‘It’s a thrill to be back’ says war hero who saved his entire crew

Lance Robson
Lance Robson

A VETERAN airman enjoyed a special reunion when he climbed aboard a Catalina flying boat.

World War II hero Lance Robson last flew in one of the seaplanes in 1945 as a member of the RAF RV Coastal Command, flying with 190 and 210 squadrons.

So almost 70 years on, the 96-year-old was delighted when he was invited to see a Catalina up close again when it visited the region as part of this year’s Sunderland International Airshow.

“It was a thrill to be back in the old machine and it triggered off all sorts of memories of what used to be,” he said.

“I am glad I did not miss it, but on the other hand I’d never want to do it again because I would never survive. Of the 44 trainee pilots in my draft only eight survived the war.”

Mr Robson, who lives in Hartburn, had been working as a livestock auctioneer when he volunteered for service during the war.

The Flight Lieutenant served as a navigator on Catalinas in the North Atlantic and as far east as Murmansk in Russia, working on convoy protection searching for German u-boats.

He is a well known enthusiast of the Northumbrian Small Pipes and regularly entertained his comrades with performances during his time in service. He even tucked his pipes into his flying jacket, along with his mascot, when he was forced to ditch.

Towards the end of the war, Mr Robson used all his experience of flying in Catalinas to save his life and those of his entire crew when a faulty fuel gauge and empty tanks gave them no option but to attempt to land their Halifax bomber on the sea, a thousand miles from land in the North Atlantic.

The pilot had never landed on water before, but Mr Robson used his knowledge of flying boats to talk him down.

The crew managed to launch the life raft, but when they noticed the engineer was missing, Mr Robson, who was skipper, and another crew member went back to the burning plane and groping around in the smoke and darkness found the man, who had been knocked unconscious, and dragged him out.

The nearest vessel to the group was the Beyano, a banana boat that was eight hours away, but thanks to Mr Robson’s excellent navigation, and that of the Beyano’s crew, it managed to find them.

The crew were all made members of the Goldfish Club for bringing down a non seaplane on water.

Mr Robson said: “It was the longest eight hours of our lives, but I don’t think that any of us really thought we wouldn’t be rescued.”

The veteran was able to visit the Catalina after his son-in-law Richard Cansdale heard it was coming to the airshow and contacted the Catalina Society to see if it would be possible.

The society immediately invited the pair along to see the plane at Newcastle Airport, where it was based for the weekend.

Mr Cansdale said: “I don’t know who was more excited, my father-in-law or the crew. They got on famously.”

The airframe of the Catalina dates back to 1943 when it was flown by the Royal Canadian Airforce on search and rescue operations.

It was located in British Columbia by Plane Sailing and after a two-year restoration was flown across the Atlantic to its base in Duxford, Cambridgeshire, where it is displayed as a tribute to the brave crews of the Second World War.

Captain John Warman said: “It was a real honour for our crew to meet Mr Robson. What a thrill to meet a veteran who flew in the Second World War on active service in Catalinas.

“He had some interesting stories and tales about the long hours that he and his crew spent airborne.”

After the war, Mr Robson trained as a surveyor and land agent, becoming the first House and Estate Agent in Morpeth.

He was responsible for setting up the Pelaw Hill Industrial Estate in County Durham, as well as housing developments in Ulgham and Longhorsley.