Tragedy at Nueltin Lake

As the Second World War was winding down, some aviators and airmen of the Royal Canadian Air Force, who had flown more than their share of combat sorties, were given orders to return to Canada for safer, non-combat duty. Flight Lieutenants Bill McRae and Bill Carr, two Spitfire pilots, met for the first time when they were assigned to No. 13 (Photographic) Squadron stationed at RCAF Station Rockcliffe in Ottawa. The unit had first been formed at Rockcliffe in January of 1943 as No. 13 Photographic Flight. In May of 1944, the flight was unofficially recognized as No. 13 (P) Squadron, yet it was not until late 1946 that it was officially a squadron. By 1947, it had become 413 Squadron.

McRae arrived first, in August of 1944 after more than three years of steady combat service with the RAF and RCAF. At one point McRae flew at least one combat sortie on 60 consecutive days leading up to and after D-Day. At Rockcliffe, McRae flew Hawker Hurricanes and the only three Supermarine Spitfires to see wartime service in Canada—as recce camera test aircraft. Bill Carr was a decorated Photo Recce Spitfire pilot with 142 ops flying alone and unarmed behind enemy lines. While they were ready for more, both men deserved a break from the years of uninterrupted combat flying.

As the war wound down, the unit undertook a massive and ambitious aerial survey and mapping project in the far north of Canada. It required both high altitude (and tedious) flying in B-25 Mitchells and Avro Ansons as well as low-level work in Noorduyn Norseman floatplanes transporting survey crews from one map reference point to another. The low-level flying promised to be both fun and challenging, so competition for the three pilot spots on the Norsemans was high. Both McRae and Carr were given spots as was Ernie Weeks, a former bush pilot and British Commonwealth Air Training Plan flying instructor who had been flying the Norseman with the Photographic Flight for the past two summers. In late April 1945, Carr and McRae took float instruction with Weeks (neither had ever flown off water before) on the Ottawa River adjacent to Rockcliffe. 

Bill McRae returned home to Canada, and with 13 (P) Squadron, found himself still flying Spits. Here we see Mk I Spitfires X4492 and X4555 (a Battle of Britain veteran), two of the three Spits that served at Rockcliffe and were flown by McRae. The Spits were later upgraded to Mk Vs with the installation of Merlin 45s. Photos: RCAF

As the program got underway, each of the pilots was assigned one of the three unit Norsemans—McRae got 372, Weeks 371 and Bill Carr got 2496. Throughout that entire summer and into the fall, these pilots became intimate with their aircraft. McRae set up a bed and a mosquito screen for a window and lived quite comfortably in 372 for the whole time. The flying was challenging, the living was rugged, the fishing epic, the landscape was magical—just the tonic for two combat pilots who had been overseas in the thick of battle and recce operations for years. 

After that summer, McRae would demobilize and return to civilian life in his native Port Arthur (now Thunder Bay) where he would continue a lifelong love of floatplane flying and Carr would go on to a stellar career in the Royal Canadian Air Force, retiring as a Lieutenant General and Commander of the RCAF, with the unofficial sobriquet of Father of the Modern Canadian Air Force. After the RCAF, Carr would continue as Vice-President of Canadair, responsible for international sales. Both men were beloved by everyone in the Canadian aviation historical community for their superb historical writing, their quiet humility, determination to record the events they were such a key part of and their ability to bring to life a powerful part of Canadian history without self-aggrandizement.

But, for one beautiful summer, McRae, Carr and Weeks were just three vibrant young men in their 20s, sharing an adventure, decompressing after years of war flying and living out a Canadian dream. Life was at its fullest, but death was not far behind.

With nearly 400 combat operations and sorties between them, Flight Lieutenant Bill Carr DFC (left) and Flight Lieutenant Bill McRae were highly seasoned Royal Canadian Air Force Spitfire pilots. Carr was a Spitfire photo reconnaissance pilot with 683 Squadron RAF at Malta and McRae was a Spitfire fighter pilot with 132 Squadron in Scotland and 401 Squadron, RCAF at Normandy. Photos via Bill Carr collection and McRae family collection

 

Tragedy at Nueltin Lake

by Bill McRae

Nueltin is a large lake, about 120 miles in length, extending across the Manitoba/Nunavut border. What brought us there?

Late spring 1945, Detachment 2 of No. 7 Photo Wing left Rockcliffe for northern Manitoba. The unit comprised three Mk VI Norseman aircraft (RCAF serials 371, 372 and 2496), a single Canso (RCAF Serial No. 11079), and supporting personnel. It represented only a small segment of a much larger force embarking on the first postwar large scale program to complete the photo mapping of Canada’s north, a task which would take more than a decade to complete. Aerial photography would be useless for map making without some means of determining the precise latitude and longitude of the photos. In 1945, GPS being some decades away and the use of Shoran still not introduced, this ‘tying in’ was achieved by ground surveys, using the stars and accurate time by short wave radio from Ottawa. To do this work, four two-man survey crews from the Geodetic Survey Department of Canada in Ottawa joined with the Detachment at The Pas. The three Norseman pilots, Ernie Weeks, Bill Carr and myself, had as an objective establishment of about 60 survey control points in a 50 mile grid over an area of about 90,000 square miles, from the north end of Reindeer Lake to Baker Lake and from Hudson Bay almost to Yellowknife. Our job was to transport our assigned surveyor(s) from point to point, attempting to be as close to the planned locations as possible, taking into account the surveyors’ acceptance of the location and its suitability for the Norseman. Existing maps were useless for navigation; therefore all flying was by dead reckoning. This was Weeks’ third summer on the job; for Carr and myself it was the first.

Members of the 7 Photo Wing Detachment 2 (13 (P) Squadron) before heading north. This would be one of the last photos of Wheatcroft and Shackleton before their deaths on Nueltin Lake. L to R Standing: Stan Biggars, Freddie Cronk, Rae Reid (Canso Pilot), Cpl. Roy Bruce, Les Wheatcroft (engineer), “Rosie” Rosen (co-pilot), Cpl. Ken Ford; Kneeling in front: Doug Shackleton (navigator), Bill Carr and Ernie Weeks. Photo: Bill McRae Collection

En route to their mapping duties in the north, the three Norseman pilots (L to R: Bill Carr, Bill McRae and Ernie Weeks) landed at Port Arthur/Fort William 2 July 1945 on the far western shore of Lake Superior—two cities that were amalgamated to form Thunder Bay in 1970. This was a particularly proud moment for McRae (and he looks it in this photograph) for he was in his hometown. Though born in Scotland, McRae grew up in Port Arthur, never dreaming that he would fly into the floatplane base near his family home, the returning hero. The woman on the left is McRae’s sister. Photo: Bill McRae Collection

A day later on 3 June, Ernie Weeks’ Norseman 371 was the centre of attention from the local women at Lac du Bonnet. Lac du Bonnet is just to the northeast of Winnipeg, Manitoba and is today lined with cottages. Photo: Bill McRae Collection

Flight Lieutenant Bill McRae in Norseman 372 flies over a Northwest Territorial landscape, having left Nueltin Lake en route to “Point 20” in August of 1945. The photo was taken from Bill Carr’s Norseman 2496. Photo: RCAF via Bill McRae Collection

The Canso pilot and Detachment leader was a very experienced Rae Reid; he kept us supplied with groceries, fuel and spares, but left us to carry out our roles without interference. The Canso’s navigator, Doug Shackleton was an American in the RCAF, but claimed to be a distant relative of the English explorer of the same name. According to Reid he was a superb navigator; on at least one occasion, after a long above cloud flight from Winnipeg, he brought the Canso out of cloud precisely over the base camp, without benefit of radio aids. He was also a keen fisherman, which would lead to his demise.

Frozen lakes held us up until 13 June. The first base camp was established on Whiskey Jack lake, about twenty five miles north of the top end of Reindeer Lake. As we began to work our way north, Reid established an advanced fuel cache and weather post at Nueltin Lake on 6 July. All but about ten miles of the most southerly part of Nueltin was still full of rotting ice at this time.

While McRae, Carr and Weeks brought the survey teams out to each of the 60 predetermined survey control points, Rae Reid and the Consolidated PBY Canso (a Canadian-built variant of the Catalina) did all the major resupply as well as bringing in photographic and documentary personnel. Here, crews unload supplies from Canso 11079 at Brochet Base on Whiskey Jack Lake, Manitoba in June of 1945. Photo: Bill McRae Collection

The Hudson Bay Post at Brochet, Manitoba on the Saskatchewan/Manitoba border. A remote northern outpost at the top of Reindeer Lake, Brochet is still, to this day, only accessible by air. In the summer of 1945, it was a supply base and jumping off point for the aerial survey work of McRae and Carr’s detachment of No. 7 Photo Wing. The first survey base camp (which they also called Brochet) was set up 20 miles north of the village Brochet on Whiskey Jack Lake. Photo: Bill McRae Collection

The Canso carried a sectional canoe, which could be bolted together and used to get ashore should the aircraft have to be secured to a buoy or anchored in deeper water. I had used this boat a couple of times and found it very unstable and not suited to the possible physical activity of landing a large arctic char or a huge lake trout. Although these fish were readily caught with an unbaited spoon on a hand line from the floats of a Norseman, Shackleton preferred to fish from the canoe.

On the 6th of July I had just put Gord Corcoran, one of my surveyors, into an unmapped lake about twenty miles southeast of Nueltin when I received a radio message from base. Shackleton and Les Wheatcroft, the Canso engineer, had gone fishing in the canoe early that morning and had not returned. A strong westerly wind had come up and it was hoped they had simply been blown to the other side of the open water and were unable to get back. I was asked to return and conduct a search. Flying at 500’, when I reached Nueltin I began to scan the downwind shore and then gradually worked my way across toward camp. About midway there was a small rocky island, not much more than a shoal, and a short distance upwind of it I spotted what looked like part of a Mae West. There was no sign of the wearer, and oddly it was not moving any closer to the island, despite a very strong wind.

There was nothing I could do on my own in such close proximity to the rocks so I continued on to the new base, picked up Rae Reid and Cpl. Bruce and returned to the island. I was able to taxi alongside the Mae West while Reid and Bruce got out on the float. I could not shut down because we would have been on the rocks in seconds, but kept the slipstream at a minimum, while holding position by flipping the switches off and on. When they retrieved the life vest they found Shackleton below the surface, one arm hooked rigidly through an arm hole. He was too heavy to lift up into the cabin, so I taxied slowly all the way to camp while they held Shackleton on the float. He had been wearing high rubber boots, one of which he had kicked off, along with the trouser leg; the other boot was still on, the trousers hanging down over it. His obvious attempts to swim had been made impossible, with the trousers and boot acting almost like a sea anchor. It was this anchor, dragging on the bottom, that had prevented the Mae West from drifting onto the island. From his appearance, Doug had not drowned but rather had succumbed to the icy water.

 

Bill Carr’s 2496 is tied up on a sand beach next to an esker at Nueltin Lake. This was the campsite near where Wheatcroft’s body would surface a month after the tragic events. Photo: Bill McRae Collection

Over the next four days, between regular duties, I continued to search the lake for signs of Wheatcroft. All I found was a paddle. After that we gave up; one month later Wheatcroft’s body washed up on shore less than 200 yards from camp. From this we concluded that the canoe had upset quite close to camp, but since they had gone out very early in the morning their cries for help would have gone unheard by the rest of the Canso crew, sleeping in their aircraft, and the sound buffered by an esker. Even had they been heard, it would have been almost impossible to get the Canso fired up and through the narrow entrance to the lagoon in time to save them, and there was no other aircraft in camp.

Both bodies were flown out in the Canso for burial; Shackleton in Beechwood Cemetery, Ottawa, Wheatcroft in Brookside Cemetery, Winnipeg, his hometown.

By Bill McRae

A magnificent photo from August of 1945—a beach on Windy Lake, a tent, two float planes, pristine water and a wonderful reward for two weary fighter pilots. Photo: Bill McRae Collection

In July of the summer of 1945, the supporting Canso aircraft brought to Nueltin Lake a film crew from the National Film Board to make a documentary about the mapping project which the detachment was engaged in. With Carr’s Norseman 2496 on the beach, we see Carr (left) and McRae (right) with two RCAF members of the entourage—Cpl. Mullholland and Sgt. Breed—who were with the photo publicity crew. Bill Carr is wearing a hat with a mosquito/black fly net while McRae sports the beginnings of his non-authorized beard, which he claimed was an effective deterrent to the insect scourge. Photo: Bill McRae Collection

Like all bush pilots, Bill McRae did more than just fly—he took part in the loading, unloading and fueling of his Norseman. Here, in rubber knee waders he piggybacks surveyor Gord Corcoran out to Norseman 372 in order to keep his shoes dry. Photo: Bill McRae Collection

Bill Carr’s Norseman 2496 is seen tied to the shore at a site known simply at Pt. 3. Carr’s Norseman was painted in standard RCAF camouflage and Type C-1 Roundels, while the other two were silver overall with Type C roundels. Photo: Bill McRae Collection

 A close-up of the previous photograph reveals Carr sitting and peeking out at the rear of his port float. Photo: Bill McRae Collection

Through the summer of 1945, the men of Detachment 2 of 13 (P) Squadron were definitely roughing it, hundreds of miles from civilization. The camaraderie and shared hardships helped bind the group into an effective outfit that got the job done that summer. Photo: Bill McRae Collection

 Bill McRae’s Norseman 372 tied up near a campsite on Head Lake in June 1945. Photo: Bill McRae Collection

Bill McRae (crouched in the Norseman’s cargo door), works with Al Beaulieu (on float) and Bob Sauder on the beach to put in a fuel cache at Ferguson Lake in August. Photo: Bill McRae Collection

Bill Carr was assigned Norseman 2496 and it would be his aircraft for the entire summer of 1945. As such, it would also be his home. Here, at the Nueltin Lake cache, Carr shaves at the cockpit door while RCAF corporal Ken Ford arranges to pump some fuel from a drum on the beach. It was just a few hundred yards from this spot that Wheatcroft’s body finally washed up, a month after he was drowned. Photo: Bill McRae Collection

13 (P) Squadron’s Consolidated Canso 11079 resting in calm water at Brochet Base, Whiskey Jack Lake. Photo: Bill McRae Collection

After a long and storied service with the RCAF, Canso 11079 was purchased in 1962 by the Québec Department of Transportation and Communications and registered as C-FPQP. It was damaged beyond repair in a landing accident in 1987 at Lac Cache, Ontario. Photo via the Consolidated PBY Catalina website

Bill Carr’s Norseman 2496 would continue in service for the RCAF, later being coded AP-Q and flying with 413 Squadron (formerly 13 (P) Squadron) until 1950. It was eventually reduced to spares and scrapped. McRae’s 372 would eventually be listed on the Norwegian civil registry as LN-BDT with the famed Wideroe Flyveselskap—a fitting place for an aircraft called a Norseman. Weeks’ 371 would join the Canadian civil registry as C-FILR, working for years before crashing on Baffin Island. Photo: Canada Aviation and Space Museum

Bill McRae (left) and Bill Carr after arriving back at RCAF Station Rockcliffe on 5 September 1945. Their route home from just south of the Arctic Circle took them through Flin Flon and The Pas, Manitoba, then to Kenora, Ontario. From there, north of Lake Superior to Kapuskasing on Remi Lake. It seems they have cleaned up well after roughing it for the summer, likely at Kapuskasing before their 6-hour-long flight south to Rockcliffe. While McRae’s beard gave him the look of a swashbuckling submariner and was an effective shield against black flies, it was decidedly wrong for the RCAF. He was required to shave it off shortly after this photo was taken. Despite years of combat operations and participation in the mapping of Canada’s uncharted North, both men were still under 25 years old. Photo: Bill McRae Collection

Upon his return to RCAF Station Rockcliffe, Bill McRae’s rather Navy-style beard was ordered removed, but not before he had convinced one of the many photographers at No. 7 Photo Wing to record his magnificently hairy face. Photo: Bill McRae Collection

It was 20 years after the summer of 1945 when author McRae discovered that one of his surveyors had named a lake after him. Searching the area mapped through that summer, he also found a Carr Lake, named after Bill Carr, and an Ernie Lake, named after Ernie Weeks. During the mapping that summer, the territory was divided into three north-south panels, with Weeks flying positioning and resupply flights in the western section, McRae in the middle and Carr to the east. It is interesting to note that each of the three lakes rests in the area of responsibility for each of the three Norseman pilots, an honour bestowed on them by the surveyors they flew. Carr’s section along the curving sweep of the west coast of Hudson Bay was the most challenging, according to McRae. There is also a Wheatcroft Lake in Manitoba. Though we are not certain, it is likely that Flying Officer Leslie Raymond Wheatcroft was one of many Manitobans who had lakes in Manitoba named for them. These were named for men killed during the Second World War, and though Wheatcroft died in a fishing accident in Canada after VE day, his service seems to have been commemorated this way, as there was only one Wheatcroft who served in the Canadian armed services during the war. Maps via Google maps

Vintage Wings of Canada is honoured to have known both Bill McRae and Bill Carr and paid tribute to their contributions to aviation history in Canada by piping banners in their honour to the rafters of our hangar—McRae in 2010 and Carr in 2013. Banners by Dave O’Malley

This story and many others, Bill McRae wrote for the Canadian Aviation Historical Society (CAHS) over many years. He sent this and several other stories to Vintage Wings before his death in 2011. Precious gifts that they are, we dole them out one at a time, hoping to extend the connection to Bill into the future. Bill was witness to history and a gifted, humble and humorous writer of his and his fellow pilots’ experiences throughout the war. He believed deeply in the importance of the CAHS and its goal to record for all time the powerful aviation heritage that is Canada’s. To find out more about the CAHS, visit www.cahs.ca.

For more on the life and career of Bill Carr, click here.
 
For more on the life and career of Bill McRae, click here.

 

 

Chercher
© 2013 Vintage Wings of Canada, all rights reserved. Vintage Wings of Canada, Warbird U., Gray Ghost, Gray Ghost 2, Hawk One and Vintech Aero are trademarks of Vintage Wings of Canada