NOSTALGIA: The many sides of HMS Formidable hero, Don

I am sad to report that former Portsmouth man, Pompey Football Club fanatic and wartime Royal Marine hero Don Ottignon has passed away.

Saturday, 2nd June 2018, 4:48 pm
Updated Saturday, 2nd June 2018, 4:52 pm
HMS Formidable after being hit by a Japanese Kamikaze suicide plane

Don Ottingdon was born in the city in February 1926.

Many of his family were Royal Marines and to join the Corp was all Don wanted to do.

This is Don Ottignon as most will remember him, forever smiling.

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Don joined the marines as a 17-year-old in 1943 at Eastney Barracks, Portsmouth and after nine months basic training he joined the cruiser HMS Devonshire.

Based at Scapa Flow as part of the Home Fleet her duties included protection runs to Norway. 

Don was then drafted to the aircraft carrier HMS Formidable, then being refitted in Belfast. After trials she also joined the Home Fleet.

As editor of a railway magazine, The Woking Grapevine, I interviewed Don some 20 years ago about his service and about the dreaded Kamikaze.

Don Ottignon after passing out as a Royal Marine

He told me: 'We sailed for Australia, arriving before Christmas 1944.

'Working in conjunction with the American 57th task Force along with other legendary carriers Victorious, Indomitable, Illustrious and Indefatigable, our aircraft gave support to American battlewagons as their battleships were called, shelling Sakishemo Grunto Islands and to bomb Okinawa, which was the main airbase for Japanese aircraft.'

I asked when he first heard about the Kamikaze.

'˜Our gunnery officer told us about them and we had to put in extra gunnery practice.

'One of our aircraft took off towing a drogue, a cone-shaped kite attached to a long wire.

'We were already keyed up and ready to go and our gunnery instructor was pretty hot on target practice.'

I asked what his feelings were when he was told the pilots were going to dive and try and kill them, knowing full well they would be killed in the process.

Don was very relaxed about it all. He said: '˜We were there to do a job and had to make sure we put up enough flak to try and make sure they never got through to us.

'If they did we would be unlucky and have to pay the consequences. As a royal marine it was instilled into us that when given an order you carried it out and that was all there was to it.'

So there it was, Marine Ottingdon and his mates who wanted to live in contest with a force of men who wanted to die for their emperor. The scene was set.

Don's position on the Formidable was under the aft-deck, right at the stern of the flight deck.

On port and starboard there were sponsons with twin-Bofor guns. Between them on three other sponsons were three single Oerlikons guns.

Don was on an Oerlikon and saw the planes coming in: 'My gun could fire 1,700 rounds a minute so a magazine only lasted seven seconds. So, between 1,000 to 600 yards I had to shoot the blighter out of the sky.' 

Alas, some Kamikaze did get through and on May 4, 1945 it was the Formidable's turn. 'The Jap was astern coming in on the port quarter where there were fewer guns that could be brought to bare.

'It seemed to hang in the air and then hit the deck behind me with a terrific explosion that shook the ship from stem to stern. It was a grim sight. 

'Fire was blazing amid the wreckage close under the bridge with black acrid smoke billowing far above the ship.

'As we had a steel flight deck most of the damage was done to the bridge. Unfortunately the American carriers had wooden flight decks and suffered much more damage.'

After the attack 43 of the Formidable's crew were buried at sea. Not long after, the American's dropped the Atomic bombs and the war was over.

After repairs the Formidable repatriated former Australians and Indian PoWs to Sydney and Bombay.

The Formidable then made her way home, arriving in Portsmouth on February 6, 1946. Don married his sweetheart Mavis and was then discharged from the marines. 

His first date with Mavis was to see a Pompey 11 v Royal Marines 11 in 1944.

Six months later Don joined the railway at the Town Station as a carriage cleaner. Not long after the Fratton depot master offered him a job as an adult cleaner at Fratton loco shed. He never looked back. Don passed as a fireman after moving to Guildford to obtain a vacancy. While at Fratton he worked on locomotives that had  been converted to oil fuel owing to coal shortages. He was appointed driver in April 1956 at Guildford.

In 1965 he was appointed to the training school at Stewarts Lane and in 1975 to Waterloo South Sidings School.

He was a much-respected man among the trainee drivers, even inviting them home for extra tuition.

Don was over the moon when Pompey reached the cup final 10 years ago, a dream come true for him.

His grandson Stewart obtained tickets for a corporate box at Wembley Stadium. He was so excited that the day before the final he became to unwell to attend and had to watch the match on the television.

'¢ Don Ottingdon was born in Portsmouth on February 18, 1926.

He died in Guildford on May 16, 2018.