Airmen Over Arnhem: Air Force, Part 29

October 10, 2008 by Hugh A. Halliday
Stirlings (above) were used as glider tugs and transports. [PHOTO: CANADIAN FORCES—PL45293]

Stirlings (above) were used as glider tugs and transports.
PHOTO: CANADIAN FORCES—PL45293

Official Royal Canadian Air Force histories of the Second World War have, of necessity, concentrated on policies directly affecting the national contribution and with particular reference to personnel in RCAF units. Unhappily, this has meant the stories of Canadians serving in Royal Air Force units have been underwritten. These men and women, often referred to as the Lost Legion, have occasionally protested such oversights, but the fact is their adventures can be told thoroughly only by subtracting other material from the official histories or by producing more books.

In many instances, the experiences of the Lost Legion personnel were not markedly different from those of their RCAF colleagues in Canadian squadrons. Thus, Canadians serving in No. 35 Squadron, which was an RAF unit in No. 8 Pathfinder Group, would operate in much the same manner as their fellow countrymen in No. 405 Sqdn., an RCAF unit in the same Pathfinder Group. Yet there are situations where a narrative of Canadian activities would be incomplete without reference to contributions made by both RCAF units and Lost Legion personnel operating simultaneously. An example would be Operation Market Garden in September 1944 which succeeded in seizing several important bridges in Holland, but ultimately failed in its objectives when the bridgehead at Arnhem was isolated and then snuffed out.

Wing Commander John A. Sproule. [PHOTO: CANADIAN FORCES—PL33879]

Wing Commander John A. Sproule.
PHOTO: CANADIAN FORCES—PL33879

The public is more aware of Market Garden than many other battles, due in large measure to Cornelius Ryan’s book A Bridge Too Far, and the film of the same name. Histories of No. 437 Sqdn. have described part of the RCAF’s role in the operation. However, if there is a definitive work on the air side of Arnhem, it is Green On! A Detailed Survey of the British Parachute Re-Supply Sorties During Operation ‘Market Garden’, 18-25 September 1944. This book, published in the Netherlands in 2004, was written by Arie-Jan Van Hees.

The operation called for paratroops and glider-borne forces to capture bridges at Grave, Eindhoven, Nijmegen and Arnhem, followed by their relief as ground forces advanced 65 miles. Airborne forces dropped on all objectives on Sept. 17, but owing to a shortage of aircraft the British forces delivered to Arnhem had to be dropped over two days: Sept. 17-18. Bad weather delayed the second Arnhem delivery until late afternoon, which enabled the Germans to take the initiative, seal off the bridgehead, and bar the way to the relieving forces. Heroic attempts to supply the troops at Arnhem by air persisted until Sept. 25, but in vain. As the airborne perimeter shrank, increasing numbers of “packages” fell into enemy rather than Allied hands.

Horsa gliders prepare for Operation Market Garden. [PHOTO: CANADIAN FORCES—PL32964]

Horsa gliders prepare for Operation Market Garden.
PHOTO: CANADIAN FORCES—PL32964

The RCAF was represented at Market Garden by No. 437 Sqdn. which had begun to form at Blakehill Farm on Sept. 4. It was led by Wing Commander John A. Sproule, a CAN/RAF officer (a direct Canadian enlistment in the RAF) and a veteran of Normandy paratroop operations. He remained the only pilot on strength until Sept. 15 when enough aircrew arrived to form a single flight. On Sept. 16, the unit diarist wrote: “All personnel are very busy preparing for an operation tomorrow. RAF Station Blakehill Farm has been sealed. No one may enter or leave the camp without permission.” Next day, No. 437 Sqdn. went to war.

The squadron was not engaged continually throughout Market Garden; on Sept. 19, 20 and 22 its Dakota aircraft were engaged in freighting operations from Britain to airfields in Belgium. Nevertheless, it saw considerable action on the other days, and its activities may be summarized as follows:

Sept. 17, 1944: Thirteen successful sorties towing Horsa gliders to Arnhem. There was insignificant enemy opposition.

Sept. 18: Six successful sorties towing Horsa gliders. Anti-aircraft opposition is increasing.

Sept. 21: Ten sorties dropping supplies to Arnhem bridgehead. Four Dakotas shot down (12 aircrew killed, two taken prisoner) plus one aircraft written off following battle damage and a crash landing. At least nine Royal Army Service Corps (RASC) dispatchers aboard these aircraft also die.

Sept. 23: Fifteen sorties dropping supplies. Two Dakotas are shot down with four aircrew killed, two taken prisoner and four RASC personnel killed.
At the outset, the Luftwaffe had roughly 200 fighters immediately available to oppose the Allies. Aircraft diverted from defence of the Reich swelled this to approximately 350 by Sept. 21. The Germans had excellent fighter control and communications systems in place as the area was a key component in their forward night-fighter organization. Moreover, their garrison at Calais, France, which did not capitulate until Sept. 28, radioed warnings of approaching transport aircraft waves.

Nevertheless, Allied fighters kept the Luftwaffe at bay; only on the 21st did enemy fighters penetrate the defences in significant numbers; hence the heavy losses that day. The Germans owed their successes to two factors. One was the diversion of several American fighter units to escort heavy bombers raiding Germany. The other was a missed rendezvous involving transports and RAF fighters.

One No. 437 Sqdn. pilot who escaped from Luftwaffe attention on the 21st was Flying Officer Errol Q. Semple of Quebec City. He had flown Dakotas with No. 233 Sqdn. on the night of June 5-6, 1944. On Sept. 21, he evaded two FW.190 fighters by diving into cloud.

Flying Officer Errol Q. Semple. [PHOTO: CANADIAN FORCES—PL45284]

Flying Officer Errol Q. Semple.
PHOTO: CANADIAN FORCES—PL45284

Overall, anti-aircraft fire intensified with everyday’s missions. Other hazards came to the fore as the bridgehead (and hence the dropping zone and its airspace) decreased. On Sept. 23, Flight Lieutenant Robert J. Roach of No. 437 Sqdn. had to take violent evasive action to avoid colliding with cargo dropped by another Dakota.

The actions of No. 437 Sqdn. were not the whole of the RCAF’s contribution to this operation. Scores of men wearing Canada flashes were scattered through RAF units engaged in the same tasks. No Canadian casualties were reported on Sept. 17, but on the 18th at least three RCAF aircrew died in a RAF Stirling and an RAF Dakota. Three were killed and five others captured on the 19th. Seven more died in three Stirlings on the 20th, while two other aircrew were captured.

On the 21st—the day German fighters did their worst—nine RCAF members of the Lost Legion died over Arnhem in five different RAF transports, and three more were taken prisoner. The Lost Legion figures for the 23rd were six killed aboard two Stirlings and a Dakota. The RCAF dead included one American who had enlisted in the force in 1940. His name was FO William Baker. Also killed was a Danish national, FO Otto H. Antoft. He had enlisted in the RCAF in 1942. In addition, between the 17th and 21st, five CAN/RAF aircrew were killed supporting the Arnhem pocket.

Canadian participation in the Arnhem airlift also entailed one genuine mystery. On Sept. 10, 1944, Dakota KG592 of No. 48 Sqdn. left Down Ampney on a cargo run to the Continent. It was next reported—on the 18th—that the plane was grounded with a faulty tail wheel at Airfield B.58 in Melsbroek, Belgium. Replacement parts were dispatched to the airfield on the 19th. However, by then No. 48 Sqdn. was involved in the maelstrom of the Arnhem battle. With the cessation of the airlift, the commanding officer realized he had lost track of KG592 and its crew—three members of the RCAF and one from the Royal Australian Air Force.

The CO sent officers to the Continent but they failed to locate the missing Dakota. A report dated Oct. 26, 1944, stated: “It can only be assumed that the captain took off again from B.58 without booking out or warning the responsible authorities, and that some kind of accident occurred on the return flight. The possibility of enemy action seems remote, but no message was received from the aircraft indicating they (the crew) were in difficulties.”

The missing men are now listed on the Runnymede Memorial west of London, England, with their dates of death given as Sept. 18, 1944. The memorial records the names of Allied air personnel who have no known grave. To this day, no one can say whether these men were somehow diverted to Arnhem or lost en route back to Britain.

Pilot Officer David Balmer of Courtenay, B.C., was a pilot in No. 570 Sqdn. A recipient of the Distinguished Flying Cross, he was a veteran of the first Normandy airdrops. He was en route to Arnhem on the 18th when his aircraft was hit by flak and set on fire. Four crew members bailed out on his orders, but when too much height had been lost for safe evacuation by the remaining men, Balmer elected to attempt a crash landing. All five men aboard were shaken up, and one of them later died. Dutch civilians converged on the wreckage and spirited the airmen away before German troops arrived.

Dutch assistance continued long after Market Garden, including more escape and evasion work, followed by postwar identification of casualties. Squadron Leader Robert W. Alexander and FO William S. McLintock, members of No. 437 Sqdn. killed on Sept. 21, 1944, were long commemorated only on the Runnymede Memorial. Subsequent research by Dutch citizens finally confirmed the location of their remains, and headstones were erected in 1996.

Flying Officer Samuel Finlay (left) chats with other airmen in 1944. [PHOTO: CANADIAN FORCES—PL40389]

Flying Officer Samuel Finlay (left) chats with other airmen in 1944.
PHOTO: CANADIAN FORCES—PL40389

Aerial heroism was everywhere during Market Garden. The story of Dakota KG328 of No. 575 Sqdn. stands out on several counts. Three of the crew were members of the RCAF, namely the pilot, FO George Edgar Henry, the navigator, FO Henry Joseph Love McKinley and the wireless operator, Warrant Officer William Fowler. WO Albert E. Smith, another navigator, was a member of the RAF. They had flown one successful glider tow to Arnhem on the 17th. Their mission on Sept. 18 was less happy.

Again towing a glider to Holland, the Dakota was hit by flak which mortally wounded Henry and lightly wounded McKinley. The remaining crew attempted to complete the mission, but then the glider pilot reported his ailerons had been shot away and he would have to cut loose. Smith turned back, manoeuvring gently so that the Horsa was able to alight in friendly territory. Smith and McKinley then took turns piloting and navigating the Dakota back to England where they executed a smooth landing. Both men received a DFC.

Another Lost Legion adventure involved FO Samuel S. Finlay of Toronto. On Sept. 21, he was piloting Dakota KG404 of No. 48 Sqdn. with a PO Walsh, Flight Sergeant Roy Gray as navigator, a PO Rice as wireless operator—all members of the RAF—and four air dispatchers of No. 223 Air Dispatch Company, RASC. Finlay dropped his panniers at 1610 hours from 800 feet. Flak was observed, but he was untouched until the homeward flight when enemy fighters were seen north of Eindhoven. Two Dakotas had already been observed being shot down. Gray, from the astrodome, observed six fighters, some 5,000 yards astern.

Finlay dived for cloud cover while a gaggle of enemy fighters was engaging other Dakotas. Two of the enemy planes then dived on his aircraft. One did not fire; the other closed from the port quarter. Finlay took evasive action based on instructions passed to him by Gray. Nevertheless, hits were registered on the lower starboard side of the Dakota, presumably from another, unseen fighter. The starboard auxiliary fuel tank caught fire and the starboard wing and fuselage aft of the cockpit were alight; the starboard motor was out of action. Finlay dived further through cloud and at 2,000 feet the port motor threatened to quit as well.

The pilot ordered the dispatchers to jump—unaware they had already done so. The crew took crash positions. At 1,000 feet the fuselage was filled with smoke and fumes, obscuring vision. As Finlay made his final approach to crash-land, a tree loomed ahead. With no control of the aircraft, he struck it roughly 20 feet above the ground. The cockpit window shattered and a branch thrust into the cockpit. Finlay suffered two sprained ankles.

With the starboard wing and fuselage burning, the pilot and wireless operator escaped through an emergency hatch. The co-pilot and navigator dashed through the flames to the rear with the aim of rescuing the dispatchers who had already bailed. The crew was picked up by personnel of No. 58 Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment, treated for wounds, and returned to their unit. Finlay received a DFC.

Losses entailed replacements, and on Sept. 22 a new crew reported to No. 570 Sqdn. They included four members of the RCAF, and the next day they were thrown into the cauldron, flying their first and last mission of the war. The aircraft was hit by flak over the drop zone and set on fire. The pilot, FO Clinton Beck, managed to reach friendly territory. One crewman and an RASC dispatcher bailed out safely before low altitude ruled out further escapes. Beck pulled up sharply to avoid hitting a Dutch farm and then crashed heavily. The impact threw him clear and he survived with shrapnel wounds in one leg and two fractures in the other. Five others—three of them RCAF—died in the wreckage.

Sadly, these heroic efforts were in vain. On Sept. 18, roughly 14 per cent of supplies dispatched by air to Arnhem actually reached the troops on the ground. The figure fell to 5.4 per cent on the 19th when 19 aircraft were lost. It rose to 10.6 per cent on the 20th when 17 transports were lost, and then fell to four per cent on the 21st when 35 aircraft were lost. On the 23rd, only 2.4 per cent of the drops were successful. The percentages for the 24th and 25th were nil. By the last two days the airdrops had been reduced to the minimum as troops tried to fight their way out of the pocket. Only 19 sorties were flown on the 24th and seven on the 25th.

The air operations at Arnhem were doomed to fail because the ground battle itself was lost almost as soon as it began. The courage of the aircrews was evident—the only Victoria Cross awarded to Transport Command was earned at Arnhem on Sept. 19 by Flt. Lt. David Lord of No. 271 Sqdn, RAF. Ultimately, gallantry was not enough. Allied troops would not occupy Arnhem until April 1945.

Email the writer at: writer@legionmagazine.com

Email a letter to the editor at: letters@legionmagazine.com


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