Previous

Next

HISTORY OF THE 423 SQUADRON

CHAPTER V

 

COLD WAR AND THE CANUCKS

 

Toward Europe

June 1956 was a busy month with the ferrying of aircraft to A.V. Roe in Toronto for modifications, the T-33 being replaced by two CF-100 Mark III trainers, and the deployment to Cold Lake, Alberta for air-to-air weapons practice. Some of the Cold Lake graduates were sent on brief exchanges to fighter bases in the United States and were given the chance to prove the superiority of the CF-100. The remainder of the summer and autumn period saw a return to air shows, and in October, more scrambles on EXERCISE CHANGE LIGHT. While the squadron conducted live firing exercises at Chatham's gunnery range during the same month, the first hints of an overseas move surfaced.

F/Ls Middleton and Pridmore left St. Hubert on 18 October for temporary duty with 445 Squadron. Their part in EXERCISE NIMBLE BAT I, the first Atlantic crossing of a CF-100 unit, was to note the route and facilities for 423 Squadron. On 8 November, S/L Biddell ferried a camouflaged and tiptank-equipped CF-100 to St. Hubert from Toronto. The final indication of impending movement was the change of command, on 20 November, from W/C Lecomte to W/C Handley.

As expected, the word was given to send 423 Squadron to the Canadian Air Division in Europe, thus adding to the night fighter capabilities in that theatre. From 12-17 February, the squadron delivered twenty-one CF-100 Mark IV B aircraft to its new home at Grostenquin, France as part of 2 (F) Wing. After a brief familiarization period, the never-ending training process began.

Along with the usual close control AI missions, RCAF all-weather fighters maintained the night alert. There were very few "real" targets as such, but crews could usually count on one scramble before the end of their standby shift, just to break the monotony. The CF-100 appeared in Europe at the height of the Cold War, and everyone recognized the demanding defence realities imposed by the proximity of the Eastern bloc. For instance, the city of Metz, France, headquarters of the Canadian Air Division, lay only twenty-five minutes away for a Soviet bomber at 40,000 feet and 600 mph.

A great deal of flying training was carried out during the day, given normal work routines. It was every man for himself in daylight hours. One always expected to be jumped by aircraft from any Allied air force and no one flew without his head "out of the cockpit." Although not designed for aerial hassling, the CF-100 Mk. IV B could still hold its own against the lesser and greater day fighter types at home in European skies. 5 Occasionally psychological games were also played on the Russians. East bloc air exercises would invariably result in CF-100s dragging contrails up and down the border, requiring matching numbers of fighters on the other side and, thus, effectively reducing those available for the exercise itself.6

 

Operations Resume

Most records of the squadron's activities were destroyed in a fire on 25 November, 1960. The story goes that a corner room of the squadron's Dispersal Area Headquarters building was being converted into a "Ready Room" for "Zulu" crews awaiting the call to scramble. Part of the decoration for this room involved painting converted egg cartons, which were to be affixed to the ceiling. It is thought that a pile of freshly painted cartons underwent spontaneous combustion and caught fire, leading to the total destruction of the building. In any case, the fact is that no squadron records of the Grostenquin period survived. Therefore, the following history has been reconstructed from the accounts of 423 Squadron activities found in the records of 2 Wing, coupled with the recalled memories of those who were there.

423 Squadron managed to get one flight in on their third day in Grostenquin, but the squadron was still experiencing "serviceability and organizational problems" associated with the move. It wasn't until 25 February that the unit began flying in earnest. The following day, crews from the Eagle squadron witnessed their first TUESDAY SCRIMMAGE. This was a weekly air fighting exercise between Canadian Sabres and French Mysteres, which normally ended with one group visiting the other's base for some professional "liaison".7 The Canuck crews would have their own opportunities to work with their NATO counterparts in due time.

Normal flying in local exercises occupied the squadron well into the next month, with the Eagles participating in their first full-fledged exercise on 26 March, known as EXERCISE SCAN PLAN. The day also saw the unit's first incident since its arrival in France. "Handcuff 58", piloted by F/O Jory, suffered a complete hydraulics failure; fortunately, he was able to recover the aircraft safely.

The third milestone achieved by the squadron in March occurred the following day, when 423 Squadron assumed the "Zulu" alert watch for the first time. This meant that fully fuelled and armed Canucks, along with their crews, were ready to take-off within seconds of notice. The squadron reassumed the alert state the next afternoon when foul weather with clouds up to 36,000 feet closed in, despite the fact that the CF-100 fleet was to be grounded "for technical reasons" (except for "live" and "hot" aircraft). The "Sword" pilots on the station saw, for the first time, the real advantages that the all-weather Canuck had over their daytime-only Sabres.

Standing the "Zulu" duty became routine for the Eagles over April and the following months. In keeping with their operational role, a great deal of flying was now done at night, with lesser amounts carried out during the day. The squadron was soon committed to providing two crews on five minute alert, with an additional two crews on one hour standby.

 

Tragedy Strikes

On 8 May, the squadron received its first distinguished guest. The Chief of Air Staff, Air Marshall Slemon, paid a quick visit to Grostenquin on his way to London. He toured the unit's dispersal area and inspected the guard of honour, who, according to the Wing staff, "looked very nice." Despite the demands of the visit, the squadron still maintained its Zulu posture, right into the following day when it was called upon to launch four aircraft in ten minutes for EXERCISE ARGUS.

Tragedy struck the squadron five days later. General Lee, Commander of the 4th Allied Tactical Air Force (4 ATAF), was visiting the base, and 423 Squadron was tasked to provide an air display. F/O Ray Komar, with F/O Sherratt as navigator, embarked in aircraft 18337 for the aerobatic performance.

The aircraft took off, but throttled back and circled to the left to come around for landing, possibly because of an onboard problem. Komar made a normal circuit, dropping gear and flaps, and turned "fighter-style" onto final approach. However, the aircraft was still very heavy with a full load of fuel, which Komar evidently realized too late. Despite full power, the aircraft fell prey to a "final turn stall," pitching over forty degrees and impacting the ground just short of the runway.

W/C Handley, along with two technicians, LAC's Lariviere and Myles, beat the fire trucks to the scene in the squadron's pickup truck. Komar had ejected prior to impact, with his 'chute opening just before he hit the ground in front of the sliding aircraft; Sherratt was still strapped in, finding himself with nothing in front of him except open space. The three men released Sherratt, putting out flames on his flying suit in the process. He was put in the ambulance and rushed to the U.S. burn unit at Landstuhl, Germany. Unfortunately, it was too late for Komar, whose body was found pinned under the starboard wing. The aircraft itself burned into the next day.

F/O Komar's death struck the squadron hard. He had been a member of the unit almost since its revival, and had over 1000 hours on the aircraft. He was buried two days later on 16 March, the first fatality the squadron would suffer in Grostenquin.

 

Rain, Rain, Rain...

Despite the loss, the Eagles soon picked up the operational pace. On 25 May, the unit found itself heavily involved in EXERCISE VIGILANT, where CF-100s had the opportunity to be the attacker for a change. The squadron flew a total of ten raids over two days, simulating high-speed bombers attacking the United Kingdom. Although high cross winds and heavy rain attempted to interfere, the Canucks continued to fly through the adverse conditions, which persisted up to the end of the month.

The poor weather did manage to score a partial victory on one squadron aircraft on 12 July. S/L Biddell was attempting to land in a heavy downpour when his aircraft hydroplaned off the end of the runway. Fortunately, the only damage to the aircraft was to the gun camera mount.

The same month saw several other interesting developments. On 16 July, word was received of an incipient pay raise, good news to anyone's ears. The following day, one lucky crew had the chance to "scope out" the gunnery range and facilities at Decimomeneu, Sardinia. 421 Squadron was deploying to that area, and had requested that a CF-100 lead the way as a weather-check aircraft.

A different Canuck crew had the chance to experience the weather more intimately a few days later. On 29 July, F/O Carroll, as "Handcuff 72," inadvertently lost his canopy in the early hours of the morning. He was able to land the aircraft safely despite the heavy rain falling at the time. The weather in the Moselle valley continued to affect flying throughout the summer, often stopping even the Canucks from operating due to heavy thunderstorms.

It seemed sometimes that, even if the weather cooperated, the aircraft wouldn't. Such was the case on 12 August, when the weather, which had knocked out teletype circuits two days earlier, finally let loose with clear skies. Unfortunately, the entire squadron fleet of aircraft were grounded because of suspected hydraulic fluid contamination. Not to be kept from fair weather, the squadron racked up fifty flights over the next two days on borrowed T-33's.

It is perhaps due to operating in so much rain that the Eagles placed second in swimming and diving events in intersection competition on 15 August, being narrowly beat out by Wing HQ. LAC Brau was the hero of the squadron, missing out on first place honours in the diving event by a mere 6/10ths of a point.

Fall weather in 1957 did not prove to be any more relenting than it did in the summer. A review of entries made in November reads much the same over many days: "High cross winds gusting to forty knots . . . Restricted flying washed out at noon because of lowering visibility in haze and fog . . . weather started out quite poor all over with visibility down to one mile, later down to 5/8ths of a mile . . ." and so on. Despite these conditions, the CF-100 was still able to get up on a regular basis and do its job, much to the chagrin of its Sabre rivals who were forced to watch from the ground.

EXERCISE SYNTHEX/ARGUS on 8 November was just one of many cases where the "Swordsmen" were delayed or cancelled while 423 Squadron was still able to send up its warriors. In all fairness, it must be admitted that the conditions that particular day were still bad enough to force a Canuck off a taxiway and into the mud; however, the squadron was still able to get seven aircraft up as "Argus" raiders, landing later at Volkel.

 

First Visit To Deci

The first week of 1958 saw the squadron carry out only test flights in anticipation of its three-week deployment to Decimomeneu, Sardinia, and the weapons training facility found there. Leaving on 8 January, the deployment was anything but uneventful.

Upon arrival, the T-33 which F/L Brickenden was flying refused to lower its landing gear and he arrived for his first visit to Italy on his belly, with the wheels still in the wells. Four days later, F/L Hennel in aircraft 18404 had his port oleo casting break and collapse, leaving his aircraft on the taxiway with Brickenden's T-bird nearby in the background. More accidents occurred in the last week of the firing camp, when two different aircraft hit the target flag, causing minor damage to each.

Despite the rough beginning, the time spent at Deci over the next four years would prove to be the a highlight for many Eagles. Conditions could only be best described as "spartan," with the sanitary facilities gaining particular notoriety. The station had only been opened on March first of the previous year, replacing the range at Rabat in French Morocco.8 It consisted of an old WWII Italian Air Force camp, whose modern-day Army descendants guarded the area with snub-nosed machine guns, probably more to keep the Canadians under control than the local populace. Indeed, the camp was fairly accessible to civilians, with the nimble fingers of the children of Calarieri carrying off many a valuable item or pay-laden wallet. Outside the gates the Canadians had to fend (or perhaps defend) for themselves. Muggings were, in the early years of the camp, fairly common. After a member of a another Canadian squadron was stabbed to death, the station authorities looked the other way when Canadian personnel sought to arm themselves better than the competition. Photographs taken at Deci at the time show many personnel sporting knives or holstered pistols, a display which went far to decrease the crime rate of the area. Despite the possibility of trouble, most Eagles greatly enjoyed the sightseeing trips to the nearby towns, Roman ruins, and caves, which the area had to offer.

The operations carried out on the ranges were as interesting as those off-base. The first two weeks were normally spent in sighting-in the guns and gunnery practice, with the last week reserved for rocket practice and qualification. Crews attempted to get in two trips in the morning, followed possibly by a third in the afternoon, before the heat became unbearable. The final results of the qualification shoot were used to rank the squadron first amongst all in the Canadian Air Division. The squadron returned from its first gunnery camp on 28 January, arriving in the late afternoon with twelve aircraft.

 

All Quiet On The Western Front

In the springtime, 423 Squadron carried on with its usual menu of training and alerts, with only the change of command on 13 April as a diversion from the normal pattern of events. W/C R.B. Murray now took command of the Eagles. June was a typical month, where the squadron participated in several exercises, including ZULU and TRACK TOIL, and worked on its shooting skills through cine camera missions against T-33's towing the usual target flags.

The Eagles headed back to Deci in early August, in what would be the normal pattern of deployment to Sardinia. This time there were no accidents; instead, a happy story marked the occasion. A padre who was visiting the deployed squadron discovered an orphanage in the area which was in dire straits. He approached W/C Murray with his concerns, proposing to hold a special Sunday service in which the returns of the collection would be used towards the impoverished home. The suggestion received the widespread approval of all ranks in the squadron, and 160,000 lira was raised. The donation turned out to be the largest ever given to the charity.9 This typically Canadian act of charity led future visiting units to undertake similar actions for other worthy causes in the area.

 

Tragedy Strikes Again

The squadron had not been back from Decimomeneu for more than a couple of weeks when a major accident took the lives of not only 423 Squadron aircrew, but of helpless bystanders as well. The accident, which occurred on 25 August 1958, was the worst in the squadron's post-war history.

A four-plane formation was returning to base. In the lead aircraft, 18329, was F/Os Ross Payment and "Baz" Pharoah; the second fighter, 18379, was occupied by F/Os Gus Cooling and "Squeeze" Kirkham. At 1000 feet over the field, the formation did a normal "fighter break." This time, however, it appeared that the Number Two aircraft broke too soon, and collided with the lead aircraft. F/O Pharoah ejected out of the lead aircraft, landing in his parachute almost on the Airmen's Mess. F/O Payment elected to stay with the crippled fighter in order to prevent damage to the base; he was able to direct the aircraft over the fence by the guard house, where it impacted into a field, nose first. Payment did not survive the crash.

At the same time, the aircraft with Cooling and Kirkham onboard crashed into the base hospital. One of the first people on scene was Cpl. Stoneham, an Aero-Engine technician in 423 Squadron. To his horror, he witnessed firefighters removing the body of his wife from the rubble; she had gone to the hospital only that very morning. The Station Pharmacist, F/L Pace, was also killed along with the aircrew, while F/L Chitham and Dr. Jeffreys were both critically injured. All flying on the base was cancelled except emergency flights and air evacuations. The squadron's second major accident in France had cost five lives.

 

Previous

Next