Friday, 8 November 2013

Air Bridge to Britain

Bluie West One, Greenland (United States Public Domain)


When World War II started 1 September 1939, Great Britain was desperate for airplanes to fight Adolf Hitler. Canadian and American airplanes. Transports, trainers, bombers and fighters. Canada jumped into the conflict right away by declaring war on Germany just 3 days later. As an ally, Canada would officially help her mother country and her Royal Air Force. The neutral United States, on the other hand, could only supply England under the table with the Lend-Lease program set up by US president Franklin D Roosevelt.  Fighters and trainers built on this side of the ocean had to be shipped overseas because they didn’t have the range. Shipping was dangerous, though, what with the German U-boats lurking the ice-cold waters of the North Atlantic. The bombers and transports, however, did have the range. But…could they possibly be flown across the Atlantic?  


To see if such an awesome undertaking could work, a practice run was set for 10 November 1940, by a new organization established by Montreal banker Morris W Wilson called the North Atlantic Ferry Organization (ATFERO). Seven Lockheed Hudsons left Gander Airport. They had to remain in sight of each other because only one Hudson had a navigator aboard. En route, the North Atlantic weather turned sour and 3 planes got lost. The 4 others stayed on course and arrived 11 hours later at Aldergrove, Ireland. The remaining 3 one hour after that. I guess it could work after all. As a result, word was sent out across North America to individuals who were willing to risk their lives for the war effort by ferrying planes across the ocean and be paid handsomely for it…$600 a month, according to one retired gentleman I had met in the 1980s.


Airline pilots, bush pilots, crop-dusters, barnstormers, daredevils, navigators and radio-operators—all civilians--answered the call. By 29 July 1941, the name of the organization changed to RAF Ferry Command and was run by Air Chief Marshal Sir Frederick Bowhill. Later in the year, once Pearl Harbor was attacked to bring the United States into the fight against the Axis powers, more and more planes made their way overseas, despite poor weather conditions such as wind and ice storms and the relentless risk of running out of fuel shy of their destinations.


Routes were quickly set up. The aircraft were flown to Dorval Airport outside Montreal (Ferry Command Headquarters), then to RCAF Station Gander in Newfoundland. From there across the Atlantic, sometimes with stops in Greenland and/or Iceland. The last stop was Prestwick, Scotland, where  pilots based in England took over and flew the aircraft to the operational units who faced the combat conditions. Then the Ferry Command pilots, radio-operators,  and navigators were crunched in groups aboard stripped-down bombers for return flights to Canada for more flights overseas.  It was an assembly line of flights.


George White, from Ancaster, Ontario, was a civilian radio-operator with Ferry Command. “There were several drawbacks when compared to joining the armed forces,” he told me. “We had no medical coverage or after-the-war benefits. You were on your own. If, by reason of illness you were unable to fulfill your duties, the company could stop your salary for the duration of unavailability. So, the answer was simple…keep healthy, keep available and keep on enjoying $600 a month.”


Ferry Command kicked into high gear on 23 March 1943, when it was renamed RAF Transport Command No. 45 Group. No longer would they fly aircraft the North Atlantic route only. Planes of every type were ferried to all corners of the earth by civilians and now service men, too. South American routes across the Atlantic to Africa and north to England, and to Australia by way of San Francisco and Hawaii. Airmen from around the globe arrived in Canada to help out, including the Free French, Polish and Norwegian Air Forces. The planes were Lancasters, Mosquitos, B-17 Flying Fortresses, B-24 Liberators, B-25 Mitchells, PBY Flying Boats, and others. By June 1944, about half of the 1,300 airmen committed to Transport Command were Royal Canadian Air Force personnel…one of the reasons, it was cheaper to hire a service man at a fraction of the pay civilians were getting.


One of these RCAF airmen was Flying Officer Hank Seidenkranz, a navigator, who made one particular Mosquito fighter-bomber North Atlantic flight that stunned the world. “It was March 1945. The pilot was Flying Officer HC Graham,” Seidenkranz said back in 1983 at his Burlington, Ontario home. “We picked up the Mosquito in London and it took us 4 hours to fly 1,300 miles to Gander, at 9,000 feet and a ground speed of 330 miles per hour. We stopped to refuel, then took off again, put on our oxygen masks, got up to 21,000 feet, to take advantage of the ice-free weather and a tail-wind of 70 knots, and we landed in Prestwick, Scotland exactly 5 hours and 38 minutes later, a world record for Trans-Atlantic crossings! That was an average speed of 387.5 miles per hour! Did we ever get the headlines. It was front page news! A few hours later another Mosquito, this one flown by Captain JH Naz and navigated by Flight Lieutenant G Paxton, chopped one minute off our time to make a new record. But we got most of the publicity because we were first.”

F/O HC Graham on left with F/O Hank Seidenkranz on right, after record-breaking Atlantic flight, 1944. In the middle is Cpt JH Naz, who broke their record by one minute (courtesy de Havilland of Canada)


Another RCAF airman I contacted was Flying Officer Walter Jones, who also flew the super-fast Mosquitos overseas. He said that Montreal was not only Transport Command Headquarters but a real hot spot in the early 1940s, despite the fact that a good portion of Quebecers were against the war.  It was Britain’s problem, as far as they were concerned. “The Peel Tavern was a favorite haunt for the aircrews,” Jones informed me. “ Laws were different in Quebec. This was an all-male establishment. No women in Quebec pubs. At the Peel, you could buy a quart of beer for two-bits, and pick from a forty-gallon drum of oysters on ice.”

George White also enjoyed the Montreal area. Before the steady traffic once the US entered the war, White said, “Ferry Command personnel occasionally found themselves with a lot of time on their hands. I personally overcame this by spending most of the winter of 1941-42 skiing in the Laurentians.”


An important air base when crossing the Atlantic was Bluie West One (BW-1), an American strip on the south coast of Greenland. Yes, Greenland! The base was established after Denmark—which owned Greenland-- fell to the Nazis on 9 April 1940. The defected Danish ambassador to Washington then gave the US permission to construct air bases on the island. June 1941, saw the first American crews clearing a huge piece of land for BW-1. By January 1941, the first eastbound plane landed. The base had an east-west, steel-mat runway 5,000 feet long and 145 feet wide, and housed 4,000 servicemen. Three other bases were built on the island as alternatives…Bluie West Eight to the north, and Bluie East One and Bluie East Two to the east. During the 6 years of World War II, over 10,000 aircraft landed at BW-1 en route to Europe and North Africa from Canadian and later American points.


All aircrew were briefed—with much detail--beforehand on Greenland’s Bluie West One, described by one Ferry Command individual as a “scary thrill of a ride.”  Approaching Greenland from the east, 3 fjords were in sight, all nearly identical. Only one was the right one. Pilots had to come in low-level up the right fjord regardless of wind direction, with high mountains on both sides. If the pilot took the wrong fjord, he had no room to turn around. He had to get it right the first time, or else.  After about fifty miles, and after a couple turns, all of a sudden, there was the base. Right there! And you’d better have your wheels down before the last turn.

I heard of 2 instances—out of many, I’m sure--where Transport Command aircrews were very close to losing their lives during these overseas trips. One involved George White when he flew with a civilian pilot named Ken Carte in July 1942. The crew left Gander, Newfoundland in a B-25 Mitchell, bound for Prestwick. Three hours  after leaving the coast, they received a coded message from Gander…”return to base, weather unfit in Prestwick.” Part-way through the return trip, they received another message to continue on to Prestwick. So they did. A couple hours after that, another message came through telling them to return to Gander. Meanwhile Carte was frustrated turning back and forth, not to mention the horrendous wall of rain they encountered over the Atlantic shortly after leaving Gander originally. Upon returning to Newfoundland for good, however, they found Gander socked in with a 200-foot ceiling, fog patches, and visibility down to one-quarter mile.


Inside B-25 Mitchell approaching Bluie West One, Greenland, 1944 (courtesy Walter Jones)

Close to running out of gas after 14 hours in the air, Carte set the Mitchell down to the west at Stephenville, an American base in Newfoundland. “Ken made a beautiful landing on a rain-swept runway,” White said. “A jeep appeared in front of us sporting a large FOLLOW ME sign attached to its rear. We started back along the runway on our way to the hangar when a few hundred yards short of our destination one of the engines burped a few times, then quit. A few seconds later the other engine quit, too. A little tractor soon appeared and towed us in. One of the American service personnel, in typical Yankee humor looked at us and said, “Cutting it a little fine, aren’t you fellows? We all had a good laugh.”

In a similar vein, radio-operator Ron Snow, a good friend of George White’s, was flying in a twin-engine Lockheed Hudson that left Goose Bay, Labrador, with American Merle Phoenix at the controls. In their flight plan was two stops…Greenland and Iceland. South of Greenland, while on auto-pilot, the plane went into a spiral for no apparent reason. Phoenix did everything he could to get the Hudson straight and level, and finally did. As they continued on to Iceland, they were in heavy cloud. Then the island appeared through a break. “We spotted Iceland. The tanks were riding empty. There was no time to circle, so we flew straight in and landed…and we ran out of gas before we reached the end of the runway!”


At the beginning of the war, flying the Atlantic was risky. But by May 1945, when the fighting was all over in Europe, those brave airmen who ferried the heavy transports and bombers turned flying the Atlantic into an every-day routine, and also opened these air travel routes for the future generations of civilian pilots, aircrews and passengers. In a time of war, more than 9,000 aircraft were ferried across the ocean from Canadian points.  


Too bad 500 airmen had to lose their lives while attempting this crucial operation, something to think about with Remembrance Day just around the corner.

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