The Unsung Heroes: The Ground Crew of No. 1 (RCAF) Squadron (RCAF Journal - SPRING 2015 - Volume 4, Issue 2)

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By Major Mathias Joost, CD

The Hurricanes had scrambled 30 minutes ago. They sat there waiting, some closing their eyes in an effort to catch some sleep, others talking casually—all trying to fill the time until the aircraft returned. Occasionally a contrail could be seen in the sky, but no sounds from the mad fighting in the air reached their ears. The wait and the uncertainty simply added to the tension of whether their airplane, their pilot would return safely having scored a victory over the Luftwaffe.[1]

If there were unsung heroes during the Battle of Britain, they were the ground crew and support staff who allowed the fighter pilots to do their job of closing with the enemy and shooting him down. For the airmen of the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) serving with Number (No.) 1 (RCAF) Squadron, this was no different than for their comrades in the Royal Air Force (RAF).[2] None had any experience in combat operations, and yet, they were now thrown into the maelstrom of war, expected to keep the aircraft operational at any cost. The senior ranks were expected to provide guidance and leadership under conditions that they themselves had not experienced before.

While the airmen of the squadron, and each of the respective trades, helped to make No. 1 (RCAF) Squadron a success during the Battle of Britain, this article will focus upon the ground crew of the two flights who kept the aircraft ready to scramble at a moment’s notice. They have not received the attention that has been given to the fighter pilots, yet without their strenuous efforts, the results of the squadron’s activities could have been less noteworthy. The ground crew of the two flights remain largely anonymous because their names and efforts have not been recorded, yet there is enough information available to provide an overview of what they were doing and what they accomplished.

No discussion about the airmen of No. 1 (RCAF) Squadron would be complete without understanding that this was not a homogenous group. When the squadron arrived in the United Kingdom (UK) in June 1940, more than 300 airmen arrived with the unit: 84 were Regular Force, 72 were Reservists and 148 had signed up after December 1939 as part of the Special Reserve.[3] An assorted group, most of them had very limited experience in independent operations.[4] The personnel of the Regular Force and Auxiliary had their own particular cultures based on the nature of their operations, while the members of the Special Reserve were mainly new recruits with limited military experience. This was an obstacle that the leadership of the squadron had to face in creating one large team.

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Besides the question of integrating three different components, there was the question of merging two squadrons into one. On 26 May 1940, No. 115 (Fighter [F]) Squadron was disbanded, and most of its personnel transferred to No. 1 (RCAF) Squadron. Prior to this, No. 115 Squadron had initially operated the Fleet Fawn but began to receive North American Harvard aircraft in November 1939, and in January 1940, the first Fairey Battles arrived. These were hardly front-line aircraft, which meant that when the squadron’s personnel were merged with No. 1’s, they had a steep learning curve to get themselves up to speed on the Hawker Hurricane.[5]

No. 1 (RCAF) Squadron began to re-equip with the Hawker Hurricane in February 1939. The start of the war saw it moved from Calgary to St. Hubert and then to Dartmouth, where it performed patrols in the approaches to Halifax Harbour. While some of its personnel had experience in Canadian operations, such as photographic survey work, the transition of the squadron to its wartime establishment brought an influx of new recruits. Some of these additions arrived as late as May 1940, shortly before the squadron deployed to the UK. On 9 June, the squadron embarked for deployment overseas. En route to the UK, the senior personnel of the newly enlarged squadron, both officers and senior non-commissioned officers (NCOs), had to create a unified team out of two squadrons and three components.

Once in the UK, the squadron members began training to bring themselves up to date on the latest operational and emergency procedures, such as learning about the new radio equipment and anti-gas drills. Although not yet operational, they were not immune from attack. On 15 August, a German raid demolished two buildings and inflicted minor injuries to two airmen. By 17 August, the squadron had moved to Northolt, which would be its home for the next two months.

When No. 1 (RCAF) Squadron became operational on 17 August, the 240 airmen played varying roles in supporting the pilots. The squadron was divided into a headquarters section and two flights. The headquarters section consisted of about half of the establishment, with trades such as clerks, cooks, motor mechanics, batmen, waiters and general-duties airmen, as well as the aircraft servicing trades who were part of the “repair section” or “maintenance section” responsible for the longer-term repairs of the squadron’s aircraft. The large size of the headquarters section can be explained in part by the fact that the squadron was a self-contained unit. There were 26 vehicles on its establishment that required maintenance, including ten tenders, three fuel bowsers and three motorcycles (six bicycles were also authorized!). Each of these support trades had its role to play, whether picking up supplies from depots or keeping the vehicles running, especially the fuel bowsers. The cooks were busy from early in the morning until late in the evening, supported by the batmen and waiters, whether the squadron had been in the air or the pilots were returning from a night out.[6]

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The ground crew for the two flights consisted of aero-engine and airframe mechanics, electricians, instrument makers, wireless and electrical mechanics as well as general-duties staff. Led by a flight sergeant, each flight’s ground crew was expected to keep their aircraft functioning through routine maintenance and short-order repairs. Any maintenance or repairs that would take hours rather than minutes were sent to the headquarters maintenance section that included all these trades plus armourers, carpenters, fabric workers and metal workers.[7] The maintenance section was also responsible for ensuring that the spare aircraft were ready to be brought to the flight line on a moment’s notice. Thus, it was the flight sergeants of “A” and “B” Flights who had the greatest responsibility, having to identify any potential problems and decide whether they could repair them or send the aircraft to maintenance, ensure that the work done was of the highest standard and be responsible for the readiness of the aircraft.

For the aircraft maintainers, their goal was to get all 12 of the squadron’s Hurricane aircraft operational each day.[8] There was a lot of early morning activity, long before the pilots even got out of bed. Under RAF Fighter Command, England had been broken down into regions or sectors. Each sector operations room would receive instructions as to the state of readiness for the morning.[9] The sector would then assign different states to each squadron as required. If brought to immediate readiness, the pilots would get ready, head to the dispersal area and then wait for the telephone call—boredom followed by the rush of excitement.[10] The maintainers had to get the aircraft ready for operations, whether the squadron was in a “ready” state or not and regardless of the weather conditions. This was necessary because the unit’s readiness state could change, the weather could clear up, or a pilot or two might be tasked to carry out a more mundane mission, such as conducting a meteorological flight or shooting down a barrage balloon that had gotten loose.

The working hours of the maintainers began very early. While the pilots got up an hour before dawn in case of a dawn raid, the maintainers had already been up for an hour or more—testing the engines; checking the radios, their batteries; and ensuring that the aircraft were ready for action.[11] When the order was given for a scramble, the fitters were in the cockpits firing the starter cartridges and bringing the Hurricanes’ Merlin engines to life as the pilots ran towards their aircraft.[12] Generally, the pilot would arrive on the run, be helped into the cockpit and have his harness secured. The fitter would jump down from the wing and then ensure the chocks were pulled from in front of the wheels. It took a well-practised team to achieve a quick departure.

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Once the Hurricanes were in the air, there was always nervous tension waiting for the planes to return, sometimes individually, other times in their flights of three or rarely in formation. Preparations began for their return. The armourers would ensure that ammunition was on hand and patches for the gun-ports were ready. Meanwhile, a fitter would have an oxygen bottle on hand to exchange for the one in the Hurricane while others would ensure the fuel bowsers were ready.

As each aircraft returned, its crew would watch for battle damage, for the patches over the gun ports to be missing, showing that the guns had been fired. For those whose pilot and airplane did not return, there was always the hope that he had landed at another airfield. Each team did their best for “their” pilot and plane—these were their pride and joy. They shared in the victories as much as the pilots and felt the losses equally.[13]

Once on the ground, the oil in the engine would be checked and topped up, as would the fuel for the aircraft. The battery for the radio and the oxygen cylinder were changed. If necessary, ammunition was added and the breeches and barrels checked. Finally, wheels, brakes and oleos were inspected, control surfaces were checked for damage and freedom of movement, and a general inspection of the aircraft was carried out. If a tire needed to be changed, there was often no time to get the jack—10 men under the mainplane would lift the wing while the wheel was replaced.[14] The ideal turnaround time was 12 minutes.[15] Once their own aircraft was done, they would help out with others. Only after all the aircraft had been serviced could the team for each aircraft sit, but not relax.

The call of duty also went beyond one’s own squadron. RAF fighter pilot Ginger Lacey recounted an instance where his Hurricane received a hole in the radiator. He glided into RAF Station Lympne, and while he ate lunch, the fitters and riggers there replaced the radiator.[16] If a squadron had an extra aircraft or two because the crews had done a grand job, they would sometimes lend one to another squadron sharing the airfield. This was the case in September, when No. 1 (RCAF) Squadron lent one of their Hurricane aircraft to Flying Officer Wojciech Januszewicz of 303 Squadron so he could take off on a sortie that night.[17]

On a normal day, there might be a single scramble, but even when none occurred, patrols were to be conducted to watch for Luftwaffe intruders or to protect the airfield while raids were going on elsewhere. Early mornings could bring a meteorological flight. Some days were busier than others. On 5 September, the squadron was scrambled three times but saw no action; while on 17 September, it was four times with but one engagement with the enemy.[18] The scrambles and meeting with the enemy were not without their casualties in terms of pilots and aircraft. As examples, on 26 August, two aircraft were damaged and one destroyed while on 1 September, one aircraft was destroyed and two damaged, one of which was written off after landing.[19] While these were the more extreme examples where aircraft were written off or taken off the line for longer repairs, there were many occasions where battle damage or other problems removed an aircraft temporarily from the line.

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Overall, almost as many aircraft suffered Category 2 damage that required them to be taken off the flight line as suffered Category 3 damage that caused them to be written off. These write-offs were mostly caused by pilots bailing out of damaged Hurricanes, but a few were written off after their return, which speaks volumes about how much damage the Hurricane aircraft could take and still be able to bring their pilots home safely. This was the case on 1 September, when two aircraft returned to Northolt but were written off as Category 3. However, sometimes it might have been better to bail out of the aircraft than return it to base. Lacey was lambasted by his squadron engineering officer (EO) for flying back an aircraft that among other problems had 87 bullet entry holes and innumerable large gashes.[20] Despite the damage, it was not written off, requiring the EO to have the aircraft repaired! These Category 2 damages could take some time to repair. Squadron Leader McNab’s Hurricane, damaged on 26 August, was not ready until 10 September.

Small repairs—Category 1 damage—would be dealt with while the aircraft remained in the dispersal area. These lesser repairs were not noted in the squadron records, but likely were a major source of work for the crew of each aircraft or the crews in the hangars. After all, it would be too much to expect that after combat there was not some damage to the fabric-covered surfaces of the Hurricane or that some mechanical part needed work or replacement. Even if the work was done in the dispersal area, this did not necessarily mean the aircraft would be ready for the next scramble.

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The effort to keep the two flights airworthy was a constant battle, one that the maintainers did not always win. On 27 September, the squadron was scrambled three times, with contact with the enemy each time. In the morning’s combat, three aircraft were shot up, with Flying Officers Lochnan and Sprenger making forced landings at Gatwick and Kenley respectively. For the second scramble, only eight Hurricanes were available to take-off against the Luftwaffe instead of the usual twelve the squadron would send up. Finally, during the last scramble at 1500 hours, the squadron could only put six aircraft in the air, one of which—that of Flying Officer Brown—was shot up and then nosed over on landing. While four aircraft suffered Category 2 damage, at least two others suffered Category 1 damage, thus were not available.[21] The fact that only six aircraft scrambled at 1500 hours suggests that all the spare aircraft had been used in the efforts over the previous days; hence, those on the flight line were the only ones available.

These efforts to keep the squadron flying were surely monumental, thus the well-deserved recognition the two flight sergeants in charge of “A” and “B” Flights received. The citations for Flight Sergeant Cecil Melvin Gale, who was mentioned in despatches, and Flight Sergeant John Robert Burdes, who received a British Empire Medal, give an idea of their accomplishments and the pressure these men were under:

Flight Sergeant Gale, C. M., is NCO in charge of “A” Flight, No. 1 Canadian (F) Squadron. Working under trying conditions, he has maintained the squadron aircraft in a capable manner. Owing to the intense operational activity during the latter part of August and September, the flight maintenance crew were called upon to work to the limit. Flight Sergeant Gale carried out his duties, often working from very early morning until late into the night, with a result that sufficient aircraft … were available at all times.[22]

Flight Sergeant Burdes is NCO in charge of “B” Flight, No. 1 Canadian (F) Squadron. His work in this capacity has been excellent. Working under unfamiliar and adverse conditions, he has kept a maximum number of aircraft serviceable for operational flying. His continual good spirits and ability have won the confidence of both men and officers.[23]

When the squadron was not called upon to take to the air, the maintainers were busy with routine maintenance and inspections, all done at the dispersal area. For example, the canopy had to be checked to ensure that it would slide freely, so the pilot could more easily and safely jump out in an emergency. The propeller had to be inspected to ensure that its pitch control functioned easily. Wiring had to be checked to ensure it was not frayed or damaged. Armourers were busy checking that each gun was clean, that the various mechanisms were moving smoothly and that the gun heaters were functioning. With some of the battles occurring at over 18,000 feet [5,848 metres], the guns required heaters to prevent them from freezing and thus being seized up when they were most needed.

When the required maintenance demanded more time or effort, the Hurricane would be brought into the hangar to be worked on when time was available, often at night. This would be done in a blacked-out hangar with only the light from a couple of inspection lamps to guide the maintainers.[24] Two blessings were the Air Transport Auxiliary and the Ministry of Aircraft Production who could replace missing or badly damaged aircraft almost immediately. Air Chief Marshal Sir Keith Clark, Air Officer Commanding 11 Group, RAF Fighter Command, noted that his fighter squadrons were never dangerously short of Hurricanes or Spitfires during the Battle of Britain.[25] However, this was an overnight service, which required a squadron’s maintainers to salvage and repair what they could to keep a squadron up to strength for that day’s fighting.

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This high level of activity was not maintained in an atmosphere of calm and quiet. While the personnel of No. 1 (RCAF) Squadron were not attacked at Northolt during the period when the Luftwaffe bombed RAF stations, the biggest initial problem the airmen were to experience was sleep deprivation due to night-time raids. On the nights of 8 and 9 September, there were aircraft overhead most of the night. Some bombs even landed nearby early in the morning of the 9th. The tension and threat, combined with the resultant sleeplessness, could make anybody jumpy. During a night-time raid on 11 September, the casing from a nearby anti-aircraft gun came down near the mess, sending a group scurrying for shelter. This would be a continual issue during the squadron’s front-line service.

It was not until 25 September that the station was truly attacked. On that day, the barracks took two direct hits but suffered no casualties. Over the next three nights, bombs were being dropped in the area again, either keeping everyone awake or giving them a rough night sleeping. As the squadron adjutant noted on the 27th: “The attention of the enemy bombers [is] particularly noticeable before midnight. After that time as a rule those who do not go out are either so tired or so ‘tired’ that they immediately drop asleep not hearing or caring about the funny noises that go on in the neighbourhood.”[26]

On 1 October, there were more bombs at night near the south boundary of the airfield, which resulted in talk of moving the squadron to other accommodation at night so they could get a decent sleep. Certainly, everyone was more on edge now. This was observable on 3 October, when, during the morning standby, everyone dove for cover for an alarm. It was a false alarm caused by three Hurricanes from 229 Squadron, with whom they shared the airfield, returning after a dawn patrol. By this time, the Luftwaffe was sending over single fighter aircraft or a small group to stage attacks against various targets in southern England, targets that included RAF stations. The worries were justified when a single raider dropped out of the clouds on 6 October and dropped two bombs. Two hangars were destroyed as were two Hurricanes. Sergeant Antoni Siudak from 303 Squadron was killed when the Hurricane in which he was taxiing was hit, while from the station defences Aircraftman, 2nd Class (AC2) Henry Eugene Stennett was killed and AC2 Kenneth Boyns wounded.[27]

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The ground crew did not have to fight, but that should not take away from the fact that they were capable of heroic efforts. Corporal Russell Bragg, later commissioned, was bestowed with Member, Order of the British Empire in part for his activities during the Battle of Britain. The recommendation in British records indicates:

This officer is the squadron engineer officer. During the Battle of Britain and during several bombings of Northolt, and later at Digby, he was always in the forefront directing others and setting an example for all. It has been due to his unrelenting efforts that his present unit was transferred from older to newer aircraft in record time. He has been responsible for the fine serviceability record of the unit and has rendered outstanding services throughout.[28]

The recognition of Bragg needs to be put in context. He was representative of the many airmen who kept the aircraft in the air, whether they could sleep at night or not, under the stress of surprise attacks or bombs dropping onto them during the night. In the four-day period when the squadron was kept under tension in late September, there was only one problem—Flying Officer Brown took off on the morning scramble of the 27th, but had to return when the wheels would not retract. He came back for a second aircraft and then raced to get back into the fight. This was in fact the only in-flight unserviceability noted in the squadron records during the entire period of the Battle.

Another factor that affected the ground crew needs to be taken into account—the state of readiness. It was not only the pilots who were affected by the waiting to scramble, it was their ground crew also. They had to be ready to get their aircraft in the air. Whether or not a squadron was called to a readiness state included many factors, including what the weather forecast was. But, the squadron would not be advised of its readiness level until after the maintainers had gotten to work readying the aircraft.

In a ten-day period from 18 to 27 September, the squadron was at readiness on six days: the 18th, 21st, 22nd, 23rd, 24th and 27th. On the 18th, the entire day was spent at readiness except for a brief period in the afternoon; on the 22nd, the squadron kept sliding back and forth between readiness and available, while on the 27th, it was the entire day again. On the 23rd and 24th, the squadron had to be at readiness 30 minutes before dawn, which came at 5:36 a.m. to be exact. Sometimes, when it appeared that there would be a quiet day, the squadron would be called to readiness late in the day, as happened on 21 September, when the squadron was called to readiness at 1800 hours and later scrambled.

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The continual activity and readiness was taking its toll. Captain R. J. Nodwell, the squadron’s medical officer, noted in late September that there was a change in the squadron compared to three weeks earlier: “There is a definite air of constant tension and they are unable to relax as they are practically on constant call.”[29] He noted the long hours and overwork with not even 24 hours’ leave. His recommendation was that the squadron be removed from operations to allow it to recuperate. In this, he was talking not just of the pilots but of the squadron as a whole. Even the Protestant chaplain, Flight Lieutenant W. S. Dunlop, had observed that his duties required him to remain with No. 1 (RCAF) Squadron for most of its operational period instead of being able to visit Nos. 110 and 112 Squadrons, which were part of his chaplaincy. While he found he had to spend extra time visiting wounded pilots and identifying remains, there was also the rest of the squadron to which he had to minister. It was, therefore, recommended that an additional Protestant chaplain be sent to the UK.[30]

On 9 October, No. 1 (RCAF) Squadron was pulled from the front line and deployed to Prestwick, Scotland, as part of No. 13 Group. Here the squadron rested and recuperated. Although they were operationally active again as of 13 October, the pace of operations was slower and less stressful. Replacement pilots, four of them who had been with No. 110 Squadron, arrived to replenish the ranks, with more to follow as Battle of Britain pilots were posted out.[31] In between dawn and dusk patrols, the first hockey practice was held at a rink in Ayr on the 27th.

In the coming months, it was not only pilots who were arriving and departing. For the ground crew who had been so busy during the Battle of Britain, changes would also come. The experience and skills of these first RCAF ground crew in combat were to serve the RCAF admirably throughout the rest of the Second World War in many ways. The abilities and experience of the squadron’s maintainers can be seen in the activities during and after the war. At least 15 aircraftmen and leading aircraftmen were commissioned, including three who became aeronautical engineers, while many more corporals and sergeants were also commissioned.[32] Three examples show the level of ability and skill present among the ground crew.

Flight Sergeant William MacLean, a wireless and electrical mechanic who had come to No. 1 (RCAF) Squadron from No. 8 (Bomber Reconnaissance) Squadron shortly before No. 1 (RCAF) Squadron proceeded overseas, was promoted to warrant officer class 2 on 1 November 1940 and repatriated to Canada. Here he went back to school at No. 4 Wireless School in Brantford, was commissioned and returned to the UK to be assistant signals officer at RAF Station Digby. He then went on to other duties in Canada including officer in charge of air operating training at No. 4 Wireless School and officer in charge of fighter communications training at No. 1 Wireless School in Montreal. In 1944, he returned to the UK to be base signals officer at No. 63 RCAF Base in Leeming. He had a long post-war career, rising to the rank of wing commander.[33]

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William Muir also had a long career in the RCAF. An airframe mechanic, he was a sergeant during the Battle of Britain, later being placed in charge (I/C) of a flight with the squadron. In August 1941, he was repatriated and became the NCO I/C of servicing and of the maintenance squadron at No. 16 Service Flying Training School at Hagersville. Commissioned, he became the squadron EO at the Advanced Tactical Training Detachment at Greenwood, later becoming EO of 126 Squadron. After the war, he was the engineering officer at various squadrons, schools and even of Station Trenton, Ontario. He retired as a squadron leader.[34]

One of the veterans of the Battle of Britain was also an original member of the RCAF. Warrant Officer Class 2 Arthur Warner enlisted in the nascent Canadian Air Force in 1920 as an engine mechanic and already had a distinguished career before the Battle of Britain. As the head mechanic, he was responsible for the training of the aircraft maintainers and ensuring the integration of the many new members to the squadron when it left Canada. On 24 March 1941, he was commissioned as a flying officer and was promptly posted to No. 403 Squadron as an EO. In November 1941, he was posted to No. 418 Squadron as the squadron EO, the position in which he remained until June 1943 and repatriation to Canada. He served with distinction after the war, rising to the rank of wing commander before retiring on 22 August 1943.[35]

Other airmen served in further ways. The RCAF was continually looking for ground crew who wished to serve as aircrew. Among the ground crew who remustered to aircrew were Sergeant Alexander Laxdal and Leading Aircraftman (LAC) A. L. Kay, who became pilots;[36]Aircraftman, 1st Class (AC1) A. E. Dumaresq and U. R. Ettienne, who became air gunnery officers; and AC1 J. K. Cameron and R. H. Murphy, who became a navigator and bomb aimer respectively.[37]

Sergeant John Elviss was also one of these. An aero-engine mechanic, he joined No. 1 (RCAF) Squadron in November 1939. In July 1941, newly-promoted Flight Sergeant Elviss returned to Canada, and in March 1943 was commissioned and graduated from No. 7 Service Flying Training School as a multi-engine pilot. After training for maritime reconnaissance operations, he was posted to the UK. Serving with the RAF’s No. 206 Squadron flying Liberators, he attacked a U-boat, for which he was awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross. He continued to serve in the RCAF until November 1961.[38]

However, not all of the ground crew wished to remuster, or were qualified—or sought—to be commissioned. There were at least 15 corporals or aircraftmen who rose to the rank of warrant officer by the end of the war.[39] Others whose experience and knowledge proved important for the RCAF continued to serve as airmen.

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Sergeant Bernard Bettin was the I/C of the maintenance section, overseeing the repairs of aircraft sent to the hangar. An aero-engine mechanic, he was described as a master at troubleshooting the Merlin engine. In July 1941, Flight Sergeant Bettin was repatriated and posted to 3 Bombing & Gunnery School, MacDonald, Manitoba, and then to 8 Bombing & Gunnery School, Lethbridge, Alberta. He was the NCO I/C of the Bombing Flight and of the Servicing Flight respectively, in effect being responsible for the seven types of aircraft flown at these schools. Warrant Officer, Class 1 Bettin remained in the RCAF after the war, where his knowledge of many aircraft and engine types had him serve in many units. He even served as Station Warrant Officer at Trenton from September 1955 to April 1957.[40]

An airframe mechanic, Flight Sergeant John Burdes had over 10 years’ experience in the RCAF. Repatriated in July 1941, he served with Nos. 115 and 135 Fighter Squadrons, being promoted to warrant officer, class 1 in April 1942. Post-war, he reverted to flight sergeant, serving as regular support staff at various Auxiliary squadrons, retiring in December 1956 as a warrant officer, class 1.[41]

Of those who rose to the rank of warrant officer, class 1 or class 2, many were Special Reserve enlistees and Auxiliary members. Some of the more remarkable rises include Auxiliary members Aircraftman, 1st Class (AC1) Walter Young, an armament artificer, and Special Reservist AC1 Ernest Leatherbarrow, an airframe mechanic, both of whom became warrant officers, class 1.

While later RCAF squadrons that were formed or were sent to the UK would have their share of highly skilled and capable ground crew, those of No. 1 (RCAF) Squadron were pioneers. No. 1 (RCAF) Squadron was the first Canadian squadron to engage in combat. It was also the first to come under and experience the stress of an enemy attack. More importantly, this experience was passed along to new RCAF squadrons as veterans of No. 1 (RCAF) Squadron’s fight were posted to newly formed and existing squadrons and schools in Canada as well as in the UK.

During the Battle of Britain, the technical support for the squadron performed in an outstanding fashion. Working long hours and under great pressure and stress, they kept the squadron’s aircraft ready for combat in a high-tempo, high-stakes battle, despite sleepless nights, pilots injured or killed and the threat of attack. Only one problem was noted in this whole period, a record that speaks to the quality of the personnel and supervision.

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Considering that personnel of three components and two squadrons had to be amalgamated in a short time, the maintainers’ work speaks volumes. The leadership, at both the officer level and among senior airmen, had welded men of divergent experiences into an efficient and effective team.

As the first squadron into combat, the experiences of the squadron’s maintainers could be a benefit to newly formed RCAF squadrons in the UK, to schools in Canada and to squadrons in Canada—and they were. The mettle of MacLean, Muir and Warner demonstrated so clearly during the Battle of Britain was re-emphasized during their later deployments. Their experience under pressure would have been a benefit to everyone in their squadrons and schools, and their participation in the Battle would have brought respect and admiration. The fact that they served in newly formed squadrons was a boon to these units, as the experience of these Battle of Britain veterans would have served the squadrons well. The RCAF, apparently, also recognized this, as many of the technicians were repatriated, going on to serve in Canadian squadrons and schools.

For the RCAF, the Battle of Britain was not just about the pilots but also the ground crew who kept the aircraft flying. They served the RCAF well, providing a pool of talented and capable airmen who would serve the RCAF throughout the war and after.


Major Mathias (Mat) Joost is a historian at the Directorate of History and Heritage (DHH). He joined the Canadian Forces in 1986, serving in the Navy and as a military police officer. Taking the Force Reduction Plan in 1995, he went to South Korea where he taught English and met his future wife. Returning to Canada in 1998, he joined the Air Reserve, working in Winnipeg until joining DHH in 2003. Mat is currently working on a history of the Air Reserve and on Black Canadians in the RCAF.

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Abbreviations

AC1―aircraftman, 1st class
AC2―aircraftman, 2nd class
DHH―Directorate of History and Heritage
EO―engineering officer
F―fighter
I/C―in charge
LAC―leading aircraftman
NCO―non-commissioned officer
ORB―Operational Records Book
RAF―Royal Air Force
RCAF―Royal Canadian Air Force
UK―United Kingdom

Notes

[1]. The author wishes to thank Hugh Halliday for sharing information he found about the various personnel who are mentioned in this article.  (return)

[2]. Although the official RCAF name for the squadron was No. 1 (Fighter) Squadron, it was often listed as No. 1 (RCAF) Squadron to differentiate it from the RAF’s No. 1 Squadron. This article uses the name No. 1 (RCAF) Squadron to avoid confusion. (return)

[3]. Author’s tabulations based on nominal roll of airmen dated 26 June 1940. The actual total is 304 airmen. Directorate of History and Heritage (DHH), Permanent Reference File: 401 Squadron. The number of Battle of Britain participants was actually lower, as 67 were transferred to No. 112 Squadron on 18 August, just as the squadron became operational and began to participate in the Battle of Britain. Operational Records Book (ORB), No. 112 Squadron, 17 August 1940. A further 27 were sent to No. 112 Squadron on 24 August. ORB, No. 1 Squadron, 24 August 1940. It should also be noted that the Royal Canadian Army Medical Corps provided medical and dental personnel and the Canadian Intelligence Corps provided a detachment of six. The Special Reserve was created in December 1939 to be the component into which almost all subsequent RCAF enlistees would be placed. Their service would be for the duration of the war only, whereas members of the RCAF Permanent Force and Auxiliary Active Air Force had lengthier terms of service and greater benefits. (return)

[4]. “Independent operations” meant operating in detachments. For most of the pre-war period, the RCAF’s fighter squadrons conducted exercises as a complete squadron, whereas photographic squadrons deployed small detachments in which the airmen had to be more self-reliant and employ a greater self-initiative. (return)

[5]. No. 115 Squadron was an Auxiliary Active Air Force (i.e., Air Reserve) squadron. It had a history longer than that of No. 1 (RCAF), as it was formed at Montreal on 1 September 1934 as a fighter squadron. At the start of the Second World War, its members were called out on voluntary full-time service. Nobody refused to step forward to serve. The squadron also began recruiting up to its wartime establishment, which included recruiting pilots and ground crew. The squadron thus consisted of veterans and relatively new personnel when most of its personnel were absorbed by No. 1 (RCAF) Squadron. (return)

[6]. DHH 181.005 (D1337) “War Establishment for a Fighter Squadron,” dated 9 December 1940. Although this is post–Battle of Britain, and based on an RAF fighter squadron establishment, it would have been fairly close to the establishment of No. 1 (RCAF) Squadron during the Battle of Britain. Among the larger non-aircraft-related trades were 12 in “standard trades” (which were batmen and waiters), 18 motor mechanics and 24 general duties tradesmen. (return)

[7]. This structure is based on the war establishment of No. 1 Squadron, dated 9 December 1940, DHH 181.005 (D1337). This establishment was based on the establishment of RAF fighter squadrons. That No. 1 (RCAF) Squadron’s strength was brought down to near the RAF’s standard fighter establishment at the start of the Battle of Britain strongly suggests that the structure of the squadron resembled that of the RAF’s: hence the establishment of 9 December. (return)

[8]. Although the squadron was allocated 20 Hurricanes, this included spares. Four flights of three aircraft were considered to comprise a full-squadron complement when it took to the air in battle. (return)

[9]. Anecdote of Pilot Officer Harold Bird-Wilson in Richard Hough and Denis Richards, The Battle of Britain: The Jubilee History (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1989), 336. (return)

[10]. There were several readiness levels. A squadron could be called to “available,” which meant they had to be ready in 20 minutes to take-off. The next levels were “readiness,” in which the squadron had to be ready in 5 minutes, and “immediate,” which meant 2 minutes. (return)

[11]. Bobby Oxspring, Spitfire Command (Toronto: Grafton Books; 1984), 64. See also Richard Townshend Bickers, Ginger Lacey: Fighter Pilot (London: Corgi Books, 1962), 107. (return)

[12]. Oxspring, Spitfire Command, 65. In some squadrons the fitters were not allowed to do this, and it was the pilot who started the engine. (return)

[13]. See for instance the anecdote of J. T. Ryder in Hough and Richards, The Battle of Britain, 339. (return)

[14]. Activities during the turn-around are based in part on the anecdote of Stephen Brown in Hough and Richards, The Battle of Britain, 347. (return)

[15]. Oxspring, Spitfire Command, 69. (return)

[16]. Bickers, Ginger Lacey: Fighter Pilot, 99. James Harry Lacey flew with No. 501 Squadron throughout the Battle of Britain, claiming 18 victories, making him the third-highest scoring ace of the Battle. No. 501 Squadron flew from Middle Wallop, Gravesend and Kenley during the Battle. (return)

[17]. Johnny Kent, One of the Few: A Triumphant Story of Combat in the Battle of Britain (Stroud, Gloucestershire: Tempus Publishing, 2000), 75. (return)

[18]. References to the squadron’s activities originate with No. 1 (RCAF) Squadron’s ORB available on microfilm at the Library and Archives Canada and the DHH. (return)

[19]. No. 1 (RCAF) Squadron ORB, 26 August and 1 September, and Intelligence Reports, 26 August and 1 September 1940. The intelligence report would often list aircraft that were removed from line service and would require greater repairs to make them combat ready again. (return)

[20]. Bickers, Ginger Lacey: Fighter Pilot, 103. (return)

[21]. No. 1 (RCAF) Squadron ORB, 27 September, and Intelligence Report, 27 September 1940. (return)

[22]. RCAF Association of Canada, Honours and Awards, accessed March 17, 2015, http://rcafassociation.ca/uploads/airforce/2009/07/ALPHA-GA.GE.html. It should be noted that Burdes and Gale did not receive news of their awards until June 1942, well after the nominations had been prepared. Gale was initially nominated for the British Empire Medal; however, it was later downgraded to a Mentioned in Despatches. Both of them continued to serve in the post-war RCAF. Additional information courtesy of Hugh Halliday. (return)

[23]. RCAF Association of Canada, Honours and Awards, accessed March 17, 2015, http://rcafassociation.ca/uploads/airforce/2009/07/ALPHA-BU.1.html. (return)

[24]. Anecdote of F. P. O’Connor in Hough and Richards, The Battle of Britain, 348. (return)

[25]. Johnny Kent, One of the Few, 4 and 75–76. The Air Transport Auxiliary delivered the aircraft to the front-line units, sometimes in perilous conditions. The Ministry of Aircraft Production ensured throughout the Battle of Britain that there were more aircraft available than shot down. It was not unknown for them to provide an almost complete squadron’s-worth of aircraft overnight. (return)

[26]. No. 1 (RCAF) Squadron ORB, 27 September 1940. (return)

[27]. The Airmen’s Stories – Sgt. A. Siudak, “The Battle of Britain London Monument,” accessed March 17, 2015, http://www.bbm.org.uk/Siudak.htm. Siudak’s Hurricane was P3120; and Commonwealth War Graves Commission, accessed March 17, 2015, http://www.cwgc.org/find-war-dead/casualty/2735539/STENNETT,%20HENRY%20EUGENE. (return)

[28]. RCAF Association of Canada, Honours and Awards, accessed March 17, 2015, http://rcafassociation.ca/uploads/airforce/2009/07/ALPHA-BR.1.html. The compilation of awards and honours is based on the work of historian Hugh Halliday. (return)

[29]. Letter, 1-M-85, 7 October 1940, Captain R. J. Nodwell to Principal Medical Officer, RCAF in Great Britain, found in No. 1 (RCAF) Squadron ORB. (return)

[30]. Letter 866-31-1, 14 November 1940, Air Commodore L. F. Stevenson to the Secretary of National Defence for Air, Library and Archives Canada, Personnel File of Wing Commander Walter Stephen Dunlop, provided courtesy of Hugh Halliday. (return)

[31]. No. 1 (RCAF) Squadron ORB, 21 October 1940. The four pilots were Flying Officers Johnstone, Morrison, Reynolds and Watson, having been attached to 85 Squadron after completing their course at the operational training unit. (return)

[32]. Author’s calculations based on review of ranks at June 1940 and time of release at the end of the war. The three who became aeronautical engineering officers were LAC J. Coburn (later Flight Lieutenant), AC2 D. H. Deacon (later Flying Officer) and LAC C. J. Perks, (later Flying Officer). (return)

[33]. DHH 76/10 (RCAF Pay Cards) and DHH biography file. The pay cards provide the basis of an airman’s service. MacLean also served as RCAF Liaison Officer at White Sands, New Mexico, during the testing of the V2 rocket that occurred there in 1946–47. (return)

[34]. DHH 76/10 (RCAF Pay Cards) and DHH biography file. (return)

[35]. DHH biography file. No. 403 Squadron was formed on 1 March 1941; No. 418 Squadron was formed on 15 November 1941. Warner was the first EO for each squadron, thus being responsible for organizing the maintenance section of each one. (return)

[36]. Laxdal would later serve with Spartan Air Services after the war. (return)

[37]. Occupations for these individuals confirmed through the RCAF Officers List, April 1940. (return)

[38]. DHH 76/10 (RCAF Pay Cards), Air Force Association website. Although initially credited with sinking the U-boat, later research determined that it was only damaged. (return)

[39]. Author’s calculations based on review of ranks at June 1940 and time of release at the end of the war. (return)

[40]. DHH 76/10 (RCAF Pay Cards), personal research of the author. Warrant Officer Class 1 Bettin retired on 28 February 1962, having served 25 years. (return)

[41]. DHH 76/10 (RCAF Pay Cards) and information provided by Hugh Halliday. (return)

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