Chapter Three: Combat in Europe

Boeing B-29s drop bombs over Rangoon, Burma. Nearest aircraft is B-29-25-BA (S/N 42-63529) of the 468th Bomb Group. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Grandpa Gordon took to flying like a duck takes to water and he soon impressed his instructors. He was one of the first group of 50 graduates to earn their wings on February 10th, 1941.  He hitched a ride across the Atlantic on the troop ship Duchess of Bedford. The ship was constructed by John Brown on the Clyde. Her maiden voyage as the Duchess of Bedfird was made from Liverpool to Montreal in 1928. She was requisitioned as a troopship in 1939. She was finally decommissioned from the navy in 1947. She was refitted at Govan and renamed Empress of France, entering service in 1948. She was finally broken up and used as salvage in 1961.

The voyage to England was an uneventful one and he soon found himself standing on the dockside there. He had little time for reflection as his group was quickly transported to their new home on base. He had  performed so well with his training in Canada that he was assigned to the much heralded 401 Tactical Fighter Squadron, a.k.a. “City of Westmount” Squadron. It was the only Canadian fighter squadron to fight in the Battle of Britain.  When he joined the squadron in March, 1941 it was soon renumbered to No. 401 squadron. It was previously known as No. 1 Squadron RCAF. The squadron soon replaced its Hawker Hurricane MK IICs with Spitfire MK IIs.  Eventually the M2s were replaced with MK V’s in late 1941 and then in July 1942, they were finally upgraded to the new MK IX spitfires.

With all these upgrades to newer and faster fighters, he was in hog heaven. His squadron seemed to get all the newest and greatest fighters first, for this he was thankful. The German Messerschmitts were great fighter planes and they needed all the advantages that they could get. He saw little action initially so he got plenty of practice time flying mock dogfights with his fellow pilots. That would change when the squadron was relocated to RAF Biggin Hill led by Wing Commander R. W. McNair where it would remain in 11 Group carrying out offensive operations over Occupied Europe until January of 1943. The Unit would continue to get moved around as the lines of battle changed and bomber support needs evolved. Its final location was Belgium/Netherlands where it remained from August 1944 to July 3, 1945 when it was disbanded after the conclusion of the War in Europe.

Over the course of the war in Europe the squadron flew over 12,000 Ops and registered 195 confirmed aerial kills. It produced nine aces who alone accounted for as many as 66 kills.

Hawker Hurricane MK IIC

Spitfire MK II

Spitfire MK V

Spitfire MK IX

Since I have mentioned that his unit received Spitfire upgrades, I think that now is a good time to actually discuss what all the hoopla was about. As time progressed, Supermarine was developing more capable versions of the Spitfire. It was now driven by progressively more powerful Merlins. The eight 0.303-inch machine guns gave way to four 0.8-inch (20-mm) automatic cannons, and by war’s end the Spitfire had been produced in more than 20 fighter versions alone, powered by Merlins of up to 1,760 horsepower. Though outperformed by the German FW 190 upon that aircraft’s introduction in 1941, the Spitfire restored parity the following year and eventually regained the advantage. It remained a first-line air-to-air fighter throughout the war. Spitfires were used in the defense of Malta, in North Africa, and Italy, and fitted with tail hooks and strengthened tail sections, as Seafires from Royal Navy aircraft carriers from June 1942.

In late 1943, Spitfires were powered by Rolls-Royce Griffon engines which developed  as much as 2,050 horsepower began entering service. Capable of top speeds of 440 miles (710 km) per hour and ceilings of 40,000 feet (12,200 metres), these were used to shoot down V-1  “buzz bombs.” During World War II, Spitfires were exported in small numbers to Portugal, Turkey, and the Soviet Union, and they were flown by the U.S. Army Air Forces in Europe. When production ceased in 1947, 20,334 Spitfires of all versions had been produced, 2,053 of them Griffon-powered versions.

The basic fighter warfare tactics learned by Grandpa Gordon in Canada were simple–get above the target, get behind the target and use anything available to mask your approach, such as the sun or clouds if possible. In the European theater both sides could rely on radar controllers who advised the fighter pilots of potential targets or defenders. Once an attack was underway, Grandpa Gordon was taught  to get in close, aiming slightly ahead of the target if it were not located in the rear. Short bursts were better than long ones. If attacked he was taught to try and escape if possible by either diving or turning sharply.

RAF and RCAF tactics evolved during the war with generous plagiarism from the German play book. By 1941, the basic formation utilized by Grandpa Gordon and his air group was the “finger four” which entailed four aircraft grouped like the tips of four extended fingers. During actual engagements with enemy fighters this often broke down into pairs–a leader and his wingman. The wingman was the unsung hero as they seldom scored any kills because they were their to watch the leader’s back. The rule of combat was that if you lost your wingman you flew back home.

After the Battle of Britain and prior to Grandpa Gordon’s arrival on the European Theater allied fighters had a much reduced threat to handle, since for all intensive purposes no one took Germany’s invasion of England seriously anymore. Convoy patrols took up much flying, while interceptions continued against sporadic daylight raiders, most of which were low-level fighter bombers. The most damaging enemy air attacks were those launched by night. By early 1941, Fighter Command began to take a more aggressive or offensive role in the war. It was described as “leaning forwards into France.” There were several reasons for this change in strategy. One was to draw the Luftwaffe into battle and destroy it piecemeal. This philosophy dated back to the trench-warfare theory of the First World War. In fact, RAF losses regularly exceeded enemy casualities. When an allied pilot was shot down over France he was likely to be taken as a POW. Whereas the German counterpart would soon be back in action since they were fighting over friendly territory.

Another reason was that they hoped that RAF offensive action would draw enemy forces away from the Russian front. This thinking was also flawed since the Germans pulled units out of the east only when there was an obvious need for them elsewhere. A further rationale was to keep the RAF fighter arm sharp and efficient. However, this reason was a high price to pay since casualties were quite high in these missions. By early 1943, daylight offensive work became more coordinated where the RAF and USAAF formations were now acting as a team. These offensive actions  were tied directly to preparations being made for the invasion of Europe. As the war progressed and the sweeps continued, their numbers improved. This was in part due to more sophisticated tactics being employed and advancements made in fighter technology. The newer Spitfires were better matched to the German Bf 109s and Fw 190s. There was also a gradual decline in the average quality of German fighter pilots and fuel shortage problems began to flare up.

The 401 saw a great deal of action in these sweeps and Grandpa Gordon claimed his first kill on March 24, 1942 when he shot down a Bf. 109. He gave the 109 a two second burst from 10 degrees astern, with about 1/2 to 3/4 ring deflection. The Bf 109 half-rolled in response, belching copious amounts of white smoke from his engine. Grandpa Gordon followed him down still firing from dead astern as he closed to within 100 yards. As his strafing rounds continued to hit the beleaguered fighter, the port undercarriage flew off from the fuselage, causing the engine to stop working. White smoke continued to pour out of the plane. Grandpa Gordon’s starboard cannon finally ran out of rounds as the port side cannon continued to spew out deadly rounds. The 109 was a total loss as the Luftwaffe pilot jettisoned out of the plane. Grandpa Gordon sped by the smoking plane as it went into a tailspin and soon crashed into the countryside below. With most of his ammo spent he had no choice but to return back to home base.

When he arrived back to base he did so as a conquering hero. News had already preceded him to the base on his first kill. His ground crew already had the can of paint ready to paint the first swastika on the side of his plane. This emblem would represent his accomplishment. When he landed, of course, there was a lot of back slapping and congratulating going on. Though this joviality soon ended as the news that two of his fellow pilots had been shot down and what was worse no parachutes had been seen. This meant that either the plane was too damaged for the canopy to be opened or that the pilot was killed outright from the strafing runs. While the loss of the valuable fighters hampered the war effort, the loss of a pilot was tragic.

This roller coaster ride of emotions over the next four years would be played out all too frequently. Eventually many of the pilots became numb and enured to the constant loss of their fellow airmen. However, Grandpa Gordon never seemed to get used to the sense of loss that he experienced when he went into the barracks and saw the empty rolled up cot. This empty cot served as a reminder of how fickle fate was. Eventually pilots became morose and kept to themselves, mainly because you just never knew whose ticket would get punched. Making friends just set you up for too much pain and hurt. It was just better to nip it right in the bud when new and fresh faced pilots arrived on the base. It was a shame to curb their enthusiasm but it was for the better. All the training in the world did not prepare you for this loss. The whole design of the training process was to build camaraderie and team work. Now all this team building was causing pain and grief. It did not take too long for the demeanor of the new pilots to change and after just a few missions their expressions became more somber and they were soon indistinguishable from the more experienced pilots.

As the months rolled on by, Grandpa Gordon’s plane became decorated with more and more swastikas. On January 6, 1944, Grandpa Gordon shot down his 5th Messerschmit and became an ace pilot. His group was part of Ramrod 428. No. 126 Wing which was composed of 401 and 411 Squadrons and four groups of medium bombers. They were raiding the V-1 launching pads south of Dieppe. They were considered  high value targets on both sides, so the Germans mustered a staunch defense with too many fighters to count. The 401 and 411 Squadrons registered just two downed aircraft that day, but what was more notable they suffered no fighter losses of their own.

Grandpa Gordon recorded two more kills in Operation Overlord. During the invasion of Normandy, the RCAF fighter and fighter-bomber personnel underwent major reorganization and the requisite training that was associated with such a large change. With all this upheaval it was to be expected that the flight wings would have to operate from primitive airfields throughout France. The squadrons were also called upon to make frequent moves.

His group became accustomed to living under canvas tarps and eating from field kitchens. The personnel movement portion was the easy part, what was difficult was all the support that the fighter squadron required to keep their planes in the sky. When you started listing all the things that a squadron needed, it was enough to make your head explode. Grandpa Gordon was thanking his lucky stars that all he had to do was fly the planes. The pilots had it easy, it was the ground crews who were the ones that suffered the most during these moves. Not only did they have to build temporary hangars and move all the equipment, fuel and supplies, they also  received basic instructions in ground combat. This was done to protect the airwing from the risk of attacks by the German infantry. As the war progressed, the borders of the front lines became quite fluid. This was made all too apparent in the Battle of the Bulge . While no sqadron was ever over-run, they were quite frequently shelled  by German Artillery.

Of his 10 kills, the one that Grandpa Gordon was the most proud of was the one that took place on October 5, 1944. His plane was part of a five-strong squadron patrol when they encountered a Messerchmitt Me 262 jet. After a protracted dogfight he scored the kill shot, unfortunately, the German pilot Hans-Christoph Buttmann was killed in the engagement. It was the first victory over this type of aircraft credited to either the RAF or RCAF. It was also his 8th recorded victory to date.

On January 1, 1945, Grandpa Gordon recorded two kills in one day. They were his last two of the war. He damaged a few more fighters after that but they all were able to limp back home to fight another day, so they could not be recorded as victories or kills. The operation was a mass ground attack by the Luftwaffe entitled Operation Bodenplatte. The unit claimed nine of the attackers shot down that day, making the tally since D-Day 76.5 aircraft destroyed, three probables and 37 damaged.

Grandpa Gordon and the 401 did not just provide bomber support they flew their own bomb runs as well. Their Spitfires were used throughout the war in this manner. The Spitfire could carry a 250 or a 500-pound bomb beneath the fuselage and a 250-pounder under each wing. The 401 made many bomb runs on the Normandy Beachheads. Using the fighter in this manner allowed for more precise bombing runs and patterns than did the B-17s, B24s and the Lancasters. Though they flew many bomb runs of their own, one of the Spitfire’s most important contributions to Allied victory was as a photo-reconnaissance aircraft. This started taking place from early 1941. Superior high-altitude performance rendered it all but immune from interception, and the fuel tanks that replaced wing-mounted machine guns and ammunition bays gave it sufficient range to probe deep into western Germany from their British bases.

Grandpa Gordon was never one to rest on his laurels so when he heard of the introduction of the 48 Hotspur combat assault gliders he volunteered for this special duty. The glider was designed and built by the British company General Aircraft Ltd. Two other flyers signed up as well to this special assignment. The group consisted of the leader Jack Sheppard and Tom Koch and, of course, good old Grandpa Gordon. The gliders were to be pulled behind their Spitfire fighters. The plan was that they could serve as a contingency plan in case essential personnel or equipment were needed at future foreward airfields.

Although the glider had been designed to transport eight airborne troops and a cargo of 1,880 pounds (850 kg), this was found to be inadequate. Tactically it was believed that airborne troops should be landed in groups far larger than eight, and the number of aircraft therefore required to tow the gliders needed to land larger groups would be unfeasible; there were also concerns that the gliders would have to be towed in tandem if used operationally, which would be extremely difficult during nighttime and through cloud formations. Its disappointing glide ratio was also a contributing factor in its reevaluation as an assault glider.

Due to the limitations inherent in the Hotspur design, the decision was made to continue with the development of several other types of gliders, including a 15-seater which would become the Airspeed Horsa and a tank-carrying glider, which would become the General Aircraft Hamilcar. The Hotspur remained in production primarily as a training aircraft and as a “stop-gap” in case the other programs failed. Grandpa Gordon never actually flew the glider in any combat operations, but all the practice runs helped to breakup the monotony that sometimes was associated with the life of a fighter pilot.

Even though the war in Europe ended in May 8, 1945, the 401 Squadron did not break up until July 3, 1945. As we all know the war in the Pacific ended on September 2, 1945. This did not leave much time for the RCAF pilots stationed in Europe to transfer and get retrained and settle in the Pacific Theater. Of course, we are gifted with hindsight, something that the powers at be did not have in 1945. As far as the leaders knew, the war was going to last for quite some time and would most likely involve the invasion of the Japanese mainland. Despite this uncertainty Canada, Great Britain nor the United States transferred any of its ground force and air force divisions to the Pacific. It seems that any fleet ships that could be spared had already been transferred in 1942. The rest remained in the Atlantic even after the end of the war in Europe.  Several Bomber and Coastal Command Units were transferred to Transport Command after the close of hostilities in Europe, while two transport squadrons were formed overseas. However, no fighter squadrons were transferred to the Pacific Theater.

There were a few individuals who actually did fight in both theaters of the war, but their transfer was a choice made by preference and not by any command. I guess that the higher command figured one theater was enough for any soldier or pilot to fight in. It was also apparent that they already had sufficient forces in the Pacific to finish the war. Though who knows if the war had continued on into 1946, if this mindset and game plan would have changed. Needless to say, Grandpa Gordon was now on his way home.