Preparing For The Past: Air Force, Part 6

November 1, 2004 by Hugh A. Halliday

PHOTO: NATIONAL ARCHIVES OF CANADA

PHOTO: NATIONAL ARCHIVES OF CANADA

The Armstrong-Whitworth Atlas, used for army co-operation flying, joined the RCAF in the late 1920s.

Army cooperation flying had been the central role of aircraft during World War I (Eyes In The Skies, March/April). In the interwar years, the Royal Canadian Air Force survived budget cuts and government indifference by making itself useful through “aid to the civil power;” when it could find time and equipment to practice military skills, it concentrated on exercises with troops and warships close to shore, using familiar tactics and methods. In short, the RCAF prepared to re-fight the previous war.

Some militia work consisted of merely taking up officers for 20 or 30 minutes to familiarize them with the appearance of a mock battlefield. The flights were so brief that one might question their utility. Other sorties tried to replicate recent battle conditions. On Aug. 14, 1923, Squadron Leader G.M. Croil and Flight Lieutenant A.A. Leitch, normally based at High River, Alta., on forest fire patrols, co-operated with C Battery, Royal Cdn. Horse Artillery at Sarcee Camp, although both pilots and gunners discovered they had grown rusty in their trades.

The Royal Cdn. Navy also benefited from occasional RCAF assistance. On Oct. 12, 1923, a shoot was arranged for the Halifax Fortress guns, aiming at a moored target, 7,500 yards distant, and representing an armoured ship 300 feet long (although it would have been unlikely that a hostile target would have anchored and allowed itself to be bombarded). Piloting an HS2L flying boat, Sqdn. Ldr. A.B. Shearer with two army officers directed the six-inch guns of the Sandwich Battery. Their guidebook was a pamphlet laying down coastal artillery procedures as of 1918. The first round fell roughly 600 yards short and three degrees left. Rounds 11 to 14 knocked off the superstructure and split the target. The towing boat had to fetch a new target.

Peacetime exercises had to be reconciled with peacetime conditions. In British Columbia, Sqdn. Ldr. John H. Tudhope, reporting on Esquimalt garrison artillery exercises in October-November 1925, described delays up to two hours occasioned by shipping proceeding across the line of fire. Technology also complicated exercises; wireless telephony (i.e. radio voice communications) was then less clear and shorter-ranging than wireless telegraphy (radio communications in Morse code). Laying out cloth ground strips in various patterns remained an accepted means for troops to communicate with aircraft, entailing time wasted as pilots circled back to the guns to view strips that were not always clearly visible.

The 1925 Esquimalt exercises also stretched local RCAF resources, which were so hard-pressed to maintain fisheries patrols that the artillery schemes had to be postponed from August to October. In 1927, the Vancouver Air Station had difficulty again, this time because its wireless facilities had been closed as an economy measure, while much of its portable wireless equipment had been diverted to the Hudson Strait Expedition (an aerial ice-reconnaissance operation)—a classic instance of the underfunded RCAF having to rob Peter to pay Paul.

The manner in which the army envisaged using aircraft is shown in a report by Flying Officer E.E. Middleton, an army co-operation specialist who took part in exercises with permanent force units at Camp Petawawa in Ontario from Aug. 20 to 24, 1928. On the first day he made a reconnaissance, then briefed army officers about how well (or badly) their men had practised camouflage and dispersal. Thereafter, troops became much wiser in concealment. To stress these lessons, Middleton carried out bombing attacks using makeshift bombs crafted from paper bags with about three-quarters of a pound of flour.

Many of the interwar army co-operation exercises were simple in the extreme. In August 1930, an RCAF Fairchild FC-2 logged 40 hours in connection with a militia staff officers’ course held at Kingston, Ont. Two at a time, officer trainees were carried briefly over an area where cloth strips had been laid out; the officers were to locate the strips and mark them on their artillery maps. Despite their elementary nature, militia exercises occasionally introduced new elements. In June 1931, at Petawawa, Flt. Lt. A. Lewis in a Consolidated Courier found himself working with innovative technology, namely Carden-Lloyd machine-gun carriers, which were the first armoured vehicles used by the Canadian militia at home. In 1938, pilots gained a new gadget to assist with night flying training—the Link Trainer.

On June 17, 1932, RCAF headquarters in Ottawa issued Operation Order A.11/32, Militia, directed to Vancouver Air Station. The base was to provide “transportation and miscellaneous flights” for militia exercises which were to take place on Vancouver Island. Scheduled for June 30 to July 3, these were to be the largest such manoeuvres for the non-permanent active militia in Militia District No.11 that year.

At the time, it was not certain how much the RCAF could participate in the forthcoming training. The force was committed to flying preventive patrols (i.e. anti-smuggling flights) on behalf of the RCMP. On June 28, assurances were obtained that only one aircraft need stand by for such duties. Vancouver Air Station detailed a Fairchild (G-CYXP) and a Vedette (116) to the scheme.

Sqdn. Ldr. Ambrose B. Shearer flew the Vedette to Esquimalt on June 28, with Leading Aircraftman Charles Bendall as crew and Lieutenant-Colonel H.F.G. Letson as passenger: the army officer wished to reconnoitre the ground where the exercises were to be held. On alighting in the harbour, he reported to headquarters, Military District No. 11, and received fresh orders. He was to fly at 5,000 feet altitude past Fort Macauley, keeping between 6,000 and 7,000 yards distant. This would enable anti-aircraft gun crews to practice setting and range finding. The exercise would conclude with a red Verey cartridge being fired.

Shearer and the Vedette were airborne at 7:20 p.m. and carried out successive fly-bys until 8:20 p.m. when the signal flare was fired. He landed just before dark; later he was informed that the artillery commander had been quite pleased with the results. Shearer flew back to Vancouver on June 29.

Flying Officer Martin Costello piloted Vedette 116 to Esquimalt on June 30. For most of the exercises, he carried Aircraftman 1st Class F.D. Gibbs as signaller and Lieut. B.H. Lamont as army observer. Shearer followed on July 1 in the Fairchild; his signaller was Sergeant N.E. Small and he would regularly have Captain Johnson (MD.11 Signals) as observer. Unhappily, neither aircraft carried wireless; the militia had borrowed most sets. Communications between aircraft and troops would thus be through Aldis Lamp, message bags and strips of cloth laid out on the ground—tried-and-true methods from 1918!

Both pilots filed detailed reports which give some idea of the exercises as seen from an RCAF standpoint. One cannot help sensing earnest amateurism, yet nascent professionalism, as both land and air units tried to simulate a military operation with equipment that was more suited to fishery protection.

Shearer’s departure from Vancouver had been delayed by engine trouble. He subsequently wrote: “Took off at 0400 hours. Arrived over Tod Inlet at 0435 hours. Picked out our left flank battalion headquarters and started sending in reports with Aldis Lamp. Also dropped a number of message bags. 0445 hours shot down enemy aircraft encountered 2,000 feet over Mill Bay Ferry Dock. Continued to patrol landing area until all troops were formed up and en route for camp at Heal’s Rifle Range. Flew to Esquimalt Harbour, landed and tied up to a buoy.”

Shearer had flown Fairchild G-CYXP a total of three hours and 10 minutes, covering 250 miles. The reference to an “enemy aircraft” is puzzling; it may have been a simulation. On the other hand, it is conceivable that Shearer carried out a mock attack on Costello, who was in the area about the same time, assisting “defenders” in the same manner that his commanding officer was supporting “attackers.”

Flying Officer Costello and crew had been airborne from Esquimalt at 3:20 a.m., July 1. His duties were more complex, as his sortie report indicates: “Took off east along coast around Victoria and north to Bazan then west to Saanich Inlet in search of landing party of 600 troops from Vancouver. Boats located at Tod Inlet at 0355. Information dropped to defending headquarters in message bag. Three ships steamed north to Patricia Bay after troops landed. (0445 hours) Landed at Tod Inlet to discuss situation with observer. (0450 hours) Took off. Patrolled area where operations were in progress. Very difficult to distinguish attacking troops from defending troops. Practically all movements were along roads. (0530 hours, Tod Inlet). Landed. (0545 hours) Took off, dropped message to headquarters. Returned to Esquimalt.

He landed at 6:15 a.m., having flown for two hours and 35 minutes and covered 170 miles. However, the day was not over. Both pilots made further sorties to Tod Inlet, this time carrying militia officers who were given 15-minute views of the manoeuvres. Things did not always go smoothly. Both air and ground personnel were inexperienced in Aldis signalling and messages were often repeated before being understood.

Costello and the Vedette returned to Vancouver on July 2. Shearer and the Fairchild remained at Esquimalt, taking up a few more militia officers. He also took up two naval officers, Lieutenant-Commander James R. Beach and Lieut. Frank D. Campbell. Canadian warships Skeena and Vancouver were present and some further Aldis signalling exercises were tried. Late that afternoon, Shearer alighted in Esquimalt Harbour and found the bottom of the fuselage badly torn. His engine was also running badly. With repairs effected, he returned to Vancouver on July 3.

Surviving records of Militia District No.11 for that period are scarce, but the Directorate of History and Heritage has a document, part diary, part scrapbook, kept by the District Signals Section. It includes the following entry for 1932:

Annual Manoeuvres

A tactical scheme was carried out on Vancouver Island. This was a combined manoeuvre using the Air Force, Navy and Militia. This unit was allowed 40 all ranks and there was a full attendance. The troops embarked on warships on the night of 30 June 32 and were landed in the early morning at Tod Inlet. A march was made in to camp at Heals. The remainder of the training took place at Heals. The L.T. men ran lines through the camp, and the V.T. people were given plenty to do with station work. The radio car recently built was put to an excellent test. Communication was set up by W.T. with Work Point barracks and to H.Q. in Vancouver direct. During slack period in the evening and on Saturday afternoon sports were indulged in. On the Sunday embarkation was carried out and the troops landed back in Vancouver in late afternoon in time for a march past and early dismissal.

The exercise may appear routine to modern readers, but it represented a major Canadian military manoeuvre by the standards of the day. Many of the personnel went on to greater things. Shearer attained the rank of air vice-marshal and Costello that of air commodore. Sgt. N.E. Small became Sqdn Ldr. Small, DFC, AFC, a hero in Eastern Air Command before dying in an air crash in January 1943. Lieut. F.D. Campbell became Cmdr. Campbell, OBE, decorated for wartime services as Commodore of Coastal Convoys. Among the young militia officers carried on those brief flights were 2nd Lieut. T.H. Jermwyn, Royal Cdn. Engineers, who as Major Jermwyn was awarded the MBE for wartime services with 6 Field Company and 1 Cdn. Workshop Company (1944). Lt.-Col. Letson rose to the rank of major-general; his appointments included adjutant general and chairman of the Canadian Joint Staff in Washington, D.C.

To keep in touch with current developments, RCAF officers were routinely sent to Britain for courses and liaison. These postings included assignments at the School of Army Co-operation, Old Sarum, where RAF and Commonwealth officers took courses based on WW I tactics, modified by British experience in colonial campaigns, and adapting to newer equipment such as camera guns.

Any airplane could be adapted to army co-operation training, but the pride of the RCAF was its small fleet of Armstrong-Whitworth Atlas machines especially designed for such work. Six of these were bought in 1927, and 10 more were acquired in 1934. Among their tasks were message drops and pickups, the latter demanding great skill in low flying.

As time passed and airframes aged, the limitations of the type became more apparent. By 1939 they could not match syllabi requirements; their effective ceiling was 11,000 feet and supply dropping apparatus did not fit existing bomb racks. Their age and construction meant excessive time spent in maintenance and reconditioning. In 1939, the field at Camp Shilo in Manitoba was described as “just large enough for the operation of Atlas aircraft.” At Camp Dundurn it was worse—“too small and rough in its present condition for satisfactory operations of aircraft of the Atlas type.” The surface was so rough that undercarriages and airframes were stressed and radio tubes broken in hard bounces. The Atlases had such short ranges that any lengthy trip had to be interrupted by a refuelling stop, and aircraft were as apt to travel long distances by rail as under their own power.

As of mid-1939 Army Co-operation personnel looked forward to the introduction of a more modern machine, the Westland Lysander, blissfully unaware that within a year the newer type would be proven unsuited to the modern battlefield and that even the old doctrines would be obsolete. By 1941, entirely new army co-operation methods were evolving, with army officers in light aircraft directing artillery fire while heavily armed fighters and light bombers assumed ground attack roles. Twenty years of interwar service training had served to keep alive a military spirit in the RCAF: otherwise, the army co-operation exercises had been largely futile.

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