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On The Water: Air Force, Part 47

A RCAF Marine Branch crew at Patricia Bay, B.C., 1944. [PHOTO: COMOX AIR FORCE MUSEUM]

A RCAF Marine Branch crew at Patricia Bay, B.C., 1944.

On inland lakes and on the coasts, Royal Canadian Air Force watercraft performed a myriad of odd, but vital jobs. Near Patricia Bay, B.C., they retrieved floating practice torpedoes that had been dropped by No. 32 Operational Training Unit. Range boats patrolled bombing and gunnery ranges, prepared to rescue crews of crashed aircraft, warning civilians and fishermen away from danger areas and towing hydrofoil targets. General Utility boats of roughly 10 to 14 metres transported local station supplies and laid down flare paths during night-flying operations, and refuelling tenders, loaded with 27,240 litres of gasoline, serviced flying boats. Bombing rafts, built of heavy timber, delivered depth charges to those same aircraft, and derrick scows lifted moorings and other heavy materials.

And as noted in the July/August issue, high-speed rescue launches sometimes patrolled the high seas with depth charges. In November 1944, the M-300 Elaine W. was sent to Digby, N.S., to escort the British submarine Unseen to prevent accidental air attacks.

It was also a given that a vessel might perform many tasks in a voyage. On June 22, 1942, the M-361 OK Service left Dartmouth for the Labrador coast. Space below decks was jammed with cargo while fuel drums occupied almost every inch of the deck. Flight Lieutenant John Howell had been instructed to re-open refuelling bases established the previous summer at Canada Bay and Cartwright, laying aircraft moorings at both sites while transporting men and supplies to the detachments there. The OK Service returned to Dartmouth July 22, 1942, and the diary mentions heavy fog almost every day, with “occasional bleak hints” of the coast. On July 1, they narrowly avoided a collision with an iceberg. Stops to unload cargo were marked by swarms of biting insects. On July 10, they inspected a Ventura aircraft that had crashed near Cartwright the previous winter, and managed to salvage its engines.

Rescue and salvage often ran close together. On July 9, 1943, a Canso aircraft crashed while landing at Ucluelet on Vancouver Island. It quickly sank until only the wing and rudder were visible. The six-man crew, suffering cuts and shock, were picked off the wing by the station crash boat. M-206 Haida then hooked the wreckage to prevent it from sinking further and a scow was brought alongside. RCAF resources were insufficient to raise the waterlogged fuselage, however, and a civilian dredge was used to lift it onto the scow. The Canso was brought to the slipway, pumped dry and then moved to a hangar. The aircraft had crashed at 4:30 p.m. and was under cover by 10:10 p.m.

The most ubiquitous task of the Marine Branch was that of simple transportation, particularly to remote radar sites where the supply of cigarettes and beer was relevant to morale. A typical manifest listed items ranging from diesel fuel through prunes to molasses. On April 22, the M-361, running from Halifax to St. John’s, Nfld., listed 66 tons of cargo that included 727 boxes of ammunition for Station Gander, 500 mattresses for the same base, and 67 bags of pigeon feed for Station Torbay.

In some instances the approach to a destination was so restricted that delivery was completed using smaller craft equipped with outboard motor. The radar station at Cape Bauld, Labrador, had no proper wharf; every person or pound of supplies arrived or left by scow or rowboat—when sea conditions allowed. Failing that, cargo was unloaded at ports such as Quirpon Harbour for later movement to the radar site. Getting to such a destination was complex. The diary of No. 30 Radio Detachment at Cape Bauld reported that a “relief ship” (M-456 Eskimo) had sailed from Halifax on June 10, 1943, but owing to ice conditions did not arrive until the 17th. The unit was low on food, so rowboats conveyed minimal supplies through the rock-ridden surf. It was a week before the bulk of the cargo, including heating oil, had been unloaded elsewhere for later movement to the radar site.

The importance of Marine Branch supply operations can be gauged by a few statistics. From January to the end of November 1943, commercial carriers transported 5,565 tons of freight from Halifax to bases in Newfoundland and Labrador. RCAF Marine craft took 3,168 tons to the same areas. That year the hardest-working RCAF vessels were the M-361, which logged 27,675 kilometres, the M-456 (20,854 kilometres) and M-302 Aristocrat (20,867 kilometres). The performance of the 30-metre M-302 was notable, given that in March 1942 she had been described as “an old ex-rum runner—quite satisfactory as a general work boat and for laying moorings. Should not be employed beyond coastal waters.”

RCAF marine supply work was even more important on the west coast. In 1943, 13 vessels spent 16,000 hours at sea, cruised 177,100 kilometres, transported 23,550 tons of cargo and delivered 3,750 passengers. The runs were as short as 42 kilometres and as lengthy as 845 kilometres.

Marine Branch crew meet a Catalina at Patricia Bay, 1945. [PHOTO: COMOX AIR FORCE MUSEUM]

Marine Branch crew meet a Catalina at Patricia Bay, 1945.

Pacific coast operations were particularly gruelling. In January 1942, the RCAF supply vessels M-205 Sekani and M-206 Haida, operating between Prince Rupert and the Queen Charlotte Islands, were repeatedly forced by gales to shelter in harbour or small inlets. The Sekani eventually departed Prince Rupert early on January 21, 1942, but had to seek the protection of Captain’s Cove until the 25th, and finally reached Alliford Bay at 6:30 a.m. on the 26th, with rations that should have been delivered to the base on the 20th. Even when they completed their runs, the boats were battered and cargo considerably damaged by water. The Jan. 16, 1942, diary entry of Station Alliford Bay was blunt: “These vessels are absolutely unsuited to these waters, Hecate Strait being recognized as the “graveyard” of the Pacific coast. As ships, they are badly built and practically unseaworthy; as cargo vessels they are entirely inadequate, and as passenger vessels they should be condemned as unsanitary and a danger to life owing to unseaworthiness and lack of life-saving equipment.”

Indeed, it was a supply mission that resulted in the largest loss of life in the history of the Marine Branch. The M-427 B.C. Star, a former fishing vessel, departed Bella Bella on July 24, 1943, bound for Rose Harbour in the Queen Charlottes. She was loaded with construction material for a radar base intended for that site. Radio silence prevailed, and the vessel was not missed until Aug. 3, when No. 9 Construction and Maintenance Unit asked when its expected cement was to arrive.

The weather in the interval had been moderate with fog banks, swells, 24-kilometre-per-hour winds and the area had been traversed by air patrols. A search began at once, but only two life rafts were found. They had apparently floated off the vessel as there was no indication they had been used. Fifteen men were lost, and it was speculated that the hull had simply opened up under the weight of her cargo and that the M-427 went down before an SOS could be sent.

If the B.C. Star represented the worst tragedy in the RCAF Marine Branch, the M-456 Eskimo and M-522 Beaver, both 51 metres in length and built in Lunenburg, N.S., accomplished some of its greatest successes. Late in 1943, the RCAF had transferred No. 162 (Bomber Reconnaissance) Squadron from Canada to Iceland to take a more direct role in the Battle of the Atlantic. This move had complications, not the least being that the squadron’s Canadian-built and amphibious Cansos differed in some technical details from their Royal Air Force equivalents, Consolidated Catalina flying boats. Maintaining No. 162 Sqdn. meant the speedy transfer of special supplies, spare parts and 30 tons of munitions. The Eskimo and Beaver were assigned the job. They had previously made several runs to northern Newfoundland and the Labrador coast, but nothing had quite prepared them for their latest task.

Eskimo cleared from Dartmouth just after midnight on Jan.12, 1944, under the command of Sqdn. Leader John Howell. Beaver left in the early evening of Jan. 21, 1944, commanded by Flying Officer Andre Sonnichsen. On Jan.17, the crew of Eskimo had to fight a fire in the galley. On the 22nd they sailed past a floating mine. Without escorts and battling North Atlantic waves, both vessels reached Reykjavik, Iceland, unloaded their cargoes and headed home with Icelandic lava in their holds as ballast.

The sea was no kinder on the homeward run. This time it was the Beaver that had the harder time. South of Greenland she encountered icebergs, and the approach to Newfoundland was through an icefield which trapped the vessel for one night within sight of 90-metre cliffs.

Eskimo and Beaver underwent temporary repairs in St. John’s before making Halifax in mid-March. Once home, they needed more work; the Eskimo was practically rebuilt in the Halifax shipyards.

VE- and VJ-Days brought rapid demobilization and downsizing which affected all service branches, the RCAF “navy” included. More than one former owner wanted their boats back, including the RCMP whose vessels Arresteur and Detector had to be overhauled to convert them back to police roles. Fortunately, the RCMP was in no hurry. A more pressing task was that of “unscrambling” former members from both the Royal Canadian Navy and the RCAF before returning to normal.

In the immediate postwar years the diminished Marine Branch found new tasks. In 1945-46, they were busy removing equipment and recoverable stores from remote wartime outposts; six years later they were engaged in transporting supplies to some of those same outposts as the air force grew again.

Crews salvage what can be saved from a crashed Ventura bomber. [PHOTO: COURTESY HUGH A. HALLIDAY]

Crews salvage what can be saved from a crashed Ventura bomber.

The postwar RCAF program of northern photographic operations was dependant upon the establishment and restocking of fuel caches at sub-Arctic bases, which necessitated RCAF marine support. The Beaver was lost on Aug. 20, 1946, when she grounded on an uncharted reef at the entrance to James Bay while on a delivery run. The crew was saved, and the mission was completed by Eskimo which made the run to Hudson Bay from Halifax. She exited Hudson Strait just ahead of freeze up. The Eskimo’s skipper on this occasion was Warrant Officer Clifford H. Nauffts, a member of the Marine Branch since the original Boat Crewman class of 1935.

In April 1947, the Eastern and Western Air Command marine squadrons were reorganized as numbers 102 and 122 Marine squadrons, respectively, with the west coast unit relocating to Patricia Bay. Movement of another sort involved the M-232 Takuli, a high-speed rescue launch, from the Pacific to the Atlantic coast. It left Vancouver Sept. 2, 1947, and reached Dartmouth Oct. 14, having made the 11,270-kilometre voyage via the Panama Canal.

Meanwhile, work for these marine craft was diminishing. Civilian companies were anxious to bid on transportation projects, and securing such contracts became more attractive as improved coastal charting reduced hazards and drove down insurance rates. Oil companies were particularly anxious to restock remote fuel caches using shallow-draught tankers.

A snapshot of the Marine Branch is a May 1950 report listing the vessels of all government departments available for rescue work. In the Atlantic area the RCAF had three high-speed launches equipped with radio and radar and capable of operating in “reasonable weather,” one range boat, one 162-ton supply vessel, three General Utility boats and a crash boat at Goose Bay. At Patricia Bay, the force maintained three high-speed launches, one range boat, one supply vessel, and a General Utility boat. There was also a range boat and crash boat at Trenton, Ont.

On Aug. 4, 1950, the fishing vessel Dorothy Loria broke down some 80 kilometres southeast of Liverpool, N.S. The high-speed launch M-208 Abanaki, on a training mission, was diverted to assist in making repairs. The RCAF marine engineer was unable to fix the problem, so the M-208 towed the crippled vessel to Lockport.

The badge worn on postwar blazers by Marine Branch personnel. [PHOTO: COURTESY HUGH A. HALLIDAY]

The badge worn on postwar blazers by Marine Branch personnel.

The Marine Branch lost its high-seas rescue function in November 1951 when the RCN assumed responsibilities for such operations, resulting in the immediate disbandment of No. 102 Marine Sqdn. RCAF “navy” continued, however, with supply vessels and high-speed crash boats for coastal work; one of them stationed at Primrose Lake near Cold Lake, Alta., where RCAF fighter pilots conducted live-fire training. As of 1963 the Marine Branch had some 65 men (all ranks), but the impending integration of the Canadian Forces heralded the final absorption of the branch into the RCN in 1965.

Traces of the old “air force navy” still exist. The M-468 Songhee, built in 1944 as a Pacific coast supply vessel, having sailed as both an RCAF and an RCN vessel, was “retired” in 1990. She is still on the Canadian marine registry, available for charters and tours out of Duncan, B.C. Two 21-metre, high-speed launches—the M-231 Malecite and M-235 Huron are registered as yachts in Vancouver, the latter having been renamed Seaward. The marine force still has its chroniclers, notably Major J.E. Vernon, Jeff Gordon of the Military Collector’s Club of Canada and Geoffrey Pilborough, author of an illustrated two-volume history.

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