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Obituaries: Lieutenant-Commander \'Ben\' Rice

Swordfish pilot who sank a U-boat at Narvik and helped the Navy to beat the Italians at Cape Matapan

FREDERICK RICE, always known as “Ben”, initiated his impressive career in the Fleet Air Arm by being the first rating pilot to land on an aircraft carrier, HMS Courageous, in February 1939. He subsequently made important contributions to both the Second Battle of Narvik and the Battle of Cape Matapan. He graduated from Colchester Technical College in 1932 and became an apprentice at the Redwing Aircraft Company in Ardleigh, Essex. When this enterprise went out of business, he joined the Royal Navy as a boy seaman and served in the cruiser York on the West Indies station and the destroyer Brilliant during the rescue operations accompanying the Spanish Civil War. As a leading seaman, he volunteered for flying and joined the first ratings’ pilot course, No 41, at Leuchars, Fife, in May 1938. In January 1940 he joined the battleship Warspite, flying a seaplane variant of the “Stringbag” Swordfish. Although a biplane and obsolete before the war started, this remarkable aircraft was still in service in nine squadrons in 1945 and responsible for the sinking of numerous enemy warships and submarines. Robust, highly manoeuvrable and easy to land on a carrier’s pitching deck, it was a pilots’ favourite. A bright spot for the Allies in the otherwise melancholy Norwegian campaign was the Second Battle of Narvik. The first battle had ended with considerable destroyer casualties on both sides, and on April 13, 1940, under the command of Rear-Admiral Whitworth, it was decided to take the enormous risk of sending Warspite with nine destroyers many miles up the narrow Ofotfiord towards Narvik to finish off the substantial remaining German forces. Rice, with Lieutenant-Commander “Bruno” Brown as his observer and Leading Airman Pacey as his telegraphist air- gunner, was catapulted off at about midday. Flying between steep cliffs and under low cloud, they sighted and reported the destroyer Koellner lurking in a small bay. She was attacked by destroyers and sunk. Meanwhile, Rice spotted the submarine U64 anchored near a jetty in the Herjangsfiord. Attacking with two 100lb bombs, he scored a direct hit, but his tailplane was damaged by return fire which was suppressed by Pacey’s Lewis gun. The crew then spotted the fall of shot for Warspite’s devastating 15in guns until the remaining seven German destroyers were scuttled or sunk. The Swordfish dropped its final two bombs on a beached German destroyer before returning to Warspite after more than three hours in the air. U64 was the first U-boat of the war to be sunk by the Fleet Air Arm. The official report of the action commented that “it was doubtful if a shipborne aircraft had ever before been used to such good purpose”. Rice was awarded the DSM and Brown the DSC. Warspite left Narvik in late April for the Mediterranean and became Admiral Andrew Cunningham’s flagship, leading the Mediterranean fleet in a series of Malta convoys, brushes with the Italian fleet, bombardments and the devastating Swordfish aircraft night attack on Italian battleships at Taranto. News on March 27, 1941, that Italian heavy ships were at sea, threatening an Allied convoy, caused Cunningham to sail his battlefleet in pursuit. His memoirs recount a frustrating day punctuated by differing reports from a variety of sources about the enemy’s composition and manoeuvres. Rice was catapulted shortly after midday with Pacey and the new fleet observer, Lieutenant-Commander (later Rear-Admiral) “Ben” Bolt to try to clarify the situation. Their first sortie — of nearly five hours — was fruitless. Warspite and the other battleships were struggling to close the range on the modern Italian battleship Vittorio Veneto and to recover the floatplane, by the usual method of turning sharply to form a calm “slick” to land on, would have caused further unacceptable delay. Instead, Rice landed his aircraft in front of the charging Warspite and matched her speed by taxiing until the crane hook could be grabbed — an unpractised but effective manoeuvre. Refuelled, they were launched again and Bolt was finally able to report the disposition, course and speed of the Italians. Cunningham remarked: “By 6.30 we had the first of a series of reports from this highly trained and experienced officer, which quickly told us what we needed.” Cunningham’s bold tactical handling thereafter resulted in the sinking of three Italian heavy cruisers and two destroyers for no British losses. Rice had to land at Suda Bay in Crete in the dark, having prudently brought along a few floating flares to tell him where the surface was, and taxied some five miles to get into harbour. He had been airborne for more than eight hours. Bolt received a bar to his DSC and Rice a mention in despatches. Rice stayed with Warspite throughout her many actions of the Mediterranean campaign. Damaged by German bombing during the evacuation of Crete, she went to Seattle for repairs. Rice left her in early 1942. The rest of his war was mainly spent communications flying in a variety of single and twin-engined types. In 1945 he was promoted to warrant officer and was personal pilot to the Flag Officer Naval Flying Training. In 1947 he was appointed to a squadron based at Trincomalee in Ceylon. He contributed to the winning of the Fleet Air Arm’s Boyd Trophy for flying three Beech C45 Expeditor aircraft from Trincomalee back to Lee-on-Solent in adverse winter weather. He continued flying a multiplicity of aircraft types until the end of his career. Having been commissioned, he was variously in command of the Safety Equipment and Survival School near Portsmouth, staff officer to the RN Test Squadron at Boscombe Down and senior pilot of 750 Squadron, based at Hal Far in Malta. He retired from the navy as a lieutenant-commander in March 1967. In retirement he managed Enterprise House, a 200-apartment complex for old people in Chingford. This he ran for 13 years in disciplined naval fashion. Much sought-after as a raconteur, he was famous for his flying stories at such institutions as the Portsmouth Retired Naval Officers’ Club. He is survived by his wife Edna, whom he married in Kirkwall in 1939, and by their son and daughter. Lieutenant-Commander “Ben” Rice, DSM, wartime Swordfish pilot, was born on March 17, 1916. He died on February 14, 2003, aged 86.

Datum: 01. 04. 2003


Foto týdne

Výročí: 20. 10. 2011 byl během libyjské občanské války zabit Muammar Kaddáfí.

Výročí: 20. 10. 2011 byl během libyjské občanské války zabit Muammar Kaddáfí.

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