And furthermore ...

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Monday, 28 October 2013


The mystery continues ...
“Pilots take no special joy in walking. Pilots like flying.”
Neil Armstrong

Who took these photos of Canadian aircraft and why? It would be odd for commanding officers of an airfield to let someone wander about with a camera during wartime, yet most of these do not look like official photos. I couldn’t leave a mystery unsolved. The place to start was back at the beginning: the stall at the flea market where the rest of the photos remained. All the proprietor could tell me, as he calculated the price of the snaps while factoring in ‘keen buyer interest’, was that he had bought them about ten years ago. He couldn’t remember the circumstances clearly but he was sure the seller had also been the photographer. Being Canadian, he apologised that he couldn’t be more helpful but actually he had told me a lot. 

Given there were three film formats (four now) and each had their own look and style, I had three immediate possibilities. The first was that one man took every photograph and used particular cameras for certain types (action, still life on the tarmac). If his hobby was photography he was dedicated but owning three or four cameras wouldn’t be unusual. Alternatively, he took the photos because he loved planes. This makes more sense, up to a point. Twitchers I’ve met tend to be very particular about their equipment. They’ll have three pairs of binoculars when most of us think one is sufficient. (This creates an image in my mind of a stout, ruddy faced chap in an undersized t-shirt, Bombay bloomers and thick-lensed glasses. I need to get rid of that.) As a plane spotter he would have seen the value in several cameras too. The third possibility was that he did take the photos in an official capacity, but if so, why would he be allowed to keep them? This plane, incidentally, is an Avro Lancaster, a bomber. It looks like it has a small problem.

And this plane is a Westland Lysander. I recall putting together an Airfix model of one when I was a kid and it was a favourite among my collection. You might think the real man would choose a Spitfire but the Lysander was the photographer’s plane, ideal for aerial reconnaissance, which was of course far more dangerous than flying over enemy territory in a high speed fighter. It was also a trainer. During the war most of the Canadian Lysanders were stationed at Rockcliffe in Ontario, Saint John in New Brunswick and Vancouver Island.  

It seems obvious now but it hadn’t occurred to me that air bases would specialize in one or two types of aircraft, hence you’d find Cessna Cranes at Claresholm and Lysanders at Rockcliffe but not the other way around. Once you realize that, it becomes apparent from these photos that while the backgrounds tend to be similarly flat, anonymous and wintry, our photographer was travelling across the country. Short of spying, that can only mean he was visiting the airfields in an official capacity. What that might have been, we’ll come to shortly, but in the meantime we have the Stinson Voyager, serial number 3467, which according to R. W. Walker’s rather helpful site, was stationed at No. 4 Training Command in Saskatchewan for most of the war. It would go on to have a long life, still cruising the skies of Manitoba in the 1970s.

I’ve always thought that era of early arctic flight was romantic, in the way Saint-Exupéry made those pilots on early mail flights to Dakar cool, unassuming and nonchalant about their slim chances of getting to the other end. Flying medical supplies up to an Inuit village in the 1940s while dodging blizzards and polar bears would be interesting. I’m being flippant. It turns out this very plane – Fairchild 71, serial number CF-BJE – was a film star. In 1941 Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger made The 49th Parallel, about a group of Nazis on a U-Boat sunk in Hudson’s Bay who then have to make their way across Canada, encountering all its stereotypes in the process (Lawrence Oliver as a Quebecoise trapper is hilarious: they may speak French but that doesn’t mean you have to behave like a Parisian opera singer who just bought a stale baguette). At one point the Germans steal CF-BJE, which takes them across the snowy wastes before they crash it in a lake. Later, CF-BJE would turn up in The Saint episode, The Sporting Chance, where Simon Templar, aka Roger Moore, has his peaceful Canadian fishing holiday spoiled by Russian spies. I notice that on IMDb men rate this episode much higher than women do. 

Back to the real mystery. For the last photo in the previous post I noted that a Facebook friend thought the wreckage was from a Mosquito. Well spotted, I say! The next sequence of photos, all square format and all presumably taken by the same photographer, show firstly a badly damaged Mosquito then one that may have replaced it. The damaged one can’t be the same as the one in the previous post as it has its empennage intact. Alongside the Spitfire the Mosquito was probably the emblematic Allied airplane of the Second World War. It was actually built from plywood, which gave it speed and manoeuvrability though not much protection. Those of a certain age may recall being enthralled by such films as 633 Squadron, which celebrated the wonderful agility of this aircraft when paired with the British stiff upper lip. It appears from this photo that the fuselage has been split in half, most likely in an accident rather than enemy attack. Mosquitoes were prone to accidents, partly because they were so fast and agile that it was easy for pilots with limited training to misjudge landings.

This is the photo that makes me think I know the nature of our photographer’s work. This looks like a crashed Mosquito having its usable parts packed away. Incidentally, thanks to its vast forests of spruce and birch, Canada probably built more Mosquitoes than any other country. I’m not sure that the same person took all these photos but this one provides a plausible clue as to why someone was allowed to wander around the base with a camera. If our photographer was attached to the department responsible for air force acquisitions he would not only have to travel to air bases around the country, he would have to file reports on planes that had been damaged in order to justify their replacement. He’d also be interested in the assembling of aircraft to make certain parts weren’t missing. 

A fully assembled Mosquito on the tarmac. (At least, to my uninformed eye, that’s what it looks like.) An odd story about Canada, Mosquitoes and the Japanese: In 1944 Japan hatched a scheme to send thousands of balloons loaded with bombs across the Pacific, the idea being they would sail on the Jet Stream to North American shores where they would unload their cargo. The balloons were fitted with mechanisms that controlled their descent and triggered a bomb release. They sound like something Wily E. Coyote would dream up but a lot of effort went into design and construction. The miscalculation had to do with the Jet Stream and balloons ended up scattered across the Pacific, most landing in the water. Some did make it to North America and were spotted over Kansas and Wyoming. Six people were killed. In Canada the job of flying out across the Pacific to hunt down the fire balloons was given to Mosquito squadrons. That was probably a difficult job. The balloons were small and it would take more luck than skill to shoot them down.   

This looks like a Fairey Battle – I say having searched diligently using a rudimentary process of elimination. It was designed as a light bomber that would swoop down on slow moving or small targets – German mothers taking their children to school – but such were its weaknesses, too compact to carry a heavy load yet too slow to get out of the way, that by 1940 the surviving machines were sent to Canada to be used in training. This is interesting but I’m not sure what it means. A lot of the planes in the collection were used as trainers. Canada was just out of range to be an effective base for launching assaults but the prairies were a perfect area for military flying schools, being both flat and far away. Germany was no doubt interested in Canadian training schools but there wasn’t much it could do about them. 

Avro Anson Mk V, serial number 11899, and yes, another trainer. I could be wrong; our photographer could have been a flying instructor but you would think, wouldn’t you, that instructors tended to stay with the one aircraft. A pilot ought to be able to fly any plane but knowing the various flaws and graces of particular models would help. 

With my new found eye in place, I’m confident these planes are Harvards, and yes again, they were trainers. These aircraft appear to have inspired their own cult, especially in Canada. There are several websites dedicated to Canadian Harvards, indeed there are still quite a number of the planes still flying, so many in fact that because of a passing similarity to the Japanese Zero they are painted with the rising sun and sent up to take on the role of an old foe when a film set in World War 2  demands it. Harvard incidentally, is the name this airplane was given by the British and the Canadians. The Americans referred to it as the Texan. Think about it. One name evokes genteel intellectuals wrapped in tweed, the other lassoing steers and throwing them on a barbecue. It’s a question Clint Eastwood might ask: “well, do you fly a Harvard, or do you fly a Texan?” The Australians called it a Wirraway. 

One final image, and one of two that could be considered a portrait, of the same man by a plane (The other is at the top of the page). I don’t know the significance of the white coveralls, whether they mark him as an inspector or a mechanic, but you’ll notice he’s about to have a look at the engine. Is it our photographer? You can spend hours studying a collection like this, trying to come to a conclusion, and every so often you have to pull yourself back from the brink of absurdity. There’s a lot we can never know about these photos but one thing is clear: whoever took them loved aircraft and knew how to shoot them so they looked their best.



  1. Oh, a lot of interesting images. I will have to show this to my father. I'm sure he'll blurt out the names of the planes as soon as he sees them.

    I never knew about the balloon bombs, but it does remind of a tv evangelist who, several decades ago, was trying to raise funds to send balloons into East Germany carrying bibles. I loved his stupidity.

    1. Thanks Tattered and Lost. Any help identifying the planes would be great.

  2. Unless the photos are out of order, John, that's not a Lancaster. It's the unmistakeable tailplane of a de Havilland Mosquito.

    1. Thanks Stencil. Little as I know it did occur to me this was too small to be a Lancaster but I was going on the serial number. I'm going to correct that.

  3. The Japanese balloon bomb which killed six people was in the Bly, Oregon area.

  4. Yes, Jonathan, and I believe someone was injured deep in the midwest.


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