hit against the vessel and aiding in its destruction. For these actions, he would be awarded the Distinguished Service Cross.

Formidable was stood down for replenishment in early August. This period away from the fighting coincided with the United States dropping the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima on the 6th. Meanwhile, the aircraft carrier had been scheduled to return to combat on the 8th, but a typhoon had swept into the region and prevented its aircrew from taking off.

Despite the absence of attack orders that day, squadron commanders had received a briefing in which they were urged not to take unnecessary risks in the expectation of the war's imminent end. It was agreed that pilots should make no more than one bombing run against a target. Fundamentally, the men had a fervent desire to avoid tragedy, a tall order in war – even when Japanese capitulation was on the horizon.

Nearly 30 years previously, on 11 November 1918, Canadian soldier George Lawrence Price of Falmouth, N.S., had been killed by a sniper at 10:58 a.m., no more than two minutes before the armistice came into effect that ended the bloodshed of the Great War.

Price wasn't even the final death prior to the ceasefire. But one thing was sure after that August 1945 briefing: no one wished to be the last casualty of the current conflict.

Green Light to Attack

Weather conditions on the 9th proved sufficient, if not quite perfect, for 1841 Squadron to re-engage. For the pilots aboard Formidable, their target was Japan's Matsushima airfield.

Close to 0800 hours, Gray found himself strapped inside the cockpit of his Voight Corsair awaiting the green light to take off and attack. One section of fighter-bombers was already in the air, while the two sections under Hammy had their engines running in preparation.

It was then that Chief Petty Officer Dick Sweet walked up to his aircraft and informed him of plan changes. The airfield, Sweet explained, had been heavily bombed earlier and was thought to be out of commission. Therefore, the eight Corsairs were instead ordered to seek out targets of opportunity, though heeding the advice of minimizing hazards where possible.

The lieutenant and the other pilots were airborne a matter of minutes later. Each aircraft was armed with a pair of 500lb (227kg) high-explosive bombs and a series of wing-mounted machine guns, the Corsairs themselves designed to outclass Japanese Zeros.

They cast a forbidding sight as the sections made landfall after a 150-mile (241-kilometre) flight.

Gray led them over the Matsushima airfield to confirm reports of extensive damage. There was indeed no point wasting bombs over a clearly disabled military site.

En route, however, Hampton had spotted Japanese ships in Onagawa Bay, which met the targets of opportunity criteria impressed upon him back aboard Formidable. He radioed his comrades and instructed them to stay on his tail as he manoeuvred.

Unbeknownst to Gray at that time, he was lining himself up for his ultimate mission.

Enemy Onslaught

It was now, hurtling toward the Japanese destroyer escort Amakusa while under a fusillade from shore batteries and ship gunners, that Hammy decided to press the attack.

Within seconds, the Corsair shuddered violently as shrapnel tore away one of his two bombs. Within a few more seconds, flames poured out of the fighter-bomber, which had descended to just 40 feet (12 metres) above the waves, but still Gray steered the course.

Once he was well within range of Amakusa, he let loose. The released bomb penetrated amidships, triggering an almighty explosion. The remnants of the vessel sank in minutes.

Beyond the enemy wreckage, 27-year-old Robert Hampton Gray – probably wounded – carried on for an additional few seconds, his aircraft transforming into a fireball.

The Corsair then rolled over on its back and dived into the water. He was never seen again. Gray gave his life in the pursuit of Amakusa, which lost 71 of her 150 crew during the onslaught.

Second-in-command Sub Lieutenant MacKinnon took over and launched up to two more attacks, the surviving seven-strong flight securing further successes in these runs. Upon returning to Formidable, the raid had achieved its objective of wreaking havoc.

Allied authorities agreed post-battle that Hammy's bravery deserved recognition. The Canadian had already earned the Distinguished Service Cross – though he had never learned of it – so it seemed only right and fitting that he be awarded the Victoria Cross, the Commonwealth's highest military honour, albeit a posthumous one.

Hampton Gray was the last Canadian ever to perform duties that saw him receive the prestigious accolade (the late Pilot Officer Andrew Mynarski likewise received a posthumous Victoria Cross in 1946, but for actions that took place in June 1944).

Tragically, Gray was also one of the last Canadians to die in the Second World War.

A Formidable Spirit

Japan surrendered to the Allies mere days after Hampton's exploits, making his loss all the more painful amongst Formidable's crew members who had held him in high regard.

Writing to Hammy's mother back home, 1841 Squadron's commanding officer Richard Bigg-Wither said: "The bottom fell out of life on board after it happened and the victory, when it came, seemed so hollow somehow. He was so well loved by us all and simply radiated happiness wherever he went."

For the grief-stricken Gray family, his death was especially heartbreaking as, years earlier, on 27 February 1942, their other son Jack had been killed while serving in the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF). He had been 21 years old.

Nevertheless, in February 1946, Hampton's parents were presented with his Victoria Cross by the Earl of Athlone, then the governor-general of Canada. One month later, twin mountain peaks in Kokanee Glacier Park, B.C., were named in honour of the two fallen Gray brothers.

Further tributes to Robert Hampton Gray, V.C., D.S.C. include – but are far from limited to – Lake Gray north of Edmonton, Alta., numerous namesake institutes within Nelson, B.C., and a plaque in Kingston, Ont., where Hammy had earned his wings.

Additionally, Gray's name is inscribed on the Sailors' Memorial at Point Pleasant Park in Halifax, N.S., as well as being one of the fourteen figures commemorated at The Valiants Memorial in Ottawa, Ont.

But perhaps the most poignant testament to his formidable spirit is the cairn erected at Onagawa Bay, reportedly the only memorial dedicated to an Allied serviceman on Japanese soil. Overlooking the waters where the Victoria Cross recipient still rests today, it serves as a reminder of Canada's enduring commitment to freedom despite the cost.

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