Icy Latitudes: The Duty Of The Lost Legion

June 7, 2013 by Hugh A. Halliday

One of the most conspicuous aspects of the Lost Legion—the Royal Canadian Air Force personnel who served outside of RCAF units during the Second World War—is the remoteness of many locations. From tiny, dusty airstrips to frigid radar stations, these Canadians gained little attention while helping to win the war.

Within three months of Germany’s invasion of Russia on June 22, 1941, the first Allied help for the beleaguered Soviet air force reached the northern Russian city of Murmansk. It arrived by sea in the form of No. 151 Wing, comprised of Nos. 81 and 134 squadrons equipped with Hawker Hurricanes.

Eventually, almost 3,000 Hurricanes would be supplied to Russia, including some from Canadian production lines. No. 134 Sqdn. was assigned to train Russian pilots and maintenance crews, while No. 81 Sqdn. defended the area until Soviet units were battle-ready on Hurricanes. Two pilots—Flying Officers James Walker of Edmonton and David Ramsay of Calgary—belonged to the RCAF.

Ground crew servicing a Canso at Reykjavik, Iceland, September 1944.[PHOTO: LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—E005176199]

Ground crew servicing a Canso at Reykjavik, Iceland, September 1944.
PHOTO: LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—E005176199

On the same day No. 81 Sqdn. was declared operational—Sept. 12, 1941—it scored its first aerial victories. Russian flak bursts led Hurricanes to a Hs.126 reconnaissance aircraft under Me.109 fighter escort. Within minutes, one Hurricane had been shot down in exchange for three 109s and the Hs.126. One of the enemy fighters was destroyed by Walker.

The Hurricanes often accompanied Russian Pe.2 bombers which were so fast the escorts had to fly at full throttle. On Sept. 27, Walker had an inconclusive combat with a Ju.88 bomber. Less than a month later, No. 151 Wing completed its task and handed over its aircraft to Russian control. Its RAF personnel were posted back to Britain.

“Jimmy” Walker went on to serve with RAF units in North Africa. He ran up a final score of 10 enemy aircraft destroyed, and was awarded three Distinguished Flying Crosses before he was killed in a flying accident in England on April 25, 1944. Ramsay returned to Canada and commanded No. 111 (RCAF) Sqdn. during much of the 1943 Aleutian Island campaign, for which the North Russian experience had undoubtedly prepared him. He retired from the RCAF as a wing commander.

Canadians had other opportunities to experience the living conditions of northern Russia as they ferried Catalina aircraft to Murmansk or operated briefly from Soviet bases against enemy targets in Norway. On Sept. 5, 1942, Nos. 144 and 455 squadrons—using Hampden torpedo bombers—flew to Russia. One crashed in Sweden, one was shot down by flak, another was lost to German fighters, and one was mistakenly shot down by a Russian fighter. Royal Canadian Air Force casualties were five men killed, three taken prisoner.

Pilot Officer A.W. Bell, PO D.S. Lave, Flying Officer H.W. Middleton and FO N.F. Wenzel pose next to a Hudson while serving in Iceland with a RAF meteorological squadron. [PHOTO: NATIONAL DEFENCE—PL33820]

Pilot Officer A.W. Bell, PO D.S. Lave, Flying Officer H.W. Middleton and FO N.F. Wenzel pose next to a Hudson while serving in Iceland with a RAF meteorological squadron.
PHOTO: NATIONAL DEFENCE—PL33820

The two squadrons remained in the Murmansk area until Oct. 22 when the Hampdens were transferred to the Soviets and RAF personnel embarked by sea for Britain. In their six-week sojourn, relations with the host forces were cordial. Pilot Officer George Vicary of Toronto, a navigator in No. 144 Sqdn., returned to England wearing souvenirs such as a Russian officer’s cap badge and a Communist party lapel pin, obtained through barter.

Vicary described his experiences to an RCAF press officer. He and his comrades attended numerous dances which blended Soviet and Western themes; a popular item played was The Big Bad Wolf Is Dead. Entertainment troupes visited the bases, offering lyrics and jokes that were incomprehensible to the Hampden crews, but impressive in the vigour and acrobatic skills of the performers. Crews also experienced another fact of Soviet life—constant propaganda. The airfield had loudspeakers scattered everywhere, inside and out, which delivered a steady stream of Russian speeches, news broadcasts and music every day. “I think they cut it down a bit for our benefit,” Vicary reported. His next posting was to a heavy bomber squadron—No. 427—with which he was killed on June 23, 1943.

Sweeping westward into the Atlantic, one encounters the Faroe Islands, located between Iceland and the Shetland Islands. Since the 14th century, the Faroes have been connected politically to Denmark. When Germany invaded Demark in 1940 the British promptly occupied the archipelago which offered a few anchorages for flying boats; an airfield for wheeled aircraft had to wait until 1943. The major air force presence was in the form of radar personnel, and a disproportionate number of radar technicians overseas were members of the RCAF. Several of their stories are recounted in Canadians on Radar: Royal Canadian Air Force, 1939-1945 by George Keddie, Sheila Linden and Horace Macaulay.

Six radar sites were established in the Faroes with considerable direction from RCAF officers and non-commissioned officers. The normal tour of duty was six months, but Warrant Officer Hal Cairns served from February 1943 to February 1944. Corporal Olaf Craig Knudson of Woodstock, Ont., also had a one-year tour. Warrant Officer Clarence MacDonald arrived early in 1942 and remained until late 1943.

Flying Officer James Walker served in Russia. [PHOTO: NATIONAL DEFENCE—PL21281]

Flying Officer James Walker served in Russia.
PHOTO: NATIONAL DEFENCE—PL21281

Gaining access to some of these sites presented a challenge. Sergeant Earl Moore recalled travelling with a party of 14 to Nolsoy Island in November 1942. Rough seas prevented them from tying up at the dock so they waded ashore with their kit and then scaled a nine-metre cliff. Their quarters—a lightkeeper’s house—was another 120 metres up, and the actual radar equipment was on a ledge that was higher still.

From their perch, the radar crews observed Allied shipping and ferry air traffic; occasionally they plotted German weather reconnaissance aircraft. The biggest enemy was wind, and it was sometimes necessary to lash down the radar arrays to a degree that hindered actual coverage. Early in 1943, Moore salvaged sheets of Plexiglas to create a “radar dome” as protection against gales.

Although close to the Arctic Circle, the islands were warmed by the Gulf Stream. Winters were mild and summers cool. The islanders lived close to nature, whether as fishers, whalers or sheep herders. In a December 1943 RCAF news release, Leading Aircraftman Eddie Dorey from Liverpool, N.S., described the rugged people he met. On one occasion he offered to help a woman carry a box of peat home. He shifted it from her shoulders to his—and staggered. The box weighed nearly 40 kilograms, and the woman, age 73, had already carried the peat more than five and a half kilometres.

On a sadder note, it must be noted that six members of the RCAF are buried in Torshavn cemetery, Faroes. They were part of the crew of Catalina FP269, No. 190 Sqdn., which took off from Sollum Voe, Shetland Islands, on April 22, 1943, and crashed at 3 a.m. on the 23rd into the cliffs of Vidnik Fjord, Vidoy, at the northern end of the archipelago.

Further west is Iceland, which in 1940 was virtually an independent country linked to Denmark by the crown—similar to Canada’s Dominion status vis-a-vis Britain. When Denmark was overrun by the Germans, King Christian X was virtually a prisoner. The Icelandic parliament passed a resolution of neutrality, but that luxury was denied. British troops invaded the island nation in May 1940, and by the end of 1941 American forces had replaced the British garrisons. The populace recognized the necessities of “real politik” although they did not like it. The attitude of the Icelanders to their “guests” ranged from sullen acceptance to mildly welcoming.

Donald Beare was one of the Canadians killed in a plane crash in the Faroes. [PHOTO: COURTESY HUGH A. HALLIDAY]

Donald Beare was one of the Canadians killed in a plane crash in the Faroes.
PHOTO: COURTESY HUGH A. HALLIDAY

Iceland witnessed a constant flow of Allied aircraft and personnel passing back and forth throughout the war. In December 1943 and January 1944 there was a modest Canadian invasion when No. 162 (Bomber Reconnaissance) Sqdn. was moved from Nova Scotia to Reykjavik, bringing hundreds of men to an American base—Camp Kwitcherbellyakin—which was renamed Camp Maple Leaf. Subsequently, the unit’s Canso patrol bombers operated from Scottish as well as Icelandic bases, but most of the technical and administrative personnel remained in Iceland.

Nevertheless, as members of the Lost Legion, RCAF personnel had been in Iceland from July 1941 onwards. The advance guard were radar personnel, again described in Canadians on Radar: Royal Canadian Air Force, 1939-1945. Two of the first three radar sites were established by Canadian officers—Flying Officers John Cuninghame of Wiarton, Ont., and Douglas Gooderham of Maryfield, Sask. Cuninghame had the harder task at Vik, which was at the extreme southern tip of Iceland. He travelled with a 21-vehicle convoy over a virtual lava desert to build the site; the 160-kilometre trip from Reykjavik lasted three days. Gooderham travelled widely as a radar officer; he was eventually decorated for services in India.

Some performed mundane tasks. Sergeants Fred Wright and William Ramsay of Vancouver arrived in July 1942 as cipher clerks on the island. Others were active aircrew in the squadrons based there. A July 1943 report provides a snapshot of the RCAF presence which included 15 members of No. 1407 Meteorological Flight, 48 in No. 269 Sqdn. and 16 in No. 120 Sqdn. In August 1944, No. 1407 Flight became No. 251 Sqdn.

The stories of the men who served in these units are often lost in the larger RAF narratives. Happily, at least one RCAF veteran of Iceland, Donald Beresford, related much of his experiences to his son John who wrote a detailed account for Flypast magazine in 2010. The elder Beresford was posted to No. 269 Sqdn. in April 1942, and completed his tour in May 1943, having flown 83 sorties and 447 operational hours. These were mainly anti-submarine patrols and convoy escorts in some of the world’s most unstable weather.

On April 25, 1943, nearing the end of his tour, Beresford met the enemy—U-650—some 325 kilometres south of Iceland. Three seconds after the submarine slipped under the surface, Beresford dropped his depth charges. Three fell some distance from the target; a fourth exploded near the swirl. He was awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross for having accomplished “the almost certain destruction of the U-boat” but in fact U-650 escaped.

Although spread across foreign northern theatres, the RCAF’s Lost Legion stood out wherever they served. One thing that Fred Wright recalled from Iceland was how their speech baffled the British, who themselves exhibited an array of accents. “Every time they tried to imitate our accent, they would come out with a poor sort of American.” Such were the travails of being “lost.”

Email the writer at: writer@legionmagazine.com

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