415 Squadron Association
Don at home in January 2013
Much of the information for this article was taken directly from the Military Memoirs of D.J. (Don) Stewart, D.F.C. Further details were obtained during a meeting between Don Stewart and Chris Henneberry as well as reference to “The East Moor Experience” written by Brian Shields. The 415 Squadron Association wishes to express its appreciation to Don for the service he rendered to his Squadron and Country.
Alan Greaves, Bill McVean, Jack Huddart, Don & Art Somers
In May 1944, Don was sent to No. 22 Operational Training Unit (OTU) located at Wellesbourne Mountford, Warwickshire – just a couple of miles from Stratford upon Avon where he flew the Vickers Wellington Bomber. The Wellington was flown with a six man crew: pilot, navigator, wireless operator, bomb aimer, and two air gunners. There were about fifty pilots on each course and therefore a total of 300 aircrew in this cycle of training. They were assembled in a large hall and advised to mingle around, introduce themselves and form crews. Don spotted Danny Titleman, who was an officer with a navigator wing. He had been in his pre-enlistment class and they had stayed together until the completion of ITS at Victoriaville. Danny was ecstatic and said he would be Don’s navigator. Other members of Don’s crew included: Pilot Officer R.A. Somers about 27 years of age, from Winnipeg, bomb aimer; Sgt. A. A. (Bun) Greaves, also about 27 years of age, from Toronto, wireless operator/air gunner; and Sgt. Murray (Benny) Fleming and Sgt. W. (Bill) McVean both about 19 years of age and from Toronto, mid-upper and tail gunners respectively. At the end of an initial ground school period, Jack V. Huddart from Toronto replaced Danny Titleman who required additional training. For the next two months the crew worked up to an operational ready status.
They were then sent to No. 1664 Conversion Unit (CU) located at Dishforth, Yorkshire, to convert to the four engine “Halifax” heavy bomber. It was at this time that Sgt. Allan T. (Curly) Mumford, R.A.F. Flight Engineer, about 24 years of age, joined the crew. Once again it was back to circuits and bumps with the crew along for the ride, after which there was three engine flying and two engine flying and lastly three engine landings. The next phase of their training was air to air firing of live ammunition for the gunners. On every flight they carried six smoke bombs. At the end of these training sorties they went to the bombing range where the bomb aimer and pilot did target practice, as they dropped the bombs. Don’s crew bonded quickly and made steady progress. While he was stationed at Dishforth, Don made a number of outings to Ripon, a small town about 4 or 5 miles west of the base. He remembers that “there was dancing at a place called The Lawrence Café and it was there that I met Ivy Scott, a pretty little girl in the Land Army. When I saw her she was out of uniform and she caught my eye on the dance floor doing ball room dancing, something I had never tried”. They became engaged later that fall and were married early in the New Year.
East Moor Airfield November 1944
In mid November 1943, Don along with 250 other R.C.A.F. Aircrew Officers boarded a train for New York, via Montreal. The train arrived dockside and after the Officers picked up their duffel bags they marched directly onto the dock and up the gangplank of the “Aquitania”. The ship was a four stacker, capable of cruising more than 25 knots per hour and thus able to outrun a submarine. There were 10,000 American Officers and soldiers on board. The R.C.A.F. officers were given cabins on the second highest deck, with only four to a cabin. After viewing the crowded conditions of men on the lower decks with hammocks strung all around, Don realized how lucky we was to be an Officer. After six days the ship was put at anchor in a bay near Gourock, Scotland. Don was immediately sent by train from Glasgow via Edinburgh to Bournemouth, a seaside resort town southwest of London. He had a lot of free time on his hands since this was a holding area for all R.C.A.F. personnel arriving from Canada. Soon after arrival, Don was told that he would be selected as either a heavy bomber pilot or a flight instructor.
Postings were slow in coming but after waiting seven weeks a few hundred officers were sent to an R.A.F. Station at Sidmouth, southeast of Exeter, to attend a Commando course. Don recounts that he “found the discipline and exercise extremely tough because things had been so lax since October and I was out of shape”. On completion of this training he was posted to No. 11 Advanced Flying Unit (A.F.U.) at Shawbury, situated south-east of Liverpool, where he trained on the twin engine “Oxford”. His training was completed at Calvely, a satellite airfield situated 22 miles north of Shawbury. After a mere three hours and fifty-five minutes of dual flying in the Oxford and only a couple of take-offs and landings, he completed his first multi-engine solo flight. Don continued his navigation, instrument and night training, ultimately garnering all his endorsements and receiving an average assessment. “No great shakes” he admitted but exactly what he wanted so as to avoid being chosen as an instructor. He would subsequently attain an above average assessment as a medium bomber pilot.
415 Halifax Crew Commanders at AAF Reunion 1994 Don at Trenton 2010
Don also maintains an avid interest in the preservation of the history of 6 Bomber Group. He regularly visits the RCAF Museum located at CFB Trenton and to the extent possible remembers those who served with him throughout the war. One of those was Wing Commander Joe LeComte who was a Commanding Officer of 415 Squadron shortly after Don arrived in the summer of 1944. Don recalls, “he was a likeable French Canadian and a little on the stout side. One of his first acts was to hold a party for the ground crews, with the aircrews participating because he had heard that the moral of the ground crew was low. He ordered in a few kegs of beer and a great time was had by all. Sometime well after the war’s end I heard that he was killed while stopping to assist another motorist. He died December 18, 1975 and he is buried in the Field of Honour at Pointe Claire, QC. I have visited his grave site every year since May 2007”.
In Don’s military memoirs, which he wrote for his family, he stated “there is a terrible price to pay for war and although I did not know it at that time, nine of my grade 10 class of 31 boys were killed in the war; eight of whom were part of the 20 boys in my grade 11 graduating class”. He also noted that “I look on the award of the Distinguished Flying Cross, as a symbol of my crew’s effort as well, I feel our successful completion of a 36 mission tour was due mainly to luck but this was helped by having an excellent, alert crew, each of whom knew his job. I take my hat off to Jack Huddart, our navigator who kept us close to track at all times. Many crews were shot up because they strayed as much as five miles or more from track”.
It is interesting to note that in the years just prior to his retirement, Don applied for a veteran’s pension to compensate for his hearing loss and post traumatic stress disorder. In 1980, he received an unfavourable decision and over the next four years he exhausted his appeals with the same unfavourable decision even though guidelines stated that if there was any doubt a decision should go in favour of the applicant. On December 15, 2010, he read a news release from the Ontario Trial Lawyers Association announcing a new free legal service called “Trial Lawyers for Veterans”. The service is provided to veterans seeking disability benefits from the Canadian Government. The news release referred to pension applications by some veterans that had been denied but had been recently successfully appealed – this caught Don’s eye. He contacted the Trial Lawyers and after reviewing his medical and military records they agreed to file an appeal on his behalf. The members of the Appeal Board acted quickly and decided in Don’s favour. He was awarded a monthly pension with a retroactive adjustment back to May 19, 2008. An earlier decision regarding his hearing loss was also overturned in his favour. In November 2011, Don finally received a letter detailing the monthly pension amount and the retroactive adjustment. As Don says “the good news is that a disability payment is not taxable!!”
SWORDFISH VETERANS OF WORLD WAR II
Flying Officer Donald Stewart
Don Stewart was born in Ville St. Pierre, Quebec on 30 November 1922. Don graduated from Montreal West High School in June 1940, and in May of 1942 he decided to enrol in the Air Force. He was advised that he could apply for Pilot or Observer, by taking a speed test consisting of a number of questions in a given number of minutes - his results were simply terrible. He was told he could still apply for the trade of Wireless Operator, Air Gunner or Bomb Aimer, however, Don insisted that he wanted to be a pilot. He was sent to see the Commanding Officer of the recruiting Centre and Don tried to convince him that he had been rattled by the speed test and deserved a second chance. After discussing the results of his test, he was asked if he had ever flown in an aircraft, driven a car or motor cycle, or sailed a boat; he answered no to all questions. After a pause, the CO said, “We have a pre-enlistment course for those who have been out of school and are interested in becoming aircrew and since you are so keen to be a pilot, I will allow you to take the course.” For three months, June through August 1942, Don attended daily lectures at the University of Montreal and passed all exams with no problem. He was subsequently accepted for pilot training.
Don’s Crew at East Moor August 1944 Don with Art Somer’s car October 1944
In August 1944, Don’s crew was assigned to 415 Swordfish Squadron at East Moor Station. The airfield was located about 7 miles directly north of the city of York and a half mile south of Sutton-on-the-Forest Village. The Squadron had recently been transferred from the RAF Coastal Command to the RCAF 6th Bomber Group and was in the process of assembling crews. Things happened quickly on a squadron and the night following Don’s arrival he was required to fly as 2nd pilot on a bombing sortie to Kiel with P/O Jack Little and his crew. The pilot of all new crews was required to fly two such sorties to observe what takes place on bombing raids and to observe how experienced crews performed. Don’s crew had been on the station only 6 days when tragedy struck. The Commanding Officer and the Squadron Leaders on Squadron each had a crew and were required to fly on operations from time to time. Both of 415 Squadron’s top crews W/C John G. McNeil D.F.C. and S/L Brian E. Wilmot D.F.C. and Bar had set off with their crews to Exeter, in southwest England, to pick up an aircraft on which a new motor had been installed. On the way back, they were flying in formation and just south southeast of the City of York the starboard inner propeller flew off one aircraft causing the aircraft to veer to the right, into the path of the other aircraft. All 21 souls aboard were killed, 14 crew and 7 technicians. Don was called on to be part of a burial party, which resulted in his first visit to the R.C.A.F. section of Stonefall Cemetery, located at Harrogate, Yorkshire. Don was not too thrilled with his start on 415 Squadron.
Each squadron at East Moor had about 25 aircraft but normally only 16 to 20 were available for action due to enemy damage, maintenance or overhaul. An all out effort would probably produce 20 or so aircraft from each squadron. To avoid damage on the ground from enemy attacks, the aircraft were dispersed around the perimeter of the airfield and each had its own parking area. The dispersal for Don’s aircraft, 6U–X, was located just east of the north end of runway 34/16 (see diagram 4 - Spot 1) . Of Don’s 36 operational missions, 23 were flown in 6U - X.
Don enjoyed flying the Halifax. He noted that “it responded quickly to any pressure on the controls and was not sluggish as one might think with a large aircraft. While the Lancaster has been glorified by many historians, the Halifax did most of the sorties in No. 6 Group R.C.A.F. (78%) and all marks excluding IIs and Vs were more powerful than the Lancaster”.
In September 1942 Don reported to the R.C.A.F. Manning Depot at Lachine, Quebec where he was introduced to life in the Air Force. After an initial indoctrination of seven weeks, he was sent to Mont Joli, Quebec, No. 9 Bombing and Gunnery School, to perform tarmac duties while he awaited initial training school (ITS) for pilots. There were many new enrolees awaiting training, all of whom were required to attend classes such as aircraft recognition, armament, Morse code, etc … In due course, Don was given a white flash to wear in his wedge cap, which signified aircrew in training, and sent to No. 3 ITS Victoriaville, Quebec. After spending some time in a “Link” trainer his aptitude for pilot was confirmed. Following eleven weeks of intensive ground training, he was posted to No. 11 E.F.T.S. (Elementary Flying School) at Cap de la Madeleine, Quebec. In peace time, the airfield and its associated flying school had been owned and operated by Canadian Pacific. During the war years, trainees were instructed in ground school by C. P. employees and in the air by R.C.A.F. pilot instructors. They flew the Fleet Finch Mk II, a bi-plane with a top speed of about 90 mph, cruise speed of 75 mph and a stall speed around 55 mph. By the time E.F.T.S was finished, Don had accumulated 74 hours of dual and solo flying. A group photo of his E.F.T.S. graduating class taken in June 1943 is on display at the R.C.A.F. Memorial Museum at C.F.B. Trenton, Ontario. The next stop was No. 8 Service Flying Training School, Moncton, N.B. where Don was introduced to the Harvard aircraft, which was a lead in for fighters. He earned his “wings” and a commission but was not selected for follow on fighter training. Instead he was sent to Halifax for embarkation overseas.
Halifax 6U-X being readied for operations December 1944
The crew’s first missions were daylight raids. Four were in support of the Canadian Army. They bombed in advance of our troops at Boulogne, Calais and Cap Gris Nez from altitudes well below 10,000 ft. Each mission had its own challenges. On the Cap Gris Nez sortie, Don’s crew had been briefed to bomb at a height of 9,000 feet. Shortly after they crossed the north coast of the English Channel, the Master Bomber ordered all aircraft to descend below the cloud which covered the French coast - the target was just inland from the coast. The Channel is not that wide at this point and although Don throttled back immediately, he determined that he would not get below the cloud at his present rate of descent so he directed the Engineer to pull out the up-locks for the under carriage and open the valve for the flaps. The up-lock was a bar that was pushed in once the wheels were raised, to prevent the wheels from dropping if the hydraulics were shot up. The Halifax dropped rapidly once the wheels and full flap were down and as they came under the cloud base and then raised the undercarriage but found themselves on the bombing run and still sinking at 2,000 feet with full throttle to increase height. The aircraft was at 1,800 feet when the bomb load was released. Don reported that “we seemed to bounce along with the concussion of exploding bombs from other aircraft. It was not an experience that I would like to repeat and the Master Bomber should have been faulted for not starting the descent while we were still over southern England. The cloud did not suddenly materialize over the French coast”.
Most of the remaining operational sorties were against Ruhr targets such as Dortmund, Bottrop and Sterkrade, and bombing runs were conducted at between 17,000 and 20,000 feet. As expected, the crew faced a number of hazards. On their ninth mission, while climbing out on take off and the flaps were being raised, the aircraft began to shake very violently in an up and down motion. The movement was so bad that Don expected an engine to drop off or the bomb load to jar loose from the bomb racks. The thought struck him that the flight had been smooth until he raised the flap, so he immediately lowered 20 degrees of flap and the severe buffeting disappeared. He gave no thought to abandoning the mission and while flying around waiting to set course, decided to fly all the way with take off flap down. There were two emergency airdromes in southern England and he knew that he could land there if his fuel supply was low. The crew managed to make it back to base but the following morning Don was called on the carpet before the CO, W/C Joe Lecomte, to explain why his aircraft used 313 gallons of fuel per hour when normally only about 240 gallons per hour would be consumed. When he explained the violent buffeting that had occurred after take-off and the reason for the excess fuel consumption, the CO congratulated him for his leadership and fine effort. He knew that Don would have been fully justified in aborting the trip. This was one of two actions which led to Don’s nomination for the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC).
As Don prepared for his 24th mission, he noticed that the tire on one of the main wheels of 6U-X was flat. He hailed a flight leader who was passing and showed him the problem. He was directed to move the aircraft to a holding area and then take the stand-by aircraft that was bombed up, fuelled and ready to go. When the crew arrived at the stand-by aircraft, a mechanic was working on the port engine. He advised Don that he could not take the aircraft because the motor that operated one of the engine cooling gills had been removed and therefore the gills could not be closed. Don reasoned that he could trim for any drag and that he was taking the aircraft. For engine cooling purposes the gills are in the open position when taxiing, however they should be closed just before take-off. When Don later taxied on to the runway the Controller would not give him the green light to start his take-off roll and pointed excitedly to the port engine, which was nearest to him. The Controller could see the open gills and thought the pilot had forgotten to close them. Don waved him off and gave him the thumbs up. When the Controller shone a red Aldis light at Don, he opened his side window, pointed to the engine, nodded his head and gave him the thumbs up again. After a few seconds delay, the Controller finally gave Don the green light. On his return from the sortie he had to explain to the Squadron Commander why he took off with the port engine gills in the open position. When he heard that Don took the spare aircraft knowing that it did not have a motor to close the gills, he congratulated him on a fine show of flying leadership.
On 20 January 1945, after Don had completed his 24th mission, his Commanding Officer recommended him for the DFC. He wrote that “As pilot and captain, Flying Officer Stewart has completed a large number of sorties against dangerous and difficult targets. He has invariably displayed a high degree of skill, courage and resolution, qualities which have on more than one occasion enabled him to complete his mission in the face of heavy odds. He is an ideal leader whose example at all times has been an inspiration to other squadron personnel.” Don’s DFC was awarded effective 10 May 1945 and announced in the London Gazette with the following citation, “Completed numerous operations against the enemy in the course of which Flying Officer Stewart invariably displayed the utmost fortitude, courage and devotion to duty.” He was not aware that he had received this honour until after his return to Canada when a high school friend dropped by and greeted Don by saying “Congratulations!!” Apparently, a radio announcement had stated that Donald John Stewart had been awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. He was amazed that he had not been informed of the award by the R.C.A.F.
On 27 February 1945, Don flew his 36th and last sortie, a daylight operation to Mainz, located just west of Frankfurt. The purpose of the attack was to destroy railroad facilities, which would impede the movement of enemy armour and troops to the battle area. The mission had fighter escorts but no enemy fighters put in an appearance. Flak was slight and the crew bombed on sky markers. Don reports that “for me it was a wonderful glorious day!” He was now free to enjoy some leave before being re-assigned. Within ten days he was ordered back to East Moor and advised that he was posted to No. 22 O.T.U. at Wellesbourne Mountford to commence a new tour of duty as a pilot instructor. This was a big disappointment as most pilots on 415 Squadron were repatriated to Canada at the end of their tour. As things turned out, Don’s legs were too short to properly control the Wellington from the improvised instructor’s seat. As a result, he was eventually repatriated and arrived back in Lachine, Quebec in May 1945. Following a month’s repatriation leave, he was posted to St. Jean, Quebec to act as an air controller before his discharge on 19 July 1945. His wife Ivy finally joined him in February 1946.
Immediately upon his return home, Don began to feel the affects of post traumatic stress disorder. It took him five years before he could hold a cup of coffee in one hand without spilling any. Prior to and right up until his arrival home the problem was not apparent. Other than some hearing loss, Don had no physical wounds but using hindsight and today’s convenient description of his circumstances, Don says that “I was burnt out”. He managed his problem with the help of his family doctor. He had to change his way of life, avoid excitement and go at a slower pace. Tension and anxiety also affected his breathing and it took many years to adjust. He received no help from Veterans’ Affairs, whose medical examiners stated in December1945, that he was physically fit.
Don took a job as a Corporation Assessor for the Federal Income Tax Department, and in due course became an expert on the Income Tax Act and related Rules and Regulations. During this period he attended evening accounting and auditing courses twice a week and ultimately joined the Certified General Accountants Society. He joined Wajax Equipment Limited and transferred to their Toronto branch where he held numerous positions. After 30 plus years with the company, he retired as Assistant General Manager, Eastern Region in 1987.
In 1993 Don made a visit to Yorkshire and stood on possibly the only aircraft dispersal which remains at the extreme south end of what was the East Moor airfield, east of the north south runway. At the same time he stopped at the Sun Dial Memorial at Sutton-on-the-Forest. Over the years he stayed in touch with fellow crew members. They communicated through letters and by participating at Air Force Reunions. At the 1994 Allied Air Forces Reunion held at the Royal York Hotel, he met with many old friends in the 415 Squadron Hospitality Room including the following 415 pilots (see photo below from L to R) who were awarded DFCs: Jim McAllister, Jim Northrup, Don Stewart, Bill Mitchell, Bill Brown, Sam Frankling, John McQuiston, and William MacNeil. Today Don is the only surviving member of his wartime crew.