The only Lockheed Hudson still flying today. Shown here at Point Cook, Greater Melbourne, Australia, it was taken on by the Royal Australian Air Force on 5 December 1941, two days before the war in the Pacific started. After serving with RAAF Survey Flight during the war, it was privately owned until 1973. Restored by Malcolm Long at Point Cook & Moorabbin, it had its first flight as VH-KOY 10 April 1993. It is currently operated by the Temora Aviation Museum in New South Wales, Australia.
Photo: Phil Vabre – http://www.airliners.net/photo/Supermarine-359-Spitfire/1368996/L/, GFDL, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17212046
Bruce Watt – my uncle – was one of the first pilots to join Ferry Command, flying aircraft manufactured in North America across the Atlantic or Pacific Oceans to where they were needed to support the Allied efforts during World War II. Though usually known as Ferry Command, the organization was first created in August 1940 under the name Canadian Pacific Railway Air Services.
Accepted as a pilot trainee on 14 November 1940, Watt made First Officer on 21 December 1940. His first assignment rated as Captain came in February 1941. He also qualified as a navigator, earning the title of Captain Navigator. He served until 30 July 1945 when Ferry Command had completed its mission, and terminated all personnel contracts.
Ferry Command’s initial challenge was to deliver Lockheed Hudsons to the United Kingdom. Watt would become part of this effort in December 1940. The first of the Hudsons for Britain had arrived at St-Hubert airport near Montréal in November. To reach the U.K., they would have to brave the hazards of the North Atlantic in wintertime – storms, fog, aircraft icing and strong winds. Given the challenges, the success rate is impressive. Of 28 Hudsons that were to fly to Britain in November and December 1940, 25 were actually delivered, and none were lost en route.
Since there were few qualified navigators in Ferry Command in 1940, authorities chose to dispatch the aircraft in formations. Seven Hudsons would take off from Gander, Newfoundland, in quick succession and then form up, with the lead aircraft under the command of a senior pilot holding a first-class navigator’s licence.
D.C.T. Bennett, Ferry Command’s superintendent of flying operations, led the first group, departing on 10 November 1940. The second group, led by Humphrey Page, left Gander on the night of 28/29 November 1940. On 17 December 1940, Gordon Store led the third formation. All 21 aircraft arrived safely in the U.K. despite a litany of problems that included bad weather, dead batteries and deep snow drifts on the runways.
Now it was time for the fourth formation to go. Bennett opted to again take the role of leader, this time in Hudson T9465, the Spirit of Lockheed and Vega, a gift from employees of the two companies manufacturing the Hudson. The six senior pilots who were to follow him (in order) were: Capt. Lyons (T9454), Capt. R. E. Adams (T9451), Capt. Allan Andrews (T9444), Capt. W. C. Rogers (T9445), Capt. V. E. Smith (T9446) and Capt. N. E. Williams (T9450).
Watt was assigned to fly with Captain V. E. Smith in T9446, a Hudson III. Smith and his crew left St. Hubert on 23 December 1940, reaching Gander the same day. They would spend five days there waiting for the right conditions to make their departure. In contrast to crews of the first three formations who had bunked in sleeping cars loaned by the Newfoundland Railway, the men in the fourth formation were billeted in the new 30-room Eastbound Inn at Gander, opened on 19 December.
Christmas came and went, and finally on 28 December it was all systems go. But fate can disrupt the best laid plans. The first four aircraft had taken off, and Smith was about to do so.
In Pathfinder, Bennett writes that Smith’s aircraft swung at take-off and crashed. Carl Christie comments in Ocean Bridge that Capt. Smith crashed on take-off without fatality, blocking the runway for Capt. N. E. Williams, who was to have been in the sixth position.
Williams was thus prevented from taking off, while Capt. Rogers, the seventh in the formation, got off safely but had to return to Gander due to engine trouble. The upshot was that only four of the seven Hudsons in this fourth and final formation actually made it to England.
First solo crossing – Hudson T9464
No doubt Bruce Watt’s 10 years of flying as a bush pilot on the North Shore and across the St. Lawrence taught him how to handle adversity! A mere 40 days later, in early February 1941, he flew to the United Kingdom with Capt. R. Allen in Hudson III T9464. They arrived in Gander from St. Hubert on 6 February, departing for the U.K. on 10 February. This was the first Ferry Command delivery to make a planned solo crossing from Gander. They reached Prestwick on 11 February after a flight of 10 hours, 44 minutes. Allen had already made a Hudson delivery as one of the pilots in the third formation that flew across the “bridge” in December 1940.
No welcoming bagpipes
A passage in the official account of Ferry Command, Atlantic Bridge, attributed to an unnamed veteran member of the Signals staff, describes their arrival and welcome.
We kept pretty good contact with the machine all the way in. . . At somewhere about eleven-thirty I saw him coming in towards the field. . . We were there to meet the crew when they got out. There was no elaborate reception committee. We had not spread the news around, and there wasn’t a newspaperman, nor a photographer; not even a couple of chaps with kilts and bagpipes. Just the C.O., myself, and the customs man from Ayr docks, who at the time constituted the Customs, Immigration, and Security Police.
We had been given the names of the crew, without any indication of which was which. The door opened, and out came three men in Sidcot suits.* The C.O. stepped forward and said ‘Good Morning,” and told them who he was, and the most senior looking of the three said ‘Good Morning’ and he was Captain Richard Allen, and this was his co-pilot and navigator, Mr. Watt, and that was Mr. Mitchell, the radio officer. We took them as they were to the staff dining room in the main factory, and ordered some ham and eggs for them. They said the trip had been without event. They were a little tired, but had to go on the same day, and were rather in a hurry to get on their way. They were with us at Prestwick about an hour, I should say, and seemed to think nothing at all about it. They were quiet men.
Quiet men, and tired men, no doubt – but men who had made an historic flight.
Creation of Atfero
Meanwhile history was making its mark on Ferry Command. On 28 February 1940, the first phase of the organization drew to a close. Crews of CPR Pacific Air Services had delivered 43 airplanes during the period from August 1940 to the end of February 1941.
As of 1 March 1941, the ferry organization officially became the Operating Division of the British Ministry of Aircraft Production, usually referred to as Atfero (Atlantic Ferry Organization). You can read about this second phase of Ferry Command in future posts.
* Note re Sidcot suits
In 1916, Sidney Cotton, a Royal Naval Air Service pilot, came up with the design for an insulated flying suit. The suit had three layers – a thin lining of fur, a layer of silk, and an outside layer of light Burberry material – made into a one-piece suit, like coveralls. Taking its name from the inventor, it was called the Sidcot suit and was much appreciated by all pilots who had to fly in freezing conditions.
Sincere thanks to Mathias Joost, of the Canadian Armed Forces Directorate of History and Heritage, for providing scans of Bruce Watt’s crew assignment cards and passing along other information used here.
Thanks also to George Fuller and Hugh Halliday for advice and encouragement; to John Henderson for an exchange of information about Hudsons T9465 and T9446; and to George Fuller for critical reading of the draft of this post.
As always, the author is solely responsible for any errors of fact or interpretation. Please contact me if there are points you feel need correction.
Revised 24 April 2017
In response to a correction from Darrell Hillier in Newfoundland, the text has been revised to show the pilot of Hudson T9446 as V. E, Smith rather than H. C. W. Smith. A member of the Canadian Aviation Historical Society, Mr. Hillier has kindly provided more information on the crash of T9446. Please watch for a future post dealing with that accident on more detail.
Sources for this Blog