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Flying with the Canadians

Several months ago while reading INTERCOM, the Air Crew Association newsletter, there was a letter to the editor(Winter, 2007, page 76) from Frank Dennis in which he offered an article to INTERCOM that he had titled "Flying with the Canadians". I thought it might be of interest and decided to solicit a copy for us. The full article is published here.

Tracking him was not as easy as I had thought but Vern White as usual got me on the right track with some information that allowed me to contact F/O Dennis.

Both Vern's comments and Frank's articles are of interest and I've included both below.

Vern's comments:

By a stroke of good luck I am able to provide info on Frank Dennis. I have a few WW II 427 Squadron Battle Orders on file and there is one dated June 9, 1945 (well after VE-Day). At the time 427 Squadron had 37 crews on the battle order. (Do I ever wish we had those kind of reserves in 1942!) In May and June 1945 I believe they were flying military personnel back from Europe. At any rate, one of the 37 crews on the battle order had a Flight Engineer shown as P/O F. Dennis (no first name) and it was an all officer crew as mentioned in his letter. There are no service numbers shown so I don't know who were RAF. Most, but not all, Flight Engineers were Brits so it is quite likely that this P/O Dennis was RAF. The other crew members were:

Pilot - F/L W.H. Schmitt
Nav - F/L G.S. Dunbar
B/A - F/O P. Lotz
WO/AG - P/O F.J. Mechan
MU/AG - F/L J.J. MacNeil
F/O - L.W. Webb

In the photo below from INTERCOM, Bill Schmitt is in the centre kneeling and Stu Dunbar is at the right kneeling. For some reason Schmitt's name is mis-spelled. Bill Schmitt (better know as Indian) and Stu Dunbar were with me at Croft and Leeming on their first tour but not in the same crew. Stu was my roommate on the Squadron at Leeming. "Indian" Schmitt was an outstanding pilot and one of the original crews when the Squadron was formed. Both "Indian" and Stu were awarded DFCs and both are now deceased. MacNeil was Squadron Gunnery Leader, on his second tour, also a DFC winner although I didn't know him.

Flying with the Canadians

In 1944/45 I was a Flight Engineer on 419 and 427 RCAF Squadrons - part of No. 6 RCAF Group, Bomber Command. How I came to be flying Lancaster Mark 1, 111s and 10s was not a straight forward process because of a unique situation that was present in the RAF at that time. Midway through the Flight Engineer's course at No. 4 School of Technical Training, St. Athans, trainees were invited to chose which aircraft they would prefer to specialize in and ultimately become part of a crew flying that type of aircraft. Naturally, the majority chose the glamour aircraft- the Lancaster, but for what I thought was a good reason, I hesitated.

Among the many units at St. Althans was a Coastal command M.U., so nearby were a number of Mk 2a Halifaxes, brand new, gleaming white, old style fin and rudder, four bladed Rotol props, four gun mid, upper, etc,; they looked magnificent ! This would be in March 1944 when Bomber Command had been suffering very heavy losses, sixty odd at a time in the Battles of Berlin, the Ruhr and targets like Nurenburg. So, being of a rather cautious nature I reasoned that possibly my chances of survival might be slightly better if I could be crewed on one of those. They were listed as a choice along with a few needed for Stirlings. For Fortresses and Liberators, Engineers with previous knowledge of P &W Twins and Wright Cyclones were desired and Sunderlands and Catalina were reserved for the elderly, those over age 30. The new Mk. 3 Halifaxes with Hercules engines were a popular choice. My fellow trainees initially thought I was bonkers but with a little persuasion, some decided to join me.

So early in July after completing the course and taking a week's leave, my friends and I found ourselves posted to 1659 Heavy Conversion Unit at Topcliffe. Yes, on arrival we could see a number of Merlin engined Halifaxes buzzing about including the odd old Mk. 1 and some Mk. 5's with Dowty hydraulics. At this stage things seemed to be going according to plan, although I thought there did seem to be an awful lot of Canadians about but then, like us the Canadians are a Maritime nation so they would be connected with Coastal Command. The Flight Engineer Leader said he didn't want to see us yet and suggested that the newcomers go out to the green nearby for a game of cricket... much to our delight. After about an hour or so a group of Canadian pilots came amongst us and one tall lanky chap came up to me and introduced himself as Ron Cox and asked me if I would like to be his Flight Engineer. I accepted his invitation of course and met the rest of the crew freshly arrived from O.T.U. at Wellesbourne. Obviously the cricket wasn't for our benefit but rather for others to surreptitiously watch our activities and make selections! I soon learned that after the H.C.U. we would end up posted to one of the fourteen squadrons in #6 R.C.A.F. Group, Bomber Command, a far cry from any Coastal Command. The best laid schemes of mice and men do sadly go awry, etc.!

Things moved along apace as usual. There was always this sense of urgency present during our training, right from day one at the Air Crew Receiving Centre, St. John's Wood. No leave, but straight to 419 Squadron, Middleton St. George, County Durham, the most northerly Station of Bomber Command to fly, surprise, surprise, Canadian built Mk. 10 Lancasters complete with Packard Merlins. With Ron as Skipper, operations went along without too much trouble until November 1st, 1944 when on the Oberhausen trip we suffered a prolonged attack from a FW-190 which did considerable damage and injured all the crew except Ron and myself. Subsequently, we carried on flying with a scratch crew until Ron became ill, mainly with blocked sinuses and was sent back to Canada for a rest period which dispersed out scratch crew.

I then joined a new crew who had arrived at the Squadron without a Flight Engineer. The Skipper was a F/O McNeill and after a few training flights we were ready for operations. At this point March 1945, we had a bout of very bad weather and for the week-end Bomber Command was "stood down" until Sunday evening and we could leave the Station if we wished. An unusual occurrence, at least for me, so I caught the train home on Friday evening. The rest of the crew said they would stay on the Station and take in a film and visit out local, The Oak Tree Pub. On returning Sunday evening as ordered, someone in the Mess said "Shame about your crew, Frank". I replied "What have they been up to then?" "They went missing on ops, Saturday night!" My retort, "Don't be daft, how could that have happened?" But sadly I'm afraid it was true.

Apparently, the Russians advancing toward the Polish/German border were stuck at Dessau and they couldn't go round and couldn't go through, so they requested that Bomber Command blast a way through. I think this was pre-arranged at the Yalta agreement that when they needed assistance during their advance on the ground, they could call on support from Allied Air Forces. So orders went out to the Squadrons to get as many crews together as possible for operations on Saturday night despite the atrocious weather. The outcome of this was that I was crewless again, but not unduly surprised for after all they were a new crew on their first op with a spare Flight Engineer and over enemy territory for about four hours in awful weather. I would say their chances of returning safely were minimal.

After a couple of days I was called to the Flight Commanders office to be told," Frank, we're posting you to 427 Squadron, Leeming where there's a second tour crew who has arrived without a Flight Engineer. Apparently they'd prefer someone with a bit of operational experience."

After settling in at Leeming I was checked out by the Flight Commander, Squadron Leader Deegan who told me I would be flying with a Flight Lieutenant Schmidt who I'd be meeting in the Mess that night. Schmidt turned out to be quite an interesting character. He had flown before the war as a bush pilot in Northern British Columbia and had flown his first tour mainly on the Wellingtons of 427 Squadron which at that time was based at Croft (a satellite of Middleton St. George). Apparently his father was a German immigrant to Canada and his mother was a pure-bred Indian which I suppose accounted for his brown pallor. He also had two noticeable gold teeth and was known to one and all as "Indian".

We flew the next day on a cross-country with H2S and visual bombing practice and something unscheduled... practice stalls...which caught me unaware. I became weightless and ended up on the cabin roof with some loose Very cartridges and a few other bits and pieces. At this lose of dignity I protested a little and asked him to warn the crews if he intended to do it again. With a sly smile he said "OK, we`ll climb up to 6000 feet and have another go." By this time I had flown with quite a few pilots and none had seemed particularly keen to stall a Lanc, especially one with a heavy fuel load, as we had. Having seen a Lanc toppled in a slipstream, the amount of height lost in trimming and pulling it out was a few thousand feet. Conversely, the Halifax when put into a steep dive tended to pull itself out of it. Inherently more stable, I wonder! Other advantages the Hally had, for instance, crew comfort. There was far more space to move about with greater head room and the F/E had his own "office" although the fuel controls were midship. I digress. To return to the main theme, at 6000 feet Indian gave a demonstration of how ineffective the controls were at the point of stall by saying "Look Shorty (that's me of course) no joy." as he quickly operated ailerons and elevators before dropping like a stone but this time we were prepared for it.

A few days later after a little local flying and when taxiing back to dispersals, Indian said "I think I'll practice some circuits and bumps" which I thought rather strange. He was the last pilot I thought would need such practice. On every landing he "greased it" beautifully and the way he taxied an aircraft further revealed his skill. Most pilots would use brakes to a greater or lesser extent when taxiing, Indian only used them to stop, rolling around the perimeter track at about 25 knots with an occasional blip on the throttles to negotiate bends; he was very self confident! As we continued taxiing to our dispersal, we had to stop for a bowser. At this time the rest of the crew got out which rather puzzled me. As we continued taxiing Indian said" When I was flying at Croft I could take off in a Wimpy and turn inside the perimeter track at the end of the runway. I want to see if I can do the same with a Lanc." Not possible, I thought and wasn't too keen on the idea but Indian was adamant and determined to try saying" 10 degrees of flap will do and get those wheels up the moment we've lifted off."

Off we went, max revs and boost and near the end of the main runway Indian whipped it round in a near vertical bank at no great speed causing the old Lanc to vibrate badly with the port wingtip not so far off the deck. I thought we were "going in." He didn't mange to turn inside the perimeter track but did turn inside the A1 which ran alongside at that point. Immediately, the Control Tower came over the R/T and said," Hello, N-Nan, advise you save aerobatics until you get some altitude." Indian didn't like being told what to do and swore back at them over the R/T. With WAAFs in the Control Tower, I thought this was rather unwise, but Indian said, "I know what we'll do Shorty, let's nip over to Wombleton and have a bit of fun there." I didn't find this last remark very reassuring but off we went anyway, skimming just above the North York moors to Wombleton where the Halifaxes of the HCU were to be found. A few Halifaxes were in the circuit when we arrived and found themselves being chased by a Lancaster being flown as a Spitfire! When Indian tired of this he proceeded to perform his vertical banks around the Control Tower until a rather elderly officer appeared on the outside veranda shaking his fist at us. I pointed him out to Indian who said, "Christ, I don't know him, we'd better be off. Frank," and so we did back across the moors, very low with sheep running in all directions.

Of course, the news of our activities at the HCU had preceded us at Leeming with the Squadron Commander waiting for us. In his office he opened by saying," I blame you Dennis for this mess." Quite taken aback, I replied by saying "Well Sir I wasn't actually flying the aircraft." "No," said the CO, "but if you had left the aircraft when the rest of the crew did, Indian couldn't have flown it either, could he?" All I could reply was "At that point I didn't know what he was going to get up to."That wasn't accepted either, "You should have known something untoward was afoot," he said. "Anyway, you've broken so many rules, the obvious answer is to send you both to the Aircrew Disciplinary Center at Sheffield and we'll attend to the details of that tomorrow."

I certainly didn't relish a spell at Sheffield having heard what a harsh regime existed there but I must admit we did things we ought not to have done, like flying a Lanc with just two crew, when Group rules were a minimum of four, pilot, flight engineer, navigator and wireless operator, using bad language over the R/T, deliberately flying dangerously low, etc., etc. Although truthfully I thought it was all rather enjoyable! Fortunately, the following day, ops were on and maximum effort required so we were told "put up a good show and we'll forget about Sheffield." much to my relief. The op was a daylight trip to Bremen. Briefly reflecting on the previous days events, I realized the rest of the crew, having already flown a tour with Indian, knew that he was up to some sort of mischief from the remarks he made about circuits and bumps. Also knowing that his HCU was at Wombleton, he obviously must have had a Flight Engineer there. I was told later that his F/E had refused to fly with him anymore. I wonder why?

Our next and last op on April 25 was on Wangerooge, Frisian Islands. Take-off at 15.05. Medium flak but with a sizable bomber force converging on a small target the risk of slipstream problems was also sizable. I saw four Halifaxes go down and only two chutes open. So sad, such casualties on the last op of the war for 6 Group. We almost joined then when a Lanc flashed by diving vertically very close to our starboard wing, no doubt toppled in a slipstream. Pulling out of that with a full bomb load would result in an enormous loss of height.

I continued to fly with Schmitt until early June on various activities including flying back sick POWs from Europe as well as picking up full bomb loads from the various bases in 6 Group and dumping them in allocated areas of the North Sea and Irish Sea because they were to dangerous to be transported by road or rail. 427 Squadron at Leeming were given this duty because the other Squadrons were returned to Canada soon after VE Day whereas 427 would stay until November. One of the bomb dumps we cleared was at Croft where I met Indian's ground crew from his first tour. Their version of Indian's activities was not always compatible with what is mentioned about Indian in Kevin Wilson's book "Bomber Boys", but I won't elaborate on that !

I kept in touch with Stu Dunbar, the Navigator, who wrote to say that Indian was taken on by Trans Canada airlines but didn't last very long. He was told they wanted pilots who flew by the Rule Book, not by the seat of their pants. The last Stu heard of him he had gone back to "bush flying' in Northern British Columbia where he came from. I have no doubt he would be very good at that! The chapter closed in November 1945 when 427 went back to Canada with newly trained Canadian Flight Engineers.

For nearly eighteen months I had the honour of being among a great bunch of chaps, both in the air and on the ground. Unfortunately, many friends and colleagues paid the ultimate price for taking part in such a dangerous activity and I am always conscious of the fact I was very lucky to be one of those who survived.

F/O Frank Dennis, DFM, ex Flight Engineer