Eastern Air Command: Air Force, Part 14

PHOTOS: CANADIAN FORCES—PL2730; PL23463

PHOTOS: CANADIAN FORCES—PL2730; PL23463

A flying boat from 5 (Bomber Reconnaissance) Squadron patrols over an Atlantic convoy; Inset: Squadron Leader Clare L. Annis.

The Royal Canadian Air Force was not wholly unprepared when it entered World War II. The force had been receiving newer aircraft since 1934, although many of the types, like the Westland Wapiti and Blackburn Shark were hand-me-downs from the Royal Air Force. Experience in WW I had shown that German U-boats could be expected off the East Coast. Eastern Air Command had been formed in 1938 with headquarters in Halifax, and on the eve of war several flying units were transferred to its jurisdiction.

Yet in September 1939, EAC looked very feeble. A few Stranraer flying boats provided some long-range scouting capability, but the Wapiti bombers were relics and the Northrop Deltas were photographic aircraft hastily converted to patrol work.

The concentration of RCAF resources in Atlantic Canada also brought the force’s first casualties. On Sept. 14, 1939, a Northrop Delta from 8 Squadron disappeared while en route to Sydney, N.S. The wreckage was located in New Brunswick in 1958, but there were no traces of its crew, Flight Sergeant J.E. Doan and Leading Aircraftman D.A. Rennie.

Within days of the Delta’s disappearance, EAC sustained its first operational loss. On Sept.17, 1939, Squadron Leader R.C. Mair was piloting a Stranraer with eight others on board. Having completed one convoy escort patrol, he refuelled at Sable Island and then set out to execute another patrol before returning to base. He became lost, ran out of fuel and finally force-landed in Cabot Strait. The aircraft drifted at sea for 24 hours before a Swedish tanker rescued the crew. A Royal Canadian Navy tug tried to tow the Stranraer to Sydney, but the aircraft filled with water and sank.

Eastern Air Command crews were busy monitoring shipping and their patrols aided in the apprehension of the first enemy merchant ships close to Canadian waters. Following the capitulation of France in June 1940, a close watch was kept on the French islands of St-Pierre-et-Miquelon where the populace was Gaullist but the governor was pro-Vichy.

On Sept. 15, 1940, an EAC patrol provoked a riot. Sqdn. Ldr. H.M. Carscallen, piloting a Digby of 10 (Bomber Reconnaissance) Sqdn., made a low-level reconnaissance of St-Pierre. Sailors on a French warship in the harbour manned the ship’s anti-aircraft gun while civilians hurled insults and stones at the vessel. The crew switched their attention from the plane to the crowd, turned a fire hose on them, and finally threw an armed guard around the quay. Carscallen, oblivious to the situation, completed his reconnaissance. The islands remained under surveillance until Free French forces seized them in December 1941.

Nevertheless, enemy submarines were EAC’s first concern and priority. Fortunately, as of 1939, the German navy was almost as unprepared for war. Two years passed before U-boats began to seriously haunt the western Atlantic. By then EAC had expanded and received an array of modern aircraft, notably Consolidated Catalina and Canso flying boats and Lockheed Hudson patrol bombers. One squadron, 10 (BR) Sqdn., had received long-range Douglas Digby aircraft. New bases had been opened throughout the Maritimes and Newfoundland. Equally important, EAC crews had begun to learn modern anti-submarine tactics.

But it was German surface raiders that first tested EAC. In February and March 1941 the battle cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau sank 21 merchant ships some 350 to 500 miles from Newfoundland before turning eastwards to Brest, France. For the RCAF’s detachment at St. John’s, the possibility of ever spotting an enemy warship was remote because there were too few Digbys, the weather was foul, and on this occasion aircrews did not display the “press on spirit” that characterized many units later in the war.

On July 22, 1941, Flight Lieutenant Norville E. Small of 116 Sqdn., flying one of the new Catalinas, attacked what he believed to be a U-boat near Halifax. His two, 250-pound bombs failed to explode. There was, in fact, no U-boat present, but the incident showed that even with more modern aircraft, EAC still lacked effective weapons.

Earlier, RAF Coastal Command had learned that bombs with contact fuses were next to useless against submarines–only a direct hit was effective, and only then if the explosives were sufficient. Depth charges dropped at low level and triggered by water pressure (hydrostatic detonation) were the answer–an explosion close to a U-boat hull could inflict serious, even fatal damage. On Oct. 25, 1941, Sqdn. Ldr. Clare L. Annis, while piloting a Digby of 10 (Bomber Reconnaissance) Sqdn., attacked U-573 some 100 miles east of Hare Bay. Unhappily, the bombs had been put on “safe” by a crew member who had not informed Annis, and they splashed harmlessly into the sea.

Once the United States entered the war all German fears about involvement with a neutral power vanished. The Battle of the Atlantic moved westwards. The most lucrative targets lay to the south, but Canadian waters were still very active. Between January and May 1942, 55 ships were sunk in an area north of 40 degrees north latitude and west of 40 degrees west longitude, including eight torpedoed within 150 miles of St. John’s. EAC crews spent many hours locating survivors, directing rescue vessels to the scene, and generally trying to force U-boats down. There were a few attacks on U-boats, none producing any results and some of which were obviously made on whales.

EAC’s first victory of a sorts was on June 23, 1942, when a Hudson flown by Pilot Officer W. Graham of 11 (Bomber Reconnaissance ) Sqdn. caught U-87 on the surface and depth charged her as she began to submerge. Sufficient damage caused her to break off her cruise and return to base.

There were ominous signs, however. Early in July, U-132 penetrated the Gulf of St. Lawrence, sank three ships, and escaped attacks by His Majesty’s Canadian Ship Drummondville and a Hudson of 113 (BR) Sqdn. If EAC had a hero at this time it was Norville Small, known as Molly to his friends. A pre-war non-commissioned officer pilot, he left the RCAF for a career in commercial flying before returning to the force in November 1939. Small rapidly became a driving force in EAC. He was smart, aggressive and charismatic, and eventually with a touch of ruthlessness. The official RCAF history described him as “Eastern Air Command’s outstanding pilot and most conscientious student of maritime airpower.” He studied and copied RAF Coastal Command methods, down to the detail of having aircraft painted in white camouflage. Where Small led, others eventually followed.

Unhappy with routine patrols that produced no sightings, Small had his crew at near-constant standby, ready to be “scrambled” at the first report of a U-boat. On April 28, 1942, now with 10 (BR) Sqdn., he attacked a submarine 15 seconds after it had submerged. Some debris, probably from a catwalk on the vessel, swirled to the surface. Small wryly noted, “The captain of the aircraft feels that though possibility of a clean kill is not very strong, he is certain that he definitely made their back teeth rattle.”

Small carried out six attacks in 1942, including EAC’s first confirmed kill. As of July 31, he was a squadron leader and in command of 113 (BR) Sqdn. While sweeping an area south of Halifax where a U-boat had been attacked the previous day, Small spotted U-754 on the surface with her crews running for the hatches. The Hudson was the fastest bomber in EAC, and Small caught his quarry before it could dive. Four 250-pound depth charges exploded around the hull. U-754 submerged, resurfaced then submerged again while oil and debris swirled around. Fifty-five minutes later a heavy underwater explosion provided the final proof.

September and October 1942 are among the worst months in Canada’s military history. U-165 and U-517 wrought havoc from the Strait of Belle Isle to the mouth of the St. Lawrence, sinking 12 ships while seeming impervious to RCN and RCAF searches and attacks. EAC crews reported seven attacks on the two submarines–one by a Digby of 10 (BR) Sqdn. and six by Hudsons of 113 (BR) Sqdn. At least four of these appeared promising at the time, yet no damage was inflicted. U-517 did have a narrow escape, however, when a depth charge lodged on the U-boat’s deck. The charge was discovered only after the U-boat surfaced. After it was rolled over the side, the charge exploded, presumably at its pre-set depth.

EAC aircrews suspected their efforts were just off the mark. Flying Officer M.J. Bélanger, captain of a Hudson crew, made three attacks between Sept. 25 and 29. When awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross, the citation described his results as “inflicting damage on one, probably sinking a second and possibly sinking a third.” Yet even at the time of his attacks, the assessments described nothing more serious than having given the enemy “a terrific shock.”

The need for Atlantic patrols was undiminished, yet the Battle of the St. Lawrence stretched EAC resources. Based at Charlottetown, 31 General Reconnaissance School was mobilized to fly patrols using Avro Ansons, each carrying two, 250-pound bombs. At the very outset of the war the Anson and its ordnance had failed in RAF anti-submarine work. Now in Canada it was remobilized as an aerial scarecrow. German views varied as to Canadian countermeasures. The captain of U-517 found his operations increasingly restricted by strengthened air patrols. In October 1942, U-69 reported “strong sea patrol and constant patrol by aircraft with radar.”

Far away in France, however, German Admiral Karl Dönitz dismissed the defence as “comparatively weak.” The escape of U-69 after sinking SS Caribou on Oct. 14, 1942, seemed to support his assessment.

Nevertheless, EAC scored a major victory on Oct. 30, 1942. Two Hudsons of 145 (BR) Sqdn. were conducting a sweep 280 miles northeast of Torbay, Nfld., when a submarine conning tower broke the surface. Flying Officer E.L. Robinson pounced before the enemy had time to get lookouts on deck. His report gives a flavour of the anti-submarine war: “The submarine was still surfacing when four, 250-pound depth charges, fused for 25 feet, were dropped as a 50-foot-spaced-stick from 25 feet, at an angle of 30 degrees from the submarine’s port quarter. The depth charges straddled the submarine and the explosions were observed by the rear gunner. Just prior to dropping the depth charges, the hull of the U-boat was machine-gunned. The first depth charge landed 15 feet off the port stern; the second 15 feet off the port beam just back of the conning tower; the third appeared to hit the submarine and roll off and explode; and the fourth exploded six feet off the starboard bow.

“The aircraft climbed sharply to the left and the depth charge swirl could be seen on either side of the conning tower. The submarine was again machine-gunned for a total of 300 rounds. The depth charges lifted the submarine higher out of the water, and it then settled with little more than the conning tower showing. One-third of the submarine then lifted out of the water (the stern; the propellers were clearly seen), at an angle estimated to be 40 degrees from the horizontal. It then settled straight down out of sight.”

The initial assessment of the attack was “seriously damaged.” In fact, Robinson’s four depth charges had put an end to U-658. That same day, Flying Officer D.F. Raymes, piloting a Digby of 10 (BR) Sqdn., attacked U-520 just as it slipped under the water. His large depth charges were concentrated in the swirl and observed results were promising–huge air bubbles, oil and finally an oil slick. The official assessment was cautious–“seriously damaged and probably sunk”–but Raymes had indeed destroyed the submarine.

Notwithstanding the double kill of Oct. 30, EAC was having problems. Land-based aircraft in Canada and Newfoundland could not cover ships much more then 500 miles from land; flying boats could operate out to 750 miles. Range was not everything, however; aircraft operating at the limit of their endurance had scant time to patrol around convoys. Ships were in greatest danger in the Black Pit between Iceland and Newfoundland where air cover was limited or non-existent. As a stop-gap measure, Small suggested changes to the Catalina and Canso that would permit the carriage of more fuel. Guns and ammunition were removed, 250-pound depth charges substituted for 450-pound ones, and a total of 1,269 pounds removed. On Jan. 7, 1943, he took off in a Catalina of 5 (BR) Sqdn. He intended to test his modifications on a 700-mile patrol, but for reasons unknown the aircraft crashed four miles from base, killing Small and most of his crew.

The Battle of the Atlantic raged on, and from EAC’s perspective, things were going to get worse before they got better. The next 10 months would see disaster turn to triumph.
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