Military Ops




Reproduced with permission from The Beacon June 25, 2009 edition

Reproduced with permission from Beacon Columnist, Frank Tibbo


Disaster Caused by a Spark

by Frank Tibbo

The Canadians, British and Americans all had military units stationed at Gander during the war.  One report states that at one time there were almost 15,000 uniformed military personnel stationed at the large base.

The Royal Air Force, the Royal Canadian Air Force and the United States, all had aircraft stationed at Gander for various reasons.  In addition to the three air forces, there were army units that guarded aircraft, operated the anti-aircraft guns and performed a host of other duties.

There were two military hospitals, one operated by the United States military and the other by the Royal Canadian Air Force.  The RCAF hospital was named in honour of Sir Frederick Banting and later changed to a civilian hospital.  The American hospital was renovated and became part of the buildings at today’s Canadian Forces Base Gander. 

There were two crash crews, one operated by the RCAF on the Canadian side – north of runway 14, and the other by the Americans – on the American side near the existing terminal building.  In addition, there was also an American crash crew equipped with torpedo boats on Gander Lake.  There were printing shops, a military control tower, a military radio broadcast station, a laundry, a bakery, several military messes and fifteen hangars plus, at various times, hundreds of aircraft one the runways and ramp.

If the Germans had been able to bomb Gander airport, it would have been a phenomenal disaster for the Allies.  It is doubtful whether the few anti-aircraft guns that were on the huge airport could have prevented critical losses. 

It is ironic a broken light bulb and a freak snowfall accomplished something which the Germans could not. 

In the early morning of June 4, 1944, a mechanic was changing a gasoline pump in the bomb bay of a Liberator B-24 bomber.  Prior to that some gasoline had spilled on the floor of the hangar.  There were four of the large bombers in this particular hangar for servicing. 

The bomber with the unserviceable gasoline pump was due to go out the next day to hunt German submarines.  The mechanic had an extension light without a wire guard, in one hand and a wrench in the other as he leaned over the unit to loosen a bolt.  The cord of the light got tangled on something and was jerked from his hand.  The light fell to the hangar floor breaking the bulb.  That caused a spark which immediately ignited gasoline on the floor.

The fire spread under the aircraft so quickly that the B-24 was soon engulfed in flames.  The mechanic and others ran for fire extinguishers but were too late to stop the fire spreading to the closest bomber.  A mad scramble took place to hook up a crash-tender to the two bombers that were closer to the doors in order to pull them to safety.  It soon became plainly evident the two aircraft that were in the rear of the hangar were burning out of control and may not be saved.

A box of 50 calibre bullets was burning unnoticed.  One of the men said, “When we got there they were flying around like popcorn, not that the bullets themselves are dangerous but the casings burst open and they could rip your face. 

Alas, a few inches of snow had fallen during the night and the tires of the crash-tender skidded in the slush.  That was probably one of the reasons the wing of the first bomber didn’t clear the opening and got stuck.  Everybody was dashing about in an attempt to get the situation under control. By the time someone found chains for the crash-tender’s tires, ammunition in the first B-24 started to explode.

Then there was a danger of getting burned and getting hit with shrapnel.  In addition to the exploding ammunition, there was another hooker.  Everyone probably knew the B-24’s that were being serviced carried a full load of dept charges.  The Liberators normally carried 10 dept charges- enough to blow everybody to smithereens.  It wasn’t the normal custom to unload the depth charges just because you were going to pull the aircraft in the hangar and service it.  It was war and things were done in the most expeditious manner. 

The dangers to the firefighters and military personnel were multiplying.  There was the real danger of getting burned to death; of getting hit with flying metal and being blown to pieces.

 A fire had broken out in a hangar containing four large RCAF bombers.  The bombers were loaded with depth charges and ammunition.  An attempt to pull the bombers out of the inferno had failed.  One of the RCAF officers was looking at his watch and watching the burning aircraft.  Within a few seconds after the men were sent to get the chains for the crash-tender.   He gave an order to back off before the depth charges exploded.  He was right and explode they did.

There were pieces of aircraft and hangar thrown all over the airport.  The explosions were so great that it buckled the side of a hangar 20 feet away.  A military air traffic controller on duty saw an object hurling toward the control tower located on the top of the Administration Building.  The object turned to be an aircraft tire.  It missed the tower by a few inches.

This all happened on a Sunday morning and some people were on their way to church.  They were walking around the end of runway 14 and were forced to crawl on their hands and knees to escape the flying shrapnel. 

The RCAF Hospital (later to be renamed Banting Memorial Hospital) was just across the road from the ill-fated hangar, Margaret Harvey, member of the WD’s (Women’s Division), had just place a pan of cream puffs in the oven.  She heard the explosions and felt the hospital shake.  Here first thought was the cream puffs she had made for her patients, incidentally, not one of the cream puffs dropped. 

It was a different story, however, for a patient in another section of the hospital.  He 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.

Four Liberator aircraft, a large hangar, hundreds of tools and hundreds of pieces of machinery were completely destroyed and an adjacent hangar was substantially damaged.  The fortunate thing was there were no fatalities.

There were several serious injuries, an example of which was Hector Cobbett, an electrician/linesman, stationed in Gander with the RCAF during that time.  One of his ear drums burst as a result of the fire and explosions.  The loss of hearing was the reason for his medical discharge from the RCAF.

One member of the RCAF received serious burns and was transported to St. Christie’s Hospital in Toronto for treatment.

Walt Tucker of Balbo Street, Gander was a member of the American crash crew.  Mr. Tucker said the crash crews worked independently and they were only called to help the  Canadians if things got out of control.

“Well,” he said, “things sure got out of control that day and we responded immediately, we were just across the runway.  Things were so dangerous, however, that the people in charge kept us away from the hangar because they knew everything might blow up, and, of course, it did.”

The location of the hangar that was destroyed was on the north side of runway 13, across the runway from where the terminal building is now.  One of the people who was there sad there were an estimated 1500 windows broken in various buildings.


A letter written concerning the fire.....



Office of the Air Representative for the Newfoundland Government

Newfoundland Airport, Gander

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 RCAF hangar at Gander on Sunday morning, a few additional details are given for your information.

The fire broke out about 10 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 explode, bowing 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 thing any of the onlookers were injured.

When the explosion occurred, minor damaged was caused to nearby buildings, such as, broken windows, etc.  some damaged was done in the residence of Mr. Pattison.  A radiator was dislodge, some windows broken and ornaments were thrown from shelves.  Mrs. Pattison was visiting her daughter in her apartment nearby at the time.  The shock threw them on their faces, given 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.

G. Flynn

For Director of Civil Aviation, Newfoundland


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

researched by Carol Walsh

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