Obituary: Major V. B. G. Cheesman

Max Arthur
Thursday 17 June 1999 23:02

WHEN THE Blue Funnel liner SS Eumaeus, with a large naval draft on board, was sunk in the South Atlantic by an Italian submarine on 14 January 1941, many of the survivors found themselves clinging to the wreckage in shark-infested waters.

Lt V. B. G. Cheesman was then based in Freetown, Sierra Leone, as a Walrus flying-boat pilot covering convoys, and he was sent out to search for the submarine. Having completed his search and possessing only sufficient fuel for the return, he spotted survivors in the water and with considerable skill landed his Walrus in a heavy swell close by. He and his crewman gave first aid to those they could help and then caught sight of two empty lifeboats about two miles away.

Cheesman closed on them, stopped his engine and swam to one with a line which he made fast. He clambered back into the Walrus, started the engine and towed the boat back to the now struggling survivors. This courageous action saved the lives of a considerable number of men. The Walrus was towed back to Freetown by a trawler, HMS Spaniard, having been away 21 hours, 18 of them on the water.

Vernon Beauclerk George Cheesman was born in Cheltenham in 1917 and attended Cheltenham College. He was commissioned into the Royal Marines in 1936 and represented the Royal Navy at hockey and the United Services, Portsmouth, at rugby. He was seconded to the Fleet Air Arm in 1939 and soon became popularly known as the Cheltenham Flyer. He qualified as a sea-plane pilot in 1940 and in July 1941 joined HMS Cornwall as her Walrus amphibious pilot.

Cornwall, a 10,000-ton county class cruiser, and her sister ship, Devonshire, were sunk by Japanese dive bombers in the Indian Ocean on 5 April 1942. Badly hit in the leg and suffering from burns, Cheesman was in the water for three days and nights before being picked up. He developed a strong hatred of the Japanese after they shot at the survivors in the water.

A month later he took over command of 788 Squadron in China Bay, near the naval base at Trincomalee on the east coast of what was then Ceylon. Most of the squadron had been lost in abortive raids on Japanese carriers. He returned to England to convert to fighters and joined 824 Squadron in August 1943 as a Flight Commander on convoy escort operations in the North Atlantic.

In February 1944 he took command of 1770 Squadron, which was equipped with Fairey Fireflies. Flying from HMS Indefatigable the squadron attacked the heavily defended German battleship Tirpitz during the spring and summer when she was moored in Norwegian waters. For his bravery in these operations Cheesman was awarded the DSO. The citation read:

Has led his squadron of Fireflies as close escort and for flak-busting with great determination and courage in seven attacks during recent operations, including five strikes against Tirpitz. He has on all occasions shown an aggressive spirit combined with great skill which has proved an inspiring example to his squadron.

He returned to the Far East with his squadron, again in Indefatigable, at the end of the year, and on 4 January 1945 took part in a very accurate attack on the Japanese oil refinery at Pangkalan Brandan in Sumatra.

Two days later, while on a fleet exercise in the Indian Ocean rehearsing for a possible meeting with an enemy carrier force, he was unable to land back on his carrier because of an accident on board. Ordered to orbit, he did so until he ran out of fuel. As he recalled, "As far as I knew no one had ever ditched in a Firefly. But I was optimistic, took her down to 10 feet, lifted the nose to lose speed, just above a stall, to try and get the tail wheel into the water first to avoid cartwheeling."

He succeeded in bringing the aircraft down safely. He and his observer were quickly picked up by a destroyer, and anticipating a couple of days' rest they had a rude awakening when they were taken back to the Indefatigable and hoisted aloft on a wildly swinging ammunition tray while both ships were making 10 knots. On the ditching, he said, "The moral of the story is that you should always keep cool, carry out the drill and think positively. It is all a matter of discipline and mind over matter."

The photograph taken of his rescue appeared in the London Evening Standard, which was handed to his wife Elizabeth, a FANY ambulance driver, with the comment: "Look what your husband has been up to now!"

In January 1945, the main Fleet Air Arm strike force, including Cheesman's squadron, was sent to Sydney. En route heavy strikes were made on the oil refineries around Palembang and for these operations Cheesman was awarded the DSC.

The next operation he took part in was in support of the American invasion of Okinawa. Cheesman's log book rapidly filled with details of continual action: "Fighter sweeps over Ishigaki", "Strike on Miyaka", "Scramble over Fleet".

At the end of the war "Teddy" Cheesman was appointed as Chief Flying Instructor at RNAS Lossiemouth and a number of flying appointments followed. In 1950, at the age of 33, he was devastated to be told at a medical board that the state of his leg, injured in the sinking of the Cornwall, now prevented him from continuing in the peacetime Royal Marines.

He became sales manager for Silcocks, agricultural merchants, for whom he worked until 1967 when, after a chance meeting with one of the partners, he joined the estate agents Luce & Silver, later Banks & Silver. He retired in 1982. He maintained a close association with the Fleet Air Arm Officers' Association and organised monthly meetings at his local public house.

Vernon Beauclerk George ("Teddy") Cheesman, Royal Marine pilot: born Cheltenham, Gloucestershire 8 January 1917; MBE 1941; DSO 1945; DSC 1945; married 1943 Elizabeth Gaylard (two daughters); died Worcester 11 June 1999.

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