The incredible life of Australian World War II pilot Fred Sherborne has been brought to life in a new exhibition at the Fleet Air Arm Museum at HMAS Albatross.
‘An Accidental Hero’ is the exhibition, which details an incredible World War II survival story, where a dashing young pilot - Fred Sherborne (who went on to become Commander of HMAS Albatross in 1958) - crash landed in Chateaurenard in the south of France in 1944 just weeks after the D-Day landings.
Then a Royal Australian Navy Sub Lieutenant, Sherborne was flying a Royal Navy Wildcat, from the British aircraft carrier Searcher, that was shot down five miles south of Avignon on August 19, 1944.
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.
Sherborne was very lucky. His was one of four aircraft shot down that day, all were within 10 miles of one another and 50 miles inside the German lines.
Two other pilots were killed, the third taken prisoner of war.
He suffered minor injuries including cuts to his face from pieces of glass and perspex from his cockpit canopy and windscreen that hit him, as well as a graze on his temple from a bullet, which left a permanent scar.
He was hidden by the villages for two weeks, hiding in a chook house, so the Germans, who had invaded the area, were not aware of his existence.
Sherborne was feted as a symbol of heroism by the villages during their victory parade.
Over time villages souvenired parts off the plane, many of which ended up in a local museum, and earlier this year a number of pieces of the aircraft were provided to the Fleet Air Arm Museum and are now part of the exhibition.
Also included among the parts was a lifesize poster of the then SBLT Sherborne taken in 1944, another when he was part of the victory celebrations and a photograph of a villager sitting on top of the downed aircraft.
In 2004 the town of Chateaurenard held a re-enactment of the original 1944 town parade with Fred’s son Guy and his family as the guests of honour.
Guy Sherborne said his father never spoke of his experiences.
“We knew nothing of this until we were contacted about it in the early 2000s,” he said.
“Then this remarkable story started coming together. Through a lot of research and talking to people we have been able to put what happened together.”
The exhibition takes its name from a book of the same title, written by Mr Sherborne, which details the long search by the French to discover the pilot’s true identity.
Former Albatross commanding officer Commodore Toz Dadswell, who served with Fred Sherborne, launched the exhibition.
“Fred Sherborne was a top guy - a top man,” he said.
“He was a remarkable man. I served under Fred when he was here as the CO. He was a disciplinarian but could also be someone who you were able to relax with and enjoy his company in the ward room.
“There were so many people here at that time in the 1950s who wore some impressive medals. We had so many former Royal Navy and Air Force personnel along with our own and unfortunately we lost many of their stories.
“I’m so glad this is one story Guy has been able to bring back to life.”
Commanding officer of the Fleet Air Arm, Commodore Cheris Smallhorn, who also wrote the forward to the book, launched the publication saying Fred Sherborne had laid the foundations for future members of the Fleet Air Arm.
“What we are doing today is directly related and linked to the likes of Fred Sherborne and his fellow aviators,” he said.
“When you think what he managed to do, complete his mission, extend it in fact, take fire, find a suitable place to land and then actually put the aircraft down, all within a very short period of time. He then faced two villagers, while armed with a pistol, not knowing if they were friend or foe. He had to make a series of vital split second decisions. Considering he was just 22 years of age - remarkable.”
The exhibition features many artefacts – including Fred’s stylish flying jacket, a beautiful silk map, and a copy of the program the town of Chateaurenard produced for the re-enactment – and parts of Fred’s aircraft.
Parts of the aircraft and photographs also make up the exhibition. Copies of An Accidental Hero by Guy Sherborne are also for sale in the museum for $25.