“I’ve known Jeff Gledhill for a number of years. His boat is moored near mine at Paradise Beach and he’s been a loyal customer of our agents, Lamoore Yacht Sales at Palm Beach, for ages,” said James Skeen, Club Marine NSW State Manager. “But I wasn’t aware of the full extent of his marine background or his other exploits in the military until we spent a bit of time together on the water recently. It’s really an amazing story.”
The man he was referring to has been a Club Marine member and policy holder continuously for almost two decades, but it was only relatively recently that we uncovered the full and extraordinary life story of Jeff Gledhill, a man whose exploits would rival those of the fictional Indiana Jones. The retired Navy captain has led a life at sea, and in the air, that might easily be the subject of an adventure movie. The 87-year-old has fought in two wars, trained dozens of sailors, owned many different classes of yachts and remains and avid sailor.
“In my early years in Wellington, New Zealand, I started life as a mariner by acquiring an old sheet of corrugated iron, bending it lengthwise, folding and hammering both ends and sealing them with bitumen,” recalls Gledhill. “Large rocks were used as ballast, but considerable balancing skills were still needed to keep the canoe on an even keel. Later, I decided that sailing had more attraction.
“World War II broke out while I was a teenager, and in 1940 I joined up to serve in the Navy as a Fleet Air Arm pilot. A party of us were entered at the then HMS Philomel in Auckland and, in early 1941, we departed in a lightly armed merchant ship with a cruiser escort for two days. Many ships were sunk by German raiders or by mines they laid in the South Pacific, particularly on the Australian and New Zealand coasts. This was well before Japan and the US entered the war.
“Crossing the Pacific, through the Panama Canal, then north to Greenland, we entered a thick sea fog, which remained for days despite a strong wind, but as we had no escort the fog probably saved us from attack. Somewhere south of the Denmark Strait, we emerged from the fog and were directed to look for gun flashes, for we were not far distant from the battle between HMS Hood, Prince of Wales and the German battleship, Bismark and the Prince Eugen. Hood blew up and only three of her complement of 1419 were picked up. It was as well we were not sighted by enemy ships, submarines or aircraft.
“We reached Glasgow unscathed. Our train to Portsmouth had stops for air raids and on our first night in naval barracks the area was heavily bombed. With knots and splices, seamanship, navigation and gunnery all essential to urgently needed naval aviators, we were split up. With others, I went to the RAF at Birmingham and then to RAF Netheravon on the frequently snowbound Salisbury Plain – so cold my fingers could not press an engine starter.
“Then it was back to the Navy and some intensive torpedo, bombing and deck-landing training on Swordfish biplanes with open cockpits and Albacore biplanes with closed cockpits. These old aircraft were slow, but highly manoeuvrable and most effective at night.
“I joined a Special Swordfish squadron, which flew at night and in all weather to prepare crews for night attacks on enemy convoys to North Africa from a base in Malta. Finally, because Malta was under siege and low on all supplies, only one crew was sent. They attacked a convoy despite being hit and in flames – all were killed.”
As the war continued, Gledhill served in fleet carriers in the icy waters of the Arctic and, in April 1944, led a flight in a wing of dive-bombers against the large German battleship Tirpitz. It was this attack by naval aircraft which prevented Tirpitz from being a threat and successfully rendered it useless as a fighting ship. Gledhill was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross and while posted to an air station to train pilots in deck landing (by 1974 he had landed on 14 different types of aircraft carriers), he married an attractive WREN officer, taking the gamble that he would survive.
Survive he did and, in 1947, moved to Australia to join the RAN, where he obtained a Watchkeeping Certificate during a posting to the County Class 8-inch gun cruiser HMAS Australia. Later, he also served on the destroyer, HMAS Bataan. In 1948, he was posted to the UK to the 21st Carrier Air Group, which deployed Firefly and Sea Fury aircraft. During this period, says Gledhill, “a controller was letting me down from about 6000 feet, in thick cloud, to a naval air station in Somerset. Suddenly, whilst still in cloud, I glimpsed a hedge, which I was skimming in hills south of the airfield. Still on instruments, I pulled up hard and missed the high ground. The controller bought me a beer, needless to say!”
The squadron joined the aircraft carrier, HMAS Sydney for work around the UK coast and returned to Sydney in early 1951. But their stay in the ship’s home town was short-lived as, within months, Sydney was sent off to the Korean War. The ship’s base in Japan was the much-damaged Kure naval dockyard. Operating in the Yellow Sea, the ship’s aircraft attacked targets in North Korea, such as bridges, rail lines and troop concentrations.
“Bombs would ricochet off the icy ground and shoot back into the air,” recalls Gledhill of the severe conditions faced by those in the air and on the ground.
“At first, the weather was reasonable, but by the end of the year heavy snow fell and at one stage cloaked the flight deck and aircraft, preventing flying. We had to wear rubber immersion suits with survival vests on top and then webbing belts with revolver and ammunition – a cumbersome outfit.”
In the following years, Gledhill rose to the rank of Captain and, while commanding HMAS Penguin, did much to restore the tradition of naval sailing.
As Australian Defence Representative at the High Commission in New Zealand, he bought a Flying Fifteen and raced with the Evans Bay Yacht Club in Wellington. Returning to Australia as Director of Naval Intelligence, he was later appointed to the staff of the Admiral in Sydney, during which he was asked to become (in his spare time) Commodore of the Royal Australian Navy Sailing Association. After retirement, he set up a sail training school on Sydney Harbour, training dozens of sailors up to racing standard.
Since retiring from the Navy in 1975, Gledhill’s interest in boats has remained intensive, including racing Solings, Bluebirds, Etchells and J24s and restoring many of the yachts he has owned over the years.
He is now a consultant for Lamoore Yacht Sales on Pittwater and his love of sailing continues.
“There is something about sailing that is akin to flying,” he says. “It takes you away from worldly cares.”
Captain Jeff Gledhill says he remains a loyal Club Marine policy holder due to the ease of its insurance transfer from one yacht to another and has never made a claim in the 18 years he’s been a member. This story, he says, “would not be complete without paying tribute to all who have made it possible, particularly those who have crewed on my boats. In addition, I would like to thank all my long-time friends in the supporting boating industry, who have done so much to keep me sea borne.”