ONE of the finest fliers in the Second World War Fleet Air Arm, who lived in Ellesmere Port for 90 years, has died aged 92.
William Norman Sailes was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross (DSC) for his part in Operation Judgement, which resulted in the sinking in May 1945 of the last German U-boat to be destroyed during the war in Europe.
In his four years of war service he completed 1,250 flying hours in 21 types of aircraft and made more than 400 deck landings on aircraft carriers, considerably above the average.
This remarkable personal record put him in the front rank of Royal Navy fliers.
Having joined the service as a naval airman, he rose to the rank of lieutenant commander.
Mr Sailes was born on June 25, 1920, in Whitby, Ellesmere Port. His parents were William and Elsie.
Educated at William Stockton School and Wirral Grammar School for Boys, he started work aged 17 at Shell’s Stanlow Refinery and apart from his war service remained a Shell employee until his retirement in 1980 as a research chemist at its Thornton Research Centre.
A keen sportsman, he played hockey and tennis until he was in his 50s. He joined Vicars Cross Golf Club in 1970 and was a playing member until his late 80s, serving as president for 1991-93.
‘Tiny’ Sailes, the nickname he acquired because he struggled to reach the foot controls of the plane in which he trained, had to be rescued from the sea on two occasions when his aircraft went over the side.
On a third occasion he made a split-second decision to avoid another drenching and wrote off five Avenger torpedo bombers already parked on the deck of escort carrier HMS Queen.
He later recalled: “I decided that third time might be unlucky, so I stood on the brakes, killed the engine… and we hadn’t got any Avengers left to go on our mission.”
This incident was captured on film and is featured in a DVD about the history of HMS Queen, which was a converted US merchant ship.
Although Sailes’s accident caused the postponement of Operation Judgement, when the mission was finally launched six weeks later he was nominated as the senior pilot, which meant his Avenger would be a prime target for the German gunners guarding the U-boat base in a Norwegian fjord at Kilbotn.
During the attack, in which U-boat 711 and two support ships were sunk, Sailes’s plane was hit by shellfire and one of his crew was wounded.
Nevertheless, he nursed his plane back to the carrier, where it was discovered six of the seven strands of the Avenger’s rudder cable had been shot through and that the wings were badly damaged by shrapnel.
The resulting DSC was awarded for ‘gallantry, skill and devotion to duty’ during the raid.
At the outbreak of war, Sailes joined the Local Defence Volunteers in Ellesmere Port.
He was working in a ‘reserved occupation’ with Shell when he visited the naval recruitment office in Liverpool in 1940. After initially being offered a posting as either a cook or valet, Sailes pointed at a poster depicting a plane landing on an aircraft carrier, and asked ‘how do you join that?’.
On being told his surname, the recruiting officer replied: “Well, you couldn’t join any other service with a name like yours!”
His ambition to fly had been kindled when he was 14 and went to see Alan Cobham’s flying circus providing joyrides from a 40-acre field in his home town. He could not afford the five-shilling cost of a ride, but was gripped by the experience of watching Cobham’s biplanes.
Eventually, he became one of the Fleet Air Arm’s most experienced pilots and was selected to deliver replacement planes to aircraft carriers, landing a wide variety of British and American aircraft in all kinds of conditions at sea.
His flying experiences were recorded in 2005 for the sound archive of the Imperial War Museum before Alzheimer’s impaired his powers of recall.
In June 1945 he married Margaret (Greta) Chapman, who was lady captain at Vicars Cross Golf Club in 1980-81. She died in 1989.
He died in a care home in Suffolk, where he moved to be near one of his three daughters, on December 27, 2012, and will be cremated in Bury St Edmunds on January 10.
Following his cremation in Suffolk, the family are planning to hold a celebration of his life at Vicars Cross Golf Club. It will be attended by family, friends and ex-colleagues.
He is survived by three daughters – Margaret, Barbara and Moira.
He had eight grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.