RCAF Station Bella Bella – War Against Japan – Part Two (text version)

War Against Japan

A forward RCAF Air Gunner of a Canadian Vickers Supermarine Stranraer Flying Boat and No. 9 [B.R.] [unofficial] diving Eagle Insignia adopted at Bella Bella, B. C., in May 1943.

For 34 months, RCAF Advanced Detachment Bella Bella had operated from temporary quarters on the RCAF scow seaplane tender M159, anchored in Klik-Tso-Atli Harbour, adjacent to Denny Island. On 26 June 1940, the construction of RCAF Station Bella Bella was underway, and one year later, [27 June 1941] the twelve RCAF personnel under command of Sergeant Henderson moved into housing accommodation at the new base still under construction. The days of cramped quarters on the scow and preparing their own meals were gone forever, the detachment now take their meals with the civilian construction company employees. In August 1941, Flying Officer L. R. Chodat, the new Officer Commanding arrived to take change and other RCAF officers and men began to arrive.

RCAF Detachment Bella Bella had three officers and forty-six airmen on strength by 1 November 1941. Construction was rapidly moving forward with 21 buildings completed and nine under construction. On 4 November, the first shipment of aircraft bombs and explosives arrived by ship and under the real threat of a possible Japanese submarine attack, [from American intelligent reports] RCAF Bella Bella moved into the month of December with increased momentum in all areas. An RCAF Administration order had been signed on 30 July 1938, [H.Q. 1018-1-14] which allotted No. 9 General Reconnaissance Squadron as a permanent attack force based at Jericho Beach, B. C. However this squadron was never activated due to a shortage of RCAF flying personnel and flying boats. On 1 December 1941, Secret Organization Order #34 was received advising the formation of No. 9 [B.R.] Squadron in Home War Establishment, based at RCAF Station Bella Bella. B.C., effective 8 December 1941. Japanese submarines had in fact been sighted in the coastal waters around Vancouver Island, but it was not until the postwar years that it was learned at least two submarines had been hiding and spying on the construction of the RCAF West Coast sea and land airbases. The Japanese submarines knew more about our west coastal waters than our Canadian Armed Forces, possibly with support from a few supportive Japanese Canadian fishermen.

At 15:30 hrs, 7 December 1941, RCAF Detachment Bella Bella, received a signal of Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor. A second signal was sent by Western Air Command at 22:30 hrs, advising a state of war now existed between Canada and Japan. All leave was cancelled, guard posts were doubled, machine gun positions [with live ammo] were established at the wireless station, power house, and near the RCAF pier. A complete blackout of the new RCAF base and the Bella Bella Indian village [Campbell Island] was ordered and enforced, including the hospital. On 8 December 1941, RCAF Advanced Detachment Bella Bella, officially became RCAF “Station” Bella Bella, A.F.R.C. 1561.

The two Vickers Supermarine Stranraer flying boats were RCAF #936 and #949.

This is what the base looked like from 5,000 feet on 26 May 1941. The RCAF image was taken from the west looking straight east over RCAF Detachment Bella Bella, which was still under construction. Hangar # 1 and #2 were over 70 per cent completed when this photo was recorded. The white object in the middle of the bay is RCAF scow seaplane tender M159, the original RCAF Bella Bella Detachment weather observation home base. M159 would be towed to Langley Passage, Estevan Islands, on 26 December 1941.

 

On 9 December 1941, S/L F. S. Carpenter assumed command on No. 9 [B.R.] Squadron, flying the very first operation in response to the sighting of a Japanese submarine in the Queen Charlotte Strait. Stranraer #936 and #949 flown by S/L Carpenter are assigned. This sighting was for real and underlined the need to get the new squadron up to strength, trained, and ready for defending the waters around Bella Bella, B.C. This became a daily challenge flying the obsolete Canadian Vickers constructed British Supermarine Stranraer 1934 designed Flying Boat. These young RCAF airmen became caught between a government that wanted to protect her coastline in Canada, but the fact was, they did not control the resources to meet this objective until April 1943.

The patrol area east of RCAF Station Bella Bella in early December 1941.

The first thirty-one No. 9 [B.R.] pilots at RCAF Station Bella Bella, 18 December 1941. P/O J. Harrison, P/O G. Hunter, Lt. E.F. Biart, P/O J. B. Gant, Mr. F. Hardwicke, P/O G. Carter, P/O J. Dewar, P/O Ledbetter, P/O Hughes, Lt. P. Reid, F/O H. Green, F/O J. Shaw, F/O J. Matheson, F/O R. M. Jones, F/O J. Dougherty, F/O J. Johnson, F/O R. Laughren, P/O C. Duncan, P/O E.C. Seon, Capt. Forbes, P/O Garnett, F/Lt. F. Patterson, F/L A.E. Porter, F/Lt. R. Henderson, S/L F.S. Carpenter, F/Lt. P. Sorenson, F/Lt. W. Egan, F/ Lt. R. E. Johnston, F/L L. S. Thompson, W/C C.M.G. Farrell, C. O.

RCAF Station Bella Bella Hangar #1. [PL9575]

Vickers Supermarine Stranraer #949 and rear is #936 in hangar No. 1, while the three aircrew carry their 303 cal. rifles and baseball equipment for a game. The station airmen had organized a baseball and basketball team which played the local Indian [Heiltsuk] village teams, and most times the RCAF lost. Basketball is still a year round recreational pastime in Bella Bella, and they are very professional.

The swampy or rocky surface around the RCAF Station was covered in small stunted and twisted cedar evergreen trees and this made walking almost impossible. The easiest form of transportation was by small boat, and Bella Bella would operate eleven boats in their Marine Section, M-172, [Scoter], M-174, rowboat, M-177, pulling boat, M-189, rowboat, M-226, 38ft. crash boat [Teal], M-267 [Brant] M-339, 50ft refueling scow, M-334, 18ft. bombing boat, M-331, aircraft tender, M-433 [Snipe], and M-449 [Jager]. Many of the new aircrew arrivals could not swim, and for a period of time they were not even required to wear a life jacket while performing their duties. No life jackets had been shipped to RCAF Bella Bella. Other airmen were totally inexperienced in handling a small boat at night or day in fog, heavy rain, and almost daily stormy weather conditions. In the rush to finish the RCAF sea base, safety was often overlooked and it was just a matter of time before a life was lost.

On 3 January 1942, AC2 I. A. Macdonald capsized his small boat, he could not swim, and was not wearing a life jacket. AC2 R138318, Ian Alexander Macdonald was born in Summerland, B. C., age 36 years, when his boat collided with a Supermarine Stranraer flying boat #949, which was preparing for take off. His body was never recovered and he has no known grave.

The above official RCAF photo is not dated and no names are recorded. It captures the type of boat [possibly the same] which AC2 Macdonald fell from and the heavy RCAF winter coat he was wearing. Without a life jacket, he never had a chance to surface in the ice-cold water and be rescued.

As the pressure of defending the West Coast against possible attack from Japan grew, so did the number of marine surface vessels which were acquired by RCAF Western Air Command.

RCAF photo of 70-foot crash boat “Montagnais”

The first four original crash boats were manufactured by Canada Power Craft of Montreal, powered by two 1350 H.P. V-12 Packard engines built in Detroit, Michigan, USA. The same engines which powered the famous American [Patrol Torpedo] PT boats during WWII. These 70 foot Scott-Paine designed boats would cruise at 37 knots and could maintain a top speed of 47 knots. These four boats were the pride of the RCAF Marine Section and patrolled the complete coast of British Columbia. RCAF M-132, named “Malecite”, M-232, “Takuli”, M-234, “Montagnais, and M-235, “Huron”, patrolled the coastal waters looking for downed aircraft or surface vessels in distress. Smaller 38-foot crash boats were assigned to RCAF Stations where they were based for training and rescue patrols. RCAF Bella Bella was assigned one 38-foot crash boat M-266, named “Teal.” In December 1942, the Marine Section at Bella Bella sent a letter request to Walt Disney artists in Burbank, California, asking for a unit insignia which would feature the image of their RCAF Station Bella Bella Mascot, a little Monkey the Sergeant’s obtained in September 1942.

 

The Walt Disney design arrived by mail in spring of 1943, featuring the little Monkey attempting to save a parachuting airmen. It was most likely, this Walt Disney design which was painted with pride on a few Marine Section boats at RCAF Bella Bella.

The original drawing on file at Disney Archives in Burbank, California. The colors [above] are correct.

The first issue [Vol. 1, #1] of “The Roundel” which appeared in March 1942.

In spring, March 1942, the first addition of the monthly newsletter “Roundel” was published and hand delivered to all base buildings for the local reading of news and for enjoyment. [RCAF P.R. PL9577]

The back cover page of issue #1 contained this unknown creature. The connection to Bella Bella is still a complete mystery.

 

 

On 28 March 1942, the first major training course began at RCAF Station Bella Bella. The entire course lasted three months, covering everything, from forced landing at sea, in lakes, and on land. Actions to take in sighting and attacking a Japanese submarine, and the use of life jackets at all times. They were also taught intensive procedures in the operation and safety of the old Vickers [Montreal] Supermarine Stranraer. The complete course contained 109 lectures, and these pilots and first navigators were most qualified when they completed their exams and graduated. A few of the officers who obtained high marks, were retained as future RCAF instructors, and began teaching the same course at Bella Bella. The young RCAF aircrew fully understood they were flying a 1934, British designed flying boat, which shared an unfavourable reception by both air and ground crews, but that was all the Canadian government could give them. This produced a good amount of humor in the station newsletters.

The Stranraer prototype, [K3973] was test flown 27 July 1934, and seventeen entered service with the R.A.F. on 16 April 1937. The flying boat was a fabric covered biplane, which passed all its British tests, but it was just obsolete for the time, and future production orders were cancelled. The Liberal government of Canada found it a perfect fit, [cost $30,000 each] and built 40 under licence at Canadian Vickers Company Ltd. in Montreal, Quebec.

Generally, the aircraft was not well-received by the RCAF as the performance was slow and very marginal at best, but you fly what your government gives you. The last operational combat flight of a British Stranraer in the R.A.F. took place in No. 240 Squadron on 17 March 1941. The combat career of the Canadian built RCAF Stranraer began in 1938, and would last until 1946.

The Canadian RCAF Stranraer flying boats were equipped with a rear toilet and when the lid was lifted, the air flow inside the aircraft caused the toilet to whistle. The old British Designed Flying Boat aircraft soon earned the common RCAF nickname of a “Whistling Shithouse”, the Flying Meccano Set, and later the Flying Centre Section of the Lion’s Gate Bridge, in Vancouver, B. C. The aircraft was also a good source of WWII cartoon material as they were always breaking down, oil line leak, lost engine, could not complete patrol due to bad weather, and crash landings which would rip off a wing or totally destroy the flying boats.

For the first twenty months of WWII, the main concern of Canada’s home forces was the threat from German submarines on the east coast and the threat to Allied shipping convoys to England. The Canadian built Vickers Supermarine Stranraer flying boats were put to work patrolling and providing air cover [Scare-Crow] for the St. Lawrence and east coast of Canada, where no German U-boats [U-111] arrived until late September 1941. This became a mixed blessing for the RCAF. The sudden and surprise attack by Japan on the United States naval and air forces at Pearl Harbor, changed the complete tempo of the war, and priorities were now reversed. Until the Canadian government could manufacture more modern [Canso A] flying boats, the old “Flying Shithouse” would be all the RCAF had protect the west coast of British Columbia, from real Japanese submarine attack.

Vickers Supermarine Stranraer #937 was the 27th aircraft constructed with manufacture number CV223, assigned to No. 117 [Bomber Recon.] Squadron, at Sydney, Nova Scotia, on 14 August 1941. This new unit had just been formed on 1 August 41, and suddenly received orders on 27 October 41, to pack-up and move to Jericho Beach, B.C. The stay was short, as the unit was temporarily disbanded on 20 November 1941, and reformed at Sydney, Nova Scotia, on 28 April 1942. They were re-equipped with new Consolidated “Canso A”, Flying Boats, serial 9701-9702-9704-9705-9706-9797- and 9709. The old Vickers Stranraer aircraft were left with Western Air Command, and #937 was assigned to RCAF Station Bella Bella on 25 February 1942, flying until 8 March 1944. [RCAF photo PL9601]

 

A normal patrol record from Stranraer #937, 4 May 1942 and [below] 9 May 1942.

A full description of each sighted ship was recorded and many times photos were taken. The first Japanese submarine sighting took place in early July 1942, when Stranraer #953 reported one on the surface approaching Cape St. James., however it disappeared before an attack could be made.

Photo taken from the window of a Vickers Stranraer [possibly #937] over Queen Charlotte Sound west of RCAF Bella Bella. [RCAF photo 1942]

On 20 June 1942, Japanese submarine I-26 surfaced off the signal station [lighthouse] at Estevan Point, and began shelling the area. The staff sent out a distress signal, and total confusion took over from the ill prepared RCAF Stations. The two RCAF Stations closest to Estevan Point, [Ucluelet and Coal Harbour] were unable to operate any aircraft at night, and nothing could be done to send help. One aircraft at No. 32 Operational Training Unit [R.A.F.] at Patricia Bay sent an aircraft, but during take-off it crashed and blocked the runway, and no other aircraft could take to the air. One single Vickers Stranraer from RCAF Station Bella Bella took off and arrived at Estevan Point one hour later. [Too little, too late] The Japanese submarine I-26 was long gone, and the event was recorded in the Operational Diary above. What they did not record was the fact this was the very first time F/O Matheson had ever flown the old Stranraer #921 at night, making his first night water landing by flare path lights. This comedy of errors showed RCAF Command how they could not even defend against the shelling by one single Japanese submarine, and major improvements were required at once. This included new constructed of log and rock filled barriers to protect the two hangars and aircraft at Bella Bella from Japanese submarine shelling. These RCAF official photos were marked ‘Secret” and ordered destroyed in postwar era. They show the new log and rock protection construction against Japanese submarine shelling defences in June 1942, and were not to be shown to the public.

RCAF Official PL9586. Construction of Japanese submarine defence wall at Bella Bella.

 

 

A new submarine watch tower was also construction in front of the two hangars at RCAF Station Bella Bella, with a Stranraer flying boat [936, 937, or 949] anchored in the heavy rain and fog background. [RCAF PL9587 and PL9584]

A close-up shows the pouring rain at RCAF Bella Bella.

On 22 June 1942, Stranraer #936, developed engine trouble and managed to make a crash landing at Rose Harbour on Kunghit Island. This was an active whaling station and the crew had to stand the stench for weeks while repairs were made to #936. A Roundel newsletter cartoon soon followed by Sgt. Jackson.

The cartoon by Sgt. Jackson also featured the Station Monkey Mascot. The Vickers Supermarine Stranraer Flying Boat at Bella Bella received the nickname – “Monkey Cage” which could be the reason it appears in this cartoon. The Bella Bella RCAF members had also given the flying boat the name – SUPERSUBMARINE, also appearing in this cartoon. While #936 was being repaired, a replacement Stranraer #915 [parts survive today] was transferred from Jericho Beach, [Vancouver] B.C.

Stranraer #915 in markings of No. 4 [B.R.] Squadron at Jericho Beach, before transfer to Bella Bella. Between 25 June 1942 and 13 December 1943, this flying boat completes 297 anti-submarine patrols.

On 16 July 1942, H.M.C.S. Prince Robert arrived for a two-day visit of the station by Lieutenant Governor Honourable W.C. Woodward. This is the RCAF Guard of Honour greeting their special guest, followed with a dinner in the Officers Mess at 19:30 Hrs.

The HMCS Prince Robert had a brilliant WWII career, well worth reading on other websites. Some of her tough crew were ex-convicts and alcoholics, who had signed on for two years and then had to remain until the end of WWII. She was an ex-Canadian National ship taken over by the Canadian Navy when the war began, completing many firsts, including capturing a German supply ship off Mexico in 1940. In May 1942, she arrived at Esquimalt, B.C., for a refit and was reassigned on 22 June 1942, to patrol the west coast of B.C. looking for hiding spots for Japanese submarines or supply ships. In July, Lt. Governor Hon. W.C. Woodward came aboard to visit and inspect the newly constructed RCAF seaplane bases on the west coast. On 17 July 1942, he inspected every single building at RCAF Station Bella Bella, B.C., departing that evening on HMCS Prince Robert. While his inspection was taking place, many RCAF members were allowed to tour the warship and get a look at Navy life.

The RCAF station feelings towards the newly named “Supersubmarine” keeps appearing in the Roundel.

Another cartoon by Sgt. Jackson appears December 1942.

And another “SUPERSUBMARINE” crash lands on 29 July 1942.


After losing his left engine F/Sgt. Hildebrande jettisoned his extra fuel load to gain altitude as he was down to 25 feet over the water. As he turned his right wing struck the water and was torn off. The aircraft bounced along three times before coming to rest in the ocean swells. A Canadian Navy Corvette saved the crew and took the remains of the aircraft in tow back to Bella Bella.

On 20 August 1942, Stranraer #915, and crash boat M-266, proceeded to Calvert Island to assist in the rescue of an American crew from the crash of U.S. Navy Vought-Sikorsky OS2U-1 Kingfisher seaplane #01341.

RCAF Station Bella Bella salvaged the remains of the aircraft on 14 September 1942, and it was placed on an American ship for return to United States.

On 24 September 1942, preparations for the first station recreation hall dance were underway, with a flotilla of boats bringing lovely ladies from Ocean Falls, Bella Bella village, and Namu.

The one and only dance held at Bella Bella on 26 September 1942.

Most of these pretty ladies came from Ocean Falls, as the native Heiltsuk village at Bella Bella on Campbell Island was off limits to all RCAF officers and Airmen.

These RCAF Public Relations photos were taken at the Heiltsuk village in Bella Bella, fall 1942.

The two Native children are explaining their culture to the visiting RCAF Sergeants. [PL9571-72-73]

Memorial to John Humchitt, Bella Bella, village.

“In Affectionate Remembrance of John Humchitt
Son of Moody Humchitt and Chief of Bella Bella.
He was drowned while crossing from the Cannery
and his body was not recovered.
Born – April 9, 1895
Died – March 23, 1930”

Stranraer #937 making a landing with use of flare path of lights which were placed in the bay in front of RCAF Station Bella Bella. This practice of water landings and take-offs [devised at Bella Bella] began in late evening and continued into the dark hours. [PL9599]

Preparing Stranraer #937 for night landing and take-off practice in 1942. [PL9578]

At the end of training, the flare path lights were recovered by the crash boat. [RCAF PL9579]

The RCAF Bella Bella Station Daily Diary gives a very good account of the Stranraer flying boat patrol activities and the hard work and determination, to keep track of the enemy Japanese submarine movements around the coast along Queen Charlotte Sound.

22 August 1942 – submarine sighted north of Coal Harbour, two Bella Bella Stranraer aircraft dispatched.
23 August 1942 – Stranraer #951, landed 100 miles at sea and sinking. Two Bella Bella aircraft dispatched but failed to find aircraft or crew who were all lost.
4 September 1942 – submarine sighted in south Bentinck Arm, not found.
25 September 1942 – submarine sighted in Fisher Channel, not found.

During the months of October and November more submarine sightings were reported but no attacks took place.
21 April 1943, saw the arrived of the very first modern Canso “A”, serial 9761, and the following day a submarine was sighted at Scott Islands, [north tip of Vancouver Island] but crash-dived before the aircraft could attack. A week later another submarine was reported near RCAF Station Alliford Bay, not found.
This marked the slow beginning of the end for the old RCAF Stranraer Flying Boats, which had given so much to protect Canada in the early days when our government was not prepared for anti-submarine [German U-Boat] patrols of Eastern Air Command. This will be covered in full detail, appearing in a later history on the Canadian built and RCAF flown Vickers Supermarine Stranraer flying boats of Eastern Air Command. I will now just give a small sample, as this history is all connected with the new naming of the Canadian built CANSO “A” flying boats, and Western Air Command.

No. 5 Squadron was formed in 1934, as a flying boat unit at Dartmouth, Nova Scotia. On 1 April 1937, the unit was reclassified to a [Coastal] General Reconnaissance Squadron. They would receive the first five Canadian built Vickers [Montreal] Supermarine Stranraer flying boats between 9 November 1938, [Stran. #907] and 8 June 1939, [ Stran. #911]. On 10 July 1939, Eastern Air Command formed the first patrol areas along the complete coastline of Nova Scotia, numbered Yarmouth “A”, Halifax “B” and further north was Sydney “C”. A vital ground fix position for the patrol aircraft was established, and the dividing point between Halifax “B” and Sydney “C” was a small village of 800 people called “Canso” Nova Scotia. This would remain a very important reference point for both flying aircraft and the future hundreds of ship convoys that sailed from Halifax harbour to United Kingdom, bringing a life-line of food and war materials for the British government. The following map outlines the changing patrol areas from Halifax, Nova Scotia, from the beginning in July 1939, until 25 May 1941, flown by Stranraer flying boats of No. 5 [G.R.] Squadron.

On 3 September 1939, Eastern Air Command created three new patrol areas just for the forming and sailing of convoy ships from Halifax harbour. One patrol covered the inside of Halifax harbour, where the ship convoys were formed after loading. A second covered the entrance of Halifax harbor, and a third extended 20 miles to sea, as each convoy formed the proper lanes for sailing to U. K. Each convoy were given sailing orders, ship position, ships spacing in row, speed, etc., as they all moved to a fixed point between Canso point and Sable Island, then the convoy changed course and headed for Newfoundland, then on to United Kingdom.

On 25 May 1941, No. 5 [B.R.] Squadron formed a Detachment at North Sydney, Nova Scotia, with thirteen new patrol areas, all shown in yellow markings. A Detachment is a portion of one RCAF unit detached from the mother squadron, but not operating independently. Three Stranraer flying boats, #914, #923, and #927, were flown from Dartmouth and began flying the new patrol areas assigned to North Sydney, N. S. In July 1941, a request was sent to Dartmouth for an additional flying boat and on 15 July, Stranraer #920 was flown to North Sydney, to join the other three flying boats on patrols. Stranraer #920 had joined No. 5 [B.R.] Squadron on 22 December 1941, flying 47 convoy patrols of Halifax harbour until 15 July 1941, then 30 more patrols at North Sydney, until her last flight on 17 September 1941. The old flying boats were now being replaced by the new long-range American Consolidated Catalina Mk. I flying boats, who would take the fight to the German U-Boats for the next three and one-half years. Stranraer #920 was now transferred to Western Air Command along with many of her flying mates, and was assigned to No. 9 [B.R.] Squadron at Bella Bella, B.C., where she went on to complete 153 more patrols, this time looking for Japanese submarines. This old “Whistling Shithouse” went on to complete 230 anti-submarine patrols during WWII, and in the postwar continued to fly with civilian operators until August 1966.

Did the RCAF or Canadian government save any of our built in Canada Vickers Supermarine Stranraer flying boats for future generations to see and learn from? “NO.”
But thank God the British did, and Canadian built, RCAF flown, Vickers [Montreal, Quebec] Supermarine Stranraer #920 survives in RAF Museum, Hendon, London, U.K., the only complete restored flying boat of her type in the world. My complete RCAF history of #920 will appear later, in my attempt to preserve some lost past, which is not found with the Canadian flying boat history in England or Canada.

The American built Catalina PBY Flying boat was the best and most extensively flown aircraft for anti-submarine patrols and warfare during World War Two. Even the Russian Navy received and flew 138 during WWII.

 

Soon after the arrival of their first Canso “A” flying Boat at Bella Bella, [19 April 1943] this ‘unofficial’ No. 9 [B.R.] Squadron insignia was painted. I believe this RCAF insignia art was created and adapted partly from the emblem of the Consolidated Aircraft Corporation at San Diego, California.

The prototype XP-3Y-1 Catalina first flew on 28 March 1935, and by September 1936, the first production models were in service with the U. S. Navy. In 1937, the Liberal government of Canada decided to build the cheaper [$28,000 each] obsolete British Vickers Supermarine Stranraer, and by 1939 realized they needed a successor to defend Canada against the German U-boats. The Canadian government next selected the best in the world, the Consolidated PBY-Catalina, which cost $90,000 each to construct in Canada. Three times the cost, a hundred times more protection for Canada.

The first production of the Canadian built Catalina began at the Boeing [Canada] Plant at [Sea Island] Vancouver, B. C. in late 1940, and 362 would be constructed. These first Canadian built Catalina flying boats [PB2B] were constructed from parts manufactured by Consolidated in the U. S. and shipped to Vancouver. The first 55 flying boats retained their American name, Catalina [RCAF Mk. I], with the first received by No. 116 [B.R.] Squadron at Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, on 28 June 1941.

Canadian Vancouver built Catalina Mk. I Flying Boat of No. 116 [B.R.] Squadron at Dartmouth, Nova Scotia. Building the Catalina in Vancouver, B.C., then flying them across Canada to the east coast, cost money, and was not good government planning.

In July 1941, the Canadian government awarded a new contract to manufacture the complete PBY Catalina at the Canadian Vickers plant in Montreal, the same location the old Stranraer had been created. A second plant was constructed at Cartierville, Quebec, to help produce the RCAF demand for the flying boat, and the three Canadian plants would manufacture 730 flying boats during WWII. The government decided the two plants in Quebec should produce a flying boat PBV-1A [Vickers] with a “Canadian” name and turned to the RCAF for the official selection. In 1918, the British Air Ministry created an official system for naming all British aircraft. All British Naval aircraft not originally ordered by the Fleet Air Arm were given the prefix “Sea.” [Hawker Sea Hurricane – Supermarine Sea Spitfire, de Havilland Sea Venom, etc.] All Naval Flying Boats were named after coastal or port communities, such as the southwest Scottish town of “Stranraer” picked for the Vickers Supermarine Stranraer. The RCAF followed this British system of naming flying boats for coastal towns, selecting the name “CANSO” from the little village at Canso, Nova Scotia, which was so important to the early Stranraer patrols and the forming of convoys of ships heading to United Kingdom. I also feel the name selection was a special [hidden] way to honor the old RCAF Stranraer flying boats, but that is just my gut feeling, and I can’t find any written proof. The first Montreal built Canso #9761 arrived with No. 9 [B.R.] Squadron on 19 April 1943, and that same day, S/L Galloway flew her to Alliford Bay, to provide special escort for a United States convoy to Alaska. I guess the RCAF wanted to show off their new Canadian built Canso to the Americans, but the weather would not cooperate.

On 9 July 1943, No. 9 [B.R.] Squadron at RCAF Station Bella Bella, B. C., received their second Canso “A”, serial 9789, which extended their submarine patrol range to 2,500 miles, [4,000 km].

On 25 July, Canso 9789 sighted a Japanese submarine 175 miles west off the Queen Charlotte Islands, and they made a rapid descent to attack. At 2,000 ft. they broke out of cloud cover and the submarine was gone. Five days later, the Squadron first and only fatal accident took place and Canso 9789 was lost with flight engineer Sgt. J. A. Cowman killed.

Canso 9789 took off for a 1,000 mile, extra long patrol, [loaded with fuel] plus carrying a crew of nine. The pilot became lost in the fog at Lama Passage and attempted to make a left turn and return to base, as he could not see the ground or climb above the fog bank. In his attempt to negotiate the left turn [at 110 MPH] the aircraft struck the side of a mountain face and exploded.

Flight Engineer Sgt. James Allan Cowman, R75569 from Hamilton, Ontario, was 26 years of age when he was killed in action. The Canso 9789 struck the side of the mountain at Alarm Cove, two miles from its take-off point at Bella Bella, B. C. Sgt. Cowman is buried in the Woodland Cemetery at Hamilton, Ontario.

No. 9 [B.R.] Squadron flew 1,314 Sorties from Bella Bella during WWII, 8,863 operational hours of patrol hours and Sgt. Cowman was the only member killed. Three of his fellow crew members were serious injured and burnt in the crash, when the fully fueled aircraft exploded on impact and was totally destroyed. The large wing span and low speed of the Canso A, saved the lives of eight of the crew.

By 31 July 1943, the squadron were operating two Stranraer flying boats with a patrol range of 720 miles, and two Canso A, with a range of 2,500 miles. Stranraer #949 was one of the first aircraft assigned on 7 December 1941, and parts of #915 survive today in the Shearwater Aviation Museum at Halifax, Nova Scotia. The flying boat [#915] crashed on 24 December 1949, [civilian operation] was recovered in 1980, and today is owned by Shearwater Museum, with only nose and cockpit sections missing. It appears at some future date, a second RCAF Stranraer #915 will join flying boat #920, which is presently the only complete type in the world. Both of these flying boats have a major historical past at RCAF Station Bella Bella, B.C., which has been totally forgotten by Canadian historians. The Canadian constructed Canso “A” is finally taking over patrols for the old Stranraer flying boats.

In January 1944, a new policy came into effect and the new Canso A were required to make two long-range patrols over 500 miles seaward each day, which totalled over 1,000 miles flying time. The flying boat night landings [flare path] which had been devised at RCAF Bella Bella, were discontinued and only emergency night landings were permitted.

On 4 March 1944, the crew of Canso “A”, serial 11003 had the closest encounter with a Japanese submarine since the beginning of the war. At 5,000 feet they sighted a Japanese submarine on the surface and descended rapidly for attack at 2,000 feet but the submarine was gone. Thanks to the flying time of the new Canso “A”, the crew remained in the area for three more hours and the submarines periscope reappeared. They attacked with 303 cal. machine guns, firing 1,509 rounds, like shooting a whale with a 12-gauge shotgun. The following official reports are dated 3 March 1944, and should read 4 March 1944.

Crew members reports 4 March 1944

By August 1944, the Japanese had suffered many major defeats from the Americans plus her Allies, and the threat of a west coast invasion had disappeared. The supply and cost of operations for the remote site of RCAF Belle Bella led to the government decision to disband No. 9 [B.R.] Squadron on 1 September 1944.

The last mission patrol #53 was flown by F/O Asher and crew on 21 August 1944, taking Canso # 11005 two hundred miles out to sea and return. Canso “A” #9761 and #11018 are transferred to RCAF Station Ucluelet, B.C. The next day [22 Aug. 1944] the last flying boats are transferred, including three Catalinas.

No. 9 [B.R.] Squadron Catalina Mk. IB, FP293, “W”, preparing for her last flight to No. 7 Squadron, Alliford Bay, B.C. It’s all over for RCAF Station Bella Bella, and most of these built in Canada flying boats will soon be scrapped.

RCAF Station Bella Bella was now reduced to a care and maintenance base, effective 1 September 1944, with aircraft and aircrew transferred to other RCAF units.

 

No. 9 [B.R.] Squadron formed 8 December 1941 – disbanded 1 September 1944.

Over the passage of time, Canadian historians, RCAF bureaucrats in Ottawa, and our National Museum have forgotten about RCAF [Detachment] and Station Bella Bella, B.C. No. 9 [B.R.] Squadron operated for only 33 months of WWII, flying a substandard 1934 designed Vickers Supermarine Stranraer flying boat for thirty of those months. Some 1,500 RCAF members served at this remote site, where it rained almost everyday of the year. Their job was monotonous, wet, dirty, and very dangerous just for the fact they were flying the obsolete SUPERSUBMARINE “Whistling Shithouse” in terrible weather conditions. They did their job, station morale was high, and in the end they received no just reward from the people of Canada or the RCAF historians themselves. They were just forgotten until 3 July 2013, when Craig Widsten [owner of Shearwater Marine Group, B.C.] the First Nations people of Bella Bella and other veteran groups came together and erected a fitting tribute to those WWII RCAF veterans and the also forgotten First Nations Veterans who served ‘their” country, Canada in two World Wars. Please take the time to look at the websites and read what took place on 3 July 2013. They also erected a scaled down model of the Canadian built Vickers Supermarine Stranraer flying boat, which now swings in the wind over the old RCAF Station Bella Bella, today named Shearwater, B.C.
The first Canadian constructed Vickers Supermarine Stranraer #907 flew on 21 October 1938, and forty would be produced, assigned and flown by eight RCAF Squadrons. [No. 4, 6, 7, 9, 13, 117, 120 and 166] During the Second World War, 16 RCAF Stranraer flying boats would crash and today only two survive in the world. The only complete survivor is RCAF Stranraer #920 in the Royal Air Force Museum, Hendon, London, England. It is painted in the colours of RCAF No. 5 [B.R.] Squadron where it was first assigned.

The other RCAF Stranraer is #915, which crashed in 1949, and was recovered and taken to Shearwater Aviation Museum, Halifax, Nova Scotia. I’m positive when restored, #915 will also be painted in colours of No. 5 [B.R.] Squadron, but that is just my guess. It never flew with Eastern Air Command, ever.

In a twist of fate, No. 9 [B.R.] Squadron received Stranraer #915 and #920, and combined they flew a total of 448 anti-submarine patrols from RCAF Station Bella Bella, B.C. The complete history of these two aircraft will follow in my next chapter.

Between 25 June 1942 and 13 December 1943, Stranraer #915 flew an incredible 279 anti-submarine patrols from RCAF Bella Bella, B.C., today named Shearwater, B.C. The remains of #915 is today stored at Shearwater Aviation Museum, Halifax, Nova Scotia. The direct distance between these two Canadian coastline communities with the same name is 6,345 k/m, [4,000 miles] but they will forever be connected with RCAF World War Two Vickers Supermarine Stranraer history.

I just love history.

This 22” by 33” painting was completed in Mexico in 2014, to honour the forgotten who served at RCAF Station Bella Bella during WWII. It is painted on the original skin from Fleet Fawn Mk. II, RCAF serial 264, assigned on 7 July 1938 and flew until 1945. The original aircraft [below] and history can be read on the Bomber Command Museum of Canada at Nanton, Alberta.

5 thoughts on “RCAF Station Bella Bella – War Against Japan – Part Two (text version)

  1. Pingback: RCAF Station Bella Bella – War Against Japan – Part Two (text version) | Preserving the Past

  2. Ted Colley

    Thank you for a very interesting and detailed story. My father, Cpl. W.E. (Ted) Colley, RCAF, was stationed at Bella Bella during the Second World War and served in M266 Teal. It was while there that he met my mother, Joan, who worked in the mill office at nearby Ocean Falls. Dad, who died in January 2002, often regaled us with stories of his time at Bella Bella, days he remembered fondly.
    Ted Colley
    Mayne Island, BC

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  3. Al Hovan

    I have a picture of my father in front of the PBY they flew on submarine patrols on the West coast. Was Bella Bella the only squadron or base on the West coast. He told me that they had spotted subs. How could I lookup any history on his service?

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