A Worthy Opponent: the Glorious Death of Hampton Gray, the Last Canadian Victoria Cross
On August 9, 1989, a solemn ceremony was held on a hill outside the town of Onagawa in Japan. The townsfolk and a handful of foreign guests gathered to dedicate a monument to a fallen airman, who in the final days of the Second World War sacrificed his life pressing home a suicidal attack on an enemy ship. But this courageous act was carried out not by a Japanese pilot, but rather a Canadian. On August 9, 1945, Royal Navy pilot Hampton Gray became among the last Canadians to die in the war and the last to be awarded the Victoria Cross, the British Commonwealth’s highest award for valour. His heroic sacrifice would earn him honours and undying respect not only in his home country but that of his former enemy.
Robert Hampton Gray was born on November 2, 1917 in Trail, British Columbia, the eldest of three children born to jeweller and Boer War veteran John Gray and his wife Wilhelmina. Soon after Robert’s birth, the family moved to the town of Nelson, where John Gray was later elected to town council. Hampton Gray, known to his friends as “Hammy”, was described by those who knew him as an affable, irreverent, fun-loving boy, fond of joking and doing impressions of his friends. An excellent student and athlete, Gray graduated from high school in 1936 and enrolled at the University of Alberta, where he spent two years before transferring to the University of British Columbia to study medicine. At UBC Gray became heavily involved in campus social activities, serving as house manager for the Phi Delta Theta fraternity and Associate Editor of the yearbook alongside a young Pierre Berton, who would go on to become one of Canada’s greatest journalists and history writers.
In the summer of 1940, following the lightning German invasion of France and the Low Countries, Gray and two of his classmates dropped their studies to enlist in the Royal Canadian Naval Volunteer Reserve or RCNVR, sailing from Halifax on September 13 for basic training at HMS Raleigh in England. Seeking a faster route to an officer’s commission, in December Gray transferred to the Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm. After a three month course in basic seamanship at Gosport, in March 1941 Gray began basic flight training at No.24 Elementary Flight Training School in Luton, just outside London. He proved to be a natural pilot, and was sent back to Canada for advanced training as part of the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan or BCATP. This massive undertaking was one of Canada’s greatest contributions to the war effort, and between 1939 and 1945 trained 131,500 commonwealth air force personnel. Hampton Gray completed his advanced training at No.31 Service Flying Training School in Kingston, Ontario, and was commissioned as a Sub Lieutenant in September 1941. Gray’s first posting was to 757 Naval Air Squadron based in Winchester, England, but he was soon transferred to South Africa, where for two years he flew Hawker Hurricane fighters on shore-based patrols for number 795, 803, and 877 squadrons. These patrols were intended to defend the African coast against attacks by the Japanese, but following the American victory at the Battle of Midway in June 1942, this threat quickly tapered off and Gray was assigned to 795 Squadron based in Nairobi, Kenya. In February 1942 Gray received the tragic news that his younger brother Jack, who had joined up in 1939 at the age of 18, had been killed when his Handley Page Hampden aircraft crashed in England while returning from a bombing mission over Germany. In a strange coincidence, Jack was the first man from the town of Nelson to be killed in the war, while his brother Hampton would be the last.
After four years of training and patrol flying, Hampton Gray finally got to see action in August 1944 when his squadron, Number 1841 based aboard the aircraft carrier HMS Formidable, was tasked with attacking the German battleship Tirpitz at its anchorage at Kaafjord, Norway. The sister ship of the famous Bismarck, which had been sunk by a Royal Navy task force in May 1941, Tirpitz had been a perpetual thorn in the Allies’ side for the entire war, threatening at any moment to break out into the Atlantic and wreak havoc on merchant shipping. Wary of a repeat of the Bismarck debacle, however, the Germans had elected to keep the Tirpitz hidden away in various Norwegian fjords, out of reach of Allied aircraft. But her very existence posed such a threat that the Allied Commanders had ordered her destruction at any cost. The raid to which Gray’s squadron was assigned, codenamed Operation Goodwood, followed a string of unsuccessful attempts to sink the Tirpitz, including several carrier-based torpedo bomber raids and an attack by X-Craft midget submarines that succeeded in putting the battleship out of commission for six months. For Operation Goodwood, Gray, now a full Lieutenant and flying the powerful American-built Vought F4U Corsair, was tasked with escorting and protecting a flight 16 Fairey Barracuda torpedo bombers as they made their attack on Tirpitz. After being postponed twice due to poor weather, the attack was finally launched on August 24, 1944. Braving withering fire from ship and shore-based antiaircraft batteries, Gray led his flight on daring point-blank attacks with bombs and machine guns in order to draw the German guns away from the slow torpedo bombers. During one such attack Gray’s Corsair received a direct hit from a 40mm antiaircraft shell, nearly blowing the aircraft’s rudder clean off. Despite this massive damage, on his return Gray patiently circled Formidable for 40 minutes rather than disrupt the regular landing pattern. Ultimately Operation Goodwood was unsuccessful, resulting in heavy Allied losses and only minor damage to the Tirpitz. It would not be until November 12, 1944 that the mighty battleship would finally be sunk using massive Tallboy “earthquake” bombs dropped by Royal Air Force Lancaster bombers. Nonetheless, Gray had proved himself a natural and capable leader of men, and was mentioned in dispatches for his:
“…undaunted courage, skill and determination in carrying out daring attacks on the Tirpitz”.
Following the Allied breakout from Normandy in July 1944, Naval operations in the European theatre gradually began to wind down, and in September HMS Formidable was sent to the Pacific to join the fight against the Japanese, arriving in Sydney on March 19, 1945. In May the fleet was sent to the Sakishima Islands at the extreme southern end of Japan to take out Japanese airfields supporting the defence of Okinawa. This involved launching near round-the-clock airstrikes, as the Japanese were able to repair the airfields almost as fast as the Allies could destroy them. However, on May 4 the escorting battleships and cruisers were called away to carry out shore bombardment, stripping the carriers of much of their defensive antiaircraft screen. This allowed Japanese Kamikaze aircraft to break through, with Indomitable receiving two glancing hits, and Formidable and Victorious two direct hits each, killing nine crew, wounding 47, and destroying 30 aircraft. On May 22, Formidable returned to Sydney for much-needed repairs.
The ship returned to service on June 28, just in time to participate in the final push on the Japanese home islands. Before the planned invasion, codenamed Operation Downfall, could take place, all Japanese naval and aerial resistance first had to be eliminated. While most of her carriers and major battleships had already been sunk, the Japanese Imperial Navy still had some 2,000 smaller craft hidden in bays and coves around the home island, waiting to make desperate kamikaze-style attacks on the approaching Allied fleet. It was these ships that the British Pacific Fleet was now tasked with destroying. Formidable arrived off the west coast of Honshu on July 8, and over the next month launched a series of attacks on Niigata, Chosi, and Shikoku Island. On July 28, Hampton Grey attacked a Japanese destroyer near Maisuru, an action for which he was recommended for the Distinguished Service Cross, the third highest award for gallantry behind the Conspicuous Gallantry Medal and the Victoria Cross.
On August 6, the tone of the fighting changed dramatically as the U.S. Air Force dropped the first atomic bomb on the city of Hiroshima. Anticipating that the end of the war was just around the corner, the commander of HMS Formidable advised his airmen not to take any undue risk. Nevertheless, at 8:35 AM on August 9, the same day the second atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki, Hampton Grey and his wing of seven Corsairs prepared to launch an attack on Matsushima airfield. At the last minute, however, Gray was informed that the airfield had already been bombed and that if it proved to be out of commission, Gray was to seek out and attack any targets of opportunity. Finding that Matsushima had indeed been destroyed, Gray diverted his wing to nearby Onagawa Bay, where they came upon a number of Japanese ships including the destroyers Amakusa, Ohama, and Soya, and several minesweepers and other smaller vessels. Approaching low from the mainland to avoid antiaircraft fire, Gray and his fellow pilots swooped into the bay and lined up with their chosen targets. Antiaircraft batteries on the ships and the surrounding hills immediately opened fire, filling the air with a hailstorm of tracers. Dropping down just a few feet off the water, Gray headed straight for the Amakusa and lined up his bomb sights. On the run to the target, one of his two 500-pound bombs was shot away by a stray antiaircraft shell, but Gray managed to release the second and score a direct hit. The bomb penetrated the hull near the engine room, igniting the rear magazine and touching off a massive explosion. Within minutes the Amakusa rolled over and sank to the bottom of the bay, taking 71 of her 150 crew down with her. But Hampton Gray would pay dearly for his victory. While pulling up from his bombing run, his aircraft was struck by antiaircraft fire, burst into flame, and plunged into the bay. Neither Gray’s aircraft nor his body were ever recovered.
Upon witnessing the death of his friend and leader, Gray’s second-in-command, Sub-Lieutenant MacKinnon, immediately took command of the wing and pressed home the attack, resulting in the sinking of most of the Japanese ships and the deaths of 158 Japanese sailors. Japanese accounts of the battle noted the tenacity and valour displayed by the pilots, who continued to attack until all their bombs and ammunition had been expended. The following day aircraft from the Formidable returned to Ongawa bay and sank 14 of the 15 remaining ships. That evening, the Japanese Government accepted the Allied terms of surrender. While the formal instruments of surrender would not be signed until five days later, for the men and women of the Allied armed forces the war was effectively over.
For his daring final attack on the Amakusa, on August 31, 1945, Robert Hampton Gray was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Cross and, on November 13, the Victoria Cross – the last Canadian to be so honoured. Gray’s official Victoria Cross Citation reads:
“For great valour in leading, from the aircraft carrier Formidable, an attack on a Japanese destroyer in Onagawa Wan, in the Japanese Island of Honshu, on August 9, 1945. In the face of fire from shore batteries and a heavy concentration of fire from some five warships, Lieutenant Gray pressed home his attack, flying very low in order to ensure success. Although he was hit and his aircraft was in flames, he obtained at least one direct hit, sinking the destroyer. Lieutenant Gray has shown a brilliant fighting spirit and most inspiring leadership.”
It is also often claimed that Gray was the very last Canadian to die in the Second World War. However, this dubious honour actually belongs to another member of Gray’s flight, Lieutenant G.A. Anderson, who crashed on landing while returning from the Ongawa raid. Not that this fact was any comfort to Gray’s family, who only received word of their son’s death after the announcement of the Japanese surrender. As Gray’s niece, Dr. Anne George, later recalled:
“The timing was just tragic for them. They thought ‘the war is over and Hampton is coming home.’”
Gray’s Victoria Cross was officially presented to his family on February 27, 1946 – four years to the day after the death of his brother Jack.
And there the story might have ended. But while Gray’s fellow Canadians never forgot his heroic sacrifice, neither did the Japanese. In the 1980s, a Onagawa shopkeeper named Yoshi Kanda began a campaign to erect a memorial to Hampton Gray. At the same time, Terry Milne, Canada’s military attaché to Japan, was also pushing for the creation of a monument. Though apprehensive on account of the 149 Japanese civilians killed during the August 9 attack, both men approached the mayor of Ongawa, Zenjiro Suda, with their proposal. To their surprise, Suda, who as a boy had witnessed Gray’s heroic deed, readily agreed, and a granite memorial was carved in Victoria, British Columbia, and erected overlooking Onagawa Bay. On August 9, 1989, in the presence of Gray’s sister Phyllis, his niece Anne, and surviving crew members from the Amakusa, the memorial was officially dedicated – the only monument to a foreign serviceman on Japanese soil.
The memorial to Hampton Gray stood for 22 years until being destroyed by the March 11, 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. The disaster devastated the town of Ongawa, killing 1,300 of its 10,000 residents – including the daughter of Yoshi Kanda and her husband. The town, however, quickly approved funds to build a new monument, which was erected on the grounds of the local hospital and re-dedicated in August 2012. While a memorial to a long-forgotten battle may seem like a strange priority amid the destruction wrought by the earthquake, by this time the monument – and the legacy of Hampton Gray – had come to mean so much more to the people of Onagawa. As the official program for the re-dedication ceremony reads:
“It is more than a monument to a great Canadian. It goes beyond the symbol of the friendship and bonds that have grown between Onagawa and the Embassy of Canada in Tokyo, with Nelson, with Canada. Today shows that Onagawa is recovering from the devastation of March 11, 2011 … We cannot forget the tragedy of March 11, like we cannot forget the events of World War II, but like then, with positive attitudes and strong will, we can overcome the loss, the destruction, and the tragedy and work together to build something stronger and better.”
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Macneil, Don, The Last Canadian VC – Robert Hampton Gray, Vintage Wings Canada, http://www.vintagewings.ca/VintageNews/Stories/tabid/116/articleType/ArticleView/articleId/34/language/en-CA/The-Last-Canadian-VC–Robert-Hampton-Gray.aspx
Knox, Jack, 76 Years Later, a Monument to Victoria Cross Winner Killed in Last Week of War, Times Colonist, August 5, 2021, https://www.timescolonist.com/local-news/jack-knox-76-years-later-a-monument-to-victoria-cross-winner-killed-in-last-week-of-war-4691138
Soward, Stuart, “A Brilliant Flying Spirit” – Lieutenant Hampton Gray, VC, DSC, RCNVR, CFB Esquimault Naval & Military Museum, https://web.archive.org/web/20120415204124/http://www.navalandmilitarymuseum.org/resource_pages/heroes/gray.html
Nesteroff, Greg, Mixed News for Family Behind Hampton Gray Monument, Nelson Star, March 16, 2011, https://www.nelsonstar.com/news/mixed-news-for-family-behind-hampton-gray-monument/
Anderson, Laura, Remember But Also Forgive, November 13, 2011, https://www.nsnews.com/living/remember-but-also-forgive-2916195
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