Library Reference Number: 120
45 (Atlantic Transport) Group, RAF.
Many reports and varied historical accounts have appeared, describing the earliest flight across the Atlantic undertaken by pioneer aviators Alcock and Brown, who set off from St.John's, Newfoundland on 14th June 1919. Not least of the problems described, was the unpredictable Atlantic weather. Taking sixteen hazardous hours, with Alcock's feet planted firmly on the rudder pedals, there were several occasion when jammed between cloud and fog, they were unable to see even the nose of their Vickers Vimy aircraft. One of the most frightening events occurred when they developed a spin, and when levelling out 300 feet above the waves, discovered they were heading back towards North America. During another four-hour period, they were enveloped in a sheet of ice.
It was not really surprising that Alcock and Brown showed little inclination to continue flying over the Atlantic, and in fact, between their first non-stop flight in 1919 and outbreak of world-war 2, less than a hundred attempts were made to replicate their trans-Atlantic flight. Fifty of those had to be cancelled because of bad weather, and around sixteen attempts ended in tragedy, with records showing 'lost at sea' or similar statements.
It came about then, when Britain was confronted with the task of urgently developing the RAF, and large numbers of aircraft were required by the Allies in 1939 to compete with the might of the Luftwaffe; the breadth of the Atlantic Ocean lay between Europe, and the aircraft suppliers in USA and Canada.
As early as 1938, American and Canadian aircraft manufacturers had started work on what was considered to be the future need of British and Allied Air Force requirements with one eye on the war rumblings of Nazi Germany. Whole ranges of aircraft had been designed in North America, and were already in production including bombers, fighters, reconnaissance and other aircraft. It was estimated at that time that North American companies had orders for around 26,000 aircraft, and it was recognised one of the great problems would be delivery methods. Once the planes had been constructed, it was possible to take them apart, pack the sections into crates, and reassemble them after they had been delivered by shipping. However, it soon became obvious that ships crossing the Atlantic had turned into an extremely uncertain method of delivery, as Germany had placed U-boats in the Atlantic even before hostilities had begun. Ships transporting new planes were already being sunk.
In modern times with passengers flying across the Atlantic daily without giving it a second thought, things were so different at the outbreak of WW2 in 1939; crews delivering planes by flying across the Atlantic were still potentially at too great a risk because of harsh weather conditions and inadequate navigational aids. However desperate times need desperate measures. A few courageous pioneers were prepared to take those risks.
The first air-ferry service was set up in Canada, and plans were made for planes to fly from Saint-Hubert Airport, Montreal, to Gander in Newfoundland where planes would refuel, ready for the trans-Atlantic crossing to Prestwick in Scotland. First to launch this new service was Captain Don Bennett, later to become 'Pathfinder Bennett' leading Bomber Command raids over Germany. Earlier in 1938, he may be remembered as the Pilot who took off from Dundee in the "Mercury" lifted into the air by the "Maia" flying boat. Flying non-stop to South Africa he broke the long distance record for a float plane. Later still, Don Bennett became President of our Aircrew Association in 1984, and position he held for two years until his death on Battle of Britain Day 1986.
Anyhow, Don Bennett launched the new Atlantic ferry programme on 10th November 1940 by taking command of seven Lockheed 'Hudsons' taking the route described above. They planned to fly in formation and keep in sight of each other, as only one crew had a navigator. Unfortunately (as predicted) weather conditions deteriorated to such an extent, that three planes lost sight of each other and became lost. The four who had remained together eventually arrived at Aldergrove in Ireland taking eleven hours from Gander. Fortunately, the remaining three turned up one hour later. This event heralded a new era in aviation history - they had proved it was possible to fly and deliver planes to UK. Possible, Yes - but still dangerous. Among the many early accidents, Sir Frederick Banting's plane (in which he was a passenger) crashed near Gander in February 1941. Banting (involved in the discovery of insulin) was one of many fatalities. In May 1941 the Ministry of Aircraft Production created the Atlantic Ferry Organisation (ATFERO). Many planes and aircrews continued to be lost, but one important factor became apparent; each individual aircraft would require a Navigator.
My own experience of flying across the Atlantic as a member of a B24 Liberator crew didn't take place until 1944, but even then, it was known for unwary crews to make navigational errors. A very slight error made after take-off from Newfoundland, could become quite a significant problem on reaching Britain. It became known that several crews making those navigational errors missed landfall at UK, and were shot down having mistakenly entered the European theatre of hostilities completely unarmed and unable to protect themselves. This situation was not entirely lost on me, as having reached mid Atlantic, my Navigator suffering from oxygen starvation required a quick recap to reassure us all, that he was actually pointing in the correct direction for Prestwick.
The RAF operation of 45 (AT) Group and B24 Liberator Atlantic crossings had already been pioneered by the aforementioned Don Bennett. Six Liberators from the first batch intended for the UK were directed to British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC), to be used in the North Atlantic Return Ferry Service. Thus, returning aircrews to Montreal who had already delivered their aircraft to Prestwick. This first batch of six, supervised by Don Bennett was successfully delivered to Prestwick on 14th May 1941, having taken 14 1/2 flying hours.
My first contact with the B24 Liberator aircraft took place at No.111 Operational Training Unit, Nassau, Bahamas. Having crossed the Atlantic via the 'Queen Mary' on my way to Nassau, it was on the cards that having completed operational flying training as a Flight Engineer, I might be involved with 45 Group in air-testing or delivering aircraft to where they were urgently required. During my training at 'Oakes' and 'Windsor Field' the often repeated tale of the 'Bermuda Triangle' was tragically brought to mind when one of our Liberators mysteriously disappeared. It made it even more regrettable when the Flight Engineer was a close friend Ken Cameron (from Fort William). Ken and his crew took off on an air exercise to Key West, Florida. Although the aircraft had been serviced, and the crew on alert as far as radio and communication training was concerned, it just disappeared without the slightest clue or signal being given. Several days of dinghy-searching drew a blank.
Aircraft deliveries by trans-Atlantic ferry service had been carried out at a price. The overall picture from its infancy showed that over 500 members of aircrew had been lost as well as 60 passengers. Many of the losses occurred due to carburettors icing up in severe Atlantic conditions. However, when aircraft simply disappeared there was little evidence to confirm the actual cause. From its origins, the ferry service had been led by experienced Captain/Navigators of Imperial Airways, soon to be joined by a mixture of civilian pilots and members of the RAF. Organisational reforms regularly took place, but a significant change occurred in March 1943 when it was announced that 'Ferry Command' was to be re-named 'Transport Group.' The operative word being the change from 'Command' to 'Group' in which case, the trans-Atlantic operation took over the official title of "45 (Atlantic Transport) Group." However, many people continued to use the term 'Ferry Service.'
Sure enough, on completion of my operational flying training at Nassau, I was posted to 45 (AT) Group at Dorval Airport, Montreal. Issued with an official certificate stating I was employed as a Flight Engineer at HQ 45 Group, Montreal and having living quarters at Lachine on the edge of the St.Lawrence River. For me, I thought any further action in WW2 was outwith my remit. Montreal was the most beautiful city, alive, bright and seemed to come even more alive with a glorious night-life. Flying newly-assembled Liberators and air-testing all systems appeared to be my role for the foreseeable future. There was no sign of any of the usual service/parade procedures which was a welcome omission. Just simply be there waiting in the crew-room when a brand new Liberator was rolled out on the tarmac dispersal area, ready to be taken up and thoroughly air-tested. The test aircrew consisted of two (usually American) civilians and myself. One civilian being the radio operator, the other the pilot. Unable to comment very much at the time, I must admit to some misgivings on the part of the American civilian pilots. No doubt they had immaculate qualifications and experience; otherwise they wouldn't have been employed for such a responsible job. Had they been service personnel however, I doubt if they would have escaped disciplinary procedures for some of their more unusual moments.
Air testing a newly-assembled Liberator, and certifying its airworthiness and acceptance for RAF service was a really interesting task involving engine & airframe certification. Systems tested included hydraulics, electrical, fuel, flying controls and engine-handling. Also included were all the emergency and safety features. One day while testing the propeller feathering circuits, the pilot announced what he was about to do, but after closing the throttles on both outer engines, he feathered the props on both inner engines. Just as well I was unusually very alert, because for a fair number of seconds, Montreal had a 30-ton glider hovering over the city with no engines running to keep it airborne. Strangely enough, the pilot wasn't too pleased when I hurriedly rectified the matter, especially when I remarked at the same time, that if he wanted to try kamikaze stuff - try it some other time!!
On another occasion with a different civilian pilot, we had completed our air-test procedures and were approaching Montreal Airport preparing to enter the landing circuit. The pilot asked me to radio the control tower for permission to land. Unknown to us, an Anson aircraft was already in its final circuit and was given permission to land ahead of us. Instead of just going round again while awaiting the Anson complete its landing, the pilot muttered that he would teach that guy a lesson, and descended rapidly over the Anson who was about to touch down. What the Anson pilot thought when he saw a four-engine monster about to drop on his head I'll never know, as I made myself scarce after we eventually landed and made our report. On another occasion, strolling out on the tarmac looking for a Liberator I had been asked to air-test, I was amazed to see alongside, a Liberator with a single fin. While examining the luxurious interior complete with kitchen, lounge etc. I was suddenly confronted by a Security guard. He begged me not to mention that I had managed to gain entry, as he had strict orders that absolutely no one should be allowed near Winston Churchill's personal Liberator named 'Commando.'
Although realising that newly-assembled aircraft had to be air-tested before being delivered to operational RAF Units, I started to gain the feeling that I was becoming part of the fixtures, destined to spend the rest of the war in a more-or-less routine air-testing situation. Production of B24 Liberators was now being carried out by five aircraft companies including Consolidated, Douglas, North American and of course the famous Ford Willow Run complex; the Liberator becoming the most produced American aircraft during WW2. Meeting up with the Canadian crew I had joined while operational training at Nassau, we discussed our future plans. Possibly because Montreal was far removed from an actual war zone, or partly because of our youthful enthusiasm and ignorance of harsh conditions prevailing in the war with the Japanese, we volunteered for service in the Far East.
Any of my Liberator air-testing duties had been carried out in a careful, methodical manner. However none was more carefully tested than the brand new Liberator KG917 which they gave us to fly over the Atlantic to Prestwick. Saying our goodbyes to Montreal in the Mount Royal Hotel the previous evening, we took off for Gander, Newfoundland, at 08.30 hours on 16th June 1944. On our way, I noticed oil streaking from No.1 engine and spreading itself over the tailplane. Deciding this was no way to be starting an Atlantic crossing, we retraced our flight back to Dorval. Satisfied that the oil leakage had been fixed, we took off again for Newfoundland, at 14.30 hours reaching Gander five hours later. KG917 was fitted with a central control knob which replaced four individual levers controlling the turbo superchargers. On our way to Gander, we noted that the supercharger electronic control did not appear to be working correctly. Reporting this to the maintenance crew at Gander, they offered to check this on a test flight. We had taken off and levelled out on the test flight, and when asked why he had taken no part or assisted in our take-off process, the Gander staff member who had occupied my co-pilot seat on the flight deck replied "Oh, I'm not aircrew - I'm an electrician!
Supercharger electronic control sorted out, we were grounded for almost a week due to a severe Newfoundland type dense fog. Never had we experienced such thick, solid fog which brought visibility down to zero. It was then that we fully appreciated how our predecessors, the earlier pioneers had suffered in such conditions with even less navigational aids than we now possessed. Eventually we took off in KG917 at 17.30 hours on 21st June 1944 and setting off over the Atlantic, climbed to 20,000feet. Whereas on earlier test flights at Dorval I had only gone through the various systems to ensure they actually worked; with more time to try out more comprehensive tests, several faults were discovered which I managed to sort out, but noted faults down to be reported at Prestwick.
Midway across the Atlantic flying at 20,000ft we lost contact with Dave Coutts our Navigator who failed to answer our intercom. Crawling up to the Navigator's position in the nose, I discovered Coutts sound asleep with the oxygen mask around his neck. On reviving him and repositioning his oxygen supply I asked him what had happened. He simply replied that his mask had become uncomfortable, and he had intended to slip it off for only a few minutes but had passed out. Les Waterfield our Skipper/Pilot wasn't impressed, as we had all heard of planes which had drifted off course during the Atlantic crossing, and had been shot down over occupied Europe.
Twelve hours after leaving Newfoundland we looked down on the bright green landscape of Ireland. Gus Goettler, one of our Canadian wireless-operators said "Where is your house Jack?" as the west coast of Scotland came into view. It took several minutes to convince Gus that it was not possible to view the entire country of Scotland from our vantage point circling around Prestwick. On landing and handing in our reports, the exhilaration of making a successful Atlantic crossing and adding another new Liberator to the war effort was slightly spoiled by the attitude of HM Customs. The supply of cigarettes I had brought over to supplement the expected shortage in the Far East was confiscated. An action I thought out of keeping with the war effort and a total lack of encouragement for Allied Forces about to set off on a very uncertain future in the Far East.
After seven days leave in UK, our crew resumed our journey to the Far East by flying from Portreath in Cornwall to Rabat Sale in Morocco. Next staging post was Castel Benito in Libya. Having almost forgotten I was still officially a member of 45 (AT) Group, I was suddenly reminded of this fact when reporting to the Engineer Officer at Castel Benito. He had the very firm intention of sending me back to Montreal on a return flight, to enable me bring another Liberator out East. He informed me that Flight Engineers were in very short supply, and that as a member of 45 Group I had no option but to get back to Montreal as soon as possible.
While I could understand this Officer's predicament, I had along with Les Waterfield and crew made the decision to stick together as a crew and undertake operational flying in the Far East. There was only one way of finding a solution to this very individual problem of should I be going East or West. Early next morning, the Waterfield crew hastily took off in Liberator KG881 and delivered it to Cairo West Airfield thus getting a bit closer to the Far East. Flying low along the North African coast, we were utterly amazed on looking down, to see such a very large number of crashed aircraft, tanks, trucks and an enormous amount of vehicles and equipment left isolated in the desert, remnants and remains of the bitter fighting during the Allied North African campaign.
From Cairo, we flew Liberator EW317 to Shaibah, near Basra in Iraq. By this time, I had no misgivings about not returning from Libya to Montreal to continue with testing and ferrying new aircraft. My feeling now, was that we were bringing a new aircraft right into the operational area where it was urgently required. There would be a number of new aircrew members coming through from training to take my place at 45 Group HQ Montreal. Although it was crucial for a continuing intake to maintain the process of air-testing and ferrying due to the rapid rise in the number of aircraft being produced; I felt it was also important that some of us having taken aircraft into operational areas, should remain there to make up for losses in those areas.
From Iraq we then flew EW317 to Karachi where we first experienced the sights, sounds and smells of India. Then making a 5-day and night railway journey via Lahore and Delhi and down the east coast of India, we joined No.200 Squadron at St.Thomas Mount, Madras. Our future however lay with No.160 Squadron, Ceylon (Sri Lanka) where we became deeply embroiled in the Japanese war. The long-range capability and might of the Liberator really came into its own in this very demanding, wide-spread environment.
We became part of Force 136 Special Duties, where long-range operations took us deeply into Japanese territory dropping guerrilla type troops by parachute. Our targets were Burma, Thailand, Malaya in the north, to Singapore in the south. Twenty-three hour operations enabled us cover up to 3,600 miles. This was equivalent to flying the Atlantic as we had done - then doing the return trip non-stop without landing. Far exceeding the manufacturer's specifications, and with having to carry out unheard of methods of transferring fuel from additional tanks, the B24 Liberator was an outstanding aircraft. On very long operations through the Monsoons and across the Indian Ocean, over the mountains and jungles of enemy territory, I can not recall one occasion where the Lib let us down. Most of this reliability of course, coming from the highly skilled maintenance provided by the ground crews.
Having experienced flying operations in an extremely hostile environment where it would have been suicidal to make a forced landing or to have been taken prisoner, I had a great deal of respect for the durability and efficiency of the Liberator planes we were flying. I also shared this respect for the Ferry Service who delivered the aircraft to where they were required. By 1945, seventeen different types of aircraft had been delivered.
It was with regret that I learned after the war, that Liberator AL504 'Commando' had disappeared near the Azores on 27th March 1945. All fourteen occupants were lost, and no trace of the cause was ever found. I had greatly admired the 'Commando' when I inspected it sitting on the tarmac at Montreal nine months earlier. It had a single tail-fin and had been extensively converted with interior fittings. The fuselage had even been lengthened to accommodate seven sleeping berths. Having flown Churchill to Cairo and other North African locations, it always returned to Montreal for maintenance. Had it survived, it would have been an interesting post-war exhibit. Unlike our northern route Atlantic crossing, Commando's crew had apparently favoured the southern route via Azores.
There is no doubt that Allied Air Forces played a major role in the final outcome of WW2. None of this would have been possible however, without a constant supply of new aircraft to replace losses and strengthen squadron numbers to carry out wartime operational flying. In addition to supplying aircraft, Ferry Command and 45(AT) Group also brought medical supplies, mail, food and clothing to within reach of every theatre of war. In the process of doing so, by the end of the war 9,027 aeroplanes had been ferried across the Atlantic to Allied fighter, bomber, maritime patrol and transport squadrons; 1,900 of those were RAF B24 Liberators. By September 1945, transatlantic flights had become routine operations, thus paving the way for 'Air Travel' as we know it today.
The above, is a brief account of my personal experience with 45 (Atlantic Transport) Group, RAF. An excellent and more detailed, comprehensive history of RAF Ferry Command is contained in "Ocean Bridge" an interesting and informative book by Carl A. Christie, published by University of Toronto Press.