A School of Swordfish - No. 1 Naval Air Gunners School Yarmouth

 A School Of Swordfish

Line-up of Swordfish and Ansons for an official visit in September of 1944. Note the different camouflage schemes.

Bert Joss relates his experiences flying the Swordfish at Yarmouth, Nova Scotia during the Second World War. As we get set to bring our Fairey Swordfish to full flying status, new relationships with experienced senior pilots like Joss will help us tell the unique story of Canadians who flew this storied aircraft.

One of the most interesting training schools under the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan was No. 1 Naval Air Gunners School (NAGS), at Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, which operated from January 1943 to March 1945. It was established under Secret Organizational Order Number 104, dated 11 December 1942, and  was the result of a request from the Admiralty to the Canadian authorities to see if a training school could be established to supplement the establishments in England that were training Royal Navy Telegraphist/Air Gunners. It was agreed that the administration would be handled by the Royal Canadian Air Force, while the training would be the responsibility of the Royal Navy. The original plan called for three training squadrons: one squadron consisting of 43 Swordfish, supplied by the Admiralty; a second squadron of 23 Ansons from the RCAF; and a squadron of Stinson Reliants, 40 in number, to be taken directly from U.S. production. The station was to be located at Yarmouth, N.S., where there already was a branch of No. 3 0perational Training Unit, located on the east side of the airport. There were thus two establishments using the same airfield, East Camp, which was the training squadron, and West Camp, which was an operational Eastern Air Command station, flying Cansos for the most part. The training commander for No. 1 NAGS was Commander I.M.N. Mudie, RN.

On 11 January 1943, Wing Commander D.D. Finlay, RCAF, assumed command and, on 6 February 1943, four Swordfish II aircraft were taken on strength. On 1 March 1943, it was decided that Curtiss Seamews, the Royal Navy equivalent of the USN SO3C-1, were to be substituted for the Stinsons.

On 7 March, the first batch of Seamews was grounded for lack of cartridges to start their Ranger engines. At the end of March 1943, there were no less than 36 Seamews on strength, but on 20 April 1943, all Seamews were grounded for tail-wheel strengthening. A reasoned argument was presented to the Admiralty to replace the Seamews with Ansons (twin-engine safety and safer forced landings with retractable undercarriage), but in the event, they were actually replaced by more Swordfish. On 31 May, the squadron strength consisted of 23 Ansons, 27 Swordfish, 60 Seamews (all grounded), and one Walrus for air-sea rescue work.

On 5 June 1943, Wing Commander Finlay was replaced by Commander I.M.N. Mudie as officer commanding, representing a change from the original policy of RCAF command. On 24 June 1944, Swordfish HS486 force-landed on a beach at Cotton Bay in Lockeport, N.S., but was successfully flown off on 26 June. This was the first Swordfish forced landing and interestingly enough the same aircraft was to be involved in the last Swordfish “prang” of the station, although the latter incident was somewhat more final than the first.

The problem with the Seamew was lack of strength in the tail-wheel. There were many cases of the tail-wheels collapsing when landing and this required modifications for which the Curtiss-Wright people came to Yarmouth. Three Seamews were modified with pneumatic tail-wheels and had their rear structural members stiffened to handle the stresses. There was a slightly sneaky story going around the station that the basic problem with the Seamews was the Royal Navy pilots! Being used to pneumatic brakes, which are quite gentle in application, many of the RN types had a great deal of difficulty converting to the standard U.S. toe brakes on the Seamews. The RCAF pilots, who had trained on Harvards, were familiar with the use of toe brakes and urged the Navy to let them fly the Seamews, but the Senior Service had its way and the Curtiss-Wrights were mostly flown by the Royal Navy pilots. According to the old timers on the station, the Seamew was a delightful aircraft once it was airborne, fully equipped with trim tabs on all control surfaces, cockpit heat, and all modern conveniences and it could be trimmed to fly hands-off. It was only on the ground that they were somewhat fierce, due to the wheel undercarriage being well aft, fastened to the same point on the fuselage as the more normal single-strut float arrangement. The aircraft was basically designed as a seaplane for catapult use off cruisers and such.

On 16 July 1943, Lysander 442 from Scoudouc, N.B., was taken on strength and, on 19 July, a modified Swordfish with target-towing gear was tested. During August, a number of transport flights to obtain tires for the aircraft were indulged in.

On 1 September 1943, the Commander celebrated 30 years of service in the Royal Navy and the number of Swordfish on strength continued to increase. On 1 December, 43 of the Seamews were loaded into freight cars for eventual shipment to the United Kingdom where it is understood they operated at the Royal Navy Station at Worthy Down.

By 27 February 1944, the station had the first three Swordfish Mark IV on strength. These were locally modified Mark IIs with a totally enclosed coupé top, the rear gunner having a clamshell-type door which opened to the rear to enable him to have a clear field of fire for his Vickers K gun. These modifications to the Swordfish took place throughout 1944, on Modification Order No. 408, and the Swordfish were taken on strength from Dartmouth, N.S., being flown down to Yarmouth with open cockpits and modified there to have their cockpits fully enclosed.

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Mk.IV Swordfish H/HS268, Fall 1944. Prominent are the Handley-Page slats on the upper wing. They opened automatically at low speeds and high angle of attack and made the Swordfish almost impossible to stall! Also evident is the locally installed coupé top. Photo: Bert Joss

On 15 April 1944, the first Hurricane, RCAF 5698, was taken on strength from Scoudouc, and by 30 April there were two Mk XII Hurricanes on strength. The sequence of operation for the squadron was for the Royal Navy trainees (“goons” to the pilots) to begin their radio training in the Swordfish, then progress to operations in Anson aircraft in which two student Telegraphist/Air Gunners could be carried at the same time. And finally, they finished their training in the third squadron where they practiced live firing and camera gun firing from Swordfish aircraft again.

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Canadian-built (by Canadian Car and Foundry) Hurricane Mk. XII 5698. Two "Hurris" were brought in to do simulated beam attacks on a flight of four Swordfish whose TAGs (Telegraphist/Air Gunner) used camera-guns to "shoot" at the attacker. (It was normal for Mk. XII's to fly without a spinner. - And only the pilots with the most hours got to fly the Hurricanes!) Photo: Bert Joss

The Lysanders had originally been used as target tugs, but the story around the station was that they were too fast (!) for the Swordfish and some of the Swordfish, eight in number, were modified with target towing gear. In this aircraft, only the pilot had a totally enclosed cockpit and nobody knew what mark to call these modified Swordfish because the Admiralty never assigned one to it. They were referred to as Mark IVAs but this was never approved as a formal mark number.

The Hurricanes were used for simulated beam attacks on flights of four Swordfish where trainees fired camera guns at the Hurricane. It was the goal of every pilot on the station to get himself checked out on the Hurricane. Unfortunately, these were reserved for the most senior pilots with the most hours and there were far more pilots who didn’t fly the Hurricanes than who did. The live firing against target drogues also caused some concern and there were a number of cases where the trainee gunners got a little too enthusiastic and put some bullets into their own aircraft. On one occasion a Swordfish cut me off on the landing approach when I was coming in to land an Anson and it later turned out that the Swordfish pilot had all his control wires on the right-hand side shot away. He could apply left rudder and fortunately, since the elevator controls were duplicated, he still had elevator control. But he couldn’t turn right and was mostly interested in getting on the ground as quickly as possible!

The staff pilots on the station were a mixture of RCAF officer and sergeant pilots and RN Fleet Air Arm pilots from England. The two groups got along pretty well in the Wardroom which was operated as a Royal Navy officers mess with Royal Navy traditions. Some of the Royal Navy pilots were midshipmen and there was great delight when the pilot officers in the RCAF found out that the midshipman was a commissioned officer one rank lower than a pilot officer, so life was made as miserable as possible for the Royal Navy “snotties” in the wardroom.

On 31 August 1944, ten pilots, including the writer, arrived at Yarmouth from Maitland, N.S., having been posted from the Aircrew Graduate Training School. At that time there was a surplus of pilots and, while most of the one-winged aircrew graduates were posted overseas, none of our crop of pilots at No. 1 Aircrew Graduate Training School were sent. Most of us received postings as staff pilots to various stations in Canada.

Needless to say, when the word got out that we would be flying Swordfish at Yarmouth, being hot-shot, fighter-pilot types trained on Harvards and ready for Hurricanes, Spitfires, etc., the thought of reverting to lumbering old biplanes with fixed undercarriage was a terrible let-down for all of us. But flying any kind of aircraft is better than not flying at all, so the more enthusiastic pilots managed to find things to do in Swordfish to enliven the proceedings, as there were always some Mosquitoes from Greenwood to dogfight.

On 11 September 1944, a U.S. Navy K-type Blimp came into the field, docking at a mobile mooring mast, which had been established at Yarmouth for just this purpose. However, two weeks later another Blimp, K9, attempting to moor at the mooring mast, was caught by a gust of wind and rammed into the mast. The pilot had no choice but to pull the ripcord to vent his helium and this dirty great blimp wound up in a pile on the tarmac. The opinion was that the mooring mast had been too close to the hangars and that wind turbulence was the cause of the crash. One of the landing crew on board the mast tower was badly injured when he jumped to avoid being chewed up by an angry looking propeller approaching him and broke both his thighs as he fell down the side of the tower. However, he survived – eventually.

October 1944 was a bad month for prangs and forced landings. First, there was the now famous incident when Warrant Officer Lloyd Gibson (who would eventually become Capt. Lloyd Gibson, chief pilot for Eastern Provincial Airlines) force-landed Anson 7145, wheels down, on Lockeport Beach. He had as passengers Australian Seamen Malcolm Clarke and B. Morten. Clarke subsequently became Commodore Clarke of the Royal Australian Navy. I was duty pilot on that day and can remember the suggestion by the Station Commander that the Walrus be used to take fresh batteries to the downed Anson. Commander Flying Ovey however decided that a Swordfish would be satisfactory and this was what was done. The Swordfish landed near the Anson, the batteries were transferred, and both aircraft took off from the beach and landed back at Yarmouth, leaving Clarke and Morten to find their way back by bus.

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Swordfish F3/HS487, as rearranged by Bert Joss, 16 October, 1944. Good picture of the Mk.IV canopy. (Or what a Stringbag with retractable undercarriage would look like!) It was the first of two Stringbag write-offs survived by Joss. In this particular landing, no one was injured. Photo: Bert Joss

On 16 October, the writer suffered a forced landing, Swordfish HS487 being a write-off. This was the result of an engine failure caused by excessive use of boost in a steep turn. The fact that there was a Mosquito at the outer radius of the same steep turn is really of no consequence and although there were no injuries the aircraft was a complete write-off. There were two other Swordfish forced landings that day, both without damage. Only four days later, there was a much more serious accident involving two Ansons flown by Pilot Officer J. N. Richardson, in Anson 11233, and Flying Officer G. Freese, in Anson 7146. There was a mid-air collision between these two aircraft and both of them crashed not far from Digby. All six persons in the two aircraft were killed – four trainees and both pilots. The saddest part of the crash was that Pilot Officer Richardson had only just returned from his honeymoon, having married the station nurse some three weeks previously. One of the photos accompanying this article shows the smoke from the burning Ansons just below the wheel of the Swordfish.

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A black day for No.1 Naval Air Gunners School. Just below the left wheel of Swordfish Q/HS325, flown by Harry Allen, can be seen the smoke from two crashed Avro Anson trainers. The two aircraft were in an air-to-air collision that claimed the lives of all six on board the trainers. Photo: Bert Joss

On 9 November 1944, Swordfish HS220 suffered an engine failure on takeoff, and was force landed, somewhat violently, on the Army Camp just south of the station.

By 31 December, there were two Harvard Mark IIBs on strength. These were brought in for instrument training since there was a feeling that the staff pilots were losing their instrument flying skills, with no flying instructor to keep tabs on their ability. The Harvards looked surprisingly small and dainty alongside the huge Swordfish.

On 28 January 1945, HS486, the Swordfish that had been involved in the first forced landing from the station was totally written off in a crash near New France, Southville, about 20 miles inland from Weymouth, N.S. The writer was the pilot at the time and the cause of the crash was an incorrectly assembled fuel-cock. The Swordfish had a rather peculiar arrangement of fuel tanks, consisting of a main tank and a gravity tank which was kept full by the engine driven fuel pump with an overflow back into the main tank. The correct procedure was to take off with the fuel-cock selecting “main only” and once airborne and cruising to switch to “normal” in which case the gravity tank was kept topped up by some of the fuel from the fuel pump, so that there was always an emergency supply in the gravity tank should the fuel pump itself pack up. In this particular instance the aircraft had just come back from servicing, and the indicator on the fuel-cock was assembled rotated 90 degrees on its shaft. When I selected “normal” I was actually running on “gravity” and in due course drained the gravity tank. We were fairly low over trees at the time and I had no choice but to pancake into the forest. Unfortunately, we landed on top of a tall dead tree that I couldn’t see, and the aircraft was rolled up into a ball. I received a broken left ankle and right thigh, the joyrider behind me a cracked hip, but the poor student, who didn’t even know we were crashing, wasn’t injured, perhaps due to his rearward-facing seat. Some loggers from a nearby camp got us out of the aircraft minutes after the crash.

Eight days after the crash, flying training at No. 1 NAGS ceased, and all pilots were posted overseas except, of course, the writer. All training at the school ended on 19 March 1945, and the station was officially closed on 30 March.

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Another Outerbridge photo  of "V3", over Digby Gap, where the ferry Princess Helene, crossing the Bay of Fundy from St. John, N.B., entered into Digby Harbour. Photo Don Outerbridge

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A Yarmouth Stringbag seen from the rear cockpit of a sister aircraft in tight formation. Photo by Don Outerbridge of Bermuda, later to become well-known in Boston art circles. The strip of land is Digby Neck and the body of water is St. Mary's Bay. Photo: Don Outerbridge

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Liberator of Eastern Air Command after ground-loop. The left undercart folded up on landing and the aircraft hulk remained in position for some time.  Only the engines and other vital parts were salvaged. (Penalty of the "one-wing-down" approach to a cross-wind landing?) Photo: via Bert Joss

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Formation flight of five Mk. IIs taken by a Royal Navy photographer some time in 1943, before the coupe-tops were fitted to make them Mk.IV's. Inset: The least said the better! The "club" was organized by some long-time Swordfish pilots, and it was NOT considered an honour to be a member! Photo: via Bert Joss

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