RCAF Staging Unit, Sandspit British Columbia – 1944-46

Research by Clarence Simonsen

RCAF Station Sandspit British Columbia

Click on the link above for the PDF version

Text version

Wild Milk Cow Mascot

RCAF Staging Unit, Sandspit British Columbia – 1944-46

Sandspit – “A small sandy point or narrow strip of land projecting into a large body of water from the main shoreline.”
By 1935, the Canadian government slowly began to receive disturbing evidence that a second world war was inevitable, and senior RCAF officers were assigned to examine the function of the Air Force in protecting Canada’s two coastlines. In August, Major General E.C. Ashton, the Chief of General Staff [Army Officer], received a lengthy memorandum from Senior Air Officer, Air Commodore G.M. Croil, RCAF. A long past forgotten point in his memo was a fact stated, the RCAF held a third position in the national defence plan of Canada but they were not being treated as an equal partner by the Army and Navy. A/C Croil next authorized S/L Mawdesley, three other officers, and thirteen airmen to be detached from RCAF Station Jericho Beach and formed a special west coast aerial survey reconnaissance unit. The information collected from these officers and airmen in 1936-37, laid the foundation for the future construction of five west coast RCAF Flying Boat Stations, which provided front line coastal defence during WWII. Near the end of 1937, the original memo sent by A/C Croil still set dormant in Ottawa, so he updated his 1935 report, and on 3 November 1937, he placed the new document in the hands of the Deputy Minister for Defence, for immediate consideration by the Minister of Defence. This time the Canadian government took action and the “Pacific Coast Development Act” was passed on 22 December 1937. The RCAF reconnaissance detachment original aerial survey [formed by A/C Croil] recommended locating an RCAF Flying Boat Station on the shore of Skidegate Inlet, at Alliford Bay, as this site provided a strategic central location and offered natural protection. RCAF Orders were received in 1938 for the construction to begin at RCAF Station Alliford Bay, B.C., by the forerunner of Western Air Command Wireless Transmission Party which later became RCAF No. 1 Works Construction Unit. RCAF Alliford Bay Detachment moved into the new base on 4 September 1939, during construction, and just six days before Canada declared war on Germany.

Air Vice-Marshal G.M. Croil, A.F.C., front cover of Maclean’s magazine 15 March 1940. Photo by H. F. Kells, author collection. This is the forgotten RCAF officer who fought to get recognition for the Air Force on the west coast and ordered the aerial survey for future west coast Flying Boat Stations in 1936-37. His facial expression tells a lot about the [man] officer.

Free domain RCAF image of Supermarine Stranraer #912, from Jericho Beach, B.C. The first official flying boat to land at RCAF Alliford Bay, as noted in the first Daily Diary records 4 Sept. 1939.
Alliford Bay Station was carved out of dense forest which grew on rocky terrain down to the edge of the ocean, which depth changed ten feet during low or high tide. The station was far from complete as Canada went to war, the pier, hangar, and most of the living quarters were still in half-finished state. The RCAF personnel were divided into work gangs which renamed themselves “Bull Gangs” after American prison work gangs of the 1930 era. Alliford Bay was the most isolated of all RCAF flying boat stations and for that reason no 48-hour passes were ever issued, as there was no place to visit. RCAF men’s wives were not allowed to live on the base and the only small part of civilization was the Haida Indian village on Skidegate Inlet, which was ‘out of bounds’ to all personnel. In 1940, a large number of new ‘single’ RCAF tradesmen were posted to Alliford Bay for twelve months, for obvious reasons, eat, sleep, and learn your new air force trade. With no wine, women, or sex, the new isolated station soon earned the nickname “Eveless Eden” and nobody wished to be posted to this all work and no play isolated flying boat station. Recreational programmes [basketball] and Y.W.C.A. scheduled entertainment provided the only break and at times the Vancouver Canadian Legion shipped a few kegs of ‘free’ beer. The RCAF managed to get one very important part correct, Alliford Bay had the best Flight Sergeant cook on the west coast and he prepared excellent meals for the isolated station. Please read the wonderful book “Jericho Beach” by Chris Weicht, the best publication on the life of West Coast Flying Boat Stations.

Author drawing of Eveless Eden, not to scale.
Alliford Bay would grow in size and by 1941 the number of buildings totalled around 50, shown above. The Ammo Magazine Depot was located [red] across from the main base and was out of bounds to all unauthorized personnel. Before a flying boat could be serviced, all ammo and anti-submarine depth charges were unloaded at the Ammo Depot dock and stored. The Marine section had three boats, M-199 “Godwell”, M-265 “Loon”, and M-430 “Puffin.” In the 1920s a small species of deer was introduced to the Queen Charlotte Islands, and they roamed freely around the base, with no fear of the airmen. Several were adopted and wandered in and out of buildings, all were given the name Kwuna, the Haida word for point, located at the ferry crossing dock.

The first postings to Alliford Bay lasted twelve long months, which was shortened to six months in October 1941. On 11 October 1941, Aircraftsman First Class Mathew Cecil Ferguson stepped off a boat at Eveless Eden. After six months training at No. 1 Technical School, St. Thomas, Ontario, Mat was ready to earn his new trade as an Aero Engineer [mechanic]. The image of Mat Ferguson was obtained from his wife Levina in 2001, and it was taken at Calgary, Alberta, before he left for Alliford Bay, B.C. The personnel photo album of Mat contained a drawing of the little deer which became the base unofficial insignia, and Mrs. Ferguson believed it was first drawn by her late husband. Sadly, Mat was murdered in his Calgary home he built and the teen who stabbed him was never even charged with his death. Mat Ferguson had artistic talent, creating two other RCAF insignia, and became Canada’s Greatest Aircraft Nose artist during World War Two. I believe for historical sake he should be credited with creating the first “Kwuna” deer insignia at Alliford Bay in 1941. By 1944, a totem had been added to the original deer design, appearing as cover art on their base newsletter “Victory.” Kwuna the original deer mascot died on 22 January 1944.

The burial site of Kwuana on her beach near a fresh water creek where the mascot drank. A willow tree was planted in her memory.

The March 1942 Alliford Bay front cover of Victory newsletter high-lighted the importance of the Queen Charlotte Islands in protecting the vast west coast of Canada during WWII.

Graham and Moresby Islands served like a giant Canadian aircraft carrier, with three radar locations and eight coast watch lookouts. The flying boats at Alliford Bay provided a wide range of anti-submarine air patrols. In 1943, construction of two land based aircraft airstrips began in support of Alliford Bay and the west coast of British Columbia. The beach front steel mat plate on sand landing strip at RCAF Masset was completed on 23 July 1943, officially opened two days later.


Western Air Command Order No. 5 for the construction of RCAF Sandspit, B.C. were issued on 4 August 1943. The RCAF construction operation was code named “Lawson” which was used on all official correspondence.


The pre-construction survey of RCAF Sandspit B.C. began on 9 August 1943, under charge of F/L Nesbitt, No. 9 [CMU] RCAF Construction and Maintenance Unit. The new airstrip was located 9 miles [15 k/m] east of RCAF Alliford Bay, B.C.
The original RCAF Western Air Command Wireless Transmission Party was redesignated No. 1 RCAF Works Construction Unit [WCU] on 1 March 1942. They were assigned construction of roads, buildings, coastal watch stations, and the new radar installions on the B.C. coastline. On 9 November 1942, No. 1 Works Construction Unit was renamed RCAF No. 9 Construction and Maintenance Unit, assigned all construction projects up and down the west coast of B.C. In early July they were assigned the construction of land based airstrip RCAF Station Masset, which was completed in the period 11 July to 25 July 1943. They next loaded their equipment on three supply barges and moved south to construct land base RCAF Sandspit B.C. Below is a list of No. 9 CMU construction equipment on charge 31 August 1943.

The RCAF No. 9 C.M.U. official insignia became an International “TracTracTor” model T.D. 18 with dozer blade, they had five on charge [see above] in the unit M.T. records.
F/L Nesbitt was selected the officer in charge and he arrived at Sandspit on 9 August 1943. Four days later, three [300-ton] Scows [barges] with nine International tractors, [five model T.D. 18 and four T.D. 14] plus seven other constructions heavy equipment machinery and fifty workers arrived at RCAF Sandspit, B.C. On the 15 August, their work camp was completed and airfield construction could begin. Their Daily Diary reads: 20 August 43 – Falling and piling of lumber 60% complete. 21 August 43 – Landing strip 500 feet wide roughed in and cleared of trees.

Maclean’s magazine 1943.
Five 1942 International “TracTracTor” model T.D. 18 Crawlers [above] with bulldozers and four model T.D. 14 Crawlers with winches and bulldozers carved out the new landing strip at RCAF Sandspit, 15 August to 18 September 1943. The heavy construction departed by barge and forty workmen with trucks were left to finish the runway with a gravel surface. All airfield heavy construction was completed by the end of the month.

Maclean’s magazine 1943.
No. 9 CMU had on strength seven International T.D. 14 “TracTracTors” with four-wheel scrapers, and four of these units constructed the landing site at RCAF Sandspit, B.C. The runway had a 500 ft. wide cleared flight path, 350 ft. of crushed compacted gravel and the length was 4,800 feet from beach front to beach front.

Maclean’s magazine 1943.
Five International 3-ton heavy duty dump trucks were used in the construction plus six GMC Army trucks 4 x 4 stake, spray truck, machine shop on wheels and general purpose truck. Two road maintainer graders, one rubber-tired packer roller and one gasoline driven shovel were employed in the gravel strip construction.
The three following Canadian built GMC 4 x 4 RCAF construction trucks were used on the site, the ones displayed are the Canadian Government issue which appeared in Maclean’s magazine for 1943.



The air strip was not used due to the soft covering of gravel which would not support heavy aircraft, and was only for emergency landings. Orders Western Air Command 3 April 1944.

In seven weeks, May and June 1944, six inches of gravel were added to the airfield, rolled, and covered with asphalt surface 150 feet wide, extended to 5,000 feet long.

RCAF Sandspit, B.C. became No. 23 Staging Unit on this date with No. 4 Signals Unit operating night and day, call sign Sandspit.

On 12 July 1944, regular scheduled RCAF flights were made three times each week by RCAF Expeditor #1404, #1386, and #1384. Mail flights were made by Norseman #2483, #2488, and #3536. Grumman Goose #396, and Avro Anson’s #449, #450, and #1245 made training flights. A number of U.S. Navy aircraft also stopped on the airfield for fuel or emergency repairs. These aircraft had to be warned to look out for wild milk cows on the runway, which led to the most unusual RCAF unit crest in the whole Canadian wartime air force. In 1886, British settlers from the Hudson’s Bay Company released cattle in the eastern side of Queen Charlotte Island and more cattle were abandoned in 1914, when settlers left to join during World War One.


These domestic animals had turned wild and freely roamed the airfield and sandy beach front area surrounding the paved runway surface. A number were shot and butchered for their meat.

The ‘unofficial’ 1944 RCAF airfield gate sign painting featured a wild milk cow.

Author replica gate sign painting.
I wish I knew the name of the original artist for this humorous but rare WWII RCAF No. 23 Staging Unit [Sandspit, B.C.] Landing Ground gate sign in use April 1944 to July 1946. The original art, painted on canvas, size was around eight feet wide by five feet high and hung on the top floor control tower hand railing. Replica painted on original aircraft skin from RCAF No. 8 [Musk Ox] Squadron. RCAF Bolingbroke #9041, the oldest RCAF Bolingbroke in the world, flew WWII patrols from Sea Island, [Vancouver], B.C. The aircraft was allocated to No. 4 Training Command in November 1943, and flown to Calgary, Alberta, placed into storage. Sold as war surplus it was purchased by a local Airdrie, Alberta, farmer in 1946. Rescued from his farm at Airdrie, in 1988, the full history can be found on the Bomber Command Museum website at Nanton, Alberta. A large part of this RCAF Bolingbroke is today in the replica rebuild of the Nanton Bomber Command Museum of Canada British RAF Blenheim aircraft.

These two public domain images were taken by photographer Donn Williams in March 1945, showing the construction of some twenty new [PMQ] Private Military Quarters units at RCAF Sandspit, B.C.

Above D.D. records the RCAF unit strength on 1 November 1945, total 44 all ranks, and a new home to live in with the wife and kids. Summer time was great, very little work, swimming, best fishing in the world, and living in the great outdoors. Flights to and from Vancouver arrived three times a week and mail arrived once a week. The only excitement recorded in the Daily Diary was the C.O.s house burned down on 4 May 1946. Three months later the RCAF were gone from Sandspit and the Canadian Department of Transport took over all air traffic duties.

The Commanding Officer F/L Inglis left a parting message in the Daily Diary – “I hope in the future the D.O.T. will be able to maintain Sandspit’s unblemished flying record of the past 20 Months.” Sadly, that would not be the case.

In 1952, the Douglas Aircraft Company, four-engine, DC-4 monoplane, had become the American choice for wartime military transport. Serial number N45342 was owned by TWA, and leased to Northwest Airlines to transport servicemen home from the Korean War.


Northwest Flight 324 crashed on a large sandbar in fifteen feet of water. The aircraft broke apart on impact and the upper fuselage was destroyed by tide wave force. The wings, engines, and belly section with cargo, remains buried in the sandbar today, covered by fifteen feet of water high tide and six feet low tide.

In 1787, British Captain George Dixon surveyed the islands and named them after his ship, HMS Queen Charlotte. American fur traders used the islands and called them “Washington’s Island” until 1846, [Oregon Treaty] and they became part of Canada. On 3 June 2010, B.C. legislation received royal assent and the name was changed back to “Haida Gwaii” to recognize the history of the Haida first nations people, meaning islands of the people. They have lived and called the islands home for the past 13,000 years. RCAF Station Alliford Bay is gone and forgotten, nothing remains except old WWII photos being sold for far too much money on the internet. The little Deer “Kwuana” remains in her unknown burial site, while a B.C. Ferry carries the same name as it sails from Kwuana Point, just a few miles north of the old abandoned wartime base site. Sandspit airport which was never really needed or used for protection during WWII, has become the major transportation gateway to Haida Gwaii, B.C. It has scheduled passenger service, air ambulance and provides many other services for the local population. Cattle still wander the Island, however they are branded and locally owned, and its against the law to shoot them.


4 thoughts on “RCAF Staging Unit, Sandspit British Columbia – 1944-46

  1. blairgilmore2017

    Nice article and research, thanks for sharing. I spent a number of years at the Sea Island Coast Guard Station in Vancouver, the RCAF Wing in Comox, and sailed in these waters, so the history of these areas is very interesting to me. Cheers!



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s