|1 Feb 1921
|14 Aug 2015
Contributor: Bob Bryant
ww2dbaseDuring the war, Samuel Stanley Laurie served with the British Royal Navy in five different air squadrons flying from nine different ships and airfields. He saw action in the Mediterranean, Red, and Arabian Seas as well as in the Atlantic, Arctic, Indian, and Pacific Oceans.
ww2dbaseWhen the United Kingdom entered the war following the German invasion of Poland in September 1939, she had the world's largest navy, including 15 battleships and battlecruisers and seven aircraft carriers. However, responsibility for naval aircraft had, for two decades after the First World War, been under the command of the Royal Air Force (RAF). This resulted in priority for aircraft development being given to Bomber Command and Fighter Command. Naval aircraft development was neglected, and the Royal Navy (RN) entered the World War II with mostly antiquated planes. Furthermore, the RN was at the time more focused on battleship guns than on possibilities for aircraft operations. The "big gun" officers tended to view aircraft in supporting roles for battleships, finding targets and "spotting" to guide shells to targets during bombardment rather than as weapons themselves. Many air-minded officers of the RN and Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) transferred to the RAF, leaving even fewer senior officers in the RN with a knowledge or respect for what naval aircraft could accomplish.
ww2dbaseAt seventeen years old, Stan Laurie had hoped to serve as a pilot but, upon inadvertently demonstrating his mathematical skills, he was guided into the crucial role of observer/navigator. Pilots, it was suggested to him, were more like chauffeurs. As a senior officer, he would be in command, albeit from a back seat. Accepting his commission about the time the European War broke out, his training before boarding his first ship was completed in about eleven months. Laurie was trained to fly Swordfish torpedo bombers, affectionately referred to as "Stringbags" by their aircrews, which were obsolete by the time hostilities began but served with distinction throughout the war.
ww2dbaseIt was a low point in the war for Britain in mid-1940 as Laurie arrived at the Grand Fleet base at Scapa Flow in the Orkney Islands. By that time, the UK had lost two of her fleet carriers, been pushed out of Norway with the loss of many troops and planes, and pushed out of Belgium and France, leaving most of Britain's military equipment behind at Dunkirk. France had become an enemy rather than an ally, and the RN had attacked her North African bases, sinking some of her ships to prevent their use by the Germans. With the United States reluctant to enter the war, Britain stood alone in Europe against the large and powerful German army.
ww2dbaseMidshipman Laurie boarded the HMS Illustrious, the newest of Britain's fleet carriers, to begin his service by escorting a convoy through the Mediterranean. As Illustrious embarked monoplane Fairey Fulmar and biplane Gloster Gladiator fighters along with biplane Fairey Swordfish torpedo bombers for her first combat voyage, Laurie watched as three of the first six aircraft to land either drifted over the side or had the undercarriage collapse.
ww2dbaseIllustrious departed for the Mediterranean in August 1940. By this time, France had capitulated and Italy had entered the conflict, expecting to share in the spoils of a short war. These events shifted the dominance of power in the Mediterranean from the Allies to the Axis and spit the Mediterranean in two. Operation HATS was undertaken to reinforce Admiral Andrew Cunningham's fleet operating out of Alexandria, Egypt with another carrier and battleship and to deliver supplies to besieged Malta. En route, aircraft aboard Illustrious and HMS Ark Royal were to attack various Italian targets, including Cagliari and Rhodes. The force, under Admiral James Somerville, would be the largest British fleet to enter the Mediterranean since the start of the war. To reach Alexandria, Illustrious had to run the gauntlet from Gibraltar to Egypt under constant threat from above by Italian land-based bombers and from below by submarines. Laurie watched skyward as bombs were loosed on his ship from high levels and exploded near enough to drench the flight deck. His ship's captain watched and waited until he could see that the bombs were released and then ordered hard turns to dodge them.
ww2dbaseHelping protect the fleet as part of 815 (or 819) squadron, Laurie flew his Swordfish torpedo bomber on anti-submarine and reconnaissance sorties. Other Illustrious squadrons struck airfields at Maritza and Callato on Rhodes. Blackburn Skua dive bombers and Swordfish torpedo planes from Ark Royal defended against Italian aircraft and attacked Italian ports. Joining the fray from Alexandria, HMS Eagle launched Swordfish attacks against the airfield at Maritza on Rhodes.
ww2dbaseUpon arrival at Alexandria, Laurie was assigned as a replacement for recent casualties of the 824 Naval Air Squadron operating off of the HMS Eagle. This was one of the older carriers but, at this point in the war, her squadrons accounted for greater tonnage of enemy shipping sunk than any other ship. She also had distinguished herself by attacking Italian shore installations. The very presence of her torpedo bombers discouraged Italian warships from venturing forth from their bases.
ww2dbaseEagle joined Illustrious to disrupt Italian shipping and harass harbor installations along the North African coast. Admiral Cunningham made forays along the Italian coast hoping to draw out the Italian fleet, but instead got only the attention of Italian submarines and bombers. The newer Illustrious could use her 32-knot speed to maneuver away from the bombs, but the older Eagle, limited by her 18-knot speed, was often severely shaken by near misses. Nonetheless, from this old carrier, Laurie made sweeps of the eastern Mediterranean in his Swordfish, attacking ships and their ports. Bombing raids were made on Rhodes, Tripoli, and Sicily. With her age and condition showing, Eagle returned to the dockyard in Alexandria for repairs, unable to join the Illustrious as had been planned for the famous raid on Taranto in November 1940.
ww2dbaseSome aircrews from Laurie's 824 squadron were transferred to the Illustrious for the raid. Laurie, however, was assigned to a forward, dirt airstrip in the Western Desert where his squadron supported Operation Compass, the first British operation of the Western Desert campaign. Under the command of Australian General Iven Mackay, the Aussies successfully captured Bardia in Libya, taking 36,000 Italian prisoners. Supporting this January 1941 battle, Laurie bombed the Bardia defenses, mainly at night. On one occasion, he spotted for 15" battleship guns as it softened Bardia up for the ground assault.
ww2dbaseThe Italian Red Sea Flotilla based at Massawa in Italian Somaliland presented a threat to Allied convoys bringing troops and military equipment around the Cape of Good Hope to Egypt and other Middle East ports. Merchant ships from neutral nations were also at risk, and US President Franklin Roosevelt forbade US ships from using the Red Sea trade route. In April 1941, as Allied ground forces began to close in on the Italians at Massawa, the Italian commander gave orders for the five modern, fast Italian destroyers based there to raid Port Sudan and then be scuttled to block the Suez Canal. Laurie's 824 squadron of nine barely operational Swordfish, along with Eagle's 813 squadron, were ordered to prevent this. Expecting little logistical support at the destination, they loaded everything they could carry onto their "Stringbags" and sortied to Port Sudan, making several stops to refuel from ten gallon cans stationed along the way. The morning after they arrived, 824 squadron found the destroyers and attacked, each with a string of six 250-pound bombs. None hit. Then 813 squadron attacked, also with no result. Laurie and his squadron quickly returned to base, refueled, rearmed and set out again. This time they sank two destroyers including the flotilla leader, and dispersed the others, which later ran aground or otherwise did not complete their assignment. Laurie sank the Daniele Manin, dropping at least one of his bombs down the after-funnel. The destroyer seemed to hesitate, then stop in its wake, jump partially out of the water, and finally disappear in an enormous cloud of black smoke and white steam. Over the next couple weeks, British land forces occupied Massawa, ending the threat to the trade routes. President Roosevelt freed US ships to begin using them again.
ww2dbaseThe Eagle then passed through the canal and picked up Laurie's squadron. It was then ordered to the Indian Ocean to search for German merchant raiders including the Atlantis, submarines, and their supply ships. It was months of long days of boring work resulting in only three German supply ships being captured or sunk. About this time, Laurie's aircraft received its first radar equipment to assist with searches, enabling operations at night. Sweeps were made back and forth across the Indian Ocean as Eagle progressed generally southward until the Cape of Good Hope was rounded. From there, Eagle returned to Britain.
ww2dbaseWhen the battleship HMS Duke of York was commissioned in November 1941, Laurie was assigned as crew for one of its two catapult-launched Supermarine Walrus float planes, another biplane type that served throughout the war, mostly for reconnaissance. The ship's launching equipment predated steam catapults and instead used cordite to essentially fire a piston from a cannon to haul the plane into the air. Cordite was difficult to use. Sometimes there was a "hang-fire" delay in its going off. Sometimes it did not go off at all, and sometimes it did not completely launch the aircraft. On one occasion, it simply dumped Laurie and his plane into cold ocean water. Laurie was retrieved but the plane was lost.
ww2dbaseAlthough not completely ready for combat, Duke of York took Winston Churchill to Virginia in the United States in December 1941 for his meeting with Roosevelt, the first since the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Gale-force winds slowed the escorts to 6 knots, and they were sent back with Duke of York continuing on. Because of the proximity of his duty station aboard to Churchill's cabin, Laurie had numerous encounters with him, performing tasks at his request. Laurie found him friendly, energetic, interested in everything but at times arrogant, self-centered and uncaring of others. Yet everybody loved him, perhaps for all these egocentric qualities.
ww2dbaseConvoys to Russia through the Arctic route were threatened by German battleships as well as by bombers and submarines. Battleships Tirpitz, Scharnhorst, and Gneisenau were often in Norwegian waters, and HMS Duke of York sailed with convoys to counter the threat. The convoys were spotted by German reconnaissance aircraft followed by attacks on the merchant ships by bombers or submarine wolf-packs. On these assignments, Laurie lamented being an airman on a warship dominated by a "big-gun" mentality. Opportunities for using his plane for reconnaissance to find enemy surface ships, and perhaps even catch and attack a submarine recharging on the surface, were not taken advantage of. It appeared to Laurie, now a sub-lieutenant, that aircraft were viewed by the big-gun navy as more of a nuisance than an effective weapon.
ww2dbaseFor a short period, Laurie was assigned to 819 squadron at Hatston in the Orkneys where he happily resumed flying Swordfish. The downside was that this unit was on call for a one-way torpedo attack on German battleships Scharnhorst or Gneisenau should they show themselves. There would not be enough fuel for a return trip, so aircrew would have to ditch and hope for a rescue from the Norwegian waters. The seemingly suicidal opportunity never arose, and Laurie's actual contribution amounted to a few mine-laying runs.
ww2dbaseIn November 1942, the Allies made a joint invasion of French North Africa. It was uncertain whether the French navy would rejoin the Allies or follow orders from Vichy-French leaders to resist. Since the British were much despised by the French Navy for the 1940 attacks on Vichy-French warships at Mers-el-K√©bir, it was believed that having the invasion appear to be only an American one would help with negotiations. Laurie, now returned to catapult aircraft on the Duke of York, sailed to Algiers with an almost entirely British fleet but under an American flag. His Submarine Walrus was marked "US Navy" and sported a large American star. The French did initially resist. A RN destroyer was sunk and the American raiding party was surrounded and surrendered. Laurie had been sent aloft to spot for the bombardment of Algiers, should it become necessary. With no guidance from his ship, he and other Walrus airmen likewise abandoned by their ships ultimately found a landing strip at Blida, about 20 miles from Algiers. With hostilities still raging, Laurie was unsure how an Allied aircraft would be received. Fortunately, anti-Vichy French had just taken over the airfield, and the "Americans" were welcomed. Eventually, the French at Algiers and at the other two invasion ports agreed to cooperate with the Allies. The British fleet sailed off leaving Laurie and six other Walrus aircrews behind. On their own, they formed an anti-submarine squadron and began patrolling adjacent waters dawn-to-dusk. One German submarine was sunk. Laurie and others picked up some survivors. He returned to the UK in February 1943 and, after several weeks leave, returned unhappily to the Duke of York for more convoy escort. He had come to regard the battleship as "the newest, finest, most heavily-armed white elephant the world has ever seen."
ww2dbaseAround mid-year 1943, Laurie was tapped for special navigational training related to flying American Grumman Avenger torpedo bombers to Britain. Like the earlier, potentially suicidal assignment with 819 squadron, there was a chance the aircraft range was not sufficient to complete the trip, even with extra long-range fuel tanks and favorable winds. It was the thin margin for navigation error that led to the requirement for additional training. For his trans-Atlantic trip to pick up the Avengers and join the new Naval Air Squadron 851 in America, Laurie boarded the RMS Queen Mary. By chance, he again ran into Winston Churchill, who was on his way, again, to meet with President Roosevelt. After several months training and organizing at Naval Air Station Squantum in Massachusetts, 851 squadron took off for a war zone. Instead of heading for Europe, however, Laurie, now the senior officer for the twelve-plane squadron, flew west for seven days across the US to Alameda Airfield at San Francisco to be embarked upon the newly commissioned escort carrier HMS Shah. The only potential hostilities along the way that might have delayed them was during a brief refueling stopover in Los Angeles that coincided with the anticipated arrival of US Fleet Admiral Ernest King, a known Anglophobe who appeared to resent the RN interfering in his war in the Pacific. The squadron quickly secured their fuel and departed.
ww2dbaseThe Shah, sailing at a top speed of 13 knots, ferried badly needed aircraft along with the 851 squadron to India, arriving in March 1944. To minimize danger en route, her course took her first to New Zealand and Australia and only then north to India. There Laurie did anti-submarine patrols from the Maldives, Seychelles, Mombasa, and up the Arabian Sea as part of a hunter-killer group guided to targets by Enigma decrypts. Patrolling near the Seychelles in August 1944, his plane located and damaged German submarine U-198, which surface escorts were credited with sinking shortly afterward. With this, his wartime career ended.
ww2dbaseStan Laurie returned safely to Britain. His closest pre-war friend was not so fortunate, having been killed serving in RAF Bomber Command. Nor was his cousin, US bomber pilot Robert Laurie, who died in his Fifth Air Force B-24 heavy bomber over New Guinea during the Huon Peninsula campaign.
Chant, Christopher (2020). Codenames- Operations of World War 2, "Operation Atmosphere".
Laurie, Stan (2011). Remembering- with advantages.
Rickard, John (2008). Military History Encyclopedia on the Web, "Operation Hats, 30 August-5 September 1940".
Mason, Lt Cdr Geoffrey B (2003). Naval History Homepage- Service Histories of Royal Navy Warships in World War 2, "HMS Illustrious - Illustrious-class Fleet Aircraft Carrier.
Mason, Lt Cdr Geoffrey B (2003). Naval History Homepage, Service Histories of Royal Navy Warships in World War 2, "HMS Eagle- Fleet Aircraft Carrier including Convoy Escort Movement".
Naval History Homepage (2011). "Campaign Summaries of World War 2- British and Commonwealth Navies at the Beginning and End of World War 2".
Last Major Revision: Mar 2021
Stan Laurie Timeline
|1 Feb 1921
|Stan Laurie was born in West Hartlepool, England, United Kingdom.
|14 Aug 2015
|Stan Laurie passed away in Melbourne, Australia.
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