A Spitfire Dubbed “The Canadian Policeman”

Foreword

I will post the images of the article and then the text. This will enable people to use search engines on the Internet to write comments if they are related one way or another to this story.

A Spitfire Dubbed “The Canadian Policeman” – Courage in War, Amongst Canada’s Cops by Lieutenant-Colonel Dean C. Black, CD

             Shortly after air raids against the enemy had begun senwior Allied airforce leaders agreed to take action against aircrew believed to be acting cowardly.[1] Some aircrew had openly admitted they had no intention of continuing to fly while others seemed to be going through the motions.  Unfortunately, by virtue of their lackluster performance these latter aircrew were said to have forfeited the confidence of their Commanding Officer. Quite often some medical reason was claimed to be at the heart of the member’s unsatisfactory performance, but those who failed to respond to treatment and those who simply chose never to fly again were often deemed to be “lacking in moral fibre” (LMF). In any potential LMF case, though, a CO was obliged to write a report covering operational details together with a note of any particularly bad flying experiences.[2]

            An RCAF pilot named Gordon Hoben faced a number of bad flying experiences. He also vanished from 403 Wolf Squadron’s operations roster for almost eight weeks. Hoben returned to the flight line, however, only to perish in a flying accident soon thereafter. Could there have been a link between his bad experiences and his absence from flying operations? What are we to make of his accidental death? Was his state of mind a factor in the crash or were training shortcomings to blame?  This story contains all the elements one might find in a bona fide LMF case. It also attempts to address the other questions raised. The story provides the most detailed account to date of the short military life of a pilot specifically chosen to fly a special “Presentation Spitfire” fighter called “The Canadian Policeman.”

            On April 8th 1942 on the North Weald aerodrome in England, 403 Squadron paraded for a special ceremony. Police Associations had amassed  $25,000.00 to purchase a Spitfire to donate to 403 Squadron. The Spitfire model Vb, serial no. BL 900, had received its moniker “The Canadian Policeman” and was sporting a dedication plaque on the pilot’s door. A former RCMP officer, P/O Hoben had been handpicked to fly the aircraft. He had joined 403 only two days prior after having flown fifteen missions with 102 Squadron in Whitley bombers. The presence of a number of former RCMP officers, and the Head of Scotland Yard Sir Phillip Game provided for a respectable representation of police officers. They all looked over Hoben sitting in the aircraft and are reported to have discussed how “…the RCMP always gets their man.” With these words they demonstrated the extent to which their hopes and aspirations had been placed in the aircraft and her pilot. Regrettably, to some the final outcome probably fell short of expectations and hopes. The CO, Squadron Leader C.N.S. (Ken) Campbell revealed in his memoirs fifty years later that there were early signs that Hoben “did not relish flying [fighters].”[3]

            Like many of his generation, Hoben was probably excited by the physical and emotional appeals of flying. His five-year career in the RCMP was thus left behind when on June 22nd 1940 he joined the RCAF. On August 31st he began initial flying training in Regina, at 2 I.T.S. He later transferred to 12 E.F.T.S. in Goderich, Ontario, graduating from there on December 10th 1940 with most of the 34 men listed in Panel 1. The following three months were spent in Saskatoon at 4 S.F.T.S. Finally, in mid-1941 Hoben joined 102 Squadron in Topcliffe, where he became known to his fellow aircrew as “Ben.” When Hoben arrived morale was reportedly under siege. One of Hoben’s buddies – a navigator from Moncton named Ralph Wood – wrote that the Whitley[4] had become known as the “Flying Coffin.”[5] To illustrate, by the end of 1941 some 434 Whitley’s had been lost, 395 of those on operations.[6] According to Wood the leadership was also a bit of a challenge since the Commanding Officer often seemed to opt for less daunting missions. Another fellow 102 Squadron member, Carl Dales of Calgary, Alberta recalled that Hoben met misfortune on his very first sortie. On the night of August 14th, only two days after arriving, Hoben and the crew of Whitley Bomber serial no. Z6746 crash-landed on their return from a trip over Hannover. Thankfully none of the crewmembers were injured.[7] However, three other (102) Whitleys were downed over Hannover, leaving five dead and eleven taken prisoner. Seven more aircraft from five other squadrons were also destroyed with forty dead and six taken prisoner. Hoben must have thought his first mission was a rude awakening. Wood and Hoben both departed for conversion training in late December 1941, after having completed 15 missions, but before they left 102 lost another fourteen aircraft with 41 crewmembers being killed.

            Hoben had started his Halifax training in January only to be pulled to begin his conversion to Spitfires the following month. By February 1942 the fighter OTU course had been pared back from six months to four weeks and provided the pilot with some thirty hours of training. Churchill’s chief Scientific Advisor, Professor Lindemann, is credited for such a significant change to the curriculum. Understandably, OTU methodologies and practices have suffered in the face of such an assault. Worse still, there was a tendency to sacrifice synthetic and other ground training for flying instead, especially when the weather permitted. In war we can perhaps understand why such compromises had to be made. They did not come without a price, however.

            There is little to indicate that Hoben benefited from any post-OTU training aimed at making up for the aforementioned compromises. The 403 Squadron Operations Record Book (War Diary) and Hoben’s Record of Service both indicate that he took a week off beginning April 9th. On April 22nd he spoke on BBC radio about “The Canadian Policeman.” The following day he wrapped up his duties as Returning Officer responsible for administering ballots for MacKenzie King’s national plebiscite asking Canadians to release his government from its pledge not to introduce conscription.[8] While Hoben managed a few training sorties over the ten-day period in question the roster of operational pilots was shrinking. On April 25th two of his buddies, Zoochkan and Dick, collided during a dogfight. “Zoochie” had entered a violent spin after his port wing entered Dick’s prop and was torn away. Dick lost two feet off all his propeller blades and dead sticked his kite into Manston. Unfortunately, he suffered a severely fractured skull in the ensuing rough landing. Charlie Magwood had enough fuel to stand guard for 35 minutes while “Zoochie” did his best to stay afloat without a dinghy. Maggie was reportedly quite upset later when he learned that “Zoochie” had been presumed drowned. Later that day two more pilots, Argue and Munn, were set upon by twenty FW190s and were lost near Abbeville. These devastating losses brought an early end to Hoben’s training sorties and administrative duties. He was pressed into service for the first time in “The Canadian Policeman” (BL 900) on April 26th when 403 was tasked to escort and sweep for six Bostons whose target was St. Omer. Later that day the Squadron was ordered up again. Hoben joined Red section one more time, which included Campbell, Aitken and W/C (Flying) Scott-Maldon, DFC, but both missions were unremarkable

            Squadron Leader Campbell was a fatherly figure, to new pilots, renowned for taking fledgling aviators under his wing for their first operational sorties. Hoben was no exception. During the evening of 27 April on Hoben’s second operation of the day, and fourth while flying “The Canadian Policeman,” eleven aircraft were started with two taxiing out within minutes. At that time Ops called informing them that the “Circus” had been postponed by 30 minutes. While taxiing back into position F/L Duval, Campbell’s senior Flight Commander, lost control of his aircraft (KH+D) downwind and the aircraft tipped onto its nose. He quickly took jumped into another aircraft and was ready for take-off at 1813 hrs. Two Wings of aircraft totaling close to 108 according to Campbell, were to rendezvous over Southend and sweep near Le Touquet. However, owing to thick cloud cover three squadrons (121, 403 and 222) found themselves compressed into each other’s airspace between 20,000 and 22,000 feet when the plan had originally called for use of up to 25,000 feet. According to Campbell enemy aircraft were popping in and out of the clouds shooting on Campbell and the others such that the three squadrons of aircraft were forced to bob-and-weave as their only defensive measure. Unfortunately, these maneuvers also posed a danger to themselves. Duval inadvertently ran into Campbell cutting the latter’s port wing completely off. Pilot Officer J.B.B. Rainville, of St-Jean, who was leading Blue section starboard of Campbell, indicated that Duval may have taken fire because Rainville saw black smoke coming from Duval’s aircraft moments before it collided with Campbell’s. Duval perished but Campbell spent the balance of the war in a POW camp. In his memoirs Campbell stated that at the time Duval knocked him out of the air, Hoben was certainly not fully ready for operational flights.[9]

            Shortly afterwards, Hoben entered Station Sick Quarters on May 3rd 1942. It would be perfectly reasonable to assume that stress and death had taken their toll on him. With respect to the latter it is interesting to note that while Hoben was attending the Spitfire OTU two months earlier, in the nearby Grandsable Cemetery he may have taken the time to pay his respects to one of his course mates from Goderich, Ontario. In May 1941, Victor Charles Arnold (See Panel 1) was killed while training at the OTU on Miles Masters. Arnold was not the first nor the last classmate of Hoben’s to perish. Hugh Cooper lost his life while flying a Whitley bomber on training at #19 OTU in Scotland in July of 1941. Perhaps the worst disaster to be visited upon one of his former course members was that experienced by Roland Edison Dann. Pilot Officer Dann was at the controls of #407 Demon Squadron Hudson aircraft #AM 602 when it went into a vertical stall above Donna Nook, Lough, Lincolnshire, crashing not far from where Hoben was undergoing conversion training to Halifax bombers in January 1942. The RAF ground crew nearby rushed to the scene to rescue survivors but the bomb load exploded as they arrived. Five crewmembers and thirteen ground crew perished in the explosion with Roland Dann. There were more tragedies to come. Terence Cunliffe Fitzgerald was piloting Wellington N2729 for 108 Squadron off Greece when they were lost on September 27th 1941, two months into Hoben’s tour with 102 Squadron. On July 12th 1941 an 82 Squadron V6524 Blenheim – lost control in sea fog over the North Sea. George Raymond Menish died on July 30th 1941, days before Hoben arrived in Topcliffe to join 102 Squadron. At the time Menish was flying Blenheim V6266 with 139 Squadron but failed to return and has no known grave. And, finally, we cannot forget the first death Hoben is certain to have been aware of, that of LAC John Archibald Anthony Quinlan. Speaking with Gordon Elmer, a renowned historian from Moose Jaw, specialising in RCAF information pertaining to the BCATP and the Prairies, there was a pilot named LAC D. White at the controls of Harvard 2621 when LAC Quinlan walked into its propeller. From the DHH file we know that Quinlan was reading a map as he walked across the taxiway and into the propeller on White’s Harvard. The accident happened in broad daylight at mid-day. Quinlan died within the hour from a massive wound to his shoulder and chest. The Regina Leader Post stated the next day that Quinlan’s arm had been severed in the accident. Evidence as to the effect of the loss of Quinlan on Hoben can be detected in a story provided by Mr. Bruce Finch, son to D.I.M. “Don” Fink[10], yet another coursemate of Hoben’s in Goderich. One day during an airshow in the 1960s seven-year old Bruce asked his father whether the big propeller-driven airplanes were dangerous. Bruce said his father responded by saying he had once seen a man nearly cut in half by one of the propellers. The incident involving Quinlan must have been the one Don Fink was referring to.

            All these tragedies could have been too much for Hoben, and they may have underscored the possibility that he has lost the courage to fly. But these incidents tell only part of the story. Recalling that casualty rates and bomber wastage had reached incredible levels during 1941, when Hoben joined 102 Squadron, we are made aware of the greater stresses that may have been of influence. For Bomber Command the first quarter had opened with a loss of 181 aircraft. However, within seven months the cumulative quarterly loss had increased to 1,170. Rumours as to the odds of survival were having an understandably detrimental effect on morale. Individual incidents within the squadron itself were not helping matters.  Shortly after his first mission Hoben was made aware that a Whitley had returned with the loss of one crewmember – the tail gunner had to be cleaned out of the rear turret using a hose.[11] Before Hoben’s first fortnight had run its course ten more deaths and the loss of five aircraft were added to the casualty list. The explosion on take-off of Whitley Z6868 from Topcliffe surely had a disconcerting effect. Miraculously all five crewmembers escaped; however, the aircraft was destroyed while another nearby was written off. On a notice board near the Mess could be found a message welcoming new aircrew immediately below which one could find a similar list of condolences expressing sadness over the loss of some of those named above.

            The cumulative effects of the aforementioned experiences and Hoben’s own misgivings about flying the Spitfire could have easily manifested themselves in a growing fear. The unique challenges now presenting themselves to him as a fighter pilot would have understandably weighed heavily on his mind. Perhaps these issues were behind his admission to his new CO that he wasn’t keen on flying Spitfires. By themselves fighter-on-fighter battles were physically and mentally fatiguing. Fighter-on-bomber struggles were even more foreboding. By1942, bombers were heavily armed. A single aircraft could mount ten 0.50-calibre machine guns each capable of firing 700 rounds-per-minute. Flying into a formation of 36 aircraft so-equipped exposed fighter pilots to a million rounds fired out to 3,500 feet in less than sixty seconds. For fighters, flying into this barrage required great determination. Even more alarming, the Germans had begun to re-arm their fighters with 30mm cannon. They had calculated that up to 25 rounds of 20mm were needed to cause the damage necessary that might bring down a bomber or another fighter. With 30mm, five rounds of concentrated fire would suffice. For Hoben the fight was becoming more violent than even he had perhaps bargained for.[12]

            On May 4th 1942, the day after Hoben had entered Station Sick Quarters “The Canadian Policeman”, serial no. BL900, was destroyed. Roy Wozniak was at the controls. A brand new pilot to the Squadron, on his very first sortie with 403 Squadron, Roy was reported to have been keen and anxious to get into position for the formation take-off when he inadvertently taxied into Spitfire AB865. It should be emphasized that Roy was not familiar with the layout of the Southend Aerodrome since he had just flown in from North Weald for the first time. Sadly, the “The Canadian Policeman” was gone. However, the moniker was soon stenciled onto Spitfire serial no. AR 345 and the dedication plate was transferred onto that aircraft’s pilot’s door.

            Hoben returned to flying operations on 22 June. No surviving veteran was able to recall for the author what had led to Hoben’s absence. Some veterans were understandably reluctant to talk about it. After almost a year of research and effort this final part of the Hoben story, explaining his absence, came to light thanks to the National Archives of Canada. It turns out that pneumonia and the threat of influenza had knocked Hoben down for some eight weeks, beginning on May 3rd, 1942, not any lack of courage. “Ben” had succumbed to a temperature of 104, an inability to clear his ears and a general feeling of malaise. What is truly remarkable, then, is the courage he demonstrated in returning to the flight line, knowing the tragedies he had faced in the preceding months and his prolonged absence from flying training.

            Sadly, however, his life was to come to an unfortunate end. On July 11th 1942 Hoben was tasked to transport some .303 recoil springs to Catterick, in “The Canadian Policeman” (AR 345). During the flight he decided to visit his 102 Squadron mates Topcliffe. Roy Whipple recalled that this was not the first time Hoben and “his” Spitfire had paid a visit. On a prior occasion that Whipple believes took place just before the King’s and Queen’s visit, Hoben is said to have “…flown his airplane so low between the hangars at Topcliffe that he cut a power line leaving part of the local village without electricity for a few hours.”[13] However, Whipple’s account is difficult to corroborate without access to flight records from #58 OUT. As the reader will recall, since the Royal couple is known to have visited 102 on March 25th, Hoben was still under training in Grangemouth. On July 11th while overhead the field flying from West to East Hoben rolled the airplane inverted at an altitude of 500 feet. His efforts to right the airplane, were for not. Hoben was too low, for such a maneuver and subsequently crashed. In what was obviously a bitter reflection over the loss of a good friend, Charlie Magwood spoke to the author lamenting Hoben’s passing by complaining that at the time Gordon had not yet learned how to perform certain aerobatics – especially the slow roll. Hoben had amassed only 44 hours on the Spitfire, since completing the OTU. Despite his relative inexperience, however, it was judgement the accident investigator focused on. Hoben’s inexperience should probably have been considered an important factor, too. Two weeks earlier Hoben surely must have been on the receiving end of a rather pointed one-way discussion about conducting aerobatics and dog fights below 5,000 feet overtop of the aerodrome. On June 23rd 1942 S/Ldr A.C. Deere, the CO, decided to publicly lambaste F/Sgts Fletcher, Haynes and Anderson, for their previous-days shenanigans over Catterick. For whatever reason, Hoben didn’t get the message. Stronger leadership may have been required, in his case, as he was still relatively new at the fighter game, but at 29 years he was older than most if not all of the other pilots, save for the CO.

            The RCMP Quarterly[14] reported on “The Canadian Policeman” story for the first time, in July 1942, some three months after the presentation ceremony. Sadly, as timing would have it, the issue also included the obituary for its pilot. The closing paragraph in the Quarterly article was fraught with falsehoods, claiming that Hoben had been wounded in action on July 11th but had valiantly made it back to the airfield only to die in the ensuing crash. Perhaps wartime propaganda can be cited as the only reasonable excuse for why Hoben’s death was explained in the manner that it was. In closing it is to be noted that despite his ‘bad flying experiences,’ curtailed and possibly incomplete fighter training, little exposure to operations and a flying career full of the deaths of many a friend Hoben still had the courage to return to the air time and again.  We should remember, though, that many amongst the ranks of the aircrew suffered similar tragedies and that many continue to suffer, to this day the memories surrounding these and other similarly disparaging losses. We owe them our gratitude, our understanding and our respect.

            Today a model of Gordon Hoben’s Spitfire “The Canadian Policeman” hangs in 403 Squadron’s Heritage Room through which all aircrew pass on their way to daily briefings. Constructed by a team of talented technicians including Moe Woodworth, Dave Harlowe, James Wilson, Shawn Bulch, and Bob Butt, the model reminds squadron members not only of past acts of valour, courage and sacrifice, but also reminds instructors of the importance of quality education and operational flying training. Reflecting in this way on the significance of these aspects of 403 Squadron’s mission is but one method by which we demonstrate utter probity to our role as trainers and our specific responsibilities toward eliminating the sorts of things that can lead to a loss of operational resources. Godspeed “Ben, ” and thank you to Canada’s Cops.

 


[1] John McCarthy. “Aircrew and ‘Lack of Moral Fibre’ in the Second World War.” War & Society 2, no. 3, September 1984, p. 87.

[2] Ibid, p. 88.

[3] C.N.S. Campbell. Memoirs, p. 97.

[4] The Whitley was crewed by five personnel: two pilots, a bomber-navigator (observer), a wireless operator and a tail-gunner.

[5] Ibid, p. 7.

[6] Bomber Squadron Losses 1941, Appendix 1.

[7] Chris Goth. “It’s Suicide But it’s Fun.” The History of 102 (Ceylon) Squadron.

[8] Craig Brown, ed. The Illustrated History of Canada. 460-462.

[9] Wing Commander C.N.S. (Ken) Campbell, DFC (RAF), memoirs, p. 98.

[10] Bruce adopted a different spelling of his name, later in life. Don Fink served as Probation Officer for Huron County in south-western Ontario for many years. The author’s mother served as Don Fink’s secretary. While growing up as a teenager, in Goderich, Ontario, where the Huron County Courthouse is located and within which one will find the Probation Office, the author routinely golfed with Don Fink without ever knowing that this story would connect them both, some 25 years later.

[11] These and other stories were corroborated by Ed Cooke, Carl Dales, Roy Whipple and Tom Wingham, all former 102 Squadron crew members some of whom remembered Gordon Hoben, or “Ben” as he had come to be known. Evidence was also drawn from the memoirs of J. Ralph Wood and the writings of S/Ldr R.C. Rivaz, DFC.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Author interview with Roy Whipple. The reader may recall that Whipple was a member of the Whitley bomber crew who crashed on Hoben’s first flight of August 14th 1941.

[14] Vol 10, no. 1, July 1942.


Postscript

About the Whitley bomber…

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