Air forces have long since relied on boats of one sort or another. They have been used to pluck downed aircrew from the sea, tow targets for air-gunner training and shuttle personnel, fuel, cargo and munitions to floatplanes and flying boats.
I mprovisation was certainly relied upon during the years between the First and Second world wars. A Royal Canadian Air Force photographic detachment working in Manitoba, for example, was often assisted by civilians with rowboats or canoes. Sustained use of small boats eventually occurred at Ottawa, Dartmouth, N.S., and Jericho Beach (Vancouver), but as of August 1928 the RCAF owned only four boats: one motorboat and three rowboats. Other watercraft were leased or rented as required.
In March 1929, the RCAF approached the Department of Marine and Fisheries for advice respecting specifications for boats. They were particularly interested in a heavy duty work boat, “suitable for conveyance of personnel and stores in all weather and for towing and handling of large seaplanes in a moderate seaway.” They were advised that in addition to such a marine workhorse, they should investigate a speedboat, “suitable for emergency purposes.” In spite of this advice, the RCAF did little beyond setting up a committee.
In 1931, an air station opened at Trenton, Ont., complete with a modest marine section. Four years later the RCAF organized its first course for boat crewmen with three students. The service also acquired two powered dinghies and two 37-foot seaplane tenders. These were followed by the first armoured target-towing boats used by the RCAF. Meanwhile, No. 4 (Flying Boat) Squadron and Station Vancouver acquired a collection of watercraft which, by September 1937, consisted of three aircraft tenders, three rowboats, one scow and three outboard motors.
By December 1939, the air force owned 71 boats, although 25 were classified as rowboats. The RCAF had only four high-speed rescue craft—two in British Columbia at Vancouver and Prince Rupert and two in Nova Scotia at Dartmouth and Sydney.
Four years earlier the RCMP had agreed that in the event of an emergency it would transfer marine assets to the Royal Canadian Navy. In 1938, this policy was modified to include both aircraft and boats that might be transferred to the RCAF. Although considered inferior to the latest high-speed launches on order, the air force did accept nine motorboats that had been used by the RCMP to pursue rum-runners. Seven were handed back to the RCN, and the two that were retained had names that harkened back to their police duties—M-305 Arresteur and M-306 Detector.
The transfer of vessels from police service inventories did not, however, entail automatic transfer of the crewmen, some of whom preferred to remain on police rolls while others sought to enlist in the fighting services.
The air force “fleet” that evolved was a mixture of purpose-built specialist boats, ex-American torpedo boats and high-speed launches, expropriated vessels (some previously owned by rum-runners), vessels requisitioned from civilians on the outbreak of war and, in 1942, several fishing boats impounded from West Coast Japanese-Canadians. Many of these vessels kept their original names, but those bought or built for the Marine Branch were named according to their size. Large vessels—70 feet and up—were named for native tribes. Those of 40 to 60 feet were named for Canadian lakes. Crash boats were named for waterfowl. As simple as this may appear, it did cause some confusion, especially for M-848 Albatross, built in 1952. In 1956, the RCAF introduced the Grumman SA-16 Albatross aircraft into air/sea rescue service. Radio traffic involving M-848 proved complicated, and on one occasion the vessel called Station Comox, B.C., for a radio check and was given permission to land. This was resolved by renaming M-848 as the Heron.
In 1942, a peculiar dispute erupted over a supply vessel, M-456, originally launched as the Lawrence K. Sweeney. The RCN had helped arm her and it also provided a gun crew for her first voyage to Cape Bauld on Newfoundland’s Great Northern Peninsula. The Air Officer Commanding, Eastern Air Command (Air Vice-Marshal A.L. Cuffe), changed the name to Admiral Tiger Jones as a gesture of appreciation; he also proposed to name her sister ship, M-522, the Admiral Nelles. Air force headquarters objected to this departure from practice and the two vessels ultimately served as the Eskimo and the Beaver. This dust-up generated a surprising amount of paper in the RCAF files; it is interesting to note that the name Beothuk was considered for M-456 before the final decision was reached in February 1943.
Requisitioning of vessels generated peculiar disputes. Former owners were entitled to compensation, but value was often in the eye of the beholder. Late in 1941, the RCAF took possession of a vessel known as the Amaryllis, which they intended to use in support of No. 32 Operational Training Unit at Patricia Bay on Vancouver Island. Eighteen months later they were still haggling with the original owner, who set its value at $80,000. The air force admitted that it had been overhauled before the requisitioning, but pointed out that they had also made extensive repairs. The previous owner described it as “one of the most efficient deep-sea tugboats on the Pacific coast.” To the RCAF, it was a 22-year-old relic, “suitable for light towing operations” but in no sense a “deep-sea tugboat.” The RCAF ultimately paid $30,000 for it.
The men who joined the Marine Branch were as varied as their tasks and ships. They included fishermen, former rum-runners and ex-RCMP marine constables. A 1942 report stated that feelings between ex-RCMP and ex-rum-runners were “anything but friendly.” Membership in the Marine Branch was sometimes a family affair; six men named Himmelman served with the branch between October 1939 and November 1947.
Some men had such recent sea time that they could go directly to RCAF vessels. Others needed specialist training. Sergeant Peter Roberts of Glace Bay, N.S., had been a fisherman from 1927 to 1931, but thereafter had worked as a garage mechanic and handyman, moving to Ontario to find work. He enlisted in the RCAF Marine Branch in June 1940 and was sent to Trenton for a course leading to classification as a motorboat crewman. This lasted eight weeks with courses on seamanship and navigation, semaphore, first aid and engines. Upon graduation Roberts was posted to Western Air Command, where he served until February 1945. Six additional months in Eastern Air Command was followed by his demobilization and return to Ontario.
The Marine Branch had its share of characters. Norwegian-born Nels Jackson Nelson had fished and freighted in West Coast waters, from the Columbia River to Alaska, since 1910. He owned his vessel, the B.B. Bird, and when he joined the RCN Reserve in 1940 it was on condition that the boat (and command of it) went with him. He was a coxswain in the navy, but when he transferred to the RCAF Marine Branch in September 1941 he became a warrant officer. His boat accompanied him and was renamed the M-350 Combat. At the time of Nelson’s transfer, an RCAF recruiting officer described him as “neat and clean in Fisherman’s Reserve uniform. Vigorous and fit looking. Dark hair. Looks like a sailor…. Man has lived in rough environment. Is naturally polite, but knows little of the niceties of average society. A sea-dog in fact…. Sincere, straightforward, well qualified, knows little beyond his own work.”
Through winter and summer—for two and a half years—Nelson delivered supplies across some of the most treacherous coastal waters, including Hecate Strait off British Columbia, to isolated outposts for which he was eventually Mentioned in Dispatches. When he retired in February 1945, he took his boat back with him.
The professionalism of Marine Branch members was often noted. On Feb. 9, 1942, Rear-Admiral R.C. Jones, RCN (Commanding Officer, Atlantic Coast), wrote that RCAF boat handling left “little to be desired.” He went on to note: “My officers have frequently remarked that the boats were handled, generally, as efficiently as if manned by naval personnel.”
Royal Canadian Air Force marine operations were decentralized; most small boats operated under the command of the station to which they were attached. In September 1943, however, watercraft at Dartmouth and Vancouver were grouped into the Eastern Air Command and Western Air Command marine squadrons.
The most colourful task of RCAF marine craft was that of rescue. “Crash boats” stood by at flying boat bases, waiting in the manner that fire engines stood ready at airfields to answer an infrequent call. High-speed launches were often detached to monitor heavily travelled air routes, spending a week or more at sea maintaining a “listening watch” for any reports of ships or aircraft in distress. An example was M-408 Banoskik, a former American PT Boat, which for much of 1943 shuttled between Sydney, N.S., and Port aux Basques, Nfld., in anticipation of trouble with transatlantic flights.
A notable rescue occurred on Sept. 9, 1941, when a RCAF Catalina flying boat crashed while landing in a heavy sea about two miles off shore at Northwest River, Labrador. Despite heavy seas, Sgt. Arthur Appleby put out immediately in an RCAF dinghy with an outboard motor and reached the crash site in time to rescue six of the eight occupants. The survivors were clinging to the wing over which the seas were breaking and, numbed by the cold, could not have lasted much longer. After taking the men off the wing and transferring them to a larger boat, Appleby searched the surrounding waters until it was too dark to see. He was subsequently awarded a British Empire Medal. Appleby later re-mustered to aircrew, became a reconnaissance pilot, and was awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross for service overseas.
Another striking rescue occurred on May 1, 1944, executed by M-407 Abadik of the Eastern Air Command Marine Sqdn. Warrant Officer Thomas R. Sanderson, piloting a Hurricane of No. 129 Sqdn., had been testing his aircraft for a height climb when he lost control, entering a spin at 23,000 feet. He bailed out at 10,000 feet and landed in the water near Hartland Point, Cow Bay, roughly six miles southeast of Dartmouth. Two high-speed launches were dispatched. One returned without having spotted the downed pilot, but Flying Officer Edward M.H. Butt and crew located Sanderson in his dinghy drifting out to sea.
The M-305 Arresteur was particularly busy in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Warrant Officer G.W. Galliard rescued ditched Anson training crews on May 29 and September 10, 1944. The former incident demonstrates the speed at which such an operation might be conducted. Having been informed that an aircraft was down, Galliard left Alberton, P.E.I., shortly after 5 a.m. He was directed to the crash site by a circling aircraft and plucked the four-man crew from their dinghy at 7 a.m. The ditched Anson was still floating and Galliard offered to attempt salvage, but was instructed to return to Alberton.
Ships as well as aircrew were helped. On Aug. 22, 1944, at 10 p.m., the M-447 Niktak left Black’s Harbour, N.B., in thick fog, summoned to assist the SS James Miller which had grounded after being attacked by a U-boat. Warrant Officer John Dort reached the area shortly after midnight, stopped engines and listened. He resumed cruising, firing signals and finally contacted the steamer which was in dangerous shoals. Dort approached as closely as was prudent; the crew of 41 abandoned ship in lifeboats and were taken on board.
On occasion, the rescuers became the rescued. On Nov. 23, 1943, the rescue launch M-233 Nootka collided with a steamer in the approaches to Halifax and lost six feet of her stern. Launches such as M-233 frequently carried depth charges for anti-submarine patrols, and on this day the vessel had six on board. Five were lost overboard in the collision, but the safety catches held, there were no explosions, and happily there were no casualties. M-233 was towed part way home by the steamer’s powered lifeboat and then by the M-306 Detector. She was repaired at Dartmouth and re-entered service on June 17, 1944.
Although few members of the Marine Branch served overseas, at least five were attached to Royal Air Force marine units, from March 1943 to May 1944, apparently for “on hands” experience with high-speed launches. One of these, Sgt. Maurice Himmelman, was sent to Northern Ireland to learn RAF procedures and tactics, and in October 1943 he was posted to No. 30 Air Sea Rescue Sqdn. at Harwich. From there he made excursions into the English Channel. The Marine Branch reached its peak strength in 1943 with 941 officers and men and 384 watercraft.
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