Richard Rivaz

Richard Rivaz

Richard Rivaz was born in Assam, India, on 15th March 1908. His father was a colonial officer in the Imperial Civil Service. On his return to England he studied painting at the Royal College of Art. During the 1930s he became an accomplished artist with a studio in Chelsea and exhibited at the Royal Academy of Arts in Piccadilly. Unable to make a good living from painting he decided to go into teaching and at Collyer's School in Horsham, he taught art and physical training.

Rivaz volunteered for the Royal Air Force soon after the outbreak of the Second World War. He was bitterly disappointed when he learned that, at thirty-two, he was too old to become a pilot. Instead he was trained as an air-gunner. In the summer of 1940 he joined 102 Squadron based at Driffield, where he became rear gunner in a Armstrong Whitworth Whitley piloted by Captain Leonard Cheshire.

On 15th August, 1940, the aerodrome was bombed by over seventy Heinkel He III bombers. Cheshire "saw a bunch of them coming out of the sky. I didn't know anything could move so fast." Rivaz was in the mess writing a letter. "I looked out of the window and saw people running to the shelters... The ante-room, which had been crowded a few seconds before, was almost empty, and the few remaining were rushing to the door... All other sounds were then promptly drowned by the largest explosion I had ever heard." The next thing Rivaz knew "I was lying on my face in the passage ... covered with dust and choking and surrounded by broken glass and rubble. I got to my feet and saw through a cloud of smoke that the mess a few feet behind me was a complete ruin." Rivaz and Cheshire went outside to help. "Orderlies were lifting a man - with his tunic, face and hair covered with earth ... I noticed that his legs were in an unnatural twisted position. Someone was digging round another pair of legs: the body was still buried and the legs obviously broken. I saw two more men crushed - with faces nearly the same colour as their tunics - between sheets of corrugated iron: they were both dead." Fifteen men were killed, ten Armstrong Whitworth Whitley were destroyed and others damaged, four hangars were wrecked and only seven enemy aircraft were shot down.

Richard Rivaz
From Left to right, Richard Rivaz, Charles Brown, George Roberts,
Clive Gutteridge
, Leonard Cheshire, Richard Hares, Stanley Jackson and Ernest Weldon.

On the night of 12th November 1940, Leonard Cheshire was briefed to attack the synthetic oil plant at Wesseling, near Cologne. Cheshire later recalled: "As soon as the first bomb dropped, all hell was let loose, hundreds of searchlights sprang up, and it seemed that hundreds of guns opened fire." A shell smashed through the front turrt and out again, and exploded. A second shell burst behind the port wing, setting off a flare inside their flare chute "which knifed open the port side of the fuselage for a length of three and a half yards".

Cheshire later recalled in Bomber Pilot (1943) that he was blinded by the explosion: "The explosion kicked my mind back a quarter of a century. Down. Down. We're going down. I can feel the rush of air. We are going so very fast - 200, 300, 400 miles an hour.... Why do my eyes hurt so much? God, I can't see! Everything is black, black as a rook.... I must be blind. I've always wanted to know what it's like to be blind, and now I know. The funny thing is that it doesn't really seem any different, except merely that I can't see: there must be more to it than that. I suppose it's just that I've not got used to it yet. No! Good lord, how stupid I am! I'm not blind at all! It's that terrible flash.... Something awful has happened at the back. I don't quite know what, but most of the explosion seemed to come from behind. First of all it was in front, that terrible bright flash. And then almost immediately afterwards a much bigger explosion from behind my back. There can't possibly be anyone left alive there: so it must be coming from the nose. What shall I say? I can't think of anything. It doesn't really matter much: not at the moment. We've got to stop going down first. What an awful thing to think - that it doesn't matter much. But I can't help it. There's nothing I can do anyway, and, whether I like it or not, I did think it. I suppose the answer is that when you're in a spot you think of yourself first."

Cheshire he would have to abandon the aircraft: "We've got to jump. Jump? Yes, jump. I've never jumped in my life. I've often wanted to, but I never have. Now I've got to. It's not quite the same, though. If I was going to jump, I wanted to do it in my own good time, not in Jerry's time. I've often thought about this moment, and wondered whether it would be possible to do everything in time. Unplug yourself, wind the trimmer-tab back, climb out of the seat, down into the well, and get your parachute. God knows where my parachute is now. I hurled it somewhere in the nose when I got in, but I haven't seen it since. There were one or two there some time ago, but goodness only knows if any of them were mine."

Leonard Cheshire eventually gained control of the aircraft: "The smoke cleared, and like a ray of sunshine my eyesight came back. I blinked once or twice, perhaps; I don't know. Anyway, I could see quite well. I looked at the altimeter: 5,000 feet. Plenty of height, much more than I would have thought possible. Somehow we seemed to have been diving for ages and ages, and we were still diving now. The instruments were all haywire; they did not make sense however you looked at them. They must have been shot away behind the panel. Awkward. But when we levelled out and ceased diving they began slowly to come back to normal, so probably they were intact after all. I rubbed my forehead between my eyes, and started to take stock of the damage. First of all, the engines and the wings. Perhaps a few pieces of twisted burned metal: not more. They must have borne the brunt of the explosion. I looked out, and, like the man who saw the table slide slowly of its own accord across the floor, sat frozen to my seat. They were running; both of them. Running as they've always run before. Two long protruding noses, almost Jewish, and a defiant roar. My ears became suddenly unblocked, and into them poured the music of this defiant roar. Why was it I hadn't heard it before? And how, oh how could I doubt their trust? Perhaps for a while I had lost possession of my senses."

Richard Rivaz was called forward to help put out the fire: "God, what a mess! The fuselage door had gone, and most of one side of the fuselage as well. Desmond was there, working like a maniac, with his blond hair shining in the light of the flames, and his eyes sparkling like brilliants: sweat was pouring from his face, and he was hurling flares, incendiaries and spare ammunition out of the gaping fuselage. I started to do the same... and he shouted at me to go back and get my parachute, as the aeroplane would probably break in two at any moment."

Davidson (Davy), who was on his first mission, had been badly burned. He told Cheshire: "I'm going blind, sir: I'm going blind!" Cheshire later recalled: "I didn't say anything: I could not have if I had wanted to. He was still speaking, but too softly for me to hear what it was. I leaned right across so as better to hear. The plane gave a lurch, and I fell almost on top of him. He cried out and once more buried his face below his knees. Because I could not stand it, I sat forward over the instruments and tried to think of something else, but it was not much good." Davidson then said: "I haven't let you down, have I, sir? I haven't let you down, have I? I must get back to the wireless. I've got to get back. You want a fix, don't you, sir? Will you put the light on, please, so that I can see?" Cheshire was now aware who had been crying out: "So it was Davy. Davy: his very first trip. Someone came forward and very gently picked him up. Then came Desmond. He sat down beside me and held out his hand. I took it in both of mine and looked deep into his smiling blue eyes."

Richard Rivaz explained in his book, Tail Gunner (1943) that when he returned to the front of the aircraft: "Leonard was sitting at the controls, and turned round and smiled as I entered the cabin. Davy was sitting by his set fumbling with his morse key: his face was charred and black, and his clothing all burned... Desmond had fetched the first-aid kit and covered Davy's face with the jelly used for burns. It was bitterly cold in the cabin, and for the next five hours we did all we could for Davy's comfort: I kept putting his fingers in my mouth and breathing hard on them to try and get them warm."

Cheshire still struggled to keep control of the aircraft: "I began to notice the sweat was all on my back and not my front. What's more, my back was getting hotter and hotter all the time. By this time I was prepared to believe anything, but this was definitely not normal. I screwed my head round, and what I saw forced a quiet, unwanted curse from my lips. Thick, black, oily smoke, pouring out from beneath the petrol tank, and in the background red gashes of fire. I did not stay looking long, for on the port and ahead of us a barrage of shells came up. They were bursting in bunches of twenty or thirty, like that Saturday over the Ruhr, only this time they seemed to make more noise, because the hatch above my head was missing and all around the perspex was torn. Instinctively I started to take evasive action, but remembered just in time. If only I knew what was wrong with the controls it would make it easier. It felt as though the cables were hanging on by a thread, but I could not be certain. Anyway, it was better to take the shells than settle everything by pulling the controls off. So I flew straight and level. A searchlight picked us up, then a lot more, and almost immediately a rattle of splinters came through the fuselage somewhere behind me. I switched on the microphone and started speaking, but no one answered. The heat seemed no worse, but I did not look round any more. Somehow, I could not take my eyes off the shells."

Richard Rivaz commented: "With the five of us crammed in the cabin of the Whitley, hardly ever speaking, and wondering how far we should get. Leonard was sitting at the controls; he had taken his helmet off, but was still wearing his yellow skull cap, which looked grotesque in the half-light. Taffy was sitting at the navigation table grinning to himself most of the time... Desmond, looking like a wild blond giant, was part of the time sitting beside Leonard and part of the time looking at Davy."

At Linton-on-Ouse the first of 102 Squadron's Whitleys touched down at 06.35. Melvin Young returned ten minutes later. Others followed during the next hour. There was no sign of Cheshire's aircraft, It was not until after eight in the morning that Harold Chapman heard what they had been waiting for: "We heard in the distance the sound of Merlin engines. We scanned the sky but could not see an aircraft. The noise increased but we still could not see an aircraft. Then over the boundary hedge flopped a Whitley, which soon came to a stop." The men ran to the aeroplane. They were "amazed that such a damaged aircraft could have flown". As Richard K. Morris pointed out: "Rivaz emerged first. Davidson was lifted into an ambulance. Unable to sleep, later in the day Rivaz, Coutts and Cheshire went into York. They visited Davidson, and then went to the cinema to see (in Cheshire's case for the sixth time) Fred Astaire in Broadway Melody." Cheshire was later awarded the DSO for bringing home his holed and burning aircraft.

Richard Rivaz
Richard Rivaz and Leonard Cheshire

Rivaz joined the crew of Squadron Leader Clive Florigny. The Armstrong Whitworth Whitley ran out of fuel and ditched off Cromer in atrocious weather on 2nd March, 1941. Leonard Cheshire later explained what happened: "At first it was more or less a rumour, but before long we heard the full story. A few nights ago he (Rivaz) was flying with his Flight Commander: the weather was truly appalling, and over the target they were hit by an A.A. shell which put the compass out of action. The wind was very strong, about eighty miles an hour as it turned out, and the clouds were dense. Consequently they had little with which to navigate.... An hour and five minutes later, amid violent bumps and down-currents, they ran out of petrol. The wireless was out of action: they did not know where they were, nor did anyone else. They thought they were over sea; anyway, they gambled on that, and did not jump. Revs dashed out of his turret and collected the crew in the fuselage, ready to alight on the water. There was not much time; time enough to free the dinghy and brace themselves against the shock of hitting the sea: nothing else."

Rivaz was to play an important role in the events that were to follow: "The touch-down, as it happened, was as light as a feather, but almost immediately a mass of water swept through the door and the lights went out. In the sudden black-out they were hopelessly blinded and because of the waves they could hardly stand. Revs waded through to the dinghy and somehow managed to throw it out, but the cord snapped and the swell flung the dinghy out of sight. Revs wasted no time: dived out after it and scrambled on. The others followed him quickly, like rats out of a hole. Revs hauled Martin and Alf aboard in rapid succession and at the same time grabbed hold of Bill's hand. Bill could not swim a stroke: was drowning and asking for help. Martin passed out, face down in the dinghy and was useless from then on. Alf was face down too, but he was still conscious. The waves were gigantic, about ninety feet high, and the wind made a roar like the rending of linen. Bill's weight was too great to hold for long; each wave, as it came along, passed over the dinghy and drenched them all to the skin.... Between them, and after the very greatest difficulties, they dragged him on board. And that was not the end: he fell face down into the flooded dinghy and there was not room to pull him and Martin upright without falling out themselves. When at last everybody was righted, the aircraft was a long way behind them. They each knew what had been in the other's mind, and that was why not a word had been said; but it was better to save a man they already had hold of than to forsake him and go after a man they could not even see."

Rivaz recalled in Tail Gunner (1943): "There were four of us huddled together and hurled about... but there should have been five. I think Arthur was the first to voice our thoughts, but up to now all our energies had been on Bill: we had him in our hands, and by our efforts we saved him. But Andy... Andy was not with us. We could now see better, and we saw him. He was fifty yards away, standing on the fuselage of the sinking aeroplane - the aeroplane in which he had saved us - and we could not save him. There he was alone and waiting. We saw him when we rose with the waves... and lost him when we went down with them. All the time we were getting farther away ... and all the time his aeroplane was sinking. What could we do? The answer was, nothing... absolutely nothing! We could only watch and thank God for our own lives: we had no paddles, and no one could swim in a sea with waves higher than a house. We did not know if Andy had seen us. We shouted... but our shout was blown back at and behind us. I don't think he heard our shout, and I don't think lie had seen us."

Leonard Cheshire explained: "The gale had been blowing for thirty-six hours and showed no signs of abating. The hope of being rescued was slight. It was midwinter; no one even knew they were in the sea, let alone their position: the dinghy was full of water, and in one place was torn. They plugged the hole with a handkerchief and used a cap to bale, but they needed all the energy they had to remain inside the dinghy, and baling was very difficult. Two hours later dawn broke. The navigator began beating his legs to bring them back to life and discovered the legs belonged to the rear gunner. One of the crew asked the time. When he heard it was only five past nine he pulled out a clasp-knife and tried to cut his throat. But Revs stayed his hand and said: 'No, you're not. If you want to do yourself in, go ahead and throw yourself overboard, but you're not going to do anything inside this dinghy.' The man laughed, and for ever after remained sane. Two of them felt sea-sick, but forgot to do anything about it when they saw an aircraft flying towards them. They fired a Very cartridge, then another, and as the plane came overhead they saw it was a Heinkel III. Two more hours went by, and another aircraft approached. It was a Blenheim, and it too came right overhead, but, try as they might, none of them - was able to fire a cartridge. The pistol was loaded, Revs had his forefinger round the trigger, but that was as far as he could get, and the Blenheim disappeared from view."

Rivaz and his colleagues were eventually seen by rescue vessels: "Ever nearer the Blenheim came, turning this way and that. Suddenly it turned and flew right around us, less than a hundred yards away. It had seen us!... and the crew were waving to us. Can you imagine our joy? I don't think so... unless you have been facing death for nearly eight hours. We felt as a condemned man must feel who is reprieved on his way to the scaffold. I felt a surge of happiness such as I had never known before. Although our bodies were numb and stiff, our minds recovered instantly... Every second brought them nearer... and all the while our joy was increasing. No longer were we four destitute airmen... but four lucky men whom God had decided to save, and who had lives to live. The ships were not the destroyers we originally thought they might be, but they looked like some sort of trawler. We could just make out figures on the nearest one. They were closing towards us very rapidly, and our joy and excitement knew no bounds. We started waving to them, but could not see yet if they were waving back."

The crew except for Squadron Leader Clive Florigny were saved. Later that night, his brother, Pilot Officer, Alan Florigny, died when his aircraft was shot down. Rivaz pointed out: "One of the sailors lowered himself down the rope ladder into the dinghy to help us in being hauled aboard : our legs were useless, and would not hold the weight of our bodies, so we could not climb the ladder, but by much pushing from below and pulling from above we were at last dragged aboard the ship and lay helpless on the deck. We could only smile and thank our rescuers time and again. They put lighted cigarettes between our lips, gave us some neat whisky, and pulled off our flying clothing. They then helped us below into their cabin, where there was a roaring fire, and undressed us; we sat naked in front of the stove, absorbing the glorious heat, while the sailors raked out blankets, stockings, woollen pants and jerseys."

Rivaz completed his tour of operations in December 1941. He was then posted to Canada to train as a pilot. On his return to England he toured the country with the Ministry of Aircraft Production and ferried aircraft with the Air Transport Auxiliary.

Richard Rivaz survived the Second World War and on 13th October 1945, the B-24 Liberator in which he was a passenger caught fire on take off from Brussels, killing all on board.

Primary Sources

(1) Richard Rivaz, Tail Gunner (1943)

I arrived at 102 Squadron, Topcliffe, one evening in August 1940, feeling very new and shy, and rather wondering what sort of people I should meet and how they would treat a new boy like myself. The only operational crews I had seen was when an odd crew had landed at Abingdon on their way home after a raid. These people had always been dressed in flying boots and were wearing no collars or ties, but had silk scarves knotted round their necks, and they were usually unshaven and with unbrushed hair. I had looked on them as some sort of gods and wondered whether one day I, too, should be privileged to walk about and look as they did. These were the people I should be meeting now and with whom I should have to live. Somehow they did not seem to me to be ordinary normal people, but people either with charmed lives or else lives that would soon not be theirs... and I thought this would surely be visible in either their appearance or behaviour.

I was quite surprised to find that the Officers' Mess was very similar to the one I had just left. I arrived after supper, and found my way to the ante-room, where the wireless was on, apparently unnoticed by anyone in the room. There were some people lolling in deep black leather arm-chairs, reading; one or two were asleep. There was a group standing round the empty fireplace with pint beer-tankards in their hands. Some were writing letters, and four were playing cards at a table in the middle of the room. Everyone there looked perfectly normal; in fact, the whole scene, as I surveyed it, was just the same as could be seen in the ante-room of the bless I had just left, or, indeed, in any other Mess. One or two people I noticed were wearing the ribbon of the D.F.C. These people I stared at, probably too long, as one stares at celebrities or personalities of importance, hoping to read the signs of some of their experiences written in their faces. But they, too, looked perfectly ordinary and completely unconscious and oblivious of their distinction. Those talking to them did not seem to be treating them with any particular respect or showing them any deference, but were conversing with them as they might with any ordinary being.

I wandered out of the Mess feeling that perhaps life would not be so different, after all.

I went in search of the duty batman, and was told that the Mess was very full at the moment and that I would have to share a room. I was taken to my room - or, rather, part share of the room - and found the other occupant already in bed and asleep. This other occupant, whom I was later to know as Leonard, was lying absolutely still and silent and fast asleep. I have very rarely known Leonard to go to bed at the average person's time, but either very early or excessively late. At whichever time he went he would sleep until he was awakened, and then get up perfectly fresh.

He had scattered his clothes all over the place: some were on my bed, some were on his bed, and some were on the floor. Also on my bed there was an open suit-case, two tennis racquets, a squash racquet, and his towel. I removed the articles from my bed to the floor, making as little noise as I could, although I need not have been so cautious as nothing other than a vigorous shaking will awaken Leonard once he is asleep. I looked at his tunic, thrown carelessly over the back of a chair, to see if I could gain some clue as to the identity of this unknown person. I saw he was a pilot-officer, like myself; also that he was a pilot. I also-noticed that he had no gong up, and thought therefore that he, too, might be a new-comer. I could not see much of the sleeper, as only the top of his head, showing brown untidy hair, was visible above the bedclothes.

I went to bed wondering what my new companion and this new life would be like.