No. 242 “Canadian” Squadron revisited

News Article / September 12, 2017

By Hugh Halliday

“When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

                                    – The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

If mythology is what we want to believe and history is what we should know, the two may blend or wage war with one another. “Facts” are not always reliably documented, and memories are frequently coloured by the passage of time and personal beliefs. This writer is not immune from the phenomena. The story of No. 242 Squadron is wrapped up in that of Sir Douglas Bader, himself a legend. Yet the accepted myths have been challenged.

I have been mesmerized by the legend but have been privileged to have seen it up close. I was 14 when I read Paul Brickhill’s Reach for the Sky and 17 when I saw the movie. Needless to say, I was in thrall with the story and the man. My father was, himself, an amputee (Buerger’s Disease), and I understood better than most the challenges involved. About 1968, while researching my first book, The Tumbling Sky, I had the first of several extended interviews with Percival Stanley “Stan” Turner, a man who had flown with Bader and was an important part of his story. Then, in September 1976, I met Bader himself.

The Canadian War Museum had invited Sir Douglas (recently knighted for his contributions to amputee causes) to deliver a public lecture about the Battle of Britain. I was assigned to be his driver, accompanying him to all functions and virtually being at his side over four days. At a luncheon held by the War Amputations of Canada, I was about the only person present who had all four of his limbs. It was a fascinating and educational experience.

Fascinating because Bader was as charismatic as the legend, personally charming and generous to myself and my wife. Yet, he did not try to hide his dark side. He was a racial bigot. He patronized a blonde reporter who turned up at the War Amputations luncheon and had not been well briefed in advance. Yet, he had an amusing weakness. He was extremely annoyed when people submitted their copies of Reach for the Sky for an autograph, but nobody had a copy of his own book, Fight for the Sky. On the other hand, his reunion with Stan Turner was touching. It was my second meeting with Turner, and I would see him several more times in years to come.

Four years later, when I came to write the history of No. 242 Squadron, I realized how crucial Turner was to the story of Bader, because he was a witness to events before Bader and, thus, a primary source for Brickhill. The squadron’s history in 1940 may be broken down into three phases, viz.:

  1. Formation and training. No. 242 had been formed in October 1939 as an all-Canadian unit within the Royal Air Force (RAF). The idea was largely one of optics—it made for good press in Canada to have such a unit operating before a Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) presence could be established. Only about 40 per cent of the ground crews were Canadian, but all of the pilots (with one exception) were Canadians who had enrolled directly in the RAF before the war. The exception was the Commanding Officer, Squadron Leader Fowler Morgan Gobeil, an RCAF officer who had been on exchange duties with the RAF until he was unexpectedly plucked out of Training Command to lead No. 242. Gobeil appears to have done a good job. He lobbied to have the squadron equipped with Hurricanes and trained the pilots to operational standards. In May 1940, they acquitted themselves well, both through a flight detached to France and in aerial combats over Dunkirk. Gobeil himself was credited with one enemy aircraft destroyed and one probably destroyed—the first RCAF aerial victories of the war.
  2. Debacle in France. Between Dunkirk and the French capitulation, the British attempted to re-establish land and air forces south of the Seine River. This included No. 242 Squadron which was dispatched to France on 8 June 1940, as part of No. 67 Wing, only to be evacuated on the 18th. By all accounts, those ten days were chaotic, culminating in the ground crew departing in response to orders, the source of which nobody seemed to recall, on the night of the 15th. Even Gobeil was unaware of their departure. Few sources describe or explain the breakdown, and those that exist are self-serving. When No. 242 made it back to Britain, the Commanding Officer failed to report back immediately to his squadron. He was replaced at once by Bader. No. 242 was in bad odour; Gobeil was a pariah in Fighter Command. His failings as a commanding officer were compounded by his defeatist talk.
  3. Subsequent command by Bader, well known through various biographies. His record shines all the brighter in view of his inheriting what by most accounts was a broken squadron. It is worth noting, however, that he filled the flight commander posts with men personally known to him. Casualty replacements were more British (18 up to the end of October) than Canadian (8). No. 242 rapidly ceased to be a distinctly “Canadian” unit. During the Battle of Britain, confirmed victories by RAF personnel (37, 8 by Bader) exceeded those credited to Canadians (24 in all, 6 by W. L. McKnight).

About the time that I was writing my own history of No. 242, Laddie Lucas was doing his own biography of Bader, who was also his brother-in-law. This was a workable account of the man, but it is suspect (as is Paul Brickhill’s book) because at least one principal source had a stake in putting the worst possible face on Gobeil. Lucas writes that at one point that Bader was “busy rounding up the ground personnel somewhere between Le Mans and the coast, hotly pursued by the advancing German forces.” This, of course, puts Bader’s actions in the best possible light, notwithstanding that the adjutant himself was likely the source. Lucas finally distills the most negative story about Gobeil:

The squadron commander did not lead the unit on the last stage of its withdrawal from France to Tangmere, on the Sussex coast. He was in no position to do so. As the rest of the pilots took to the air, he was still lying prostrate beside the flight hut. A sparkle of humour was to be found in the note which was left pinned to his battledress: When you surface, you’ll find a serviceable Hurricane expecting to be flown home. Try vector 030° for the English coast. Then turn right for Tangmere.

This may be true, but Gobeil’s account of his departure, even if it is self-serving, might be equally true:

At about 1000 hours the 18th June I was driving to the East end of the aerodrome accompanied by another officer, trying to locate a petrol tanker for refuelling if the Squadron should have to carry out another protective patrol before leaving. The operations officer drove up in a motor car and stopped me. His instructions were to get off for England immediately as we were holding up the embarkation. I was given no instructions as to where to go in England, except that everyone was to take off at once. The entire atmosphere of the aerodrome was extremely unsettling and definitely gave the impression that the flight was a case of every man for himself.

I immediately proceeded to the Squadron dispersal point at the West end of the aerodrome and found the majority of the Squadron aircraft already started up. While I was trying to start up my aircraft, the Squadron taxied out and took off. As soon as I got my aircraft started, I waited for the only other pilot I could see anywhere starting up and as soon as he had started up, we began to taxy [sic] out for takeoff.

Lucas’ efforts to explain the Gobeil debacle were strained, misleading, and patronizing.

The CO [commanding officer] was a French Canadian who had earlier been lifted out of the remoteness of Training Command in Canada and pitchforked into the hot seat at the head of 242. The appointment owed something to politics. It was close to being a fatal mistake. But it cannot be laid at the door of the victim. Up to the time of taking over, he had had no operational experience whatever. He was thus quite unsuitable for the task. The responsibility lay squarely with Ottawa. It was a straightforward error of judgement, born of ignorance. In the circumstances, the result could hardly have avoided being devastating.

In fact, dozens of COs were brought from training to operational units during the early stages of the war. It is doubtful that his selection was made in Ottawa. Of the small pool of RCAF officers on exchange duties in Britain in 1939, Gobeil was as good as could be found—a graduate of the Royal Military College of Canada with experience both in training and aerobatic teams. As to his being French Canadian, he had been educated at Ottawa’s most Waspish schools and, in 1929, had explicitly changed his name from Joseph Adolph Cecil Fowler Morgan Gobeil (which had appeared on his birth certificate) to just plain Fowler Morgan Gobeil. It could be argued that he was more English than the English.

The responsibility could indeed be “laid at his door,” but ethnicity or previous experience would not explain or excuse his shortcomings. Could the blame also have been shared with others? A weak CO probably needs help from his lieutenants; if assistance is not requested or offered, the leader is being set up to fail. This was the central drama in Herman Wouk’s The Caine Mutiny. If Gobeil was the unsteady Lieutenant-Commander Phillip Queeg, who was the conniving Lieutenant Thomas Keefer?

In the squadron itself, Gobeil had two particularly outspoken critics. One was Stan Turner. In my interviews with him, it was evident that Turner hated Gobeil, to the point that every conversation included more damning, even bizarre, accusations. Turner’s post-war RCAF file, available for research viewing since July 2005 (the 20th anniversary of his death), revealed him as a prickly, abrasive individual who managed to put in 20 years of service as a wing commander (W/C), with only a temporary appointment as group captain while Air Attaché in Moscow. In spite of a dazzling war record, the reasons were not hard to find. One assessment may speak for many:

W/C Turner seems to bear a grudge against all the rest of the world. It is my impression that he has lived in this state of rebellion and antagonism since he was a youth. He has some fine qualities but sooner or later they are overcome by this disposition.

Turner could be harsh in his opinions. When, during one of our interviews, I pointed out to him that Noel Stansfeld had liked Gobeil, Turner dismissed Stansfeld as “Gobeil’s pet.” The most worrisome thing about Turner was his reaction when his recollections did not jibe with the squadron diary, even on trivial matters, such as who had delivered the first Hurricanes—“The diary was altered.” His claims of infallibility made it dangerous to quote him on any matter concerning the reputations of others.

Fowler Morgan Gobeil’s service file became available for examination in December 2014, 20 years after his death. It was a fascinating document. Early in his career he had developed a talent for rebutting every adverse report with a blizzard of counterarguments. The criticism of his leadership in France could scarcely have been more damning. W/C Cyril Walker, CO of No. 67 Wing, wrote a report which concluded:

During the period of No. 242 Squadron’s attachment to No.67 Wing, i.e., 8.6.40 to 18.6.40 [8 June 1940 to 18 June 1940] this unit has been most unreliable. The [CO] was never available when required, could never be found, and took absolutely no interest in his unit.

In my opinion Squadron Leader Gobeil has shown himself to be incapable of satisfactorily commanding a squadron in the field. His lack of interest and unreliability making it almost impossible to control his unit under the conditions experienced during the period of this report.

Facing such accusations, and that he had abandoned his post on return to England, Gobeil replied with a 20-page rebuttal which included an accusation that he had been let down by his adjutant and a claim that he personally had destroyed seven enemy aircraft (confirmed) and seven probables. His log books, held by the Canadian War Museum, include several entries describing various combats and claims in France.

The adjutant of No. 242 Squadron, Flying Officer Peter Drummond Macdonald, described things differently. He accused Gobeil of having been absent much of the time, of flying only once in action, and that leadership had effectively devolved on Pilot Officer Turner and one of the flight commanders (Flight Lieutenant G. H. Plinston). As to the claim of seven destroyed and seven probables, he described them as a fabrication. Subsequent investigations by RCAF authorities brought forth several reports, most of which substantiated only one or two claims (submitted in May 1940). Even Turner agreed with this, although in 1968 he declared to this writer that Gobeil had never shot down anything—unaware of his contrary message of 1 October 1940. However, a statement dated 13 October 1940 by Noel Stansfeld (whom Turner had described as “Gobeil’s pet”) was amazing, not only for its contradiction of others but for a bald declaration apparently made to rebut further accusations:

I was with No. 242 Squadron commanded by Squadron Leader Gobeil. We left Biggin Hill and arrived Le Mans about 3.6.40. [3 June 1940. In fact, the unit moved on 8 June.] We then moved to Chateaudun. The squadron did approximately 20 patrols in France. Squadron Leader Gobeil only missed 3 or 4 of these. He personally destroyed two enemy aircraft, confirmed. We moved to Nantes on or about 16.6.40 [16 June 1940], and after four or five days there we returned to the U.K. [United Kingdom. In fact, the move to Nantes took place on the 14th and 15th and the unit returned to Britain on the 18th.] Whilst at Nantes the squadron destroyed no enemy aircraft there.

Squadron Leader Gobeil is not “yellow” and is just an average Squadron Leader. He was averagely popular. On arrival in the U.K we went to Coltishall where he shortly left. I understand he was posted by the Air Ministry. I have not seen him since.

As of the end of June 1940, Gobeil’s adjutant was his most outspoken and influential enemy. “Boozy Mac” Macdonald had served in the 85th Battalion, Canadian Expeditionary Force in the First World War but had sought a political career in Britain afterwards. As of 1940, he was both an officer in the RAF Volunteer Reserve and a senior member of the Conservative Parliamentary caucus. In October 1940, he would personally meet the Prime Minister to tell him of frictions at the higher levels of Fighter Command, wittingly or unwittingly feeding partisan views which favoured Bader’s patron, Trafford Leigh-Mallory. One suspects that if Macdonald had “let down the side”—especially when No. 242 split up on 15 June—he would nevertheless be untouchable. As a man consulted by Paul Brickhill, he would also have had a stake in describing the pre-Bader era of the squadron in the worst possible light. Gobeil, making excuses for himself in June 1940, did not like Macdonald; did these ill-feelings precede the France episode?

Returned to Canada, Gobeil faced a crisis. As of 10 August 1940, Air Vice-Marshal L. S. Breadner (Chief of the Air Staff, RCAF) was prepared to see him summarily retired from the Force. It was decided that his services should be retained for the duration of the war, “in a capacity wherein he will be under close supervision and will not have further opportunity of failing in the matter of leadership.” His postings included a spell at No. 4 Bombing and Gunnery School (Jarvis, Ontario) followed by service as an accident investigator with Ferry Command. This entailed visits to many remote and grisly crash sites. He was awarded an Air Force Cross (AFC) in 1943 for his efforts as the co-pilot of a CG-4 glider that had been towed in stages across the Atlantic. Nevertheless, the Air Council, meeting in Ottawa on 1 August 1945, recommended his retirement “in the interests of efficiency and economy.” He was still a squadron leader, the rank he had held in 1939.

In January 1946, his case was reviewed once more, this time by the Minister of National Defence for Air (Colin Gibson), who sought the advice of Air Marshal Robert Leckie (who had succeeded Breadner as Chief of the Air Staff). In July 1946, Leckie recommended that “this vexatious and troublesome case” should be closed and that “this officer be given every opportunity to make good for the remainder of his Service career.” Gobeil did not disappoint. He was advanced to wing commander in 1948 and retired in 1956. Thereafter, he spoke and wrote, eloquently and humorously, about parts of his career (being a Siskin aerobatic pilot and the trans-Atlantic glider tow that brought him the AFC), but he politely refused ever to discuss his command of No. 242 Squadron.

Amid barrages of accusations and denials, it is difficult to find any genuinely neutral accounts. The largest body of detached observers, the ground crew, had left on the night of 15‑16 June 1940, and neither Brickhill nor Lucas appear to have sought out any senior non-commissioned officers. The closest candidate to being a disinterested observer would have been William Lidstone McKnight, who wrote a series of letters to a friend in Calgary. Rather a “wild man,” he had fled to Britain to escape a romantic affair and joined the RAF. The early correspondence describes his initial pilot training and No. 242’s working up to operational standard. There is a gap for the period of May and June 1940, and then a letter dated 18 July 1940. He was obviously recovering from combat fatigue brought on by prolonged stress and sleepless nights. However, he wrote nothing of recent command problems and did not even mention the presence of a new CO, Bader. He spent more ink on a Parisian woman whose company he had enjoyed at Chateaudun and whom he had attempted (unsuccessfully) to smuggle back to England.

McKnight also wrote of a rivalry with Turner. “I’ve got to keep Turner from hogging all the fun. We two are the high scorers in the squadron so far, having got twenty-three between us—nine for Stan and fourteen for me—so we have a pretty keen competition going and neither of us likes to be off duty when the other one is on as we’re both afraid we’ll miss a chance to get something.” There may have been a touch of pessimism when he wrote, “I expect soon they’ll have most of the chaps at home in the army, though I can’t see what good an army is going to do now that we’ve only got an island to defend.”

The most surprising thing to emerge from his letters is his attitude to newly arrived Canadians. It has been noted that at the beginning of 1940, some members of No. 242 Squadron had declined to wear “Canada” badges because First Division Canadian troops had “busted up” the town of Aldershot. McKnight was even more scathing; in a letter dated 24 April 1940, he wrote:

Why the Canadians wear that little badge on their sleeve with Canada on it, I don’t know; when you walk into a bar or café while in London you can spot the Canadians right off, or if you can’t see them you can hear them—shouting and swearing, drinking more than they can hold and generally with the worst looking whore this side of either of the two places.

This was clearly directed at Canadian Army personnel, but he was almost equally contemptuous of the RCAF’s No. 110 (Army Cooperation) Squadron, which had arrived in Britain in February 1940. Writing on 25 February 1940, he declared:

We get a hell of a kick out of the Canadian pilots over here – they’re bloody near frightened to death because our aerodromes are so small and can’t see how we land Hurricanes and Spitfires on them. One bloke overshot in a Moth trying to land here and we’re still laughing about it.

This letter in itself is peculiar, in that No. 110 Squadron had just stepped off the boat in Liverpool. McKnight’s summary judgement is simply baffling.

McKnight’s squadron’s achievements in the Battle of Britain have been described in various works (my own included), as has the hornet’s nest of controversy that still swirls around Bader and his “Big Wing” exhortations. Searching for a fresh perspective, we may once more go to an excerpt from one of McKnight’s letters, dated 22 September 1940:

I’ve got over 21 confirmed victories now and if we keep up like this hope to increase that by a few more before long. The C.O. [Bader] was awarded the DSO [Distinguished Service Order] last week and my flight commander [Flight Lieutenant Eric Ball] won the DFC [Distinguished Flying Cross] and the squadron as a whole won itself one of the best reputations in the air force. We’re among the top three high scoring squadrons in the service now and are considered one of the top five real crack squadrons. . . . I got over the seven hundred hour mark just a few days ago and started to be considered an old timer in the flying game. I’ve got nearly 400 of these on Hurricanes and still claim that they are the best fighter in the service, not even barring the “much talked out but never there when needed” Spitfires.

Whatever its travails of the past, No. 242 had recovered as a fighter squadron, cocky and effective, even as it was losing its Canadian identity. McKnight himself (whose score was closer to 18 than 21) would be killed on 12 January 1941. It would be more than a year before two other Canadians—George Beurling and Henry “Wally” McLeod—would challenge and surpass him as Canada’s “top gun.”

Hugh Halliday is a former member of the RCAF, a historian and author with numerous books and articles to his credit.

This article was originally published, with footnotes, in the RCAF Journal, Volume 4, Issue 2.

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