Ferry Command





RAF Ferry Command


by Frank Tibbo

It was November 10, 1940. Seven aircraft departed Gander as a precursor of the critical role that Gander Airport was to play in one of the most significant chapters of World War II. That role was to provide a jumping-off spot for warplanes being ferried overseas.

The history of Gander Airport is rife with references to ferrying aircraft eastward across the North Atlantic during the last five years of WWII. The first references, to what is now Gander, were to Hattie's Camp. Air Commodore Griffith Powell wrote the book Ferryman and in the section concerning the initial strategy he writes, "The plan was to leave Montreal individually when ready and assemble at Hattie's Camp for the group departure."

To address the lack of accommodation he wrote:

"I went therefore to St. John's and arranged with the railway company to station a number of old sleeper carriages plus a restaurant car on the Hattie's Camp siding."

"The site now known as Gander was, before the war known as Hattie's Camp. Its importance to the Ferry Service was as a refuelling point for flights from Montreal, and later from such points as Presque Isle, Maine." (Watt)

“By 1938, this site, named Hattie's Camp, had been completed with three runways, an administration building with a control tower on top, a large hanger, radio communication and navigation aids." (Berry)

On May 10, 1940, Winston Churchill took over as Great Britain’s Prime Minister from Neville Chamberlain. Four days later on May 14, 1940, Churchill appointed Lord Beaverbrook as Minister of Aircraft Production to organize the purchase, supply and transport of aircraft built in North America. Beaverbrook was given the moniker "Beaver," partly because of the beaver in his name but also because he was a Canadian.

There was an urgent need for aircraft, but Beaverbrook was told the only practical delivery method was by ship. There were two major problems with that method: one was the phenomenal loss of ships to German U-Boats and the other was the four months transportation time. Beaver had heard about the exploits of British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC) Capt. D.C.T. Bennett and sent for him. Beaver asked Bennett if he could air-ferry planes from Canada to Britain. Bennett told him not only could he do it, but that he could also cut the delivery time from four months to less than two weeks. Everything went into high gear from there.

The air ministry anticipated that the loss rate would be as high as 25 percent. In retrospect, it is incredible that the loss rate was kept to less than one percent. (Seventy four aircraft were lost en route out of the total 9,340 delivered by the RAF.)

Beaver made calls to some fellow Canadians. Morris Wilson was president of the Bank of Canada, and he accepted the top job of the British Purchasing Commission in New York. Jack Bickell agreed to organize the receiving end of the Atlantic Air Ferry organization. Lord Beaverbrook then obtained the services of Sir Edward Beatty of Canadian Pacific Railways and Mr. Woods-Humphreys, former managing director of Imperial Airways, to take charge of dispatching the aircraft from North America.

Beaver was not shy in using his influence when it came to the war effort. He requested the four of them work for one dollar a year, they did. Canadian Pacific Railways was asked to manage the operation and formed Canadian Pacific Air Services for that purpose. It was up and running in July 1940.

Of course it could not run without aircraft and pilots to fly them across the Atlantic. In early August BOAC released some of its technical staff and flying-boat pilots who had experience flying the Atlantic. Four senior captains, D.C.T. Bennett, (Bennett Drive, Gander) R.H. Page, I.G. Ross and A.S. Wilcockson (Wilcockson Crescent, Gander) were sent to Canada to set up the aircrew training program. Bennett was made flying superintendent.

According to Funk and Wagnalls New Encyclopaedia, Sir Winston Churchill was Great Britain's greatest 20th-century statesman. One of the smartest things he ever did was appoint Lord Beaverbrook to his cabinet and make him Minister of Aircraft Production in 1940.

Beaverbrook was born William Aitken in Maple, Ontario, in 1879. He made a fortune in the cement business. Beaverbrook immigrated to England in 1910 and made another fortune in newspapers. He was elected to the British Parliament and became extremely influential. Beaverbrook knew how to get things done – fast – and if necessary in an unorthodox way.
With Lord Beaverbrook in charge, things got off to a fast start. He made arrangements to purchase 11,000 aircraft from the United States. He knew at the rate the Americans could turn them out he would need ferry pilots – lots of pilots. Beaverbrook asked Trans Canada Airlines (TCA) to hire 100 civilian pilots between the age of 20 and 35 who had at least 350 hours of flying experience.

A further search recruited radio operators and navigators to crew the aircraft. The shortage of radio operators was overcome when the Canadian Department of Transport arranged to release volunteers from their stations across Canada.

Five Gander operators volunteered to fly with Ferry command. Sadly, all but one died on air duty. Frank Ratcliffe also lost his life in Ferry Command, though not on a regular flight. He and pilot Joe Gilmour died when their Norseman aircraft crashed in May 1945. Of the five Gander volunteers, Francis W. Coughlan of St. John's survived 16 crossings. William B. Collins, Cyril H. Small of St. John's, Harry T. Moores of Blackhead, Conception Bay and John Joseph MacDonald of Nova Scotia were killed.

In the summer of 1940, Gander was designated the main staging post for delivery of bombers to Britain. The Atlantic Ferry Service (then Canadian Pacific Air Service) set up in October 1940. Squadron Leader Griffith Powell, RCAF, had served with Imperial Airways as a transatlantic flying boat captain. He also had been operations manager of the Bermuda base. Powell was ordered to Gander in September to set up the required ferry terminal operation. He joined P.D. McTaggart-Cowan, the legendary North Atlantic meteorological forecaster.

Griffith Powell wrote in his book, Ferryman:

"In spite of the massive investment of $4 million, permanent buildings and accommodation hardly existed and on my arrival there was only a small hangar, a control tower and a few staff houses with some temporary accommodation for construction workers. There was no means of housing the sort of aircrew flow that we had in mind. I went therefore to St. John's and arranged with the railway company to station a number of old sleeper carriages plus a restaurant car on the Hattie's Camp siding. Each sleeping car had eight double compartments plus a small cabin at the end normally used by the railway staff but strategically situated next to the coal-burning stove that heated the whole coach. It was in one of these cabins that I set up our Gander headquarters. The name Gander was adopted at about that date and was taken from the nearby Gander Lake; the old name Hattie's Camp faded from the record. Energetic steps were taken from Montreal to remedy the accommodation problem and a wooden, partly prefabricated, 30-room transit hotel (Eastbound Inn) was started at once." (Powell)

The Gander personnel who were involved with the flying boat service for three years were exactly what was needed to staff the ferry organization. It soon became evident, however, that additional staff would have to be hired and trained to keep up with the anticipated increase in traffic.

"By the end of October I was able to report that Gander was ready. Six aircraft were flown up to Gander by the first week of November and in spite of minor problems they were ready to go when Bennett came up on November 10th with number seven. At a preliminary briefing McFog (McTaggert-Cowan) declared a good forecast, or at least good for the time of year." (Powell)

November 10, 1940, is the most significant date because even though work had begun several months earlier, it was on this day that the first aircraft departed Gander for the long perilous journey across the treacherous North Atlantic.

"The decision to go that night was great news for the waiting crews, some of whom had been there for ten days." (Powell)

The news quickly spread. The 1st Battalion of the Queen's Own Rifles of Canada, who had been sent to guard the airport, had a band. The commanding officer, L/Col. McKendrick, offered to help make a proper ceremony of the first departure by having the band play.

"We lined the aircraft up for the quickest possible take-off sequence to avoid the first machines off having to circle unnecessarily. We warmed up all the engines just before dark, topped up the tanks, positioned the aircraft in line abreast on the wide main runway and when the great moment arrived the band struck up. Miraculously all aircraft started without trouble as the starter trolley moved down the line. In that cold Christmas-tree setting the Hudsons were played away by the pipes in front of our small group of well-wishers. It was a relief to get the news through the night of the safe arrival of the nine Americans, six British, six Canadians and one Australian who made up the group." (Powell)

The captains of the seven Hudsons on the first ferry mission were Bennett, Adams, Smith, Rogers, Andrews, Lyons and Cripps.

Flying Officer "Curly" Tripp was the Radio Officer on Hudson T-9468, piloted by Captain Ralph E. Adams. He kept a written account of the journey.

"At 08.00 we started to descend, and at 5,000 feet came contact. We were over land but there was water in the distance. Suddenly the captain let out a roar and shouted,

'There's Aldergrove right over there.' We landed at 08:50. We were the third in."

(Aldergrove is the airport just west of Belfast, Northern Ireland. The water was Lough Neagh, the largest lake in Great Britain.)

The original plan was for groups of nine but the number was kept to seven. The group leader was to be a pilot with a first class navigator's licence, and he would have with him two radio operators because of the work load and the long period of duty. The deputy leader would have to be an experienced pilot/navigator or have a navigator with him. The plan was to leave Montreal individually when ready and assemble at Hattie's Camp for the group departure.

The second group of seven departed Gander on November 28 led by Capt. Page. Capt. Store led the third group on December 17. Subsequently, the groups of seven was dropped and aircraft departed Gander as soon as conditions permitted.

Ferry Command was assigned an area at the southeast section of Gander airport, which has been referred to ever since as The RAF. A rush order was given to construct a building for the ferry crews. The Eastbound Inn (a 30-cubical wooden building) was ready in December 1940. The Inn cost $15,000 and had $4000 worth of furniture that arrived from Montreal. The British Air Ministry also authorized the construction of two hangers and staff accommodations. The two hangars survive to this day, yet all of the U.S.A.A.F and R.C.A F. hangars are long gone.

In May 1941, the ferry operation came under the control of the Ministry of Aircraft production. Wing Cdr. Powell was Operations Controller. He replaced Wing Cdr. Bennett, who had returned to the U.K. to form the RAF Bomber Command "Pathfinder" force.

The decision of President Roosevelt to assist the supply and delivery of aircraft to the RAF under the Lend-Lease Bill of March 11 led to the next change. The United States insisted that they would only turn the aircraft over to a military operation. As a result, the ferry operation was taken over by the RAF on July 20, 1941, and the operation was then referred to as RAF Ferry Command. On October 7, it also took over the radio station from the Air Ministry, with F.R. Ratcliffe as officer in charge. The Canadian Department of Transport continued to supply meteorological service under P.D. McTaggart-Cowan.

To meet the growing needs of military transport, the Royal Air Force formed Transport Command on March 25, 1943, and Ferry Command became No. 45 (Atlantic Transport) Group under the command of Air Commodore Griffith Powell.

The commanding officers of the ferry command at Gander were Captain I.G. Ross of the British Overseas Airways Corporation, Group Captain Cottle, Group Captain Anderson and Group Captain Brown.

A plaque is erected in the War Museum in London:

1940 1946




Submitted by F. Tibbo

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