Pilot who escorted Atlantic convoys in second World War

 

LIEUT-CDR STEPHEN ANDREW MEARNS:LIEUT-CDR Stephen Andrew Mearns, "Sammy" on account of his initials, died at the age of 88 in Courtmacsherry, where he had lived for the last 40 years.

In 1979, he was the coxswain of the Courtmacsherry lifeboat that was involved in the operation to rescue the yachts in the ill-fated Fastnet Race. The lifeboat was called out into the high winds and mountainous seas for the yacht Wild Goose, which was in difficulties some 27 miles off the Old Head of Kinsale, but was diverted to the Pepsi, 30 miles south of Galley Head.

On reaching the reported position however no trace of the Pepsi could be found, (the yacht made its own way to harbour), so when the Casse Tete reported the loss of her rudder, 26 miles south of Galley Head, the lifeboat went to her assistance and towed her into Courtmacsherry.

Sammy Mearns was born in England and educated at Stoneyhurst, the Jesuit College in Lancashire. At the outbreak of the second World War, he volunteered for the Fleet Air Arm, the aviation wing of the Royal Navy. In 1944 he joined the naval squadron aboard a carrier escorting convoys across the Atlantic.

As the pilot of a Sea Hurricane, his assignment was to drive off the enemy long-range bombers and in a classic attack he shot down a four-engine Ju 290 on the same day that two others were destroyed by his squadron. Of the 21 convoys which were protected by his squadron only one merchant ship was torpedoed and that was because, in a bad storm, it had fallen behind.

He was similarly employed escorting the last three Allied convoys to Russia and was awarded the DSC (the Distinguished Service Cross) for gallantry, skill and devotion to duty.

In the Korean War, Mearns was part of a squadron that provided vital air cover for the amphibious attack on Inchon, though he complained that the Fairey Fireflies that he was flying were "obsolete and that the command structure lacked aggressive spirit".

Back in England, as a senior pilot, he took part in the first trials of the newly invented steam catapult and was also involved in experiments in radar.

In a career in which he had flown 2,173 flying hours and had made 371 deck landings, there were few accidents, except for four belly landings including one on a grass strip in the New Forest after losing engine power and hydraulics at 30,000ft over Southampton.

The occasion that made him a legend in the Fleet Air Arm occurred in the 1950s after an intemperate dinner with his squadron. The revellers stole a three-tonne statue of Persephone, the Greek goddess of earth fertility, from the garden of an antique dealer and installed her outside the RNAS at Yeovilton in Somerset. With the cold light of day came the realisation of the trouble that was likely to ensue, so the squadron (with Mearns, as senior officer making the largest contribution) bought the statue for £150. Mearns later presented it formally to the wardroom. In 2003, Persephone caught the eye of a London auctioneer, who recognised the work of the 19th-century sculptor John Warrington Wood. She was sold for £12,000 and the proceeds went to St Bartholomew's, the Fleet Air Arm church in Somerset.

Mearns, whose flamboyant character had perhaps precluded his promotion to the higher echelons of the navy, left to work for a division of Glaxo in Hong Kong and then changed to marketing the newly invented hovercraft.

In 1970, he moved to Ireland where he bought the abandoned Victorian coastguard station in Courtmacsherry. The square tower with nine attached cottages was only a shell with no roof or floors. Mearns, who "could turn his hand to anything," restored it and turned the cottages into self-catering holiday accommodation.

He spent 10 years renovating a Cornish mackerel boat and sailed it to Cork Harbour when the Tall Ships were there and from Cork to Brest for a classic boat rally.

Soon after arriving in Ireland, he volunteered as a crewman of the lifeboat of the Courtmacsherry station which is one of the oldest in Ireland having been established in 1825. He was second coxswain and then coxswain for eight years until his retirement in 1982.

He was married, first to Shirley Boer and then in 1955 to Anne Newman. He is survived by the latter, their two daughters and by a son and a daughter by his first marriage.

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Stephen Andrew (Sammy) Mearns: born March 24th, 1921; died May 3rd, 2009