HE may have been among the most talented Hollywood actors of his generation, a box office smasher and revered titan of the luvvie world.

But Laurence Olivier made a woeful military aviator.

Steely Royal Navy Sea Lords can be stern and, quite naturally, take a dim view of pilots who mangle their planes.

During the Second World War every aircraft was especially valuable, with the Fleet Air Arm playing a more crucial role in fighting than is generally realised.

Fairey Swordfish flew perilous missions over an unforgiving, and often icy Atlantic to torpedo German U-boats.

Their fearless pilots were vital to the Allies eventually clinching victory in the Battle of the Atlantic – though not before 100,000 lives were lost.

Elsewhere, Westland Lysanders – affectionately known as “Lizzies” – were used from everything from glider towing to air-sea rescue, but are probably best known for flying Special Operations Executive agents to and from France.

And Blackburn Rocs and Skuas from Worthy Down, north of Winchester, were sent to save soldiers stranded on Dunkirk beaches.

Yet, during his short career in the Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm, Larry wrote off three planes.

And while he did provide the service with some magnificent media coups at a time when morale countrywide was woefully low, some would argue this came at quite a price.

The Oliviers returned to Britain from Hollywood at the beginning of 1940, bent on contributing to the war effort, and Laurence joined the Royal Navy reserves two months later as a sub-lieutenant.

He had intended to sign-up for the RAF but was swayed by the fact that his friend Ralph Richardson had opted for the Senior Service.

Richardson was an unimpressive pilot – but Oliver was dire, despite 200 hours flying civilian planes in the United States.

He did, however, garner a bit more naval know-how – albeit by donning deeply-restrictive white trousers and a powdered wig – playing Lord Nelson to Leigh’s title role filming That Hamilton Woman in the autumn of 1940.

Then, swapping back into more contemporary uniform, Olivier went back to the training squadron at Worthy Down, then the Royal Navy land-based air station HMS Kestrel.

A wide range of aircraft were based there, including the Percival Proctor, Lysander, Avro Anson, Walrus, Catalina, Swordfish, Albacore and Barracuda Mk1.

Trainees were meant to get a feel for as many different planes as possible, though the graceful Swordfish, fondly dubbed the “Stringbag” for its versatility, is usually assumed to have been the favourite.

Soon realising the significance of Worthy Down, the Nazis despatched Junker 88s to bomb it during the Battle of Britain, though little damage was caused.

Despite this, German radio – probably believing HMS Kestrel to be a ship rather than a land base - reported that she had been “sunk” by the Luftwaffe.

By the summer of 1941, Olivier had somehow gained his wings and been promoted to lieutenant.

He may not have been a gifted pilot, but there was no doubting his courage.

The dated technology of these planes with open cockpits made even training in them dangerous.

Sometimes half a dozen pilots or flight observers would be lost on exercises, with crews being forced to ditch into the sea.

Often the bodies of the fallen were never found.

Among experts, the question still remains as to whether Olivier’s bravery tipped over into foolhardiness.

There are tales of low fly-pasts, whizzing under bridges, and even flipping an open-cockpit plane over with no warning so the observer was left hanging on for his life.

Rumour has it he even secretly borrowed a Swordfish to take Leigh out for dinner.

Fellow flyers quickly fell for his persistent rule-flouting and sparky wit – though senior officers thoroughly disliked his inability to follow orders and resultant near misses, for the simple reason that they put lives in danger.

The Fleet Air Arm Museum at RNAS Yeovilton still holds a cluster of photographs of the – literally – high-flying actor.

Some show him at the controls of a Fairey Albacore in August 1942, being mobbed by a troop of Air Scouts.

Another, which has never been published before, is still held at Worthy Down, now an Army barracks and soon to also become a tri-service logistics training installation.

In this, the Hollywood great is standing next to a Lysander, smiling broadly.

Even more surprising than Olivier coming through the war unscathed is that Vivien Leigh, still riding the post-Gone With the Wind career rollercoaster, cooked and cleaned at their bungalow in School Lane, Headbourne Worthy, called Headlands (which still exists today).

A journalist from The Washington DC Star crossed the Atlantic to visit the couple there, filing an interview which coincided with Olivier’s promotion.

After several years of military service, Whitehall began to wonder if Olivier’s much more obvious acting talents would better serve the war effort.

In 1943 the Ministry of Information asked him to take the title role in the film Henry V, which he ended up also directing and producing.

Released in 1944, one critic hailed it as “a triumph of film craft”, though it failed to succeed at the Oscars.

The next year he was invited to help re-establish the Old Vic.

When the company’s governors asked the Royal Navy if they would release both Richardson and Olivier, the Sea Lords are said to have agreed with, as Olivier put it, “a speediness and lack of reluctance which was positively hurtful”.

Clearly top brass patience at his antics had run thin.

Olivier remained hugely proud of his achievements in the air and, despite his many other momentous acting achievements, listed flying as one of his recreations in his “Who’s Who” entry.

But, it’s safe to say, he wasn’t the Royal Navy’s most celebrated pilot.