Navy Wings Supporter Alex Owen contacted us to share two stories involving his grandparents for our series of ‘dits’.

Shelia Tucker

Having joined the Wrens (WRNS – Women’s Royal Naval Service) as an officer, aged 19, Sheila Tucker (pictured) fell in love with a Fleet Air Arm Sea Hurricane pilot named Charles William Grayburn Richardson (pic 2), known as ‘Grayburn’. A proposal soon followed and by 1944 they were due to be married. Sadly, but not uncommonly, Shelia had already had three fiancées killed in the war before Grayburn.⁣

Grayburn Richardson, desperate to see his girl, flew over to Northern Ireland where Shelia was based running a radio telegraphy team. On landing at nearby Maydown, County Derry, he bumped into a great chum from training, Robert (Robin) Owen (pic 3). Robin was a lanky Scot, and former veterinary surgeon, whose application to join the cavalry was turned down on account of him being ‘too clever for the cav.’ (More on Robin to follow).⁣

Knowing that Robin was based at Maydown flying Swordfish sorties over the Atlantic, Grayburn asked for him to look out for Shelia in his absence. Richardson was going aboard HMS Nairana, an aircraft carrier running convoy protection. ⁣

On 26th May 1944 his convoy was located by German Junkers Ju 290’s in the Bay of Biscay. Sub Lt Grayburn Richardson launched to drive them off in his Hurricane. He succeeded, but when diving against the enemy as they turned away, he couldn’t pull out of his dive. He hit the water and was killed. He was just 21 years old, and posthumously mentioned in despatches. ⁣

Robin Owen, true to his word, looked after Shelia, and in March 1946 they married (pic 4). Barely 9 months later my father ‘Grayburn’ Owen was born. My second name is Grayburn. As is my son’s. Grayburn Richardson was the only child of Reverend Richardson but his memory lives on everyday.

Robin Owen

My Grandfather Robert ‘Robin’ Hogarth Owen. Born in Ceylon (Now Sri Lanka) to a Scottish Engineer and his wife from Wigtownshire in Dumfries & Galloway, he was educated at Edinburgh Academy before training as a Veterinarian at Edinburgh University. ⁣

When the war broke out he was in Africa working as a vet in the Colonial Service. Against the wishes of his father he returned to Britain and applied to join the cavalry, who in some places still had horses in the early months of the war. He was told his brains would be better employed elsewhere and he ended up commissioning into the Royal Navy as a Fleet Air Arm pilot. ⁣

After training in Canada he was put onto the Swordfish aka the ‘Stringbag’. This was an archaic biplane that was designed in the 1930s to carry an air launched torpedo and carry out maritime reconnaissance. It was the humble Stringbag that struck the Italian Navy at Taranto and crippled the Bismarck. ⁣

For the majority of the war he would fly protecting the vital convoys crossing from the US in what is now known as the Battle of the Atlantic. During one crossing a family legend tells of a Merchant Captain suffering a burst appendix mid crossing and, in the absence of a Medical Officer, Robin being sent across from his carrier to operate. Apparently he said to his patient, “Well Jimmy, I know where it is on a horse so draw me a map and I’ll go look for it.”⁣

After the war he rarely discussed it. Part of the fuselage of his Swordfish was repurposed as the family hen house, and the MBE he was awarded was always for ‘drinking an above average amount of pink gin’. He married the fiancé of his fallen mate, started a family and returned to work opening a veterinary practice in the UK. I never knew him as he tragically died in his 50s but we recently found a letter he wrote to his father in the war thinking he might perish on the next mission. And I quote:⁣

“I may appear very casual and careless but Daddy, if I do die you will at least know that I couldn’t have had a finer Father and if I live, and I think I shall, I can only hope to be half the man you have been.”

Ironically I did end up joining the Household Cavalry and I’m still waiting to be told I’m too clever, go and fly instead!

Alex Owen (Navy Wings Supporter)