The Flying Newfoundlanders: Air Force, Part 18

PHOTO: CANADIAN FORCES—RE12820; PHOTO: CANADIAN FORCES—PL57231;  PHOTO: CANADIAN FORCES—PL9311

PHOTO: CANADIAN FORCES—RE12820; PHOTO: CANADIAN FORCES—PL57231; PHOTO: CANADIAN FORCES—PL9311

Clockwise from top left: Newfoundlander Roy S. Grandy worked as an air force instructor in 1922; Allan Ogilvie was a decorated bomber navigator in WW II; Newfoundland air force trainees (from left) Cyril Crummy, Sebastian Farrell and Albert Poole.

Newfoundland’s pre-Confederation history is as much a part of Canadian heritage as that of any other province. That applies to its combat record in the air.

Military aeronautics did not exist in Canada prior to World War I, although numerous aviation meets had been held in major cities while itinerant “barnstormers”–most of them Americans–had appeared across the nation. Relatively isolated, Newfoundland was excluded from the itineraries of these aerial gypsies.

As with Canadians, it was from the army that the first Newfoundlanders entered the British flying services. The earliest of these was Howard Vincent Reid who transferred in 1915 from the Royal Newfoundland Regiment to the Royal Flying Corps. At least 14 veterans of that unit became members of the RFC, although one subsequently returned to the regiment. One–Lieutenant J.H.S. Green–was killed in action; two–lieutenants J.W. Blackall and L.A. Edens–were taken prisoner. The latter died in captivity in March 1918.

Seven more Newfoundlanders joined the RFC or Royal Air Force directly, some in Britain and some by travelling to Canada to enrol for training in this country. Of the estimated 21 pilots and observers, two were decorated for distinguished services. They were Captain Victor S. Bennett, who received a French Croix de Guerre, and Captain Ronald H. Ayre, who earned a Military Cross.

Bennett’s award resulted from a very detailed recommendation. On July 18, 1918, he had been part of a fighter formation escorting bombers. His leader had engine trouble and had to turn back before crossing the lines. Bennett immediately took his place and led the formation with the greatest gallantry and skill. When about 15 miles over the line, he attacked and drove off with his patrol 15 enemy machines which were attacking the bombing machines. He engaged them for about 25 minutes, enabling the bombers to re-cross the lines unmolested. Bennett brought down two enemy machines out of control and used practically the whole of his ammunition. Notwithstanding this, he turned back and drove off some enemy machines that were attacking a single aircraft. He then collected his patrol with the loss of only one machine in spite of a very strong adverse wind and subsequently brought them safely back to Allied lines.

The experience of Private Joseph Daymond is particularly evocative. Born in St. John’s in 1896, he enlisted in the Royal Newfoundland Regt. and was seriously wounded in the jaw at Beaumont Hamel on July 1, 1916. In December that year he was discharged as being “no longer physically fit for war service” but he was soon applying to join the RFC in Canada where a training scheme had been established. Details of his 1917-18 flying are lacking; he appears not to have gone overseas before the Armistice. He subsequently joined the Merchant Navy, then moved to the United States. His story might have remained unknown beyond his family but for the fact that his medals and documents were auctioned in April 2004 and sold for $780.

World aviation “discovered” Newfoundland after the war, principally as a place to initiate transatlantic flights. Indeed, the pasture where John Alcock and Arthur Brown took off on their pioneering crossing is now a historic site. Nevertheless, the citizens of that colony were largely bystanders as Americans, British, Canadians and even one Australian–Sydney Cotton–tried their hand at delivering airmails, conducting aerial surveys and locating seal herds during the annual harvest. The only Newfoundlander active in this work was Roy S. Grandy, formerly of the Royal Newfoundland Regt. and RAF, who left the nascent Royal Canadian Air Force in 1923 to try his hand at commercial flying before returning to the RCAF in 1925.

Newfoundland was rediscovered in the mid-1930s as a potential base for transoceanic flying boat services. Nevertheless, aeronautics largely remained something involving those who “came from away.” The Commission Government which took over in 1934 operated two aircraft, while a gliding club was established in St. John’s in 1938. Prior to WW II there were fewer than a dozen aircraft or pilots in the colony, and native participation–the gliding club aside–was almost nil.

A few Newfoundlanders took advantage of opportunities to join the RAF, as did hundreds of Canadians. In 1938 and 1939, to assuage local unemployment, the Anglo-Newfoundland Development Company, in co-operation with the Daily Mail newspaper, subsidized 29 men from the colony to cross the Atlantic and join the RAF. When WW II began, this handful of men became the first Newfoundland airmen to serve in the war–and the first to die, commencing with FO Philip F. Templeman of St. John’s. He joined the RAF in May 1937 and was shot down March 24, 1940, while piloting a Wellington bomber of No. 37 Squadron. At the time he was engaged in a leaflet dropping mission over northern Germany. He died of his wounds March 31.

Before the year was out, two more Newfoundlanders had perished in battle. FO George D. Ayre of St. John’s, a member of the RAF since May 1938, was fatally wounded flying a Spitfire of No. 609 Sqdn. over Dunkirk on May 30, 1940. Pilot Officer Richard A. Howley, also of St. John’s, was shot down and killed July 19, 1940, while piloting a Defiant fighter of No. 141 Sqdn. The Defiant, crewed by a pilot and a gunner, was one of the most misbegotten designs ever to fly in the RAF. It was slow, cumbersome and designed to shoot down only aircraft that were approaching from the side or rear. It had no forward-firing armament. Howley’s aircraft was one of seven shot down by Messerschmitt 109s in a single action.

When the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan agreements were negotiated in December 1939, there was no certainty as to where Newfoundland recruits might be incorporated into the scheme. As a temporary measure, the Commission Government decided to allow persons interested in RAF training to proceed overseas with artillery drafts. Once in Britain, they were examined and trade-tested by the RAF. If not up to air force standards, they were retained by two Newfoundland artillery regiments then being formed. A total of 71 men joined the RAF by this indirect route.

In June 1940, authorities decided to include a Newfoundland quota of enlistments to be part of a larger RAF quota for the BCATP. Recruits were interviewed in the colony by RCAF officers and examined by an RAF doctor. Those who passed all tests were subsequently sent to the mainland to be fed into the BCATP. The first 52 men proceeded to Canada in August 1940 and duly graduated. There were four pilots, four observers (navigators) and 44 wireless air gunners. By the end of the war precisely half were dead.

During the war a total of 429 men were sent to Canada, trained either as aircrew or groundcrew, then posted overseas as members of the RAF. Meanwhile, the army (artillery and forestry units) continued to be a source of recruiting, while other Newfoundlanders travelled directly to Britain to enlist in the RAF. A few had relatively short careers. Roy L. Humber was in the RAF less than five months before being released. He subsequently joined the Canadian Army. Two men were dishonourably discharged. Lists of Newfoundlanders include Reginald W. Brown, who may have been working in the colony when he was accepted by the RAF, as he is otherwise identified as being from Antler, Sask.

As early as December 1939 the Commission Government expressed the hope that one or two squadrons might be created overseas with distinct Newfoundland connections. One such unit was organized. No. 125 (Newfoundland) Sqdn. was formed as a night fighter unit at Colerne, Wiltshire on June 16, 1941. While no complete history of No. 125 Sqdn. has been written, G.W.L. Nicholson’s 1969 book, More Fighting Newfoundlanders: A History of Newfoundland’s Fighting Forces in the Second World War, devotes 36 pages to its formation and operations up to final disbandment on Nov. 20, 1945. Space does not permit regurgitation of Nicholson’s text, but a brief recapitulation may inspire readers to seek out his work in libraries or used bookstores.

The RAF posted several trained colony aircrew to the unit, although some were on hand only briefly. Sergeant Walter C. Vatcher of Rose Blanche, Nfld., reported to No. 125 on Oct. 5, 1941, and he managed to “bend” two airplanes within a month, and was posted away at the end of November. Unhappily, No. 125 was first equipped with Defiants, which were almost as ineffective by night as they had been disastrous by day. Although FO Randall White claimed a Heinkel 111 as “probably destroyed” while piloting a Defiant on the night of April 26, 1942, the pilots faced long odds against intercepting enemy aircraft until the squadron converted to Beaufighters and then to Mosquitos.

Modernizing equipment actually reduced the odds of having “Newfoundland content” in No. 125 Sqdn., for retirement of the Defiant meant posting air gunners–many of whom were Newfoundlanders–to bomber and coastal squadrons, to be replaced by specialist radar operators. The RAF, which offered passive resistance to RCAF efforts to Canadianize RCAF squadrons overseas, was under little pressure to maintain a Newfoundland presence in No. 125 Sqdn.

The result was a curious fiction, tolerated by all parties. No. 125 Sqdn. was formally a “Newfoundland” unit financially subsidized by the Newfoundland government and frequently visited by Newfoundland officials. The aircraft were often named for Newfoundland communities. When a squadron badge was approved in October 1944, it incorporated the caribou so familiar to those who have seen the monument at Beaumont Hamel. Nevertheless, Newfoundland personnel never constituted a majority of the personnel, and even declined in numbers to the point that the unit was eventually described as “the lost child” of Newfoundland’s overseas forces. As of November 1943, only five of the aircrew–out of roughly 30 pilots and radar operators–were from Newfoundland. Among groundcrew the figure was 45 out of roughly 200. The problem of finding appropriate reinforcements was complicated after 1942 when the RCAF took to recruiting both men and women directly in the colony.

Curiously, Newfoundlanders represented about half the casualties in No. 125 Sqdn., yet they accounted for few of the 44 enemy aircraft destroyed by the unit in its career. A notable exception was Flight Sergeant Royle Cooper who, on the night of July 28-29, 1944, shot down the first V-1 flying bomb claimed by the squadron.

No. 125 Sqdn. had a brief postwar RAF reincarnation as a night-fighter unit–from March 1955 to May 1957–flying Meteor and then Venom jets.

While No. 125 Sqdn. represented a nominal Newfoundland presence within the RAF, most RAF men from the colony were scattered throughout the force in all commands and theatres. Several had very distinguished careers. Vatcher, following his inauspicious start with No. 125, went on to become a fighter-bomber pilot, first with No. 32 Sqdn. and then with No. 174 Sqdn. He flew in support of the Dieppe Raid and attacked German armour in Normandy. Vatcher was awarded a DFC and mentioned in dispatches before his death on July 26, 1944.

The most decorated Newfoundland airman was Allan McPherson Ogilvie of Grand Falls. He was in the first group sent to Canada for aircrew training, graduated as an RAF navigator, and helped ferry a Hudson bomber to England in August 1941. Most of his service was with No. 83 Sqdn. He was awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross, then a Bar to the DFC, before being shot down in March 1943. Before he bailed out he ensured that his pilot was safely away from the burning bomber. Ogilvie evaded capture with the help of the French resistance and would later be awarded a Croix de Guerre. Upon returning to England he became a Pathfinder navigational instructor. After VE-Day he transferred to the RCAF and was preparing to go to the Pacific when the atomic bomb ended that phase of the war. He subsequently made the Canadian Forces his career, received the Order of Military Merit, and retired with the rank of colonel.

Global service by Newfoundlanders also entailed global sacrifices. At least 132 of the estimated 815 Newfoundland/ RAF members died on duty. Their comrades in death included Argentines, Americans and residents of every nation in the Commonwealth. When a Wellington of No. 10 Operational Training Unit crashed in Britain on Jan. 4, 1945, the casualties included one member of the Royal New Zealand Air Force, a Jamaican member of the RAF, and one Newfoundlander, Warrant Officer Neil W. Harnett.

One Newfoundland member of the RAF died of natural causes in Canada. Others succumbed in England through disease, mishaps and flying training accidents. Many were lost in sorties to all corners of Europe and its adjacent seas. At least six are commemorated on the Singapore Memorial, dedicated to Far East fatalities with no known graves. FO William J. Locke of No. 249 Sqdn. was killed May 29, 1943, and is commemorated on the Malta Memorial, as is Pilot Officer Maxwell H. Gill of No. 108 Sqdn., killed July 17, 1944. Sgt. Lloyd R. Hollett, who was killed Aug. 2, 1945, is buried in Israel.

No attempt has been made to describe the services of Newfoundlanders who enlisted in the RCAF, for their story forms part of the history of that force. Those who enlisted in the RAF were of another category. There never was a Royal Newfoundland Air Force, but the Newfoundlanders who served with the RAF in two world wars were the closest approximation of such a body.
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