WITH ‘CANADA’ ON HIS SHOULDER, HIS TUNIC AND SHIRT UNDONE, HE HOLDS A HEAVY WHITE MUG, HIS EYES STARING AWAY TO THINGS ONLY HE CAN SEE – AND PERHAPS WISHING HE COULD NOT.
Behind this exhausted man a colleague wears a tense expression. One man still wears his ‘Mae West’ life preserver. Around them others talk in small groups as they wait for their turn to be debriefed on the raid, or search for friends .
A hot cooked breakfast waits in the mess but they are in no hurry.
The empty chairs at the tables will only add to the sights, sounds and smells they have already experienced.
For each man the truth – the deep hidden truth – can’t be shared with scribbling Intelligence Officers, loving wives and girlfriends, jocular ground crew or earnest padres.
They can only share it with those who have had a part in its making.
Who these men are in Pilot Officer Forward’s evocative photograph, the target they attacked, the precise date of the operation or even the location of the their base – the squadron moved from RAF Pocklingon to RAF Topcliffe in August 1942 – is not recorded in the online IWM Collection caption with the image.
However it could have been taken on 1 August 1942 when two waves of the squadron’s aircraft had taken off – one late on the 31 July and the other in the early hours of the following day -to attack Düsseldorf in Germany. (1)
Casualties amongst the attacking force were heavy. (2)
This was the Squadron’s 111th operation (3) and one where 630 aircraft (including 105 from No. 92 Group RAF which was responsible for Operational Training Units) were sent against the target.
It was the first time that more than 100 Avro Lancaster aircraft were seen on a raid together and 484 aircraft (dropping 900 tons of explosives) claimed to have hit the target – although post-raid analysis showed that a significant amount of ordnance fell in open country, possibly due to industrial haze and smoke from the ground. (4) (5)
… the general impression was that the raid was a complete success and Pilot Officer Hill* suggested:
‘It was a better attack than Cologne’.
Fires that covered whole city area with a pall of reddish black smoke rolling up, were seen for 80 miles on the return journey. ...(6)
Overall, twenty-nine aircraft were lost (some 4.6% of the total of those despatched). Among them were four Halifax aircraft (the type used by No. 405 Squadron).
Of these four aircraft two came from No. 405 Squadron. Losses from No 92 Group were 15 training aircraft and crews – 10.5% of the number they supplied. (7)
No. 405 (Vancouver) Squadron, Royal Canadian Air Force was the first Canadian squadron to be formed overseas during the Second World War. Less than two months after being formed at RAF Driffield on 23 April 1941 it carried out its first bombing operation on the night of 12 June, when a number of aircraft successfully attacked a rail marshaling yard at Schwerte in Germany. (8)
In April 1942 the squadron became a ‘heavy’ bomber squadron, converting from the two-engined Vickers Wellington to the more capable four-engined Handley Page Halifax and a month later was part of the ‘1000 bomber raid’ (Operation MILLENIUM) on Cologne.
It would continue to fly the type for most of its Second World War service.
During the months of July and August 1942 – the period that Pilot Officer Forward the RAF photograoher who captured his striking image – the squadron flew 17 offensive operations, eleven of these in July. (9)
In October Halifax aircraft from No. 405 and No. 158 Squadron RAF together with a number of Liberator aircraft from US Eighth Air Force were attached to RAF Coastal Command and carried out anti-submarine patrols over the Bay of Biscay as well as anti-shipping sweeps along the German coast.
Returning to Bomber Command in March 1942, it then became one of the original eight squadrons that made up No.6 Group – a political compromise between the British and Canadian governments – the former wanting to maintain control of all Commonwealth squadrons based in Britain and the latter who wished to see an independent Canadian Air Force serving alongside the RAF.
The final move for No. 405 (Vancouver) Squadron was out of No. 6 Group RAF to No. 8 Group RAF – the Pathfinder Force where it would remain for the rest of the conflict as the only Canadian squadron.
In total the squadron flew 3852 sorties against 450 targets. It carried out more operations than any other Canadian squadron. Losses overall were 112 aircraft (2.9%).
However as part of No. 4 Group – and later when with No. 6 Group – aircraft losses were 6.6 percent and 7.3 percent respectively. (10)
Casualties in invidual raids were often much highter.
On the night of the 27 June 1942, eleven of the squadron’s aircraft were detailed to become part of a force of 144 aircraft to attack Bremen.(11) (12)
The force was made up of a variety of aircraft – 55 Wellington twin-engined medium bombers, 39 Halifaxes, 26 Stirlings and 24 Lancasters. Of these, 119 aircraft bombed using ‘special equipment’ or using their time in the air to calculate their position.(13) (14)
Four Wellingtons, two Halifaxes, two Lancasters and a Stirling were lost that night. (15)
Both Halifaxes were from No.405 (Vancouver) Squadron RCAF. (16)
The next operation – the squadron’s 100th – took place on the night of 30 June 1942.
Again a mixed force of 253 aircraft was assembled. Again the target was Bremen.
For the first time the combined number of four-engined aircraft of all types (145) outnumbered those of the Wellingtons.
Amongst the eleven aircraft lost were three Halifax bombers (17) and again all these were from No. 405 Squadron, RCAF.
The Squadron contributed nine aircraft, two of which returned early with mechanical problems.(18)
The seven remaining attacking the target.
Only four aircraft from the nine dispatched returned to base having carried out their tasking.
Returning in the early hours of 24 July 1942 from the Squadron’s 107th operation – an attack on Duisburg – the Halifax flown by Flight Sergeant Robert Baker Albright ** crashed in flames in the nearby small market town of Pocklington. The crew, having completed one circuit of its home base in preparation to land experienced a sudden engine failure and lost contol.
Having clipped a private house in the town, the aircraft crashed into a school building. All the crew were killed. Of the nine aircraft from No. 405 Squadron detailed for this raid, this aircraft was the only loss. (19)(20)(21)(22)
One third of all RAF Bomber Command aircrew were Canadians.(23)
The Squadron’s motto ‘Ducimus’ – ‘We lead‘ testifies to its standing during the Second World War.
* A Squadron Leader Howard Stephenson Hill, DFC, RCAF is buried at Dishforth Cemetery, Yorkshire, England having been killed during a training exercise with 1659 Heavy Conversion Unit (1659 HCU – the unit title after the merger of No. 405 Squadron Conversion Flight and No. 408 Squadron Conversion Flight) on 18 April 1943.
His Distinguished Flying Cross award was announced in the Supplement to the London Gazette, dated 12 January 1943.
See the following links for more information.
‘Operation MILLENNIUM’ is the subject of a May 2017 post on this blog (Operation MILLENNIUM and how Hamburg was saved at the cost of Cologne).
(1) No. 405 (Vancouver) Squadron Operational Record Book, File reference Air 27/1787/27 (July 1942) – UK National Archives, Kew, England.
(2) Bomber Command Campaign Diaries – July 1942: http://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20070706055105/http://www.raf.mod.uk/bombercommand/jul42.html – retrieved 8 August 2018.
(3) No. 405 (Vancouver) Squadron Operational Record Book Air 27/1787/27 (July 1942) – UK National Archives, Kew, England.
(4) Bomber Command Campaign Diaries – July 1942 (ibid).
(5) No. 405 (Vancouver) Squadron Operational Record Book (ibid).
(6) No. 405 (Vancouver) Squadron Operational Record Book (ibid).
(7) Bomber Command Campaign Diaries – July 1942 (ibid).
(8) No. 405 (Vancouver) Squadron Operational Record Book – Air 27/1787/21 (April 1942) – UK National Archives, Kew, England.
(9) No. 405 (Vancouver) Squadron Operational Record Book (ibid).
(10) http://www.lancaster-archive.com/bc_sqn_405.htm – retrieved 7 August 2018.
(11) No. 405 (Vancouver) Squadron Operational Record Book – Air 27/1787/25 (June 1942) – UK National Archives, Kew, England.
(12) Bomber Command Campaign Diaries – June 1942:
http://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20070706054659/http://www.raf.mod.uk/bombercommand/jun42.html – retrieved 8 August 2018.
(13) Bomber Command Campaign Diaries – June 1942 (ibid).
(14) No. 405 (Vancouver) Squadron Operational Record Book – June 1942 (ibid).
(15) Bomber Command Campaign Diaries – June 1942 (ibid).
(16) No. 405 (Vancouver) Squadron Operational Record Book – June 1942 (ibid).
(17) Bomber Command Campaign Diaries – June 1942 (ibid).
(18) No. 405 (Vancouver) Squadron Operational Record Book – June 1942 (ibid).
(19) No. 405 (Vancouver) Squadron Operational Record Book – June 1942 (ibid).
(20) http://www.405sqn.com/pocklington.html – retrieved 8 August 2018.
(21) http://www.yorkshire-aircraft.co.uk/aircraft/yorkshire/york42/w7769.html – retrieved 8 August 2018.
(22) https://joepavia.com/2018/06/30/bill-thurlow-flight-sergeant-and-warrant-officer-second-class/comment-page-1/ – retrieved 8 August 2018.
(23) http://www.bombercommandmuseum.ca/contribution.html – retrieved 8 August 2018.