Fleeting Glory - The Crash of "F" for Freddie

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Low and fast across Calgary Airport on May 9th, 1945 - the day after VE Day and the day before the crash. Inset: Just after landing at Calgary on May 9. 1945. Maurice Briggs, John Baker and Edward Jack pose in front of Mosquito F-for-Freddie. Members of the public who bought bonds in support of the 8th Victory Loan Drive were allowed to chalk their names on the aircraft. Photo via Richard de Boer

The VE Day sounds of celebration, revelry and relief were given new life when the stirring base tones of two Merlin engines at full power caught the attention of Canadians in Calgary, Alberta on the afternoon of May 9, 1945.  One of their wartime adopted sons was home for a visit with a very special guest of honour; Mosquito LR503, known as ‘F for Freddie’.  This powerful, beautiful airplane, late of 105 Squadron, was the survivor of 213 operations over occupied Europe:  More ops than any other allied bomber during the Second World War. 

In a poignant and painful irony of war, 24 hours later its crew would be dead and the remains of Freddie, a few bits of metal and smoking splinters, would be scattered across the airport. 

Freddie’s pilot that day was F/Lt. J. Maurice W. Briggs, DFM, DFC, and DSO.  Just two years earlier, Briggs had left Calgary with his newly earned wings from #37 Service Flying Training School (S.F.T.S).

Seated beside him on his return was F/O John C. Baker, DFC and Bar.  Having successfully navigated them to Calgary, Baker could do no more than hang on and try to enjoy the ride as Briggs dove for the streets of downtown Calgary.

Those Calgarians who witnessed Briggs’s flying display have never forgotten it.  “Spectacular, exciting, frightening” and “amazing” are some of the words Neil Jonathan used to describe the spectacle more than 50 years later.  R.C.A.F. staff working on the sixth floor of the Hudson’s Bay building recall having to look down to see the Mosquito streaking past their windows at over 300 mph. 

While discussing the ‘beat up’ with a reporter later that day, Briggs admitted he didn’t know how he missed the flagpole atop the 11 story landmark Palliser Hotel.  Air Traffic Controller, Peter Minchuk described how Briggs flew Freddie under a trestle which spanned 9th Avenue, two blocks west of the Palliser.

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Hundreds of Calgarians came out to welcome Briggs and Baker and to see F-for-Freddie after the spectacular flying display that afternoon - which saw them flying below rooftop level in downtown Calgary. Photo via Richard de Boer

THE AEROPLANE

The Mosquito known as “Freddie” did not begin life with that name.  Before acquiring any name at all, it emerged as one of a batch of 22 B. Mk. IXs built at de Havilland’s Hatfield facility in early 1943.

Serialed LR503, it joined 109 Sqn, Path Finder Force on May 28, 1943 at RAF Wyton, Huntingdonshire where having been assigned the letter “C” as its individual identifier, it became known as “Charlie”.   

On June 21, 1943, LR503 took off on the first of its 213 combat operations.  It was one of 12 Mosquitos assigned to mark targets in the Ruhr city of Krefeld for 693 heavy bombers.
 
On March 10, 1944, LR503 was transferred to 105 Sqn, stationed at RAF Bourn.  Here, 109 Sqn’s “HS” code letters were replaced by 105 Squadron’s “GB”, but initially, LR503 retained its individual identifying letter “C”. 

In less than a year from its first combat mission to Krefeld, LR503 racked up its first 100 operations.  Flight Lieutenant H .D. “Bill” Riley DFC & Bar, a navigator with 105 Squadron, noted in his logbook on the night of June 3, 1944 that LR503, flew its 100th operation, a flight to Calais to drop three red target indicators (TIs). 

The same page in Riley’s log book also records LR503’s contributions to D-Day operations.  At 02:55 on the morning of the 6th of June, Riley along with his pilot Flt. Lt. Cliff Chadwick, took off to drop TIs at Longues-Sur-Mer, where a battery of artillery covered both the Omaha and Gold beaches.  Riley and Chadwick made a second trip on D-Day in LR503, going to St.-Lo with three red TIs.  After this trip Riley remarked on the significance of this day in his log book with a note saying “INVASION HERE ‘D’ DAY”.

Another navigator with 105 Squadron, John Sampson DFC, flew several operations in LR503 in the autumn and winter of 1944-45.  He notes that, by this time, LR503 carried the individual aircraft code letter “F” with a bar above the letter.  The bar designation came about later in the war when squadrons had more than 26 aircraft on strength and letters had to be assigned to more than one aircraft, hence the 27th aircraft became “A” +bar. 

Sampson remarked “At 105 we did not go in for ‘Nose Art’ or mission credits, but an exception was made in the case of LR503 because of its unique history.  I remember this being discussed on the squadron as no one appeared to know what a mosquito (insect) looked like.  I believe that the assistance of the Station Medical Officer was sought.”

From its 100th trip on June 3, 1944 to its 213th and last combat operation to the Wehren marshalling yards at Leipzig on April 10, 1945, Freddie averaged just over one trip every three days.

When early in May 1945 a Mosquito was needed to fly to Canada to support the 8th Victory Loan Drive, Briggs and Baker were told to take F for Freddie after its sister ship, D-Dog failed to make the Atlantic crossing because of mechanical problems. 

THE CREW

It had been a long war for Maurice Briggs.  He joined the RAF in 1938 aged just 17.  At the start of hostilities on September 1, 1939 he was an Air Gunner/Observer with 77 Sqn.  His first taste of war came just days later when Armstrong Whitworth Whitleys of 77 Sqn flew on a “Nickelling raid”, dropping leaflets on cities in the Ruhr Valley.  Briggs completed his tour with distinction in September 1940 and was awarded a DFM. 

In April 1942 Briggs was sent to #13 Initial Training Wing (I.T.W.) at Torquay to begin pilot training.  There, in the Livermead Hotel, he met and befriended fellow student Flt. Lt. A.J. “Alf” Smitz, DFC.  Briggs and Smitz were next sent to Canada to continue their training, first at No. 32 Elementary Flying Training School (EFTS) at Bowden, Alberta and then on to No. 37 SFTS at Calgary. 

Beyond learning to fly, their time in Calgary was eventful for Briggs and Smitz.  Being an affable and charming character, Briggs made many friends and dated a number of young ladies.  Smitz took a more permanent approach.  While on a weekend leave he met Anne Littleton in the Banff Springs Hotel and they were married three months later.  To thwart her disapproving parents’ attempts to prevent the wedding, Briggs helped plan a ruse before standing up as best man at the wedding.  He later became godfather to their first child, Peter Smitz who was born in London just before D Day.  On April 2, 1943, 11 days after the wedding, Briggs and Smitz received their wings in the drill hall of No. 37 SFTS.

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Training days: Maurice Briggs (L), Alf Smitz (at the wheel) and their colleague Brighouse, on leave from No. 37 Service Flying Training School in January, 1943, en route from Calgary to Banff, Alberta, where Smitz would meet his future wife. That spring, the men would return to England and the war. Photo via Richard de Boer

With mailing addresses, wedding rings and pilot’s wings in hand, it was time for Briggs and Smitz to return to England and to the war.  Both men spent the rest of the war piloting Mosquitos;  Smitz with 141 Sqn and Briggs with 1409 Meteorological Flight where, with his navigator Baker, they flew solo daylight ops, gathering weather data for Bomber Command planners. 

After completing 108 trips with 1409 Flight and earning a DFC and a DSO, Briggs flew his last combat sortie of the war on December 7, 1944.  Over the next few months, he and Baker made several trips to Canada to ferry Mosquitos from the de Havilland plant at Downsview, Ontario, to England. 

On May 5, 1945, Briggs and Baker finally joined up with F for Freddie when the pair was detailed to take the airplane to Canada in support of a war bond drive after their first assigned aircraft broke down en route. 

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Baker (R), Briggs and F-for-Freddie at deHavilland Canada's Downsview base in Ontario on May 6th, 1945. Note the peeling paint on the spinner. DHC did some servicing and retouching work before the boys headed west to Calgary. Photo via Richard de Boer

THE ACCIDENT

When Freddie and its crew arrived at Downsview on May 6, de Havilland supplied a resourceful engineer in the person of Edward Jack to serve the airplane’s mechanical needs as they flew a series of half and one day stops across the country.

So it was, that on the afternoon of May 9, 1945, Calgarians thrilled to the sight of the Mosquito buzzing their city in a celebration to mark the end of the European war.  Hundreds thronged to the airport to see this famous airplane and to meet its crew.  For some, like Evelyn Powlan who had met him two years prior, it was a chance to reconnect with Maurice Briggs.  For others, it was an opportunity to buy a bond and sign their names in chalk on the famous F for Freddie. 

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May 9, 1954: Briggs and Baker perform a victory beat-up of Calgary Airport. It was on an almost identical low pass 24 hours later that their Mosquito, F-for-Freddie, hit the poles visible at the top of the tower, shearing off the aircarft's port wing. Photo via Richard de Boer

The next day Briggs and Baker were scheduled to fly Freddie on a triangular route over flying Penhold, 80 miles to the north, then south to the RCAF bases at Lethbridge and Medicine Hat before returning to Calgary for the night. 

When Briggs and Baker arrived at the airport, they found Edward Jack busy with the top cowlings removed from both of Freddie’s engines. Their departure was delayed for an hour and a half by the mechanical problems.

Finally, just before 16:00hr, Jack declared LR503 fit to fly.  As he stood talking to Briggs, he suddenly felt ill.  Although he was scheduled to take the right seat for the trip that afternoon, Briggs suggested that he might be better off sitting this one out.  Jack agreed and then climbed the stairs to the control tower to watch them take off. 

With a brisk wind blowing from the north, Briggs took off headed in that direction.  As he had done several times the day before, he turned back toward the terminal building and its rooftop control tower for a low altitude, high speed pass.

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The afternoon of May10, 1945. In this picture, taken overlooking the roof parapet of Calgary's terminal building (which the Mosquito would later hit), Edward Jack has removed both top cowlings to do some work on the engines. This work delayed the departure of the fatal flight by 90 minutes - Briggs and Baker finally taxied out at 1600 hrs. Photo via Richard de Boer

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Also taken on May 10th, this photo shows Edward Jack walking back to the terminal as F-for-Freddie taxies to its fate. Photo via Richard de Boer

Briggs took Freddie south and circled back for a second pass on the building and the few dozen spectators who had come to see them off.  As he completed a figure eight and headed north for Penhold, Briggs came back on the tower frequency, telling controller Peter Minchuk that he had spotted a car just pulling up and that he was going to do one more pass for the friend he saw getting out of it. 

Diving back to ground level, Briggs again pointed Freddie straight at the terminal building, pulling up to clear the control tower at the last possible moment.  This time he cleared the building, but hit the steel anemometer tower and flag pole on top of the control tower. 

McCaully exclaimed “My god!” and ran across the room toward the stairs.  Edward Jack had already left the tower and was on the stairs.  He later recalled feeling the building shudder and hearing a thud.

The impact with the metal poles sheared the port wing and horizontal stabilizer from LR503.  The upward angle and high speed carried aircraft and crew over the ‘H’ huts of #37 SFTS and into a field almost half a mile from the terminal building.  It struck at a shallow angle and exploded into flames, trailing wreckage and igniting the grass for over 300 yards. 

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Moment of horror and tragedy. Partly obscured by a telegraph pole in the foreground, this picture shows the Mosquito seconds after it hit the control tower, with the port wing folding upwards and breaking away. Owing to its high speed and trajectory when it hit the building, the aircraft crashed more than a half mile further on. Photo via Richard de Boer

The first people on the scene found Briggs and Baker face down, side by side, thrown clear of the wreckage, but ablaze in their gasoline soaked uniforms.  Briggs had just celebrated his 25th birthday the previous Sunday in Downsview, Ontario. 

Mrs. G. L. Williams, who ran the lunch counter in the terminal building, found Edward Jack and poured him some coffee and brandy.  Then she and her husband drove him back to his hotel.  En route, Jack told the Williamses how he had just missed death by what he called “blind luck”.  Then, according to Mrs. Williams, Jack just kept repeating over and over, “They were grand boys”.

Although she saw the airplane hit the metal poles, Evelyn Powlan didn’t find out that Briggs and Baker had been killed until a reporter interviewing her about the accident confirmed their deaths. 

Airport Manager Cyril Huntley telephoned the station commander Group Captain Irwin, then noted in his daily journal simply that “F for Freddie Crashed.  1620 M.D.”. (Mountain Daylight). 

A fireman detailed to help with the cleanup removed a narrow 4 inch long strip of grey painted plywood and a patch of fabric 6 inches square from the crash site.  That night he penciled on the fabric: “Wing fabric from ‘F for Freddie’.  Most famous World War II Mosquito dive bomber.  Ripped off wing as it crashed and fell.  May 10, 1945”. 

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The only known remains of Mosquito F-for-Freddie: a 4 inch scrap of plywood and a 6 inch square of fabric. They were brought into the Calgary Aero Space Museum in 1990 by a fireman who salvaged them at the time from the crash. Photo via Richard de Boer

Two days later the Union Jack draped coffins, adorned simply with the crew’s hats and a single rose each, were escorted by an honour guard of 100 airmen from the overfilled church, to the Field of Honour in Burnsland Cemetery where they were laid to rest.

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de Havilland Canada engineer Edward Jack at the graveside of Briggs and Baker on Remembrance Day, 1973. Jack had originally been scheduled to go on the fatal flight but felt ill and was told by Maurice Briggs to "sit it out". Jack witnessed the crash minutes later from the control tower. This was his first visit to the graves in Calgary since the funeral 28 years earlier.  Photo via Richard de Boer

THE ECHOES

Edward Jack returned to the Burnsland Cemetery on Remembrance Day, 1973.  “I knew by all odds that I should have died in that plane too” he said. “Although I relived that day a thousand times, until now I couldn’t bring myself to go back to the graveyard where I too would have been buried”. 

In 1991, the daughter of the fireman who had salvaged the souvenirs from the burned remains of LR503 made her way to what had been the Drill Hall for #37 SFTS. There she asked the staff of the Aero Space Museum of Calgary if they knew anything about the airplane, and if they wanted to add these pieces to their collection. 

The following year, Maurice Briggs’s godson, Peter Smitz, then a Royal Canadian Mounted Police officer stationed at the Calgary International Airport, came into the museum with newspaper clippings given to him by his mother Anne, detailing the crash of an aeroplane and the death of a friend around VE Day in 1945. 

When I telephoned Anne Harder (nee Littleton) at her home in California where she had been living since 1948, we discovered that despite the separation of 35 years, she and I had grown up in the same neighbourhood in Calgary and that we had gone to some of the same schools.  I told her that the flying school where I earned my pilot’s license now occupied the old terminal building and that when I started working for the Aero Space Museum that my office was also in that building.  I told her that the museum now occupied the old Drill Hall and that it had a Mosquito in its collection; one of only 30 or so left in the world, and that I would dearly love to see it restored as a tribute to Maurice, John and Freddie. 

Anne asked if I ever went skiing and if I knew the Banff Springs Hotel.  Then she began to tell me about being young, a little reckless and in love.  She told me about a world at war and about the coming of peace after VE Day.   

Richard de Boer

The author would like to thank everyone who helped put this article together.  A book length version of this story is now under way and he would welcome any additional information about the people, airplane and events described in this story.  He can be contacted at deboerr@telusplanet.net  

 


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