Last call for the Avro Lancaster: From Tiger Force to derelict on the Alberta prairie

News Article / March 13, 2014

By Dave O’Malley

As the Second World War wound down in Europe, the Allied powers, which had previously been focused on the destruction of Hitler’s Nazi-run Germany, began to think about the battle to come in and around Japan.

The United States was largely responsible for offensive aerial attacks on the Japanese home islands, though the Royal Navy and the aerial arms of Australia, New Zealand, Great Britain and Canada were engaging the collapsing enemy in his many empirical outposts from Burma to Palembang to New Britain.

Plans were put in place to provide as much assistance to the Allies in the Far East as the Commonwealth could muster. Once they had brought Nazi Germany to its knees in final surrender, massive amounts of men and war machines could then be unleashed on Japan to speed the end of the war in that theatre. It was largely held by the Allies everywhere (except for those who were secretly working on the atomic bomb) that this war would be fought to the last Japanese soldier on the home islands of Nippon.

After D-Day, when Churchill met with Roosevelt during the second Québec Conference on September 12, 1944, he made a promise to transfer a substantial number of Bomber Command heavy bombers to the Pacific Theatre—up to 1,000 aircraft. As the European war’s outcome was not in any doubt, except for the actual day of final surrender, Bomber Command set about in October to create the structure of a new bomber force, code-named Tiger Force.

Initially this new and powerful force was to be formed with 22 squadrons in three groups (9 Wings total) with squadrons from the Royal Air Force (RAF) and the air forces of Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. Later the force was reduced to just 12 squadrons and then to a final eight squadrons in two groups, with only RAF and Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) squadrons.

When deployed, Tiger Force would fly the highly capable Avro Lancaster and the Avro Lincoln (just coming off the assembly line), as well as American-built Consolidated Liberators. These new Commonwealth squadrons on the scene in Okinawa would need fighter escort, which was to be supplied by the Royal Australian Air Force’s First Tactical Air Force as well as other Commonwealth units already in theatre and American assets.

RCAF squadrons involved kept their old Bomber Command “6 Group” designation, and the operational wings were to be formed up at the following bases:

  • 661 Wing, commanded by Wing Commander F.R. Sharp, DFC, to be formed at Yarmouth, Nova Scotia – 419 and 428 Squadrons, July 15-September 5, 1945.
  • 62 Wing, commanded by Group Captain J.R. MacDonald, DFC, to be formed at Dartmouth, Nova Scotia – 431 and 434 Squadrons, July 15-September 5, 1945.
  • 63 Wing, commanded by Group Captain J.H.L. Lecomte, DFC, to be formed at Debert, Nova Scotia – 420 and 425 Squadrons, August 1-5 September 5, 1945.
  • 664 Wing, commanded by Group Captain W.A.G. McLeish, DFC, to be formed at Greenwood, Nova Scotia – 405 and 408 Squadrons, August 1- September 5, 1945.

As the war wound down, the Canadian squadrons of 6 Group were being re-equipped with Canadian-built Lancaster bombers so that at the outset of Tiger Force training, they would all have the same equipment. 141 brand new or relatively low-time Lancaster Mk. 10s were assigned to Tiger Force, though many of them still had not even been delivered to the RAF.

Following the end of the war in Europe, the Lancaster Mk.10s in service with the RCAF were flown to Canada by their crews, set to be modified, painted and crewed for Tiger Force operations.

Flying out of England over a period of several weeks, they journeyed to the Azores and from there to airbases in Nova Scotia and Newfoundland and, finally, on to a big repair depot at RCAF Station Scoudouc in New Brunswick. Only one aircraft was lost, ditching in the ocean off the Azores, but no airmen were lost.

Soon, the atomic bombs put a quick end to the requirement for additional Canadian and British bombing crews and aircraft. Tiger Force stood down and ceased to exist after October 1945.

Without a Canadian requirement for a heavy bomber force, the scores of Lancasters harboured in Scoudouc were going nowhere. It was soon realized that the Lancasters would not fare well stored in the humid and salty ocean air of Scoudouc, and they were prepared for a ferry flight to drier air in Alberta.

That province had many recently closed air bases from the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan that were ready to be fired up again to accept the aircraft and mechanics to keep them relatively healthy until a plan could be made for their disposal or further use. Eventually all the 140 or so Lancasters were delivered to Alberta, but on one single day in September of 1945, the skies above the tiny hamlet of Pearce, Alberta, and its nearby training base absolutely thundered with the arrival of 83 Lancasters over the one afternoon.

Pilots and aircrew, realizing that they would likely never fly a Lancaster again, ripped the blue prairie skies apart, turning, banking, zooming, flying low level, and scaring farm animals until they had no fuel left.

After the Lancasters were brought to Pearce, crews on the ground were tasked to keep them flyable, starting their four Merlin engines daily and looking after leaks and dried seals.

To relieve space at Pearce, many Lancs were dispatched to other outlying airfields like Fort McLeod, Penhold, and Calgary. For some, this would be the end, eventually struck off charge, stripped of their valuable engines—some sold for scrap, some sold to farmers for the contents of their fuel and glycol tanks or handyman projects, or even just to have one.

You could buy a Lancaster with all four Merlins for just $250 to $350.

The lucky ones, more than 70 in all, were selected for new roles as anti-submarine patrol aircraft, ice reconnaissance or photographic mapping. In these new roles, they flourished, becoming part of the rich history of the RCAF. Within ten years most of these Lancs were obsolete as well, and they also ended up back in Alberta for further storage and eventual scrapping.

But it is the Lancasters that were not selected for a new life – the ones not sold immediately for scrap or towed away by farmers – that were the saddest of all.

They lingered out on the cold Canadian prairie, hulks stripped of their valuable bits, sinking on deflated tires, their painted bombing mission markings fading and flaking under the onslaught of long, terrible winters and the hot prairie sun. By the late 1950s, they were simply a boneyard, picked over by maintenance crews, collectors, museums, vandals and gawkers. Their humiliation complete, these truly venerable warhorses simply vanished from sight by the 1960s, finally cleaned up like some toxic waste dump.

But the memories remain. If you drive out to the now-ghost town of Pearce, Alberta, on a fine fall afternoon, the wind rippling the wheat and canola like an ocean swell, and you stand silent on the old runway, ear cocked to the prevailing wind, you will hear them—the 83 joyous crews laughing, the Merlins howling a warrior’s cry, bellowing over the prairie, the popcorn backfires and rubber chirps as they settle onto the runways upon which they once trained for the fight.

Listen over the sound of the prairie wind. Listen. You can hear the pinging and ticking of cooling exhaust stems, the laughter of crews taking one last photo together. You can hear them promising to stay in touch.

And then the sound of silence.

This article was originally published on the Vintage Wings of Canada website. It is translated and reproduced with the permission of Vintage Wings and the Bomber Command Museum of Canada.

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