The Airmen's Stories - Lt.(FAA) R C Cockburn
Richard Cockburn Cockburn was born on 14th June 1914 in Leicester and educated at Wellington College from 1928 to 1932. He then went to the Royal Military College Sandhurst and was commissioned in the Highland Light Infantry in February 1934.
He subsequently took a course at the Small Arms School, Hythe. Cockburn did not find Army life congenial and resigned from the Army in 1936.
Cockburn learned to fly at the Cinque Ports Flying Club. He was awarded Aero Certificate 15005 on 13th June 1937.
He took part in air races and made his last flight as a civilian on 28th August 1939. He volunteered for the RNVR on the day war was declared.
After training he instructed at Lee-on-Solent until late August 1940. He joined 808 Squadron at Castletown on 28th August flying Fulmars on dockyard defence. On 22nd October 1940 he embarked with the squadron on HMS Ark Royal.
On 25th July 1941 Ark Royal was 120 miles SW of Sardinia, taking part in Operation Substance, a convoy escort for convoy GM1 from Gibraltar to Malta. Twelve Italian SM79 torpedo bombers were detected approaching the convoy and Cockburn led a mixed detachment of Fulmars from 806, 807 and 808 Squadrons to intercept them.
The Italians were driven off with two destroyed and one damaged but three Fulmars, including Cockburn's, were shot down. He was awarded the DSO (gazetted 25th November 1941) and the citation describes the action:
In company with another pilot, the late Lieutenant ATJ Kindersley RN, this officer, whilst patrolling over the Fleet on 25th July 1941, intercepted a formation of twelve S79 aircraft. The two Fulmars attacked immediately and forced the formation to turn away. They shot down two of the enemy for certain and probably a third, and severely damaged another which was later shot down by another Fulmar. They made attack after attack until they expended their ammunition, but before this occurred they forced many of the enemy to jettison their bombs and finally broke up the attack. Both Fulmars were finally shot down, Lieutenant Cockburn being picked up by one of our destroyers. As Air Gunner in Lieutenant Cockburn’s aircraft, P.O. Airman Cuttriss used his Thompson sub-machine gun to good effect, damaging one of the enemy bombers as his aircraft passed under it at 50 yards range. He showed consummate coolness throughout the action and by his observations helped his pilot achieve the success that we won.
Cuttriss was awarded the DSM.
Cockburn and Cuttriss were picked up by the destroyer HMAS Nestor.
Kindersley and Acting P.O. FA Barnes were killed as were Sub Lt. KG Grant and TAG H McLeod in another Fulmar.
The recommendations for awards were reviewed by the Second Sea Lord who observed:
I am not sure that there is a strong enough case for giving Kindersley a posthumous VC.
Kindersley and Cockburn in company achieved the same success in the face of heavy odds: Cockburn survives and is recommended for a DSO, Kindersley is killed and it is proposed to award a posthumous V.C. There is no saying that Cockburn was not the more valiant of the two. It is also observed that the F.O.H. puts Lieutenant Lewin, another Ark Royal pilot, ahead of Kindersley in his order of merit.
I feel, therefore, that a Mention for Kindersley would be more equitable unless it is particularly desired to give the Fleet Air Arm a VC.
Kindersley and Barnes were awarded a Mention in Dispatches.
On 1st May 1942 Cockburn was appointed to HMS Daedalus and commanded 734 (Engine Handling Unit) Squadron at Worthy Down from 14th February 1944 to 5th December 1945.
Cockburn was released from the Royal Navy in January 1946 as a Lieutenant Commander. He had flown 18 aircraft types but never flew again.
Cockburn lived in Kent and died on 8th December 2013 aged 99.
He was a cousin of JC Cockburn, who also flew with the FAA in the Battle and also of Wing Commander RAB Learoyd VC.