While very little has been written about Royal Canadian Air Force personnel stationed in Africa during the Second World War, even less has been shared about the Canadian airmen who flew out of Africa on anti-submarine operations.
The North Atlantic was the principal U-boat hunting ground during the war, but the Germans routinely dispatched single submarines to remote waters where convoys were fewer and less protected. The fact there were fewer submarines operating in these waters complicated search efforts, and without enemy “wolf packs” there was a lot less radio traffic to monitor.
Indeed, the presence of a U-boat was usually announced by the sudden sinking of a ship. On the other hand, U-boats operating from the west coast of Africa to the Indian Ocean were hampered by their own problems of intelligence and supply.
Two enemy tankers, the Brake and the Charlotte Schleiman, plied between Japanese-held ports and rendezvous points to refuel the U-boats at sea. On Feb. 11, 1944, a Catalina of No. 259 Squadron, which included two RCAF members in its crew, found the Charlotte Schleiman near Mauritius, east of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean. The aircraft drew the destroyer His Majesty’s Ship Relentless to the site to sink the troublesome ship. Carrier aircraft found the Brake on March 12, 1944, and the crew scuttled her. These events crippled German navy operations between Africa and Ceylon (now Sri Lanka).
Flight Lieutenant John Edwards of Vancouver was typical of RCAF pilots in West Africa. Arriving in Sierra Leone in July 1943, he operated Hudson aircraft in that theatre of operations until the end of January 1944. He flew a total of 411 hours, 25 minutes, of which 375 hours were operational. The average patrol lasted six hours, but on four occasions he was airborne for seven hours or more.
On Aug. 28, 1943, Edwards was busy escorting the battleship HMS Warspite, and on Oct. 20, 1943, he performed an anti-submarine sweep in conjunction with the movement of a tanker, the SS Litiopa, from Lagos, Nigeria, to Freetown, Sierra Leone. That proved frustrating because the day after his mission, the Litiopa and its escort, HMS Orfisy, were ambushed and sunk by U-68.
Catalina flying boat operations were no less demanding. Lawrence G. Virr of Kingston, Ont., had gained considerable Catalina experience on Canada’s east coast before being posted overseas in September 1942. After advanced training in Britain, he set out on Jan. 28, 1943, on a 20-hour flight to Casablanca. From there, he flew down the coast of West Africa, then followed the water routes across the Belgian Congo until he reached Mombasa, Kenya, on Feb. 22, where he joined No. 259 Sqdn. From then until mid-January 1945, he flew 43 sorties and 627 operational hours. Although the average patrol was 15 hours, a few were much longer, with an escort sortie on Aug. 19, 1943, lasting 22 hours, 15 minutes. In all of this time, Virr never saw a U-boat, but on April 5, 1943, he located lifeboats of the SS City of Baroda which had been crippled south of Walvis Bay by U-509. During his tour with the squadron, Virr was promoted to squadron leader, appointed a flight commander and Mentioned in Dispatches.
Other RCAF personnel held responsible positions elsewhere. Late in 1943, Flying Officer William C. Winslow of Toronto was a deputy flight commander of No. 621 Sqdn. which flew Wellington bombers out of Mogadishu, Somalia, and Khormaksar, Aden. FO Joseph Doig of Winnipeg was the navigation officer in the same unit, responsible for specialized training. On Dec. 18, 1943, Winslow was performing a convoy patrol when his starboard engine failed. With the aircraft losing altitude, he jettisoned his depth charges, sent an SOS, and ordered the crew to prepare for ditching. Happily, he was able to minimize the aircraft’s rate of descent and landed safely at Khormaksar.
Submarine sightings were often fleeting and attacks inconclusive. On July 8, 1943, a Blenheim of No. 8 Sqdn. spotted a U-boat near Socotra in the Arabian Sea. The vessel submerged and the aircraft dropped four depth charges without observed results. When the U-boat reappeared, the Blenheim was without ordnance. Adding to the frustration was the lack of any follow-up aircraft. Sergeant Scott Simpson of Ottawa was a wireless operator and air gunner in the Blenheim.
George N. Goodwin of Erickson, B.C., had enlisted in the RCAF in September 1941, trained as a pilot, and in January 1943 was posted to No. 111 Operational Training Unit, Nassau, Bahamas. While there he was teamed up with a crew comprised mainly of New Zealanders, headed up by FO Lloyd Trigg. In June 1943, the crew ferried a Liberator bomber to Britain and then to No. 200 Sqdn., based in Gambia. On Aug. 11, 1943, during their first sortie on the new aircraft, they encountered U-468 southwest of Dakar.
The Liberator attacked in the face of withering anti-aircraft fire and was on fire when it dropped its depth charges with great accuracy. The aircraft crashed just beyond the sinking U-boat, killing all on board. Seven survivors of U-468, including its captain, were picked up by warships, and later testified to the bravery of the Liberator crew. Trigg was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross—the only such award ever made on evidence provided solely by the enemy. We will never know what part Goodwin had in the attack, but each of the Liberator’s crew is commemorated on the Malta Memorial, one of many dedicated to those with no known graves.
Two other U-boat sinkings at the other end of Africa had happier endings. On Aug. 20, 1943, south of Madagascar, U-197 was attacked and damaged by a Catalina of No. 259 Sqdn.; it was then finished off by another Catalina, this one piloted by FO Clarence Robin of No. 265 Sqdn., operating from Mombasa. Robin, of McBride, Alta., was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. His crew included RCAF navigator, Pilot Officer William G. Wilson, another American who had come a long way to fight in a backwater war.
No Canadians were involved in the sinking of U-533 in the Gulf of Oman on Oct. 16, 1943. Nevertheless, it was notable in that the successful unit, No. 244 Sqdn., was equipped with Bisley aircraft. Here was proof that even the most “clapped out” machines could be deadly, given a skilled crew and the element of surprise.
Anti-submarine squadrons established detachments wherever and whenever operations required. Some such units had temporary detachments as far away as the Seychelles Islands north of Madagascar. Conversely, squadrons nominally based in Ceylon or India might send the occasional aircraft and crew to East Africa. The detachment crews normally included one or two mechanics to service the aircraft while away from home bases, and provide extra eyes during patrols.
No. 262 Sqdn. was nominally based at Diego-Suarez, Madagascar, but in March 1944 much of it was flying out of Langebaan, South Africa. Enigma machine intercepts indicated that cargo-carrying submarines had left Bordeaux, France, with Japan as their destination. On March 11, 1944, south of the Cape of Good Hope, FO Frederick J. Roddick of Viking, Alta., found UIT-22, a former Italian submarine pressed into German service. He attacked in the face of accurate flak and dropped six depth charges. UIT-22 dove, but Roddick circled until another Catalina arrived, just as the damaged submarine surfaced. The second Catalina administered a coup de grâce. This had been Roddick’s second attack on a submarine; he was also awarded a DFC. On this occasion, his crew had included an RCAF mechanic, Warrant Officer William Thomason of Toronto.
A battle around U-852 in May 1944 can be described as both epic and bizarre. The U-boat was spotted in the Arabian Sea on May 1 by a Wellington of No. 621 Sqdn., the crew of which included one Canadian, Warrant Officer H. Riddell. Damaged in the attack, the U-boat was unable to dive. Nevertheless, on May 2 its commander, Heinz Eck, managed to put up stiff anti-aircraft opposition and manoeuvre his crippled vessel to avoid serious damage through four successive attacks by Wellingtons of the same squadron. Of the 24 airmen aboard the attacking aircraft, four were members of the RCAF.
The final air attack on U-852 was delivered on May 3 by a Wellington of No. 8 Sqdn. with two Canadians in the crew—FO James R. Forrester of Toronto and FO James R. Culham of London, Ont. Even their straddle of depth charges failed to sink U-852 which was finally abandoned by her crew on the rocky Somali coast. Incredibly, German scuttling charges did not completely wreck the vessel, and when Allied naval personnel boarded the hulk they discovered the U-boat’s logbook intact. This revealed that while the U-boat had been outward bound from Germany, she had sunk a Greek ship and machine gunned the survivors in the water. Three Greeks survived the massacre and were rescued 25 days later. Their testimony, coupled with the logbook, resulted in Eck and two others being tried as war criminals and executed—the only U-boat crewmen so punished.
Even without U-boat gunners or the presence of a German Air Force, there were Allied casualties associated with African operations. Meteorological coverage was incomplete and weather unpredictable. Sudden tropical storms could roll down the coast with fierce lightning, brutal downdrafts and ceilings reduced to 500 feet. Pilots made mistakes, aircraft developed engine trouble, and some vanished over shark-infested waters. On Aug. 27, 1943, on one of the last Hudson aircraft sorties by No. 200 Sqdn., an aircraft took off from Port Etienne, Mauritania, on an anti-submarine patrol and was never heard from again. The crew included two members of the RCAF—FO Percy Johnston of St. James, Man., and Flight Sergeant Daniel Ross, a wireless operator from New York, together with one member of the RAF and one from the Royal New Zealand Air Force. Their names were also added to the Malta Memorial.
Other crews ditched and were rescued. A story with mixed endings involved a Wellington of a temporary flight based at Waterloo, Sierra Leone, for anti-submarine duties. On Nov. 17, 1942, it was detached to Robertsfield, Liberia. Four days later it took off on a convoy escort mission with orders to land back at Waterloo. Some 90 minutes after takeoff, and still 60 miles from the convoy, the port engine began knocking, then smoking. An explosion finally robbed it of power. The pilot attempted to jettison his depth charges, but they hung up. He finally ditched. A gunner, FO Francis Bartkiewicz of Beamsville, Ont., sustained fatal injuries and was buried at sea. His comrades—four RCAF and one RAF—boarded their dinghy and were rescued six hours later. FO Peyton Lyon of Winnipeg, who became a distinguished academic, left a grim account of the affair, which was finally traced to negligent servicing at the base.
A few casualties were incurred in strange and sad ways. Squadron Leader John Rutherford of Montreal was a staff officer rather than aircrew. He had left a senior position with Sun Life Insurance to enlist, and had served in Britain, Egypt and Italy. On Feb. 2, 1945, he was one of two RCAF officers sent on temporary duty to Sierra Leone to check on the welfare of Canadians there. It was a steamy afternoon when they decided to go swimming at the colony’s most popular bathing area. In five feet of water and close to the shore, he was attacked by a shark. His fellow officer beat it off, but not before Rutherford sustained fatal injuries.
Posting to sub-Saharan Africa was seldom exciting and death was not necessarily heroic. It is also worth remembering that every man was a volunteer, and in the act of enlisting they had expressed their willingness to serve their country, wherever they might be directed, and die in that service, however obscurely.
Indeed, even to reach their remote postings often entailed grave risks. In May 1941, Bill McRae (Into Africa, January/February) had been at sea in just the sort of convoy the German battleship Bismarck had been sent to hunt. John Edwards had reached West Africa after his transport ship, the Duchess of York, was bombed by FW.200 Condors and set on fire 200 miles west of Virgo, Spain. Lawrence Virr, during his long journey from Britain to Casablanca to East Africa, had detoured far out to sea to avoid interception by long-range German fighters. Each would leave a memoir of his service, and thus speak for hundreds who left none.
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