19 September 2018
The New Zealand Defence Force has joined a United Kingdom family in commemorating a New Zealand Second World War fighter pilot whose wrecked aircraft lies scattered above a Norwegian fjord.
Acting Lieutenant Commander Archibald Ronald Richardson, born in Gisborne, flew with the Fleet Air Arm of the Royal Navy during the Second World War.
In August 1944, as a fighter pilot with 1840 Squadron flying Grumman Hellcats, Acting Lieutenant Commander Richardson was posted to carrier HMS Indefatigable for operations against German battleship Tirpitz, which was stationed in Kafjord, Norway.
He died, aged 27, during his third mission against the Tirpitz on 24 August, 1944, reportedly struck down by a hail of flak and bullets. He was considered for a posthumous Victoria Cross but eventually received a Mention-in-Despatches.
His widow, Sheila Richardson (now Thomson), is still alive and living in Worcestershire, in the United Kingdom. A commemoration service was held on 16 September in her church, the Church of St Mary in Shrawley Village. The date ties in with a Heritage Week celebrated with St Mary’s Church.
New Zealand Defence Force Naval Advisor in London, Commander Chris Crossman, attended the service.
Recently Acting Lieutenant Commander Richardson’s son, Alistair Richardson, and grandson, Royal Navy Commander Philip Richardson, made a trip to Norway, where a local historian guided them to a crash site on Sakkobadne mountain above the fjord.
The wreck, with shredded pieces of metal and engine, holed by flak or bullets, has long been believed by locals to be Acting Lieutenant Commander Richardson’s plane. Commander Richardson, a helicopter pilot, has undertaken further research and believes it is almost certainly his grandfather’s Hellcat.
Commander Richardson said it was an incredible story and aligned a piece of New Zealand history alongside a legacy family connection to the United Kingdom.
“The wreck was only known to locals, and it was only when someone posted a video on YouTube that I was made aware of it.”
The crash site tied in with all reports of where his grandfather was shot down, he said.
“We are aware there were two other Hellcats that were lost during Operation Goodwood but we understand one was over the water and one was much further away.
“Serial numbers of parts are still visible on the wreckage, but linking these to Archibald’s aircraft JV203 still remains to be confirmed. However, our confidence in where this wreck lies and the dates involved give us sufficient confidence to link this to Archibald Richardson.”
Sadly, there is no knowledge of what happened to the pilot’s body. Commander Richardson said the historian showed the family what was believed to be an initial grave for the pilot, a depression near the aircraft, but his final resting place remained a mystery.
“It is possible it may have been moved to a grave site in Tromso, where Tirpitz was eventually destroyed. There is a grave of an unknown person there, with a headstone with a New Zealand fern on it, alongside other gravestones that identify people who died at a similar time.”
The family have placed a grave marker at the depression near the crash, with Commander Richardson placing his old naval officer’s cap beside it.
“The journey to the crash site was quite moving and it has provided answers for my grandmother after all of these years,” he said.
The crew of HMS Indefatigable never forgot Acting Lieutenant Commander Richardson. After the war, the fleet carrier visited New Zealand and made a special visit to Gisborne, where crew flew a large formation of Seafires, Fireflies and Avengers over the town in remembrance of their lost pilot.
In 2002, Sheila visited relatives of Acting Lieutenant Commander Richardson in Gisborne and Devonport Naval Base, where his name is carved on its memorial wall.