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Canada’s last Victoria Cross winner – Lieutenant Robert Hampton Gray, VC, DSC, RCNVR

Published in The Naval Reserve Link
September 2008

Lieutenant (N) Robert Hampton Gray, VC, DSC, has the distinction of being Canada’s last Victoria Cross winner. It may be of interest to Naval Reservists that Lt (N) Grey was also a member of the Royal Canadian Navy Volunteer Reserve (RCNVR), colloquially known as “The Wavy Navy”.

Gray, also known as Hammy, was born on November 2, 1917 in Trail, British Columbia to John and Wilhelmina Gray. John Gray had served in the South Africa (Boer) War.

Upon graduating from the University of Alberta and the University of British Columbia, Gray had originally intended to attend medical school at McGill University in Montreal. Instead, Gray enrolled in the Royal Canadian Naval Volunteer Reserve at HMCS Tecumseh Naval Reserve Division in Calgary in 1940.

He commenced training as a naval pilot with the Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm in September 1941, including a training course at No. 31 SFTS near Kingston.

Gray flew Hawker Hurricanes in the African campaign for 2 years with 747 Squadron, then transferred to No. 1841 Squadron, based on the Royal Navy’s HMS Formidable, flying the Corsair fighter aircraft.

On August 29, 1944, Gray received the first of many awards when he was mentioned in dispatches for his participation in an attack on three destroyers, during which his plane’s rudder was shot off.

In April 1945, HMS Formidable joined the Royal Navy fleet in the Pacific Campaign, where Formidable was involved in strikes on the Japanese mainland. Gray aided in sinking a Japanese destroyer in the area of Tokyo, an action that earned the Distinguished Service Cross (DSC), a medal awarded for “… gallantry during active operations against the enemy at sea.”  Unfortunately, Gray wouldn’t live to see the medal pinned on his chest.

On 9 August 1945 at Onagawa Wan, Honshū, Japan, Gray was killed leading a low level attack on a Japanese destroyer. Wounded, his aircraft in flames and in the face of heavy fire from shore batteries and several Japanese ships, Gray succeeded in sinking one destroyer with a direct hit before his airplane crashed into the bay. His body was never recovered.

Gray was one of the last Canadians to die in WWII.

For his actions, Lt (N) Robert Hampton Gray was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross, the highest medal for valour in the British Commonwealth, on November 13, 1945, along with the previously mentioned Distinguished Service Cross on August 31, 1945.

The description of his valour from his citation reads as follows:

‘For great bravery in leading an attack to within 50 feet of a Japanese destroyer in the face of intense anti-aircraft fire, thereby sinking the destroyer although he was hit and his own aircraft on fire and finally himself killed. He was one of the gallant company of Naval Airmen who, from December 1944, fought and beat the Japanese from Palembang to Tokyo. The actual incident took place in the Onagawa Wan on the 9th of August 1945. Gray was leader of the attack, which he pressed home in the face of fire from shore batteries and at least eight warships. With his aircraft in flames he nevertheless obtained at least one direct hit which sank its objective.

Lieut. R.H. Gray, D.S.C., R.C.N.V.R., of Nelson, B.C., flew off the Aircraft Carrier, HMS Formidable on August 9th 1945, to lead an attack on Japanese shipping in Onagawa Wan (Bay) in the Island of Honshu, Mainland of Japan. At Onagawa Bay the fliers found below a number of Japanese ships and dived into attack. Furious fire was opened on the aircraft from army batteries on the ground and from warships in the Bay. Lieut. Gray selected for his target an enemy destroyer. He swept in oblivious of the concentrated fire and made straight for his target. His aircraft was hit and hit again, but he kept on. As he came close to the destroyer his plane caught fire but he pressed to within 50 feet of the Japanese ship and let go his bombs. He scored at least one direct hit, possibly more. The destroyer sank almost immediately. Lieutenant Gray did not return. He had given his life at the very end of his fearless bombing run.’

A memorial to Robert Hampton Gray was erected at The Valiants Memorial near Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Ontario, as was one at the Kingston/Norman Rogers Airport in Kingston, Ontario, where Gray underwent part of his pilot training from June to September 1941.  As well, his name is inscribed on the Sailor’s Memorial at Point Pleasant Park in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

The Japanese government erected a memorial on the shore of Onagawa Wan, Japan in 2006, close to the area where his plane is known to have crashed. He is the only member of a foreign military to be so honoured by Japan.

Other honours to his memory and sacrifice include:  a mountain in Kokanee Glacier Provincial Park in British Columbia named after Gray and his brother, John Balfour Gray, who also died in World War II.  Gray’s Peak is the mountain featured on the label of Kokanee Beer.

The now-closed Hampton Elementary School at 12 Wing Shearwater in Halifax, Nova Scotia, once bore his name.  The Royal Canadian Legion hall in Nelson, British Columbia and Lake Gray (in 1983) north of Edmonton were named in his honour and 789 Lt R. Hampton Gray VC Squadron of the Royal Canadian Air Cadets in Mississauga, Ontario, in 2012.

Update:  The BC Aviation museum dedicated a memorial to Lt (N) Robert Hampton Gray, VC, DSC, at the entrance to the Victoria International Airport on 9 August 2020.

Sources:  Sentinel magazine, May 1971, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Hampton_Gray, http://www.vintagewings.ca/VintageNews/Stories/tabid/116/articleType/ArticleView/articleId/34/The-Last-Canadian-VC–Robert-Hampton-Gray.aspx, http://www.cmp-cpm.forces.gc.ca/dhh-dhp/gal/vcg-gcv/bio/gray-rh-eng.asp, http://www.veterans.gc.ca/eng/remembrance/memorials/canadian-virtual-war-memorial/detail/2558303, http://www.navalandmilitarymuseum.org/archives/articles/local-heroes/lieutenant-hampton-gray, fbclid=IwAR377qu37qOSyn09dSIPHeZWLjAsKJEG_qQ8hRrvfd-8eAo624WJ8_oQvhs.


About the author

Bruce Forsyth

Bruce Forsyth served in the Royal Canadian Navy Reserve for 13 years (1987-2000). He served with units in Toronto, Hamilton & Windsor and worked or trained at CFB Esquimalt, CFB Halifax, CFB Petawawa, CFB Kingston, CFB Toronto, Camp Borden, The Burwash Training Area and LFCA Training Centre Meaford.

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