S/L Donald Patterson DFC – A Calgarian’s War

After enlisting at Calgary on 28 May 1941, LAC Patterson was selected for aircrew training and began learning to fly Tiger Moths at #19 Elementary Flying Training School (EFTS) in Virden, Manitoba, on 1 September 1941. He then completed his multi-engine training at #4 Service Flying Training School (SFTS) in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan utilizing Cessna Crane aircraft. Donald received his wings on 12 February, 1942.

Following additional training on Harvard aircraft at #6 SFTS in Dunnville, Ontario, Pilot Officer Patterson trained to be a flying instructor at the Central Flying School at Trenton, Ontario. He was then posted home to Calgary where, on 13 June 1942, he began giving multi-engine instruction on Cessna Crane aircraft at #3 SFTS that is now the site of Mount Royal University.

During his seven months at #3 SFTS, Donald entered page after page of Cessna Crane flights -a total of 486. His last flight at the Calgary station was on 13 January, 1943.

Flying Officer Patterson then spent the next three months to April 1943 at #34 Operational Training Unit (OTU) at Pennfield, New Brunswick and Yarmouth, Nova Scotia flying twin-engine Ventura aircraft.

Like almost all the instructors, F/O Patterson longed to be flying operations overseas. He was finally posted to #22 OTU in Yorkshire, England where he became part of a bomber crew and trained on twin-engined Wellington bombers. He was assessed as an “exceptional” bomber pilot upon the completion of his course on 22 August, 1943.

Donald Patterson Portrait

F/Lt. Patterson was initially posted to 405 Squadron where he flew two operations to Mannheim as a “Second Dickey” on November 17 and 18, 1943. “Second Dickey” was the term for flights by a rookie pilot during which they simply observed an experienced crew in action. His first operation as the captain of a Lancaster with his own crew was a 7:25 hour trip to Berlin on 24 December, 1943. Bomber Command, at this point, was well into what became known as the “Battle of Berlin””, a major effort that resulted in an extremely high casualty rate. It was the most dangerous time to be a pilot with Bomber Command.

One week later, on 7 January 1944, F/Lt. Patterson was transferred to 426 Squadron, the “Thunderbirds” at Linton-on-Ouse, North Yorkshire. The squadron was flying Lancasters, but they were Mk II’s, powered by Bristol Hercules radial engines rather than the Rolls-Royce Merlin V-12 engines that the Lancasters at 405 Squadron had. F/Lt. Patterson flew a total of eleven operations in the Mk II Lancasters, including three further missions to Berlin and the disastrous raid to Nuremberg on 30 March 1944 during which 95 aircraft (11.9% of the aircraft dispatched) were lost – it was Bomber Command’s worst night of the war.

In his highly regarded book, “The Nuremberg Raid””, author Martin Middlebrook quotes S/L Patterson as saying, “It was a bastard raid in its conception. Unless there was a really compelling need to go there, the thing was a double failure. But I am not bitter – I could tell you of many more raids that were cleverly executed and the desired results obtained.”

The squadron then converted to the Halifax Mk. III bomber, a much-improved version over the Mk. II’s that many of the Canadian squadrons had been flying. Like the Lancaster Mk II’s, these Halifaxes were powered by Bristol Hercules engines. Donald flew twenty operations in the Halifax, attaining the rank of Squadron Leader and becoming the ‘Flight Commander’ of one of the squadron’s two groups of bombers. S/L Patterson’s last flight with 426 Squadron was on 22 August 1944. He had flown a total of thirty-four combat operations.

Six weeks earlier, on 1 July 1944 following his twenty-fifth combat operation, S/L Patterson was recommended to receive the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC). The recommendation reads as follows:

“Squadron Leader Patterson, as a captain of aircraft, has completed 25 sorties over enemy territory including the heavily defended targets of Berlin, Magdeburg, Augsburg, Schweinfurt, Stuttgart, Frankfurt and Nuremberg. At all times he has pressed home his attacks with exceptional fearlessness. Whilst attacking Berlin one night in January several incendiaries from a friendly aircraft penetrated the starboard wing and burned fiercely for three minutes. Despite this, Squadron Leader Patterson successfully dropped his bombs in the target area. On three other occasions his aircraft was attacked by fighters which were successfully evaded. This officer’s dogged determination, skill and devotion to duty has set a splendid example to his squadron. He is therefore strongly recommended for the award of the immediate DFC.””

During his time as “B” Flight Commander, S/L Donald Patterson selected Halifax LW-207 as his personal aircraft and flew the bomber on sixteen operations. It was assigned the markings “OW-W” and named “Willie the Wolf from the West”. The name was taken from the 1943 movie “Riding High” that starred Dorothy Lamour and featured a song titled, “Willie the Wolf of the West””. S/L Patterson appears to have modified the title by substituting “from” for “of” as he was “from” the west – Calgary, Alberta. The artist definitely had Donald Patterson in mind when he did the painting because the wolf is wearing a squadron leader’s tunic. The tail art was another wolf with a gun named “Ol’ Daid Eye”.

Both “Willie the Wolf from the West” and “Ol’ Daid Eye” are among fourteen panels of Halifax nose and tail art that were cut from RCAF aircraft that were about to be scrapped following the war. They are currently on display at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa.

Donald with Willie the Wolf from the West beyond.

S/L Patterson was ‘screened’ from operations on 30 August 1944. He noted in his logbook that he, “Received DFC from H.M. George VI on August 11.”

The citation reads: “As captain of aircraft, Squadron Leader Patterson has participated in very many attacks on targets in Germany. On one occasion, whilst over Berlin, one wing of his aircraft caught fire and burned fiercely for some minutes. Despite this, Squadron Leader Patterson pressed home a most determined attack. On several occasions this officer has proved his skill and resource in evading enemy fighters which have attempted to close in on his aircraft. He has displayed a high standard of keenness and devotion to duty throughout.”

S/L Patterson was then posted to #1666 Heavy Conversion Unit at RAF Wombleton instructing pilots who had just completed their OTU training on twin-engine bombers, to fly the four-engined Halifax. The last entry in his logbook is 3 April, 1945.

S-L Patterson receiving his DFC from King George VI.

S/L Donald Patterson completed a total of 675 flights in Cessna Crane aircraft during his career, including 75 flights in Crane #8177 while at #3 Service Flying Training School in his home town of Calgary. The museum has placed the numbers ‘8177’ on our Cessna Crane to honour S/L Patterson who, like many other Calgarians, served in the RCAF during WW II.

One of S/L Patterson’s aircrew, Mid Upper Gunner William Bessent from Grande Prairie, was awarded the Distinguished Flying Medal for his record of defending their aircraft. S/L Patterson said that Bessent could pick out enemy aircraft that nobody else could spot and had shot down a number of enemy aircraft within range that were certainly not expecting to be fired on by the bomber.

Donald married the former Margaret Douglass (Peg) Milligan in October 1942. His first child, Donald, was born in October 1943. Upon returning from the war, two daughters were born, Elspeth Josephine in 1946 and Margaret Jean in 1948.

Post-war Activities

Following the war, Donald returned to Canada and became involved in various business activities including the oil industry following the Leduc discovery in 1947. He also rejoined the RCAF as a pilot instructor on the de Havilland Chipmunk aircraft from 24 November 1950 to 28 August 1951.

Regarding Donald’s post war activities, his son recalls, “As a member of the Calgary Downtown Lions Club, he became involved with the Alberta CNIB as a volunteer. In the beginning, he was involved with the Calgary CNIB board for a number of years, starting in the late 1960s and ending up as Calgary Chairman. Later as board chairman of the provincial CNIB, he was involved in the organization changing its focus from assisted housing for the blind to a broader focus on community supports for the visually impaired, including computer and other technology, employment training and independent living. The goal was to enable the visually impaired to function in the community including successfully accessing employment and independent living.”

Donald was also part of a small committee that learned about one of the last Lancaster flights planned out of CFB Lincoln Park. The aircraft was to be decommissioned and scrapped. The committee managed to acquire the aircraft, erected a pedestal on Airport Road leading to the old McCall Field terminal and placed the aircraft on the pedestal. The aircraft is currently owned by the City of Calgary as part of the collection of The Hangar Museum.

In the 1950s, Donald’s father Harry Patterson came across a book by R.M. Patterson (no relation) named The Dangerous River. Both men became intrigued with the South Nahanni River, including the canyons and Virginia Falls.

This interest resulted in three trips to the South Nahanni area. All the trips involved embarking from Fort Nelson, travelling down the Nelson River, onto the Liard River and then up-river on the South Nahanni River from Nahanni Butte. The trips were truly expeditions into the wild with no supports at all except for 45-gallon drums of fuel left at various spots on the Nelson and Liard River by river freighter operators.

Donald’s son recounted that “the areas were truly wilderness, particularly the South Nahanni River. On the trip that I joined in 1955, we almost never encountered other people except at the settlements at Fort Liard and Nahanni Butte. By today’s standards there was a total lack of communication. The rivers were not well-charted, although my father did have a chart for the Nelson, Liard and lower South Nahanni Rivers that he acquired from various sources as well as put together from the 1954 trip. The outboard engines of the time were underpowered and not that reliable. I did feel safe on the 1955 trip – I felt the boats were well-built, we always wore flotation devices and my father was a very cautious trip leader who made sure we always travelled in daylight and made camp before sunset. There was always enough food.” The third trip in 1958 was undertaken in a river boat that Donald built in his driveway to replicate the boat from the 1955 trip. Donald named the boat the “Thunderbird” in recognition of his bomber squadron and had the Thunderbird from the 426 Squadron insignia painted on both sides of the bow.

Donald and Friends with a Halifax Mk III beyond.

Personal Accounts

Here are some stories about S/L Donald Patterson as recounted by his son, Donald jr.

S/L Donald Patterson ‘was reported for circling his parents’ home (The house was formerly owned by my grandparents and that later became that of wrestling legend Stu Hart) at a low altitude (wingtip at roof height). He was probably trying to impress his wife, his mother and his father. My mother related this incident to me and said she wasn’t impressed.

“S/L Patterson recounted that long night flights over the prairies could become routine which motivated the RCAF pilots and trainees to look for something to do to alleviate the boredom. My father said that the Cessna Crane could activate a single landing light. The prank was to circle around to some distance in front of an oncoming train and then fly close to the ground toward the train and turn on the light, making the engineer believe that there was an oncoming train. The pilots would see the sparks coming off the wheels and rails when the engineer did a panic stop. He told me that there was a general reprimand because flattening locomotive drive wheels as the result of the panic train stop wasn’t viewed as being productive to the war effort (in his words). I remember my father saying that the senior management at the railway went straight to the Minister of Defense with their complaint. The commanding officer at #3 SFTS could not determine which aircraft and which pilots were involved. The way my father told it, it sounded like the prank was pulled more than once. He did definitely say that everybody was called up to a parade or assembly and the reprimand was issued to everybody on the base at the time.”

One day I asked my father about his training days. I asked him if he had ever failed a pilot? Failing to qualify a pilot after all the training was only done as a last resort due to the considerable investment in pilot training required for the trainee and because of the high demand for aircrew for the war. He said there was one for whom there was no foreseeable future as a pilot. I asked what had happened. He said that the trainee was passed along to him when he was in Virden, Manitoba after failing to qualify with other pilot instructors. He said that the comment was that, if Don Patterson couldn’t qualify this candidate, then nobody could. He said they went for a dual flight, and everything seemed to be acceptable until they came in to land. The student had the approach all wrong – wrong altitude, wrong speed, wrong flaps settings etc. My father said he tried to get the trainee to recover from all these mistakes, but the trainee fought with him and then froze. He said that he finally had to ‘wrestle with the controls and take them away from the trainee and land the aircraft’. He said if he hadn’t done that, at the least the aircraft would have been badly damaged and they both could have been seriously injured or killed. He said he scrubbed the trainee right there on the tarmac.

“Another incident that my father related concerned King George VI visiting the base to award medals. At the same time, a neighbouring base phoned to ask if his base had any extra ‘clips’ as that was the King’s next stop. These clips were pinned to the medal recipients prior to the ceremony to facilitate the King sliding the medals on to the recipient rather than having to use the pin clasp. My father said the other base could not locate their box of clips. He said that he and a skeleton aircrew grabbed an extra box of clips, tore out to the flight line and had a mechanic start the ground power unit to start the engines of one of aircraft. He said as they taxied to the runway, there was a lot of commotion on the control tower – people waving and running back and forth on the catwalk. He said they flew low over the English countryside and could clearly see the King’s Daimler on the road between the two bases. As they landed at the other base the engines started to cut out. In their haste, they had not taken a good look at the fuel readings or started the radio. The commotion on the tower was caused by those who knew that the aircraft was almost ‘dry’ and could not contact the aircraft.

“My father talked about the trip that resulted in the DFC. He said the burning incendiary was peeling pieces of aluminum off the wing. As soon as the bombs were dropped, rather than follow the planned mission flight path, he followed established procedure and dove the aircraft on a hard left turn to get out of the bomber stream and get closer to the ground in case they had to bail out. He said during the dive, the airspeed indicator was ‘off the dial’ or past the maximum recommended speed. As they dove, the incendiaries burned out. After returning to base and having the post-mission breakfast (eggs and the trimmings) and a sleep, he said his base aircraft engineer took him out to the flight line. His aircraft was not there but was in the ‘boneyard’ of unserviceable aircraft. The base engineer had laid out string showing the proper configuration of the burned wing relative to the fuselage. The wing had been bent back almost five degrees as a result of the high-speed dive.

“My father said that he was flying on a mission shortly after learning of my birth in October 1943. When his aircraft came under enemy fire, one of the crew members came on the intercom and said: ‘They are shooting at you, Daddy!'”

Donald (third from right) and his Lancaster Crew.

The Pattersons Brothers at War

Donald Patterson was the third of four brothers. His older brothers Henry and Sandy (Alexander) also saw active service on the ground in World War II in Europe.

Henry Patterson, already a lawyer, enlisted and became a captain in the Royal Canadian Army Signals Corps. He landed on Juno beach later in the day on June 6, 1944. As well as his affinity for the practice of law, Henry had a brilliant electrical and mechanical mind. He told his nephew Donald a number of stories of dismantling telephone exchanges to be reconstructed for the advancing Allied troops in France and Germany. He said the Germans exhibited considerable artistry concealing hidden wires to tap the telephone switchboards after the towns had fallen to the Allied troops. Henry returned to Calgary and practised law, later becoming a judge of the District Court of Alberta and a justice of the Supreme Court of Alberta, in spite of a crippling bout of polio in the early 1950s. Henry remained active in his community, serving on the Calgary Police Commission and later as an honorary Lieutenant Colonel of the Canadian Signal Corps. He and his father were on the 1955 Nahanni expedition.

Sandy enlisted and became an artillery captain. He was slated to go to North Africa but was diverted to the Canadian landings on the east coast of Italy. He was at the Ortona engagement and told his nephew Donald about some of the diabolical defenses mounted by the Germans. He recounted one close call when he went back from the artillery line for a break and a smoke where the Germans could not see the cigarette embers. He said that a round came in very close by. When he returned to the artillery line, his command position and crew had been wiped out. After the war, Sandy completed a master’s degree in botany at the University of Alberta and became Parks Director of the City of Edmonton. He was a strong advocate of naturalization. His impact is still visible in the Edmonton area, including the planting of thousands of elm trees on Edmonton boulevards.

The youngest brother, Arthur Patterson, was just completing his training to be a navigator when the war ended. Arthur became a geologist and still lives in the Calgary area.

My father, Donald, recalled that Henry had a high-security signals clearance. As such, he could send communications and had access to information for the purpose of his assignments in England. My father knew that his brothers were in England but due to wartime secrecy did not know where they were. My father said that one day a signal came to the base asking him to meet at a certain time and date at a location in a British town. This was apparently during a full moon when there were few raids due to the bombers being vulnerable in the moonlight. My father said he got a pass and travelled to the location which turned out to be a pub. He walked in and his brothers Henry and Sandy were already there. Henry had used his security clearance and had contacted both of his brothers. I said to my father ‘you must have torn the place apart!’. He said, “We did!”

A Tribute from Don’s Crew.
Calgary Albertan newspaper article.
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