Watching The Russkies

This article tells the story of a Lancaster’s secret flight to investigate the source of Russian
radio transmissions in the Canadian sector of the Arctic ice pack, very close to the North Pole.

It is taken from the book, “Nadir to Zenith -An Almanac of Stories by Canadian Military Navigators”

by G/C (Ret’d) Bill Hockney and Col. (Ret’d) Moe Gates that was published in 2002.

“Watching the Russkies” [ by Don Connolly ]
In mid September of 1954, in my last 30 days on 408 (Photo) Squadron, I was informed by my Nav Leader, F/L Andy Clarke, that I was to go on a final trip for which the crew would be briefed that afternoon. I reminded him that I was to attend the School of Instructional Technique in preparation for my posting to the SNIN Course in Winnipeg. Notwithstanding my point, I was advised that the Squadron Commander, W/C Jack Showler, had selected me to go, and go I must. There was not much more to be said.

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At that time, September of 1954, 408 had just completed the first tasking on the Shoran Recorded Photo Survey along the 55th North Latitude parallel where the Mid-Canada Line was to be installed. It had been a long summer for me as I was then the Shoran Operations Officer and had departed Rockcliffe in mid May when our first SHORAN stations were installed by Goose Bay’s ski-wheel Dakota. I was advised of my posting to Winnipeg sometime during the summer; certainly before the squadron returned to Rockcliffe in late August.

In those same years during the Cold War, 408 was also tasked with northern reconnaissance which was mainly carried out in the fall and early winter months and then again in spring. All Lancaster crews were trained for such recce and trips were made at least once a month requiring something in the order of 60 hours flying. These recce sorties were usually carried out from a northern base, most often Resolute Bay, which had a permanent detachment of RCAF personnel commanded by a Flight Lieutenant, but some flights were from Frobisher Bay, now Iqualuit, and occasionally from Fort Churchill, Manitoba which also had a permanent RCAF detachment and a single Otter aircraft.

Before the briefing that afternoon the crew was established: F/O ‘Pablo’ McKenzie and F/O Glenn Reid were the pilots, while F/O Cal Munroe and I were the navigators. F/O John Boulet was RO, LAC ‘Red’ Webber was Flight Engineer and F/S Dick Talbot was the Photo Op.

Later that afternoon the crew was assembled in the Air Photo Interpretation Centre (APIC) of 408 and briefed by S/L Alan Simpson and F/O Tex Mitchell. It was then we learned that two direction-finding stations in Canada had been detecting radio transmissions of a Russian source in the Canadian Sector of the arctic ice pack very close to the North Pole. As the transmissions had been taking place for some time, there was a declared need to investigate a possible Russian installation. Our task was to carry out a recce and obtain intelligence photos. Given the proximity to the pole we would be required to operate out of Thule, Greenland in order to have sufficient fuel to complete a square search if needed and to reach an alternate should Thule weather be below limits on our return. Further, we were to maintain radio silence once we became airborne from Thule and, in keeping with the security afforded the operation; we were to file a somewhat deceptive flight plan that would conceal our real intentions. In keeping with the radio silence, and in search of further intelligence, we had attached to us for the flight a Russian-speaking Radio Officer, F/L Danny Porayko, from the staff of Air Intelligence Branch in AFHQ.

Naturally there was considerable secrecy attached to the flight and we were forbidden to discuss it with any others on the squadron or with wives. I recall the frustration my wife exhibited when, as we were preparing for our departure for Winnipeg, I told her I was off on a trip and could not tell her where I was going or when I might be back. Cal Munroe experienced the same reaction as he too was posted onto the same SNIN course as myself. We were to fly Lancaster FM-120.

We had the following day to prepare for the trip and then began our journey north,
stopping over at Goose Bay as we would for a normal recce flight.
The next leg was to Thule Air Force Base.

The following day, 19 September, we departed Thule with a first leg taking us to Alert at the northern tip of Ellesmere Island. That would be our last point of land with approximately 3 hours 45 minutes over the ice cap to our destination at 890 36′ North. Regrettably, the weather did not cooperate and it was undercast shortly after take off and we never did see Alert. We did get an on top using the radio beacon but at that time the Alert beacon was low powered and an on top could be in error by several miles. We were on astro without even a drift to provide an indication of the forecast winds.

Though we had astro, it was with two celestial bodies barely above the horizon; the sun a few degrees while the moon was even lower. However both provided us with the needed information to rate our gyros and to gain some fixing information.

Our Mk 10 Lancaster was then standard on 408; we had two extra fuel tanks fitted in the bomb bay that added an extra 800 gallons of fuel, giving us a total of 2954 gallons, sufficient for 14 hours flying with careful cruise control. Our planned flight time was nine hours and the remaining fuel gave us an alternate of Resolute Bay some two hours distant from Thule. Thus we had fuel enough for a lengthy search should the Russian Installation be other than where it was reported.

Also standard on our Lancs was the Sperry Gyrosyn Compass which when used in free gyro mode could provide drift rates as low as four or five degrees an hour – 408 Lancs had their latitude screw settings at a higher latitude than was normal in an attempt to reduce drift rates at the higher latitudes where 408 normally operated. The Lanc was fitted with an autopilot which had a good gyro in it that gave very low drift rates when it functioned – which wasn’t often and this flight was no exception. The pilots air-driven DGI was our standby gyro and was rated regularly in the event the Gyrosyn failed. It did! And we were onto the DGI as the primary steering indicator. Regrettably, those old DGI’s did not usually have a low drift rate and so in an attempt to maintain track as closely as possible we were checking gyros and correcting heading every 15 minutes. That frequency increased the level of work for the navigators considerably as all astro calculations were made using Hughes Tables that provided a means of completing all sight reductions using a single small book. Given 408’s usual flying patterns of north-south, carrying only a single sight reduction volume was a great advantage.

The flight proceeded with out event over the polar cap with the undercast prevailing the whole time. Given that situation, the navigation plan was to take a final astro fix about twenty minutes from ETA and then begin a let down to penetrate the cloud at ETA.

I was the astro observer on this trip – we did have the Kollsman periscopic sextant – and I completed the fix on time though by this time the sun was very low and the moon even lower. Memory will tell you that atmospheric refraction at such low altitudes is large and if in error at the higher latitudes, it alone could contribute significantly to navigation error. But it was all we had.

The let down was calculated and started and heading altered to reach the target. At about 3 thousand feet we entered cloud and when reaching 500 feet ‘Pablo’ expressed some concern about going lower. I assured him that we had made an accurate setting of the SCR 718 Radar Altimeter at take-off and that we could descend further as Cal Munroe was monitoring the altitude carefully and could provide plenty of warning. We continued our letdown and broke out at 200 feet, right on top of the target.

It was readily identifiable by the large hammer and Sickle flag that flew overhead. At this time ‘Pablo’ exclaimed loudly over an open intercom, “Moe, you lucky b…..d”.

“Skill, nothing but skill”, was my ready reply.

We then became very busy taking photographs. From the nose position of the Lanc, I directed the photo runs over the camp with F/S Dick Talbot switching on the Sonne Strip camera and the F24 for a line overlap. At the same time I was using a hand-held Polaroid ‘Land Camera’ from the nose position.

The Polaroid camera was experimental at that time only and saw its first use on that trip on a recce task. As we passed over the camp people were visible as was a ski-equipped light aircraft.

After completing our photos, a jubilant crew climbed away for a return to Thule exactly nine hours after take off that morning. The navigation routine on the return journey was somewhat more relaxed.

The following day we departed Thule for Rockcliffe where we arrived ten hours later at 1930 for debriefing by Allan Simpson and Tex Mitchell who then completed the necessary reports and carried out the photo interpretation of the Russian installation.

Clearly all was duly reported to AFHQ/DAI and quickly disappeared into the intelligence world.

Meanwhile, I attended the SIT Course at Trenton, packed up our household and moved on to Winnipeg.

Following my departure, the story was released to the press and ‘Pablo’ and the other crewmembers were interviewed by the local media. Me? I was driving through Hurricane Hazel in Northern Ontario with water on the road at one time coming in around the doors.

Many years later, in 1980, while dining one evening with Don Connolly – yes, the well-known airplane painter – he was showing me a painting of a Lancaster over the Russian Ice Island; “Watching the Russkies” he titled it. I think he was even more surprised than I when I told him I knew all about the flight as I had been the navigator whose astro got the aircraft there.

I bought the painting and it has hung in my home since then. But the painting rightfully belongs with 408 Squadron and I have so gifted it. They will eventually place it in the RCAF Museum at Trenton exemplifying the reconnaissance efforts of the 408 Squadron aircrew whose best aid to navigation in those early days of arctic flying was a sextant, and a navigator competent with Hughes tables.

Per Ardua Ad Astra was never more meaningful.