From Tholthorpe to Trenton: the history of 434 “Bluenose” Squadron

News Article / May 30, 2018

By Chris Charland

On May 31, 2018, 434 Squadron will be re-established as 434 Test and Evaluation Squadron. It will be part of the Royal Canadian Air Force Aerospace Warfare Centre and located at 8 Wing Trenton, Ontario.

No. 434 “Bluenose” Squadron was the Royal Canadian Air Force's 13th overseas bomber squadron, formed on June 13, 1943 at RCAF Station Tholthorpe, Yorkshire, England.

Assigned to No. 6 (RCAF) Group of the Royal Air Force’s Bomber Command, many of the initial squadron’s personnel were Maritimers, who chose the fabled Lunenburg schooner, Bluenose, as the centerpiece of the unit’s badge. Wing Commander Charles Edwin Harris, DFC, from Antigonish, Nova Scotia, was the squadron’s first commanding officer.  Affectionately known as Tubby, Wing Commander Harris was one of a number of Canadians serving in the RAF when he assumed command of the Canadian squadron.

The squadron first went to war in Handley Page Halifax bombers. Their first combat action took place on the night of the August 12-13, 1943, when Nine out of ten squadron aircraft successfully attacked their primary targets in Milan, Italy, including the Alpha-Romeo motor works. No. 434 Squadron's last combat sorties were flown on the April 25, 1945. Now equipped with Canadian-built Avro Lancasters, 15 of the squadron’s aircraft bombed German gun emplacements on Wangerooge, part of the East Friesland islands. During its service overseas, the squadron flew 2,582 sorties, amounting to 14,622 operational hours. Seventy-five aircraft were lost with 347 aircrew killed in action or presumed dead, 121 prisoners of war and 16 who managed to evade capture.

A special tribute to the effectiveness of No. 434 Squadron, took place during a propaganda speech one night by the infamous Lord Haw Haw. He told listeners that “the Royal Canadian Air Force had gathered together in a single squadron, the ‘Bluenose’, the worst pirates, thugs, murderers and brigands from the prisons of Canada.”

Lord Haw Haw was William Joyce, who broadcast Nazi propaganda to Great Britain during the Second World War.

After VE (Victory in Europe) Day, the squadron flew 45 trips while taking part in Operation Exodus, the repatriation of Allied prisoners of war. The first crews headed back to RCAF Station Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, on June 7, 1945, with the rest following three days later. Selected as part of “Tiger Force”, Canada’s planned air contribution to the war against Japan, squadron personnel were on leave when the Japanese surrendered on August 15.  434 Squadron, under the command of Wing Commander John C. Mulvihill, AFC, was officially disbanded at Dartmouth on September 5, 1945.

Reformed at Uplands (near Ottawa), Ontario, as a fighter squadron on Canada's birthday in 1952, it was placed under the command of veteran pilot and ace, Wing Commander John Davidson “Mitch” Mitchner, DFC and Bar. Assigned to Air Defence Command and equipped with the Canadair F-86 Sabre, the squadron transferred to Europe between March and April 1953. Stationed at No. 3 Fighter Wing, Zweibrüken, West Germany, the squadron was part of the RCAF’s 1 Air Division operating with Allied air forces as part of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Two iconic figures commanded the Bluenose squadron while in Germany: Wing Commander Owen Bartley “O.B.” Philp, DFC, CD, the father of the Snowbirds aerobatic team, and Wing Commander Fernand “Fern” Villeneuve, AFC, CD, the first commanding officer of the Golden Hawks aerobatic team in 1959.

For many years, the Bluenosers flew variants of the Sabre. Then, on January 15, 1963, they were temporarily deactivated while being re-equipped with the Lockheed CF-104 Starfighter. Built under licence by Canadair, the super-sonic aircraft resulted in a change in role for 434 Squadron, reactivated on April 8, 1963, from day-fighter to low-level nuclear strike and attack.

A Canadian defence policy shift saw the RCAF’s contribution to NATO reduced by six squadrons. 434 Squadron was a victim of the cuts and subsequently disbanded on March 1, 1967.

It was a short-lived disbandment as the Bluenosers were re-activated on February 15 of the following year as an operational training squadron at Canadian Forces Base Cold Lake, Alberta. Now equipped with the CF-116 Freedom Fighter (more commonly referred to as the CF-5), the squadron spent the next decade fulfilling its training duties and participating in various training exercises throughout North America. 434 Squadron made Canadian military history as they became the first to be checked out in air-to-air refuelling in 1972, courtesy of a Boeing CC-137 from 437 Squadron in Trenton, Ontario. They set another record when on November 7, 1976, when two 434 Squadron CF-5's flew from Comox, British Columbia, to Shearwater, Nova Scotia, with the aid of air-to air refuelling. This was the first coast-to-coast, non-stop flight flown by a Canadian fighter.

On the July 2, 1977, the lieutenant-governor of Alberta presented the Bluenosers with their squadron standard (Colour) on behalf of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II in recognition of 25-years of honorable and dedicated service to Canada.

The squadron was re-designated as 434 Tactical Fighter Squadron on the December 1 1978. Now with a more focused, operational role, it was transferred to Bagotville, Quebec, in 1982. The Bluenosers kept up a busy pace with through training and exercises and became a familiar sight in the skies of the Saguenay Valley. The unit’s stay in Quebec was to be short-lived and in July 1985, the squadron transferred to Chatham, New Brunswick. There it remained until deactivation on March 17, 1989.  

In the early 1990s there was a pressing need to provide more realistic airborne training for all branches of the Canadian Armed Forces. 434 Squadron was re-activated as 434 Composite Squadron at Shearwater on July 4, 1992, flying Canadair CC-144 Challengers and CT-133 (also known as T-33) Silver Star aircraft. Their tasks included acting as airborne targets, electronic warfare training, forward air controller training, coastal surveillance and aero-medical evacuation. On April 1, 1993, the squadron was again re-designated, this time as 434 Combat Support Squadron.

August 1995 saw the squadron move from Shearwater to Greenwood, Nova Scotia. On April 28, 2002, the squadron was disbanded and its colours were placed in the All Saints Cathedral, Halifax, Nova Scotia.

They were recently retrieved from the Cathedral in preparation for the re-establishment of the squadron.

Mr. Charland is a senior associate Air Force historian.

434 “Bluenose” Squadron Second World War Statistics

By Major William March

Missions

  • 179 bombing
  • 19 sea mine laying
  • 1 diversionary
  • 1 sea search

Sorties

  • 2,582

Operational Hours

  • 14,622

Non-Operational Hours

  • 6,579

Ordnance Dropped

  • 10,358 tons of bombs
  • 225 sea mines

Victories

  • 7 aircraft shot down
  • 2 probables
  • 4 aircraft damaged

Operational Casualties

  • 75 aircraft
  • 494 aircrew, of whom 34 were killed in action and 313 presumed killed in action
  • 121 were captured and made prisoners of war (two died in captivity and two escaped)
  • 16 were shot down and evaded capture

One of the casualties was the squadron commanding officer, Wing Commander Christopher S. Bartlett, DFC and Bar, from Fort Qu'Appelle, Saskatchewan. He and his crew of their Halifax failed to return from an operation on the night of June 12-13, 1944, while attacking the railyards at Arras, France.

Non-Operational Casualties

  • 9, of whom 8 were killed and 1 died of natural causes

Honours and Awards

  • 8 Bars to the Distinguished Flying Cross
  • 108 Distinguished Flying Crosses
  • 6 Distinguished Flying Medals
  • 1 British Empire Medal
  • 7 Mentioned in Despatches

Post-War Casualties

  • 9 pilots
  • 7 Canadair Sabres
  • 1 Canadair CF-5
  • 1 Canadair CT-133 Silver Star Mk. 3

Major March is a historian with the RCAF’s Directorate of History and Heritage.

Date modified: