Into Africa: Air Force, Part 49

February 29, 2012 by Hugh A. Halliday

Pilot William McRae next to his aircraft, 1943. [PHOTO: McRAE FAMILY COLLECTION]

Pilot William McRae next to his aircraft, 1943.
PHOTO: McRAE FAMILY COLLECTION

The term “Lost Legion” has a specific meaning for Royal Canadian Air Force historians. It refers to the thousands of RCAF personnel who spent part of their wartime service in Royal Air Force units rather than Canadian ones. Their stories have been largely submerged in the larger RAF histories, and one must disentangle their experiences from more general accounts.

The existence of the Lost Legion was tied to complex wartime policies. When the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan agreements were signed in December 1939, it was understood that distinct Canadian squadrons would be formed overseas, and that they would be manned, as far as possible, by RCAF members. The war went badly in 1940, and Britain found itself locked in an existential battle. Prior agreements proved inconvenient, and as often as not, Canadian aircrew arriving overseas were posted where the RAF deemed them most needed. The situation was aggravated by the fact that unlike the army, until the end of 1942 a considerable portion of overseas RCAF personnel costs were borne by Britain rather than Canada. This country could not expect to be treated as an equal until it was prepared to accept full responsibility for its men and women abroad. Not surprisingly, those personnel often found themselves in very surprising places.

Lasting from June 1940 to May 1943, the North Africa Campaign is reasonably well-known. Many of its place names recur in modern news (Tripoli, Benghazi). Yet the war touched the entire continent, and with it, thousands of Canadians.

The first part of the campaign in sub-Saharan Africa was waged on the Horn of Africa. Italy declared war on Britain on June 10, 1940. Three weeks later—attacking from Eritrea and Ethiopia—Italian forces occupied posts bordering Kenya and the Sudan. From Aug. 3 to 19, they conquered British Somaliland, and thus threatened sea communications through the Red Sea. The Italians were finally ejected from East Africa by combined British, Indian, West African and South African forces with significant contributions by Ethiopian irregulars. Although most of Ethiopia had been freed by June 1941, organized Italian resistance continued until November 1941, and their guerrillas continued to operate until September 1943.

No Canadian units participated in the East African campaign, but a few Canadians serving in the RAF saw action. Nova Scotian David M. Illsley had received his RAF commission in November 1938. His wartime flying—roughly 75 sorties with No. 14 Squadron—was divided between North and East Africa, alternating between Blenheim and Wellesley bombers. His targets included submarines and power stations in Massawa, Italian air force facilities throughout Ethiopia, and other tactical targets.

On March 27, 1941, Illsley was wounded as he strafed road convoys near Gondar, but was back in action two days later. He was awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross 10 days before he died in a crash.

Another Nova Scotian, Kenneth Lawrence, flew Blenheims in No. 8 Sqdn. On Jan. 16, 1941, during a solo raid on an Eritrean target, he descended to strafe an aircraft at an airfield. The Italian pilot was clearly a “gung-ho” type because he managed to take off and execute a firing pass at Lawrence before breaking away. The Blenheim was hit, forcing it to land in Vichy-controlled French Somaliland (now Djibouti) where its crew was interned for three months. They were set free as Allied forces retook the former Italian possessions surrounding the colony.

A patrolling Bristol Blenheim. [PHOTO: LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—1967-052 NPC]

A patrolling Bristol Blenheim.
PHOTO: LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—1967-052 NPC


Nevertheless, French Somaliland remained stubbornly loyal to Vichy France until November 1942. Rather than stir up a diplomatic hornet’s nest, the Allies left it to rot under strict blockade. It was still necessary to keep an eye on the place, however, and the proud garrison still functioned. On July 15, 1942, a Blenheim of No. 8 Sqdn. reconnoitring Djibouti harbour was shot down by anti-aircraft fire. Among the five dead was Pilot Officer Lawrence R. Maguire, who had joined the squadron the previous April. He was the first member of the RCAF killed in the African theatre of operations, and he was also one of thousands of Americans who had volunteered to fight the Nazis long before his country was forced to make the same choice.

Most RCAF personnel in the sub-Sahara regions were transients, ferrying aircraft from Takoradi, Ghana, to Lagos, Nigeria, across the continent to the Sudan, and to operations further north or on to India. The aircraft flew in small convoys over desolate routes punctuated by primitive airfields. A typical delivery took six days, starting with Takoradi to Lagos through Kano, Nigeria, and on to El Geneina in the Sudan, a distance of roughly 1,800 miles. From there they would fly to Fort Lamy (French Equatorial Africa) and then Chad. The next stop was Khartoum, 1,060 miles with fuel stops at El Fasher and El Obeid which would have made exotic entries in any logbook. The last two days followed the Nile from Khartoum to Wadi Halfa to Cairo, roughly 1,000 miles.

A few Canadians were stationed along the route and at least two—William McRae and Harry Boyle—served in 1942 in the Takoradi Defence Flight, flying Hurricanes. This had been formed out of concerns that the Germans might disrupt the ferry route, either with aircraft based in Vichy-controlled sections of West Africa or by attacking some of its bases from Libya—which happened once, in January 1942. McRae wrote a memoir of his less-than-memorable tour, which was published in the Journal of the Canadian Aviation Historical Society. “Everything seemed to be supersized—centipedes, millipedes, spiders, whatever—and you didn’t poke your hand into dark corners where deadly Black Mambas were known to lurk,” he wrote. “To put your foot into your boot without first shaking out any hiding scorpions was asking for trouble. Many of the pilots had become so lethargic that their only interest was in gambling by day and drinking by night.”

In September 1942, McRae was sent to No. 128 Sqdn. in Gambia where there were seven other Canadian pilots. They were soon joined by Sergeant James Cabeldu of Guelph, Ont., who was killed in northern Sierra Leone on Nov. 19, 1942, when his aircraft crashed following engine failure. Although primarily a Hurricane unit, it also possessed a few photo reconnaissance Spitfires. In November, McRae flew sorties over Dakar until Vichy French forces went over to the Allies. In February 1943, he was permitted to take an aircraft across the continent, severing his eight-month association with West Africa. His RCAF comrades also moved on. One of them, Flying Officer Tom Hough, eventually flew Spitfires in Italy, became a prisoner of war, and was well known after the war as an Ottawa lawyer with a large veterans’ clientele.

William McRae (standing, fourth from left) shares a moment with other 132 Squadron pilots, late 1941. [PHOTO: McRAE FAMILY COLLECTION]

William McRae (standing, fourth from left) shares a moment with other 132 Squadron pilots, late 1941.
PHOTO: McRAE FAMILY COLLECTION


Canadians were also involved in many other tasks, from meteorological flying to occasional instruction at schools in South Africa and Southern Rhodesia. Their principal work involved anti-submarine assignments. By late 1941, German U-boats had replaced surface raiders as a major regional threat. Sea routes to South Africa and to the Middle East and India attracted enemy attention. The occasional Axis blockade-runner also plied West African waters. Consequently, the British and Americans maintained anti-submarine forces in West Africa, where the prevailing truth was, “War is a period of prolonged boredom, interrupted by periods of intense excitement.”

Royal Canadian Air Force personnel grasped at any means to avoid staleness. Flight Lieutenant John G. Edwards of Vancouver recalled how his Hudson crews were encouraged to buzz African coastal villages to “show the flag” and demonstrate that the RAF was “on the job.” In retrospect, he concluded that by “scaring livestock and fish, we probably just pissed them off.” His logbook entry for Nov. 19, 1943, noted a transit flight between two bases with a terse note, “Croc damage.” He had come upon basking crocodiles and strafed them with his fixed machine guns—the only time in the war he opened fire with serious intent.

Some men spent longer periods in African-based RAF units. Radar mechanics seemed doomed to spend the war in remote locations. In East Africa, Leading Aircraftman Edgar H. Smith of Montreal was posted to No. 265 Sqdn. on Jan. 29, 1942; Corporal Donald E. Haines of Halifax went to No. 209 Sqdn. on Feb. 5, 1942, and LAC Robert A. Heggie of Saskatoon reported to No. 265 Sqdn. on March 7, 1942. All three were still in those units as of October 1944.

Canadian air personnel serving outside of Britain were often difficult for Canadian authorities to track. District headquarters in Cairo or Delhi tried to maintain records of the Lost Legion, but the men in more remote outposts were especially cut off. In January 1943 it was estimated there were 165 in West Africa. They lived in a strange, evolving colonial world where even junior officers drew servant allowances. Communications were slow. American personnel received mail from home within 10 days of posting; RCAF personnel on the same stations received theirs often three months after mailing.

If Cairo seemed a long way away, other places were even further removed. News of promotions often came via a slow letter from home instead of official channels and personnel who had established bank accounts in London were unsure of their balances or whether back-pay had been deposited. A visiting staff officer urged the regular dispatch of the publication Wings Abroad and Canadian Press News as well as small quantities of sports gear and comforts to help assure these men they were not forgotten.
To alleviate this situation, a small detachment of financial clerks and administrative personnel was sent in April 1943 from Cairo to Freetown on the west coast. One of the things they discovered was a group of men who had almost literally been lost—a dozen Canadian air gunners who had been dropped off by aircraft, ferried through and deposited at a camp 30 miles into the jungle to await postings. They had been there for three months, bored and fending off tropical diseases. Once “found,” they were quickly moved to active units.

Peak RCAF strength in West Africa occurred in November 1943 when some 227 officers and men were scattered through the area. By April 1944 the number had declined to 81. Nevertheless, RCAF strength rebounded to 102 in December 1944 and as of May 1945 there were still 80 members of the force present, the largest group being 14 aircrew with No. 270 Sqdn. at Lagos. A further seven RCAF ground crew were attached to the station. The Lost Legion in East Africa was smaller. As of October 1944 there were 42 Canadians in the area, divided equally between aircrew and radar personnel.

Only 20 miles separates Africa from the Asian continent at the Bab-al-Mandab, which links the Gulf of Aden to the Red Sea. Aden itself had been under British control since 1839, as a station for warships and a base for anti-piracy operations. The RAF had policed the area for decades, and in 1942 Canadians in air force khaki began trickling in. By August 1944 there were some 60 RCAF members present in Aden—air and ground crew who moved freely between Aden and East African bases.

Aden was drought-stricken and so most of its water was distilled. Nevertheless, air force personnel lived in reasonable comfort in two-storey stone quarters cooled by electric fans and furnished with Indian-made wicker furniture. Electric refrigerators provided all the ice that was needed and native bearers did almost everything except fly the airplanes. The daily highlight was a bottle of rationed Canadian beer, delivered more regularly than Canadian mail. The heat was ferocious, but aircrews found relief at 12,000 feet.

In this strange colonial world the Canadians experienced things never imagined when they enlisted. At the end of April 1943, tribal unrest threatened civil war, but a few “air demonstrations” restored peace. On May 21, 1943, Sgt. Palmi Palmason of Winnipeg was in a Bristol Bisley crew of No. 244 Sqdn. The Bisley was a cumbersome development from the Blenheim and unfit for current combat. On this occasion the crew was conducting bombing demonstrations, ostensibly to celebrate victories in Tunisia, but also to impress the local sheikhs.

On Sept. 1, 1943, a request was received from the Emperor of Ethiopia for aircraft to drop leaflets in Macaille and eastern Tigre province prior to operations against rebellious tribes. No. 8 Sqdn., another Bisley unit and normally based in Aden, operated a three-plane detachment from Addis Ababa and spent several days bombing rebel concentrations and native hutments. One of the wireless air gunners was Flight Sergeant Joseph Leon Belley of Quebec City. This squadron was the destination for numerous Canadians. Indeed, as of December 1943 at least 19 members of the RCAF had been posted there.

Email the writer at: writer@legionmagazine.com

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