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Air Transport Lifts Off: Air Force, Part 19



A Lockheed Lodestar transport aircraft on a journey in May 1945.

A look around the globe confirms that systematic and scheduled air transport in this country lagged far behind that of other countries. The United States had a network of transcontinental airlines by 1932. Notwithstanding the establishment of Trans-Canada Airlines in 1937, Canada had no comparable air service until 1940. Geography was one factor, but another was the excellent railway system that rendered southern air transport services redundant.

If Canada as a whole was slow to develop a national air service for civilians, the Royal Canadian Air Force was even further behind. Throughout World War II, personnel almost always travelled by train from one school or base to another.

Between 1939 and 1942 much of the air force “lift” was provided by aircraft bought, commandeered from or loaned by private companies. Some were delightful machines. Fifteen 10-passenger Lockheed 10As and 10 six-passenger Lockheed 12A machines saw extensive service for most of the war and a few of them returned to postwar civilian service.

On the other hand, eight Boeing 247 aircraft–acquired between June and October 1940–proved to be dubious acquisitions. Their former civilian operators appear to have been anxious to unload uneconomical machines on the air force. Two, bought from south of the border, ended up at Malton, Ont., where managers of No. 1 Air Observer School wrote: “After careful inspection and thought we have rendered our reports and put them at the back of the hangars in the hope that a garbage remover will take them away some day.”

Several units provided local transportation and communications services. They were No. 12 (Communications) Squadron at Rockcliffe in Ottawa, formed in August 1940; No. 121 (Composite) Sqdn. at Dartmouth, N.S., formed in January 1942; No. 122 (Composite) Sqdn. at Patricia Bay (Victoria), formed in January 1942; No. 166 (Communications) Sqdn. at Sea Island (Vancouver), formed in September 1943; and No. 167 (Communications) Sqdn., at Dartmouth, N.S., formed in August 1943.

These various units performed a variety of tasks, including freighting, target towing, coastal artillery co-operation, radar calibration and search and rescue. They operated a range of types, namely the Noordyn Norseman, Grumman Goose, Lockheed 10–none of which were noted for lifting capacity. In August 1943, No. 167 Sqdn. acquired Douglas Digby aircraft, previously used by No. 10 (Bomber Reconnaissance) Sqdn. for anti-submarine patrols and now converted to freighting duties.

To the composite and communications squadrons might be added two units designated as “ferry” squadrons. These were No. 124, formed at Rockcliffe in January 1942, and No. 170, formed at Winnipeg in March 1944. Both squadrons were concerned with the delivery and transfer of aircraft within Canada, from factory to air force unit or from one station to another, often from Repair Depot to unit. No. 124 Sqdn. piled up enormous amounts of air time, specifically 126,402 hours between January 1942 and September 1946. Sadly, the same unit also sustained one of the worst accidents in RCAF history. On Sept. 15, 1946, Dakota 962 was en route to Estevan, Sask., with pilots who were to fly out war-surplus Cornell trainers. An elevator control lock had not been removed before takeoff, and the pilot lost control on a second attempt to land. All 20 people on board–and one on the ground–died in the subsequent crash and fire.

A long-range, heavy-duty RCAF transport organization began to take shape in January 1943 and this coincided with the force taking delivery of its first real freight lifters, Douglas Dakotas and Lockheed Lodestars. No. 164 Sqdn. was formed at Moncton, N.B., on Jan. 23, 1943, with Digby and Lodestar aircraft. The Digbys–former patrol bombers–were retired in March 1943 while May 1943 brought the first Dakotas. No. 165 Sqdn. formed at Sea Island on July 13, 1943, with Dakotas and Lodestars. Both were specialist transport units formed in response to growing RCAF needs for air freighting. In August 1943 a Directorate of Air Transport was formed within Air Force Headquarters (AFHQ), Ottawa. On Feb. 5, 1945, this became No. 9 (Transport) Group and was moved to Rockcliffe.

The events driving these developments varied. No. 164 Sqdn. was created in response to expanding RCAF responsibilities in Newfoundland, particularly around Goose Bay and Gander. As of December 1942, a backlog of freight intended for Goose Bay amounted to 1,229 tons, including 331 tons at Montreal and Moncton. Ferry Command and the United States Air Transport Command could move about one third of this. At least 829 tons of urgently needed materials would have to be moved by the RCAF. The organization of No. 164 Sqdn. took place with such speed that the order authorizing its formation was actually dated 10 days after it had made its first freight delivery.

No. 165 Sqdn. was formed just as Canadian air and land forces were being marshalled–in conjunction with American forces–for an attack on Kiska in the Aleutian Islands chain. This turned out to be anti-climactic when it was discovered that the Japanese had abandoned the island off the Alaskan mainland.

Meanwhile, the RCAF was operating an increasingly complex system of radar stations, some of which could be provisioned through airfields, others by boat, ski-equipped aircraft and air drops. The latter was done when sea and ice conditions prevented other means of resupply.

Apart from freighting where railroads did not run, the growing RCAF transport fleet was engaged in newer tasks inland, including paratroop training at Rivers and at Shilo in Manitoba, and at Edmonton. Indeed, the flights or detachments engaged in this work had existed prior to their incorporation into No. 165 Sqdn. Construction of the Alaska Highway in the 1940s had been accompanied by laying out airfields that constituted the Northwest Staging Route, by which Alaska was supplied, and aircraft was delivered to Russia. Communications and resupply of these airfields also demanded RCAF transport capacity, which was largely available through detachments of Nos. 164 and 165 squadrons based at Edmonton. Operating from that city posed unique problems, including timely delivery of aircraft parts which came by air from Vancouver and Moncton.

Passengers on the various flights might be officers proceeding on courses, ground crews of squadrons moving to new bases, personnel proceeding on leave, German prisoners of war or visiting foreign journalists. Overall, the type of freight varied from sawn lumber to potatoes, sugar and dressed hogs, firefighting equipment, radar equipment, aircraft and vehicle parts. Local conditions occasionally created temporary assignments, as in late March 1944 when the Prince Edward Island ferry broke down and No. 164 Sqdn. was called upon to fly service passengers and freight between Summerside, P.E.I., and Moncton. Some operations were very unusual, as demonstrated by an entry in No. 164 Sqdn.’s diary for May 19, 1944: “A strange request was received from Gander. Their stores section was overrun with rats and they requested we pick up 10 cats in Moncton, so with the assistance of a newspaper reporter in Moncton the owners of 21 cats were contacted and the felines transported to Gander. We will have to wait to hear further results.”

A typical day in the life of a transport squadron was humdrum, routine. No. 165 Sqdn.–with its two distant detachments–reported the following for Dec. 1, 1944, one of many very successful, very ordinary days: “At Edmonton 10 passengers emplaned on schedule and special. At Rivers, Man., two aircraft for 35 (paratroop) jumps. At Sea Island, trip 44 off with eight passengers and 3,736 pounds of freight, returning with 24 passengers and 1,765 pounds of freight. Special to Annette Island with telephone equipment, six passengers and 1,003 pounds of freight.”

Another way to view the routine of a transport unit is to note five days in the career of a single pilot in Ontario. On July 19, 1944, Flying Officer William R. Hibbert took Lockheed 1526 from Rockcliffe to Toronto Island. The trip took about two hours. On the 20th he flew to Mount Hope–a 35 minute jaunt–and then on to Hagersville, a trip that lasted about 25 minutes. From there he flew for about 40 minutes to London and the next day took the aircraft to Fingal, a 25-minute journey. On the 22nd he travelled on to Centralia–another 40-minute hop–before heading again for Toronto Island, a trip that lasted 65 minutes. Finally, on July 23 he flew for 35 minutes to Camp Borden before returning to Rockcliffe. The unit diary does not report his passengers, but the various hops had largely taken the aircraft from one training base to another.

Numbers 164 and 165 squadrons amassed considerable flying time–47,400 hours for the former and at least 25,760 for the latter. They also provided crews for expanded RCAF transport operations, including transatlantic mail services and for three Dakota squadrons formed overseas.

These achievements were accompanied by hardships and the occasional tragedy. Radio reception in northern areas could be erratic. Weather forecasting was primitive on both coasts. The diaries of RCAF transport squadrons frequently recorded days of no flying owing to weather, followed by intense operations to make up for lost time. Low cloud and rain prevented No. 164 Sqdn. from operating from May 4-6, 1943. Late on the 7th, a Lodestar attempted a delivery to Gander but arrived close to midnight to find the ceiling had dropped to 500 feet. The pilot was advised to fly on to Sydney, N.S. Instead, Warrant Officer Humphrey Svendsen made three attempts to put down. He crashed short of the runway on the third try. The aircraft was burned out and Svendsen and his two-man crew were killed. Freighting operations did not resume until late on May 8.

On the West Coast, No. 165 Sqdn. had one fatal crash. On July 18, 1944, a Dakota was dispatched from Sea Island to Annette Island with 12 passengers and 2,600 pounds of freight. It was to bring back an unserviceable aircraft engine. Intermediate stops at Massett and Port Hardy were incorporated into the flight plan. Taking off from Port Hardy, the aircraft crashed and caught fire. The pilot, Flying Officer T.E. Daniels, was killed along with two other crewmen and three passengers.

Most of the aircraft used were rather Spartan inside, adaptable to freight one day, passengers the next. In July 1944, however, Lodestar 567 of No. 12 (Communications) Sqdn. was turned into a flying office for the Chief of the Air Staff and other important people. A cabin heating system was installed, the interior was upholstered and furniture was added, including two chesterfields, a desk and a map case. The latest radio equipment was also installed as was an oxygen system for high-altitude flying.

The principal mover behind the development of an RCAF air transport service was Wing Commander Zebulon Lewis Leigh. A prewar bush pilot, then a TCA instructor and captain, Leigh joined the RCAF early in 1940. Initially, he was engaged on home defence anti-submarine work, but in 1942 he arrived at AFHQ to apply his considerable talents and experience in transport matters. Unusual for wartime officers, Leigh subsequently wrote his memoirs titled And I Shall Fly. Published in 1985 by Canav Books of Toronto, it described the challenges–administrative and operational–that accompanied his work.

As of 1942 the RCAF had many officers like Leigh, former airline and bush pilots who had logged numerous hours in the air. Leigh knitted these people into a team where equipment, organization and personnel fitted together and worked well. One of his first acts was to transform No. 12 (Communications) Sqdn. from a jack-of-all-trades outfit into a regular passenger unit operating between Ottawa and Halifax with Lockheed 10A aircraft. The flights were called Blackberry runs. Primarily a VIP service, the pilots were trained to airline standards. Nobody wanted a repetition of the events of June 10, 1940, when a Hudson of the Rockcliffe Communications Flight (a forerunner of No. 12 Sqdn.) crashed, killing three crewmen and Canada’s first minister of National Defence for Air, Norman Rogers.

Leigh was a “hands-on” leader who personally toured his organization and flew with his men, sometimes on inaugural service runs. One anecdote from his book illustrates both the measure of the man and the nature of “pre-computer” flying. His fellow pilot was Squadron Leader H. Marlowe Kennedy, another prewar pilot with as much air time as Leigh himself: “On one Blackberry flight Marlowe and I operated as the crew, alternating as pilot and co-pilot. Flying near Moncton at night and in heavy overcast, both engines suddenly stopped. We both reacted immediately as captains and reached for throttle and fuel controls. We locked hands in the darkened cockpit reaching for the same controls. After we got our fingers untangled and reset the fuel controls, the engines came back to life. We laughed about the incident afterwards but it was a good case of too many captains in one cockpit.”

Leigh was able to escape his office regularly because he had chosen excellent staff officers whom he later praised in his memoirs. He was equally generous with wartime recognition of his assistants, and secured a Member, Order of the British Empire for Sqdn. Ldr. Leslie A. Collins, citing in particular his services as air traffic officer during the Quebec Conference of September 1943.

Leigh was awarded the Officer, Order of the British Empire, in January 1944. Two years later he was awarded the Trans-Canada Trophy–also known as the McKee Trophy–for outstanding contributions to Canadian aviation, civil and military. He continued in RCAF service until 1957, and is regarded as the creator of Air Transport Command. Leigh went on to become a founder of Canada’s Aviation Hall of Fame and was himself inducted into that body in 1974.

While most RCAF combat units were disbanded within weeks of VE-Day and VJ-Day, the domestic transport organization continued to run, although on a reduced scale. In August 1946, No. 164 Sqdn.’s detachment at Dartmouth was redesignated No. 426 Sqdn. The same month, elements of No. 164 and 165 squadrons in Western Canada were reconstituted as No. 435 Sqdn. based at Edmonton. No. 12 (Communications) Sqdn. continued as a transport unit under the designation No. 412 Sqdn. This latter squadron is not to be confused with the fighter unit that served overseas during WW II.

Late in 1945, No. 167 Sqdn. was reduced in size and renamed Eastern Air Command Communications Flight. Other units underwent similar transformations. The peacetime RCAF did not need as much “lift” as it had required in 1943, but it could not dispense entirely with the transport capacity it had acquired in wartime.

RCAF overseas combat operations have tended to attract the most attention when WW II histories are written, but the air transport story is given its due in a few books still available, notably Air Transport In Canada by Larry Milberry, published by Canav Books in 1997.


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