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The Airmen's Stories - Lt. (FAA) J W Sleigh


James Wallace Sleigh was born in South Africa on 27th September 1916. At the age of 15 he joined the South African Naval Training Ship General Botha and spent a short period in the Merchant Navy. In 1936 he joined the Royal Navy and served initially as a Midshipman aboard HMS Rochester on the African Station.

He entered the Air Branch of the Royal Navy on 14th March 1938 as a probationary Sub-Lieutenant.



He carried out his elementary flying training at 24 E&RFTS Sydenham, Northern Ireland. He moved on to No. 1 FTS Leuchars for No. 6 Course from 6th November 1939 to 21st April 1940.

Sleigh joined 804 Squadron at Hatston on 11th June 1940 flying Sea Gladiators on dockyard defence. The squadron served under Fighter Command for a period during the Battle of Britain. In October 1940 804 Squadron became one of the first FAA units to re-equip with the Grumman Martlet.


A 804 Squadron Gladiator at Hatston.

Sitting in cockpit - Sub/Lt. JW Sleigh

Standing L to R: Sub/Lt. Balme, Sub/Lt. B Paterson, Sub/Lt. NH Patterson



On 17th November 1940 Sleigh crashed at Skeabrae when landing from an operational patrol after engine failure in a Martlet. He suffered a fractured skull.

In late November 1940 part of 804 was used to form 802 Squadron at RNAS Donibristle. Sleigh was part of this move and worked up with the new squadron prior to it being sent to sea. Initially 802 deployed onboard HMS Argus before joining HMS Audacity in early September 1941.

Later that same month he and another 802 pilot, Lt. HE Williams, were detached to HMS Victorious to reinforce that ship’s complement of aircraft on the convoy to Murmansk to deliver 151 Wing and its Hurricanes to Russia. It was whilst on Victorious that Sleigh claimed the first kill made by a Martlet whilst operating from a carrier. Off Norway at just after 2pm on the 13th September he and Williams were directed to intercept a He111 which was shadowing the force of which Victorious was part. He fired at the enemy aircraft and whilst passing over it felt a jolt. Looking back, he saw the Heinkel crash into the sea. He and Williams proceeded to attack another Heinkel which flew away damaged. On return to the carrier, he discovered a gouge down the underside of his aircraft, where he had come into contact with the first Heinkel during his attack.

Shortly after this engagement, Sleigh rejoined 802 onboard HMS Audacity and some three months later made his second kill, this time a Fw200 Kondor. Late in the morning of 19th December 1941, he and Williams were sent off to attack the Kondor that had been sighted shadowing the convoy that Audacity was helping to protect. After a lengthy chase, and having all their guns jam on the first attack, Sleigh was able to get one of his guns operating again and carried out a head-on attack. Pulling up from the attack, he collected some 30 feet of cable and an aerial from the Fw200 in his arrester hook. For this action Sleigh was awarded the DSC (gazetted 10th March 1942). Two nights after this engagement, Audacity was sunk off Portugal by the U-751, with heavy loss of life.

Now a Lt Cdr, Sleigh was appointed on 15th June 1942 to command 890 Squadron which was working up with the new Martlet III aircraft at the US Naval Base in Norfolk, Virginia. From here he took the squadron on operations from HMS Charger, Battler and Argus. He took part in the invasion of Siciy and the landings at Salerno, operating from HMS Illustrious, for which he received a Mention in Despatches (gazetted 1st February 1944).

On 8th November 1943 Sleigh was appointed Wing Leader of 15 Naval Fighter Wing and he led the Wing in attacks on the Tirpitz in Altenfjord on 3rd April 1944. For this action Sleigh was awarded the DSO (gazetted 30th May 1944). He was then to return to, and remain in, the Mediterranean area where he continued to fly operational sorties until late 1944 as Wing Leader of 15 Naval Fighter Wing operating Corsair aircraft aboard HMS Illustrious. On 14th December 1944 he was appointed CO of 759 Squadron at RNAS Yeovilton, Somerset. At that time this unit acted as the Navy’s fighter school.

At the end of the war, Sleigh, as a regular officer, remained in the Royal Navy and served in a number of appointments. In January 1948, he was appointed as the Air Group Commander of the 14th Carrier Air Group. At that time, the 14th CAG comprised 804 (Seafire 47) and 812 (Firefly FR 4/5) Squadrons. After working-up at RNAS Ford, Sussex and RNAS Eglinton, Northern Ireland the Group boarded HMS Ocean for a cruise in the Mediterranean Sea. Following this, Sleigh went on to serve as Commander Air at RNAS Ford and, later afloat, onboard HMS Glory, in the waters off Korea during the conflict there. For his services in Korea, he was awarded the OBE (gazetted 6th November 1953). .

After retiring from the Royal Navy in 1958, Sleigh returned to his native South Africa. Here, he initially farmed in the wine district near Stellenbosch before joining the Hydrographic staff attached to the South African Navy, retiring from there in 1981.

He passed away after a long illness at his home in South Africa on the 7th March 2005.



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