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Poignant Angus graveside ceremony marks Angus family tie to Canadian Victoria Cross hero

Dignitaries at the Brechin ceremony including Major Steve Nicoll (second from left) and Canadian Honorary Consul, Mary Duncan. Picture: Wallace Ferrier
Dignitaries at the Brechin ceremony including Major Steve Nicoll (second from left) and Canadian Honorary Consul, Mary Duncan. Picture: Wallace Ferrier

An Angus cemetery has hosted a poignant dedication ceremony 76 years on from the Victoria Cross gallantry of a hero airman with local roots.

Robert Hampton Gray is revered in his Canadian homeland and also honoured in Japan, where the 27-year-old’s bravery in August 1945 led to the award of a posthumous VC.

Gray was killed in action on August 9 1945 piloting a Corsair fighter plane launched from HMS Formidable in an attack against a Japanese battleship.

Robert Hampton Gray. Supplied by Canadian Government

His body was never recovered, but the pilot’s bravery was posthumously recognised with Britain’s highest award for valour – the last Canadian to be given the Victoria Cross.

But the son of a Brechin mill worker remained a little-known hero in his family’s home town until a chance discovery revealed the Angus tie.

Retired Royal Marines Major Steve Nicoll came across the family gravestone during a research project centred around Brechin’s war fallen.

He led the restoration of the Gray family stone by skilled local stonemason Tom Church.

The refurbished Gray family headstone in Brechin cemetery. Picture: Wallace Ferrier

Mr Nicoll also organised the weekend ceremony at which the Canadian Honorary Consul for Scotland, Mary Duncan, was among those to pay their respects to ‘Hammy’.

She was fascinated to learn more of the story of Gray, whose father, John, emigrated to Canada in 1912 and married Wilhelmina Gautschi.

Brothers lost

Tragically, the couple would lose both their sons in the Second World War.

Robert’s brother, Jack, was killed in 1943 while serving with a 144 Squadron RAF bomber crew.

Mr Nicoll said: “Robert Gray is feted in his home country and on the day he was being remembered in Brechin a ceremony was also taking place in Canada.

“This has been a community effort. To see the family gravestone now is like night and day from what it was and Tom Church has done a remarkable job.

“It was standing on a pile of bricks and he also made a plinth for it which is now buried under the ground – the memorial is future-proof.

“It really wouldn’t have happened without him, and I also cannot thank the grounds staff at Brechin cemetery who go above and beyond in all they do.”

Steve continued: “The only child of the Gray family to survive the war was Phyllis Gray, the sister of Robert and John Gray.

“She had three daughters who are still alive and they have been very supportive throughout this whole project.”

Mr Nicoll added: “The story is not finished yet. I hope we can have a street or path named after Robert Gray.

“Brechin councillor Gavin Nicol was at the ceremony and he, along with the other two ward councillors think it would be a good idea so there is a bit more of a public profile for this figure.”

Phyllis Gray, Wilhelmina Gray and Brechin-born John Balfour Gray. Canada. Supplied by Nelson Museum

Fleet Air Arm

Of particular poignancy at the ceremony was the presence of the Fleet Air Arm standard alongside those of the East of Scotland Royal Marines Association, 45 Commando Veterans and Brechin Legion Scotland branch.

Gray was one of only two Second World War VCs from the Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm.

In a twist of fate, he came to train in the skies over the county his father left in search of a better life.

He was based at the then RNAS Condor, near Arbroath, and would likely have carried out training flights over Brechin.

On the day of Gray’s death, the allies dropped the second atomic bomb on Nagasaki, six days before the Japanese surrender.

He is one of 14 figures commemorated at the Valiants Memorial in Ottawa.

Gray and his brother were honoured when their name was given to a mountain in British Columbia’s Kokanee Glacier Park in 1946.

The VC’s name was also given to an elementary school at a Royal Canadian Air Force base, as well as to an offshore Canadian Navy patrol vessel and units of the country’s cadet forces.

Steve said: “Robert Hampton Gray is also the only combatant to be commemorated in Japan with a memorial to his warrior spirit.

“Angus has a rich connection to the Victoria Cross through Kirriemuir and Carnoustie, but Brechin can now share some of that through the direct link to Canadian hero Robert Hampton Gray and this family memorial.”

Angus VC winners are remembered on an engraved flagstone in Kirriemuir’s Cumberland Close, immortalising Private Charles Melvin, Captain Charles Lyell and Corporal Richard Burton, while in Carnoustie a seafront monument stands in tribute to Lance Corporal Charles Jarvis and Petty Officer George Samson.

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