By Dave O'Malley
I hear voices. The voices of brave men. Gentle voices, creaking with age and weariness, soft and humble after a long life. I hear voices. The flinty voices of warriors at peace with themselves. Voices that linger in my head for weeks on end, calling to me from across the decades since the Second World War, from across the country, from the opposite side of this world. I hear voices. They call to me, they speak to me, willing me to understand. The men whose voices I hear, I have never met nor have they ever spoken to me in person on the telephone, yet I know their voices – clear in my head, individual, identifiable, personal.
The first voice that spoke to me was that of Australian P-40 Kittyhawk pilot Arch Simpson. Arch and I exchanged emails no more than ten times as we put together his story about how our P-40 Kittyhawk came to ill fortune on a muddy jungle airstrip on sweltering Papua New Guinea, back in 1944. That was the sum total of our exchanges, our friendship and our time together. Though brief and stretched to the longest distance possible on this planet, we were able to find a connection and mutual understanding. When his son Robin emailed me to tell me he had died, I was heartbroken.
Arch was a man not given to talking about himself or his adventures during those stressful years. This is something he and most of his mates share. Whether they hail from Canada or Australia or the United States, the veterans of the war have, by some unspoken and mutual agreement, decided that the terrible things that happened to them during the war, that the deaths and injury to their friends and their shared sacrifice would be dishonoured if a man were to brag or gain heroic status by self aggrandizement or self-promotion. Almost to a man, they share their stories only with each other and with those who take the time to understand the context of their suffering and open doors to their memories ever so slowly.
Lately, a new voice has spoken to me, clear and warm and with all the humility of his generation. It is the elegant voice of Robert “Kirk” Kirkpatrick, an American in the Royal Canadian Air Force and a man with a remarkable story. Like Arch Simpson, I received my first email from Bob as a result of an article I had written – this time when we received and published new photographs of Flying Officer Rocky Robillard from his Service Flying Training School (SFTS) course mate, Fred Mahler. I am not sure how Bob Kirkpatrick came to subscribe to Vintage News, but I will be forever grateful that he did.
Following the article about Robillard's photos, Bob wrote to me: “While in the RCAF, can't remember when, but possibly during my time at Uplands, I had heard about an evasive fighter maneuver, the Robillard Roll. The following is from a housebound 90+ year old who's memory is often questioned, however it seems that the Robillard Roll consisted of a feint vertical bank to the left followed by full stick forward, like a bunt when straight and level, followed by a roll to the right, back to a vertical left bank. Apparently this could end up with the pursued becoming the pursuer. Has anybody heard of this or performed it?” So began a series of emails back and forth over the past two weeks, though which I have learned only a smattering of details and experiences of Bob's wonderful life as a military and civilian pilot.
There is a tradition at Vintage News of publishing a story of an American aviator for the week of American Thanksgiving and Bob's voice speaking to me came at the right time. While there is not enough space and perhaps not enough time to tell the entirety of Bob's more than 20,000 hours of flying time, I think you might like to hear a short vignette from the very beginning of Bob's lengthy career.
To be honest, I do not know Bob. Or at least I have not known him very long. But I know men like him. They are the reason we at Vintage Wings of Canada devote so much time to telling their stories. Over the past couple of weeks, I have tried to coax a few memories from Bob so that I could honour him on Thanksgiving. It has been an enjoyable thing for both of us.
A Cold Start in St. Eugène – an American in the RCAF
Leading Aircraftman and pilot trainee Robert Kirkpatrick hoisted his duffel over the shoulder of his blue RCAF great coat, opened the door at the back of the warm train carriage and stepped down onto a tiny station platform in the midst of a blinding Ottawa River Valley snowstorm. Behind him came four more young men, each with all their worldly belongings, to stand in a huddle of icy misery on the snow-covered platform, collars pulled up against the white cascade. The train lurched, belched a gout of sooty black smoke, mixed with snow white steam. Couplings screeched, drive wheels spun and shrieked on cold steel rails, and in succession, the passenger and mail cars began to move. Puffing and groaning and squealing, the maroon cars began to pick up speed. In a few moments, the last car disappeared into the swirling snow. A minute later, the fading sound of the train was silenced beneath the heavy weight of the falling snow.
Kirkpatrick and the four others stood, with snow beginning to accumulate on their blue shoulders, at a yellow clapboard train station, no bigger than 24 feet by 12 feet. On the side facing the platform, a small white sign read “St. Eugène”. Kirkpatrick was a long way from his Cleveland home. The snow continued to accumulate and the five young men, who were told that someone would pick them up, began to wonder what they were supposed to do. They could not see further than a few dozen yards.
After a while, chilled by the frigid winter storm, they began to hear the clanking and muffled diesel roar of something that sounded like a bulldozer, and it was getting louder. Sure enough, within minutes, an RCAF snow crawler emerged from the blizzard, a flatbed sleigh in tow. The pilot trainees tossed their gear on the sleigh and climbed aboard. The crawler driver put the vehicle in gear and the strange machine trundled off into the storm. A half hour later, the tractor and sleigh, with snow-covered and greatcoated young men aboard, swung left into the gate of No. 13 Elementary Flying Training School (EFTS), St. Eugène, Ontario, one of many dozens of flight training facilities spread across the breadth of Canada.
The small village of St. Eugène, Ontario, for which the training airfield was named, lay a kilometre to the north of the field, and about five kilometres west of the Ontario-Québec border. Six kilometres north of the village lay the broad, frozen sweep of the mighty Ottawa River. About 50 kilometres due west stood another British Commonwealth Air Training Plan airfield known as No. 11 EFTS, Pendleton. But for now, the world for Kirkpatrick and his four new friends extended no more than 100 yards into the frozen white murk.
When the Japanese Navy made their infamous attack on Pearl Harbor, followed quickly by a declaration of war by the US on both Japan and Germany, hundreds of thousands of young American men, like Robert Kirkpatrick, made their way immediately to recruitment centres across America. Just five days after Pearl Harbor, Kirkpatrick found himself at a Marine recruitment centre in his home of Cleveland, Ohio, in search of a way to make a contribution to the war effort that was not ordinary. Much to Bob's disappointment, yet Canada's eventual benefit, he flunked his physical – something that probably would not have happened later in the war. At that time, in downtown Cleveland, at the Statler Hotel, recruiters of the famed Clayton-Knight Committee were still interviewing potential American pilot and aircrew trainees for the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan. Kirkpatrick ended up at the hotel, where his interview was a success. They handed him a letter of introduction and recommendation for an RCAF recruitment office in the border town of Windsor, Ontario, across the St. Clair River from Detroit, Michigan.
A postcard of the Statler Hotel in downtown Cleveland, Ohio in the 1940s
Bob made the trip to Canada, was signed up by the RCAF, and went home to await his call up, which came in March of 1942. He crossed the border once again and made his way to No. 1 Manning Depot in Toronto, Ontario. Though an American citizen, Kirkpatrick was in fact born in Souris, Manitoba in February of 1922 during a family visit to that small Manitoba community. Born in Canada almost exactly 20 years before, American Bob Kirkpatrick was on his way to becoming a fighting airman for the country of his birth.
Now, just nine months after being called up and completing his initial training, Bob Kirkpatrick found himself halfway between Montréal and Ottawa, in a heavy December snowstorm, about to begin a career as a pilot that would extend more than 20,000 hours into his long and wonderful life. When the snow stopped, and he had a good look around the new airbase the next morning, two things struck him about the snow covered base. Firstly, he found it odd that the telephone poles all seemed rather short. Secondly, he looked on his training aircraft with a level of dismay. The young man, steeped in recent stories of the sleek Spitfires and menacing Messerschmitts of the Battle of Britain, looked upon the delicate Fleet Finch biplanes, lined yellow wingtip to yellow wingtip on the snow-covered flight line, as relics from the First World War. In spite of their apparent age, these remarkable little biplanes had only been built in the past three years and many hundreds of them were doing journeyman-like service taking young earthbound men into the skies and giving them the confidence they would need to advance to piloting combat aircraft in the overseas theatres of war.
One thing he was not expecting was that the Finch trainers had no wheels, but were sitting on undercarriage of metal clad, wooden skis. The simple fabric covered biplanes had tandem cockpits – students in the front, instructors in the back. A simple, somewhat flimsy, aluminum framed, perspex canopy was all that protected students and instructors from the miseries of -40º F temperatures blasting them in the face at 90 miles an hour. There was no cabin heat. The only means of communication between the two occupants was via a Gosport tube – one-way communication from instructor to student only. As Kirkpatrick remembers: “The Fleets were on skis which made landings quite easy – instead of a ground loop, you just slid. There was a spike for a tail wheel, which acted like a brake, but also made taxiing a chore. Also made the conversion to Harvards and wheels a real thrill.”
An aerial view of No. 13 Elementary Flying Training School (EFTS) St. Eugène, Ontario, shows us that it was one of the smaller facilities in the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan system. In the distance we can see the village of St. Eugène, which lies about six kilometres south of the Ottawa River and about five kilometres from the Québec-Ontario border. All that remains today is the gun butt (gunnery backstop) seen at the extreme upper left of the airfield along the road. The local farmers and villagers are predominantly French-speaking in this area at that time. Image via Flight Ontario
Of his time at St. Eugène, learning to fly, Kirkpatrick recalls: “I don't remember much about St. Eugène other than being kept very busy, flying and keeping warm, and of course the deep snow. There were difficulties navigating for, in winter, everything was black or white and looked the same. I had a terrible time with airsickness the first four hours, but never after that. I didn't dare throw up in the airplane. There were no airsickness bags, so you held it your mouth and swallowed it. I figure my stomach got so tired of that horrid stuff coming back, it quit sending it.”
Kirkpatrick recently told me: “The most excitement I experienced at St. Eugène was one day, when many of us were on solo cross-country flights, and an unexpected snowstorm came in. Everyone of us got back but one. We could hear a plane circling, but couldn't see anything. After a while, it turned quiet like his engine was idling, and then we heard a big thump right out in the middle of the field behind a wall of snow. Everyone ran out there to see if the student was OK. There he was crawling out of his wrecked Finch, apparently alright. After that, he didn't want to fly anymore. A year and half later, while flying Mosquitos with 21 Squadron, I was diverted to RAF Finmere, an auxiliary field in England, on a foggy and rainy night. The guy holding the ladder to get us out of the Mossie said: “Kirk, is that you?” “Yes, who are you?” I replied, as he had his torch on me and couldn't see who he was. He told me his name, which I can no longer remember. It was my classmate who had landed in the snow at St. Eugène. Still in the RCAF, but ground crew now.”
Conditions at St. Eugène were decidedly harsh from about November to April each year. Here we can tell that late winter sun has begun melting away some of the accumulated snow. Soon the dirty white snow would give way to mud. This image of barracks was scanned from an old colour transparency photographed by another of our Vintage News subscribers, Peter Jenner, a Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm pilot who trained at St. Eugène later in the war, when the base housed mostly Navy trainees and operated Fairchild Cornells. Photo: Peter Jenner
Though this image was taken at St. Eugène later in the war (the winter of 1944-45), one gets a sense of the depth of the cold and the short winter days. Here another of our readers, Peter Jenner, stands beside one of the facility's Fairchild Cornell aircraft. Ski-equipped training aircraft seem to have been the norm at St. Eugène as Bob Kirkpatrick trained on ski-equipped Fleet Finches during his days at No. 13 EFTS. For young men from Great Britain like Jenner and for Americans like Kirkpatrick, taking off and landing on skis would be a novelty worthy of a photo or two for the folks back home. Photo via Peter Jenner
Not all winter operations on the Fleet finch at St. Eugène were on skis. This photo, from the winter of 1940-41, shows Ottawa native David Francis Gaston Rouleau after his first flight in a Finch beside his wheel-equipped Finch in the depth of winter. Sadly, David Rouleau was shot down and killed making an attempt to reach Malta in June of 1942. For more on this St. Eugène alumnus, click here. Photo via Peg Christie/Rouleau Family
Bob had the benefit of an excellent flying instructor at No. 13 EFTS St. Eugène. His name was Flight Sergeant Scot Smilie, a lawyer in Montréal before and after the war. Kirkpatrick recalls: “He used to do most of his aerobatic instruction across the river in Québec, where there was a ski resort where he and his wife stayed whenever he had time off. [most likely Mont Tremblant – Ed]. So, that is where his students went for solo aerobatic practice – familiar territory. One day, when I was solo, there was a guy in a checkered black and white ski sweater at the top of the slope. As I flew by about 600 feet above him, he thumbed his nose at me and pushed off. I peeled over and dove at him. He looked over his shoulder, lost control, and went down in a big cloud of snow. I thought this very laughable, but when telling my pals about it, I was told to keep quiet, because that sort of thing was very frowned on by the RCAF.” Of his time there he would add: “There were great instructors and fellow students. I remember getting into an argument over donating my service tie to be cut in half and put on the bulletin board when I soloed. I suppose I was too much of a Scot to waste a good tie.”
LAC Robert Kirkpatrick (on wing of Fleet Finch) and his flying instructor Flight Sergeant Scot Smilie. Photo via Bob Kirkpatrick
With 62.10 hours total flying time both solo and with an instructor, Bob Kirkpatrick graduated from his EFTS course and was transferred to No. 2 SFTS at Uplands, south of Ottawa. “I felt fortunate that my SFTS was at Uplands, even though there were excessive parades because of visiting VIPs. Anthony Eden, the British Foreign Minister and future Prime Minister, was there on the day of our Wings Written Navigation Test. He came into the room and shook hands with all the students and instructors. Air Marshall Billy Bishop, Victoria Cross recipient and First World War ace, often was there for Wings Parades. I didn't keep track of the many visitors, so only remember those two. Ottawa was and still is a beautiful city to visit.”
Ottawa's No.2 SFTS Uplands was also the school where one of the most famous American pilots in the RCAF was trained. Pilot Officer John Gillespie Magee, the poet who penned the great Second World War ode to flying, High Flight, did his training on Harvards at Uplands. Magee sadly was killed in a training accident while flying Spitfires with 412 Squadron RCAF in England. He graduated from Uplands two years before Kirkpatrick flew there. With a grand total of 218:20 hours of flying time, “Kirk” got his wings in June of 1943 – Air Marshall Billy Bishop having the honour of pinning them on him. Of his time at Uplands, Kirkpatrick recalls: “My instructor was W/O Buck, later on F/O Buck. Years later I learned that he was KIA flying Lancasters. Buck loved aerobatics and his prize maneuver was a 3-turn vertical roll. I spent more time trying to emulate him than I should have, never quite made it, but was told by F/L Boyle after wings instrument test that I was the best he had ever seen at recovering from unusual positions.”
In May, Kirkpatrick was getting along well at Uplands and asked for permission to go to fly to St. Eugène to visit Flight Sergeant Smilie, his former elementary flying instructor. When he landed, St. Eugène was a grass field, and of course was no longer covered in snow. The barracks buildings were on wooden columns about four feet above the ground, something he did not remember at all from his days there. His initial thought was: “What the hell? Have I landed at a wrong field?” Well, it was indeed St. Eugène. Finally, the mystery of the short telephone posts was solved – they were a normal height, but the billets were on stilts because the winter snows got so deep. The level of the snow, which Bob had taken for ground level, was four feet above the actual ground.
Eventually, after getting his wings, Bob found himself in England on a conversion course on Beaufighters and then a quick re-conversion to Mosquitos. This signals the end of this simple vignette of an American who came to fight and train alongside his Canadian brothers north of the Border. Following this you will find a remarkable story of Kirkpatrick's operational and combat career with the RCAF, with 24 sorties in his log book and a lot of memories. His postwar career added another 20,000 hours of flying including years as an aerial sprayer with a fleet of three modified Stearmans.
I have yet to speak to Bob in person, but over the past couple of weeks, I have spent a considerable amount of time thinking about the man and reading the content of his emails over and over again. It has been a privilege to know him even in this small way. Last night, as I went to bed and lay back in the dark, his voice was strong in my mind, which is strange as I have never heard one spoken word from this great American hero. His thoughts came to me, in a voice low, with a weariness I could not explain and yet I felt his pride, his humour and kindness: “These exchanges with you are bringing back memories that I haven't thought of for years, sketchy, hazy and maybe a bit fictitious, although not intentionally.” I know it sounds weird to talk like this, but it is the truth. I am grateful for whatever the humble Bob Kirkpatrick would share with me. As I get ready to pack my bags to fly south to Mississippi for American Thanksgiving, I offer up my heartfelt gratitude for men like Bob and his American colleagues who came to fight alongside Canadians.
I know, from his words, that Bob is immensely proud of having been a Mosquito pilot in the RCAF, and we are immensely proud of him. Happy Thanksgiving Bob, from your Canadian friends. Per Ardua ad Astra
Bob Kirkpatrick tells us of his Beaufighter and Mosquito OTU experience and his combat career with 21 Squadron.
Previously published on the Mosquito web forum known as mossie.org
Flying on operations was the primary reason why I, among other young Americans, had volunteered to join the RCAF for pilot training. To join an active Squadron was the goal, but a lot of time and effort was expelled in achieving this aim. And, once there, the time spent on actual operational flying was minimal compared to all the rest. Altogether I spent 1220 of my days in the RCAF, of which 671 were in England, France and Belgium. From 22 October 1944 to 28 August 1945 I was a member of 21 Squadron which was part of 140 Wing, which in turn was in 2 Group, 2nd Tactical Air Force. During that time I flew on only 24 operations while chalking up a total of 720 flying hours, of which only 94 were operational hours. It sounds like a lot of wasted time and effort and felt like it! We were four crews from our OTU that joined 21 Squadron and, of those, only Flt/Lt Wally Undrill, my navigator, and I survived the war.
No doubt the majority of those who read this are more interested in hearing about the bombing and shooting and the flak etc, but being in the Air Force was much more than that.
The proudest day of all was being presented with my wings at a Wings Day Parade on 11 June 1943. This was followed by more training and waiting until 12 October when 300 RCAF aircrew boarded the Queen Elizabeth with 13,000 Yanks of various ranks and trades for the five-day crossing to the UK. There were so many on board that we were told there would be only one meal per day per head, but in fact you could eat whenever you wished, and it was great food. The difficulty was that the QE steered a zigzag course which, combined with rough seas, proved too much for many weak stomachs. We arrived at Greenock on 18 October and entrained to Bournemouth on 19 October.
And there we stayed, kicking our heels until being posted on 31 December – to an EFTS! Flying Tiger Moths! What a letdown, where were all the Spitfires? We remained at 6 EFTS Sywell for just one week and on 22 January we were dispatched to 14 AFU Banff. Banff was a holding station, pilots then being sent on the RAF Dallachy or RAF Frazerburgh. I went to Dallachy and became acquainted with the Airspeed Oxford. Scarcely an operational aircraft but it was a beautiful six-seater twin.
Dallachy, on the shores of the North Sea was hardly a resort centre. The sun only showed itself for three to four hours a day, that's when it wasn't raining and blowing a gale. The Nissen huts were so cold that we ate with one hand in our pocket and slept in our sheepskin flying jackets (which we never wore when flying!) The sole of our shoes wore out rapidly on the wet Scottish rocks and we had half soles with hobnails to replace them. In the dark you could see the sparks flashing from the nails as fellows walked over the rocks. One night, my mates in the hut were trying to get a fire going in the Ben Franklin type coal fire stove and were having little success. I offered them a can of dry cleaning fluid which turned into a white fog when they emptied it into the stove. When they threw in a match the stove jumped about two feet, the chimney pipe flew off and the whole of the hut was covered in black soot! We got warm, cleaning up the mess.
When we got a 48 hour pass, Tex and I would go into Aberdeen, rent a room, fill the meter with shillings and turn that room into a sauna! The maids would come in to tidy and they would open the window and we would holler "Close the damn window!"
We had a lot of spare time at Dallachy, the countryside was beautiful by the banks of the Spey, home to many whisky distilleries. I used this time to go hiking and often passed by the Tochineal estates. I often met a lady walking her Springer spaniels, and it turned out she was the Duchess of Tochineal. One of her pups took a shine to me and one day she asked me if I would like to have it. Would I not, of course I would, so Sheila of Tochineal joined the RAF and spent the rest of my overseas time with me at various bases until VE Day. It would be too difficult to get her back to the States what with customs etc. so she went to friends of my nav, Wally, who were being repatriated to their farm in Guernsey.
Another step backward as we were sent back to Bournemouth for a month. Would we ever see an operational aircraft? Then on 2 May I was posted to 9 OTU at Crosby on Eden to convert onto Beaufighters, I was to join Coastal Command. Beaufighters had no dual controls so we had to first solo on Beauforts. This was a cow of an aircraft, heavy and cumbersome, when you throttled right back to practice an emergency landing you didn't glide in, you came down like an elevator. But the controls were much the same as in the Beau and we all managed to solo on the beast without any unfortunate accidents. Then onto the Beau. It was a little difficult at first owing to the torque on takeoff and our first experience of the Beau was on the older mark that had a flat tail plane. Later marks had a dihedral tail plane that rendered the aircraft that much more stable. And it felt a little strange at first with nothing in front but the windscreen. But once you were used to the aircraft it was great fun. As was demonstrated to every pupil by Squadron Leader Bob Golightly. Taking pupils up for an instructional flight, usually air-to-ground gunnery, Golightly would put the Beau into a slow roll. As the pupil, or pupils, there were sometimes two, were standing behind him, hanging on to his seat back and not strapped in, they received a sudden surprise when they dropped into the cockpit canopy. All of us were treated to Golightly's slow roll!
Before our first solo we were expected to mingle with a bunch of navigators and crew up. This was a trying process and I wasn't having much luck. One evening, cycling back to base from the Swan, a nearby pub, I heard some moaning and cussing by the side of the road. I got off my bike and found a Flt/Lt navigator tangled up in some barbed wire which was protecting an unused road that led to the airfield. I got him untangled and helped drag his bike out of the barbed wire. We introduced ourselves and I asked him what he was doing at Crosby. "I'm supposed to find a driver and return to ops" he said. "And I'm a pilot looking for a navigator, how about meeting up for breakfast and getting better acquainted?" I replied. Next morning, Wally Undrill and I had breakfast together and decided to crew up together. He had been flying Beaus in the Middle East when he and his Sqdn/Ldr pilot were shot down. His pilot was killed but Wally was pulled from the wreckage by some friendly Arabs and picked up later by the British Army. Later, he was crewed up with another pilot and when taking off to fly to Malta they were straffed and crashed on the runway, both receiving bad burns. The pilot never flew again, but here, a year later, was Wally back at OTU looking for yet another pilot! I couldn't have been luckier to get such an experienced navigator, though I did have slight misgivings, three strikes and you're out and he's survived the first two! But I kept my thoughts to myself! Perhaps he was destined to be a survivor, which, it transpired, he was!
Wally had Observers O wings rather than Navigators N for which he was rather proud. We made a pretty good team despite his dim view of Yanks and his preference for straight and level flight. I would ask him what were the speeds for a loop or a roll and he would always reply that such aerobatics were not allowed in a Beau to which I would reply "Buckle up while I find out!" He tolerated all my sloppy attempts and we ended up great friends throughout the years until he passed away in 1989. At the conclusion of the course I was graded average as pilot and above average for gunnery. The other pilots said they must have been using the same colour bullets as I was during the aerial gunnery exercises.
We were a month into the course when the D Day landings occurred and the powers that be decided there was a greater need for Mosquito intruder crews than shipping strike Beaufighters. Which was lucky for us as survival rate was higher on the Mosquito than on Beaufighters engaged in shipping strikes. But we continued to the end of the course and after five days leave moved to 13 OTU at Bicester to convert onto Mosquitos. Would training never end? Surely we must be close to joining a squadron at long last? I did 42 hours on the Mossie at Bicester, was graded above average as pilot, average in navigation and bombing and above average in air-to-air gunnery. Wally enjoyed the Mossie far more than the Beau. He was sitting up front beside me where he could see all that occurred in the cockpit rather than sitting ten feet back in the bowels of the Beau. He also had better access to me to protest any manoeuvres of which he didn't approve! And I preferred him to be sitting up front beside me.
Bob Kirkpatrick's course photograph from no. 13 OTU at Bicester, England where he and his mates converted to the de Havilland Mosquito after having just completed a Beaufighter course. Bob Kirkpatrick sits in the front row, second from right, while his navigator Wally Undrill stands directly behind him. To Bob's right sits Hugh Bone, a fellow Mossie pilot on the course, who continues his friendship with “Kirk” to this day. Of Kirkpatrick, Bone says: “Kirk is a great guy and a natural pilot. He did things with both a Beaufighter as well as a Mosquito that experienced pilots with many hours on the type would never have attempted.” It is clear that each pilot on the OTU is sitting in a chair in front of his navigator, as the man behind Bone is Ken Guy, part of the Bone/Guy Mosquito crew. Sadly, Bone lost contact with Guy sometime after the war. Photo via Hugh Bone
At the end of the course we were packed off to Swanton Morley in Suffolk and at last came to the reality of war. Here we were issued with all sorts of escape equipment, uniform buttons that had a reverse screw to reveal a minute compass, pencils that broke at a weak point to reveal another compass, combs that contained files. A silk escape map of Europe that we had sewn into our battle dress. The Hun knew all about such devices of course but there was the hope that carrying so many, one or two might be overlooked. We were also issued with our service revolver and escape kits containing food capsules, benzedrine to keep you awake, sleeping tablets all housed in a curved plastic type box that would sit comfortably (one hoped) inside one's battle dress when on an operation.
Finally on 22 October 1944 we joined 21 Squadron and Wally and I were in B Flight commanded by Sqdn /Ldr Tony Carlisle. Tony had been an army officer before remustering to RAF aircrew after Dunkirk. Trained in the US, he received his wings at Falcon Field in Phoenix, Arizona and had completed a tour on Blenheims, a second tour on Hudsons and Bostons and was now leading a flight on a 3rd tour, this time on Mosquitos. After the war I spent three delightful days with Tony and his wife in 1991. We dined at the Red Lion in Hendon, at their home near Hendon and on a visit to Blenheim Castle we lunched at a pub I used to frequent when stationed at Bicester. On our first night Tony mentioned how well I had fitted in on the squadron. For which I thanked him but then asked: "Why did it seem to me that I only got to fly when the weather was bad and flew so few ops?" "How many hours did you have when you joined 21?" he asked. "422" I replied to which he laughed and said that was more than he had after he had finished his 3rd tour.
Sheila was in seventh heaven at Thorney Island as there were a number of dogs on the Wing and there was easy access to the mess via the missing glass in the french windows. Group Captain Wykeham-Barnes, 140 Wing's CO had a miniature pincher which he often carried in the breast pocket of his battle dress. Our quarters were in a solidly built brick building with rooms as good as a quality hotel and Wally and I had a twin room with all mod cons. Thorney was later referred to as the RAF Hilton. The food was excellent, even though we had our share of sprouts and mutton. One morning three of us were having breakfast when a WAAF Squadron Leader came by and introduced herself as the Wing nutrition officer. "How's your breakfast?" she asked. Tex, a fellow American, knowing full well that we were eating kidneys on toast asked in an innocent fashion: "What is it?" To which she replied: "Kidneys on toast." "Aren't you supposed to boil the piss out of them before you cook them?" said Tex. She went stomping off in a huff and we wondered whether there would be repercussions but we heard no more about Tex's little joke. Tex was KIA on operation Clarion on 22 February 1945.
On 22 November, Sqdn/Ldr Carlisle led a flight of six to a field near Liverpool where we were to do searchlight co operation. We did low level formation practice on the way there. In the afternoon, we were lying around waiting for our evening flight when we heard an aircraft coming out of the 2000 ft overcast. It was a USAAC B-17 which came straight in, bounced a couple of times and slid to a stop. It was a real mess, the tail gunner was dead and the rest of the crew came piling out as we ran out behind the crash trucks to see if we could help. The pilot was a redheaded Lieutenant and quite obviously shaken. I asked him if he'd like a cigarette and he replied "I sure would" but when I gave him one and my lighter he was shaking so badly he couldn't light it so I took back the lighter, lit a cigarette and gave it to him. Then the ambulances and a truck arrived and took them away which was the last we heard of them.
Next morning, when we were taxiing out for the return flight to Thorney, my Mossie started to overheat so I asked permission for immediate takeoff and to join the formation when they were airborne. Off we went and I turned downwind and there below were the five Mossies taxiing out, led by Sqdn/Ldr Carlisle. The temptation was too great, I did a wingover, came down head on to Carlisle then pulled up in a climbing roll so that we were upside down a couple of hundred feet above him. "Now you've done it Kirk" said Wally, "I'll be looking for a new driver tomorrow." Alarmed I said to him: "You don't mean it." "No, I won´t drop you but Carlisle sure as Hell will!" he replied. I was suitably chastened all the way back to Thorney and sure enough when we landed our ground crew told me I was to report to the flight commander immediately. I walked into Carlisle's office as smartly as possible and stood at attention before him. "Kirkpatrick" he barked "I never want to see a Mosquito lower than me when I am taxiing. Is that UNDERSTOOD!" "Yes sir" and I was dismissed. I never heard another word about it until we were eating dinner at the Red Lion years later. "Only been on the squadron a few days and you pulled a trick like that, I couldn't believe it" he said. Thankfully he had recognized my youthful enthusiasm for the Mossie.
Thorney's call sign was Bedrock, 21 was Dumbell and I was Dumbell 33. 487's callsign was Curfew and I believe I am right in thinking that 464 was Hunter. We flew in a lot of bad weather in the winter of 44–45 so we often used GCA (ground controlled approach.) One wet and windy night in December, returning Mossies were stacked at 500 ft intervals over a pundit 14 miles north of Thorney. The procedure was for the lowest aircraft to be put on GCA and, as it landed, all other aircraft would descend 500 ft. This was a long and wearisome process on the return from an operation and at one stage a plaintive voice with a heavy Australian accent was heard: "Hello Bedrock, this is Hunter 22, I'm 500 ft below sea level. Permission to surface and pancake." The mess sorted itself out eventually and we all had a drink to our submariner.
On 10 February 1945, which was my 23rd birthday, 21 Squadron moved from Thorney to Rosières in France, where we were stationed until 20 April. For some reason that February, I found myself ferrying various bods between Rosières and Thorney, tying up loose ends no doubt. My log book reads: "Feb 15th Sqdn/Ldr Fletcher, Feb 19th Sqdn /Ldr Clayton and Sqdn/Ldr Woods, Feb 20th Flt/Lt Freeman and F/O Mercer." Didn't know any of them but I was proud to get to know Clayton. He had chalked up 100 operations as a navigator, remustered and earned his pilot's wings and was a flight commander on 487 Squadron.
On 20 March I flew a Mark IV film production unit Mossie to Fersfield where I picked up a Sergeant camera man preparatory to our following operation Carthage, the raid on the Shell house building in Copenhagen. We followed 21, 487 and 464 squadrons and filmed as much of the raid as we could. Subsequent to this, on June 30th, a large formation of Mossies from 140 Wing put on an airshow over Copenhagen and we met members of the Danish underground resistance. It was a wonderful three days where I learned never to try and keep up with a Dane in drinking and never run round with a croquet mallet while Danes are singing their "Run Around A Croquet Mallet" song! On the way back to Brussels from this do I was honoured to have Wing Commander Sismore, later Air Commodore, as my passenger who was at that time 140 Wing's navigational officer.
Left: A photo of Bob Kirkpatrick (left) and his navigator Wally Undrill. Of his navigator, Kirkpatrick says: “After Beau OTU we went to #13 OTU Bicester Mosquito's and then to 21 Sqd. RAF where we finished the war in Brussels in May 1945. Undrill post war was 21 Sqdn. W/C Wilson's navigator in Germany during the occupation. He became a Squadron leader navigator instructor post war. We were great friends and I was fortunate to make several trips to England to visit him. He died in 1989 if I remember right. Pre-war and after leaving the RAF, Wally was the Veterinary lab foreman at Bristol University. He graduated from Cambridge before the war.” Right: A photo of Kirkpatrick (left) and a photographer passenger after a landing at RAF Rackheath. Kirkpatrick speaks about the event: “This photo was taken after a precautionary landing at Rackheath, a USAAC base, after returning from Copenhagen, March 19, 1945. Sgt. Hearne (right) FPU photographer was my passenger and the photographer on Operation Carthage. We were the 20th Mosquito in the op and 6 minutes behind the first flight. Flak was getting heavy and we were damaged in the nose and starboard engine. No navigator, so I flew home on reciprocals from the trip out doubling the drift. Without a navigator and no radio I landed at the first place I saw.”
Kirkpatrick relates the Operation Copenhagen story from the pint of view of a Mossie pilot:
”As I was about 2 minutes from target I saw 4 Mossies coming from my left and turning east towards a big pile of smoke, I thought , am I lost? They have navigators and they were so close I either had to turn right 360 or get close to them because of the delayed action bombs. 30 seconds for first 3, 11 for 2nd three. I slipped right next to #4 and we went thru the smoke and they unloaded their bombs, unfortunately as we later learned on the French School. I was carrying incendiaries and told to drop them a few blocks from the target to create a diversion in case some of the prisoners were able to escape. Turns out I burnt up a few houses east of the school and west of Shellhaus. Our windscreens were fouled with salt spray and difficult to see through, this precluded my right 360 and prompted me to join the 4 from 487 [Squadron]. As it turned out 464 Squadron, the second wave, also were diverted by the school crash and missed their run-in, they orbited and the leader bombed Shellhaus, 2 were shot down and one took his bombs home. Good news, bad news; had 464 been successful in their orbit and 487 on target, 487 would probably been blown up, had everybody been on target, no prisoners would probably have survived.
We picked up some flak that damaged the starboard engine and the nose. Engine kept running OK but as I wasn't completely comfortable in the MKIV Mosquito and it was a long trip, I was sweating fuel, 8 tanks to monitor, nobody to follow, I just flew reciprocals and when I saw England, picked the first field I saw to land, turned out to be Rackheath.
There was no traffic at the time, about 14:00. Got the gear down but no brakes, so just coasted to a stop at the end of 26. Was met by a jeep full of MPs and taken to the tower, Sgt Hearne brought his film and when I called base and was told they would pick us up in the morning, he said " I'll be in London before then". I think he had asked an MP to take our picture which showed us examining holes in the cowling and nose. That was the last I saw of DZ 383 [the serial of Mossie on that flight] or Sgt. Hearne. I don't remember much of my sojourn at Rackheath, probably slept most of the time.”
Mosquitos making their rooftop run at Gestapo headquarters in Copenhagen during Operation Carthage.Here is a link to a video on the Belgian YouTube site. it shows powerful images of this raid on Copenhagen including images of 21 Squadron Mosquitos and some in-cockpit shots of the low level flying over the city. Given that Bob Kirkpatrick did not have his regular navigator aboard, but rather a photographer, it is possible we are looking at footage from his aircraft.
Another photograph taken by a Dane on the ground shows Mosquitos during the raid on Gestapp headquarters in Copenhagen. By the end of 1944 the Danish resistance-movement in Copenhagen was in danger of being wiped out by the Geheime Staatspolizei (Gestapo). Many of their leaders were arrested and a lot of material was filed in the Gestapo archives in the Shell house which was located in Copenhagen. Leading members of the resistance-movement requested an attack by air on the Shell House via SOE in London. Bob says of this photo: “ I think the four Mossies are the remnants of 487Squadron making an orbit, the Mossie far right is probably FPU flown by myself. We were two minutes behind as planned but the orbit made me catch up to them. Things went to hell after that. I'm guessing at all this but the railroad towers, the spacing and the 4 Mossies are where I remember running into them. I went on East about a mile and they all took off to the North.”
These two small photographs taken with Sgt. Hearne's camera while he and Bob Kirkpatrick fly toward Copenhagen during operation Carthage. Both photos are of Bob at the controls of his Mosquito. What is noteworthy is that, while Bob is route to an extremely dangerous, meticulously planned and critically important sortie to destroy Gestapo hedquarters in downtown Copenhagen, his face, smiling and calm, totally belies the dangers that lie ahead. It is a testament to the courage and skills of the Mosquito crews involved in the mission. Photo Sergeant Hearne, RAF
Brussels was a great place to end the war, lots of parties for returning POWs and the US 9th Army was there so we had jeeps, bourbon and other goodies in exchange for a ride in a Mossie. I was in Brussels until August 3rd 1945 when I made my last flight in a Mossie, Brussels to Hern. From there I went to Plymouth where I boarded the Duchess of Egypt, arriving at Quebec on August 28th and finally home to Cleveland Ohio on August 30th.
So there you have it, there was a lot more to RAF life than being surrounded by ME109s or FW 190s, flak so heavy that you could get out and walk on it or being upside down while coned in searchlights. There were plenty of fun times too.
21 Squadron Mosquitos in echelon formation over Europe. Photo: RAF
A 21 Squadron Mosquito.
Bob Kirkpatrick signs his name to a crew door from a Mosquito fighter bomber. It is to be signed by as many American Mosquito pilots as possible, then displayed ay Jerry Yagen's museum alongside his new Mosquito. Bob's son John holds the door for him to sign.