Veteran Stories:
A. William Breck

Air Force

  • The Memory Project, Historica Canada
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"We made Mayday calls without any answer. The radios were terrible in those days, and so we were essentially on our own."


The expectation of all of us who trained on single-engined aircraft in Canada was that we would go on to single-engined aircraft in Britain, or elsewhere. But obviously there was a need for twin-engined bomber pilots. So I was one of the ones that, even though I had trained on singles, ended up on [Vickers] Wellingtons.* I went through the OTU [operation training unit] course and was posted in December 1941 to No. 12 Squadron, which was a Royal Air Force Wellington squadron equipped with the Wellington [Mk] II, which was a version with two Rolls Royce Merlin engines. I was checked out on the Wellington II.

The routine in those days was that, as a new pilot to the squadron, you went on what were called “second dickie‘ trips.” You went as the second pilot to an experienced pilot, a captain, to learn the ropes. See how it was done without actually being put in the position of actually having to act as captain of an aircraft on a bombing trip. Unfortunately, I had an accident at that time. I was second pilot. We had been out over enemy territory. The strange rule that was in effect then was that if you couldn’t see your target, you didn’t drop your bombs. It was 10-10ths cloud [coverage] over the target. We came back with our bombs still on. I happened to be flying the aircraft at the time, and I started to have a problem. I could see a problem with the glycol temperature in one of the engines fluctuating, which meant we had a glycol leak. Glycol was the coolant in a liquid-cooled engine. The drill was to shut the engine down and feather the propeller, which I did.

The captain was in the back of the aircraft. I called him forward and told him what had happened. He decided to take over the aircraft. We were losing height because we still had our bombs on, and so it was decided to jettison our bombs, which we did somewhere in England, out in the open, but the aircraft would still not maintain height. The captain ordered us to take up crash positions. We made Mayday calls without any answer. The radios were terrible in those days, and so we were essentially on our own. The skipper did the best job he could to try to find an airfield and didn’t find one, obviously decided to put it down in a field. The rest of us, as I say, had taken up crash positions. The aircraft ended up, I believe, stalling and hitting the ground, and cartwheeling such that it broke in two. The front end ended up going in the opposite direction from the back end. Two of us survived the crash. The rear-gunner, who was thrown out of his turret, and I. Fortunately, we were, as luck would have it, we were near a balloon station, which perhaps the captain had his eye on. The balloon station had hangars, so it looked like an airfield, but there were no runways. We surmised that, at the last minute, he saw that there were no runways and did the best he could in very difficult circumstances. So, the rear-gunner and I were both injured, and ended up in hospital. As a result of that, my medical category was lowered.

When I recovered, I was posted to an air gunners’ school [No. 10 Air Gunners School] in Lancashire [England] as a staff pilot. There we had [Boulton Paul] Defiants [Mk I],** which had been taken off operations because of a very high loss rate. The Defiant was built by Boulton Paul, and had a pilot and a gunner in a turret behind the pilot. It was thought that the design would fool the Germans but they soon got on to it. As I said, they were taken off operations. The other aircraft that was there was a [Westland] Lysander,*** which was built as an army co-operation aircraft with a high wing and a system of slots and slats, which allowed it to come down at very low speed and land on short runways or in fields.

The Defiants were used to train the air gunners. The staff pilot would fly the aircraft and the gunner under training would be in the turret. You’d take off, and fly up and formate on a drogue [airborne training target], which was towed by a Lysander. The gunner would fire off his rounds, which had a coloured tip. When a certain number of gunners had fired against the drogue, the Lysander would drop the drogue. The holes would be counted by colour, and the mark of the gunner would be passed back to the station. That was how the gunners were assessed. I spent about six months at the air gunners’ school [No. 10 Air Gunners School] at a place called Walney Island near Barrow-in-Furness in Lancashire.

I was then posted in December 1942, I believe it was, to No. 55 Operational Training Unit at a place called [RAF] Annan in Dumfriesshire in Scotland, just over the border from England. They were equipped with [Hawker] Hurricane**** aircraft. I went through the operational training course on the Hurricane. Finished that in February or March 1943, and was posted to [No.] 198 Squadron, which was a Royal Air Force squadron equipped with [Hawker] Typhoons.^ The Typhoon had entered squadron service in 1942. We had the early version of the Typhoon, a couple of Typhoon IAs which was equipped with 12 .303 machine guns, six in each wing, but the aircraft used for operations were IBs, which had four 20 mm cannon, two in each wing. The drill was to be checked out in the IA, do your first solo in the IA and then, after so many hours, switch over to the IB, and then eventually go on operations.

*The Vickers Wellington was a versatile series of medium bombers.

** The Boulton Paul Defiant was a two-seater turreted fighter aircraft used primarily as a night fighter and in air-sea rescues. Its lack of forward guns and lack of speed during maneuvers made it unpopular.

*** The Westland Lysander was a small aircraft able to land and take off from small areas. It was used in covert operations, particularly dropping off and picking up Allied agents in enemy-occupied areas.

**** The Hawker Hurricane was an easily maneuverable, versatile monoplane used extensively during the Battle of Britain because of its ability to sustain heavy damage.

^ The Hawker Typhoon was a single-seat fighter-bomber that, despite its speed and efficiency in ground attacks, proved generally unpopular with pilots because of problems such as visibility issues during takeoff and landing.



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