Military Ops





RCAF's Hanger 6 Fire (Margaret's Cream Puffs )

By Frank Tibbo

It is not impossible for snow to fall on Gander in June, but it's unusual just the same. Six inches of the white stuff had fallen during the night and was now slowly succumbing to the heat from the bright sun.

It was Sunday, June 4, 1944, and World War II was raging. The time was 10 a.m. and the few civilian residents of Newfoundland Airport were preparing for church services; but for thousands of military personnel stationed at the huge base, it was business as usual.

Hangar 6, located north of Runway 14-32 (now 13-31) and just across the road from the Sir Frederick Banting Memorial Hospital, belonged to the RCAF. On this particular bright Sunday morning, the hangar was full. Four large four-engine Liberator (B-24) Bombers were being serviced for another round of hunting German submarines.

L.A.W. Margaret Hellard, a W.D. (Women's Division of the RCAF), had just placed cream puffs in one of the hospital's ovens. Some of the patients were in for a treat. The cream-puffs were arranged in their pans as neatly as the depth charges were stowed aboard the four B-24 Liberator Bombers in Hangar 6.

A young airman mechanic, working near the back of the hangar, had almost completed maintenance on an APU (auxiliary power unit). He was holding an electric extension light in his left hand and a wrench in his right. As he attempted to reposition the light, the cord hitched an appendage of the APU, the light flew from his hand, struck the concrete floor and the bulb broke.

What happened next can best be described as a nightmare.

The spark from the smashed bulb immediately ignited gasoline fumes, a chain reaction of mini-fires followed as the flames found eager sources of fuel – grease, oil, kerosene and gasoline. The young mechanic had been knocked back and had fallen on his side when the initial whoosh of flames jumped at his face. He struggled to his feet and stumbled about, dazed and disoriented.

Nearby mechanics started to scramble for portable fire extinguishers. Someone ran and grabbed the young mechanic by the arms and hauled him away from the flames. An airman had found a fire extinguisher; he directed it at the nearest flames and emptied it in a futile effort to contain what now was quickly becoming a conflagration!

The flames spread quickly. Another fire-extinguisher came on the scene, was emptied, then another. The flames seem to laugh as they danced wildly above the airmen's heads. It was no use. The fire was winning. Only one minute had passed since the spark. A sergeant was on the telephone to the RCAF fire-hall, "We've got a fire in Hangar 6, and it's getting out of hand – come quickly!" The fire hall was just a few buildings away. The question now was would the fire trucks get there in time?

An order was barked out, "Get those aircraft out of here!" Two men ran for the tow trucks, euphemistically called mules that were used to haul the huge bombers around. Others removed the wheel chocks and hauled away anything that might impede the removal of the Liberators from what had the potential of being a blazing inferno.

All was quiet in the American Fire Hall located just across Runway 14. Two members of the crash-crew were using deck-brooms in order to sweep a walking path through the slushy snow. Walter Tucker raised the fire hall doors revealing two glistening fire trucks – as usual they were ready to roll. He looked across the runway and noticed a few wisps of black smoke curling out of the front of Hangar 6. Another member of the crew noticed the smoke and called to the crew chief to alert the men just in case they got a call. Across the runway and east of Hangar 6 they could see men scurrying around at the RCAF fire hall. They had gotten the call. He called to the crew chief, "The Canadians have been called, and they can probably handle it."

The scene was quite different at the RCAF fire hall. Ten seconds had passed since they received the call. One fire-fighter was already sitting in the cab of his truck with the engine running, another was just starting the engine of a second truck, and two men had already boarded each vehicle while six others were running towards their respective trucks while donning their protective gear. Within another few seconds the first truck zoomed out of the fire hall splashing wet snow against the immaculate sides of the vehicle. Sirens blared as the second truck, right on the heels of the first, was belted with a splattering of snow churned up from the wheels of the leading truck.

Maintenance men had opened the huge hangar doors in order to get the four bombers towed out to safety. Black smoke could be seen filling the rear of the building; flames were licking up toward the ceiling now encouraged by fresh air billowing in from the open doors.

The fire trucks arrived on the scene with blaring sirens. Fire-fighters jumped out and feverously worked to get their hoses connected. Two mules were roaring towards the front wheels of the B-24 bombers at the front. Fire had already started to erupt from one of the two bombers at the rear. It now seemed certain that one of the bombers wouldn't fly that day!

A few hundred feet away in the RCAF hospital kitchen. The thermometer indicated that Margaret Hellard's cream puffs were at the correct temperature. The depth charges aboard three of the B-24s were also at the right temperature; however, it was getting a trifle warm in the belly of the fourth.

After what seemed like hours, but was really only a few minutes, a mule was backed into position in front of one of the front bombers. An airman jumped off, lost his footing in the slushy snow and landed on his back. Shouting several expletives (unprintable), he scrambled to his feet as wet snow clung to the back of his coveralls. He positioned himself behind the mule and directed the driver as he backed toward the bomber's front wheel. A cloud of black acrid smoke swept over the driver. He braked the mule while throwing up an arm to protect his eyes.
"Go ahead again and come back a couple of inches to the left!"

Walter Tucker lives on Balbo Street, Gander. In June 1944, he worked in the American fire hall. The Canadian and American crash crews worked independently and had a reciprocal agreement to help each other when called upon. They would respond as Mr. Tucker said, "If things got out of control." He continued, "Well, things sure got out of control that day, and we responded immediately – we were just across the runway."

The sirens and the smoke had attracted other airmen from adjacent hangars; barked orders were lost in the noise which was increasing exponentially.

The flames at the back were being fed by the residual gasoline in one of the tanks of the first bomber that had caught fire. The commotion was now exacerbated as an adjacent tank void of gasoline but rife with fumes exploded with a roar, rocketing pieces of aluminium all over the hangar.

L.A.W. Hellard glanced at her watch; she didn't want to burn her cream puffs. The depth charges in the blazing B-24 were now too hot to touch! Fire

The first mule was finally hooked up. The driver, who normally would wait for wing-end spotters to signal all clear, stepped on the gas. The engine roared, the tires turned but the tug didn't move. The tires had turned too quickly and had turned the slushy snow into slippery soup. The tug driver looked back, and he could hardly see the bomber through the smoke. This time he gently touched the gas pedal, and the wheels turned slowly but the tug wasn't going anywhere. Cursing the snow and coughing smoke from his lungs, he yelled for chains.

Very soon both bombers at the back of the hangar were burning; the first was burning out of control while it seemed possible to save the other should the crash-crew get in with some foam.

Margaret Hellard's cream puffs were almost ready. The depth charges in that burning bomber were also almost ready – almost ready to explode!

Crack! A machine-gun bullet tore a small hole in the side of the hangar wall. An officer realized that the bullets had started "cooking off" and there were hundreds, maybe thousands, of bullets aboard the bombers. More machine-gun bullets exploded, some went straight through the windows towards the street. Civilians and military personnel gathered on the nearby road scrambled for cover as glass shattered and bullets started whizzing in all directions.

A Flight Lieutenant who had been attempting to direct the evacuation of the B-24s and the fire-fighting made a sudden and wise decision. He shouted at the top of his lungs: "Everybody out! Out! Get out! Everybody out! Forget those tugs – go! Everybody away from the hangar! Take cover!"

The American fire-trucks arrived on the scene to back up the RCAF crews. Walter Tucker said, "Things were so dangerous, however, that the people in charge kept us away from the hanger because they knew everything might blow up."

Bedlam now ensued.

The Flight Lieutenant had ordered everyone out because of the danger imposed by the bullets. It is just as well the bullets "cooked off" before the depth charges exploded; otherwise, there probably would have been many casualties.

L.A.W. Margaret Hellard decided her cream-puffs were done and went to remove them from the oven. The first depth charges were "done" just about the same time. Before Hellard got to let the oven door down, she heard a tremendous explosion. The hospital rocked, pictures that were hanging on the walls clattered to the floor, and broken glass scattered everywhere.

A patient was sitting in a chair by a wall. A picture fell on top of his head. The glass broke and the frame ended up around his neck. He had been 'framed.' Fortunately he wasn't hurt – not even a scratch from the broken glass.

It is said that strange thoughts go through a person's mind in moments of trauma. L.A.W. Hellard's first thoughts were her cream-puffs! Would that explosion take the "puff" out of her cream puffs?

Across the street from the hospital there was pandemonium. Many of the spectators on the street had been thrown off their feet; others scrambled trying to get farther away while knocking others down in the wet snow. The air was alive with shards of aluminium, iron, wood, glass, shrapnel and bullets. Aircraft parts of all description were propelled through the air, and flames were leaping hundreds of feet up where the roof of the hangar had been a couple of seconds earlier. An aircraft wheel with its fully inflated tire whizzed by the control tower hundreds of feet away.

More explosions followed and within seconds there was no one left in the vicinity. The explosions were so powerful that it buckled the wall of an adjacent hangar.

G. Flynn was reporting for the Director of Civil Aviation, Newfoundland when he sent a SECRET report to the Office of the Air Representative for the Newfoundland government.


Newfoundland Airport
June 6, 1944
Secretary for Public Works

With reference to my telegram of today's date informing you of the fire which occurred in an R.C.A.F. hangar at Gander on Sunday morning, a few additional details are given for your information.

The fire broke out about 10:00 a.m. in hangar 6 – refer to General Site Plan. At 10:15 the building was a mass of flames. I understand there were four Liberator aircraft, spare aircraft engines and valuable radio equipment in the hangar at the time which were lost. When the fire had been burning about one-half hour, what assumed to be a depth charge in one of the aircraft in the hangar exploded, blowing off the roof of the building. There were hundreds of people in the vicinity at the time who scattered in all directions to avoid the falling pieces. In the ensuing panic a number of people were knocked down but I do not think any of the onlookers were injured. When the explosion occurred, minor damage was caused to nearby buildings, such as broken windows, etc. Some damage was done in the residence of Mr. Pattison. A radiator was dislodged, some windows broken and ornaments thrown from shelves. Mrs. Pattison was visiting her daughter in her apartment nearby at the time. The shock threw them on their faces giving them a shaking up, but they were not otherwise injured. Ammunition stored in the hangar was exploding all morning. A number of the firefighting personnel were injured but I have not heard of any person having lost his life. I have not heard how the fire started. The loss is estimated to be in the millions.

(sgd) G. Flynn.

for Director of Civil Aviation, Newfoundland

Mr. H.A.L. Pattison was the Airport Manager, referred to by the British as the Aerodrome Control Officer.

The destruction was vast. The RCAF lost four B-24 bombers, a hangar, hundreds of valuable tools and tons of equipment. It was a major disaster.

In retrospect, had the bombers not been carrying ammunition and depth-charges, at least two of the bombers might have been saved. Of course had it not snowed during the night, the two outside bombers would certainly have been saved. Therefore, had the aircraft not been carrying ammunition and depth charges AND if it had not snowed during the night, it is conceivable that all four bombers AND the hangar might have been saved.

It was a miracle that there were no deaths. One of the men received serious burns and was transported to St. Christie's Hospital in Toronto for treatment. The others who were injured were treated in the Sir Frederick Banting Hospital. For dessert that night they all had cream puffs – L.A.W. Margaret Hellard's cream puffs – not one of them had been affected – they were all perfect.

The next day, operations continued as usual. The remaining Liberators were out on submarine patrol on schedule.

Contributed by F. Tibbo


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