Don Currie of North Vancouver, B.C. has been a volunteer and supporter since the inception
of the Nanton Lancaster Society. He attended our Grand Opening in 1992 and was selected to unveil the “Lifetime Members” plaque board. In 1999, he led the detective work that eventually tracked down the family of Sgt. Albert Prince, the first Canadian serviceman to be lost during World War II.
Some Personal Memories of an RCAF Observer/Navigator
by F/O Donald M. Currie, RCAF, 635 Squadron, RAF (PFF)
From the time I transferred from the Army, (RCOC) to the Airforce there was only one position I aspired to, and that was Navigator. To me it offered a greater challenge than any other position, and I might gain some knowledge that could be of help when the war was over.
Aircraft navigation has always requires a great deal of preplanning. There is the need for a flight plan showing the proposed course, with height, expected flight time and an ETA at the objective. Once in the air, the wind makes all calculations subject to change, so from observing your position in relation to landmarks on the ground, which vary from your calculated position, you make the necessary course and speed alterations to compensate.
It is one thing to do this in a small plane over familiar territory, it is quite different doing it in a heavy bomber, at night, under total blackout conditions, sitting above 9000 or more pounds of bombs and flares, over unfamiliar and hostile territory, while being shot at from the ground or attacked by enemy fighters.
During WW II, once the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan (BCATP), was set up, all Commonwealth Navigators were trained at one of the Air Observer Stations (AOS) in Canada. After an initial time spent at the Manning Depot exchanging uniforms, parading, saluting, etc., with a white flash worn in our wedge caps to indicate we were aircrew, I was sent to # 2 AOS in Edmonton, Alberta. The training course was intensive, covered all phases of navigation, and included some bombing at Namao with 12 lb. practice bombs. Initially we trained in Mark 1 Anson aircraft, which had been sent to Canada after the Battle of Britain. These were later replaced by Mk V Ansons, built in Canada, a more modern aircraft.
We were graded on 16 different phases of navigation, and marks were allotted out of a possible 1000. The mark became part of your permanent record, and followed you everywhere. Our Course was split, with half being members from Commonwealth countries who had come over to be trained as pilots, but had failed at that, and were switched to training as Navigators. The percentile required to pass was quite high, and some of those who did not were remustered to an Air Gunnery School.
Having passed, we were all promoted to Sergeants, and later to Pilot Officers. After some additional ground training in Canada, and a final leave, we were sent to the Depot in Lachine, Quebec to await our posting overseas. Travelling by troopship with thousands on board is not the luxury travel shown in travel brochures.
Arriving in Britain we travelled by train, (just as crowded as the troopship), to a Holding Depot near Gloucester. From there Navigators were sent to a British AFU for further training. I went to #1 AFU in Wigtown, Scotland, where we learned navigating under blackout conditions over land, as well as over the Irish Sea, with lighthouses on the coast which had to be identified by their differing flashing light programs as our only landmarks, far different from flying over the farmlands and towns around Edmonton. In addition, we were back in Mk I Ansons.
Training in Edmonton, with its warm, heated barracks was considerably different to conditions in Wigtown, where we lived in a steel Nissen hut, never warmed by the hut’s 25 lb. ration of coal burned in a small heater. The coal supply was fenced and staffed by Italian prisoners of war, but Commonwealth chicanery ensured that at least some of the time, the 25 Lb. limit was exceeded. When the supplied number of blankets failed to keep one warm enough for comfortable sleeping, no additional amount of “purloined” ones seemed to help. It was a miserable, damp cold, and, standing as an honour guard in the local graveyard when two New Zealand trainees, who had died in a crash, were buried, we could only hope that it was warmer where they were going. The difference between the food in the mess and that in Canada was also quite noticeable, but the occasional supplement of the eggs, muffins, jam and tea provided by the kindly ladies at the Temperance Hotel in Newton Stewart brought some relief.
From the AFU, again assuming a suitable pass mark, we were returned to a holding depot to await posting to an operational Squadron. This would take place when a complete new crew was required or a replacement aircraft was received by a Squadron to replace one that was lost, or when a navigator in one of the Squadrons was to be replaced because he had completed his tour of ops, or other reasons.
Another way to see action earlier, as a Navigator, was to volunteer for Pathfinder Force. They used two Navigators rather than one, the attrition rate was much higher than in Main force, so we might be called earlier. Before being accepted, PFF would assess all your training marks, with those having the higher marks being taken first.
There is a story of the founding of Pathfinder Force on this website. The following are more details.
Air Vice-Marshall Don Bennett, the head of Pathfinder Force, was a perfectionist. He demanded and got the best crews, he demanded and got the latest navigational aids, and in return he demanded the most accurate target marking that could be done. That meant forming a special unit to train navigators, so he set up a Pathfinder Navigator Training Unit (PFNTU) at Warboys. All aircraft used were Lancasters, the navigation equipment was the latest, and the pilots were all veterans who had completed one tour of ops, and were competent to assess us on our in flight competency, clarity, and compatibility with the other navigator. The Lancaster was his aircraft of choice, and this station also served as a “Con” (Conversion) unit, where Halifax pilots who were transferring to PFF were trained to fly the Lancaster. The two aircraft had completely different takeoff and landing characteristics, so most of that air-time was spent doing a “circuit and bump” routine. We were also trained in the best method of landing with a parachute, should such become necessary. This was done in one of the hangars by a rope and pulley method. One end of the rope was anchored high up in the hangar, the other end down near the floor. We sat in a sling under a pulley on the rope, rolled down the rope, and at the sudden stop at the end we had to land on our feet, then roll into a pile of hay bales. Undoubtedly effective, but fortunately I never had to use it.
I was selected to join the PFF along with 5 others from the holding depot. Pathfinder Force used two navigators in each aircraft, one termed the Observer, the other the Plotter. On completion of the course at PFNTU, after discussions amongst ourselves, and with the instructors, we were paired up and it was decided that I would function better as the Observer and my partner would be the Plotter. I was paired with a Navigator who had been one of my instructors at the AFU in Wigtown, and we were transferred to 635 Squadron at Downham Market in Norfolk . One week later we were at 635 Squadron where we met the crew we were to join, whose navigation team had been broken up. We did one test flight for assessment, and three weeks later we were on our first op.
Members of our crew, who had converted from Halifaxes, were, from nose to tail…
- Pilot – P/O Len Moore, RCAF,from Niagra Falls, Ontario
- Flight Engineer – Sgt. Bill (Willy) Cornelius, RAF,from Kilwinning, Ayrshire, Scotland
- Navigator/Observer – F/O Don Currie, RCAF, from Vancouver, British Columbia
- Navigator/Plotter – F/L Geoff Whittle, RAF, from Alfreton, Derbyshire, England
- Wireless Operator – Sgt. Charles (Chuck) Brown, RCAF, from North Bay, Ontario
- Mid Upper Gunner – Sgt. Bob (Mac) McIntyre, RCAF, from Sarnia, Ontario
- Tail Gunner – Sgt. (later P/O) George Faulkner, RCAF, from Toronto, Ontario
We operated in a completely blacked out compartment. The only illumination was a small lamp the Plotter used to be able to see his charts and Dalton computer, and the illumination from the Observers GEE set and H2S cathode ray tube, the Plan Position Indicator. We sat side by side on a narrow bench and unless we made an effort to pull the blackout curtain and stand up to have a look around, we saw nothing but our instruments for hours on end. All aircraft used were Lancasters, the navigation equipment was the latest, and the pilots were all veterans who had completed one tour of ops, and were competent to assess us on our in flight competency, clarity, and compatibility with the other navigator. One of our flights was to an airport in St. Diziere in France to deliver a VIP, and looking out at the number of crashed aircraft at the end of the runway, it was apparent it had been a well-targeted airfield.
Squadron Crew Ranking
Every Squadron had its crews qualified for different categories. These were…
These were usually the newest crews. They flew in support of the rest of the Squadron, same timing, same target, and carried the same bomb load as main force. Their role was to support the early marker crews and help achieve saturation of the ground defences. Their first duty was to arrive at the target on time. Their log and camera picture of the target were analyzed, as were all the logs and camera pictures taken during all training flights. On all these flights a high standard of H2S operation was required. As they became more efficient they could be qualified for a higher ranking, and assigned to more demanding marking duties with bombs and flares.
The categories were, in ascending order of competence from Supporter were…
- Primary Visual Marker.
- Visual Centerer.
- Blind Illuminator.
- Blind Marker.
- Primary Blind Marker.
The names generally indicate their role in the attack, and exceptional standards had to be met before a crew could qualify for the next step. Except on special flights, Pathfinder Force did not use a front gunner nor a separate Bomb Aimer. The Flight Engineer was given training to enable him to operate the bomb sight with additional information from the Observer. Depending on the raid, either the Flight Engineer would drop the bombs visually, with information from the Observer and Plotter for setting the bombsight, and the pilot would be given the course to fly to bring us over the target on the proper course. Then it was just set the bomb release switches, hold the plane steady and level the last 5 miles to the release point, push the “tit”, “Bombs Away!” and immediately change direction to get out of the way of main force. When it was a blind bombing raid, I set the release switches, timed and released the bombs and flares from my position, based on my reading of the H2S scan.
Brief Notes on the Navigation Aids Used
Primary was GEE, a pulsing radar system from two different locations in England. This showed as a blip on the radar screen in front of the Observer which could be plotted on a chart. Very accurate up to about 150 miles, after which the beam spread was too wide to be accurate. It was subject to heavy “jamming” by the Germans, and it was difficult to keep track of the true “blip” when dozens of false ones were also showing.
H2S – A self-contained scanning radar. It consisted of three parts, a generator driven by the starboard outer engine, a rotating radar emitting and receiving scanner mounted in a pod under the aircraft, and a Plan Position Indicator, a cathode ray tube, in front of the Observer. The scanner rotated once per second, and reflected from buildings, etc. directly below and forward of the aircraft. The scan remained on the screen long enough to be updated by the next rotation. No reflection was received over water, but the coastline could be identified, as could reflections from towns and villages along the route. From these, a bearing and distance could be calculated and plotted, and this would be passed to the Plotter for his use in determining course, wind velocity and ground speed, which info he would pass up to the pilot with any changes required to keep us on track.
Loran was a long range version of GEE developed by the Americans. It took time to get a “fix” and was not accurate enough to be used for bombing.Every Pathfinder station had two squadrons, 1 equipped with up to 25 Lancasters, the second equipped with about 7 Mosquitoes. These Mosquitoes were equipped with a later form of radar named “OBOE.” This was a line of sight radar aimed directly at the target, with a signal system on board that alerted the pilot if he got off course. When the target was reached a separate signal was sent to indicate when the flares should be dropped. A report says that it was recently tested with a modern RAF fighter-bomber, and it could not be duplicated.
All crew members attended the briefing, which gave the target, the route to be followed, the ETA, time of arrival (H hour), and the route to be taken getting back. The anticipated weather and wind conditions going to and at the target, whether there might be cloud cover, and the type of bombing raid it would be. Aircraft were assigned, with the classification of the crews and the raid, and their bomb and flare loads, fuel load and alternate airports noted for any returning damaged.
Then it was time for a meal, (not too much tea!), suiting up in flying gear, making sure you had all the maps, charts, etc. each member had to carry, a jitney ride to the “hard standing” where your assigned aircraft was waiting, a final ground check, urinate on the tail wheel for luck, (and to be sure your kidneys were empty), get on board, check your oxygen, check your equipment, and after the pilot and engineer had done all their engine checks, taxi to the end of the runway and take off.
There were many preflight duties to be performed after briefing, and prior to takeoff. In flight, he had to obtain a “fix” every three minutes, plot it, pass a “fix” to the plotter every six minutes, make his own calculation of the ETA (Estimated Time on Target), and, if blind bombing was to be done, set the bomb switches, time and drop the flares and bombs at proper intervals.
Blotter -A myriad of items to be checked and noted before take off. In flight, plot fixes obtained from Observer every 6 minutes. Calculate wind velocity and direction every 20 minutes, give pilot any course and speed changes needed to get to turning points and target on time, etc., etc.
There was no time for chit chat. We sat side by side on a narrow bench at a narrow table with barely enough room for our charts. Under the table was equipment which seemed to consist of nothing but protruding electrical connections which effectively prevented straightening our legs, and assured knee damage if we tried. It was completely dark, we had no visual indication of whether we were flying in daylight or darkness. Except for take off and landing, and possibly over the target if time permitted, we saw less of the war than anyone.
Targets, times, etc. came to A/V/M Don Bennett from the War office. It was his responsibility to select which Squadrons would take part, what the type of operation would be, the bomb and flare loads, etc. and the composition of those taking part.
He established some standard patterns and gave them code words. As an Australian he used some Australian words which meant nothing to us, and probably even less to the Germans. Without going into detail these were – Parramatta, (when OBOE equipped Mosquitoes from the other Squadron were being used, it became Musical Parramatta), Newhaven and Wanganui, or Musical Wanganui with the OBOE Mosquitoes. Times on target (“H” hour) ranged from minus 6 minutes for the Mosquitoes to minus 2 to plus 6 minutes for the PFF force to ensure the target was still marked when main force late comers arrived. Bombs dropped might be either 250 or 500 lb. ones, or a 4000 lb. “cookie.” Target Indicators were usually red or green, though white and yellow might also be carried. These were barometric flares, set to go off at 2000 to 5000 feet, and they would drift downwind. Illuminating flares might also be dropped depending on cloud conditions. Circling the target would be a Master Bomber who advised all incoming Main Force which colour to aim for in order to hit the target. German “flak” was predicted (aimed) at the early arrivals which accounted for many of the PFF losses. As more aircraft arrived it changed to “barrage” flak, meaning they just threw everything they had up to the height at which the incoming aircraft were arriving, and hoped to hit something. German fighter aircraft were also guided to early arrivals, after which it became just a matter of opportunity in selecting an aircraft. The need for all aircraft to be on target within about a 10 to 12 minute period was to saturate the German ground defenses. Being too early, or too late was not a good idea.
A/V/M Bennett, with a push from Winston Churchill, was equally concerned about getting his crews home. Many aircraft and their crews had been lost near their home base when the English fog rolled in and covered the field. To counteract this, FIDO (Fog Intensive Dispersal Of) was developed which consisted of a line of pipes along each side of the main runway. If fog had rolled in when crews were reporting arrival time at their base, petrol was pumped into these pipes and set alight. The resulting fire and heat immediately burned off the fog above the runway and showed a clear landing path. It did indeed look like a descent into Hell, with fire burning brightly just off each wingtip, but it got us all home safely.
Pathfinder crews were given 10 days leave every 6 weeks. Very few crews went on leave as a group. Crew members with no specific location in mind, would visit some of the notable British sites.
Our crew members, in addition, went to:
- Pilot [Len] – to visit cousins in Cornwall.
- Flight Engineer [Bill (Willy)] -to home in Ayrshire.
- Wireless Op [Chuck] – various British towns: York, London, etc.
- Plotter [Geoff] – Stayed with his wife in the local town (Downham Market.)
She was a Canadian girl who had met him when he was instructing in Canada and had followed him to England.
- Observer [Don] – visited relatives in Scotland, and in November, 1944 married Sgt. Jeannie Millar, of the 42nd CWAC Company, stationed at CMHC in London. Hers was the second contingent of the CWAC sent to Britain, arriving in 1942.” We met when we were stationed in the RCOC in Vancouver. We spent our honeymoon in Weston Super Mare.
- Upper gunner [Mac] – to visit relatives in England
- Tail gunner [George] – to visit his mother in Ireland.
I completed 6 ops with the crew prior to the war’s end. Our last one was a 7:15 hour one to bomb Berchtesgaden, Hitler’s mountain retreat. The next three months were spent in additional training flights to upgrade our PFF classification in preparation for Tiger Force to be sent to the Japanese theatre of war; taking members of the Squadron’s ground crews on “Cook’s Tours” to let them see the damage that been done; food flights to Holland; and bringing back some POW’s. By my birthday in June, at age 24, I was officially taken off flying duties, the crew was split up, and we were and posted to various holding depots to await shipping space for our return home. Some of the early volunteers for Tiger Force were returned to Canada for training. I was told by one of them that the first instruction they received on reporting to the base was “get the wire back into your hat!” Since then the RCAF have also determined that the wedge cap, instead of being aligned with the right eye, must now be worn centered on the head. There goes the tradition of the dashing young airman!!
We all came from different backgrounds, and, while our lives depended on getting along as a crew on operations, once the war was over we went our separate ways. Return to Canada was based on your length of service, and was spread over many months. My wife returned home in October, 1945, I followed in November.
Our crew is fortunate as, nearly 60 years after we were last together as a crew, we have, with the exception of our top gunner, kept in touch with one another. The top gunner, Mac, who was 18 at war’s end, disappeared into the USA. Len, Geoff, Chuck and George, went back to their homes in Ontario, Bill (Willy) returned to his home in Scotland, and me, Don, and new wife, returned to our homes in Vancouver, B.C. I am always saddened when I read in Airforce or the Legion magazine, where someone is trying to regain contact with some of his old crew members after 60 years.
We have managed a couple of reunions since, and have had individual visits with each other also. We have lost Geoff, George and Willy, in the years since, but are still in touch with their families.
It was the best of times for many young people, a chance to see a different part of the world, be exposed to different nationalities, different cultures. It changed many youths into young men. It was also the worst of times, as we lost so many tragically. We thought that would be the war to end all wars. We were wrong, but we made the effort.