Tuesday, 11 January 2011

North Atlantic Battlefield

Atlantic Battlefield Covers 10½ Million Square Miles.

By John Kannawin

Head of the CBC Unit in London.

My brother Jim found this article among my Dad's papers. The story is probably from 1943; J. R. Frizzle was C/O RCAF at Castle Archdale, Ireland.

There are many individual battles being fought in this worldwide struggle for freedom, but possibly the most herculean of all is the Battle of the Atlantic, for it is being fought by aircraft and naval craft over more than ten-and-a-half million square miles of ocean. From a latitude beyond the Arctic circle to the Equator. From Western Europe and part of Western Asia, to the Eastern coasts of Canada, Newfoundland, and the United States, the ceaseless struggle goes on.

In weather fair and foul vital convoys pass to and fro, and in that same weather, the silent patrols of Coastal Command maintain their eternal vigilance of protection. Coastal Command itself patrols more than half this huge battlefield. Its job can be stated simply, but its successful accomplishment can be quite another thing, to offer aerial protection to convoys; to seek out and destroy enemy submarines; to shoot down hostile aircraft and, if necessary and if possible, to effect rescues at sea. I have just returned from a Coastal Command patrol off the coast of Iceland and I would like to tell you a story.

Arthur Holmes, engineer in charge of our overseas organization, and myself were chatting with several officers in the mess of a Coastal Command station in Northern Ireland. We had gone there to visit R.C.A.F. personnel and to gather material for future CBC broadcasts. As a matter of fact, at that particular moment we were looking forward to lunch, and lunch in Ireland is something to be anticipated! I missed mine and that is where the story begins, for an officer rushed in and informed me that I had been granted a facility to fly on a Coastal Command patrol which would take off in an hour.

If you have ever hoped against hope that you would get a big break; if you have ever kept your fingers crossed until you had a cramp, you will know exactly how I felt. It did not really matter at that particular moment where we were going or when we would be back. There would be twelve taking off in an hour, and the extra man, my eager self.

Getting into flying gear is a proposition in itself when you are not used to it. Getting into someone else's gear; catching the tail-end of a briefing; stocking up on iron rations, which I am told were to be in case of delays, and scrambling into a dinghy bound for the mooring buoy, stand out in my memory as something of a shambles.

It must have gone very smoothly though, for we were there long before deadline. I found myself in the Wing Commander's gear, a formidable array of expensive equipment indeed for any Wingco so kindly to risk on an amateur.

There were three pairs of woolen sox and a turtle neck sweater, heavy fleece-lined flying boots and mitts, inner and outer flying suits held together, it seemed, by a mass of zippers and topped off with earphones and microphone-equipped leather helmet and the inevitable Mae West. I caught a glimpse of myself in a mirror, and had a momentary dim recollection of my modest childhood library, and a picture book about Robert Falcon Scott at the South Pole.

The dinghy sliced through the water and came to rest beside the giant Sunderland flying boat, R for Robert. This would be our aerial home for many hours to come.

Seeing a Sunderland in the air creates an unmistakable impression. Being close to one to climb aboard suggests conclusively that you must have been wrong. Nothing as big as that could fly. And inside they seem even bigger. You can wander around without ducking your head. You can walk from the front-gunner's turret away back to the wardroom, and from there through to the galley. There is an ominous looking compartment filled with depth charges, and if you keep on going you will eventually come to the tail-gunner's turret sticking out behind a rudder which itself seems to scrape the sky.

You can walk up iron stairs to the flight deck and do it all over again, from the captain's controls, back to the navigator, wireless operator and flight engineer. And the banks of strange dials registering the operation of masses of equally strange equipment will make your head reel. The fellow who said this was a complicated war, had something. I sat down on one of the little side seats in the wardroom, placed pencil and paper on the table and took stock of my eleven companions as they climbed into their gear and prepared for take-off.

With the exception of two men of the Royal Air Force, they were a Canadian crew, and while they belonged to an R.A.F. station, they were all members of a Canadian Coastal Command squadron. Flight Lieutenant Bill Martin, of Toronto, was captain of the aircraft, and with him were second pilots Flying Officer Harry Duggleby, of Saskatoon, and Flying Officer Frank Grainger, of Chilliwack. The navigator was WO 1 Ray Carlson, of Fort Francis; the Flight Engineer, Sgt. Jimmy Underwood of Vancouver. The rigger was Sgt. Gordon Adams, of Cornwall, and the Wireless Air Gunners, WO 2 Don Smith, of Calgary, WO 2 Mike Steffanick, of Kindersley, and WO 2 Art Spear, of Lachine.

And as I glanced at the writing on my paper I heard distant voices exchanging a strange jargon. Port inner...port inner... contact... contact... and a motor coughed into action. Then starboard inner...port outer...and starboard outer. Four motors roared and the impetus of their propellors caused us to move. I rose from my seat as the door of the wardroom opened and a member of the crew appeared. ‘Captain's compliments, sir, and will you kindly come to the flight deck for the take-off’.

I hastily ascended the stairs and took up my position directly behind Captain Martin's seat. Second Pilot Duggleby was with him. Martin pushed the throttles forward, Duggleby adjusted the propellor pitch and the giant Sunderland gathered speed. We cut through the water like shears through silk. Twelve men, thousands of gallons of gasoline; a compartment full of depth charges, and gun turrets bristling with weapons and ammunition. Every first trick man was at his post; every relief man ready to take over. The incredible speed increased. Martin gently eased her off the water and the dull thudding against her keel ceased. I glanced at my watch. We were airborne at 1.10 P.M.

Up and up we went until the altimeter registered 1,130 feet. Navigator Carlson set our course and the Sunderland's nose came about straight north-west over the Atlantic. I recalled the briefing in the ops room, the rectangular area we had been instructed to patrol, its size and its location. It would be many hours before we reached it, let alone commence our real duty. The assignment over, it would be many hours again before we returned to base. We had been informed by our meteorological officer that the weather might be bad in the patrol area.

We know it would be cold for we would not reach it much before dark, and the long night would undoubtedly bring a sharp drop in temperature. We had been instructed to seek out enemy submarines and destroy them, or by our very presence to keep them submerged through the night. This would probably necessitate their coming up on the following morning, fair game for the day-time patrols. And as I thought about the briefing I noticed the Captain and the second pilot concentrating to left and to right on the water below. I looked forward and down and saw the tips of the front turret machine guns sweeping the low cloud above us and the sea underneath.

Back and forth the turret turned, up and down went the guns, peashooters the boys call them, grim, spitting peashooters indeed. No one was waiting to get to the patrol area...the submarine hunt was already on. If one was sighted, the Sunderland would dive on it, the front gunner would wipe out its deck guns and crew, and depth charges would be shot out and down upon it, that is the recognized procedure, and more than often it works.

But we did not sight any submarines on our north-west trip. Instead we sighted a large convoy inward bound to a United Kingdom port. We circled and wheeled around it to make sure that all was well. Below, the perfect lines of ships looked like child's toys in a bath tub, and surely they were almost as safe, for they were nearly home. But Coastal Command was on the job. Finally with a farewell bank and dip, we turned back on our course and the convoy melted into grey union of sea and sky that formed our horizon. I felt a strange and justifiable thrill of pride for I was in a Canadian-manned aircraft guarding those precious sealanes without whose control Britain could not survive.

Art Spear came off duty in the tail turret and asked me if I would like something to eat. He was on kitchen duty for that particular patrol. I didn't need a second invitation. And what a meal it was. Eggs, fried on a little gasoline stove; bread and butter that melted in your mouth; cups of steaming coffee to drink; and a real orange to top it all off. Crew members came and went as I ate, relieving one another at various posts. Some had a meal with me, some lay down to catch forty winks. Captain Martin came down and informed me that we were on patrol. It was still daylight and from the portholes I could see the rolling sweep of the water and the grey of the sky. As we banked back on our second leg of the patrol, night settled down over the brooding Atlantic and the portholes of the aircraft were blacked out.

From now on it would be mile after mile in the night at more than a hundred knots per hour, watching...constantly watching, for hostile craft of any kind. But we saw nothing, and the Sunderland's four great motors droned an incessant, confident symphony of deep-throated sound as we roared on over the sea.

Shortly after midnight I had a couple of games of Russian Bank with the boys. I lost. Those fellows are good at everything. A little later on I tried to sleep but could not. They can do that too. Possibly I did doze off for a while without knowing it because suddenly I came to and was informed that we were off patrol and on our way home. I looked at my watch again.

Yes, that should be right, for the skipper had given me a tentative schedule some hours earlier. I went out to the galley and found another meal under way. This time we had beef and hot vegetables with more bread and butter and steaming cocoa for good measure. Captain Martin came off duty again and joined me. We chatted about the war in general and Coastal Command in particular. Later on he went above to the flight deck to take over for our landing. I was invited to join him. We had a tail wind and were doing better than expected.

An hour later land was sighted and again I took my position behind the captain's seat. A thousand feet below you could see the dim outline of the coast and away off to the right a red beacon flashed the Morse signal of the night. The weather was good; we were not diverted; we were home.

Skipper Martin circled and lost altitude as we approached the flare path of lighted buoys on the water. Lower and lower we came as the Captain throttled back and the hull of the Sunderland touched down with a dull thud. I looked at my watch. It was thirty minutes past five in the morning. We had been airborne for 16 hours and 20 minutes. We had flown more than 1,800 miles.

The motors idled as the big boat came to rest, and the dinghy raced out from shore to guide us to our mooring buoy. Captain Martin smiled over his shoulder at me. "You know", he said, "You're a good omen in one way, and a bad one in another, You've brought us the best patrol weather we've ever had...but you didn't bring us a submarine."

1 comment:

Ian Ameline said...

John Kannawin was my grandfather (maternal).

Thanks for finding and posting this.

-- Ian Ameline.

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As an armed forces brat, we lived in Rockcliff (Ottawa), Namao (Edmonton), Southport (Portage La Prairie), Manitoba, and Dad retired to St. Margaret's Bay, NS.
Working with the Federal Govenment for 25 years, Canadian Hydrographic Service, mostly. Now married to Gail Kelly, with two grown children, Luke and Denyse. Retired to my woodlot at Stillwater Lake, NS, on the rainy days I study the life and work of A. Hyatt Verrill 1871-1954.