Patrolling The Coasts: Air Force, Part 13

January 1, 2006 by Hugh A. Halliday

PHOTO: LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—CO28590

PHOTO: LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—CO28590

At least three flying boats can be seen in this photo taken at Jericho Beach, Vancouver, in 1921.

Much of the Royal Canadian Air Force’s military flying after World War I had little application to preparations for WW II. A previous article in this series demonstrated that “army co-operation” training amounted to getting ready to re-fight WW I (Preparing For The Past, November/December 2004). Realistic fighter training was wholly absent. Even the most prominent form of “aid to the civil power”–aerial photography and mapping–applied techniques that would be rendered obsolete by mid-1940 when high-altitude reconnaissance tactics superseded stately medium-altitude sweeps along predetermined grid lines.Maritime patrol work between the wars came closest to replicating the types of operations that Canada’s homeland defences would have to perform in WW II, although at times the resemblances between peaceable and belligerent operations might appear strained.

From 1920 onwards the Air Board and then the RCAF carried out unarmed patrols on the east and west coasts with a view to suppressing smuggling, enforcing fishing regulations, and searching for lost vessels. The work was initially conducted with WW I flying boats, which were succeeded by more modern machines.

Marine flying operations in 1920 were very limited. The Imperial Gift aircraft (The Imperial Gift, September/October 2004) were just arriving in Canada, and an old base had to be rehabilitated at Shearwater, N.S., while a new base had to be built at Jericho Beach, Vancouver. Even so, most of the flying that year was aimed at determining what limitations would be imposed by weather and local topography. An excellent study of the West Coast air station can be found in Chris Weicht’s 1997 book Jericho Beach and the West Coast Flying Boat Stations.

Many of the interwar records are sparse, where they exist at all. Between Aug. 22-24, 1921, a Canadian Air Force detachment operating an HS2L aircraft co-operated with HMCS Aurora on exercises, reconnoitered Halifax Harbour, and observed general ship movements. Numerous messages were passed between ship and aircraft by radio and Aldis lamp. It was considered a notable achievement when the flying boat ventured 50 miles out to sea, then escorted navy ships back to port. Unhappily, the identities of the aircrews taking part are unknown.

The Vancouver Air Station was busy in 1922 with patrols that, although considered as “aid to the civil power,” clearly helped train crews for more serious work. Between April 6 and Oct. 9, the air force flew 27 sorties, observing liners inbound from the Orient. The object was to watch for crewmen or passengers throwing watertight and buoyed packages overboard; the great fear was that narcotics might be slipped into Canada in this manner. The Department of Customs and Excise reported that such patrols complicated the operations of smugglers who might retrieve these packages. Not every ship was escorted, but the random nature of the checks made it difficult for criminals to designate any particular vessel for contraband shipments.

Flying Officer Earl L. MacLeod recalled an incident that demonstrated how even smugglers could exhibit a sense of humour while testing the effectiveness of the patrols. In the course of a sortie a suspicious parcel had been dropped from a liner in the vicinity of an equally suspect speedboat. The smaller vessel made no attempt to retrieve the package, so MacLeod and a customs officer alighted, picked it up, and began a thorough examination: “We found the parcel well sealed, with many layers of waterproof wrapping, then layer after layer of other wrapping, and nothing inside–a well-prepared dummy!”

These operations continued into 1923, usually with a customs officer on board. One vessel, the SS Trucilla, was seized for rum-running. This incident also involved MacLeod who described the capture: “We spotted her at anchor in a snug cove not far from East Point Lighthouse. By shutting off my engine, and gauging my glide, we landed and were aboard before the crew, below deck, knew we were near. Mr. de Graves (Customs Officer Norman de Graves) met the captain and crew dramatically, with drawn pistol, when they appeared on deck. Several rifles were lying about the deck, for protection, the captain informed us, against hijackers. Mr. de Graves ordered the offending ship to return to Vancouver, remaining on board himself to see that it did so, and the owners were, in due course, fined.”

The year 1923 saw the expansion of RCAF operations into fisheries protection work. Initially, the emphasis was on Americans encroaching on Canadian fishing areas, but in subsequent years the air force was called upon to help curb overfishing by Canadians in home waters. An air base was established at Prince Rupert, B.C., and in 1924, RCAF crews flew 81 patrols, watching for oversized nets, fishing at closed periods or in prohibited waters.

The air force was not always welcome; indeed, hostility often emanated from unexpected sources. In July 1925, Flying Officer Alan H. Hull and Flight Lieutenant Earl MacLeod appeared in Essington, B.C., at the trials of five fishermen who had been detected from the air as being in breach of Pacific Coast fisheries regulations. Although convictions were returned in every instance, the two officers had some scathing remarks about the trials in general. “We were given the definite impression throughout that everybody connected with the trials had had absolutely no previous experience with such prosecutions” and the judges in particular. “Practically every simple angle of the Fisheries Regulations appeared to be something new to the presiding Magistrate.”

Publicly, the two officers explained the regulations to the judge, and when in one instance of flagrant misconduct the judge proposed a $15 fine, the officers argued that the amount would be too low. The judge eventually settled on a $25 penalty.

Hull and MacLeod had not endeared themselves to anyone that day. Privately, in a report to Squadron Leader J.H. Tudhope (then commanding officer at Vancouver Air Station), they suggested that the local magistrates were in a conflict of interest, one being a doctor at the local cannery and the other being the accountant for two other canneries. The incident explained why aerial fishery patrols were unpopular with both the fishermen and some officials who should have been enforcing the regulations more strictly.

It is hardly surprising that commercial aerial firms looked on the RCAF as unfair competition and lobbied to have many fields opened to them. By 1928 fisheries patrols were in the hands of Pacific Airways, managed by Donald R. MacLaren. But even when government departments contracted work to private firms, they found themselves under attack. In 1934, the Department of Fisheries, having renewed a previous contract with Canadian Airways, was fiercely criticized by Wells Air Transport Limited.

While they lasted, the fisheries patrols taxed the ingenuity and resilience of the RCAF aircrews. Radio communications were erratic, weather unpredictable, and the aging HS2L flying boats unreliable. MacLeod recalled an incident on Oct. 14, 1925, when his engine failed and he had to alight on the ocean near the Carmanah Lighthouse. Happily the sea was calm, but the aircraft drifted inexorably towards shore where even moderate waves became thunderous breakers on the rocks. Rescue came in the form of a lone fishing boat that first sailed past them, then reversed its course and towed the flying boat to Port Renfrew (Port San Juan Bay), from whence it was eventually towed to Esquimalt, B.C. MacLeod suspected that the people who completed the tow were themselves rum-runners.

Although the RCAF ceased to fly oceanic patrols for the Department of Fisheries after 1926, it had occasional assignments from the RCMP and the Department of Customs and Excise to continue anti-smuggling patrols. However, in 1932 only one Pacific coast aircraft was needed to stand by for such missions. That enabled the RCAF to indulge in some rare make-believe warfare. Between June 30 and July 3, 1932, the force participated in an extensive (by contemporary standards) “combined operations” exercise with the Royal Canadian Navy and the Militia on Vancouver Island. It included a landing and a march inland by 600 troops.

Squadron Leader Ambrose B. Shearer commanded a two-airplane detachment, consisting of one Vickers Vedette flying boat and a Fairchild float plane. His first task was to conduct Lieutenant-Colonel H.F.G. Letson on an aerial tour of the exercise area; his next job was to fly over the Esquimalt area at 5,000 feet to permit anti-aircraft gun crews to calibrate their weapons. In subsequent days both aircraft performed varied tasks–sometimes reconnaissance, sometimes playing the role of “hostile forces.” Unhappily, neither machine carried wireless; the militia had borrowed most sets. Communications between aircraft and troops were thus through Aldis lamp, message bags and strips of cloth laid out on the ground: tried-and-true methods from 1918!

Detailed reports of the exercises, as seen by the aircrews, communicate a sense of earnest amateurism yet nascent professionalism as both land and air units tried to simulate a military operation with equipment that was more suited to a camping expedition combined with fishery protection. Shearer himself went on to become an air vice-marshal, Letson a major-general.

In 1932, several detachments were formed at Ottawa Air Station, also known as Rockcliffe. The detachments were equipped with Vickers Vancouver flying boats and Fairchild 71 float planes. These were then dispatched to Rimouski and Gaspé in Quebec, Shediac, N.B., and Dartmouth, N.S., to assist RCMP personnel in suppressing smuggling and rum-running. The aircraft and crews returned to Ottawa each autumn. By 1934 the Vancouvers had been supplanted entirely by Fairchilds. That year the detachments were concentrated at Dartmouth for the winter and were re-designated 5 Flying Boat Sqdn. Dartmouth itself had been undergoing renovations using Unemployment Relief workers.

The enemy was smugglers running liquor from West Indian ports to Canadian and American destinations. The method was that RCAF aircraft flying numerous patrols would then summon RCMP vessels which shadowed the smuggler so long as he remained in international waters, forcing him to either dump his cargo or make a risky dash for port.

Changes in the RCAF’s preventative patrols followed, some small, others large. In 1935, the Rimouski detachment was replaced by one at Sydney, N.S., and similar juggling of detachments followed in subsequent years. The most significant change occurred late in 1938 when 5 Sqdn. began retiring its Fairchilds and replacing them with Stranraer flying boats–the first relatively modern warplanes acquired by the RCAF when rearmament began.

Winter routines included the dismantling and overhauling of aircraft, improving buildings and ground training; the latter put much emphasis on signals proficiency. This came to the fore in April 1936 during the so-called Moose River Mine Disaster when three men got trapped in a derelict Nova Scotia mine, two of whom were ultimately taken out alive. Flight Sergeant R.F. Gibb made the first RCAF flight to the scene, carrying rubber tubing and other equipment. Subsequent trips by Gibb, Flt. Sgt. H. Bryant and Sgt. S. Volk delivered radio equipment and staff to Moose River, later evacuating survivors and medical personnel.

The Moose River episode was interesting for all, but it delayed the commencement of the patrols, which were the main business of 5 Sqdn. Another distraction was a medical evacuation flight from Sable Island on May 23, 1936.

That year marked the conclusion of RCAF preventative patrols. The force was gradually being prepared for war and in 1937 the RCMP established its own air branch. The squadron, meanwhile, busied itself with mercy flights, army and navy exercises, and surveys of potential wartime airfields at Île d’Anticosti, Cape Breton Island and the Magdalene Islands. With the delivery of the Stranraers in November and December 1938, 5 Sqdn. commenced serious military training that included the unit’s first air-to-ground firing practices in March 1939.

The squadron was still operating Fairchild 71s, and late in 1939 it would receive Norseman aircraft, but the Stranraer flying boats were especially prominent that year as escorts to vessels carrying King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, touring Canada in the first visit to this country by a reigning monarch.

The prewar 5 Sqdn. had never been a large unit; it usually had about 65 personnel (all ranks) on duty, assisted by a dozen civilian staff. Nevertheless, some persons destined for fame and high rank passed through its prewar portals. Flying Officer L.G.G.J. Archambault rose to group captain and commanded a Sunderland flying boat squadron overseas. Flt. Lt. Martin Costello would rise to Air Commodore and serve (among other tasks) as Senior Air Staff Officer, Eastern Air Command, during the Battle of the Atlantic. Flt. Lt. J.D. Twigg would become the first commanding officer of 413 Sqdn. overseas. He would also become one of that squadron’s first casualties. Flying Officer Leonard Birchall would become Canada’s longest-serving air force officer, decorated for wartime deeds over the Indian Ocean and in Japanese PoW camps.

As of Aug. 24, 1939, 5 Sqdn. had grown to 163 (all ranks), and on Sept. 1 a “precautionary” alert was issued. Anti-submarine patrols began the next day; as of Sept. 10 they became war patrols in the fullest sense. On Sept. 14-15, 1939, the Stranraers shadowed a German ship, the Franz Klazen, until it was intercepted by RCN warships. The long years of peaceable oceanic patrols were over; the RCAF was now embarking on serious sea warfare on its own home doorstep.

But that is another story.
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