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“SEA BOOTS AND SOU-WESTERS” – REVISITED

Original text by Cpl K.R. Robinson with additional material by LCol T.F.J. Leversedge / 19 Wing Comox

Additional photos have been added to this story

 

           Foreward -As the RCAF 75 th Anniversary Coordinator for 19 Wing Comox, I was involved with some research for an update of the 19 Wing official history.   In researching photographs in particular, I came across some intriguing examples of what were obviously RCAF marine vessels.   Since, in my official capacity at 19 Wing, my squadron also has a modern day marine section, I was naturally interested as well.   The excellent photographs available thorough the Comox Air Force Museum were tailor-made for an article on the subject. I therefore set about researching the subject in greater detail but then quickly discovered an excellent article in the RCAF’s Roundel magazine. Originally published in November1963, and titled “Sea-Boots” and “Sou-Westers”, the article by Corporal K.R. Robinson presented a history of the RCAF Marine Section in fine fashion. While I could not improve on the general contents, many of the currently available photographs were an excellent supplement. Obviously, however, when the article was first written, the RCAF’s Marine Section still existed and made reference to this fact. What follows therefore is a slightly edited and updated version of the original text in which some facets have been placed in a historical context. All of the photographs are new to this 75th anniversary edition and are provided courtesy of the Comox Air Force Museum collection – LCol T.F.J Leversedge:

 

           Off the east coast, buffeted by wind and waves, soaked and shivering from the cold,  the pilot of a downed Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF)Hurricane,alone in his small dinghy, peered anxiously through the mist and rain for some signs of a rescuer. With darkness fast approaching and the wind rising, he realized only too well that spending the night alone on the inhospitable Atlantic was risky business. Then, barely audible at first over the sound of the wind and water,came the faint throaty growl of powerful engines.   Moments later, an RCAF launch came alongside; soon another thankful friend of the "Air Force Navy" was wrapped in blankets, sipping a hot drink, safe, alive and ready to fly again.   This incident took place 55 years ago, on     2 May 1944 off the Nova Scotia coast.   And, although equipment and personnel changed somewhat, this story was repeated numerous times both before and after this period by men and vessels of the Royal Canadian Air Force Marine Section.

 

                         To tell the tale of the Marine Section properly, it is necessary to go back to the very beginning of military flying in Canada . After World War I and prior to1939,most of the Air Force's aircraft were amphibious (in fact, prior to the outbreak of World War II, five of the eight squadrons that made up the regular component of the RCAF were equipped with flying boats or floatplanes). To service these aircraft, small boats of different sizes and shapes were used, from collapsible canoes to scows. These craft were manned and maintained by personnel who were to become the RCAF Marine Section.

 

RCAF Marine Section personnel meet a RCAF Catalina

 

             In the period between 1918 and 1935, some of the work performed by the Air Force consisted of air photography,              reconnaissance and forestry patrol.   These functions were carried out mainly by sea planes and this in turn made it necessary to set up small marine sub-sections at various points across Canada , to service these aircraft. In addition to the small sections, major marine establishments were located at Ottawa (Rockcliffe), Trenton and Jericho Beach , Vancouver .

 

             In 1935, a school was formed at Trenton for the training of marine crewmen. That same year, the RCAF acquired its first crash boats. These boats were 37 feet long and built by a British power boat company in Southampton , England , to RAF specifications. They arrived at Halifax on 10 October 1935 aboard a civilian freighter.  One of the launches remained at Halifax , assignedto  No . 4 (Flying Boat) Squadron (Sqn) then based at Dartmouth . The other boat was loaded aboard a flatcar and transported to Jericho Beach , Vancouver , for duty with No. 5 (Flying Boat) Sqn. The first two craft proved to be of acceptable design and in 1937, a 38-foot boat of the same type was ordered from a Canadian firm for delivery the following year.  In addition to the three crash boats acquired by the RCAF during this period, the Air Board also ordered three power dinghys from Canadian builders. These vessels were 18 feet long, powered with a 56 h.p. Buchanan engine and had a maximum speed of 18 knots. They were used for aircraft tending and bomb loading.

 

 

A RCAF Canso being refuelled

 

             The personnel strength of the Marine Section during the 1930s was necessarily small,      as was the rest of the service, but the marine school at Trenton continued to graduate small

courses of airmen trained to operate and maintain the slowly growing "Air Force Navy".  Marine strength on the eve of 1939 was 64 assorted vessels and 153 officers and airmen.   Only a small portion of the vessels were powered, the greatest number being scows and assorted small craft.

 

 

On the left, a typical assortment of RCAF small craft tied up at the dock and on the right, an “aircraft transporter” barge is towed by a utility boat


             When the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan came into effect in 1940, the RCAF Marine Section was charged with the responsibility of providing rescue and standby vessels to those stations situated near water.   To meet the immediate need for more vessels, several commercial fishing boats and small yachts were chartered and an energetic boat building program was set in motion.   Eight more 38-foot crash boats were built, also eight 56-foot refuelling scows with a capacity of 12,000 gallons each. In addition, three 84-foot supply vessels for coastal use were launched.

 

Salvage Vessel Squamish

 

84-foot RCAF Supply and Salvage Vessel Squamish

 

             By the beginning of 1941, the Marine Section’s strength had almost tripled with 164 marine craft and 444 officers and airmen. The increasing number of isolated stations and units had also created a serious supply problem due to the unavailability of naval and commercial vessels, and to meet this need, three 95-foot supply ships were designed and built for west coast use. The trade was further divided into two highly specialized branches and personnel were reclassified as "seamen" for the upper deck crew and "engineers" for those who worked below deck.

 

MV Chilco

 

The dock and boat houses from 102 Marine Sqn at RCAF Station

Patricia Bay in 1944.   The MV Chilco is in the foreground.

 

             Of interest might be the method the RCAF used for naming its marine craft. Vessels from 70 to 160 feet in length were named for Indian tribes, such as the Malahat, Songhee and Squamish.   Ships of 40 to 60 feet had taken their names from Canadian lakes, e.g. Nimpkish. Crash boats were named after Canadian waterfowl, such as the Black Duck, Mallard and Skua.

 

             Two of the RCAF's largest vessels, launched in 1942 from Smith & Rhulands yards in Lunenburg , N.S. were theEskimo and theBeaver, which were built from unfinished 170-foot hulls purchased in 1941. The two vessels were built to RCAF specifications fitted withaccommodation, cargo and cold storage space, and carried a crew of 23. They were powered with a 540 horsepower diesel with a speed of 10 knots. The two vessels were to make headlines more than once during their colourful careers, as will be explained later.   In 1941, the RCAF's growing "navy" acquired seven 60-foot supply vessels, built along the fish packer style, which could be converted and sold to public interests at the cessation of hostilities.   During this year also it was decided to replace the pre-war refuelling scows with 11 self-propelled refuelling barges, each with a capacity of 2,000 gallons, powered with an 85 horsepower engine and a top speed of nine knots.

 

             Up to this point, we have been mainly concerned with the buildup, formation and ship building programs of the Marine Section, and have dealt little with the men who were to sail these craft. They came from the farm, the lumber camp and from the big cities to mingle with deep-water sailors, crewmen from Gloucester fishing boats, Great Lakes grain boats and former members of the RCN and RCMP.  Soon fishermen from Newfoundland were facing fierce Pacific gales and farmers from the prairie provinces were peering through Labrador 's icy mists. However great or little experience these men had, all soon acquired the quiet professional air that marks a seafaring man the world over.  And seafaring men they were, proven many times under some of the most hazardous and trying circumstances.

 

 Unidentified RCAF Marine crews from Pat Bay circa 1944-45


CrewMontagnais1946
Crew of M234 Montagnais about 1946.  Jim Anderson, Master, is 2nd from left in back row. 

A new type of vessel was added to the marine inventory in 1942, the famous "glamour boats" of the RCAF: 70-foot High Speed Launches (HSLs) built by the Canadian Power Boat Co. from designs by British boat designer, Sir Hubert Scott-Paine.  Six of these boats were built from African mahogany, powered by two Packard-built Rolls-Royce Merlin engines of 1350 h.p. each and capable of speeds up to 45 knots.   The HSLs figured in many rescues until their retirement in 1952.

 

M235 Huron

 

M 235 "Huron"

Montagnais with navy numbers
Montagnais with Navy numbers - later changed to RCAF Marine M number M234

1945Montagnais

M 234 "Montagnais"

Other boats on the Pacific Coast were M 231 Malacite, M 232 Takuli


 

Left:A tow boat and target heading for the aircraft bombing range used by Lysander, Bolingbroke and Mosquito aircraft.
Right: TheKittiwake was also a target tow and range vessel

 

                 In 1943, two marine squadrons were formed in the RCAF, one in Eastern Air Command based at Dartmouth , and one in Western Air Command based at Jericho Beach , Vancouver . The commanders were Flight Lieutenant J. Howell and Squadron Leader Robinson. It was in this year that the RCAF Marine Section reached its full wartime manpower peak, with a strengthof  941 officers and airmen operating 384 marine craft of all sizes and shapes.

 

             Of particular importance was the role carried out by the Dartmouth-based marine squadron during the later war years.   Sailing as escort and survivor" ships for the trans-Atlantic convoys setting out from Halifax, the vessels and men of the RCAF marine section, particularly the crews of theEskimo andBeaver , shared the same dangers and hardships as their bigger brothers-in-arms.  Besides carrying out convoy escort duties from Dartmouth , the Marine Section also ran regular supply runs to Newfoundland ’s and Labrador 's outlying stations.  In addition to coastal work, the Eskimo and the Beaver undertook to transport, even though unescorted and lightly-armed, the equipment of No. 162 Sqn. to Iceland .

 

 

RCAF Marine Section Supply Vessel Eskimo in 1943

 

             The most memorable and heroic trip of these little vessels was the Eskimo's last voyage to Iceland , beginning on 12 January 1944 . The skipper was Flight Lieutenant J. Howell and the vessel carried a full crew of Marine Section personnel. This particular voyage was noted for the extreme hardships endured by the crew and for the skillful handling of the ship by the skipper. Here are some quotes from the ship's log of theEskimo on her outward voyage:

 

Jan. 17: Wind reached gale force from the north-west and ship making good time in heavy seas.  At 1415 hours fire was reported in the galley, the ship was hove to in heavy seas and the crew took action to put out the fire. Some damage was done to the ship. It was necessary to cut a hole through the partition to get the fire out.

 

Jan. 18: Continuous gales through the day.

 

Jan. 19: Continuous gales and heavy seas.  2315 hours, heavy seas struck the ship aft and the log line was cut.

 

Jan. 20: Continuous gales and heavy seas with squalls.  At 1600 hours, heavy seas struck the ship on the port side tearing away the dodgers and rails on the boat deck.

 

The Eskimo reached Reykjavik , Iceland , safely on 24 January 1944 . After discharging her cargo and repairing the damage to the ship, they once more put to sea, this time homeward bound for

Dartmouth .  On her return voyage the Eskimo again encountered vicious storms and suffered considerable damage.   The skipper summed up his impressions of the voyage this way:

 

 "Only the vessel's wonderful capabilities as a sea boat brought her through these storms and, although every attempt was made to nurse her along as far as possible, owing to a scarcity of fuel it was impossible to aid her by running off and she was forced ahead into some very high seas, some of which reached the height of 60 or 70-feet. The morale of the crew was very high under such trying circumstances.   It was impossible to find a dry spot on the ship to sleep and during the last four days of the return trip the crew slept on the deck of the galley or in the alleyways, lying on hose and gear in one or two inches of water."

 

             Both marine squadrons on the east and west coasts carried out search and rescue, supply and patrol work until the end of 1945.   Space does not permit the listing or accounting of all the rescues performed by these two organizations during the war years, but many aircrew and civilian personnel will attest to their efficiency and professional seamanship which saved many lives and many dollars in equipment.

 

 

Typical of the Marine Section salvage and rescue efforts, a RCAF MV stands by an overturned RCAF BlackburnShark on the West Coast. The second photo illustrates the aircraft type in a more upright posture

 

 

 

BC Star

 

A fine portrait of theBC Star before she was lost

 

The cost in lives and ships to the Marine Section for their part in the war was small, thankfully, until a tragic loss at the close of the war.  M-472 BC Star, a supply vessel, sank during a vicious storm in the vicinity of the Queen Charlottes Islands off the coast of British Columbia in 1945, with the loss of all 15 hands on board at the time.

 

Beaver

 

The RCAF Marine Section’s Beaver offshore in Labrador in 1945

 

The Beaver, sistership to the Eskimo of Iceland fame, started off the Marine Section's postwar activities with a proposed 8,000-mile trip (named Operation Packhorse) through Arctic waters to replenish emergency caches at various points along the coast of Labrador , Baffin Islands , Hudson Bay and James Bay in July 1946. The Beaver was under command of Warrant Officer 1 V. H. K.Nicholson.

 

The Beaver


TheBeaver on the left, caught in pack ice, and on the right, aground in James Bay
 

 

On 20 August 1946 , the vessel grounded on an uncharted reef off Cape Jones at the entrance to James Bay , about 600 miles southeast of Churchill , Man.   Extensive salvage operations were planned but the ship went down before anything could be done.   Members of the crew were picked up after being stranded on the ship for 48 hours in rough seas and were flown to Ottawa by an RCAF Canso.  After the loss of the Beaver, the Eskimo was rapidly made ready and left the following day, 21 August 1946 , from Halifax to complete the supply work still to be done at Churchill and Baker Lake .  From Dartmouth through the Strait of Belle Isle to Goose Bay , Labrador , where supplies were unloaded and others loaded on, through the Hudson Strait to Churchill, the vessel made record time. This operation, calledPolar, was under the command of Warrant Officer 1 C. Nauffts, who brought the vessel back to Halifax in early October, just beating the ice through Hudson Strait . The total distance covered on the trip was 5,224 miles and all supplies were delivered successfully and without incident.

 

That same year, MV Malahat embarked on Operation Seahorse, a 6,650 mile voyage that was to take her from Vancouver 's Jericho Beach Station through the Panama Canal to Dartmouth . The skipper on this epic voyage was Squadron Leader S. (Sid) C. N. Burridge, who had joined the Marine Section in 1935 as an airman.  The ship left Vancouver on 20 April 1946 and after stops at San Diego , California , Mexico , Havana , Cuba , and Miami , Florida , entered Halifax harbour in early June. TheMalahat was 95-feet long, powered by a 500 h.p. engine and she carried acrew of 12.

TakuliDrydock

Takuli in drydock

Takuli crew

The crew of theTakuli on deck

 

The marine squadrons in Western and Eastern Air Commands were disbanded and reorganized in April 1947. The Dartmouth Sqn became No.102 Marine Sqn., and the Jericho Beach Squadron became No. 122 Marine Sqn and was moved to Patricia Bay on Vancouver Island .  Work performed by these two units was mainly search and rescue, in conjunction with the International Civil Aviation Organization responsibilities Canada and the RCAF assumed at this time, but the supply vessels transported all equipment from Stations Comox, Tofino and Ucluclet when they were disbanded after World War II.  In order to meet search and rescue commitments on the east coast, it was decided to transfer Takuli, one of the HSLs to Dartmouth .Takuli left the west coast on 2 September 1947 , under command of Squadron Leader Burridge, and after stops in the USA , Mexico and Cuba arrived in Dartmouth on 14 October 1947 , after a voyage of 7,000 miles.

 

Both east and west coast units carried out operational duties until 1 November 1951 when the RCN assumed the sea-rescue commitments.  With the disbandment of the two squadrons many small boats held on marine inventories were turned over to Crown Assets for disposal.   The RCN acquired all the HSLs on both coasts which they operated for a brief period of time. The HSLs were then disposed of by Crown Assets Corp. Civilians purchased the vessels and after extensive conversions they remained sailing the B.C. coast as private yachts.

Skua and Mallard

RCAF Crash BoatsSkua & Mallard in Vancouver, BC circa 1955

 

In the early 1950s, many Marine Section personnel were either remustered or released. Those with rank of Flight Sergeant and above were required to remuster to leave room for advancement from the junior ranks.  Some were commissioned and others progressed to Warrant Officer rank in other trades.   The remainder were posted to various RCAF units across Canada. The trade was also re-organized at this time and marine tradesman became known as motorboat crewman.

 

In 1952, the RCAF re-equipped the remaining Marine Sections with a more suitable type of craft for current operations of the period, which consisted mainly of coastal search and rescue, standby flying and bombing and gunnery range patrol. The vessel selected was a proven design from the U.S. Coast Guard:  a 40-foot all-steel boat, powered by two 165 h.p. diesels, attaining a speed of approximately 20 knots and carrying a three or four man crew. These vessels were extremely manoeuverable, having twin rudders and twin propellers and their shallow draft made them ideal for inshore and lake work. Four of these craft were bought from the U.S. and five more were built by Canadian contractors. These vessels operated at stations on the east and west coasts and the Great Lakes and Lake Winnipeg . There was also a unit located at Primrose Lake near RCAF Station Cold Lake , Alberta . Other small craft were operated by the Marine Sections and also there remained one 75-foot supply and personnel carrier, the MVNimpish II, at RCAF Station Holberg in British Columbia .

 

Black Duck

 

The now restored Black Duck is a typical example of the RCAF’s post-World War II 40-foot crash boats

 

 At this point (1963) the airman of the Marine Section remained dedicated and professional seamen.   They were again small in number (approximately 65 men) but with extensive experience. Trade training was again being done "on the job".   Many of the remaining personnel in the RCAF Marine Section were ex-navy, tugboat and deep sea sailors and not a few were veterans of the Eskimo, Beaver and Takuli.

 

Postscript: With the integration of the elements of the Canadian Forces commencing in the mid-sixties, responsibilities for the provision of marine services and rescue craft for air bases reverted to the Navy. Vestiges of the RCAF’s Marine Section equipment and personnel however remained for some considerable period. The requirements for a Marine Section had not gone away, only the organizational structure had changed. In some air bases, such as 19 Wing Comox , British Columbia , small marine sections still remain to the current day.  

 

After the closure of a successful wartime section, the RCAF Marine Section at RCAF Station Comox was again re-established in 1952, when the station re-opened to support flying operations of 407 and 409 Squadrons. Three 40-foot crash boats were manned by RCAF motorboat crewman and were used for a wide variety of range patrol, target towing and rescue work. In the mid-eighties, while RCAF Marine Section personnel had long since retired, these RCAF boats were finally replaced by modern state-of-the-art 53-foot fiberglass boats and although now manned exclusively by naval crews, the traditions of a dedicated and professional RCAF Marine Section remain. Indeed, even the names of some the crash boats have survived since the current crash boats in 19 Wing Comox are known as MV 660 Black Duck and MV 661 Albatross.

 

Black Duck and Albatross


The current 19 Wing crash boats Black Duck and Albatross

 

References:

 

Jericho Beach and the West Coast Flying Stations , Chris Weicht, MCW Enterprises, Chemanius, BC, Canada, 1997, ISBN 0-9681158-0-2.

 

RCAF Station Ucluelet Recollections , Eric Stofer, self-published, Victoria , BC , Canada , 1995,

ISBN 0-96596163-2-0.

 

Sixty Years, The RCAF and CF Air Command 1924-1984 , Larry Milberry, CANAV Books, Toronto , ON , Canada , 1984.

 

The Royal Canadian Air Force Marine Squadrons – 1935-1945 - Volume One, Geoff D. Pilborough, Canimpex,Edmonton,AB,Canada, 1996.

 

The Royal Canadian Air Force Marine Squadrons – 1945-1985 - Volume Two, Geoff D. Pilborough, Canimpex, Edmonton, AB, Canada, 1996, ISBN 1-898875-17-0.

 

Trenton – 50 Years of Air Force , CFB Trenton 50th Anniversary Committee, 1981.

 

“RCAF at Sea” Random Thoughts, IPMS Canada Magazine, Volume 11, No 9 & 10, Sep/Oct 78.

 

“The Thunderbird Commemorative Issue – CF/RCAF Station Holberg 1954 – 1990”, CFS Holberg Newspaper final edition, 1990.