Ferry Command






by Frank Tibbo

November 10, 1940,  is one of the most prominent in Gander’s history.


Air Commodore Griffith (Taffy) Powell has been referred to as ‘Ferryman.’

“When the first strains of war fell upon RAF Coastal Command it was very short of modern aircraft, with only one Lockheed Hudson squadron out of thirteen land-plane squadrons and only two Sunderland squadrons of flying boats. In fact practically the whole of the first year of the war when the Battle of the Atlantic was causing a heavy loss of shipping, Coastal Command could not provide any consistent air cover over the convoy of ships converging on our coast and most of its aircraft had to be used on North Sea and English Channel reconnaissance. The aircraft in the single Hudson squadron were the first arrivals in England of those ordered from the USA in 1938 – providentially – by Lord Swindon, then Secretary of State for Air, in the face of fierce opposition from the British aircraft companies. The delivery of the balance, plus follow-up orders, under the cash-and-carry system which preceded Lease-Lend, was too slow by sea. It took four months from the Californian factory to a British base, and the sad fact was that merchant shipping losses from submarines and mines remained depressingly high right up to 1943 when some measure of mastery over the submarine menace was achieved.

It was the same shortage of equipment to fight the submarines in 1940 that led Mr. Churchill to persuade the US to lend us 50 old destroyers, a deal which eventually went through in early September 1940, in parallel with the 99-year leases for US bases in Newfoundland, Bermuda and in the Caribbean, which were to be the forward defensive shields for the mainland United States.” (Powell)

The idea of ferrying aircraft across the wild north Atlantic came from Lockheed’s London representative. He also persuaded his bosses in the California factory to design long range kits for the Hudson aircraft being built for UK delivery. He also proposed that Lockheed pilots deliver the aircraft if Lord Beaverbrook, often referred to as the Beaver, the UK’s Minister of Aircraft Production, approved the idea. The brass in London quickly turned down the idea of the Lockheed pilots because of the high price that would be demanded by the Americans. Lord Beaverbrook asked his high-ranking advisors what they thought of the idea and was told it would never work – not only that – more than fifty percent of the aircraft attempting to fly the Atlantic would be lost anyway! Fortunately, Beaverbrook was not one to give up just because of what his advisors had to say. That’s where Don Bennett (Bennett Drive, Gander) comes into the picture. Bennett had flown the Atlantic and was one of the best brains in the business – a first class pilot, navigator and radio officer. The Beaver called Bennett to his office and asked him his opinion.

Bennett told Beaverbrook that the idea not only had merit but that it was possible. Beaverbrook asked Bennett if he would take on the job. That was the beginning of an incredible story. Even Prime Minister Winston Churchill was dubious that aircraft could be flown across the Atlantic in winter – it just wasn’t done, but Churchill and Beaverbrook knew it was desperate times and accepted the fact that losses would be great but probably no more than the losses experienced at sea.

Eastern Air Command requested Powell to join the team to ferry aircraft across the Atlantic. Powell had been to Hatties Camp (Gander) several times and had participated in antisubmarine patrols making him fairly familiar with the Newfoundland coast.

“By late September a delivery plan had been evolved based on group flights but not necessarily in any kind of formation. The scheme was to have a group leader with the best possible qualifications, a deputy in another aircraft, and a total of seven aircraft per group. The original plan was for groups of nine but, providentially in view of winter troubles in Newfoundland later on, 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 on duty. The deputy leader who also was to be a pilot/navigator or to have a navigator with him.

The plan was that the aircraft would leave Montreal individually when ready and assemble at Hattie’s Camp for the group departure. The sector from Montreal to Gander was over 990 miles so was in itself a considerable flight, mostly over inhospitable terrain but was an invaluable shake down for the long haul ahead. Departure from Newfoundland would be when the weather forecast seemed satisfactory to the group leader who had a heavy responsibility as the overall level of navigation skill was very thin.”

The first Hudson arrived in Gander on October 28. By November 10, the first seven were ready to go. Bennett conferred with meteorologist Patrick McTaggart-Cowan and decided to go that evening.

“The decision to go that night was great news for the waiting crews, some of whom had been there for ten days. Defence troops had arrived from Canada in the shape of a detachment from a Toronto-based Scottish regiment. The commanding officer, Colonel Blackadder, took the opportunity to post a full alert and as he had some components of a pipe band in the detachment he asked if they could join the departure arrangements.

Miraculously all aircraft started without trouble as the starter trolley moved down the line. In that Christmas-tree setting the Hudsons were played away by the pipes in front of our small group of well-wishers.”

The first group of seven Hudson aircraft, led by Captain D.C.T. Bennett in T9422, departed Gander November 10 at 2233 GMT, arriving safely the following day at Aldergrove in Northern Ireland, 0945 GMT, after a flight of 11 hours. Thousands were to follow.


Submitted by F. Tibbo

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