|by Bill Bawden, PRO|
9 July 2010
Painting Recalls an Heroic Rescue
Following a spectacular air/sea rescue operation carried out by the crew of a Royal Air Force Whirlwind in 1962, the helicopter manufacturer, Westland Aircraft, commissioned a painting of the scene to hang in the company boardroom. Years later, following the absorption of Westland by another company, the painting was relegated to a storeroom and would probably finished in a skip had it not been retrieved by publicity manager, John Snelling, who then set out to find the winchman depicted in the painting dangling above a shipwreck.
On November 3rd 1962 that winchman, Sergeant Eric Smith of No 22 Squadron, volunteered to be lowered to the grounded and stricken French fishing vessel, Jeanne Gougy. The trawler had been dashed against the Cornish coast in a storm and it was not possible to reach the fishermen trapped in the wheelhouse, which was continually being submerged by breaking waves, from the cliffs above or by lifeboat.
Having been ordered to remain attached to the winch wire, Sgt Smith entered the wheelhouse, repeatedly having to take a deep gulp of air and hold his breath as he was submerged before the waves receded again. Once inside the wheelhouse, he found two survivors he rescued separately and took aboard the helicopter. A report of another possible survivor required him to descend, enter the wheelhouse once again and crawl along a passageway to the radio room to search for a third man. No one was found but, before being able to return to the Whirlwind, Sgt Smith had to disentangle his winch wire from the boss of the ship's wheel as the vessel was continually engulfed by the sea.
For his bravery Eric Smith was awarded the George Medal which he received at an investiture at Buckingham Palace from HM Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother. He was also honoured by France by being appointed Chevalier de l'Ordre du Merite Maritime.
A recent television documentary featuring the rescue enabled John Snelling to locate Eric Smith, a former CO of the Woking Air Training Corps squadron and past chairman of the Woking Branch, and present him with the painting. This now occupies a place of honour in Eric's home.
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