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Flak Over The River Canard

Lyle James DFC flew 32 operations as a pilot with 101 Squadron, Royal Air Force.
As part of a “Special Duty” squadron, Lyle’s crew included a German speaking radio operator
who transmitted false orders to enemy fighter pilots.
The following article describes an incident which occurred during his training at Windsor, Ontario.

by Lyle James DFC

[ courtesy ]
The day was November 21 1942, the place was No. 7 Elementary Flying Training School, Windsor Ontario. Course No. 65 of the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan was rapidly coming to the end of the eight weeks that had been allocated to turning 36 keen young airmen into pilots sufficiently trained to warrant being passed on to the Service Flying Training Schools of the RCAF.

We had all thoroughly enjoyed our stay at Windsor, (myself possibly more than any one else, as it was while at No. 7 E.F.T.S. that I met Gladys). It was a very brief meeting, as a few days later I was posted to Camp Borden, then overseas. We were married in 1949, and she is still as sweet and pretty as she was in 1942!) The weather had been perfect, the instructors were all superb gentlemen, and the students were among the finest fellows that one could ever have wished to be associated with. By this stage of our training, we had amassed about 65 to 70 hours of flying time, were very proud of ourselves, and I suspect, not nearly as good as we thought we were!

Our postings had come through, and those who were to advance to twin engined aircraft were to be posted to No. 8 S.F.T.S. at Centralia on Ansons. Those who would be flying single engined kites, (Harvards) were posted to No. 1 S.F.T.S. at Camp Borden. I was one of the latter. These postings were effective December 6th, and all students were to be given a seven day leave before reporting. As most of us had only a couple of assignments to complete before our course graduated, our Commanding Officer, Flying Officer Edwards, as a reward for the good record our course had set, decreed that as soon as we had completed all assignments, we were free to leave! This amounted to a five day bonus, and was received by the students with great glee, and forged a bond of undying devotion to F/O Edwards!

I needed only a cross country and my instrument test, and I would be out of there! However Nov. 21st dawned very stormy, with a low ceiling, and poor visibility. Solo flying was washed out, but dual flying with an instructor in charge was authorized. Therefore, our Flight Commander, Mr. Tommy Calladine, checked me out for a dual cross country with my instructor, Sgt. Al Boden as safety pilot. The cross country was to be a triangular one, from Windsor to Leamington, to Amherstburg and back to base. We took off at about 9:00 A.M. in Tiger Moth NO. 9660, and I set course on my first leg. So far, so good. Then the devil squeezed into our cockpit, and in his insidious way suggested to Sgt. Boden that instead of proceeding on a long tedious cross country we should do a little unauthorized low flying, and enjoy ourselves instead! Never loath to a little fun and excitement, I was a willing accomplice to this plan.

As soon as we were away from the airport, we set course for the river, crossed over into Detroit (strictly taboo!) circled the vast Ford complex at River Rouge, then came back out over the Detroit river. Seeing some traffic on the river, we started to buzz whatever we could see, and received some waves and hand signals, (mostly friendly, but one I remember was in the form of a clenched fist waving most menacingly at us from the bridge of a tugboat whose super structure we missed by about three feet). Tiring of this, we spotted some ducks on the water and started chasing them at nought feet. As we flew abreast of River Canard, we saw a fairly large group of birds on the water, close to the shore, and near a large body of marsh reeds. Circling in over the land at about ten feet of altitude we came back towards the flock, diving off most of the ten feet. Just as we crossed the edge of the reed patch, there was a thud, and we were over the birds who, instead of flying off in panic as the others had done, just sat there, perfectly docile and contented. They were the most realistic decoys I had ever seen!

Pulling up to about thirty feet, I mentioned to Sgt. Boden that we had hit something with our tail wheel. He thought it had been an engine misfire. However, we decided that we should go back and take a look around. That was our second mistake! As we came around, again at about ten feet off the deck, and crossed over the decoys, I saw three hunters standing in what remained of a duck blind. The lower part of it seemed all right, but the whole upper part of it was gone! I also noticed something else. Each of the hunters had double barrelled shotguns, which they had brought up to shoulder level, and were aiming right at us! Then, before you could say Jack Robinson, I saw flames come from the barrels of each gun, then felt red hot needles hitting my hand, leg, and most embarrassing, my derrierre! From this, I realized two things. One, that light travels faster than buckshot, and secondly, that we were in deep trouble!

With one volley, the Duck Hunters won the Battle of River Canard, as that old Tiger Moth left there just like a scared jack rabbit! Climbing to a decent height, we took stock of ourselves. Sgt. Boden had blood running down his face from a hit just over his eye, and had fifteen other slugs in him. I had come off a little better, only having collected nine pieces of number two bird shot in my carcass. The aircraft was running well, but had over two hundred holes in it that weren’t there when we left the base a half hour before. As I said earlier, F/O. Edwards was a most enlightened and understanding C/O, but we were both pretty certain that he was not going to see any humour in this particular situation. Here I should point out that as the facts stood, we would be charged with the serious offence of low flying, intentionally damaging one of His Majesty’s aircraft, and possibly incurring self inflicted wounds, any one of which could result in a court martial and our being washed out of aircrew. Also, if apprehended, a most dire fate awaited the unfortunate hunters. Therefore, it was necessary that we come up with a plausible (but not necessarily truthful) explanation of what had happened. Sgt. Boden, as instructor and aircraft Captain was understandably quite concerned, and couldn’t seem to come up with any kind of a plan that would hold water so I thought up the following story. While it didn’t seem too convincing, it was the only one we had. It follows.

[ courtesy ]
We had left the base on the preset course for Leamington with myself, Sgt. Lyle James, flying and navigating, Sgt. Boden acting as safety Pilot going along for the ride and to assess my flying and navigational abilities. As stated, the weather was only marginal, with a very low cloud base. As we progressed, the ceiling lowered to about two hundred feet. Not wishing to abandon the flight, I climbed up into the cloud, and flew for about twenty minutes on a compass course of 135 degrees. At the estimated time of arrival, I let down through the cloud, and came out over lake Erie, about six miles off shore. The cloud base was still about 200 feet, so in accordance with the King’s Regulation, Air, which states that the minimum height to be maintained below a cloud level is 65 feet, I started flying a reciprocal course and we reached the shoreline almost dead on track! As we crossed the shoreline, I felt a stinging sensation in my hands and legs. Sgt. Boden was bleeding from the face, and we realized that we had been shot! Therefore, I abandoned the cross country and returned immediately to Base, where we landed and reported to the Commanding Officer.

Well, you cannot begin to imagine the consternation that our return caused! Two wounded aircrew, two hundred holes in 9660, police and reporters all over the place. The two Medical Officers who, until now had treated nothing more serious than hangovers and athlete’s foot, took over and, because Sgt. Boden was bleeding, devoted their attention to him. Our Flight Commander, Mr. Tommy Calladine, an old bush pilot who had flown Forestry Patrols in Gypsy Moths back in the thirties, seeing me surrounded by all types of questioners, came to my rescue and bundled me into Tiger Moth 9657 and away we went for my final instrument test. This suited me fine, as it got me away from my inquisitioners, and gave me some time to collect my thoughts. However, by this time, the M.O.’s came for me, only to find that I was up flying again. They then started to vent their wrath on the system for, in their words, “sending up a wounded boy for a test, when he should have been in sick bay.” Mr. Calladine, (whose picture hangs in the 7 E.F.T.S. room at the Windsor Air Force Association Club) was kind enough to pass me, and I was ready to go to S.F.T.S.

There was, however, the matter of the buckshot to be removed. The M.O.’s decided that we would be better served at Grace Hospital, Windsor, than in their sick quarters, so away we went in the C.O.’s Station Wagon, no less! At Grace Hospital we received the utmost care and attention, and were thoroughly enjoying ourselves, surrounded by pretty nurses and attentive Doctors. The next day they started removing the slugs, but after taking a few of them out, the Doctors in their wisdom decided that they would do less harm if they were left in us. This turned out to be strictly to our advantage, because afterwards, when relating this story, and seeing the disbelief of some doubting Thomas, it does help to say “if you don’t believe me, here is the evidence.” Our stay at Grace came quickly to an end, and we left, Sgt. Boden to go back to the Base and me, on my interrupted leave, to bask in the notoriety that this event had brought me. Needless to say, it had been big news, published in all of the national papers right across Canada.

Well, it seemed that all had blown over, and we were in the clear. However, I received a telegram ordering me to return to Windsor on December 5th for a Court of Inquiry. No sweat, so on the morning of Dec. 5th I crossed over to Port. Huron Michigan and proceeded to hitch a ride to Detroit. This was no problem, as any one in uniform didn’t stand on the side of the road very long in the United States! Almost the first car to come along was a big Chrysler with a rather elderly lady school teacher driving. We had a most pleasant drive to Detroit, and as we were rolling down Gratiot, she decided she’d like a drink. She was driving in the right lane and promptly wheeled across the intervening lanes, and, so help me, a Buick piled right into the side of us! The driver was a big 250 lb individual who was most irate! However, he must have mistaken me for a General in my foreign uniform, for he immediately started calling me “Sir” and “Your Honour,” assured us that he was a citizen of good standing and that he would take care of everything! Agreed! Now, if that lady needed a drink before that, you should have seen her by then! After a couple of whiskey sours she settled down and I caught a bus the rest of the way down town, and from there through the tunnel to Windsor. What a start for the day of my Court of Enquiry!

I immediately reported to the C.O., who informed me that I had done exceptionally well at No.7 E.F.T.S., and was leaving there with a recommendation for a Commission upon graduation, therefore, if I was entirely truthful in what had actually transpired, all would be well. I assured him that was exactly what I intended to be. However, he did not know that I had already been out to the hangar, contacted Sgt. Boden, and refreshed our story with him.

The Court of Enquiry opened at 2:00 pm with Sgt. Boden and myself on one side of a deal table and F/O. Edwards and an LAC Clerk on the other side. I related to him exactly what I had said regarding the trip to Leamington, backed up with the route map that I had started our trip with. Sgt. Boden verified my statements, and after a rather cursory cross examination, the Court was over. But now the fun really started! F/O. Edwards then told me that Mr. Al Lewis, the Chief Flying Instructor was going to fly me to Leamington, where an RCMP cruiser was waiting. I was to show Mr. Lewis where the shooting had taken place, he would then buzz the cruiser, and the Mounties would investigate it. No problem. Mr. Lewis, whose picture also hangs in the Windsor Air Force Club room, was a grand gentleman who was later to lose his life as a flying missionary in Venezuela after the war, took off and we flew down to Leamington, located the cruiser, then started off for the scene of the crime.

Lyle James DFC

Now, I had never been to Leamington, (which, incidentally, is about forty miles from the River Canard), but I wasn’t unduly worried, as all I had to do was pick out a plausible location, point it out to Mr. Lewis, and leave it up to the Mounties. However when we crossed the shoreline at the point so neatly delineated on my route map, I was in for both a shock, and a surprise! Instead of a normal lakeshore that would be selected by duck hunters, this part of the Lake Erie shore was completely filled with the luxurious and well manicured estates of American millionaires from Detroit! There wasn’t a place where a small rabbit could hide, let alone a full size duck blind! What to do? As I frantically scoured the horizon for any spot at all that would be better than what I was looking at, I spotted the only place that would offer salvation. A small stream flowed down into the lake, and it’s ravine had a very tall stand of scraggly spruce trees, and rocks. Tapping Mr. Lewis in the shoulder, I smiled at him as convincingly as possible, and pointed down most emphatically to this oasis. In short order we were once again over the RCMP cruiser, guided them to it, and left for the flight back to base. A couple of hours after landing, the unbelievable happened! The Mounties phoned the C.O. to tell him that they had found two freshly fired shotgun casings on the ground of this ravine! Case closed! After receiving the congratulations of all round, I left for Camp Borden, never to hear any more of this adventure that was unique in the training annals of the RCAF!

Lyle James and trim tab.

Four years after the war ended, Mr. Gerry Lynch, an engineer at No.7 E.F.T.S. contacted me and turned over the elevator trim tab of 9660 to me. This aluminum tab, 10 inches by 2 inches, has twenty holes in it. This gives an indication of the close proximity of the business end of those shotguns to our poor old Tiger! I am now in the process of turning this particular memento over to Mr. Bernie Riendeau, to be added to the items on display in the No. 7 E.F.T.S. room.

In conclusion, I have always been very thankful that this thoughtless prank did not injure the three hunters who were part of the story. The ending could have been very tragic, had we been a few inches lower! It has always been my most sincere wish to someday meet those three gentlemen and apologize for our actions on that far away November day when we ruined what was likely a good days hunting for them!

DAILY DIARY – No. 7 Elementary Flying Training School; Windsor, Ontario

An unusual incident happened today. R111251 Sgt. Boden, A.P., instructor and R90011 Sgt. James, L.F., student, were on a cross-country flight to Rutliven, Tilbury, and return. At Union it was necessary for the pilot to drop the aircraft Tiger Moth No. 9660 to a low altitude to get accurate position due to low ceiling. Someone unknown fired at least two shots at the aircraft with a shotgun. The shot entered the aircraft, the occupants being slightly injured. The pilot received about 18 gun shot wounds and the student three or four. The aircraft was flown back to the station. The damage to the aircraft was assessed as “C” category. The RCMP and Provincial Police are carrying on an investigation.

Back Row -Aircrew (l-r): F/Sgt. Ian Walker (rear gunner) age 18, Fitzroy Harbour, Ontario; F/Sgt. John Norrington (flight engineer) age 18, Grays, Sussex, England; F/Sgt. Bill Dean (mid-upper gunner) age 19, Windsor, Ontario; F/O Gordon Bullock DFC (bomb aimer) age 30, Virginiatown, Ontario; F/O Lyle James DFC (pilot) age 27, Sarnia, Ontario; F/Sgt. Lionel Wright (wireless operator) age 19, Rochester, England; F/O Robert Irvine DFC (navigator) age 19, Brigden, Ontario; F/Sgt. David Bernett (special operator) age 18, London, England. Front Row -Groundcrew (l-r): Johnny, Marty, Flash, Billy, Alec. [ Photo courtesy E.W. “Bill” Dean ]