Winding Down Western Air Command: Air Force, Part 32

A Stranraer of No. 9 Sqdn. at Bella Bella, B.C. [PHOTO: CANADIAN FORCES—PL9599]

A Stranraer of No. 9 Sqdn. at Bella Bella, B.C.

With the Japanese gone from the Aleutian Islands, the Royal Canadian Air Force’s Western Air Command began running down its combat role while increasing its emphasis on training and transportation. Long-range patrols were reduced, and the aircraft establishments of flying boat squadrons were cut from 15 to nine aircraft. However, replacing Stranraer aircraft with Cansos meant operational efficiency was maintained.

Three fighter squadrons were transferred overseas in late 1943, and on March 15, 1944, Bomber Reconnaissance Squadrons No. 147 and No. 149 were disbanded, as was 163 (Fighter) Sqdn. Another patrol squadron, No. 120, followed on May 1, 1944, and further cuts involved No. 115 in August 1944 and Nos. 9 and 132 in September 1944.

In spite of the receding threat on the West Coast, false sightings of the enemy continued, originating with service and civilian observers. On July 25, 1943, for example, a Canso crew of No. 9 (Bomber Reconnaissance) Sqdn. reported a clear sighting of a submarine at 52.02 North 137.15 West (300 miles west of Prince Rupert, B.C.). This provoked a fruitless search by other aircraft. On Aug. 2, 1943, the United States Coast Guard reported a submarine five miles west of Seaside, Oregon, which led to another search. On Nov. 10, 1944, fishermen reported a periscope 14 miles southwest of Cape Spencer in the Ketchikan area of the southern Alaska Panhandle. On Dec. 11, 1944, an American sentry near Fort Worden north of Seattle declared he had clearly spotted a Japanese aircraft flying at 3,000 feet. He reported seeing enemy insignia on the wings.

On April 12, 1945, a merchant ship reported “an object resembling a periscope” west of Cape Scott, Vancouver Island. Each report of this nature required either an aerial search or the alerting of fighters for a possible scramble. However, the Fort Worden incident appears to have been treated with skepticism from the outset.

A false submarine report on Oct. 26, 1943, had tragic consequences. No. 149 Sqdn. sent out three Ventura bombers to investigate. The pilots were warned that weather was deteriorating and were given alternate landing sites if Annette Island proved impossible to regain. Two Venturas returned safely. The third was lost.

Other incidents were explained away as misunderstandings, some almost comic. On Dec. 18, 1943, personnel at No. 11 Radio Detachment (Ferrer Point, on the northwestern coast of Vancouver Island) saw shell splashes close to their unit and reported they were under attack. Aircraft from Coal Harbour and Tofino investigated, hoping to illuminate something using their navigation lights, but found only two small fishing vessels. Meanwhile, news travelled quickly. Six hours after the reported shelling, the Seattle office of United Press was telephoning WAC headquarters about reports of Vancouver Island being bombed. It was learned that the SS Maquina, passing five miles away, had undertaken some 12-pounder gunnery practice, firing towards what the crew took to be an uninhabited shore. The ship’s captain claimed his gun crew had fired only two heavy rounds; those on the receiving end claimed there had been anywhere between nine and 20 shell splashes. The presence of a radar site was, of course, a closely guarded secret, apparently even to the Maquina.

A boat is used to refuel a Stranraer flying boat near Bella Bella. [PHOTO: CANADIAN FORCES—PL9578]

A boat is used to refuel a Stranraer flying boat near Bella Bella.

On Nov. 3, 1944, a Canso crew, engaged in a training flight, reported being fired on by a ship. Upon investigation, His Majesty’s Canadian Ship Shediac proved to have been experiencing fuel problems that caused eruptions of sparks from its stack; these had been interpreted by inexperienced aircrew as “bursts of tracer.”

Despite the changing fortunes of war, Air Marshal Robert Leckie, chief of the air staff, still took an alarmist view of the Japanese threat to British Columbia. In January 1944, he instructed WAC to extend the seaward patrols from an average 140-mile radius to a 500-mile radius. Air Vice-Marshal L.F. Stevenson complied, but pointed out that American forces on both flanks were operating within the more modest ranges. Leckie wrote to Washington, D.C., asking if the U.S. Navy assessment was now so optimistic that shallow patrols were justified. Vice-Admiral J.S. McCain, deputy chief of naval operations for air, replied on March 1, 1944, saying, in effect, “By Jove, you’ve got it!”

If the enemy had withdrawn, WAC personnel still faced the hazards inherent in general flying, complicated by west coast weather and wartime operating conditions. But when WAC suffered its greatest single loss of life, it involved a boat—not an aircraft.

Over the years, WAC had assembled a fleet of salvage, rescue and supply vessels to service the scattered units. One of these was a former salmon fishing boat, the B.C. Star, which carried supplies to various points. On July 23, 1943, with 15 men on board, the vessel departed Bella Bella, bound for Rose Harbour and Cape St. James in the Queen Charlotte Islands. She was loaded with materials for a radar site. Radio silence was enforced, and no one missed her until Aug. 3, when construction crews queried when their supplies were to arrive.

Queen Charlotte Sound and Hecate Strait were notorious for sudden storms. How the ship sank, without even raising an SOS, was a mystery. The best guess was the hull had simply opened up under the weight of cement and other materials, which took the B.C. Star down. Air and sea searches resulted in retrieval of two bodies. The other men are commemorated on the Commonwealth Air Forces Ottawa Memorial dedicated to air force personnel lost without trace in Canada, the U.S. and neighbouring lands and seas during the Second World War. One month after the loss, WAC revised its marine craft procedures to ensure prompt reporting of arrivals and departures.

Aircrew losses were always tragic and sometimes mysterious. Particularly frustrating was the loss of Stranraer 951 of No. 120 (Bomber Reconnaissance) Sqdn. At 6:20 p.m. on Aug. 23, 1942, returning to base from a seaward patrol, the crew signalled they had been forced down on the ocean and were sinking. Their position was about 100 miles west of Port Alberni, B.C. Five more Stranraers were dispatched and Flying Officer Theodore M. Wavave located the downed aircraft. Unhappily, the sea was too rough to alight. Wavave circled until his own machine developed engine trouble, compelling him to return to base. Ships and other aircrews, including Wavave himself, on a second sortie, failed to locate either the aircraft or any of its six-man crew.

Canso 11017 of No. 4 (Bomber  Reconnaissance) Sqdn. was airborne from Tofino, B.C., at 3:12 p.m., Nov. 14, 1944, and never seen again. Ten men were aboard.

The aircraft situation improved from mid-1943 onwards. Venturas had replaced Bolingbrokes and the stately Stranraers were retired. The “Strannies” had been respected for seaworthiness and liked for their manoeuvrability, but many people recognized their operational limits. Latterly they were described as “two wings, two engines, a hull, then a couple of miles of wire to bind it all together.” All those wires had resulted in another nickname—“whistling outhouses.”

In other respects, WAC remained low on the RCAF’s priority lists. In February 1945, the latest Air Officer Commanding, Air Vice-Marshal F.V. Heakes, noted that his formation was still not up to date in matters of Mark 24 mines (homing torpedoes), sonobuoys and rocket projectiles—all of which were in Eastern Air Command inventories.

An RCAF hockey team at Boundary Bay, B.C., February 1943. [PHOTO: NATIONAL DEFENCE, LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA136727]

An RCAF hockey team at Boundary Bay, B.C., February 1943.

The emphasis in WAC was now on training. If the enemy would not come to British Columbia, the RCAF would eventually have to seek out the enemy. The impending defeat of Germany would inevitably result in Canadian forces being sent to the Pacific theatre. No. 3 Operational Training Unit (OTU) at Patricia Bay, B.C., was devoted to flying boat training. At No. 5 OTU at Boundary Bay, Liberator bomber crew graduates were already en route to India, while No. 6 OTU in Comox was turning out Dakota crews for campaigns that increasingly centred on aerial delivery and resupply.

As a measure of WAC operational intensity, a summary of bomber reconnaissance work for Jan. 20-26, 1945, may illustrate. No. 4 Sqdn., flying Cansos from Tofino, reported 14 patrols attempted and 10 completed with four cut short by bad weather. No. 8 Sqdn. reported 12 patrols attempted and only six completed.

No. 7 Sqdn. attempted eight patrols, but only half were completed. At Coal Harbour, No. 6 Sqdn. ordered out six patrols of which five were incomplete, owing to weather. Altogether, these four units flew 241 hours. Meanwhile, two fighter squadrons, Nos. 133 and 135, flew 38 operational sorties. The three OTUs within the command logged 3,429 hours in the same period.

The degree to which training had replaced operations as a command function is shown by examining a few unit strength figures. As of May 1, 1945, WAC had 18,765 service personnel and 1,139 civilians. Some 37 per cent were allocated to the OTUs. Indeed, the largest unit in the command was No. 5 OTU with 3,066 all ranks and civilians, plus 945 trainees.

The training at the OTUs drew heavily on European theatre experience, not all of which may have been applicable in the Far East. In March 1945, No. 5 OTU lectures featured such topics as Bomber Command tactics, flak and fighter evasion and the development of Bomber Command. A training syllabus, similar to that of Bomber Command, was being developed. The subject of jungle survival would be relevant to graduates, but an evasion exercise held March 4, 1945, though described as “very successful,” was wildly at odds with Pacific theatre reality. A total of 55 aircrew were dropped off in Washington State with orders to find their way home. They managed to steal a U.S. Army truck, talk their way past Washington State Troopers and Canadian Customs officials, and were finally captured by British Columbia police one-half mile from the Abbotsford, B.C., main gate.

The dark side of OTU training lay in the accidents, some of them horrific. They included the disappearance of Liberator EW127 from Abbotsford on Oct. 4, 1944, with 11 men on board. The wreckage was found nine months later near Lake Nitinat on Vancouver Island.

Canso 11086, with nine men on board, set out from Patricia Bay on a navigation training flight on Dec. 2, 1944, and vanished without even sending an SOS. Four days after its disappearance, a bedraggled carrier pigeon, believed to be from the missing aircraft, returned to its loft. There was no message container and it was impossible to determine when it had been liberated. The wreckage was found on July 1, 1945, near Kennedy Lake, east of Tofino, indicating that the bird had probably escaped from the aircraft rather than being launched by a crewman. Liberator KK241, flying out of Abbottsford, crashed into 6,600-foot Foley Mountain on June 1, 1945. Eleven people died. A runway collision between two more Abbotsford Liberators on July 4, 1945, left nine dead and six injured.

Probably the cruellest accident, however, was that of an aircraft of No. 11 (Bomber Reconnaissance) Sqdn. which had been transferred from Eastern Air Command to WAC shortly after VE-Day. Liberator 11121 disappeared on July 13, 1945, on a flight from Patricia Bay. The wreckage was found three days later near Port Renfrew. Among the 14 dead were three members of the RCAF Women’s Division who had been offered a sightseeing flight.

Throughout its wartime history, WAC had the aura of a frontier force. During early expansion, when accommodation was inadequate, many personnel built log cabins, invited families to join them, and generally regarded their postings as a cottage experience with pay. This attitude changed dramatically after the attack on Pearl Harbour, when fears were rampant that enemy raiders were about to descend on the more isolated bases. Abruptly, all ranks took an intense interest in station defences, ready to repel any intruders.

In less strenuous periods, life in WAC could be either a lark or an ordeal. Aircraft bombing exercises sharpened skills, but also killed fish that were quickly harvested by airmen in dinghies and added to mess fare. An intelligence report describing Alliford Bay in August 1944 paid homage to its recreational side. “The station is close to excellent deer hunting in season and salmon trolling throughout the year. First rate bags and kills are readily obtained in a few hours with relatively little effort.”

On the other hand, isolation and the lack of amenities drove many to frustration. A 48-hour pass was meaningless if one had no place to go and no means to get there. One station newspaper published a crude poem calling down curses on a particularly bleak base. Five thousand miles away, the same piece appeared in a Royal Air Force paper published in the Shetland Islands! One may ask if the poem’s origins lay in some 19th century colonial desert outpost. Misery loves company, even at such distances.

To maintain morale, WAC bases sponsored recreational programs that bordered on the relentless, as though “having fun” was an obligation. In May 1945, Station Tofino reported commencement of a spring sports program with an 11-team softball league. Three tennis courts had been installed; a weekly dance was held with the station’s own orchestra and bingo games were regular affairs. Other stations described base-produced vaudeville shows, movie nights, badminton, volleyball and floor hockey leagues. There was scant recognition for those who organized such activities, but in June 1945, Sergeant Ruth Dingle (WAC Headquarters) was Mentioned in Dispatches for “furthering and expanding handicraft activities in the service.” On many occasions she had been attached to isolated units where her work was credited with revitalizing morale.

Japan’s surrender in August 1945 was followed by the rapid rundown of what was left of WAC’s operational units. The last to go was No. 11 (Bomber Reconnaissance) Sqdn., disbanded on Sept. 15, 1945. Thereafter, until March 1947, WAC administered a collection of training, transport and marine units.

W.A.B. Douglas, in the 1986 book, The Creation of a National Air Force, summed up the wartime history and accomplishments of WAC. It had performed well in the Aleutians in 1942-43, but most of its operations had been an insurance policy against increasingly remote threats of raiding parties. Its principal function had been to reassure British Columbia’s civil population that they were safe and had not been forgotten. Two useful purposes had been served—the exercise of Canadian sovereignty on the Pacific coast and training personnel and units that served in other theatres. They had, nevertheless, been achieved at disproportionate expense in resources and manpower.

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