ARCHIVED - Plane wreckage tells a tale of Halifax bomber history

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News Article / December 15, 2015

By Chris Charland 

A piece – well, actually, many pieces – of Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) history rests partially buried by silt, about 17 metres underwater, just a short distance off the Swedish coast.

The RCAF Halifax bomber was accidentally discovered by Havsresan (“Sea Journey” in English), a dedicated historic sea exploration group sponsored by the prestigious Lund University of Sweden. The aircraft has been identified as an RCAF Halifax Mk II – tail number HR871 from 405 Squadron.

Enter Canadian Karl Kjarsgaard – a former Air Canada senior captain and founder/project manager of the internationally recognized organization, Halifax 57 Rescue (Canada). The Swedes asked him to come to Sweden in May 2015 to act as an adviser during the exploration of the downed aircraft due to his many successful Halifax recoveries, including NA337, which today proudly sits in the National Air Force Museum of Canada at 8 Wing Trenton, Ontario. A proposed joint recovery by the Havsresan and Halifax 57 Rescue (Canada) is being planned, and progress reports on the possible recovery of this historic RCAF Halifax are available on the Halifax 57 Rescue (Canada) website.

405 Squadron

No. 405 “Vancouver” Squadron was the RCAF’s first overseas bomber squadron. At the time, the squadron was based at Gransden Lodge, Bedfordshire, England and commanded by legendary Group Captain John Emilius “Johnnie” Fauquier, DSO, DFC of Ottawa. In turn, No. 405 Squadron was part of the famous No. 8 (Pathfinder Force) Group, commanded by the tough, no-nonsense Australian Group Captain Don Bennett, CBE, DSO.

The Halifax Bomber

The “Halibag,”’ or “Hallie,” as the Handley Page Halifax was affectionately known, was the RCAF’s first four-engine heavy bomber. Many young Canadians flew their first operation in this type. The Halifax was the workhorse of the RCAF until the introduction of the Avro Lancaster.

Halifax HR871 was a B. Mk. II Series IA, one of a serial block of 47 (HR837 – HR880) aircraft built by Handley Page’s facility at Radlett Aerodrome in Hertfordshire. HR871 was powered by four 1,390 horsepower Rolls Royce Merlin liquid-cooled V-12 piston engines. Various versions of the Halifax equipped RCAF squadrons and saw service right up to the end of the war.

The following RCAF squadrons used the Halifax operationally:

  • 405 “Vancouver”
  • 408 “Goose”
  • 415 “Swordfish”
  • 419 “Moose”
  • 420 “Snowy Owl”
  •  424 “Tiger”
  • 425 “Alouette”
  • 426 “Thunderbird”
  • 427 “Lion”
  • 428 “Ghost”
  • 429 “Bison”
  • 431 “Iroquois”
  • 432 "Leaside"
  • 433 “Porcupine”
  • 434 “Bluenose.”

Several RCAF heavy conversion units (HCU) used the Halifax in England: No. 1659 HCU, No. 1664 “Caribou” HCU and No. 1666 “Mohawk” HCU.

Seventy per cent of the 10,659 Canadians killed in action while serving with RAF Bomber Command were flying on Halifax bombers.

HR871

The Halifax B. Mk. II served with No. 405 Squadron from April 1942 to September 1943, when the aircraft was replaced by the Avro Lancaster B. Mk. I and III.

While in service, HR871 carried the code LQ-B: LQ is the squadron identifier, while B is the individual aircraft radio call letter.

On the night of August 2/3, 1943, RAF Bomber Command dispatched a force of 740 aircraft, comprising 329 Avro Lancasters, 235 Handley Page Halifaxes, 105 Short Stirlings, 66 Vickers Wellingtons and five de Havilland Mosquitos. Their “target for tonight” was the port city of Hamburg, Germany. “Operation Gomorrah”, as the joint British and American bombing campaign against Hamburg was dubbed, began July 24, 1943. The British were bombing by night; the Americans by day.

This would be the last night of the operation. Crews were met by a massive thunderstorm over Germany and the violent weather forced many aircraft to return. Other crews carried on to their designated alternate targets. At least four, if not more, aircraft succumbed to severe icing, lightning strikes and bone-jarring turbulence. It was a very costly operation, with little to show. Thirty aircraft, including 13 Lancasters, 10 Halifaxes, four Wellingtons and three Stirlings, were lost, representing 4.1 per cent of the total force sent out that night.

The crew of HR871

Pilot Sergeant John Alywyn Phillips, Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve (RAFVR), and his crew – Sergeant H. C. McLean, flight engineer (RCAF); Flight Sergeant G.W. Mainprize, navigator (RCAF); Sergeant. V. A. Knight, bomb aimer (RAFVR); Sergeant R. A. Andrews, wireless operator (RAFVR); Sergeant W. H. King, mid-upper gunner (RCAF); and Sergeant L. D. Kohnke, tail gunner (RCAF) – were the last flight of ‘B’ for Baker. They were “wheels-up” from Gransden Lodge at 22:58 hours.

During the outbound leg to Hamburg, they encountered the aforementioned thunderstorm around 21,000 feet (6,400 metres). Ice began to accumulate on the Halifax’s control surfaces, making it sluggish and increasingly difficult to control. They would not have stood much of a chance if they had been forced to evade night fighters or flak, and Phillips quickly made the decision to dropping the TIs – target Indicators. Moments later, the forward section of the Halifax was struck by lightning. Both inner engines were knocked out, the radio was useless and several critical instruments stopped functioning. The brilliant flash temporarily blinded Phillips, and he lost control of the lumbering bomber momentarily. With a degree of control and his sight back, Phillips had to weigh the risks of trying to fly his crippled bomber back across the unforgiving North Sea back to England. He made the decision to turn the aircraft in a northerly direction, with the hope of reaching neutral Sweden.

Flying at just under 4,000 feet (1,219 metres) above the Baltic Sea, they made visual contact with a lighthouse and lights from a number of dwellings at Falsterbo. The aircraft passed Ringsjön and Vombsjön. Phillips changed course to a southwesterly heading, which would take the aircraft back out over the Baltic Sea. He trimmed the controls, and then gave the command to bail out. They were in close proximity to Flyinge, Sweden’s largest and best-known horse breeding station. One by one, the crew members fell into the dark sky.

Interned

At around 02:15 hours GMT, while the aircraft was at appropriately 3,000 feet (914 metres), Phillips jumped. He slowly drifted until his descent came to an abrupt end in a farmer’s field near Esarp. He had landed on top of an unsuspecting cow that, alas, did not survive. Phillips gathered up his parachute and set off into the unknown. After a while, he flagged down the driver of a milk truck and managed to persuade the reluctant driver to take him to Malmö, where he ended up in the hands of the police. The rest of the crew was rounded up and transported to the army barracks at Revingehed. They went through the customary interrogation by air force intelligence officers. The crew was very hesitant to divulge any information and, in the end, the Swedes got nothing useful from them.

When the interrogations were over, the entire crew boarded a train to Falun, where they were to be interned. The crew was repatriated in groups back to England during January 1944.

Post-war

Originally from Swansea, Wales, Phillips, now 93, enjoys life with his wife, Mabel, in Kingston upon Hull (simply known as Hull) in the East Riding of Yorkshire. He wrote a riveting book chronicling wartime bombing operations during the spring and summer of 1943, entitled Valley of the Shadow of Death. He is now the only surviving member of his crew.

Phillips is excited about the discovery of his aircraft. “If you find the cockpit of the Halifax,” he told Karl Kjarsgaard with a grin, “I want my seat cushion back.”

Phillips had a special seat cushion made to give him a few more inches of height in the pilot’s seat. He may be short in stature, but there is no denying he’s tall in courage.

Chris Charland is 14 Wing Greenwood’s historical research adviser, a senior associate air force historian with the Royal Canadian Air Force, and a director with Halifax 57 Rescue (Canada).


 

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