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Bridging The Ocean: Air Force, Part 20



Clockwise from top: Firemen soak down the wreckage of a Liberator after it crashed in downtown Montreal in April 1944; airmail is unloaded in Italy; Air Chief Marshal Sir Frederick Bowhill as Ferry Command’s first commander.

Royal Canadian Air Force transport came of age during World War II. That war also witnessed a revolution in transoceanic flying. Although the RCAF broke little new ground in this field, it was an active participant through the Royal Air Force’s Ferry Command, No. 168 (Heavy Transport) Squadron, and the thousands of individuals who filled a wide variety of roles. The Atlantic had been conquered by air in 1919, first by United States Navy flying boats which proceeded in stages via Bermuda, the Azores and Portugal in May 1919, then by John Alcock and Arthur Brown in a Vickers Vimy aircraft from June 14-15, 1919, and finally by a British airship–the R-34–in July 1919. Nevertheless, commercial flying of the Atlantic came slowly. For a time it appeared that German airships–Graf Zeppelin and Hindenburg–would dominate such air routes, but the burning of the latter in 1937 spelled the end of such craft.

By 1939, Britain and the U.S. were both groping towards commercial trans-atlantic flights using flying boats. A large airport had also been built at Gander, Nfld., in anticipation of long-range, land-based aircraft. Nevertheless, nothing more than experimental flights had been made when WW II erupted.

By the summer of 1940, Britain faced critical aircraft shortages, particularly of anti-submarine aircraft. American production could supply many of the needed machines, but the normal method of delivery–by sea–was slow and dangerous. Curiously, RAF officers opposed the most obvious solution–fly them across. This, they decided, was considered impractical, especially in winter. It was civilians who went ahead and did it, an effort that involved the Ministry of Aircraft Production, which was headed in 1940 by Lord Beaverbrook, the Air Department of the Canadian Pacific Railway, which was by then assembling the elements of what would become Canadian Pacific Airlines, and a former Imperial Airways pilot named Donald Bennett.

Author and Legion Magazine columnist Carl A. Christie has told the story of Ferry Command in his book Ocean Bridge: The History of RAF Ferry Command, published in 1995 by University of Toronto Press. Bennett scraped together an organization, hired pilots and radio operators from assorted civilian companies and government departments, trained them for the new mission, and in November 1940 led seven Hudson aircraft and crews to Britain. More would follow.

Created informally, the Atlantic Ferry Organization became a full-fledged RAF formation (Ferry Command) on July 20, 1941. Its first commander, Air Chief Marshal Sir Frederick Bowhill, had been an early opponent of transatlantic ferry operations; he now embraced them. Ferry Command retained the substantial civilian element of its predecessor. It then had about 1,000 personnel in Montreal, Newfoundland and Bermuda. These included 400 aircrew, of whom 207 were civilians, mostly Canadian and American.

Ferry Command, in co-operation with the RCAF, developed a training organization at Debert, N.S., and North Bay, Ont. As the war progressed, the operation delivered an array of aircraft types overseas, including Hudson, Ventura, Maryland, Baltimore, Mitchell and Mosquito medium bombers, Fortress, Liberator and Lancaster heavy bombers, Dakota transports and Catalina flying boats. They were delivered to the United Kingdom, but sometimes to Russia (via Iran), through Africa to India and even to Australia. Multiple-aircraft deliveries were abandoned in favour of individual aircraft flights. Airfields established in Greenland and Iceland eased many problems relating to weather, fuel capacity and crew fatigue. Early in 1942 the decision was made to build a large base at Goose Bay, Labrador.

Ferry operations had initially been launched from St-Hubert, southeast of Montreal, but it was crowded owing to the presence of an RCAF flying school. In September 1941, Ferry Command moved to a new airport, Dorval (now Pierre Elliott Trudeau International Airport).

Flying aircraft eastwards was one thing, getting aircrews back to North America for another delivery was another. A new aircraft type had appeared–the four-engine Consolidated Liberator–and in March 1941 the first of these detailed for British service became the object of a tug-of-war between the RAF and the Ministry of Aircraft Production, MAP. The MAP won; the first British “Libs” were pressed into service to bring ferry crews back to Canada and their next assignment. The Return Ferry Service had a very inauspicious beginning; two Liberators crashed in Scotland in August 1941, killing a total 43 pilots, radio operators and flight engineers plus one passenger en route back to Canada. All were civilians, specifically 18 Canadians, 18 Americans, seven British and one Australian.

Even when return flights became routine, they were never comfortable. The Liberator bomb bays made poor cabins; passengers were cramped, bundled up in heavy clothing or sleeping against intense cold, and usually resorting to oxygen tubes for both warmth and breath. Transatlantic passengers experienced the democracy of discomfort; airmen and VIPs suffered virtually identical indignities. First class simply did not exist.

In March 1943, RAF Transport Command was formed and Ferry Command became simply No. 45 Group within the larger organization. No. 112 Wing at Dorval handled North Atlantic operations. No. 113 Wing at Nassau, in the Bahamas, directed flights through the central and South Atlantic. Late in the war Nos. 280 and 300 Wings were formed at San Diego, Calif., and Sydney, Australia, respectively, to direct what was expected to become a growing delivery system to the Pacific.

A change of name meant increased duties–the delivery of cargos as well as aircraft. This led to what can only be described as a bizarre experiment. Between June 23 and July 1, 1943, after months of planning and preparation, a Dakota aircraft towed a cargo-laden Waco CG-4 glider across the Atlantic from Montreal through Goose Bay, Greenland and Iceland to Prestwick, Scotland. The trip was fraught with danger, wasteful of resources and proved the impracticality of the idea. The Dakota alone could have flown the 3,000 pounds of cargo that had been crammed into the glider. It was amazing the operation had even been suggested. Notwithstanding the foolishness of the operation, the bravery of the aircrews was unquestioned; three were awarded the Air Force Cross.

Christie, in his book Ocean Bridge, points out that Ferry Command crews were divided into two categories–Long Term and One Trippers. The former made repeated deliveries “across the pond.” They might be RAF, RCAF or civilian personnel. The latter usually made only one delivery. The One Trippers included RCAF aircrew graduates or former air force instructors proceeding overseas.

Warrant Officer Warren Jackson Wright was an example of an “old hand.” Trained as an RCAF wireless operator, he was first engaged in a Ferry Command delivery in March 1943. The various types with which he was associated included Ventura, Dakota, Boston, Liberator and Lancaster aircraft. One example of his trips was delivery of a Boston bomber. He departed Montreal on July 2, 1944, arrived in Goose Bay on the 4th, Greenland on the 5th, Iceland on the same day, and arrived in the United Kingdom on the 6th. This was a relatively quick trip as many deliveries took weeks to complete. He then left Britain on July 10, 1944, by “Clipper” flying boat for Baltimore, and returned to Montreal as an air passenger on the 11th. As of July 31, 1944, he was off again, this time aboard a Liberator to be delivered to North Africa. He was engaged in the delivery of a Canadian-built Lancaster, which departed Montreal on Nov. 3, 1944, and left Goose Bay on Nov. 4, 1944, for a direct flight to Britain.

Flight Lieutenant Thomas G. Anderson was an example of a One Tripper. An American in the RCAF, he graduated as an RCAF pilot in February 1941 but remained in Canada as an instructor until May 1943. In mid-May 1943 he ferried a Boston bomber overseas before going on to fly Mosquitos with No. 418 Sqdn.

The international nature of the ferry operation becomes apparent when one reads the lists of men lost through crashes and disappearances. A dramatic and poignant example is the crash of Liberator EW148 shortly after takeoff from Dorval on April 25, 1944. The bomber was bound for Nassau and then India, but for unknown reasons was turning back towards the airfield when it crashed into downtown Montreal, killing 10 civilians as well as its five-man crew. The pilot (Flight Lieutenant Kazamierz Burzynski) had been a Polish airline pilot before the war, had become a decorated Polish Air Force officer and had made at least seven previous overseas deliveries. The co-pilot and navigator were also Polish Air Force veterans; the flight engineer was a Welsh-born RAF Flight Sergeant who had made at least 19 overseas deliveries. Pilot Officer James S. Wilson, RCAF, had graduated as a wireless operator five months earlier; his assignment to EW148 had been his first operational task.

The Atlantic skies were very busy from 1942 onwards as American air force crews joined Ferry Command in overseas deliveries, and whole squadrons of operational B-17s flew to England. In the summer of 1943 a new organization appeared–the Canadian Government Trans-Atlantic Air Service, a division of Trans-Canada Airlines (TCA) which flew a scheduled transatlantic service using converted Lancaster bombers. This was a civilian operation intended to stake out a Canadian presence on the route for postwar exploitation. Then, in October 1943, the RCAF took a direct hand in transoceanic flying with the formation of No. 168 (Heavy Transport) Sqdn.

There was always close co-operation between civilian and service organizations on the transatlantic route, and one finds personnel like George Lothian–a civilian–being loaned back and forth between Ferry Command, TCA and the RCAF, particularly in training long-range crews, including those of No. 168 (HT) Sqdn. The unit’s first commanding officer, Wing Commander Bruce Middleton, also exemplified the adaptability of aircrews. Canadian by birth, he had served in the RAF from 1934-36, with TCA from 1938-39, and with Imperial Airways from1939-40, including night flights between Britain and Sweden before joining the RCAF as a ferry, test and transport pilot. In the postwar era he would become a senior TCA captain.

No. 168 (HT) Sqdn. had been formed in response to an overseas problem–slow delivery of mail to Canadian forces overseas, especially after the commitment of 1 (Infantry) and later 5 (Armoured) divisions to the Mediterranean. The new squadron acquired six aging American Fortresses, previously used to train USAAF crews, and on Dec. 15, 1943, the first of these departed Rockcliffe (Ottawa) for overseas, carrying 5,502 pounds of mail.

The inaugural flight almost ended in disaster when, approaching Ireland, the crew discovered that gasoline from the auxiliary tanks was not feeding to the engines. They landed at St. Angelo with 20 minutes of fuel left in the main tanks. It was subsequently discovered that the auxiliary tanks had never been connected to the fuel system because they had not been needed in the former training role. RCAF crews, rushing to meet a Christmas mail deadline, had failed to discover this fact. A report of the incident included a telling comment: “It is not possible to lay on an important transport operation with second-hand aeroplanes in a great hurry without taking serious chances.”

The Fortresses were progressively modified. Stripped of armour and gun turrets at the outset, they eventually acquired streamlined nose and tail fittings. Three were lost on operations, one through a mid-air collision–though the crew survived–one after disappearing between Gibraltar and the Azores and one which crashed in late 1945 while delivering penicillin to Poland.

The adage about mailmen (“Neither sleet nor snow…”) has its application to No. 168 (HT) Sqdn. On Nov. 19, 1944, Flight Lieutenant Clark H. Ready, having taken off from Stephenville, Nfld., with a load of Christmas mail, discovered his undercarriage was not working. Rather than risk a crash overseas, he returned to Rockcliffe (his serving base), circled the airfield to burn off fuel, then executed a crash landing that resulted in four bent propellers but no loss of mail, which he could have jettisoned without any criticism. Ready was formally commended for decisions that had saved the aircraft plus the mail, and enabled his unit to dispatch his load forthwith in another aircraft.

The groundcrews of any unit were the unsung heroes. It is refreshing to find one among their number whose achievements were both notable and recognized. Flight Sergeant John C. Trethowan was an engine mechanic with No. 168 (HT) Sqdn. He was awarded the British Empire Medal (BEM) in June 1946 for outstanding services. The citation to his award noted that, in addition to his “devotion to duty and leadership as maintenance crew chief ” he had logged some 1,300 hours as an aircraft crewman, and had participated in the squadron’s first, 500th, and final transatlantic flights. Trethowan’s subsequent career was equally remarkable. In the postwar forces he participated in the first RCAF transpacific flight in July 1947. In May 1968, he accompanied No. 129 Ferry Flight for the movement of a Liberator from India to the Canada Aviation Museum in Ottawa. At age 54 he was awarded the Order of Military Merit “for outstanding professional contributions to Canadian Military Aviation during 33 years of service.” At the time he was chief warrant officer with No. 405 (Maritime Patrol) Sqdn.

No. 168 (HT) Sqdn. was a complex unit. It operated Dakota transports for local delivery (Britain to the Mediterranean and, after June 1944, to the European continent). In August 1944, the unit began operating Liberators that had been converted to the transport role. These operations concluded on March 3, 1946. In the course of its history, No. 168 (HT) Sqdn. made 636 Atlantic crossings–240 using Fortresses, 332 with Liberators, 64 with Dakotas–and delivered 1,100 tons of mail plus assorted freight and passengers. The most complete story of this unit is in Carl Vincent’s Consolidated Liberator and Boeing Fortress, published in 1975 by Canada’s Wings of Stittsville, Ont.

Carl Christie, in Ocean Bridge, devotes a chapter to the legacy of Ferry Command and its related organizations. They had first demonstrated the practicality of transoceanic air travel. A string of airports were developed to service and speed the delivery of aircraft–Dorval, Goose Bay, Gander–to name only the largest. Experience was gained with large-scale air traffic control. Weather reporting services were improved and expanded upon, and flying the Atlantic had developed from a stunt to a service, and the world would never be the same again.

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