Commander Stan Orr was one of the Fleet Air Arm’s most brilliant fighter pilots in the Second World War, a top-scoring ace whose tally of enemy aircraft shot down or otherwise destroyed stood at 17. Orr was awarded the DSC and two Bars and was mentioned in dispatches for his brave and spectacular efforts.
These began over Norway and later Dunkirk in 1940, continued with considerable dangerous involvement in the Mediterranean in that year and 1941, and included taking part in the Fleet Air Arm’s notable first sortie against the Tirpitz in Kaa Fiord in 1944. After the war, as lieutenant-commander (Flying) of HMS Ocean, he saw further action in Korea.
Orr had joined the Fleet Air Arm in early 1939 after failing the eyesight test for an RAF short-service commission. Perversely perhaps, when later applying for the Navy’s flying branch, he passed this very same test in the very same room in Kingsway, London. After training he joined, in April 1940, HMS Argus for deck-landing instruction, then later that month, 806 Squadron, which was equipped with the obsolete Skua and Roc two-seat fighter aircraft.
They moved to Hatston in the Orkneys early the following month and, from there, attacked shipping and oil storage installations in Norway. They then moved south to Detling in Kent to provide cover for the Dunkirk evacuation. This was a period of intense action in which the squadron, despite its desperately inadequate aircraft, acquitted itself well. But their valiant efforts had a tragic downside. Two of Orr’s fellow pilots were shot down by RAF Spitfires which had failed to recognise the Skuas as friendly, resulting in one of the aircrew being killed.
Stanley Gordon Orr was born in West London, the son of a stockbroker. After an interrupted early education, he attended the Regent Street Polytechnic. He then joined Humber as an apprentice. After a spell there and with a firm that manufactured sports cars but went bankrupt, in 1936 Orr moved to Handley Page, joining the experimental department. Here he worked on the prototype Hampden and Halifax bombers and at the same time an intense interest in flying was kindled.
This led to his joining the Fleet Air Arm in which, after the intensive sorties over Dunkirk, 806 Squadron was re-equipped in June 1940 with the more serviceable Fulmar two-seater fighter. Then, later in the month, 806 embarked in HMS Illustrious. It was the beginning of an association that saw Orr in the thick of the aerial fighting and a severely testing time for both the ship and her squadrons in the Mediterranean.
In August, Illustrious, flying the flag of Rear-Admiral Lumley Lister, left Scapa Flow and, in September, joined the Mediterranean Fleet. Over the next few months she and the aircraft of 806 Squadron shot down more than 30 Italian and German enemy aircraft. Of these, seven went down to the guns of Orr. In December, there were attacks, with 806 and Orr heavily involved, on German army positions near Bardia in North Africa; airfields on Rhodes were bombed and Tripoli was attacked as well. It was also in that month that Orr was awarded the DSC for “the destruction of many enemy aircraft”.
But all did not go in favour of Illustrious. Early in 1941, during a fast convoy to Malta, she was severely damaged and set on fire by German air attack. Orr was airborne at the time and returned with three other 806 aircraft to Hal Far, the naval airfield in Malta. Here they refuelled and, airborne again, rejoined the fight against the Stukas and their Messerschmitt escort.
Return to Illustrious, which had to make for Alexandria for emergency repairs, was, of course, impossible. The four Fulmars of 806, including Orr’s, therefore stayed at Hal Far until mid-March and flew with great zest and success in the defence of Malta against German bombers. Orr, in his own series of sorties high above the island, added five more to his total of enemy shot down and was, as a result, awarded a Bar to his DSC.
Eventually, 806 Squadron was reunited, joining HMS Formidable after Illustrious had gone to the US for repairs. There followed yet another intense period of operations which included the Battle of Matapan and the bombardment of Tripoli. Off Tripoli, in April, Orr shared in the kills of a three-engined Dornier 24 flying-boat and a Junkers 88 bomber dispatched in flames. But the Stukas had the last word and Formidable, in turn, was put out of action in May, despite her aircraft shooting down half a dozen of the enemy. So 806 then operated from the naval airfield at Dekheila on the coast near Alexandria and, at the same time, re-formed with Hurricane fighters.
But by June, they were based at Lydda, in Palestine, opposing the Vichy French. However, this was Orr’s final action for the time being. In August, he and other pilots who had been on operational flying continuously for close on 18 months, returned to the UK where Orr became a flying instructor at RNAS Yeovilton and was able to pass on his hard-won experience to younger pilots. A year later, he returned to a more active role once again. He was made Commanding Officer of 896 Squadron which formed up with 12 Martlet fighters in America. Later, they joined HMS Victorious which (as the USS Robin and with the 896 Squadron aircraft sporting American stars instead of British roundels) had been lent to the American Fleet.
In March 1943, Orr suffered a most unexpected setback from which he was lucky to recover. He was diagnosed with poliomyelitis and spent a long period in an iron lung. Fortunately, he came back unimpaired and was appointed CO of yet another fighter squadron.
This was 804 which, equipped with Hellcats, formed up at Eglinton, Northern Ireland, in August 1943. In December, they joined HMS Emperor and the following spring saw them play a distinguished part in the first Fleet Air Arm strike against the Tirpitz involving more than 100 aircraft from five carriers which severely damaged the German battleship.
For his part with his Hellcats in this operation, Orr was awarded a second Bar to his DSC. Then, a month later, following further operations off Norway, during which Orr personally shared in destroying two Blohm und Voss long-range flying-boats and three Heinkel floatplanes, he was mentioned in dispatches. This was Orr’s final award for bravery, but not his last decoration.
Starting in March 1945, he began the Empire test pilots’ course at Boscombe Down, near Salisbury. This lasted a year and included experience on all types of aircraft from single-seat jet fighters to four-engine bombers. After this, he went to the Naval Test Squadron as a test pilot for the next two and a half years. The question of how best to operate jet aircraft from carriers arose here at Boscombe and Orr was very much involved. So much so that he helped to develop a technique which enabled a tricycle-undercarriage jet to land on a carrier with comparative ease. For this work, Orr was awarded the Air Force Cross.
In 1953, after a period off the west coast of Korea with his aircraft from HMS Ocean attacking targets, Orr was back at Boscombe Down for a further three years, this time as Commanding Officer of the Naval Test Squadron. With many new naval aircraft being developed, this was a fruitful and eventful time, indeed in Orr’s view, the most enjoyable of his entire naval career. It was also one that saw him promoted to commander and his elite unit awarded the coveted Boyd Trophy for being judged the most efficient squadron in the entire Fleet Air Arm.
Orr’s final appointment in the Royal Navy was as CO of the Interservice Hovercraft Trials Unit based at Lee-on-Solent. With its promise of new horizons, there could have been few more fitting challenges for his agile mind than the emergent hovercraft. This also provided a step to his job after leaving the Navy in 1966. He joined Vospers as its marine superintendent and did much pioneering work over the following four years carrying out sea trials.