Fleet Air Arm Museum to be new home of downed World War II plane parts

Aussie Fred Sherborne being feted by villagers in Chateaurenard, France in August 1944 after being rescued.
Aussie Fred Sherborne being feted by villagers in Chateaurenard, France in August 1944 after being rescued.

The Fleet Air Arm Museum at HMAS Albatross will be the new home for some incredible pieces of Australian military history.

A number of pieces of wreckage from an 882 Grumman Wildcat Mk V flown by an Australian, which was shot down in southern France in 1944 have been unveiled at the museum.

The aircraft was being flown by the then Royal Australian Navy Sub Lieutenant Fred Sherborne, who was flying in the Royal Navy.

Fleet Air Arm Museum Museum manager and senior curator Terry Hetherington tells Fred Sherborne's story.

Fleet Air Arm Museum Museum manager and senior curator Terry Hetherington tells Fred Sherborne's story.

SBLT Sherborne’s Wildcat, from the British carrier Searcher,  was shot down five miles south of Avignon on August 19, 1944.

Museum manager and senior curator Terry Hetherington opened the boxes containing the special delivery from France on Tuesday.

You would never have known inside the two nondescript boxes were some of the most significant Australian military historical artifacts.

“This is almost better than Christmas, “ Mr Hetherington joked as he unwrapped and described each piece.

Fleet Air Arm Museum manager and senior curator Terry Hetherington with some of the parts from Sub-Lieutenant Fred Sherborne’s downed 882 Grumman Wildcat from World War II.

Fleet Air Arm Museum manager and senior curator Terry Hetherington with some of the parts from Sub-Lieutenant Fred Sherborne’s downed 882 Grumman Wildcat from World War II.

After taking fire, Sherborne crash landed the aircraft in a field of aubergine and was harboured by the French Resistance until the Allies took the village of Chateaurenard.

Villagers used a tractor to hide his plane in the nearby Durance River so the Germans, who had invaded the area, were not aware of its or SBLT Sherborne’s existence.

He was hidden by the villagers for two weeks, hiding in a chook house where he was fed cheese, wine and eggs before the village was secured.

SBLT Sherborne was feted as a symbol of heroism by the villagers during their victory parade.

Armed recce in Niems. Dive bombed aerodrome at Orange. 20mm in starboard wing, carried on deck level to get out, received four more hits in engine. Crash landed five miles from Avignon. 50 miles from our lines.

Fred Sherborne's log book entry August 19, 1944 in Wildcat JV368

Over time a number villagers souvenired parts off the plane, many of which ended up in a local museum.

The actual logbook entry.

The actual logbook entry.

Through a lot of negotiations some of the recovered parts have been shipped to Australia and will now be on permanent display at Nowra’s Fleet Air Arm Museum.

Mr Hetherington said it was incredible to be holding such a significant part of Australian World War II history.

“Over the last couple of years we have been negotiating with the people in the village of Chateaurenard to send us some of the relics,” he said.

The relics sent to Australia include part of the wing flap, a section of skin of the fuselage or wing, part of the control cables out of the cockpit, a control rod which would have run through the fuselage to the rudder or elevator, complete with a label that says Wildcat V (5) and Sherborne and the name of the person who “salvaged”  the part.

There is also a lower section of the wing, which incredibly still has the Royal Navy identification numbers on it.

This is almost better than Christmas.

Fleet Air Arm Museum manager and senior curator Terry Hetherington.

“The identification number really gives relevance and significance to the component as it genuinely identifies it, together with other manufacturer’s plates and markings that it is from a Grumman Wildcat aircraft,” Mr Hetherington said.

There are also fittings from inside the engine bay that would control the pilot’s throttle cable to the carburetor (supercharger controls), hydraulic pipelines to operate either the wing flaps or brakes and a “mysterious piece” which Mr Hetherington says will take some research to try and identify what function it had within the aircraft.

The parts from Fred Sherborne's downed Grumman Wildcat from France, now have a home at the Fleet Air Arm Museum at HMAS Albatross.

The parts from Fred Sherborne's downed Grumman Wildcat from France, now have a home at the Fleet Air Arm Museum at HMAS Albatross.

“They even offered to send us a belt of live 50 calibre ammunition but we had to decline,” he said.

“To have pieces of the aircraft here is incredible.

“These components have never been in Australia. It was one of the many aircraft given to the Royal Navy by the United States Navy. The RN operated a lot of American planes.”

To be holding such a significant part of Australian World War II history is incredible.

Fleet Air Arm Museum manager and senior curator Terry Hetherington.

He said the aviation industry in Britain at the time was very pressed to continue the manufacture of its own aircraft.

“An agreement known as the lend lease act was struck between the US and British governments. A lot of aircraft, components and engines built in the US were transferred to the Royal Navy,” he said.

“At the time the Royal Navy had their aircraft painted in a dark grey and green paint finish as you can see from some of these parts.

“One of those aircraft came here to Nowra to the Royal Naval Air Station Nowra in 1944-45.”

Also included among the parts was a lifesize poster of the the SBLT Sherborne taken in 1944, another when he was part of the victory celebrations and a photograph of a villager sitting on the downed aircraft.

Photographs of the aircraft after the crash landing show it was relatively complete.

“The only damage to the aircraft was to the propeller when it crash landed on its belly,” Mr Hetherington said.

“The wheels were retracted.

“There was some damage to the aircraft from the ground fire. Fred himself suffered a shoulder injury and cuts to his face from pieces of glass and perspex from his cockpit canopy and windscreen that hit him.”

The dashing Australian airman SBLT Fred Sherborne in France in 1944.

The dashing Australian airman SBLT Fred Sherborne in France in 1944.

The family tells how one of the bullets grazed his temple, leaving a scar.

The village has also retained some parts of the plane in its museum.

“The village has been very generous in providing these components so we can mount an exhibition to recognise and honour Fred Sherborne, not just during his time in conflict during World War II, but the time he served here in the RAN up until the late 1960s as well,” Mr Hetherington said.

“He served here at Albatross and was one of the founding members of the Fleet Air Arm. He went on to command the Sea Fury Squadron, 805 Squadron, and was Commander Air, in charge of all the squadrons on the base, reporting to the captain.”

Sherborne’s log book shows he was involved in several operational engagements.

“Prior to this incident where he was shot down, Fred’s squadron was involved in the attack on the German battleship the Tirpitz in a fiord in Norway,” Mr Hetherington said.

“Fred was mentioned in dispatches for his involvement in that particular action.”

It also told the story of  his crash on August 19, 1944 onboard Wildcat JV368.

‘Armed recce in Niems. Dive bombed aerodrome at Orange. 20mm in starboard wing, carried on deck level to get out, received four more hits in engine. Crash landed five miles from Avignon. 50 miles from our lines.’ the logbook documents.

The museum also has Fred’s medals, which along with the wreckage, photos and logbook will be part of a special exhibition to be launched in October. The items will then be on permanent display within the museum.

Fred Sherborne was one of very few Australians who flew as fighter pilots and other capacities, with the Royal Navy during WWII.

Fleet Air Arm Museum manager and senior curator Terry Hetherington.

Mr Hetherington said the relics were a significant piece of Australian history.

“During World War II there were very few Australians who flew in fighter operations,” he said.

“In World War I a lot of Australians travelled at their own expense to England and fought and flew with with the Royal Navy.

“Some of our collection contains artifacts from the Australian fighter ace Robert Little, who flew with the Royal Navy.

“Fred Sherborne was one of very few Australians who flew as fighter pilots and other capacities, with the Royal Navy during WWII.”

Fred’s story is quite unique.

Fred Sherborne in a RAN Sea Fury fighter in 1950

Fred Sherborne in a RAN Sea Fury fighter in 1950

He had joined the Australian Navy as a seaman and was a gunner on a merchant ship in the Mediterranean. When that vessel was sunk Fred went back to England to be reallocated to another ship.

“When he was in the office waiting to be reposted he was aware they were selecting people to go to Florida in the US to learn how to fly,” Mr Hetherington said.

“Fred jumped from one queue to the other and found himself in Florida as a young 23-year-old Leading Seaman. When authorities discovered him they apparently said ‘you’re here now we might as well teach you how to fly’.”

He became a highly proficient and respected fighter pilot in the 882 Royal Navy Squadron and also later in his career in the RAN.

“These artifacts from WWII and in particular parts of Fred Sherborne’s aircraft add another aspect to the story we tell here at the Fleet Air Arm Museum of how our people, aircrews, our engineers and our support personnel have operated throughout the century where Australians have been flying aircraft with ships in peace and war,” Mr Hetherington said.

Fred Sherborne in his own words - 1944

The lifesize poster of the then SBLT Sherborne, who was photographed in France in 1944.

The lifesize poster of the then SBLT Sherborne, who was photographed in France in 1944.

Fred Sherborne wrote the following in pencil on fullscap [sic] about his experiences in the south of France in August 1944, prior to, and after being shot down.

“The invasion of France was going on apace with four losses on our part and an orderly retreat by the Germans. The assault carrier force to which I was attached had carried out numerous sorties. Beach heads were covered, tactical and armed recce’s were flown off and dive-bombing and strafing were a daily feature in the life of pilot in nos 7 and 3 fighter wings of the Assault Carrier Force.

Although the flak put up was accurate, there was not much of it and to our group who had just left the very heavily guarded and armed convoys and installations of Norway, it was all a very easy piece of work. It was reckoned to be such a ‘piece of cake’ that one looked upon it all more as training than actual warfare and D plus 4 we had all been lulled into a false sense of security and took to the air with a rather condescending blase air.

Day plus 4 marked the change. On that day four aircraft were shot down of which I was one. The other had not the luck, two being killed and the other being taken P of W. All four were shot down within ten miles of one another and some 50 miles inside the German lines.

One round hit the cockpit, luckily on the armoured glass directly in front of my face which stopped the main force of the shell but I received a big piece on my forehead and smaller pieces round my eyes and nose.

Fred Sherborne

My flight had just dropped bombs on and near gun posts just outside Orange in the face of light AA - not intense. I received one 20 mm in my stbd wing, which made little difference, and carried down on the deck for my get away. Once out of range, I climbed up to four thousand feet to carry out a strafing attack on two a/c which I had noticed on an airfield earlier in the recce.

As we entered the dive for the high speed strafe, the 40mm and lighter stuff started coming up and just as I was about to fire my guns my machine, a Wildcat V, was hit by several 20mm. One hit the cockpit, luckily on the armoured glass directly in front of my face. This stopped the main force of the shell but I received a big piece on my forehead and smaller pieces round my eyes and nose. Just about this time the whizzer stopped turning and there was quiet all round. All of this time I was jinking both to avoid more shells and to make the Jerry think I had not been hit. All of this was at treetops and below. There was of course no hope of baling out nor was there a chance of picking a suitable field for a landing as it would have given my position away completely had I attempted to zoom. I therefore tightened my harness, opened the hood, switched off all the switches and trusted to luck and the hardiness of the machine. This takes some time to relate but it all happened in seconds – Luckily as the speed dropped off I sensed rather than saw, blood over my eyes made it fairly difficult to see properly, a small field surrounded by bamboos. Straightaway I pushed the nose into those on the near side of the field, hoping that they would slow me down sufficiently, which they did, and I found myself stopped on the ground right side up.

My crack on the head by the shell together with the crash-landing makes my next hour or two hazy but it helps show how one will work out lightning moves under great stress.

There was of course no hope of baling out nor was there a chance of picking a suitable field for a landing as it would have given my position away.

Fred Sherborne

Firstly I took my parachute out of the cockpit and hid it. My reason for doing that is now rather obscure but I hoped the Jerry might think they had the wrong machine and that the pilot of this one had baled out. I next hurried – I couldn’t run as my leg had been twisted on landing - away from the a/c as fast as I could. Very shortly I came upon a small creek and decided to walk up it even though it was at right angles to my track so that my scent would not be followed by the dogs which we had been told they possessed. After some time of this I decided I felt bloody with spirits at a very low ebb and therefore decided to try my luck with a French peasant should I come across one. The land all round was a glory to behold, small, well kept patches of land growing all types of stone fruits and which shortly I was going to curse good & roundly. In a peach field I saw a man, whom I hoped was a Frenchman and a partisan, and waited in my creek until he worked down close to me. I approached him with caution, trying to remain concealed as much as possible. When he saw me he was most voluble and when he realized I was ‘Je suis Aviator Anglais’, he hurried me away to his tool shed where he locked me in and carried on with his work. His colloquial French was a little too much for me who knew little French anyway, so that I was not quite certain of his intentions. However he seemed a decent type so I just sat and waited albeit a little frightened. My watch, an issue one, was still working and I observed that it was time to be hungry, being about four o’clock in the afternoon. I thought it best not to open my emergency rations in case I should need them at a later date and so just continued to sit and become stiff and sore and sorry for myself. Simone, that proved to be my guardians name, arrived by at dusk and with him a girl Marie and another young man - ?. Marie proceeded to wash the blood off my face and to carefully bathe my very sore eyes. When she had completed this to her satisfaction, out came a bottle from Simone’s haversack. He poured me a stiff tot of this clear liquid which proved to be Kir, a potent drink made by the locals – I think out of pears. Once I’d consumed my drink, Marie poured more of it into a bowl and bathed my forehead with it. Fairly neat alcohol on an open wound is not the sort of thing one would use if there were any other antiseptic about but as things turned out and probably owing to my youth and good health, my forehead healed fairly quickly.

That night I slept in the toolshed, waking at the slightest sound, and most annoyed with the mice, who delight in scampering around. The four empty sacks in the shed made the ground a little less hard but it was almost impossible to keep warm so that I was glad when the first signs of dawn approached. My clothing was very light, having on only a pair of shorts and American summer weight flying over-alls. I had kept my Mae West and that provided quite a lot of warmth.

I tightened my harness, opened the hood, switched off all the switches and trusted to luck and the hardiness of the machine.

Fred Sherborne

Simeon came along around about 7o’clock and pulled my breakfast out of his haversack. It consisted of a very hard type of meat roll, somewhat similar to Boucan? And a roll of dry bread. Being quite hungry, I hopped into these, hacking pieces off with a very sharp dagger come knife which I always carried. Eating proved to be a major operation as I found my teeth jagged and broken, by now also my eyes had both closed up completely and all round things were pretty grim.

However, Simone left some luscious peaches and a bottle of wine with me and started his day’s toil – wine eventually became my bug bear, my guardians couldn’t get the idea that I wished to have some drinking water –

The day passed uneventfully into the night and about nine o’clock I heard footsteps and slunk into the darkest corner behind some sacks in case it was the unfriends. It proved to be Simeon who had now arranged to transport me back to?’ house where I was to hide up. He double dinked me over some pretty rough tracks until we arrived at his place where his wife had a salad supper waiting and more wine. Although it was rather odd-tasting, I did justice to the meal and washed it down with more wine – their speech was quite intelligent to me but we got on together very well.  After the meal I was shown to my hide-out where I was doomed to remain for another 7 days. This---was a loft above the fowl run but for my stay the fowls were induced to keep out of my part. They disliked me intensely for doing them out of their nice loft and I in time couldn’t have cared less, as the days went by, if I never saw a chook again in my whole life.

In time I couldn’t have cared less, as the days went by, if I never saw a chook again in my whole life.

Fred Sherborne

The days passed fairly quietly, I saw Germans prying about on my second day in the fowl run but eventually they just gathered some grapes and pushed off – much to my relief. My meals were provided by separate branches of the family. Simeon’s wife providing breakfast, Marie, whose husband was a POW at Leipzig luncheon and supper. They all provided red wine and Marie whose favourite I seemed to be, gave me anything I desired plus a white wine rather like a heavy hock. She also bathed my eyes and head several times a day and looked after my general health. After about four days, I developed a heavy fever, (a type of malaria which I was prone to get) and became very restless and had a terrific temperature. Malou then showed their stirling qualities, one of them was continually with me until the fever started to wear off. By this time we understood each other fairly well and it took me a great deal of pleading to stop them getting in a doctor. I wanted to get as few people as possible know that I was about for fear of reprisals.

Every night I heard tanks firing and manoevering and as the days went by so the firing came nearer & nearer until finally I was told that the Germans were evacuating the Avignon area. This of course caused me great excitement, I could visualise days and weeks going by without having to see or hear a chook and the prospect was most pleasing.

I saw Germans prying about on my second day in the fowl run but eventually they just gathered some grapes and pushed off – much to my relief.

Fred Sherborne

On the ninth night of my internment, still feeling weak from my bout of fever, I was taken out of my hutch and allowed to dine in state with the family. Halfway through dinner we heard footsteps so my place was cleared away and I was relegated to a position under the stairs. It proved to be friends on a visit so I was brought forth and paraded like a champion bull at the show. One of the lasses of the party was noticed to dash off after a while but she returned later with numerous other friends all carrying bottles of wine and so the party started. Unfortunately in my weakened state I could not indulge too freely and in fact ‘pushed off’ to my coop after a very short time. The party however continued for quite some time.

The next day dawned crystal clear…

Grumman Wildcat

A villager sits on Fred Sherborne's downed Grumman Wildcat not long after it crashed near Avignon in southern France on August 19, 1944.

A villager sits on Fred Sherborne's downed Grumman Wildcat not long after it crashed near Avignon in southern France on August 19, 1944.

The Grumman F4F Wildcat is an American carrier-based fighter aircraft that began service with both the United States Navy and the British Royal Navy (as the Martlet) in 1940.

First used in combat by the British in Europe, the Wildcat was the only effective fighter available to the United States Navy and Marine Corps in the Pacific Theater during the early part of World War II in 1941 and 1942; the disappointing Brewster Buffalo was withdrawn in favor of the Wildcat and replaced as units became available.

It had a top speed of 318mph (512 km/h), the Wildcat was outperformed by the faster 331 mph (533 km/h), more maneuverable, and longer-ranged Mitsubishi A6M Zero.

However, the F4F's ruggedness, coupled with tactics such as the Thach Weave, resulted in a claimed air combat kill-to-loss ratio of 5.9:1 in 1942 and 6.9:1 for the entire war.

Commander Fred Sherborne RAN career

Fred Sherborne (centre with arms folded) onboard HMAS Melbourne in 1958.

Fred Sherborne (centre with arms folded) onboard HMAS Melbourne in 1958.

Joined RAN September 4, 1939, as ordinary seaman. (Date of birth June 10, 1920).

Onboard merchant ship ‘Imperial Star’ when sunk by enemy action in Mediterranean on September 27, 1941.

Selected for fighter pilot training with RN and USN, and appointed Sub Lieutenant on September 26, 1942.

Flew bombing missions against battleship ‘Tirpitz’ in Norway.

Posted to RN escort carrier HMS ‘Searcher’ with 882 ‘Wildcat’ Squadron for the invasion of Southern France.

Shot down five miles south of Avignon on August 19, 1944 in Grumman ‘Wildcat’ JV368.

Harboured by french resistance until Allies retook the village of Chateaurenard.

Feted as a symbol of heroism by the villagers during their victory parade some eight days later.

Promoted to Lieutenant on February 12, 1945.

Demobilised in December 1946, and re-engaged in Australian Fleet Air Arm in January 1948.

Returned to UK for flying refresher training and posted to 805 ‘Sea Fury’ squadron 1948–1951 onboard ‘Sydney’ and at ‘Albatross’.

Promoted to Lieutenant Commander in September 1951.

Two years exchange with RN squadrons 1951-1953.

Returned to ‘Albatross’ and ‘Sydney’ to command 805 Squadron 1953-1955.

Promoted to Commander in June 1957 and appointed ‘Melbourne’ as Commander Air and Fleet Aviation Officer.

Posted to ‘Albatross’ as Commander Air August 1958 and tempy executive officer.

Appointed Staff Officer Air to Australian Navy representative in London January 1962, followed by Naval Attache to Indonesia in January 1966, as acting Captain.

Took command of ‘Kuttabul’ March 1969 and retired from RAN in October 1969.