Penicillin For Poland: A Tale Of Two Plaques: Air Force, Part 48

December 19, 2011 by Hugh A. Halliday
Boxes of penicillin are loaded into the Fortress flown by Air Commodore John Plant. [PHOTO: LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA37267]

Boxes of penicillin are loaded into the Fortress flown by Air Commodore John Plant.
PHOTO: LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA37267

Canadians are familiar with their armed forces being engaged in providing humanitarian assistance. From Haiti to the Indian Ocean, military and civil air resources are deployed to bring aid to countries ravaged by disease or natural disasters. However, the public knows very little or nothing at all of the story behind two plaques, 4,000 miles apart, that commemorate our first international airborne mercy mission.

In September 1945, the United Polish Relief Fund appealed to the Canadian government to deliver several tons of penicillin to Poland. The committee approached Senator Thomas Viens who, on Sept. 20, 1945, contacted the Minister of National Defence for Air, Colin Gibson, about flying such a cargo to that country. Gibson replied on Sept. 29, stating the RCAF would welcome the opportunity of co-operating in such a task. He noted, however, that Poland was now under Russian occupation. Arrangements would have to be made with the Soviet government to have a flight cleared through to Poland.

On Oct. 3, Viens wrote to the acting Under Secretary of State for External Affairs, Hume Wrong, requesting the department’s aid in getting Russian clearance. Wrong cabled the Canadian High Commissioner to London, asking if British authorities could expedite such clearance or some alternative routing, perhaps to Sweden with final delivery from that country. It turned out that the Royal Air Force Transport Command already operated a weekly service to Warsaw. The questions now were how much penicillin would be delivered, how it would be packaged, and who would deliver it.

The penicillin itself was in both powder and solution form. There was at that time some two and a half tons ready for shipment, occupying about 100 cubic feet. By the standards of the day, this constituted a formidable cargo.

When External Affairs seemed to be dragging its feet, the United Polish Relief Fund pushed a little harder, writing to Wrong on Oct. 12 and enclosing a clipping from the Ottawa Journal newspaper of the previous day. Under the headline, Declare Disease in Poland Slowly Exterminating Nation, it carried a British United Press story that described conditions there as very dark indeed. It noted there were over a million reported cases of tuberculosis and that penicillin was needed to treat 500,000 cases of venereal disease. It also described a shortage of beds, doctors, linen, soap and medicines.

On Oct. 19, Gibson advised Wrong that the RCAF was prepared to fly the penicillin at least as far as Prestwick, Scotland. Final delivery to Poland was unsettled, but it was assumed it would be through the RAF.

The only RCAF unit with extensive transatlantic experience was No. 168 (Heavy Transport) Squadron, based at Rockcliffe (Ottawa). Formed in August 1943, it had specialized in flying mail to Canadian forces overseas. It was the obvious choice to fly bulk cargo to the United Kingdom. No. 168 Sqdn. was really two units—an element operating across the Atlantic using converted Liberator and Fortress bombers, and a few twin-engine Dakota aircraft which forwarded deliveries from Britain to those Canadian units still in Europe with Occupation Forces. The Dakota crews were familiar with continental flying conditions; the Fortress and Liberator crews were not. Even the Dakota crews had no experience in flying over Russian-occupied territory.

The first penicillin shipment—38 cases, 5,556 pounds—was flown to Prestwick on Oct. 19-20 in an aging Fortress aircraft piloted by Flight Lieutenant William G. McElrea. After refuelling at Gander, Nfld., he flew to Prestwick. Arriving on the 21st, he found the airfield “socked in” by fog and had to rely on the new technology of Ground Controlled Approach to land. Initial plans were for the final delivery to be made by the RAF. However, on Oct. 30, Gibson wrote to Wrong, thanking External Affairs for having expedited clearances with the Russians, enabling the RCAF to forward the cargo to Warsaw, “thus completing an all-Canadian mercy flight from beginning to end.” Presumably, this was done using one of the squadron’s Dakotas, but the unit diary fails to record this and the identity of the crew.

The RCAF wished to make a direct delivery to Warsaw and another Fortress mission was laid on. The aircraft was the same machine that had conducted the first mission. It was dispatched on Oct. 31 with 39 cases, reaching Prestwick the next morning. It then proceeded to Manston in southern England, taking off on Nov. 4 on the next leg to Berlin. At 11:45 a.m. it struck trees atop Eggeberg Hill, near Halle, Germany. All five men on board were killed. They were buried with full military honours by RAF and RCAF personnel.

An investigation turned up several facts, but reached no definite conclusions. Neither the pilot nor co-pilot had any experience in flying over Germany. They had obtained charts for the Berlin-Warsaw portion of the flight, and mentioned to an RAF officer that they had all other information required. The crew had picked up a written weather report, but had not been briefed directly by the Manston meteor­ological office. They may, therefore, have been unaware of limited cloud ceilings prevailing along the route that day—solid cloud layers, average ceiling of 1,000 to 1,500 feet, descending to as little as 600 feet. This was especially dangerous, given that Eggeberg Hill rose sharply to 1,025 feet. Both pilots had considerable flying experience on twin- and four-engine aircraft (3,267 hours and 1,930 hours), although neither had much flying time on Fortresses (30 and 22 hours). Investigators could not explain how the crew could have been flying so low, but concluded that the flight had been undertaken in a very “slap-happy” manner. It was suggested the pilot had come down to view wartime bomb damage and had hence been looking down rather than forward when his starboard wing struck the trees.

On Nov. 5, before news of the crash had been fully absorbed in Ottawa, representatives of the United Polish Relief Fund, Canadian Red Cross, Polish Red Cross and the RCAF met at External Affairs. The air force feared that it might not be able to continue the flights, given postal commitments to the Canadian army abroad. These concerns were set aside once the Fortress loss was appreciated.

Meanwhile, another delivery was needed urgently. On Nov. 16, a third Fortress left Ottawa, this time with 2,235 pounds of the precious cargo. Air Commodore John Plant captained the aircraft to Warsaw and back; the swift delivery in the face of adverse weather was but one incident in his brilliant career.

The ill-fated crew prepares to board Fortress 9202. [PHOTO: DEPARTMENT OF NATIONAL DEFENCE]

The ill-fated crew prepares to board Fortress 9202.
PHOTO: DEPARTMENT OF NATIONAL DEFENCE

The RCAF was anxious to complete another shipment, particularly as little publicity had been given to the flights in Poland itself. Canada pressed the Poles for some public recognition. This was accorded on Feb.13, 1946, when the Polish Red Cross formally thanked Canada for the gift of penicillin at a brief Warsaw ceremony attended by the British Ambassador (at the time, there was no Canadian embassy there).

Unhappily, upon arrival in Warsaw, the penicillin became an object of dispute between the Polish Red Cross and the Ministry of Health. The president of the Polish Red Cross was soon afterwards dismissed from his post and replaced by a member of the Communist Party, apparently for having acknow­ledged the Canadian gift.

Subsequent transatlantic RCAF flights carried smaller quantities of penicillin. Most accounts declare—inaccurately—that the final delivery to Poland was through the RAF. The diary of No. 168 Sqdn. makes only partial reference to further mercy missions. The unit diary confirms that Liberator 576 departed Rockcliffe on Dec. 28, 1945, with such a load (400 cartons or 4,800 pounds), specifically describing the cargo as penicillin. It was detained by engine trouble at Gander for three days, but departed on the 31st and arrived at Prestwick on Jan. 1, 1946. From there it went to Warsaw by RCAF Dakota 991 on Jan. 4-5, 1946. Another Liberator—with Flt.-Lt. C.E. Snider and crew—left Rockcliffe on Jan. 5, 1946, with 100 cartons. These were forwarded to Warsaw on Jan. 13-15, 1946, also by Dakota 991.

Again, the squadron records were incomplete. Canadian newspapers identified Sub-Lieutenant L.E.C. Hamber, Flying Officer J.T. Barlow and Flt. Lt. H.L. Schauenberg as being the Dakota crew, although whether they flew one or both of the final deliveries is unclear.

Meanwhile, the five Canadians who had been killed were not forgotten. At the first news of the crash, the Polish government sent telegrams of sympathy to Canadian authorities. Copies were sent to the next-of-kin. The Poles also suggested that the crewmen be posthumously awarded Polish medals. This proposal foundered, perhaps because the first chilly winds of the Cold War were blowing through national capitals. Polish authorities were still anxious to commemorate the Canadian sacrifices and the Polish-Canadian Relief Fund provided impetus to do just that.

Curiously, there was one hurdle that needed to be cleared—the Minister of National Defence for Air. Was it fitting to have a plaque dedicated to five men when thousands of others had died earlier? The Chief of the Air Staff (Air Marshal Robert Leckie) felt a distinction could be made between wartime combat missions and a postwar mercy flight. Refusal of the gesture by the Polish Relief Fund would be churlish.

A Polish-Canadian artist, A. Birkenmeyer, was commissioned to produce two plaques. The first—in Polish—was unveiled on Nov. 25, 1946, at the Military Hospital, 27 Nowowiejska Street in Warsaw. By all accounts it was an impressive ceremony—with no Canadian representatives on hand.

The plaque remained there throughout the Cold War. Indeed, on Nov. 4, 1955, a wreath-placing ceremony was held at the site, attended by Canadian diplomatic and military personnel as well as representatives of Poland’s Ministry of Health and Foreign Ministry. The event was reported widely in the Polish press and on radio.

The second plaque—in English—was unveiled on May 5th, 1947, in the Catholic chapel at Rockcliffe air base. The dead airmen were represented by their next-of-kin while numerous officials represented aid agencies and government bodies. Doctor Hiliary Stykolt, speaking for the United Polish Relief Fund, declared that the deaths would be an inspiration to those who placed the call of humanity above personal danger. “Canada, in giving so generously and so promptly to Poland, gave twice,” he concluded.

The plaque was accepted on behalf of the RCAF by Defence Minister Brooke Claxton. Turning to the family members present, he offered words of condolences and comfort. “No words of anyone could add anything to the example of their lives. They offered their lives for their country, and they died for humanity.”

The placement of the plaque was logical in one sense, but ensured it would be seen only by persons admitted to the base and the chapel. A proposed cairn incorporating the plaque would have ensured outdoor exposure, but this suggestion was never carried forward. The Rockcliffe chapel was torn down years ago and the plaque now hangs in the Military Chapel at Uplands in the south end of Ottawa.

Who were the men aboard Fortress 9202?

Flt.-Lt. Donald Forest Caldwell of Mountain View, Alta., had been teaching school when he joined the RCAF in July 1941. He flew a tour of anti-submarine operations on Canada’s east coast. In 1944 he became a transport pilot, joining No. 168 Sqdn. in January 1945.

Flt.-Lt. Edward Pattern Harling was another Albertan. Like Caldwell, he flew anti-submarine patrols off Canada’s east coast. In 1943 he switched to transport aircraft and established a reputation for determination and energy in the face of the worst transatlantic weather.

Sergeant Edwin Erwin Phillips, an engine mechanic, was from Montreal. He worked with Canadian-based transport squadrons from April 1943 onwards and was assigned to No. 168 Sqdn. upon its formation in October 1943. He had been involved in at least seven transatlantic mail flights prior to his last assignment.

Flt.-Lt. Norbert Davis Roche, the radio operator, was another Montrealer. He had flown 25 sorties with Bomber Command. One of these ended in a North Sea ditching and rescue. Upon repatriation to Canada, he became an instructor, but by the spring of 1944 he had become bored and requested new duties. He reported to No. 168 Sqdn. in October 1944.

A Liberator from No. 168 (Heavy Transport) Squadron. [PHOTO: LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—C9202-7]

A Liberator from No. 168 (Heavy Transport) Squadron.
PHOTO: LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—C9202-7

Squadron Leader Alfred Ernest Webster, though born in Ontario, had been raised in Yorkton, Sask. As a navigator he flew on 35 bombing sorties and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. In March 1943 he was diagnosed with “severe anxiety state”—battle fatigue. On repatriation to Canada, he tried to retrain as a pilot, but washed out. In April 1944 he was posted to No. 168 Sqdn. and eventually became the squadron navigation officer, responsible for training crews and monitoring the efficiency of other navigators. At 35, he was the oldest man aboard. Phillips, at 24, was the youngest.

Memories may briefly fade, but the retelling of history ensures they do not permanently fail. In the case of the men of Fortress 9202, these two widely separated plaques guarantee that the penicillin missions of 1945-46 will remain matters of public record.

Email the writer at: writer@legionmagazine.com

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

  • Randall Grant

    What a great article about the Polish Penicillin mission. Thank-you Hugh Haliday for this fine piece. Norbert Roche, one of the airmen killed in the second mission, is my relative. My family, including his grandchildren, will really enjoy reading of his participation in this humanitarian mission
    Randall Grant, Montreal, Qc

  • Hayley Cowls

    My great uncle was Edwin Erwin Phillips, I am extremely proud of my great uncle for all he did.

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