Rare Birds Of The Lost Legion: Air Force, Part 53

September 28, 2012 by Hugh A. Halliday
A Westland Whirlwind skirts above the clouds. [PHOTO: ED COATES COLLECTION]

A Westland Whirlwind skirts above the clouds.

The Lost Legion of Royal Canadian Air Force personnel–those who served overseas in non-Canadian squadrons–included men who flew aircraft types that never crossed the threshold of a Canadian unit. No RCAF squadron was ever equipped with Armstrong-Whitworth Whitley aircraft, a type much used by Bomber Command until 1942 and by other formations thereafter, but at least 288 members of the RCAF died on Whitley operations or training accidents. Forty-four others were taken prisoner.

The first of Bomber Command’s four-engine “heavies,” the Short Stirling, never served in an RCAF unit, but 524 members of the RCAF posted to Stirling units were killed and a further 76 captured. How many Canadians actually flew these types without becoming casualties is almost impossible to determine, mixed as they were through scores of British units.

Some of the Lost Legion operated rare machines. Only 114 Westland Whirlwind fighters and 602 Armstrong-Whitworth Albemarles were built. The former operated with only two Royal Air Force squadrons, the latter with seven. Their scarcity lends a touch of the exotic to the stories of those who flew them.

The Whirlwind design began in 1935 as a means to exploit heavier aircraft armaments that were becoming available. The prototype flew on Oct. 11, 1938, and proved to be delightful to fly and very fast. Aesthetically it was clean and beautiful. Modifications to improve stability on takeoff delayed its introduction, but the real Achilles heel was its 885-horsepower Peregrine engines, which represented the final development phase of one Rolls-Royce design at a time when the Merlin engine was beginning to blossom as one of the world’s outstanding powerplants. By contrast, the Peregrine was a technical dead end. When development work stopped in mid-1940, in favour of Merlin improvements, the Whirlwind’s fate was sealed.

Nevertheless, No. 263 Squadron was issued Whirlwinds in July 1940. More than a year later, in September 1941, a second Whirlwind squadron was formed, No. 137. They would fly the type until June 1943 when rocket-firing Hurricanes were issued; No. 263 continued on Whirlwinds until December 1943. Both units eventually converted to Typhoon fighter-bombers. Operationally, Whirlwinds had too limited a range for effective escort work; their role as interceptors was restricted because Peregrine engine performance fell off at altitude. Consequently, the aircraft did their best work at low level.

The first Canadian to fly the Whirlwind was Pilot Officer Irvine F. McDermott of Winnipeg, a member of the RAF since 1938 and a veteran of the recent, disastrous Norwegian campaign in which he had flown Gladiator biplanes in combat. He had to acquire experience on twin-engine aircraft and accordingly was posted on June 30, 1940, to No. 5 Operational Training Unit, Aston Down, flying Blenheims. With that accomplished, he reported back to No. 263 Sqdn.

Flight Lieutenant David Crooks (left) with Squadron Leader John Munro and Flt. Lt. Patrick Thomas Pugh, January 1941. [PHOTO: COURTESY KEVIN MELDRUM]

Flight Lieutenant David Crooks (left) with Squadron Leader John Munro and Flt. Lt. Patrick Thomas Pugh, January 1941.

While taking off on Aug. 7, a tire burst and so damaged the undercarriage that it was deemed hazardous to attempt a landing. McDermott abandoned the Whirlwind and parachuted to safety, but was detained by the Home Guard until he could prove his credentials. A month later he was posted away for an instructor course before being sent to Canada. He returned to overseas operations in 1943, was awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross and was killed in action on Nov. 1, 1943, flying a Wellington.

Technical problems kept the Whirlwind out of action until December 1940, when No. 263 was declared operational. Flight Lieutenant David Crooks of Toronto became the first Canadian to fly them in battle. Like McDermott, he had been a member of the RAF since 1938, and was also a combat veteran, having earned a DFC on Fairey Battles during the Battle of France. His career was cut short on April 1, 1941, when he was shot down in flames by a Dornier 17 bomber he had intercepted over Cornwall.

Whirlwinds were notable for their heavy and concentrated armament—four 20-mm cannon in the nose. As fighters, they were employed on defensive operations—convoy patrols and occasional “scrambles” against aircraft that usually proved to be straying “friendlies.” When it came to attacking rail, shipping and airfield targets in France, the type was formidable, especially after September 1942 when it was fitted to carry two 250-pound bombs and was dubbed the “Whirlibomber.” Such operations gradually bled the squadrons of aircraft which were not replaced. The shortage eventually led No. 137 Sqdn. to abandon its Whirlwinds; their cast-off machines served as a five-month reserve for No. 263 Sqdn.

By early 1941, Canadian graduates of the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan were arriving in Britain, many of them scattered among RAF rather than RCAF units. The first of these to report to a Whirlwind unit was PO Edgar Brearley of Toronto, posted to No. 263 Sqdn. on Sept. 20, 1941. He was the first of some 20 RCAF personnel who would fly them in Nos. 137 and 263 squadrons—a tiny fraction of those who served overseas but a significant portion of those who experienced this unusual machine. Some, like Irving F. “Hap” Kennedy, would pass through on the way to other types and units.

Eight would die while piloting Whirlwinds. Some were needless deaths. On the night of Feb. 19, 1943, PO Charles E. Mercer of Sydney, N.S., collided on the runway with another Whirlwind. Both aircraft carried bombs and both pilots were killed. Another Canadian in No. 137 Sqdn., Flying Officer James Rebbetoy of Cayuga, Ont., had been detailed for a daylight attack on French rail targets on April 25, 1943. His leader started a run on a train which turned out to be a flak trap, every rail car bristled with guns; he radioed that it should be avoided. Rebbetoy, who had previously attacked many rail targets, either did not hear or heed the warning. He pressed on and was shot down in flames.

An Albemarle takes off with a glider in tow. [PHOTO: LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA171542]

An Albemarle takes off with a glider in tow.

Flight Lieutenant James P. Coyne of Winnipeg had a remarkably successful career on No. 263 Sqdn. Whirlwinds, culminating in his being awarded a DFC. His recollections have appeared in print in the Journal of the Canadian Aviation Historical Society, Winter 1999. However, the article says more about the plane than Coyne’s achievements. These included two instances of damaging single-engine German Fw.190 fighters.

Attacks on enemy airfields were dependent on good intelligence. More than once, Whirlwinds flew to enemy airfields which turned out to be deserted. On June 5, 1943, four Whirlwinds, one piloted by Coyne, strafed Lannion airfield in Brittany, believing it to be a base for German bombers. They concluded that the five aircraft present were all dummies, intended to lure RAF aircraft into a flak trap.

The Armstrong-Whitworth Albemarle was as ugly as the Whirlwind was elegant. Design work had begun in 1938. It was to be a medium bomber and reconnaissance aircraft for production in a “worst case” scenario, including a scarcity of vital alloys. Consequently it was to be made principally of wood and steel, capable of manufacture by numerous subcontractors not otherwise engaged in war work, and the parts easily transportable by road to a central factory. With production rather than operational conditions so specified, the prototype Albemarle barely staggered off the ground in March 1940. Ten feet of wingspan was added before further tests were allowed.

By the time the Albemarle appeared, its central role had disappeared with four-engine Stirlings and Halifaxes poised to enter service. New roles were assigned, notably that of special transport and glider tug. The aircraft’s relatively poor lifting capacity made the former role questionable, but as the first British warplane with a tricycle undercarriage the Albemarle was in an excellent position to tow gliders. In its new role, the Albemarle underwent some changes, notably a radical reduction in defensive armament.

No. 511 Sqdn. used Albemarles on transport runs between Gibraltar and the United Kingdom. Their unsuitability for such long-range work was demonstrated on Aug. 10, 1943. That night, one of their aircraft developed engine trouble west of Spain, sent an SOS, and vanished with six crewmen (two of them RCAF) and eight passengers (one RCAF) aboard. A report concluded that “Any twin-engined aircraft in the Service which will not fly on one engine with reasonable load should not be used for transporting passengers.”

On shorter hauls the Albemarle was a stolid performer. Several were issued to No. 161 (Special Duties) Sqdn. in February 1942. The unit supported SOE (Special Operations Executive) operations in occupied Europe, using Lysanders for short-range agent drops and pickups, Whitleys for medium-range supply drops and Halifaxes for long-range deliveries. Albemarles began replacing the Whitleys in October 1942 and operated until May 1943, by which time they had been replaced by Lockheed Hudsons.

Flying Officer David H. Balmer with relatives outside Buckingham Palace. [PHOTO: AIR FORCE PHOTO—PL-45281]

Flying Officer David H. Balmer with relatives outside Buckingham Palace.

Albemarles were introduced to glider tug work through No. 296 Sqdn. Again, the newer type replaced venerable Whitleys. In June 1943, the unit began moving to North Africa where it practiced tugging with Waco CG-4As. On July 9-10, 1943, the squadron flew 25 sorties to Sicily (Operation Husky) and placed 17 gliders in the Landing Zone at Syracuse. On July 13, four Albemarles dropped an SAS (Special Air Service) unit into Sicily. One of these (P-1444) was lost, taking with it the squadron commanding officer, Wing Commander P.R. May, a recipient of the Air Force Cross. His navigator was a Canadian, Warrant Officer James J. Kunz from Sandwith, Sask. On the night of July 13-14, 1943, eight Albemarles towed CG-4A gliders in an operation aimed at capturing a Sicilian bridge. Sadly, they were engaged by Allied anti-aircraft fire and four were shot down.

No. 296 Squadron’s SAS drops work continued until Aug. 19 when the unit was withdrawn to North Africa for joint forces training. Operations resumed in late August with spoof raids, dropping dummy parachutists at the heel of Italy, followed by live SAS drops at Spezia and Genoa. On Oct. 2, it undertook daylight paratroop drops at various points on the east coast of Italy. Soon afterwards, it returned to Britain.

In the run up to D-Day, Albemarles were busily engaged in SOE deliveries as well as training airborne forces. Not all missions were successful. In No. 570 Sqdn., FO Edgar F. Dunn of Port Colbourne, Ont., was captain on three SOE flights (March 3, April 12 and April 30) when ground parties failed to contact his airplane. On June 6, 1944, he was detailed to tow a glider to Normandy, but the tow connection failed and the glider was cast off prematurely.

Warrant Officer (later FO) David H. Balmer of Courtney, B.C., another member of No. 570 Sqdn., was much more fortunate. He and his crew had been selected for a particularly important task, that of dropping paratroops of the 22nd Independent Parachute Company on the eve of D-Day. The role of these paratroops was that of preparing and lighting a landing area for the use of further paratroops and gliders as the spearhead of the Allied invasion. Superb piloting and navigation resulted in a successful outcome and a DFC to Balmer. In September 1944, after he was shot down during the Arnhem operation, he evaded capture and returned to his squadron.

There were hazards inherent in towing gliders, even in training. The last RCAF casualty on Albemarles was FO Vernon J. Bouchard of Regina. A veteran of Bomber Command and recipient of a DFC, he was posted in October 1944 to No. 22 Heavy Glider Conversion Unit for a “non-operational” tour. On Dec. 22, 1944, with Flight Sergeant A.W. Bannier of the RAF, he took off towing a Horsa glider which was manned by an instructor and a student pilot. At low speeds the Horsa developed yaw (rocking) which transmitted itself to the Albemarle. The glider got badly out of position, and pulled the Albemarle’s tail round. Bouchard cast off the Horsa, but his aircraft stalled and crashed, killing Bouchard and his companion. The Horsa force-landed successfully.

Most histories of the wartime RCAF feature the heaviest or most glamorous exciting types of aircraft—ponderous Lancasters, dashing Spitfires, plodding Catalinas and Dakotas. Even significant other types, like the Handley-Page Halifax, tend to blur in popular consciousness. The Lost Legion flew a myriad of machines, some of which deserve to be prodded back into the spotlight, however briefly, to provide context and variety.


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